8 April: China’s health officials have hit back at the World Health Organization (WHO) after its chief said China should have shared genetic data on COVID-19 earlier. The WHO remarks were “insulting and disrespectful”, said Shen Hongbing, the director of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
He accused the WHO of “trying to smear China” and said it should not help others “politicize COVID-19”. The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on March 17 that new genetic information collected in Wuhan, where the first cases were reported in late 2019, “should have been shared three years ago”.
“As a responsible country and as scientists, we have always actively shared research results with scientists from around the world,” Shen said at a press conference. The origin of COVID-19 is still a matter of debate and controversy.
Many scientists believe it jumped from animals to humans at a market in Wuhan, but the city also has laboratories that collect viruses, including China’s top facility. This has led to speculation that COVID-19 might have escaped from one of them. The ruling Communist Party has tried to deflect criticism of its response to the outbreak by spreading doubt about its origin.
Officials have repeated anti-US conspiracy theories that the virus was created by Washington and brought into China. The government also says the virus might have come into China through mail or food shipments, though there is no evidence to support that claim.
Chinese officials suppressed information about the Wuhan outbreak in 2019 and punished a doctor who warned others about the new disease. The ruling party changed course in early 2020 and restricted access to major cities and most international travel to contain the disease.
“According to Tedros from the WHO, the genetic material he mentioned was recently uploaded to a global database but it was collected in 2020 at a market in Wuhan where wildlife was sold. The samples reveal DNA from raccoon dogs mixed with the virus, scientists say. They say this supports the idea that COVID-19 came from animals, not a lab, but it doesn’t answer the question of where it originated.
They also say that humans might have spread the virus to raccoon dogs. The information was deleted by Chinese officials from the database after foreign scientists contacted the CDC about it, but a French expert had copied it and shared it with researchers outside China.
A CDC researcher, Zhou Lei, who worked in Wuhan, said Chinese scientists “shared all the data we had” and “adhered to principles of openness, objectivity and transparency.” Shen said scientists investigated the possibility of a laboratory leak and “fully shared our research and data without any concealment or reservation.”
Shen said the source of COVID-19 had not been found yet, but he noted it took years to identify the AIDS virus and its origin is still unclear. “Some forces and figures who instigate and participate in politicizing the traceability issue and attempting to smear China should not assume that the vision of the scientific community around the world will be blinded by their clumsy manipulation,” Shen said.”