Chinese scientists will continue to search for the origin of the coronavirus, a senior Chinese health official said on Wednesday, while defending Beijing’s work with the World Health Organization-led team that visited Wuhan earlier in the year.
Liang Wannian, who led the Chinese team that took part in the inquiry in the city where the pathogen was first detected, said both sides had access to the same data.
“From the start, experts were divided into three teams based on their expertise, and they worked together. So the claim that we did not share [data] is not valid,” he said.
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“Of course, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, according to Chinese law. But when we were doing analysis together in Wuhan, everyone could see our database and materials. We all did it together.”
His comments came after WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that the international team had expressed difficulties in accessing raw data and that he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing”.
“To understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019,” he said.
A report on the 28-day mission that began in January concluded that it was “likely to very likely” that the virus spread to humans from a bat or other host animal via an intermediary animal.
Liang also rejected claims that release of the report had been delayed, pointing to translation and time difference issues.
“The report could only be published after both Chinese and international teams jointly endorsed it.” he said. “We know that the world is looking forward to it … It was not because of any interference or our laziness that the release was delayed. We were striving to ensure its quality.”
Following the report’s release, the governments of 14 countries issued a joint statement expressing their “shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the Sars-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples”.
The countries were: Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, South Korea and the United States.
“China was the first country to report Covid-19 cases, and the first to jointly conduct studies into the origins with the WHO,” Liang said.
“It is difficult to judge whether this [mission] is late,” he said, adding that Chinese scientists began sampling animal and environmental specimens from the Wuhan market in which the first coronavirus outbreak was reported while also working to contain the disease.
“I don’t agree that it is late for the international mission to arrive one year [after the first case was reported],” he said. “From a scientist’s perspective, as long as everyone upholds a scientific attitude and the probe is done by scientists, it is never too late.”
The next step to finding the origin of the virus would be to carry out research in other countries, to identify animal species that might have been reservoirs for it, he said.
While Liang did not name any countries, Beijing has repeatedly pointed to the US. On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said there was “still a big question mark over the lab at Fort Detrick”, referring to a military base in Maryland that is home to one of the world’s first biological high-containment labs.
“When some on the US side pointed fingers at our laboratory in Wuhan, we invited the WHO mission for a visit and fully cooperated. Can the US side do the same in a transparent manner?” she said.
Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong, said such conflicts would make it hard to trace the origin of Covid-19.
“While China would be willing to cooperate with the WHO on future studies, the reality is that too much time has passed and the pandemic has been too politicised,” he said.
Additional reporting by Simone McCarthy
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