The World Health Organization (WHO) has selected 26 scientists to oversee a new investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and future outbreaks of emerging diseases. The organization plans to formally appoint all or most of them shortly after a two-week public review period.
With the launch of its Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of New Pathogens (SAGOs), WHO has revamped its traditional approach to epidemics, in which researchers find out the origins of epidemics when needed. The shortcomings of this approach have become evident, as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown nearly two years after its onset.
“This subject requires a lot of technical expertise, so I am happy to see that the WHO has selected serious individuals with enough research experience to understand the work that may be required to investigate the origins of epidemics,” said said Gigi Gronvall, head of biosafety. researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who is not involved in SAGO.
The WHO says the group will give additional information needed to find out where the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus came from. Some members of SAGO could be involved in the next phase of the investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China, and possibly other countries – indeed, six of them were part of the first team of 34 researchers from a mission organized by WHO that ended in March. SAGO is also responsible for developing a framework to guide investigations into the onset of epidemics more generally, for example to determine what data to collect and report.
Maria Van Kerkhove, who heads the WHO’s Emerging Diseases Unit and helped design SAGO, explains that finding the origin of a new pathogen requires careful detective work, and that it can be particularly difficult at the onset of an epidemic when affected countries scramble to limit the spread of a pathogen. “The next time an epidemic is declared, the secretariat can bring this committee together,” she said, and seek advice on what information researchers should collect immediately.
A diversified program
Van Kerkhove says the WHO selected the 26 unpaid advisers from more than 700 applicants. They are all from different countries, have expertise ranging from biosecurity to wildlife biology, and have applied themselves to service for a variety of reasons.
For example, Marietjie Venter, a molecular virologist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, studied the spread of the H1N1 influenza virus in humans and pigs during the 2009 pandemic, and recently used genomic sequencing to show that zookeepers in South Africa inadvertently infected tigers. with SARS-CoV-2. She says she is keen on honing WHO’s ability to quickly determine when outbreaks of new viruses have pandemic potential.
For Christian Happi, genomics at the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics in Ede, Nigeria, SAGO’s call was a chance to push for further investigation of epidemics in African countries. “When things happen in our part of the world, not many people worry about the origin or try to prevent it from happening again,” he says. “Africa must be at the table.”
Two of the 26 counselors have training in laboratory biosafety, an issue that rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic as some wondered if SARS-CoV-2 had escaped from the Institute of Virology of Wuhan (WIV), in the Chinese city where the first cases of COVID-19 were detected. Last July, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a research audit at the WIV should be included in the next origins survey.
Jeffrey Sachs, economist and political analyst at Columbia University and chairman of a COVID-19 commission affiliated with a medical journal The Lancet, says he hopes SAGO will assess studies on coronaviruses and examine whether the type of research – for example, virus modification – could shed light on the origin of the pandemic. To do this, he says, US research groups, including the US National Institutes of Health and the New York-based organization EcoHealth Alliance, need to be more open about the studies they fund, conduct and propose. Last month, Sachs dissolved a Lancet The team of the commission evaluating the origins of the pandemic is frustrated by the lack of transparency of its members.
In the name of transparency, Van Kerkhove says she asks all SAGO applicants to disclose any conflicts of interest that could affect their ability to participate in the home studies. Until October 27, anyone can submit comments on the candidates. She and her colleagues will review them confidentially and respond to them as they see fit, potentially eliminating applicants.
Once the panel has been confirmed, the group will take stock of what is already known about the origins of COVID-19 and present the next steps. Currently, Van Kerkhove says the WHO is working with Italian researchers to analyze patient samples collected in Italy in November and December 2019, which may contain remains of SARS-CoV-2. Catching up studies in China is also on the agenda, including analyzes of human serum collected in December 2019 and stored at the Wuhan Blood Center.
However, some researchers are skeptical that the WHO could make progress in China, where officials have fiercely rejected the idea that the outbreak originated from WIV, which is at the center of the laboratory leak hypothesis.
But Van Kerkove expects collaboration from the country and hopes the focus will be on science rather than geopolitics. “We are really running out of time with each passing day, taking us further and further away from the possibility of truly understanding the origins” of COVID-19, she says.