Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 30 March 2021


UK and US criticise WHO's Covid report and accuse China of withholding data

Statement signed by 12 other nations says investigation into virus origins not extensive enough

Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of Covid-19 arrive at the Wuhan institute of virology in Hubei province on 3 February.
Covid origins report leader says team faced difficulties accessing data – video

First published on Tue 30 Mar 2021 17.26 BST

The US and the UK have sharply criticised a World Health Organization report into the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, implicitly accusing China of “withholding access to complete, original data and samples”.

The statement, also signed by 12 other countries including Australia and Canada, came hard on the heels of an admission on Tuesday by the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that the investigation was “not extensive enough” and experts had struggled to access raw information during their four-week visit to Wuhan in January.

Tedros also said there should be continued examination of the theory that the virus had escaped from a Wuhan institute of virology laboratory, even though the report deemed it “extremely unlikely” as a source of the pandemic – a theory promoted by some in the Trump administration.

The long-awaited report by experts appointed by the WHO and their Chinese counterparts said the global pandemic probably came to humans from animals.

The statement by the 14 countries, which criticised delays in the investigation, called for timely access for independent experts early in future pandemics, and once again underlined the highly contentious politics around the investigation during which WHO experts gained access to China after months of fraught negotiations.

Weighing in separately, the White House urged the WHO to take additional steps to determine the origins of Covid-19. “There’s a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international and independent experts,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters.

“They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time, and that’s a step the WHO could take,” she added.

China has been repeatedly accused in western capitals of obstructing investigation of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan including the WHO’s inquiry.

The interventions took place after Tedros himself described the team’s issues in getting access to all the information they were seeking.

“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,” he said pointedly while adding that the report “advances our understanding in important ways”.

Tedros’s comments came as investigation team members admitted there was political influence from both inside and outside China on them but said they were never under pressure to remove “critical elements” from their report.

While concluding that the two least likely hypotheses for the emergence of the deadly virus – a leak from a lab (pushed by senior Trump officials) and being introduced via frozen food from outside (promoted by China) – the team promised to keep following leads in both cases in what appeared to be a diplomatic effort to keep both Beijing and Washington onside.

The report, compiled by WHO-appointed international experts and their Chinese counterparts, did not draw any firm conclusions but did rank a range of hypotheses according to how likely they thought they were, assessing the lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” with the most likely jumping from bats to humans via an intermediary animal.

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” Tedros said.

China has been widely faulted in western capitals for its lack of transparency during the opening weeks of the pandemic, and Tedros’s comments mark a rowing back of early praise of China’s initial response as complaints continue from top Biden officials over Chinese openness.

The framing of the release of the initial investigation is in line with comments made by team members before visiting Wuhan when they warned that it would be highly unlikely they would find a “smoking gun” during their first visit.

Peter Ben Embarek
Peter Ben Embarek with a chart showing pathways of transmission of coronavirus at a press conference at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan on 26 March. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

Presenting the report, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert on diseases that jump from animals to humans who led the mission to Wuhan, said they had been unable to find evidence either through China’s surveillance network or excess mortality data for cases of the new coronavirus emerging before December 2019.

“In terms of key data we looked into data coming out of different surveillance systems looking at cases of fever and unspecified pneumonia … and respiratory syndromes,” he told a press conference in Geneva.

“We looked at 76,000 cases of symptoms in the months before December to look for Covid cases not picked up, but we didn’t pick up anything.”

However, he added that it remained possible the virus may have been circulating as early as November and that some cases may have been abroad.

Ben Embarek also relayed the concern of Chinese scientists at a Wuhan lab that studies viruses who said they were initially worried it might have escaped but added that there was no evidence it was involved in a leak.

Echoing Tedros’s remarks, Ben Embarek said there were areas where his team had difficulty getting down to the raw data in China, adding that data would need to be reexamined in the next phase of the probe.

Underlining the preliminary nature of the study so far, Ben Embarek said their work had so far “only scratched the surface” of their understanding of the origins.

Despite studying data of samples from large numbers of farmed wild animals the researchers were unable to find evidence of Covid-19.

With so many still unanswered questions, the report has served more to shut down some theories than find a smoking gun, including the mooted possibility that Covid-19 may have been circulating for weeks if not months before it emerged in Wuhan.

Responding to the report, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who has pushed the lab-leak theory, albeit without evidence, alleged that the report was a cover-up backed by Beijing.

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