The finding could bolster the theory that the coronavirus was originally leaked from a lab. The samples were found in soil and came from a Chinese biotech company. They had been sent to Sangon Biotech in Shanghai for sequence in December 2019. They are believed to have been infected with a previously unknown variant of the virus.
Scientists from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Lorand University in Hungary stumbled upon this discovery while analyzing genetic data from soil samples from Antarctica.
The samples also contained DNA from hamsters and monkeys.
Some experts say this suggests the first version of the virus was grown in a lab using animals or their cells.
Matt Ridley, author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, said: “The unique mutations suggest this is an ancestral variant.
“So if it was sequenced, say, in mid-December, before anyone had identified the virus in humans and started trying to grow it in the lab, that points to secret samples in the labs in 2019. “
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some suspect the virus leaked from, is known to use Sangon Biotech for sequencing.
But it is possible that the DNA samples were contaminated by the first COVID-19 patients in China.
Although experts were unable to determine when the sequencing of the samples was performed, it is understood that the samples were sent to Sangon biotech in December 2019.
Dr Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, confirmed that the Antarctic samples did contain Covid after rerunning the data.
This suggests that there were three key mutations that linked the first strain in humans, Wuhan-Hu-1, to coronaviruses in bats.
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Mr Ridley told Express.co.uk: “It’s a bat virus, but the question is how it got from bats to humans.
” There are two possibilities. The first is that he infected an animal like a pangolin which was then sold in a market which infected people.
“The other possibility is that he infected a scientist who was working in bat caves by collecting bat viruses which brought him back to a lab.
“Or he brought a sample back from a lab where he infected a lab worker
“It now appears, from all the evidence that has come to light, that the latter possibility now seems much stronger than the former.”
China has repeatedly dismissed any suggestion of a lab leak.
The theory also remains a possible explanation for the origins of Covid.
Another theory is that the virus jumped to humans via animals in public.
A World Health Organization report cites strong evidence showing that most coronaviruses that infect humans come from animals.