WHO Names Experts, Including Chinese Scientist, to Help Find COVID Origins

The World Health Organization announced on Wednesday the members of a new advisory group that will shape—and may even join—the next phase of its studies into the origins of COVID-19.

Some 26 experts have been proposed by the WHO for its Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The multinational team includes American pathologist Dr. Inger Damon of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as China's Yang Yungui, deputy director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the country's national natural sciences academy.

In a statement on its website, the United Nations health body said the advisers were selected from more than 700 applicants. There will be a two-week public consultation period to confirm SAGO's membership, before the group meets for the first time amid the ongoing pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2.

"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," said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise," he added.

According to the WHO, SAGO's members come with diverse expertise in areas including epidemiology, animal health, ecology, clinical medicine, virology, genomics, molecular epidemiology, molecular biology, biology, food safety, biosafety, biosecurity, and public health.

The group's functions will be to help the WHO develop a framework "to define and guide studies into the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential"—including SARS-CoV-2, the disease responsible for COVID-19.

SAGO's immediate work as it relates to the origins of the coronavirus will be to evaluate "all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of SARS-CoV-2," and advise the WHO during the second phase of its investigation.

SAGO members could also "participation in future WHO-international missions to study the origins of SARS-CoV-2 or for other emerging pathogens," at the secretariat's request, the statement noted.

Proposed WHO SAGO Members:

  • Dr. Phillip Alviola is an Associate Professor at the Animal Biology Division at the Institute of Biological Sciences, University of the Philippines. He is originally from the Philippines.
  • Dr. Abdullah Assiri is an Assistant Deputy Minister for Preventive Health at the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. He is originally from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  • Dr. Stuart Blacksell is a Professor of Tropical Microbiology at the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford. He is originally from Australia.
  • Dr. Inger Damon is the Director of the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She is originally from the United States of America.
  • Dr. Vladimir Dedkov is the Deputy Director for Research at the Pasteur Institute in Russia. He is originally from Russia.
  • Dr. Christian Drosten is a Professor and head of the Institute of Virology at Charité in Germany. He is originally from Germany.
  • Dr. Elmoubasher Farag is a senior infectious disease epidemiologist and the Head of the Communicable Diseases Control Programs at the Ministry of Public Health in Qatar. He is originally from Sudan.
  • Dr. Thea Fischer is a Professor of virology at the University of Copenhagen and Head of Clinical Research at Nordsjaellands Hospital in Denmark. She is originally from Denmark.
  • Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar is the Dr. C.G. Pandit National Chair at the Indian Council of Medical Research in India. He is originally from India.
  • Dr. Nada Ghosn is the head of the Epidemiology Surveillance Program and Medical officer for the Directorate of Prevention at the Ministry of Health, Lebanon. She is originally from Lebanon.
  • Dr. Maria Guzman is the head of the Center for Research, Diagnostic and Reference at the Institute of Tropical Medicine Pedro Kouri in Cuba. She is originally from Cuba.
  • Dr. Christian Happi is a Professor and director at the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Disease (ACEGID), Redeemer's University, Ede, Nigeria. He is originally from Cameroon.
  • Dr. Marion Koopmans is a Professor and the head of the department of the Viroscience at Erasmus MC. She is originally from the Netherlands.
  • Dr. Sowath Ly is the Deputy Head of Epidemiology and Public Health Unit at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge. He is originally from Cambodia.
  • Dr. Jean-Claude Manuguerra is a research Research Director of the Environment and Infectious Risks Unit, as well as the head for the Emergency Biological Intervention Unit at the Institut Pasteur in France. He is originally from France.
  • Dr. Khin Myint is the head of the Emerging Virus Research Unit at the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is originally from Myanmar.
  • Dr. Carlos M. Morel is the Director at the Center for Technological Development in Health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and Ministry of Health in Brazil. He is originally from Brazil.
  • Dr. Hung Nguyen is the co-program leader of Animal and Human Health Program at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya. He is originally from Vietnam.
  • Dr. Chinwe Ochu is an Associate Professorial Fellow at the Center of Excellence for Migration & Global Studies at the National Open University of Nigeria. She is originally from Nigeria.
  • Dr. Masayuki Saijo is the Director of the Medical Planning Department Sapporo City Health and Welfare Bureau in Sapporo, Japan. He is originally from Japan.
  • Dr. Rosemary Sang is an advisor and Chief Research Officer at the Centre for Virus Research, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenya. She is originally from Kenya.
  • Dr. Kathrina Summermather is the head of the Biosafety Center and Managing Director of the Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory at the Institute for Infectious Diseases at the University of Berne in Switzerland. She is originally from Switzerland.
  • Dr. Marietjie Venter is a Professor of the Zoonotic Arbovirus and Respiratory Virus Research Programme at the Centre for Viral Zoonoses, Department of Medical Virology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She is originally from South Africa.
  • Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee is a researcher at the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, The Thai Red Cross Society and a committee member of Chula School of Global Health, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University. She is originally from Thailand.
  • Dr. John Watson is an Honorary Professor at the Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, as well as a Visiting Professor in the Research Department of Infection and Population Health at the University College of London. He is originally from the United Kingdom.
  • Dr. Yungui Yang is the Deputy Director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in China. He is originally from China.

The WHO first proposed its phase-two origin-tracing plan in July. However, it was immediately rejected by senior health officials in Beijing who opposed stated targets, including a reinvestigation of the areas surrounding the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and a look at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

When the WHO announced SAGO the following month, it included a call for the Chinese government to cooperate with its proposal and allow access to critical raw data, while also rejecting suggestions it had succumbed to "political pressure."

"WHO reiterates that the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring. It is vitally important to know how the COVID-19 pandemic began, to set an example for establishing the origins of all future animal-human spillover events," its August statement said.

The WHO added: "China and a number of other Member States have written to WHO regarding the basis for further studies of the SARS-CoV-2 'lab hypothesis.' They have also suggested the origins study has been politicized, or that WHO has acted due to political pressure.

"On review of the phase one study report, WHO determined that there was insufficient scientific evidence to rule any of the hypotheses out. Specifically, in order to address the 'lab hypothesis,' it is important to have access to all data and consider scientific best practice and look at the mechanisms WHO already has in place. WHO is only focused on science, providing solutions and building solidarity."

On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. supports the WHO's phase-two plan.

"We have encouraged several highly qualified technical experts to be members of the WHO Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens, and we continue to make clear that the onus is on [China] to provide needed access to data and samples," he added. "[China] must let scientists into the country to conduct this critical work, and they must do so in short order. This is vital so that, importantly, we can understand how to prevent the next pandemic."

WHO Advisory Group to Help Trace COVID-19
File: The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images