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.”


Trump targets disloyal Republicans, repeats election lies and hints at 2024 run

Trump targets disloyal Republicans, repeats election lies and hints at 2024 run
Updated 52 min 22 sec ago

Trump targets disloyal Republicans, repeats election lies and hints at 2024 run

Trump targets disloyal Republicans, repeats election lies and hints at 2024 run
  • The volatile former president made his pronouncements during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida
  • Aside from attacking President Joe Biden's policies, Trump rallied Republicans to get rid of "disloyal" members

WASHINGTON: Former President Donald Trump hinted on Sunday at a possible presidential run in 2024, attacked President Joe Biden and repeated his fraudulent claims he won the 2020 election in his first major appearance since leaving the White House nearly six weeks ago.
Addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, Trump vowed to help Republicans try to regain majorities — lost during his presidency — in the US House of Representatives and Senate in 2022 congressional elections and dangled himself as a possibility for president in 2024.
“With your help, we will take back the House, we will win the Senate and then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. I wonder who will that be?” he said, smiling. “Who, who, who will that be, I wonder.”
Trump’s weeks away from Washington do not appear to have dimmed his anger at Republicans who voted to impeach or convict in a failed congressional effort to hold him responsible for inciting a deadly attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6.
He singled out several such Republicans by name, like Senators Mitt Romney and Pat Toomey and House lawmakers Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and suggested he would support candidates who opposed them in Republican primaries.
“Get rid of ‘em all,” he thundered.
Trump repeated lies he has told about his Nov. 3 presidential election loss to Biden, and offered a withering critique of his Democratic successor’s first weeks in office. “They just lost the White House,” the Republican former president said after criticizing Biden’s handling of border security. “But who knows, who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time.”
Trump and his allies spent two months denying his election defeat, and claiming without evidence it was the result of widespread voter fraud, before his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 seeking to disrupt congressional certification of Biden’s win.
A civil war has erupted within the Republican Party, with establishment figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell eager to put Trump in the rearview mirror, and others, like Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, believing the party’s future depends on the energy of the pro-Trump base.
Trump declared the Republican Party united behind him, with opposition coming only from “a handful of Washington, D.C., political hacks.” When he mentioned McConnell’s name, the crowd booed.

No plans for third party
He said he had no plans to try to launch a third party, an idea he has discussed with advisers in the past couple of months.
“We’re not starting new parties. We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be united and be stronger than ever before. I am not starting a new party,” he said.
In a straw poll, 55% of CPAC conference participants said they would vote for Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential nominating race. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis came in second at 21%.
Without Trump, DeSantis led the field with 43%, and other potential Republican candidates had single digits.
But not everyone supported Trump. A separate question on the poll asked whether Trump should run again in 2024, with 68% saying he should and 32% opposed or having no opinion.
Still, Trump fervor at the four-day CPAC event was so strong that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., declared it “T-PAC” and participants rolled out a golden statue of the former president.
Trump’s flirtation with another run could freeze the Republican field for 2024 as other potential candidates try to decide whether they will have to compete against him. Many of those 2024 possible candidates spoke during the CPAC event.
The Biden White House dismissed Trump’s speech.
“While the GOP casts about for a path forward, President Biden is going to remain laser-focused on crushing the virus, re-opening schools, and getting Americans back to work,” White House spokesman Michael Gwin said after the speech.
An hour into his 90-minute speech, Trump dove deeply into his unfounded claims of election fraud, going against the advice of confidants who believe he needs to look to the future.
“We have a very sick and corrupt electoral process that has to be fixed immediately. This election was rigged,” Trump said. “And the Supreme Court and other courts didn’t want to do anything about it.”
“You won! You won!” the crowd shouted. Trump’s campaign and his supporters brought dozens of failed lawsuits trying to overturn the results of the election, which Biden won by more than 7 million votes. The fraud claims were repeatedly rejected by state and federal officials.
In the short term, Trump is making plans to set up a super PAC political organization to support candidates who mirror his policies, an adviser said.
He sought to position himself as the lead critic of the new president, including on immigration and security along the US border with Mexico, and the slow reopening of schools closed due to the pandemic.
“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump said.
Recent Gallup polls have given Biden a job approval rating well past 50%. Trump never achieved above 49%.


On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal
Updated 28 February 2021

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal
  • Any move to replace historic accord is ‘doomed to fail,’ militant group warns
  • Demands follow rumors Biden administration looking to ‘review’ deal

KABUL: The Taliban on Sunday demanded that the US complete its troop withdrawal process from Afghanistan by May 1, in line with a historic agreement signed between the two sides in Doha last year

The militant group warned that any move to replace the deal was “doomed to fail.”

“The Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s former government) is committed on its part to all contents of the agreement and views its implementation as the sole effective tool for resolving the Afghan issue and establishing peace, that shall be realized under the shade of an Islamic system,” it said in a statement.

The demands were issued on the anniversary of the controversial deal that followed almost a year and half of secret talks between the Taliban and US delegates. The insurgent group has said that its fighters had not attacked foreign troops and major Afghan cities since signing the agreement.

“The Islamic Emirate also calls on the other party to the agreement to honor its own commitments towards security and stability in Afghanistan by implementing all parts of the agreement,” the group said.

The Taliban further termed the Doha deal as a “historic accord,” and one that had “created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.”

It added: “If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to fail.”

The Taliban’s statement follows repeated comments by officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration that Washington will review the deal signed under former President Donald Trump’s watch.

In addition, NATO delivered a recent announcement saying that it would withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan “when the time was right,” suggesting that the Taliban had not abided by the accord.

Besides US and NATO officials, the Afghan government has also insisted that the Taliban have not severed their relationship with Al-Qaeda, nor reduced violence — two critical components of the Doha deal — allegations that the Taliban have vehemently denied.

While the militant group pushed for the total departure of all foreign troops and overseas contractors by May 1, 2021, the Doha deal also served as a catalyst for the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government to begin intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar by March 10 last year.

The talks finally began six months later, amid an intensification of violence that both Kabul and the Taliban have blamed on one another.

The crucial negotiations have faced several setbacks — the latest being a plan by Washington to review the deal.

Rahmatuallah Andar, a spokesman for the office of Ghani’s national security advisor, said that the Doha talks had failed to meet expectations.

“Afghans have not gained the expectations they had from Doha deal for peace and security. This agreement so far only has ensured the Taliban’s cease-fire with the US,” he told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban’s relationship with Afghans was “still confined to killing, terror and horror.”

Andar said: “So far, there is no hope for Afghans in this deal. Even the intra-Afghan talks have been stopped because of the Taliban. If seen from the perspective of Afghanistan, the time has been wasted in the hope of peace, while heavy material and heavy casualties have been inflicted on Afghans.”

Taliban representatives were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Sunday.

However, despite the government blaming the Taliban for a surge in violence and failing to pursue negotiations, Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed High Council of Peace, said that officials are “still hopeful for the peace process.”

He said: “A year on since the Doha deal, we are still hopeful that the opportunity created for peace is not wasted, and that the war ends in Afghanistan and talks are pursued earnestly, so that a political compromise acceptable to all is created.”

On the other hand, Afghan, US and NATO officials have warned that any resumption of serious intra-Afghan talks will require foreign troops to remain in the country until the Taliban end their violent attacks.

The UN said last week that 3,035 Afghan civilians had been killed in 2020 due to a surge in violence since the signing of the Doha deal a year ago — a 15 percent spike from the previous year.

“Since the Doha deal, more than 350,000 Afghans have been internally displaced by the violence,” Abdul Basit Ansari, an advisor for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, with the fate of the Doha deal in limbo, some fear an imminent escalation of violence in Afghanistan.

“The US may want to extend the presence of the troops, and the Taliban may oppose it altogether. This will mean fighting and a serious drop in the trust both sides have built in recent years, with so much difficulty,” Taj Mohammad, an Afghan analyst and former journalist, told Arab News.

Tameem Bahiss, an analyst and expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, agreed, adding that while the US and Taliban have blamed each other for breaching the Doha deal, neither side has come forward to nullify the agreement.

“The Biden administration is ‘reviewing’ the Doha agreement. In the meantime, experts are calling for an extension to the May 1 deadline,” he said.

“It seems very unlikely that the Taliban will agree to an extension. If Biden unilaterally decides to stay past the deadline, this could propel the Taliban to walk away from the negotiation table and pursue power through violent means.”

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Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs
Updated 28 February 2021

Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs
  • President Duterte urges public to get vaccinated during nationwide campaign

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte has urged Filipinos to get vaccinated during a nationwide campaign after the country received its first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines on Sunday.

The president, along with his Cabinet members, welcomed the delivery of the 600,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, delivered by a Chinese military aircraft, at the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) Villamor Airbase in Pasay City.

Philippine officials said that with the arrival of the vaccines, the government would formally roll out its inoculation program on Monday to vaccinate two-thirds of the population, or 50 to 70 million Filipinos, by the end of the year.

During a televised ceremony, Duterte urged Filipinos to “set aside their fears” as he vouched for the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.

“These vaccines are backed by science and (were) deliberated on by our Filipino experts. I encourage you to get vaccinated at the soonest possible time, and be our partner in preventing the further spread of this disease,” he said.

The president’s reaffirmation follows reports that many Filipinos, including health workers, lacked confidence in the Chinese vaccine based on data from its late-stage trials, which showed that Sinovac had a lower efficacy than other jabs.

According to the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the vaccine is recommended only to healthy individuals aged 18 to 59 years old, but not senior citizens and medical front-liners.

The FDA said local clinical trial data showed that the vaccine had an efficacy rate of 65.3 to 91.2 percent when used on clinically healthy individuals aged 18 to 59, but only 50.4 percent on health workers.

The Department of Health (DOH) and the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group have nevertheless recommended the Sinovac vaccine for health workers.

Duterte called on those being inoculated to continue practising health and safety protocols as the country awaits the final approvals for more vaccines.

“Remember to wear masks, wash hands and observe social distancing. Your cooperation here is key and will undoubtedly save numerous lives along the way,” Duterte said, adding: “With the entire nation’s support, I am confident that we will claim victory over this pandemic.”

The president described the arrival of the Sinovac jabs as another step forward in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, as he thanked China and its people for “the gesture” of friendship and solidarity.

“I said it before, and I will say it again: COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as a global public good and made available to all, rich and poor alike. No nation — no people — should be left to suffer the ravages of this pandemic for whatever reason," he said, adding that the government had welcomed the delivery of the vaccines with “high hopes of finally ending the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

“The delivery of this first batch, I hope, will serve as a guarantee to everyone that we are taking a big step in our efforts to overcome this health crisis ... we cannot afford to waste time or resources in the distribution of these vaccines because we are dealing with precious lives,” Duterte said.

He expressed his gratitude to Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and said he intended to “make a short visit to China just to shake hands with President Xi Jinping and personally thank him for the donation.”

Meanwhile, another batch of vaccines comprising 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization was also due to arrive on Monday.

According to the DOH, as of Sunday, the Philippines had reported more than 576,000 infections, including 12,318 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.


UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
Updated 28 February 2021

UN Human Rights Office says 18 dead in Myanmar crackdown

A wounded protester is carried during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (AP)
  • Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force
  • A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar

YANGON: The UN Human Rights Office says it has received “credible information” that a crackdown Sunday on anti-coup protesters in Myanmar has left at least 18 people dead and over 30 wounded.
“Deaths reportedly occurred as a result of live ammunition fired into crowds in Yangon, Dawei, Mandalay, Myeik, Bago and Pokokku,” it said in a statement, referring to several cities in Myanmar. “Tear gas was also reportedly used in various locations as well as flash-bang and stun grenades.”
“We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters,” its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani was quoted saying.
It would be the highest single-day death toll among protesters who are demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power after being ousted by a Feb. 1 coup.
Security forces in Myanmar made mass arrests and used lethal force on Sunday as they intensified their efforts to break up protests a month after the military staged a coup. At least four people were reportedly killed.
There were reports of gunfire as police in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, fired tear gas and water cannons while trying to clear the streets of demonstrators demanding that the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi be restored to power. Photos of shell casings from live ammunition used in assault rifles were posted on social media.
Reports on social media identified by name one young man believed to have been killed in Yangon. His body was shown in photos and videos lying on a sidewalk until other protesters were able to carry him away.
A violent crackdown also occurred in Dawei, a much smaller city in southeastern Myanmar, where local media reported that at least three people were killed during a protest march. The fatalities could not immediately be independently confirmed, though photos posted on social media showed a wounded man in the care of medical personnel, and later laid out in a bed under a blanket with flowers placed on top.
Confirming reports of protesters’ deaths has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources.
Prior to Sunday, there had been eight confirmed reports of killings linked to the army’s takeover, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners.
The Feb. 1 coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but the army blocked Parliament from convening and detained her and President Win Myint, as well as other top members of Suu Kyi’s government.
Sunday’s violence erupted in the early morning when medical students were marching in Yangon’s streets near the Hledan Center intersection, which has become the gathering point for protesters who then fan out to other parts of the city.
Videos and photos showed protesters running away as police charged at them, and residents setting up makeshift roadblocks to slow their advance. Some protesters managed to throw tear gas cannisters back at police. Nearby, residents were pleading with police to release those they picked up from the street and shoved into police trucks to be taken away. Dozens or more were believed to have been detained.
Demonstrators regrouped later Sunday and security forces continued to chase them in several neighborhoods.
There was no immediate word on Yangon casualties. Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the streets and there were what appeared to be smoke grenades thrown into the crowds.
“The Myanmar security forces’ clear escalation in use of lethal force in multiple towns and cities across the country in response to mostly peaceful anti-coup protesters is outrageous and unacceptable, and must be immediately halted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests and lethal force can only be used to protect life or prevent serious injury.”
“The world is watching the actions of the Myanmar military junta, and will hold them accountable,” he said.
On Saturday, security forces began employing rougher tactics, taking preemptive actions to break up protests and making scores, if not hundreds, of arrests. Greater numbers of soldiers have also joined police. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, as of Saturday, 854 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in relation to the coup, and 771 were being detained or sought for arrest. The group said that while it had documented 75 new arrests, it understood that hundreds of other people were also picked up Saturday in Yangon and elsewhere.
MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, broadcast an announcement Saturday night from the Foreign Ministry that the country’s ambassador to the United Nations had been fired because he had abused his power and misbehaved by failing to follow the instructions of the government and “betraying” it.
Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had declared in an emotional speech Friday at the UN General Assembly in New York that he represented Suu Kyi’s “civilian government elected by the people” and supported the struggle against military rule.
He urged all countries to issue public statements strongly condemning the coup, and to refuse to recognize the military regime. He also called for stronger international measures to stop violence by security forces against peaceful demonstrators.


UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy
Updated 28 February 2021

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

LONDON: British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the idea of giving people vaccine passports or certificates to allow them to enter venues or events might be a way to help the country and its economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events,” Sunak told BBC television on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the government would hold a review to consider the scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical questions about using vaccine certificates for people who have received a coronavirus shot, which could help entertainment and hospitality venues reopen.