The World Health Organization urged people to stop playing fast and loose with the pandemic as COVID-19 cases rise across the globe.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said cases have been rising for seven weeks with 4.4 million new cases recorded last week. A year ago, only 500,000 cases were being recorded in a week.
“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic where we have proven control measures,” Van Kerkhove said. “It is time right now where everyone has to take stock and have a reality check about what we need to be doing.”
Worldwide there have been over 136.4 million COVID-19 cases recorded so far, with more than 2.9 million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Officials said that while vaccinations were speeding up in parts of the world, many countries, specifically poorer ones have vaccinated very few people.
The Los Angeles Times reported that as many as 60 countries are seeing their vaccination efforts stalled as shipments from Covax, the global initiative to provide vaccines to countries who can’t get them on their own, were halted.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday slammed the imbalance of COVID-19 distribution saying while rich countries like the US and UK have seen one in four people get a dose, in poorer countries only one in 500 people had gotten a dose.
“Vaccines and vaccinations are coming online, but they’re not here yet in every part of the world where they need to be,” Van Kerkhove said.
Ghebreyesus urged people to continue maintaining safety measures like social distancing, wearing masks, and testing, all of which help curb the pandemic and save lives.
“But confusion, complacency, and inconsistency in public health measures and their application are driving transmission and costing lives,” he said.
COVID-19 passports have been hailed as the key to opening up the global economy, but some privacy and health experts doubt they’ll ever be widely accepted.
Plans to require COVID-19 passports for international travel or even entry to large venues or work offices may fumble, as critics say there’s a wide range of issues – from privacy and inequity, to continuity and longevity – standing in the way. But airlines, which took a trillion-dollar hit because of the pandemic, are banking on some kind of digital credential to get people flying internationally again.
The most likely outcome, said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency and a former director at the US Department of Defense, is that health passports will likely be needed only if you plan to travel internationally, but they won’t be “as big a deal as everyone thinks.”
But by the time a system is agreed upon and created, this could be a “moot” point, he told Insider.
“The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant because by the time everyone gets inoculated, do you really need one?” he said, noting that travelers don’t provide proof of vaccination against measles or rubella upon entering a foreign country.
Even so, these health passports have begun rolling out as proposals or beta tests, and some have even gone live in various markets across the globe.
The European Union proposed the “Digital Green Certificate,” a vaccine passport which would allow travel to 27 member countries, if approved. China, Israel, the UAE, and the Philippines are among other countries that have launched versions of their own, as well.
In the US, the White House is reportedly working on a vaccination passport that could require proof of immunization prior to traveling or entering crowded venues. And New York was the first state to launch one that would show a person’s proof of vaccination before entering large gatherings, like a basketball game or a wedding.
Nobody is talking about the ‘politics that go into this’
The World Health Organization, and even airlines, have advocated against requiring vaccination for travel. The main reasons are data on how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission plus the limited global supply, according to the WHO.
“If access to vaccine is (unequal), then inequity and unfairness can be further branded into the system,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme executive director, said on March 8.
In February, the WHO said wealthy countries with just 16% of the world’s population bought up 60% of the available COVID-19 vaccine supply. It flagged the inequality in the global immunization effort, but also said the imbalance could cause the virus to continue spreading and mutating to more dangerous variants.
In the US alone, the vaccine rollout has been disproportionate among minorities and poorer populations, who have received fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine despite often being at greater risk for contracting the disease.
Some have also said international COVID-19 passports becoming standardized and globally adoptedcould be too big a task to accomplish.
“The technology to make this happen is very difficult, but the even more difficult part that no one’s talking about is the politics that go into this,” said Bryce Conway, consumer advocate and founder at 10xTravel, a company that helps more than 70,000 travelers navigate loyalty programs and credit card points.
In the US, for example, some Republican lawmakers have dubbed the concept of vaccine passports as dystopian.
“We can’t even agree how to row the boat in this country,” Del Monte said. “This is not going to roll out quickly.”
Internationally, if countries approve certain vaccines and not others, some immunized travelers may still be barred from entering. China, for example, has said travelers receiving its vaccine will have an easier time entering the country, and many countries have said Russia’s shot isn’t effective enough to qualify.
Conway said the most likely scenario, if a COVID-19 passport is adopted, is that various groups of countries will agree on how to accept travelers from one another.
“I don’t think you’re going to have a multinational, huge system where everyone’s on it and that’s the one standard that’s used,” he said
But Laura Hoffner, chief of staff at risk consulting firm Concentric, said the secret to creating a COVID-19 passport is getting the US to lay out protocols. Because once that happens, “the world will most likely follow suit,” she said.
On March 12, Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said the private sector and others have already begun working on how to prove vaccination.
“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he said.
Still, the airline industry has asked the White House for specific guidelines on a health passport, so people can get back to flying, as international travel has plummeted 85% because of the pandemic, according to Perry Flint, head of the International Air Transport Association’s US corporate communications.
“We’re ready to get going again,” Flint said.
In a statement to Business Insider, the White House said it is “leading an interagency effort regarding vaccine verification,” but didn’t give any details on a timeline or how a passport would work.
‘We can do all of this with little pieces of paper’
Airline trade groups such as IATA and Airlines for America are advocating for a digital passport that either verifies someone’s immunization to COVID-19 or a negative test result, as they say outright mandating the vaccine could discriminate against those who can’t or refuse to get the vaccine.
While waiting for guidance from the government, IATA has begun testing its own digital passport, called the Travel Pass. Doctors can send test results or proof of vaccination to a person, who can link that information to the Travel Pass app prior to flying. Then travelers show the app to an agent, along with their actual passport and ticket.
These digital passports come with another hurdle, though: maintaining privacy.
Immunity passport apps are fraught with privacy flaws and pose big ethical problems, according to a report from security research company Top10VPN, which analyzed 65 digital health certificate apps operating around the world and found 82% had inadequate privacy policies.
Jon Callas at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the high-tech solution comes with too high a price tag and too high a risk for invasion of privacy. “We can do all of this with little pieces of paper,” he said.
Checking thousands of vaccination papers or test results would be a bottleneck to international travel, Flint said, saying the world shouldn’t use a “20th Century standard” when many things, such as tickets, have already gone digital.
For years, some countries have already taken on the task of checking proof-of-vaccination papers against yellow fever. This has become known as the “yellow paper,” and could be as easily applied to COVID-19, said Callas.
But the yellow card is “not safe; it’s not easy,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive officer of CLEAR, said at the Economic Club of New York on March 30. CLEAR, a biometric identity platform used at airports, has created its own “digital health credential,” called Health Pass that Seidman-Becker said will make travel “frictionless.”
But with regard to digital credentials, Callas said, “I don’t see why a paper form isn’t good enough. Every immigration form that I do, I sign it at the bottom, and say under penalty of perjury I assert this is true, and I don’t see why, ‘I got my COVID-19 vaccine’ isn’t just another box to tick.”
“They’re trying to sell digital passports,” he said “The people who are advocating this are the ones who want the rest of us to pay for that.”
China on Wednesday accused the US of “political manipulation” as Beijing faces criticism over a World Health Organization report on the origins of COVID-19.
“We have repeatedly emphasized that origin tracing is a scientific issue, and it should be carried out cooperatively by global scientists and cannot be politicized, which is also the consensus of most countries,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a briefing, per CNN.
“The politicization of origin tracing is extremely immoral and unpopular, which only hinders global cooperation and [the] global fight against the virus,” Hua said, accusing countries like the US of disrespecting science and “political manipulation.”
After the release of the WHO report, the US and 13 other governments issued a joint statement expressing concerns regarding lack of “access to complete, original data and samples.”
“It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged,” the statement said. “With all data in hand, the international community may independently assess COVID-19 origins, learn valuable lessons from this pandemic, and prevent future devastating consequences from outbreaks of disease.”
The WHO report, released on Tuesday, listed the possible origins of COVID-19. It said the virus likely jumped from bats to humans via another animal. At a press conference on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki discussed the report at Tuesday’s press briefing, saying that President Joe Biden “believes the American people, the global community, the medical experts, the doctors – all of the people who have been working to save lives, the families who have lost loved ones – all deserve greater transparency.”
“They deserve better information. They deserve steps that are taken by the global community to provide that,” Psaki added. “The report lacks crucial data, information, and access. It represents a partial and incomplete picture.”
China has frequently been criticized by the US and its allies over a lack of transparency surrounding COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan, China. Along these lines, then-President Donald Trump accused the WHO of being too subservient to Beijing and announced he was pulling the US from the UN health agency. But in one of his first executive orders as president, Biden reversed Trump’s move to withdraw from the WHO.
After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered its best guess as to where the coronavirus came from and how it got into the human population.
A 120-page report released Tuesday lists the virus’ potential origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host. But the WHO team, which visited Wuhan from January to February, was in the end unable to pinpoint which population of bats, or which intermediary species, was carrying the virus.
The group did, however, determine that the cross-species hop most likely happened at a farm where wild animals were bred for food in southern China.
“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR.
The WHO team thinks that spillover event, as its known, happened in November or even October 2019. China shut down these types of wildlife farms in February 2020, Daszak said.
‘There is a pathway that this virus could’ve taken’
Daszak said his team found evidence that wildlife farms in China’s Yunnan province and surrounding provinces supplied vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. The first cluster of COVID-19 cases reported in December was linked to that market, which sold live animals and frozen meat.
Two studies published last year found that the new coronavirus shares 96% and 97.1% of its genetic code with coronaviruses seen in Chinese horseshoe bat populations from the Yunnan province, which borders Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
“Animals that we know are coronavirus reservoirs or able to carry coronaviruses came from places where the nearest related viruses are found,” Daszak said Tuesday in a WHO press conference. “There is a pathway that this virus could’ve taken to move 800 to 1,000 miles from the rural parts of south China, southeast Asia, to this market.”
According to the WHO report, possible intermediary host species that may have been raised at these wildlife farms include: minks, pangolins, rabbits, raccoon dogs, and domesticated cats. All of these species can be infected by the new coronavirus. The team is also considering civets, ferret badgers, and weasels as potential hosts, since these animals got infected with the SARS coronavirus and passed it to people in 2002.
Any contact with an infected animal, or with animal products or poop, can allow a virus to jump from animals to people.
But the WHO team didn’t find any infected animals
Daszak’s group took 900 samples from the Huanan market, which closed in early January 2020. They swabbed surfaces, examined animal carcasses, and tested sewage, looking for evidence of the virus. The results showed the surfaces were indeed contaminated with viral particles, but none of the animal carcasses studied – or live animals brought to the site – tested positive.
This suggests that humans, not animals, most likely brought the virus into the market. Indeed, the WHO team concluded the virus had been circulating in Wuhan for a month or more before the outbreak there.
The WHO team also examined more than 80,000 samples from cattle, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, and pigs from 31 provinces across China. There wasn’t a single positive case among them. None of the animals had coronavirus-specific antibodies, either, which would have indicated a past infection.
The researchers weren’t able to test animals at wildlife in farms from southern China for evidence of infection, however, so they recommended doing so in a follow-up investigation.
Finding the bat population that first harbored the virus may be easier
According to Fabian Leendertz, a wildlife veterinarian with the WHO team, it’s more likely that the team will find the bat population the virus first lived in, rather than the animal that passed it to humans.
“At this point, it may well have disappeared from any intermediate host, so sampling bats, in particular, is probably the most likely to yield results,” Leendertz told Science.
Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.
Still, the WHO team tested samples from more than 1,100 bats in the Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and did not see any viruses closely related to the new coronavirus. That non-finding lends credence to the idea that the virus first jumped to people elsewhere in China.
Daszak is still confident, however, that scientists will eventually find the population of bats that were the coronavirus’ original hosts.
“It would’ve been incredible to have a bat with the exact same lineage of viruses,” he said. “We didn’t see that yet. That will come in the future I think.”
After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered the most comprehensive analysis to date of where the coronavirus might have come from and how it could have gotten into the human population.
The WHO report, released Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Last on the ranking is the controversial theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.
But in a press conference Tuesday, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”
“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said. Tedros added that members of the international WHO team who traveled to China “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data.”
Following the report’s release, the US and a dozen other countries have called for an independent investigation into the coronavirus’ origins – one that would be “free from interference and undue influence,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
A lab leak is ‘extremely unlikely,’ but the WHO didn’t audit Wuhan labs
Tedros said the lab-leak hypothesis should “remain on the table,” since the WHO experts spent only hours at each high-level biosafety lab in Wuhan.
Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, said during the press conference that the group didn’t do “a full investigation or audit” of any particular lab. Overall, he added, the possibility of a lab leak “did not receive the same depth of attention and work” as other hypotheses about the virus’ origin.
Still, the report offers compelling reasons why it’s extremely unlikely the virus escaped from a lab.
The team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic, before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019.
The WHO also didn’t find any records indicating that viruses closely related to the new coronavirus were kept in any Chinese lab before that month. There were also no viruses that, when combined, could have produced the new coronavirus.
Additionally, none of the staff in any Wuhan labs studying coronaviruses reported cases of respiratory illnesses “during the weeks/months prior to December 2019,” the report said.
Blood samples from staff during that time (which are taken routinely from biosafety lab workers to monitor their health) also all tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. This suggests no lab workers got infected prior to the pandemic.
‘This is something coming out of our labs’
The WHO team’s report did reveal, however, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) moved to a new location in early December 2019. The new facility happened to be about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, to which China’s first cluster of cases was linked.
That proximity, coupled with the fact that there were multiple labs in Wuhan studying coronaviruses at the time the pandemic began, has led to speculation about a possible link between a lab and the market outbreak.
“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, this coronavirus: ‘This is something coming out of our labs,'” Embarek said.
“They all went back to their to their records and work to try to find out if there was a link but nobody could find any trace of something similar to this virus in in their records or their their samples,” he added.
But Embarek’s team didn’t have the resources to fully verify that claim.
“A team of scientists is not qualified to conduct a detailed audit of WIV’s records, or get access to institutional files, lab notebooks, databases, or freezer inventories,” virologist Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and member of the WHO team, told Science.
Dominic Dwyer, a WHO microbiologist who’s worked in high-level biosafety labs before, said on Tuesday that the team was “satisfied there was no obvious evidence of a problem,” in any of the labs they visited. He noted as well that a complete forensic examination of a lab is a complex process, and that was “not what we were there to do.”
The WHO team did, however, speak with managers and staff at the labs about their safety protocol, and confirmed the facilities were well-managed.
A wealth of evidence points to the conclusion that bats first passed the coronavirus to an animal, the WHO experts said. Then that animal population passed it along to humans. Indeed, a May study revealed that the new coronavirus shared 97.1% of its genetic code with a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.
Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.
A new World Health Organization report, set to be released on Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood.
According to the the Associated Press, which obtained a draft copy of the report, the most likely option is that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Next on the likelihood ranking is the possibility that the virus jumped directly from bats to people.
The report is the product of a month-long investigation by an international team that was sent to Wuhan, China, in January to investigate how the virus got into the human population, and from where. The effort, however, yielded few definitive answers.
The WHO team also evaluated less plausible theories, the AP reported, including that the virus might have spread to humans via frozen food products; the report authors deemed this scenario “not likely.” One hypothesis was labeled “extremely unlikely” and all but dismissed: the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab.
Chinese wildlife farms are a possible origin site
The WHO experts behind the report – which the AP got from a diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland – worked together with Chinese scientists during their trip. The WHO team said it got unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where officials reported the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases in December 2019.
The group’s conclusion, though far from certain, is that wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely place where the virus made a cross-species hop into humans.
“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR. He added that China shut down those wildlife farms in February 2020.
The coronavirus probably came into our population via one of those bred animals, perhaps a pangolin, rabbit, or ferret, according to the WHO. Daszak said his team found evidence that these wildlife farms supplied vendors at the Huanan market.
The virus likely came from bats, and it didn’t leak from a lab
Although the WHO report does not pinpoint exactly where the coronavirus outbreak began, it does offer reasons why it almost certainly did not leak from a lab, as some unsubstantiated theories suggest.
Ideas about a lab leak often point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic. The lab is about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
But the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the institute, or at any other labs in China, before the pandemic began. The team also spoke with managers and staff at the institute about their safety protocols.
According to Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, it is “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”
Much more likely, the WHO experts said, is that the virus started circulating in bats first.
A study from February 2020 found that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then another study revealed an even closer match: a 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.
Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.
‘Real concerns about the methodology’
Doubts about the trustworthiness of the WHO report linger, however. The AP revealed in December that the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the virus’ origins, while simultaneously promoting theories that it came from outside of China. Mounting evidence also suggests that the virus was circulating in China months before the first cases were reported.
“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Thursday. During his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said he thought China had misled the world about the coronavirus.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’s reserving judgment about the WHO findings until he can “get a feel for what they had or did not have access to.”
“Once I get that information, I’ll be able to more adequately answer whether I trust it or not,” Fauci said of the report in a White House press briefing on Monday.
The lingering uncertainty leaves a door open for unsubstantiated theories to continue to spread. Robert Redfield, who was head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, recently reiterated one such idea: that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab.
“Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield told CNN on Friday, adding, “I’m allowed to have opinions now.”
As wealthier nations speed up their COVID-19 vaccine rollout, poorer countries are being left behind.
Rich nations, on average, vaccinated one person every second throughout January and February, while the majority of the poorest nations are yet to give a single dose, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Developing countries also face “critical shortages” of oxygen and medical supplies to cope with COVID-19 cases, the Alliance, a coalition of campaigning organizations including Oxfam, the International Trade Union Confederation, and ActionAid, said.
Vaccine doses are going to wealthier countries
To prevent wealthier countries from snatching up vital doses of the vaccine, groups including the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the COVAX scheme in April 2020.
Countries sign up to access an equal share of successful vaccine candidates, meaning the doses are shared among richer and poorer countries.
Despite being a “phenomenal effort at international collaboration,” Covax is “seriously underfunded,” Ted Schrecker, professor of global health policy at Newcastle University Medical School, told Insider.
Covax made its first delivery to Ghana in February. Even as the doses procured through COVAX roll out to poor countries, however, the scheme will only be able to vaccinate 3% of their populations by mid-year, and “at best” 20% by the end of 2021, the Alliance said.
As of 4 March, at least 47 of the world’s 79 lowest-income countries hadn’t vaccinated any of their population, according to the Alliance.
In comparison, President Joe Biden said the US would have enough vaccines for every adult in America by the end of May.
Throughout the pandemic, groups including the People’s Vaccine Alliance have been raising concerns about “vaccine nationalism.” This is when richer countries hoard vaccines, while poorer countries are left scrambling to get their own stocks.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said in February rich countries with only 16% of the world’s population had purchased 60% of available vaccine supplies.
Suspending patents would speed up production
Vaccines doses need to be produced in different areas, priced affordably, allocated globally, and widely deployed for free in local communities, the Alliance said. “Thus far, the world is failing on all four fronts,” it concluded.
The Alliance added that vaccine producers across the world would be ready to produce COVID-19 vaccines if the pharmaceutical companies with authorized vaccines shared their technology and expertise.
A modern factory should be able to start producing vaccines within four months if given the blueprint and technical advice, Suhaib Siddiqi, former director of chemistry at Moderna, said.
Gabriela Bucher, executive director at Oxfam International, said: “By allowing a small group of pharmaceutical companies to decide who lives and who dies, rich nations are prolonging this unprecedented global health emergency and putting countless more lives on the line.”
Wealthier countries could be motivated to ensure all countries have access to a vaccine because of herd immunity beliefs, however.
“In order to control the virus, we need worldwide herd immunity, so between 60% and 72% of the population need immunizing,” Alison Copeland, professor of human geography at Newcastle University, told Insider.
“This will hopefully be enough incentive for richer countries to help out.”
The risk is that, even if a few countries fully vaccinate themselves, the virus can still spread elsewhere.
Allowing it to spread risks it mutating into a more dangerous variants that could resist existing vaccines and prolong the pandemic around the world.
Professor Ken Shadlen, professor of Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science described this worry in an interview with Insider.
He pointed to “concern that if we don’t distribute the vaccine in a globally more equal way it’s going to potentially undermine the health benefits of all that we’re doing with lockdowns and vaccines.”
He said that the emergence of a vaccine-conquering variant is by no means guaranteed, but that “it would take a lot of confidence to believe that it’s not going to, if it keeps spreading.”
“We’re gambling and it’s a bit of a race.”
Dr. Michael Osterholm, another expert, agreed with the concerns. He is an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and also advised President Joe Biden on the coronavirus during his transition.
He told Insider that vaccine equality should already be a “top priority” to save lives around the world.
He said that one of the biggest risks to ending the pandemic is “largely uncontrolled transmission in the low-and-middle-income countries,” even if wealthier nations have finished their vaccine drives.
He said: “We have got to have an immediate international plan to vaccinate the world as quickly as possible.”
The WHO is warning the pandemic won’t end until outbreaks end everywhere. Tedros said in February: “This is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of epidemiology.”
Already fighting mutant strains
Variants of the virus are causing widespread alarm and changing the course of the pandemic.
A more-contagious strain first identified in the UK was blamed for surges across Europe, and in the US the CDC warned that it could become the dominant strain.
Some countries’ responses are already changing.
The UK has one of the most successful vaccination programs in the world – almost a third of the population has received at least one dose. There are ambitious plans to end all restrictions before the end of June.
But officials warn that mutations could harm that progress: politicians say the UK is in a “race against evolution.”
The UK is chasing down cases of variants, closely tracking small outbreaks of strains first found in South Africa and Brazil.
Most countries don’t have the resources to react as fast, and it only takes a few mistakes for a new strain to take hold.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich School of Medicine, noted that some now argue that lockdowns “should continue for longer than we might think” because of the risk from variants.
He noted that the evidence for that is not yet conclusive.
Its first shots were delivered to Ghana in late February, with shots since arriving in countries like Senegal, Sudan, and Kenya.
But it has been battling underfunding and the problems of limited supply. Even with money to buy doses, COVAX has to contend with the reality that wealthy countries have already reserved almost all supplies for the near future.
The WHO has accused wealthy countries of hoarding doses and driving up prices, frustrating its progress.
That’s adding to the issues created by the shortage of supply globally, leaving it harder for poorer countries to get vaccines and leaving huge populations with little protection.
There’s another big problem with COVAX: Its aims are the “bare minimum,” as Shadlen put it.
It aims to vaccinate around 20% of the populations of 92 countries by the end of the year, far short of the ambitions of the US and others.
Osterholm described COVAX as “a start.” But, he said, “COVAX has never been designed to deliver a vaccine to the entire world in short order.”
“Now we have new data, new information about this thing called variants, which is a game changer. So I think that we’re in a new place. And COVAX to me, while it’s a very positive development, it’s old thinking.”
Instead he called for a plan that involves “everyone, whether it’s Russia or China, or the United States or Europe. We all have the same interest here.”
Tamaryn Nelson, a health advisor to Amnesty International, put it bluntly to Insider: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
A big unknown
The key factor is how much risk larger countries are willing to tolerate. Osterholm, the expert who advised Biden, said that there is no way of knowing ahead of time if a new, scary variant will appear.
Researchers are doing what they can to counter this, working on booster on booster shots to fight specific variants. But the development takes time and money, and is itself not guaranteed to work.
The safer option is to get rid of the virus as widely as possible.
Osterholm said: “I always remind people we are a year into this pandemic, but the variants of concern have only been around for about three months.”
“All this has happened in three months: What’s it going to be like three to six months from now?”
“We’re in a chess match with this virus right now. It’s making moves we’ve never seen before.”
WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said on February 12 that a summary of the results would come within weeks, the Journal said.
But that plan has been scrapped, lead scientist on the investigation team, Peter Ben Embarek, told the Journal.
The results of the WHO-China Joint study are not yet public, the WHO confirmed in an email to Insider on Friday.
Instead, “the team wants to issue the full report at the same time as the summary so all information is available to public”, said spokesman Tarik Jašarević.
This news comes as the independence of the team conducting the investigation has come under fire.
In a letter published on Thursday, 26 scientists not affiliated with the WHO team said that “structural limitations” in how the team operated made a full examination of the origins of the pandemic “all but impossible”.
The scientists said that half of the team is made up of “Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited”.
The investigation has to rely on “information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them”, the scientists said in the letter.
The WHO team arrived in January to Wuhan to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. It was over a year after the beginning of the outbreak.
After the press conference, one of the scientists on the team said that China had refused to release the raw data to the WHO team, making it more difficult to assess the quality of the information.
Responding to that report, the White House said on February 13 it was “deeply concerned” about the way the early findings were communicated, and called on China to release the data from the earliest days of the outbreak.
“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government”, the statement said.
The WHO told Insider in an email that the full report is “expected in coming weeks”.
As I write, I am in hotel quarantine in Sydney, after returning from Wuhan, China. There, I was the Australian representative on the international World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Much has been said of the politics surrounding the mission to investigate the viral origins of COVID-19. So it’s easy to forget that behind these investigations are real people.
As part of the mission, we met the man who, on December 8, 2019, was the first confirmed COVID-19 case; he’s since recovered. We met the husband of a doctor who died of COVID-19 and left behind a young child. We met the doctors who worked in the Wuhan hospitals treating those early COVID-19 cases, and learned what happened to them and their colleagues. We witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on many individuals and communities, affected so early in the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat COVID-19, or its impacts.
We talked to our Chinese counterparts – scientists, epidemiologists, doctors – over the four weeks the WHO mission was in China. We were in meetings with them for up to 15 hours a day, so we became colleagues, even friends. This allowed us to build respect and trust in a way you couldn’t necessarily do via Zoom or email.
It was in Wuhan, in central China, that the virus, now called SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019, unleashing the greatest infectious disease outbreak since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.
Our investigations concluded the virus was most likely of animal origin. It probably crossed over to humans from bats, via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal, at an unknown location. Such “zoonotic” diseases have triggered pandemics before. But we are still working to confirm the exact chain of events that led to the current pandemic. Sampling of bats in Hubei province and wildlife across China has revealed no SARS-CoV-2 to date.
We visited the now-closed Wuhan wet market which, in the early days of the pandemic, was blamed as the source of the virus. Some stalls at the market sold “domesticated” wildlife products. These are animals raised for food, such as bamboo rats, civets, and ferret badgers. There is also evidence some domesticated wildlife may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. However, none of the animal products sampled after the market’s closure tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
We also know not all of those first 174 early COVID-19 cases visited the market, including the man who was diagnosed in December 2019 with the earliest onset date.
However, when we visited the closed market, it’s easy to see how an infection might have spread there. When it was open, there would have been around 10,000 people visiting a day, in close proximity, with poor ventilation and drainage.
There’s also genetic evidence generated during the mission for a transmission cluster there. Viral sequences from several of the market cases were identical, suggesting a transmission cluster. However, there was some diversity in other viral sequences, implying other unknown or unsampled chains of transmission.
A summary of modelling studies of the time to the most recent common ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 sequences estimated the start of the pandemic between mid-November and early December. There are also publications suggesting SARS-CoV-2 circulation in various countries earlier than the first case in Wuhan, although these require confirmation.
The market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. So we need to look elsewhere for the viral origins.
Did frozen or refrigerated food play a role?
Then there was the “cold chain” hypothesis. This is the idea the virus might have originated from elsewhere via the farming, catching, processing, transporting, refrigeration, or freezing of food. Was that food ice cream, fish, wildlife meat? We don’t know. It’s unproven that this triggered the origin of the virus itself. But to what extent did it contribute to its spread? Again, we don’t know.
Several “cold chain” products present in the Wuhan market were not tested for the virus. Environmental sampling in the market showed viral surface contamination. This may indicate the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 through infected people, or contaminated animal products and “cold chain” products. Investigation of “cold chain” products and virus survival at low temperatures is still underway.
It’s extremely unlikely that the virus escaped from a lab
The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely.
We visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is an impressive research facility, and looks to be run well, with due regard to staff health.
We spoke to the scientists there. We heard that scientists’ blood samples, which are routinely taken and stored, were tested for signs they had been infected. No evidence of antibodies to the coronavirus was found. We looked at their biosecurity audits. No evidence.
We looked at the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 they were working on – the virus RaTG13 – which had been detected in caves in southern China where some miners had died seven years previously.
But all the scientists had was a genetic sequence for this virus. They hadn’t managed to grow it in culture. While viruses certainly do escape from laboratories, this is rare. So, we concluded it was extremely unlikely this had happened in Wuhan.
A team of more than 30 experts
When I say “we,” the mission was a joint exercise between the WHO and the Chinese health commission. In all, there were 17 Chinese and 10 international experts, plus seven other experts and support staff from various agencies. We looked at the clinical epidemiology (how COVID-19 spread among people), the molecular epidemiology (the genetic makeup of the virus and its spread), and the role of animals and the environment.
The clinical epidemiology group alone looked at China’s records of 76,000 episodes from more than 200 institutions of anything that could have resembled COVID-19 – such as influenza-like illnesses, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. They found no clear evidence of substantial circulation of COVID-19 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019 before the first case.
Our mission to China was only phase one. We are due to publish our official report in the coming weeks. Investigators will also look further afield for data, to investigate evidence the virus was circulating in Europe, for instance, earlier in 2019. Investigators will continue to test wildlife and other animals in the region for signs of the virus. And we’ll continue to learn from our experiences to improve how we investigate the next pandemic.
Irrespective of the origins of the virus, individual people with the disease are at the beginning of the epidemiology data points, sequences, and numbers. The long-term physical and psychological effects – the tragedy and anxiety – will be felt in Wuhan, and elsewhere, for decades to come.