Chinese scientist says Beijing did share COVID-19 data with investigators

By Gabriel Crossley

BEIJING (Reuters) -A top Chinese medical expert said on Wednesday there was no factual basis to accusations that China did not share data with international researchers appointed by the World Health Organization to look into the origins of COVID-19.

Following the publication of the joint study into the origins of COVID-19 by China and the WHO on Tuesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said China had withheld data from the international investigators.

But Liang Wannian, who was co-leader of the joint study, told reporters that researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation and that the assertions about lack of access were not accurate.

“Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analyzing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials – it was all done together,” he said.

Responding to allegations that the expert panel did not have access to complete datasets and samples, Liang said no scientist ever had perfect information.

He also rejected complaints that the publication of the report had been repeatedly delayed, noting that “every sentence, every conclusion, every piece of data” needed to be verified by both sides before it could be released.

“Throughout we always upheld the principle of ‘quality comes first,'” said Liang, who is the head of a committee of experts on COVID-19 set up by China’s National Health Commission.

The joint study concluded that the most likely origin of COVID-19 was in animals, and probably passed through an intermediary species before it entered humans.

It also said more efforts were needed to see if COVID-19 could be traced back to wildlife farms in both China and southeast Asia.

Liang said China would continue to try to trace the origins of COVID-19, but the Chinese part of the joint research had been completed, and attention should now turn to other countries.

Tracing the origins of COVID-19 couldn’t be achieved overnight, he said.

“There are lots of diseases that have circulated for a long time and we still haven’t found their origins,” he said. “It still needs a lot of time.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Writing by David Stanway; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)

Data withheld from WHO team probing COVID-19 origins in China: Tedros

By Stephanie Nebehay and John Miller

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

The United States, 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.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February 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.

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 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 United States 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 United States and the European Union said in a joint statement.

“NOT EXTENSIVE ENOUGH”

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 the 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.

“We got access to quite a lot of data in many different areas, but of course there were areas where we had difficulties getting down to the raw data and there are many good reasons for that,” he said, citing privacy laws and other restrictions.

Second phase studies were required, Ben Embarek added.

He said the team had felt political pressure, including from outside China, but that he had never been pressed to remove anything from its final report.

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian expert on the mission, said he was satisfied there was “no obvious evidence” of a problem at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The European Union called the study “an important first step” but renewed criticisms that the origin study had begun too late, that experts had been kept out of China for too long, and that access to data and early samples had fallen short.

In a statement, Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, called for further study with “timely access to relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, John Miller and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Kevin Liffey)

WHO says COVID-19 probably passed from bats to humans through another animal: AP

(Reuters) – A joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

The reported findings match what WHO officials have said in the past about their conclusions following a Jan-Feb visit to China.

Many questions remain unanswered, and the team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis, the Associated Press reported, citing a draft copy it had obtained.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus acknowledged receipt of the report from the independent experts but declined to give details, telling a Geneva news briefing: “All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies.”

The 400-page report, drawn up by the team which carried out a mission to the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus was first encountered in late 2019, is to be issued on Tuesday after diplomats from WHO’s 194 member states are briefed on its findings, Tedros said.

Germany’s international development minister Gerd Mueller, speaking to the same briefing after holding talks with Tedros, welcomed China’s cooperation with the probe.

The United States expects the WHO-led investigation to require further study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, perhaps including a return visit to China, a senior U.S. official told reporters last week. He hoped it would be “based on science”.

The probe was plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak.

(Reporting by Nandakumar D in Bengaluru and Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Peter Graff)

Former CDC chief Redfield says he thinks COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab

(Reuters) – The former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said he believes the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 likely escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, embracing a theory rejected by many global epidemiologists that has contributed to tensions between China and the West.

“I still think the most likely ideology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, you know, escaped,” Robert Redfield, who headed the CDC in the Trump administration, said in a televised interview with CNN.

“It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect a laboratory worker,” he said.

Redfield said that he thought it unlikely a disease that originated in bats – as many experts believe – so swiftly “became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission,” but added that he was not saying release of the virus was intentional.

Redfield’s opinion was in line with other Trump administration officials such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said recently that there was a “significant amount of evidence” that the virus came from a lab, without providing any evidence.

U.S. infectious disease chief Anthony Fauci, who served in the Trump administration and now serves under President Joe Biden, said most public health officials disagree with the Chinese lab theory, when asked about Redfield’s comments during a White House COVID-19 briefing.

Most believe that the virus was circulating for a month or more before it was clinically recognized in China, and that in that time it could have adapted itself to more efficient transmission between humans, said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

A World Health Organization report on its investigation into the origins of the coronavirus is expected soon. The head of the WHO-led team in February said bats remain a likely source and effectively ruled out a lab leak.

(Reporting By Peter Henderson; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

WHO says all hypotheses still open in probe into virus origins

By Reuters Staff

GENEVA (Reuters) – – All hypotheses are still open in the World Health Organization’s search for the origins of COVID-19, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing on Friday.

A WHO-led mission in China said this week that it was not looking further into the question of whether the virus escaped from a lab, which it considered highly unlikely. The United States has said it will review the mission’s findings.

“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded. Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study,” Tedros said.

“Some of that work may lie outside the remit and scope of this mission. We have always said that this mission would not find all the answers, but it has added important information that takes us closer to understanding the origins of the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

The mission has said its main hypotheses are that the virus originated in a bat, although there are several possible scenarios for how it passed to humans, possibly first by infecting another species of animal.

The former administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said it believed the virus may have escaped from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan. China has strongly denied this, and says the Wuhan Institute of Virology was not studying related viruses.

COVID may have taken ‘convoluted path’ to Wuhan, WHO team leader says

By Josh Horwitz and David Stanway

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – The head of a World Health Organization-led team probing the origins of COVID-19 said bats remain a likely source and that transmission of the virus via frozen food is a possibility that warrants further investigation, but he ruled out a lab leak.

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the team of independent experts in its nearly month-long visit to the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged at a seafood market in late 2019, said the team’s work had uncovered new information but had not dramatically changed their picture of the outbreak.

“The possible path from whatever original animal species all the way through to the Huanan market could have taken a very long and convoluted path involving also movements across borders,” Embarek told a nearly three-hour media briefing.

Embarek said work to identify the coronavirus’s origins points to a natural reservoir in bats, but it is unlikely that they were in Wuhan.

Investigators were also looking for Chinese blood samples that could indicate that the virus was circulating earlier than first thought, he said.

“In trying to understand the picture of December 2019 we embarked on a very detailed and profound search for other cases that may have been missed, cases earlier on in 2019,” he said.

“And the conclusion was we did not find evidence of large outbreaks that could be related to cases of COVID-19 prior to December 2019 in Wuhan or elsewhere.”

The possibility the virus leaked from a lab – which has been the subject of conspiracy theories – was extremely unlikely and did not require further study, Embarek said.

Liang Wannian, head of China’s expert panel on the outbreak, said there was evidence of coronavirus infections that could have preceded the first detected case by “several weeks”.

“This suggests that we cannot rule out that it was circulating in other regions and the circulation was unreported,” he told the briefing.

FROZEN ANIMALS?

Embarek said the team had identified market vendors selling frozen animal products including farmed wild animals.

“So there is the potential to continue to follow this lead and further look at the supply chain and animals that were supplied to the market,” he said.

China has pushed the idea that the virus can be transmitted by frozen food and has repeatedly announced findings of coronavirus traces on imported food packaging.

“We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans” or under which conditions, Embarek told the briefing.

The team arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 14 and after two weeks of quarantine, visited key sites including the Huanan seafood market, the location of the first known cluster of infections, as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been involved in coronavirus research.

Members of the team sought to rein in expectations for the mission, with infectious disease expert Dominic Dwyer saying it would probably take years to fully understand the origins of COVID-19.

The United States said China needed to be more open when it comes to sharing data and samples as well as allowing access to patients, medical staff and lab workers. Beijing subsequently accused Washington of politicizing a scientific mission.

(Reporting by Josh Horwitz in Wuhan and David Stanway in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)

WHO team probing COVID-19 visits Wuhan lab, meets ‘Bat Woman’

By Martin Quin Pollard and Thomas Peter

WUHAN, China (Reuters) -A team of investigators led by the World Health Organization visited a virus research laboratory in China’s central city of Wuhan and met with a prominent virologist there in its search for clues to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The experts spent about 3-1/2 hours at the heavily-guarded Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of some conspiracy theories that claim a laboratory leak caused the city’s first coronavirus outbreak at the end of 2019.

“Extremely important meeting today with staff at WIV including Dr. Shi Zhengli. Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked & answered,” team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter.

Shi, a well-known virus hunter who has long focused on bat coronaviruses – earning her the nickname “Bat Woman” – was among the first last year to isolate the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Most scientists, including Shi, reject the hypothesis of a lab leak. However, some experts speculate that a virus captured from the wild could have figured in lab experiments to test the risks of a human spillover and then escaped via an infected staff member.

“Very interesting. Many questions,” Thea Fischer, a Danish member of the team, called from her car as it sped away from the lab following Wednesday’s visit, in response to a question whether the team had found anything.

Some scientists have called for China to release details of all coronavirus samples studied at the lab, to see which most closely resembles SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory disease.

The WHO, which has sought to manage expectations for the Wuhan mission, has said its members would be limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts and have no contact with community members, because of health restrictions.

While the novel coronavirus that sparked the pandemic was first identified in Wuhan, Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the notion that it originated in China, pointing to imported frozen food as a possible conduit.

The team will spend two weeks conducting field work after having completed two weeks in hotel quarantine after arrival in Wuhan.

(Reporting by Thomas Peter and Martin Quin in Wuhan; Writing by David Stanway and Tony Munroe; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Pravin Char)

WHO team in China’s Wuhan visits provincial CDC

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday visited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in China’s central region of Hubei, where the outbreak emerged in late 2019.

The group of independent experts spent about 4-1/2 hours on its longest site visit since completing two weeks of quarantine on Thursday, and did not speak to waiting journalists.

The WHO, which has sought to manage expectations for the mission, has said its members would be limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts and have no contact with community members, because of health curbs.

The group has so far also visited hospitals where early cases were detected, markets, and an exhibition on the battle with the outbreak in the provincial capital of Wuhan.

No full itinerary for the group’s field work has been announced, and journalists covering the tightly controlled visit have been kept at a distance from team members.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, said two weeks in the field was not much time for the experts.

“I don’t think they have the time to get any conclusive results. It is more like communication and information exchange,” Huang told Reuters by phone from Washington.

“It depends how diligent they are in digging new information but also about how cooperative and accommodating the Chinese side will be.”

Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the notion that the coronavirus originated in China, pointing to imported frozen food as a conduit.

That hypothesis figured again on Sunday in the Global Times tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

On Sunday, the experts visited the Huanan seafood market linked to initial infections, and the Baishazhou wholesale food market, where a loudspeaker repeatedly announced that the sale of imported cold chain products was banned at the market.

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard and Thomas Peter in Wuhan; Additional reporting by David Stanway in Shanghai; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez)

WHO team in Wuhan visits hospital that treated early COVID cases

By Gabriel Crossley

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team of experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 on Friday visited a hospital in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was one of the first to treat patients in the early days of the outbreak.

The hospital visit was the team’s first in the field after two weeks in quarantine, and a WHO spokeswoman said the group’s contacts in Wuhan will be limited to visits organized by their Chinese hosts due to health restrictions.

“The team will go out but they will be bussed to wherever, so they won’t have any contact with the community. They will only have contact with various individuals that are being organized as part of the study,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

After meeting with Chinese scientists earlier in the day, the team went to the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine.

Zhang Jixian, director of the hospital’s department of respiratory and critical care, has been cited by state media as the first to report the novel coronavirus, after treating an elderly couple in late 2019 whose CT scans showed differences from typical pneumonia.

“Extremely important 1st site visit. We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work,” Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO-led team, wrote on Twitter.

The team plans to visit labs, markets and hospitals during its remaining two weeks in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first identified in late 2019.

While an exact itinerary has not been announced, the WHO has said the team plans to visit the seafood market at the center of the early outbreak as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One hypothesis, rejected by China, is that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the government lab.

The WHO-led probe in Wuhan has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

The WHO has sought to manage expectations. “There are no guarantees of answers,” its emergency chief, Mike Ryan, said this month.

The investigating team had been set to arrive in Wuhan earlier in January, and China’s delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the head of the WHO, which former U.S. President Donald Trump accused of being “China-centric”.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said on Friday that WHO and Chinese experts were working together to trace the origin of the virus, but stressed that the mission was not a probe.

“It is part of a global research, not an investigation,” Zhao told a regular news conference in Beijing.

China has pushed the idea that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, with state media citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.

China’s foreign ministry has also hinted that the sudden closure of a U.S. army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.

“At the early stage in China, it was a burden particularly for Wuhan people when everyone was calling it a Wuhan virus, which was humiliating,” said Yang You, a 30-year-old Wuhan resident. “If it could be traced to the source clearly, in my opinion, it could clear either China’s or Wuhan’s name.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Stepahnie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie & Simon Cameron-Moore)

WHO team in Wuhan probing COVID-19 origins moves out of quarantine

By Gabriel Crossley

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – A World Health Organization-led team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic left its quarantine hotel in Wuhan on Thursday to begin field work, two weeks after arriving in the Chinese city where the virus emerged in late 2019.

The mission has been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between China and the United States, which has accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

“Thanks, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, for a frank discussion on the #COVID19 virus origins mission,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.

“I asked that the international scientists get the support, access & data needed, and the chance to engage fully with their Chinese counterparts.”

The WHO has not provided details of the mission’s itinerary, although team leader Peter Ben Embarek said in November that the group would likely go to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the first known cluster of cases was traced.

The team, made up of independent experts, is due to remain for two more weeks in China, which has used stringent measures, including drastically curtailing international arrivals, to curb the spread of the coronavirus. China has been battling a series of local outbreaks over the past month.

“During the second 14 days, the team will be able to go out under strict medical supervision, continuous testing and the restrictive measures,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s European regional director, told a news conference from Copenhagen on Thursday.

He said the first two weeks had been productive.

“The team members have been prepared by counterparts in China in different fields, there have been, every day, many, many hours of presentations and exchange of data,” he said.

After leaving their quarantine hotel shortly after 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) without speaking to journalists, team members boarded a bus to a lakeside hotel, where a portion of the building and grounds were cordoned off.

Several team members described long work days during their quarantine, and relief at being able to leave their rooms.

“Slightly sad to say goodbye to my ‘gym’ & my ‘office’ where I’ve been holed up for last 2 wks!!,” team member Peter Daszak said on Twitter, along with photos of exercise equipment and a desk in his hotel room.

The team members’ luggage, loaded onto the bus by workers in protective suits, included yoga mats and what appeared to be a guitar case.

SCIENCE AND POLITICS

The WHO has sought to manage expectations for the investigation.

“There are no guarantees of answers,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told reporters this month. “It is a difficult task to fully establish the origins and sometimes it can take two or three or four attempts to be able to do that in different settings.”

China’s foreign ministry said the team would participate in seminars, visits and field trips.

“All these activities must be in accordance with the principle of tracking the origin scientifically and with the ultimate goal of preventing future risks and protecting the safety and health of the people,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing on Thursday.

The origin of COVID-19 has been highly politicized.

The investigating team had been set to arrive in Wuhan earlier in January, and China’s delay of their visit drew rare public criticism from the head of the WHO, which former U.S. President Donald Trump accused of being “China-centric” early in the outbreak.

China has been pushing a narrative that the virus existed abroad before it was discovered in Wuhan, with state media citing the presence of the virus on imported frozen food packaging and scientific papers saying it had been circulating in Europe in 2019.

China’s foreign ministry has also hinted on several occasions that the sudden closure of a U.S. army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland in July 2019 was linked to the pandemic.

Wuhan resident Tu Zhengwang, 28, said it was not certain that the virus had originated in the city.

“It could be other places,” he said. “But if you find the origin, whether it is in Wuhan or other places, you could prevent similar incidents from happening.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley in Wuhan; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)