Genetic tracing of market wildlife and viruses at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic

Published in bioRxiv, 2023

Recommended citation: Crits-Christoph A, Levy JI, Pekar JE, Goldstein SA, Singh R, Hensel Z, Gangavarapu K, Rogers MB, Moshiri N, Garry RF, Holmes EC, Koopmans MPG, Lemey P, Popescu S, Rambaut A, Robertson DL, Suchard MA, Wertheim JO, Rasmussen AL, Andersen KG, Worobey M, D├ębarre F (2023). "Genetic tracing of market wildlife and viruses at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic." bioRxiv. doi:10.1101/2023.09.13.557637

Zoonotic spillovers of viruses have occurred through the animal trade worldwide. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic was traced epidemiologically to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, the site with the most reported wildlife vendors in the city of Wuhan, China. Here, we analyze publicly available qPCR and sequencing data from environmental samples collected in the Huanan market in early 2020. We demonstrate that the SARS-CoV-2 genetic diversity linked to this market is consistent with market emergence, and find increased SARS-CoV-2 positivity near and within a particular wildlife stall. We identify wildlife DNA in all SARS-CoV-2 positive samples from this stall. This includes species such as civets, bamboo rats, porcupines, hedgehogs, and one species, raccoon dogs, known to be capable of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We also detect other animal viruses that infect raccoon dogs, civets, and bamboo rats. Combining metagenomic and phylogenetic approaches, we recover genotypes of market animals and compare them to those from other markets. This analysis provides the genetic basis for a short list of potential intermediate hosts of SARS-CoV-2 to prioritize for retrospective serological testing and viral sampling.