China says WHO plan to audit labs in Covid origins probe ‘arrogant’

China says WHO plan to audit labs in Covid origins probe ‘arrogant’
The UN health agency has been under intensifying pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation. (AP)
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Updated 22 July 2021

China says WHO plan to audit labs in Covid origins probe ‘arrogant’

China says WHO plan to audit labs in Covid origins probe ‘arrogant’
  • China has in recent days faced accusations from the WHO that it had not shared the necessary raw data

BEIJING: China on Thursday said a WHO proposal to audit Chinese labs as part of further investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic showed “disrespect” and “arrogance toward science.”
Last week, the World Health Organization said a second stage of the international probe should include audits of Chinese labs, amid increasing pressure from the United States for an investigation into a biotech lab in Wuhan.
The proposal outlined by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus included “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019” — referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan.
But China’s vice health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters Thursday that he was “extremely surprised” by the plan, which he said showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance toward science.”
Long derided as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab leak has been gaining momentum.
Beijing has repeatedly insisted that a leak would have been “extremely unlikely,” citing the conclusion reached by a joint WHO-Chinese mission to Wuhan in January.
At the same time, Chinese officials and state media have pushed an alternate theory that the virus could have escaped from the US military research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Nationalist tabloid Global Times said it had collected five million signatures from Chinese web users on a petition to investigate the US lab.
Top officials have also amplified theories that the virus may have been imported with frozen food.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told Thursday’s press conference “no pathogen leakage or staff infection accidents have occurred” since the lab opened in 2018.
Zeng hit back at what he called “rumors” about the lab, insisting that it had “never carried out gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, nor is there a so-called manmade virus.”
His comments were in reference to the type of research that has featured heavily in theories about a possible lab leak.
China has in recent days faced accusations from the WHO that it had not shared the necessary raw data during the first phase of the investigation, with Tedros urging Beijing to “be transparent, to be open and cooperate” on a second phase.
Tedros on Friday also called for more studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan.
The UN health agency has been under intensifying pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation of how the disease that has killed more than four million people around the world first emerged.
The WHO was only able to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January, more than a year after Covid-19 first surfaced there, to help Chinese counterparts probe the pandemic’s origins.
Thursday’s comments come ahead of a weekend trip to China by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to address deteriorating ties between the two countries.
It is the highest-level visit under President Joe Biden and comes amid tensions between the two powers over issues including the pandemic’s origins, human rights and cybersecurity.


Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
Updated 24 sec ago

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors

Thailand seeks to slash quarantine period for visitors
  • Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism
BANGKOK: Thailand’s disease control committee has proposed a halving of a two-week hotel isolation requirement for vaccinated arrivals, amid delays in plans to waive quarantine and reopen Bangkok and tourist destinations from next month.
Thailand is keen to welcome back foreign visitors, after nearly 18 months of strict entry policies caused a collapse in tourism, a key sector that drew 40 million visitors in 2019.
“Reducing the quarantine is not only about tourism, but will help business travel and foreign students,” senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference, adding tests would also be required.
Under the proposal, to be presented to government on Monday, those without vaccination proof would be isolated for 10 days if arriving by air, and 14 days if by land.
Authorities this week delayed to November plans to grant vaccinated visitors entry without quarantine, due to the country’s low inoculation rate.
Only Phuket and Samui islands currently waive quarantine for vaccinated tourists, as part of a pilot scheme.
Less than a quarter of the estimated 72 million people living in Thailand have been fully vaccinated.
The country is still fighting its most severe wave of infections, which has accounted for about 99 percent of its 1.5 million cases and 15,884 deaths.

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
Updated 23 September 2021

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering

Vaccine inequity comes into stark focus during UN gathering
  • Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya

The inequity of COVID-19 vaccine distribution will come into sharper focus Thursday as many of the African countries whose populations have little to no access to the life-saving shots step to the podium to speak at the UN’s annual meeting of world leaders.
Already, the struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic has featured prominently in leaders’ speeches — many of them delivered remotely exactly because of the virus. Country after country acknowledged the wide disparity in accessing the vaccine, painting a picture so bleak that a solution has at times seemed impossibly out of reach.
“Some countries have vaccinated their populations, and are on the path to recovery. For others, the lack of vaccines and weak health systems pose a serious problem,” Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, said in a prerecorded speech Wednesday. “In Africa, fewer than 1 in 20 people are fully vaccinated. In Europe, one in two are fully vaccinated. This inequity is clearly unfair.”
Countries slated to give their signature annual speeches on Thursday include South Africa, Botswana, Angola, Burkina Faso and Libya.
Also among them will be Zimbabwe, where the economic ravages of the pandemic have forced some families to abandon the long-held tradition of taking care of their older people. And Uganda, where a surge in virus cases have made scarce hospital beds even more expensive, leading to concerns over alleged exploitation of patients by private hospitals.
On Wednesday, during a global vaccination summit convened virtually on the sidelines of the General Assembly, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would double its purchase of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots to share with the world to 1 billion doses, with the goal of vaccinating 70 percent of the global population within the next year.
The move comes as world leaders, aid groups and global health organizations have grown increasingly vocal about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between residents of wealthier and poorer nations.
The World Health Organization says only 15 percent of promised donations of vaccines — from rich countries that have access to large quantities of them — have been delivered. The UN health agency has said it wants countries to fulfill their dose-sharing pledges “immediately” and make shots available for programs that benefit poor countries and Africa in particular.
During an anti-racism event on Wednesday commemorating a landmark but contentious conference 20 years ago, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo pointed to the fact that only about 1 in 1,000 people in his country have gotten at least one shot.
The disparity in vaccine availability around the world “clearly does not demonstrate equality between the countries and peoples of this world,” Tshisekedi said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy likewise called out failures in sharing coronavirus vaccines during his speech Wednesday night, his hopes in 2020 of “effective multilateralism and effective international solidarity” dashed a year later, “where one thing is to share objectives and quite another is to share vaccines.”
Also on Thursday, foreign ministers are due to ponder climate change as a security issue when the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, meets in the morning.
Climate change has been a major focus during this week’s General Assembly gathering. World leaders made “faint signs of progress” on the financial end of fighting climate change in a special United Nations feet-to-the-fire meeting Monday, but they didn’t commit to more crucial cuts in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.


Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
Updated 23 September 2021

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government

Norway’s election winners to meet in bid to form majority government
  • Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13

OSLO: Norway’s center-left election winners meet on Thursday for three-way talks to determine whether they can form a majority coalition government, with oil, taxes and EU relations among the sticking points.
Labour, the Socialists and the Center Party won a majority of seats in Norway’s parliament on Sept. 13, beating the ruling Conservative-led government, with a transfer of power likely to take place next month.
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere, who is expected to become Norway’s next prime minister, has during the last week held individual meetings with Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Socialist Left’s Audun Lysbakken.
But Thursday’s gathering at a resort an hour’s drive north of Oslo is believed to be the first time the three will sit down together since the election.
Billed as exploratory talks, the initial phase is set to determine whether detailed negotiations should be opened next week, or if Stoere has to settle for ruling in a minority.
Norway’s status as an oil and gas producer, contributing to climate change, was at the heart of the election campaign, although a transition away from petroleum is likely to be gradual despite progress by pro-environment parties.
Norway’s oil and gas industry pumps around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, accounting for over 40 percent of export revenues, although output is projected to fall from 2030 onwards.
The Socialist Party wants to halt all exploration for new resources, which would hasten the oil industry’s decline, but Labour and Center have rejected this position.
Labour is wary of potential job losses from petroleum’s demise, and champions state-sponsored policies to encourage a transfer of engineering know-how from oil production to renewable energy.
Norway’s incumbent government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, conceded the election on Sept. 13 and will step down as soon as Labour is ready to form a cabinet.


Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29
Updated 23 September 2021

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29

Court case of 47 Hong Kong democracy activists to resume on Nov. 29
  • National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison
  • Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings
HONG KONG: A closely monitored national security case involving 47 Hong Kong democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, most of whom have been in custody for more than six months, will resume on Nov. 29, a judge ruled on Thursday.
Magistrate Peter Law in the Western Kowloon Court ruled more time was needed for pre-trial legal proceedings to be finalized. Hong Kong laws prohibit media from publishing the contents of such proceedings.
The case is then expected to move to the High Court.
National security crimes are punishable by up to life in prison, but only higher courts have the authority to give such long sentences. The West Kowloon Court can only give sentences of up to three years.
The 47, who include opposition politicians, are among more than 100 people who Hong Kong police have arrested under a national security law that Beijing imposed on the former British colony last year that critics say erodes the freedoms promised when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing and the city’s government say the law is necessary to ensure stability, safeguard prosperity and guard against outside interference.
The 47, of whom only 14 have been given bail, were arrested on charges of participating in an unofficial, non-binding and independently organized primary vote last year to select candidates for a since-postponed city election, which authorities say was a “vicious plot” to subvert the government.
Diplomats and rights groups are closely watching the case amid mounting concerns over the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system, which is seen as the foundation on which its financial reputation was built.
Authorities have repeatedly said the judiciary is independent and upholding the rule of law. They have also said prosecutions are independent, based on evidence and had no relation with the background or profession of the suspects.
Bail hearings in March for the 47 went on for four days and dragged late into the night. Several of the defendants became ill and most of their appeals for bail have been denied.
The security law sets a high threshold for defendants seeking bail to demonstrate they would not break the law, a departure from common law practice, which puts the onus on prosecutors to make their case for detention.
Reasons for denying bail included unanswered emails from the US Consulate and WhatsApp messages with foreign journalists, which were taken as proof there was a risk that defendants could endanger national security if released on bail.
The protracted hearings and the reasons for rejecting bail have stunned diplomats and rights groups, who see it as a dramatic display of the Chinese-ruled city’s authoritarian turn.

Search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé in Florida wilderness enters sixth day

Search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé in Florida wilderness enters sixth day
Updated 23 September 2021

Search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé in Florida wilderness enters sixth day

Search for Gabby Petito’s fiancé in Florida wilderness enters sixth day
  • Mystery deepens around a case that has engrossed Americans
  • Many Americans have closely followed the case since Petito as reported missing on September 11

The exhaustive search for slain travel blogger Gabby Petito’s fiancé in a vast Florida wilderness entered a sixth day on Thursday as the mystery deepened around a case that has engrossed Americans.
A team of divers joined police and FBI agents using boats and helicopters looking for Brian Laundrie, 23, in the alligator-infested Carlton Reserve on Wednesday, but a spokesman said at nightfall that they had found “nothing” to show for their efforts.
Authorities have not said why they are convinced Laundrie, whom police call a “person of interest” in the case, may still be somewhere inside the more than 9,700-hectare wilderness preserve near his home in North Port, Florida, more than a week after he told family members he was headed there to hike alone.
North Port police say Laundrie’s parents did not report him missing until Sept. 14, three days after the family last saw him. The Carlton Reserve has more than 128 km of hiking trails but is dominated by swampy water.
Many Americans have closely followed the case since Petito, 22, was reported missing on Sept. 11. Ten days earlier, Laundrie had returned home to North Port without her from a cross-country road trip the couple chronicled in social media posts.
Petito’s body was discovered on Sunday in a remote corner of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming, less than 300m from where, on the evening of Aug. 27, another pair of travel bloggers caught video images of the couple’s white Ford Transit parked on a dirt road.
In identifying her remains, Teton County medical examiners ruled Petito’s death a homicide, but did not make the cause of her death public.
Petito and Laundrie left her home state of New York in July, heading west on what they called a “van life” trip. They posted photos to social media as they traveled through Kansas, Colorado and Utah.
Witnesses last saw Petito on Aug. 24 as she left a Salt Lake City hotel. She posted her final photo the next day.
Petito’s family believes she was headed to Grand Teton National Park when they last heard from her. Her body was found at the edge of that park near the Spread River.
Investigators searched the Laundrie family home in North Port last week and were seen loading cardboard boxes into a van and towing away a silver Ford Mustang.
In seeking search warrants, investigators cited text messages from Petito’s phone to her mother, Nicole Schmidt, that struck Schmidt as suspicious.
The final text from Petito’s phone came on Aug. 30 and read only: “No service in Yosemite,” a national park in California that she and Laundrie are not believed to have visited during their trip.
On Aug. 12, a 911 caller reported to emergency dispatchers that Laundrie was slapping and hitting Petito in front of the Moonflower Community Cooperative in Moab, Utah.
Moab police pulled the couple over in their van on a highway near Arches National Park. Body camera footage of that encounter shows Petito sobbing as she describes a fight between the couple that she said escalated into her slapping Laundrie as he drove the van.
The officers did not detain Petito or Laundrie but told them to spend the night apart.