Will the SARS-CoV-2 origins debate fuel pandemic treaty talks?

Newsletter Edition #81 [The Weekly Primer]

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Come September, we will witness frenzied activity on the discussions around the proposed pandemic treaty in the run-up to the special session of the World Health Assembly later in the year that will consider the need for a new legal instrument.

Even as the virus-origins debate gains more political traction, we are beginning to see how this debate itself makes greater space, giving more legitimacy for a new international legal instrument to address future pandemics.

What will be interesting to witness in the coming months, is how the U.S., a leading opponent to the treaty idea, reconciles with the geopolitics and the science of the studies of the SARS-CoV-2 origin given its complicated relationship with China.

Talk to us, help us understand how science and politics will influence each other.

Do not miss our exclusive from last week, carefully reported by my colleague Rithika Sangameshwaran, one of the Fellows who joined us over the summer: Understanding Germany’s Trenchant Opposition To the TRIPS Waiver.

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WHO Statement on advancing the next series of studies to find the origins of SARS-CoV-2

Last week, WHO articulated its determination in proceeding with virus-origins studies, in particular, the push to get access to the raw data from the earliest cases. This significant development, also gives an indication of changing geopolitics in global health and at WHO. The proposed second phase of these studies has already brought out sharp defenses by China.

Excerpts from WHO’s statement:

“WHO reiterates that the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring. It is vitally important to know how the COVID-19 pandemic began, to set an example for establishing the origins of all future animal-human spillover events.”

…. “Building on what has already been learned, the next series of studies would include a further examination of the raw data from the earliest cases and sera from potential early cases in 2019. Access to data is critically important for evolving our understanding of science and should not be politicised in any way.” 

“The International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens, or SAGO, is a new advisory group for WHO, which will be responsible for advising WHO on the development of a global framework to systematically study the emergence of future emerging pathogens with pandemic potential. For SARS-CoV-2, it will support the rapid undertaking of recommended studies outlined in the March 2021 report.” 

“China and a number of other Member States have written to WHO regarding the basis for further studies of the SARS-CoV-2 “lab hypothesis.” They have also suggested the origins study has been politicised, or that WHO has acted due to political pressure.”

“On review of the phase one study report, WHO determined that there was insufficient scientific evidence to rule any of the hypotheses out. Specifically, in order to address the “lab hypothesis,” it is important to have access to all data and consider scientific best practice and look at the mechanisms WHO already has in place. WHO is only focused on science, providing solutions and building solidarity.”


Keep in mind that member states will meet early September to discuss the need for an international instrument to prepare for pandemics. Among other features, some member states have also pushed for timely access to outbreak areas by an international team of scientists.

On this, also see:

Politico: Why the coronavirus lab leak theory won’t go away. The idea that the pandemic began in a laboratory has moved from fringe theory to mainstream.

Nature: Has COVID taught us anything about pandemic preparedness?

Foreign Affairs: The Right Way to Investigate the Origins of COVID-19

Credit: Photo by Rostislav Uzunov from Pexels

WHO’s Solidarity clinical trial enters a new phase with three new candidate drugs

“The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced the next phase in its Solidarity trial: Solidarity PLUS will enroll hospitalized patients to test three new drugs in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

These therapies - artesunate, imatinib and infliximab – were selected by an independent expert panel for their potential in reducing the risk of death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. They are already used for other indications: artesunate is used for severe malaria, imatinib for certain cancers, and infliximab for diseases of the immune system such as Crohn’s Disease and rheumatoid arthritis.”

… “The Solidarity PLUS trial is a platform trial that represents the largest global collaboration among WHO Member States. It involves thousands of researchers in over 600 hospitals in 52 countries, 16 more countries than the first phase of trials. This allows the trial to assess multiple treatments at the same time using a single protocol, recruiting thousands of patients to generate robust estimates on the effect a drug may have on mortality--even moderate effects. It also allows new treatments to be added and ineffective treatments to be dropped throughout the course of the trial.”

“Previously, four drugs were evaluated by the trial. The results showed that remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir and interferon had little or no effect on hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Through the Solidarity PLUS trial, researchers across the world have an opportunity to use their expertise and resources to contribute to global COVID-19 research.”


(The drugs - Artesunate: Produced by Ipca, is used to treat malaria; Imatinib: Produced by Novartis, is used to treat certain cancers'; Infliximab: Produced by Johnson and Johnson, is used to treat diseases of the immune system.)

Also see Science: A giant trial of COVID-19 treatments is restarting. Here are the drugs it’s betting on

ACT-Accelerator launches urgent US$ 7.7 billion appeal to stem surge of dangerous variants and save lives everywhere: WHO

“In addition to the US$ 7.7 billion appeal, there is an opportunity to reserve the supply of vaccines through exercising options in the fourth quarter of 2021 for 760 million doses of vaccine to be available in mid-2022 beyond the fully subsidised doses that COVAX will deliver up to the end of Q1 2022.  Commitments to reserve these vaccine options in the last quarter of the year for delivery in the middle of 2022 can be made to Gavi/COVAX, as part of the ACT-A network of agencies.   

Reserve vaccines: Reserve supply of 760 million doses of vaccine by exercising options in the final quarter this year to ensure there is continued supply available to make deliveries into 2022. Reserving doses requires contingent capital; on delivery these 760m doses will cost an additional US$ 3.8 billion.”


Also see: ACT Accelerator: Quarterly Update Q2: 1 April - 30 June 2021

‘Fractionation’ Proposed to Address Vaccine Shortages, as Pharma Makes Case for Boosters: Health Policy Watch

Interim statement on COVID-19 vaccine booster doses: WHO

Digital technologies for health financing: what are the benefits and risks for UHC? WHO

A rebuttal from Gavi defending the COVAX machine

The Road to Getting Vaccines to the World in response to this story in the New York Times: Where a Vast Global Vaccination Program Went Wrong

In our modest opinion, not a great way to respond to criticism:



My colleague Rithika has pulled this together for you:




  • World Humanitarian Day: August 19

    (See a recent update on COVAX Humanitarian buffer for vaccines)


KEI’s Thiru Balasubramaniam, a seasoned Geneva watcher, drew our attention to the IP Attaché Program of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. His take on the expansion of the IP agenda in South Asia.

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