WHO Creates SAGO Group to Track Down Origins of ‘Novel Pathogens’ Including SARS-CoV-2

© AP Photo / Anja NiedringhausWorld Health Organization logo on its headquarters in Geneva
World Health Organization logo on its headquarters in Geneva - Sputnik International, 1920, 15.10.2021
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The World Health Organization (WHO) has formally announced the creation of an advisory group for tracking down the origins of new diseases, starting with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The group follows an ad-hoc task force sent to China earlier this year to share data on the early days of the pandemic.
Titled the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), the new WHO group will assume the role of the older task force but will institutionalize its functions for future outbreaks.
“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press release.
“Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise. We are very pleased with the calibre of experts selected for SAGO from around the world, and look forward to working with them to make the world safer,” he added.
The group is composed of 26 nominated experts, several of whom were also part of the WHO mission to Wuhan, China, in January 2021, including Vladimir Dedkov, Farag Elmoubasher, Thea Fischer, Marion Koopmans, Hung Nguyen and John Watson, according to AFP. Other appointees include representatives from public health agencies around the globe, including Berlin’s Institute of Virology, the Beijing Institute of Genomics, France’s Institut Pasteur, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The roster has not reportedly been finalized, and a two-week public consultation will precede their formal approval for the job.
© REUTERS / CHINA DAILYMedical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit (ICU) of a designated hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, February 6, 2020.
Medical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit (ICU) of a designated hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, February 6, 2020.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 15.10.2021
Medical workers in protective suits attend to novel coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit (ICU) of a designated hospital in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, February 6, 2020.
There is some dispute about where the new group’s focus should be.
The international team sent to Wuhan in early 2021 shared data with Chinese scientists who collected data from the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, which saw its first recognizable mass spread in Wuhan in the final days of 2019 and early 2020, and where the virus was first isolated, sequenced, and identified as a new pathogen.
Their study yielded no conclusive results, but they found that the most likely origin may be zoonotic transfer, either directly or indirectly, from an infected animal. The least likely possibility they studied was an escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a conspiracy theory that has gained considerable currency in the United States.
An intelligence probe launched by US President Joe Biden, which delivered its results in August, arrived at similar conclusions.

“I anticipate that the SAGO [...] will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told AFP. “There’s no time to waste in this.”

However, Chen Xu, China’s envoy to the UN in Geneva, said on Wednesday that the WHO should send investigative teams to other countries instead of China, as two teams have already visited. As a riposte to continued insistence by some in the US that China is engaged in a coverup about the origins and early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has pushed for international probes of US biolabs.
That same day, CNN reported, citing a Beijing official, that Chinese scientists were preparing to test tens of thousands of blood bank samples in Wuhan going back two years in its latest effort to track down the earliest cases of COVID-19. Other studies of blood samples have found SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in patients in Italy dating at least three months before the first cases were identified in Wuhan, and in five US states in December 2019.
The WHO’s Wuhan team has also criticized SAGO; not because they object to the principle of the group, but because organizing it and shifting their own work over to it has caused months of delays they fear could permanently hinder their ability to conclusively track down the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible,” they warned in an August article published by the journal Nature.

“Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns,” they wrote, noting that not only do Chinese animal factories employ some 14 million people, many of the farms have been closed due to the pandemic and animals culled, “making any evidence of early coronavirus spillover increasingly difficult to find.”
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