After an article in Nature in February 2023 in which it was suggested that WHO had “quietly” abandoned plans to continue the investigation into the origins of COVID-19, senior members of the organisation responded on Twitter and in a press conference. Dr Maria van Kerkhove, who was quoted in the article as expressing frustration at the political situation, stated emphatically that WHO had not “abandoned” the investigation, saying they “have not, and will not”.  

Twitter response 

Initially Dr van Kerkhove and colleagues took to Twitter to “make one thing clear”. Dr van Kerkhove described the headlines, prompted by the Nature article, as “inaccurate”. She emphasised that the allegation that WHO had neglected or moved on from the investigation was “not true”. 

“We have never, nor will we ever abandon this. We have said this loudly, clearly, repeatedly. We will continue to say this.”  

In an earlier tweet, Dr van Kerkhove suggested that “we need more cooperation and collaboration with China”. Later, during the press conference, she echoed these calls for “cooperation”, saying that studies “need to be conducted in China” as recommended by WHO and SAGO.  

“We need cooperation from our colleagues there to advance our understanding.”  

Press conference  

In a press conference on the same day, questions were raised about the article, giving senior representatives an opportunity to respond. Although Dr van Kerkhove is quoted, she indicated that the quotations were misleading in the context of a lengthy discussion with the reporter. She commented that it was an “error in reporting”.  

During the press conference, reference was made to SAGO, the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens. Established in 2021, SAGO published a preliminary report in June 2022, calling for continued collaboration and investigation from Member States. The responsibility of Member States was highlighted by Dr Mike Ryan, who criticised the “constant narrative” that expected WHO to take the lead beyond its jurisdiction.  

Dr Ryan suggested that SAGO “laid out very specifically” what was needed for the future of the investigation. Dr van Kerkhove stated that although initially a kind of “phase 2” was intended, this evolved into SAGO, which became WHO’s “best effort” to move forward.  


The report from SAGO in June 2022 emphasised that “its work has only just begun” and it is “firmly focused on science and public health”. Therefore, its recommendations involve “important elements that will need to be considered as part of a global framework”.  

“There are, however, further studies needed to follow up on several gaps in our knowledge.” 

The full SAGO report outlines “primary recommendations” in 3 areas: 

  1. The development of a global framework that will outline necessary studies to conduct once an emerging pathogen appears or re-appears. 
  2. Preliminary recommendations for additional studies urgently needed to understand the origins of SARS-CoV-2. 
  3. Areas to be explored concerning the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, such as Omicron. 
Science and morality 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasised the importance of investigations from two perspectives: “science” and “moral”. 

“When I say science, we need to know how this started in order to prevent the next one. Second, when I say moral…it’s morally very important to know how we lost our loved ones…we need to continue to push until we get the answer.” 

What further work would you like to see from the global community, and what responsibility does WHO have to drive this?  

We look forward to hearing more from WHO at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington this April.