This week, U.S. intelligence agencies delivered their highly anticipated assessment of the competing origin theories for SARS-CoV-2 to President Joe Biden, and media reports say it is inconclusive. Some unclassified details from the analysis may emerge this week, but the question of how exactly SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans remains a topic with a lot of speculation and few data.
The World Health Organization (WHO) still hopes to lead the way—even after a first effort got mired in the politics of this divisive issue. A group of WHO-chosen experts traveled to China in January and February for a joint mission with Chinese scientists. Their report concluded the most likely scenario was that the coronavirus moved from bats to an intermediate host and then to humans. But the group was quickly criticized for seeming to dismiss the idea that the virus could have escaped from one of two Chinese labs.
Now, WHO is forming a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). Its broad remit is to examine the emergence of any pathogens, but one of its jobs will be to take the reins of WHO’s effort to pinpoint the origins of COVID-19. ScienceInsider spoke about SAGO with Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 at WHO, which is now seeking nominations for the group. We have edited the interview for brevity and clarity.
Q: WHO had already put together a joint mission that produced a report on the origins of COVID-19. Is the work of that group now over?
A: [That report] is really rich and advances our understanding of some of those early [COVID-19] cases. It also outlines dozens of studies that need to be conducted in China and elsewhere, looking at animal susceptibility, what [animals were] sold [in markets], whether those animals were susceptible, when or whether any of those animals were infected. Our Chinese counterparts … have made some public statements recently that there are studies ongoing, following the recommendations of the report. We would love to see what those are and when we can anticipate those results.
This initiation of a SAGO is really addressing a gap that we identified: establishing a global framework for studying the origins of pathogens. In my group for emerging diseases and zoonoses, we do a lot of work at the animal-human interface. We also have groups that work on biosafety and biosecurity. We do inspections of labs and audits of labs … that house the smallpox repositories in the U.S. and in Russia. But none of that is pulled together to give an overarching comprehensive framework for each time there is either the emergence of a new pathogen or the re-emergence of known threats.
Right now, if SAGO existed, we would call that group together and say: “How can SAGO advise on better understanding that one case of Ebola, that one case of Marburg, and on the studies that are needed to look at how those cases occurred?”
Q: But just to be clear, this means the original WHO group is being disbanded?
A: I don’t like calling it “disbanded.” I’ve had questions, you know: “Has this group been fired?” No. I’m really conscious of this because it has such a negative connotation.
Q: But the joint mission is not going to keep working?
A: I hope many of [the joint mission participants] are part of SAGO going forward. Because part of the work of SAGO is this overarching framework. But the other is to do an independent evaluation of where we stand. So, it’s starting from the report, not starting from scratch.
Q: That joint mission report concluded that there was no evidence of live mammals being traded at the Huanan market. But then a paper came out in June from Chinese researchers that showed there were lots of mammals being traded there. It seems like a slap in the face to have that paper come out after the report; the joint mission should have been made aware of those data.
A: I’m really disappointed that [paper] came out after [the report]. I think there were several opportunities for that information to be shared.
In fairness, that paper was sent to WHO as part of an agreement between WHO and journals—sent to me directly—and also sent to this repository that we [maintain] by October 2020. In the beginning of this pandemic I opened up every email, I clicked on every PDF, and I looked at every single abstract. But by October 2020 we were only looking at preprints … that were uploaded to the preprint servers—not submissions (as well as anything that was published). So it got lost in the flood.
None of the authors … gave us a heads up. It was not uploaded as a preprint and the information was not shared with the international team when they were in China. I am disappointed because that survey is very important. If you look at the list of the species that were sold in those markets, many are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. That would have been very helpful.
Q: The mission report said a lab leak scenario was “extremely unlikely.” But you have said you want to broaden the expertise for SAGO and include people who would be able to look at something like this scenario. What does that mean?
A: There are many labs that go through audits for biosafety and biosecurity. None of this is new. [But] we don’t have the mandate to go into any country and do a lab audit, so we would be working with any country able to do so. What we’re doing is taking the protocol that exists, looking at how that needs to be adapted for the current situation, and what we would want to see going forward. When the next disease X comes, there will always be a question about biosafety, about a lab leak, there will be conspiracy theorists. I trust science. I trust the process. I trust collaboration. We need to put this framework in place so that there’s an expectation for each time that we’re going to look at epidemiology, animal health, human health, environmental studies, biosafety, biosecurity. So, for SARS-CoV-2, the lab hypothesis cannot be taken off the table until it can be ruled out. If there is data that exists, and I’m sure there is that can take this off, then let’s see it.
Q: It seems that a large part of the problem has been China’s lack of cooperation with the investigation. If that’s the case, is there anything SAGO can do to address that?
A: It will certainly try. We want to take it more away from the political debate and move it back into the scientific debate. That’s our real aim now. We really want to have a solid scientific and technical foundation for the study of these pathogens, where and when they emerge. We know we don’t operate in a world in the absence of politics. But we want to bring it back as much as we can to our core responsibilities.
Q: Who do you want to apply to join SAGO?
A: I’ve had some very prominent scientists say: “I’m not going to apply because it’s just too political, I’ve just been beat up too much.” I understand that, because I feel also quite beaten up. But we’re looking for people with experience in these technical areas, people who have field experience, all over the world. It’s an open call. Anyone can apply. They’ve got [until 10 September]. My view is that it’s much better to be involved than to sit on the sidelines.
Q: Who’s going to choose the team?
A: An internal group will select based upon expertise, field experience, declaration of interest, conflicts of interest, as well as gender balance and geographic representation.
Q: The announcement suggests SAGO could meet for the first time at the end of September. That is a very short timeline.
A: This is our plan [but] it will likely be early October that we’ll have the first meeting. We have to set some kind of goal to work towards. But yes, this is very fast, because we want to show that we’re not, you know, sitting on our heels.