The release of a report into the origins of the novel coronavirus provides a detailed analysis of the start of the pandemic but leaves many key questions unanswered, and is also fueling tensions between China and the U.S.
(CN) — The political and scientific conflict between the United States and China over the origins of the coronavirus ravaging the world deepened on Tuesday after the World Health Organization issued a long-awaited report into what an international team of experts discovered about the virus during a trip to Wuhan.
Upon its release, the U.S. accused China of withholding critical data from the team of international experts convened by the WHO to study the virus’ origins and called for a “transparent and independent analysis.” In turn, Chinese leaders said it was time to start looking outside China for where the virus came from.
Adding to the tensions on Tuesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, criticized China for not sharing more data with its team of experts. Tedros has not taken a hard line with Beijing since the pandemic started and former U.S. President Donald Trump accused him of protecting China, which supported his selection as WHO chief.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
In a news briefing, Peter Embarek, the lead WHO scientist on the team, said the experts did not get all the data they wanted. The report relied on tens of thousands of samples of humans and animals collected by Chinese scientists and medical workers.
“We got access to quite a lot of data in many different areas,” Embarek said. “But of course there are areas where we had difficulties getting down to the raw data. And there are many good reasons for that. In China, like in many other countries, there are restrictions on privacy laws that forbid the sharing of data, including private details to outsiders, in particular if the data is moving out of the country.”
The 313-page report provides the fullest analysis yet of what happened when the coronavirus pandemic started in December 2019 in the industrial city of Wuhan in central China. But it also raises many questions and is inconclusive. Its findings were laid out in early February by the expert team’s leaders at the end of the four-week trip to Wuhan.
The report was produced by the WHO-convened team and Chinese scientists. They agreed the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans, a theory that is widely supported by scientists. But the report said the virus’ origins remain a mystery and that extensive sampling in China found no animals carrying the virus and no evidence it was spreading between humans before the outbreak in Wuhan.
In the report’s most politically charged finding, it dismissed as “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a laboratory, a theory pushed by the Trump administration.
The theory isn’t entirely without some basis. After the virus emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, speculation quickly grew that it might have accidentally leaked out of laboratories in Wuhan where scientists were experimenting with coronaviruses. Focus zeroed in on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-level lab known for its specialized work on coronaviruses.
But the report did not recommend much further investigation into this theory, a conclusion that has left many in the U.S. seething because the WHO team was not provided full access to the lab’s records and drew its conclusions from speaking with the lab’s staff and managers. American media outlets have featured interviews in recent weeks with Trump administration officials and American scientists suggesting a lab leak may have occurred.
On Tuesday, Embarek said the investigators will keep an “open mind” about the lab leak theory.
“This is the first time that we have been able to discuss openly this possibility,” he said. “Initially, it was just speculations all over the place as you remember through 2020. Now, we have a process to discuss it, we’ve put it into our report, it has been assessed.”
He said the team’s mission – as stipulated by the World Health Assembly, a United Nations body, and agreed to by China – was to find the animal origins of the virus and that its goal in going to China was not to investigate a possible leak from a lab.
“Since this was not the key or main focus of the joint studies, it did not receive the same depth of attention and work as the other hypotheses,” Embarek said.
“Not saying that it was impossible, but not the one [hypothesis] we should start initially going deeper into and focusing our attention on,” he said about the team’s mission. “Of course, we will continue to look into these hypotheses. We have also all along said that as soon as there is new data, new evidence, new information, for any of these hypotheses, we will put that into the assessment and re-evaluate any of these hypotheses.”
So far, the U.S. has not provided any evidence to support claims the virus may have leaked from a lab.
Embarek said the scientists at the Wuhan lab were also concerned the virus may have leaked from their premises. At the start of December 2019, the report said the laboratory moved to a new location near the seafood market where the virus first emerged and that such moves can be “disruptive.” Other labs in Wuhan also worked with coronaviruses, the report said.
“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease or new coronavirus: ‘It is something coming out of our labs or work,’” Embarek said.
He said the lab’s scientists reviewed their records and tested their staff for antibodies to see if they had contracted the virus. He said the labs found no evidence of a possible leak and no evidence of earlier infections among staff.
“Nobody has been able to pick up any firm arguments or proof or evidence that any of these labs would have been involved in a lab leak accident,” he said. “We haven’t seen or been able to hear or see or look at anything that would warrant a different conclusion from our side.”
But he acknowledged that the team did not do a “full investigation or audit of these labs, or any of the labs around the world for that matter.”
The U.S. State Department and several allies, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Korea, called into question the report’s findings.
“Together, we support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic,” their statement said.
The U.S. said the study was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”
The Biden administration has not pushed the lab leak theory, but it has not dismissed the previous administration’s allegations either.
China’s foreign ministry said it welcomed the report’s findings and said the Chinese side “offered necessary facilitation for the team’s work, fully demonstrating its openness, transparency and responsible attitude.”
“To politicize this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins, jeopardize anti-pandemic cooperation, and cost more lives,” the Chinese government said.
But China also said studies into the virus’ origins should be expanded and “be conducted in multiple countries and localities.” Chinese scientists have argued that the virus likely arrived in Wuhan on frozen food imported from outside China. This theory was viewed as a possibility in the WHO-led report, though many scientists discount it.
The WHO team is continuing its work and hopes to gather more data from China and elsewhere as it tries to track down where the virus is found in the natural world.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.