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China refused to provide raw data on early COVID cases to the WHO team, a team member says

© Reuters. People wearing face masks descend stairs after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai

From Brenda Goh

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China refused to provide raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a team led by the World Health Organization to investigate the causes of the pandemic, said one of the team’s investigators, potentially making efforts to get started to understand the outbreak.

The team had requested raw patient data on the 174 cases of COVID-19 that China identified in the early stages of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but received only a summary. said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious disease expert who is on the team.

Such raw data is known as “line lists” and is usually anonymized, but includes details such as the questions individual patients were asked, their answers, and how their answers were analyzed.

“This is standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” he told Reuters on Saturday via video call from Sydney, where he is currently under quarantine.

He said that having access to the raw data was especially important as only half of the 174 cases were exposed to the Huanan Market, the now-closed seafood wholesale center in Wuhan where the virus was originally discovered.

“That’s why we insisted on asking about it,” he said. “I couldn’t comment on why that didn’t happen. Whether it was political, time or difficult … But whether there are other reasons why the data are not available, I don’t know. One would only speculate.”

While the Chinese authorities provided a lot of material, he said the problem of accessing the raw patient data was mentioned in the team’s final report. “WHO people certainly felt they had a lot more data than they had ever received last year. That in itself is progress.”

A summary of the team’s results could be published next week, the WHO said on Friday.

The WHO-led investigation had been plagued by delays, access concerns and disputes between Beijing and Washington, who accused China of hiding the scale of the initial outbreak and criticized the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts launched the first phase of the outbreak Conducted research.

The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks investigating the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, limited themselves to visits organized by Chinese hosts and prevented contact with members of the community for health reasons. The first two weeks were spent in hotel quarantine.

China’s refusal to provide raw data on the early COVID-19 cases was reported on Friday by the Wall Street Journal.

WHO did not respond to a request from Reuters for comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Beijing has previously defended its transparency in handling the outbreak and its cooperation with the WHO mission.

Harmonious, with arguments

Dwyer said the work within the WHO team was harmonious, but there were at times “disputes” with their Chinese colleagues over the interpretation and meaning of the data he called “natural” in such probes.

“We may have a conversation about the cold chain and they may be more solid about what the data shows than what we could have been, but that’s natural. Whether there is political pressure to have different opinions, I don’t know. It can be good, but it’s hard to know. ”

Cold chain refers to the transportation and trading of frozen food.

Beijing has tried to question the notion that the coronavirus originated in China, pointing to imported frozen foods as a channel.

On Tuesday, Peter Ben Embarek, who headed the WHO delegation, stated at a press conference that the virus could be transmitted through frozen foods, but pointed to market vendors selling frozen products, including farm animals, as a potential avenue for further study.

Embarek also said the team did not further investigate the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory, which it believed was highly unlikely. The former US administration of President Donald Trump had suspected that the virus could have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, which Beijing strongly denies.

“It was a unanimous feeling,” said Dwyer. “It wasn’t a political sop at all.”

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