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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

Biden: Fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday said that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

Driving the news: Biden said later this week the administration will be releasing a strategy on how "we're going to fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

Nov 29, 2021 - Health

CDC strengthens COVID booster recommendation

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday strengthened its previous recommendation for booster shots, saying that everyone 18 and older "should" receive a booster dose.

Why it matters: Last month, CDC director Rochelle Walensky accepted a key advisory committee's recommendation that adults "may" get the shot. The slight, but strengthened, change in wording comes amid the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Nov 29, 2021 - Health

NYC urges masks indoors "at all times" regardless of vaccination status

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

New York City officials issued an advisory Monday "strongly" recommending that people mask up indoors regardless of vaccination status to curb the spread of the newly-discovered Omicron variant.

Why it matters: Dave Chokshi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, announced the advisory in response to concerns of the new strain's potential implications.