WHO chief urges China to share information on COVID origins
Global health agency scientists say a new Chinese study published this week offered some ‘clues’ on origins but no answers.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has pressed China to share its information about the origins of COVID-19, saying until that happened all scenarios remained on the table.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday the global health body had asked China to cooperate with it to help trace the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Without full access to the information that China has, you cannot say this or that,” said Tedros Adhanom, in response to a question about the origin of the virus.
“All hypotheses are on the table. That’s WHO’s position and that’s why we have been asking China to be cooperative on this,” he added.
“If they would do that then we will know what happened or how it started.”
More than three years after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, questions linger about the origins of the disease that closed borders, forced lockdowns, battered economies and killed millions of people.
The virus was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, with many suspecting it spread in a live animal market before fanning out around the world. Meanwhile, others have put forward theories that the virus may have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which lies less than 1km (0.6 miles) from the market and is known to handle dangerous pathogens.
Last month, data from the early days of the outbreak was briefly uploaded by Chinese scientists to an international database.
It included genetic sequences found in more than 1,000 environmental and animal samples taken in January 2020 at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.
The data showed that DNA from multiple animal species – including raccoon dogs – was present in environmental samples that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, suggesting that they were “the most likely conduits” of the disease, according to a team of international researchers.
However, in a non-peer-reviewed study published by the Nature journal this week, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention scientists have disputed the international team’s findings.
They said the samples provided no proof the animals were actually infected. They were also taken a month after human-to-human transmission first occurred at the market, so even if they were COVID-positive, the animals could have caught the virus from humans.
WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19, said the latest Chinese information offered some “clues” on origins but no answers. She said the WHO was working with scientists to find out more about the earliest cases from 2019 such as the whereabouts of those infected.
She added the health agency still did not know whether some of the research required had been undertaken in China.
The WHO has also asked the United States for original data that underpinned a recent study by the US Energy Department that suggested a laboratory leak in China had likely caused the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.