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WHO launches a new group to study the origins of the coronavirus

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, in March 2020.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, in March 2020.

The World Health Organization has announced the establishment of a scientific advisory group aimed at identifying the origin of COVID-19 and to better prepare for future outbreaks of other deadly pathogens.

The WHO's Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins on Novel Pathogens, or SAGO, will include scientists from the U.S., China and about two dozen other countries. It will be charged with answering the question of how the novel coronavirus first infected humans — a mystery that continues to elude experts more than 18 months into the crisis. The group will also be responsible for establishing a framework to combat future pandemics

Maria Van Kerkhove, the head of WHO's emerging disease unit, called the establishment of the new group "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."

The team will be selected from more than 700 applications from experts in fields including epidemiology, animal health, ecology, clinical medicine, virology, genomics, molecular epidemiology, molecular biology, biology, food safety, biosafety, biosecurity and public health, the WHO said in a statement.

"The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise."

Beijing continues to resist investigations in China

The establishment of the group comes as China has continued to resist efforts to study the possible origin of the virus there. After an initial investigation by the WHO, Beijing rejected a plan for a second phase of the probe in July that might delve into various hypotheses about the origin of the virus, including that it escaped from a Chinese government lab in the city of Wuhan.

The so-called "lab-leak theory" was initially dismissed by WHO, but has nonetheless gained traction in recent months, fueled in part by Beijing's secrecy. Many scientists contend that a lab leak is much less likely than the alternative — that the novel coronavirus has a natural origin.

Beijing did not immediately react to the announcement of the new task force.

The WHO director still wants to look at labs in Wuhan

Despite the WHO's initial findings, Tedros has called for audits of Wuhan laboratories, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which some scientists believe may be the source of the virus that caused the first infections in China.

Some of the proposed SAGO members were on the original 10-person WHO team that studied possible origins in China, including Chinese scientist Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

An editorial co-authored by Tedros that was published in Science on Wednesday said SAGO would "quickly assess the status of SARS-CoV-2 origin studies and advise WHO on what is known, the outstanding gaps, and next steps."

It said that "[all] hypotheses must continue to be examined," including the "studies of wildlife sold in markets in and around Wuhan, China (where cases of COVID-19 were first reported in December 2019); studies of SARS-like coronaviruses circulating in bats in China and Southeast Asia; studies on prepandemic biological sampling around the world; and other animal susceptibility studies."

"As well, laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan," it said, adding, "A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared."

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