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SCIO press conference on COVID-19 origin tracing

On July 22, the State Council Information Office (SCIO) held a press conference in Beijing on COVID-19 origin tracing.

China.org.cnUpdated: July 25, 2021


Recently, the WHO discussed concerns over information transparency. Is China willing to provide raw data that might reveal the early transmission of COVID-19 in Wuhan? If not, can you explain the reason? The virus database managed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology went offline in 2019. Has the institute published all the genome sequences it has collected since the outbreak? The joint report by the WHO and China said that scientists conducted tests on thousands of animal samples — will China do any more tests? Will China carry out studies on more venues and facilities that are used for breeding animals? How many more bat communities can be studied? Thank you.

Liang Wannian:

I will answer the first and third questions. When our joint team of experts conducted the study in January and February, we had sufficient discussions over the issue of providing early-stage raw data. At that time, we said that since this is an international joint research team launched by the WHO, the 17 foreign scientists and the 17 Chinese scientists should be acting as a whole and all the members should be highly integrated and conduct the research work as a team. We followed four common principles to complete the origin-tracing task initiated by the WHO. We had been following the principles of making research plans together, conducting on-site inspections together, analyzing data together, and presenting our study report and results together. 

The most important thing in the origin-tracing work is the early information and data. Mr. Zeng just explained that following the outbreak of the epidemic, Chinese scientists carried out extensive and in-depth origin-tracing work under the leadership of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Health Commission and other relevant departments before the joint research launched by the WHO. Among this work, we were very concerned at the time with the data related to animals and early cases. I have also noticed that regarding the data of early patients, some foreign voices have said that we didn't provide them, especially the data of the first 174 COVID-19 cases. In fact, these patients' data were all displayed and shared during our stay in Wuhan. However, China has relevant standing regulations regarding patients' clinical data, including epidemiological survey data and laboratory test data, which involves personal privacy. If the data is completely released, this will violate the relevant regulations. At the time, we did a lot of work to centralize these databases, and conducted analysis and research together with foreign experts, including on what to analyze, what patterns could be seen in the end, and the conclusions drawn in the final report — we did this work together. It is only because we need to guard the patients' privacy, that we did not agree to give away the original data, nor did we allow them to copy it or take photos. At the time, international experts also fully understood and believed that this was international routine, not only in China. Later, we also explained many times why we were not handing over the original data. In fact, this is a rough concept. First, what does it mean to say we "did not provide" the data? In fact, we showed it to you and we analyzed it together. We thought it was provided; it's just that we didn't let you take the data away. Second, what is the "original data"? Was it the data we finally analyzed after sorting and analysis, or the raw data, every single data point? There are big differences in understanding. I remember that when we were conducting research, our team of experts had no problem on this point, and thought that the data provided by China was for joint research. I want to explain this a little bit: It's not true that we deliberately didn't provide the data; neither was it because we didn't give the data away to the foreign experts, that the conclusions drawn in our research report were said to be one-sided. You can understand this when you look at our detailed research report.

The third question you just mentioned was regarding the research into animals. We believe that the introduction pathway of animal origin, especially from natural hosts to intermediate hosts to humans, has gone from "more likely" to "very likely." Therefore, we particularly suggested that in the future more energy should be invested, and even that the top priority of the work should be concentrated in this direction. Chinese scientists have done a lot of work in this regard. When we went to work on site in Wuhan, the Chinese side had already demonstrated some results of tests on animals in markets. Just now, Mr. Zeng introduced in detail that there were no positive findings from the tests of animals in markets. Also, we had the comprehensive tracing of their upstream farms, and no positive results were found. The scope was then further expanded. We had conducted virus antibody or nucleic acid testing for more than 38,000 livestock and poultry samples, and more than 41,000 samples of wild animals collected from 31 provincial-level regions across the country from 2018 to 2020, yet still no positive results were found. All such detailed data, including the animal species, sources, testing methods and testing results, was reflected in detailed tables and graphs in the joint report. Actually, in brief, whether it was in markets or the upstream of the markets, or in the broader areas of the country, whether it was livestock and poultry, or wild animals that Chinese scientists can find, we have carried out tests on them all, and no positive results have been found in terms of antigens or antibodies.

In fact, Chinese scientists have also done a lot of research on bats and collected a large number of samples. At that time, compared with other countries, we believed that China had led the world in the breadth and depth of bat research and done more. As Mr. Zeng and Mr. Yuan just mentioned, viruses quite similar to SARS-CoV-2 were found through our research, but there are still differences. Scientifically speaking, it is certain that no SARS-CoV-2 has been isolated from China's large number of bat samples. Similarity does not mean the same. Secondly, there are many kinds of bats that live widely in the world. As we know that there has been no systematic study on bats in many parts of the world. Studies on bats, as parts of studies on wild animals, should be a focus when tracing origins of COVID-19, according to the basic conclusions of scientists and the results of our first-phase origin tracing. Bats are so widely throughout the world, and they are very likely to be an intermediate animal, so the research should not be limited only in China but also encouraged on a larger scale, such as in countries and regions with a bat distribution. 

Studies on origins of COVID-19 in animals should be the focus of next phase. This is the most worthwhile thing to do. The natural evolution of a pathogen is the most worthwhile topic of our attention. Our study should not only be limited on wild animals such as bats, but also related animals, such as pangolins, civets, minks and more. It is valuable to study the possible origins and distribution of these intermediate hosts, which have been proved able to carry or possibly carry pathogens through researches carried out by scientists of various countries. Of course, further research on markets that have had outbreaks, including the upstream and downstream chains of farms, is also valuable. I know that Chinese scientists have been working very hard in this regard even after the global study on the coronavirus origins. We have also been expecting that scientists around the world will do this work, focusing on natural evolution and animals. That's all I have to say. 

Yuan Zhiming:

Just now, the reporter mentioned the database of the WIV, which is a preliminary framework established by the team of the institute. The structure and content of the database are still being improved. Considering the large number of malicious attacks on the institute's website and the work and private email addresses of many of its staff, including Shi Zhengli's team, the database is currently shared within the WIV. 

The project team will analyze and systematically sort out the original data of the database and publish research results in the form of papers, which will also be displayed and retrieved in a visual way on the database. As we know, it is the usual practice that the original data of scientific research is published in the form of papers after being analyzed and collated and the database will then be opened to the public. The institute will strictly follow the rules of the sci-tech community in displaying and sharing our scientific data. 

The WIV has always insisted on timely sharing of the information on scientific research. We have submitted to the WHO the whole genome sequence in a timely manner after we obtained the preliminary results of the pathogen identification. As early as Feb. 3, 2020, the research team, led by Shi Zhengli, published a paper in Nature linking the origin of COVID-19 to nature. After we found that several drugs had antiviral activities at the cellular level, we published our research results in international magazines on Feb. 4. Meanwhile, the WIV also actively took part in international video and audio academic conferences, organized by the WHO, the United States National Academy of Sciences, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and the Russian Academy of Sciences, to share our research results in the establishment of animal models, the selection of antiviral drugs, and the development of inactivated COVID-19 vaccines with our international counterparts. 

Running the laboratory, we have long upheld a set of management principles which feature openness, shared benefits, and transparency. Over the past four years, we have continuously organized workshops concerning lab-based biosafety management and technologies, and helped some countries train groups of personnel in the fields of infectious diseases prevention and control and biosafety management. We proactively participate in the global and regional system of high-containment biosafety labs, and become one of the designated labs under the UN Secretary-General's Mechanism (UNSGM) and a member of the Group of High-containment Laboratory Directors (GOHLD), and share with global colleagues our management experience and technological progress. Some of our staff have also received biosafety training and relevant qualifications in France, Australia, Canada and the U.S. In the meantime, we have invited biosafety experts from France, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and Canada to our labs and they provided on-site guidance and exchanged experience with us, so as to jointly promote the safe and stable operation of high-containment laboratories around the world. That's all. Thank you.

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