China refused to provide early cases data

·2-min read

China has refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a World Health Organization-led team probing the origins of the pandemic, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak began.

The team has requested raw patient data on 174 cases China identified from the early phase of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases.

However it has only been provided with a summary, says Australian infectious diseases expert and team member Dominic Dwyer.

Such data is known as "line listings", he said, and would typically be anonymised but contain details such as what questions were asked of individual patients, their responses and how their responses were analysed.

"That's standard practice for an outbreak investigation," Dwyer said on Saturday.

He said gaining access to the raw data was especially important since only half the 174 cases had exposure to the Huanan market, the now-shuttered wholesale seafood centre where the virus was initially detected.

"That's why we've persisted to ask for that," he said.

"Why that doesn't happen, I couldn't comment. Whether it's political or time or it's difficult ... But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn't available, I don't know. One would only speculate."

While the Chinese authorities provided a lot of material, Dwyer said the issue of access to the raw patient data would be mentioned in the team's final report.

"The WHO people certainly felt that they had received much much more data than they had ever received in the previous year. So that in itself is an advance."

A summary of the team's findings could be released as early as next week, the WHO said on Friday.

The WHO-led probe had been plagued by delay, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.

The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks looking into the origins of the outbreak, was limited to visits organised by their hosts and denied contact with community members due to health restrictions.

The first two weeks were spent in quarantine.

Dwyer said the work within the team was harmonious but there were "arguments" at times with their Chinese counterparts over the interpretation and significance of the data, which he described as "natural".

"We might be having a talk about cold chain and they might be more firm about what the data shows than what we might have been but that's natural," he said.

Cold chain refers to the transport and trade of frozen food.

Beijing has sought to cast doubt on the notion the coronavirus originated in China, pointing to imported frozen food as a conduit.