Leaks, transparency and data row plague virus report

China denies restricting access to crucial research figures as WHO continues to look at lab leak theory

It was a report riddled with contradictions.

The release of the World Health Organization’s study into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in China threw up more questions than answers.

In the 319-page report, the team of WHO and Chinese scientists again insisted it was “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus leaked from a high-security laboratory in Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial outbreak.

But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later confirmed that the scenario “requires further investigation” with “additional missions” to the Chinese city.

“Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table,” he said after the report was released.

Another sticking point was the lack of detailed analysis of crucial data during key stages of the epidemic in Wuhan.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,” Tedros said in a statement.

In response, China made it clear there was no factual basis in the accusations about “accessing raw data” and called for the investigation to be broadened to other countries.

The facts:

  • Concerns still linger that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
  • The theory was originally dismissed as “extremely unlikely” after the initial findings of the 28-day WHO mission to China.
  • At one point, there were no plans to continue to look any further into that avenue of research.
  • Covid-19 first surfaced in Wuhan in December 2019.
  • WHO mission leader Peter Ben Embarek told a media briefing it was “perfectly possible” the virus had been circulating in November or October around Wuhan.
  • More than 127 million people worldwide have been infected by the virus.
  • The death toll has reached nearly 2.8 million.

Unanswered questions: “[The WHO report stated it] lacks crucial data, information … It lacks access. It lacks transparency. It doesn’t lead us to [a] closer understanding than we had six to nine months ago about the origin [of the virus],” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told a media briefing in Washington

Pressure points: Psaki was echoing a statement made by the United States and other nations, calling for “full access” to all data. “The international expert study was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” the statement by the US and 13 allies, including Australia, South Korea and the United Kingdom, said.

Alternative view: Liang Wannian, who was in charge of the China team during the WHO mission, denied accusations about a lack of access to crucial data. “In our research, all databases and files were shared between Chinese and foreign experts. Everyone can see everything. But taking pictures of some papers or bringing them away can be illegal in China,” he told a media briefing as reported by the CGTN network

China Factor comment: More than 15 months after the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 we are no further forward in tracking the origins of the virus. All we appear to know is that the pathogen was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal host. What we need now is “transparency” from Beijing instead of the usually stalling tactics.