WHO holds emergency meeting on new coronavirus strains

Global health experts gathered on Thursday to address new coronavirus strains accused of a resurgence of infections as countries including Britain and France tightened restrictions to eliminate a further worsening of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emergency committee meeting came when their colleagues sought the origin of the virus on a long-delayed mission to the pandemic base zero in Wuhan.

Nearly two million of the more than 91 million people who have contracted the disease have died, but the figures are generally considered an underestimation.

“When you first met almost a year ago, only 557 cases of the disease we now call Covid-19 had been reported to the WHO,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in his introductory speech to the emergency meeting.

Much of the planet is facing a second or third wave of infection, with populations rubbing under painful and economically damaging constraints.

Already hard hit by a new variant at home, Britain announced on Thursday that it bans all arrivals from South America, Panama, Cape Verde and Portugal.

The step was taken over the fear of importing yet another new variant of coronavirus in Brazil, where the northern Amazon state announced a curfew from 19:00 to 06:00.

The health care system has been pushed to a turning point in the capital Manaus.

New variants

The strain, known as E484K, was initially discovered in South Africa and subsequent varieties in Brazil and Japan, and has raised concerns among researchers about its possible impact on immunity.

Partly out of fear of new variants, France said it would impose a daily nationwide curfew at 6pm starting on Saturday and remain in force for at least two weeks.

Most of France had a curfew at 20.00, with some areas, especially in the hard-hit eastern region, already below the stricter border at 18.00.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called for stricter restrictions to limit the country’s worsening coronavirus outbreaks and pushed for crisis talks with regional leaders, sources from her party told AFP.

They quoted her as saying that the virus could only be stopped with “significant further action”.

Lebanon, meanwhile, went into full lockdown with residents excluded from the food trade as well.

There was better news for those who have already had Covid-19, with a British study suggesting that recovery can provide immunity for at least five months.

But the virus’ new strains caused growing concern and went under the WHO microscope in Geneva on Thursday after logging into dozens of countries.

The WHO’s contingency committee normally meets every three months, but the meeting is postponed by two weeks.

‘Very long journey’

In China, millions of people have been locked up again to try to tame a new outbreak that has now claimed the country’s first reported Covid-19 death in eight months.

The death came when a ten-strong investigation team arrived in Wuhan, where the virus appeared at the end of 2019.

Commissioner Peter Ben Embarek said they would go into a two-week hotel quarantine before the probe begins in earnest.

It “can take a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened,” he warned.

Regardless of origin, researchers say that large-scale vaccination is the only way out.

But while the rapid development of vaccines has raised hopes, 95 percent of the doses administered so far were limited to only ten countries, says the WHO’s European branch.

Progress in administering vaccines has often been slow, as in the United States, where more than 4,000 people die every day and about 10 million have received a first shot.

Turkey launched a vaccination with China’s Sinovac jab on Thursday despite conflicting information about its effectiveness, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among those given the jab.

In Africa, where many countries have so far avoided the worst pandemic, governments have been urged to take urgent action to prepare for vaccine distribution.

In the Vatican, Pope Francis, 84, and his predecessor, former Pope Benedict XVI, 93, have both been vaccinated, the Vatican said on Thursday.

But former world tennis number one Andy Murray’s participation in the Australian Open was cast in doubt after it was revealed on Thursday that he had tested positive.

‘Little worries’

Sports have provided some diversion for many prisoners at home, but top athletes were warned this week to set a good example.

English Premier League managers warned clubs that they could be sanctioned if players shake hands or hug after goals.

In India, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims gathered on the Ganges River for the Kumbh Mela Festival – relying on faith rather than masks to protect them.

“The pandemic is a bit worrying, but we are taking all the precautions,” said organizer Siddharth Chakrapani.

“I am sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety,” he said, referring to the sacred river.