The AtlanticThe Atlantic

A major clue to COVID’s origins is just out of reach

By Katherine J. Wu

21 Mar 2023 · 12 min read

Editor's Note

A team of international scientists found new evidence that suggests the pandemic has purely natural origins. But as The Atlantic reports, a new mystery then emerged concerning gaps in the data.

Last week, the ongoing debate about COVID-19’s origins acquired a new plot twist. A French evolutionary biologist stumbled across a trove of genetic sequences extracted from swabs collected from surfaces at a wet market in Wuhan, China, shortly after the pandemic began; she and an international team of colleagues downloaded the data in hopes of understanding who—or what—might have ferried the virus into the venue. What they found, as The Atlantic first reported on Thursday, bolsters the case for the pandemic having purely natural roots: The genetic data suggest that live mammals illegally for sale at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market—among them, raccoon dogs, a foxlike species known to be susceptible to the virus—may have been carrying the coronavirus at the end of 2019.

But what might otherwise have been a straightforward story on new evidence has rapidly morphed into a mystery centered on the origins debate’s data gaps. Within a day or so of nabbing the sequences off a database called GISAID, the researchers told me, they reached out to the Chinese scientists who had uploaded the data to share some preliminary results. The next day, public access to the sequences was locked—according to GISAID, at the request of the Chinese researchers, who had previously analyzed the data and drawn distinctly different conclusions about what they contained.

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