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The P4 lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday named 26 scientists to a new advisory board that will study the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: Without a shift in attitude from Beijing, the new panel isn't likely to succeed in determining how this pandemic began. But it should be in a position to create a clearer picture of how to identify where new diseases like COVID-19 come from.

  • The scientists were vetted for conflicts of interest and have more expertise on laboratory biorisks, which can help to study one hypothesis that the virus leaked from a lab.

Driving the news: The new panel includes an American scientist and a Chinese researcher — the two countries at the heart of the dispute over COVID's origins — as well as the head of a Swiss biosafety center, which sends a signal the WHO will consider the possibility of a lab leak alongside theories about zoonotic spillover.

  • Flashback: The original — and now-disbanded — WHO investigative team came under criticism for dismissing a lab leak as "extremely unlikely" in its report published earlier this year.

Details: The new group will assess recent studies on possible animal reservoirs of the virus, and advise the WHO on potential future field research that may be needed — including looking at labs where the first human infections were recorded in Wuhan, China.

  • Yes, but: Such field work would require Beijing's permission, and "this new group can do all the fancy footwork it wants, but China's not going to cooperate," David Fidler, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times.

What to watch: Notably, the new panel will be charged with looking beyond COVID-19 and examining the origins of any new emerging diseases to come — what the WHO refers to generally as "Disease X."

  • The millions who have died from COVID-19 "are owed answers as to where and how the virus originated," WHO Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus co-wrote in an editorial published today in Science.
  • "It's in everyone's interest to better prepare for the next Disease X."

Go deeper

Oct 16, 2021 - Health

Pope Francis calls on companies to release COVID vaccine patents

Pope Francis. Photo: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pope Francis called on pharmaceutical companies on Saturday to release patents to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to the poor, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: There is a stark divide between countries that have access to COVID-19 shots and those that don't, and the gap has widened as some wealthier countries have begun distributing third doses.

Oct 15, 2021 - Health

State COVID lotteries did not increase vaccination rates, study finds

California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a drawing for the state's Vax for the Win program in June. Photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

None of the 19 states that implemented statewide COVID-19 vaccine lotteries this summer saw an increase in vaccination rates as a result of the incentive programs, according to a study published Friday in Jama Health Forum.

Why it matters: The study is the first to examine the effectiveness of 19 state-run lotteries, and offers insight into how governments can better craft incentive-based policies, said Andrew Friedson, one of the study's authors and an associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver.

20 hours ago - Health

Fauci: J&J recipients will likely be able to mix and match boosters

Anthony Fauci. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will likely allow recipients of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 to mix and match vaccine boosters depending on their individual health, NIAID director Anthony Fauci told ABC News' '"This Week" on Sunday.

Why it matters: The FDA's vaccine expert panel on Friday unanimously endorsed booster shots for adult recipients of the J&J vaccine. The panel is also exploring the mix and match strategy but hasn't yet taken a formal vote on the matter.