The World Health Organization has tried before to discover the origins of the coronavirus but found no clear answer, at least partly because of a lack of cooperation from China. But the organization launched a second attempt Wednesday by naming a more formal, standing panel of scientists to what it's calling the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, the Washington Post reports. In addition to deciding when and where humans first became infected with the virus, the group is charged with setting up a framework to deal with future pandemics involving other pathogens.
"The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director general, per NPR, "and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last." The 26 scientists chosen are from 26 nations, including China and the US. The selections won't be confirmed until after a two-week comment period. The group will advise the WHO and undertake research missions, which would need the approval of the host nation.
The new panel will not have the power to force China to cooperate. "If you believe that SAGO will answer the question, what was the origin of SARS-CoV-2, then you are sadly mistaken, because there is little to no chance of them gaining access to information or on-the-ground investigation as far as China is concerned," said Lawrence Gostin, professor at Georgetown University. The smaller WHO-China mission was allowed in earlier this year. It dismissed the possibility that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, prompting Tedros to say its work wasn't "extensive enough." He warned China that he was counting on "future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing."
WHO made clear this mission will be different, though a few of the scientists named to this group were part of the last, failed one. Leaders including Tedros wrote an editorial published Wednesday in the journal Science saying that the theory of a lab leak remains a possibility. "Laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan," they said. Gostin said the real importance of the WHO's move will be in having a group in place for future outbreaks, with experts ready to investigate. China had no comment on the WHO announcement. (Read more World Health Organization stories.)