Investigating epidemicsWe Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team: Experts

Published 19 February 2021

The inconclusive WHO report about the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and the deference the investigative team showed China and the narrative China was interested in advancing, have led experts to question whether WHO is the right body to investigate the origins of epidemic outbreaks. The WHO can only enter member countries and engage in research there on those countries’ terms, and it has no real powers of enforcement. Different ideas are proposed as alternatives to the investigative function of the WHO.

The much-anticipated findings of the team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic proved anticlimactic. In fact, Pandora Report writes, WHO has also added another layer of confusion given the conflicting statement from the WHO’s director-general that all origin hypotheses remain viable – even as the investigative team ruled out the possibility of the novel virus stemming from a laboratory leak.

“The conflicting announcements out of WHO have left many worrying about the many constraints the international body must operate under,” Pandora Report notes. For instance, as Wired notes, the WHO can “only enter member countries and engage in research there on those countries’ terms, and it has no real powers of enforcement.”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, says that, perhaps, something new is needed. Koblentz suggests an international body, similar to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which could “require biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs to report on the activities that go on inside them.”

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the international treaty that bans the development of bioweapons, already has a legal structure and could, theoretically, create the enforcement authority for such an agency. Alternatively, Koblentz also suggests, the “UN Security Council could establish such a body, the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction.”

Such entities would take time to establish and would be based on voluntary participation from states. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, proposed the World Health Assembly as another option for “mandating investigations that can get boots on the ground the moment reports of an outbreak with pandemic potential emerge.”

The proliferation of BSL laboratories in response to COVID-19 “should be reason enough for rethinking the status quo.” More labs mean more gain-of-function research, in which pathogens are modified to study how they might become more dangerous, and would require more lab oversight to ensure safety.