WHO unveils new 26-member panel to restart study of the pandemic’s origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) today unveiled a new team to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) will also be tasked with studying the origins of future outbreaks and epidemics and guiding studies of emerging pathogens more generally.

WHO’s proposed list of SAGO members contains 26 researchers from 26 countries, 11 of whom are women. Six members were also part of the international team that traveled to China earlier this year to study the pandemic’s origins with Chinese colleagues. That earlier team’s report had favored a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2, calling a possible leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, “extremely unlikely.” WHO’s director-general later said, however, that it was too early to rule out this hypothesis.

WHO selected the proposed members from more than 700 applicants; they will be formally confirmed after a 2-week public consultation period.

Although China has challenged WHO’s call to more fully probe the lab-leak hypothesis, SAGO has one Chinese candidate: Yungui Yang, deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of the group leaders on the Chinese side during the first origins mission. The proposed U.S. member is Inger Damon, director of the Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is an incredibly impressive group of experts” with “relatively good gender and geographic representation,” says Alexandra Phelan, a lawyer at Georgetown University who specializes in global health. Still, she adds, “Given historical inequities, international expert groups like this really should be aiming for more than 42% women.”

Phelan notes that SAGO’s terms of reference also included expertise in “ethics and social sciences, or other activities” related to disease outbreaks; from the information available so far, the group seems to fall short on expertise in these areas, says Phelan, who applied for the panel herself. “It would be to the benefit of any future origins investigations to have this suite of skills represented,” she says.

The work by the earlier WHO origins group took place amid a thicket of political posturing, conflicts of interest, and poorly supported theories that eventually stalled the research. Such problems occurred in previous outbreak investigations as well, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and two top COVID-19 officials at the agency write in an editorial in Science published today. “Each time, scientists at the WHO and elsewhere faced challenges—not only scientific, but also logistical and political,” they write.

WHO hopes that establishing a permanent panel will take some of the heat out of the current COVID-19 origin debate and make future investigations of new pathogens feel more standard. “We want to take it more away from the political debate and move it back into the scientific debate. That’s our real aim now,” Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonoses in WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme and a co-author on today’s editorial, told Science in August. SAGO’s broad focus will be on where, why, and how dangerous animal pathogens infect humans, what can be done to reduce such spillover events, and how to stop them from becoming major outbreaks.

But its terms of reference specify it will also have to conduct “independent evaluation” of the available evidence about the current pandemic’s origins and advise WHO about “the next series of studies.” That is an urgent matter, Van Kerkhove said at a press conference this afternoon in Geneva: “There’s no time to waste.”

It could lead to new tensions, however. WHO’s original mission concluded that a laboratory origin of the novel coronavirus was “extremely unlikely” and said it would not investigate that option further. Tedros later called that conclusion “premature,” and the Science editorial makes clear SAGO will have to consider the lab-leak theory: “A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared,” Tedros and his co-authors write. That could well put the panel on a collision course with China, which has made clear it will not collaborate on future investigations in that direction.

Still, SAGO has a chance of getting the SARS-CoV-2 origins search back on track, says virologist Marion Koopmans of Erasmus Medical Center, one of the holdovers of the original WHO team who joined the new group. “If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be a part of this.” The panel’s large size will probably not make discussions easier, she admits: “It’s a good group, but I hope it remains action-oriented.”

“Setting up a group like SAGO is a sensible idea,” says Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife veterinarian who was also part of the first WHO mission but is not on the new team. “But it is important that this should not deter independent groups who can be on the ground very fast once an outbreak is detected from doing their own work to investigate origins.” SAGO may end up bringing together several separate groups with outside experts to investigate different hypotheses, Leendertz says, and pushing forward the studies proposed in the first group’s report.

The authors of the editorial, who also include Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director Michael Ryan, mention several research avenues for SAGO to pursue, including studies of wildlife sold in markets in and around Wuhan and of severe acute respiratory syndrome–like coronaviruses circulating in bats in China and Southeast Asia. In addition, “Investigations of the earliest known and suspected cases in China prior to December 2019 are still urgently needed, including analyses of stored blood samples from 2019 in Wuhan and surrounding areas and retrospective searches of hospitals and mortality data for earlier cases,” they write.

The original mission noted that scientists could find origin clues by probing up to 200,000 samples stored by blood banks in Wuhan, some of which date back to before the outbreak surfaced in December 2019. The scientist who headed the Chinese team on that mission said China would share findings from those samples, but explained they could not be probed for 2 years after their collection date for legal reasons. CNN reports today that, according to an unnamed official from the National Health Commission in China, “preparation for testing is currently underway, and confirmed testing would happen once the 2-year limit was reached.” That means samples from October 2019—when evolutionary biologists suspect SARS-CoV-2 may have first jumped into humans—could be tested for antibodies to the coronavirus now. Positive samples, in theory, could trigger revealing new epidemiologic links to the outbreak’s origin.

At today’s press conference, Ryan called on nations, the media, and the general public “to give SAGO some room to do its work. All of the scientists joining this process understand those external pressures and the scrutiny, and the visibility of the process,” he said. “It may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus in a collegiate collective, a mutually responsible way.”

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