WHO Report: Origin of COVID-19 Remains to be Determined

The first report from WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) concedes SARS-CoV-2 source remains a mystery.

The first report from the scientific advisory group for the origins of novel pathogens (SAGO) to the World Health Organization (WHO) did not identify the source of SARS-CoV-2, but rather was presented June 9 to the Member State Information Session on COVID-19 in Geneva, Switzerland as preliminary, and a work in progress.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, remarked at the Session that the SAGO was established in October 2021 to create a global framework for studying the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens. He acknowledged that 2 1/2 years after identifying the first cases, the origin of the novel coronavirus remains unknown.

"The longer it takes, the harder it becomes. We need to speed up, and act with a sense of urgency," Ghebreyesus said. "All hypotheses must remain on the table until we have evidence that enables us to rule certain hypotheses in or out."

A briefing on the report was provided by SAGO Chair, Marietjie Venter, PhD, Department of Medical Virology, University of Pretoria, South Africa, and by Michael Ryan, MD, MPH, executive director, WHO Health Emergencies Program, and Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, WHO technical lead, COVID-19. Ryan and Van Kerkhove had led a panel to identify 27 members of SAGO, from over 800 applicants.

In this first report, SAGO emphasizes that it was not formed to find the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but rather to advise on the studies that will be necessary to achieve that. The report acknowledges, "so far neither the virus progenitors nor the natural/intermediate hosts or spill-over event to humans have been identified."

The report lays out the complexity of a global framework of research which could advance understanding of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, and indicates that working groups have been tasked to address each, including: reassessment of the initial human and anthropology studies, investigations of animal/human interface, environmental and ecological studies, genomics and phylogenetics and assessments of biosafety and biosecurity. It also suggests, however, that it is unclear whether these studies will be accomplished and/or the results disclosed.

"It is important to note that at the time of writing (version 1 submitted to WHO April 13, 2022 and version 2 on May 15) there are outstanding results from the recommended studies from the 2021 Joint Report, that the SAGO feels need to be conducted. It is also important to note, the SAGO was not provided any information related to studies conducted evaluating the laboratory hypotheses as a possible introduction into the human population," the investigators wrote in the report.

The likelihood of obtaining evidence to confirm or rule out the possible introduction of SARS-CoV-2 through a laboratory incident notwithstanding, the SAGO report calls on staff in the laboratories who were tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity to conduct/disclose the necessary investigations. Their call-out applies to laboratories in the proximity of the original COVID-19 outbreak working with SARS-like viruses in Wuhan, China as well as those located worldwide where early COVID-19 cases have been retrospectively detected before 2020.

Ghebreyesus emphasized the importance of the SAGO undertaking, while also revealing his frustration with the obstacles to its progress.

"Understanding the origins of the virus is very important scientifically, to prevent future epidemics and pandemics, but morally, we also owe it to all those who have suffered and died, and their families," he said.

"This makes it all the more urgent that this scientific work be kept separate from politics," Ghebreyesus indicated. "The way to prevent politicization is for countries to share data and samples, with transparency and without interference from any government. The only way this scientific work can progress successfully is with full collaboration from all countries, including China, where the first cases of SARS-CoV-2 were reported."