China refused to provide WHO team with raw data on early COVID cases,
team member says
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[February 13, 2021]
By Brenda Goh
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China refused to give
raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization-led team
probing the origins of the pandemic, one of the team's investigators
said, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak
The team had requested raw patient data on the 174 cases of COVID-19
that China had identified from the early phase of the outbreak in the
Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but were
only provided with a summary, said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian
infectious diseases expert who is a member of the team.
Such raw data is known as "line listings", he said, and would typically
be anonymised but contain details such as what questions were asked of
individual patients, their responses and how their responses were
"That's standard practice for an outbreak investigation," he told
Reuters on Saturday via video call from Sydney, where he is currently
He said that gaining access to the raw data was especially important
since only half of the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market, the
now-shuttered wholesale seafood centre in Wuhan where the virus was
"That's why we've persisted to ask for that," he said. "Why that doesn't
happen, I couldn't comment. Whether it's political or time or it's
difficult ... But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn't
available, I don't know. One would only speculate."
While the Chinese authorities provided a lot of material, he said the
issue of access to the raw patient data would be mentioned in the team's
final report. "The WHO people certainly felt that they had received much
much more data than they had ever received in the previous year. So that
in itself is an advance."
A summary of the team's findings could be released as early as next
week, the WHO said on Friday.
The WHO-led probe had been plagued by delay, concern over access and
bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of hiding
the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the
visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of
The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks looking
into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, was limited to visits
organised by their Chinese hosts and prevented from contact with
community members, due to health restrictions. The first two weeks were
spent in hotel quarantine.
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People wearing face masks descend a stairwell following the
coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China January
26, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song
China's refusal to hand over raw data on the early COVID-19 cases
was reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal on Friday.
The WHO did not reply to a request from Reuters for comment. The
Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately reply to a request for
comment but Beijing has previously defended its transparency in
handling the outbreak and its cooperation with the WHO mission.
HARMONIOUS, WITH ARGUMENTS
Dwyer said the work within the WHO team was harmonious but that
there were "arguments" at times with their Chinese counterparts over
the interpretation and significance of the data, which he described
as "natural" in such probes.
"We might be having a talk about cold chain and they might be more
firm about what the data shows than what we might have been, but
that's natural. Whether there's political pressure to have different
opinions, I don't know. There may well be, but it's hard to know."
Cold chain refers to the transport and trade of frozen food.
Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the notion that the coronavirus
originated in China, pointing to imported frozen food as a conduit.
On Tuesday, Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO delegation, told a
news conference that transmission of the virus via frozen food is a
possibility, but pointed to market vendors selling frozen animal
products including farmed wild animals as a potential pathway that
warrants further study.
Embarek also said that the team was not looking further into the
theory that the virus escaped from a lab, which it considered highly
unlikely. The previous U.S. administration of President Donald Trump
had said it suspected the virus may have escaped from a Wuhan lab,
which Beijing strongly denies.
"It was an unanimous feeling," Dwyer said. "It wasn't a political
(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Additional Reporting by
Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by
Franklin Paul, Tony Munroe & Shri Navaratnam)
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