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Opinion With covid, the long-abused raccoon dog might finally have bitten us back

A raccoon dog at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City in August 2015. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

David Quammen is a science journalist and author. His most recent book is “Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus.

Earlier this month, the pendulum of persuasion on the origin of the coronavirus pandemic swung again. An international team of scientists, including some of the world’s most trusted experts on virus evolution, released an analysis of genetic evidence, some viral, some animal, extracted from swabs of surfaces at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market in early 2020. Their report on the data — previously unpublished genomic sequences, which turned up on a public online data platform and then were abruptly removed — casts suspicion on one particular wild animal as an intermediate host of the virus, a link between its inferred natural source in bats and its entry into humans: the raccoon dog.

Questions abound. Why didn’t Chinese scientists release the telltale sequences three years ago? How strong is this evidence? Are any other wild animals possible alternative suspects? Most basically, though, for people hitherto unaware of this creature, there are two other questions: What the heck is a raccoon dog, and how did an animal so unfamiliar to Americans come to play such a potentially seismic role in our lives?

These furry little quadrupeds belong to a species (Nyctereutes procyonides) within the canid family. More plainly put: They are dogs in the broad sense, related to wolves and dingoes and poodles. The “dog” part is genealogical, the “raccoon” part is metaphor. They are foxlike but shorter and burlier, and they sport raccoony black masks.

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The natural range of the common raccoon dog spans from Vietnam, across China, to southeastern Russia and Mongolia. They are highly adaptable, omnivorous and relatively abundant. Another form, the Japanese raccoon dog, is now considered a distinct species. Known as tanuki, it features in ancient Japanese folklore, caricatured as “dull-witted but endearing,” according to one Japanese researcher, and capable of shape-shifting and of music-making beneath a full moon.

Other cultures have taken a more pragmatic view of the animal, whose brindle fur grows thick during winter, with dense underfur and distinctive long guard hairs, making it attractive for cold-weather apparel. During the Stalin era, thousands of raccoon dogs were translocated into the western Soviet Union, to establish wild populations for harvest. They thrived. They spread, reaching sexual maturity at a young age and raising large litters. They were so voracious — eating not just berries, nuts, insects and human garbage but also pheasants, songbirds and their eggs — that they came to be considered pests in many parts of Europe.

By 2009, Asian raccoon dogs were so numerous in Sweden that officials asked elk hunters to shoot them on sight. Within a few more years, hunters were shooting 1,000 annually in the Czech Republic and 6,000 in Poland. In Finland, they were executed by anal electrocution and then skinned, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which pleaded with consumers not to buy coats trimmed with raccoon dog fur.

In China, raccoon dogs were sometimes killed by clubbing, sometimes flayed alive. They were also sold live in food markets, along with other wild animals considered delicacies. In 2014, the evolutionary biologist Eddie Holmes, who studies viral genomes, took a now-famous photograph of a pathetic raccoon dog caged for sale at a stall at the Huanan market. Raccoon dogs were still on sale at the market between 2017 and late 2019, when covid-19 began to spread. In early 2020, the stall in which Holmes had seen raccoon dogs, along with surfaces nearby, were swabbed for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 — and some samples that tested positive for the virus were also rich with raccoon dog DNA, while containing little human DNA. In 2023, Holmes became a co-author of the new study. “This is an association,” Holmes said recently on Australian radio. “I don’t think it’s a smoking gun — but I think the gun is pretty well loaded.”

Guest Opinion: Available evidence still points to covid originating from spillover

We owe it to raccoon dogs, after all they have suffered from humans, not to incriminate them prematurely. Even if they did carry the coronavirus into the market, and spilled it into a person or two, they weren’t there by choice, after all. The vast commerce in wild animals that carried those miserable raccoon dogs to Wuhan goes far beyond China, bringing wild creatures in many countries — and the viruses they carry — increasingly into close contact with humans. And although that traffic might please the palates of some consumers, it’s a recipe for pandemic.

The new international analysis is dramatic, but solving the origin question definitively could take a long time. Forty-one years passed between the first known outbreak of Marburg virus (a cousin of Ebola) in humans and the discovery of its animal host. For SARS-CoV-2, we might never know, given how much precious evidence and opportunity for collaborative research have already been lost.

Whatever happens, raccoon dogs are now a central part of the investigation — as Holmes told me, three years ago, that he suspected they should be. Their presence at covid’s ground zero serves to remind us that spillovers of dangerous viruses from wild animals into people happen often and all over the world, sometimes inconsequentially, sometimes causing catastrophe. And, if our longtime abuse of this suddenly famous creature led to a pandemic, we have only ourselves to blame.