China Has Failed to Share ‘Raw Data’ About Virus Origin so Lab Accident Can’t be Ruled Out, Says Tedros
Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council of China, on a visit to Wuhan to inspect and guide the outbreak control and prevention work .

China came under renewed pressure from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Germany on Thursday to share data it has so far withheld in order to help determine the origin of the SARS-CoV2 virus that has cost over four million lives.

Conceding that China had not shared all the data that the WHO virus origins team had asked for, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus appealed to the country “to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially on [sharing] the raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic”.

Tedros also frankly acknowledged that the first WHO report on the virus origins had failed to give adequate attention to the theory that the SARS-Cov2 virus may first have emerged in the city of Wuhan, China, as a result of a “lab escape” from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had been researching bat coronaviruses.

The failure of the WHO-convened team to carefully consider the possibility that a biosafety accident caused the pandemic has been heavily criticized by a group of international experts, in a series of open letters to WHO

“There was a premature push to reduce one of the [origins] options, the laboratory theory. I was a lab technician myself, an immunologist, and have worked in the lab and lab accidents happen,” added Tedros,  speaking in the strongest terms to date about the plausibility of the lab escape theory, while addressing the WHO’s biweekly COVID-19 media briefing.

German Minister of Health Jens Spahn also appealed to China to “intensify the cooperation to examine the origin of this virus to learn for the future”, during his announcement of increased German financial support for the WHO at the briefing.

Germany has committed 260 million Euros to the WHO-supported ACT-Accelerator and confirmed that it would donate at least 30 million COVID-19 vaccines to low and middle-income countries, 80% of which would be channeled through COVAX.

The SARS-CoV2 origins team concluded Phase 1 of its investigation with the release of a report in March posing four possible hypotheses about where the virus originated from, including an accident at the Wuhan laboratory that examines coronaviruses which it described as “extremely unlikely”.

Member States Guidance Sought to Address China Challenge

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus

However, a number of member states were unhappy with the report, as reported by Health Policy Watch, and the US described it as “insufficient and inconclusive” in late May, ahead of the World Health Assembly in Geneva. 

“We call for a timely, transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led Phase 2 study, including in the People’s Republic of China,” the US Mission in Geneva stated.

“It is critical that China provides independent experts full access to complete, original data and samples relevant to understanding the source of the virus and the early stages of the pandemic. We appreciate the WHO’s stated commitment to move forward with Phase 2 of the COVID-19 origins study, and look forward to an update from Director-General Tedros,” the US added.

This is the first time Tedros has given credence to the lab accident hypothesis and called out China for failing to give the origins team access to “raw data” from the early days of the outbreak of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan.

Announcing that the design of Phase 2 of the origins investigation had been completed, Tedros said the WHO would be asking member states for their guidance to address the access challenges.

“Take the number of deaths alone – more than four million. I think we owe it to them to know what happened. And everybody should cooperate to know what happened, and to prevent the same crisis from happening again,” said Tedros.

The laboratory accident hypothesis could not be ruled out without “direct information on what the situation of this [Wuhan] lab was between, before and at the start of the pandemic”, added Tedros. 

IP Waiver Necessary as all Pharma Companies But AstraZeneca Have Ignored WHO Appeals

Spahn reiterated Germany’s opposition to a waiver on intellectual property on certain COVID-19 related products during the pandemic, describing the debate as “very ideological”.

However, Tedros said the IP waiver was necessary as pharmaceutical companies had ignored appeals to increase their manufacturing capacity via voluntary licensing and technology transfers to ensure fair vaccine distribution.

AstraZeneca was the one exception, entering into voluntary licensing with companies in India and Korea, and more recently with Australia, Japan and Thailand, he added.

“If the other companies have done the same thing, we could have better volume to share,” said Tedros. 

“But when we say IP waiver, it’s not to snatch the property of the private sector,” said Tedros, adding that the WHO had proposed that high income countries could offer incentives to those companies “to address any financial losses that they have”. 

Emergency Committee Rules out Vaccine Boosters

Didier Houssin, Chair of the WHO Emergency Committee, at the press briefing on Friday.

There was no scientific evidence to support vaccine boosters, Professor Didier Houssin, chairperson of the WHO Emergency Committee on COVID-19, told the briefing, following a committee meeting on Wednesday.

The committee had two main recommendations to the WHO: keep advocating for fair distribution of vaccines and provide member states with more guidance on public health measures to contain the pandemic, said Houssin.

Turning to member states, Houssin stressed that they need “to acknowledge that access to vaccines and public health measures to maintain social distancing should be taken very seriously now”.

“We should not be tempted to undertake any measures that could increase inequity. For example, the decision made by some countries to promote a booster dose, a third dose of the vaccine when in fact there is no scientific data that justifies that for the moment,” said Houssin.

The committee also urged member states not to “require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for international travel as the only pathway or condition permitting international travel, given limited global access and inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines”. 

 “State Parties should consider a risk-based approach to the facilitation of international travel by lifting measures, such as testing and/or quarantine requirements, when appropriate, in accordance with the WHO guidance.

It also urged member states to recognize all COVID-19 vaccines that have received WHO Emergency Use Listing in the context of international travel. 


Image Credits: China Government Network, WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.