The WHO on Tuesday released the much-awaited report into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A team of international experts was sent to Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, on a fact-finding mission to study the origins of the virus and transmission within China before spreading globally.
The study which was conducted by international experts in collaboration with Chinese scientists left many questions unanswered such as the exact source of the virus. This prompted the 14 countries to release a joint statement on Wednesday expressing concerns over the study which was not only delayed but also lacked access to complete, original data and samples. New Zealand however was the only Five Eyes country that refused to sign the statement condemning the research and study.
China is now New Zealand’s biggest trading partner with annual two-way trade of more than NZ$32 billion ($22.3 billion), has been releasing a number of other statements with its partners on China.
Justifying its absence from the list, New Zealand’s foreign ministry told Reuters in an email response, “New Zealand acknowledges that member states have expressed a number of concerns. New Zealand wants to make sure we conduct an independent analysis to ensure we understand the science before making any comment.”
Responding to another question by Newshub about its decision to not participate in the release of the statement, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said, “New Zealand is pleased that the report has now been released. Our technical experts are currently analyzing the report. We will wait until our experts have finished analyzing the report.”
The countrys’ absence has raised suspicion considering Beijing this year upgraded a free trade agreement with New Zealand that had been in discussion for years. The decision received flak from academicians who questioned New Zealand’s quiet shift on China.
On the other hand, responding to criticism of China’s transparency with the WHO report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “The Chinese side presented item by item raw data of particular concern. The WHO and international experts gave positive comments on the joint research, stressing a level of openness they hadn’t anticipated. The drafting of the origin-tracing report has been carried out between experts from both China and WHO, and conclusions have been reached through repeated research in a science-based way.”
What’s in the joint statement:
The Governments of Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America emphasized that there is a need to conduct a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, without any interference and undue influence.
The statement read, “We note the findings and recommendations, including the need for further studies of animals to find the means of introduction into humans and urge momentum for expert-driven phase 2 studies. Going forward, there must now be a renewed commitment by WHO and all member states to access, transparency, and timeliness.”
The statement demanded “full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged.”
China had withheld data
It is notable here that the WHO study has received criticism over lack of raw data. It is rather known that the WHO team was prevented from accessing raw data and that has cast global suspicions on the authenticity and reliability of the report.
WHO chief Dr Tedros had himself acknowledged that data had been withheld from the scientific fact-finding team. “In my discussions with the team they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,” Tedros had told on Wednesday.
Reports stated that Tedros’ address was censored in Chinese internet.
WHO report conclusion:
The report by WHO concluded by stating that it’s “extremely unlikely” the virus originated from a laboratory. The other likely option as per the report is a spillover from an animal reservoir host to human, followed by direct person-to-person transmission. It is interesting to note that the report having studied the supply chain of the Huanan market (and other markets in Wuhan), did not find any evidence for the presence of infected animals, but said the analysis of supply chains has provided potential information that will inform a targeted design of follow up studies. The report then states that animal products from areas “outside southeast Asia” where more distantly related SARSr-CoVs circulate should not be disregarded.
As the origins of the virus could not be traced successfully, the team called for a continued scientific and collaborative approach to be taken towards tracing the origins of COVID-19.