March 24, 2023 - 7:00am

Last week, the Atlantic published an article entitled “The strongest evidence yet that an animal started the pandemic”.

It concerns a new analysis of genetic samples taken from a wet market in Wuhan, which is supposedly where the Covid pandemic started. The study shows DNA from the virus was found in the same place as DNA from a fox-like mammal called a raccoon dog. So, could this be the missing link between SARS-CoV-2 and a host population of wild animals?

That’s the implication of the Atlantic scoop and many subsequent pieces in the American mainstream press. But just how conclusive is the new research? And does it really strengthen the case for a natural origin of the pandemic, as opposed to the politically explosive lab leak theory?

The evidence, such as it is, comes from a report by various Western geneticists and other researchers. However, as the authors clearly state, the report is “not intended for publication in a journal”. Further, it is based on raw data controlled by the Chinese authorities and which is no longer available for analysis by other scientists. (This is not something for which the report authors can be blamed — the Chinese state has a habit of frustrating independent investigations into the origin of the pandemic.)

But let’s suppose that the raw data is unimpeachable. If it does show that raccoon dog DNA was found in the same place as SARS-CoV-2 DNA, is this the smoking gun that proves that the critters are guilty?

Not exactly. For that we’d need to show that the animals in question were actually infected with the virus. What’s more, we’d need to demonstrate that the direction of infection was from raccoon dog to human, not the other way round.

It’s also worth noting that the samples were collected in January 2020. That is to say, several weeks after the virus was known to be circulating in the human population. There was therefore enough time for it to spread from elsewhere in Wuhan to the market, where wild animals could have been infected by their captors.

One final point. On page 9 of the report, it is stated that DNA analysis could be used to identify “particular subspecies  — and perhaps even local populations of wild or farmed animals”. This would allow the geographical origins of the animals present at the market to be traced. If they came from a wild population, that would be significant. An origin in southern China or South East Asia would be yet more significant  — because that is the hotspot to which related coronaviruses have been traced.

The authors are keen to point out that the raccoon dog DNA in the Wuhan sample was “distinct” from the subspecies that is commonly farmed for its fur. Indeed, the closest match was to the genome of a raccoon dog that was “collected in the wild in China”.

However, when I looked up the corresponding reference it was to a 2010 paper that said that the animal came from the Lake Dalai Nature Reserve in the far north of China — a very long way from the steamy south of the country.

This isn’t necessarily proof that the Wuhan raccoon dogs didn’t come from the south but, on the evidence provided, there’s no reason to assume that they did.

Judging by the media hype surrounding this story, too much has been assumed already. The question of where Covid came from is, frustratingly, yet to be settled.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.