China did “little” to find the origin of COVID-19 in the first months, according to a WHO document

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Chinese authorities did “little” in terms of epidemiological investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan during the first eight months after the outbreak, according to an internal document from the World Health Organization (WHO). to which you have had access The Guardian.

The WHO internal report summary, dated August 10, 2020, also says that the team that met with their Chinese counterparts as part of a preliminary mission to try to find the origins of the virus received little new information at the time, and they were not given any documents or written information during the extensive talks with the Chinese authorities.

Last summer’s report, written as global infection rates reached 20 million, provides new data on how early efforts by WHO scientists to study the outbreak in China were apparently hampered.

The news comes following the recent statement by the Joe Biden government that emphatically expresses concern for China’s cooperation in studying the disease and the need for WHO to hold itself to the highest standards and protect its credibility.

In the statement, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, also calls on China to make public its data from the first days of the outbreak and that all countries, including China, participate in a “transparent and robust” process to prevent and respond to health emergencies.

The internal WHO document of August 2020, to which you have had access The Guardian, gives some clues as to what may be the reason for the US frustration.

The two-page report is a summary of WHO’s program director and mission leader Peter Ben Embarek’s trip to China between July 10 and August 3, 2020, which was rated as a WHO “forward mission” to study the virus that causes COVID-19 and “examine the work done so far on the origin of the virus.”

In its summary, the trip report says that the mission began with a two-week quarantine, followed by 10 days of face-to-face meetings with the relevant ministries, including the National Health Commission, the State Administration for Market Regulation, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and other bodies such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“After extensive discussions with the Chinese counterparts and their presentation, it appears that little has been done regarding epidemiological investigations in and around Wuhan since January 2020. The data presented orally gave some more detail than what was presented. at emergency committee meetings [de la OMS] in January 2020. No PowerPoint presentations were made or any documents shared, “the report says.

A WHO spokesperson has declined to comment on the “internal documents.” The Chinese embassy in Washington has not responded to the request of The Guardian to know its version.

When a journalist from the magazine Science Asked WHO officials about the July-August 2020 mission at a press conference on August 21, Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease expert and WHO technical leader on COVID-19, replied that the team had recently returned from China and had been there to “learn” from his Chinese counterparts about the “ongoing” work.

Then Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, added: “It is important that the mission continues, but there are also a number of preliminary studies that need to be carried out, and our colleagues in China have discussed these in depth. with the advanced equipment and we hope that those studies can begin as soon as possible. ”

Following a more recent trip – last month – to China to study the origins of the virus, more questions have been raised about this country’s cooperation in studying the origins of the virus. Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious disease expert who was part of the research team, recently told the press that the WHO had requested raw patient data from its Chinese counterparts during its mission in January 2021, but was only being asked gave a summary.

Dwyer explained to Reuters that sharing anonymized raw data was standard practice for an outbreak investigation. Raw data is especially important in efforts to understand COVID-19, he said, as only half of the initial 174 cases had been exposed to the now-closed market where the virus was first detected.

“That is why we have insisted on asking for it,” he said. “Why isn’t that happening, I couldn’t comment on it. Whether for political reasons, time or difficulty (…) But if there are other reasons why the data is not available, I do not know. One could only speculate. ”

In a statement to The Guardian, the WHO says that it had insisted on the need to understand the origin of the virus “from the beginning” and that it had discussed the need to study and share information with China throughout 2020.

“In July 2020, the Chinese Government invited [la] WHO to send a preliminary team to China to prepare the work of the international scientific team. The joint team of Chinese and international scientists started the virtual meetings in the fall of 2020, “he says.

The WHO spokesperson adds: “They visited Wuhan in January-February 2021. In the early days of an outbreak, the top priority is saving lives, understanding the disease and suppressing transmission. But we also believe that work to understand the origin of any outbreak should start early, when certain clues can be found more easily. ”

In the future, says the spokesman, the development of studies on the origin of a disease should go in parallel with the urgent suppression of the virus and the saving of lives.

Translated by Icíar Gutiérrez

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