Moreover, the first outbreak was reported more than 1,000 miles away from Yunnan in Wuhan, Hubei province. How did it cross time and distance? Was there another animal intermediary? David A. Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist, writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the ‘origin story’ is missing many key details,” including a recent detailed evolutionary history of the virus, identity of its most recent ancestors and “surprisingly, the place, time, and mechanism of transmission of the first human infection.”
At first, it was suspected that Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was the location of the infection. The market was large, with 653 stalls, selling seafood but also fruits and vegetables, meat and live animals. Trade was carried out in chipmunks, foxes, raccoons, wild boar, giant salamanders, hedgehogs, sika deer, snakes, frogs, quail, bamboo rats, rabbits, crocodiles and badgers. The market was closed right after the outbreak began, and in the rush to disinfect, no samples were taken that might prove a virus connection. However, some environmental samples from the market contained virus matching those in patients who became ill. A study of 41 confirmed human cases from Wuhan showed that nearly 70 percent had a link to the market, but 30 percent did not, including three of the first four cases. The data are insufficient to settle whether the market was the contamination source, or whether it served to amplify the virus for human-to-human transmission, or both, or neither.
The questions will probably not be solved by physical samples. More likely, the answer will come from using genetic sequencing to chart how the virus moved from one animal species to another, and to humans.
The identity of the animal intermediary — if there is one — remains a puzzle. A coronavirus found in pangolins is close, genetically. Pangolins are used for traditional medicine in China. Some scientists have suggested in recent months widening the hunt for an intermediary to Southeast Asia, where other animal species may have been the host. The recent outbreak of the virus among mink in Denmark underscores the need to think broadly about zoonotic spillover.
Last December, when the outbreak began in Wuhan, China silenced eight doctors who were alarmed by the mysterious illness that was spreading fast. Then, during critical weeks in January, provincial and central governments kept the lid on public information as the virus spread. These early coverups were telltale symptoms of China’s authoritarian party-state in action. The secrecy has left legitimate questions about whether China will ever be open about the virus origin. President Trump hammered China over this during his reelection campaign, seeking to distract voters from his own failings.
Beyond the blame game, there are troubling questions in China that must be examined, including whether the coronavirus was inadvertently spread in an accident or spill from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had previously carried out research on bat coronaviruses. The institute collected samples from the Mojiang mine in Yunnan province in China in 2012 and 2013. Earlier in 2012, six miners at Mojiang exposed to bats and bat feces were hospitalized suffering from an illness similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and three died. The disease was similar if not identical to covid-19 and may have been a previously unrecognized parent virus. Conspiracy theorists have proposed more outlandish scenarios of a deliberately created pathogen, but they do not hold much water.
The Lancet Commission, formed by the British medical journal in July, has made a primary goal identifying the origins of covid-19 and averting future zoonotic pandemics. The journal declared “the evidence to date supports the view” that covid-19 “is a naturally occurring virus rather than the result of laboratory creation and release.” But the commission says, “The possibility of laboratory involvement in the origins of the pandemic should be examined with scientific rigor and thoroughness, and with open scientific collaboration.”
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has launched a Global Study of the Origins of the virus. Early visits to China by the WHO did not explore virus origins, but instead focused on the urgent issues of viral transmission and pandemic response. Now, 10 Chinese scientists and 10 from elsewhere around the globe have begun to pursue where the virus came from. To be successful, they must have Beijing’s full cooperation. Nothing can be off limits, no possibilities ignored. It is in everyone’s interest, including China’s, to find the answers and prevent the next pandemic. If there is one lesson from this year, it is that no nation lives in isolation from a raging disease.
The WHO is a member organization that can appeal to China and persuade, but it lacks regulatory power to give orders. But it will be stronger with the United States rejoining, as President-elect Joe Biden has promised to do. Hopefully, too, the international scientists who are taking part will push hard for a rigorous and penetrating investigation, including the possibility of a laboratory accident.
“Preventing the next pandemic,” wrote Dr. Relman, “depends on understanding the origins of this one.”
November 17, 2020 | 5:59pm
The Big Apple’s heavily touted coronavirus tracing program is having trouble tracking down sources of at least 80 percent of the COVID-19 infections in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged Tuesday.
“People want firm, specific answers and, understandably, we would like for things to be clear and neat and that’s just not what the coronavirus usually gives us,” Hizzoner said during his daily briefing. “We just don’t have sites or activities that led to anywhere near the number of cases you would think.”
City health experts have said that roughly 10 percent of infections in the city can be traced back to travel outside of the area, while another 5 to 10 percent of cases can be linked back to individual sources and instances of infection.
But that leaves more than 80 percent of COVID-19 infections without a clear source, a startling new development that is complicating the city’s fight to stave off a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that’s already sweeping across most other parts of the country.
“The challenge is how diffuse this is. And when it’s this diffuse it isn’t always as simple as, ‘oh, I went to a restaurant or I went to a gym’,” de Blasio added. “A lot of times there isn’t an obvious place because there’s a substantial amount of community spread.”
The city’s Test and Trace Corps employs more than 1,200 who are tasked with contacting and interviewing people who test positive for the dreadful disease in an effort to ascertain how they contracted it — and, just as importantly, who else they may have exposed.
City Hall’s effort to build the program from scratch after the pandemic exploded got off to a rocky start in the summertime.
Initially, just one-in-three New Yorkers provided contact information for people they may have exposed to the virus. And the program struggled to hire Yiddish speakers, a problem that exploded into view as the city’s tight-knit Orthodox communities were the center of a COVID outbreak in September.
Statistics published by the Test and Trace Corps show that of the nearly 93,000 New Yorkers contacted so far by the program, just 63 percent have completed their intake forms.
The rapid test utilizes a molecular amplification technology to detect the virus in people with known or suspected Covid-19 and can return results in 30 minutes, the FDA said.
A molecular Covid-19 test searches for signs of the coronavirus genetic material.
“While COVID-19 diagnostic tests have been authorized for at-home collection, this is the first that can be fully self-administered and provide results at home,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said in a statement.
The new test, which uses self-collected nasal swab samples, is authorized for people 14 and older with suspected Covid-19 and people under 13 when performed by a health care provider.
It is also authorized for use in point-of-care settings, such as doctor’s offices, hospitals, urgent care centers and emergency rooms for all ages but must be collected by a health care provider, the FDA said.
“This new testing option is an important diagnostic advancement to address the pandemic and reduce the public burden of disease transmission,” Hahn added.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar agreed.
“Making it possible for Americans to do their own rapid COVID-19 self-test at home by prescription is the latest addition to our constantly expanding arsenal of COVID-19 testing options,” Azar said in a statement.
But some health experts urged caution.
“The data is just still emerging, Tom Bollyky, the director of the global health program and senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN. “Obviously with some past emergency use authorizations it pays to be cautious with what the FDA has put out here, but it’s certainly a promising sign.”
The self Covid-19 home test could be one more step that gets the country closer to a new normality.
“Expanded testing, rapid testing really could be one more tool that brings us back to a life that approaches more normalcy. If we’re able to identify at least on, perhaps even a daily basis, what our current viral load is and it helps us make ourselves safer and others,” he said.
The new self-testing kit includes a sterile swab, a sample vial, a test unit, batteries and a plastic disposal bag.
The sample collected on the nasal swab is inserted into the vial which then enters the test unit where it is analyzed. The results are displayed on the test unit by a color change in the LED indicators, according to the FDA. Instructions on how to use the test are included with the prescription.
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Secretary of National Defense in Mexico from 2012 to 2018, is accused of taking bribes in exchange for permitting a cartel to operate in Mexico, federal prosecutors said when he was arrested in October. He was charged in Brooklyn, New York City, with money laundering and narcotics conspiracy.
US Attorney General William Barr announced a deal with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero under which US prosecutors will seek to dismiss charges against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who will be turned over to Mexican authorities who have opened their own investigation into him.
A federal judge in New York’s Eastern District scheduled a hearing Wednesday, where prosecutors are expected to ask the judge to dismiss the charges.
The October 15 arrest of Cienfuegos while on vacation in Los Angeles was the culmination of a yearslong effort by Drug Enforcement Administration investigators and US prosecutors who worked to uncover senior-level government officials who helped protect violent drug trafficking groups in Mexico.
Embarrassment and anger
But the arrest also embarrassed and angered many in the Mexican government, who complained that US authorities hadn’t provided enough notification, according to US and Mexican officials briefed on the matter. High-level talks ensued in recent weeks to allow Mexican authorities to try to prosecute the general, a US official said.
Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said on Tuesday evening in a news conference that he had a conversation with Barr following Cienfuegos’ arrest, expressing Mexico’s “discontent” for “the lack of information shared in the investigation” and detention of Cienfuegos.
“We have an alliance against organized crime and it was not, for us, the government of Mexico, understandable that being allies we would not be notified,” Erbard said.
Tensions between the countries had grown in the month since the arrest, prompting the Mexican government to weigh what action it should take in response, a Mexican government official told CNN.
“We had already been looking at the security relationship already with the DEA and others saying, is this the right way to go? Is this working or not? (The arrest of Cienfuegos) did not help.”
The official said he did not have direct knowledge of any ultimatums Mexico might have made during negotiations, such as limiting the DEA’s ability to work jointly with Mexican security forces, but said senior Mexican diplomats definitely expressed their unhappiness with the US. “It’s unacceptable to treat an ally this way,” the source said.
The source added that the decision to request charges be dropped against Cienfuegos so he could potentially face charges in Mexico was seen as a major step toward improving bilateral relations that had threatened to continue to sour.
Mexican prosecutors had opened their own investigation into Cienfuegos after his arrest in the US, the joint US-Mexico statement said. And “in the interest of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality” and “so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law,” the US Department of Justice decided to seek the dismissal of charges, the statement said.
Officials cracking down on cartels
The New York prosecutors who charged Cienfuegos were in the same office that successfully prosecuted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison plus 30 years. In July, the same US, attorney’s office brought charges against Genaro García Luna, former Secretary of Public Security, Mexico’s top federal investigative agency, for allegedly aiding the Sinaloa cartel’s drug trafficking operations.
Barr, who has fashioned himself as a tough law and order man during his current tenure, has also boasted internally about his work with Mexican authorities to gain extradition of top drug trafficking suspects. The deal to return Cienfuegos with only a promise by Mexican authorities to investigate him has angered investigators and prosecutors who have spent years working to target Mexican drug traffickers and the corrupt officials who protected them, according to current and former officials briefed on the matter.
Last month, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has vowed to crack down on the cartels and corruption, called Cienfuegos’s arrest, “a very regrettable fact.”
A top deputy to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who was on a call between his boss and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) confirmed Tuesday that he heard Graham suggest that Raffensperger should try to discard whole counties’ worth of absentee ballots, including legal ones.
Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting systems implementation manager, told reporters Tuesday that Graham asked Raffensperger questions about how the state’s signature verification process works. In Georgia, if voters’ ballot envelope signatures don’t match the signatures on file, those ballots are rejected and the voters are notified and given a chance to fix the deficiency.
Raffensperger told The Washington Post on Monday that Graham asked him if partisan bias might cause some invalid signatures to be accepted, and, if those invalid signatures could be identified in large numbers, whether all of the absentee ballots from those counties could be tossed out.
Sterling confirmed those details. “What I heard were discussions of absentee ballots, if there were a percentage of signatures that weren’t truly matching, is there some point where we could go to a court and throw out all of the ballots,” he recalled.
Sterling also repeated Raffensperger’s assertion that, barring court intervention, the secretary doesn’t have the power to take such a step, as counties administer elections in Georgia.
“I could see that Sen. Graham wanted to go one way and Secretary Raffensperger wanted to go another way,” he said.
In response to The Post’s report Monday evening, Graham, a supporter of President Trump, said he was simply trying to learn more about the integrity of the election in a key state that helped President-elect Joe Biden to victory. Graham said he also spoke to election officials in two other states where Biden won with razor-thin margins, Arizona and Nevada — but the secretaries of states in both quickly denied speaking with him.
Graham’s inquiry with Raffensperger came on the same day that a Trump supporter in Atlanta, lawyer Lin Wood, filed a lawsuit alleging that Raffensperger had violated the Constitution by altering the state’s signature-matching rules as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by Democrats.
The suit claimed that people of color were disproportionately harmed by the state’s signature-matching rules. In the settlement, Raffensperger and Democrats agreed to require multiple county election officials, rather than just one, to agree that a signature doesn’t match before a ballot is disqualified. The settlement also gave voters more time to fix rejected ballots.
In the lawsuit filed Friday, Wood argued that the new signature-matching requirements are cumbersome and make it more likely that county election officials won’t bother verifying signatures at all.
In fact, in several states with extensive experience with mail voting, such signature-verification procedures are standard.
The suit also criticized Raffensperger for instituting a ballot-tracking system as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the increased demand for mail voting. That system “increased pressure” on local election officials to process ballots quickly, making it less likely that they would properly verify signatures.
These early results put Sinovac on the back foot to prove its vaccine is effective in ongoing Phase 3 trials.
“That is a concern,” said Thomas Campbell, associate dean for clinical research at the University of Colorado, of the low antibody levels in Sinovac’s Phase 2 trial. “It’s an important point here, in terms of comparing this vaccine to, for instance, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.”
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, recently made a big bet on Sinovac’s vaccine as officials grapple with a severe coronavirus outbreak. In an interview with Reuters on Friday, President Joko Widodo said the government had sought emergency authorization from the country’s food and drug agency to roll out the vaccine by the end of the year.
In its study published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal the Lancet, Sinovac wrote that despite the lower antibody levels, it believed its vaccine would prove effective. For previous strains of coronavirus, lower antibody levels have still conferred immunity, it said.
Whether this will be the case this time is being tested in Sinovac’s Phase 3 trials underway in Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey.
After reporting strong antibody levels in Phase 2 trials, Moderna and Pfizer in recent days announced preliminary Phase 3 efficacy rates above 90 percent, a result greeted with enthusiasm from the medical world.
A Sinovac spokesman said Wednesday that the company could not immediately release its own preliminary Phase 3 efficacy rate, as not enough cases of coronavirus have emerged yet in its study population.
“For Phase 3 preliminary analysis of results, we need to accumulate a certain number of cases for the data analysts to carry out their analysis,” the Sinovac spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We don’t have this data yet so we can’t yet reply.”
Campbell said Moderna and Pfizer were able to provide early Phase 3 results, in part, because of the escalating coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., which has resulted in enough cases of among those enrolled in their study for statistical analysis.
While Sinovac had announced a few results from its Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials over the summer, calling them a success, the peer-reviewed study this week was the first time it provided data and details.
Sinovac’s Phase 1 trial began in April with 144 participants, and its Phase 2 trial began in May with 600 people. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 59 and were recruited from a single county of China’s southern Jiangsu province.
In Sinovac’s Phase 1 trial, 23 of the 96 who received vaccines reported side effects, which Sinovac said were mostly mild, such as pain at the site of injection. It said one person had a severe reaction of hives and recovered within three days with treatment.
In the Phase 2 trial, participants were quick to produce antibodies in response to the vaccine injection, but antibody levels remained below the measurements in recovered patients.
Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.
That is why we are so very lucky that this election broke for Joe Biden. If this is how this Republican Party behaves when Trump loses, imagine how willing to tolerate his excesses it would have been had he won? Trump wouldn’t have stopped at any red lights ever again.
And the people who understood that best were democrats all over the world — particularly in Europe. Because they’ve watched Trump-like, right-wing populists in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Belarus, as well as the Philippines, get themselves elected and then take control of their courts, media, internet and security institutions and use them to try to cripple their opponents and lock themselves into office indefinitely.
Democrats abroad feared that this same political virus would overtake America if Trump were re-elected and have a devastating effect.
They feared that the core democratic concept that America gifted to the world in 1800 — when John Adams lost his election to Thomas Jefferson and peacefully handed over the reins of power — was going to wither, undermining democracy movements across the globe. Every autocrat would have been emboldened to ignore red lights.
Seeing an American president actually try to undermine the results of a free and fair election “is a warning to democrats all over the world: Don’t play lightly with populists, they will not leave power easily the way Adams did when he lost to Jefferson,” the French foreign policy expert Dominique Moïsi remarked to me.
That is why Biden’s mission — and the mission of all decent conservatives — is not just to repair America. It is to marginalize this Trumpian version of the G.O.P. and help to nurture a healthy conservative party — one that brings conservative approaches to economic growth, infrastructure, social policy, education, regulation and climate change, but also cares about governing and therefore accepts compromises.
Democrats can’t summon a principled conservative party. That requires courageous conservatives. But Democrats do need to ask themselves why Trump remains so strong among white working-class voters without college degrees, and, in this last election, drew greater support from Black, Latino and white women voters.