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WHO urges experts to join advisory group to probe new pathogens

New group comes after probes of coronavirus origins that began in March in China criticized for not going far enough.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urged experts on Friday to join its new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) after criticism from China that a new study had been “politicized.”

The SAGO will advise the WHO on technical and scientific concerns on the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, and will be composed of a “wide range of experts acting in their personal capacity.”

SAGO will guide the WHO on the next steps for understanding the SARS-CoV-2 origins but China has not stated clearly that it will accept the group.

“Following the publication of the WHO-China joint report of the phase one studies on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in March 2021, WHO has outlined the next series of studies … and continues to be in discussions with member states and experts on next steps,” the WHO said Aug. 12 in announcing the group.

But the WHO noted that China and other states suggested that the March study had been “politicized” or that the WHO acted because of “political pressure.”

On Aug. 16, China’s Foreign Ministry website quoted spokeswoman Hua Chunying who said: “The WHO-China joint study report (in March) on the origins of COVID-19 was produced in full compliance with WHO procedures and with scientific methods. It has proven to be a valuable and authoritative report that can stand the scrutiny of science and history.

“The report should be the foundation and guidance for global origins tracing. Any attempt to overturn or distort the conclusions of the report is political manipulation and disrespect to science and scientists around the world,” Hua added

The US, which has fully engaged with the WHO after former President Donald Trump said it would leave the UN health agency, criticized the first report along with other nations, urging further investigations, which drew criticism from China.

High threat pathogens

“There have been an increasing number of high threat pathogens emerging and re-emerging in recent years with, for example, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, Lassa, Marburg, Ebola, Nipah, avian influenza, the latest being SARS-CoV-2,” the WHO said in the statement on Friday.

“There is a clear need for robust surveillance and early actions for rapid detection and mitigation efforts, as well as systematic processes to study the emergence of these pathogens and routes of transmission from their natural reservoirs to humans,” it added.

The examination is critical to helping WHO, member states, and partner institutions prepare for future spillover threats and to minimize the risk of a disease outbreak growing into a pandemic, it said.

“From SARS-CoV-2, which continues to wreak havoc around the world, to the next ‘Disease X,’ this global framework to study the emergence of new and known high threat pathogens needs to be comprehensive and coordinated based on a One Health approach,” said the WHO.

Such a study should encompass biosafety and biosecurity, “and it needs to be scientific, transparent, comprehensive, rapid and inclusive,” it added.

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