Lab leak or animal origin? More than three years after COVID first surfaced, the origins of the pandemic are still a mystery.
The World Health Organization (WHO) believes China is withholding crucial data that could shed light on the origins of COVID-19 and has called on Beijing to immediately share it all.
"Without full access to the information that China has, you cannot say this or that [...], all hypotheses are on the table,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Thursday.
“That's WHO's position and that's why we have been asking China to be cooperative on this," he said, adding that if they would, “then we will know what happened or how it started".
More than three years after COVID-19 first surfaced, there’s still heated debate around the origins of the pandemic. The issue has proved divisive for the scientific community and even among US government agencies.
One side of the scientific community believes the virus originated in the Huanan market in Wuhan, China, but some other researchers and officials argue that it may have leaked from a laboratory in the same city.
China strongly rejects this theory and has also long denied that the Huanan market could have hosted animals able to transmit the virus.
Raccoon dog DNA found at Wuhan market
On Wednesday, a new analysis from Chinese researchers added more weight to the theory that an animal first transmitted the virus to humans.
The paper, which is also the first peer-reviewed analysis of swabs collected by Chinese authorities in the early weeks of the pandemic at the Huanan market, identified DNA of wild animals - including raccoon dogs - in samples that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the fight against COVID-19 at WHO, told reporters that the new analysis shows there is molecular evidence that animals known to be able to carry and transmit the virus were being sold on the Huanan market when the pandemic started three years ago.
"We suspected it, but we didn't have the evidence," she said.
But the new analysis only provides "clues" and no clear answers, she said, adding that the data, which was collected in January and February 2020, should have been shared long ago.
"Without information, without data to make a proper assessment, it's very difficult for us to give a concrete answer. And in the present time, we don't have a concrete answer of how the pandemic began".
"We know there is more information that's out there," she said. "We need scientists, public health professionals and governments to share this information. This is not a game".
In an editorial in Science magazine published Thursday, Van Kerkhove said she believed China had data that it had not shared, including on the wild and farmed animal trade at the Wuhan market, the testing of humans and animals in Wuhan and across China, and operations of labs in Wuhan working on coronaviruses.
WHO has repeatedly accused China of not cooperating enough to identify the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to know how this started in order to prevent the next one,” Tedros said in February. “We need cooperation and transparency in order to know how this started. And I assure you that we will continue to push until we get the answers”.