A WUHAN Covid investigator says China refused to hand over raw data on first cases to the World Health Organisation team probing how the pandemic began.
The investigator said the country’s failure to impart with the data has likely complicated efforts to understand how the outbreak began.
The WHO team requested raw patient data on 174 cases that China had identified early on in the outbreak, in the city of Wuhan in December 2019.
But Australian infectious diseases expert Dominic Dwyer told Reuters the request, along with requests for other cases, were not fulfilled and his team was only provided with a summary.
Such raw data was known as “line listings”, he said.
It would typically be anonymised, but would contain details such as what questions were asked of individual patients, their responses, and how these were analysed.
Speaking to Reuters on a video call from Sydney, where he was quarantining, he said this was “standard practice” for an outbreak investigation.
Gaining access to the raw data was particularly important, seeing as only half of the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market – the defunct wholesale seafood centre in Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first detected.
"That's why we've persisted to ask for that," Dwyer said.
"Why that doesn't happen, I couldn't comment. Whether it's political or time or it's difficult … But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn't available, I don't know.
“One would only speculate."
ACCESS TO RAW DATA 'STANDARD PRACTICE'
The WHO said a summary of the team's findings could be released as early as next week.
Australian Prof Dwyer was one of 10 scientists who travelled to China on January 14 on a World Health Organisation mission investigating the virus that has killed 2.3 million people around the world.
Professor Dwyer has thrown the WHO’s controversial findings into chaos by claiming the virus DID start in China, and maintaining the theory that the virus passed from bats to humans.
This contrasts with WHO investigation team leader Dr Peter Ben Embarek's assertions; that frozen food imports may have played a part in the initial outbreak.
Fury is mounting after the WHO was accused of a "whitewash" as it found Covid likely didn't originate at the Wuhan wet market or come from a lab leak.
Both suggestions that the virus could have originally crossed to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market, or escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were thrown out in a lengthy joint press conference on Tuesday.
However, Prof Dwyer, a microbiologist and infectious diseases expert, insisted the source of the virus was most likely bats as previously suspected.
“The evidence for it starting elsewhere in the world is actually very limited. There is some evidence but it's not really very good,” he told Australia’s Nine News.
“We know that other viruses that are closely related to [Covid-19] are present in bats. We know that other viruses like MERS and SARS back in 2003 also came from bats.
“Now these bats don't respect borders of course so they are present not just in China but in other parts on South East Asia and indeed elsewhere around the world.”
He said the virus most likely transferred to an intermediate animal such as a pangolin or a cat before being passed onto humans through the traditional Chinese animal wet markets as food.
“I think the explosion in the Wuhan market was really just an amplifying event. The virus had probably been circulating for some good few weeks beforehand among people in the community,” he said.
The experts at Tuesday’s press conference admitted they "don't know" the exact role of Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the origin of the virus.
A cluster of cases was linked to the market, but officials also found cases among people who had no ties to the market.
WUHAN MARKET 'AMPLIFYING EVENT'
It was suggested the virus may have come from elsewhere and not jumped from animals to humans at the market – as was originally suggested in initial probes.
Unpublished data suggests samples of SARS-CoV-2 were found several weeks before the first reported cases in Wuhan at the end of December 2019.
Prof Dwyer's hypothesis asserts there were cases spreading in Wuhan weeks before in November or probably earlier, but they were not reported by Chinese authorities.
“We also know the Chinese were reporting the people who went to hospital were really sick, but we now know there was a lot of ordinary transmission going on between otherwise healthy people, so there must've been many, many more cases in December than were identified,” he said.
Prof Dwyer added there was “clearly a lot of work that needs to be done”, admitting that “many of these outbreaks take years to sort out”.
In the aftermath of the initial outbreak, Beijing officials tried to cover up the rapidly rising number of deaths in Hubei Province by silencing anyone who tried to warn about the deadly virus.
Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang blew the whistle on the mysterious new coronavirus in December 2019 and died in February 2020 after contracting the virus from a patient.
When asked if there was any hostility between the WHO team and its Chinese hosts, Prof Dwyer said there were "arguments" at times with their Chinese counterparts over the interpretation and significance of the data, which he described as "natural" in such probes.
ARGUMENTS WITH CHINESE COUNTERPARTS
"We might be having a talk about cold chain and they might be more firm about what the data shows than what we might have been, but that's natural.
"Whether there's political pressure to have different opinions, I don't know. There may well be, but it's hard to know."
Cold chain refers to the transport and trade of frozen food.
“I think the Chinese have a different emphasis of what might be important and what they would like to say, at least from the political point of view,” he said.
But during his press conference, Dr Embarek backed assertions from Beijing that there is no evidence of transmission “in Wuhan or elsewhere” in China before December 2019 – despite multiple studies suggesting the virus was circulating globally months earlier than that.
Outlining the findings of his team's month-long study trip, Dr Embarek said the team had failed to establish where the virus came from or how it first jumped into humans.
After Tuesday’s press conference, Tobias Ellwood MP, chair of Defence committee, told The Sun Online: "This is a complete whitewash.
"Given the global economic devastation and death toll this pandemic has caused – never again should a country responsible for an outbreak be allowed to hinder an international investigation for a full 12 months."
The Communist Party-regime has long been accused of covering up the pandemic's origins – and has been continuing to attempt to deflect blame
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