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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

China under mounting pressure over virus origins

Shaun Tandon (Agence France-Presse) - April 17, 2020 - 8:27am

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.

CHINA NOVEL CORONAVIRUS
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: April 16, 2021 - 7:16am

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

April 16, 2021 - 7:16am

Public hospitals are critically short on the drugs needed to intubate Covid-19 patients in Sao Paulo, the most populous state in Brazil, officials said Thursday, warning of a potential public health catastrophe.

Sixty-eight percent of public clinics have run out of neuromuscular blockers, which are used to relax a patient's muscles during intubation, and 61 percent are out of sedatives, a report from the state council of municipal health secretaries (Cosems-SP) found.

"The situation regarding supplies of medications for intubation worsened over the past week," it said, amid a deadly new surge of Covid-19 in Brazil. —  AFP

April 15, 2021 - 6:34pm

India's daily coronavirus caseload doubles in 10 days, with a record 200,000 new infections logged Thursday as authorities grapple with shortages of vaccines, treatments and hospital beds.

Having let its guard down with mass religious festivals, political rallies and crowds at cricket matches, India is experiencing a vicious second wave, recording almost two million fresh infections this month alone.

This week, it overtook Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases worldwide, after the United States. — AFP

April 13, 2021 - 12:47pm

The English variant of the novel coronavirus does not increase the severity of COVIDompared to other strains, according to research published Tuesday that also confirmed its increased transmissibility. 

The variant, known as B117, is now the dominant viral strain across much of Europe, and previous studies had shown it was linked to a higher likelihood of death than normal variants. — AFP

April 7, 2021 - 6:09pm

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat becomes the latest to tighten coronavirus curbs as India's infections surge to a record of almost 116,000 new cases in 24 hours.

Experts blame the country's fresh wave on people ignoring guidelines and attending huge religious and political events, as well as weddings and cricket matches in recent months.

India has now recorded 12.8 million cases, the third-highest behind the United States and Brazil, although those nations have much smaller populations. More than 166,000 Indians have died. — AFP

April 7, 2021 - 9:24am

Brazil registers more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours for the first time Tuesday, the health ministry says, as the country reeled from a surge of infections that has made it the current epicenter of the pandemic.

The coronavirus claimed 4,195 lives in the deadliest day of the pandemic yet for the hard-hit country, whose total reported death toll is now nearly 337,000, second only to the United States.

Brazil's health system is buckling under the strain of the latest virus wave, which has forced doctors into agonizing decisions over which patients to give life-saving care and led cemeteries to hold nighttime burials to deal with the crush of coffins. —  AFP

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