Coronavirus origin: will China heed WHO chief’s call for more access?

Simone McCarthy
·5-min read

A World Health Organization-backed probe into the origins of Covid-19 in China has turned up few answers, and the agency’s chief has called for more research and data access. But whether that can happen will remain in Beijing’s court, experts say.

“It is clear that we need more research across a range of areas, which will entail further field visits,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

He said mission members had told him there were “difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data” and said a theory that the virus spread after a laboratory leak - which the probe team did not recommend for continued study - “requires further investigation... which I am ready to deploy”.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

His comments followed Tuesday’s release of the report by Chinese and international scientists who worked together in the pandemic’s initial epicentre of Wuhan during a 28-day mission earlier this year

The extent to which Tedros’ calls will be met depends on China, where a number of the recommended future studies would need to be conducted, experts say.

Yet after the report, much of the focus in China was on the need for more international study - something Beijing has said repeatedly would be needed given the possibility that the virus emerged elsewhere.

At a press briefing about the mission in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese team leader Liang Wannian said finding the origins of the virus should not be limited to certain places.

“Because we need to consider a broad vision for origins tracing, including many countries and areas, the World Health Organization and Chinese experts have been very conscientious in our recommendations for the next steps of research,” Liang, formerly an official at China’s National Health Commission, said.

Liang reiterated that Chinese scientists would continue to analyse and collect data, and said whether there would be further missions to China “would depend on need” in global efforts to trace the origins.

He also defended China’s data sharing with the foreign team, saying that both sides were working with the same data and some information was protected under patient privacy laws.

Coverage of the report in China’s state media on Wednesday emphasised the report’s call for research overseas and its assertion that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.

Global Times said unnamed Chinese scientists who took part in the mission thought that “if WHO scientists cannot find the answer in China regarding the coronavirus’ origins, maybe it’s time for scientists to dig somewhere else and test more hypotheses to solve the mystery”.

WHO official and international team leader Peter Ben Embarek said at a briefing on Tuesday that there was no pressure to look for the origins outside China but the report’s recommendations for studies elsewhere were “relevant”.

China briefs European envoys on WHO coronavirus origin quest

Those included looking at bat populations, including in other regions - such as Southeast Asia - where bats also harbour related coronaviruses. Exploring indications that the virus may have been spreading outside China in 2019 was also recommended.

But the report also made extensive recommendations for further work that was needed to search for earlier cases of the virus in and around Wuhan. That included testing samples from blood banks and expanding the methods for screening potential cases in hospital records - which the WHO team said they were not able to do while in Wuhan.

“We have a fairly high confidence that we can continue many of these studies, because we have a consensus on the recommendations,” Ben Embarek said, without going into detail about a timeline.

Meanwhile, a group of 14 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Canada on Tuesday released a statement expressing concerns about a lack of access and data for the report and calling for “expert-driven phase 2 studies”.

“Together, we support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic,” they said.

In a statement early on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry said China had been “open, transparent and responsible” in its support of the mission.

Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said that additional missions to China or continued research collaboration would run into the same issues raised by the US and others about this mission.

“[The WHO] can ask China for data from the blood banks ... but if it’s not verifiable, it’s still not definitive,” he said.

Gaining access for the work Tedros suggested could be a challenge, observers say, given the WHO has no power to require member states to cooperate in scientific investigations.

“I predict there will be ongoing negotiations between China and the WHO ... to gain China’s agreement to do rigorous additional studies on Chinese territory,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in the US. “It will take time and it won’t be easy.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Coronavirus origin: will China heed WHO chief’s call for more access? first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.