Chinese scientists refused to share raw data fearing the world might go closer to understanding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, World Health Organization’s independent investigators on Friday.
The investigators, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Chinese city of Wuhan, said disagreements over patient records and other issues were so tense that they sometimes erupted into shouts among the typically mild-mannered scientists on both sides, reports New York Times.
China’s continued resistance to revealing information about the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the scientists say, makes it difficult for them to uncover important clues that could help stop future outbreaks of such dangerous diseases.
“If you are data focused, and if you are a professional,” said Thea Kølsen Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist on the team, then obtaining data is “like for a clinical doctor looking at the patient and seeing them by your own eyes.”
For 27 days in January and February, the team of 14 experts for the World Health Organization led the mission to trace the origins of the pandemic. Several say their Chinese counterparts were frustrated by the team’s persistent questioning and demands for data.
Chinese officials urged the W.H.O. team to embrace the government’s narrative about the source of the virus, including the unproven notion that it might have spread to China from abroad, according to several members of the team. The W.H.O. scientists responded that they would refrain from making judgments without data.
“It was my take on the entire mission that it was highly geopolitical,” Dr. Fischer said. “Everybody knows how much pressure there is on China to be open to an investigation and also how much blame there might be associated with this.”
In the end, the W.H.O. experts sought compromise, praising the Chinese government’s transparency, but pushing for more research about the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019.
It remains unclear if the compromise will work. Chinese officials told the team that they did not have enough time to compile detailed patient data and only provided summaries. The W.H.O. scientists said they were continuing to press their counterparts in China for the raw data and other information.
The team members considered the trip, which ended this week, as a win mostly because they feel there is enough good will that talks and studies will continue. But they acknowledged there is too little information so far to answer critical questions.
And they were criticized already for handing the Chinese side a public relations victory at a closing news conference by endorsing the contentious idea that the virus might have spread by frozen food products.
On the crucial question of when the outbreak started, the team said it had not turned up evidence yet that it was earlier than China has reported. But the team was stymied at times by the lack of detailed patient records both from early confirmed cases, and possible ones before that.
“We asked for that on a number of occasions and they gave us some of that, but not necessarily enough to do the sorts of analyses you would do,” said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist on the W.H.O. team, referring to the confirmed cases.
The Chinese scientists also acknowledged they had discovered that 92 people were hospitalized in Wuhan as early as October 2019 with symptoms such as fever and coughing. The Chinese experts said they had found no trace of Covid-19 in those people, but the tests were incomplete. The W.H.O. team members said more research was needed.