The World Health Organisation said data from China suggesting Covid-19 arose from animals in Wuhan’s wet market should have been shared with the world three years ago, adding that the findings “do not provide a definitive answer” as to the origin of the virus.
The global health body’s response to recently analysed genetic sequences casts further doubt on Beijing’s handling of the viral outbreak and will intensify debate about the source of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, on Friday called on China to make all data about the pandemic’s origins globally available. Since the outbreak of coronavirus in early 2020, Dr Tedros has repeatedly criticised Beijing for its reticence to release genetic material as well as for its overall public health response.
A study, first reported by the Atlantic, found molecular evidence that animals, including raccoon dogs being sold in late 2019 at Wuhan’s Huanan market, were susceptible to being infected by Sars-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19, said Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead.
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However, WHO officials stressed the findings, while important, were far from definitive and that all origin hypotheses, including an accidental lab leak, remained on the table. Researchers affiliated to China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention last week uploaded sequences to Gisaid, the global genomic repository. Gisaid has temporarily made them unavailable, pending what it said were “newer and additional data as part of a manuscript under review”. Gisaid on Friday said it “does not delete records”.
Three years into the pandemic, scientists have not been able to reach a consensus on the pandemic’s origins, and deep divisions persist between Beijing and politicians in Washington over the most likely cause. The two most prominent theories posit that the virus may have been an accidental byproduct of lab experiments – which Wuhan’s Institute of Virology has been known to conduct – or that it may have originated from animals. A WHO mission to China in February 2021 was largely inconclusive, with the health body saying its scientists were not shown enough raw data.
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But the health body said all lines of inquiry should stay open. “Understanding how the pandemic began remains a moral and scientific imperative,” Dr Tedros told reporters on Friday.
Covid-19 was first described as a pandemic by the WHO in March 2020, two months after the health body declared it a public health emergency of international concern, the highest possible designation under international regulations.
Dr Tedros said he was “confident” the health body would be in a position this year to declare the public health emergency “over” this year. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023