Last month, news outlets hurried to report that some intelligence agencies had endorsed the “lab leak” theory of COVID-19—that is, the theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, possibly after having been altered through human activity. Inexplicably-still-FBI Director Christopher Wray then popped in to say that his investigation also said this was “most likely,”
Those reports failed to highlight that these claims were of “low confidence,” or that the reason none of this had ever been published was because there was heavy disagreement within the intelligence community, with at least as many agencies coming down against the lab leak theory as supporting it. Now those claims are back again, along with a prolonged set of accusations made toward Dr. Anthony Fauci in this guest essay at The New York Times.
The entire essay is revisionist history. It recasts the nature of the claims being made at that moment (which were that China had developed COVID-19 at a “biological weapons lab” and that infected Chinese people were intentionally being sent to the U.S. to spread the disease). But most of all, the essay, and all the articles that poured out over the past month, continue to ignore the biggest fact: There is no scientific evidence to support the lab leak theory. None. People can make all the claims they like and they can be as suspicious as their jobs require them to be, but those claims and those suspicions are utterly unsupported by any evidence.
However, there is new twist in the COVID-19 story, one that suggests that the virus came from an unexpected source. And unlike anything that Wray or the Times is putting forward, this story has science behind it.
Did China try to suppress early information about COVID-19? Absolutely. Did it interfere with initial investigations of the virus origin? That, too. Did some of China’s actions make it more difficult to tell where the virus actually originated? They sure did.
There are two good reasons for this. Actually, make that three.
First, China was very probably concerned about the possibility that the virus … escaped from the virology lab in Wuhan, China. Because that seemed like a very real possibility that should not have been discounted without at least some investigation. That’s why President Joe Biden ordered all U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origin of COVID-19 back in 2021. The result of that investigation was that the agencies could not reach consensus, or find any evidence to support a particular theory. Chinese officials were probably in that same place when the virus appeared. They certainly knew they had a virology lab in the city where the virus appeared. They knew that lab had sometimes come under criticism for its containment policies. They were in no hurry to point the finger at themselves.
Second, Chinese officials were also likely suspicious of the “wet market” at Wuhan, where live animals, including exotic animals and wild-caught animals, were sold for food, fur, and traditional medicine. These markets have come in for almost universal criticism, not just for sanitary reasons, but because they routinely deal with endangered and protected animals—not just just those native to China, but also animals that have been illegally imported. Chinese officials also routinely ignore every law that’s supposed to regulate such markets, and their looking the other way probably represents a cash flow no one was eager to interrupt.
Third, China … is China. Everyone employed by the Chinese government in a task more sensitive that scraping gum off the sidewalk has long ago learned that sharing information is dangerous. Ask a Chinese official to see photos of their new cute puppy, and you’re likely to get stock photos of Lassie or a blank stare accompanied by “Dog? What dog?”
However, there have been multiple investigations into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and they’ve all come to the same conclusions. As this article in Science noted in July 2022:
The precise events surrounding virus spillover will always be clouded, but all of the circumstantial evidence so far points to more than one zoonotic event occurring in Huanan market in Wuhan, China, likely during November–December 2019.
Investigations have continued since then, but the answer that keeps coming back is still the same: The virus most likely originated in a cross-over from animals to humans. That event (or events) most likely happened at the wet market.
However, writing at The Washington Post, science journalist David Quammen reports on a new aspect to the investigations into how COVID-19 became a human disease. Based on generic analysis following a report that appeared last week, the bat-to <insert intermediate host here> to-human chain of events has a new prime suspect when it comes to filling that middle step.
Their report on the data—previously unpublished genomic sequences, which turned up on a public online data platform and then were abruptly removed—casts suspicion on one particular wild animal as an intermediate host of the virus, a link between its inferred natural source in bats and its entry into humans: the raccoon dog.
The common raccoon dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides, is neither a raccoon through a dog—though it is in the dog family. It’s a chunky little boi more closely related to foxes than domestic dogs. (It’s also a different species than the Japanese raccoon dog, Nyctereutes viverrinus, which is featured at the top of the page mainly because Getty had such a nice photo of one being charming during a LPGA tournament). They do share this trait with raccoons: They will eat anything. Their diet includes bugs, mice, birds, frogs, fish, snakes, clams, crabs, sea urchins, bird eggs, fruit, nuts … and garbage. These days, they eat a lot of human garbage.
They also breed well and spread rapidly. They eat almost anything. And Thanks to a Soviet plan to make food out of them, they’re now an invasive pest throughout large areas of Europe. Cute invasive pests. But still invasive pests whose omnivorous diets make them a threat to displace native populations of just about anything.
In Sweden, Quammen reports that the government has asked hunters to shoot raccoon dogs on sight, in an effort to slow their spread. However, that’s far less disturbing that how they’re treated back in China.
In China, raccoon dogs were sometimes killed by clubbing, sometimes flayed alive. They were also sold live in food markets, along with other wild animals considered delicacies.
That includes the Wuhan wet market, where raccoon dogs were reportedly sold both alive and dead. They were photographed at the market in late 2019, right at the time the virus first spread to humans. And in one of the stalls where those raccoon dogs were sold, a swab of surfaces turned up positive results for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that “were rich with raccoon dog DNA, while containing little human DNA.”
This is far from proof positive that raccoon dogs were the vector by which the virus made it to people. Scientists also considered other animals that had been sold at the market, including endangered pangolins. Even so, this could be as close to a smoking gun as we ever find in this case. Raccoon dogs, which are now widespread across Europe and Asia, look like the most likely suspect for a pandemic that has killed millions—but then, people have killed millions upon millions of raccoon dogs, including by “flaying them alive.”
Their presence at covid’s ground zero serves to remind us that spillovers of dangerous viruses from wild animals into people happen often and all over the world, sometimes inconsequentially, sometimes causing catastrophe. And, if our longtime abuse of this suddenly famous creature led to a pandemic, we have only ourselves to blame.