New studies bolster theory coronavirus emerged from the wild

Residents line up to be tested for COVID-19 in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province on Aug. 3, 2021. (AP)
Residents line up to be tested for COVID-19 in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province on Aug. 3, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 27 July 2022

New studies bolster theory coronavirus emerged from the wild

Residents line up to be tested for COVID-19 in Wuhan, central China's Hubei province on Aug. 3, 2021. (AP)
  • Many scientists believe the virus jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another animal

WASHINGTON: Two new studies provide more evidence that the coronavirus pandemic originated in a Wuhan, China market where live animals were sold – further bolstering the theory that the virus emerged in the wild rather than escaping from a Chinese lab.
The research, published online Tuesday by the journal Science, shows that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was likely the early epicenter of the scourge that has now killed nearly 6.4 million people around the world. Scientists conclude that the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, likely spilled from animals into people two separate times.
“All this evidence tells us the same thing: It points right to this particular market in the middle of Wuhan,” said Kristian Andersen a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research and coauthor of one of the studies. “I was quite convinced of the lab leak myself until we dove into this very carefully and looked at it much closer.”
In one study, which incorporated data collected by Chinese scientists, University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey and his colleagues used mapping tools to estimate the locations of more than 150 of the earliest reported COVID-19 cases from December 2019. They also mapped cases from January and February 2020 using data from a social media app that had created a channel for people with COVID-19 to get help.
They asked, “Of all the locations that the early cases could have lived, where did they live? And it turned out when we were able to look at this, there was this extraordinary pattern where the highest density of cases was both extremely near to and very centered on this market,” Worobey said at a press briefing. “Crucially, this applies both to all cases in December and also to cases with no known link to the market … And this is an indication that the virus started spreading in people who worked at the market but then started to spread into the local community.”
Andersen said they found case clusters inside the market, too, “and that clustering is very, very specifically in the parts of the market” where they now know people were selling wildlife, such as raccoon dogs, that are susceptible to infection with the coronavirus.
In the other study, scientists analyzed the genomic diversity of the virus inside and outside of China starting with the earliest sample genomes in December 2019 and extending through mid-February 2020. They found that two lineages – A and B – marked the pandemic’s beginning in Wuhan. Study coauthor Joel Wertheim, a viral evolution expert at the University of California, San Diego, pointed out that lineage A is more genetically similar to bat coronaviruses, but lineage B appears to have begun spreading earlier in humans, particularly at the market.
“Now I realize it sounds like I just said that a once-in-a-generation event happened twice in short succession,” Wertheim said. But certain conditions were in place — such as people and animals in close proximity and a virus that can spread from animals to people and from person to person. So “barriers to spillover have been lowered such that multiple introductions, we believe, should actually be expected,” he said.
Many scientists believe the virus jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another animal. But in June, the World Health Organization recommended a deeper probe into whether a lab accident may be to blame. Critics had said the WHO was too quick to dismiss the lab leak theory.
“Have we disproven the lab leak theory? No, we have not,” Andersen said. “But I think what’s really important here is there are possible scenarios and there are plausible scenarios and it’s really important to understand that possible does not mean equally likely.”
The pandemic’s origins remain controversial. Some scientists believe a lab leak is more likely and others remain open to both possibilities. But Matthew Aliota, a researcher in the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, said in his mind the pair of studies “kind of puts to rest, hopefully, the lab leak hypothesis.”
“Both of these two studies really provide compelling evidence for the natural origin hypothesis,” said Aliota, who wasn’t involved in either study. Since sampling an animal that was at the market is impossible, “this is maybe as close to a smoking gun as you could get.”


Nuclear weapons a ‘loaded gun’, UN chief warns in Hiroshima

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech in Hiroshima, Japan Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP)
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech in Hiroshima, Japan Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP)
Updated 08 August 2022

Nuclear weapons a ‘loaded gun’, UN chief warns in Hiroshima

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech in Hiroshima, Japan Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP)
  • Three days after the Hiroshima bombing, Washington dropped a second atomic bomb on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki, killing about 74,000 people and leading to the end of World War II

HIROSHIMA, Japan: “Humanity is playing with a loaded gun” as crises with the potential for nuclear disaster proliferate worldwide, UN head Antonio Guterres said in Hiroshima on Saturday, the 77th anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack.
At an annual memorial, Guterres warned of the risk posed by crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and the Korean peninsula as he described the horrors endured by the Japanese city.
“Tens of thousands of people were killed in this city in the blink of an eye. Women, children and men were incinerated in a hellish fire,” he said.
Survivors were “cursed with a radioactive legacy” of cancer and other health problems.
“We must ask: What have we learned from the mushroom cloud that swelled above this city?“
Around 140,000 people died when Hiroshima was bombed by the United States on August 6, 1945, a toll that includes those who perished after the blast from radiation exposure.
Today, “crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast,” Guterres said, repeating warnings he made this week at a nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in New York.
“Humanity is playing with a loaded gun.”
Before dawn, survivors and their relatives began to gather at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park to pay tribute to the victims.
A silent prayer was held at 8.15 am, the moment the bomb was dropped.
The Russian ambassador was not invited to the ceremony but visited Hiroshima on Thursday to lay flowers at the memorial site.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin has made thinly veiled threats hinting at a willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons.
In a speech on Saturday, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui cited Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author of “War and Peace,” saying: “Never build your happiness on the misfortune of others, for only in their happiness can you find your own.”
Three days after the Hiroshima bombing, Washington dropped a second atomic bomb on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki, killing about 74,000 people and leading to the end of World War II.
There are now fewer than 119,000 officially recognized survivors of the two nuclear attacks, according to government statistics from March.
The United States remains the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in conflict.
But around 13,000 are now held in state arsenals worldwide, Guterres said.
Saturday was the first time Guterres attended the Hiroshima memorial in person as UN chief, with a visit last year canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
 

 


Bangladesh seeks China help to repatriate Rohingya refugees

Bangladesh seeks China help to repatriate Rohingya refugees
Updated 08 August 2022

Bangladesh seeks China help to repatriate Rohingya refugees

Bangladesh seeks China help to repatriate Rohingya refugees
  • Despite attempts to send Rohingya refugees back, they refused, fearing danger in Myanmar, which was exacerbated by the military takeover last year

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Sunday sought cooperation from China to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar during a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who promised better trade ties, investment and support for infrastructure development in the South Asian nation.
China had used its influence in Myanmar to broker a November 2017 agreement to repatriate about 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar in August that year. Despite attempts to send them back, the refugees refused, fearing danger in Myanmar, which was exacerbated by the military takeover last year.
Yi arrived in Dhaka on Saturday evening and met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen. They discussed bilateral and global issues before his departure on Sunday morning, said Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s junior minister for foreign affairs.
Bangladesh has strong relations with China, which is a major trade partner mostly for raw materials. But maintaining close ties with Beijing is challenging for Bangladesh, which also balances diplomatic and trade relationship with both India and the United States, China’s main rivals.
More than 500 Chinese companies are active in Bangladesh. China is involved in the country’s all major infrastructure projects such as seaports, a river tunnel and highways, and helped build its largest bridge over the River Padma at a cost of $3.6 billion.
Amid recent tensions between China and Taiwan, Bangladesh issued a statement reiterating its support for the “one-China” policy. After winning elections in 2008, Hasina’s administration closed the Taiwanese business representative office in Dhaka in response to a request from China, and since then China has increased its engagement in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, which brings in more than 80 percent of foreign currency from exports, is heavily dependent on China for raw materials.
On Sunday, Yi told Hasina during a courtesy call that his country considers Bangladesh as a “strategic development partner” and would continue to support it, said Ihsanul Karim, the presidential press secretary.
The United News of Bangladesh agency reported that Yi also promised to stand beside Bangladesh “on all issues at international forums.”
The Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, state-run news agency, reported that Hasina raised the global tensions caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions against Moscow, saying “people (across the world) are enduring difficult times … South Asia, Southeast Asia and China can work together for economic progress.”
Alam said that Yi agreed to expand trade benefits by raising to 98 percent duty-free access from current 97 percent of Bangladeshi products and services to Chinese markets.
“It’s a good news for Bangladesh as we have a thriving economy based on exports,” Alam said. “Now they have offered another 1 percent from Sept. 1,” he said, adding that the new tax advantage is likely to include garments, woven and other products that had previously faced some barriers.
He said Bangladesh would get a list from China soon about the products and services that would get duty-free access.
Alam said that Yi explained to the Bangladeshi foreign minister that “some countries misunderstand and misinterpret” China. He did not elaborate.
But Momen told reporters separately that the Chinese minister mentioned that a section of Taiwanese people was being provoked against the sovereignty of China.
The junior minister said China pledged to work continuously to resolve the Rohingya crisis and quoted Yi as saying that the internal challenges in Myanmar were not only troubling Bangladesh but also other countries.
”Our foreign minister strongly reiterated that Chinese cooperation is needed. China has progressed on resolving the Rohingya issue and we need the situation to come to an end,” Alam said.
On Sunday, Bangladesh and China signed or renewed four agreements and memorandums of understanding on disaster management, infrastructure and cultural exchanges.
Analyst Munshi Faiz Ahmad, who served as Bangladeshi ambassador in Beijing, said that Yi’s visit was very significant for both countries.
“To resolve the Rohingya crisis Bangladesh needs support from China. This visit will help strengthen the bilateral relations,” Ahmad told The Associated Press.
“To us, China is very important. We also need to maintain good relations with both India and the United States as they are also very important development partners of Bangladesh. There is nothing to be afraid of because of Bangladesh’s close ties with China,” he said.


US Senate adopts sweeping climate and health plan, in major victory for Biden

US Senate adopts sweeping climate and health plan, in major victory for Biden
Updated 08 August 2022

US Senate adopts sweeping climate and health plan, in major victory for Biden

US Senate adopts sweeping climate and health plan, in major victory for Biden
  • The bill — officially known as the “Inflation Reduction Act” — passed the Senate with no Republicans voting in favor

WASHINGTON: After 18 months of arduous negotiations and a marathon night of debate, the US Senate on Sunday passed Joe Biden’s ambitious climate, tax and health care plan — a significant victory for the president ahead of crucial midterm elections.
Voting as a unified bloc and with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats approved the $430 billion spending plan, which will go to the House of Representatives next week, where it is expected to pass before being signed into law by Biden.
The plan, crafted in sensitive talks with members on the right wing of his Democratic Party, would include the biggest US investment ever on climate — $370 billion aimed at effecting a 40 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
That would give Biden a clear victory on one of his top agenda items and go some way toward restoring US leadership in meeting the global climate challenge.
Biden hailed the passage of the bill, highlighting the work that went into it — and acknowledging that not everyone is happy with the final result.
“It required many compromises. Doing important things almost always does. The House should pass this as soon as possible and I look forward to signing it into law,” the president said in a statement.
The bill — officially known as the “Inflation Reduction Act” — passed the Senate with no Republicans voting in favor.
Conservative lawmakers have criticized the bill as wasteful spending, with top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell accusing Democrats of voting to “double down on their economic disaster.”
The bill would provide Americans with a tax credit of up to $7,500 when purchasing an electric car, plus a 30 percent discount when they install solar panels on their roofs.
It would also provide millions to help protect and conserve forests — which have been increasingly ravaged in recent years by wildfires during record heat waves that scientists say are linked to global warming.
Billions of dollars in tax credits would also go to some of the country’s worst-polluting industries to help their transition to greener methods — a measure bitterly opposed by some liberal Democrats who have, however, accepted this as a least-bad alternative after months of frustration.
Biden, who came to office with promises of sweeping reforms, has seen his hopes dashed, then revived, then dashed again.
Democrats’ narrow edge in the Senate has given a virtual veto to moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who earlier had used that power to block Biden’s much more expansive Build Back Better plan.
But in late July, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer managed to engineer a compromise with the West Virginian, whose state’s economy depends heavily on coal mining.
“This bill is gonna change America for decades,” Schumer said after its passage, while Manchin tweeted that it “will lower the inflation taxes that have been so hurtful for West Virginian and American families.”
Senators finally opened debate on the text on Saturday, with final passage not until Sunday afternoon.
Late Saturday, they began working through a marathon procedure known as a “vote-a-rama,” in which members can propose dozens of amendments and demand a vote on each one.
That allowed both Republicans, who view Biden’s plan as too costly, and liberal Democrats, who say it does not reach far enough, to make their opposition clear.
Influential progressive Senator Bernie Sanders used that platform through the evening to propose several amendments aimed at strengthening social planks in the legislation, which were considerably weakened during the months of negotiation.
The bill would provide $64 billion for health care initiatives and ensure a lowering of some drug costs — which can be 10 times more expensive in the United States than in some other rich countries.
But progressive Democrats long ago had to give up their ambitions for free preschool and community colleges and expanded health care for the elderly.
“Millions of seniors will continue to have rotten teeth and lack the dentures, hearing aids or eyeglasses that they deserve,” Sanders said from the Senate floor. “This bill, as currently written, does nothing to address it.”
But fellow Democrats, eager to pass the legislation ahead of November midterms when control of Congress is at stake, have rejected any change in the text.
To help offset the plan’s massive spending, it would reduce the US deficit through a new 15-percent minimum tax on companies with profits of $1 billion or more — a move targeting some that now pay far less.
That measure could generate more than $258 billion in tax receipts for the government over the next 10 years, by some estimates.


Biden denounces killings of four Muslims in US city

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 5, 2022. (REUTERS)
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 5, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 08 August 2022

Biden denounces killings of four Muslims in US city

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 5, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • “Investigators believe Friday’s murder may be connected to three recent murders of Muslim men also from South Asia,” the statement said

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Sunday deplored the killings of four Muslim men in New Mexico, which police say may be linked.
“I am angered and saddened by the horrific killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque,” the US president said on Twitter.
“While we await a full investigation, my prayers are with the victims’ families, and my Administration stands strongly with the Muslim community. These hateful attacks have no place in America.”
Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, said Saturday they are investigating the murders of three Muslim men that they now suspect are related to a fourth homicide from last year.
The Albuquerque police department said in a statement they had discovered the latest victim overnight Friday.
His body was discovered near a Lutheran Family Services office that provides assistance to refugees, TV station KOB4 reported.
Police did not identify the man but said he was in his mid-20s, Muslim and “a native from South Asia.”
“Investigators believe Friday’s murder may be connected to three recent murders of Muslim men also from South Asia,” the statement said.
Two of the previous victims were Muslim Pakistani men, a 27-year-old whose body was found on August 1 and a 41-year-old who was found on July 26.
Detectives are now investigating whether these murders are connected to the death of a Muslim man from Afghanistan who was killed on November 7, 2021, outside of the business he ran with his brother in Albuquerque, the statement said.
The police urged anyone with information to call a tip line and said the FBI was assisting with the investigation.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed outrage at the killings, calling them “wholly intolerable,” and said she was sending additional state police officers to Albuquerque to aid in the investigation.
She said she was sending additional state police officers to Albuquerque to help with the investigation.
“We will continue to do everything we can to support to the Muslim community of Albuquerque and greater New Mexico,” she said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest US Muslim civil rights group, has offered a $10,000 reward to whoever provides information leading to the killer or killers’ arrest.
Tensions have risen sharply in the city’s Muslim community.
“Now, people are beginning to panic,” Tahir Gauba, the director of public affairs with the Islamic Center of New Mexico, told the Albuquerque Journal.

 


Alabama town disbands police department over racist text

A Bessemer police vehicle patrols in Bessemer, Alabama. (AFP file photo)
A Bessemer police vehicle patrols in Bessemer, Alabama. (AFP file photo)
Updated 08 August 2022

Alabama town disbands police department over racist text

A Bessemer police vehicle patrols in Bessemer, Alabama. (AFP file photo)
  • The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office on Friday condemned the two officers’ actions and said it stands with the city “in providing emergency law enforcement related service to the citizens (of Vincent) at this time”

VINCENT, Alabama: A racist text message sent by a police officer has prompted officials in a small Alabama town to disband their police department and fire the police chief and assistant chief.
Vincent Mayor James Latimore on Thursday confirmed that Police Chief James Srygley and Assistant Chief John L. Goss had been dismissed, al.com reported.
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office on Friday condemned the two officers’ actions and said it stands with the city “in providing emergency law enforcement related service to the citizens (of Vincent) at this time.”
In the message, which recently surfaced on social media, someone identified as “752″ texts: “What do y’all call a pregnant slave?” An unidentified recipient responds twice: “?” and “??”
“752″ answers: “BOGO Buy one, get one free”
“This has torn this community apart. It doesn’t matter what color we are as long as we do right by people,” City Councilman Corey Abrams said during Thursday’s council meeting.
On Tuesday, Latimore said “appropriate action has been taken” against the officer alleged to have sent the text, though at the time he would not name the person or anyone involved.
The city’s website lists three people in its department: Srygley, Goss and Officer Lee Carden.
During the council meeting, Latimore announced he had suspended the chief and assistant chief, and the council voted to end the agency. Latimer said Carden turned in his resignation via text message just hours after the city council voted to dissolve the department.
Located in central Alabama, southeast of Birmingham, Vincent has a population of just under 2,000 people. It’s located in Shelby, St. Clair, and Talladega counties.