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A new team of experts, including a Swiss lab safety specialist, has been appointed by the World Health Organization to pin down the origins of Sars-Cov-2 and a future “Disease X”.
“All hypotheses must continue to be examined" including the possibility of a laboratory leak, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, on Wednesday.
The new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (Sago) is made up of 26 closely vetted scientists from universities and research institutes from around the world.
The inclusion of Dr Kathrin Summermatter, a leading biosafety expert, indicates the WHO is taking the possibility of a lab leak seriously, although she has previously said she thinks it “unlikely” a lab leak caused the current pandemic.
Dr Summermatter has inspected high security labs in China, the USA and Russia for the WHO in the past. In 2007, she helped investigate a UK veterinary lab leak in Surrey which sparked a foot and mouth outbreak.
More than 700 scientists applied to join the panel which is charged, not only with tracking down the origin of Sars-Cov-2, but advising on the prevention of future pandemics – whether they be natural or man-made.
The final 26 include Dr Yungui Yang the deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in China.
There will be a two week "consultation period" in which WHO members can challenge individual appointments.
The group's first task will be to try and get the WHO’s original investigation into the Wuhan outbreak back on track after the original team became bogged down in international politics and accusations of bias.
“All hypotheses must continue to be examined and, as WHO has said from the outset, a fully open and transparent scientific process is essential,” the top WHO officials – Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove and Dr Mike Ryan – wrote in the journal Science on Wednesday.
The trio listed evidence for a zoonotic spillover event, but said the theory that the pandemic resulted from a lab accident “cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared.”
And they warned: “The next Disease X could appear at any time, and the world needs to be better prepared.”
Preempting the WHO announcement by just minutes, China has said it will analyse up to 200,000 samples held in blood banks for traces of Covid, a long standing demand of the WHO and international community.
Scientists say the blood samples from 2019 could shine light on the origins of the virus as the blood samples are marked by date and location. Although China said it would do the analysis, it said it would not allow foreign scientists to see the data for themselves.
Dr Van Kerkhove told a press conference on Wednesday that studies of blood samples are “absolutely critical” to understand the early days of the pandemic, and said she hopes that the results, methodology and raw data will be shared internationally.
The Sago members are taking on one of the toughest jobs in science and will receive no payment for what will undoubtedly be a highly politically charged and divisive task – all done under the glare of the world’s media.
The team has been given the job of both unravelling the origins of the current pandemic and investigating the emergence of any future disease outbreaks in a bid to avoid the geopolitical wrangling and finger pointing that derailed the original inquiry.
Dr Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, told the New York Times that the group would focus on “the science”, not politics.
“We want to take this back to the science, take this back to our mandate as an organisation to bring together the world’s best minds to outline what needs to be done,” she said.
Despite the fact hundreds of people put their names forward some scientists turned down invitations to apply because the original investigation had become “just too politicised”, Dr Van Kerkhove said.
She added that some countries nominated individuals – although official backing carried no weight with recruiters. The WHO had extended the recruitment process to encourage more South East Asian and African experts to apply.
The original team were also free to apply and six were appointed, including Professor Watson, Dr Marion Koopmans from the Netherlands, and Dr Hung Nguyen from Vietnam.
Applicants were asked to submit a CV and covering letter as well as any conflicts of interest, seen as a bid to head off critics who said Dr Peter Daszak, one of the original inquiry team members, was too close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The new team involves biosecurity experts as mentioned above, but also specialists on bats and zoonotic spillover, such as Dr Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, who co-authored a paper on Sars-Cov-2-like viruses found in bats across southeast Asia.
The team will begin their investigation with meetings behind closed doors both online and in WHO headquarters in Geneva but it is unlikely they will be given access to crucial data from China.
This lack of access stymied work of the original inquiry team – announced in November 2020 – which was led by the WHO’s Dr Peter Ben Embarek and included 10 other virus hunters, public health specialists and experts in animal health from the UK, United States, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan, Qatar, Germany, Vietnam and Russia.
The group – established after WHO member states called for more research into how the pandemic began – spent a month in Wuhan in February 2021 and produced an inconclusive 123-page report alongside Chinese scientists.
The paper suggested it was most likely that Sars-Cov-2 jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unidentified to animal, but – despite warnings that uncovering the origins of Sars-Cov-2 could take years, if not decades – the lack of a “smoking gun” only heightened international tensions.
The report was swiftly criticised for suggesting a laboratory-related incident was “extremely unlikely”, while Western governments expressed concerns that China had withheld key data.
Members of the team, most notably Dr Daszak, also came under fire for public comments in the early days of the pandemic ruling out any potential lab-leak as a conspiracy theory.
International efforts to further investigate the initial spillover event have also been complicated by China’s unwillingness to explore any scenario – natural or otherwise – suggesting the outbreak started in Wuhan.
The WHO’s mission in February was meant to be the first phase of a prolonged origins inquiry, but China has refused to cooperate with the second phase – claiming the WHO’s plan, which includes further audits of labs and markets in Wuhan, “disregards common sense and defies science”.
Scientists have warned that that the window of opportunity to identify how the pandemic began is “closing fast” as critical research will soon be rendered “biologically impossible”.
Speaking on Wednesday Dr Ryan said: “This may be our last chance to understand the origins of the virus in a collegiate, collective and mutually respectful way.”
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