Chinese scientists refused to share raw data that could bring the world closer to understanding the causes of the coronavirus pandemic, independent WHO investigators said on Friday.
Investigators, who recently returned from a briefing in the Chinese city of Wuhan, said that disagreements over medical records and other issues were so tense that they sometimes burst out screaming among typically meek scientists on both sides.
China’s continued opposition to disclosing information about the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the scientists said, is making it difficult for them to find important clues that could help stop future outbreaks of such dangerous diseases.
“If you are data-driven and a professional,” said Thea Kølsen Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist on the team, receiving data “is like a clinical doctor looking at the patient and seeing it with his own eyes”.
In January and February, the World Health Organization’s team of 14 experts led the mission to trace the origins of the pandemic for 27 days. Some say their Chinese counterparts are frustrated with the team’s ongoing questions and demand for data.
Chinese officials urged the WHO team to accept the government’s narration about the source of the virus, including the unproven idea that it could have spread to China from overseas, according to several team members. WHO scientists replied that they would not make judgments without data.
“I rated the entire mission as very geopolitical,” said Dr. Fisherman. “Everyone knows how much pressure there is on China to be open to an investigation and how much guilt it could be.”
In the end, WHO experts looked for compromises, praising the Chinese government’s transparency, but pushed for more research on the early days of the Wuhan outbreak in late 2019.
It remains unclear whether the compromise will work. WHO scientists said they would continue to push their counterparts in China for raw data and other information.
Team members viewed the trip that ended this week as a win, largely because they believe there is enough goodwill to continue conversations and studies. However, they admitted that there is too little information to answer critical questions.
And they have already been criticized for giving the Chinese side a PR victory at a final press conference by advocating the controversial idea that the virus may have spread through frozen foods.
On the crucial question of when the outbreak began, the team said they had not yet found any evidence that it was earlier than China reported. However, the team was temporarily hampered by the lack of detailed patient records from both early confirmed and possible previous cases.
“We asked about this several times and they gave us a few, but not necessarily enough to do the kind of analysis you would do,” said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist on the WHO team, referring to the confirmed cases .
The Chinese scientists also admitted that as early as October 2019 they found 92 people with symptoms such as fever and cough were hospitalized in Wuhan. The Chinese experts said they had found no trace of Covid-19 in these people, but the tests were incomplete. Members of the WHO team said more research was needed.
Any indication that the outbreak began before December 2019 would leave China open to more criticism. Chinese officials have been widely criticized for initially trying to cover up the outbreak and acting too late to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the world.
This would never be an easy trip.
The WHO mission was involved in politics even before it began. Some officials in China and the United States spent months without evidence accusing themselves of bringing the virus into the world. China pushed back against pressure from Western countries to allow independent investigation into the source of the virus.
Apr. 12, 2021, 6:48 p.m. ET
After months of negotiations, Beijing relented after the WHO, which has committed member countries like China, agreed to hand over control of key parts of the investigation to Chinese scientists.
And the logistics of the trip made the already strained relationships even more strained. The WHO team was forced into quarantine for the first two weeks so that Zoom meetings were held. And even as members showed up, outbreak prevention rules in China meant the team could not gather with their colleagues for meals and informal conversations.
It was difficult to understand how the Chinese side viewed relations. Some of the Chinese scientists involved in the mission did not respond to requests for comment.
The WHO team, which is expected to release a full report of its findings in the coming weeks, continues to urge Chinese officials to thoroughly examine the blood samples for any signs that the virus may have circulated earlier. The experts are also calling on China to investigate the wildlife trade in Wuhan and the surrounding area more closely for clues as to how the virus may have passed from animals to humans.
It is unclear to what extent the Chinese government, which has a firm grip on research into the origins of the virus, will work together.
When the experts arrived in Wuhan last month, they went on a hunt for the earliest known cases of Covid-19 and asked Chinese officials to review records of patients who were hospitalized as early as October 2019 with symptoms such as fever and cough were.
Chinese scientists, after reviewing 76,000 records in 233 medical facilities in Wuhan, told the WHO team that they found 92 people who matched this description. The government ran antibody tests on two-thirds of these people and reported that they were not positive for Covid-19. (The other third died or refused to be tested, the Chinese scientists said.)
WHO scientists were frustrated that, according to interviews with team members, the Chinese government refused to explain how they had collected the data.
Dr. Fischer said she expected to find many more cases of people hospitalized with such symptoms in a city the size of Wuhan.
In heated discussions, Dr. Fischer, WHO experts urged Chinese scientists to conduct a more thorough search. The team also raised concerns about the reliability of antibody tests done so long after infections. Testing original nasal or throat swabs would be useful, but Dr. Dwyer said there weren’t any.
Chinese officials agreed to examine the samples in Wuhan’s blood banks more closely in 2019, but said they had not yet received permission.
The WHO experts finally concluded that there was still no evidence that the virus was spreading on a large scale in China before December 2019, but that more research was definitely needed.
Chinese commentators have used this finding to build on the government’s mantra that China may not have been the source of the outbreak and to urge WHO to look elsewhere.
The WHO team said it would look, but they were skeptical.
“I think it started in China,” said Dr. Dwyer after the trip. “There is some evidence of spreading outside of China, but it’s actually pretty easy.”
During the visit, Chinese scientists also urged the WHO team to look into the frozen theory, which has gained prominence in the country.
The WHO team finally agreed to take a closer look at how the virus could spread in frozen foods. However, in interviews, team members said the focus for now would be on frozen wildlife products sold in China – not imported food.
The idea that the virus could originally have spread to humans from frozen wildlife products is a “very unlikely scenario,” said Fabian Leendertz, a German zoonotic specialist and member of the team. He said the team agreed to include the frozen food theory in its hypotheses “in order to somewhat respect the findings of the Chinese scientists.”
Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team and president of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York, said the trip was emotionally exhausting as he and the team grappled with the trauma of the early days of the pandemic. The team interviewed some of the first people to develop Covid-19 in Wuhan, as well as medical workers.
“The world doesn’t realize they were the first to get this thing,” said Dr. Daszak, “and they didn’t know how bad it was.”