A World Health Organization investigation team is unlikely to reach any conclusions on the origins of the pandemic as a result of its trip to China this month, a health expert affiliated with the body has said. Dr Dale Fisher told the Reuters Next conference:
I would be inclined to set the expectations of a conclusion very low for this visit.
A WHO team experts will arrive in China on 14 January, Chinese authorities have indicated. It is not clear, however, whether or not the team will visit the central city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
China has been accused by some of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread. The United States has called for a more transparent WHO-led investigation and criticised the terms of the current effort, which have allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research. Fisher, who took part in a WHO mission to Wuhan last year, said:
I think it’s an important meeting but it shouldn’t be overrated in terms of an outcome this time.
The experts will meet their Chinese counterparts and exchange notes on what data they have and what studies they will further have to do, Fisher added.
Though he did not expect all the answers from this trip, Fisher said he believed the chances of finding the origin of the pandemic were much better than a year ago because experts now knew a lot more about what data they would need to collect based on information they already had.
at 10.16am GMT
Business owners at France’s Chamonix ski resort, their earnings slashed because of the lockdown, are worried they might not be able to welcome back skiers at all before the snows melt and the season ends.
French ski resorts were prevented from opening their cable cars and ski lifts at the start of the season, driving away the large portion of their visitors who come for downhill skiing.
The French government had discussed the possibility of reopening the ski lifts from 7 January. But last week it said that with virus cases still high, that would be premature. A decision is now due on 20 January, leaving little time before the season ends. Mathieu Dechavanne, the head of Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, which operates cable cars in the region, said:
If we have to close to the end of season, that’s going to cost us several billion euros. The economic impact will be catastrophic.
At the weekend on the slopes above Chamonix, a few winter sports enthusiasts did their best to enjoy the mountains. Some hiked using snow shoes, others tobogganed, or walked up the slopes before skiing down. But the streets of Chamonix were unusually quiet.
Reuters reported that the restaurant Le Serac was shut, except for takeaway, and owner Francois Montorcier said he was taking just 10% of normal revenues. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said. “We don’t see things getting better.”
The French government provides financial assistance, but it does not cover all losses. At his ski equipment rental shop, co-owner David Pot said he and his partners had lost half their revenue since the pandemic began.
He was angry, he said, because skiing did not expose people to a high risk of infection, yet government ministers had still cracked down on ski resorts. “There’s no logic in the way they take decisions,” he said.
at 10.17am GMT
Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said that a dangerous over-reliance on the coming vaccines by some governments meant herd immunity could not be achieved in the near term, telling the conference:
The Indonesian government thinks that vaccine is the best solution for controlling the pandemic, and they forget that surveillance like testing … communications, to educate public to practice low-risk behaviour, is also important because the vaccine itself needs time to cover most of the people who need it.
at 10.18am GMT
Vaccination programmes will not provide herd immunity from the pandemic this year, several health experts have said, citing limited access for poor countries, community trust problems and potential virus mutations.
Dr Dale Fisher, the chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) outbreak alert and response network, told the Reuters Next conference:
We won’t get back to normal quickly. We know we need to get to herd immunity and we need that in a majority of countries, so we are not going to see that in 2021.
There might be some countries that might achieve it but even then that will not create ‘normal’ especially in terms of border controls.
That was a best-case scenario, based on current knowledge of the vaccines being rolled out, Fisher said.
Herd immunity refers to a situation where enough people in a population have immunity to an infection to be able to effectively stop that disease from spreading.
at 10.18am GMT
Teachers in Malta have returned to their classrooms and ended a two-day strike after the government agreed to give them priority in the vaccination campaign.
Schools on the small Mediterranean island have been open since September but unions called a strike last week following a rise in infections, with a record 245 cases reported last Thursday.
The Malta Union of Teachers said that after talks with the government it was agreed that teachers would be vaccinated sooner than planned, immediately after medical staff and vulnerable elderly persons.
Malta’s medical authorities have said that to limit the spread of Covid-19, it is better to keep schools open rather than closed.
Charmaine Gauci, the superintendent of public health, said a study of virus cases had shown that children and their families did not have many social events while children were at school, and therefore mixed less.
The issue of whether to keep schools open has been a hot debate in many countries, with various governments opting for different policies.
In Malta’s closest EU neighbour, Italy, high schools have still not returned to normal after a nationwide shutdown was ordered last March. Face-to-face teaching had been expected to resume on Monday but the date has been put back to 18 January.
In Malta, the authorities have reduced the number of pupils in each classroom and created bubbles within which pupils cannot mix with other children. School arrivals and departures have been staggered.
“The measures have worked, we have not had any infection clusters in schools since September,” Gauci said.
at 10.20am GMT
Indonesia’s food and drug agency has granted emergency use approval to a vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech, as it becomes the first country outside China to give the regulatory green light to the vaccine.
Interim data from a late-stage human test in Indonesia showed the shot was 65.3% effective, said Penny K Lukito, who heads the country’s food and drugs authority BPOM.
at 10.20am GMT
England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, has tacitly criticised Covid deniers who have sought to downplay the scale of the epidemic, saying this winter “is in a completely different league” for the NHS. He told the BBC:
We will get through together, but at this point in time we’re at the worst point in the epidemic for for the UK.
There are always going to be noises of people coming up with absurd theories, and suggestions of things that are either obviously not true, or a misunderstanding of what’s going on.
But I think anybody who looks at some of the reports that the BBC and other news outlets done from hospitals, anyone who talks to a doctor or a nurse working in the NHS, anybody who actually reads any newspaper, they will know this is a really serious problem – this is not a typical winter.
Every winter there are problems. This is in a completely different league.
Whitty also said during a Q&A on BBC Radio 5 Live that people may need to be revaccinated in the future.
I don’t think we’ll have anything on this scale that we’re going to have to do over the next several months but I think there is a reasonable chance that, rather like with flu, we have to vaccinate every year – we may well have to revaccinate for Covid.
at 10.21am GMT
England’s test and trace system does not work effectively and needs to be fixed, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation has said, as he warned of high infection rates. Speaking to Sky News, Danny Mortimer said:
We need the rate of infection to go down well in advance of the benefit of the vaccination programme. We still, for the last few weeks now, have seen growing incidences of infection in our communities.
We’ve struggled as a country to have a test, trace and isolate system that works effectively – it just doesn’t work as well as it does in countries like Australia and various other parts of the world. That has to be fixed.
at 9.50am GMT
Here’s a little more detail on Fontanet’s suggestion that France should think about closing its borders. He told BFM television
It is important that we consider whether we need to close the borders to a limited number of countries, notably the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is certainly a point for the agenda. It is not up to the scientific council to decide this, but we want to raise the issue.
French authorities said on Sunday that the more infectious variant had now been detected in the Mediterranean port of Marseille and in the Alps. And Fontanet said:
The new Covid variant is nearly a new epidemic within the epidemic.
He said it was more contagious but that for now there were no signs that its mortality rate was higher.
at 10.22am GMT
Russia has reported 23,315 new cases, including 4,646 in Moscow, taking the national tally – the world’s fourth highest – to 3,425,269 since the pandemic began. Authorities also confirmed 436 deaths in the last 24 hours, pushing the official death toll to 62,273.
France should consider closing borders, says government adviser
France should consider closing its borders with the UK and other countries that have a strong presence of the UK variant, a French epidemiologist and government adviser has said.
Arnaud Fontanet, a member of the French government’s scientific council, also said on BFM television that to get the epidemic under control, France needed to vaccinate 10-15 million people by the end of March and 25-30 million people by the end of June.
at 10.22am GMT