On Wednesday, the World Health Organization appointed 26 scientists to a new advisory group tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, opening a new chapter in an intense search for how the pandemic began.
The panel, selected from more than 700 applicants, includes scientists from 26 countries, reflecting WHO’s efforts to secure broad international support for this work.
Among them is an American researcher – Dr. Inger Damon, a veteran of the fight against Ebola in the country that runs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on deadly diseases, as well as a Chinese scientist. Chinese scientist, Dr. Yungui Yang, deputy director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government agency.
With the help of this new team, WHO is trying to revive its research into the origins of the pandemic. This work has become bogged down in political rivalry between China and the United States and fears of a conflict of interest among scientists since WHO sent a previous team to China in early 2021.
The result of this visit was a joint report by the group selected by WHO and China, which said that the leak of the coronavirus from the laboratory, although possible, was “extremely unlikely.” This conclusion was later made by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. called premature.
Six members of this recently disbanded WHO group have joined the new advisory group. The committee also includes the head of the Swiss Biosafety Center, reflecting WHO’s efforts to ensure that laboratory leakage is accounted for alongside scenarios in which the virus is naturally transmitted from animals to humans.
“An accident in the laboratory cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to support it and until these results are published,” wrote Dr. Tedros and two senior WHO officials in an editorial for Science, which outlines powers of the advisory group.
After the two-week public comment period, which is usual before the establishment of WHO advisory groups, the committee will proceed to meeting.
WHO officials said the group will evaluate recent studies, including those describing bats harboring close relatives of the Covid-19 virus, and advise organizations on what future research is needed – possibly including field research in China.
China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus could have emerged from a laboratory, and analysts say it will almost certainly resist external requests to visit research centers, bat caves or wildlife farms within its borders.
Unlike the previous WHO group, which was assembled specifically for a visit to China, the new committee will also have the authority to weigh the emergence of any new pathogens other than coronavirus, giving it a persistence that WHO hopes will help isolate it. from political squabbles.
At a briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said obstacles such as “national pride” to the search for the origins of the coronavirus cannot be ignored. But he said the new advisory group was an attempt to revisit the scientific issues underlying those efforts.
“This is our best chance,” he said. “And this may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus in a collegiate, collective and mutually responsible way.”