China did ‘little’ to investigate the origins of Covid during the first eight months of the outbreak, a leaked WHO report has claimed.
Scientists from the UN body warned in August last year that Beijing was dragging its feet over the probe, which they said had barely advanced since January.
They also warned Beijing was not sharing data, despite WHO chief Dr Tedros insisting that groundwork to identify the virus’s origins was being laid.
The report leaked amid backlash at the WHO for its most-recent Wuhan probe, which backed theories being pushed by Beijing that the virus started outside China.
WHO investigators, led by Peter Embarek, visited Wuhan between July 10 and August 3 last year as part of an ‘advance team’ to set up the much-wider probe which took place in January.
The leaked document, seen by The Guardian, is a two-page report put together as they left the country to summarize the team’s findings.
It says: ‘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 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.’
But WHO chief Dr Tedros gave no indication that China was withholding information when he addressed the world at a press conference the same day, August 3.
Speaking about the China probe, he said only: ‘One of the areas that we have been continuing to study is the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.
‘The WHO advance team that travelled to China has now concluded their mission to lay the groundwork for further joint efforts to identify the virus origins.
‘As a result of these efforts, WHO and Chinese experts have drafted the Terms of Reference for the studies and programme of work for an international team.’
The international team – also led by Dr Embarek – arrived in Wuhan in January this year and returned home two weeks ago after offering an almost-full endorsement of Beijing’s explanations for the origins of the virus.
Dr Embarek used a press conference as the trip finished to push theories backed by Beijing that the virus could have been imported on frozen meat, while dismissing suggestions it leaked from a Chinese lab.
He also insisted there was no evidence the virus was spreading in Wuhan before December – a position which he has since walked back after his assessment was met with scorn.
Dr Embarek now says discovered there were at least 13 Covid variants in Wuhan in December last year, suggesting the virus had been in the human population for some time to allow these different strains to develop.
He also revealed that up to 1,000 people in Wuhan could have been infected in early December – an estimate based on Chinese data that showed 174 severe cases of the disease – also suggesting it was spreading widely at the time.
While he stopped short of saying the virus was circulating before December, he did call for further investigation into the theory.
Dr Tedros has also walked back suggestions the virus did not leak from a lab, saying that all theories remain on the table.
The WHO’s final Wuhan report is excepted to recommend ‘extensive’ contact tracing of ‘patient zero’ – a man infected with Covid on December 8 who had no links to a seafood market once touted as the source of the virus – leading scientists to slam the ‘implausibly’ slow pace of Beijing’s investigations.
Independent scientists say they can’t understand why Chinese scientists had not done this investigative work months ago.
Professor Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, said: ‘It’s implausible that this research has not been done. It’s not realistic, given they have world-class scientists there, and the technology invested in over the last 20 years.
Miller, who was shown a copy of the to-be-published report by CNN, said the first patient’s infection on December 8 without direct contact with the wet market or travel shows there was already community transmission.
‘In the short and long term, it is detrimental to China to try to hide the fact that this virus started in China and was exported around the world,’ she told the website.
Professor Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was surprising China ‘hasn’t invested in investigating two important clues like that.’
He added the country had recently mobilised the entire city of Beijing to find the source of a Covid-19 outbreak.
‘They have top-notch scientists, who are much more knowledgeable than most in terms of recognising the importance of this information,’ he said.
Huang added that the WHO recommendations showed they were ‘uncovering some interesting information tracing of the origins of the virus.’