Experts also say there was no substantial spread of SARS-COV-2 in Wuhan before the late 2019 outbreak.
China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization-led mission probing the origins of the pandemic, according to a member of the international team.
Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious disease expert, told the Reuters news agency on Saturday that the WHO mission 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 was only provided with a summary.
Such raw data is known as “line listings”, Dwyer 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 via video call from Sydney, where he is currently undergoing quarantine.
He said that gaining access to the raw data was especially important since only half of the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market, the now-shuttered wholesale seafood centre in Wuhan where the virus was initially detected.
“That’s why we’ve persisted to ask for that,” Dwyer said. “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.”
The four-week WHO mission to China to uncover the origins of the coronavirus wrapped up earlier this week with no conclusive findings.
While the Chinese authorities provided a lot of material, Dwyer said the issue of access to the raw patient data would be mentioned in the team’s final report.
“The WHO people certainly felt that they had received much much more data than they had ever received in the previous year. So, that in itself is an advance,” he said.
‘Alteration by the Chinese government’
China’s refusal to hand over raw data on the early COVID-19 cases was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on Friday.
China has not commented on the latest claims, but Beijing has previously defended its transparency in handling the outbreak and its cooperation with the WHO mission.
The WHO’s probe had been plagued by delay, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.
The team, which arrived in China in January, was limited to visits organised by their Chinese hosts and prevented from contact with community members, due to health restrictions.
The WHO said a summary of the team’s findings could be released as early as the third week of February.
The White House on Saturday said it has “deep concerns” about the way the findings of the WHO’s COVID-19 report were communicated, and urged China to make available data from the earliest days of the outbreak.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that it is imperative that the report be independent and free from “alteration by the Chinese government”, echoing concerns raised by the administration of former President Donald Trump, who also moved to quit the WHO over the issue.
“Re-engaging the WHO also means holding it to the highest standards,” Sullivan said. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy fired back with a strongly worded statement, saying the US had damaged multilateral cooperation and the WHO in recent years, and should not be “pointing fingers” at China and other countries that supported the WHO during the COVID-19 pandemic.
China welcomed the US’s decision to reengage with the WHO, but Washington should hold itself to the “highest standards” instead of taking aim at other countries, the spokesperson said.
‘We want more data’
Dwyer, the Australian expert, said the work within the WHO team was harmonious but that there were “arguments” at times with their Chinese counterparts about the interpretation and significance of the data, which he described as “natural” in such probes.
“We might be having a talk about cold chain and they might be more firm about what the data shows than what we might have been, but that’s natural. Whether there’s political pressure to have different opinions, I don’t know. There may well be, but it’s hard to know.”
Cold chain refers to the transport and trade of frozen food.
Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the notion that the coronavirus originated in China, pointing to imported frozen food as a conduit.
Ben Embarek, who headed WHO’s mission to Wuhan, told a news conference on Tuesday that transmission of the virus via frozen food is a possibility, but pointed to market vendors selling frozen animal products including farmed wild animals as a potential pathway that warrants further study.
He also voiced frustration to the AFP news agency over the lack of access to raw data saying more was needed to detect possible early COVID-19 cases.
“We want more data. We have asked for more data,” Embarek told AFP on Saturday.
Peter Daszak, a zoologist, and another member of the WHO mission, however, tweeted on Saturday that he had a different experience as the lead of the mission’s animal and environment working group.
This was NOT my experience on @WHO mission. As lead of animal/environment working group I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways. https://t.co/gwGnm9pnGj
— Peter Daszak (@PeterDaszak) February 13, 2021
“I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways,” he said in response to The New York Times piece.