WHO appoints experts in charge of reactivating investigations into the origin of the coronavirus

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director de la Organización Mundial de la Salud (OMS).
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (WHO). DENIS BALIBOUSE (Reuters)

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this Wednesday the list of 26 experts selected to form the new Scientific Advisory Group on the Origin of New Pathogens (SAGO). Beyond coronavirus, the committee was born with the will to remain and to become the world reference on emerging infectious diseases, although the first mission that it will have to face will be to clarify the doubts still to be resolved about the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Six of the SAGO members were already part of the previous WHO expert panel that it dealt with without success at the beginning of the year to find out how the pandemic started. After visiting China in January, encountering numerous obstacles to accessing relevant information and publishing a questionable report in March – which pointed to an animal origin of the pathogen – the group denounced in August that investigations into the origin of the coronavirus were “paralyzed” and that the time to discover it was running out.

The great obstacle, then and now, continues to be the reluctance of the Asian giant to allow international experts free access to all available scientific information – now the analysis of tens of thousands of blood donor samples – from the months prior to the official discovery of the virus, in January 2020 in the city of Wuhan. These moments are key because it is when the pathogen began to circulate without being detected when the clinical pictures it caused were confused with other respiratory diseases. This position of China has prompted other hypotheses, such as a laboratory leak.

The fact that it has not been discovered which was the animal species that served as a bridge for SARS-CoV-2 to jump from bats to humans, as was the civet with the first SARS, and that a laboratory specialized in coronavirus has its headquarters in Wuhan has given wings to all kinds of theories. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, even commissioned a report on the matter from his secret services, although this also failed to provide information that would allow the debate to close.

WHO has elected committee members from among the nearly 700 nominations submitted, in a long process that has not yet concluded. The 26 selected must still go through a final step, a final evaluation that may arise public ratings that will be taken into account , before the composition of the group is closed.

“The last 30 years have revealed the global threat to public health and the economy posed by the emergence of pathogens with epidemic and pandemic potential ”, they have subscribed in an editorial published in the magazine Science the top leaders of the WHO. “Many factors intervene in the risk of future emergencies, such as climate change, the transformation of ecosystems and increasing urbanization. A new disease can appear at any time and the world needs to be better prepared ”, defends the text.

The six members who Repeated on the new committee are the Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, the Russian researcher Vladimir Dedkov, the Sudanese epidemiologist Elmoubasher Farag, the Danish virologist Thea Fischer, the English epidemiologist John Watson and Hung Nguyedel, from the Livestock Institute of Kenya. Among the rest, the Cuban María Guzmán stands out in a list made up of experts from more than twenty nationalities and among which there is no Spanish.

China will study thousands of blood samples

In the last days, China has announced that it will analyze tens of thousands of blood samples stored in Wuhan in the months before the emergence of the coronavirus, in a step that many experts consider key and that comes after months of requests for greater transparency from Beijing. The experts appointed by the WHO, however, will not have free access to the results of the tests, according to the first information.

Samples, which can become 200. 000 according to some sources, they were already indicated by the first panel of WHO experts as keys to determine how, when and where the virus reached humans. Although the direct jump from bats – a natural reservoir of coronaviruses – to humans is possible, most experts consider it more likely that some species not yet identified was an intermediate step.

The tubes are stored in the Wuhan Blood Bank and would allow, following the date on which they were stored, to obtain a practically daily analysis of when people began to donate blood infected or with antibodies against the virus, a sign that they had already passed the infection.

The samples “have been retained for two years ”, according to Chinese legislation, in anticipation that they could be required in some legal process related to the donations from which they come. This two-year deadline is precisely what is now being met, coinciding with the months of October and November, at which time, according to all experts, SARS-CoV-2 could begin to circulate in Wuhan and its surroundings without being detected. The samples will be analyzed just when the two years of their date of origin are completed and they are released from their legal limitations.

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