Just a few days ago, we reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) dropped its investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, declaring it did not originate in a Chinese laboratory.

WHO is now backtracking on this dismissal.

The investigation to Wuhan, where the first cases were detected, failed to identify the source of the virus but appeared to disregard the theory that it leaked from a virology laboratory in the city.

However, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus today said that following the ‘very important scientific exercise … all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies.’

It comes after Peter Embarek, the leader of the WHO team, this week concluded it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The original assertion was truly mystifying in light of the news that China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization-led team.

The team had requested raw patient data on 174 cases that China had identified from the early phase of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but were only provided with a summary, said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert who is a member of the team.

Such raw data is known as “line listings”, he said, and would typically be anonymised but contain details such as what questions were asked of individual patients, their responses and how their responses were analysed.

“That’s standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” he told Reuters on Saturday via video call from Sydney, where he is currently undergoing quarantine.

Dwyer indicated that the raw data was crucial to origin determination because only half of the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market that was initially blamed for the outbreak.

“That’s why we’ve persisted to ask for that,” Dwyer told Reuters. “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.”

Dwyer’s team arrived in China in January and spent four weeks looking into the origins of the outbreak. He said the issue of access to raw patient data will be included in the summary of the team’s findings, which could be out as early as next week.

Every credible scientist would understand that data that cannot be accessed would make it impossible to form a serious conclusion. However, WHO’s missteps on the coronavirus, including the original denials that there was human-to-human transmission, have given Chinese authorities the freedom to hide data and destroy evidence without the fear of any serious consequences on the international level.

I do not sense China will be more cooperative in the future.

The W.H.O. team, which is expected to release a full report about its findings in coming weeks, is still pressing Chinese officials to conduct exhaustive checks of blood samples for signs that the virus might have been circulating earlier. The experts are also asking China to more deeply investigate the wildlife trade in Wuhan and the surrounding area for clues about how the virus might have jumped from animals to humans.

It is unclear how fully the Chinese government — which remains in firm control of research into the origins of the virus — will cooperate.

 

 
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