Beijing has long insisted it was cooperating with efforts to trace the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. A damning new report suggests otherwise.
In the months following the emergence of COVID-19 in China, authorities did “little” to try to find the source of the infection, a leaked World Health Organisation (WHO) document claims.
The first cases of coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019, with the virus soon moving to other countries across the world.
There have now been more than 111 million confirmed infections and more than 2.4 million deaths worldwide as a result of the virus.
China has continually claimed that the virus was circulating in other parts of the country before emerging in Wuhan, with officials even pointing the finger at countries such as Australia, India and the United States by claiming the virus was brought in through imported seafood and beef.
Now, an internal WHO travel report summary seen by The Guardian, has suggested Chinese authorities may have been dragging their feet when it came to investigating the origins of the outbreak.
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The report, which was dated August 10, 2020, also claimed Chinese officials gave WHO scientists little information during their own investigation of the virus.
The report summarises WHO program manager and mission leader Dr Peter Ben Embarek’s trip to China between July 10 and August 3, 2020 to “review work done so far on the origin of the virus”.
During the trip, his team met with relevant ministries and agencies to discuss the emergence of the COVID-19 virus.
“Following extensive discussions with and presentation from Chinese counterparts, it appears that little had been done in terms of epidemiological investigations around Wuhan since January 2020,” the report stated.
“The data presented orally gave a few more details than what was presented at the emergency committee meetings in January 2020. No PowerPoint presentations were made and no documents were shared.”
The emergence of this document comes after a team of WHO scientists completed a more recent trip to China last month to further investigate the origins of the virus.
At the end of this four-week trip, Dr Embarek appeared to somewhat agree with China’s claims the virus could have originated outside of the country.
Speaking at a press conference in Wuhan, he said the virus was likely introduced thorough an “intermediary host species” before being passed on to humans, adding further investigations would be needed.
Dr Embarek also refused to rule out that the virus could have been brought in from somewhere else in “South-East Asia”, saying the supply chain of frozen goods to markets in Wuhan would also need to be investigated.
“There is the potential to continue to follow this lead and further look at the supply chain and animals that were supplied to the markets in frozen and other processed and semi-processed form, or raw form,” he said.
“These studies from different countries suggests SARS-CoV-2 circulation preceding the initial detection of cases by several weeks.
“Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case reported. This indicates the possibility of the missed reported circulation in other regions.”
Dr Embarek also rejected the claims the virus escaped from a lab in China, a theory which the US has been investigating, calling the hypothesis “extremely unlikely”.
While WHO’s official findings from the investigation were inconclusive, an Australian infectious diseases expert who travelled to Wuhan as part of the investigation team had a slightly different take on the result of the investigation.
Australian microbiologist and infectious diseases expert, Professor Dominic Dwyer, cast doubts on claims the virus could have first emerged outside of China.
“I must say the evidence for the virus being elsewhere before it took off in Wuhan is minimal … I think at this stage it’s a very big call to say it started elsewhere in the world and then came to China, however, that does need to be explored,” he told news.com.au.
“There is no doubt the outbreak got going in China, in the market and then in Wuhan, but what happened a month or two before that is really key and open to debate.
“It’s more than likely it started there … the environment in Wuhan’s Huanan Market clearly was ripe for allowing the virus to break out.”