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WHO official criticizes China’s ‘inexcusable’ lack of transparency on pandemic’s origins

By Jen Christensen, CNN

The World Health Organization still does not have key data from China about the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, putting the world in jeopardy, says Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the group’s Covid-19 technical lead and head of its program on emerging diseases.

“The lack of data disclosure is simply inexcusable,” Van Kerkhove wrote in an editorial in the journal Science on Thursday. “The longer it takes to understand the origins of the pandemic, the harder it becomes to answer the question, and the more unsafe the world becomes.”

Understanding how the disease emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 would help prevent future outbreaks, Van Kerkhove said.

It was only this year, three years after the start of the pandemic, that WHO got access to certain data that Chinese scientists had gathered in early 2020 at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. The raw genetic sequences from the samples had recently been uploaded to the data-sharing site GISAID. They were soon removed, but quick-thinking researchers had already noticed them and downloaded them for further study.

An analysis of that material uncovered animal DNA in samples already known to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. A significant amount of that DNA seemed to belong to animals known as raccoon dogs, which had been on sale at the market, WHO officials said in March.

Although the sequences showed that the animal could have been an intermediate host and that the market amplified the spread of the virus, the data did not show that people who interacted with those animals got sick through that exposure. In other words, the findings did not settle the question of how the pandemic started.

To do so, scientists would need to trace the animals to the source of the virus. WHO also needs access to test results from workers at the market.

Three years later, Van Kerkhove said, WHO still does not have access to the raw data China collected from early Covid-19 cases.

With China’s advanced technical capabilities, she firmly believes, it has more essential information that it is not sharing.

Van Kerkhove says China could have more unshared information about things like the wild and farmed animal trade, the testing of humans and animals in Wuhan and across China, the operations of labs in Wuhan that worked with coronaviruses, and the first cases.

The failure to share information, she said, only fuels politicization of the origin of the virus.

“The world needs to move away from the politics of blame and, instead, exploit all diplomatic and scientific approaches so that the global scientific community can do what it does best — collaborate, focus on this health crisis, and find evidence-based solutions to thwart future pandemics,” Van Kerkhove wrote.

It’s still not clear whether the Covid-19 pandemic began with a lab leak or with spillover from animals. Many scientists believe that the virus naturally moved from animals to humans. Intelligence agencies like the US Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence and the FBI endorse the theory that that virus spread out of a Chinese lab. Without more data from China from early in the pandemic, it may never be proved.

This is not the first time Van Kerkhove has been vocal about China’s lack of transparency about Covid, nor is she the only world leader to call on China to be forthcoming about the beginnings of the pandemic.

In March, Van Kerkhove described to Science WHO’s late discovery of the Chinese data about the market as “beyond infuriating,” calling the lack of collaboration “scary as hell.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Joe Biden’s Covid task force during the presidential transition, said Van Kerkhove’s editorial puts WHO on the record on the issue.

“Will that be a compelling incentive for China to share more? No. They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Osterholm said.

“I am not optimistic,” he added.

It will never be fruitful to spend time and attention on getting data from China to pinpoint what happened with Covid, Osterholm said.

“My whole message is that we’ve got to prepare for lab leaks or spillover events,” he said.

WHO plans to publish a status report about what it knows about the origins of Covid-19 this year.

In the meantime, it’s encouraging all countries, not just China, to share what they know to help solve the mystery and fight future pandemics. Collaboration is key, as is finding evidence-based solutions, Van Kerkhove believes.

“Time is running out,” she wrote.

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