WHO Wants More Diversity for SARS-CoV2 Origins Group, While US NGO Calls for ‘Conflicted’ Scientists to be Removed
Prof Marion Koopmans (2nd right) chairs the Chinese and WHO-International team presentation of its findings on the SARS-CoV2 virus origins in Wuhan.

A US organisation that promotes transparency in health policy decisions, Right to Know, has asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to remove 10 of the 26 candidates it had recently named to a new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) – due to alleged conflicts of interest – and replace them with a list of other candidates that it has proposed.

Coinciding with the letter’s publication, the WHO briefly re-opened nominations for SAGO for three days this week – without any initial elaboration – although a WHO spokesman later said that the Agency was looking for more “diversity” among the SAGO nominees.

In response to a query from Health Policy Watch, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said that the agency is  “seeking greater diversity across the technical areas represented in SAGO”. He added that WHO was specifically encouraging additional applications from the fields of social science, anthropology, ethics, political science and biosafety or biosecurity – signalling that the reopening of applications may indeed be related to the criticism by Right to Know and others about the continuing lack of expertise in laboratory biosafety among members of the SAGO group.

In regard to the USRTK criticisms of specific candidates, Jasarevic told Health Policy Watch that WHO was “still reviewing comments received during the two-week period” – following the naming of the group on 13 October.  

The new WHO SAGO expert group is tasked with following upon on the controversial issue of the origins of SARS-CoV2 – to try to determine if the virus leapt to humans as a result of a direct infection by a bat, infection from another intermediate animal host, or as a result of a laboratory accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was researching bat-borne coronaviruses.  Most recent scientific studies suggest that the SARS-CoV2 is likely to have originated in bats – the question is how the virus was then transmitted to humans.

The open letter to WHO by the US-based Right to Know, (USRTK), a non-profit investigative research group, claims that the 10 SAGO appointees have conflicts of interest that are in violation of the WHO terms of reference for the group.

Objections stem from candidates’ remarks discrediting lab leak theory, and associations with EcoHealth Alliance

Right to Know’s objections to the 10 candidates stem largely from disparaging remarks that were reportedly made by some of the experts had made about the theory that the SARS-CoV2 virus may have escaped from a laboratory; Those views, says Right to Know, would prejudice the work of the SAGO group. 

The Right to Know letter also called out  direct or indirect associations between certain SAGO appointees and the EcoHealth Alliance – which maintained a series of contracts and scientific collaborations with the Wuhan Virology Institute that critics have said led it to protect WIV from allegations of a possible lab leak.

EcoHealth is headed by Peter Daszak, a vocal member of the first, now-disbanded WHO independent scientific group set up last year to look into the origins of SARS-COV2. 

Daszak was not appointed to SAGO amid controversy over the contractual and research ties between his organisation and the Wuhan Institute of Virology on the study of coronaviruses in bats and humans. 

However at least one of the new SAGO candidates, Dr Supaporn Wacharapluesadee is a  subcontractor on a large NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance, claimed Right to Know, in their letter, stating, “her lab at Chulalongkorn University [Thailand] is slated to receive a $1.07 million subcontract.”  Another appointee, Dr Christian Drosen, had collaborated with EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, stating that r. Drosten’s funding and continued research collaborations rest on the zoonotic potential of bat coronaviruses. For these reasons, Dr. Drosten has a personal stake in SAGO’s outcome, because it is to his personal and professional advantage to declare a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2.

This, too, disqualifies him from being a SAGO member,” stated the letter, adding, “Anyone with personal, financial or academic ties to the EcoHealth Alliance (including grant funding, co-authorship or other research collaboration) or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, cannot be a SAGO member, because such ties could impair their judgment in an investigation of zoonotic and/or lab origins of SARS-CoV-2,” according to Right to Know. “Any such ties constitute an impermissible conflict of interest.”

The group also charged that other SAGO candidates, including Dr Christian Drosten, Katherin Summermatter and Marion Koopmans have made public remarks at conferences or in letters to scientific journals openly disparaging the lab escape theory – including one comparison with “meteorites and “snake origins” by Koopmans,  demonstrating their lack of objectivity.

Right to Know also wants a further six candidates removed simply because they served in the first WHO-convened global study of the origins of SARS-CoV-2. These are Vladimir Dedkov,  Elmoubasher Farag, Thea Fischer, Hung Nguyen-Viet, John Watson and Yungui Yang.

Letter proposes adding more biosafety experts & WHO critics to SAGO team

Right to Know  also proposed replacing the ten people that it says have conflicts of interest with more biosafety experts, and scientists who have criticized the WHO SARS-CoV2 origins investigation for its lack of attention to the lab escape narrative.  Among those names are Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, and one of the leading critics of the WHO process so far.

Ebright described as a “charade” the first WHO-led investigation into the origins of the virus, which concluded a lab escape was highly unlikely. In an interview in May with Health Policy Watch, he repeatedly stated that the lab escape theory needs to be pursued with equal vigour, alongside the theory that the virus emerged naturally.

“At this point in time, all scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin,” Ebright told Health Policy Watch – adding that the proximity of the Wuhan virology institute to the epicenter of the first coronavirus outbreak adds to concerns about a biosafety incident.


Global Group of Scientists Calls For Fresh Investigation Into Origins of SARS-CoV2 Virus

Fears that political bias will taint further investigations

Some scientists fear, however, that the lab escape theory has also gained additional traction as a result of political tensions between the United States and China – making it more difficult to untangle reality from a rife of conspiracy theories that began circulating during the administration of former US President Donald Trump. 

A recent report in August by US Congressional Republicans, for instance, also continued to push the lab leak theory.

At the same time,  recent genetic mapping studies found that other SARS-CoV2 virus variants were circulating elsewhere in China in late 2019, and those bore a greater similarity to the closest related bat coronaviruses than the virus sequences first identified and mapped in Wuhan.  That suggests that the source of infections could have been outside the city and through some kind of natural spread through the animal chain – rather than an escape from a Wuhan lab.

And at the same time, the fact that Wuhan’s food markets also were the focus point of many, if not all, of the first infections, still suggests some kind of food borne link to the outbreak – other researchers have pointed out.

Along with pursuing the research on the origins of SARS-CoV2, SAGO will also advise the WHO Secretariat on other technical and scientific considerations regarding emerging and re-emerging pathogens, and will be composed of experts acting in a personal capacity. 

The first SAGO meeting is supposed to take place later this month.

Image Credits: CGTN, @PeterDaszak.

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