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WHO will announce new team to study coronavirus origins

Its new advisory team will include specialists in fields like laboratory safety and biosecurity, a step that analysts say may help placate Western governments pressing for consideration of whether the virus emerged from a lab

By: New York Times |
October 13, 2021 8:41:04 am

Written by Benjamin Mueller

The position is unpaid. The world’s scientists and internet sleuths will scrutinize every move. Completing the first assignment with the available tools, and to everyone’s satisfaction, will be nearly impossible.

Despite those considerable obstacles, more than 700 people have applied for spots on a new committee charged with breathing life into the World Health Organization’s stalled inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee, expected to be announced this week, represents an attempt by the embattled global health body to reset its approach to determining how the pandemic began. Nine months after sending a team of international experts to China, only for its findings to become entangled in geopolitics and trailed by concerns over Beijing’s influence, the WHO is trying to inoculate its latest efforts from the slightest hints of undue deference toward China.


Its new advisory team will include specialists in fields like laboratory safety and biosecurity, a step that analysts say may help placate Western governments pressing for consideration of whether the virus emerged from a lab. And, crucially, the committee will have a mandate to weigh in on the emergence of any new pathogens beyond this novel coronavirus, giving it a permanence that could help insulate it from political squabbling and strengthen the WHO’s hand for future outbreaks.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said the group — comprising some two dozen virologists, geneticists, animal experts and safety and security specialists — would help the organization return to its roots amid the rancor and partisanship of the coronavirus origins debate.

“Especially in light of the politicization of this particular aspect,” she said, “we want to take this back to the science, take this back to our mandate as an organization to bring together the world’s best minds to outline what needs to be done.”

What most needs doing in the hunt for COVID-19’s origins, many scientists believe, is something that the new advisory group will be powerless to achieve: persuading China to release evidence about the first infections and to let researchers inspect virology labs, bat caves and wildlife farms within its borders.

China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus may have emerged from a lab, pushing instead for investigations into early cases in other countries, like Italy, or into U.S. research facilities.

Even as China has resisted deeper studies of the virus’ origins, the Biden administration has pressed the WHO for a renewed investigation. The Department of State pointedly questioned the results of a joint study by the WHO-chosen scientists and Chinese researchers from March that said a leak of the coronavirus from a lab, while possible, was “extremely unlikely.”

That WHO team, too, struggled to coax the data it needed from Chinese scientists. Members of the team, which has been disbanded, warned in August that time was running out to recover crucial evidence about the beginning of the pandemic. But it is unclear whether China has taken up the team’s recommendations for future studies, including analyzing blood banks for evidence of early coronavirus infections, testing workers on wildlife farms and assessing wild bats and farmed animals for signs of exposure.

Some scientists have said that studies of Chinese animal markets, and of bats harboring close relatives of the virus behind COVID-19, have strengthened their belief that the coronavirus spilled naturally from animals into humans.

The WHO has said that Chinese researchers were conducting new studies but that it had not been kept abreast of any findings. “I don’t have any detail on what was done, or is being done,” Van Kerkhove said of the Chinese research.

President Xi Jinping said last month that China would support “science-based origins tracing,” but would oppose “political maneuvering in whatever form.”

The new committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, will differ in several respects from the team that the WHO sent to China. Because that team visited Wuhan, China had considerable influence over its membership. That is not the case for the new committee, a permanent panel that Van Kerkhove said would begin with frequent, closed-door meetings on the coronavirus.

In soliciting applications, the WHO asked potential committee members for a statement about any conflicts of interest, in addition to a cover letter and résumé. That appeared to be an attempt to head off critics who complained that a member of the previous team, Peter Daszak, an animal disease specialist, was too closely tied to a Wuhan virology institute at the center of lab leak theories to offer a dispassionate assessment. Daszak has said that his expertise on China and coronaviruses made him well-suited to participate in the earlier trip.

“Conflicts of interest of members of the last group put a huge cloud over the head of the World Health Organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. Of the new advisory group, he added: “It’s a committee with a proper charge, and a proper global mandate — none of that happened before.”

For the WHO, Gostin said, the new committee serves several purposes. In choosing a larger group reflecting a wider range of expertise and geographic regions, the organization can try to amass widespread international support for its work and underscore China’s intransigence, he said.

Crucially, forming the new group could also help shore up the WHO’s standing with its key Western backers, none more important than the U.S. Despite the agency’s attempt to act deferentially toward China during the pandemic, Gostin said, China had repeatedly stonewalled the organization and concealed crucial information.

Now, he said, the organization needed to pay heed to the desires of Europe and the U.S. — not least because Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, is counting on their support as he seeks reelection in May.

Despite the eventual avalanche of applications, recruiting for the new committee was no simple task. In some cases, scientists rebuffed the WHO’s pleas to apply.

“We did have some people say to us, ‘No, we really don’t want to get engaged, because it’s just too politicized,’” Van Kerkhove said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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