A city in northern China is building a 3,000-unit quarantine facility to deal with an anticipated overflow of patients as COVID-19 cases rise ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush.
State media on Friday showed crews leveling earth, pouring concrete and assembling pre-fabricated rooms in farmland outside Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province that has seen the bulk of new cases.
That recalled scenes last year, when China rapidly built field hospitals and turned gymnasiums into isolation centers to cope with the initial outbreak linked to the central city of Wuhan.
China has largely contained further domestic spread of the coronavirus, but the recent spike has raised concerns due to the proximity to the capital Beijing and the impending rush of people planning to travel large distances to rejoin their families for country’s most important traditional festival.
The National Health Commission on Friday said 1,001 patients were under care for the disease, 26 of them in serious condition. It said that 144 new cases were recorded over the past 24 hours. Hebei accounted for 90 of the new cases, while Heilongjiang province farther north reported 43.
Nine cases were brought from outside the country, while local transmissions also occurred in the southern Guangxi region and the northern province of Shaanxi, illustrating the virus’ ability to move through the vast country of 1.4 billion people despite quarantines, travel restrictions and electronic monitoring.
Shijiazhuang has been placed under virtual lockdown, along with the Hebei cities of Xingtai and Langfang, parts of Beijing and other cities in the northeast. That has cut off travel routes while more than 20 million people have been told to stay home for coming days.
In all, China has reported 87,988 confirmed cases with 4,635 deaths.
The spike in northern China comes as World Health Organization experts prepare to collect data on the origin of the pandemic after arriving Thursday in Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019. Team members must undergo two weeks of quarantine before they can begin field visits.
Two of the 15 members were held up in Singapore over their health status. One of those, a British national, was approved for travel Friday after testing negative for the coronavirus, while the second, a Sudanese citizen from Qatar, had again tested positive, the Foreign Ministry announced.
The visit was approved by President Xi Jinping’s government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
That delay, along with Beijing’s tight control of information and promotion of theories the pandemic began elsewhere, added to speculation that China is seeking to prevent discoveries that chisel away at its self-proclaimed status as a leader in the battle against the virus.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China’s southwest.
Former WHO official Keiji Fukuda, who is not on the team, cautioned against raising expectations for any breakthroughs from the visit, saying that it may take years before any firm conclusions can be made.
“China is going to want to come out avoiding blame, perhaps shifting the narrative, they want to come across as being competent and transparent,” he told The Associated Press in an interview from Hong Kong.
For its part, the WHO wants to project the image that it is “taking, exerting leadership, taking and doing things in a timely way,” said Fukuda.
In Wuhan, street life appeared little different from other Chinese cities where the virus has been largely brought under control.
In a riverside park, senior citizens gathered to drink and dance while residents had praise overall for the government’s response to the crisis.
“Other countries are not very supportive and don’t pay attention to the pandemic, people go out arbitrarily, and they hang out and gather together, so it’s especially easy for them to be infected,” resident Xiang Nan said. “I hope they can stay home, and reduce traveling ... don’t let the pandemic spread further anymore.”
China is also pushing ahead with inoculations using home-developed vaccines, with more than 9 million already vaccinated and plans for 50 million to have the shot by the middle of next month.
The WHO team of international researchers that arrived in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Thursday hopes to find clues to the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The visit has been shrouded in secrecy, with neither China nor the WHO revealing exactly what the team will do or where it will go. The search for the origins is likely to be a years-long effort that could help prevent future pandemics.
The industrial and transportation hub on the Yangtze River is the first place the coronavirus surfaced in the world. It’s possible that the virus came to Wuhan undetected from elsewhere, but the city of 11 million is a logical place for the mission to start.
People began falling ill in December 2019, many with links to a sprawling food market that dealt in live animals. The growing number of patients triggered alarms that prompted China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention to send a team to investigate.
The disease would ravage Wuhan before it was brought under control in March. The city was locked down on Jan. 23 with little or no warning. The hardships endured and lives lost became a source of both sorrow and pride for residents once the 76-day lockdown was lifted on April 8.
WHAT IS THE TEAM’S AGENDA?
First they have to quarantine for 14 days, during which they will work with Chinese counterparts via video conference. Possible visits after quarantine are the Huanan Seafood Market, the site of the December 2019 cluster of cases, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Scientists initially suspected the virus came from wild animals sold in the market. The market has since been largely ruled out but it could provide hints to how the virus spread so widely. Samples from the market may still be available, along with the testimony of those involved in the early response.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology maintains an extensive archive of genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses built in the wake of the 2003 SARS pandemic, which spread from China to many countries. WHO team members would hope for access to lab logbooks and data, both junior and senior researchers and safety protocols for sample collection, storage and analysis.
WHY THE SECRECY?
China has firmly rejected calls for an independent outside investigation. The head of the WHO recently expressed impatience with how long China took to make necessary arrangements for the expert team’s visit.
The ruling Communist Party keeps a tight hold on information and is particularly concerned about possible revelations about its handling of the virus that could open it up to international criticism and financial demands.
China stifled independent reports about the outbreak and has published little information on its search for the origins of the virus. An AP investigation found that the government has strictly controlled all scientific research related to the outbreak and forbids researchers from speaking to the press.
State media continue to play up reports that suggest the virus could have originated elsewhere. In announcing the experts’ visit, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said “the tracing of the virus origin will most likely involve multiple countries and localities.”
A strong, shallow earthquake shook Indonesia’s Sulawesi island just after midnight Friday, toppling homes and buildings, triggering landslides and killing at least 34 people.
More than 600 people were injured during the magnitude 6.2 quake, which sent people fleeing their homes in the darkness. Authorities were still collecting information about the full scale of casualties and damage in the affected areas.
There were reports of many people trapped in the rubble of collapsed homes and buildings.
In a video released by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, a girl stuck in the wreckage of a house cried out for help and said she heard the sound of other family members also trapped. “Please help me, it hurts,” the girl told rescuers, who replied that they desperately wanted to help her.
The rescuers said an excavator was needed to save the girl and others trapped in collapsed buildings. Other images showed a severed bridge and damaged and flattened houses. TV stations reported the earthquake damaged part of a hospital and patients were moved to an emergency tent outside.
Another video showed a father crying, asking for help to save his children buried under their toppled house. “They are trapped inside, please help,” he cried.
Thousands of displaced people were evacuated to temporary shelters.
The quake was centered 36 kilometers (22 miles) south of West Sulawesi province’s Mamuju district, at a depth of 18 kilometers (11 miles), the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The Indonesian disaster agency said the death toll climbed to 34 as rescuers in Mamuju retrieved 26 bodies trapped in the rubble of collapsed homes and buildings.
The agency said in a statement that eight people were killed and 637 others were injured in Mamuju’s neighboring district of Majene.
It said at least 300 houses and a health clinic were damaged and about 15,000 people were being housed in temporary shelters in the district. Power and phones were down in many areas.
West Sulawesi Administration Secretary Muhammad Idris told TVOne that the governor’s office building was among those that collapsed in Mamuju, the provincial capital, and many people there remain trapped.
Rescuer Saidar Rahmanjaya said a lack of heavy equipment was hampering the operation to clear the rubble from collapsed houses and buildings. He said his team was working to save 20 people trapped in eight buildings, including in the governor’s office, a hospital and hotels.
“We are racing against time to rescue them,” Rahmanjaya said.
President Joko Widodo said in a televised address that he had ordered his social minister and the chiefs of the military, police and disaster agency to carry out emergency response measures and search and rescue operations as quickly as possible.
“I, on behalf of the Government and all Indonesian people, would like to express my deep condolences to families of the victims,” Widodo said.
The National Search and Rescue Agency’s chief Bagus Puruhito said rescuers from the cities of Palu, Makassar, Balikpapan and Jakarta were being deployed to boost rescue efforts in Mamuju and Majene.
Two ships were heading to the affected areas from Makassar and Balikpapan carrying rescuers and search and rescue equipment, while a Hercules plane carrying supplies was on its way from Jakarta.
Among dead in Majene were three people killed when their homes were flattened by the quake while they were sleeping, said Sirajuddin, the district’s disaster agency chief.
Sirajuddin, who goes by one name, said although the inland earthquake did not have the potential to cause a tsunami, people along coastal areas ran to higher ground in fear one might occur.
Landslides were set off in three locations and blocked a main road connecting Mamuju to the Majene district, said Raditya Jati, the disaster agency’s spokesperson.
On Thursday, a magnitude 5.9 undersea quake hit the same region, damaging several homes but causing no apparent casualties.
Indonesia’s meteorology, climatology and geophysical agency, known by its Indonesian acronym BMKG, warned of the dangers of aftershocks and the potential for a tsunami. Its chairwoman urged people in coastal areas to move to higher ground as a precaution.
Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 260 million people, is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.
In 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Palu on Sulawesi island set off a tsunami and caused soil to collapse in a phenomenon called liquefaction. More than 4,000 people died, many of the victims buried when whole neighborhoods were swallowed in the falling ground.
A powerful Indian Ocean quake and tsunami in 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Indonesia.
For the first time in over five decades, India will not have a foreign leader as the chief guest at its Republic Day parade.
“Due to the global Covid-19 situation, it has been decided that this year there will not be a foreign head of state or government as the chief guest for our Republic Day event," Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told the media on Thursday.
The last time India did not invite any foreign leader was in 1966 due to the sudden demise of then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, following which Indira Gandhi was sworn in as the country's first female PM on January 24 that year, two days ahead of Republic Day.
India had invited British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for this year's Republic Day parade, but he cancelled his visit on January 5 amid a surge in Covid cases at home.
"The (British) Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned," a spokesperson for Downing Street had said.
In December, the British PM accepted India's invitation to attend the parade.
India honours January 26 every year, the day on which the country's Constitution came into effect in 1950, replacing the Government of India Act (1935) as the governing document and thus, turning the nation into a newly formed republic.
However, this year, India has decided to scale down the Republic Day parade in the wake of Covid. The distance of the parade has been cut down to half -- from 8.2km to 3.3km. The spectator strength has also been brought down to 25,000 from 1,15,000.
A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
The 10-member team sent to Wuhan by the World Health Organization was approved by President Xi Jinping's government after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, most likely in China's southwest. The ruling Communist Party, stung by complaints it allowed the disease to spread, says the virus came from abroad, possibly on imported seafood, but international scientists reject that.
Two members of the team did not land in Wuhan on Thursday because they had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies and were being retested in Singapore, WHO said in a statement on Twitter.
The rest of the team arrived at the Wuhan airport and walked through a makeshift clear plastic tunnel into the airport. The researchers, who wore face masks, were greeted by airport staff in full protective gear, including masks, goggles and full body suits.
They will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab test and an antibody test for COVID-19, according to CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV. They are to start working with Chinese experts via video conference while in quarantine.
The team includes virus and other experts from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Qatar and Vietnam.
A government spokesman said this week they will “exchange views” with Chinese scientists but gave no indication whether they would be allowed to gather evidence.
China rejected demands for an international investigation after the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the virus's spread, which plunged the global economy into its deepest slump since the 1930s.
After Australia called in April for an independent inquiry, Beijing retaliated by blocking imports of Australian beef, wine and other goods.
One possibility is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the U.S. group EcoHealth Alliance, told The Associated Press in November.
A single visit by scientists is unlikely to confirm the virus's origins; pinning down an outbreak's animal reservoir is typically an exhaustive endeavor that takes years of research including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
“The government should be very transparent and collaborative," said Shin-Ru Shih, director at the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan's Chang Gung University.
The Chinese government has tried to stir confusion about the virus's origin. It has promoted theories, with little evidence, that the outbreak might have started with imports of tainted seafood, a notion rejected by international scientists and agencies.
"The WHO will need to conduct similar investigations in other places,” an official of the National Health Commission, Mi Feng, said Wednesday.
Some members of the WHO team were en route to China a week ago but had to turn back after Beijing announced they hadn't received valid visas.
That might have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but the incident "raises the question if the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere,” said Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health expert at the University of Sydney.
A possible focus for investigators is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the outbreak first emerged. One of China's top virus research labs, it built an archive of genetic information about bat coronaviruses after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
According to WHO's published agenda for its origins research, there are no plans to assess whether there might have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have claimed.
A “scientific audit” of Institute records and safety measures would be a "routine activity,” said Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh. He said that depends on how willing Chinese authorities are to share information.
“There’s a big element of trust here,” Woolhouse said.
An AP investigation found the government imposed controls on research into the outbreak and bars scientists from speaking to reporters.
The coronavirus's exact origin may never be traced because viruses change quickly, Woolhouse said.
Although it may be challenging to find precisely the same COVID-19 virus in animals as in humans, discovering closely related viruses might help explain how the disease first jumped from animals and clarify what preventive measures are needed to avoid future epidemics.
Scientists should focus instead on making a “comprehensive picture” of the virus to help respond to future outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time to blame anyone," Shih said. “We shouldn’t say, it’s your fault.”