“Especially in light of the politicisation of this particular aspect,” she said, “we want to take this back to the science, take this back to our mandate as an organisation to bring together the world’s best minds to outline what needs to be done.”
What most needs doing in the hunt for COVID-19’s origins, many scientists believe, is something that the new advisory group will be powerless to achieve: persuading China to release evidence about the first infections and to let researchers inspect virology labs, bat caves and wildlife farms within its borders.
China has reacted angrily to the idea that the virus may have emerged from a lab, pushing instead for investigations into early cases in other countries, like Italy, or into US research facilities.
“This new group can do all the fancy footwork it wants, but China’s not going to cooperate,” said David Fidler, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research institute. “For them, all of this continues to look like an attack on China’s response to the pandemic, and there it’s a zero-sum game.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has been caught in the middle of a tug of war between China and the United States — first over China’s response in the early days of the pandemic, and more recently over the question of how the virus emerged.
Even as China has resisted deeper studies of the virus’ origins, the Biden administration has pressed the WHO for a renewed investigation. The Department of State pointedly questioned the results of a joint study by the WHO-chosen scientists and Chinese researchers from March that said a leak of the coronavirus from a lab, while possible, was “extremely unlikely”.
That WHO team, too, struggled to coax the data it needed from Chinese scientists. Members of the team, which has been disbanded, warned in August that time was running out to recover crucial evidence about the beginning of the pandemic. But it is unclear whether China has taken up the team’s recommendations for future studies, including analysing blood banks for evidence of early coronavirus infections, testing workers on wildlife farms and assessing wild bats and farmed animals for signs of exposure.
Some scientists have said that studies of Chinese animal markets, and of bats harbouring close relatives of the virus behind COVID-19, have strengthened their belief that the coronavirus spilled naturally from animals into humans.
The WHO has said that Chinese researchers were conducting new studies but that it had not been kept abreast of any findings. “I don’t have any detail on what was done, or is being done,” Van Kerkhove said of the Chinese research.
President Xi Jinping said last month that China would support “science-based origins tracing,” but would oppose “political maneuvering in whatever form.”
The new committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, will differ in several respects from the team that the WHO sent to China. Because that team visited Wuhan, China had considerable influence over its membership. That is not the case for the new committee, a permanent panel that Van Kerkhove said would begin with frequent, closed-door meetings on the coronavirus.
In soliciting applications, the WHO asked potential committee members for a statement about any conflicts of interest, in addition to a cover letter and résumé. That appeared to be an attempt to head off critics who complained that a member of the previous team, Peter Daszak, an animal disease specialist, was too closely tied to a Wuhan virology institute at the centre of lab leak theories to offer a dispassionate assessment. Daszak has said that his expertise on China and coronaviruses made him well-suited to participate in the earlier trip.
“Conflicts of interest of members of the last group put a huge cloud over the head of the World Health Organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. Of the new advisory group, he added: “It’s a committee with a proper charge, and a proper global mandate — none of that happened before.”
For the WHO, Gostin said, the new committee serves several purposes. In choosing a larger group reflecting a wider range of expertise and geographic regions, the organisation can try to amass widespread international support for its work and underscore China’s intransigence, he said.
Crucially, forming the new group could also help shore up the WHO’s standing with its key Western backers, none more important than the US. Despite the agency’s attempt to act deferentially toward China during the pandemic, Gostin said, China had repeatedly stonewalled the organisation and concealed crucial information.
Now, he said, the organisation needed to pay heed to the desires of Europe and the US — not least because Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, is counting on their support as he seeks reelection in May.
Despite the eventual avalanche of applications, recruiting for the new committee was no simple task. In some cases, scientists rebuffed the WHO’s pleas to apply.
“We did have some people say to us, ‘No, we really don’t want to get engaged, because it’s just too politicised,’” Van Kerkhove said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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