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WHO clarifies details of early covid patients in Wuhan after errors in virus report

College students line up to receive coronavirus vaccinations at a university in Wuhan, China, on April 28. (AFP/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization said it will fix several “unintended errors” in a joint report with China on the origins of the coronavirus crisis and will look into other possible discrepancies.

In response to questions from The Washington Post, the WHO is changing the virus sequence IDs associated with three of the 13 early patients listed in a chart in the report and will clarify that the first family cluster was not linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, a spokesman said.

The WHO did not explain why a map in the annexes of the WHO-China joint report appears to show the first case on one side of the Yangtze River, while the Wuhan government had announced last year that the first patient, who fell ill Dec. 8, 2019, lived on the other side of the river, in Wuchang district.

Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman, said in an email that the agency cannot comment on what the Wuhan government announced last year, but the question of where the first-known patient lived relative to the river was not relevant to competing hypotheses about the origin of the virus. The issue is not important, he wrote, because “the current first known patient is most probably not the first case.”

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Jasarevic said mistakes in the report were due to “editing errors,” but they did not affect “the data analysis process, nor the conclusions.”

China’s National Health Commission and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for comment.

It is not yet clear whether or how clarity on these points could help researchers understand what happened in Wuhan. But the need to correct data months after publication, in the second year of the pandemic, may renew questions about the slow and complicated search for the origins of the coronavirus.

“We need more explanation about what the source of the error and the information was,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who also provides technical assistance to the WHO.

“Who made the errors? Was it China, was it the team, was it WHO itself?” he asked. “There’s no clarity, and this does feed into public distrust of the integrity and rigor of the origins investigation.”

The Post reported last week on inconsistencies in the profile of the earliest official patient, as outlined in the joint report. In response to queries from The Post, the WHO reviewed the cases and decided to update the document.

The agency confirmed that the earliest official case, Patient S01, was a 41-year-old man, with virus genome sequences EPI_ISL_403930, MT019531, and GWHABKH00000001 in various databases. The report had listed a different sequence, belonging to a 61-year-old man, which Jasarevic called an editing error.

Jasarevic said the WHO is still looking into why the official China National Genomics Data Center (NGDC) database says Patient S01 began to exhibit symptoms on Dec. 16, 2019, a week later than the Dec. 8 onset recorded in the WHO report.

The lack of clarity on Patient S01 introduces the possibility that the earliest official case could have been someone different, with the WHO report mentioning a Huanan market seafood vendor and others who began exhibiting symptoms before Dec. 16.

The WHO, however, also clarified that the first family cluster of infections in Wuhan had no exposure to the Huanan seafood market, although a woman in the group had been to other markets. The report previously gave conflicting information in different sections about the family’s links to the market.

Jasarevic said sequence IDs will be corrected for two other patients in the report. S05 was a 61-year-old man who died, with genome sequence EPI_ISL_403928, and S11 was a 52-year-old woman with sequence EPI_ISL_403929, he said.

“All sequences will undergo thorough revision,” he said. “The numbers might have been updated during the continued process of submission and publishing.”

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Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said the WHO should release more of the data behind the joint report’s conclusions to allow third-party scientists to review the results.

“Certainly analysis of the earliest cases is a key aspect of the report,” he said. “Therefore, it would be helpful for as much as possible of the underlying data to be made publicly available.”

Since the joint Chinese-international team met in Wuhan for a weeks-long mission, scientists and foreign governments have raised doubts about whether they had the time or access to do a thorough and impartial job.

After the report was published, even the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed concern about China’s level of transparency and called for a more thorough investigation.

At a news conference on Thursday, he addressed the issue of data sharing more directly.

“Especially at the start of the pandemic, the raw data was not shared,” Tedros said. “Now we have designed the second phase of the study and we are asking, actually, China to be transparent, open, and cooperate especially on the information or data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic.”

Among the recommendations in the joint study was that scientists should review samples saved in blood banks in China and other countries to identify overlooked cases.

For now, experts are hoping for more answers on the first report.

David Fidler, senior fellow for global health and cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations, said errors, typos and revisions are not unheard of when teams of experts pull together large amounts of data for reports. But the fact that the errors involve some of the earliest known cases, combined with the stakes of the origins search, means the report is worth a closer look.

“It raises questions about what happened, how did this mistake get made on something of such critical importance?” he said.

“Unfortunately, you get questions on top of questions on top of questions.”

Lyric Li and Erin Cunningham contributed to this report.

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