WHO to Launch Another COVID Origin Investigation, This Time With an Independent Panel

The World Health Organization (WHO) is launching its second investigation into the origins of COVID-19, this time with a new independent advisory group, the Associated Press reported.

The panel will focus on advising the U.N. agency on the "origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential," such as MERS-CoV, Ebola and avian influenza, according to a statement released Friday. It will also help analyze the WHO's past work in investigating COVID origins and counsel the organization as it begins its new probe.

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

The statement announced an open call for "a wide range of experts" to join the panel, officially titled WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). Applications are due by September 10, and up to 25 experts could be chosen to serve on SAGO, the statement said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

WHO Launches New COVID Origins Investigation
The World Health Organization is launching a second probe into the origins of COVID-19, this time using an independent panel. A man enters the headquarters of the WHO on June 15, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In March, a WHO-led team of international experts issued a preliminary report that deemed it "extremely unlikely " that the origins of COVID-19 were linked to a laboratory. Although scientists think it's most probable that the virus jumped to humans from animals, the theory that a laboratory was involved has gained traction in recent months, with an intelligence review ordered by U.S. President Joe Biden to examine the possibility.

Critics have slammed the WHO's initial assessment, saying it was a flawed effort and noting that all of the team members sent to China needed Chinese government approval, as did the WHO report.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged last month it was "premature " to rule out the lab leak theory, describing lab accidents as "common."

In a Danish documentary released earlier this month, the WHO's team leader said during a trip to China that he was worried about safety standards at a facility close to where the first human COVID-19 cases were detected in Wuhan — concerns that were not previously disclosed by the WHO.

Numerous health experts and scientists have called for an independent investigation to be conducted beyond the WHO, pointing out that the agency has no authority to compel countries, including China, to co-operate.

According to the terms of reference released on Friday, the WHO's new expert group will also be bound by certain confidentiality rules, similar to those in place for many of the agency's other expert groups.

The guidelines state that members shall not speak on behalf of the WHO or the group to any third party, that internal deliberations should be treated as "strictly confidential" and that they should not quote from or use any documents outside of the group's remit.

The WHO will retain full control over any reports, including whether or not they will be published.

McCarthy Holds COVID Origins Press Conference
The World Health Organization is assembling a new advisory group to investigate COVID-19 origins after a previous probe produced results that WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called "premature." House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. McCarthy and other members of the House Republican caucus called for a congressional inquiry into China’s role in the origins of the COVID-19 virus. Win McNamee/Getty Images