Back to the Pandemic’s Origins

WHO team member Peter Ben Embarek prepares to leave Wuhan after the agency's investigation into the pandemic's origins. February 10, 2021. Image: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty
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WHO team member Peter Ben Embarek prepares to leave Wuhan after the agency's investigation into the pandemic's origins. February 10, 2021. Image: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

After its initial investigation into the origins of COVID-19 ended in a wobbly conclusion, the WHO launched a new team yesterday to take up the investigation.

The 26-member Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) includes 6 who were part of a team that had traveled to China earlier this year, Science reports.

That first team ran into a buzzsaw of politics and posturing between China, the US, and others.  

  • The team suggested SARS-CoV-2 had a natural origin and discounted the lab leak hypothesis as “extremely unlikely.”
  • WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later walked that back and said shutting down the lab-leak angle of investigation was “premature.”


In a Science editorial published yesterday, Tedros and 2 top officials said SAGO will investigate the possibility of a lab leak, saying it can’t be ruled out until sufficient evidence is produced.

They also bemoaned the fact that outbreak investigations are frequently “hurt by politicization.” They called for “early action to investigate, characterize, and contain threats.”

SAGO facts:

  • The team will also investigate the origins of future outbreaks.
  • The new members are expected to be formally confirmed in 2 weeks.
  • 700 people had applied for the 26 spots.
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