SARSCoV2 Virus Hunt: Unlock Mysteries of Missing Data, Bat Coronaviruses and Mojiang Mine, Scientists Appeal To WHO Member States
Animal parts (including from endangered species) go into the Chinese medicines sold at this market stall in Dali, Yunnan, China.

A new appeal about the course of the SARS-CoV2 virus hunt, penned by an international group of scientists, urges WHO member states to seize the moment of the upcoming World Health Assembly to adopt a much tougher mandate, with more rigorous scientific measures, to get to the truth of whether the SARS-CoV2 virus first infected humans from a natural source, a wild animal market, or in a laboratory.  

The letter praises WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ recent admissions of the shortcomings of the investigation conducted by a panel of WHO-convened scientists in January and February, 2021 as a  “courageous defense of the scientific method and of the WHO’s integrity.” 

But the letter calls upon the WHO Executive Board and WHO member states to take up the gauntlet more squarely in pursuit of the real cause of the pandemic – leaving “all possible origins of the COVID-10 pandemic” on the table – including the possibility the virus first infected humans in the wild, as a result of contact with farmed wildlife, or due to a lab escape. 

In their third appeal in as many months, published Friday, the scientists also called upon China to grant unfettered access to the remote Mojiang mine in Yunnan Province, including release of confiscated samples and censored data – so that researchers can unlock the mysteries it may hold. 

The mine was the site of where a group of six miners became infected with a mysterious pneumonia-like illness in 2012. 

“To this day all the coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 come from that Mojiang mine,” the letter notes, asking: “Were any SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from the patient samples? What samples were taken from these six patients and sent to the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and other labs? Are any of these samples available for independent analysis?”

‘Treasure Map’ for way forward

Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Global Cases as of 28 January 2020 – just before WHO declared a global health emergency,

“It should be clear to everyone that any pandemic origins process that does not fully investigate the possibility that this crisis stems from an accidental lab leak and cover up can not be considered credible,” Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow of the US Atlantic Council, and co-organizer of the appeal, told Health Policy Watch

“It should deeply concern everyone that a year and a half after the outbreak, with over three million people dead and conditions worsening dramatically in many parts of the world, there is still no international process for fully investigating the origins of this pandemic. Not understanding how this crisis began leaves us at much greater risk of the same thing happening again.   

“We’re entering the era of synthetic biology where it’s easy to imagine future pandemics far more dangerous than this one. If we can’t get to the bottom of how this crisis began and address our many shortcomings, how can we possibly imagine we’ll be ready for the next one?”

“Our open letter is essentially a treasure map to help guide any credible COVID-19 origins investigation process going forward. We’ve listed some essential questions to ask and resources where critical data can be found,” said Metzl adding that the choice of directions, nonetheless, remains up to WHO member states: 

“Tedros has shown great leadership and courage by rejecting pressure to limit the scope of examination into pandemic origins and essentially risked his career by calling for a full investigation into all origin hypotheses, including a possible lab incident. The very least world leaders can do is support him and the WHO in this effort.”

Wild animal, farmed animal, or lab escape? All avenues need more research 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team in early February, 2021. Critics say WIV officials did not cough up the laboratory’s secrets

Next steps into the origins issue should dig much more aggressively into all three possibilities on the table: “exclusively ‘natural’ zoonosis in the wild, human contamination in an animal farm, and a research-related accident,” the group of 26 scientists also say. 

They discounted out of hand a fourth theory propagated by Chinese authorities that the virus contamination somehow came from imported frozen foods. 

Along with further critique of what has gone wrong, the letter charts a political and technical way forward for what should happen next, including key provisions such as: 

  • More explicit language in a draft WHA resolution that acknowledges all theories – and supersedes the “reductive language” of the resolution adopted last year, which referred solely to the ‘zoonotic’ origins of the virus.  
  • Broader mandate and revised terms of reference for a team of independent experts mandating it “to conduct a full scientific and forensic investigation into all possible origins of COVID-19, be it zoonotic or not,” – as compared to the softer role assigned to it now to “recommend, help design and review scientific studies.”
  • Removal of China’s veto power of team members and revised criteria for team selection – ensuring WHO Executive Board oversight of the selection process, and inclusion of experts in biosafety and biosecurity, biodata and forensic investors in the team “as the WHO previously very successfully did following the SARS lab-leaks in Singapore and Taiwan in 2003/4.” 

Said Metzel upon the release of the letter: “The people who’ve died, are now dying & will die from #COVID19 deserve the fullest possible investigation into how this terrible pandemic began & our other failures. Our leaders, the @UN & @WHO have a sacred obligation to make that happen. #China has no legitimate right to refuse.”

Upcoming World Health Assembly debate – a key moment  

Chinese experts present their ‘frozen food’ theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan at a 9 February, 2021 press conference wrapping up the WHO -International expert mission.

In terms of the upcoming World Health Assembly debate, a 20 April copy of the draft WHA resolution that refers to the origins issue, obtained by Health Policy Watch, reflects the continuing, deep disagreements among member states over how the virus quest should be pursued. 

Proposals for a “strengthened” WHO mandate on that issue (and many others) remain up for grabs – with extensive sections still marked up as additions or deletion – rival geopolitical blocs.   

Notably, China and its allies want to water down references to WHO’s mandate to collect animal and ecosystem health data for the rapid “investigation” of public health risks and events, proposing that the reference merely be to “assessment”. (P4.2). 

China also wants to limit the obligation of countries to share pathogens and genetic sequences with the global agency – adding a caveat that this be done “in accordance with” national laws and regulations.(OP 4.3).  

Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University said the next steps at WHO  remains a key turning point in the future of the origins research.  

“The draft resolution on strengthening WHO preparedness and response is too limited (and could be limited further by an amendment proposed by China and Russia that deletes the word ‘investigation’, and by an amendment proposed by China that nullifies the requirement for sharing samples and sequences by subjecting it to ‘national…laws and regulations’),” Ebright said. 

More rigorous methods and protocols 

Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market that has been closed since early 2020 after one of the first clusters of COVID-19 cases were detected there.

The letter’s authors, which include scientists from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India, as well as Austria, Belgium, France, Germanny and Spain, also call for a major overhaul of methods and protocols used in moving forward in the virus origins research, including far greater access to data and a much wider range of freedom for scientist-investigators, including the right to conduct confidential interviews. Specifics include:  

  • Clearly listing the possible paths for virus evolution and human infection and allocating enough time to examine all paths, without a priori assumptions;
  • Ensuring factual data supports all assumptions and steps in the analysis;
  • Guaranteeing access to required raw data (relevant records, samples, project applications, project reports, personnel information, field trip information, relevant emails, laboratory notebooks, etc.) and not solely semi-aggregated data or summaries;
  • Sharing of all relevant medical records, anonymized according to local laws for confidentiality protection, with the joint study team; 
  • Ensuring that the team of scientists and specialists is able to undertake their studies at key meetings and visits with no unnecessary presence of host government non-scientific personnel; 
  • Ensuring mission members can conduct interviews, as needed, confidentially and/or anonymously, and with assistance of translators appointed by the WHO if necessary. 

Access to Essential Financial and Technical Resources 

The appeal also notes that the joint study so far has suffered from limited access to more granular data, records and samples, including the lack of adequate access to: 

  • Anonymized data and biological samples from early COVID-19 patients, close contacts and possibly infected persons. 
  • Records of laboratories and institutions involved in coronavirus research in Wuhan. 
  • Key databases of pathogens, samples and isolates.  As for the latter, the experts also note specific password protected databases, to which WHO-mandated researchers still don’t have access, including: 62MB MySQL database portal and underlying databases:  “These databases are essential as they contain data about viruses not yet published, and some of these viruses may be closely related to SARS-CoV-2.” 
  • The full sequence of the 8 coronaviruses sampled in the Mojiang mine several years [ago, which are some of the closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2, and were mentioned in an Addendum to a Nature paper published in November 2020.  

Unfettered Access to Yunnan’s Mojiang Mine  – And Footprints of the ‘RaTG13’ Virus

Horseeshoe bats found in Yunnan province carry the viruses most similar to SARS-CoV2 found to date,

The Mojiang site in Yunnan Province is one where a group of six Chinese miners are believed to have become infected with a pneumonia-like illness in 2012, as a result of contact with a bat-borne virus, leaving three people dead.

“To this day all the coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 come from that Mojiang mine. Some scientists who went sampling at the mine had their samples confiscated while investigative journalists have been systematically turned away,” the scientists state.

Even so,  “unspecified samples from these patients were sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other labs in 2012. Dr. Shi Zhengli [WIV chief bat virus researcher] recently announced that the WIV tested the serum samples again.” However, independent researchers never have had access to the raw data.

Independent interviews with the surviving miners were never permitted, and the miners’ unusual pneumonia cases were never reported by China CDC or to the WHO. 

One bat coronavirus, in particular that was found at the Mojiang mine site, ‘RaTG13’, holds special interest, the researchers say. They call it the virus sample closely-related to SARS-CoV-2 today.

Yet, despite the fact that it was sampled and described by researchers, the full genome sequence seems to have disappeared. Shi Zhengli and Yanyi Wang, director of the WIV, have said in interviews that there is:  ‘no more sample’ of RaTG13, so that no further sequencing is possible, and the virus was no longer ‘in our lab.’

“Based on the raw data provided, it has unfortunately not been possible to assemble the RaTG13 genome sequence,” the researchers lamented.

Even so, however, tantalizing biological footprints of the RaTG13 virus, and its components, remain – which could help unravel the mysteries of SARS-CoV2’s emergence, the scientists say. Not to mention the gene sequences of other SARS-related coronaviruses – and yet those footprints remain locked in Chinese research archives, databases, or censored publications.  

Databases Missing in Action  

One published analysis of hospital traffic in Wuhan China in autumn 2019 indicates shows high number of visitors, compared to the same time, in the year before – and before the typical flu season began.

Related to that, data bases from the WIV and sister insitutions have gone missing in action – beginning in September 2019 – which is around the same time when many experts now believe the virus was spreading silently in Wuhan. 

“Dr. Shi Zhengli has stated that Wuhan Institute of Virology virus databases were taken offline during the pandemic. However the key bat virus database was taken offline in September 2019, three months before the official start of the outbreak,” the researchers state. 

“Can Chinese officials explain this contradiction? Can Chinese officials explain why the scientific paper describing the key database…was taken offline from the corresponding Chinese journal website “China Science Data” in mid-2020?  Can Chinese officials also explain why the full website of “China Science Data”, where the database was described, became inaccessible in March-April 2021?”

The scientists also suggest that the claims by the Wuhan Virology Institute officials in March, 2020 that they had found no SARS-CoV2 cases at the institute, even in the height of the Wuhan outbreak – are disingenuous given the widespread community transmission of the disease at the time.  

Dr. Shi Zhengli and Dr. Yuan Zhiming have both stated that ‘all staff tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies’ at the WIV in March 2020. Yet, this is statistically unlikely (roughly less than one chance in a billion) given that there are more than 590 staff and students at the WIV and about 4.4% of the Wuhan urban population tested positive at around that time. Even if only 85 people were tested, the chance of no positive test would still be less than 4%. How can this contradiction be explained?”

Tweeted Gilles Demaneuf, co-organizer of the open letter and a data scientist: “[WHO’s Peter Ben] Embarek back in March mentioned 1,000+ cases in December 19, 13 variations in the virus, all pointing to likely November cases. Today China keeps pretending that the first case was on the 8th Dec 2019. How is it possible? Who is shaping the narrative?”

All Eyes On the United States 

Ultimately, a way forward now depends on WHO member states, other co-authors of the letter said. Said one informed expert, most eyes are looking first to the US administration of new President Joe Biden, to see how Washington might lead on the issue; if it does so, it can likely depend upon support from the UK, western Pacific countries such as Australia and Japan, as well as India – all nervous about China’s outsized influence – and in the case of India, the huge toll the pandemic has exacted in human lives.   

Recently, the stance taken by the WHO DG over the incomplete nature of the inquiry so far has been welcome, said another commentator, who asked not to be named: 

 “I feel we should take Tedros at his word. My personal sense is that he believes what he’s saying but he’ll only be able to take meaningful steps forward with political backing from key states.”


Image Credits: Johnson&Johnson, David Stanley/Flickr, John's Hopkins CSSE, CNN, WHO, Deutsche Welle, European Medicines Agency, Nsoesie, Elaine Okanyene et al. Harvard University Pre-print Repository, .

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