Coronavirus: Early data was available weeks before public release, scientists reveal

A photo taken on Feb 6, 2020, shows laboratory technicians working on samples from people to be tested for the coronavirus at a laboratory in Wuhan.
A photo taken on Feb 6, 2020, shows laboratory technicians working on samples from people to be tested for the coronavirus at a laboratory in Wuhan.PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (BLOOMBERG) - Preliminary genetic sequence data indicating the presence of a Sars-like virus in central China was known about two weeks before key information was publicly released, scientists said.

In a commentary piece published on Tuesday (Feb 11) in the Lancet medical journal, scientists, including members of the World Health Organisation's emergency committee, said insufficient attention was paid to information doctors had gathered about the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.

The preliminary sequence data indicating the presence of a coronavirus related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in specimens collected from patients' lungs were obtained on Dec 26 using so-called next-generation sequencing, scientists Lin Fa Wang, Danielle E. Anderson, John S. Mackenzie, and Michael H. Merson said in the Lancet paper.

The authorities in China ruled out Sars and a related coronavirus known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome, as well as a few other non-coronaviruses, on Jan 5, and confirmed a novel coronavirus as a potential cause of the pneumonia outbreak on Jan 9, the authors said.

"However, the genome sequence - crucial for rapid development of diagnostics needed in an outbreak response - was not released until Jan 12, 17 days after the preliminary sequence data were obtained," they said.

The scientists questioned whether the response to emerging viruses emanating from animals could be accelerated by placing greater value on the information collected by doctors and gene sequence data to identify new pathogens.

Chinese authorities waited for confirmation of the new coronavirus by traditional methods of isolating the viral culprit, which may have led to a delayed response to the outbreak.

"It was the clinicians who led to the early detection of, and warning about, the 2019-nCoV outbreak in China," the authors said of the virus that has since been officially named Sars-CoV-2 by WHO, which officially calls the disease Covid-19.

In investigating the severe pneumonia cases caused by an unknown pathogen, clinicians in two hospitals in Wuhan independently sent patient specimens for gene sequencing analysis by commercial companies, they said.

 
 
 

"Alarm bells rang, not only through the different levels of the official Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reporting system but also through social media traced back to eight doctors who were wrongly accused of spreading 'fake news'," the authors said.

"These doctors were later cleared of any wrongdoing and praised by the government authorities for their brave action in early alerting."

Anger in China was directed towards a few leading scientists who were alleged to have held back on sharing data about the virus to publish their findings, according to the Lancet paper.

"These unsubstantiated allegations consumed media attention and created media panic that was counterproductive to the outbreak response," the authors said, adding that clear national and international guidelines are needed on how to achieve the right balance in leadership provided by public health and research experts facing an outbreak of an emerging virus.