The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Wednesday that its newly formed advisory panel on dangerous pathogens could be “our final chance” to figure out where the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from, and it urged China to help.
In December 2019, the first human cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan, a city in central China. China has refuted claims that the virus escaped from one of its laboratories and stated that no further inspections are required.
In a joint report released in March, a WHO-led team visited four weeks in and around Wuhan earlier this year with Chinese experts, concluding that the virus was most likely transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, but that more research was needed.
The study was hampered by a lack of raw data relevant to the outbreak’s early days, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has asked for lab checks.
The WHO on Wednesday named the 26 proposed members of its Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). They include Marion Koopmans, Thea Fischer, Hung Nguyen and Chinese animal health expert Yang Yungui, who took part in the joint investigation in Wuhan.
DOZENS OF STUDIES NEEDED
Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, voiced hope that there would be further WHO-led international missions to China which would engage the country’s cooperation.
She told a news conference that “more than three dozen recommended studies” still needed to be carried out to determine how the virus crossed from the animal species to humans.
Reported Chinese tests for antibodies present in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be “absolutely critical” to understanding the virus’s origins, van Kerkhove said.
Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said the new panel may be the last chance to establish the origin of SARS-CoV-2, “a virus that has stopped our whole world”.
The WHO was seeking to “take a step back, create an environment where we can again look at the scientific issues”, he said.
Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told a separate news conference the conclusions of the joint study were “quite clear,” adding that as international teams had been sent to China twice already, “it is time to send teams to other places.”
“I do believe that if we are going to continue with the scientific research I think it should be a joint effort based on science not by the intelligence agencies,” Chen said. “So if we are going to talk about anything, we are doing the whole business with the framework of SAGO”.