China refused to hand over key data to WHO team probing pandemic’s origin
February 13, 2021
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Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 9, 2021.
Enlarge / Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, Feb. 9, 2021.

The Chinese government failed to share key data on early COVID-19 cases with a team of international scientists investigating how the pandemic began.

The researchers had requested raw data on 174 of the very first COVID-19 cases identified in Wuhan, China during December 2019, as well as other cases. But the team—assembled by the World Health Organization—was only given a summary of those early cases, according to multiple media reports.

Having such detailed patient data from the start of an outbreak is “standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert and WHO team member, told Reuters in an interview Saturday. Dwyer emphasized that data on those 174 cases is particularly key because only half of them were connected to the Huanan seafood market, which was initially thought to be the source of the outbreak.

“That’s why we’ve persisted to ask for that,” Dwyer said. “Why that doesn’t happen, I couldn’t comment. Whether it’s political or time or it’s difficult … But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn’t available, I don’t know. One would only speculate.”

The revelation—just days after the team wrapped up their mission in Wuhan—heightens concerns that China has continued to thwart the investigation, as well as doubts that the WHO investigation will yield new, trustworthy insights.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan released a statement Saturday saying the administration was highly skeptical of the investigation so far. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”

Messy messaging

The team has yet to release a written report on its investigation, with only summary findings expected to be made available next week. But it did host a 3-hour press conference, live-streamed from Wuhan on February 9.

In it, WHO scientist and team lead, Peter Ben Embarek, said their findings suggest that the virus “most likely” jumped from a reservoir host, like a bat, to another animal before infecting humans. That “intermediary host” hypothesis has been the leading one among scientists since the pandemic began. It aligns with the genetic information on virus first isolated from people, as well as what we know about how other coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV, have moved to humans.

Embarek also said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus has been released from a lab. Since the pandemic began, speculation has swirled that the SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a research facility in Wuhan. Though coronavirus researchers have always said this is very unlikely, Embarek seemed to dismiss it entirely. He went so far as to say it was not a hypothesis that would require future work. In other words, the team saw no reason to continue to even look into the possibility.

But in a press conference on February 12, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appeared to walk back Embarek’s comments.

“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” Tedros said at the start of the press conference. “Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies. Some of that work may lie outside the remit and scope of this mission.”

The conflicting statements and new accounts of withheld and missing data will likely intensify attention on the team’s forthcoming report—which was already highly anticipated.

Meanwhile, China has continued to push the idea that the virus spread in Wuhan through frozen foods or packaging—the primary products sold in the Huanan seafood market—and that initially contaminated goods originated outside of China. Independent experts are doubtful of both of those hypotheses.

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