China intends to test thousands of samples from a blood bank in the city of Wuhan as part of an investigation into the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic, CNN reports, citing Chinese authorities. As the station notes, the international community has long been calling on Beijing to be more transparent about the sources of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
A team of international experts, seconded by the WHO, traveled to Wuhan in January this year to conduct a “first phase” study into the origins of the coronavirus. However, their report, created in collaboration with Chinese specialists, was widely criticized by the scientific community around the world.
Blood samples are a great source of information
In February, investigators from the World Health Organization concluded that a Wuhan blood bank could be a valuable source of information in investigating the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are about 200,000 blood samples there, some of which were collected at the end of 2019. According to experts, examining them may help determine when and where the SARS-CoV-2 virus first crossed human DNA. The samples, if properly stored, could contain key traces of the first antibodies made by man in response to the virus, experts cited by CNN say.
Chinese officials explained to the station that, according to bank regulations, blood samples are kept for two years in case they are needed as evidence in possible lawsuits related to blood donation.
For samples taken at the very beginning of the pandemic, this two-year period will soon pass. Most experts believe that the first coronavirus infections occurred at the turn of October and November 2019, and not – as previously thought – in December. An official from China’s National Health Commission told CNN that preparations for the tests were now underway, and that the tests would be carried out when the two-year deadline expired.
An appeal for transparency
“The (blood samples) will certainly have important clues,” said Maureen Miller, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, quoted by CNN. She called on China to allow foreign experts to monitor their analysis process. “No one will believe the results of the studies that China will present unless they are supervised by qualified observers,” she pointed out.
Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University Department of Infectious Diseases suggested that the samples could be taken to a laboratory in Geneva or some other neutral location for independent foreign experts from the World Health Organization to participate in the research.
Liang Wannian first mentioned the plans to test the samples at a press conference in July, the head of the Chinese team working on the WHO investigation, Liang Wannian. At that time, he announced that the tests would be conducted by Chinese scientists, and when “they obtained the results, they would share them with both Chinese and foreign expert teams.”
What information do blood samples contain?
Dr Schaffner said the samples were “a chance” to determine “exactly in what months the virus hit China”.
As added by prof. Miller, they can help determine who got infected where and where first. – Sample de-identification is common practice. You can disassemble them into basic demographic data, such as age, gender or place of residence. All these data will be available (after testing blood samples) – the expert explained.
Schaffner stated that there are two key problems when examining said samples. First, make sure that they are not replaced and indeed come from the end of 2019. Second, the population representativeness of donors from whom blood was drawn.
Prof. Miller noted that most of the samples were likely to be obtained from healthy individuals, “so they will represent asymptomatic cases.” As we already know, asymptomatic cases fuel the pandemic, she added.
US intelligence and prosecution report against China
In August, US President Joe Biden accused China of concealing “key information about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.” His words were in response to a previously published summary of a US intelligence investigative report, the result of an earlier Biden decision, which gave intelligence services 90 days to “duplicate efforts” to explain the origin of the pandemic.
It concluded that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not developed “as a biological weapon” and “probably” has not been “genetically modified”. However, the fundamental doubt as to whether its origin should be associated with natural human contact with an infected animal or whether the pandemic was caused by a laboratory accident remains unclear.
“Key information about the origin of the pandemic exists in China, yet Chinese government officials have worked from the outset to prevent access to it by international investigators and global public health actors,” the US President said in a press release.
The report concludes that four intelligence agencies and the US National Intelligence Council believe with “a low degree of certainty” that the animal origin of the coronavirus is the most “probable.” The justification stated, inter alia, that Beijing had no knowledge of the virus prior to its appearance. “The US intelligence community believes Chinese officials were unaware of the virus prior to the outbreak,” the report concluded.
Nevertheless, one intelligence agency believes with a “moderate degree of certainty” that the thesis that the laboratory leak, which arose “possibly” as a result of “animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”, should be favored. Intelligence services currently “are unable to provide a more definitive explanation of” COVID-19’s origin without “new information” provided by China, the summary said.
“To this day, China has rejected calls for transparency and disclosure of important information, even though the impact of this pandemic continues to worsen,” Biden wrote in his statement. “Our efforts to discover the origins of this pandemic will not cease,” assured the American president.
Main photo source: Shutterstock