WHO Investigators Detail Political Environment During China Field Research

Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the World Health Organization’s investigation into the origin of COVID-19, has walked back comments he made in Wuhan that seemed to endorse controversial Chinese government narratives. During a February 9 press conference that marked the end of the WHO’s China field research, Ben Embarek suggested that the virus might have been imported into China through frozen food, while seemingly ruling out the possibility that it escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a lab . Yet in an interview with Science Magazine’s Kai Kupferschmidt, given after the WHO team’s departure from China, Ben Embarek said that getting the lab origin hypothesis “on the table” was a “big achievement” and frozen food was “not a possible route of introduction”:

[The lab origin hypothesis is] not something we’re going to pursue in the coming weeks and months. But our assessment is out there, and the topic is on the table. This is to me a big achievement, because for the past year it was mission impossible to even discuss it or even put it on the table or on the agenda of any meeting or discussion.

[…] But that’s happening in 2020, at a time where the virus is widely circulating in the world, where there are multiple outbreaks in food factories around the world. It is probably an extremely rare event; we can see that from only a few dozen positive findings in China, out of 1.4 million samples taken so far. It’s potentially possible, so it’s worth exploring. But we have to separate the situation in 2020 with imported goods in China, and the situation in 2019, where that was not a possible route of introduction. There were no widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in food factories around the world.

[…] The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table. We had anywhere between 30 and 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector. We know there was huge scrutiny on the scientific group from the other sectors. So, the politics was there constantly. We were not naïve, and I was not naïve about the political in which we tried to operate and, let’s face it, that our Chinese counterparts were operating under. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal reported that over 90 people were hospitalized with coronavirus-like symptoms before late December, meaning there was likely community spread in Wuhan earlier than previously established. In a second interview with CNN, Ben Embarek revealed that coronavirus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, confirming the Wall Street Journal’s reporting:

Ben Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN: “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”

[…] Yet the way in which these 92 cases were spread out across those two months and across Hubei geographically, also intrigued Ben Embarek, he said. Ben Embarek said the 92, as presented to the WHO team, did not emerge in clusters as is common in disease outbreaks. Instead, they were spaced out in small numbers across both months, and across the whole province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located.

[…] Ben Embarek also said the mission were able to meet the first Covid-19 patient that China said they knew of. A Wuhan resident in his 40s, the man has not been identified, and had no recent travel history.

“He has no link to the markets,” said Ben Embarek. “We also spoke to him. He has a very — in a way — dull and normal life, no hiking in the mountains type of things. He was an office worker in a private company.” [Source]

Since their departure from China, WHO team members have given interviews to various media outlets, with nearly all emphasizing the political pressure on the investigation. Thea Kølsen Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist, told The New York Times that “the entire mission[…] was highly geopolitical,” but later implied that The Times had twisted her words in a Twitter post. At The Wall Street Journal, Jeremy Page and Drew Hinshaw reported that the WHO team was denied access to patient data, told other useful indicators had already been destroyed, and prevented from carrying out retrospective blood testing:

But the WHO team wasn’t allowed to view the raw underlying on those retrospective studies, which could allow them to conduct their own analysis on how early and how extensively the virus began to spread in China, the team members said. Member states typically provide such data—anonymized, but disaggregated so investigators can see all other relevant details on each case—as part of WHO investigations, said team members.

[…]They had sought wastewater samples from central China to check if the virus could be detected in sewage from late 2019, but were told those had been discarded, per standard policy, after a month, said Dr. Koopmans.

[…] Dr. Dwyer said Chinese authorities had provided influenza surveillance data from before December 2019 but only from one children’s and one general hospital. The authorities told the WHO team that its hospitals generally didn’t store physical samples from patients with respiratory diseases.

[…] He said Chinese authorities initially told the team they couldn’t conduct retrospective testing of samples in blood banks except in certain specific legal situations—a common policy in many countries. [Source]

In a follow up interview with Reuters, Australian team member Dominic Dwyer elaborated on the unusual nature of the authorities’ refusal to share data:

The team had requested raw patient data on 174 cases that China had identified from the early phase of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but were only provided with a summary, said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert who is a member of the team.

[…] “That’s standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” he told Reuters on Saturday via video call from Sydney, where he is currently undergoing quarantine.

[…] “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.” [Source]

In an interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition, Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said that the team did not have access to complete data, but had been able to see what they needed to:

[Inskeep:] How open and transparent were the Chinese once they let you in?

[Koopmans:] This is a topic and a mission. There are sensitivities around it … big political tensions that are around it. And that’s something you cannot completely avoid in a situation like this. But once we got out of our quarantine, got into the face-to-face meetings, I think we’ve managed to get into real good scientific exchange with stiff discussions here and there, because [people] start from different backgrounds and different views. But I tell everyone, wait and read the report and let’s discuss then. But I think we managed to get a good outcome of this meeting. I think it was in that sense quite successful.

[Inskeep:] Is there anything that you think is necessary to know that you don’t have access to?

[Koopmans:] Not really. So if you say, did the Chinese colleagues hand over the complete raw data files? No, they did not. But then again, I did not expect that in a mission like this. So we’ve seen a lot of information. We’ve been given a lot of information. We’ve had access to the people working on the data, aggregating the data, looking at what exact questionnaires that they used, what does the data file look like. To me, that is quite extensive data access. [Source]

In an interview with The New York Times’ James Gorman, Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team with close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, discussed possible zoonotic origins of the virus and denied that politics derailed the investigation:

There were 10 stalls that sold wildlife. There were vendors from South China, including Yunnan Province, Guangxi Province and Guangdong Province. Yunnan Province is where the closest relative to SARS-CoV-2 is found in bats. Guangxi and Guangdong are where the pangolins were captured. They had close viruses.

[…] Anything like this is going to be sensitive in China, and it’s going to take some persuasion and diplomacy and energy for them to do that because, to be honest, looking for the source of this virus within China is not a great, high priority I think for the Chinese government. Anywhere this virus is shown to emerge is a political issue. That’s one of the problems, and that is clear and obvious to anyone who has been looking at this.

[…] I hope so. There’ll be some things that are going to be confidential, without a doubt. Patient records are kept highly confidential in China. We have an image in the West of China being authoritarian and they are videoing everyone. They can have access to anything. But patient records are very private, and some are not accessible. [Source]

On Twitter, Daszak took issue with a separate New York Times article by China correspondent Javier C. Hernández that documented the politics of the investigation, while praising the article by Jim Gorman linked to above:

After media reports detailed investigators’ lack of access to raw data, the Biden White House said it has “deep concerns” over the WHO’s investigation, stressing that “it is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson concurred with the White House’s statement. Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, said that the White House statement was part of “a filthy of words” and a “significant sign that the US is declining.”

Chinese authorities have long promoted fringe conspiracies on the virus’ origin. A recent AP investigation into online conspiracy theories found that Chinese officials and state media had amplified these theories to millions across the globe:

On Jan. 26, a man from Inner posted a video claiming that the new virus ravaging central China was a biological weapon engineered by the U.S. It was viewed 14,000 times on the Chinese app Kuaishou before being taken down. The man was arrested, detained for 10 days and fined for spreading rumors.

[…] But just six weeks later the same conspiracy would be broadcast by China’s ministry, picked up by at least 30 Chinese diplomats and missions and amplified through China’s vast, global network of state media outlets.

[…] State broadcaster CGTN jumped in on May 16, releasing a slick documentary about Fort Detrick set to spooky music that has been viewed on its YouTube channel more than 82,000 times. YouTube has not flagged the video as state-sponsored content, despite a 2018 policy to label government-funded videos. A YouTube spokesperson said that because the video is about COVID-19, it was labeled with an information panel about the virus instead of the publisher. [Source]

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