Coronavirus: WHO team granted full access in Wuhan, says official

World wrap: New infections and hospitalisations fall in Israel as vaccines kick in

A member of the World Health Organisation expert team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan says Chinese authorities granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested — a level of openness that even he had not expected.

Peter Daszak told The Associated Press on Friday that team members had submitted a deeply considered list of places and people to include in their investigation and that no objections were raised.

“We were asked where we wanted to go. We gave our hosts a list ... and you can see from where we’ve been, we’ve been to all the key places,” Ms Daszak said.

"Every place we asked to see, everyone we wanted to meet ... So, really good," said the British-born zoologist, who is president of the NGO EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.

Mr Daszak said the team had now concluded site visits and would spend the next few days trolling through data and consulting with Chinese experts before presenting a summary of their findings at a news briefing prior to their departure on Wednesday.

“I can’t really say too much about what we’ve found yet because we’re at that exact point in time where the teams are coming together looking at different pathways, different issues,” he said.

He said questions included what were the first cases, what was the link with animals and what, if any, was the role of the so-called "cold chain" — the possibility the virus was brought into China on packaging from imported frozen food, an unproven theory that China has long put forward.

“And of course, we’re looking at every hypotheses that’s been out there and seeing where the data take us and do they point to any particular one,” Mr Daszak said.

Mr Daszak had high praise for Chinese experts, who had been preparing for the visit for months, particularly deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, with whom he worked to track down the origins of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.

Some, including people close to former US president Donald Trump, had speculated the institute may have been the origin of the outbreak because of its large collection of bat virus specimens, and that Chinese authorities were covering up the truth.

However, Mr Daszak said they were met during their visit to the high-security institute with a level of openness even he had not anticipated, and that suspicions surrounding it had been “politicised on a global scale”.

Authorities have kept a tight hold on information about the possible causes of the pandemic that has now sickened more than 105 million people and killed more than 2.2 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, Sinovac Biotech said on Saturday that its unit's COVID-19 vaccine has been formally approved for use by the general public by China's medical products regulator.

Prior to the approval, the CoronaVac vaccine had already been administered in China’s vaccination programme mainly targeting key groups deemed to be at higher risk of exposure to the virus.

Israel

Israel, whose Covid-19 vaccination program leads the world, found it took three weeks for the jabs to curb new infections and hospitalisations.

Researchers in the Middle Eastern country reported preliminary observations Wednesday from a national immunization program that began December 20th. Improvement in the number of new cases and hospitalised patients occurred 21 days following the vaccination campaign, the scientists said, noting that the real-life effect of vaccines may take longer than what was demonstrated in clinical trials.

“To our knowledge, no study thus far has studied the impact of the vaccination campaign on the population level and its effect on the patterns of pandemic dynamics,” scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot said. “As Israel is one of the first countries to implement a vaccination campaign on this magnitude, we believe that this quantification may be of major interest for many countries worldwide.”

Israel’s vaccination drive began just before a more transmissible strain emerged, fueling infections and leading to a third lockdown on January 8th. As of Tuesday, 28 per cent of Israelis – including three-quarters of those 60 years or older – had either received two doses of the vaccine or had recovered from an infection. At the peak, 229,508 doses were administered in one day.

South Korea

South Korea on Saturday eased curfews on more than half a million restaurants and other businesses outside the capital Seoul, letting them stay open an hour later, amid a public backlash over tight curbs to contain Covid-19.

After using aggressive testing and tracing to blunt several earlier waves of the coronavirus without drastic lockdowns, the authorities have imposed increasingly rigid social distancing rules as they fight the latest wave of the epidemic.

The restraints have pushed small business owners and self-employed people to the limits of what they can endure, prime minister Chung Sye-kyun told an intra-agency meeting on Saturday.

So businesses outside the capital will now be able to stay open until 10 p.m., but "the 9pm operations restriction remains as is in the metropolitan Seoul area, where more than 70 per cent of total infections are concentrated and still faces the risk of virus transmission," Mr Chung said.

The businesses include some 580,000 cafes, restaurants, indoor fitness facilities and karaoke bars, vice-health minister Kang Do-tae told a briefing.

Businesses that flout the virus prevention guidelines will be ordered to close for two weeks, Mr Kang said.

Most of the new cases were in Seoul, the neighbouring port city of Incheon, and Gyeonggi Province, home to over 25 million people.

Hundreds of restaurant and cafe owners across the country have complained about the impact of the bans on their businesses. Gym owners hurt by restrictions reopened in protest against strict social distancing rules.

Authorities extended the current level of social distancing until February 14th, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday from February 11th, when tens of millions of Koreans usually travel across the country to family gatherings.

Mr Kang urged people to stay home during the holiday, fearing travel could cause another surge in coronavirus cases, and said the authorities would maintain a ban on private gatherings of more than four people. – Agencies