The World Health Organization has unveiled a team of scientists that it wants to revive the stalled investigation into the origins of Covid-19, with a senior official saying 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 their mandate includes Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergency director, said this could be the “last chance to figure out the origins of this virus” in a collegial manner.
The WHO announced earlier this year that it would establish a Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of New Pathogens (Sago).
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19, said Sago will urgently assess what is now known, what is still unknown and what needs to be done quickly.
“I anticipate that the Sago (…) will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere,” she said. “There is no time to waste in this. “
Earlier Wednesday, Chen Xu, Chinese 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 elsewhere, I think it is not to China because we have already received international teams twice,” he said. “It’s time to send teams elsewhere.
In August, China rejected WHO calls for a new field investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
In addition to the current Covid crisis, a growing number of high-risk pathogens have emerged or re-emerged in recent years, including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Seas), 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 last such virus, it will not be the last,” the chief said. from WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Understanding where new pathogens come from is key to preventing future epidemics. “
The 26 members proposed by WHO were chosen from a field of over 700 nominations and come from a range of scientific disciplines.
The team is subject to a two-week public consultation.
Among them, Christian Drosten, director of the Berlin Institute of Virology; Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics; Jean-Claude Manuguerra from the Institut Pasteur de France; and Inger Damon of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several of the experts were part of 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 state that the group should give the WHO an independent assessment of all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of Covid-19.
He is also due to advise the United Nations health agency on the development, follow-up and support for the next round of studies on the origins of the virus. This could include “quick tips” on WHO’s operational plans for implementing the next round of studies on the origins of the pandemic, and advice on further studies.
The pandemic has killed more than 4.85 million people and has hit the global economy since the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
After much delay, a team of international experts from the WHO traveled to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first phase report, written in collaboration with their Chinese counterparts. Their March report did not draw any firm conclusions, but ranked four hypotheses.
Most likely, the virus passed from bats to humans via an animal intermediary, he said. He ruled that a leak from Wuhan virology laboratories was “extremely unlikely”.
However, the investigation has been criticized for its lack of transparency and access, and for failing to further assess the theory of laboratory leaks.