The World Health Organization established a new panel of scientists whose mandate will include attempting to revive a stalled inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus that caused a global pandemic.
The 26-member team, drawn from countries including the U.S., China, India, Nigeria and Cambodia, is larger than a 10-member international group of scientists sent earlier this year to Wuhan, the Chinese city that was the site of the first confirmed Covid-19 outbreak in December 2019. The team will also have a broader mandate to lead investigations of future epidemics as well as Covid-19.
It may encounter some of the same difficulties that hampered the first team’s efforts earlier this year, global health experts have said, including blocked access to data on possible early Covid-19 cases and other potential evidence. WHO officials have said that time is running out to examine blood samples and other important clues in China regarding when, how and where the pandemic started.
“This is our best chance and it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus,” at least in a collective and cooperative way, Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, told reporters on Wednesday. “We are at a very important moment.”
China has said for months that its contribution to the WHO’s effort is complete and has called on the U.N. agency to dispatch a team into other countries, especially the U.S., to investigate whether a lab accident there could have caused the pandemic. At home, Beijing has tightened restrictions governing what research its scientists can conduct on the matter, frustrating the WHO’s efforts to encourage studies into how precisely the virus first emerged in Wuhan.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for China’s U.S. Embassy, said, “The conclusions and recommendations of the China-WHO joint study report have been recognized by the international community and the scientific community, and must be respected and implemented. Future global origins study should and can only be carried out on this basis.”
The new team represents an attempt to propel some of that research forward. It includes experts in virology, epidemiology and animal health, as well as at least one specialist in laboratory biosafety.
The biosafety specialist, Kathrin Summermatter, told a Swiss newspaper last year that she didn’t think a lab accident was plausible because lab-related outbreaks tend to infect a small number of staff trained to respond appropriately. She didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Her February 2020 statement was similar to those of other scientists who have said they were responding to public speculation at the time that the virus had been deliberately fashioned in a laboratory as a bioweapon.
The WHO said the new team’s membership will be finalized after a two-week public consultation period. Hundreds of scientists applied to take part.
The team includes six members of the international and Chinese teams that produced a report earlier this year on the origins of the virus following their monthlong visit to Wuhan. That report deemed the virus most likely originated in a bat and was spread to humans through an intermediary animal, and called for a range of new studies.
The recommended studies included further back-tracing of how the earliest known cases became infected; establishing a more-detailed understanding of which live animals were sold in Wuhan markets before the pandemic; and testing blood samples stored in blood banks since late 2019—including in parts of China where banks are scheduled to throw their samples away after two years, a deadline that is fast approaching.
The first team concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus could have escaped from a lab in Wuhan, largely because there is no known record of the lab culturing a similar-enough virus to have caused the pandemic. Many other scientists subsequently criticized their conclusion, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The new WHO team also will aim to begin inquiries into the origin of newly discovered viruses more quickly. Such inquiries should become routine during outbreaks, Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and member of both the WHO group that visited Wuhan and the newly formed team, suggested on a webinar earlier this year.
Dr. Tedros, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses in the WHO’s health-emergencies program, published an editorial in the academic journal Science on Wednesday saying that the investigation into the origins of a virus that has killed at least 4.8 million has been hampered by politics. They called for scientists to urgently conduct the research recommended by the first team and to lead better preparations for the next outbreak.
Dr. Tedros and his co-authors also called for a deeper look into whether a lab accident in Wuhan could have caused the pandemic.
“A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared,” they wrote. “The scientific processes have been hurt by politicization, which is why the global scientific community must redouble efforts to drive the scientific process forward.”
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