After we reported in March 2023 that possibly critical data concerning the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market had been quietly released on GISAID, the story has developed with researchers and public health leaders challenging China for not sharing them sooner. With senior figures in WHO, including the Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggesting that the data “could have – and should have” been shared earlier, questions are being raised about the apparent Chinese obfuscation of global pandemic origin research.  

Dr van Kerkhove’s “hell” 

In a “condensed” interview with Science Dr Maria van Kerkhove outlined her frustrations at being unable to access sufficient data to draw conclusions about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. She stated that WHO had been “calling for any and all data” to be shared, echoing previous emphasis on WHO’s reliance on Member States’ cooperation.  

Dr van Kerkhove indicated that these new data do confirm “what has been suspected”: “there were animals at the market that were susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, that the market of course played a really important role”. However, questions remain about where the animals came from and what research was carried out in the early stages of the pandemic.  

“None of that information is available.”  

Displaying diplomatic caution, Dr van Kerkhove also addressed the tension surrounding lab leak or zoonotic origin. She stated that just because “all hypotheses are on the table” it “doesn’t mean that all hypotheses have equal weight”. She emphasised that WHO is “pushing for more information through SAGO”, including immediate sharing of animal-specific information. She described the sudden glimpse of new information as a challenge to China’s “credibility”. 

“It is beyond infuriating and frustrating to be in this position…And that is scary as hell.” 

Cooperation from China 

Experts have long been demanding greater communication from and with China, including Dr Mike Ryan’s reminder that WHO requires its Member States to direct research. Professor George Gao, who Science suggests “sat on” the data, has been contacted by SAGO but apparently not engaged in dialogue. However, for Dr van Kerkhove, the scenes that are unfolding “in social media and in media” are deeply concerning. She hopes to see a conversation “playing out with a robust debate with everything on the table”. 

“We don’t have the cooperation from China.”  

The “continued fighting” and “politicisation” represents an unnecessary “distraction” from the task at hand, and is “unconscionable”, says Dr van Kerkhove. 

Why does it matter? 

As we move into a fourth year of COVID-19, armed with evolving vaccine technology and surveillance, some might argue that it is time to abandon this seemingly fruitless pursuit. However, Dr van Kerkhove highlights the importance of “understanding the exact conditions in which this happened” in order to “get more refined” in our approach to prevention. In particular, she identifies a need to understand the specifics of the case in a country “that has excellent lab systems”, “fever surveillance” in place, and “capable scientists”.  

Suggesting that “nobody knows” if we will ever know the origin of the pandemic, Dr van Kerkhove reckons that “anyone who speaks with absolute certainty really doesn’t know”. This “clue” is an important one, and one that she hopes to pursue further.  

Who owns data? 

Although WHO and public health officials have emphatically called for more transparency in data sharing, Science also considers the “appropriateness” of jumping on the data before it has been published in a paper by the Chinese researchers. Indeed, GISAID claimed in a statement on 21st March 2023 that the researchers who identified and analysed the data had been suspended for running “afoul” to the Access Agreement.  

GISAID’s statement suggests that “select users” published a report in “direct contravention of the terms they agreed to” with specific emphasis on the “knowledge that the data generators are undergoing peer review assessment of their own publication”. Dr Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona represented the team of authors in a reply to GISAID. He presented email evidence of attempts at collaborations as well as reference to “multiple verbal entreaties” and Zoom messages to the Chinese team.  

Consequently, GISAID has agreed to review the evidence, but the question of data ownership and permission continues to sound across media. Dr Jesse Bloom told Science that “all scientific data related to the early outbreak in Wuhan should be made available”.  

“It’s frustrating that despite their now being two public analyses related to these data, the data are still not available.”  

As we move further away from those first few months of the pandemic, how important do you think it is that we keep trying to understand its origins? What are your views on data sharing and international access? 

Join us to discuss how lessons from COVID-19 shape preparations for future threats at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington 2023.