The World Health Organization on Wednesday named 26 scientists to a new advisory group charged with studying the origins of the coronavirus, opening another chapter of the fraught search for how the pandemic began.
The group, chosen from more than 700 applicants, includes scientists from 26 countries, a reflection of the WHO’s effort to amass widespread international support for the work.
Among them are an American researcher — Dr. Inger Damon, a veteran of the country’s Ebola response who directs work on highly lethal diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and a Chinese scientist, Dr. Yungui Yang, deputy director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
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With this new group, the WHO is trying to revive its study of the pandemic’s origins. That work had become bogged down in a political rivalry between China and the United States, and concerns about scientists’ conflicts of interest, since the WHO sent a previous team to China early this year.
The result of that visit was a joint report by the WHO-chosen team and China that said a leak of the coronavirus from a lab, while possible, was “extremely unlikely,” a conclusion that the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, later called premature.
Six members of that since-disbanded WHO team have joined the new advisory group. The committee also includes the head of a Swiss biosafety center, an indication of WHO’s efforts to ensure that a laboratory leak be considered alongside scenarios in which the virus spilled over naturally from animals to humans.
“A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared,” Tedros and two top WHO officials wrote in an editorial in Science outlining the advisory group’s mandate.
After a two-week public comment period that is customary before WHO advisory groups are set up, the committee will begin to meet.
WHO officials said the group would assess recent studies, including those describing bats harboring close relatives of the virus behind COVID-19, and advise the organization on what future studies were needed — potentially including field research in China.
China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus may have emerged from a lab and, analysts have said, is almost certain to resist outside requests to visit research centers, bat caves or wildlife farms within its borders.
Unlike the last WHO team, which was assembled specifically for the visit to China, the new committee will also have a mandate to weigh in on the emergence of any new pathogens beyond the coronavirus, giving it a permanence that the WHO hopes will help insulate it from political squabbling.
At a news briefing Wednesday, Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said it was impossible to ignore obstacles like “national pride” standing in the way of hunting down the origins of the coronavirus. But he said the new advisory group was an effort to return to the scientific issues at the core of that effort.
“This is our best chance,” he said. “And it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus in a collegiate and collective and mutually responsible way.”
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