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Why are calls growing to investigate the Wuhan lab leak theory? | Coronavirus pandemic News



There is growing public support among the world’s scientific community for fully exploring the possibility the coronavirus may have emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, leading to the global outbreak that has killed more than 3.7 million people worldwide.

The lab leak theory was largely sidelined in public scientific discourse in the early days of the outbreak, after the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, were confirmed in the Chinese city in December 2019.

In the following months, observers say, the hypothesis became perniciously intertwined with the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s inflammatory anti-China rhetoric and xenophobic framing of the pandemic, causing an apparent chilling effect among the scientific community.

“The question of whether a lab accident was the origin got stuck in this hyper-politicised context,” J Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“When Trump was instrumentalising the issue as part of an anti-China and anti-Asia campaign, people didn’t want to associate with that. And so they kept their distance.”

The marked increase in public support for fully investigating the theory comes in the wake of a global health study commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Wuhan, which was derided by several Western powers and prominent scientists as woefully inadequate and relying on data collated by Chinese officials.

The February report said it was “likely to very likely” the virus emerged through a natural zoonotic, or animal-to-human, transmission while concluding the theory it accidentally leaked from a lab was “extremely unlikely”. China has repeatedly denied the lab was responsible for leaking the virus.

Virologists and scientists in relevant fields who acknowledge the possibility the virus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, and support a full, transparent investigation, differ greatly in how likely they consider either scenario.

Many argue the theory that the outbreak began via animal to human transfer remains more likely. Others say there is no direct evidence available to say one scenario is more likely than the other. Of further debate is whether the sequence of the virus’s genome precludes human manipulation in a lab.

Nevertheless, the recent shift in perspective includes the US government’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who last year largely dismissed the idea, saying the science “strongly indicates” that the virus emerged naturally.

More recently, he said he was “not convinced” the virus did not emerge from a lab in Wuhan and backed further investigation.

Last week, in a rare public statement detailing US intelligence community thinking and calling for further investigation, President Joe Biden said the agencies have “coalesced around two likely scenarios” – the zoonotic transfer and the accidental Wuhan lab leak.

“While two elements in the (intelligence community) lean toward the former scenario (zoonotic) and one leans more toward the latter (the lab leak) – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” said the statement, which directly quoted portions of an intelligence report that has not been publicly released.

On May 30, the Sunday Times reported that the United Kingdom’s intelligence officials have shifted their view of an accidental Wuhan lab leak, calling it “feasible”.

‘Both remain viable’

Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, said little has changed in terms of scientific evidence since the genome sequence of the virus was first released in January of 2020.

He said there is “no secure basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural-accident (animal to human) hypothesis and the laboratory-accident hypothesis”.

“In particular, all scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera. “This was clear already in January 2020, and has been clear at every point in time from January 2020 through the present.”

Ebright, who was one of 21 international scientists who laid out what a full, “interdisciplinary” investigation in Wuhan should look like in an open letter in March, said the coronavirus origin “can be answered only through a forensic investigation, not a scientific speculation”.

Meanwhile, several scientists have said they still believe it is unlikely the virus was manipulated by humans before the outbreak. Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University who was part of a March 2020 study that said it was more likely the virus emerged from nature, told National Public Radio (NPR) in late May that he believes the evidence still largely favours those findings.

“I’m more convinced than ever that this is a natural virus,” he told the news organisation.

On May 14, 18 top biologists studying the pandemic published a letter in Science magazine calling for further investigation, saying the “accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable” origin scenarios.

The experts criticised the WHO-commissioned investigation, saying the two theories were not given “balanced consideration” while noting that only four of the 313 pages of the report addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident.

Circumstantial evidence

Others have cited circumstantial evidence they say supports either theory.

In the case of the zoonotic theory, virologists have long noted that the wildlife market in Wuhan, in which a wide array of exotic animals were sold in close quarters, would be an ideal place for zoonotic spillover, which was responsible for past coronavirus outbreaks, including the coronaviruses that caused the previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS. Finding the species responsible for spreading those viruses can take years.

Meanwhile, Shi Zhengli, a noted scientist with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote in a statement in Science magazine last July that it was impossible for the virus to have emerged from her lab, saying her team had “never been in contact with or studied this virus” and had all tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. However, she noted at the time the lab had not done genome sequencing on all of the virus samples it had collected.

In support of the accidental lab leak theory, observers have pointed to the extensive study of the novel bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC), noting that the former was known to possess the closest known related virus to the coronavirus that caused the current outbreak; arguing there were valid questions over safety standards at the lab; and noting Chinese authorities have suppressed information throughout the outbreak.

Some intelligence officials have also reportedly questioned the transparency of the so-called “gain of function” research conducted in China, which can involve intentionally increasing the transmissibility of a virus to study how it evolves.

On May 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill enough with COVID-19-like symptoms to require hospitalisation in November 2019. Sceptics have noted the illnesses occurred during the regular flu season.

On Thursday, Fauci called on China to release the medical records of those researchers.

Change in administration

Still, Jon Lieber, the US managing director for Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said the biggest change surrounding the acceptance of the lab leak theory possibility has been a change in US administration, saying that Trump’s lack of credibility had a chilling effect on scientists and fed into “blind spots and bias from the media gatekeepers”.

“Including social media, which banned multiple accounts from talking about this on Twitter and Facebook or flagged people as pushing misinformation,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think the real failure on the part of the scientific community and the media and others was failing to even take this seriously because they didn’t like the messenger.”

Last week, a Facebook spokesperson said the company would “no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps”. The decision was made “in light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts”, the spokesperson said.

Still, Leiber said the shift in opinion should not be seen as vindication for the Trump administration.

“It’s a complete failure by the Trump White House,” he said. “If they had any credibility, if they had the ability to convince anybody of anything, they would have been able to expose this as a legitimate origin story a year ago.”

For Biden, the decision to release a statement calling for further investigation serves a domestic purpose – to not appear “weak on China” and head off Republican criticism going into Congressional midterm elections in 2022, said Mathew Burrows, the Atlantic Council director of Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative.

Meanwhile, releasing the statement during the World Health Assembly also again puts Beijing – and the WHO – on notice, he said.

“The US is again a player in the WHO,” Burrows added. “So I think they want to stiffen the WHO against bending too much towards China.”

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‘Suddenly, she’s gone’: Mud and death in COVID-hit Indonesia | Coronavirus pandemic News




Jakarta/Kudus, Indonesia – It should have been a time of celebration for Puji Apriani’s family – she was pregnant with her second child, and just weeks away from giving birth.

But instead of welcoming a new life, her family is now in mourning.

“I miss her. She was healthy, her pregnancy was normal. And suddenly, she’s gone,” her younger sister Ery Jurniastuti said.

The family lives in Kudus, Central Java – one of the worst affected areas by Indonesia’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“She felt out of breath, and she was coughing. She felt contractions in her stomach, too,” Ery said.

Home to almost 900,000 people, Kudus has recorded a 7,594 percent increase in cases since the beginning of this year.

Following a steep rise in cases this month, overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to turn patients away.

After being rejected by two hospitals, Puji was finally admitted, and her oxygen levels increased slightly.

But it was too late. Her condition deteriorated and she died in hospital.

“She died first, then they checked the heart of the baby. The baby is still inside, they didn’t take it out. It died there.”


Puji Apriani was pregnant and only a few weeks away from giving birth when she caught COVID-19. Now, instead of celebrating a new arrival, her family are morning the death of both Puji and her baby [Jamaah/Al Jazeera]

Doctors vs Delta

At the Loekmono Hadi General Hospital in Kudus, Dr Abdul Aziz Achyar said he was “surprised” by the ferocity of the surge, which has pushed bed occupancy rates in hospitals to more than 90 percent.

“During Ramadan, it was so quiet. We only had 18 patients. But then, when it started … I myself was also hospitalised,” he told Al Jazeera.

One hundred fifty-three of his colleagues also contracted the virus, and two of them died.

Indonesia’s capacity to track variants is limited, but doctors believe the current outbreak in Kudus is driven in part by the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.

“We sent cases from health centre [for genome sequencing]… from 72 samples, 62 were the new variant,” Dr Abdul said.

At Aisyiyah Kudus Hospital, Dr Najib Budhiwardoyo said his hospital is completely at capacity.

“We are full of COVID patients. This second wave started after Eid,” he said.

“All hospitals in Kudus are experiencing this problem … oxygen scarcity. We have to be selective; we can only use oxygen for patients with very low saturation.”

Swamp turned cemetery

It is not just the hospitals in Java that are close to capacity, but cemeteries too.

In the Indonesian capital, the designated COVID-19 burial sites, such as Pondok Rangon Cemetery, that were opened in the early months of the pandemic are already full.

Cemetery workers told Al Jazeera they are struggling to keep up with their workload.

“Before COVID, I used to dig 10 graves each day. But yesterday, we dug 46 graves. The day before, it was 51,” Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, said.

“We are very tired. We work from morning until night.”

Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, waits for Wahyudin to finish writing on a wooden headstone [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

In Rorotan, North Jakarta, a new burial site for those who have died from COVID-19 opened just weeks ago – and already, more than 800 people have been buried there.

As the death toll continues to rise, finding room for the dead in this densely packed city is becoming a challenge.

The land at Rorotan used to be an empty swamp – the families of the deceased have to trek through the mud, to pay respects to their loved ones.

“This is a new cemetery … the other locations are full. There are just so many COVID cases, so they have to bring them here,” Darsiman said.

“It’s been raining so it’s muddy. It’s very sad to see funerals here, even the ambulances get stuck trying to come in.”

Headstone writer Wahyudin said his workload has increased because of the pandemic – and working at the cemetery takes an emotional toll.

“I feel so sad seeing this many burials. Seeing those families cry, I think about my own family,” he said.

“Before COVID, I also made headstones but it’s busier now. So many people have died.”

Moments to rest are scarce – just as workers lower a plastic-wrapped coffin into the ground, more ambulances arrive, with more dead to bury.


‘India should be our lesson’

This week, Indonesia surpassed two million confirmed cases of coronavirus – and more than 55,000 confirmed deaths.

Dr Nadia Siti, the head of Infectious Diseases at the Ministry of Health, said the rise in cases is not surprising.

“We know that if there is a holiday or event, there is an increasing number of people moving and travelling from other cities,” she said.

The cemetery at Rorotan has been built on what was once a swamp in northern Jakarta [Fakhrur Roz/Al Jazeera]
The cemetery at Rorotan has only been open for a few weeks and more than 800 people have already been buried there [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

“The government had restrictions on mudik, which is the tradition of Muslims to visit their hometown [during Eid Al Fitr]. Still, there are four to six million people who travelled.”

The situation in Kudus and capital are of particular concern to the Ministry of Health, where bed occupation rates are high and hospital workers are already overwhelmed by the crisis.

“In Jakarta, the bed occupation rate is almost 80 to 90 percent. We instruct hospitals to convert their beds into COVID-19 services, so they can be available for patients,” she said.

“The last strategy is to establish field hospitals with the coordination of the army or police.”

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia had a shortage of medical professionals – and there are concerns about how its stretched healthcare system will cope when infections are expected to peak in July.

“With the existing doctors, paramedics and nurses, it might not be enough. We might need an experienced doctor to supervise five or 10 new ones, who don’t have experience in taking care of patients,” Dr Nadia said.

“We do hope we won’t face the same situation like India. What happened in India should be our lesson.”

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Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino dies at age of 61 | Obituaries News




Aquino was the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded by current president , Rodrigo Duterte.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III died early on Thursday, after a prolonged illness, according to several news reports.

Aquino, 61, served as the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded in office by the incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte.

According to ABS-CBN News, he was hospitalised last Thursday.

But he has been undergoing dialysis for at least five months and had recently undergone a heart operation.

It was during Aquino’s administration that Manila took on China and filed a case before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippines later won that landmark case a month after Aquino left office in 2016.

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The scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that refused to bow to Beijing | Freedom of the Press News




Hong Kong, China – The last edition of the Apple Daily, the small scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that emerged as a champion of democracy and outspoken critic of China, has rolled off the presses, four days after the newspaper celebrated its 26th anniversary.

The paper had been raided by police twice during the past 10 months on suspicion of violating the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing almost a year ago. Since the first raid last August, founder Jimmy Lai, 73, has been in jail awaiting trial under the law.

Last week’s raid saw five top executives, including its chief editor, arrested for alleged security offences as 500 police officers swooped in on Apple’s headquarters, with another staffer – the head editorial writer – apprehended on Wednesday morning.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Hong Kong authorities’ freeze on the bank accounts of the media group that owns the paper. The move made it impossible for the paper to pay its staff and vendors, even as readers snapped up copies to show their support.

The decision was based on “employee safety and manpower considerations”, Apple Daily said as it announced its closure on Wednesday.
“Here we say goodbye. Take care of yourselves.”

Staff members of Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital clap out the final edition of a paper that began publishing in 1995 and became a thorn in Beijing’s side [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework meant to guarantee rights and liberties absent in the mainland. For most of the past 20 years, the territory has remained a bastion of press freedom in a country where media is muzzled.

“The demise of Apple Daily negates ‘one country, two systems’ and sets the stage for ‘one country, one system,’” said Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and a veteran newspaper editor.

Bold, brash

Founded just two years before the handover, Apple Daily was at once a gamble and a leap of faith.

“The paper wanted to have some impact not just on Hong Kong but also to support the liberalisation of China,” Lam told Al Jazeera. “But as China has become less open to Western values, the paper has focused on defending Hong Kong values and holding Beijing to account.”

In its inaugural editorial, Apple Daily said it aimed to be a paper for the Hong Kong people.

Lai, its founder and funder, a devout Catholic who had made a fortune in the fashion business, named the paper after the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Its rhyming couplet jingle – “An Apple a day, no liars can hold sway” – caught the attention of Hong Kong readers used to more staid offerings.

It was loud. It was bold, It was flashy.

The paper grabbed attention when it splashed a surreptitiously shot photo of Deng Xiaoping – China’s then-paramount leader died in February at the age of 92 – on his deathbed on the front page.

Brashness was its selling point.

Its reporters frequently skewered public officials and needled the comfortable.

“It speaks truth to power and finds a way to do profitably,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, standing by one of the printing presses in 2009, created a hugely popular paper that supported democracy, was unafraid to speak truth to power and critical of the Communist Party in Beijing [File: Alex Hofford/EPA]
Apple Daily’s founder and funder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August under the national security law and the paper’s headquarters raided. He has now been jailed [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The paper catered to high brow and low. Colourful spreads of scantily-clad female models appeared in the same section of the paper as erudite columns featuring quotes in Latin and Classical Chinese. With a couple of exceptions, its ranks of columnists were the who’s who of the territory’s pro-democracy circle.

Giving people what they want

Launched at the dawn of the internet age, the daily was quick to adapt to the digital world. Its website pioneered animated news – a mix of stills, short clips and clever graphics with narration dripping with sour sarcasm. Its lifestyle channel on YouTube built a fervent following.

A decade in, the paper’s circulation peaked at 500,000 in a city of approximately six million people with a dozen dailies.

Apple Daily’s brand of advocacy journalism would soon make the paper a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But to Lai, a rags-to-riches maverick millionaire now named Public Enemy No. 1 by Beijing, it was all about giving his customers what they would buy, even down to protest poster inserts.

In the summer of 2019, amid popular opposition to legislation that would send Hong Kong residents for trial in mainland China, the paper shorthanded “extradition to China” into the homophonic colloquial Cantonese expression of seeing someone to the grave. The expression immediately caught on and became a rallying cry in the protest movement.

“At times, we might have gone overboard but everything we did fell within the bounds of the law,” said Robert Chan, 45, who has covered mainland China for the paper for the past three years.

That is until the passage of the security law, which punishes what the authorities deem subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life sentences.

Prosecutors have used Lai’s frequent meetings with US officials in recent years, from the then-vice president on down, as “evidence” of his alleged “collusion with foreign powers”.

Staff from Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital work on the final edition of their newspaper on June 23. In its first-ever editorial, the paper said it wanted to be a publication of the Hong Kong people. It printed a million copies of its final edition [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Early last month, rumours started to circulate that Beijing wanted to see the paper be shuttered in time for the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations on July 1.

Technology reporter for a decade, Alex Tang, 37, said like most of his colleagues he had become conditioned to taking unsubstantiated gossip with a grain of salt – until the second raid and the company asset freeze.

During the past few days, some of the 800 reporters at the paper were frustrated by the lack of a definitive answer on the last publishing date and severance.

“Management said they’d hang on till the bitter end, and they’ve kept their word,” said Tang. “The company has done its best.”

Apple Daily will live on as a website on the self-governing island of Taiwan, where it ceased paper publication last month.

But in Hong Kong, China news reporter Chan said he will mourn the loss of far more than his livelihood.

“With the paper gone, so would the values it represents: pursuit of freedom and democracy,” he said.

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