The World Health Organisation (WHO) has unveiled the team of scientists that will take on the gnarly task of investigating how the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 emerged.
The 26-person group, announced on Wednesday, is stacked with experts in virology, epidemiology, animal health and biosecurity, among other fields. Selected by the WHO from over 700 applicants, the experts come from countries including China, the United States, India, Kenya and Brazil.
The group, known as the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or Sago, will take over the WHO’s coronavirus origins probe after a team of experts travelled to China earlier this year for a four-week mission in Wuhan, where the first cases were reported.
Six members of that original team of 10 international experts are included in Sago.
They are Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, Danish epidemiologist Thea Fischer, British epidemiologist John Watson, Russian researcher Vladimir Dedkov, animal health specialist Hung Nguyen of Vietnam, and epidemiologist Elmoubasher Farag of Qatar.
The Chinese scientist named to Sago, Yang Yungui, deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also took part in the earlier mission as part of the Chinese team.
Other group members include Thailand’s Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, an infectious disease researcher who was involved in recent work identifying closely related viruses to Sars-CoV-2 in bats, and Kathrin Summermatter, head of the biosafety centre and managing director of a high-containment laboratory at the University of Bern in Switzerland.
Inger Damon of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is also in the group. Members will serve in a personal capacity, not representing their institutions.
Sago – a permanent body that will also be ready to investigate the origin of future outbreaks – is expected to begin meeting virtually later this month after a two-week public consultation period on the proposed members.
It will advise the WHO on “developing, monitoring and supporting the next series of studies” into the origins of the coronavirus, including “rapid advice” on operational plans, the UN health agency said.
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They will also build a framework for tackling origins research for future outbreaks.
“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while Sars-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise.”
The new body has been set up at a critical time for the Geneva-based health agency, as countries clamour for answers as to how the virus responsible for over 4.5 million deaths first passed to humans.
“WHO made a very smart move to establish this advisory group,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in the US. “It will significantly improve public trust and gain the confidence of governments and scientists.”
The WHO announced its decision to form the group in July, several months after the controversial conclusion of the phase one mission, which countries including the United States, Japan and Australia said was compromised by a lack of transparency from China.
Tedros also called for audits of Wuhan laboratories at that time, effectively pushing back on the mission team’s finding that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from a local lab studying bat coronaviruses.
Critics said the original group was hampered by conflict of interest, as team member and disease ecologist Peter Daszak had a long-standing working relationship with one such lab, the Wuhan Institute Virology.
The final list of Sago experts will have been vetted with a “fine-toothed comb” for prior affiliations, according to health governance expert and professor Sara Davies of Australia’s Griffith University.
While Sago is expected to make recommendations for future field missions, these could be carried out by other scientists depending on the expertise needed and would still need to be negotiated with the host countries, according to the WHO.
But the group is stepping into uncertain territory on the future of such missions to China after Beijing in July rejected a WHO plan that included further research in the country.
Beijing has repeatedly stressed its openness to work with the WHO on “global origins tracing”, and defended its transparency in the last mission, but suggested the plan’s inclusion of lab audits was politically motivated and the focus now needed to shift overseas.
Meanwhile, commentary in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily earlier this month questioned whether SAGO would be free of US influence.
Davies said when it came to gaining access to further field missions to China, Sago could “dilute the focus on China” through recommendations for further work in a number of locations.
“[This could] ramp up pressure on ‘why not China?’ if other locations say yes to a visit,” she said.
Gostin from Georgetown University said there were “vast” challenges ahead for Sago in gaining access to continue to investigate the virus’ origins in China.
“There is little chance that the new committee will make any breakthroughs,” he said.
“Much of the benefit will be for future health crises, not for Covid-19.” China Morning Post