Covid: Biden Orders Probe into Virus Origin, Has India Peaked?

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Joe Biden holds talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-In

President Biden asked intelligence agencies to report back to him within 90 days on the virus’s origin

BBC- US President Joe Biden has ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.

He said the US intelligence community was split on whether it was the result of a lab accident, or emerged from human contact with an infected animal.

Mr Biden asked the groups to report back to him within 90 days.

China’s embassy in the US warned against “politicising” origin tracing.

“Smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of ‘lab leak’ is resurfacing,” the embassy said in a statement posted on its website, which did not directly mention Mr Biden’s remarks.

“To politicize origin tracing, a matter of science, will not only make it hard to find the origin of the virus, but give free rein to the ‘political virus’ and seriously hamper international cooperation on the pandemic,” it said.

Since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, more than 168 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed worldwide and at least 3.5 million deaths reported.

Authorities linked early Covid cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, leading scientists to theorise the virus first passed to humans from animals.

But recent US media reports have suggested growing evidence the virus could instead have emerged from a laboratory in China, perhaps through an accidental leak.

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Lab leak theory goes mainstream

Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter

In what passes for relative transparency in the US government, the Biden administration has conceded the American intelligence community is split on Covid-19’s origins – it could be the lab or animal-to-human contact – and no-one is near certain about it.

That marks a big shift from the derision heaped on the lab theory by many in the media and politics last year, when Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tom Cotton and others floated the idea.

Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo didn’t help the situation, however, as they were coy about the grounds for their suspicion. And their theories floating alongside more far-fetched ones, such as that the disease was manufactured as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab. That possibility still seem highly unlikely.

The public may never know the full truth about the virus’ origins, particularly if China continues to be uncooperative. Mr Biden is pledging a full investigation, however, and if the US finds conclusive evidence of a lab leak, it will mean more than just a few prominent figures having to eat crow and re-evaluate their trust in authoritative “conclusions”. It could place very real strain on US-China relations for years to come.

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Why is President Biden doing this now?

In a White House statement released on Wednesday, President Biden said he had asked for a report on the origins of Covid-19 after taking office, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”.

On receiving it this month, he asked for “additional follow-up”.

Mr Biden said the majority of the intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two scenarios, but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”.

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in January, Wuhan
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was linked to early Covid cases

The president has now asked agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”, and report to him within 90 days.

He concluded by saying the US would “keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”.

Beijing has previously suggested Covid-19 could have come from a US laboratory instead.

In its statement on Wednesday, the Chinese embassy said it supported a full investigation into “some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world”.

Mr Biden’s statement came as CNN reported that the president’s administration this spring shut down a state department investigation into whether the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab, deeming the probe an ineffective use of resources.

What do we know about the lab theory?

The laboratory leak allegations were widely dismissed last year as a fringe conspiracy theory, after then-President Donald Trump said Covid-19 had originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Many US media outlets described such claims as debunked or false.

In March this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report written jointly with Chinese scientists on the origins of Covid-19, saying the chances of it having started in a lab were “extremely unlikely”. The WHO acknowledged further study was needed.

But questions have persisted and recent reports attributed to US intelligence sources say three members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were admitted to hospital in November 2019, several weeks before China acknowledged the first case of the new disease in the community.

Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, has maintained he believes the virus was passed from animals to humans, though he conceded this month he was no longer confident Covid-19 had developed naturally.

Mr Biden’s statement comes the day after Xavier Becerra, US secretary for health and human services, urged the WHO to ensure a “transparent” investigation into the virus’s origins.

“Phase 2 of the Covid origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” Mr Becerra said.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump sought to take credit in an emailed statement to the New York Post. “To me it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticised, as usual,” he said. “Now they are all saying: ‘He was right.'”

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Covid-19: Has India’s deadly second wave peaked?

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Indian doctor wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is seen inside a COVID-19 care centre and isolation ward facility near a Hospital in New Delhi, India, 24 May 2021.image copyrightEPA
image captionOn Monday, cases fell below 200,000 for the first time since 14 April

India has recorded 26 million Covid-19 cases – second only to the US. It is the new epicentre of the global pandemic.

The second wave in recent weeks has overwhelmed the healthcare system, leaving hospitals struggling to cope and critical drugs and oxygen in short supply.

But infections now seem to be slowing down. On Monday, cases fell below 200,000 for the first time since 14 April.

So is the second wave coming to an end?

Experts believe that at a national level, the wave is waning.

The seven-day rolling average of new reported cases during the wave peaked at 392,000 and has been on a steady decline ever since for the past two weeks, according to Dr Rijo M John, a health economist.

But there’s a catch.

Even if the second wave appears to be waning for India as a whole, it is by no means true for all states.

It appears to have crested in states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, but is still rising in Tamil Nadu, for example, as in much of the north east; and the situation in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal is unclear.

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So the wave is not uniform and there are several states that are yet to find their peak in daily new cases, according to Dr John.

To be sure, infections are coming down in most of the major cities.

“But the weak rural surveillance complicates the picture,” said Dr Murad Banaji, a mathematician at Middlesex University London. “It is possible that total transmission nationwide has not peaked yet, but this is not visible in case numbers because the infection is mostly spreading now in rural areas,” he said.

Such heterogeneity at the local level makes it very difficult to guess whether the India-wide trend of a sharp decline in active cases now is sustainable or not, according to Dr Sitabhra Sinha, a scientist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai.

Bhramar Mukherjee, a University of Michigan biostatistician who has been closely tracking the pandemic, agreed.

“The notion that the peak has passed may give false sense of security to everyone when their states are in fact entering the crisis mode,” she said. “We must make it clear that no state is safe yet.”

Does the virus’s reproduction number offer any clues?

The reproduction number of the virus – also called R0 and R- is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread and estimates the average number of people infected by one already infected person.

The only difference between the two values is that R0 is calculated during the onset of the epidemic when almost the entire population is susceptible.

R, on the other hand, is calculated once the epidemic has progressed and a fraction of the population has already recovered and therefore is immune.

India’s R number fell below 1 on 9 May, according to Dr Sinha.

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“If this is a sustained trend and goes even lower in the subsequent weeks, then yes, we can expect to see a sharper fall in the number of cases,” Dr Sinha said.

But the R for India “stayed close to 1 in the entire run-up to the second wave, so we need to be careful that this is not a fluke”, he said.

“So it is quite possible that things can get worse if some state with a high R but a low number of active cases at the moment climbs up the charts as a result of the epidemic not being properly contained there.”

When is the second wave likely to end?

The rate of decline of cases from the first wave was slow – active cases began declining only from late September last year, a trend which continued till the beginning of the second wave in the middle of February.

The decline appears to have been faster in the second wave, and it is not clear why.

Experts say one reason could be the virus has burnt through a large part of the population.

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But then what about the fact that the second wave appears to have been driven by mutant strains to which previously infected people may not be entirely resistant?

Dr Mukherjee said her models indicated cases would come down to between 150,000 and 200,000 by end of May, and by the end of July may return to where they were in February.

But, she said, a lot would depend on how India’s states exit from local lockdowns.

Positive rates should be at or below 5% for at least 14 days before a state or country can safely reopen, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr John says if India manages to test an average of 1.8 million samples daily, a positive rate of 5% would mean about 90,000 daily new cases.

“That will be a healthy sign that things are under control,” he said.

What about the rising number of deaths?

India is only the third in the world to record more than 300,000 deaths – behind the US and Brazil.

The real number of fatalities might be much higher as many deaths are not officially recorded.

Dr Banaji said daily deaths had not yet obviously peaked because there’s a time lag between cases peaking and deaths peaking.

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But also, as with cases, there are huge variations in death surveillance and recording between states, and between urban and rural areas.

“Even when recorded fatalities start to fall, we’ll need to be wary of reading too much into this until we stop hearing reports of large numbers of rural deaths,” said Dr Banaji.

Dr Mukherjee said many more deaths were likely to happen in the month between mid-May and June – the models estimate 100,000 deaths during the period.

How does India’s second wave compare with other countries?

The second waves in both the UK and US saw sharp rises and falls – and both peaked in early January.

However, a comparison with the decline of the second wave in other countries may be problematic, according to Dr Sinha.

He says most of Europe had the second wave around November-January which is the usual flu season.

A man sits next to his wife, who is suffering from fever as she receives treatment at a clinic set up by a local villager, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Parsaul village in Greater Noida, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, May 22, 202image copyrightReuters
image captionA man sits next to his wife, suffering from fever, in a village in India

Even in normal years, a large number of people suffer from respiratory problems during this time – so a “spike wasn’t entirely unexpected”.

And the decline from the second wave has occurred at different rates in different countries.

In Germany, the decline from the peak of the second wave was, in fact, slower than the decline from the peak of the first wave, Dr Sinha said. In France, both declines occurred at about the same rate.

“I don’t think that we can apply any universal rule gleaned from the rate of decline of the second wave to India – which escaped this particular flu season-associated wave,” he added.

What happens next?

India will need more nuanced and strategic plans as it eases the second wave lockdowns.

Experts say opening indoor dining, pubs, coffee shops, gyms and similar “high risk facilities” should be delayed.

Gatherings should be allowed with less than 10 people outdoors or in highly ventilated areas. Big summer weddings in air-conditioned halls are a “virus pit”, said Dr Mukherjee.

An Indian man waits for COVID-19 vaccine during the vaccination drive in Bangalore, India, 24 May 2021image copyrightEPA
image captionExperts say Indians should not let down their guard after the restrictions ease

Most importantly, the flagging vaccination drive needs to pick up speed, and mobile and mass vaccination drives should be introduced.

Also, experts say, India will need to closely track new variants or upticks in infection, using real-time epidemiological and sequencing data.

The country should also look at pool testing (combining samples for testing to save time and supplies) and wastewater testing (collecting wastewater and analysing for the virus).

Dr Banaji said it would be wrong to assume that the virus is running out of fuel.

“Immunity is not all or nothing: people infected earlier by an earlier variant of the virus may be vulnerable to re-infection and even transmit the disease.”

India has so far partially vaccinated only 10% of its people.

“I don’t think we should consider going back to normalcy at least until we are able to vaccinate 80% of our population,” said Dr John.

Until then, maintaining Covid appropriate behaviour – mask, social distancing, sanitisation, avoidance of mass gatherings – would help check infections.

Early declaration of victory over Covid-19 has already had disastrous consequences – we don’t want to repeat that,” said Dr Sinha.

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