Thursday, March 30, 2023

We need a global epidemic investigation team – now

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But given that the Biological Weapons Convention operates on the consensus of its 183 states parties, and they have not been able to agree on major initiatives since 2005, this approach might be too slow to do. a difference. It would also be overkill. Since less than 40 countries actually have BSL-4 laboratories, you would just need as many of these countries as possible to sign a separate agreement subjecting them to international surveillance by a new agency dedicated to biorisk management. . Other countries could join as needed.

Alternatively, Kobrentz says, the UN Security Council could create such a body, in the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction. To do this without tainting them with the legacy of these entities – whose investigations were used to justify the US invasion of Iraq, even though they did not reveal any weapons – well, that could be tricky. .

Both would take time. International treaties do not happen overnight. As an interim measure, Filippa Lentzos, biosafety expert at Kings College London, has proposed the World Health Assembly – the decision-making body that governs the WHO – as another possible avenue to demand investigations that can start on the ground as reports of a potentially pandemic epidemic emerge. But this approach would also probably be based on the voluntary cooperation of the Member States.

The WHO task force, by the way, considers their results to be underestimated. At a press briefing on Friday, WIRED asked WHO officials and members of the mission team how well they think they’ve been successful. Ben Embarak admitted that his team were still a long way from determining the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, but he listed a series of small successes, including new information about the virus’s beginnings in Wuhan. Genetic sequencing has shown that the first cases actually started earlier than initially reported – as early as December 8, 2019. And some of those infections were in people unrelated to the Huanan Seafood Market, the site. of the city’s first major epidemic. “So we have a much better understanding of the role of the market than before,” he said.

Marion Koopmans, member of the WHO mission team, a virologist specializing in molecular epidemiology at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, noted that sometimes success is in what you don’t see – the leads you they stalked that turned out to be nothing. For example, they saw data from experiments in which Chinese scientists examined 30,000 animals across the country for susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. They all tested negative. “In this case, that tells us that there is not yet a clear candidate for intermediate hosts,” said Koopmans.

Their general message is that the full report is yet to come, and while it does not have all the answers, this is a first step towards getting them. “We have made progress,” said Mike Ryan, WHO’s program manager for health emergencies. “That’s all you do in science.”

If countries around the world are to set up an autonomous agency to oversee high-risk life science research, one that can be deployed at the first sign of an emerging epidemic – whether natural, accidental or intentional – we still do not know which mechanism will be the right one. It is more evident that the need for increased surveillance will only increase in the near future. If past pandemics are any indication, Koblentz says he expects many countries to invest a lot of money in building their biomedical research capacity in the years to come. The construction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was in itself a response to the 2003 SARS outbreak and to China’s limited ability at the time to isolate and characterize the coronavirus that caused it. And while this is the first BSL-4 level installation in China, it will not be the last. The government announced plans to build between five and seven more on the Chinese mainland by 2025.


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