The World Health Organisation on Wednesday named 26 scientists to a new advisory body devoted to understanding the origins of COVID-19 and other future outbreaks, marking a change in approach for the world’s top global health body to one of the most politically sensitive issues of a pandemic that has killed more than 4.8 million people.
The group, which includes scientists from the United States and China as well as 24 other nations, and will be formalised after a brief period of public consultation, is set to consider not only the big, unresolved question of the novel coronavirus virus – how did it first infect humans? – but also set up a framework for future outbreaks involving other pathogens so similar big questions aren’t left unresolved again.
“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.
Escaping that noise will prove difficult, however, especially as China has repeatedly said it considers any investigation into the origins of COVID-19 on its soil completed. This new group, dubbed the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), will also face a politicised environment from countries in the West, including the United States.
“If you believe that SAGO will answer the question, what was the origins of SARS-CoV-2, then you are sadly mistaken because there’s 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 the 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, which saw a group of international scientists visit sites at the virus’ known epicentre in Wuhan, China, became mired in controversy for its inconclusive results.
After the scientists labelled the possibility of a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan as “very unlikely” and not worthy of further investigation, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the assessment on this theory was not “extensive enough” and, in unusually direct criticism of Beijing, that he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
WHO officials are adamant that the SAGO will not function as a repeat of the discredited mission to Wuhan. “It’s an advisory group. We set up these advisory groups all the time,” Van Kerkhove said. “It is not about the next mission.”