The World Health Organization has unveiled a team of scientists that wants to revive stalled research on the origins of Covid-19, and a senior official said it could be the last chance.
The group of 26 experts will be tasked with producing a new global framework for studies on the origins of emerging pathogens with epidemic and pandemic potential, and its expertise includes Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Michael Ryan, WHO emergency director, said it may be the “last chance to understand the origins of this virus” in a collegial way.
WHO announced earlier this year that it would establish a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of New Pathogens (Sago).
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19, said Sago would urgently assess what is now known, what remains unknown and what needs to be done quickly.
“I anticipate that the Sago … will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere,” he said. “There is no time to waste on this.”
Early Wednesday, Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the UN correspondents association that Sago’s work should not be “politicized.”
“If we are going to send teams to other places, I think it is not to China because we have already received international teams twice,” he said. “It is time to send teams to other places.”
In August, China rejected the WHO’s requests for a new on-the-ground investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
In addition to the current Covid crisis, an increasing number of high-risk pathogens have appeared or reappeared in recent years, including Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), avian flu viruses, Lassa, Marburg, and Ebola.
“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to trigger epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and although Sars-CoV-2 is the most recent virus of its kind, it will not be the last,” said the WHO chief. , Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Understanding where new pathogens are coming from is essential to prevent future outbreaks.”
The 26 members proposed by the WHO were chosen from a field of more than 700 applications and come from a variety of scientific disciplines.
The team is subject to a two-week public consultation.
Among them are Christian Drosten, director of the Berlin Institute of Virology; Yungui Yang of the Beijing Genomics Institute; Jean-Claude Manuguerra of the Institut Pasteur in France; and Inger Damon of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several of the experts were on the joint WHO-China scientific mission investigating the origins of Covid-19: Vladimir Dedkov, Farag Elmoubasher, Thea Fischer, Marion Koopmans, Hung Nguyen and John Watson.
The terms of reference say the group should give the WHO an independent evaluation of all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of Covid-19.
It should also advise the UN health agency on the development, monitoring and support of the next series of studies on the origins of the virus. That could include “quick advice” on WHO’s operational plans to implement the next series of studies on the origins of the pandemic and advice on further studies.
The pandemic has killed more than 4.85 million people and hit the global economy since the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
After a long delay, a team of international experts from WHO went to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first-phase report, written together with their Chinese counterparts. Its March report did not draw firm conclusions, but it did rank four hypotheses.
The virus most likely passed from bats to humans through an intermediate animal, he said. He called a leak from the Wuhan virology laboratories “extremely unlikely.”
However, the investigation faced criticism for a lack of transparency and access, and for failing to further evaluate the theory of the laboratory leak.