'I'm really humbled': SA scientist to lead WHO research into Covid-19 origins

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Professor Marietjie Venter.
Professor Marietjie Venter.
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  • A South African researcher has been appointed head of a WHO Covid-19 advisory body.
  • The advisory group will work to uncover the origin of the Covid-19 virus.
  • They will also look to predict future pandemics in the hope of saving thousands of lives.

A South African will head up a world body investigating the origins of Covid-19.

University of Pretoria researcher Professor Marietjie Venter has been appointed as chair of the World Health Organisation’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins (SAGO) of Novel Pathogens.

The international scientific advisory team has been appointed to probe the origins of diseases such as Covid-19, and to advise WHO on a global framework to study the origins of "emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential". They will also work to understand the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

The international experts were selected from 800 applications from over 100 countries. The group consists of a wide range of experts from across the world, who work for free and in their individual capacities. Venter is the only South African on the body.

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Venter is the head of the Zoonotic Arbo and Respiratory Virus Programme at the Centre for Viral Zoonoses in the Department of Medical Virology at the University of Pretoria.

She has a background as a medical virologist with extensive experience in emerging and zoonotic vector-borne and respiratory viruses, as well as a background in molecular epidemiology, laboratory science - including biosafety, viral diagnostics, virus discovery, pathogenesis and public health.

Venter described the appointment as an honour, saying:

It’s a huge privilege to be appointed as chair. The selection of scientists on the advisory body includes many leaders in the field. I’m really humbled to have been offered the position.

SAGO will build on the research that has already been collected on the origin of the Covid-19 virus to determine if its origin can be established or if any further research needs to be carried out.

The work will be similar to research Venter has been involved in, which attempts to trace the origin of zoonotic vector-borne and respiratory viruses. Her work focuses on arboviruses – such as West Nile virus – and respiratory viruses, including Covid-19. She was previously involved in investigating the H1N1 pandemic.

"Both of these groups of viruses have the potential to emerge in new regions to cause large epidemics and new pandemics," she said.

Venter also serves as an advisor to WHO on respiratory and mosquito-transmitted viruses.

'We could save thousands of lives'

During the first SAGO meeting, held in November, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the group of experts would be carrying out "critical work at a critical time".

"The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed serious gaps in the global capacity to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential. One of those gaps is the lack of a rigorous and standardised process for studying the origins of novel and re-emerging pathogens," he said.

"Outbreaks of viruses, known and unknown, are a fact of nature. Part of being prepared for the next pandemic is planning what steps we will take to assess its origins.

READ | Omicron panic: How the dumping of 17 000 positive tests skewed the picture of SA’s epidemic trajectory

"If the origin of pathogens with the potential to spark a pandemic can be identified, controls could be put in place to prevent transmissions or reduce the impact. Venter added that the origin of Covid-19 is not yet known."

But the group’s work will extend beyond just Covid-19, Venter explains. The team of experts will set out to find ways to predict what may cause future pandemics, as well as why new variants emerge.

She hopes her work with SAGO will result in research that could prevent and limit the effects of future pandemics.

"I hope we’ll gain a better understanding of where the pandemic came from as well as how to predict where the next one will come from. If we can do that, we could save thousands of lives. It’s really exciting to be part of the SAGO," she said.

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