Remarks by China's lead scientist in the World Health Organisation-led investigation into the origins of coronavirus have been slammed as "farcical" after he voiced his main concerns ahead of the release of their highly-anticipated joint report.
In an exclusive interview with Chinese state-run publication the Global Times, Liang Wannian revealed China had refused to give data of the original Covid-19 cases to the group of international scientists who visited Wuhan at the start of the year due to privacy reasons of those infected.
"As for the original data of some cases, due to the privacy of patients, according to Chinese laws, we cannot let the international experts copy and take it out of the country, which they fully understood," he said.
He also said it took Chinese experts seven months to "comprehensively" start collecting data related to the pandemic's initial outbreak.
China's Covid investigation claims 'don't ring true', Aussie scientist says
Honorary Professor Colin D Butler at ANU's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, told Yahoo News Australia Liang's claims didn't add up.
"Liang Wannian’s comment that concerns privacy prevented data being removed from China does not ring true," he said.
"Couldn’t the data have been anonymised in some way, if the Chinese were sincere about transparency and sharing information?
"In a country with unprecedented surveillance of its citizens, this concern about privacy seems implausible."
Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky told Yahoo News Australia he understood Western scientists were not even granted access to the raw data in China, let alone be able to take it overseas.
Liang stated in the interview that both sides had cooperated openly and fully throughout the month-long investigation and that "results of this joint study in China are the consensus of Chinese and foreign experts".
However Prof Butler said much of the interview with Liang, particularly remarks of transparency, was "farcical".
"To a large extent the co-operation and trust existed because the team were hand-picked and approved by China," he said.
Wuhan lab leak still a possibility
While head of the mission Peter Ben Embarek previously said it was highly unlikely the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as well as other experts globally have said it must still be investigated further.
Prof Butler says Liang's avoidance of giving his opinion on such a stance when pressed highlights the need for it to be further investigated.
Liang also promoted Chinese government claims of other sources of the pandemic saying cold chain transmission "plays an important part in the origin and transmission of the epidemic" – a theory multiple experts have dismissed as a possible source of the outbreak in Wuhan, and one that is deemed as a political move from Beijing to place blame for the pandemic overseas.
Group of experts call for fresh investigation
Prof Butler is among a handful of academics globally who in an open letter earlier this month called for a new "unrestricted" investigation into the virus's origins after concerns China had too much control over the four-week visit that concluded in February.
“We wish to raise public awareness of the fact that half of the joint team convened under that process is made of Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, that international members of the joint team had to rely on information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them, and that any joint team report must be approved by both the Chinese and international members of the joint team,” the group wrote in the letter.
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