China under mounting pressure over virus origins

Shaun Tandon - Agence France-Presse
China under mounting pressure over virus origins
A man being tested for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus reacts as a medical worker takes a swab sample in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 16, 2020. China has largely brought the coronavirus under control within its borders since the outbreak first emerged in the city of Wuhan late last year.
AFP / Hecor Retamal

WASHINGTON, United States — China on Thursday came under mounting pressure over the coronavirus pandemic from Western powers led by the United States, which said it was probing whether the virus that has infected more than 2.1 million people actually originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

The new focus on China's role came as the world wrestles with a crisis that has killed more than 140,000 people and created historic jobless numbers, with Britain, Japan and New York extending lockdown measures.

President Donald Trump, who  initially downplayed the illness whose US death toll has shot past 30,000, has been attacking China for weeks and appeared to gain support after a videoconference among leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters there could be no "business as usual" with China.

"We'll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it couldn't have been stopped earlier," said Raab, filling in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson who is recovering from the virus.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned not to be "naive" in believing China has handled the outbreak well.

"There are clearly things that have happened that we don't know about," he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

COVID-19 first emerged late last year in Wuhan, with China saying it was suspected to have been transmitted to humans at a meat market that butchered exotic animals.

The Washington Post and Fox News reported there were growing suspicions the virus in fact slipped out of a sensitive laboratory in Wuhan that studied bats, blamed for the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003.

Neither outlet suggested the virus was spread deliberately.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China should have been more transparent about the laboratory.

"We're doing a full investigation of everything we can to learn how it is the case that this virus got away, got out into the world and now has created so much tragedy -- so much death," Pompeo told Fox News.

Bid to 'smear China'

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone and called efforts to blame Beijing counterproductive.

Xi called attempts to politicize the pandemic "detrimental to international cooperation" and Putin denounced "attempts by some people to smear China," according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian -- who previously outraged the United States by spreading an unfounded theory that US troops introduced the coronavirus in Wuhan -- quoted the World Health Organization as saying there was no evidence the virus was produced in a lab.

"Many well-known medical experts in the world also believe that the so-called laboratory leak hypothesis has no scientific basis," Zhao said.

Trump has also gone on the attack against the WHO, saying he will cut US funding for the UN body because it did not press China harder on initial statements that the virus could not be spread among people.

That Trump offensive has drawn little international support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose aggressive response is credited with limiting deaths in Europe's largest economy, voiced "full support" for the WHO in the Group of Seven talks.

Merkel "emphasized that the pandemic can only be defeated with a strong and coordinated international response," said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert.

Europe still 'in eye of storm'

The WHO has been in the forefront of international efforts to fight the virus and is seen as especially vital for developing nations with creaky health systems.

In an assessment Thursday for Europe, the WHO said  positive signs in Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland were overshadowed by sustained or increased levels of infections in other countries such as Britain, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia.

"We remain in the eye of the storm," said Hans Kluge, the WHO's regional director for Europe.

"It is imperative that we do not let down our guard."

Britain, whose daily death toll spiked to 861 on Thursday, will extend its lockdown for "at least the next few weeks," Raab said.

Trump has voiced growing impatience to reopen the United States. He faces re-election in November and had hoped to campaign on a booming economy.

New data showed the United States shedding an incredible 22 million jobs in the last month, with 5.2 million workers seeking unemployment benefits last week. 

But Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, the US epicenter of the virus, said he was extending the shutdown until May 15 despite signs of progress.

"I would like to see that infection rate get down even more," Cuomo said, reporting that 606 people had died in the last day, the lowest number in 10 days.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded his state of emergency until May 6, allowing local leaders to urge people to stay at home but with no legal force.

Japan has seen a relatively small outbreak, with 136 deaths, and Abe is also worried about the impact on the world's third-largest economy which was already on the brink of recession.

Slow return to normal

After weeks on strict lockdowns, hard-hit Spain and Italy have begun to ease restrictions.

In Venice, residents in mandatory face masks enjoyed  quiet streets and canals that once thronged with selfie-stick wielding tourists.

"I bought many books," Venetian Catrina said after visiting one of the city's bookshops, which were allowed to reopen this week. 

"I needed them. Like an addict -- for something of substance."

Switzerland announced that some shops and services -- including beauty salons -- will be allowed to resume business from April 27.

Germany also announced steps to reopen some shops and gradually restart schools, Denmark began reopening schools for younger children after a month-long closure and Finland lifted a blockade of Helsinki. 

But Russia postponed its May 9 celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, an extravaganza to which Putin has hoped to draw leaders including Trump.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said only a "safe and effective vaccine" can return the world to normal and hoped it would be available by year-end.

He also issued an appeal to protect the world's youngest, warning that a staggering 310 million children relied on schools -- many now closed -- for daily nutrition.

"With the global recession gathering pace, there could be hundreds of thousands of additional child deaths in 2020," Guterres warned.

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: November 27, 2021 - 9:10am

Follow this page for updates on a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that has struck dozens of people in China.

November 27, 2021 - 9:10am

An anti-Covid pill developed by Merck has proved effective in treating the disease, the US Food and Drug Administration says in a much-awaited preliminary report.  

But the report, from an FDA advisory panel, cautioned that pregnant women should not use the drug, known as molnupiravir, saying the potential benefits do not outweigh the risks for those patients.

The report is meant to provide guidance to an FDA experts panel convening Tuesday to consider whether to authorize emergency use of molnupiravir. — AFP

November 25, 2021 - 12:01pm

More than 100,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Germany since the start of the pandemic, a public health agency announces Thursday.

Europe's largest economy is battling a fresh surge in coronavirus cases, and recorded 351 fatalities in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 100,119, according to figures from the Robert Koch Institute.

As infections reach a record high and intensive care units fill up, the health crisis is posing an immediate challenge to the new coalition government set to take over from Angela Merkel's cabinet. — AFP

November 23, 2021 - 7:02am

Covid infections are on the rise in South African weeks ahead of an expected fourth wave in December, the country's national health laboratory service says Monday.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reports a "sustained" increase over the past seven days, with the majority of cases detected in the most populous province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

"We are monitoring these trends to see if these increases persist," NICD's interim executive director, Adrian Puren, says in a statement. — AFP

November 22, 2021 - 7:15pm

Most Germans will be "vaccinated, cured or dead" from Covid-19 in a few months, Health Minister Jens Spahn warned Monday as he urged more citizens to get jabbed.

"Probably by the end of this winter, as is sometimes cynically said, pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, cured or dead," Spahn said, blaming "the very contagious Delta variant".

"That is why we so urgently recommend vaccination," he added.

The stark warning comes as Germany is racing to contain a record rise in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, with hospitals sounding the alarm about overflowing intensive care units.

Despite widespread access to free coronavirus vaccines, just 68% of the German population is fully vaccinated, a level experts say is too low to keep the pandemic under control. — AFP

November 20, 2021 - 10:53am

The risk of stillbirth is about twice as high for women with COVID-19 compared to those without, and grew to about quadruple during the period when the Delta variant became dominant, a large US government study says.

The analysis, carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was based on more than 1.2 million deliveries between March 2020 and September 2021 from a large US hospital database.

Overall, stillbirths were highly rare, accounting for 0.65% or 8,154 deliveries. — AFP

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