WHO Investigation in Wuhan, China, Concludes Despite Data Obstacles

By Samantha Swank 

Following a required 14-day quarantine in a hotel January, 17 World Health Organization (WHO) researchers collaborated for two weeks with Chinese researchers on an investigation that analyzed the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus which to date, has infected more than 110 million people and killed nearly 2.5 million globally.

A disproportionate number of novel infectious illnesses have originated from China, likely due to several of its cities’ biodiverse and dense populations of animals and people with close contact between them. This allows infections to jump from animals to humans and spread within the community much more easily than in other areas.

Explanations for whether the virus came from China has floated about in national and international discourses since the outbreak began and grew especially politicized once the United States suffered its first cases and lockdowns. 

Former president Donald Trump insisted on calling it the “Chinese virus” and perpetuated theories that it had originated in a Chinese lab, without evidence. In response, the Chinese government has claimed that the infection could have come from elsewhere and spread to China via frozen meat or other goods, meaning it simply first had been detected there rather than originated.

Politicization of the pandemic has contributed directly to the escalation in Asian-American discrimination and hate crimes against them over the past year–most recently and visibly in the Bay Area of California. It has also muddled attempts to scientifically and unbiasedly establish the origins of the virus.

The research team has highlighted two theories in particular that the Chinese government has pushed, both of which assert that the virus didn’t originate in China. While wholly plausible, it’s less likely that the virus came from elsewhere, and unless the team had accessed unpublished data suggesting otherwise, it is uncertain why they chose to highlight these theories if the investigation didn’t drastically change their conclusion supporting the widely adopted theory of the virus jumping from bats to humans within Chinese borders.

The team has also faced barriers to accessing the kind of data crucial to the investigation. Blood samples from donation banks–that would be analyzed for clues of the virus–have instead only been summarized, and samples withheld though the reason why are still unclear. They were also denied access to anonymized medical records and to the data used by Chinese officials to conclude that the outbreak had not started earlier than December 2019.

Evidence suggests that the virus may have already been in the United States during this time, and that it had spread much more broadly in Wuhan than a December origin would have caused. The WHO researchers found that several strains were already circulating in Wuhan and estimated that at least a thousand cases had likely occurred by the time the outbreak was announced.

The first community-transmitted case in the U.S. was reported in Solano County, California, toward the end of last February, although the CDC has noted that it was likely spreading between people by the beginning of that month.

New York City became the first in the United States to suffer a severe outbreak that rapidly overwhelmed hospitals and morgues the spring of 2020. A second, more widespread summer wave hit several states fairly hard while sparing others. And the most recent winter wave overwhelmed hospitals nationwide; during its peak, more than 300,000 new daily cases and 4,000 new daily deaths were being reported.

The ubiquity of rapid travel from country to country via airplane has globalized infectious diseases in a manner that make them extraordinarily difficult to control without rapid international response: an outbreak in one country can spread to another within hours or days, and then from there spread to other new regions and so on, undetected.

China since has been criticized for its opaqueness in the first several months of the outbreak, in which they silenced whistleblowers distributing information about the virus. It has also been criticized for its initial secrecy with the viral genome, which the Chinese government withheld for nearly two weeks after its first announcement on Dec. 31, 2019.

During the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in the early 2000s, the Chinese government withheld information about a deadly outbreak several months before acknowledging the emergence of a new virus. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, eventually spread to more than two dozen regions, including Canada and Singapore, where more than 8,000 total cases were reported, and nearly 800 died. China was heavily criticized for its secrecy with public health data that likely would have prevented the outbreak from spreading.

In November 2019, a month and a half before the announcement of the novel Coronavirus infections, two patients with pneumonic plague–a cousin of the bubonic plague caused by the same bacteria that infects the lungs rather than the lymphatic system–presented to a Beijing hospital and ignited fears of an outbreak. Though the infection was contained, criticisms over the government’s lag in public disclosure arose.

Both political and nonpolitical parties have expressed concern over a similar lag in reporting the novel 2019 coronavirus to the World Health Organization, a requirement under International Health Regulations. The United States and other governments have since ordered independent reviews of the recent WHO research, citing distrust of the Chinese government’s involvement in the investigation given its past of silencing whistleblowers to novel diseases and 

Despite this, some believe that although the investigation still requires follow-up because of its brevity and data gaps, it will serve as a crucial foundation between China and the WHO that will foster future collaboration on a more thorough examination of the virus’ origins and consequently more transparency in reporting future outbreaks.

About The Author

Related posts


  1. Tia Will

    The author has neatly summarized information on the critical nature of full transparency in the prevention of viral spread whether that spread is between countries, states, regions, counties or local communities and hospitals. If we cannot all accept that honesty and transparency are critical weapons on all levels when it comes to epidemics and pandemics we will have lost the battle to viruses without even having acknowledged who the real enemy is.

    1. Keith Olsen

      If we cannot all accept that honesty and transparency are critical weapons on all levels when it comes to epidemics and pandemics we will have lost the battle to viruses without even having acknowledged who the real enemy is.

      Do you believe WHO and China are honest and transparent?

  2. Tia Will

    The Chinese government was not honest as witnessed by the pressure put on Dr.Li who was actively sending out warnings on a medical chat group.

    I am less clear on the extent of dishonesty by the WHO since it is less clear who in that organization knew what and when.

    I know for a fact that the Trump administration lied repeatedly about the nature of and best ways to manage the outbreak in this country.

    As I stated in my post, I believe complete honesty is necessary for all, not just those we perceive as political opponents.  The only relevant “sides” in my view are humanity on one side, the virus on the other. Everything else is nothing but self-serving political BS in my view.

  3. Keith Olsen

    China has WHO in its left pocket.  In my opinion and many others WHO will do or say whatever China wants.  Everyone, if they were being honest,  knew how this supposed WHO investigation of China was going to turn out well before it began.

    The WHO’s praise of China’s response have led critics to question the relationship between the two entities. The UN agency relied on funding and the cooperation of members to function, giving wealthy member states like China considerable influence.Perhaps one of the most overt examples of China’s sway over the WHO is its success in blocking Taiwan’s access to the body, a position that could have very real consequences for the Taiwanese people if the virus takes hold there.
    The WHO’s position regarding China has also renewed a longstanding debate about whether the WHO, founded 72 years ago, is sufficiently independent to allow it to fulfill its purpose.


    Notice, this is a CNN article, hardly a right news entity.

  4. Tia Will

    I will once again reiterate my statement. Duplicity, lying, hiding information, “downplaying” of any aspect of the pandemic have occurred at many different levels by many different groups. I have inferred from your messaging that you want to focus on certain groups, whereas I would hold everyone who has engaged in any of these activities responsible for their part.

    Again, it is the virus we must defeat and it is my view that full honesty and transparency by all is the best route forward. I leave you to your apparently one-sided approach to responsibility.

  5. Ron Oertel

    Tia: “I leave you to your apparently one-sided approach to responsibility.”

    Who are you referring to, and why? 

    The article itself focuses on WHO’s investigation as it relates to China.

  6. Tia Will


    Do you believe WHO and China are honest and transparent?”

    I was referring to this question posed to me by Keith. I thought I had made it clear, and subsequently clarified my use of the word “everyone”. Keith has chosen to focus only on the falsehoods and lack of transparency by China and WHO when they are obviously not the only “bad actors” in this debacle.

    1. Ron Oertel

      WHO’s investigation in China was the subject of the article, itself. So, I’m failing to see why comments or questions regarding either of those entities would lead one to arrive at your (additional) conclusion, regarding a “one-sided approach to responsibility” by a commenter.

      1. Tia Will


        When there are known to have been lies by three different entities, but only two of those entities are acknowledged by a poster, I think it is safe to say they are biased or one-sided when they do not respond when called out on it.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I see – part of an ongoing conversation, I assume.

          Sort of like a “say his name” type of demand.  🙂

          Similar to acknowledging what occurred at the Capitol.

          In any case, I don’t see what’s to be accomplished – other than learning how to better-respond, next time (politically, scientifically).  Assuming that’s possible (and within a given entity’s control / decision-making process).

    1. Don Shor

      What a coincidence?

      This supposed linkage was discredited a year ago. That hasn’t stopped it from circulating on dubious fringe websites. I suggest that the Vanguard should not become one of those websites.

      1. Keith Olsen

        How was it discredited Don, by China?  By WHO who many believe is in bed with China?  Is there not a virology disease/bioweapons lab in Wuhan?  Does it not appear that COVID originated in Wuhan?

      2. Alan Miller

        I suggest that the Vanguard should not become one of those websites.

        In the articles, or in the comments?  In other words, are we ‘doing a facebook’ here?

        1. Alan Miller

          Comment 4B — Sh*t clock failed immediately.

          Comment 4, continued . . .

          (i.e. censorship?)

          Remember when the U.S. Government recommended not wearing face masks?

          Remember when the elderly were packed into old folks homes in New York?

          Facts be tricky thangs 😐

        2. Don Shor

          I suggest that insinuations that have no evidence are not appropriate in the articles or in the comments. There was never any evidence for the assertion of any linkage. Here is a good discussion of the issue that was raised. However, if Keith wants to discuss it further he’ll have to wait for another article, or write his own, since he’s used up his five comments.

        3. Alan Miller

          I suggest that insinuations that have no evidence are not appropriate in the articles or in the comments. There was never any evidence for the assertion of any linkage.

          Coyote in the air, having chased Roadrunner off a cliff, hovering, waiting for the inevitable fall . . .

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for