Report describes SARS-CoV-2 market sequences, Biden signs intel declassification bill

SARS-CoV-2 in pastel

NIAID/Flickr cc

In two major developments regarding investigations into the source of SARS-CoV-2, an international research group that examined genetic sequences from the animal market detailed their findings in a new report, and President Joe Biden signed a bill to declassify US intelligence on virus origins.

Analysis details animal evidence in sequences, market

Authors of the report, posted on a preprint server, examined genetic sequences collected at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, that appeared earlier this month on GISAID before access to them was restricted. Chinese researchers had described their initial findings based on sequencing in a 2022 preprint but plan on publishing a fuller report in Nature.

The researchers who saw the sequences notified the World Health Organization (WHO), which last week convened discussions between its novel pathogens advisory group, international researchers who analyzed the sequences they downloaded, and the authors from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC).

The earlier preprint from Chinese researchers suggested that the market may have amplified an already established epidemic. However, the international group said it found evidence of multiple animal species where positive SARS-CoV-2 environmental samples were found, including some that weren't included on an earlier list of live or dead animals tested at the market.

"Our results show that they were present," the group wrote. "In some cases, the amount of animal genetic material was greater than the amount of human genetic material, consistent with the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in these samples being due to animal infections."

They said Chinese researchers had recently cleared the group to do an independent analysis but pulled access to the sequences on GISAID when researchers told them they found animal genetic material in the sequences. (In a new development today, GISAID released a statement raising concerns about whether the international group followed its access agreement and if they made their best efforts at collaborating with the group that contributed the sequences.)

The international group wrote that co-occurrence of SARS-CoV2 and genetic material of susceptible wildlife in the environmental samples at the start of the pandemic bolsters reports that potential intermediate animal hosts were for sale at the market in 2019. They said the findings add another piece of evidence that the site may have been the spillover location.

The strongest evidence was found for raccoon dogs, Amur hedgehogs, Malayan porcupines, hoary bamboo rats, and masked palm civets. They wrote that raccoon dogs are notable, because they are susceptible to productive SARS-CoV-2 infection, shed high volumes of virus, and can transmit to other susceptible animals. However, they said some samples align with other species known to be susceptible.

Genomic data confirming wildlife species were found in the same market stalls where some of the animals were sold. Some SARS-CoV-2 samples that contained human DNA, hinting at virus was also shed by infected people.

They concluded that their findings contribute to a large body of evidence pointing to a natural SARS-CoV-2 origin.

Bill orders declassification within 90 days

In another key development yesterday evening, the White House announced that President Biden signed the COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023, which would declassify as much intelligence information gleaned from US agencies as possible without hurting national security.

In a statement, Biden reiterated that in 2021, he directed the intelligence community to use all tools available to probe the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Two US agencies—the Department of Energy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—have said the virus likely came from a lab, but with low-confidence assessments. Other US intelligence groups have leaned toward a natural origin, also based on low-confidence assessments.

"We need to get to the bottom of COVID-19's origins to help ensure we can better prevent future pandemics," Biden said.

The law orders the Director of National Intelligence to declassify the information within 90 days, specifically that related to the work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and illnesses of scientists who worked there and got sick in fall 2019.

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