Update (June 13, 2022): A preliminary report released by the WHO’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens says more data is needed, particularly from China, to determine how SARS-CoV-2 spilled over into people, but leaves the door open to the possibility of a lab leak, multiple outlets report. In response, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry called the lab leak idea a “lie,” the Associated Press reports.

Update (November 9): WHO has added two proposed members to its new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, for a total of 28 experts being considered for membership. There will be a two-week comment period on the new proposed names.

Update (November 1): WHO announced it is reopening its call for experts to apply to be on the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens for three days from November 1 to November 3, and specifically encourages applications from those in social science, anthropology, ethics, political science, and biosecurity fields.

Update (October 13): The World Health Organization today announced the names of of 26 proposed members of the new advisory group from institutions around the world. There will be a two-week public consultation period before the composition of the group is finalized.

In early 2021, a panel of investigators commissioned by the World Health Organization travelled to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19. They faced multiple challenges that led to inconclusive results and the panel’s eventual disbandment. The Wall Street Journal reports that the WHO is now assembling a new team of investigators to probe the emergence of the virus that led to the present pandemic. 

The original WHO panel ran into hurdles early on, when its entry into China was delayed by the country’s coronavirus-related precautions. With rumors of a laboratory leak as the source of the outbreak swirling, the WSJ reports that the Chinese government viewed the probe as assigning blame and resisted sharing potentially relevant data. 

Initially, origin researchers discounted the idea that SARS-CoV-2 might have escaped from a lab. A month later, the WHO cancelled an interim report of the team’s findings, instead releasing a full report at the end of March that was inconclusive but rated a lab leak the least likely of four possible scenarios. A joint statement by multiple countries at the time voiced “shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” A letter by researchers published in Science in May criticized the WHO report and called for possibilities of a lab leak and a natural spillover into humans to both be investigated. The original commission has been disbanded.

See “The Long Journey to Resolve the Origins of a Previous Pandemic

Dubbed the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, the new panel is intended to be a permanent commission by the WHO. This group will replace the original team that travelled to Wuhan and will have an expanded membership, including experts in biosecurity, laboratory safety, and animal disease from around the world. 

In a statement calling for more applicants for the group from specific regions, the WHO notes a “need for a robust and systematic processes to establish the study around the emergence of these pathogens and routes of transmission from their natural reservoirs to humans.” The group will be tasked with defining and guiding research into the emergence of pathogens with “epidemic and pandemic potential” and will provide developmental, evaluative, and advisory support for further global research investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. 

Philip D. Zelikow, a historian who directs a group of experts working on drawing up plans for a national COVID-19 commission in the US to address the disease, voices optimism about the new panel in comments to the WSJ, saying, “We all think there is a chance of getting possibly some cooperation about this if this is seen as a nongovernmental effort.”