Coronavirus: WHO visits animal disease centre in Wuhan

World wrap: UK promises testing blitz to identify South African variant in England

Members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photograph: Hector Retamal/ AFP via Getty

Members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photograph: Hector Retamal/ AFP via Getty

 

World Health Organisation (WHO) experts have visited an animal disease centre in the Chinese city of Wuhan as part of their investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Team member Peter Daszak told reporters later they had “excellent facilities” and that it was a “very informative meeting”, and he tweeted that the team met staff in charge of the health of livestock in Hubei province, toured laboratories and had an “in-depth” discussion along with questions and answers.

The team members were wearing full protective gear during the visit, a further indication of the work China has put into preparations for the WHO visit to Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 illnesses emerged in late 2019.

Outside their hotel and in public spaces, the experts have consistently worn masks and professional or business casual attire, but it is not clear if they have worn full-body protective suits at the research institutes, hospitals and markets they have visited previously.

Intense negotiations preceded the WHO visit to Wuhan since China has maintained strict controls on access to information about the virus, possibly to avoid blame for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak.

But on Monday, WHO officials in Geneva pushed back against suggestions the team of experts from 10 countries was not getting enough access or data.

The WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, said the team has plans to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, considered among the major sources of information about the virus’ origins.

Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said the agency was continuing to ask for more data and said anyone with information about how the pandemic started should share it with the organisation.

The data the team assembles will add to what is expected to be a long quest for answers involving taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.

Russia

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine provided strong protection against Covid-19 in an interim analysis of an advanced clinical trial, while its backers said it appears to work against new strains of the virus.

The vaccine was well-tolerated and worked in the elderly as well, according to the peer-reviewed findings, which were published Tuesday in the medical journal the Lancet. Sputnik V showed efficacy of 91.6 per cent, validating claims by the developers last year.

The findings buoy the vaccine’s credibility after it faced accusations of being rushed to market before critical scientific data was available. Sputnik V is approved for use in 16 countries, from Argentina to Iran.

Japan

Japan has announced it is extending a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other areas until March 7th.

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga’s announcement of the one-month extension comes amid growing uncertainty over the national rollout of vaccines and the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Under the state of emergency, the government has issued non-binding requests for people to avoid crowds and eating out in groups, and for restaurants and bars to close by 8pm.

New cases have declined in Tokyo and nationwide since early January, but experts say hospitals remain flooded with serious cases and that preventive measures should remain in place.

Japan has had about 400,000 coronavirus cases, including 5,800 deaths.

“We still need to keep a close watch on the situation,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said. About 80 per cent of the cases in Japan are in the 10 prefectures under the emergency, he said.

The emergency will end on Sunday as previously planned in one prefecture, Tochigi north of Tokyo, where the situation has improved. It will remain in place in Tokyo and its neighbours Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, as well as in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka in the west and Aichi and Gifu in central Japan.

In addition to the request for bars and restaurants to close early, employers were asked to arrange for more of their staff to work from home. Additionally, the government will expand testing, officials said.

Unlike Japan’s first emergency in April and May last year, schools, gyms, theatres and shops remain open, although some stores are voluntarily closing early.

Mr Suga has promised to secure enough vaccines to cover Japan’s entire population of 127 million by June, but none has been approved yet.

Administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who is in charge of Covid-19 vaccines, raised concerns about the delayed distribution of European-made vaccines, saying Japan’s preparations have been affected by a lack of EU clarity.

United Kingdom

A door-to-door testing blitz of 80,000 people in England is aiming to find “every single case” of the South Africa coronavirus variant in a bid to stop the spread of the more infectious strain.

Eleven cases of the variant identified over the past week were in people who had no links to travel, prompting concerns the mutation may be spreading in communities.

Mobile testing units and home testing kits will be deployed to areas where the variant has been discovered as the UK government looks to prevent it getting a foothold.

Mr Hancock told a Downing Street press conference: “It’s a big effort getting this new variant ... essentially finding every single case of it, that is the goal.”

Mr Hancock said the the door-to-door testing regime, along with enhanced contact tracing efforts, was an attempt to “come down on it hard”.

It was “absolutely vital” that people minimise all social contact in the areas where South African cases had been identified, he added.

The eight postcode areas at the epicentre of the intensified testing programme, after 105 cases of the South Africa strain were identified in total, are: Hanwell, west London; Tottenham, north London; Mitcham, south London; Walsall in the West Midlands; Broxbourne, Hertfordshire; Maidstone, Kent; Woking, Surrey; and Southport, Merseyside.

The South African variant is thought to be as transmissible as the variant that was first identified in Kent but there is no evidence yet that it causes more severe disease.

Dr Susan Hopkins from Public Health England (PHE) said three different vaccines trialled so far had shown effectiveness against the South African variant at a level higher than the minimum standard set by the World Health Organisation and the US Food and Drug Administration.

“We expect all other vaccines to have a similar level of effectiveness, particularly in reducing hospitalisation and death,” she said, adding that laboratory studies were being carried out to provide further evidence.

The worry that the South Africa variant was spreading across England came as reports suggested scientists had recommended ministers should have gone harder with their border controls to stop new variants from entering the country.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), according to The Times, said only mandatory hotel quarantines for all arrivals or a total border shutdown would keep mutations at bay.

Australia

Fears of a new cluster of Covid-19 cases in Australia eased on Tuesday, as the city of Perth maintained a strict lockdown and no new cases were detected across the country for a second day, health minister Greg Hunt said.

Australia ended two weeks without any local cases of the coronavirus on Sunday when a security guard working in hotel quarantine in the Western Australian state capital tested positive for Covid-19.

The city of more than 2 million was ordered into a five-day lockdown after the guard at a hotel used to house people returning from overseas was found to have the UK strain of the virus.

The unnamed man most likely contracted Covid-19 from a person who recently returned to the country, Western Australia state premier Mark McGowan said on Tuesday.

“One of those recent arrivals was accommodated on the same floor as the security guard was working. We are advised that the guard did deliver medication to the door of this quarantine guest,” McGowan told reporters in Canberra.

McGowan said 101 close contacts of the security guard had so far tested negative to Covid-19. Another 50 people deemed close contacts were awaiting test results.

The vast, largely isolated state has been known in Australia for a hardline Covid-19 response that included keeping its border closed to the rest of the country until recently when it reopened to some regions.

Australia has managed to largely contain its novel coronavirus epidemic - limiting cases to less than 29,000 and deaths to 909 – with the sort of decisive action seen in Perth, and tight border controls. – Reuters/PA