Virus hunters: WHO unveils team of 10 scientists to trace Covid-19 origins

Sarah Newey
·7-min read
Virus hunters work in Sierra Leone 2018, taking samples from bats in an attempt to identify new pathogens with pandemic potential - Simon Townsley
Virus hunters work in Sierra Leone 2018, taking samples from bats in an attempt to identify new pathogens with pandemic potential - Simon Townsley

The World Health Organization has unveiled the names of 10 scientists set to travel to Wuhan “as soon as possible” to trace the origins of Sars-Cov-2. 

The international team, which includes England's former deputy chief medical officer, John Watson, will work with Chinese experts to investigate how Covid-19 jumped from animals to humans.

Since the virus first emerged experts have been keen to track its origins, with the WHO identifying this a “priority research area” in February and sending a preliminary “scouting mission” to China over the summer, though this team didn't visit Wuhan.

But Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies programme, said the scientists - who were chosen by the UN agency and finalised in consultation with Beijing last month - will travel to the original epicentre of the pandemic.

He added that the first virtual meeting between the international team and their Chinese counterparts was held on October 30, with “regular zoom calls” having continued ever since. 

“We fully expect and have reassurances from our Chinese Government colleagues that the trip… will be facilitated as soon as possible in order that the international community can be reassured of the quality of the science,” Dr Ryan said. 

Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started
Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started

“We need to start where we found the first cases - and that is in Wuhan in China - and then we need to follow the evidence after that wherever that leads,” he added.  

However the WHO has been quick to temper expectations. In a spate of documents published online which outline the panel's remit, the organisation warned that tracking the emergence of new pathogens is “a riddle that can take years to solve”.

It took more than a year for scientists to track down Mers, a close cousin of Sars-Cov-2, to its source in camels, and much longer to trace Sars back to bats in a cave in Yunnan Province, southern China. 

The WHO panel includes renowned virus hunters, public health specialists and experts in animal health from the UK, United States, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan, Qatar, Germany, Vietnam and Russia.

One of the major tasks for the team will be to attempt to trace which animals at the Wuhan market may have carried the virus - and where they came from. 

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in January - NOEL CELIS / AFP
Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in January - NOEL CELIS / AFP

The recent outbreak in mink in Europe has demonstrated that small mammals are susceptible to Sars-Cov-2 and experts believe that may have happened in Wuhan, perhaps from animals exported from near a bat cave in southern China or over the border in Laos or Vietnam

Contrary to reports in February, a study published this week appeared to rule out pangolins, a type of anteater, as the intermediate host - researchers testing the endangered species in southeast Asia found none that tested positive for the virus. 

The scientists will also consider theories swirling round the Wuhan Virology Institute, a high security lab in Wuhan, in an attempt to discredit them. And they will interrogate evidence collected by Chinese experts on the ground over the last 11 months. 

According to WHO documents, the team will also provide guidance on “how to prevent infection with Sars-Cov-2 in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs” in order to prevent future spillover animal to human events.

It's no small task. Here's a look at the team charged with tracking down the origins of Covid-19:

John Watson

An infectious disease epidemiologist, doctor and former deputy chief medical officer 

Experience: Prof Watson headed the UK's infectious disease surveillance and control programme for 24 years, during which he led the country's response to threats including Sars, Mers and the H1N1 influenza pandemic. He spent five years as England's deputy chief medical officer from 2013 and is now an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a visiting lecturer at University College London.  

Peter Daszak

A British born zoologist and president of the New York-based group, the EcoHealth Alliance. 

Experience: Dr Daszak is a renowned virus hunter who has worked for decades on coronaviruses, including a close collaboration with Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who is known as China's “bat woman”. He is also leading a separate group exploring the origins of the virus as part of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission. 

Marion Koopmans

A Dutch virologist who heads the Erasmus Medical Centre’s Department of Viroscience in Rotterdam. 

Experience: Prof Koopmans initially trained as a vet more than three decades ago, before gaining a PhD in virology. She has spent much of her career  responding to human and animal disease outbreaks and preparing for new emerging pathogens. She is currently a member of the WHO scientific advisory group and has been involved in tracing outbreaks of Sars-CoV-2 among farmed minks in the Netherlands.

Farag El Moubasher

Head of the infectious diseases control programme in Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health.

Experience: Dr Farags is an epidemiologist and has spent more than a decade focused on infectious disease surveillance and control. In recent years much of his work has focused on Mers, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a close relative of Covid-19 which was first identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and has since killed more than 850 people.

Virus hunters | A race against time to stop the next pandemic
Virus hunters | A race against time to stop the next pandemic

Hung Nguyen

Co-leader of the Animal and Human Health Program at the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Vietnam. 

Experience: An ecologist, Dr Nguyen trained in Vietnam and France, but the bulk of his experience has been in southeast Asia and West Africa. His work is focused on the links between health, agriculture and zoonotic diseases, particularly the pork trade.

Thea Kølsen Fischer 

Professor in viral epidemics and infections at the University of Copenhagen and head of research at Nordsjællands Hospital in Denmark.

Experience: Prof Fischer has spent her career studying viral epidemics, including stints at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US and director of the national WHO Influenza Centre. She is currently head of research at a hospital in eastern Denmark and recently became a professor at the University of Copenhagen, where she focuses on new pathogens and the role of different vaccination strategies. 

Fabian Leendertz

A virus hunter at Germany’s Robert Koch Institut (RKI).

Experience: Dr Leendertz is a vet by training and has led the RKIs research into highly pathogenic microorganisms in tropical Africa since 2007. His work has focused on how diseases jump from wild, non-human primates - particularly great apes - to humans, but also examines whether rodents and bats could be hosts to hemorrhagic fever viruses.

Dominic Dwyer 

A medical virologist and Director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Laboratory Services at Westmead Hospital in Sydney.

Experience: After training as a microbiologist, Prof Dwyer studied HIV at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Since then he has advised the Australian government on pandemic preparedness and their response to avian influenza and worked with the WHO during the Sars outbreak in Beijing. He is currently a member of the organisation's global outbreak alert response network, GOARN. 

Ken Maeda 

A veterinary microbiologist at Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).

Experience: Prof Maeda works in the Veterinary Department at Japan's NIID, based in Tokyo. He has dedicated his career to understanding zoonotic diseases, publishing research on topics including Japanese encephalitis virus, tick-borne parasites and the novel viruses found in bats. 

Vladimir Dedkov 

An epidemiologist at the Pasteur Institute in Russia.

Experience: Prof Dedkov is the deputy director for research at the Pasteur Institute in Saint Petersburg, a research organisation that operates under the Ministry of Health. His work is focused on infectious pathogens, disease sequencing and genetics. 

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