Tag Archives: World Health Organization

China and US Spar Over Covid Origin While Evidence Fades

THE REACTION TO the report to US President Joe Biden about the US intelligence community’s views of the origins of Covid-19 is as predictable as the report was inconclusive.

  • Zeng Yixin, deputy director of the National Health Commission, repeated Beijing’s long-held line that China opposes turning tracing the origins of the virus into a political issue and its equally long-standing accusation that Washington is engaging in blame-shifting.
  • Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu had previously said in the same vein that the report lacked a scientific base and credibility and had been concocted for political purposes.
  • A statement from the embassy in Washington said the report was produced to scapegoat China.

The sanitized unclassified version of the report that was made public is similarly unilluminating. The various arms of the US ‘intelligence community’ are divided on whether the virus took hold among humans due to exposure to infected wild animals or as a result of a lab-related accident. None have high confidence in the positions they take.

However, the report categorically states that the virus was not created as a biological weapon. It also said that Chinese officials had no foreknowledge of the outbreak.

The US intelligence agencies said more information was needed to reach a conclusion with higher confidence and accused China of holding back information and blaming other countries for the outbreak.

Meanwhile, reports of attempts by the World Health Organisation to follow up on its carefully managed research visit to China earlier this year with a second investigative leam have faded from state media.

Last week, eleven members of the WHO’s initial research team said it would soon be biologically impossible to get reliable information about animals and people who might have been exposed to the virus in 2019 when reports of the novel coronavirus first emerged.

In an article in the journal Nature, they write:

Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns. Chinese wildlife farms employ millions of people (14 million, according to a 2016 census11) and supplied live mammals to cities across China, including Wuhan3. In response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many of these farms are now closed and the animals have been culled, making any evidence of early coronavirus spillover increasingly difficult to find.

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The Intriguing Tale Of The Unnoticed Data From Wuhan’s Wet Markets

OUR MAN WHO digitally thumbs through the dusty tomes of academic journals sends word of a research paper that disappeared from view for 15 months but which, had it not been caught up in the void that can be academic publishing, could have been instrumental in the early days of Covid-19 in helping determine the origins of the virus.

This is a story of misfortune more than malfeasance. The paper was neither suppressed nor censored, Nor, in itself, would it have pinpointed the virus’s origins. Yet the data it contained, had it been known about, would have furnished support for the theory that the pandemic’s origins lay in zoonotic transmission to humans from wildlife sold in Wuhan’s wet markets,

China’s Centre for Disease Control had said before the central information clampdown in January 2020 that it had discovered traces of coronavirus in the sections of the Huanan market where the data was collected. Crucially, the data would have allowed health researchers early on to narrow their search to the species being sold and eliminated bats and pangolins, two early suspects.

Yet this data remained overlooked — unknown might be a better description — until it was eventually published in June as an academic paper in Scientific Reports, an online open-access but peer-reviewed academic journal of the German-British publisher Springer Nature.

For two and a half years, until stopped by the outbreak of Covid-19 in November 2019, Dr Xiao Xiao, a Chinese virologist working in the field of animal conservation, systematically catalogued live wild animal sales in 17 shops across four of Wuhan’s wet markets, including the Huanan seafood market that authorities shut down on January 1, 2020.

It is known that some of the earliest cases of Covid-19 were people working at market stalls from which Xiao regularly collected data.

Xiao is attached to the Southwest China Wildlife Resources Conservation, China West Normal University in Nanchong and the Hubei University of Chinese Medicine in Wuhan. He was not researching coronaviruses but a deadly tick-borne infection, SFTS (Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome), that had broken out in Hubei province in 2009-10.

However, his monthly data collection built up a picture of which species were being sold in Wuhan’s wet markets in the run up to the outbreak of Covid-19, in what quantity and whether the individual animals had been farmed or caught (usually illegally) in the wild. Of the 38 species he came across over the two and a half years of his research, 31 are protected.

Xiao realised the potential usefulness of his data to those looking for the origins of Covid-19. In January 2020, he teamed up with a colleague at China West Normal University and three scientists from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit to produce a paper containing his serendipitous data set. This outlined the range and extent of fundamentally illegal wildlife trading in Wuhan markets pre- COVID-19 and the unhygienic conditions in which that trade was conducted, including the butchering.

To give the paper timely relevance, it ruled out pangolins and bats as the source of the pandemic. Though both are know reservoirs for coronaviruses in the wild, the former are no longer much traded in China, and the latter are not typically eaten in Central China. Xiao had come across neither for sale.

The authors twice revised their paper following peer review, but after six months, as can happen in academic publishing, it was rejected as being of too narrow interest. The political debate around the origins of the virus had by then moved on to contesting theories about escapes from laboratories in China and the United States and imports of foreign frozen seafood and European minks.

The authors then submitted their paper to Scientific Reports in October 2020.

Following its routine practice, Springer sent a copy to the World Health Organisation, but that seemingly languished unread in a WHO email box with thousands of other unpublished submissions. A copy sent to the Covid-19 team similarly failed to stand out among the welter of reports it was receiving.

The paper was still languishing unread when the WHO finally sent an inspection team to Wuhan in February 2021. Though members of the team visited the Huanan market, the trail was cold. They were also told that no illegal live animals were sold there. Authorities produced long-standing shoppers to attest to the point. Had the WHO inspectors had Xiao’s data, they could have contested that assertion.

As the final version of the paper published in June says:

Furthermore, the WHO reports that market authorities claimed all live and frozen animals sold in the Huanan market were acquired from farms officially licensed for breeding and quarantine, and as such, no illegal wildlife trade was identified. In reality, however, because China has no regulatory authority regulating animal trading conducted by small-scale vendors or individuals, it is impossible to make this determination.

China has extensive regulation of illegal wildlife trading, but the report makes it abundantly clear that its enforcement in Wuhan was lax in the extreme. Local officials’ scrubbing clean of the Huanan market in early January may have been more about covering that up that than anything directly related to the virus’s origins.

The statement by the Hubei provincial government in April 2020 that the sale of live wild animals and poultry would be strictly prohibited as markets re-opened in Wuhan may be a tacit admission of this.


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Biden Ups Ante For More WHO Investigation Of Covid Origins

PUT THIS IN the really, really annoying to Beijing column: US President Joe Biden is giving air to theories that a laboratory accident in Wuhan caused the global Covid-19 pandemic. More potentially irritatingly for Beijing, the Biden administration appears to be laying the groundwork for further international investigation into the virus’s origin, which would undercut the narrative China is promoting around its vaccine diplomacy.

Biden is not backing the lab-leak theory but says that the US intelligence community cannot reach a view with any confidence on whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or as a result of a laboratory accident. Biden has asked for a follow-up report from his intelligence services within 90 days, which he hopes will “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”.

In recent days, US media have run stories resurrecting the lab escape theory, likely based on the US intelligence reports supporting that view. These reports cited three Wuhan Institute of Virology workers who were hospitalised in November 2019. However, there is no hard evidence about whether they were infected by the virus and, if they were, where they contracted it.

The reports have been brushed aside by Beijing. It continues to suggest that the virus could have come from a US laboratory.

Biden also says that he will keep pressing China to take part in a ‘full, transparent, evidence-based’ international investigation. Given how long it took for the World Health Organisation to get access to Wuhan for its investigation earlier this year and the rancour directed at Australia for pushing the WHO in that direction, Biden’s call for another international investigation will likely fall on deaf ears.

The WHO’s report, published in March, said it was extremely unlikely that the virus emerged from a laboratory — a view that former President Donald Trump has espoused vigorously — but acknowledged that further study was needed. The Biden administration has said from the get-go that it will not accept the conclusions of any WHO report that its intelligence services cannot verify.

The day before Biden’s comments, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, called on the WHO to launch that second phase of its research. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian says the United States should open its bio labs around the world to an international WHO team.

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WHO Visit To Wuhan Credibly Managed

CHINESE AUTHORITIES HAVE a delicate balancing act to pull off regarding the World Health Organisation (WHO) international team now its visit to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic is at an end. 

Authorities need to be seen as open, transparent and cooperative with the long-delayed investigation in line with China’s self-projection as a good international citizen. Yet they also need to ensure there is no undermining of the official narrative:

  • that the virus originated outside China;
  • that the initial infections in humans did not follow an escape of the virus from a bio-research lab in Wuhan; and
  • that there was no cover-up or mishandling of the initial outbreak.

More broadly, the official narrative attributes the country’s success in dealing with the pandemic to the Party’s leadership under President XiJinping.

The WHO’s experts were at work in the country for four weeks, the first two by video from quarantine, and have been making the right noises about being given access to sites in Wuhan that they had requested, albeit chaperoned by their hosts. 

However, one of the team, Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist, has said that China has declined a request to hand over the raw data on 174 early cases, furnishing only a summary. A colleague, John Watson, trying to defuse a potential flare-up over this, inadvertently confirmed Dwyer’s charge by saying that while the team had seen some data about those 174 cases:

There is more data that we would like the opportunity to see, and it would be easier if we had that…There were restrictions in what we were able to do, [but] that would have been the case if we were there or in another country.

Dwyer has subsequently said that the team saw a lot of data new to the WHO, the unstated implication being that China had hitherto kept it under wraps.

A State Council task force reporting to Xi has vetted all Covid-19 research since being set up in March 2020. Xi faced elite-level criticism of his initial handling of the pandemic, but he has now got that firmly in hand, and the information flow is being controlled top-down. China’s extensive investigation into the origins of the outbreak has generated minimal published papers.

Once finally published, the WHO report will undoubtedly be a finely-tuned exercise in political fence-sitting, having to straddle protecting the organisation’s credibility and not upsetting an important patron. 

However, it appears that the WHO team leans towards the theory that the virus probably originated in the jungles of Southeast Asia and jumped to humans via an unknown animal intermediary. It does not rule out that it arrived in the country from abroad on frozen or refrigerated food, which will please the hosts. However, that begs the question of why the infection was not detected elsewhere before the first cases were identified in Wuhan in November 2019.

The WHO team also dismisses the escape-from-a-lab theory and sees the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan as the multiplier that turned some infections into a pandemic. How it got there in the first place, and whence it came remain the key questions, along with whether early carriers were asymptomatic, in what number and for how long 

This Bystander expects, the WHO to ignore any of the wilder theories that Chinese propagandists have advanced, and some will likely continue to advance including that the virus was created by the US military. This Bystander is sure that the WHO in its summary report expected shortly and subsequent full report will conclude that it will require many more years of study to understand the origins of the outbreak.

China will be happy with that can-kicking. It is taking the stance that the China-leg of a global investigation into the origins of the virus is now over and will claim that, as it said, that there was nothing new there to see; time to move the investigation to other countries, notably the United States.

The Biden administration says it will not accept the WHO report unless its intelligence services can verify it. That lets Beijing shift the focus from the substance of the WHO team’s findings to an even larger narrative about US prejudice against it by accusing Washington of undermining the WHO and those who support it.


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WHO Gets Trampled

THERE ARE SEVERAL interpretations of the Trump administration’s latest attacks on the World Health Organisation (WHO): they are a diversionary tactic to deflect scrutiny of the United States’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic; they represent an expansion of this particular front in ‘the new Cold War’ between Washington and Beijing; or they are a central plank of the president’s re-election campaign for November. Whatever view you hold, there is no escaping that they were predictable.

The WHO and the Donald have previous.

In 2016, the WHO urged then-President-elect Donald Trump to expand ‘Obamacare’, the signature health insurance legislation of his predecessor President Barrack Obama, whose enabling legislation, the Affordable Care Act, Trump had promised on the campaign trail to repeal immediately he took office. This did not bode well for the relationship doing the Trump presidency.

His administration from its outset embarked on a decrease of US support for global healthcare assistance in line with the ‘America First’ agenda on which the president was elected and campaign promises to end what the president described as other countries taking advantage of the United States and ‘failing to pay their fair share’. Its first budget, the administration proposed a $4.6 billion cut in humanitarian assistance and global health spending. Some $2.2 billion was accounted for by the latter.

This signalled the United States intent to remove itself from a two-decade-long role as the leading funder for preparing for and responding to global infectious disease outbreaks and basic health care delivery to low-income countries. The cuts included reducing funding for national disease surveillance systems, training and infrastructure.

At the time, there were plenty of warnings that these would put at risk rapid and coordinated responses to infectious disease outbreaks that recognise no borders. Nonetheless, barely a year after taking office, the president made the National Security Council’s global health and biodefence team redundant. This had been established by the Obama administration, with pandemic preparedness part of its remit. In a streamlining of the NSC, in which the directorates for arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and global health and biodefense were combined, the administration cut the pandemic preparedness team. Its role was subsumed within the NSC and given a more national security cast.

Nor has the Trump administration been enamoured with the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been an enthusiastic endorser of the healthcare component of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In a 2017 speech, Dr Tedros described the Health Silk Road as ‘visionary‘. The WHO had just signed a memorandum of understanding on a strategic health partnership with China along the Belt and Road and in Africa, The MOU included additional Chinese funding of the WHO.

China’s contributions to the WHO have been steadily climbing, though they still fall far short of the $400 billion-500 billion a year the United States pays in assessed dues and voluntary donations — or had been; even before Trump suspended payments it was almost 70% in arrears for 2019 and hadn’t handed over a dime of this year. While the US is on the hook for around 27% of the WHO’s member-nation dues, its share of the WHO’s total budget falls below 20% once voluntary contributions are factored in.

China has again offered to up its contributions to the WHO by $2 billion over the next two years to fight the pandemic, including making China the hub of global supply chains for anti-epidemic equipment and products, and to share any vaccine that it develops. The offers are efforts to defuse international criticism of its early response to the outbreak, but put the WHO in a tight spot.

Dr Tedros could call the United States’s bluff, and risk Washington walking away from membership as Trump has threatened. However, this Bystander does not reckon Trump would carry through the threat because of the win it would give Xi in expanding China’s global influence. Beijing would then be in pole position as the WHO’s lead funder and patron. However, it would also give substance to Trump’s allegations that the WHO is in Beijing ‘pocket’. That will concern a significant number of the WHO’s other members, including some who would not see themselves as in the first rank of allies of the United States.

It would also cut the WHO off from the United States’ technical expertise in public health and medical research — not to mention future funding under a different US administration. Setting up a review of its handling of the pandemic (update: now agreed in principle), some cosmetic distancing from Beijing and possibly the premature departure of Dr Tedros before his term of office is due to expire in July 2022, seem more likely.

The WHO may also look at the state of the World Trade Organisation and be reminded that when elephants dance, it is the grass that gets trampled.

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Wuhan Virus Outbreak Suspected Greater Than Reported

THE OUTBREAK OF a new type of Coronavirus in Wuhan has, it appears, been contained though it is early days to be sure. Authorities say that the outbreak is not sustaining itself, although they cannot rule out that some limited person-to-person spread may be occurring.

In its first public comment, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday that all known cases involving the virus in China were restricted to Wuhan, despite unconfirmed reports of cases in Shanghai and Shenzhen and two known instances in Thailand and one in Japan. Several countries continue to screening incoming travellers from Wuhan.

However, scientists at the MRC Centre of Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London have suggested that the extent of the outbreak was far greater than reported.

They base their analysis on models that use the number of cases detected among international travellers who have visited the infected area but are diagnosed with the disease abroad. In this case, the calculations suggest that there were 1,723 cases as of January 12, which, as the UK scientists say, is “substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than currently reported”.

The official figure, as of January 16, was 41 cases, including two deaths, one a person with a pre-existing medical condition. (Update: Wuhan’s municipal health commission has subsequently reported further cases, taking the official total to 62 as of January 17.)

Most cases have been linked to the city’s large seafood and animal market, which has been closed for disinfection since January 1st to contain the outbreak (a reminder to trade negotiators of why food health and safety standards are necessary, by the way). None of the three infected international travellers is believed to have visited the market, however.

Coronaviruses occur in animals and humans. Most of the half dozen that have been found in humans cause mild respiratory problems, but there are two killers that cause Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Both of those jumped from animals to humans and then spread among human populations to deadly effect.

China’s national health authorities shared the genome of the new virus internationally once they had decoded it, but there would be, lets us say, a degree of nervousness, among local officials about what they might have had on their hands by way of a potential public health emergency.


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WHO To Provide A Boost To China’s Vaccine Makers

The World Health Organization is expected shortly to approve a Chinese-made vaccine for aid agency use. The vaccine is to combat Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease prevalent in Southeast Asia that can be fatal especially in children. Some 50,000 cases a year are reported, with a quarter to a third fatal and a third of survivors suffering long-term disability.

Approval would mark a milestone for China’s pharmaceutical industry. It would be a first such pre-qualification for one of its products, and a gateway to lucrative global markets. The U.N.’s children’s welfare agency, Unicef, alone buys vaccines for 70 million children a year.

The vaccine is made by the Chengdu Institute of Biological Products, a unit of China National Biotec Group (CNBG), which, in turn, is part of the giant SinoPharm. CNBG can boast that every Chinese has been vaccinated by at least one of its products.

In March last year, the WHO certified the national drug approval agency, which opened the door to Chinese manufacturers applying for pre-qualification of their drugs. The Chendgu Insitute did so at the beginning of this year.

The company says that as of the end of 2010 it had already supplied 141 million doses of the vaccine to the region. Pre-qualification will help it expand that number greatly, and provide a boost to China’s fast-growing phama industry, not least by giving it a WHO quality stamp of approval.

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WHO Removes China From Active Polio Outbreak List

We should note that it  is now six months since the most recent case of polio was confirmed in the fatal outbreak of WPV1 in Xinjiang, the first in the country since 2000. The World Health Organization has removed China from its list of active outbreaks. There were 21 confirmed cases in the outbreak, leaving at least 17 people paralyzed, including eight children. Two cases were fatal. A mass immunization program has been undertaken, with a fifth round of vaccinations being administered this month to all children under 15 in Xinjiang and to everyone under 40 in the five worst hit districts, Hotan in the south, where the outbreak was first reported last August, Kashgar, Aksu, Bazhou and Kezhou. The disease is thought to have arrived from Pakistan, where it is endemic and where there have been 13 confirmed cases so far this year.

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China Conducts Third Round Of Mass Vaccinations Against Polio

China is conducting a third round of mass vaccinations in the wake of the fatal outbreak of polio in July in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang near the border with India and Pakistan, the source of the outbreak. The vaccinations started on Nov. 15 and will take a week. They are being given to 3.8 million children in Xinjiang–all under 15 years olds in the outbreak areas and all under fives in the other parts of the province, as well as to 4.5 million 15-39 years olds in southern Xinjiang. They are the same groups that received the second round of vaccinations in late September and early October.

Preventive programs are being conducted in all provinces across the country in an effort to again rid China of polio, which had previously seen its last case in 1999. Eighteen cases of polio have been confirmed in the latest outbreak in Xinjiang, 12 in Hotan prefecture, 5 in Kashgar prefecture and 1 in Bazhou prefecture. Nine cases are children under three years of age and nine young adults between 19 and 31 years old, according to the World Health Organization. One infant has died.

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China Expands Vaccination Campaign Following Deadly Polio Outbreak

China has expanded its mass vaccination program following a fatal outbreak of polio in Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang near the border with India and Pakistan, the source of the outbreak. Immunizations of 4.5 million 15-39 year olds in the south of the province started today, following confirmation that four of the 10 known cases involved young adults. Earlier this month, 3.8 million children, everyone under 15 years old in the outbreak area and all under fives in the other parts of the province, were given a first vaccination, with health officials going house-to-house, kindergarten-to-kindergarten and school-to-school. A second round will take place in early October. Children are being marked behind their ears with indelible ink to track whether they have been vaccinated. The outbreak, the first in China for more than a decade, has already killed one infant.

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