WHO chief Ghebreyesus once again rebukes China for hiding data on coronavirus origins
The World Health Organization (WHO) criticised Chinese officials for withholding scientific research that could help determine the origin of the coronavirus, reported the New York Times (NYT). The WHO on Friday also questioned Chinese officials regarding why they did not disclose the data three years ago, and why the data, which was published online in January, could not be located.
An international team of virus experts downloaded the data before it disappeared and began analysing it. The experts discovered that the data supports the theory that the pandemic may have started from the illegal trade of raccoon dogs, which then infected humans at the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in China. However, the gene sequences necessary for a conclusive result were removed from a scientific database once the experts offered to collaborate on the analysis with their Chinese counterparts.
“These data could have — and should have — been shared three years ago,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said. The missing evidence now “needs to be shared with the international community immediately,” he said.
The expert team reviewing the data found evidence suggesting that raccoon dogs, which are known to spread coronaviruses, may have left behind DNA at the same location in the Wuhan market where genetic signatures of the new coronavirus were also discovered. This finding led some experts to believe that the animals may have been infected and may have transmitted the virus to humans.
The genetic data, which was drawn from swabs of animal cages, carts, and other surfaces at the Wuhan market in early 2020, has been the subject of intense interest among virus experts since it was first reported by Chinese scientists a year ago.
French teams looks into Covid-19 origins
Recently, a French biologist discovered the genetic sequences in a database and her team began analysing the data to try and uncover clues about the origins of the pandemic.
The team has not yet published their findings, but they presented their analysis to a WHO advisory group studying the origins of Covid-19 this week. The Chinese researchers also presented their own analysis of the data during the same meeting.
According to Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the analysis, the French team’s findings appear to contradict earlier claims by Chinese scientists that positive samples taken from the market were brought in only by sick people and not by infected animals.
“It’s just very unlikely to be seeing this much animal DNA, especially raccoon dog DNA, mixed in with viral samples if it’s simply mostly human contamination,” Dr Cobey said.
There are still uncertainties surrounding the collection and contents of the samples from the Wuhan market, as well as the disappearance of the evidence. Many scientists have responded cautiously to the research, stating that a complete report would be necessary to fully evaluate it.
Lab accident theory highlighted
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the possibility of a lab accident causing the pandemic, partially due to a new intelligence assessment from the Department of Energy and hearings led by the Republican House leadership.
Despite these developments, a number of virus experts who were not involved in the latest analysis have said that the information known about the swabs taken from the market supports the theory that animals sold there may have been responsible for the outbreak of the pandemic, according to NYT.
“It’s exactly what you’d expect if the virus was emerging from intermediate or multiple intermediate hosts in the market,” Dr Cobey said, adding, “I think ecologically, this is close to a closed case.”
According to the given information, Dr. Cobey was one of 18 scientists who signed a letter that was published in the journal Science in May 2021. The letter called for serious consideration of the possibility that the virus could have accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan.