China has recorded its first Covid-19 death in eight months, as experts gathered to discuss worrying new strains of the coronavirus that are spreading rapidly around the globe.
The meeting in Geneva of the World Health Organization’s emergency committee comes as their colleagues landed in Wuhan for a long-delayed mission to find the origins of the virus.
More than 91 million people have been infected, with almost two million of them dying, according to figures widely thought to be an underestimate.
China – where the virus first emerged – has again locked down millions of people as it fights to control a fresh outbreak.
The death comes as a politically sensitive investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic finally got under way with the arrival of a 13-strong team in Wuhan, where the virus emerged in late 2019.
Mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said the group would start with a two-week quarantine at a hotel before the probe begins in earnest.
But, he warned, it “could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened”.
Beijing has argued Wuhan might not be where the virus originated, only where it was first identified.
“I don’t think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way,” Mr Embarek added.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that China denied entry to two members of the WHO team after both tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies.
Chinese officials blocked the pair from boarding their plane to Wuhan after they tested positive for the antibodies in blood-based serology tests during transit in Singapore, the report said, citing people familiar with matter.
“Relevant epidemic prevention control requirements will be strictly enforced,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing, when asked about the report.
The WHO said that all of the team’s members had multiple negative PCR and antibody tests for Covid-19 in their home countries before travelling to China.
The experts will begin their work immediately during the 2 weeks quarantine protocol for international travelers.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2021
It said they were tested again in Singapore and were all negative for PCR, but two members tested positive for IGM antibodies and they stayed in Singapore.
Regardless of the virus’s origins, scientists say large-scale vaccination is the only way to escape its ravages.
Programmes have begun in a number of countries, although progress is slower than many are hoping.
In the United States, where more than 4,000 people are dying every day from the disease, around 10 million have received a first shot.
California’s Disneyland threw open its doors yesterday as a vaccination site, with 81-year-old Gary Dohman near the front of the queue.
Disneyland is usually a big attraction for families with young children – but it’s senior citizens flocking there now. The theme park property will host what Orange County calls a POD, or large Point-Of-Dispensing site for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. pic.twitter.com/k1gN6iTQrQ
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 14, 2021
“Easy – piece of cake, nothing to it. Didn’t even feel it go in,” he said after getting his injection.
“I’ve been cooped up in a house for 10 months, can’t go anywhere. I want to get my second shot and do a little travelling.”
There was some good news for those who have already had Covid-19, with one British study suggesting that recovery confers immunity for at least five months for most people.
The research will be welcomed by Britain’s under-pressure healthcare workers struggling to cope with surging caseloads caused in part by a new, more infectious strain of the virus.
That strain, and another identified in South Africa, was going under the microscope in Geneva today as the WHO’s emergency committee gathers.
The newly identified variants have been logged in dozens of countries.
The committee normally gathers every three months, but the WHO said the director-general pulled the meeting forward “to consider issues that need urgent discussion”.
Pope Francis and ex Pope Benedict have received the first dose of a vaccine against coronavirus, the Vatican said.
The 84-year-old Pontiff and 93-year-old Benedict, got their jabs as part of a Vatican vaccination programme that began yesterday.
Meanwhile, the raging pandemic was largely being shrugged off by Hindu pilgrims gathered on the banks of the Ganges river in India.
Up to a million people were expected to show up today alone for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.
Thousands of Hindu pilgrims gather on the river Ganges in India for Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that attracts millions each time it is held. The country has the second largest number of coronavirus infections in the world, but devout Hindus still made the pilgrimage. pic.twitter.com/dupTnavOdS
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) January 14, 2021
“The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions,” said organiser Siddharth Chakrapani, but added that he was not too worried for the faithful.
“I’m sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety,” he said, referring to the sacred river.