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COVID-19 origin probe debate heats up

Asia|: Washington: The controversy over the investigation organised by the World Health Organisation and China about the origins of COVID-19 heated up as a group of scientists called for an independent probe to consider all hypotheses and nail down whether the virus came from an animal. A group of more than 20 signatories said in an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal that the existing mission isn't independent enough and demanded a new probe to consider all possibilities over the origin. Half of the joint team are Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, they said. The criticism comes as the mission considers delaying an interim report, which was expected soon. The investigators may instead publish that summary statement on the same day as the full report, a WHO spokesman said. The organisation expects to have clearer ideas on future studies and missions needed around key hypotheses once it has received the full report and will discuss the next steps with member states, he said. Speculation rejected Last month, the mission rejected speculation that the coronavirus could have leaked from a lab and said instead that it may have jumped to humans through an animal host or frozen wildlife products. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said the United Nations agency hasn't ruled out any hypotheses. The WHO has faced criticism since the outbreak of the pandemic that it's been too deferential to China. Former US President Donald Trump advanced the theory that the virus might have escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first detected. The mission followed months of negotiation with China. Stung by criticism that they initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn't start in the country, but was brought in. The scientists who signed the open letter included the lab scenario among the possibilities. Signatories include Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics Inc., which develops treatments for breast cancer and COVID-19, while Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, co-organised the letter. None of the signatories were members of the WHO-backed mission. China reaction China's foreign ministry said Friday in response to a question about the open letter that there had been top Chinese experts on the WHO team that went to Wuhan to look into the virus's origins, and that China hoped other nations could cooperate on similar inquiries. "This open letter by the scientists you talked about, whether they are making suggestions out of professional attitude or they're politicising the issue and making the presumption of guilt, I believe they know this very clearly," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily briefing in Beijing.

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Indian farmers plan major road blockade outside Delhi to mark 100th day of protests

India|: New Delhi: Indian farmers who have been protesting for months against deregulation of produce markets plan to block a major expressway outside New Delhi on Saturday, the 100th day of their campaign, they said. Tens of thousands have been camped outside Delhi since December, demanding the government repeal three farm laws that open up the country's agriculture markets to private companies, which the farmers say will make them vulnerable. Farmers from the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh plan to stop all traffic on the six-lane Western Peripheral Expressway that forms a ring outside New Delhi for up to five hours, union leaders said on Friday. "We believe that after these 100 days, our movement will put a moral pressure on the government to accede to our demands, because the weather will also worsen," said Darshan Pal, spokesperson for the farmer unions' coalition Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), or United Farmers Front. "It will weaken the government, which will have to sit down with us to talk again." The government says the reforms will bring investment to the antiquated agriculture markets, and that new entrants would operate alongside government-regulated market yards, where farmers are assured of a minimum price for their produce. Several rounds of talks between the government and farm leaders have failed and the movement has gained widespread support, including from international celebrities. As the harvesting season begins this month, Pal said neighbours and friends back in the villages would help tend to farms while he and other farmers carry on the protests. The capital typically has harsh summers with temperatures rising up to 45 degree Celsius, but Pal said that won't hinder the movement. "The laws are like a death warrant to us," he said. "We are prepared for the long haul."

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COVID-19: Japan to extend Tokyo area state of emergency to March 21

Asia|: Tokyo: The Japanese government plans to extend a state of emergency to combat COVID-19 for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures until March 21, two weeks longer than originally scheduled, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said on Friday. Under the state of emergency, the government has requested restaurants and bars close by 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol an hour earlier. People are also asked to stay home after 8 p.m.unless they have essential reasons to go out. Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, which make up 30% of the country’s population, sought the extension past the originally scheduled end date of March 7 as new coronavirus cases had not fallen enough to meet targets. Two weeks The government had an early-morning meeting with advisers and they approved the extension, Nishimura, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, told reporters.But the measure will put more burden on restaurants. “As long as the government asks us to endure for another two weeks, we will follow its instructions. But that would be a matter of life or death for us,” said Akira Koganezawa, vice president of the association for 55 restaurants that serve monjayaki - a pan-fried batter dish popular in Tokyo area. “Without enough subsidies, some restaurants would go out of business,” he said. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is scheduled to hold a news conference at 9:00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) after the government officially decides the extension, according to his office. Fuji TV, citing an unnamed government official, reported on Friday that another extension until the end of March could not be ruled out. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is considering setting a criteria that new daily infections stay below 140 on a weekly average basis, to lift the state of emergency, the Nikkei reported. Tokyo’s daily new infection came in at 269 on average for the past week through March 4, according to Reuters calculations. Tame the spread The government is keen to tame the spread of the virus as preparations ramp up for the Tokyo Olympics with just 4-1/2 months until they kick off. Foreign athletes have been barred from entering Japan to train ahead of the Games during the state of emergency. It was not immediately clear if the ban would remain in place during the extension for the Tokyo region while the order has already been lifted for the rest of the country. The current curbs are narrower in scope than those imposed under an emergency in spring of last year when schools and non-essential businesses were mostly shuttered. Still, new case numbers are at a fraction of their peak in early January, when the state of emergency took effect. Tokyo reported 279 cases on Thursday, compared with a record high 2,520 on Jan. 7 Nationwide, Japan has recorded some 433,000 cases and 8,050 deaths from COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

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After record COVID-19 deaths, Bolsonaro tells Brazilians to stop 'whining'

Americas|: Brasilia: After two straight days of record COVID-19 deaths in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday told Brazilians to stop "whining" and move on, in his latest remarks attacking distancing measures and downplaying the gravity of the pandemic. Brazil has the world's second-highest death toll over the past year, after the United States. While the US outbreak is ebbing, Brazil is facing its worst phase of the epidemic yet, pushing its hospital system to the brink of collapse. "Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?" Bolsonaro told a crowd at an event. "How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution." The Health Ministry registered 75,102 additional cases of coronavirus on Thursday, the most in a single day since July and the second-highest on record. Brazil also recorded 1,699, decreasing slightly from the previous two days of record deaths. New restrictions Brazil's surging second wave has triggered new restrictions in its capital, Brasilia, and its largest city, Sao Paulo. Tourist mecca Rio de Janeiro on Thursday announced a city-wide curfew and early closing time for restaurants. The federal government has been slow to purchase and distribute vaccines, with less than 3.5% of the population having gotten one shot. The government is working to obtain additional vaccines from more suppliers. The Health Ministry is negotiating to buy 2 million additional Pfizer doses by May, 16.9 million Janssen doses by September and 63 million doses of the Moderna vaccine by January 2020, according to documents reviewed by Reuters on Thursday. Particularly worrying to health authorities is the emergence of a new coronavirus variant from the Amazon region that appears more contagious and more able to reinfect those who have already had COVID-19. Variants spreading Government-affiliated medical institute Fiocruz said that it has detected the Amazon, United Kingdom and South African variants spreading in various places across the country. "We are experiencing the worst outlook for the pandemic since it started," said Gonzalo Vecina Neto, a medical doctor and former head of Brazilian health regulator Anvisa. "Mutations are the result of the increased reproduction of the virus. The greater the number of viruses, the faster the transmission, the more mutations we have," he said. State governors and doctors have complained that the federal government has mismanaged the coronavirus crisis, as Bolsonaro has downplayed its severity and opposed lockdowns. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro's popularity has been supported by 322 billion reais ($57.7 billion) in emergency aid payments to poorer Brazilians last year. The Senate voted on Thursday to renew the aid program at a smaller scale, handing out 250 reais per month for four months, at a cost of up to 44 billion reais. The proposal must still be approved by Brazil's lower house of Congress.

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COVID-19: Australia asks European Commission to review Italy’s vaccine block

Oceania|: Canberra: Australia has asked the European Commission to review a decision by Italy to block a shipment of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, while stressing on Friday the missing doses would not affect the rollout of Australia’s inoculation programme. Italy, supported by the European Commission, barred the planned export of around 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine after the drug manufacturer failed to meet its European Union contract commitments. “Australia has raised the issue with the European Commission through multiple channels, and in particular we have asked the European Commission to review this decision,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne. Hunt said Australia had already received 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which would last until local production of the vaccine ramps up. Australia began its inoculation programme two weeks ago, vaccinating frontline health staff and senior citizens with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine though doses of that vaccine are limited amid tight global supplies. AstraZeneca did not immediately reply to a request for comment. AstraZeneca did not immediately reply to a request for comment. While seeking the European Commission’s intervention, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he could understand reasons for Italy’s objection. “In Italy people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney. Italy’s move came just days after Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who took office last month, told fellow EU leaders that the bloc needed to speed up vaccinations and crack down on pharma companies that failed to deliver on promised supplies. EU countries started inoculations at the end of December, but are moving at a far slower pace than many other nations, with officials blaming the slow progress in part on supply problems with key manufacturers. First dose Australian officials on Friday administered the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, to a doctor. Australia has ordered 53.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed in conjunction with the University of Oxford. Local pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd has secured the rights to manufacture 50 million of those doses in Australia and expects to release the first batch near the end of March. The locally produced doses will provide the backbone of Australia’s inoculation programme, which officials hope to complete by October. Australia is under less pressure than many other countries, having recorded just under 29,000 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths. The lower infection and death tallies have been helped by strict lockdowns, speedy tracking systems and border closures.

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COVID-19 vaccine confidence grows as side effect worries fade

Europe|: London: Confidence in COVID-19 vaccines is growing, with people’s willingness to have the shots increasing as they are rolled out across the world and concerns about possible side effects are fading, a 14-country survey showed on Friday. Co-led by Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) and the polling firm YouGov, the survey found trust in COVID-19 vaccines had risen in nine out of 14 countries covered, including France, Japan and Singapore which had previously had low levels of confidence. The latest update of the survey, which ran from Feb 8. to Feb. 21, found that people in the UK are the most willing, with 77% saying they would take a vaccine designed to protect against COVID-19 if one was available that week. This is up from 55% in November, shortly before the first COVID-19 vaccine - co-developed by Pfizer and BioNTech - gained regulatory approval for use in Britain. People in France, Singapore and Japan remained among the least willing to have a COVID-19 vaccine, at 40%, 48% and 48%, respectively - but all three have seen confidence rising since November when only 25%, 36% and 39% of people were positive. Side effects The survey also found that worries over vaccine side effects have faded in the majority of countries, with fewer than half (45%) of all respondents currently reporting concern. Again, people in France, Singapore and Japan are currently most worried about side effects, with around 6 in 10 feeling concerned (56%, 59%, 61%), while the UK is the least concerned. The latest survey involved more than 13,500 people in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Sweden.

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Biden asks team to travel to Mexico border and report on influx of children

Americas|: Washington: President Joe Biden has asked senior officials to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and brief him on the government response to the influx of unaccompanied minors and steps to ensure their safety and care, a White House spokesman said on Thursday. Biden’s administration is facing criticism from Democrats and activists who say unaccompanied migrant children and families are being held too long in detention centers instead of being released while their asylum applications are considered. For their part, Republicans and immigration hawks complain that the willingness to let in more migrants while their asylum applications are being heard has encouraged more migration from Central America. Safety and care President Biden has asked senior members of his team to travel to the border region in order to provide a full briefing to him on the government response to the influx of unaccompanied minors and an assessment of additional steps that can be taken to ensure the safety and care of these children,” White House spokesman Vedant Patel said. The timing of the visit would remain confidential because of security and privacy concerns, Patel said. U.S. Border Patrol agents caught more than 4,500 migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday, according to government figures shared with Reuters, a large single-day tally that comes amid growing fears that illegal entries could soar in the coming weeks.