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WHO seeks experts for pandemic prevention group

Published Aug 22, 2021 12:26 pm

The World Health Organization (WHO) called Friday for experts to advise on the scientific steps needed when facing new dangerous pathogens with the potential to spark pandemics like COVID-19.

The UN health agency launched a call for nominations of experts across a wide range of fields, including virology, veterinary medicine, laboratory safety, and security to join its new permanent International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens or SAGO.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the creation of the group last month, stressing that it would "play a vital role" in the next phase of investigations into how the SARS CoV-2 virus behind COVID-19 first jumped into humans.

But he stressed in a closed-door briefing with member states Thursday that the new group was about much more than the current pandemic.

"It is a long-term initiative to support studies into the origins of any and all future emerging pathogens," he said, pointing out that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic was only the latest high-threat pathogen to emerge, following the likes of SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Marburg.

Disease X

The first phase of COVID origins probe saw a team of international experts go to Wuhan earlier this year and produce a report with their Chinese counterparts that drew no firm conclusions.

Instead, it ranked four hypotheses, deeming a jump from bats to humans via an intermediate animal was the most probable scenario, while a lab leak was seen as "extremely unlikely."

But the investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more thoroughly.

A WHO call last month for the investigation's second stage to include audits of the Wuhan labs infuriated Beijing, which has also rejected as political the agency's call for raw data from the earliest COVID cases.

WHO's technical lead on COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove stressed to AFP that the new advisory group would not be responsible for organizing possible future missions to China or elsewhere in the hunt for the pandemic origins.

She said the experts would be asked to provide "an independent evaluation of where we are on the scientific findings, the technical findings of all available data, all available studies into the global search for SARS CoV-2."

And they would be asked to advise the WHO on how to move forward with the second phase of the origins probe, with more studies needed "not only in China but also in other countries."

Van Kerkove stressed though that SAGO's role was "long term," helping to streamline the process for dealing with dangerous new pathogens, many of which may already be waiting in the wings.

"We believe that the next Disease X is out there." (AFP)

Banner and thumbnail photo from TZIDO SUN on Shutterstock