China must share data on COVID-19's origins 'immediately,' WHO scientist demands

photo of Maria D. Van Kerkhove (a white woman with long brown hair and blonde highlights) sitting in front of a microphone and a large backdrop that reads "world health organization"
Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization pictured at a press conference in Geneva on January 22, 2020. (Image credit: PIERRE ALBOUY / Contributor via Getty Images)

Scientists in China collected key coronavirus data in 2020 from a market in Wuhan — ground zero of the first reported outbreak of COVID-19 — but didn't share the raw data publicly until March 2023. And experts suspect that China has much more data from the early pandemic that "have yet to be shared" with the global research community.

That's according to a new editorial, published Thursday (April 6) in the journal Science and penned by Maria Van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 technical lead for the World Health Organization (WHO). China likely has data that could shed light on how the pandemic began, Van Kerkhove wrote, and the country's failure to disclose the data makes the whole world more vulnerable to future pandemics.

These undisclosed data likely include details of China's wild- and farmed-animal trades, as well as the operations of labs in Wuhan that work with coronaviruses, according to the editorial. The data also may include details about the earliest potential cases of COVID-19 detected in China and the diagnostic testing that was conducted in humans and animals in the early days of the pandemic. 

"WHO continues to call on China and all countries to share any data on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, immediately," Van Kerkhove wrote. "The world needs to move away from the politics of blame and, instead, exploit all diplomatic and scientific approaches so that the global scientific community can do what it does best — collaborate, focus on this health crisis, and find evidence-based solutions to thwart future pandemics." 

Related: Will we ever find COVID-19's 'Patient Zero?' 

Van Kerkhove's statement was prompted by events that took place last month. In early March, researchers from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) uploaded never-before-seen coronavirus data to Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), an open-access database that includes data on influenza viruses and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The data was later removed from GISAID but not before being downloaded by researchers outside China.

This international team of researchers reported that the data showed that SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and the DNA of common raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) were present in and around the exact same stalls at Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in January 2020. The data cannot prove that the raccoon dogs, a fox relative, were actively infected with SARS-CoV-2 at the time, but they strongly raise the possibility that infected animals were at the market, potentially spreading the virus to other animals and to humans.

This analysis prompted a meeting of the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), the China CDC researchers and the international team that analyzed the newly released raccoon dog data. China's failure to share the data back in 2020 is "simply inexcusable," Van Kerkhove wrote in her editorial.

"Still needed are studies that trace and test those animals to their source and serologic studies of the workers in live animal markets in Wuhan or in the source farms," Van Kerkhove wrote. "Without such investigations, we cannot fully understand the factors that led to the start of this pandemic." 

"Every new piece of data could potentially move the world closer to stopping another pandemic — perhaps a worse one — in the future," she wrote.

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.