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

  • 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.”


Filipinos abroad cautioned on new strain of COVID-19

Updated 20 January 2021

Filipinos abroad cautioned on new strain of COVID-19

  • Manila brings home 400,000 overseas workers affected by the pandemic

MANILA: Philippines Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III reminded overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to remain vigilant against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and follow the health and safety protocols of their host countries, especially with the emergence of a new and more contagious strain.

More COVID-19 infections have been recorded among Filipinos abroad, with the highest number of cases reported in the Middle East.

“There is no room for complacency. We cannot let our guard down. Despite the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in your country of work, the virus remains an imminent threat to your health and safety,” Bello said in a statement on Monday.

Citing a report from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), Bello said the Middle East remains the region with “highest recorded cases of infection among OFWs at 7,844 as of Jan. 13.”

The region also has the highest number of OFW deaths due to COVID-19, reaching 619 according to the report.

On Sunday, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) said that “Qatar reported the single biggest number of cases at 3,873, with 14 new COVID-19 infections among OFWs in the last 24 hours. Nineteen OFW casualties were recorded.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in a report on Monday, confirmed a total of 13,591 COVID-19 cases among Filipinos abroad as of Jan. 18. Of the total number, 3,968 are undergoing treatment; 8,682 have recovered, while 941 died.

Based on the DFA data, countries in Europe and the Americas have over 3,000 cases with 317 deaths, while there were 2,746 OFW infections in Asia and the Pacific, with 21 deaths.

More than 400,000 overseas Filipino workers affected by the pandemic have been brought home by the government, the DOLE reported during the weekend.

Latest figures from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) showed that 8,273 OFWs were transported to their respective provinces last week alone, up from 7,895 the previous week.

In a report to Bello, OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac said total repatriates who have undergone quarantine and been cleared of COVID-19 stood at 410,211 as of Jan. 16.

“After their ordeal in their country of origin, our dear OFWs were all provided accommodation, food, transportation and cash assistance by the government. Now, they are safely home with their families,” Bello said.

It is estimated that about 60,000 to 80,000 more OFWs will be repatriated this year. Those awaiting repatriation form part of the over 520,000 OFWs displaced by the pandemic.