Saskia Popescu and Greg Koblentz, members of the Center’s Scientists Working Group of Chemical and Biological Threats, spoke with The Atlantic about releasing data on COVID’s origins.
“If the international team released what data it has, it could potentially stoke the fracas in other ways. The World Health Organization has publicly indicated that the data should come from the researchers who collected them first: On Friday, at a press briefing, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, admonished the Chinese researchers for keeping their data under wraps for so long, and called on them to release the sequences again. “These data could have and should have been shared three years ago,” he said. And the fact that it wasn’t is “disturbing,” given just how much it might have aided investigations early on, says Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense expert at George Mason University, who wasn’t involved in the new analysis.
“We want the data to come out more than anybody,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University and one of the authors on the new analysis. Until then, the international team will be fielding accusations, already flooding in, that it falsified its analyses and overstated its conclusions.
The longer the investigation into the virus’s origins drags on, and the more distant the autumn of 2019 grows in our rearview, “the harder it becomes,” Van Kerkhove told me. Many in the research community were surprised that new information from market samples collected in early 2020 emerged at all, three years later. Settling the squabbles over SARS-CoV-2 will be especially tough because the Huanan market was so swiftly shut down after the outbreak began, and the traded animals at the venue rapidly culled, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan and one of the researchers behind the new analysis. Raccoon dogs, one of the most prominent potential hosts to have emerged from the new analysis, are not even known to have been sampled live at the market. “That evidence is gone now,” if it ever existed, Koblentz, of George Mason University, told me. For months, Chinese officials were even adamant that no mammals were being illegally sold at the region’s wet markets at all.” Read more