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Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs said he had disbanded a task force of scientists, including Australian virologist Danielle Anderson, investigating the origins of Covid-19.

Dr Sachs, chairman of a Covid-19 commission affiliated with the Lancet scientific journals, said he had shut down the working group because he was concerned about its ties to the EcoHealth Alliance, reports Dow Jones.

This New York-based nonprofit has come under close scrutiny by some scientists, members of Congress and other officials since 2020 for using US funds for coronavirus studies of bat with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center in the Chinese city where the first Covid-19 outbreak occurred.

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak led the task force until he stepped down from the role in June. Some other members of the working group have collaborated with Dr Daszak or EcoHealth Alliance on projects.

A member of the task force said the disbanded group did not have any conflicts of interest that interfere with its ability to collect and assess data on how the virus entered human populations.

“I just didn’t want a task force that was so clearly involved in one of the main issues in all this origins research, which was EcoHealth Alliance,” said Dr Sachs, who is also director of the Center. for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

The disbandment of the task force is the latest development in the global scientific quest to find the origin of the virus. The research fueled geopolitical tensions and debates over whether the virus began to spread after spreading naturally in the human population, from an animal, laboratory or another accident related to scientific research.

Calls from scientists and health officials for an investigation into the possibility of a laboratory accident have gained traction in recent months.

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University

Dr Sachs said the Lancet Covid-19 Commission would continue to study the origins of a report to be released in mid-2022, but would expand its scope to include contributions from other experts on biosafety issues, including government oversight and transparency regarding risky laboratory research.

More and more labs have the technology to recreate or create new viruses, he said, but regulations and standards on how to conduct these experiments safely do not follow.

“There is a lot going on in the world that is not properly discussed or explained to the public,” he said. He said he was not supporting one hypothesis about the origins of Covid-19 over another. The working group had pursued leads on natural hypotheses and laboratory leakage.

Australian scientist Danielle Anderson.
Australian scientist Danielle Anderson.

Dr Sachs appointed Dr Daszak to lead the working group in 2020. The 12-member group is made up of experts in emerging viruses and animal health. Included are Malik Peiris, a Hong Kong-based virologist who was instrumental in identifying the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003; Carlos das Neves, director of research and internationalization at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute; and Danielle Anderson, an Australian virologist at the University of Melbourne who conducted research at the Wuhan institute in late 2019.

An expert in researching emerging viruses in animals that could threaten humans, Dr Daszak strongly objected to the hypothesis that the virus could have spread from a laboratory accident. He was a member of a team led by the World Health Organization that visited Wuhan earlier this year and concluded that a lab leak was extremely unlikely.

Five members of the task force joined Dr Daszak to sign letters in the Lancet in February 2020 denouncing what they called conspiracy theories that the novel coronavirus had been bioengineered and in July 2021, claiming that more evidence supported a natural origin of the virus. Dr Perlman, a coronavirus researcher for four decades, signed the letters but said he had not conducted research with scientists from the EcoHealth Alliance or the Wuhan institute.

The WHO’s investigation into origins has largely been stalled for months. A report by US intelligence agencies, delivered to President Joe Biden in August, has come to no definitive conclusion, in part because of a lack of data from China.

New research provides potential clues to the origin of the virus. Researchers from the Institut Pasteur, a French non-profit foundation, recently reported the discovery of three coronaviruses in bats in caves in northern Laos, near the border with China, which closely resemble the virus pandemic and can infect human cells. The results show that viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic virus, are circulating in nature and could infect people who come in contact with these bats, the researchers said.


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