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WHO's new team will investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's the big question of this pandemic - where did this virus come from? Did it spill over from bats? Did it make the jump to humans at an exotic meat market? Was it the result of a laboratory incident? Nearly two years after the first COVID case was identified, the origin of the virus remains a controversial and unanswered question. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports the World Health Organization is assembling a new team to try to answer just that.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The WHO has named 26 scientists from around the world to sit in on what it's calling the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or SAGO for short. The panel is being given a broad mandate to investigate any and all future outbreaks of unknown origin. But it is also charged specifically with looking at the roots of SARS-CoV-2. China has been desperate to deflect criticism that it was slow to identify the new coronavirus. An earlier WHO team was stonewalled by Chinese officials and, in the end, failed to provide a definitive answer for where SARS-CoV-2 came from.

The WHO's head of emergencies, Mike Ryan, says this new advisory group will likely face some of the same geopolitical challenges that have stymied other investigations.

MIKE RYAN: This has never been an easy process in many countries. We've had difficulties in the past in a number of countries because there are real issues. There are sensitivities. There are economic issues. There are national pride issues. There are sovereignty issues. And you can't ignore that they exist.

BEAUBIEN: The structure of this panel, which nominally looks at all new pathogens and not just COVID, appears to be an attempt to defuse some of those concerns and sensitivities of China. COVID has now killed nearly five million people worldwide, crippled the global economy. And Ryan says, in order to prevent future pandemics, we need to understand the origins of this one.

RYAN: Right now, this is our best chance. And it may be our last chance to understand the origins of this virus in a collegiate, collective and mutually responsible way. And I can't overstate that this is an opportunity, but it is also a challenge.

BEAUBIEN: The WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove says the world has no time to waste in examining what happened in 2019 in the very early days of the pandemic. She expects some of that work will involve trips to China.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: I anticipate that the SAGO, in its discussions about the urgent next steps for understanding the origins of the current pandemic, will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere.

BEAUBIEN: China can veto any visit from researchers sent by SAGO. But Van Kerkhove says she's optimistic that China will cooperate with the group of the 26 scientists on the new advisory panel. Each member is from a different country, and one is a deputy director at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.