The World Health Organization and Beijing could have acted faster when Covid-19 first surfaced in China, a group investigating the global response has concluded.
In its second report, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said that an evaluation of the “chronology of the early phase of the outbreak suggests that there was potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly”.
Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, before seeping beyond China’s borders to wreak global havoc, costing more than two million lives and eviscerating economies.
In its report, the panel found it was “clear” that “public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January.”
The panel also criticised WHO for dragging its feet at the start of the crisis, pointing out that the UN health agency had not convened its emergency committee until January 22, 2020.
And the committee failed to agree to declare the novel coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — its highest alert level — until a week later.
“It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, nor is it clear why it was unable to agree on the (PHEIC) declaration… when it was first convened,” the report said.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the WHO has faced harsh criticism over its response, with claims it dragged its feet on declaring a pandemic and on recommending face masks.
The WHO came under especially fierce attack from outgoing US President Donald Trump, who accused the organisation of botching its handling of the pandemic and of being a “puppet of China”.
Against that backdrop, WHO member states last May agreed a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation… to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response” to the pandemic.
A team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan Thursday to probe the origins of the coronavirus more than a year after it emerged, as China reported its first death from COVID-19 in eight months.
The 10 scientists landed for their much-delayed mission, met by Chinese officials in hazmat suits and given throat swabs on arrival, and were whisked to a hotel where they must complete a two-week quarantine before starting their work.
The virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since billowed out across the world killing nearly two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.
The WHO says establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks.
But despite painstaking months of negotiations over their remit, the team was blocked from arriving last week — a sign of the political sensitivity of a virus origin story muddied by recrimination between nations, conjecture and denials.
The trip comes as China moves to snuff out fresh clusters of the virus.
More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency.
China had largely brought the pandemic under control through strict lockdowns and mass testing, hailing its economic rebound as an indication of strong leadership by the Communist authorities.
But another 138 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Thursday — the highest single-day tally since March last year.
Clusters are still small compared with many countries contending with rampant infections and record numbers of deaths.
But the first Chinese virus fatality in several months — a woman with underlying conditions in northern Hebei province — seeded alarm across China.
The hashtag “New virus death in Hebei” quickly ratcheted up 270 million views on Chinese social media platform Weibo on Thursday.
“I haven’t seen the words ‘virus death’ in so long, it’s a bit shocking! I hope the epidemic can pass soon,” one user wrote.
The last death reported in mainland China was in May last year, with the official death toll now standing at 4,635.
Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year festival when hundreds of millions of people will be on the move across the country.
As infections have spread, northeastern Heilongjiang declared an “emergency state” on Wednesday, telling its 37.5 million residents not to leave the province unless absolutely necessary.
– WHO arrival – China is braced for the scrutiny the expert team of WHO scientists will bring to its virus narrative.
Beijing has drip-fed the idea that the pandemic started outside of its borders, preferring to focus on its relatively swift control of the public health crisis.
The WHO have been at pains to cut the political baggage attached to their mission.
Peter Ben Embarek, team lead, said the group would start with a mandatory hotel quarantine.
“And then after the two weeks, we would be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit,” he said.
He warned it “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened”.
Beijing has argued that although Wuhan is where the first cluster of cases was detected, it is not necessarily where the virus originated.
“I don’t think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way,” Embarek added.
“The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened,” he said.
China has sealed off two cities south of Beijing, cutting transport links and banning millions of residents from leaving, as authorities move to stem the country’s largest Covid-19 outbreak in six months.
The pandemic has so far broadly been brought to heel by Chinese authorities since its emergence in Wuhan in late 2019, with small outbreaks swiftly snuffed out using mass testing, local lockdowns and travel restrictions.
But Hebei province in northern China has seen 127 new Covid-19 cases, plus an additional 183 asymptomatic infections, in the past week.
The vast majority were found in Shijiazhuang, a city of several million in Hebei province whose surrounding areas take the total population to 11 million. Nine confirmed cases were in the neighbouring city of Xingtai, whose area covers 7 million people.
Residents of both cities were banned from leaving unless absolutely necessary, Hebei authorities announced Friday.
Officials vowed to “strictly control the movement of people and vehicles”, with all residential estates placed under “closed management” — a euphemism for lockdown.
Hebei residents were also banned from entering Beijing or leaving the province unless absolutely necessary.
“The outbreak was imported from abroad, but the exact origins are currently under in-depth investigation by state, provincial and municipal experts,” said Li Qi, head of the Hebei Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, at a press briefing Friday.
Chinese officials have repeatedly tried to link recurrent domestic outbreaks to strains of the virus circulating overseas, suggesting that it has been brought back into China by returning travellers and contaminated imported food packaging.
There are mounting fears travel plans for hundreds of millions of people for the Lunar New Year may be ruined as virus controls tighten.
Officials are starting to signal a low-key new-year holiday — which will run from February 11 to 17 — nixing the prospect of banquets, parties and public celebrations.
“Mass celebrations, gatherings and fairs are forbidden,” said Kang Sen, of Beijing’s agriculture and rural affairs authority, adding even funerals should be “brief” and all public events would need prior approval.
His comments, carried over state media, appeared directed at villages in areas around the capital rather than the city itself.
– Tests, vaccines – In the two Hebei cities under the spotlight, restrictions were tightened Friday.
Long-distance passenger vehicle transport in both cities was suspended and highways closed.
Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed residents being swabbed by medical workers in hazmat suits at community centres in Shijiazhuang while queues outside stretched around the block.
Virus control staff stood guard at highways entering the city, which had mostly been blocked by barricades, the images released on Thursday showed.
Hebei province reported 33 new confirmed Covid-19 cases on Friday in addition to 51 from the day before — pushing the nationwide daily total to the highest figure since July.
So far, both cities have tested around 6.7 million residents in total, officials said Friday.
Staff were filmed giving injections of China’s recently approved Sinopharm vaccine, which has a 79 percent efficacy rate.
Three officials from Shijiazhuang’s worst-hit Gaocheng district have been disciplined for apparent negligence in virus control, a sign of the pressure on local authorities to squash the virus wherever it emerges.
An expert mission to China to find the origins of the coronavirus pandemic stumbled before it even began, with the head of the World Health Organization complaining that Beijing was blocking the team from entering the country.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was “very disappointed” with the last-minute bar on entry, in a rare castigation of Beijing from the UN body.
A 10-strong team was due to arrive in China this week after months of painstaking negotiations.
Beijing is determined to control the origin story of the virus, which has killed more than 1.8 million people so far and laid waste to global economies.
The first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, prompting accusations of chaotic, secretive handling by Chinese authorities which led to its spread beyond China.
US President Donald Trump called the pandemic the “China virus”.
But Beijing has so far resisted pressure for a full independent probe into the early days of the outbreak. Instead, it has seeded doubt as to whether the pandemic even started inside its borders.
The WHO mission was billed as a way to cut through the rancour and seek clear answers on how the virus jumped from animals to humans.
But with some of the team already in transit, Beijing had yet to grant them entry, the WHO chief said.
“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrivals in China,” Tedros told reporters on Tuesday.
“I am very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute.”
He stressed that he had been in contact with senior Chinese officials to make clear “that the mission is a priority for WHO and the international team”.
“I have been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment,” Tedros added.
The mission was hugely sensitive and neither the WHO nor China had until now confirmed when specifically it was due to start.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told Tuesday’s briefing that the problem was a lack of visa clearances.
“We trust and we hope that this is just a (logistical) and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly.”
There was no immediate comment from China.
– ‘Critical’ mission – “We were all operating on the on the understanding that the team would begin deployment today,” he said, adding that two members of the team coming from far away had set off early Tuesday, before it became clear that the necessary approvals had not been received.
He stressed the “absolute critical nature” of the mission, acknowledging that the situation was “frustrating and… disappointing”.
The origins of Covid-19 remain bitterly contested, lost in a fog of recriminations and conjecture from the international community — as well as obfuscation from Chinese authorities determined to keep control of the virus narrative.
Scientists initially believed the virus jumped to humans at a market selling exotic animals for meat in the city of Wuhan.
But experts now think the market may not have been the origin of the outbreak, but rather a place where it was amplified.
It is widely assumed that the virus originally came from bats, but the intermediate animal host that transmitted it between bats and humans remains unknown.
A citizen journalist detained in China after reporting from the COVID-19 ground zero of Wuhan will face trial later this month, her lawyer said Friday, as fears grow for her health.
The coronavirus first emerged in central China late last year, and Beijing has faced accusations that it covered up the initial outbreak and silenced early whistleblowers.
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, travelled to Wuhan in February and live-streamed her experiences on social media. She also wrote essays critical of the government’s response — including the strict lockdown of millions of people.
Zhang was detained in May and is accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, according to a court notice seen by AFP — a charge routinely used to suppress dissidents, with a maximum prison sentence of five years.
All indoor sports and entertainment venues were shut down in China’s capital on Monday as authorities raced to contain a coronavirus outbreak linked to a wholesale food market, with some neighbourhoods placed under complete lockdown.
Tens of thousands of people were also targeted in a massive test and trace programme, as the World Health Organization reported that more than 100 cases had been confirmed so far.
The outbreak came after China had largely brought the virus under control following its emergence in the central city of Wuhan late last year, highlighting the global risks associated with a second wave of infections.
“More than 100 cases have now been confirmed,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference, adding that the origin of the cluster linked to the Xinfadi market was still unclear.
“A cluster like this is a concern and it needs to be investigated and controlled — and that is exactly what the Chinese authorities are doing,” WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said.
– Capital on lockdown –
Indoor sports and entertainment venues across Beijing have been ordered to close, the municipal party committee said at a press conference Monday.
City official Xu Ying told reporters that all areas must “strengthen public space disinfection and temporarily close sports and recreation indoor facilities”, as well as increasing temperature checks and forbidding non-residents from entering communities.
Students can revert to at-home schooling if they choose, the state Xinhua news agency reported.
Authorities have locked down 21 housing estates near Xinfadi in the south of the city and another market, Yuquandong, in the capital’s northwestern Haidian district, where cases linked to the Xinfadi cluster have been detected.
Officials said they were in the process of testing more than 90,000 people living in the locked-down communities for the virus.
They said 200,000 people had visited the Xinfadi market since May 30, and they were trying to trace and test all of them, including going door-to-door.
More than 8,000 workers from the market have been tested and sent to centralised quarantine facilities.
AFP saw a car bearing the logo of China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) arrive on Monday at the area surrounding the heavily-guarded Yuquandong market.
Multiple residential compounds on the same block had been sealed off, and residents were seen receiving parcels from delivery drivers through gates.
Officials said Monday that some close contacts of cases linked to the Yuquandong market would have to wear “smart thermometers” to monitor their temperatures, while others had been sent to quarantine facilities.
– Test and trace –
Nearly 200 testing points have been set up across Beijing.
AFP reporters saw dozens of people queuing up Monday morning to be tested at one local stadium, which was heavily guarded by staff in hazmat suits.
In the wake of the new outbreak, several cities have warned residents not to travel to Beijing, with some warning that they will quarantine new arrivals from the capital.
Companies and neighbourhood communities have messaged staff and residents to ask about their recent movements.
At least one building management company asked commercial tenants to declare if any of their staff had visited Xinfadi market.
The city government has also sacked two senior officials from Fengtai district, where Xinfadi is located, as well as the market’s general manager.
– Food safety –
The outbreak has also turned the spotlight on the safety of Beijing’s food chain.
Shelves normally stocked with fruit at the Xianhui supermarket in central Beijing were empty Monday, with staff saying that large amounts of produce from the Xinfadi market had been taken off the shelves.
A 19-year-old student surnamed Shao told AFP she started school in the capital a few days ago but was already planning to return to her hometown over fears of getting sick.
“I just came to Beijing for a few days. Now I’m going to go home again,” she said.
Another Beijing resident, Dong Yiqin, told AFP she feels “kind of tired” following the latest outbreak.
“Maybe it’s because the ‘battle front’ has been stretched too long,” she said.