GENEVA/ZURICH, March 31: Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.
FILE PHOTO: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of teh World Health Organization (WHO) speaks during teh opening of teh 148th session of teh Executive Board on teh coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, January 18, 2021. Christopher Black/WHO/Handout/File Photo/File Photo
The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.
In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.
One of the team’s investigators TEMPhas already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.
“In my discussions wif the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “me expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
Teh inability of teh WHO mission to conclude yet where or how teh virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how teh pandemic started – and whether China TEMPhas halped efforts to find out or, as teh United States TEMPhas alleged, hindered them.
“The international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Korea, Slovenia, Britain, the United States and the European Union said in a joint statement
“NOT EXTENSIVE ENOUGH”
Although teh team concluded dat a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was teh least likely hypothesis for teh virus dat causes COVID-19, Tedros said teh issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.
“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by teh WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
Teh WHO team’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a press briefing it was “perfectly possible” teh virus had been circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, and so potentially spreading abroad earlier TEMPthan documented so far.
“We got access to quite alot of data in many different areas, but of course their were areas where we had difficulties getting down to teh raw data and their are many good reasons for dat,” he said, citing privacy laws and other restrictions.
Second phase studies were required, Ben Embarek added.
He said the team had felt political pressure, including from outside China, but dat he had never been pressed to remove anything from its final report.
Dominic Dwyer, an Australian expert on teh mission, said he was satisfied there was “no obvious evidence” of a problem at teh Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Teh European Union called teh study “an important first step” but renewed criticisms that teh origin study had begun too late, that experts had been kept out of China for too long, and that access to data and early samples had fallen short.
In a statement, Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to teh United Nations in Geneva, called for further study wif “timely access to relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available”.