The World Health Organization has set up a new panel of researchers whose mandate will include attempts to revive a halted study into the origins of the coronavirus that caused a global pandemic.
The team of 26 members, sourced from countries including the United States, China, India, Nigeria and Cambodia, is larger than an international group of 10 members sent 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 into future epidemics as well as Covid-19.
It may encounter some of the same difficulties that hampered the efforts of the first team earlier this year, global health experts have said, including blocking access to data on possible early Covid-19 cases and other potential evidence. WHO officials have said time is running out to investigate blood tests and other important clues in China about 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 manner, “Mike Ryan, chief executive of the WHO’s health program, told reporters on Wednesday. “We are in a very important moment.”
China has been saying for months that its contribution to the WHO’s efforts is complete and has called on the UN agency to send a team to other countries, particularly the United States, to investigate whether a laboratory accident could have caused the pandemic. At home, Beijing has tightened restrictions on what research its researchers can conduct in the field, frustrating the WHO’s efforts to encourage investigations into how the virus first appeared in Wuhan.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in China, said: “The conclusions and recommendations of the Joint Investigation Report between China and the WHO have been recognized by the international community and the scientific community and must be respected and implemented. Future global origin study should and can only be conducted on this basis. ”
The new team represents an attempt to drive some of that research forward. It includes experts in virology, epidemiology and animal health as well as at least one specialist in laboratory safety.
Biosafety specialist Kathrin Summermatter told a Swiss newspaper last year that she did not think a laboratory accident was likely because laboratory-related outbreaks tend to infect a small number of employees trained to respond properly. She did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Her February 2020 statement was similar to those of other researchers who have said they responded to public speculation at the time that the virus was deliberately produced in a laboratory as a bioweapon.
The WHO said the new team’s membership will be terminated after a two-week public consultation period. Hundreds of researchers applied to participate.
The team includes six members of the international and Chinese teams who earlier this year presented a report on the origin of the virus following their monthly visit to Wuhan. This report assessed that the virus probably originated from a bat and was spread to humans through an intermediate animal and called for a number of new studies.
The recommended studies included further tracing of how the earliest known cases became infected; establishing a more detailed understanding of what live animals were sold in Wuhan markets before the pandemic; and testing of blood samples stored in blood banks since the end of 2019 – including in parts of China where banks are scheduled to throw away their samples after two years, a deadline that is fast approaching.
The first team concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, mainly because there is no known record of the laboratory cultivating a similar enough virus to have caused the pandemic. Many other researchers subsequently criticized their conclusion, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The new WHO team will also seek to begin investigations 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 created team, suggested at a webinar earlier this year.
Dr. Tedros, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, head of new diseases and zoonoses in the WHO’s program for health emergencies, published on Wednesday an editorial in the academic journal Science that the study of the origin of a virus that has killed at least 4.8 million has been hampered by politics. They urged researchers to carry out the research recommended by the first team as soon as possible and to make better preparations for the next outbreak.
Dr. Tedros and his co-authors also called for a deeper look at whether a laboratory accident in Wuhan could have caused the pandemic.
“A laboratory accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and these results are openly shared,” they wrote. “The scientific processes have been damaged by politicization, which is why the global scientific community needs to redouble its efforts to drive the scientific process forward.”
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