WHO asks China for more data on Covid origins as Russia deaths spike

By AFP   August 12, 2021 | 08:03 pm PT
WHO asks China for more data on Covid origins as Russia deaths spike
A group of WHO experts arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as part of their investigation of the origin of the Covid-19 virus, February 2021. Photo by Reuters
The WHO on Thursday urged China to share raw data from the earliest Covid-19 cases to revive its probe into the origins of the disease, as Russia recorded record deaths.

The World Health Organization's plea came as Russia saw its highest daily death toll from the pandemic that has killed at least 4.3 million people worldwide.

The WHO stressed it was "vitally important" to uncover the origins of the virus first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

In the face of pushback from Beijing, the UN health agency called for the provision of "all data and access required so that the next series of studies can be commenced as soon as possible".

After much delay, a WHO team of international experts went to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first phase report, which was written in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts.

Their March report drew no firm conclusions, instead ranking four hypotheses.

It said the virus jumping from bats to humans via an intermediate animal was the most probable scenario, while a leak from the Wuhan virology labs was "extremely unlikely."

However, the investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more deeply.

A WHO call last month for the investigation's second stage to include audits of the Wuhan labs infuriated Beijing, with vice health minister Zeng Yixin saying the plan showed "disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science."

Russia, the fourth worst-hit country in the world in terms of cases, reported its highest daily coronavirus death toll since the start of the pandemic despite an intensifying vaccination drive.

A government tally reported 808 fatalities over the past 24 hours -- the first time Russia has crossed the 800-mark for daily virus deaths -- and 21,932 new infections.

Authorities have faced a vaccine-sceptic population, with a poll by the independent Levada Centre this week showing that 55 percent of Russians do not plan on getting a jab.

In the U.S., the health department is to require all its public-facing health care workers to get jabs amid a surge in hospitalizations driven by the Delta variant.

The policy will apply to around 25,000 Department of Health and Human Services employees who could come into contact with patients -- just under a third of its total workforce.

"Our number one goal is the health and safety of the American public, including our federal workforce. And vaccines are the best tool we have," U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

Health is the third federal department to introduce a vaccine mandate, following similar edicts from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon in recent weeks.

Average daily hospital admissions in the week to August 3 were 7,707 -- a 40 percent jump in just one week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Terminal closure

And in signs that the epidemic's economic impact is far from over, China on Thursday announced it was partially closing the world's third-busiest cargo port after a worker tested positive for coronavirus.

Almost 2,000 front-line workers at Ningbo-Zhoushan port have been placed under "closed management" -- effectively unable to leave the port -- as a result of the infection, Chinese media reported.

The virus has also hit global oil demand -- a bellwether for economic growth -- due to lockdowns in major consuming countries fuelled by the Delta variant, the International Energy Agency said on Thursday.

Demand had been recovering, but it "abruptly reversed course" in July as the Delta variant undermined deliveries in China, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, the IEA said in a monthly report.

In Britain, however, the economy rebounded 4.8 percent in the second quarter as consumer spending surged with the relaxation of anti-virus restrictions, official data showed Thursday.

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