How do you choose world-renowned experts on the world's thorniest subject? This is the puzzle facing the WHO, which has just proposed a new permanent team of 26 experts to investigate the origin of new pathogens – starting with a certain Sars-CoV-2.
The previous WHO report , produced with China, has been widely criticised, with the management of the UN agency itself having acknowledged that it had not been able to properly investigate all the leads. The most contentious theory, that the virus may have leaked or escaped from a laboratory accident in Wuhan, is still far from being excluded.
As one might expect, this new shock team, dubbed the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (Sago), is already the subject of criticism over alleged conflicts of interest, as relayed by the British Medical Journal .
What critics say. Seven of the successful candidates were already part of the old team that went to China to investigate the origins of the virus, including Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans. Among the candidates that have raised questions over a possible conflict of interest is the choice Thai virologist, Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, who received a research grant from the EcoHealth Alliance, chaired by American ecologist Peter Daszak.
Daszak was a supporter of the zoonosis spillover hypothesis and vigorously dispelled the theory of the virus being the result of a lab leak at the start of the pandemic. Another review mentioned by the BMJ points to the lack of biosafety experts – to which the WHO replies that it has two.
The last line of attack is the presence of other scientists known to have labelled the laboratory leak as a conspiracy theory, including Swiss biosafety expert Kathrin Summermatter and German virologist Christian Drosten. Sago members are to be appointed after a period for public comment, which ends on 27 October.