‘Our last chance to find Covid-19 origins’: WHO urges China to provide data from early cases
The World Health Organization has said its newly formed advisory group on dangerous pathogens may be ‘our last chance’ to figure out the origins of Covid-19.
The comment came with an urgent plea to China to provide data from early cases.
Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said the new panel may be the last chance to establish the origin of SARS-CoV-2, ‘a virus that has stopped our whole world’.
The WHO was seeking to ‘take a step back, create an environment where we can again look at the scientific issues’, he said.
‘This is our best chance, and it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus.’
The first human cases of COVID-19 were reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
China has repeatedly dismissed theories that the virus leaked from one of its laboratories and has said no more visits are needed.
Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said the new panel may be the last chance to establish the origin of SARS-CoV-2, ‘a virus that has stopped our whole world’ [File photo]
A WHO-led team spent four weeks in and around Wuhan earlier this year with Chinese scientists, and said in a joint report in March that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal but further research was needed.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said the investigation was hampered by a dearth of raw data pertaining to the first days of the outbreak and has called for lab audits.
On Wednesday, WHO named the 26 proposed members of its Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO).
They include Marion Koopmans, Thea Fischer, Hung Nguyen and Chinese animal health expert Yang Yungui, who took part in the joint investigation in Wuhan.
Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, voiced hope that there would be further WHO-led international missions to China which would engage the country’s cooperation.
She told a news conference that ‘more than three dozen recommended studies’ must still be carried out to determine how the virus crossed from the animal species to humans.
Covid-19 was initially believed to have originated at a wet market (pictured) in Wuhan, China [File photo]
Reported Chinese testing for antibodies in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be ‘absolutely critical’ to understanding the virus’s origins, van Kerkhove said.
The WHO, in an editorial in Science, said that detailed investigations of the earliest known and suspected cases in China prior to December 2019 were still needed, including analyses of stored blood samples from 2019 in Wuhan and retrospective searches of hospital and mortality data for earlier cases.
Labs in the area where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan must be a focus, as ruling out an accident requires sufficient evidence, it said.
Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told a separate press conference that the conclusions of the joint study were ‘quite clear’, adding that as international teams had been sent to China twice already, ‘it is time to send teams to other places.’
‘I do believe that if we are going to continue with the scientific research I think it should be a joint effort based on science not by the intelligence agencies,’ Chen said.
‘So if we are going to talk about anything, we are doing the whole business within the framework of SAGO’.
Chen’s comments come as China is preparing to test thousands of blood samples from Wuhan taken in the early months of the pandemic.
Chinese officials say preparations are underway to test 200,000 blood donations taken in Wuhan in the two months before the first official case was reported to check for traces of the virus.
If traces of infection are found, then it would prove the disease was circulating earlier than previously thought – as research from outside of China has suggested – and may help identify the first person who caught the virus and, crucially, how they became infected.
China has repeatedly dismissed theories that the virus leaked from one of its laboratories and has said no more visits are needed. Pictured: The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is at the centre of the so-called ‘lab leak theory’ [Stock image]
But a Chinese official said earlier this year that the tests will be carried out in China by Chinese experts, raising fears that the results could remain shrouded in secrecy.
Scientists are now urging the WHO – which first identified the blood samples as potential evidence – to intervene and carry out the probe at a neutral location.
It is also not clear what will happen to the samples once they have been tested, and there are claims that China could use bogus blood samples or that scientists already carried out the testing and have withheld the results.
China has been repeatedly slammed for its failure to report the early signs of Covid-19 as scientists who first detected it were arrested and silenced and blame was deflected to the United States.
China first reported a ‘pneumonia of unknown origin’ to the WHO on December 31, but anecdotal evidence suggests the virus was spreading in November – and possibly earlier
Officials then blocked evidence from the WHO probe into the virus’s origins, prompting the health body to call for a new investigation with access to raw data after its initial report was lambasted as a politicised white-wash.
The willingness to test the blood samples will be welcomed as a step in the right direction, with investigators hoping they will provide a source of key information that can identify when the virus first crossed into humans.
The samples span 2019, when the outbreak was first detected in Wuhan, although there remain doubts over when the virus first emerged.
China says there is a statutory two-year blood storage limit in which samples can only be used to settle legal or medical disputes.
That waiting period is soon due to expire for the key months of October and November 2019 when the virus is believed to have entered humans.
Once the two years have passed, testing will be able to take place and preparation is already underway, an official from China’s National Health Commission told CNN.
The great cover-up of China: Beijing punished Covid whistleblower, claimed it came from US and ‘lied about death figures’
China has lied and covered up key information during virtually every stage of its coronavirus response – from the initial outbreak to the number of cases and deaths, and is still not telling the truth, observers, experts and politicians have warned.
Beijing initially tried to cover up the virus by punishing medics who discovered it, denying it could spread person-to-person and delaying a lockdown of affected regions – meaning early opportunities to control the spread were lost.
Then, once the virus began spreading, the Communist Party began censoring public information about it and spread disinformation overseas – including suggesting that US troops could have been the initial carriers.
Even now, prominent politicians have warned that infection and death totals being reported by the regime are likely to be wrong – with locals in the epicenter of Wuhan suggesting the true tolls could be ten times higher.
Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, began reporting the existence of a new type of respiratory infection that was similar to SARS in early December 2019.
But rather than publicise the reports and warn the public, Chinese police hauled Wenliang and eight of his colleagues who had been posting about the virus online in for questioning.
Wenliang, who would later die from the virus, was forced to sign a document admitting the information he published was false.
While China has been widely-praised for a draconian lockdown that helped slow the spread of the virus, evidence suggests that the country could have acted much quicker to prevent the spread.
Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first Chinese medics to report the existence of the new coronavirus, was forced by police to confess to spreading false data. He later died from the virus
Samples analysed as early as December 26 suggested a new type of SARS was circulating, the Washington Post reported, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22 – almost a month later.
Wuhan’s mayor also admitted an error that allowed 5million people to travel out of the city before the lockdown came into place without being checked for the virus, potentially helping it to spread.
Chinese authorities have also been reluctant to had over information on the country’s ‘patient zero’ – or the first person known to have contracted the virus.
While Beijing claims the first infection took place on December 8, researchers have traced the virus back to at least December 1 and anecdotal evidence suggests it was spreading in November.
A lack of information about the first patient has meant scientists are still unclear how the disease made the leap from animals into humans.
Theories include that it could have been carried by a bat or pangolin that was sold at a market in Wuhan and then eaten by someone, but this has not been confirmed.
Chinese authorities initially reported that the virus could not spread person-to-person, despite evidence that it was spreading rapidly through the city of Wuhan including doctors being infected by patients.
This was used as justification for keeping the city of Wuhan operating as normal through a major CCP conference that was held between January 11 and 17, with authorities claiming zero new cases in this period.
China did not confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January, when large parts of Hubei province including Wuhan were put into lockdown.
Despite reporting the existence of a ‘novel type of pneumonia’ to the World Health Organisation on December 31, Wuhan’s largest newspaper also made no mention of the virus until the week of January 20.
That meant people in the city were not taking precautions such as social distancing to stop it spreading.
It also meant that people had begun travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday, which was due to start on January 24 and sees millions of people visit relatives, spreading the virus further.
Furthermore, China delayed reports suggesting that some 14 per cent of patients who initially tested negative for the virus or who appeared to have recovered tested positive a second time, only confirming such cases in February.
That further hampered efforts at early containment of the virus in places such as Japan, where patients who tested negative on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were allowed to leave – only to test positive later.
Authorities in Beijing were also slow to report the deaths of two doctors from the virus, including one who was killed on January 25 but whose death was not reported by state media until a month later.
The market was shut on January 1 after dozens of workers there had contracted the disease
Origin of the virus
Despite early admissions that the virus began in the city of Wuhan, China later back-tracked – even going so far as to suggest American troops had brought the infection over after visiting the province.
Lijian Zhao, a prominent official within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted out the claim on March 12 while providing no evidence to substantiate it.
‘When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals,’ he wrote.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused American military members of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan
Referencing a military athletics tournament in Wuhan in October, which US troops attended, he wrote: ‘It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.
‘Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!’
In fact, America’s ‘patient zero’ was a man who travelled from China to Washington State on January 15. The case was confirmed by the CDC six days later.
Chinese has also tried to push the theory that the virus originated in Italy, the country with the most deaths, by distorting a quote from an Italian doctor who suggested the country’s first cases could have occurred much earlier than thought.
Zhao spread the theory in a tweet, while providing no evidence to back it up
Giuseppe Remuzzi said he is investigating strange cases of pneumonia as far back as December and November, months before the virus was known to have spread.
Chinese state media widely reported his comments while also suggesting that the virus could have originated in Italy.
In fact, Remuzzi says, there can be no doubt it started in Wuhan – but may have spread out of the province and across the world earlier than thought.
China has reported a total of some 95,000 infections from coronavirus, and at points has claimed a domestic infection rate of zero for several days in a row – even as it eased lockdown restrictions in placed like Hubei.
But, by the country’s own admission, the virus is likely still spreading – via people who have few or no symptoms.
Beijing-based outlet Caixin reported that ‘a couple to over 10 cases of covert infections of the virus are being detected’ in China every day, despite not showing up in official data.
Meanwhile foreign governments have heaped scorn on China’s infection reporting cannot be trusted.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and former presidential candidate from the US, tweeted that ‘we have NO IDEA how many cases China really has’ after the US infection total passed Beijing’s official figure.
‘Without any doubt it’s significantly more than what they admit to,’ he added.
Meanwhile the UK government has also cast doubt on China’s reporting, with Conservative minister and former Prime Ministerial candidate Michael Gove claiming the Communist Party could not be trusted.
‘Some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this [virus],’ he told the BBC.
Meanwhile sources told the Mail that China’s true infection total could be anything up to 40 times as high as reports had suggested.
Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, has said that China’s figures cannot be trusted and a far higher than has been reported
Doubt has also been cast on China’s reported death toll from the virus.
Locals in epicenter city Wuhan have been keeping an eye on funeral homes since lockdown restrictions were partly lifted, claiming they have been ‘working around the clock’ to dispose of bodies.
China has reported a few thousand deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be in excess of 42,000
Social media posts estimate that 3,500 urns are being handed out by crematoriums each day, while Caixin reports that one funeral home in the city placed an order for 5,000 urns.
Locals believe that efforts to dispose of the bodies began March 23 and city authorities have said the process will end on or around April 5.
That would mean roughly 42,000 urns handed out in that time frame, ten times the reported figure.
Chinese aid packages
As it brought its own coronavirus epidemic under control and as the disease spread across the rest of the world, China attempted to paint itself as a helpful neighbour by sending aid and supplies to countries most in need – such as Italy.
In fact, while the Chinese Red Cross supplied some free equipment to the Italians, the country purchased a large amount of what it received.
Meanwhile officials in Spain said that a batch of coronavirus testing kits bought from China had just 30 per cent reliability – unlike the 80 per cent they were promised.
China has said it is willing to help supply the world with much needed aid and supplies, but has been accused of hoarding protective equipment and selling test kits that don’t work
China is also the world’s largest manufacturer of disposable masks of the kind being worn to slow the spread of the virus by people while out in public.
But as the disease began gathering speed in the country in January, China began limiting exports of the masks while also buying up supplies from other countries, the New York Times reported.
As well as halting virtually all exports of masks, China also bought up some 56million masks and respirators from overseas while fears of a pandemic were still far off.
Despite reports from US mask manufacturers of factories in Shanghai being effectively nationalised, China denies it has any such policy in place and has said it is ‘willing to strengthen international cooperation’ on the issue.