The new committee, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, will be different in several ways from the team the WHO sent to China. Because this team traveled to Wuhan, China had a tremendous influence on its members. This is not the case for the new committee, a standing panel which Dr Van Kerkhove said would start with frequent closed-door meetings on the coronavirus.
In soliciting nominations, WHO asked potential committee members for a statement on any conflict of interest, in addition to a cover letter and curriculum vitae. This appeared to be an attempt to avoid critics who complained that a member of the previous team, Peter Daszak, an animal disease specialist, was too closely tied to a Wuhan institute of virology at the center of leak theories of laboratory to provide an unbiased assessment. Dr Daszak said his expertise on China and coronaviruses made him well placed to participate in the previous trip.
“The conflicts of interest of the members of the latter group have put a huge cloud over the head of the World Health Organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, who heads the O’Neill Institute for National Law and World Health Center at Georgetown University. Regarding the new advisory group, he added: “This is a committee with the right load and the right global mandate – none of this has happened before.
For the WHO, Professor Gostin said, the new committee serves several purposes. By choosing a larger group reflecting a wider range of expertise and geographic regions, the organization can try to amass broad international support for its work and underscore China’s intransigence, he said.
Importantly, the formation of the new group could also help strengthen WHO’s position with its major Western donors, none more important than the United States. Despite the agency’s attempt to act with deference to China during the pandemic, Professor Gostin said, China has repeatedly blocked the organization and withheld crucial information.
Now, he said, the organization had to heed the wishes of Europe and the United States – not least because Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, relies on their support as he is seeking re-election in May.