• Direct Witness In the bowels of Wuhan's cursed market
  • Pandemic Wuhan tries to heal the wounds of Covid on the third anniversary of the day that changed everything

They are coveted for their fur to make winter coats. Also for its meat, considered a tasty and expensive delicacy that is served in a stew or soup with seaweed and tofu in some interior regions of northern China. Raccoon dogs are often killed with electric shocks. Although a couple of years ago, an NGO called Humane Society International, visited more than a dozen fur farms throughout the Asian giant wanting to show that, many of the 14 million raccoon dogs that they estimate are in captivity, they skin them while still alive.

Of the farms, both living and dead, some of these raccoon dogs, those that are not sacrificed for their skins, end up on sale in markets such as Huanan, in Wuhan, designated since the beginning of the pandemic as ground zero for infections. This animal was in the inventory of wild species that were sold in this place before it closed. A kilo of its meat cost 18 euros.

The first published studies that tried to decipher the origin of Covid, already pointed to raccoon dogs as one of the animals susceptible to carrying and transmitting SARS-CoV-2.

Far from theories about a leak in the Wuhan laboratory, horseshoe bats are considered by most of the scientific community as the main candidates to be the original hosts of the virus, although before jumping to humans it had to pass through some intermediate host. This is where the raccoon dogs appear, which have occupied the first place of a pool that the pangolin left long ago, the first scapegoat of the pandemic.

Last year, two studies led by Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, and Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California, put the spotlight back on the Huanan market, directly blaming raccoon dogs under the theory that these animals could have been infected on the farm that sold them to the market between November and December 2019. and that the virus would later have jumped to merchants and customers, who were the first to report symptoms according to the official chronology.

Worobey and Andersen, along with Edward Holmes, a biologist at the University of Sydney, have presented a new report, advanced Thursday by The Atlantic, in which they claim to have found genetic data from the Huanan market that links the coronavirus with raccoon dogs sold there.

If so, the version of the natural zoonotic origin of Covid would precede the leak in the laboratory, a theory that was resurrected a few weeks ago by the US Department of Energy when it assured, without providing any evidence, that "a leak from a Chinese laboratory would have been the cause of the Covid-19 outbreak". A few days later, FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency was also betting on the incident at the lab. Bat coronaviruses were being investigated at that Wuhan center, although it has not been proven that they were experimenting with the strain of the virus that spread around the world in early 2020.

Not even in the United States is there unanimity in pointing to the culprit of the pandemic: four of its intelligence agencies continue to defend that Covid arose by natural transmission, as the latest report published by international researchers points out.

"Genetic data was extracted from swabs taken in and around the Huanan wholesale market starting in January 2020, shortly after Chinese authorities closed the market due to suspicions that it was linked to the outbreak of a new virus. By then, the animals had been removed, but researchers cleaned walls, floors, metal cages and carts often used to transport animal cages. In the samples that tested positive for the coronavirus, the international research team found genetic material belonging to animals, including large quantities that matched the raccoon dog."

This is what Worobey, Andersen and Holmes point out after they began delving last week into the raw data they had released into GISAID, an international repository of virus genetic sequences, the Chinese scientists who took the first samples.

"One sample in particular caught the attention of researchers. It had been taken from a specific stall in the Huanan market that Dr. Holmes had visited in 2014. That stall contained raccoon dogs caged atop a bird cage, exactly the kind of environment conducive to the transmission of new viruses. The swab taken there in early 2020 contained genetic material from the virus and from a raccoon dog.

The Huanan market remains closed and sealed with tall sheets of steel covering all its entrances, as this newspaper was able to verify last January, during a visit to Wuhan on the third anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic. Those sheets were erected after authorities cleared the 900 stalls, took environmental samples and disinfected every corner of what was one of the largest centers of the seafood and wildlife trade in central China.

Many of these animals that were sold came from farms in the mountains of Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located. In some of them, raccoon dogs were bred, an animal that is again the candidate for intermediate host, although even if it had been infected, it is not clear, due to lack of evident evidence, that the animal has transmitted the virus to humans.

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  • Covid 19
  • Coronavirus
  • Infectious diseases
  • Respiratory diseases
  • China
  • Wuhan