Scientists advising the World Health Organization (WHO) on how to move forward in investigating the origins of COVID-19 said on Thursday, June 9, 2022, that further studies are needed into whether the disease escaped from a lab.
In its first preliminary report, classified as the so-called Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) stressed that there were no conclusive findings on the origins of the virus behind the worst global pandemic in a century.
The team of 27 experts was set up by the WHO last year (2021) to produce a new global framework for studies into emerging pathogens with the potential of sparking epidemics or pandemics.
What is Their Mandate?
The scientists have been tasked with providing an independent assessment on a way forward in the investigation into the origins of the SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
They intimated in their report that “There are key pieces of data that are not yet available for a complete understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic began”, stressing that a range of further studies is needed “to follow up on several gaps in our knowledge”.
The Zoonotic Transmission
The experts evaluated a wide range of existing research, including the findings of a joint WHO-China scientific mission last year (2021), as well as more recently published and unpublished studies. They seemed to back a key finding by the joint mission that the virus most likely jumped from bats to humans through an intermediate animal, allegedly called the zoonotic transmission.
“The strongest evidence is still around zoonotic transmission”, SAGO Chair, Marietjie Venter, told reporters, although the original host, intermediate hosts or how the virus jumped to humans remained unidentified. But while it is “extremely unlikely”, that the joint mission deemed a competing theory that the virus may have escaped due to a laboratory incident, and proposed no further investigation into that hypothesis, the SAGO team insists that this issue required further investigation study.
Among a long line of studies requested, the team stressed that “it remains important to consider all reasonable scientific data that is available either through published or other official sources to evaluate the possibility of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population through a laboratory incident”. The issue is highly controversial, and SAGO acknowledged that three members of the team, from China, Russia and Brazil, objected to including the recommendation.
A Need to be Open-minded
SAGO Chair, Marietjie Venter, told reporters that it is important to be open to various hypotheses.
“Having it in the report doesn’t say that that’s definitely what we think it is”, she said, insisting that it merely means “we are open to scientific data… so if anything comes up that’s new, we will not ignore it”. SAGO Co-chair, Jean-Claude Manuguerra, agreed, saying “We need to be open-minded and cover all the hypotheses, including that one”, stressing that so far there is no real investigation into the lab leak theory.
Among other things, the experts said access is needed to staff and data from labs, in China and elsewhere that work with coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, to assess biosafety and biosecurity practices.