A look at some samples from 2018-2019
It begins on King George Island, not Omicron or Delta Islands(!), in Antarctica. In 2018-2019 an expedition took place to collect soil samples. In December 2019 these samples were sent to Sandon Biotech in Shanghai for sequencing and by early 2020 the results were back with three of the samples containing sequence reads of SARS-COV-2.
This was reported on by two Hungarian experts who wrote an article published on Research Square. In fact, this was actually a second pre-print as both the first and second pre-print were rejected by BioXiv, as tweeted by Bloom Lab.
Bloom lab downloaded the samples and reproduced the analysis themselves. They confirmed that there were SARS-CoV-2 reads which contained three key mutations. These mutations mean that the samples collected contained a genome which was ancestral to the original Wuhan virus.
As Matt Ridley, author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 tweeted, there is no suggestions the virus was in Antarctica.
However, the sequencing was undertaken in Shanghai, a lab used by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There is lots of potential for contamination or some kind of misassignment error, which means that the ancestral variant showed up in the Antarctic samples and is the most probable explanation.
What makes this story more intriguing, other than the fact that the ancestral variant of SARS-CoV-2 may have accidentally been found, is that when the authors published their original pre-print, the samples were deleted by the Chinese authors from the NIH’s Sequence Read database. These were then subsequently restored a month later.
If the sequencing was undertaken in December 2019 then these samples predate the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 by the Chinese. Even, if the sampling was completed in early 2020, the discovery of the ancestral variant of the virus is extremely significant.
The final important part of the puzzle, presented in the article, is that they were able to identify the genetic material from mitochondria of Homo sapiens, green monkeys and Chinese hamsters. The monkey and hamster material, most likely originated from cell lines which are often used in labs when studying SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses.
To summarise, this is an extremely important find because not only is this discovery the likely ancestor of SARS-CoV-2, but also some of the samples seem to indicate that these are viruses grown in a lab.