Lab accident not ruled out as WHO begins new probe into Covid origins

All laboratory theories must be investigated in the hunt for the origin of Covid, the head of the World Head Organisation has said, as it appointed a new team of experts to examine the outbreak.

n a joint editorial in the journal Science, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, and two colleagues wrote that “lab hypotheses must be carefully examined” with a focus on institutions in Wuhan.

“A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared,” they wrote.

“All hypotheses must continue to be examined and, as WHO has said from the outset, a fully open and transparent scientific process is essential.”

The new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (Sago) is made up of 26 closely vetted scientists from universities and research institutes around the world.

Among those included on the panel is Dr Kathrin Summermatter, a leading Swiss biosafety expert who has previously inspected high security labs in China, the US and Russia for the WHO. In 2007, she helped investigate a UK veterinary lab leak that sparked a foot and mouth outbreak.

Dr Summermatter has previously said she thinks it “unlikely” a lab leak caused the Covid pandemic.

More than 700 scientists applied to join the panel which is charged not only with tracking down the origin of Sars-Cov-2, but advising on the prevention of future pandemics – natural or man-made.

The final 26 include Dr Yungui Yang, deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

There will be a two-week consultation period in which WHO members can challenge individual appointments.

The group’s first task will be to try and get the WHO’s investigation into the Wuhan outbreak back on track after the original team became bogged down in international politics and accusations of bias.

Dr Ghebreyesus and his colleagues, Dr Mike Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, listed evidence for a zoonotic spillover event, but said the theory that the pandemic resulted from a lab accident cannot be ruled out.

They warned: “The next disease X could appear at any time, and the world needs to be better prepared.”

Pre-empting the WHO announcement by just minutes, China has said it will analyse up to 200,000 samples held in blood banks for traces of Covid, a long-standing demand of the WHO and the international community.

Scientists say the blood samples from 2019 could shine light on the origins of the virus as the blood samples are marked by date and location. Although China said it would do the analysis, it said it would not allow foreign scientists to see the data for themselves.

Dr Van Kerkhove told a press conference yesterday that studies of blood samples are “absolutely critical” to understand the early days of the pandemic, and said she hopes that the results, methodology and raw data will be shared internationally.

Sago members are taking on one of the toughest jobs in science and will receive no payment for what will undoubtedly be a politically charged and divisive task – all done under the glare of the world’s media.

The team has been given the job of both unravelling the origins of the pandemic and investigating the emergence of any future outbreaks in a bid to avoid the geopolitical wrangling and finger pointing that derailed the first inquiry.

Dr Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, told The New York Times that the group would focus on “the science”, not politics.

“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,” she said.

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]



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