The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced the establishment of a new working group that will have the task of investigating the origins of the current coronavirus, and which in the future will be able to devote itself to the study of any new pandemics.
The Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) includes 26 scientists from as many countries around the world and will be fully operational in the coming weeks, after a phase of public consultations to establish tasks and activities. Its members will not only deal with the coronavirus, but will also have to work on defining new procedures to prevent future analyzes on the origins of pandemics from turning out to be inconclusive as they have been in the last year and a half.
To date, it is not clear what the origin of the coronavirus was and according to several experts it is now unlikely that new elements will emerge to give some answers, also due to the reluctance of the Chinese government on new data on the early stages of the pandemic in Wuhan. The issue had led to strong friction especially between China and the United States, the country that more than others had hypothesized that the coronavirus had spread from a laboratory, and not following a direct passage from some animal species (perhaps some bats ) to humans.
According to WHO officials, the establishment of SAGO is a new important opportunity to remove such a dedicated topic from political confrontation, bringing it back to the methods of scientific analysis. Some observers believe instead that in the case of the current coronavirus it will be difficult to exclude political evaluations and comparisons.
The suspicion that the virus has escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of the most important in China, or from some other Chinese research center continues to be aired by various experts, although no definitive evidence has been provided to date on this. eventuality.
The Chinese government has always rejected these hypotheses, going so far as to argue that the transition from other animal species to humans may have occurred abroad, before the Wuhan outbreak developed, which then started the pandemic. On several occasions, the government of China has also said that it considers the internal investigations into the origins of the coronavirus concluded, showing that it has no interest in collaborating with international study missions such as those that SAGO could now conduct.
Neither SAGO members nor the WHO will have the authority to ask China to open its borders to researchers in charge of conducting the new investigations. Also for this reason, it is believed that in the case of the current pandemic the new working group will not be able to do much, also because almost two years later it would not find much evidence either in favor of natural spread or that due to a laboratory error .
In an editorial recently published in the scientific journal Science, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote that the laboratory hypothesis cannot be completely ruled out: “It must be analyzed with caution, focusing on the laboratories in the places where the first cases of infection had emerged in Wuhan.”
A previous investigation conducted by the WHO ended six months ago with a report in which the laboratory hypothesis was described as “highly improbable”, to the point that no further investigation was necessary. Tedros later described the findings of the investigation as unsatisfactory and directly criticized the Chinese government, asking for more cooperation from the Chinese authorities on the matter.
Six SAGO members had been part of the WHO mission to China conducted earlier this year. Among them there is also Marion Koopmans, among the most prominent characters of that mission and who in several statements to the press had not completely ruled out the hypotheses on the origin of the coronavirus in the laboratory. However, most of the SAGO participants were not part of that initiative and will have to be confirmed after a period of public consultation.
After an internal consultation, SAGO may ask WHO for authorization to conduct travel and investigations in the countries that are part of the Organization, provided they agree. The objectives of the initiative are wide-ranging and not strictly linked to the current pandemic. Members will have to work on the definition of protocols and procedures to be applied in the future, in the event that new pandemics emerge in order to immediately understand their origins, an essential condition for reducing the risks of new large-scale epidemics.
At the moment, China has not announced whether it will allow new research groups on the origin of the coronavirus to enter the country.