World Health Organization investigators are honing their search for animals that could have spread the new coronavirus to humans, identifying two—ferret badgers and rabbits—that can carry the virus and were sold at a Chinese market where many early cases emerged.
Members of a WHO team probing the pandemic’s origins say further investigation is needed into suppliers of those and other animals at the market, some of which came from a region of China near its Southeast Asian borders where the closest known relatives of the virus have been found in bats.
Team members say they have yet to establish all the creatures sold, legally or illegally, live or dead, at the market in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was tied to the first known cluster of cases in December 2019.
China’s National Health Commission and foreign ministry declined to comment.
The WHO team is juggling multiple competing hypotheses and still isn’t sure if the virus first jumped from animals to humans at the market or if it was circulating elsewhere first. But working with the available evidence, they are gaining a stronger understanding of which animals could have plausibly been vectors.
WHO investigators also want China to conduct widespread testing of its mink farms, following the discovery that the virus had spread back and forth between mink and humans in Europe.
Continuing uncertainty over how, when and where the virus first spread to humans is feeding international tensions, with the U.S. and China trading accusations that they are hindering the WHO’s investigation.
The WHO team recently made a four-week trip to Wuhan, after months of negotiation, but its access to local scientists and their data depended on cooperation from Beijing, which has repeatedly suggested the virus originated outside China. The market remains a focus of the probe because it was tied to the earliest known cluster of infections and because WHO scientists believe the virus most likely originated in bats and spread to humans via another animal, possibly on a farm or at a market. Many scientists have suggested that the virus could have spread via China’s illegal wildlife trade.
Peter Daszak, a zoologist on the WHO team, said in an interview that ferret badgers were among carcasses found in freezers at the market, and that while they tested negative, they were capable of carrying the virus.
“It provides a pathway for how the virus could have gotten into Wuhan,” Dr. Daszak said.
Ferret badgers, which live mainly in southern China, are from the same family of mammals as weasels and otters, and they are often hunted and traded for food or fur, despite being a protected species.
Dr. Daszak said rabbits were also present in the market, and they “turn out to be quite susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.”