Global health experts advise WHO to identify animal source of COVID-19 virus

1 May 2020

International experts have advised the World Health Organization (WHO) to work to identify the animal origins of the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic and its transmission to humans, the UN agency said on Friday.

The recommendation was among the outcomes of the latest meeting of the Emergency Committee on the new disease, established under global health regulations.

“We accept the committee’s advice that WHO works to identify the animal source of the virus through international scientific and collaborative missions, in collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations”, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during his regular virtual press conference from Geneva.

A statement from the Emergency Committee advised that the partners also identify “the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts…which will enable targeted interventions and a research agenda to reduce the risk of similar events”.

Wide-ranging advice

In total, the Committee outlined more than 20 recommendations for WHO covering areas that include stepping up support for vulnerable countries and strengthening the global food supply chain. Guidance on the resumption of international travel was also suggested.

“This is a difficult issue because it’s a question of confidence between Member States”, said Professor Didier Houssin, chair of the 15-member Committee, made up of health experts from across the globe.

“It’s a question of safe travel, but it’s also very important aspect for the activities in many countries which are relying very much on air travel.”

Countries urged to support WHO

The Emergency Committee also offered advice to the international community, namely to support the WHO leadership and to work with the agency and its partners to interrupt transmission of the new coronavirus.

Professor Houssin called for research to reduce “knowledge gaps”, among other recommendations.

“We know too little about the transmission of the virus”, he said. “We have, at the moment, nothing for prevention with vaccines, and we have no licensed therapeutics. This should change.”

Relatedly, the European Commission will on Monday host a pledging conference to generate funds for COVID-19 vaccine research, in line with a recently launched global collaboration to make medicines to diagnose and treat available to all people, known as the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.

Emergency Committee to reconvene

The WHO chief had convened the Emergency Committee on Thursday, three months after its last meeting where the burgeoning COVID-19 outbreak was declared an international public health emergency.

At the time, there were less than 100 cases, and no deaths, outside China: the country where the disease was first reported.

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on 11 March. As of Friday, cases topped three million globally, with more than 224,000 deaths.

The Emergency Committee will reconvene within 90 days.


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