We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

But given that the Biological Weapons Convention operates by the consensus of its 183 state parties, and they haven’t been able to agree on any major initiatives since 2005, that approach might be too slow to make a difference. It’d also be overkill. Since fewer than 40 countries actually have BSL-4 labs, you’d just need as many of those nations as possible to sign on to a separate agreement subjecting them to international oversight by a new agency dedicated to bio-risk management. Other countries could join as needed.

Alternatively, says Kobrentz, the UN Security Council could establish such a body, the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction. Doing that without having them tainted by the legacies of those entities—whose investigations were used to justify the US invasion of Iraq, despite not turning up any weapons—well, it could be tricky.

Both of those would take time. International treaties don’t happen overnight. As a stopgap measure, Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at Kings College London, has proposed the World Health Assembly—the decisionmaking body that governs the WHO—as another possible avenue for mandating investigations that can get boots on the ground the moment reports of an outbreak with pandemic potential emerge. But that approach, too, would likely rely on the voluntary cooperation of member states. 

The WHO task force, by the way, feels that their results are being undersold. During a press briefing Friday, WIRED asked WHO officials and mission team members how well they thought they’d done. Ben Embarak acknowledged that his team was still far from pinpointing the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, but he listed a series of smaller successes, including new insights into the virus’s early days in Wuhan. Genetic sequencing showed the first cases actually began earlier than initially reported—as early as December 8, 2019. And some of those infections were in people with no relationship to the Huanan Seafood Market, the site of the city’s first large outbreak. “So we have a much better understanding of the role of the market than we did before,” he said.

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

Their overall message is that the full report is still to come, and while it may not have all the answers, it is a first step toward getting them. “We’ve made progress,” said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme. “That’s all you ever make in science.”

If the world’s nations are going to set up a stand-alone agency for monitoring high-risk life science research, one that can be deployed at the earliest sign of an emerging outbreak—be it natural, accidental, or intentional—it’s still unclear which mechanism will be the right one. It’s more obvious that the need for increased oversight is only going to grow more acute in the near future. If past pandemics are any indication, Koblentz says he expects many countries to put a lot of money into boosting their biomedical research capabilities in the coming years. The construction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was itself a response to the 2003 SARS outbreak and China’s limited ability at the time to isolate and characterize the coronavirus that caused it. And though it was the first BSL-4-level facility in China, it won’t be the last. The government has announced plans to build between five and seven more across the Chinese mainland by 2025.

www.wired.com

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