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China withheld data from team probing Covid-19 origins: WHO chief

Western nations call for full access for experts but China slams 'unethical critics'

GENEVA/ZURICH: Data was withheld from World Health Organisation (WHO) investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, its director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give "full access" to independent experts to all data about the outbreak in late 2019.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan in January and February said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely" as a cause.

One of the team's investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early Covid-19 cases.

"In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data," Dr Tedros said. "I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing."

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude where or how the virus began spreading in people means tensions will continue over how the pandemic started - and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the US has alleged, hindered them.

Although the team concluded that a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was the least likely hypothesis for the virus that causes Covid-19, Dr Tedros said the issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.

"I do not believe this assessment was extensive enough," he told member states in remarks released by WHO.

"Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions."

A top Chinese medical expert said yesterday there was no factual basis to accusations that China did not share data with international researchers appointed by WHO.

Dr Liang Wannian, who was co-leader of the joint study, told reporters that researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation and that the assertions about lack of access were not accurate.

UNETHICAL

"Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analysing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials - it was all done together," he said.

China yesterday also slammed "unethical" critics as it faced mounting pressure over origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, following Dr Tedros' comments.

"This practice of politicising the search for the origins of the virus is extremely unethical," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing, stressing that full access was granted to the Wuhan lab. - REUTERS, AFP

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