World Health Organization has formed new team to investigate origins of COVID-19

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Last year, the World Health Organization assembled a great team of scientists to investigate the origins of COVID-19. These experts were to work hand-in-hand with Chinese authorities to determine exactly how the SARS-CoV-2 virus first entered society and began its lethal spread. But their findings, published in a 313-page report earlier this year, were widely dismissed by the scientific community as hasty and superficial: Only four pages were devoted to the possibility that the virus had spread through a laboratory accident, a theory which, although still speculative, has continued to gain momentum.

Now WHO is trying again. On Wednesday, the international agency announced the creation of a new standing committee. Named Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or SAGO, the group will focus on “developing a framework for defining in-depth studies on the origins [of] pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. “

SAGO is made up of 26 experts from 26 countries, selected from a pool of over 700 applicants. They include virologists, geneticists, safety specialists, and animal experts. Their range of experiences and expertise was, explained Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 technical manager, vital to its mission. The organization wanted to quell any suspicion of political bias or potential conflicts of interest, which haunted the previous investigation and cast suspicion on their findings.

“Especially in light of politicization,” she told The New York Times in an interview, “[we] want to bring that back to science, bring that back to our mandate as an organization to bring together the best minds in the world to define what needs to be done. ”

The representative from the United States is Dr Inger Damon, researcher at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and current director of the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology. Dr Damon’s Chinese counterpart is Dr Yungui Yang, deputy director of the Beijing Genomics Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The experts will meet with their colleagues in two weeks, after a period of routine public consultation.

In a letter co-written to Science, WHO Director-General Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyesus described SAGO’s immediate mandate.

“… SAGO will rapidly assess the status of studies on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and advise WHO on what is known, outstanding gaps and next steps,” the authors wrote, adding that “All hypotheses must continue to be examined and, as the WHO has said from the start, a fully open and transparent scientific process is essential.”

Later in the letter, the authors highlighted some of the “exceptional shortcomings” that plagued the previous WHO investigation. The most urgent information regarding the first suspected cases of COVID-19 in China before December 2019, which could potentially be gleaned through blood samples and death data from hospitals in Wuhan – the city in Hubei Province where the first cluster of COVID-19 cases has been identified. But without the full cooperation of the Chinese government, which no one expects, these key pieces of the puzzle could remain hidden.

The mystery surrounding the origins of COVID-19, nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, has been a source of deep frustration for public health experts and scientists around the world. Many blame the Chinese government’s lack of transparency, which was a key theme in a debate hosted by Science on September 30 between four prominent COVID-19 researchers. The debate represented the first face-to-face public discussion between proponents of the “lab leak” theory and researchers who favor the prevailing zoonotic spillover scenario.

While scientists differed in their interpretation of the evidence, three of the four agreed that without more information, a definitive answer on the origins of COVID-19 is unlikely to be reached.

Thus, the SAGO investigation may represent a final opportunity to gather sufficient evidence.

“Globally, at least 4.8 million people have died from COVID-19,” the WHO authors wrote in their letter. “They and their families owe answers as to the origin and origin of the virus.”

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