Data was withheld from a World Health Organization team who visited Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.
Further investigation is needed to conclusively rule out a theory that Covid-19 emerged from a laboratory in China, he said, adding that although a laboratory leak is the least likely cause, more extensive research is needed.
One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early Covid-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
The US, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019, Reuters is reporting.
In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, the team said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.
The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the US has alleged, hindered them.
“The international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Korea, Slovenia, Britain, the US and the EU said in a joint statement.
Although the team concluded that a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was the least likely hypothesis for the virus that causes Covid-19, Tedros said the issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.
“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
The WHO team’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a press briefing it was “perfectly possible” the virus had been circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, and so potentially spreading abroad earlier than documented so far.