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The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday its newly formed advisory group on dangerous pathogens may be "our last chance" to determine the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and called for cooperation from China.

The first human cases of COVID-19 were reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. China has repeatedly dismissed theories that the virus leaked from one of its laboratories and has said no more visits are needed.

Selected from more than 700 applications, the 26 proposed members of the group have expertise in a range of areas from epidemiology to biosecurity, the WHO said Wednesday. They include Marion Koopmans from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, Christian Drosten from the Institute of Virology at Charite in Berlin and Yungui Yang, the deputy director at the Beijing Institute of Genomics. 

“Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential, and requires a broad range of expertise," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in the statement

A joint WHO-China mission early this year found that the coronavirus probably spread from bats to humans via another animal. Although the team considered a lab-leak incident the least likely hypothesis, the WHO director called for further research.

U.S. President Joe Biden has criticized China for stonewalling efforts to understand the genesis of SARS-CoV-2, while China has accused the U.S. and its allies of blaming it for a pandemic that has killed almost 5 million people globally.

Tedros has said that scientists still lack raw data on possible infections in late 2019. The WHO has proposed audits of the laboratories and research centers in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were identified, as well as studies on the animals, people and environments that may have played a role in the coronavirus’s emergence. 

The new study is bound to face renewed obstacles. Beijing has said it will reject calls for a probe into whether the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security facility on the outskirts of the city that was conducting coronavirus research.

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