The United States has joined calls for a more in-depth, transparent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, after an international probe in China earlier this year yielded little in the way of firm conclusions.
Speaking at the World Health Organization’s annual summit for member states in Geneva on Tuesday, representatives from the US and several other countries emphasized the importance of identifying how Covid-19 began spreading.
“We underscore the importance of a robust comprehensive and expert-led inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which is central to ensuring that we are prepared to mitigate and successfully respond to future outbreaks and prevent future pandemics,” US representative Jeremy Konyndyk told the World Health Assembly, urging an “expert-led, science-based and independent analysis of origin.”
The United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and Japan were among other nations to call for more progress on the WHO probe.
A team of international experts sent in January to Wuhan, the original epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, reported that the virus was likely transferred to humans from bats via an intermediate animal. They also argued that a theory involving the virus leaking from a laboratory was “extremely unlikely,” citing a lack of infected lab workers before the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in December 2019.
But a new US intelligence report that found illnesses at a Chinese virology lab a month earlier has raised new questions about where Covid-19 may have originated.
China has long rejected the lab-leak theory, which was often touted by former US President Donald Trump. And while WHO member nations aren’t suggesting that a lab leak was the source of the virus, many want the next stages in the probe to take a deeper dive into the virus’ source.
Their calls come after a number of prominent international scientists, including Anthony Fauci, have suggested that a more scientific look at the theory was needed. Speaking at a fact-checking symposium on May 11, America’s top infectious disease expert said he was no longer convinced that the pandemic originated naturally, and that the international community should “continue to investigate what went on in China.”
Despite numerous demands for a deeper second phase of the Covid origins study, the same diplomatic sensitivities that have stymied WHO’s efforts in the past could curtail any firm commitments on a way forward.
“The purpose of the inquiry is not to assign blame, but to be grounded in science, to find the origin of the virus and the outbreaks, and to help us all prevent future global catastrophes from happening,” Konyndyk said.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.
Q: Why are scientists suddenly more interested in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origin?
A: A US intelligence report that several workers in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019 has spurred further debate about whether the virus originated in the lab. However, officials believe it won’t be possible to know exactly what happened until China opens up to a full international investigation, which so far it has been unwilling to do. The director of the Wuhan lab told Chinese state media the report was “a complete lie.”
Jamie Metzl, a WHO adviser, said Tuesday there was mounting evidence of a lab leak and that it could have occurred while scientists were “poking and prodding and studying” viruses with the good intention of developing vaccines.”
“Then I believe what possibly happened was there was an accidental leak followed by a criminal cover-up,” added Metzl, who served in the US Department of State during the Clinton Administration and is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
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WHAT’S IMPORTANT TODAY
50% of American adults are now vaccinated
The US is hitting major Covid-19 vaccination milestones, but health experts say those who are not inoculated should not rely on protection from those who are, as their infection risk hasn’t gone down in response to declining cases, Madeline Holcomb writes.
“The work ahead of us iIs going to be really challenging because while the people who are fully vaccinated are well protected, we still have to keep on convincing individuals who are not yet vaccinated that they are not safe,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen told Wolf Blitzer. “The pandemic is not over for them.”
The risk for unvaccinated people is in fact about the same as it was in the middle of the January surge, Wen said, citing an analysis from the Washington Post.
Half of the adult population in the US is fully vaccinated, according to data published Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for those people, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend — an event identified as a major source of spread last year — may look much like it did before 2020.
Why schools are on alert over new coronavirus variants
As new coronavirus variants pop up around the world, public health experts are looking at one key group of people who might be particularly vulnerable to future outbreaks: School children.
There are no indications that any of the new Covid-19 variants cause more serious disease in children and it remains extremely rare for them to become seriously ill. But outbreaks of the strain of the virus first found in India among British children have sparked some worries about the variant’s spread in schools. The UK outbreaks are still relatively small, but they serve as a cautionary tale for countries across the world that are returning to in-person education, Ivana Kottasová writes.
As more schools reopen and new variants become dominant, outbreaks among younger students may become inevitable. Children are currently excluded from vaccination programs in most of the world. Even in the US, one of the few countries currently vaccinating younger people, children under the age of 12 are ineligible for the shot.
World’s biggest vaccine maker is stalling on exports
As India’s coronavirus crisis spirals, the Serum Institute of India (SII) — the world’s largest vaccine maker — announced last week that it could no longer export its goods. The SII said it wouldn’t restart deliveries to COVAX, a worldwide initiative aimed at distributing vaccines to countries regardless of wealth, until the end of this year.
While SII’s decision will be a lifeline for India, which is still reporting about 200,000 new cases a day, the delay poses a huge problem for developing countries that depend on COVAX to control large outbreaks of their own.
The world is already 140 million doses short — and by the end of June, that gap will have reached 190 million shots, the United Nations children’s agency, one of the partners in COVAX, said last week. There is currently no timeframe for resolving the shortage, UNICEF said. That creates a very real problem, not just for countries with limited access to vaccines where cases are exploding, but also for the whole world, Julia Hollingsworth writes.
ON OUR RADAR
- The White House is teaming up with Snapchat in the latest bid to appeal to persuade young Americans to get vaccinated.
- Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, an official partner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, has called for the upcoming event to be canceled in an editorial published Wednesday.
- Dominic Cummings, who served as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser at the height of the pandemic, has said the UK government’s response to the crisis fell “disastrously short.”
- Concerns over a “black fungus” infecting some Covid-19 patients continues to mount in India as cases of the potentially fatal condition grow to 10,000, the junior minister responsible for chemicals and fertilizers said on Tuesday.
- Child labor in some of the world’s poorest countries rose during pandemic, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, which documented hazardous working conditions, violence and harassment.
How to navigate relationship arguments in the ‘new normal’
Increasingly, couples in trouble are coming to licensed marriage therapist Ian Kerner in an even more heightened state, lashing out at each other, bottling up their emotions or turning to sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness. It’s natural to fight sometimes in our intimate relationships and, for some, the pandemic has exacerbated existing tensions. As much as we love each other, we’re on top of each other and exposed to more stresses, he says.