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WHO armed with bold plan to find covid-19’s origins

The World Health Organization announced this Wednesday the composition of the team that will start to investigate new infectious viruses that may cause pandemics and that will have as one of its missions to study the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

The team integrates 26 experts from different areas, such as epidemiology, animal health, ecology, clinical medicine, virology, molecular biology, food safety or biosafety, its members being from countries as different as the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, China or Japan.

The team, chosen from 700 candidates, will form the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of New Pathogens (SAGO) and aims to advise WHO on the sources of emerging and re-emerging infectious agents with the potential to trigger epidemics or pandemics.

“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to trigger epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature and, although SARS-CoV-2 is the most recent virus, won’t be the last“, said this Tuesday, the director general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential to preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential and requires a wide range of knowledge. We are very pleased with the caliber of experts selected (…) and look forward to working with them to make the world a safer place,” he added.

The 26 members will also be subject to a final evaluation, in which WHO will also take into account the results of a two-week public consultation on the candidates.

Research into the origin of the virus that causes covid-19 has been a constant objective of the WHO, which sent, as early as February and then in July 2020, two teams of experts to China, namely to the city of Wuhan, where it was detected the first case of the disease.

Beijing reacted to the investigation and was imposing successive delays, which made it difficult to study the first traces of the infection.

In January, another team of ten WHO investigators and experts traveled to China to investigate the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but China continued to make it difficult to collect information, such as the name of the first fatal victim of SARS. covid-19, and the entry into the Wuhan market, considered to be the first major focus of the pandemic.

The team eventually left China in mid-February, pointing out two preliminary theories about the virus’ origins: through an animal which served as an intermediate host for humans or through some frozen food.

This second theory was defended by China repeatedly during the first months of the pandemic, after the detection of traces of the virus in some frozen products imported by the Asian country.

The investigation was a moment extremely sensitive to the communist regime, whose official bodies have promoted theories pointing out that the virus originated in other countries, a situation that was further complicated by the accusations of then US President Donald Trump, who claimed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was responsible for leaving the virus escape.

The WHO’s bold new plan already faces an old problem: the Chinese government. According to the The Washington Post, without Beijing’s consent, the hunt for the origins of covid-19 will most likely remain unresolved.

So far, there are few signs that China will provide SAGO with an easy journey. O People’s Daily, Communist Party spokesman, wrote earlier this month that China couldn’t trust in the WHO expert group, until requesting an investigation from the Fort Detrick, a US Army base and investigation center in Maryland, which Chinese authorities said, without evidence, could be linked to the origin of covid-19.

The American daily notes that China may have little reason to yearn for the truth to come out, even if the laboratory’s leak theory is unfounded.

According to New Yorker, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping it will have promoted intensive agricultural practices that pushed people into more direct contact with wild animals, which would have created the ideal circumstances for a virus to spread from bats to humans through a third animal.

“From a certain perspective, to prove that the virus has a natural origin it’s even worse to China. If wildlife exploitation were responsible for the pandemic, that would blame President Xi Jinping’s policies. If there was a leak in the laboratory, only a few scientists would be blamed for the accident”, reads the article, published this week.

SAGO will not be able to overcome Chinese interests, but this scientific collaboration can produce relevant results. WHO officials are particularly interested in testing samples from blood banks in Wuhan to see when the virus has started to spread.

Furthermore, it is the only option for WHO. “We have to work with countries and collaborate with them, and we need China’s cooperation to get in,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical coordinator for combating the pandemic. “It has to happen. There can be no ambiguity.”

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