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How did COVID-19 originate? WHO experts have these theories

March 30, 2021 / 08:32 AM IST
A person walks along a row of closed shops in Milan on March 15, 2021. A nearly national lockdown went into effect in Italy on March 15. Bureaucratic inertia, a diffusion of responsibility and logistical problems have seriously undercut vaccination efforts in Europe. (PC-Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)

A person walks along a row of closed shops in Milan on March 15, 2021. A nearly national lockdown went into effect in Italy on March 15. Bureaucratic inertia, a diffusion of responsibility and logistical problems have seriously undercut vaccination efforts in Europe. (PC-Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)

A team of international experts will present details Tuesday of their findings from a mission to China, which concluded Covid-19 probably passed to humans from a bat via an intermediary animal, all but ruling out a laboratory leak.

But the report, drafted by World Health Organization-appointed international experts and their Chinese counterparts, offers no definitive answers on how the new coronavirus jumped to humans.

AFP obtained a copy of the final report ahead of its official publication on Tuesday.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the international experts would hold a press conference Tuesday at 1400 GMT to discuss their findings, adding that all hypotheses on the pandemic's origins remained open and needed further study.

Covid-19 has killed more than 2.7 million people worldwide in the 15 months since it emerged, forcing governments around the world to introduce restrictions that have battered the global economy.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Ahead of a meeting with world leaders, UN chief Antonio Guterres called Monday for more debt relief for the poorest countries struggling with economic fallout from the pandemic.

In the United States, there was good news about progress of its vaccine roll-out, but President Joe Biden warned Americans the battle was far from over.

Mexico, meanwhile, released new figures on excess deaths that suggest its official coronavirus death toll -- already the third-highest in the world -- is a massive underestimate.

'New Debt mechanism'

The expert report on the origins of Covid-19 has had a troubled birth, with publication delays adding to the hold-ups and diplomatic wrangling that plagued the WHO's attempts to get experts into Wuhan -- the city at the center of the initial outbreak.

They finally arrived on January 14, more than a year after the first cases surfaced.

Experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the Covid-19 disease originally came from bats.

The report authors judged that the most likely scenario was that it had made a direct leap to humans, while not ruling out other theories.

Beijing's theory that the virus did not originate in China at all but was imported in frozen food was judged "possible" but very unlikely.

Claims promoted by former US president Donald Trump's administration that the virus escaped from a research lab were judged "extremely unlikely."

Meanwhile, UN chief Guterres called for a "new debt mechanism" allowing such options as debt swaps, buy-backs and cancellations to help worse-off countries.

Addressing an online forum that included dozens of world leaders, he said the pandemic has pushed the world to "the verge of a debt crisis" and required "urgent action."

"We need to change the rules," he argued.

The pandemic had also "shattered the lives" of millions of women and girls and reversed progress towards gender equality, he said.

'War far from won'
In the US, the White House said that 90 percent of adults would be eligible for Covid-19 shots within three weeks.

But in a television address, Biden warned the country -- which has the world's highest death toll -- that "our work is far from over. The war against Covid-19 is far from won."

He condemned the reckless behavior of some people flouting social distancing measures.

New government data from Mexico showed that it had registered 294,287 Covid-19 deaths -- substantially more than previously recorded, and the third-highest in the world behind Brazil and the United States.

In Britain on Monday, people rushed to pools and parks to enjoy new-found freedoms, as the government allowed small groups to gather and sports activities to resume.

"We haven't swum since January 5, so we were beyond excited to come back and get back into the water," said swimmer Jessica Walker a London pool.

The country is also lining up an FA Cup semi-final football match in April as a test run for reopening large events.

J&J deals
Johnson & Johnson announced a deal with the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) to bring relief to that continent.

AVAT has an initial deal for 220 million doses of the single-shot vaccine with J&J subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutica for delivery from the third quarter of this year.

With EU approval already in its pocket, the US drugmaker also plans to begin European deliveries on April 19.

The bloc has lagged far behind Britain in its vaccine rollout.

Rising case numbers in Germany led Chancellor Angela Merkel to lambast the heads of the country's regional states, including her own party colleagues, for failing to reintroduce restrictions.

In neighboring France, President Emmanuel Macron may announce new measures this week after partial regional shutdowns failed to keep the number of people in intensive care below its second-wave peak.

Meanwhile, leaders from 23 countries including Merkel and Macron, the EU and WHO backed a push for a new global treaty to better prepare the world to tackle future pandemics.

And the makers of the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine struck a deal with a Chinese firm to make more than 60 million doses, citing "rising demand" for the drug.

first published: Mar 30, 2021 08:32 am