WHO to announce new team to study Covid-19 origins

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The position is unpaid. The world's scientists and Internet sleuths will scrutinise every move. Completing the first assignment with the available tools, and to everyone's satisfaction, will be nearly impossible.

Despite those considerable obstacles, more than 700 people have applied for spots on a new committee charged with breathing life into the World Health Organisation's (WHO) stalled inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens and expected to be announced this week, represents an attempt by the embattled global health body to reset its approach to determining how the pandemic began.

Nine months after sending a team of international experts to China, only for its findings to become entangled in geopolitics and trailed by concerns over Beijing's influence, the WHO is trying to inoculate its latest efforts from the slightest hints of undue deference towards China.

Its new advisory team will include specialists in fields like laboratory safety and biosecurity, a step that analysts say may help placate Western governments pressing for consideration of whether the virus emerged from a lab.

And, crucially, the committee will have a mandate to weigh in on the emergence of any new pathogens beyond this novel coronavirus, giving it a permanence that could help insulate it from political squabbling and strengthen the WHO's hand for future outbreaks.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's Covid-19 technical lead, said the group - comprising some two dozen virologists, geneticists, animal experts and safety and security specialists - would help the organisation return to its roots amid the rancour and partisanship of the coronavirus origins debate.

What most needs doing in the hunt for Covid-19's origins, many scientists believe, is something that the new advisory group will be powerless to achieve: persuading China to release evidence about the first infections and to let researchers inspect virology labs, bat caves and wildlife farms within its borders.

Even as China has resisted deeper studies of the virus' origins, the Biden administration has pressed the WHO for a renewed investigation.

The WHO has said Chinese researchers were conducting new studies but that it had not been kept abreast of any findings.

President Xi Jinping said last month that China would support "science-based origins tracing", but would oppose "political manoeuvring in whatever form".