WHO says China withheld data during Covid probe in Wuhan
Further studies needed to identify origin of Covid-19 as report released, Tedros says
The head of the World Health Organisation has criticised China’s sharing of data at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan as the WHO unveiled the results of its investigative mission looking into the origins of Covid-19.
Saying that the highly politicised four-week WHO probe was not “extensive enough”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said further studies would be needed to identify the origin of Covid-19, which was first identified in Wuhan in December 2019.
Mr Tedros’s comments came as investigation team members admitted there was political influence from both inside and outside China on them but said they were never under pressure to remove “critical elements” from their report.
Mr Tedros also insisted that there should be continued examination of the theory that the virus had escaped from a Wuhan institute of virology laboratory, even though the report deemed it “extremely unlikely” as a source of the pandemic.
While concluding that the two least likely hypotheses for the emergence of the deadly virus were a leak from a lab (pushed by senior Trump officials) and being introduced via frozen food from outside (promoted by China), the team promised to keep following leads in both cases in what appeared to be a diplomatic effort to keep both Beijing and Washington onside.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Mr Tedros said after the report of a team that travelled to Wuhan was released.
“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data-sharing,” he said pointedly while adding that the report “advances our understanding in important ways”.
The report, compiled by WHO-appointed international experts and their Chinese counterparts, did not draw any firm conclusions but did rank a range of hypotheses according to how likely they thought they were, assessing the lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” with the most likely jumping from bats to humans via an intermediary animal.
“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” Mr Tedros said.
China has been widely faulted in western capitals for its lack of transparency during the opening weeks of the pandemic, and Mr Tedros’s comments mark a rowing-back of early praise of China’s initial response as complaints continue from top Biden officials over Chinese openness.
The framing of the release of the initial investigation is in line with comments made by team members before visiting Wuhan when they warned that it would be highly unlikely they would find a “smoking gun” during their first visit.
Presenting the report, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert on diseases that jump from animals to humans who led the mission to Wuhan, said they had been unable to find evidence either through China’s surveillance network or excess mortality data for cases of the new coronavirus emerging before December 2019.
“In terms of key data we looked into data coming out of different surveillance systems looking at cases of fever and unspecified pneumonia – and respiratory syndromes,” he told a press conference in Geneva.
“We looked at 76,000 cases of symptoms in the months before December to look for Covid cases not picked up, but we didn’t pick up anything.”
However, he added that it remained possible the virus may have been circulating as early as November and that some cases may have been abroad.
Mr Ben Embarek also relayed the concern of Chinese scientists at a Wuhan lab that studies viruses who said they were initially worried it might have escaped but added that there was no evidence it was involved in a leak.
Echoing Mr Tedros’s remarks, Mr Ben Embarek said there were areas where his team had difficulty getting down to the raw data in China, adding that data would need to be re-examined in the next phase of the probe.
Underlining the preliminary nature of the study so far, Mr Ben Embarek said their work had so far “only scratched the surface” of their understanding of the origins.
Despite studying data of samples from large numbers of farmed wild animals, the researchers were unable to find evidence of Covid-19.
With so many still-unanswered questions, the report has served more to shut down some theories than find a smoking gun, including the mooted possibility that Covid-19 may have been circulating for weeks if not months before it emerged in Wuhan.
Responding to the report, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has pushed the lab-leak theory, albeit without evidence, alleged that the report was a cover-up backed by Beijing. – Guardian