WHO to announce new team to study origins of coronavirus

The position is unpaid. Scientists around the world and Internet sleuths will be examining every move. Completing the first mission with the tools available, and to everyone’s satisfaction, will be next to impossible.

Despite these considerable obstacles, more than 700 people applied for positions on a new committee tasked with bringing to life the World Health Organization’s stalled investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee, which is expected to be announced this week, represents an attempt by the ailing world health body to reset its approach to determining how the pandemic started. Nine months after sending a team of international experts to China, only to have its findings tangled in geopolitics and dragged down by concerns about Beijing’s influence, the WHO is trying to inoculate its latest efforts against even the slightest suspicion of undue deference to China.

Its new advisory team will include specialists in areas such as safety and laboratory safety, a step that analysts say could help appease Western governments asking whether the virus has come out of a laboratory. And, above all, the committee will have the mandate to influence the emergence of any new pathogen beyond this new coronavirus, giving it a permanence that could help isolate it from political quarrels and strengthen the hand of the WHO to future epidemics.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 technical manager, said the group – made up of around 20 virologists, geneticists, animal experts and safety and security specialists – would help the organization return to its roots. roots amid the resentment and partisanship of the debate over the origins of the coronavirus.

“Especially in light of the politicization of this particular aspect,” she said, “we want to bring that back to science, bring that back to our mandate as an organization to bring together the best minds in the world to define this that needs to be done. “

According to many scientists, what needs to be done most in researching the origins of COVID-19 is something the new advisory group will be powerless to achieve: persuade China to release evidence on early infections and to let researchers inspect virology laboratories, bat caves and wildlife farms within its borders.

China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus may have emerged from a laboratory, instead prompting investigations of the first cases in other countries, such as Italy, or at US research facilities.

Even though China has resisted further studies into the origins of the virus, the Biden administration lobbied the WHO for a new investigation. The State Department pointedly questioned the results of a joint study conducted by WHO-chosen scientists and Chinese researchers in March, which found that a leak of the coronavirus from a laboratory, while possible, was ” extremely unlikely “.

This WHO team also struggled to get the data they needed from Chinese scientists. Members of the disbanded team warned in August that time was running out to recover crucial evidence of the start of the pandemic. But it’s not clear whether China has followed the team’s recommendations for future studies, including testing blood banks for evidence of early coronavirus infections, testing workers on farms. animal husbandry and assessment of wild bats and farm animals for signs of exposure.

Some scientists have said that studies of Chinese animal markets and of bats harboring close relatives of the virus that causes COVID-19 have reinforced their belief that the coronavirus has spread naturally from animals to humans.

The WHO said Chinese researchers were conducting new studies but had not been kept informed of any findings. “I have no details of what has been done or is being done,” Van Kerkhove said of the Chinese research.

President Xi Jinping said last month that China would support “science-based search for origins,” but oppose “political maneuvering in any form.”

The new committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, will be different in several ways from the team the WHO sent to China. Because this team traveled to Wuhan, China had a tremendous influence on its members. This is not the case for the new committee, a standing panel which Van Kerkhove said would start with frequent closed-door meetings on the coronavirus.

In soliciting nominations, WHO asked potential committee members for a statement on any conflict of interest, in addition to a cover letter and curriculum vitae. It appeared to be an attempt to avoid critics who complained that a member of the previous team, Peter Daszak, an animal disease specialist, was too closely tied to a Wuhan institute of virology at the center of leak theories of laboratory to provide an unbiased assessment. Daszak said his expertise on China and coronaviruses made him well placed to participate in the previous trip.

“The conflicts of interest of the members of the latter group have put a huge cloud over the head of the World Health Organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, who heads the O’Neill Institute for National Law and World Health Center at Georgetown University. Regarding the new advisory group, he added: “This is a committee with the right load and the right global mandate – none of this has happened before.

For the WHO, Gostin said, the new committee serves several purposes. By choosing a larger group reflecting a wider range of expertise and geographic regions, the organization can attempt to garner broad international support for its work and underscore China’s intransigence, he said.

Fundamentally, the formation of the new group could also help strengthen WHO’s position with its major Western donors, none more important than the United States. crucial information.

Now, he said, the organization had to heed the wishes of Europe and the United States – not least because Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, relies on their support as he is seeking re-election in May.

Despite the possible avalanche of applications, recruiting for the new committee was not an easy task. In some cases, scientists have rejected WHO’s calls to apply.

“Some people said to us: ‘No, we really don’t want to engage, because it’s just too politicized,” Van Kerkhove said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.