MEDIA OUTLETS SHOULD CORRECT MISLEADING ARTICLES ABOUT RACCOON DOGS STARTING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
On Thursday, March 16, The Atlantic published an article titled “The strongest evidence yet that an animal started the pandemic” . Similar stories in other influential publications soon followed:
This is just a small sample of the barrage of news reports strongly hinting that the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic had been solved.
We believe these news reports are deeply misleading and should be corrected. We also believe the reports reflect yet another example of a small group of researchers exaggerating their findings and misleading the public with false certainty about the origins of COVID-19.
First, the data on which these claims are based have not been made available for other researchers to confirm and independently interpret. Rather, they were only presented in a private meeting between the researchers and the WHO . The media therefore have no independent confirmation that the data are sound or that the researchers’ conclusions are valid.
Second, the data provide no substantive new information about the origins of COVID-19, even if taken at face value. According to reports, the central piece of data is a single SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental sample which contains DNA from a raccoon dog. There is no evidence that this raccoon dog started the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, there is no evidence that this raccoon dog was even infected with SARS-CoV-2, as there was also human DNA in the sample, and the viral material could just as easily have come from an infected human. The researchers appear to have cherry-picked this one sample, out of 73 total SARS-CoV-2-positive samples collected at the Wuhan market , because this one sample furthers the specific narrative they have advocated in previous publications [8,9].
Third, the researchers who reported the data have a documented track record of exaggerating their findings, concealing doubts about their findings, and hiding major conflicts of interest. In 2022, many of the same researchers claimed that they had “dispositive evidence” and “incontrovertible evidence” that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from the wildlife trade . They later withdrew this claim [8,9]. In 2020, some of the same researchers co-authored the paper “Proximal Origins of SARS-CoV-2”, which expressed scientific certainty that SARS-CoV-2 had not been altered in a laboratory . Those authors, however, failed to report a major conflict of interest: that the heads of their funding agencies played an active role in preparing this paper . The researchers also failed to openly acknowledge doubts that they had privately expressed about their conclusions before the funding agency heads became involved (doubts that have only since become public thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests ).
We believe that this latest episode represents an unfortunate example of influential media outlets spreading a speculative narrative under the guise of a scientific finding. We also believe that the meagerness of the data being sold to the public underscores the need for an urgent, comprehensive, and forensic investigation into the origins of COVID-19, an investigation that uses not only scientific data, but all the tools of intelligence gathering and law enforcement.
The public deserves real answers, not false certainty.
Colin D. Butler
Richard H. Ebright
David N. Fisman
Andre M. Goffinet
Elisa D. Harris
Laura H. Kahn
Justin B. Kinney
Helen E. Mundler
Bryce E. Nickels
Steven E. Phillips
Eric S. Starbuck
About Biosafety Now
Biosafety Now is an organization of experts in biomedicine, mathematics, public health, public policy, law, social science, and public advocacy, all of whom agree that research that creates potential pandemic pathogens more dangerous than those in nature poses existential risks to the public and provides few, if any, benefits for science, medicine, public health, or national security.
 The Strongest Evidence Yet That an Animal Started the Pandemic (The Atlantic; March 16, 2023)
 New Data Links Pandemic’s Origins to Raccoon Dogs at Wuhan Market (The New York Times; March 16, 2023)
 Genetic data links raccoon dogs to covid origin; WHO seeks China cooperation (Washington Post; March 17, 2023)
 New COVID origins data point to raccoon dogs in China market (AP News; March 17, 2023)
 New Evidence Supports Animal Origin of COVID Virus through Raccoon Dogs (Scientific American; March 17, 2023)
 Unearthed genetic sequences from China market may point to animal origin of COVID-19 (Science; March 16, 2023)
 SAGO statement on newly released SARS-CoV-2 metagenomics data from China CDC on GISAID (March 18, 2023)
 Worobey, M. et al. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science 377, abp8715 (2022).
 Pekar, J. E. et al. The molecular epidemiology of multiple zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. Science 377, eabp8337 (2022).
 Worobey et al.. The Huanan market was the epicenter of SARS-CoV-2 emergence. [preprint] Zenodo (2022).
 Andersen, K. G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W. I., Holmes, E. C. & Garry, R. F. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med 26, 450–452 (2020).
 Timeline: The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 (US Right to Know; November 29, 2022)