WHO team arrives in Wuhan for virus investigation
A bus carrying members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic leaves the airport following their arrival at a cordoned-off section in the international arrivals area at the airport in Wuhan on January 14, 2021.
AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

WHO team arrives in Wuhan for virus investigation

Nicolas Asfouri (Agence France-Presse) - January 14, 2021 - 6:13pm

WUHAN, China — A team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan Thursday to probe the origins of the coronavirus more than a year after it emerged, although two members were barred from boarding a flight in Singapore after testing positive for virus antibodies.

The international team of 13 scientists landed for their much-delayed mission, met by Chinese officials in hazmat suits and given throat swabs on arrival, and were whisked to a hotel where they must complete a two-week quarantine before starting their work.

The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing nearly two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.

The WHO says establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks. 

But despite painstaking months of negotiations over their remit, the team was blocked from arriving last week — a sign of the political sensitivity of a virus origin story muddied by recrimination between nations, conjecture and denials.

And the UN health body said Thursday that while most the team had arrived, two members were not allowed to board the flight from Singapore to Wuhan after testing positive for coronavirus antibodies — the latest twist in a long journey to China for the experts.

The WHO said in a tweet that all members of the team had "multiple negative PCR and antibody tests for COVID-19 in their home countries prior to traveling."

The trip comes as China moves to snuff out fresh clusters of the virus.

More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, as the country reported its first death from Covid-19 in eight months.

China had largely brought the pandemic under control through strict lockdowns and mass testing, hailing its economic rebound as an indication of strong leadership by the Communist authorities. 

But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday — the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Clusters are still small compared with many countries contending with rampant infections and record numbers of deaths.

But the first Chinese virus fatality in several months — a woman with underlying conditions in northern Hebei province — seeded alarm across China.

The hashtag "New virus death in Hebei" quickly ratcheted up 270 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo on Thursday.

"I haven't seen the words 'virus death' in so long, it's a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon," one user wrote.

The last death reported in mainland China was in May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.

Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month's Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.

As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an "emergency state" on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.

WHO arrival

China is braced for the scrutiny the expert team of WHO scientists will bring to its virus narrative.

Beijing has drip-fed the idea that the pandemic started outside of its borders, preferring to focus on its relatively swift control of the public health crisis.

The WHO have been at pains to cut the political baggage attached to their mission. 

Peter Ben Embarek, team lead, said the group would start with a mandatory hotel quarantine.

"And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit," he said. 

He warned it "could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened".

Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.

"I don't think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way," Embarek added.

"The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened," he said.

CHINA NOVEL CORONAVIRUS WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: January 25, 2021 - 2:17pm

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

January 25, 2021 - 2:17pm

New Zealand's first case of coronavirus in the community for more than two months has been identified as the more contagious South African variant, prompting Australia to suspend quarantine-free travel from the neighbouring country for at least 72 hours.

A 56-year-old New Zealander, who recently returned from Europe, tested positive on Saturday to the infectious strain, 10 days after she completed her compulsory two weeks in isolation.

New Zealand has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, with just 25 deaths from 1,927 confirmed virus cases in a population of five million. —  AFP

January 25, 2021 - 1:05pm

Hong Kong lifted its first neighbourhood coronavirus lockdown on Monday morning after testing some 7,000 people and finding 13 cases as debate swirled over the efficacy of the move.

Over the weekend police moved in to seal off a poor and densely populated neighbourhood of about 150 apartment blocks where coronavirus clusters had sprung up in recent weeks.

Officials went door to door conducting mandatory tests and found 0.17 percent of those tested had the virus.

Some community and business leaders were critical of how the lockdown was carried out. 

But officials defended the move as proportionate and said they would not rule out similar neighbourhood lockdowns.  — AFP

January 25, 2021 - 8:54am

 The COVID-19 crisis is aggravating inequality, with the richest quickly getting richer while it will likely take years for the world's poorest to recover, anti-poverty group Oxfam says Monday.

In a report entitled "The inequality virus", the group warned that the pandemic is the first time since records began that inequality is rising in virtually every country at the same time.

"The 1,000 richest people on the planet recouped their COVID-19 losses within just nine months, but it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover," said the Oxfam report.

Oxfam also highlighted the fact that the impact of the virus is also being felt unevenly, with ethnic minorities in certain countries dying at higher rates and women being overrepresented in the sectors of the economy that are hardest hit by the pandemic. — AFP

January 24, 2021 - 3:05pm

New Zealand health officials on Sunday confirm the first case of COVID-19 in the community for more than two months, sparking urgent contract-tracing efforts north of Auckland.

A 56-year-old woman who recently returned from Europe tested positive 10 days after completing a compulsory two weeks in managed isolation, although she had noticed symptoms several days before getting tested.

Contact tracing was underway after it was revealed the woman and her husband spent several days travelling around the Northland region while she was potentially infectious, visiting about 30 different locations. —  AFP

January 23, 2021 - 2:22pm

The World Health Organization says it was too early to draw any conclusions from its mission to Wuhan as to whether the COVID-19 pandemic started in China.

A team of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan on January 14 to start probing the origins of the deadly coronavirus, more than a year after the first cases were detected in the central Chinese city.

They were whisked to a hotel to complete a two-week quarantine. — AFP

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