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.”


Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’
Updated 36 min 10 sec ago

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’

Belarusian president accused of using Middle East migrants as ‘political weapon’
  • Lithuania calls on the EU to take action to halt the growing number of people illegally crossing its border
  • Minister said more than 4,000 migrants have entered Lithuania illegally this year

LONDON: Lithuania accused Belarus on Wednesday of using migrants from the Middle East and Africa as a “political weapon” and urged the EU to intervene.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was allowing flights with what he claims are tourists from Iraq, Syria and African countries who then illegally cross the border into Lithuania in an attempt to seek asylum in the EU.

More than 4,000 migrants have already entered Lithuania in this way so far this year, compared with only about 80 in the whole of 2020, Landsbergis told the website Politico.

“This is not the 2015 migration crisis,” he said. “This is not people fleeing the war in Syria. This is actually a hybrid weapon, a political weapon one might say, that is (being) used to change the European policy.”

He warned that a recent decision by Belarus to increase the number flights from Iraq to Minsk could lead to more than 6,000 migrants crossing the border into Lithuania every week.

“There are currently 24 flights to Minsk from Istanbul and eight flights from Baghdad each week,” said Landsbergis. “If you consider that each of these flights can transport up to 170 people, and if you fill all the seats with asylum seekers, the capacity is up to 6,000 people a week — or even more because new flights from Erbil have been announced on Monday. So there is a possibility for Lukashenko to really up the ante.”

The foreign minister called for increased international pressure on Minsk through further sanctions and by lobbying the home countries of migrants to take action.

“The EU could tell countries such as Iraq that there’s a list of instruments — restrictions of visa programs, for example — that we will use if they don’t stop these flights to Minsk,” Landsbergis said.

“We know that these people are not tourists coming to visit Belarus.”

The number of migrants crossing into Lithuania from Belarus could exceed 10,000 by the end of the summer, he warned, and added that this number could dramatically increase as Lukashenko approaches African governments “to build up new routes.”

“So what we are seeing might be just the beginning,” he said.

The foreign minister said he has discussed the issue with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and other EU officials who “understand the situation,” but he stressed that more must be done.

“I think we need to really step up our game,” Landsbergis said. “Because at this point the message that we are sending (is) not sufficient to change the way things are.”

Lithuania has asked for an emergency meeting of EU interior ministers this month to agree assistance for the country, which is on the front line of a new migration crisis in Europe.

On Tuesday, Lithuanian authorities said they reserve the right to use force to prevent illegal immigration, and turned away 180 people attempting to enter the country. However, rights groups said all nations have an obligation to protect vulnerable people.

“Push backs of people seeking asylum are not compatible with the Geneva Convention on Refugee Status, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and other human rights instruments” Egle Samuchovaite, program director for Lithuania's Red Cross, told the Associated Press.

She added that refusing to allow vulnerable people to cross the border leaves them in an unsafe environment, trapped between two countries.

Lithuania has no physical barriers along its almost 700-kilometer border with Belarus.

The row over the latest actions of Belarus’s authoritarian president comes after the EU imposed sanctions on his country over an incident in May that was denounced as “state piracy,” in which a Belarusian warplane was scrambled to intercept an aircraft so that a dissident journalist could be arrested.


Young asylum seeker denied entry to UK ‘at high risk of suicide’

Young asylum seeker denied entry to UK ‘at high risk of suicide’
Updated 04 August 2021

Young asylum seeker denied entry to UK ‘at high risk of suicide’

Young asylum seeker denied entry to UK ‘at high risk of suicide’
  • Youngster stranded on Greek island has reportedly tried to hang himself twice
  • Alleging abuse including sexual assault, he wants to join his brothers in Britain

LONDON: An expert medical report has warned that a young asylum seeker who has been blocked from joining his brothers in Britain is at high risk of suicide.

Samir, whose name has been changed for his safety and security, is stranded in Greece away from his family.

He fled his home country in 2019 after reportedly enduring torture and detention, and has been living alone on the island of Samos.

He was assessed by the Greek authorities last year as being 20 years old but maintained that he was a child.

He is appealing the decision, but was refused access to Britain by the Home Office, which denied him access to the family reunion process to join his two brothers. His brothers are both refugees in Britain, arriving in February this year.

His application was rejected because the Greek authorities determined that he was an adult, but Samir argues that he is 17.

Immigration authorities in Greece also said there was “insufficient” evidence of a close relationship between Samir and his family. His lawyers in Britain are challenging the decision on both grounds.

Samir previously told The Independent newspaper about the horrendous conditions he was facing on the fringe of his refugee camp, saying he was being bullied and abused, and enduring sexual assault from an older man.

Lawyers said he has tried to hang himself twice, and has had no access to any mental health support.

A medical report written by Prof. David Bell, one of the UK’s leading psychiatric experts in asylum and immigration, found that Samir is in a “complex chronic traumatized state.”

Bell assessed Samir via video link, writing that he suffers from a “severe depressive disorder.”

Bell concluded on July 29 that it is “clear” Samir will continue to suffer from his disorder “as long as he remains in this environment, regardless of any treatment he can receive.”

Bell added that Samir is within the worst 5 percent of the approximately 400 refugees he has assessed during his career.

He said in the report submitted to court in Britain that it is “absolutely essential” that Samir is “removed from this environment from a mental point of view as soon as possible” and “transferred to the UK to be with his brothers.”

Rebecca Chapman, Samir’s barrister, argued on Tuesday that the Home Office had failed to adequately consider his situation and vulnerabilities through its denial of his right to family life.

Representing the Home Office, lawyer Simon Murray disputed the accusations, saying the department’s decisions were made lawfully.

The asylum seeker’s UK-based solicitor, Rachel Harger of Bindmans Solicitors, said: “Samir is living out the reality of what it means to rely on so-called legal ‘safe’ pathways before entering the UK: Inordinate delays and relentlessly hostile litigation conduct from the Home Office.”

She added: “Notwithstanding the very real risk of physical harm Samir continues to face, there is likely to be a long term impact to his mental health as a consequence of living in a chronically traumatised state whilst in perpetual fear for over a year and a half. This cannot be considered a ‘safe’ route for Samir.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Protecting vulnerable children is an absolute priority for the government and in 2019, the UK received more asylum claims from unaccompanied children than any other European country, including Greece.

“As part of our New Plan for Immigration to fix the UK’s broken asylum system, we will continue to welcome people through safe and legal routes and prioritise those most in need.”


7 convicted of drive-by shooting that killed Lebanese law student in UK

7 convicted of drive-by shooting that killed Lebanese law student in UK
Updated 04 August 2021

7 convicted of drive-by shooting that killed Lebanese law student in UK

7 convicted of drive-by shooting that killed Lebanese law student in UK
  • Aya Hachem was ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ amid dispute between businesses
  • Family: ‘Words can’t describe the pain we’ve had to go through’

LONDON: Seven men have been convicted of murdering a Lebanese law student in Britain after she was shot in a drive-by shooting amid a dispute between rival tyre firms.

Aya Hachem, 19, was shot dead from a car in Blackburn, northern England, on May 17 last year while walking to collect groceries. 

The court heard that she was “in the wrong place at the wrong time” when Feroz Suleman, 40, was orchestrating an attempt to assassinate a rival businessman.

Law student Aya Hachem, 19, was hit by a bullet fired from a vehicle near her home in May 2020 in Blackburn, a town in northern England. (Lancashire Police)

Suleman was captured on CCTV cameras loitering outside RI Tyres to watch the shooting of Pachah Khan, who headed the neighboring Quickshine Tyres business.

Anthony Ennis, 31, drove past Khan’s premises three times with 33-year-old gunman Zamir Raja.

Their Toyota passed Quickshine Tyres for a fourth time at 3 p.m. when Raja opened fire at Khan, missing his first shot — which struck the window behind him — before firing a second round that hit Hachem.

The jury at Preston Crown Court found Suleman guilty of her murder and of the attempted murder of Khan. 

Raja and Ennis were also convicted of murder and attempted murder, alongside their accomplices Kashif Manzoor, 26, Ayaz Hussain, 35, Abubakr Satia, 32, and his brother Uthman Satia, 29.

The jury found 26-year-old Judy Chapman, Uthman’s girlfriend, guilty of manslaughter, but not guilty of Khan’s attempted murder.

 

Hachem had recently finished her second-year law exams at the University of Salford when she was murdered. She had planned to train as a barrister after completing her studies.

Her father Ismail emigrated to Britain 10 years ago. Hachem was one of four children, and was described by her parents as “the most loyal, devoted daughter.”

Her older brother Ibrahim said her death felt like “a piece of your soul that got taken away” as he heard of the court’s decisions. 

“After nearly a year and a half, they’ve got what they deserve,” he said. “They can’t hurt anyone any more. But my sister isn’t coming back. Words can’t describe the pain we’ve had to go through.”

A statement from the family welcoming the verdict said: “To our dear beautiful angel in heaven, we know you are in a better and more beautiful place.”

Hachem’s murderers will be sentenced on Thursday. Chapman is expected to be sentenced in October.


WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots

WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots
Updated 04 August 2021

WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots

WHO calls for moratorium on Covid vaccine booster shots
  • WHO chief called on countries and companies controlling the supply of doses to change gear and ensure more vaccines to less wealthy states.
  • More than 4.25 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have now been administered globally

GENEVA: The WHO on Wednesday called for a moratorium on Covid-19 vaccine booster shots until at least the end of September to address the drastic inequity in dose distribution between rich and poor nations.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the countries and companies controlling the supply of doses to change gear and ensure more vaccines to less wealthy states.
“I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” Tedros told a press conference.
“We need an urgent reversal, from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries, to the majority going to low-income countries.”
More than 4.25 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have now been administered globally, according to an AFP count.
In countries categorized as high income by the World Bank, 101 doses per 100 people have been injected — with the 100 doses mark having been surpassed this week.
That figure drops to 1.7 doses per 100 people in the 29 lowest-income countries.
“Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September, to enable at least 10 percent of the population of every country to be vaccinated,” said Tedros.
“To make that happen, we need everyone’s cooperation, especially the handful of countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines.”
Tedros said the G20 group of nations had a vital leadership role to play because those countries are the biggest producers, consumers and donors of Covid-19 jabs.
“It’s no understatement to say that the course of the Covid-19 pandemic depends on the leadership of the G20,” he said.


Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria
Updated 04 August 2021

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria
  • At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured

BERLIN: German police have detained a Syrian man accused of war crimes for firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a group of civilians in Damascus in 2014, officials said Wednesday.

The suspect, identified only as Mouafak Al D. in line with German privacy laws, was detained in Berlin on Wednesday.

German federal prosecutors said he is suspected of firing an RPG at a group of people lining up for food aid in the Yarmouk district of Damascus, home to a large population of Palestinian refugees.

At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured, including a 6-year-old child.

The suspect is alleged to have been a member of the Free Palestine Movement, and previously of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. Between July 2013 and April 2015 the groups exerted control of the Yarmouk refugee camp on behalf of the Syrian government.

Prosecutors said that in addition to war crimes, the suspect faces being charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of serious bodily harm.

A federal judge is expected to determine Wednesday whether the man shall remain under arrest for the duration of the pre-trial investigation.