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.”


Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says
Updated 20 sec ago

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

Police officer stabbed in Paris, inquiry opened, Interior Minister says

PARIS: An off-duty police officer was stabbed and seriously wounded in Paris on Sunday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
Darmanin said in a Twitter post that an investigation had been opened and everything was being done to find the perpetrator. He did not give a motive for the stabbing.


Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
Updated 28 November 2021

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions

Migrants jailed in UK for guiding dinghies fight convictions
  • Landmark judgment in April saw Iranian asylum seeker freed after steering small vessel

LONDON: A group of migrants who were imprisoned in the UK for steering dinghies across the English Channel are staging a bid to have their convictions overturned, The Independent newspaper has reported.

The group, comprised of 12 people, were labeled people smugglers and were prosecuted for aiding illegal migration.

However, in the wake of a landmark case won by an Iranian asylum seeker in April, the 12 men have decided to fight their convictions through the England and Wales Court of Appeal.

Lawmakers will host special court sessions next month to stage legal arguments over four of the 12 cases. The rulings handed down in the four cases will apply to the remainder of the cases.

Three of the cases involve migrants from Iran, while the fourth relates to a Kuwaiti citizen.

Iranian Samyar Bani, who was prosecuted in June 2019 and jailed for six years, will have his case considered first. His lawyer said: “This is a situation I have never heard of before. He is as much of a victim as others who have found their way to our shores.”

Aiding in an unlawful migration is typically a charge leveled against smugglers who receive substantial payments, including truck drivers.

A Court of Appeal judgment earlier in the year made available a defense for asylum seekers guiding small vessels who were found guilty of the charge.

It came after Fouad Kakaei, an asylum seeker, had his conviction overturned during a retrial.

Kakaei said that he had “taken turns” steering the dinghy with other migrants “because their lives were at risk.”

Following his case, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new rules meaning that asylum seekers would not be charged for steering boats if the “sole intention is to be intercepted and brought into port for asylum claims to be made.”


UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’
Updated 28 November 2021

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’

UK Conservative MPs revolt over home secretary’s migrant ‘failure’
  • Inaction placing people at risk, say critics

LONDON: UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is facing new pressure from members of her own party over the failure of an Afghan resettlement program, which has not opened more than three months after being launched.

It comes as debate rages in Britain over the deaths of 27 migrants in the English Channel earlier this week.

Several Conservative MPs privately demanded that Patel take action on the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, The Guardian reported.

They said that UK government inaction was placing Afghans at “deadly risk” and leaving vulnerable targets in the country at the mercy of the Taliban.

Damian Green, the former immigration minister, has called for a new approach to migration that is “realistic and compassionate.” 

In an opinion piece, he criticized the “blame game” between the UK and France over deaths at sea, and called on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron to work together to solve the crisis.

He said: “Now is not the time for displays of wounded amour propre in either language. Careless talk costs lives.”

Afghans are well represented in the body of migrants on the French coast who are attempting to travel to the UK. Government critics in the UK have argued that opening a legal route to entry would help avoid deaths at sea.

Rory Stewart, the former international development secretary, said the problems associated with the Afghan resettlement scheme were “surmountable,” but that the opportunity for helping vulnerable people was slipping away.

“We have a narrow window to get people out. At the moment, very strangely, the Taliban is prepared to permit people out. That won’t be true forever. It’s very likely at some point they’ll start taking more drastic measures.

“We have a deep moral obligation. These people, who are profoundly vulnerable, were told they were going to be helped. It’s just astonishing that they haven’t done so. This sort of program, actually, is the kind of thing that is the good alternative to these dangerous, unplanned routes. It moves people safely, but it’s also the way of ensuring that the most vulnerable are prioritized.”

An opinion poll found that just 18 percent of voters thought Patel was handling the migrant crisis effectively. In the opposite camp, 62 percent believed she was handling it “badly” or “very badly.”

Caroline Nokes, the former Conservative immigration minister, said: “This scheme needs to be up and running. Afghans here with family still in Afghanistan were given hope when the scheme was announced but are desperately worried that time is running out to get their family members to safety.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said: “We’re all supportive of stopping illegal immigration, but these other routes are the key to getting things properly done. This needs to be open and resolved, particularly because of Afghanistan and obligations to the people there. This week illustrates that.”

The Law Society has warned that lawyers and judges who worked to prosecute Taliban members over the past decade “are all targets while still in Afghanistan.”

Marina Brilman,the society’s international human rights adviser, said the scheme might not be ready by the end of the year.

She added: “Most judges, prosecutors and lawyers who helped to consolidate the rule of law in Afghanistan are Afghan nationals. They never made it on to the UK government’s evacuation list. When the last UK flight left Kabul airport, they were left stranded. Especially women.

“They send us desperate pleas for help and pass on handwritten death threats saying they and their families will be killed. They constantly move houses, and even provinces, to escape the violence. Door-to-door house searches by the Taliban continue, as do extrajudicial killings and public beatings. Of course, establishing this scheme is a huge undertaking. 

“But it should not have to take three and a half months to even open it for applications. It raises the question how much of a priority this is for the UK government.”

However, a government spokesperson defended the scheme’s rollout.

“We undertook the UK’s biggest and fastest emergency evacuation in recent history, helping more than 15,000 people to safety from Afghanistan, who we are continuing to support.

“The ACRS is one of the most generous schemes in our country’s history and will give up to 20,000 further people at risk a new life in the UK. We continue to work at pace to open the scheme amid a complex and changing picture, working across government and with partners such as the UNHCR to design the scheme.”


Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
Updated 28 November 2021

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers

Father of migrant Channel victim calls on France to stop ‘mafia’ traffickers
  • Protests break out in London demanding safer route for migrants following deaths of 27 at sea
  • UK and France war of words escalates over plans to stop flow of migrant dinghies to England

LONDON: The father of an Iraqi Kurdish woman who drowned attempting to cross the English Channel has called for the “mafia” people traffickers responsible to be stopped, amid protests in London demanding safer passage for people attempting to reach the UK.

Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin, 24, was among 27 people who died on Wednesday. She had been trying to reach her fiance who was already in the UK.

Speaking from Soran in Iraqi Kurdistan, Maryam’s father, Nuri Mohammed Mohammed Amin, called the people smugglers “butchers,” saying the disaster was a tragedy “not only for me but for the whole of Kurdistan and the world.”

He added: “I ask the French government to tighten their borders and stop those butchers. They are not smugglers, they are mafias. This is my only request.

“Those boats that they are using are not made for that purpose. They treat those poor people like animals. Where were her human rights?

“It is the role of the French government to have a strict procedure to stop those butchers to avoid further tragedies, and I hope our people stop even thinking about migrating using similar ways,” he said.

Maryam’s journey to join her fiance, which saw her travel to France via Turkey, Italy and Germany, was meant to be a surprise. Her cousin, Krmanj Ezzat Dargali, told UK radio station LBC that she had been “glowing with hope” to start a new life in the UK.

About 150 people gathered outside Downing Street in London on Saturday to protest the tragedy, which it is thought could have been caused when the dinghy being used — meant to carry 10 people at most — collided with another vessel, possibly a container ship.

Several protesters held banners calling for “safe passage now” for migrants, with others stating “migrants and refugees welcome here,” adding that politicians had blood on their hands.

The protest was in part a response to the proposed nationalities and borders bill, which will include new powers to deport people with no right to remain in the UK.

Lara Bishop, a volunteer for the asylum-seeker support charity Care4Calais said: “No one should have to die on our border. We are a first-world nation.

“We are the sixth biggest economy in the world but we only take 1 percent of refugees and we make it so difficult for people to cross and it’s not OK for people to be dying in the Channel.

“I think the British and the French governments need to remember humanity. At the moment they’re using them as political pawns — throwing them between themselves — but these are humans.”

So far about 25,000 people are thought to have crossed the English Channel via dinghies from Northern France this year, which has led to tensions between London and Paris.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in a letter that more migrants would die unless France returned to talks over a plan to reduce the number of boats attempting the crossing, which led to an angry response from French President Emmanuel Macron after the letter was posted on social media platform Twitter.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel was subsequently disinvited from talks with her EU counterparts this weekend aimed at finding a joint solution.


13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
Updated 28 November 2021

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers

13 cases of omicron variant in Dutch testing of travelers
  • The 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation
  • The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The Dutch public health authority confirmed Sunday that 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on flights from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was put in place were immediately put into isolation while sequencing was carried out to establish if they had the new variant.
The public health institute said in a statement that testing was continuing on the samples.
Most of the 61 people who tested positive were put into isolation at a hotel near the airport, while a small number were allowed to sit out their quarantine at home under strict conditions.
Health authorities appealed to all travelers who returned from southern Africa in the past week to get tested, and set up a test center at Schiphol Airport for Dutch citizens returning from the region. The tests are voluntary, and travelers can wait for the results in isolation at home.