The researchers say Mr Gao initially gave them permission to analyse the data but that the sequences were withdrawn within 24 hours of the team reporting back to him that animal data had been found among the samples uploaded.
An earlier study published by Mr Gao et al said no animal data had been found.
“On 10 March we advised the same author that we had discovered the presence of animal genetic material in the samples. On 11 March 2023, we discovered that the data had been made unavailable (at the request of the submitter)”, says the new paper.
Prof Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London who was not involved in the latest study, said the findings were important.
In particular, the fact that racoon dog DNA was found in SARS-CoV-2 samples on stalls in the market with no detectable human DNA was suggestive of the animals themselves being infected, he said.
He added: “We [now] need to know where those animals came from. Were they farmed? Is there any prospect of chasing them back up the supply chain? And has the China CDC done this already?”
In the new preprint, the authors note that China is known to hold further data samples from the first days of the pandemic, which it has yet to publish.
One of the preprint’s authors, Prof David Robertson of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, said the new data provided “strong evidence” that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan.
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