China has withheld information about the possible natural origin of the virus. The WHO calls the lack of transparency “inexcusable”.

A Chinese health worker outside the hospital in Wuhan.
A Chinese health worker outside the hospital in Wuhan.  AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The Huanan market in the middle of the metropolis of Wuhan was at the center of the first corona outbreak: “The cases that are known are all around this market,” says Bernese virologist Volker Thiel. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been researching the coronavirus.

Accidental data discovery, great gain in knowledge

Now so-called environmental samples have appeared. The genetic data that can be read from these samples were available online for a short time on the research server GISAID, uploaded by Chinese researchers from the local epidemic institute CCDC. The French researcher Florence Débarre discovered it on the server rather by chance, and then evaluated it with colleagues.

I would be surprised if China itself does not want to know where the infections come from.
Author:Volker ThielVirologist University of Bern

These are samples that were taken three years ago, right after the outbreak of the pandemic, in Huanan Market: swabs from walls, cages, in drains, so-called environmental samples. Now it is clear: China has been withholding this revealing data all along and from the world.

The WHO now reacts unusually clearly in the journal “Science”, calls for more transparency, and condemns the lack of it. “I can imagine that the WHO feels led around by the nose,” says Thiel. And further: “It would surprise me if China does not want to know for itself where the infections come from.”

You still don’t know everything

China is a modern research country and has the technical capabilities and knowledge to search for information in the right place with the right methods. From the point of view of virology, it is almost a matter of course where it is worth looking. Thiel says: “I can’t know for sure, but I think they have taken other samples besides these that we don’t know about yet.”

On live animals at the market, for example, on farms in the outskirts of the city. Thiel: “And if there is a suspicion that the virus was on certain farms, how did it get there?” Connections to wildlife must be clarified, Thiel continued.

I can imagine that the WHO is very disappointed.
Author:Volker ThielVirologist University of Bern

The WHO now emphasizes, at least between the lines, that China can hardly pretend that there are no relevant samples at all these obvious places and times. “It’s unusually clear. And I can also imagine that the WHO is very disappointed. It was probably thought that China was relatively open,” says Thiel. However, this does not seem to be the case.

“The virus was there”

The WHO also emphasizes that key details are still missing about the work being done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The call for China to cooperate transparently with other countries and the WHO is therefore aimed at both possible starting points for the pandemic: the market and the laboratory.

The current state of knowledge, however, can be summarized as follows: “We have clear evidence that the virus was on this market. We also know that the animals that are susceptible to the virus were also there,” says virologist Thiel.