As the medical fraternity hastens to find treatment for the Covid-19 pandemic – which continues to wreak havoc on the economies and kills millions of people – the World Health Organisation (WHO) has put together a crack team of experts to probe the origins of novel pathogens including SAR-CoV-2. South African top academic and virologist, Professor Marietjie Venter has been picked to head the international scientific advisory team comprising experts with a range of expertise from across the world.
Professor Venter is currently the head of the Zoonotic Arbo and Respiratory Virus Programme at the Centre for Viral Zoonoses in the Department Medical Virology at the University of Pretoria. Dr Jean-Claude Manuguerra of France is the group’s vice-chair. Called Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), the members of this prestigious body will work for free and in their personal capacity.
The advisory group’s brief is to advise WHO on the development of a global framework to define and guide studies into the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, including SARS-CoV-2. It is no surprise that Professor Venter was handpicked ahead of her global peers given her extensive experience in emerging and zoonotic vector-borne and respiratory viruses. As a medical virologist, she strongly advocates for the ‘One Health’ concept which makes the connection between the health of people, animals and environment. In addition, Professor Venter has background in molecular epidemiology, laboratory science including biosafety, viral diagnostics, virus discovery, pathogenesis and public health.
Members of the group were culled from 800 applications from over 100 countries. They held their first meeting last month and agreed to meet frequently and focus urgently on formulating a framework to study the emergence of novel pathogens. Furthermore, the group will also undertake an assessment of the current understanding of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The SAGO will discharge the following functions:
- To advise WHO on the development of a WHO global framework to define and guide studies into the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential;
- To advise WHO on prioritising studies and field investigations into the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, in accordance with the WHO global framework described in point (1) above;
- To provide information and views to assist the WHO Secretariat in the development of a detailed work plan of the SAGO.
“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Prof Venter says: “If the origin of new pathogens can be identified it may enable us to put control measures into place to prevent transmission to humans, reduce the impact of local epidemics, and prevent future pandemics.”
Investigating the origin of Covid-19
She says it is a great honour to head such an august body is a great honour. She says this is an ideal opportunity to use her training in zoonotic diseases, One Health, molecular epidemiology, laboratory biosafety and public health. She says this will help him to lead such an exceptional team of scientists to investigate the origin of emerging diseases such as COVID-19, but also the next disease X that may cause the next pandemic.
“The origin of COVID-19 may not be known yet, however the speed by which the new virus was identified, the rapid development of sensitive diagnostics, the ability to detect variants through genomic surveillance, and the development of effective vaccines through international collaborations is in my opinion the most significant progress to date,” concludes Professor Venter.