Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Melbourne — The Chinese market linked to some of the earliest Covid-19 cases was illegally selling a range of wildlife from which the coronavirus may have spread, according to a study published less than two weeks after US President Joe Biden ordered a deeper probe into the pandemic’s genesis.

Mink, masked palm civets, raccoon dogs, Siberian weasels, hog badgers and Chinese bamboo rats were among 38 animal species sold live at the Huanan seafood and fresh produce market in central Wuhan from May 2017 to November 2019, researchers said on Monday in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports originally submitted last October.

The hunt for Covid-19’s origins has become political amid criticism that the Chinese government has not been open and transparent with information, including activities in a Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses. The new findings support a World Health Organization-led research mission in early 2021 that concluded SARS-CoV-2 most likely spilt over to humans from animals — either directly from a bat or via another mammal, possibly one sold at the wet market in Wuhan.

“This brings into focus much that was unclear about what terrestrial animals were being sold in the Huanan wholesale seafood market and the other markets selling illegal wildlife in Wuhan in the years leading up to the pandemic,” said Michael Worobey, head of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who was not involved in the study.

Access to the detailed data in the study was serendipitous, the researchers said. The findings were based on routine monthly surveys of shops selling live wild animals as pets or for food across Wuhan in the years before Covid-19 emerged at the end of 2019, the authors said. That unrelated study was intended to identify the source of a tick-borne disease.

“While we caution against the misattribution of Covid-19’s origins, the wild animals on sale in Wuhan suffered poor welfare and hygiene conditions and we detail a range of other zoonotic infections they can potentially vector,” lead author Xiao Xiao, from the Lab Animal Research Centre at Hubei University of Chinese Medicine in Wuhan, and colleagues wrote.

Both wild-caught and farmed non-domesticated species were sold — alive, caged, stacked and in poor condition — by 17 vendors, the researchers said. None posted an origin certificate or quarantine certificate, “so all wildlife trade was fundamentally illegal”, they said.

Most stores offered butchering services, done on site, with considerable implications for food hygiene and animal welfare. Marmots, selling for more than $25 a kilogram, were the most expensive, while raccoon dogs and badgers were priced at about $15-$20 a kilogram.

“This group was able to learn a huge amount from vendors in these stalls, who were even willing to discuss openly that they were selling illegal wildlife,” Worobey said in an e-mail. “It is hard to imagine them being so transparent with government authorities or even the WHO. This serves as a reminder that less ‘official’ investigations can play a huge role.”

While the prevailing theory among virologists is that Covid-19 originated in bats and made its way into humans via an intermediary animal, efforts to pin down the details or identify any infected animals have been unsuccessful for the past year and a half. In part because of that futile attempt, combined with restrictions from China in the effort to gather information, some scientists have started calling for a more detailed investigation into the lab-leak theory.

Biden directed his intelligence agencies to delve deeper into the issue last month, after he received a report on the origins earlier in May that detailed the scientific divide over whether SARS-CoV-2 arose naturally in animals or if it was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of the world’s foremost laboratories working on coronaviruses.

Biden asked for another update in 90 days.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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