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WHO announces new expert group to investigate origins of the coronavirus and other outbreaks

A closed seafood market in Wuhan, China, on Oct 2. (Getty Images)
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The World Health Organization on Wednesday named 26 scientists to a new advisory body devoted to understanding the origins of the coronavirus and other future outbreaks, marking a significant change in approach by the world’s top global health body to one of the most politically sensitive issues of the pandemic.

The group includes scientists from the United States and China, as well as 24 other nations, and will be formalized after a brief period of public consultation. It is set to consider not only the big, unresolved question of the novel coronavirus — how did it first infect humans? — but it will also establish a framework for the future.

High-profile efforts to get to the bottom of the virus’s origins have been stymied by reluctance from Beijing and mired in fraught international politics, especially between China and the United States.

“It’s a real opportunity right now to get rid of all the noise, all the politics surrounding this and focus on what we know, what we don’t know and what, urgently, we need to all focus our attention on,” Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonosis unit, said in an interview.

Avoiding that noise and politics will be difficult. Some experts in the United States and elsewhere suggest that the virus that causes covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another research institute studying coronaviruses in the Chinese city where covid-19 was first recorded. There is no conclusive evidence for this theory.

Beijing has rejected the idea, arguing that it is unsupported by a scientific consensus, and going a step further to claim without evidence that the novel coronavirus could have originated outside of China’s borders — even in the United States. Chinese officials have said they consider investigation of the virus’s origins on China’s soil complete.

The new group, dubbed the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), will not have the authority to force China to open its borders.

“If you believe that SAGO will answer the question, what was the origin of SARS-CoV-2, then you are sadly mistaken because there is little to no chance of them gaining access to information or on-the-ground investigation as far as China is concerned,” said Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University.

The renewed impetus to investigate the pandemic’s origins comes more than six months after the conclusion of a joint WHO-China mission on the subject. That study, in which a group of international scientists visited sites at the virus’s known epicenter in Wuhan, was entangled in controversy over its inconclusive findings.

After the scientists labeled the possibility of a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan “very unlikely” and not worthy of further investigation, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the assessment of this theory was not “extensive enough.” In an unusually direct criticism of Beijing, he also said he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

WHO officials are adamant that SAGO will not function as a reprise of the discredited mission to Wuhan.

In an editorial published Wednesday in the journal Science, Van Kerkhove, Tedros and WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan emphasized that the lab leak theory could not be ruled out. “Laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan,” the officials wrote.

Six of the proposed members of the SAGO group were on the previous 10-person WHO mission to China, including Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who played a prominent role in some media briefings in the spring. Chinese scientist Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences was also a group leader for China on that mission.

However, the majority of SAGO names were not connected to the previous effort. Inger Damon, director of the division of high-consequence pathogens and pathology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the only American listed.

SAGO membership is not yet finalized, and for the next two weeks the WHO is seeking public comment on the names released Wednesday.

The group will be empowered to advise the WHO and ask it to arrange research trips, which it would need permission from member states to approve. “What we’re hopeful of is that there will be additional missions to China and potentially elsewhere,” said Van Kerkhove.

More than 700 experts applied for a place on the team, WHO officials said, with the scientists chosen not only for their ability but also with a nod toward diversity in gender, ethnicity and place of residence. Member states were not asked to nominate names, but their preferences were not considered in the selection process.

Those in the group will serve, unpaid, for two-year terms, with the possibility of having their time on the body extended. The aim is for the team to meet once a week, with outside experts receiving some invitations. All meetings will be confidential.

“I think the biggest value will not be for covid,” said Gostin. “I think the biggest value will be [for the WHO to have] an expert standing committee, rigorously vetted for any conflicts, with a global charge to investigate novel pathogens.”

Even so, much of the initial work will inevitably follow up from loose threads in the previous WHO-China mission and look at new evidence that has emerged since. Van Kerkhove pointed to data that has come out about SARS-like coronavirus in bats in the region and studies of the animals sold in markets in Wuhan before the outbreak.

Whether China will allow more access for investigators, however, remains unclear. Pressure from Chinese officials and researchers helped lead the WHO-China mission to Wuhan to its vague and inconclusive findings.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the inclusion of a senior Chinese health official would make it harder for SAGO to deliver tough guidance. “Because this is based on consensus, I think it will be very likely that if they make decisions or recommendations, it will be the result of compromise,” Huang said. “Things could be watered down.”