The World Health Organization on Wednesday appointed 26 scientists to a new advisory group to study the origins of the coronavirus, opening another chapter in the arduous research into how the pandemic began.
The group, chosen from over 700 applicants, includes scientists from 26 countries, a reflection of WHO’s effort to build broad international support for the work.
Among them are an American researcher – Dr Inger Damon, a veteran of the country’s Ebola response who leads work on highly fatal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and a Chinese scientist. Chinese scientist Dr Yungui Yang is the deputy director of the Beijing Genomics Institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government institution.
With this new group, the WHO is trying to relaunch its study on the origins of the pandemic. This work, which had become bogged down in a political rivalry between China and the United States, and concerns about scientists’ conflicts of interest, since the WHO sent a previous team to China in early 2021.
The result of that visit was a joint report from the team chosen by the WHO and China which said that a leak of the coronavirus from a laboratory, while possible, was “extremely unlikely”, a conclusion that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later called premature.
Six members of this since disbanded WHO team have joined the new advisory group. The committee also includes the head of a Swiss biosafety center, an indication of WHO’s efforts to ensure that a lab leak is taken into account alongside scenarios in which the virus would naturally spread from animals to humans.
“A laboratory accident cannot be ruled out until there is enough evidence to do so and these results are openly shared,” said Dr Tedros and two senior WHO officials. written in a Science editorial outlining the mandate of the advisory group.
After a two-week public consultation period that is customary before WHO advisory groups are established, the committee will begin to meet.
WHO officials said the group would assess recent studies, including those describing bats harboring close relatives of the virus behind Covid-19, and advise the organization on needed future studies – potentially including field research in China.
China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus may have emerged from a lab and analysts say it is almost certain it will resist outside requests to visit research centers, bat caves or wildlife farms within its borders.
Unlike the last WHO team, which was formed specifically for the visit to China, the new committee will also have the mandate to influence the emergence of any new pathogen beyond the coronavirus, giving it a permanence that l WHO hopes to help isolate it. political quarrels.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said it was impossible to ignore obstacles like “national pride” that stand in the way. research into the origins of the coronavirus. But he said the new advisory group was an effort to get back to the scientific questions at the heart of that effort.
“This is our best chance,” he said. “And this may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus in a collegial and collective and mutually responsible manner.”