Indian epidemiologist among WHO's scientific advisory group for origins of novel pathogens
United Nations/Geneva, Oct 14: Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, a leading Indian epidemiologist, has been named to an expert group launched by the WHO that will examine the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Gangakhedkar, the former head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), is the Dr C.G. Pandit National Chair at the ICMR.
The World Health Organisation on Wednesday announced the proposed members of the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The SAGO will 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.
Since the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, the question of how it first emerged remains unclear. China has strongly refuted the theory that the virus leaked in a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The global health organisation said that after careful consideration of all applications submitted to WHO, the 26 scientists who come from several countries, were selected and their names proposed for membership of the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The members are to serve in their personal capacities to represent the broad range of disciplines relevant to emerging and re-emerging pathogens.
"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 Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. "Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise. We are very pleased with the calibre of experts selected for SAGO from around the world, and look forward to working with them to make the world safer," he said.
Gangakhedkar had become the face of ICMR during government briefings to the media on the coronavirus pandemic. He retired as the head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the apex health research body in June last year. He represented ICMR in national press briefings and updated journalists on research developments related to COVID-19 in India by breaking down complex scientific data to make them easier for the general public to understand.
Gangakhedkar also played an important role in the research on HIV/AIDS and made a significant contribution in developing national policies and patient empowerment. He was the director-incharge of the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI), Pune, before he moved to the ICMR headquarters in Delhi. During his approximately four-year stint with ICMR, he was instrumental in formulation of policies to handle the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala in 2018 and recently for the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was awarded Padma Shri in 2020 for his service and his research on HIV/AIDS. Selected from more than 700 applications, the 26 proposed SAGO members have expertise in a range of areas, including epidemiology, animal health, ecology, clinical medicine, virology, genomics, molecular epidemiology, molecular biology, biology, food safety, biosafety, biosecurity, and public health. The composition of the SAGO reflects geographic and gender diversity, WHO said.
The members are to serve in their personal capacities to represent the broad range of disciplines relevant to emerging and re-emerging pathogens. In February, a WHO team tasked with investigating Covid's origins flew to China and concluded that the virus had probably come from bats but that more work was needed. The team called the lab leak theory "extremely unlikely". In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, reacting to the announcement of the proposed members of the WHO SAGO, said that China always maintains that origins-tracing is a serious and complex scientific issue, which should be undertaken by scientists around the world through joint research.
"China will continue to support and participate in global scientific origins-tracing and firmly oppose any form of political manipulation," he said. "We hope that all parties concerned, including the WHO Secretariat and SAGO will adopt an objective, scientific and responsible attitude, follow the requirements and relevant mandates of the WHA resolution, take the first phase of joint study as the basis, adhere to a global perspective, perform their duties in an objective and fair manner, and truly make a positive contribution to global origins-tracing and anti-epidemic cooperation," Zhao added.
As per WHO processes, there will now be a two-week public consultation period for WHO to receive feedback on the proposed SAGO members and set in place the modalities for the SAGO's first meeting, which is planned to take place following this consultation period. According to Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker, over 239,341,500 confirmed cases have been reported globally while more than 4,877,500 people have died due to the highly virulent virus. PTI