The World Health Organozation’s mission (WHO) to China to uncover the origins of the coronavirus has failed to identify the animal source, scientists said Tuesday.
Experts believe the disease — which has gone on to kill more than 2.3 million people worldwide — originated in bats and could have been transmitted to humans via another mammal.
While transmission from animals was the likely route, so far “the reservoir hosts remain to be identified”, Liang Wannian, head of the China team, told reporters.
He added that studies showed the virus “can be carried long-distance on cold chain products,” appearing to nudge towards the possible importation of the virus — a theory that has abounded in China in recent months.
He also said there was “no indication” the sickness was in circulation in Wuhan before December 2019 when the first official cases have been recorded.
WHO foreign expert Ben Embarak, who was based in the WHO’s Beijing office for two years from 2009, backed up the assertion saying there was no evidence of “large outbreaks in Wuhan” before then.
The mission is a diplomatically knotty one, which was trailed before it began by fears of a whitewash, with the US demanding a “robust” probe and China firing back with a warning not to “politicise” the investigation.
During the closely-monitored visit, reporters were largely kept at arms’ length from the experts, but snippets of their findings crept out over Twitter and interviews.
The experts spent one month in China, two weeks in quarantine and the same again on fieldwork.
But, already over a year after the virus emerged, some of it was of questionable relevance to their stated aim of finding the virus source, including a visit to a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery from the pandemic.
The group spent just an hour at the seafood market where many of the first reported clusters of infections emerged over a year ago.
They also appeared to spend several days inside their hotel, receiving visits from various Chinese officials without going out into the city.
But deeper research was carried out at the Wuhan virology institute where they spent nearly four hours and said they met with Chinese scientists there including Shi Zhengli, one of China’s leading experts on bat coronaviruses and deputy director of the Wuhan lab.
Former US president Donald Trump repeated a controversial theory that a lab leak may have been the source of the pandemic.
Scientists at the laboratory conduct research on some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, including strains of bat coronaviruses similar to Covid-19.
Beijing is desperate to defang criticism of its handling of the chaotic early stages of the outbreak.
It has refocused attention at home — and abroad — on its handling of, and recovery from the outbreak.
Why the US has the highest COVID-19 death toll
The United States crossed the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Monday, a year since announcing its first known death from the virus on February 29, 2020 in the Seattle area.
Why does the world’s leading power have the highest death toll and what lessons are American health specialists learning from the past year?
Here, infectious disease experts Joseph Masci and Michele Halpern provide answers to some of the key questions.
Masci, 70, is one of the leaders of Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, which was at the heart of New York’s epidemic.
Halpern is a specialist at the Montefiore hospital group in New Rochelle, a New York suburb where the epidemic arrived in force in February 2020.
– Why has the United States been hit so hard? –
Prior to this pandemic, the United States observed coronaviruses “from a distance,” explained Masci.
“There was SARS in Canada but very little or none in this country. There was no MERS here at all,” he said.
“There was a lot of preparation made for Ebola coming to the United States, and it never really did.
“Suddenly this (coronavirus) was a problem where the United States was the epicenter.”
Masci said it was difficult to compare the United States with other countries.
“I think smaller countries that had structured health care services had a good chance of bringing things into play quickly.
“In a country like ours, with 50 independent states, and a huge landmass, with largely a private hospital system, it is always going to be difficult to get everybody on board with one particular set of strategies,” he explained.
Masci added that Donald Trump’s administration had a “haphazard approach”, which did not help.
“The fact that hospitals were competing with each other to get personal protective equipment didn’t make sense. They had to centralize all of that very quickly and they didn’t.
“It was a struggle to try to deal with those obstacles that were put up,” he said.
Masci and Halpern rue that mask-wearing was politicized.
“It’s purely a health care issue,” said Masci, adding that it is going to be difficult for the federal government to “reframe” that message.
Halpern insists that people should not see mask-wearing as “infringing” on their freedom.
“There are other things we do routinely that you could say infringe our liberties like wearing a seatbelt or running through a red light,” she said.
According to the Johns Hopkins University tally, another 1,297 virus-related deaths were reported on Monday in the United States.
– What are the main lessons to be learned from the crisis? –
For Masci, the most important lesson was to learn how to reconfigure hospitals to make them able to cope with a sudden influx of patients.
“Now… instead of 12 hot ICU beds, you have to have 150. Where do you get them? Who do you staff on with? So now we’ve learned this lesson.” he said.
Masci said the group of public hospitals of which Elmhurst is a part found strategies to distribute the burden among NYC’s 11 public hospitals by transferring patients very quickly.
“We’ve turned from one hospital with 500 beds, to 11 hospitals with about 5,000 beds. It’s worked very nicely.”
More generally, Halpern says the pandemic has made everyone realize that “hospitals need resources.”
“You have to invest in research, but you also have to invest in hospitals, in nursing homes. They have to have enough staff, they have to have the equipment that they need and the personnel has to be happy,” she added.
The epidemic has also sharply exposed inequalities, not just in health care but also in housing, with Black and Latino communities dying in disproportionately high numbers.
“We have to look at housing, and how it can be better suited to handling future epidemics. There are others coming,” said Masci.
– Will we still be wearing masks in December? –
Vaccines are rolling out but health experts are cautious due to uncertainties surrounding the British and South African variants of the virus.
Masci says that if the variant strains don’t turn into a huge problem and once we’ve reached the point where 70-80 percent of the population is vaccinated then “there’s a good chance” we won’t wear masks anymore.
“(But) suppose these variant strains do take hold, become more of a problem, are vaccine resistant, and we’re all closing schools and putting masks and locking down again in a few months, (then) it’s a lot harder to say by December, ‘We’ll be out of the woods.’”
Halpern says it’s reassuring that the second wave was largely controlled, in New York at least.
“I have hopes that the vaccines will be effective and will tamper future waves. But it’s hard to be sure whether our vaccines will be effective in the longer term, or on new variants. I don’t think anyone knows that.
“So we have to be prepared that we’re in this for a while,” she said.
In the long term, Masci says countries must not “fall into the trap” of forgetting about the pandemic once it has passed.
“It is unnerving to think that this came without warning. It’s caused so much restructuring of everything.
“We have to have a more meticulous global search for new pathogens because we’re living in a time now where there is no, ‘Something is happening in Asia and it’s not going to happen in America.’”
Ghana Parliament shuts as 17 legislators, 151 staff contract COVID-19
Ghana’s parliament has suspended most of its activities for three weeks over a surge in cases of COVID-19 among lawmakers and parliamentary staff.
It was learnt that no fewer than 17 members of parliament and 151 supporting staff have been infected with the coronavirus, which had already forced lawmakers to limit their assembly meetings.
The Speaker of the House, Alban Bagbin, who confirmed the development, on Tuesday also announced that the legislature will be in recess until March 2 to make way for “disinfection and sanitisation of the premises.”
The Speaker said, “I have, in consultation with leadership, decided that sitting of the House be adjourned for three weeks”.
Ghana has confirmed a total of 73,003 coronavirus cases resulting in 482 deaths and over 65,000 recoveries.
President Nana Akufo-Addo has banned large social gatherings such as funerals, weddings and parties and the country’s land and sea borders have remained closed to human traffic since March 2020.
Spain surpasses three million COVID-19 cases, records 16,402 new cases in 24hrs
The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Spain, one of Europe’s hardest-hit nations, has topped three million since the start of the pandemic, the health ministry said Tuesday.
Spain recorded another 16,402 cases in the last 24 hours, taking its overall figure to 3,005,487. Seroprevalence studies, which test for antibodies using a blood serum sample, suggest the real figure is far higher.
Over the same 24-hour period, Spain also saw another 766 deaths, bringing the overall toll to 63,061 in the nation of some 47 million people.
Spain became the first European country to record a million coronavirus infections on October 21, and reached the two million mark on January 7.
Infections then increased by another million in just over a month.
But in mid-December, a seroprevalence study suggested around 4.7 million people had been infected by the virus — some 10 percent of Spain’s population.
Spain saw a surge in infections at the start of the year, with health officials blaming an easing of restrictions over the Christmas holidays.
Since then, the incident rate has started to come down as regional governments, which are in charge of health care, have cracked down.
So far, Spain has not seen a major surge in new variants but has imposed a ban on arrivals by air from Britain, Brazil and South Africa which on Tuesday was renewed until March 2.
The fear is these variants could spread more rapidly or contain mutations allowing the virus to bypass vaccines.
On Friday, Spain confirmed its first case of the Brazilian variant. It has so far confirmed several cases of the South African variant and around 480 cases of the variant discovered in Britain in November.
Officials believe the British variant could become the dominant strain in Spain by March.
Spain has so far vaccinated just over two million people since it began its immunisation campaign at the end of December.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government has vowed to have covered 70 percent of Spain’s population by the summer’s end, a goal reaffirmed by the government despite shortages and delays in vaccine supplies.
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