SINGAPORE: The World Health Organization (WHO) chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan has called for a depoliticalised, evidence-based global scientific effort to understand the origins of the COVID-19 virus and the steps needed to prevent a future pandemic.
Dr Swaminathan made the call amid an ongoing political blame-game in global power rivalry centered around China, the country where the virus was first detected in the city of Wuhan.
“I think politics has absolutely no place in this because the science behind this is going to be important for all of us, regardless of which country we live in,” said Dr Swaminathan in an exclusive interview with CNA on Monday (Aug 23).
Her comments come after WHO expert Peter Ben Embarek, who led an international mission to China in February this year, said that Chinese researchers had pressured his team against linking the origins of the pandemic to a research laboratory in Wuhan.
Dr Swaminathan acknowledged that the theory of an accidental lab leak has to be carefully investigated.
“We know that accidents happen in labs. They’ve happened in the past. It can happen again.”
But she was quick to clarify that the WHO was referring to an accidental lab leak during the normal course of studying infectious diseases.
“I don’t think there’s been any evidence at all of this conspiracy theory that it was a specially created virus that was then let loose on people.”
Dr Swaminathan, who was previously WHO’s deputy director-general for programmes, assumed the role of WHO chief scientist in 2019. It was a role specially created for her to strengthen the organisation’s core scientific work.
Earlier this month, the WHO had urged China to share raw data from the first COVID-19 cases but Beijing immediately pushed back, asserting that calls for more data are motivated by politics rather than science.
When asked if the Chinese authorities and researchers should be disclosing more information, Dr Swaminathan said: “We need to take the politics away from this completely and just let the scientists get on with their jobs.”
“We need the data. We need more studies to be done,” she said, adding that Chinese scientists have already done quite a lot of background work but there needs to be extensive studies to find out if there was any evidence of the novel coronavirus circulating either in humans or in animals even before the first reported case.
ANIMALS TO HUMANS?
Dr Swaminathan also explained why it is important to find out if the novel coronavirus was transmitted from a wild animal to a human directly or whether it passed through an intermediate animal before infecting humans.
For example, if the virus was a direct infection from bats, then people who interact with such animals in the course of their work will have to adopt special precautionary measures.
But if the virus was transmitted through an intermediate animal that was in close contact with humans, individuals will have to change the way they deal with these animals, including farming techniques and taking safety measures such as regular screening for avian influenza or swine flu.
On Aug 20, the WHO issued an open call for applicants to join its Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogen, announcing that it was looking for the greatest scientific minds to advise on investigations into new high-threat pathogens that jump from animals to humans to help prevent the next pandemic.
Dr Swaminathan said the WHO is encouraging open scientific discussion on the pandemic but that finding who is responsible is probably not the right question to ask.
“If this was a natural phenomenon, it can happen anywhere. If it’s happened in different parts of the world in the past, it can happen tomorrow and anywhere. The next pandemic could be upon us even before we’re out of this one.”
Given the real threat of new pathogens emerging, Dr Swaminathan emphasised the importance of infectious disease centres, notwithstanding the risk of an accidental lab leak. She explained that the situation could be much worse without these laboratories.
“You would be blind. You would be flying blind, you wouldn’t know what the virus was, where it came from, what its genetic sequence was. We wouldn’t be able to make vaccines and drugs. So no, I think the answer is not shut them down but to run them safely and responsibly.”
Watch the full interview with Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist on “In Conversation” Aug 25, 9pm SIN/HK on CNA.