Following WHO Report, Pandemic Origins Remain Murky

by Michael Schulson,
April 2, 2021

On Jan. 14, an international team of experts arrived in Wuhan, China to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. For four weeks, the World Health Organization-convened team — which included epidemiologists, virologists, and specialists in veterinary medicine — interviewed people in Wuhan, reviewed hospital records, and even analyzed sales data from retail pharmacies.

Their much-anticipated report, released on Tuesday, rehashes conclusions familiar from weeks of press conferences and communications: The team believes that the coronavirus likely passed from an animal, probably a bat, to humans, either directly or through some intermediate animal host. They describe the theory — heavily pushed by the Chinese government, and widely dismissed by scientists — that SARS-CoV-2 arrived in Wuhan via frozen foods as “a possible pathway” for the virus. Meanwhile, the team describes another theory, the “introduction through a laboratory incident,” as “an extremely unlikely pathway.”

Instead of offering clear answers, the report promises to intensify speculation about the origins of a virus that has shut down entire countries and killed an estimated 2.8 million people worldwide.

At least in the U.S., the report appears at the same time that the lab-leak hypothesis has begun to gain mainstream attention, including recent coverage in USA Today, on NPR, and on “60 Minutes,” the iconic CBS News show. Critics, including the governments of the U.S. and other countries, have charged the Chinese government with giving the WHO team too little access to important data. Those critics appeared to receive support on Tuesday from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said the independent team’s investigation of a laboratory incident was not “extensive enough,” and called for “further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”

As Charles Schmidt reported for Undark last month, the idea that SARS-CoV-2 may have accidentally escaped from a lab has become highly politicized, with partisans wielding it to attack China or criticize scientific researchers. Amid the finger-pointing, the whodunit drama, and the geopolitical wrangling, it can be easy to overlook the actual stakes of the investigation: to collect information that will help scientists and policymakers prevent future pandemics.

Since the 1990s, researchers have warned of the growing risk that emerging infections pose to the world. Even before SARS-CoV-2 swept around the world, Ebola, Zika, the H1N1 flu, and SARS triggered serious recent outbreaks with global repercussions. Today, Schmidt writes, “pandemic preparedness faces two simultaneous fronts.” Researchers need to study coronaviruses, influenza viruses, and other pathogens in order to understand and combat them. But sometimes that very research introduces the risk of lab accidents that, some experts warn, could trigger a disaster. The lab-leak dispute is not just about blame or closure; it’s about how to weigh those various risks.

For now, the debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origin is far from over. “Bloody hell,” one virologist told Nature reporter Amy Maxmen, “this will go on for years.”

Also in the News:

• Driven by more infectious coronavirus variants, Covid-19 cases are rising across the United States, with hotspots emerging in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, and other states. “Right now, I’m scared,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a Monday press briefing, warning that the country was at risk of experiencing a fourth wave of the virus. Anthony Fauci, director the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed those concerns, saying that the fast-spreading variants could erase some of the country’s gains in reducing infection, even as vaccinations, which appear to be highly effective against existing variants, protect more and more Americans from Covid-19. Most countries, though, have vaccinated far fewer people than the U.S. — and, in some, variants are driving waves of new cases. In France, infections have risen so sharply that the country’s president ordered a full national lockdown on Wednesday. Eastern European countries are also undergoing a coronavirus wave, with Hungary experiencing some of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world. Variants are also driving surges in India and Pakistan, as well as in Latin America. “Without preventive action, our region could face an upsurge even larger than the last one,” said the head of the Pan America Health Organization this week. (Multiple sources)

• On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan to overhaul U.S. infrastructure. The plan earmarks $250 billion for research, according to Science. A fact-sheet provided by the White House in advance of Biden’s announcement, which took place at a carpenters training center outside of Pittsburgh, says that the administration will ask Congress to allocate $50 billion to the National Science Foundation and another $14 billion to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The plan also calls on Congress to “invest $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure in laboratories across the country,” with half of the funds going to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. The plan puts an emphasis on research and development for new technologies, as well as tackling global challenges such as climate change and future pandemics. As Science notes, much of that spending is in line with bipartisan legislation recently proposed in Congress. “We’re one of only a few major economies in the world whose public investment in research and development as a share of GDP has declined constantly over the last 25 years,” Biden told the crowd outside Pittsburgh. “And we’ve fallen back. The rest of the world is closing in and closing in fast. We can’t allow this to continue.” (Science)

• Unaccompanied migrant children held at government facilities near the U.S.-Mexico border are testing positive for Covid-19, raising concerns that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions could be allowing the virus to spread. Reporters who got a rare look inside a facility in Donna, Texas this week published photos of young children packed into playpens — some cared for by older siblings — and families sleeping shoulder to shoulder. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 17,600 unaccompanied minors were in government care as of Tuesday — 5,606 in CBP custody and the rest with the Department of Health and Human Services. CBP does not have the capacity to conduct Covid-19 testing itself, but many children are coming up positive once they transfer from CBP custody to other government sites. At the San Diego Convention Center, for instance, which is holding teenagers age 13 to 17, HHS officials told ABC affiliate KGTV that 82 teens have tested positive. And at an HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, more than 10 percent of children have tested positive for Covid-19, a source with knowledge of the conditions told ABC. In contrast to a Trump administration policy that removed unaccompanied minors from the U.S., Biden has allowed them to stay while their cases are being processed. (ABC News)

• Amid mounting evidence that Black and Brown communities are bearing the brunt of Covid-19’s impacts comes a study suggesting that the pandemic is magnifying health disparities even among people who don’t get the disease. As Amina Khan reports at the Los Angeles Times, researchers at two UCLA Medical Centers examined the rates at which patients were hospitalized for avoidable health problems — including hypertension, diabetes, and urinary tract infections — both before and during the pandemic. African Americans have long suffered such preventable hospitalizations at higher rates than Whites, but the team found that the pandemic had nudged the gap even wider. As many Americans opted to curtail hospital visits during the pandemic, the rate of avoidable hospitalizations fell by more than half for non-Latino Whites, but by just 8 percent, a statistically insignificant amount, for African Americans. The researchers say the results likely stem from Black patients having poorer access to outpatient care, which can prevent minor health issues from growing into major ones. For instance, the researchers noted that, among other things, people of color may be more likely to have a job that doesn’t allow them to take time off to visit a doctor during the day. (Los Angeles Times)

• And finally: On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will remove more than 40 outside experts appointed by former president Donald Trump to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), two panels that shape regulatory decisions. The move reflects criticisms that the Trump-appointed advisers were too friendly toward regulated industry, and at times went against scientific consensus. The Biden administration characterized the move as a step toward reestablishing scientific integrity within federal agencies. But the purge, which The Washington Post described as an “unusual decision,” has drawn criticism from some former EPA officials, who argue that the administration is preventing advisory panels from maintaining members with differing viewpoints. Jeff Holmstead, who led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation during the George W. Bush administration, complained the decision was “ham-handed” and undermined trust in the agency. Retired EPA employee Chris Zarba countered that the Trump-appointed advisers’ stances “did not accurately represent mainstream science.” (The Washington Post)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.
Main Image: Tine Ivanič / Unsplash

UK government to allow new North Sea oil and gas exploration

Joint investment of up to £16bn tied to industry promise to cut carbon emissions by 50% by end of decade

Jillian Ambrose Energy correspondent
24 Mar 2021,

Ministers will allow oil drillers to keep exploring the North Sea for new reserves, despite the government’s pledge to tackle carbon emissions, as long as they pass a “climate compatibility” test.

The government has offered to help the North Sea oil and gas industry cut its carbon emissions through a joint investment of up to £16bn to help support 40,000 North Sea jobs. In return, the industry has promised to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by the end of the decade.

The government said its “landmark deal” would help support the oil and gas industry’s transition to a clean energy future. But it has dashed hope among green campaigners and policy experts that the UK would follow the lead of Denmark and France by agreeing to ban new oil exploration licences.

Instead, the government plans to introduce a new “climate compatibility checkpoint” to determine whether each application is “compatible with the UK’s climate change objectives”.

The checkpoint will use the latest evidence for the UK’s domestic demand for oil and gas, the North Sea’s projected production levels, the availability of clean energy, and the sector’s progress against its emissions reduction targets ahead of each planned licensing round.

If the checkpoint – to be designed later this year – suggests that future oil and gas exploration would undermine the UK’s climate goals, the licensing round would not go ahead. up to the daily Business Today email

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business and energy secretary, said the North Sea deal sends “a clear message around the world” that the UK will be “a nation of clean energy”. He added that the UK will “not leave oil and gas workers behind” in the “irreversible shift away from fossil fuels”.

Mel Evans, the head of Greenpeace UK’s oil campaign, described the deal as “a colossal failure in climate leadership in the year of Cop26”.

“Instead of finding ways to prop up this volatile and polluting sector, a better proposition for workers and communities would be for the government to confirm a ban on new licences, and put all its energies into a nationwide programme of retraining, reskilling and investment in renewables and green infrastructure,” Evans said.

MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Applications for drilling licences will be assessed against a new ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’. Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Government has no climate change plan – MPs

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst
5 March 2021

The government has been hit by a double whammy of reports from MPs criticising its performance on climate change.

The influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says ministers have “no plan” to meet climate change targets, two years after setting them in law.

And the business committee says the vital UN climate conference scheduled for Glasgow in November will fail unless its goals are made clear.

The government says both reports are inaccurate and unfair.

The PAC’s report says ministers still don’t have a coordinated strategy to realise the goal of removing almost all the carbon emissions from Britain by 2050.

The report notes that the government intends to publish what the MPs call a “plethora” of strategies setting out how it will reduce emissions in sectors ranging from transport to heating buildings.

But, it says, the policies aren’t agreed yet.

‘Huge test’

The MPs say the Treasury has changed its guidance to ensure departments place greater emphasis on the environmental impacts of their policies, but hasn’t explained how this will work in practice.

What’s more, the MPs say, the government is not yet ensuring that its activities to reduce emissions in Britain are not simply transferring those emissions overseas – where so many of the carbon-intensive goods bought in Britain’s shops are made.

They also blame the government for failing to engage with the public.

Meg Hillier, the committee’s Labour chairwoman, said: “The government has set itself a huge test in committing the UK to a net zero economy by 2050 – but there is little sign that it understands how to get there.

” We must see a clear path plotted, with interim goals set and reached – it will not do to dump our emissions on poorer countries to hit UK targets.

“Our new international trade deals, the levelling up agenda – all must fit in the plan to reach net zero.

“COP26 (the vital climate conference in Glasgow in November) is a few months away. The eyes of the world, its scientists and policymakers are on the UK – big promises full of fine words won’t stand up.”

Scottish Event Campus
The Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow will host the COP26 conference in November

Meanwhile, the business committee says the government has provided no details so far about how success at the conference will be measured.

Their report urges the prime minister to set out a clear list of ambitions for the summit, with a set of accompanying measures of success.

It points out that the UK is currently guiding the summit to focus on key areas for change chosen by Britain.

These are:

  • Adaptation and resilience
  • Nature based solutions
  • Energy transitions
  • Clean transport
  • Switching the finance system to low-carbon investments.

But the committee says: “We have concluded the current ‘themes’-based approach is too broad, without clear measures for success.

“More focus needs to be given to the overriding necessity to agree deliverable policies that keep global temperature rises to as close to 1.5C as possible.”

A COP26 spokesperson said the government was making “good progress” but added “there is no time to waste”.

“The COP26 President, Alok Sharma, our teams, and the full weight of our diplomatic network are all working tirelessly to push for accelerated action from our partners around the world” the spokesperson added.

Wildfires in California have been associated with climate change

Nick Mabey, from the think tank e3g, argues that multiple potential goals must be achieved – and he believes those goals should be debated publicly.

The aims would include:

  • Strengthening nations’ long -term commitments to cut emissions
  • Measuring whether governments’ policies match up to their promises
  • No new coal power built.
  • Major public banks withdrawing from fossil fuel investment
  • Ending export finance for coal power stations
  • Greatly increasing cash for poorer nations to adapt to inevitable global heating.

“This debate is up for grabs” he told BBC News.

“It should be a public debate because we’re talking out how to change whole economies. A lot of the outcomes from Glasgow will be decided in the court of public opinion.”

Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) said: “The lack of clarity on the vision for COP26 is seriously concerning. It is surely obvious that COP26 has to set the global economy on track to net zero emissions by mid-century.

“This means brokering agreements that kick-start decarbonisation in various sectors and it also means Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Rishi Sunak stepping up to the plate on finance to help the poorest nations.

“Failure to sort this will fatally compromise COP26 – and the failure will lie squarely at the door of Downing St.”

Bushfire in Australia
Scientists say climate change had an impact on bush fires in Australia in recent years

Whatever global goals are eventually agreed, green groups warn the UK’s negotiating position will be weakened unless it consistently cuts carbon domestically – it’s currently slipping away from its long-term targets.

Mr Black added: “Coming on the back of a Budget that didn’t even try to get the Conservatives on track to their net zero target, the conclusion that they don’t have a plan for reaching it, just months before the UK hosts a major UN climate summit for the first time, should stimulate some serious thinking right across Whitehall.”

A government spokeswoman said: “It is nonsense to say the government does not have a plan when we have been leading the world in tackling climate change, cutting emissions by almost 44 per cent since 1990 and doing so faster than any other developed nation in recent years.

“Only this week in the Budget we built on the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution by encouraging private investment in green growth, and we are bringing forward bold proposals to cut emissions and create new jobs and industries across the whole country.”