WHO chief calls on China to further help investigate the origin of the pandemic | Science


The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wants China to authorize a biosafety audit of some of its virology laboratories.

Jean-Christophe Bott / Keystone via AP

By Jon Cohen

ScienceThe COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

In a brutal tightening of diplomatic screws, World Health Organization (WHO) Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urges China to increase transparency on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and allow better access to its laboratories to help resolve the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Tedros, as he prefers to be called, also says the WHO will create a new body to conduct the next phase of studies into the emergence of the virus, an unexpected move that worries some scientists, including at least one member of a existing mission that the agency organized to study the origin of COVID-19. “I’m worried about the delays and of course it’s a bit strange,” says virologist and veterinarian Marion Koopmans of Erasmus University. “We are wasting precious time.

In a press conference on July 15 and in a statement yesterday at a briefing on the origin of the pandemic, Tedros called for more aggressively probing the two main theories about how SARS- CoV-2 first infected humans, then emerged in Wuhan in December 2019: that the virus made a natural “zoonotic” jump from an animal species unknown to humans or, more controversially, than it first infected a human during laboratory or field studies of coronaviruses found in animals. (An even more controversial theory suggests the virus was genetically engineered in a Wuhan lab.)

Tedros, who has been accused of being too deferential to Chinese President Xi Jinping, said China had not shared “raw data” since the early days of the pandemic and called for “laboratory audits and relevant research institutes operating in the field of the first human cases identified in December 2019. ”The Wuhan Institute of Virology is world famous for its study of bat coronaviruses, and an outpost of the Control Center and The country’s disease prevention department also has a laboratory in the city that does similar work.

Researchers who have criticized the WHO’s treatment of the issue of origin welcome Tedros’ harsher tone. “This is a sign that the WHO might be able to do a more credible or more balanced investigation,” says Alina Chan, a gene therapy researcher at the Broad Institute, who co-wrote a letter with 17 other scientists on the 14th. May to Science who argued that the laboratory theory deserves a more balanced assessment. But Chan doubts China will accept audits of its labs. “At the moment, the lack of clarity is in China’s interest,” she said.

Another author of Science letter, microbiome researcher David Relman at Stanford University, wished Tedros had recognized WHO’s past “missteps”. “I don’t think he can just take the next step and not worry about what has happened so far.”

But other researchers believe Tedros was caught in what Gerald Keusch, associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute at Boston University, calls “the barrage of media and political commentary” – particularly acute in the United States. , WHO’s biggest funder – about a potential lab leak. The Biden administration, which recently joined the WHO after former President Donald Trump broke up with the agency, has launched its own investigation into the origins of the pandemic, including a possible lab leak. “I think he was under tremendous pressure and he surrendered,” says Keusch, who co-wrote two letters in the Lancet who favor the theory of natural origin and criticize the “conspiracy theories” and speculation that fuel some arguments of laboratory origin. “It’s sad.” (Tedros declined an interview request.)

Earlier this year, the WHO sent a team of international scientists to China to work with colleagues on a joint mission to study the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The team was not explicitly asked to examine the lab’s original hypothesis, but they have discussed this scenario at length with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The report published in March by the joint mission, which had just completed the first of two planned study phases, declared the original laboratory hypothesis “extremely unlikely” and favored the zoonotic theory.

It sparked controversy, and even Tedros was grieved. At Thursday’s press conference, he said it was “premature” to dismiss the theory from the lab. “As you know, I myself was a laboratory technician, an immunologist, and I worked in the laboratory. And laboratory accidents happen. It’s usual.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rebuffed Tedros’ comments at a press conference yesterday, stressing that the joint mission’s report reached “important conclusions.” Zhao, who repeated the Chinese government’s frequent claim that SARS-CoV-2 could have first infected a human in another country or even entered China through frozen food, suggested that the director of the WHO was “politicizing the problem”. China shared “large amounts of data” with the WHO mission team, he insisted, only withholding information that compromised privacy.

The international members of the joint mission previously noted that they both did not have a mandate and did not have the expertise to conduct an independent biosafety audit of the Wuhan laboratories. Koopmans believes it “makes sense” to require lab audits, but suggests the current demand could backfire. “It’s not going to be popular with China, so I’m a little worried that it will close the doors to the rest of the studies we deem necessary,” she said, adding that it would make more sense to push for audits if the soon-to-be-completed investigation by the Biden administration provides evidence to support a laboratory origin.

Tedros’ call for more raw data echoes concerns raised by Koopmans and other international researchers on the joint mission. For example, they asked for more data on the first 174 documented cases of COVID-19, a plea Tedros repeated yesterday. But Koopmans says that data became less important to team members as their work progressed because they realized the pandemic predated these cases. A ‘circular’ Tedros presented to member states earlier this week set out other data that Phase 2 studies should attempt to collate – which the joint mission report describes in detail – such as tests on captive and wild animals, especially in areas where SARS- CoV-2 first circulated, and humans who came in contact with them.

Tedros also told member states in his remarks this week that he wanted more “studies of animal markets in Wuhan and surrounding areas, including further studies of animals sold in the wholesale market of Wuhan. Huanan ”. In its final report, the mission noted that it had found “no verified reports of live mammals sold around 2019” in the Huanan seafood market, which was linked to the first cluster of cases, and on other Wuhan markets linked to early human infections. Yet a study published on June 7, 2021 in Scientific reports documented that thousands of live mammals were sold between May 2017 and November 2019 in markets, including Huanan, who alone was linked to 28% of the first 174 cases of COVID-19 and also had ample evidence of SARS -CoV-2 on its soils and in its sewers.

It is not known whether Koopmans and other members of the existing joint mission will help conduct these studies. Tedros said a new WHO International Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGOs) “will play a critical role in the next phase of studies on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, as well as on the origins of future new pathogens “. WHO will soon be launching an open call for nominations of “highly qualified experts”. Koopmans says she would be happy to expand the expertise of the existing group, especially to perform lab audits and study the blood of more humans who live far from Wuhan and may have been exposed to SARS -CoV-2 even before the epidemic appeared.

Keusch, however, is concerned that SAGO will replace the existing original working group. The current group consists of highly qualified and diverse experts who have worked “diligently” and made important connections with their Chinese colleague, he said. “I am very suspicious of firing the original working group and now allowing individuals and governments to nominate themselves, which will lead to a partisan and selective process and not lead to the best composition,” he said.

Relman, who says he’s not sure if he will apply for SAGO due to the time commitment, wonders if WHO is the best organization to oversee studies into the origin of SARS-CoV-2. “It’s not a truly independent body,” says Relman. “They are the product of a very political world, and what makes their problem 100 times worse is that they don’t have the resources to operate independently.” He suggests that the United Nations may want to create an entirely new organization modeled on the International Atomic Energy Agency to study the origins of pathogens. But he welcomes the new surge in responses from the WHO. “I really hope good science can rule the day.”

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