Home News What is a raccoon dog and why is it linked to the origin of COVID-19?

What is a raccoon dog and why is it linked to the origin of COVID-19?

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Last week, a team of international scientists shared a discovery that may link the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to an animal strain in Wuhan, China’s wet market: specifically, a raccoon dog.

French virologist Florence Debar from the French National Center for Scientific Research spotted the information by chance while searching in a global database and shared it with a group of scientists based outside China to research the origin of the Corona virus.

The genetic sequences were uploaded to the world’s largest public virus database in late January, but have since been deleted.

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According to the World Health Organization, genetic sequencing data showed that some samples from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market known to be positive for the coronavirus also contained genetic material from raccoon dogs, indicating that the animals may have been infected with the virus. . The virus, according to scientists.

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“There’s a good chance that the animals that deposited this DNA also deposited the virus,” said Stephen Goldstein, a University of Utah virologist who helped analyze the data. “If you are going to take environmental samples after a zoological event, that is exactly what you would expect.”

And while the connection points to good things in terms of connection to the origins of COVID-19, many people were surprised by the animal’s name. So what exactly is a raccoon dog?

Raccoon dog: What you need to know

Physically, raccoon dogs look a lot like their name suggests – they look like a small to medium sized dog with a raccoon’s head. They are small and thin and many have sturdy bodies.

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Photo of a raccoon dog taken in Germany.

Eric Thielscher/McPhoto/Ulstein Image via Getty Images

Despite the name, raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are closest to foxes. The species now linked to the COVID-19 outbreak is known as the common raccoon dog, which is different from its close relative, the Japanese raccoon dog.

Raccoon dogs of both species are native to East Asia and weigh an average of 16 pounds, making them relatively safe for humans. Fun Facts: They are monogamous, have frequent claws, and hibernate mildly in the winter.

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They are also susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, and some have already tested positive for the coronavirus. It was also found to be able to transmit diseases. So, although there is no strong evidence that they were responsible for the outbreak of the virus in the Wuhan market, it does prove that the market was indeed selling animals that might carry the virus.

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Raccoon dogs are omnivores and prefer to live in forests, heavily cultivated areas, or those near water. And though they once made their homes in parts of China, Korea, and Japan, breeding for the fur industry led to thousands of them being introduced into the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

Today it is considered a widespread invasive species in western and northern Europe, and the European Union’s Invasive Species Report of Concern declared it “one of Europe’s most successful space carnivores.”

And while many North Americans won’t be able to conjure up an actual image of a raccoon dog off the top of their heads, it’s likely they’ve encountered one that stems from Japanese folklore. Known as “tanuki” in Japanese, raccoon dogs are known in mythological circles as shape-shifters that can bring financial luck.

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In Japanese anime, cartoons, and similes, they are often drawn with a large scrotum that can be manipulated into useful objects such as fishing nets, umbrellas, and umbrellas.

Stone statues depicting ‘tanuki’ or raccoon dogs stand on the grounds of Yashima-ji, Temple 84 of the Shikoku 88 Buddhist temple pilgrimage, on November 11, 2019 near the city of Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island, Japan.

David Madison/Getty Images

Tatebayashi Gunma Morinji Temple is famous for its famous tanuki raccoon dog, Bunbuku Chagama.

John S. Lander/Lightrocket via Getty Images

Raccoon dogs and their link to viruses

As already mentioned, raccoon dogs have long been bred, bred and hunted for their fur, which is probably why they are sold in the Wuhan market.

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As Slate reports, millions of deaths occur in China each year. A large proportion of its skins are purchased by the United States to supply the global market with raccoon dog fur, often raised in crowded facilities from small cages, which is a recipe for disease spread.

A 2004 report by The Lancet stated that raccoon dogs and related animals sold for food at a wet market in China in 2003 were found to carry a virus very similar to the SARS virus that was circulating in humans at the time. Officials at the time ordered the culling of 10,000 animals that were to be sold in those markets, after sounding the alarm of another outbreak when a man was confirmed to be infected with the new SARS virus.

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A study last year found that samples taken from 2,000 animals from 18 different species across China revealed animals known to be eaten by humans, including raccoon dogs, being transported. 102 different viruses from 13 viral families.

Specifically, the study found that raccoon dogs carry four canine viruses that are genetically similar to those in humans. They also carry enteroviruses, or viruses that are transmitted when infected feces enter the mouth or nose.

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The raccoon dog has been depicted foraging in the woods and displays camouflage coloring.

Universal Image Collection via Getty Images

Are we close to identifying the origins of COVID-19?

The answer is yes and no.

Late last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on China to release the deleted data. The researchers say that having the data will allow them to analyze in more detail what was happening in the Huanan market in 2020.

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Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 at the World Health Organization, told CNBC: “The big problem right now is that this data is out there and it’s not readily available to the international community.

“It is necessary first and foremost, not to mention that it should have been available years ago, but the data should be accessible to people who can access it, who can analyze it and discuss it among themselves, and the importance of molecular data collected from swabs of floors, walls and cages of and market carts as of January 2020.

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Van Kerkhove told the outlet that the small amount of data they currently have doesn’t give a definitive answer about when the pandemic started, “but it does provide more clues.”

“This data can – and should – be subscribed to three years in advance,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. The now missing evidence, he told the New York Times, “requires the immediate involvement of the international community.”

And although raccoon dogs are now in the realm of possibility that they were among the first infected with SARS-CoV-2, there are still many competing theories regarding the origins of the virus, including theories that the virus arose from the control of the virus. . Chinese government. Laboratory – which researchers continue to study.

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Until China uploads its data again, “the WHO will not be able to remove different hypotheses,” Van Kerkhove told CNBC.

It’s important to stress that the data does not definitively prove that a raccoon dog contracted the coronavirus, said University of Saskatchewan virologist Angela Rasmussen, who helped analyze the data.

“We only have evidence that the animals were in the same part of the market where we know there is a virus,” she said.

Rasmussen added that the evidence makes it “more likely that an animal contributed viral sequences there”.

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Arturo Casadevall, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times that the data adds to evidence of natural spread.

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“I would say it reinforces the idea of ​​the animal, the idea that it’s coming from an animal in the market,” he said.

After a week-long visit to China to study the origins of the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report in 2021 that concluded that COVID-19 was likely to have spread to humans from animals, dismissing the possibility of a laboratory origin as “highly unlikely”. ”

But the UN health agency backtracked the following year, saying “essential pieces of data” were still missing.

In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy assessed with “low confidence” that the virus had escaped from a laboratory. But others in the US intelligence community disagree and think it likely came first from animals.

Experts say the true origin of the pandemic may not be known for many years – if it ever existed.

With files from the Associated Press

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