The World Health Organization is forming a new study group to trace the origin of the COVID-19 virus, and expecting to announce its members this week, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
According to the story, more than 700 people applied for the 24 positions in the group, which will be made up from a variety of disciplines including geneticists, virologists, animal experts, and safety and security specialists.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is leading the group and hopes to avoid the politicization the issue has taken on during the last year since the onslaught of the virus.
“Especially in light of the politicization of this particular aspect,” she said in an interview with the Times, “We want to take this back to the science, take this back to our mandate as an organization to bring together the world’s best minds to outline what needs to be done.”
While many experts initially said the virus came naturally from animals to humans, several pieces of evidence emerged giving weight to the theory that it may have been released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
During the administration of President Donald Trump. The “Wuhan lab theory” became political with Trump asking for an investigation into the origins of the virus and the possibility of it coming from the lab in the city where the first cases were reported.
His opponents scoffed at the idea, calling it a “conspiracy theory.”
In the intervening year, however, leaked documents allegedly from scientists connected to the lab, showed that there was a scientific interest in genetically modifying coronaviruses and asking for grant funding to conduct experiments, which may have included “gain of function” research to see if they could be made more transmissible to humans, according to a September report in The Atlantic.
The leaked documents showed EchoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak asking for a grant from the U.S. military research agency known as DARPA.
That $14 million funding request was denied by the agency in 2018.
While it may not be a “smoking gun” for lab theory proponents, it does raise additional questions about the possible origin of a worldwide pandemic that has killed millions throughout the world, and 700,000 in the United States so far.
The WHO tried to determine the virus’s origin earlier during the pandemic, and included Daszak in that group, but received little cooperation from China to get o the bottom of the issue.
China’s reluctance to cooperate in what it sees as a political attack could still inhibit the new group’s ability to find out what happened.
“This new group can do all the fancy footwork it wants, but China’s not going to cooperate,” David Fidler, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research institute told the Times. “For them, all of this continues to look like an attack on China’s response to the pandemic, and there it’s a zero-sum game.”
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