WHO unveils new team to investigate pandemic

WHO unveils new team to investigate pandemic
Security personnel keep watch outside Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China in February. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 October 2021

WHO unveils new team to investigate pandemic

WHO unveils new team to investigate pandemic
  • The group of 26 experts will be charged with producing a new global framework for studies into the origins of emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential
  • WHO announced earlier this year that it would set up a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens

GENEVA: The World Health Organization unveiled Wednesday a team of scientists it wants to investigate new pathogens and preventing future pandemics — plus reviving the stalled probe into Covid-19’s origins.
The group of 26 experts will be charged with producing a new global framework for studies into the origins of emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential — and their remit includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease.
Besides the Covid-19 crisis, a growing number of high-risk pathogens have appeared or reappeared in recent years, including MERS, bird flu viruses, Lassa, Marburg and Ebola.
The WHO announced earlier this year that it would set up a Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO).
“The emergence of new viruses with the potential to spark epidemics and pandemics is a fact of nature, and while SARS-CoV-2 is the latest such virus, it will not be the last,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Understanding where new pathogens come from is essential for preventing future outbreaks.”
The 26 members that the WHO has put forward were chosen from a field of more than 700 applications and are drawn from a range of scientific disciplines.
And the team the WHO has named is subject to a two-week public consultation.
They include Christian Drosten, the head of Berlin’s Institute of Virology; Yungui Yang of the Beijing Institute of Genomics; Jean-Claude Manuguerra of France’s Institut Pasteur; and Inger Damon from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several of the experts were on the joint WHO-China scientific mission investigating the origins of Covid-19: Vladimir Dedkov, Farag Elmoubasher, Thea Fischer, Marion Koopmans, Hung Nguyen and John Watson.
The terms of reference say the group must give the WHO an independent evaluation of all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of Covid-19.
It must also advise the UN health agency on developing, monitoring and supporting the next series of studies into the origins of the virus. That could include “rapid advice” on the WHO’s operational plans to implement the next series of studies into the pandemic’s origins, and advice on additional studies.
The pandemic has killed more than 4.85 million people and battered the global economy since the virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.
After much delay, a WHO team of international experts went to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first phase report, written in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts.
Their March report drew no firm conclusions, but ranked four hypotheses.
Most probable was that the virus jumped from bats to humans via an intermediate animal, it said. It judged a leak from the Wuhan virology laboratories was “extremely unlikely.”
However, the investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more deeply.
In August, China rejected the WHO’s calls for a renewed probe on the ground into the origins of Covid-19.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said SAGO would urgently assess what was now known, what still remained unknown, and what rapidly needed to be done.
“I anticipate that the SAGO... will recommend further studies in China and potentially elsewhere,” she told journalists.
“There’s no time to waste in this.”
Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said it may be the “last chance to understand the origins of this virus” in a collegiate manner.
Earlier Wednesday, Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the UN correspondents’ association that SAGO’s work should not be “politicized.”
“If we are going to send teams to any other places, I believe it’s not to China because we have received international teams twice already,” he said.
“It’s time to send teams to other places.”


Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities
Updated 17 min 45 sec ago

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities

Japan’s Kishida says virus measures, defense top priorities
  • North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast

TOKYO: Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday said fighting the pandemic was a “top priority” in his speech opening this year’s parliamentary session, as the Tokyo region was hit by surging infections.
Kishida also named stepping up defense measures against rising regional threats as a priority, hours after North Korea test-fired two possible ballistic missiles — its fourth this year.
“I will devote my body and soul to win this fight against the coronavirus,” Kishida said in his speech before the lower house, which marked the start of its new 150-day session. He called on people to help each other to overcome “the national crisis” of the pandemic.
The Japanese capital reported 4,172 new cases on Sunday, raising the hospital bed occupancy rate to 19.3 percent. Tokyo authorities have said that when that rate breaches 20 percent, they will request the government place the area under pre-emergency status and move toward restrictions like working from home and shorter hours for eateries.
Kishida reiterated his plans to keep Japan’s stringent border controls in place, banning most foreign entrants until the end of February, while the country tries to speed up booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines and reinforce medical systems to support an increasing number of patients being treated at home.
The highly transmissible omicron variant has driven infections higher and started to paralyze medical and public services in some areas, as more people are forced to self-isolate. Japan last week trimmed the 14-day quarantine period to 10 days.
Kishida urged companies to promote remote work, and called on schools to use online classes flexibly. Booster shots only started last month with medical workers and so far less than 1 percent of the population has had their third jab.
Japan recently cut the wait between a second and third shot for elderly people to six months from eight. In part because of a shortage of imported vaccines, most younger Japanese are not expected to get their turn until March.
In his parliamentary speech, Kishida also addressed what he said was an “increasingly severe and complex” regional situation. “I’m determined to protect the people’s lives and daily life,” the premier vowed.
North Korea’s repeated and escalating test-firing of ballistic missiles “are absolutely not permissible and we should not overlook its significant progress of missile technology,” Kishida added.
North Korea on Monday fired two possible ballistic missiles, which Japanese officials said landed off the North’s eastern coast.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, along with China’s rapid military buildup, have already prompted Kishida’s government to raise Japan’s military budget.
Kishida repeated his plans to review Japan’s defense policy, and consider the development of a controversial pre-emptive strike capability, to “drastically strengthen defense power”.
Kishida is set to hold an online summit with Pesident Joe Biden on Jan. 21 as the two leaders seek to further strengthen bilateral ties, Tokyo and Washington announced Monday.
Kishida called the US alliance “the lynchpin of Japan’s diplomatic and security policies.”
Kishida, who is from the city of Hiroshima that the US attacked with an atomic bomb in World War Two, also said he sought “a world without nuclear weapons” and plans to launch a conference with former and serving world leaders on phasing out nuclear weapons. He said he hoped the initiative would have its first meeting in his hometown this year.
Kishida pledged to promote energy reforms to meet the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. He said he supported the use of “innovative” nuclear energy, nuclear fusion technology as well as renewables to meet this goal.


Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads
Updated 17 January 2022

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads

Chinese cities on high COVID-19 alert as Lunar New Year travel season starts; omicron spreads
  • China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections
  • Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday

BEIJING: Several Chinese cities went on high COVID-19 alert as the Lunar New Year holiday travel season started on Monday, requiring travelers to report their trips days before their arrival, as the omicron variant reached more areas including Beijing.
Authorities have warned the highly contagious omicron adds to the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as hundreds of millions of people travel around China for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1.
Cities such as Luoyang in central China and Jieyang in the south said on Sunday travelers need to report to communities, employers or hotels their trips three days ahead of arrival.
The southwestern city of Yulin said on Saturday those who want to enter should fill in an online form, including their health credentials and trip details, one day in advance.
Over the weekend, the capital Beijing and the southern technology hub Shenzhen each detected one domestically transmitted omicron case.
The possibility that the omicron case in Beijing was infected through imported goods can’t be ruled out, Pang Xinghuo, an official at the city’s disease control authority, said on Monday.
Li Ang, vice director at the Beijing Municipal Health Commission, said a local hospital had admitted nine omicron infections, with six still being treated. He did not say when the infections arrived or why they hadn’t been disclosed earlier.
The city of Meizhou in Guangdong province found one omicron infection linked to an outbreak in Zhuhai, state television said on Monday.
So far, at least five provinces and municipalities reported local omicron infections, while 14 provincial areas found the variant among travelers arriving from overseas.
China is yet to show any solid sign of shifting its guideline of quickly containing any local infections, despite a high vaccination rate of 86.6 percent. The strategy has taken on extra urgency in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, to be staged in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province starting Feb. 4.
Many local governments have already advised residents not to leave town unnecessarily trips during the holiday, while dozens of international and domestic flights have been suspended.
China’s aviation regulator said on Monday it would suspend two flights from the United States over COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of canceled flights this year from the country, where omicron is spreading, to 76.
China reported 163 locally transmitted infections with confirmed symptom for Sunday, official data showed on Monday, up from 65 a day earlier.
Sunday’s increase in infections was mainly driven by more cases in the cities of Tianjin and Anyang, where omicron has been found in local clusters.
Tianjin and Anyang reported slightly more than 600 local symptomatic infections from the current outbreaks, smaller than many clusters overseas, but authorities there still have limited movement within the cities and trips to outside.


Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 January 2022

Australia, New Zealand step up efforts to aid tsunami-hit Tonga

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga as yet but communications are still limited and outlying costal areas remain cut off

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: New Zealand and Australia were able to send military surveillance flights to Tonga on Monday to assess the damage a huge undersea volcanic eruption left in the Pacific island nation.
A towering ash cloud since Saturday’s eruption had prevented earlier flights. New Zealand hopes to send essential supplies, including much-needed drinking water, on a military transport plane later Monday.
Communications with Tonga remained extremely limited. The company that owns the single underwater communications cable that connects the island nation to the rest of the world said it likely was severed in the eruption and repairs could take weeks.
The loss of the cable leaves most Tongans unable to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad. Those that have managed to get messages out described their country as looking like a moonscape as they began cleaning up from the tsunami waves and volcanic ash fall.
Tsunami waves of about 80 centimeters (2.7 feet) crashed into Tonga’s shoreline, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described damage to boats and coastal shops.
No casualties have been reported on Tonga, although there were still concerns about people on some of the smaller islands near the volcano. The tsunami waves crossed the Pacific, drowning two people in Peru and causing minor damage from New Zealand to Santa Cruz, California.
Scientists said they didn’t think the eruption would have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.
Huge volcanic eruptions can sometimes cause temporary global cooling as sulfur dioxide is pumped into the stratosphere. But in the case of the Tonga eruption, initial satellite measurements indicated the amount of sulfur dioxide released would only have a tiny effect of perhaps 0.01 Celsius (0.02 Fahrenheit) global average cooling, said Alan Robock, a professor at Rutgers University.
Satellite images showed the spectacular undersea eruption Saturday evening, with a plume of ash, steam and gas rising like a giant mushroom above the South Pacific waters.
A sonic boom could be heard as far away as Alaska and sent pressure shockwaves around the planet twice, altering atmospheric pressure that may have briefly helped clear out the fog in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service. Large waves were detected as far as the Caribbean due to pressure changes generated by the eruption.
Samiuela Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd. which owns the single cable that connects Tonga to the outside world via Fiji, said the cable appeared to have been severed about 10 to 15 minutes after the eruption. He said the cable lies atop and within coral reef, which can be sharp.
Fonua said a ship would need to pull up the cable to assess the damage and then crews would need to fix it. A single break might take a week to repair, he said, while multiple breaks could take up to three weeks. He added that it was unclear yet when it would be safe for a ship to venture near the undersea volcano to undertake the work.
A second undersea cable that connects the islands within Tonga also appeared to have been severed, Fonua said. However, a local phone network was working, allowing Tongans to call each other. But he said the lingering ash cloud was continuing to make even satellite phone calls abroad difficult.
He said Tonga had been in discussions with New Zealand about getting a second outside communications cable to ensure a more robust network but the nation’s isolated location made any solution difficult.
Ardern said the capital, Nuku’alofa, was covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, contaminating water supplies and making fresh water a vital need.
Aid agencies said thick ash and smoke had prompted authorities to ask people to wear masks and drink bottled water.
In a video posted on Facebook, Nightingale Filihia was sheltering at her family’s home from a rain of volcanic ash and tiny pieces of rock that turned the sky pitch black.
“It’s really bad. They told us to stay indoors and cover our doors and windows because it’s dangerous,” she said. “I felt sorry for the people. Everyone just froze when the explosion happened. We rushed home.” Outside the house, people were seen carrying umbrellas for protection.
Ardern said New Zealand was unable to send a surveillance flight over Tonga on Sunday because the ash cloud was 63,000 feet (19,000 meters) high.
One complicating factor to any international aid effort is that Tonga has so far managed to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Ardern said New Zealand’s military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.
Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator for the National Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska, said it was very unusual for a volcanic eruption to affect an entire ocean basin, and the spectacle was both “humbling and scary.”
The US Geological Survey estimated the eruption caused the equivalent of a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. Scientists said tsunamis generated by volcanoes rather than earthquakes are relatively rare.
Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who chairs the New Zealand Tonga Business Council, said she hoped the relatively low level of the tsunami waves would have allowed most people to get to safety, although she worried about those living on islands closest to the volcano. She said she hadn’t yet been able to contact her friends and family in Tonga.
“We are praying that the damage is just to infrastructure and people were able to get to higher land,” she said.
Tonga gets its Internet via an undersea cable from Suva, Fiji. All Internet connectivity with Tonga was lost at about 6:40 p.m. local time Saturday, said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for the network intelligence firm Kentik.
On Tonga, which is home to about 105,000 people, video posted to social media showed large waves washing ashore in coastal areas and swirling around homes, a church and other buildings. A Twitter user identified as Dr. Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau posted video showing waves crashing ashore.
“Can literally hear the volcano eruption, sounds pretty violent,” he wrote, adding in a later post: “Raining ash and tiny pebbles, darkness blanketing the sky.”
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Nuku’alofa, was the latest in a series of dramatic eruptions. In late 2014 and early 2015, eruptions created a small new island and disrupted international air travel to the Pacific archipelago for several days.
Earth imaging company Planet Labs PBC had watched the island in recent days after a new volcanic vent began erupting in late December. Satellite images showed how drastically the volcano had shaped the area, creating a growing island off Tonga.
“The surface area of the island appears to have expanded by nearly 45 percent due to ashfall,” Planet Labs said days before the latest activity.
It’s too early to tell how much ash was produced by the eruption because the volcanic cloud included vapor resulting from sea water interacting with the hot magma, experts said.
The eruption in shallow water may be similar to a series of eruptions between 2016 and 2017 that shaped Bogoslof Island north of the Aleutian Islands, said Michelle Coombs, a scientist at the US Geological Survey’s Alaska Volcano Observatory.
“When it erupts in shallow sea water, that interaction between hot magma and sea water adds extra energy to the explosion and creates taller and bigger ash clouds,” Coombs said.
The ash cloud was drifting westward and aircrafts will be likely diverted around its periphery as a precaution, said Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
 


Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election

Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election
Updated 17 January 2022

Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election

Philippine election body dismisses one of several petitions to bar Marcos from election

MANILA: The Philippines poll commission on Monday threw out a petition seeking to bar the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from running in this year’s presidential election.
The Commission on Election’s (Comelec) second division dismissed the complaint seeking to cancel Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s candidacy papers, the lawyers in the petition said.
The case is just one of several filed with the election commission seeking to disqualify the late dictator’s son from running in this year’s election.


After Biden’s first year, the virus and disunity rage on

Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2022

After Biden’s first year, the virus and disunity rage on

Jordane Domain gets a COVID-19 test done by a healthcare worker on January 13, 2022 in North Miami, Florida. (AFP)
  • The Trump-era political muzzle came off public-health authorities, freeing them to confuse the public all on their own

WASHINGTON: From the inaugural platform, President Joe Biden saw American sickness on two fronts — a disease of the national spirit and the one from the rampaging coronavirus — and he saw hope, because leaders always must see that.
“End this uncivil war,” he implored Americans on Jan. 20, 2021. Of the pathogen, he said: “We can overcome this deadly virus.”
Neither malady has abated.
For Biden, it’s been a year of lofty ambitions grounded by the unrelenting pandemic, a tough hand in Congress, a harrowing end to a foreign war and rising fears for the future of democracy itself. Biden did score a public-works achievement for the ages. But America’s cracks go deeper than pavement.
In this midterm election year, Biden confronts seething divisions and a Republican Party that propagates the delusion that the 2020 election, validated as fair many times over, was stolen from Donald Trump. That central, mass lie of a rigged vote has become a pretext in state after state for changing election rules and fueling even further disunity and grievance.
In the dispiriting close of Biden’s first year, roadblocks stood in the way of all big things pending.
The Supreme Court blocked his vaccinate-or-test mandate for most large employers. Monthly payments to families that had slashed child poverty ran out Friday, with no assurance they will be renewed. Biden’s historic initiative to shore up the social safety net wallowed in Congress. And people under 40 have never seen inflation like this.
After his lacerating speech in Atlanta invoking the darkest days of segregation, he saw his voting-rights legislation run aground when Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona announced her opposition to changing Senate rules to allow the bill to pass by a simple majority.
Altering the rules would only “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said.
For all of that, Barack Obama was on to something when he paid his old vice president an odd compliment late in the 2020 campaign. Elect Joe Biden, he said, and after four years of flamboyant Trump dramas, folks could feel safe ignoring their president and vice president for a spell.
“You’re not going to have to think about them every single day,” Obama said. “It just won’t be so exhausting. You’ll be able to go about your lives.”
Indeed America saw normalcy, some say dignity, return to the White House. Pets came back and so did daily press briefings for the public.
The Trump-era political muzzle came off public-health authorities, freeing them to confuse the public all on their own.
First lady Jill Biden’s studded “Love” jacket at a global summit not-so-subtly countered the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket her predecessor wore in a visit to a migrant child detention center.
The discipline, drive and baseline competence from the new White House produced notable results. Biden won a bipartisan infrastructure package that had eluded his two predecessors, coming away with a legacy-shaping fix for the rickety pillars of industry and society.
Biden steered more judges through Congress to the federal bench than any recent predecessor. He won approval of a Cabinet that was half women and a minority of white people for the first time. More than 6 million people are back at work and half a billion COVID-19 vaccines have been put in arms, but the nation has a long way to go to return to its pre-pandemic state.
“I think it’s a lot of achievements, a lot of accomplishment, in the face of some very serious obstacles,” Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, told The Associated Press on the cusp of Biden’s second year. “The Biden presidency remains a work in progress.”
Matthew Delmont, a civil rights historian at Dartmouth, expected more from Biden by virtue of his decades of experience as a savvy operator in the capital.
He had anticipated a far more effective COVID-19 response and more urgency, sooner, in countering the rollback of voting rights and tilting of election rules that Republicans are attempting.
“There’s something to be said for the professionalism of the White House and not going from one fire to the next,” Delmont said. “What I worry is that the Washington he understands isn’t the Washington we have anymore.”
Political science professor Cal Jillson at Southern Methodist University in Dallas said Biden has displayed “warning track power” — the ability in baseball to hit long but not, as yet, over the fence.
In Biden, Jillson sees a leader who brought the even keel that Obama had talked about but also one who only rarely delivers a speech worth remembering.
“While there are vast partisan differences in how Biden is seen, in general he is seen as stable but not forceful,” he said.
In large measure, Biden’s innate civility and predictability brought the sort of climate change that the world could get behind.
Here once more was a president who believed deeply in alliances and vowed to repair an American reputation frayed by the provocateur in office before him.
There would be no more puzzling feelers about buying Greenland. No more doting looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin — instead, Biden stepped up diplomatic confrontation over Putin’s designs on Ukraine. There would be no eerie uplit gatherings around glowing orbs with rulers of dissent-crushing Arab countries like Trump’s photo op with the Saudis.
But the world also witnessed Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan, a chaotic withdrawal that brought more than 124,000 to safety but stranded thousands of desperate Afghans who had been loyal to the US and hundreds of US citizens and green-card holders.
Discounting warnings from military and diplomatic advisers, Biden misjudged the Taliban’s tenacity and the staying power of Afghan security forces that had seen crucial US military support vanish. He then blamed Afghans for all that went wrong. Millions of Afghans face the threat of famine in the first winter following the Taliban takeover.
All presidents enter the world’s most powerful office buoyed by their victory only to confront its limitations in time. For Biden, that happened sooner than for most. A polarized public, Trump’s impeachment trial and an evenly divided Senate saw to that.
Meantime, day after day, event after event, it was the virus that commanded Biden’s attention. “That challenge casts a shadow over everything we do,” Klain said. “I think we’ve made historic progress there but it’s still a challenge.”