Portugal said Thursday it will close schools for two weeks in a bid to contain a surge in coronavirus cases with concerns over the spread of a more contagious UK strain.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the closures will begin Friday, speaking after a cabinet meeting just a week after the government imposed a second lockdown that did not require shutting schools or universities.
“Precaution requires us to interrupt all teaching activities for the next 15 days,” Costa said, adding that the decision had become necessary because of “this new strain and the speed of its transmission.”
It is the world’s most pressing scientific puzzle, but experts warn there may never be conclusive answers over the source of the coronavirus, after an investigative effort marked from the start by disarray, Chinese secrecy and international rancour.
January 11 marks the anniversary of China confirming its first death from COVID-19, a 61-year-old man who was a regular at the now-notorious Wuhan wet market.
Nearly two million deaths later, the pandemic is out of control across much of the world, leaving tens of millions ill, a pulverised global economy and recriminations flying between nations.
Yet China, which has broadly controlled the pandemic on its soil, is still frustrating independent attempts to trace the virus’ origins and the central question of how it jumped from animals to humans.
There is little dispute that the virus which brought the world to its knees sparked its first known outbreak in late 2019 at a wet market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where wildlife was sold as food, and the pathogen is believed to have originated in an undetermined bat species.
But the trail ends there, clouded by a mishmash of subsequent clues that suggest its origins may predate Wuhan as well as theories — amplified by US President Donald Trump — that it leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Establishing the source is vital for extinguishing future outbreaks early, leading virologists say, providing clues that can guide policy decisions on whether to cull animal populations, quarantine affected persons, or limit wildlife hunting and other human-animal interactions.
“If we can identify why they (viruses) keep emerging, we can reduce those underlying drivers,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global NGO focused on infectious disease prevention.
– Doubts about Wuhan market – China won early kudos for reporting the virus and releasing its gene sequence in a timely manner, compared with its cover-up of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak.
But there has also been secrecy and shifting stories.
Wuhan authorities initially tried to cover up the outbreak and later spent precious weeks denying human-to-human transmission.
Early on, Chinese officials declared flatly that the outbreak began at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.
But Chinese data in January 2020 showed that several of the first cases had no known links to the now-shuttered market, suggesting a source elsewhere.
China’s story morphed again last March when top Chinese disease control official Gao Fu said the market was not the source, but a “victim”, a place where the pathogen was merely amplified.
But China has since failed to publicly connect any dots, releasing scant information on animal and environmental samples taken at the market that could aid investigators, experts say.
And it has kept foreign experts at arm’s length. A planned mission by World Health Organization virus sleuths was in limbo after China denied them entry.
After a rare rebuke from the head of the WHO, China announced on Monday the 10-strong team would be allowed in this week.
– Cold case – What the scientists will be allowed to see or may expect to find a year on is also in doubt. Experts say authorities may have destroyed or scrubbed away crucial evidence in a panicked initial response.
“Every outbreak goes the same way. It’s chaotic and dysfunctional,” said Daszak.
“They didn’t do a great job on the animal investigation early on,” he added.
“In some ways, they were quite open, in others they were less than open.”
The reasons for China’s secrecy are unclear, but the ruling Communist Party has a history of suppressing politically damaging information.
Whistleblowers and citizen reporters who shared details of the terrifying early weeks of the virus on the internet have since been muzzled or jailed.
Beijing may want to hide regulatory or investigative lapses to avoid domestic embarrassment or global “blowback”, said Daniel Lucey, a Georgetown University epidemiologist who closely tracks global outbreaks.
The Wuhan market might not even be the issue, Lucey adds.
He notes that the virus was already spreading rapidly in Wuhan by December 2019, indicating that it was in circulation much earlier.
That’s because it may take months or even years for a virus to develop the necessary mutations to become highly contagious among humans.
The market-origin theory is “just not plausible whatsoever”, Lucey said.
“It occurred naturally and it had to have been many months earlier, perhaps a year, perhaps more than a year.”
Augmenting the doubt, in December China said the number of coronavirus cases circulating in Wuhan may have been 10 times higher early in the epidemic than revealed by official figures at the time.
The trail has now gone cold, with the drip of subsequent clues only adding to the confusion, including findings that the virus may have existed in Europe and Brazil before Wuhan’s outbreak, unconfirmed suggestions which China has seized upon to deflect blame.
– ‘We’ll never know for sure’ – Daszak remains hopeful the source can be found, especially after US President Donald Trump’s re-election loss.
He blames Trump for killing cooperation with China by politicising the virus — typified by his “China virus” label –- and his administration’s promotion of the theory that China created it in a lab, a claim that has not been backed by scientific evidence.
“I’m confident we will eventually find out the bat species it came from and the likely pathway,” Daszak said.
Others are less certain.
Diana Bell, a wildlife disease expert at the University of East Anglia who has studied the SARS virus, Ebola and other pathogens, said focusing on a particular origin species is misguided.
She says the overarching threat has already been exposed: a global wildlife trade that fosters a “combustible mix” of trafficked species, a known breeding ground for disease outbreaks.
“(The species) actually doesn’t matter. We don’t need to know the source, we just need to stop that sodding mixing of animals in markets,” she said.
“We need to stop the wildlife trade for human consumption.”
Two members of the US Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus, with one on Tuesday accusing Republicans of refusing to wear masks and mocking those who did during a riot at the legislature last week.
In a tweet, Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said she had taken a test after being trapped in a secure room with fellow lawmakers, and that she had tested positive.
“Many Republicans still refused to take the bare minimum COVID-19 precaution and simply wear a damn mask in a crowded room during a pandemic — creating a superspreader event on top of a domestic terrorist attack,” Jayapal, who is now self-isolating, she said.
“The duration in the room was multiple hours and several Republicans not only cruelly refused to wear a mask but mocked colleagues and staff who offered them one.”
Hours earlier, fellow Democratic congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman said she too had contracted the virus and that she believed she had been exposed to it during last week’s violence.
“She believes she was exposed during protective isolation in the U.S. Capitol building as a result of insurrectionist riots,” her office said in a statement.
Top Congressional doctor Brian Monahan warned lawmakers over the weekend that they could have been exposed to the virus after taking shelter in an isolation room last Wednesday.
Just hours after pro-Trump protestors stormed the US Capitol to demand Congress overturn the November 3 election victory of President-elect Joe Biden, Congressman Jake LaTurner tested positive for the virus.
The US is the world’s hardest-hit country and some 375,000 people have died from the coronavirus — with about 3,000 more dying every day.
In her statement following her positive diagnosis, Congresswoman Jayapal said colleagues that refused to wear masks were guilty of “selfish idiocy” and should not be allowed to take their seats in the chamber.
Scientists at the World Health Organization warned that mass vaccinations would not bring about herd immunity to the coronavirus this year, even as one leading producer boosted its production forecast.
Infections numbers are surging around the world, especially in Europe where nations have been forced to ramp up virus restrictions even as vaccines are rolled out.
The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan warned Monday that it would take time to produce and give enough shots to halt the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 90 million people worldwide with deaths approaching two million.
“We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” she said, stressing the need to maintain physical distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing.
Experts are also concerned about the rapid spread of new variants of the virus, such as the one first detected in Britain which is feared to be significantly more transmissible.
England opened seven mass vaccination sites Monday to fight a surge fuelled by that variant, which is threatening to overwhelm hospitals.
But England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty told the BBC: “The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS (National Health Service).”
Elsewhere in Europe, Portugal was facing a new lockdown because of a spike in cases and deaths, as the President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa tested positive for the virus.
The 72-year-old was asymptomatic and isolating in the presidential palace in Lisbon, his office said.
Slovakia was preparing to start a new round of mass testing, Prime Minister Igor Matovic said late Monday, following a first nationwide screening in November.
“From next weekend at the latest, we will run a mass test every week until we get the situation under control. There is no other way,” said Matovic, who tested positive himself in December after an EU summit.
‘Endemic disease’ warning
German company BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to produce the first vaccine approved in the West, said it could produce millions more doses than originally expected this year, boosting the production forecast from 1.3 to two billion.
The announcement was a boost to countries struggling to deliver the shots, but the company also warned that Covid-19 would “likely become an endemic disease”, with vaccines needed to fight new variants and a “naturally waning immune response”.
Officials in Russia said they would trial a one-dose version of country’s Sputnik V vaccine as part of efforts to provide a stopgap solution for badly hit countries.
India, with the world’s second-highest number of infections, is set to begin giving shots to its 1.3 billion people from Saturday in a colossal and complex undertaking.
US President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to devote all available resources to fight the pandemic, received his second vaccine dose on Monday.
There have been surges in Asia as well, where many nations avoided the high death tolls and infection rates seen in Europe and the United States in the early months of the pandemic.
Malaysia’s king declared a nationwide state of emergency Tuesday to fight a coronavirus surge that is overwhelming hospitals, but critics charged it was a bid by an unstable government to cling to power.
The last time an emergency was declared nationally in Malaysia was in 1969, in response to deadly racial riots.
With more than a year gone since the first known outbreak of the coronavirus, the fallout from the worst pandemic in a century has become clearer — from the economy and society to culture and the environment.
The masks that have become ubiquitous and necessary to save lives, for example, are proving a deadly hazard for wildlife, with birds and marine creatures ensnared in the staggering number of discarded facial coverings littering animal habitats.
Single-use surgical masks have been found scattered around pavements, waterways and beaches worldwide since countries began mandating their use in public places to slow the pandemic’s spread.
Worn once, the thin protective materials can take hundreds of years to decompose.
“Face masks aren’t going away any time soon,” Ashley Fruno of animal rights group PETA told AFP.
“But when we throw them away, these items can harm the environment and the animals who share our planet.”
Pope Francis’ personal doctor, Fabrizio Soccorsi, has died from health complications related to the coronavirus.
According to the Catholic News Agency which quoted Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the 78-year-old physician, who was being treated for an “oncological pathology”, died at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital.
Soccorsi had trained in medicine and surgery at Rome’s La Sapienza University.
In August 2015, Pope Francis named him his personal physician, after not renewing the term of papal doctor Patrizio Polisca, who was also head of the Vatican’s healthcare services.
Since the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II, the two positions had been tied together, but Pope Francis diverged from this custom by choosing Soccorsi, a doctor from outside the Vatican.
While he was alive, Soccorsi travelled with the pope on many of his international trips.
In May 2017, on one of the visits to Fatima, Portugal, the Pope laid two bunches of white roses before the statue of the Virgin Mary for Soccorsi’s daughter, who was critically ill, and died the following month.
Aston Villa became the fourth Premier League club to suffer a coronavirus outbreak on Thursday, adding to growing concerns over whether English football’s top-flight can complete the season on schedule.
Villa were forced to cancel training and close their training ground after two rounds of testing returned multiple positive cases of Covid-19 among players and staff.
Britain is battling a highly infectious strain of the virus which has forced a new nationwide lockdown after cases soared in recent days.
“A large number of first-team players and staff returned positive tests after being routinely tested on Monday and immediately went into isolation,” Villa said in a statement.
“A second round of testing was carried out immediately and produced more positive results today.”
The Birmingham-based club’s FA Cup third-round tie against Liverpool on Friday is now at risk of being postponed.
“First-team training ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup match with Liverpool was cancelled,” Villa’s statement added.
“Discussions are ongoing between medical representatives of the club, the Football Association and the Premier League.”
Premier League Southampton’s FA Cup home match against Shrewsbury has already been postponed because there have been a number of positive cases at the League One club.
Wayne Rooney’s Derby will fulfil their fixture at minnows Chorley with a youth team after nine positive tests among first-team players and staff.
– Fixture pile-up –
On Tuesday, a record high of 40 positive tests were detected among Premier League players and staff in the week between December 28 and January 3.
Three Premier League matches were postponed last week due to outbreaks at Manchester City and Fulham.
Due to the late end to last season, the league is less than halfway through the 2020/21 campaign.
The packed fixture schedule, with domestic leagues, cup and European competitions having to be finished before the delayed Euro 2020 starting on June 11, leaves little room for manoeuvre.
Despite the rising case numbers and calls from some within the game for a circuit breaker to buy time and bring infection rates down, the Premier League has so far been adamant that the season will proceed.
“With low numbers of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs, the league continues to have confidence in its Covid-19 protocols, fully backed by the government, to enable fixtures to be played as scheduled,” the league said on Tuesday.
However, a number of embarrassing incidents have come to light in which prominent players have flouted coronavirus restrictions, doing little to aid English football’s case to keep going while movements in the rest of the country are highly restricted.
Pictures of Tottenham trio Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso and West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini attending a Christmas party with family and friends emerged over the weekend, prompting Spurs to promise internal disciplinary proceedings.
Manchester City have also launched an investigation after left-back Benjamin Mendy admitted to breaching Covid protocols by hosting a New Year’s Eve party.
Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic also broke the rules to attend a New Year’s Eve party.
Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow has been among those calling for tougher sanctions for players who break the regulations and put the season at risk.
Villa captain Jack Grealish was fined two weeks’ wages by the club for a breach of the rules last year.
“There are moments when young people will stray from the rules and, whether you’re a parent or the chief executive of a football club, that’s a time when you have to be very strict and remind people of their responsibilities,” Purslow said earlier this week.
Despite the new national lockdown that came into force in England on Wednesday, the British government has said elite sport can continue despite the tighter restrictions.
The England cricket team all passed coronavirus tests after all-rounder Moeen Ali was found to have Covid-19 and have been cleared to start restricted training in Sri Lanka on Wednesday, a spokesman said.
Moeen was found to have the coronavirus shortly after the squad arrived in Sri Lanka on Sunday and has been put in isolation in a hotel away from the other players.
The result was an early blow to preparations for the two Tests in Sri Lanka that start in Galle on January 14. But the plans in the secure bubble in Hambantota in the south of the island are now largely back on track.
“Good news from the camp all PCR tests from yesterday are negative except for Moeen Ali, and we can start controlled training this afternoon,” said an England spokesman.
Chris Woakes, who had been a close contact of Moeen, tested negative but will continue to isolate in his room. The tourists must undergo a third test on Thursday.
Sri Lanka have just finished a tour in South Africa where they lost two Tests and are due to return home on Friday. They will also have to go into a biosecure bubble.
Joe Root and his players arrived on a charter flight as nearly all international flights to Sri Lanka are banned and flights from Britain have been halted following the discovery of a new, more infectious coronavirus strain.
The 18-man England squad, with seven reserves, are resuming a Sri Lanka tour halted by the pandemic in March. England’s tour of South Africa was also cut short last month over coronavirus fears.
Ferran Torres, Tommy Doyle and Eric Garcia are the other players also currently isolating while Kyle Walker and Gabriel Jesus, who tested positive on Christmas Day, have now completed their quarantine period.
The Premier League said on Tuesday that 40 players and staff had tested positive for Covid-19 in the latest rounds of testing — more than double the previous record.
Despite a number of match postponements, rising case numbers and calls from some within the game for a “circuit breaker” to bring infection rates down, the Premier League said it remained confident the season could proceed as planned.
Austria’s government on Monday effectively extended its third coronavirus lockdown, scrapping a proposal that would have allowed citizens to access some services if they took part in a mass-testing programme.
The country’s current lockdown is scheduled to run until January 24.
However, the government had proposed that those who tested negative in a nationwide, free Covid-19 mass-testing programme be allowed to visit shops, event venues, restaurants, cafes and bars from January 18.
But the plan would have obliged those who did not participate to stay at home for a week longer.
Opposition parties harshly criticised the scheme, questioning the point of one-off tests and asking how the restrictions could be enforced.
After a high volume of complaints overwhelmed the parliament website, all three opposition parties on Sunday announced that they would block the necessary legislation in the upper chamber.
“That means that exiting lockdown early through getting a test won’t be possible,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said on Monday morning.
Shops, restaurants and other services will therefore remain closed until January 24.
As long as the number of new infections per day doesn’t come below 1,000, “there’s no point discussing relaxation measures”, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the largest opposition Social Democrat (SPOe) party, said Sunday.
Currently, around 1,500 residents of the small, Alpine nation are testing positive per day.
The current, third lockdown came into effect on December 26, just twenty days after the previous lockdown ended.
Austria was generally seen to have acted swiftly during the first wave of the pandemic, escaping its worst effects, but critics have accused the government of failing to adequately prepare for the second wave.
The country’s per capita infection rates climbed to among the highest in the world in late November, outbreaks in elderly care facilities emerging as a particular problem in recent weeks.
The government expects to have enough vaccines for all 5.7 million people in the city by the third quarter of 2021, with the voluntary vaccine free for all Singaporeans and long-term residents.
Other countries that have started immunisations include Britain, EU nations, and the United States, although most Asian nations are yet to begin.
In China, where the virus emerged, at least one million people have already received jabs after vaccine candidates were approved for emergency use, although they have so far been limited to priority groups such as state employees.
The inoculations are yet to receive official approval.
Vaccinations have been given in limited numbers in other parts of the region, including to members of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s security team, and to US troops stationed in South Korea.
Singapore has recorded about 58,000 infections, mostly among low-paid migrant workers living in crowded dormitories, and just 29 deaths.