The Covid-19 pandemic has elevated scrutiny over how pathogens leap into humans like no crisis before it. To better understand how those events happen — and to better respond when they do — the World Health Organization is standing up a new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or SAGO.
Now, the agency needs experts to apply.
“It’s much better to apply than to sit on the sidelines,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency’s Covid-19 technical lead, told STAT this week. “It’s much better to get involved than to sit on the sidelines, especially if it’s only to really criticize. Get your hands dirty. Work with us.”
The advisory group of up to 25 experts will come from a range of scientific specialties, including biosafety and biosecurity, Van Kerkhove said. It’s a new group, spurred in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, but one that will continue to work with the WHO as new threats arise and previous threats rear up again. Think coronaviruses, Lassa, Ebola, avian influenza — and the next big, still-unknown Disease X. The deadline to apply is Sept. 10. More information is available here.
The group will help establish frameworks for investigating the origins of pathogens early on as cases of disease are reported. As an example, Van Kerkhove said that if the group was up and running right now, the WHO could turn to the experts to figure out where the recently confirmed Ebola infection detected in a person traveling in Cote d’Ivoire came from, or what studies might inform us about a recent fatal Marburg case in Guinea.
“It’s not about deploying this group into the field,” Van Kerkhove said. “It’s about, what are the studies that are critically needed, what are the tools that exist — or maybe don’t yet exist — to be able to support those types of investigation?”
And yes, the group will be tasked with working on determining the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The debate has gotten bogged down in a political morass, with some pushing the lab-leak hypothesis and many scientists saying that a natural spillover from bats or through an intermediate species or multiple species is much more likely, even if at this point they can’t definitively rule out a lab accident. (The U.S. intelligence community’s report on the origins of the coronavirus, delivered to President Biden Tuesday, was also inconclusive, the Washington Post reported.)
The WHO has already sent an international team of scientists to China to study the origin of SARS-2, which resulted in a report in March that supported a natural spillover. Still, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director-general, has since said all hypotheses remain on the table and that there will be future research into the question as well.
The intent behind SAGO is not to duplicate the work already done investigating SARS-2’s origins, Van Kerkhove said. Rather, the advisory group will help guide the next round of studies that could help clarify where Covid-19 came from.
“We want to take out the politics of this as much as possible, and really stay rooted in the science and the scientific basis, which is our mandate,” Van Kerkhove said. “Our goal is to move a political debate to a scientific debate, and just get on with it.”
Excerpts from STAT’s interview with Van Kerkhove are below, lightly edited for clarity.
Why is WHO starting this group?
WHO has many advisory groups, and this is one that we are establishing because we’ve identified a gap of having this overarching framework to study when and where these pathogens emerge. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is the latest in a long line of novel and known high-threat pathogens that have epidemic and pandemic potential. And there will be more.
We have an immediate need for SARS-CoV-2, but it is not to reinvent the wheel. There is a lot of work that has already been outlined that needs to be pursued, and that should be pursued now. The report in March outlined many, many studies to be performed. We understand from our colleagues in China that many are underway.
What’s your pitch to scientists who might be considering joining this group? Why should they consider doing so?
What we need as WHO is people to apply. Over the last couple of days, I’ve received numerous emails saying, “Oh I don’t know, should I or shouldn’t I?” Or, just skeptical. I’ve received some pretty interesting emails, some of which are not so pleasant, about, “Oh this is fixed, it’s just too political.” I understand that, because people are beaten up and bruised, myself included, but, I believe that we have a role to play as scientists, and we want to bring together those who have technical knowhow, who have field experience, who can really push this forward, so we have a scientific, transparent, comprehensive, rapid, inclusive framework going forward.
What kind of experts are you looking for?
People that have experience with epidemiology, virology, veterinary medicine, anything with microbiology, bacteriology, bioinformatics, molecular epidemiology, serological epidemiology, biosafety, biosecurity, environmental science, social science — a large number of disciplines. But we’re also looking for people with direct experience with these types of pathogens, particular in-field experience.
We need good geographic representation and we need good gender balance. I’m anticipating we will receive a lot of applications from North America, from Europe, and that’s wonderful, but we want inclusiveness from all continents, all of our WHO regions, high-income, low-income. There are a lot of great scientists out there that are working day-to-day in the field on this and we hope they apply.
The first task for this group seems to be looking at SARS-CoV-2. So what will this group be doing in terms of the coronavirus?
One of the urgent tasks will be to review what is known in terms of the global studies of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 — so the work in China, but also we have been following up on any studies and preprints that have suggested positive samples. It’s not to redo the report, it’s just to say, from there, what else do we know, and what do we need to prioritize?
It’s also to help with the operational plans that WHO is working on to implement the next series of studies. I want to make very clear that WHO will work with any member state where any of these studies need to be conducted. It’s not about WHO going into any country to do anything. We don’t have the mandate for that. We will collaborate with all countries, including China of course, to carry those out.
China has very capable scientists, many, many capable scientists, and like I said, we understand many of the studies suggested in the March 2021 report are underway. We would very much like to see the results of those studies, so we can say, OK what next?
China last month rebuffed WHO’s plan for the next phase of the Covid origin study, so how is WHO trying to proceed and get China’s cooperation?
We continue to work with China. We had a member state briefing last week on [SAGO] and the call for applications and we received very positive feedback from all member states. What I think we will continue to do is ensure that all of these hypotheses are pursued, and continue to work with China to implement these studies going forward and provide any support that would be required.
It is not about finger pointing, it is not about blame. We just have to better understand how SARS-CoV-2 began so we can better prepare for the next one, which could emerge anywhere.
On a broader level, have you seen much of a commitment from countries around the world to reduce the likelihood of additional pathogens emerging or to prepare for that? Obviously they’re still dealing with this pandemic, but are you seeing at least even planning to increase surveillance or put in plans for better mitigation efforts, for example, or to improve lab security?
I see some work in this area, but not enough is happening. There are a lot of calls for better surveillance in animal populations, there’s a huge effort to increase sequencing capacity worldwide. We see a lot of efforts to build community structures. My PhD was in avian influenza in Cambodia, and I draw a lot of inspiration from that because it was the village animal health worker who recognized the mortality of poultry was slightly different from last year or the month before, and raised the alarm up from the district level through the province to the national level, and that triggered action. So there are efforts that are ongoing there, but I don’t think it’s fast enough.
Preparedness and readiness is a constant. It’s not something that starts and stops. And I fear that we won’t use this traumatic experience we’re all in now to do enough. I want to remain hopeful because I see a lot of effort in this area, but we need the commitment and the financial support to be able to carry this out at local levels. It’s a good start, and we’re better prepared than we were a year ago, but we do have a long way to go. I fear that we’ll move on to the next crisis, because there are plenty more, before we’re in a better position here.