WHO officials arrive in Beijing to investigate origins of the coronavirus pandemic
The Associated Press · Posted: Jul 10, 2020
Two World Health Organization (WHO) experts headed to the Chinese capital on Friday to lay the groundwork for a larger mission to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
An animal health expert and an epidemiologist will meet Chinese counterparts in Beijing to set the “scope and terms of reference” for a WHO-led international mission aimed at learning how the virus jumped from animals to humans, a WHO statement said.
Scientists believe the virus may have originated in bats and was transmitted to another mammal such as a civet cat or an armadillo-like pangolin before being passed on to people.
A cluster of infections late last year focused initial attention on a fresh food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, but the discovery of earlier cases suggests the animal-to-human jump may have happened elsewhere.
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A World Health Organization animal expert is part of a new mission to China to trace the coronavirus’s path from animal to people. 0:23
In an effort to block future outbreaks, China has cracked down on the trade in wildlife and closed some markets while enforcing strict containment measures that appear to have virtually stopped new local infections.
The WHO mission is politically sensitive, with the United States — the top funder of the UN body — moving to cut ties with it over allegations it mishandled the outbreak and is biased toward China.
“China took the lead in inviting WHO experts to investigate and discuss scientific virus tracing,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Friday.
In contrast, he said, the U.S. “not only announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organization but also politicized the anti-epidemic issue and played a buck-passing game to shift responsibilities.”
More than 120 nations called for an investigation into the origins of the virus at the World Health Assembly in May. China has insisted that WHO lead the investigation and that it wait until the pandemic is brought under control. The U.S., Brazil and India are continuing to see an increasing number of cases.
The last WHO coronavirus-specific mission to China was in February, after which the team’s leader, Canadian doctor Bruce Aylward, praised China’s containment efforts and information sharing. Canadian and American officials have since criticized him as being too lenient with regard to China’s role in helping stop the spread of the virus.
Privately, top WHO leaders complained in meetings in the week of Jan. 6 that China was not sharing enough data to assess how effectively the virus spread between people or what risk it posed to the rest of the world, costing valuable time.
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Separately on Thursday, WHO acknowledged the possibility that the coronavirus might be spread in the air under certain conditions — after more than 200 scientists urged the agency to do so.
In an open letter published this week in a journal, two scientists from Australia and the U.S. wrote that studies have shown “beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in the air.”
The researchers, along with more than 200 others, appealed for national and international authorities, including WHO, to adopt more stringent protective measures.
The health body has long dismissed the possibility that the coronavirus is spread in the air except for certain risky medical procedures, such as when patients are first put on breathing machines.
In a change to its previous thinking, WHO said on Thursday that studies evaluating COVID-19 outbreaks in restaurants, choir practices and fitness classes suggested the virus might have been spread in the air.
Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., said on Friday the coronavirus is likely spreading through the air to some degree.
“Still some question about aerosol but likely some degree of aerosol,” Fauci said by video during a panel session at a COVID-19 conference organized by the International AIDS Society.
On Thursday, he had said it was a “reasonable assumption” that airborne transmission was occurring even though there wasn’t a lot of solid evidence behind it.
What’s happening with coronavirus in Canada
As of 7 a.m. ET on Friday, Canada had 106,805 confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases. Provinces and territories listed 70,574 of those as recovered or resolved. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial reports, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 8,788.
Some public health and infectious disease experts are pressing for governments in Canada to shift to minimizing, not eradicating, COVID-19 while allowing society to resume functioning.
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The open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all premiers, dated July 6, says aiming to prevent or contain every case is not sustainable at this stage in the pandemic.
“We need to accept that COVID-19 will be with us for some time and to find ways to deal with it,” the 18 experts wrote.
The aim of lockdowns and physical distancing was to flatten the epidemic curve so that health-care systems wouldn’t be overwhelmed with too many cases at once, Neil Rau, an infectious disease physician and medical microbiologist at the University of Toronto said. Stamping out the virus is a different goalpost.
Here’s what’s happening around the world
According to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the global total of confirmed coronavirus cases was over 12.2 million as of 7 a.m. ET on Thursday. More than 555,000 people have died while almost 6.7 million have recovered. The U.S. and Brazil lead case numbers, with a combined total of more than 4.8 million.
Quarantine measures for those travelling to the United Kingdom from around 70 countries and overseas territories, including France and Italy, no longer apply from Friday in a boost to the ailing aviation and travel industries hit by COVID-19.
Those arriving from higher-risk countries will still have to self-quarantine for 14 days, but many popular destinations are now exempt, meaning millions of Britons are able to take summer holidays without having to stay at home when they return.
Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said on Friday he may sack his cabinet if its second, two-week lockdown fails to curb the coronavirus outbreak in the oil-rich Central Asian nation.
Kazakhstan, which imposed a new lockdown on Sunday, has confirmed almost 55,000 COVID-19 infections, including 264 deaths. The number of new cases rose on Thursday to a daily record of 1,962 before declining to 1,726 on Friday.
The economic fallout from the pandemic has negatively impacted about 31 million workers in Vietnam, with 900,000 out of work and nearly 18 million people receiving less income than before, a government agency said on Friday.
If solutions to drive business activity were not immediately implemented, there could be five million more people out of work by the end the year, the General Statistics Office (GSO) said.
Vietnam has reported just 369 coronavirus cases, with no deaths. It has been 81 days without domestic transmission, owing to successful programs to contain the virus.
Hong Kong’s Education Bureau on Friday announced the suspension of all schools from Monday after a spike in locally transmitted coronavirus cases that has fuelled fears of a renewed community spread in the city.
Schools in the Asian financial hub have been mostly shut since February, with many having switched to online learning and lessons by conference call. Many international schools are already on summer break.
The city reported 42 new cases on Thursday, of which 34 were locally transmitted, marking the second consecutive day of rising local infections.
More than 60,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the United States on Wednesday, the greatest single-day tally by any country since the virus emerged late last year in China. U.S. deaths rose by more than 900 for the second straight day.
Florida on Thursday announced nearly 9,000 new cases and 120 new coronavirus deaths, a record daily increase in lives lost. California and Texas, the most populous states, announced record increases in COVID deaths on Wednesday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says the numbers next week may be even worse. The 105 new deaths reported Thursday makes this the deadliest week of the pandemic in what has rapidly become one of America’s virus hot zones. Texas reported a new high for hospitalizations for the 10th consecutive day.
Australia’s Victoria state on Friday reported a new daily record of 288 coronavirus cases as well as a record number of tests, more than 37,500.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the number of citizens and permanent residents allowed to return to Australia each week will be reduced by more than 4,000 starting Monday.
Sydney, Australia’s largest city, has been carrying a disproportionate burden of hotel quarantines that are currently paid for by the New South Wales state government.
Lebanon recorded 71 new coronavirus infections in 24 hours, the highest daily total yet, the health minister said on Friday, calling it a frightening number and urging people to wear masks in crowded places.
Since February, Lebanon has recorded just over 2,000 cases of coronavirus and 36 deaths.