The World Health Organisation Thursday formed a new advisory group to determine the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is the second time that the global health body is putting together a team to put to rest speculations and theories that surround the genesis of the coronavirus. International teams have already visited China twice for this purpose.
A WHO delegation first visited Wuhan in China in January 2020. As per WHO records, the team visited the Wuhan Tianhe Airport, Zhongnan hospital, and Hubei provincial CDC, including the BSL3 laboratory in China’s Center for Disease Control (CDC). A year later, yet another team of experts visited Wuhan, the site of the first reported human case of Covid-19. The WHO-led team spent four weeks in and around the city. Working with Chinese scientists, the group submitted a joint report in March.
However, the results of the project was marred by criticisms, including lack of transparency and access. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the investigation was hampered by a dearth of raw data pertaining to the first days of the outbreak and has called for lab audits. China has been criticised for not providing sufficient access to early data, a charge that Beijing has disputed.
Who is a part of the second phase?
The health body has proposed 26 experts who will make up its Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The team includes scientists and professors from across the world, including Dr. Marion Koopmans who was a part of the first phase of investigation in Wuhan. Dr Yungui Yang, Deputy Director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a part of the proposed group.
What will the second phase concentrate on?
WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19 had said in a press conference that over three dozen recommended studies are still needed to understand how the animal-to-human transmission of coronavirus took place. Dr. Maria van Kerkhove added that reported Chinese testing for antibodies in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be “absolutely critical” to understanding the virus’s origins, according to a Reuters report. Dr. Kerkhove, who is an infectious disease epidemiologist based in the United States, has been vocal about the need for further WHO-led missions to China which would engage the country’s cooperation.
In an editorial in the academic journal Science, the top health body called for comprehensive studies into the earliest known and suspected cases in China, especially those before Dec 2019. This included analyses of stored blood samples from 2019 in Wuhan and retrospective searches of hospital and mortality data for earlier cases.
It reiterated that ruling an accident requires further evidence, including data from labs in the area where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan.
A senior official in WHO has described the new team as perhaps the last chance to understand the origins of the coronavirus.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said that the apex body is seeking “take a step back, create an environment where we can again look at the scientific issues”, adding, “this is our best chance, and it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus.”