The entire fact finding exercise was undertaken in coordination with the Chinese government including taking approval from Beijing on who all would be part of WHO’s study team.


New Delhi: A 120-page joint World Health Organization (WHO)-China study on the origins of Covid-19, which was released on 30 March, failed to solve the most important question that it was expected to find a response to: from where did the Covid-19 virus originate and how did it infect humans? And from the WHO Director General’s statement it becomes apparent that China did not share the “raw data” with the experts who visited Wuhan.

The team that conducted the study comprised 17 Chinese and 17 international experts from different countries. The study was conducted over 28 days, from 14 January to 10 February 2021 in the city of Wuhan, China, and while examining the different possible pathways through which the virus entered the human body, stated that “introduction through a laboratory incident” was “extremely unlikely”.

However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ own statement, which came at the time of the release of the report, confirmed speculation that the WHO team was not given complete access to the information that they wanted while on their field visit to China.

“The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident. However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions. 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. In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing”, said the WHO Director General, who in the past has been criticized for being too soft on China.

According to WHO’s own statement of 26 March 2020, it was very important to find the source of the Covid-19 virus as “until the source of this virus is identified and controlled, there is a risk of reintroduction of the virus into the human population and the risk of new outbreaks like the ones we are currently experiencing”.

The joint team examined four scenarios on how the Covid-19 virus could have been introduced into the human system: through direct zoonotic transmission to humans; introduction through an intermediate host followed by spillover; introduction through the (cold) food chain; and introduction through a laboratory incident.

The team found that all the first three scenarios were “possible”, while stating that “introduction through a laboratory incident” was an “extremely unlikely pathway”.

The report clearly proves that the entire fact finding exercise, as it was supposed to be, was undertaken in complete coordination with the Chinese government, and thus included seeking their assent on the names that should be a part of the study mission and letting the Chinese government know in advance the details of the site and the laboratory the team wanted to visit and the people they wanted to interview.

The report, while elucidating on the selection process of the members of the joint team, reads: “Among the qualified candidates, additional criteria such as geographical representation and gender were taken into consideration and a list of 10 members was finalized and shared with China officially on 30 September. On 15 October 2020, the Government of China indicated that it had no objection to the list of the international team members. The joint international team comprised 17 national Chinese, the 10 international experts from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Russian Federation, Sudan, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Viet Nam, and United States of America, plus seven other experts and support staff from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and WHO. It was headed jointly by Dr Peter K. Ben Embarek of WHO and Professor Liang Wannian of the People’s Republic of China.”

The report clearly mentions that every step of this “study exercise” was done only after taking approval from the Chinese government.

“The joint team began working through a series of formal and informal virtual meetings. For the first two weeks, the international team members remained in quarantine and worked exclusively with Chinese experts through video/teleconference calls, exchanging information and presentations through electronic means. For the second 14-day period, Chinese public health regulations required that the international team remained under health monitoring. As a result, all site visits, meetings and interviews proposed by international experts were planned and agreed in advance, and conducted with due regard for public health measures, including physical distancing, and the necessary flexibility to facilitate the ground work of the team.”

On the question of whether Covid-19 spread from the Huanan sea food market, as is believed, the report claimed that the market was not the original source of the outbreak.

“Many of the early cases were associated with the Huanan market, but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets. Transmission within the wider community in December could account for cases not associated with the Huanan market which, together with the presence of early cases not associated with that market, could suggest that the Huanan market was not the original source of the outbreak. Other milder cases that were not identified, however, could provide the link between the Huanan market and early cases without an apparent link to the market. No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn.”

The report, which has 193 pages in annexure, refuted the contention that Covid-19 spread through bats and pangolins.

“Evidence from surveys and targeted studies so far have shown that the coronaviruses most highly related to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats and pangolins, suggesting that these mammals may be the reservoir of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, neither of the viruses identified so far from these mammalian species is sufficiently similar to SARS-CoV-2 to serve as its direct progenitor.”

“The presence of SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected through sampling and testing of bats or of wildlife across China. More than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 provinces in China and no positive result was identified for SARS-CoV-2 antibody or nucleic acid before and after the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in China. Through extensive testing of animal products in the Huanan market, no evidence of animal infections was found”, the report adds.

The team arrived at Wuhan on 14 January 2021, more than one year after the outbreak was confirmed.

The 17-member Chinese team was led by Liang Wannian, Executive Vice-President, Vanke School of Public Health, Tsinghua University and had officials from Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) and several other government bodies.

The international team was led by Swiss scientist Peter Ben Embarek.

As part of the presentation to the global team that took place on 23 January, the Chinese side, showed slides of “China national center for bio-information (CNCB)” that showed how data exchange was happening between China and Pakistan on Covid-19. The slide contained an image depicting faculty members at National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, submitting their study to the Chinese sequencing the complete genome of SARS-CoV2 that was found in Pakistan on 25 March 2020. The NUST is under the administrative control of the Pakistan Armed Forces.