WHO team arrives in Wuhan to investigate coronavirus pandemic origins

WHO team arrives in Wuhan to investigate coronavirus pandemic origins
A possible focus for the WHO investigators, above, is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak began. (AP)
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Updated 14 January 2021

WHO team arrives in Wuhan to investigate coronavirus pandemic origins

WHO team arrives in Wuhan to investigate coronavirus pandemic origins
  • Scientists suspect the virus that has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals
  • The coronavirus’s exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly

WUHAN, China: A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The 10-member team sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of the WHO.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but scientists reject that.
CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV, reported the WHO team’s arrival. The members include virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to a post on CGTN’s official Weibo account. They are to start working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.
China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus’s spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.
After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the US group EcoHealth Alliance, told the Associated Press in November.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus’s origins; pinning down an outbreak’s animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavor that takes years of research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
“The government should be very transparent and collaborative,” said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.
The Chinese government has tried to stir confusion about the virus’s origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
“The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said Wednesday.
Some of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced they hadn’t received valid visas.
That might have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but the incident “raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak began. One of China’s top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
According to WHO’s published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.
A “scientific audit” of Institute records and safety measures would be a “routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said that depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
An AP investigation found the government-imposed controls on research into the outbreak and bars scientists from speaking to reporters.
The coronavirus’s exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly, said Woolhouse.
Although it may be challenging to find precisely the same COVID-19 virus in animals as in humans, discovering closely related viruses might help explain how the disease first jumped from animals and clarify what preventive measures are needed to avoid future epidemics.
Scientists should focus instead on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time to blame anyone,” Shih said. “We shouldn’t say, it’s your fault.”


127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
Updated 39 min 24 sec ago

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
  • The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday

MUMBAI: Some 127 people were missing Tuesday after a vessel adrift off Mumbai’s coast sank during Cyclone Tauktae, the Indian navy said as two ships and helicopters were deployed to assist in the search.
The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday as strong winds battered India’s western coast, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores and turning roads into rivers.


Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
Updated 57 min 11 sec ago

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
  • Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s representative office in Taiwan has temporarily suspended operations, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said on Tuesday, adding only that the decision was not related to the rise in coronavirus cases there.
Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and China imposed a sweeping national security law last year to quell the unrest, prompting many activists to leave the city.
Taipei has criticized the law and opened a local office to help people who may want to leave Hong Kong.
Last year, Taiwanese officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced the decision to suspend the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan without providing an explanation. It said requests for assistance would be handled through hotlines and via the Hong Kong government website.
“The suspension is not related to the pandemic situation in Taiwan. We do not have anything further to add,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson said.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was working on a response on the matter.


Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
Updated 18 May 2021

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
  • Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha

KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.

“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”

However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.

“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.

The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.

Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.

Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”

He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”

Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.

HIGHLIGHT

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.

The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.

The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.

Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.

Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.

The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”

The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.

“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”

He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”


Indonesia halts use of AstraZeneca vaccine batch for toxicity tests

Indonesia halts use of AstraZeneca vaccine batch for toxicity tests
Updated 18 May 2021

Indonesia halts use of AstraZeneca vaccine batch for toxicity tests

Indonesia halts use of AstraZeneca vaccine batch for toxicity tests
  • Precautionary measure follows the death of a 22-year-old man one day after receiving jab

JAKARTA: Indonesia has temporarily suspended the use and distribution of an Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine batch pending sterility and toxicity tests by the Drug and Food Monitoring Agency (BPOM), the Health Ministry said on Sunday.

The ministry announced the move following advice from the National Commission on Post-Immunization Accidents to carry out the tests.

It follows the death of a 22-year-old man in East Jakarta, who suffered from a high fever and eventually died after receiving his first jab earlier this month.

Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a Health Ministry spokesperson for the national COVID-19 vaccination program, said that the suspension of the batch would not deter the use of other AstraZeneca batches in the jabs program, which began four months ago.

“We continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine because it provides a much greater benefit. The suspension is the government’s precautionary measure to ensure the safety of the vaccine,” Tarmizi said, adding that the test results are expected to be released no later than two weeks.

The commission recommended the drug monitoring agency conduct the tests. Its chairman, Hindra Irawan Satari, said that the commission “did not have enough data to determine” whether the man’s death was related to the vaccine from the suspended batch, which he received a day before his demise.

The batch consisted of 448,480 doses and is part of the 3,852,000 doses Indonesia received from the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility’s vaccine distribution scheme on April 26.

The ministry said that the vaccine batch in question had been distributed in the capital city, Jakarta, among the military, and in the North Sulawesi province.

Tonang Dwi Ardyanto, an epidemiologist of the clinical pathologist association PDS PatKlin said while the suspension was necessary, it would slow down the national vaccination progress.

“We hope the test results will come out soon so that the matter is clear,” he told Arab News on Monday.

“We are well aware that there is no vaccine or medicine that is 100 percent safe, but we just have to look for the ones with the least possible risks,” he added.

Indonesia received 6.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which were distributed to seven provinces, with Bali and East Java getting a majority of the share.

The Oxford jab is a small fraction compared to more than 68 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine used in the government’s vaccination program.

A study conducted by the Health Ministry from January to March on health workers who received the Sinovac vaccine showed that it is “almost 100 percent effective in protecting them from infections, hospitalization, and death.”

Pandji Dhewantara, the ministry’s lead researcher, said last week that two shots of the Sinovac vaccine “provided 98 percent protection against death” in the 128,290 health workers who were monitored for the study.

Dhewantara added that the vaccine was 94 percent effective in protecting health workers from being infected with COVID-19 and 96 percent effective in preventing them from being hospitalized.

“We can conclude from this study that vaccination is important to reduce the risks of someone being infected by COVID-19,” he added.

A private vaccination scheme, coordinated by the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, through which private entities can pay to inoculate their employees and families, will be using China’s Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines, with Russia’s Sputnik expected to be added.

The scheme is expected to commence on Tuesday, with almost 18,000 private entities registered to inoculate about 8.6 million people from labor-intensive manufacturing companies to micro-enterprises with as few as three employees.

Indonesia aims to inoculate 181.5 million people out of its 270 million population, which it expects to complete by the end of the year. But four months into the program, only 8.8 million people have received the second dose of their vaccines, just five percent of the targeted population.


Save the Children decries rising death toll from Israeli strikes

Palestinan children eat as families took shelter at a United Nations (UN) school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 17, 2021. (AFP)
Palestinan children eat as families took shelter at a United Nations (UN) school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 17, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 17 May 2021

Save the Children decries rising death toll from Israeli strikes

Palestinan children eat as families took shelter at a United Nations (UN) school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 17, 2021. (AFP)
  • Charity: On average, 3 Palestinian children have been wounded every hour since fighting broke out
  • ‘Dropping bombs where you know you’ll cause high levels of civilian casualties is a war crime,’ Palestine Solidarity Campaign tells Arab News

LONDON: The number of children killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza has reached 58, Save the Children said on Sunday night, adding that on average three have been wounded every hour since fighting broke out.

The charity called for an immediate ceasefire, and warned that for survivors, the “physical and mental wounds will last a lifetime.”

More than 1,000 people, including 366 children, have been injured. This amounts to roughly three children hurt every hour in Gaza since airstrikes began, Save the Children said. Two children in Israel have also died.

“My family and I have had to evict our home in the last few days because of the endless bombardments,” Mazen Naim, a Gaza-based communications officer at Save the Children, told Arab News.

“Everyone around me is breaking down. The children have been crying for days on end and are in a state of constant terror,” he added.

“There’s nowhere safe, and thousands of families have been displaced. How can we even begin to recover from this kind of loss?”

Ben Jamal, director of the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign, told Arab News: “There’s no excuse for dropping bombs on areas where you know you’ll cause high levels of civilian casualties. This is a war crime.”

He said: “Israel also knows the fact that 50 percent of Gaza’s population are children means bombing will cause high levels of child deaths. That knowing this, it continues its bombing is abhorrent.”

He added: “It violates international law and is unethical and inhumane in every way, shape and form. We call on all governments to stop arming Israel’s massacres by immediately ceasing all arms sales.”

Save the Children warned that Gaza’s roughly 2 million residents are experiencing a “triple shock” of catastrophe: “Bombardments are continuing, and health facilities and civilian infrastructure could soon be left without the power needed to deliver crucial supplies and emergency treatment. In addition, critically ill and injured children are unable to leave Gaza for treatment.”

The latest damage to infrastructure, Save the Children said, has left 480,000 people — roughly a quarter of Gaza’s inhabitants — with limited or no access to clean and safe drinking water.

To alleviate the humanitarian crisis, it called for an end to Israel’s 14-year blockade that prevents goods and people from moving freely in and out of the small, densely populated territory.

“The government of Israel and all parties must allow aid workers to reach children with life-saving support, as well as the unimpeded entry of essential supplies and fuel,” Save the Children said.

“It is critical to seek a just solution that addresses the underlying causes of this violence, that upholds equal rights for both Palestinian and Israeli children, and that will end the decades-long occupation as the only sustainable resolution to the conflict. This will ensure that all children in the region can live in peace.”