Covid: WHO team investigating virus origins denied entry to China

A World Health Organization (WHO) team due to investigate the origins of Covid-19 in the city of Wuhan has been denied entry to China.

Two members were already en route, with the WHO saying the problem was a lack of visa clearances.

However, China has challenged this, saying details of the visit, including dates, were still being arranged.

The long-awaited probe was agreed upon by Beijing after many months of negotiations with the WHO.

The virus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, with the initial outbreak linked to a market.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “very disappointed” that China had not yet finalised the permissions for the team’s arrivals “given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute”.

“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment,” he told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday, explaining that he had been in contact with senior Chinese officials to stress “that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the BBC “there might be some misunderstanding” and “there’s no need to read too much into it”.

“Chinese authorities are in close co-operation with WHO but there has been some minor outbreaks in multiple places around the world and many countries and regions are busy in their work preventing the virus and we are also working on this,” she said.

“Still we are supporting international co-operation and advancing internal preparations. We are in communication with the WHO and as far as I know with dates and arrangements we are still in discussions.”https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.36.7/iframe.htmlmedia captionCovid-19: How everyday life has changed in Wuhan

The WHO has been working to send a 10-person team of international experts to China for months with the aim of probing the animal origin of the pandemic and exactly how the virus first crossed over to humans.

Last month it was announced that the investigation would begin in January 2021.

The two members of the international team that had already departed for China had set off early on Tuesday, said the WHO. According to Reuters news agency, WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said one had turned back and one was in a third country.

Covid-19 was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in central Hubei province in late 2019. 

It was initially believed the virus originated in a market selling exotic animals for meat. It was suggested that this was where the virus made the leap from animals to humans.

But the origins of the virus remain deeply contested. Some experts now believe the market may not have been the origin, and that it was instead only amplified there. 

Some research has suggested that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans may have been circulating undetected in bats for decades. It is not known, however, what intermediate animal host transmitted the virus between bats and humans.

Covid: EU launches mass vaccination in ‘touching moment of unity’

The EU is launching a co-ordinated vaccine rollout to fight Covid-19, in what the bloc’s top official says is a “touching moment of unity”.

A flightradar24.com handout photo received on December 27, 2020 shows the flight track for a D-ENIG plane that traced a syringe on the maps in Germany to celebrate the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine.
image captionA plane traced a syringe in the air above southern Germany on Wednesday to celebrate the arrival of the vaccine, a flightradar24.com image shows

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been delivered to all 27 member states.

Some countries started administering the jabs on Saturday, saying they were not prepared to wait another day.

The EU has so far reported more than 335,000 Covid-related deaths.

More than 14 million people have been infected, and strict lockdown measures are currently in place in nearly all the member states.

The vaccine rollout comes as cases of the more contagious variant of Covid-19 are confirmed in several European nations as well as Canada and Japan.

News of the new variant triggered travel restrictions around the world last week.

What’s the latest on the vaccine rollout?

Mass vaccination for the EU’s 446 million people is due to begin in the coming hours. 

Officials unload boxes with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Photo: 26 December 2020
image captionBoxes of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are unloaded in North Rhine-Westphalia

This comes after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Commission authorised the German-US Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The EU has secured contracts for more than two billion vaccine doses from a range of drug companies.

“Today, we start turning the page on a difficult year. The #COVID19 vaccine has been delivered to all EU countries. Vaccination will begin tomorrow across the EU,”

Ms von der Leyen tweeted on Saturday.

“The #EUvaccinationdays are a touching moment of unity. Vaccination is the lasting way out of the pandemic,” she added.

View original tweet on Twitter

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Saturday: “This really is a happy Christmas message. At this moment, lorries with the first vaccines are on the road all over Europe, all over Germany, in all federal states. Further deliveries will follow the day after tomorrow. 

“This vaccine is the crucial key for defeating the pandemic. It’s the key for us getting back our lives.”

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio urged his compatriots to get the jabs. “We’ll get our freedom back, we’ll be able to embrace again,” he said.

Health workers in north-east Germany decided not to wait for Sunday and started immunising elderly residents of a nursing home in Halberstadt. 

In Hungary, the first recipient of the vaccine was a doctor at Del-Pest Central Hospital on Saturday, the state news agency says. 

The authorities in Slovakia also said they had begun vaccinating.

Coronavirus: EU urges countries to lift UK travel bans

European Union ambassadors are meeting to try to co-ordinate their policies on links to the UK, after dozens of countries suspended travel amid alarm over a new coronavirus variant.

They will consider a recommendation from the European Commission to lift restrictions.

But EU member states are free to set their own rules on border controls and may continue with their own policies.

France and the UK are trying to reach a deal to end disruption in the Channel.

The new variant appears to be more transmissible, but there is no sign it is more deadly.

Almost all the EU’s 27 member states are now blocking travellers from the UK.

The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, recommended its members allow people to travel to their country of residence providing they take a Covid-19 test or self-isolate. But it said non-essential travel should be discouraged.

It also said transport staff, such as lorry drivers, should be exempt from all travel restrictions and mandatory testing. 

EU ambassadors are considering adopting the rules but despite this countries are likely to continue with their own policies, the BBC’s Gavin Lee reports from Brussels.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 lorries are stuck in Kent in south-east England as UK and French leaders try to reach an agreement on reopening the French border. Some countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Hungary, are only allowing their residents to return home. 

As the list of countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK grew, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe director, Hans Kluge, said member states would convene to discuss strategies and limit travel, while maintaining trade. 

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said new strains were a normal part of the evolution of a pandemic, and that it was not “out of control”, contradicting earlier remarks in the UK from Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The co-founder of BioNTech, producer with Pfizer of the vaccine now being used in the UK, also voiced optimism. “Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant,” Ugur Sahin said. He added that, if needed, a mutation-beating vaccine could be provided within six weeks.

What’s happening in Europe?

France imposed a ban on passengers and freight from the UK, causing disruption at the key southern British port of Dover.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was working with French President Emmanuel Macron to resume trade, and that he hoped the issue would be resolved “as soon as possible”.

French Transport Minister Clément Beaune said his country would announce what would replace the initial 48-hour ban on travellers and lorries on Tuesday.

Mr Beaune said proof of a negative Covid test for anyone arriving from the UK would be a certainty.

Lorry drivers spent a second night sleeping in their cabs outside Dover on the M20 motorway, which has been shut since Sunday night.

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium told the BBC the lorries must get moving again from Wednesday to avoid supply disruption in the UK.

“There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce,” he said. “So we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority comes from Europe at this time.”

A French supermarket chain warned of potential seafood shortages. “We have trucks stuck on the other side of the border… with products that we are expecting for the holiday season: fish and seafood,” Dominique Schelcher, the head of supermarkets at Système U, told BFMTV. 

Meanwhile, Japanese car giant Toyota said it had suspended production in two factories in the UK and one in France. It blamed “shortages of parts due to transport delays and the uncertain nature of the duration of the border closures”.

Sweden banned foreign travellers from Denmark overnight into Tuesday after cases were discovered there. The decision alarmed Danes – especially those on the island of Bornholm, which relies on a fast ferry link with Ystad in Sweden. There are fears that many will struggle to get to or from Bornholm in time for Christmas, Danish media report.

There was some better news from the continent on Monday, with the EU’s medicines regulator approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, paving the way for jabs to be given as early as Sunday.

And in the rest of the world?

Many other countries, from India, to Iran, to Canada have suspended flights from the UK.

The US already has restrictions in place that prevent most non-US citizens who have been in the UK and some other countries for the last 14 days from entering. It is yet to follow suit with a ban on all travellers from the UK, but two airlines – British Airways and Delta – will only allow passengers who test negative for the coronavirus to fly to New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

Saudi ArabiaKuwait and Oman have shut their borders completely to international passengers.

Along with Denmark, the new strain has also been detected in Australia, Italy and the Netherlands.

The border crossing at Oresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark
image captionSweden has closed its borders to Danish arrivals

Some experts believe the new strain has already spread beyond where it has been reported, crediting the UK’s use of genomic surveillance for detecting it.

“I think we will find in the coming days that a lot of other countries will find it,” Marc Van Ranst, a virologist from the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium, told broadcaster VRT.

In another development, travellers from South Africa are also facing bars from some countries after another new variant of the virus was discovered that is unrelated to the one found in the UK.

Covid-19: 1,500 lorries stuck in Kent as UK and France aim to restart freight

More than 1,500 lorries are stuck in Kent waiting to leave the UK as politicians thrash out a plan to reopen France’s border to trade and travel.

Romanian lorry driver Christian waits in his cab at Ashford lorry park on Monday night
image captionHundreds of lorry drivers have spent a second night parked up in Kent

France shut the border for 48 hours on Sunday over the UK’s new virus variant.

Lorry drivers spent a second night sleeping in their vehicles, with Home Secretary Priti Patel saying on Tuesday there were 650 lorries stacked up on the M20 and 870 at a lorry park.

More than 40 countries have now banned UK arrivals.

Almost every EU member state has now stopped travel from the UK amid fears over the virus mutation, and the EU is talking about how to form a united response.

The UK’s top scientist Sir Patrick Vallance has warned the new variant is now “everywhere” in the country – and more areas may need to enter tier four to curb its spread.

He predicted there would be a spike in cases after Christmas, and restrictions might “need to be increased in some places”.

Cases graphic

Dozens of countries, including Spain, France and India, have banned UK flights after parts of England, including London, entered tough tier four – “stay at home” – restrictions.

Around 17 million people in England are now living under tier four. Wales has entered a new national lockdown, Northern Ireland will begin a national lockdown on Boxing Day, and Scotland has tightened rules and will enter its top level of lockdown measures from Boxing Day.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said discussions were under way between the UK and France “to find a resolution” to France’s border closure.

“You’ll hear later on today in terms of developments and updates,” she told BBC Breakfast.

France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune said any plans will be agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron and come into effect from Wednesday.

Ms Patel said potentially testing lorry drivers at ports was “part of the discussions”, and added: “Getting those tests up and running can happen relatively quickly.”

EU member states are understood to be pressing for UK arrivals to be tested for the virus before entering their countries.

It comes as:

  • Supermarkets seek to reassure shoppers Christmas supplies are plentiful amid reports of bare shelves and long queues
  • Northern Ireland’s Executive votes against introducing a travel ban between NI and England, Scotland and Wales
  • Royal Mail said it has temporarily suspended all mail services to Europe, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland, due to travel restrictions.

The border disruption also affected passenger services – with many air, rail and sea services cancelled between the UK and France, as well as other countries that have put restrictions in place.

Rail operator Eurotunnel said it hoped passengers would be able to travel between the UK and France from Wednesday or Thursday, if a solution is agreed. 

British Airways said it would operate “a reduced and dynamic schedule” amid the uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said there was “zero evidence at this point” that the new variant of coronavirus discovered in the UK causes “any increase in severity associated with” Covid-19.

It urged the public to continue with measures known to reduce the spread: hand washing, social distancing, and wearing face coverings. 

At the scene in Dover: BBC reporter Simon Jones

Last night the government said there were 945 lorries parked up on the M20 motorway.

But driving around Dover this morning, there are HGVs everywhere – on the side of the road, in lay bys and in car parks. 

That means the number of hauliers caught up in the chaos is likely to be far higher.

Lorry drivers are used to sitting in delays, and will often sleep in their cabs. But for those I’ve spoken to this morning, it’s the uncertainty that is the most difficult thing.

They don’t know how long this will go on for; they don’t know whether they will get home for Christmas.

Even if France does reopen the border today, this backlog will take some time to shift, especially if drivers have to be tested before crossing the Channel.

The Channel is a vital trade route, with about 10,000 lorries a day travelling between Dover and Calais at Christmas, largely bringing in the freshest produce. 

Lorry driver Greg Mazurek from Poland, who is in Dover and has been in his cab for two days, told the BBC on Tuesday morning: “What can I say? I feel bad, really bad, terrible in fact. We know nothing, we don’t know if we can get home [to] our families for Christmas.

“If they implement testing here, maybe it will be a good idea. But we need to start now, to get there [by] Christmas Eve.”

According to the head of the Road Haulage Association, lorry drivers waiting to cross the Channel have been offered just a single cereal bar each by Kent County Council.

On Monday evening, Highways England said the M20 was closed and would not reopen until 08:00 GMT on Tuesday. 

It said many vehicles would be held at Manston Airport as an earlier “stacking” operation on the motorway was wound down.

Ms Patel said there were welfare facilities and support available for hauliers at Manston.

About 1,550 lorries crossed into the UK through the port on Monday but retailers warned of “serious disruption” without a resolution, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s saying some fresh produce such as lettuce and citrus fruits could run short.

But Mr Johnson maintained delays only affected a very small percentage of food entering the UK and supermarket supply chains were “strong and robust”.

Labour said spare capacity in the coronavirus testing system should be used to help deal with the situation at British ports.

Chart showing daily cases and rolling 7-day average

The UK’s chief scientific adviser told the Downing Street briefing that further restrictions are likely to be introduced in more areas of England to control the new variant of Covid-19.

Sir Patrick Vallance said measures could “need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced”.

London and large swathes of south-east England were placed in the highest tier four restrictions over the weekend.

Sir Patrick also predicted there would be a spike in cases after an “inevitable period of mixing” over Christmas.

Asked why tougher measures were not in place across the country following the introduction of the tier 4 level, he added: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily. It’s more transmissible. We absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.”

On Monday a further 33,364 positive coronavirus tests were recorded in the UK. There were also a further 215 deaths within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the nation’s total to 67,616.

Covid: US Congress passes long-awaited deal for coronavirus aid

The US Congress has passed a long-awaited $900bn (£660bn) package of coronavirus pandemic aid after months of political wrangling.

Senators approved the bill late on Monday, hours after it was passed by the House of Representatives.

The aid includes direct payments for many Americans and support for businesses and unemployment programmes.

The money is to accompany a bigger, $1.4tn spending bill to fund government operations over the next nine months.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the package into law quickly.

President-elect Joe Biden welcomed the relief package but said Congress needed to get to work to support his Covid-19 relief plan in the new year View original tweet on Twitter

Grey lines

In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 359 to 53 and in the Senate it passed by 92-6.

Many Covid-19 relief programmes were set to expire at the end of the month and about 12 million Americans were at risk of losing access to unemployment benefits.

But some lawmakers said they felt blind-sided by being asked to vote on a mammoth bill without even having a chance to read it.

At nearly 5,600 pages, the legislation was described by the Associated Press news agency as “the longest bill in memory and probably ever”.

What is in the package?

The stimulus includes one-off $600 payments to most Americans, and will boost unemployment payments by $300 per week, extending expiration dates for the jobless programmes until the spring. 

It also contains more than $300bn in support for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, schools and tenants facing eviction.

The package includes an extension of an eviction moratorium that was due to expire at the end of this month, leaving tens of millions of Americans at risk of being thrown out of their homes. It contains $25bn in rental aid.

The bill also has a provision to end surprise medical billing – where hospital patients get slapped with fees because they were treated by a doctor who was not covered by their health insurer. President Trump has championed calls to end these stealth fees, which are one of the most unpopular pitfalls of the US healthcare system.

The deal was announced on Sunday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. Speaking on Monday ahead of the vote, he said: “None of us think this legislation is perfect, but a big bipartisan majority of us recognise the incredible amount of good it will do when we send it to the president’s desk. The American people have waited long enough.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats, said the package delivered “urgently needed funds to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people as the virus accelerates”.

Who will get the $600 cheques?

Lawmakers said the bill would send $600 per adult or child for individuals earning up to $75,000 or married couples earning up to $150,000, with families earning more receiving less. 

The first cheques could arrive as soon as next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The payment is half the amount that Congress approved for direct payments during the first round of pandemic relief last spring. 

What is not in the bill?

The bill does not include substantial aid to local governments, which had been a top priority for many Democrats. In exchange, Republicans agreed to accept a deal without legal protections for businesses from Covid-related lawsuits.

Mr Schumer said the package would “establish a floor, not a ceiling, for coronavirus relief in 2021”, and that Democrats would push for more aid after President-elect Joe Biden took office on 20 January. 

Congress had been expected to pass the bill by Friday, but negotiations continued through the weekend.

The delays led to concerns over whether the government would shut down without a spending bill. Washington has been operating on temporary funding since October, the start of the federal government’s financial year.

How are Americans reacting?

Economic analysts welcomed the deal, but have warned that it is probably too small and arrives too late to avert a slowdown in the recovery.

They have also expressed concerns that money devoted to the stimulus cheques – which some families are likely to save – takes away from other, more targeted programmes that might provide a more effective boost to the economy.

“Any Covid relief bill is better than no Covid relief bill, but the measures set to be passed by Congress… do not represent the most efficient use of the $900bn total cost,” wrote Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

However, on social media, many said the cheque should have been larger, saying $600 per person wasn’t large enough to help meaningfully.

“$600 will hopefully save some lives but we all know it’s just barely scraping by,” wrote one social media user in California. View original tweet on Twitter

“I’m so excited about the $600 stimulus checks I can’t even decide if I’m going to pay rent for the right side of my bedroom or the left!!!” Jack in New York joked. View original tweet on Twitter

“It’s infuriating to see what every other major country around the world had done for their citizens and our elected officials give us scraps,” another user commented.

Some also noted that many pandemic relief schemes have been plagued by fraud or delays in spending the money.

What about previous aid?

In March the US approved more than $2.4tn in economic relief, including one-off $1,200 stimulus payments, funds for businesses and money to boost weekly unemployment payments by $600.

The package was credited with cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic, which cast more than 20 million Americans out of work this spring and drove the unemployment rate up to 14.7% in April.

The US has regained about half of the jobs lost, but economists and businesses have been pushing Congress to approve further economic relief, as programmes expired and money ran out, prompting recovery to slow.

Nearly eight million more Americans are now living in poverty. This year has seen the biggest single year increase since poverty tracking began 60 years ago.

Covid: Wuhan scientist would ‘welcome’ visit probing lab leak theory

A Chinese scientist at the centre of unsubstantiated claims that the coronavirus leaked from her laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan has told the BBC she is open to “any kind of visit” to rule it out. The surprise statement from Prof Shi Zhengli comes as a World Health Organization (WHO) team prepares to travel to Wuhan next month to begin its investigation into the origins of Covid-19.

The remote district of Tongguan, in China’s south-western province of Yunnan, is hard to reach at the best of times. But when a BBC team tried to visit recently, it was impossible. 

Plain-clothes police officers and other officials in unmarked cars followed us for miles along the narrow, bumpy roads, stopping when we did, backtracking with us when we were forced to turn around.

We found obstacles in our way, including a “broken-down” lorry, which locals confirmed had been placed across the road a few minutes before we arrived.

Roadblock

And we ran into checkpoints at which unidentified men told us their job was to keep us out.

At first sight, all of this might seem like a disproportionate effort given our intended destination, a nondescript, abandoned copper mine in which, back in 2012, six workers succumbed to a mystery illness that eventually claimed the lives of three of them.

But their tragedy, which would otherwise almost certainly have been largely forgotten, has been given new meaning by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those three deaths are now at the centre of a major scientific controversy about the origins of the virus and the question of whether it came from nature, or from a laboratory.

And the attempts of Chinese authorities to stop us reaching the site are a sign of how hard they’re working to control the narrative.

For more than a decade, the rolling, jungle-covered hills in Yunnan – and the cave systems within – have been the focus of a giant scientific field study.

Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan
image captionChinese virologist Shi Zhengli is seen here inside the laboratory in Wuhan

It has been led by Prof Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Prof Shi won international acclaim for her discovery that the illness known as Sars, which killed more than 700 people in 2003, was caused by a virus that probably came from a species of bat in a Yunnan cave.

Ever since, Prof Shi – often referred to as “China’s Batwoman” – has been in the vanguard of a project to try to predict and prevent further such outbreaks.

By trapping bats, taking faecal samples from them, and then carrying those samples back to the lab in Wuhan, 1,600km (1,000 miles) away, the team behind the project has identified hundreds of new bat coronaviruses.

But the fact that Wuhan is now home to the world’s leading coronavirus research facility, as well as the first city to be ravaged by a pandemic outbreak of a deadly new one, has fuelled suspicion that the two things are connected.I would personally welcome any form of visit, based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable dialogue. But the specific plan is not decided by me. Prof Shi Zhengli

The Chinese government, the WIV, and Prof Shi have all angrily dismissed the allegation of a virus leak from the Wuhan lab.

But with scientists appointed by the WHO scheduled to visit Wuhan in January for an inquiry into the origin of the pandemic, Prof Shi – who has given few interviews since the pandemic began – answered a number of BBC questions by email.

“I have communicated with the WHO experts twice,” she wrote, when asked if an investigation might help rule out a lab leak and end the speculation. “I have personally and clearly expressed that I would welcome them to visit the WIV,” she said.

To a follow-up question about whether that would include a formal investigation with access to the WIV’s experimental data and laboratory records, Prof Shi said: “I would personally welcome any form of visit based on an open, transparent, trusting, reliable and reasonable dialogue. But the specific plan is not decided by me.”

The BBC subsequently received a call from the WIV’s press office, saying that Prof Shi was speaking in a personal capacity and her answers had not been approved by the WIV.

The BBC denied a request to send the press office a copy of this article in advance.

Peter
image captionDr Peter Daszak: “I’ve yet to see any evidence at all of a lab leak or a lab involvement in this outbreak

Many scientists believe that by far the most likely scenario is that Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, jumped naturally from bats to humans, possibly via an intermediary species. And despite Prof Shi’s offer, for now there appears to be little chance of the WHO inquiry looking into the lab-leak theory.

The terms of reference for the WHO inquirymake no mention of the theory, and some members of the 10-person team have all but ruled it out.

Peter Daszak, a British zoologist, has been chosen as part of the team because of his leading role in a multimillion dollar, international project to sample wild viruses.

It has involved close collaboration with Prof Shi Zhengli in her mass sampling of bats in China, and Dr Daszak previously called the lab-leak theory a “conspiracy theory” and “pure baloney”.

“I’ve yet to see any evidence at all of a lab leak or a lab involvement in this outbreak,” he said. “I have seen substantial evidence that these are naturally occurring phenomena driven by human encroachment into wildlife habitat, which is clearly on display across south-east Asia.”

Asked about seeking access to the Wuhan lab to rule the lab-leak theory out, he said: “That’s not my job to do that.

“The WHO negotiated the terms of reference, and they say we’re going to follow the evidence, and that’s what we’ve got to do,” he added.

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in January, Wuhan
image captionThe Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was linked to early cases of the new coronavirus

One focus of the inquiry will be a market in Wuhan which was known to be trading in wildlife and was linked to a number of early cases, though the Chinese authorities appear to have already discounted it as a source of the virus.

Dr Daszak said the WHO team would “look at those clusters of cases, look at the contacts, look at where the animals in the market have come from and see where that takes us”.

The deaths of the three Tongguan workers following exposure to a mineshaft full of bats raised suspicions that they’d succumbed to a bat coronavirus.

It was exactly the kind of animal-to-human “spillover” that was driving the WIV to sample and test bats in Yunnan.

It is no surprise then that, following those deaths, the WIV scientists began sampling bats in the Tongguan mineshaft in earnest, making multiple visits over the next three years and detecting 293 coronaviruses.

But apart from one brief paper, very little was published about the viruses they collected on those trips.

In January this year, Prof Shi Zhengli became one of the first people in the world to sequence Sars-Cov-2, which was already spreading rapidly through the streets and homes of her city.

She then compared the long string of letters representing the virus’s unique genetic code with the extensive library of other viruses collected and stored over the years.

And she discovered that her database contained the closest known relative of Sars-Cov-2. 

RaTG13 is a virus whose name has been derived from the bat it was extracted from (Rhinolophus affinis, Ra), the place it was found (Tongguan, TG), and the year it was identified, 2013.

Seven years after it was found in that mineshaft, RaTG13 was about to become one of the most hotly contested scientific subjects of our time.

A woman wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant in a pharmacy in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on March 30, 2020
image captionChina imposed tough restrictions on Wuhan to stop the spread of the virus

There have been many well-documented cases of viruses leaking from labs. The first Sars virus, for example, leaked twice from the National Institute of Virology in Beijing in 2004, long after the outbreak had been brought under control.

The practice of genetically manipulating viruses is also not new, allowing scientists to make them more infectious or more deadly, so they can assess the threat and, perhaps, develop treatments or vaccines.

And from the moment it was isolated and sequenced, scientists have been struck by the remarkable ability of Sars-Cov-2 to infect humans.

The possibility that it acquired that ability as a result of manipulation in a laboratory was taken seriously enough for an influential group of international scientists to address it head on.

In what has become the definitive paper ruling out the possibility of a lab leak, RaTG13 has a starring role.

Published in March in the magazine Nature Medicine, it suggests that if there had been a leak, Prof Shi Zhengli would have found a much closer match in her database than RaTG13.

While RaTG13 is the closest known relative – at 96.2% similarity – it is still too distant to have been manipulated and changed into Sars-Cov-2.

Sars-Cov-2, the authors concluded, was likely to have gained its unique efficiency through a long, undetected period of circulation in humans or animals of a natural and milder precursor virus that eventually evolved into the potent, deadly form first detected in Wuhan in 2019.

This photo taken on January 30, 2020 shows a doctor putting on a pair of protective glasses before entering the isolation ward at a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province
image captionMedics and scientists in Wuhan battled to control the early stages of the pandemic

Where though, some scientists are beginning to wonder, are those reservoirs of earlier natural infection?

Dr Daniel Lucey is a physician and infectious disease professor at the Georgetown Medical Centre in Washington DC and a veteran of many pandemics – Sars in China, Ebola in Africa, Zika in Brazil.

He is certain that China has already conducted thorough searches for evidence of precursor viruses in stored human samples in hospitals and in animal populations.

“They have the capability, they have the resources and they have the motivation, so of course they’ve done the studies in animals and in humans,” he said.

Finding the origin of an outbreak was vital, he said, not just for wider scientific understanding, but also to stop it emerging again.

“We should search until we find it. I think it’s findable and I think it’s quite possible it’s already been found,” he said. “But then the question arises, why hasn’t it been disclosed?”

Dr Lucey still believes that Sars-Cov-2 is most likely to have a natural origin, but he does not want the alternatives to be so readily ruled out.

“So here we are, 12, 13 months out since the first recognised case of Covid-19 and we haven’t found the animal source,” he said. “So, to me, it’s all the more reason to investigate alternative explanations.”

Might a Chinese laboratory have had a virus they were working on that was genetically closer to Sars-Cov-2, and would they tell us now if they did? “Not everything that’s done is published,” Dr Lucey said.

It’s a point I put to Peter Daszak, the member of the WHO origins study team.

“You know, I’ve worked with the WIV for a good decade or more,” he said. “I know some of the people there pretty well and I have visited the labs frequently, I’ve met and had dinner with them over 15 years.

“I’m working in China with eyes wide open, and I’m racking my brain back in time for the slightest hint of something untoward. And I’ve never seen that.”

Asked if those friendships and funding relationships with the WIV presented a conflict of interest with his role on the inquiry, he said: “We file our papers; it’s all there for everyone to see.” 

And his collaboration with the WIV, he said, “makes me one of the people on the planet who knows the most about the origins of these bat coronaviruses in China”.The conclusion [of the Kunming Hospital University thesis] is neither based on evidence nor logic. But it’s used by conspiracy theorists to doubt meProf Shi Zhengli 

China may have provided only limited data about its hunt for the origin of Sars-Cov-2, but it has begun to promote a theory of its own.

Based on a few inconclusive studies conducted by scientists in Europe that suggest Covid-19 may have been circulating earlier than previously thought, state propaganda is full of stories suggesting the virus didn’t start in China at all.

In the absence of proper data, speculation is only likely to grow, much of it focused on RaTG13 and its origins in a Tongguan mineshaft. Old academic papers have been dug up online that appear to differ from the WIV’s statements about the sick mine workers – among them a thesis by a student at the Kunming Hospital University.

“I’ve just downloaded the Kunming Hospital University student’s masters thesis and read it,” Prof Shi told the BBC. 

“The narrative doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The conclusion is neither based on evidence nor logic. But it’s used by conspiracy theorists to doubt me. If you were me, what you would do?”

Prof Shi has also faced questions about why the WIV’s online public database of viruses was suddenly taken offline.

She told the BBC that the WIV’s website and the staff’s work emails and personal emails had been attacked, and the database taken offline for security reasons.

“All our research results are published in English journals in the form of papers,” she said. “Virus sequences are saved in the [US-run] GenBank database too. It’s completely transparent. We have nothing to hide.”

There are important questions to be asked in the Yunnan countryside, not just by scientists, but by journalists too.

After a decade of sampling and experimenting on viruses collected from bats, we now know that back in 2013 the closest known ancestor was discovered of a future threat that would claim well over a million lives and devastate the global economy.

Yet the WIV, according to the published information, did nothing with it, except sequence it and enter it into a database.

Ought that to call into question the very premise on which the expensive, and some would say risky, mass sampling of wild viruses is based?

“To say that we didn’t do enough is absolutely correct,” Peter Daszak told the BBC. “To say that we failed is not fair at all. What we should have been doing is 10 times the amount of work on these viruses.”

Both Dr Daszak and Prof Shi are adamant that pandemic prevention research is vital, urgent work.

“Our research is forward-looking, and it’s difficult for non-professionals to understand,” Prof Shi wrote by email. “In the face of countless micro-organisms that exist in nature, we humans are very small.”

The WHO is promising an “open-minded” inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, but the Chinese government is not keen on questions, at least not from journalists.

After leaving Tongguan, the BBC team tried to drive a few hours north to the cave where Prof Shi carried out her ground-breaking research on Sars almost a decade ago.

Still being followed by several unmarked cars, we hit another roadblock, and were told there was no way through.

A few hours later, we discovered that local traffic had been diverted onto a dirt track that skirted the obstruction, but as we attempted to use the same route, we met yet another “broken down” car in our path.

We were trapped in a field for over an hour, before finally being forced to head for the airport.

By John Sudworth
BBC News

Covid: EU to discuss response to variant as travel bans on UK expand

European Union officials will discuss later a co-ordinated response to a new, more infectious coronavirus variant in the UK, which has led many countries to impose travel bans.

Germany, France and Italy are among those to suspend flights from the UK. Outbound train services through the Channel Tunnel have also been halted.

Canada is also blocking UK flights.

Health officials say the new variant is up to 70% more transmissible, but there is no evidence that it is more deadly.

There is also no evidence to suggest that it reacts differently to vaccines.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new variant was “getting out of control” while Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands announced they had already detected it.

The European Council meeting of government representatives is expected to take place at 10:00 GMT. The speed at which governments have announced their bans on travellers from the UK shows the scale of the alarm, the BBC’s Gavin Lee in Brussels reports.

Also on Monday, the European Medicines Agency is expected to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine that is already being administered in the UK and in the US under emergency approval.

Which European countries have acted and how?

The Netherlands said it would ban all passenger flights from the UK until 1 January “at the latest”. Ferry passengers arriving from the UK would also be barred although freight would continue.

France suspended all travel links, including freight lorries, with the UK for 48 hours from midnight on Sunday. Thousands of lorries move between the countries every day.

In response to France’s ban, Eurotunnel said it would suspend access to its Folkestone terminal for traffic heading to Calais. People booked to travel on Monday can get a refund. Trains will still run from Calais to Folkestone.

The ferry terminal at Dover is now closed for all accompanied traffic leaving the UK until further notice because of the French restrictions. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra emergency response meetingto discuss the issue on Monday.

Empty lanes are seen at the Eurostar at St Pancras train station
image captionOutbound train services through the Channel Tunnel – including the Eurostar – have been halted

In Ireland, which has significant passenger traffic with the UK at this time of year, the government announced that flights arriving from Britain would be banned for 48 hours at least from midnight.

It also said that “in the interests of public health, people in Britain, regardless of nationality, should not travel to Ireland, by air or sea”. Ferry crossings for freight would continue.

In Germany, an order from the ministry of transport said planes from the UK would not be allowed to land after midnight on Sunday, although cargo would be an exception.

Belgium said it was halting flights and trains from the UK from midnight on Sunday for at least 24 hours as a “precautionary measure”.

Italy is blocking all flights from the UK until 6 January. Turkey has temporarily banned all flights from the UK as has Switzerland.

Austria is to ban flights from the UK. Bulgaria has suspended flights to and from the UK from midnight but, unlike the short-term measures in many other nations, its ban lasts until 31 January.

What is the situation elsewhere?

Canada has suspended entry of all passenger flights from the UK for 72 hours, effective from midnight (05:00 GMT). Passengers who arrived in Canada from the UK on Sunday would be “subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” it said. 

Other countries to announce restrictions on UK travel include IsraelIran, Croatia, Argentina, Chile, Morocco and Kuwait. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has suspended all international flights for one week because of the pandemic.

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What do we know about the new variant?

Analysis box by James Gallagher, health and science correspondent

The new variant was first detected in September. In November it made up around a quarter of cases in London. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

Three things are coming together that mean it is attracting attention:

  • It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus
  • It has mutations that affect part of the virus likely to be important
  • Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells

All of these come together to build a case for a virus that can spread more easily. However, we do not have absolute certainty. New strains can become more common simply by being in the right place at the right time – such as London.

This variant is unusually highly mutated. The most likely explanation is it emerged in a patient with a weakened immune system that was unable to beat the virus.

There is no evidence yet to suggest the variant makes the infection more deadly, and at least for now the developed vaccines will almost certainly work against it.

However, if the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine, then “vaccine escape” happens, and this may be the most concerning element.

Emmanuel Macron: French president tests positive for Covid

France’s Emmanuel Macron has tested positive for Covid-19, forcing several European leaders to self-isolate after coming into contact with him.

Emmanuel Macron

The 42-year-old president was tested after developing symptoms and will now self-isolate for seven days, the Elysée Palace said in a statement.

He “is still in charge” of running the country and will work remotely.

EU chief Charles Michel and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez are among the leaders having to self-isolate.

France this week ended a six-week national lockdown, replacing the measure with a curfew to help deal with soaring cases.

There have been nearly 2.5 million confirmed cases in the country since the epidemic began, with more than 59,400 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

France plans to start rolling out its coronavirus vaccination programme from 27 December. 

Who has met Macron?

“The President of the Republic has been diagnosed positive for Covid-19 today,” the Elysée said on Thursday morning. The diagnosis was made following a “test performed at the onset of the first symptoms”, the statement added.

It is not yet known how Mr Macron caught the virus but his office said it was identifying any close contacts he had made in recent days. 

These include Prime Minister Jean Castex, 55, and parliamentary speaker Richard Ferrand, 58, who are both self-isolating, their offices confirmed.

Mr Castex, who is not showing any symptoms and has tested negative, was due to introduce the government’s Covid vaccination policy in the Senate on Thursday – now Health Minister Olivier Véran is doing it instead. 

Mr Macron’s wife Brigitte, who is 67, is also self-isolating but has no symptoms. 

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at the Elysee Palace as part of events marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the OECD convention in Paris, France, on 14 December 2020.
image captionPresident Macron (L) met Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez on Monday

Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, 48, and the EU’s Charles Michel, 44, are both self-isolating after meeting the French president for lunch on Monday.

The Spanish prime minister’s office said he would be tested “without delay” and would “respect the quarantine until 24 December”.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, 59, has also cancelled all official trips, and is isolating and awaiting test results, after a working lunch in Paris with President Macron on Wednesday. 

Mr Macron attended a two-day European Council heads of state summit, which started last Thursday.

However, the French president is being considered a potential risk of contagion as of Monday evening, a senior EU official has told the BBC.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) speaks with Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the start of a two days face-to-face EU summit , in Brussels, Belgium, 10 December 2020.
image captionMr Macron (L) attended two days of face-to-face meetings with other EU leaders last week, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

All sanitary measures were observed during last week’s meeting and the council has not been informed of any other participants testing positive, the source added.

A presidential spokeswoman confirmed that all of Mr Macron’s forthcoming trips, including a visit to Lebanon on 22 December, had been cancelled.

What’s the latest on vaccines in the EU?

On Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed EU countries could start vaccinating people against the virus from 27 December, if the EU regulator approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is due to meet on Monday to evaluate the vaccine which is already being rolled out in the US and UK.

The EU says it plans to carry out a co-ordinated vaccination campaign across its 27 member states to ensure fair access to doses. However, it will be down to each state to determine who gets priority for the injections.

Earlier this week, France eased national lockdown restrictions imposed to tackle its second wave of the pandemic. 

However, infection rates still remain high and a daily 20:00-06:00 curfew was imposed. The new measures have forced restaurants, cafes, theatres and cinemas to close. 

On Wednesday, France registered more than 17,700 new cases. 

Which other world leaders have caught Covid?

Combo pic of world leaders how have caught Covid-19
image captionFrom left to right: Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Ambrose Dlamini and Donald Trump
  • Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini of Eswatini(formerly Swaziland) died on Monday, four weeks after he tested positive
  • US President Donald Trump contracted the virus in October. He was given an experimental drugs cocktail and returned to the White House after three nights in hospital
  • Polish President Andrzej Duda contracted the virus in October and went into self-isolation
  • Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has spent two months in hospital in Germany after catching the disease in October – last week he appeared in video for the first time since testing positive, saying he hopes to return to Algeria soon
  • Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei tested positive in September – despite calling himself “high-risk” he did not appear to suffer a severe case
  • Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil tested positive in July and spent more than two weeks quarantining in his residence
  • In June, the outgoing President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, died of an illness suspected by many to be Covid-19
  • Russia’s Prime Minster Mikhail Mishustin contracted the virus in April and was admitted to hospital with moderate to severe symptoms
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive in March – he spent three nights in intensive care in a London hospital, later saying he owed the health workers there his life

Source: BBC News

Covid: Pub alcohol ban sees barrels of beer poured away

Barrels of beer are being poured down drains as Wales’ hospitality industry prepared for the alcohol ban to come into force.

Pubs, restaurants and cafes will be banned from serving alcohol from Friday evening and will be unable to open to customers beyond 18:00 GMT.

Businesses said it is “a devastating hammer blow” after going to great lengths to keep customers safe.

They said it will also have a significant impact on the supply chain.

At the Glamorgan Brewery in Llantrisant, Rhondda Cynon Taf, staff have been pouring barrels of beer down the drain because it now cannot be sold in pubs. 

Yesterday, 58 of the company’s 64 employees went back onto furlough.

‘A kick in the teeth’

David Atkins
image captionBreweries are facing significant losses, said brewery director David Atkins

Director David Atkins said the new measures are “an absolute kick in the teeth”.

“This time last year we probably turned over about £1.5m for the month of December. This year, it’s £50,000.

He added the majority of their beer – about 45,000 pints – will have to be thrown away.

‘Why 6pm?’

Simon Buckley of Evan Evans Brewery
image caption”Why is 6pm the bewitching hour?” asked Simon Buckley of Evan Evans Brewery

At The Cricketers pub in Pontcanna, Cardiff, staff were also pouring away beer on Friday afternoon.

Simon Buckley, of Evan Evans Brewery which supplies the pub said: “How can it be right and safe to open to serve food in pubs but not alcohol? It defies logic. 

“Why is 6pm the bewitching hour as opposed to 10pm? In these difficult times – and the month of December particularly – the lost revenue is significant.”

‘A devastating hammer blow’

James Cunningham, manager of the Ruthin Castle Hotel
image captionThe new ban is “a devastating hammer blow” to the industry, said James Cunningham, manager of the Ruthin Castle Hotel

James Cunningham, manager of the Ruthin Castle Hotel in Ruthin, Denbighshire, said customers have appreciated the safety measures put in place and the new rules were “incredibly frustrating”.

“Whenever they can, people want to try to come out and enjoy themselves in these very, very testing times,” he said.

He described the measures as a “devastating hammer blow” to the hospitality industry.

“Figures show that less than 5% of all settings of infection happen in hospitality – and yet here we are once again taking the hammer blow,” he said.

“There’s no guarantee those restrictions are going to be lifted,” he said.

Covid Pfizer vaccine approved for use next week in UK

Breaking News image

The UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use. 

British regulator, the MHRA, says the jab, which offers up to 95% protection against Covid-19 illness, is safe for roll out next week.

Immunisations could start within days for people in high priority groups. 

The UK has already ordered 40m doses – enough to vaccinate 20m people, with two shots each.

Around 10m doses should be available soon, with the first doses arriving in the UK in the coming days.

It is the fastest ever vaccine to go from concept to reality, taking only 10 months to follow the same developmental steps that normally span a decade.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted saying: ”Help is on its way. The NHS stands ready to start vaccinating early next week.”

Although vaccination can start, people still need to remain vigilant and follow coronavirus rules to stop the spread, say experts. 

That means sticking with the social distancing and face masks, and testing people who may have the virus and asking them to isolate. 

What is the vaccine?

It is a new type called an mRNA vaccine that uses a tiny fragment of genetic code from the pandemic virus to teach the body how to fight Covid-19 and build immunity.

An mRNA vaccine has never been approved for use in humans before, although people have received them in clinical trials. 

Graphic

The vaccine must be stored at around -70C and will be transported in special boxes, packed in dry ice. Once delivered, it can be kept for up to five days in a fridge.

Who will get it and when?

Experts have drawn up a provisional priority list, targeting people at highest risk. Top are care home residents and staff, followed by people over 80 and other health and social care workers.

They will receive the first stocks of the vaccine – some as soon as next week. Mass immunisation of everyone over 50, as well as younger people with pre-existing health conditions, can happen as more stocks become available in 2021. It is given as two injections, 21 days apart, with the second dose being a booster.

What about other Covid vaccines?

There are some other promising vaccines that could also be approved soon. 

One from Moderna uses the same mRNA approach as the Pfizer vaccine and offers similar protection. The UK has pre-ordered 7m doses that could be ready by the spring. 

The UK has ordered 100m doses of a different type of Covid vaccine from Oxford University and AstraZeneca. That vaccine uses a harmless virus, altered to look a lot more like the virus that causes Covid-19. 

Vaccine comparison

Russia has been using another vaccine, called Sputnik, and the Chinese military has approved another one made by CanSino Biologics. Both work in a similar way to the Oxford vaccine.

By Michelle Roberts
Health editor, BBC News online