U.S. counter-intelligence chief worried about China, Russia threats to vaccine supply chain

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. counter-intelligence chief said on Tuesday he was worried about threats from China and Russia to disrupt the coronavirus vaccine supply chain in the United States.

William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told an online Washington Post event that U.S. adversaries were trying to interfere with Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government operation distributing the vaccines.

“Our adversaries are trying to disrupt that supply chain,” he said. Asked which adversaries he was particularly concerned about, he replied, “I would say China and Russia right now.”

The Chinese and Russian embassies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Evanina’s assertion. Russia and China have denied U.S. accusations that hackers linked to both governments tried to steal data from vaccine manufacturers.

U.S. states are scrambling to accelerate inoculations as infections and deaths surge – COVID-19 has claimed on average about 3,200 lives nationwide every day over the past week.

Since the pandemic began more than 10 months ago nearly 375,000 people in the country have died, according to a Reuters count.

Evanina said that his agency was working with the U.S. Army and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the safe “transportation” of the vaccines “from the manufacturing site to the end-user inoculation.”

Vaccines available are made by Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna. Nearly 9 million Americans have received the first of two doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than one-third of the 25 million doses distributed by the federal government.

Public health experts have said no U.S. state has so far come close to using up its federal vaccine allotments, a much slower-than-expected roll-out blamed in part on rigid rules sharply limiting who can be inoculated.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Grant McCool)

Chinese city of Langfang goes into lockdown amid new COVID-19 threat

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese city of Langfang near Beijing went into lockdown on Tuesday as new coronavirus infections raised worries about a second wave in a country that has mostly contained COVID-19.

The number of new cases in mainland China reported on Tuesday remained a small fraction of those seen at the height of the outbreak in early 2020. However, authorities are implementing strict curbs whenever new cases emerge.

The National Health Commission reported 55 new cases on Tuesday, down from 103 on Monday. Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, accounted for 40 of the 42 locally transmitted infections.

In a village in the south of Beijing that shares a border with Hebei, residents were stopping vehicles and asking to see health-tracking codes on mobile phones.

“We have to be careful as we’re near Guan, where COVID cases were reported today,” said a volunteer security officer surnamed Wang.

At a highway checkpoint, police in protective gowns ordered a car entering Beijing to return to Hebei after the driver was unable to show proof of a negative coronavirus test.

China’s state planning agency said it expected travel during next month’s Lunar New Year period to be markedly down on normal years, with a bigger share of people choosing cars over other transport. Many provinces have urged migrant workers to stay put for the festival.

HOME QUARANTINE

Langfang, southeast of Beijing, said its 4.9 million residents would be put under home quarantine for seven days and tested for the virus.

The government in Beijing said a World Health Organization team investigating the origin of the coronavirus would arrive on Thursday in the city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged in late 2019, after a delay that Beijing has called a “misunderstanding”.

Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital, has been hardest hit in the latest surge and has already placed its 11 million people under lockdown. The province has shut sections of highway and is ordering vehicles to turn back.

A new guideline from the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommended that taxi and ride-hailing operators suspend car-pooling services, and that drivers should get weekly DNA tests and be vaccinated in order to work, the ruling Communist Party-backed Beijing Daily reported.

As of Jan. 9, China had administered more than 9 million vaccine doses.

Across the country, the number of new asymptomatic cases rose to 81 from 76 the previous day. China does not classify asymptomatic cases as confirmed coronavirus infections.

The total number of confirmed cases reported in mainland China stands at 87,591, with an official death toll of 4,634.

(Reporting by Jing Wang and Andrew Galbraith in Shanghai and Sophie Yu, Roxanne Liu and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; writing by Se Young Lee and Ryan Woo; Editing by Sam Holmes and Kevin Liffey)

COVID-19 patients still have symptoms 6 months later; interferon may be helpful treatment after all

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Half a year later, COVID-19 patients still have symptoms

Most patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have at least one symptom six months after falling ill, according to findings from a study in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in late 2019. Doctors there tracked 1,733 patients who were diagnosed and hospitalized between January, 2020 and May. Six months later, 76% had at least one symptom including fatigue or muscle weakness (seen in 63%), sleep difficulties and anxiety or depression. Most of those who had been severely ill had ongoing lung problems and chest abnormalities that could indicate organ damage, while 13% of patients whose kidneys functioned normally in the hospital went on to develop kidney problems later, researchers reported on Friday in The Lancet. “We are only beginning to understand” some of the long-term effects of COVID-19, study coauthor Bin Cao from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing said in a statement. “Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital,” highlighting the need for post-discharge care.

Interferon boosts proteins that deny entry to coronavirus

An experimental inhaled form of interferon being tested for treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients may not have a limitation researchers had feared. A potential problem with interferon is that it increases levels of a protein called ACE2, which the new coronavirus uses as a gateway into cells. In test tube experiments, researchers looked at cells that line the path from the nose into the lungs and discovered there are actually two forms of ACE2 – the well known one and a short form that lacks the entryway used by the virus. Interferon increases the short form of ACE2 but not the longer form, they found, which means it does not appear to boost entry points for the virus. “We were excited to discover a new form of ACE2,” Dr. Jane Lucas of the University of Southampton, who co-led the study reported on Monday in Nature Genetics, said in a statement. “We believe this may have important implications for managing COVID-19 infection.” An inhaled interferon from Synairgen Plc is being tested in late-stage trials.

Saliva viral load improves prediction of COVID-19 severity

The amount of the new coronavirus in saliva might help guide doctors’ care of patients because it is a better predictor of disease course than viral load in swab samples obtained from the nose and the back of the throat, researchers said. They studied 26 mildly ill COVID-19 patients, 154 hospitalized patients – including 63 who became critically ill and 23 who eventually died – and 108 uninfected individuals. Saliva viral load, but not nasopharyngeal viral load, was linked with COVID-19 risk factors like age and gender, and with immune system responses. Saliva viral load was also superior to nasopharyngeal viral load at predicting critical illness and death, the researchers reported on Wednesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. Saliva contains inhaled germs that are cleared from the lungs by the body’s protective mechanisms, coauthor Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University explained in a tweet on Sunday. The saliva viral load therefore reflects how well the virus is making copies of itself all the way through the respiratory tract, from the nose to the lungs, and not just in the nose and back of the throat, Iwasaki said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

China says WHO team to probe COVID-19 origins will arrive Thursday

BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) – A World Health Organization (WHO) team of international experts tasked with investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic will arrive in China on Jan. 14, Chinese authorities said on Monday.

Lack of authorization from Beijing had delayed the arrival of the 10-strong team on a long-awaited mission to investigate early infections, in what China’s foreign ministry called a “misunderstanding”.

The National Health Commission, which announced the arrival date, delayed from its early January schedule, did not detail the team’s itinerary, however.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the news and said that studies would begin in the central city of Wuhan where the first human cases were identified.

“We look forward to working closely with our (Chinese) counterparts on this critical mission to identify the virus source & its route of introduction to the human population,” Tedros wrote on Twitter. He previously said he was “very disappointed” when experts were denied entry earlier this month, forcing two members of the team to turn back.

China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread since it first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late in 2019.

The United States has called for a “transparent” WHO-led investigation and criticized its terms, which allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research.

Ahead of the trip, Beijing has been seeking to shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began, with senior diplomat Wang Yi saying “more and more studies” showed it emerged in multiple regions.

A health expert affiliated with the WHO said expectations should be “very low” that the team will reach a conclusion from their trip to China.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan sought to defuse tensions around the trip at a virtual press briefing later on Monday.

“We are looking for the answers here that may save us in future – not culprits and not people to blame,” he said, adding that the WHO was willing to go “anywhere and everywhere” to find out how the virus emerged.

While other countries continue to struggle with infection surges, China has aggressively doused flare-ups.

Sunday’s 103 new cases were mainland China’s biggest daily increase in more than five months, as new infections rise in the province of Hebei, surrounding the capital, Beijing.

Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, went into lockdown and Hebei closed down some sections of highways in the province to curb the spread of the virus.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Michael Perry and Toby Chopra)

WHO’s Tedros “very disappointed” China has not authorized entry of coronavirus experts

ZURICH (Reuters) -The head of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday he was “very disappointed” that China has still not authorized the entry of a team of international experts to examine the origins of the coronavirus.

“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told an online news conference in Geneva.

“I have been in contact with senior Chinese officials and I have once again made it clear the mission is a priority for the WHO,” he told reporters.

Members of the international team had set out on their journey to China, where the outbreak of the virus was first reported in the city of Wuhan, in the past 24 hours and were due to start working on Tuesday.

China has denied trying to cover up its association with the pandemic that emerged in late 2019, although some including U.S. President Donald Trump have questioned Beijing’s actions during the outbreak.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said the Geneva-based agency had impressed on Chinese officials the critical nature of the mission.

“We trust and hope that is just a logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly,” Ryan said. “We trust in good faith we can solve these issues in the coming hours.”

(Reporting by John Revill and Emma FargeEditing by Mark Heinrich)

China doubles down on COVID narrative as WHO investigation looms

By David Stanway

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – As a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) prepares to visit China to investigate the origins of COVID-19, Beijing has stepped up efforts not only to prevent new outbreaks, but also shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began.

China has dismissed criticism of its early handling of the coronavirus, first identified in the city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, and foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday that the country would welcome the WHO team.

But amid simmering geopolitical tensions, experts said the investigators were unlikely to be allowed to scrutinize some of the more sensitive aspects of the outbreak, with Beijing desperate to avoid blame for a virus that has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide.

“Even before this investigation, top officials from both sides have been very polarized in their opinions on the origins of the outbreak,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.

“They will have to be politically savvy and draw conclusions that are acceptable to all the major parties,” he added.

While other countries continue to struggle with infection surges, China has aggressively doused flare-ups. After a new cluster of cases last week, the city of Shenyang sealed off entire communities and required all non-essential workers to stay home.

On Saturday, senior diplomat Wang Yi praised the anti-pandemic efforts, saying China not only curbed domestic infections, but also “took the lead in building a global anti-epidemic defense” by providing aid to more than 150 countries.

But mindful of the criticism China has faced worldwide, Wang also became the highest-ranking official to question the consensus about COVID-19’s origins, saying “more and more studies” show that it emerged in multiple regions.

China is also the only country to claim COVID-19 can be transmitted via cold chain imports, with the country blaming new outbreaks in Beijing and Dalian on contaminated shipments – even though the WHO has downplayed those risks.

TRANSPARENCY

China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread further.

The topic remains sensitive, with only a handful of studies into the origins of COVID-19 made available to the public.

But there have also been signs China is willing to share information that contradicts the official picture.

Last week, a study by China’s Center for Disease Control showed that blood samples from 4.43% of Wuhan’s population contained COVID-19 antibodies, indicating that the city’s infection rates were far higher than originally acknowledged.

But scientists said China must also share any findings suggesting COVID-19 was circulating domestically long before it was officially identified in December 2019.

An Italian study showed that COVID-19 might have been in Europe several months before China’s first official case. Chinese state media used the paper to support theories that COVID-19 originated overseas and entered China via contaminated frozen food or foreign athletes competing at the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019.

Raina MacIntyre, head of the Kirby Institute’s Biosecurity Research Program in Australia, said the investigation needed to draw “a comprehensive global picture of the epidemiological clues”, including any evidence COVID-19 was present outside of China before December 2019.

However, political issues mean they are unlikely to be given much leeway to investigate one hypothesis, that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said MacIntyre.

“I think it is unlikely all viruses in the lab at the time will be made available to the team,” she said. “So I do not think we will ever know the truth.”

U.S., EU criticize China for jailing citizen-journalist who reported on COVID-19

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The European Union and United States on Tuesday criticized the jailing of a citizen-journalist in China who reported on the early outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan.

A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term on Monday to Zhang Zhan, who reported at the peak of the crisis in the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Her lawyer said Zhang was jailed on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that he strongly condemned Zhang’s conviction and called for her immediate and unconditional release, accusing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of restricting and manipulating information about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

“Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth,” Pompeo said, adding that the United States would always support the right of Chinese citizens to express themselves freely.

U.S.-China relations have plunged to their worst level in decades as the world’s top two economies spar over issues ranging from the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong, trade and espionage.

The EU also called for Zhang’s immediate release, as well as for freedom for jailed human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, and several other detained and convicted human rights defenders and individuals who engaged in reporting in the public interest.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated,” an external affairs spokesman for the 27-nation EU said in a statement.

Separately, the EU called on China to “guarantee procedural fairness and due process of law” for 10 Hong Kong activists on trial in China after being caught at sea and accused of trying to flee to Taiwan.

In a statement it called for the immediate release of the group and their swift return to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, where they went on trial on Dec. 28 in a closed court and without appointed lawyers of their choice.

The EU criticism over the cases comes a day before EU and Chinese leaders are expected to clinch a deal to give European companies better access to the Chinese market.

Citizen-journalist Zhang was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the holiday season in the West, to minimize scrutiny.

“The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern,” the EU spokesman said.

(Reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels and Daphne Psaledakis in Washingtond; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

China jails citizen-journalist for four years over Wuhan virus reporting

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese court on Monday handed down a four-year jail term to a citizen-journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of this year’s coronavirus outbreak on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, her lawyer said.

Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.

“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” said Shao Wenxia, Zhang’s mother, who attended the trial with her husband.

Zhang’s lawyer Ren Quanniu told Reuters: “We will probably appeal.”

The trial was held at a court in Pudong, a district of the business hub of Shanghai.

“Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” Ren had said before the trial.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the Western holiday season to minimize Western attention and scrutiny. U.S. President Donald Trump has regularly criticized Beijing for covering up the emergence of what he calls the “China virus”.

The United Nations human rights office called in a tweet for Zhang’s release.

“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release,” it said.

Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers such as doctors warned. State media have credited the country’s success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The virus has spread worldwide to infect more than 80 million people and kill more than 1.76 million, paralyzing air travel as nations threw up barriers that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.

In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred.

A man in a wheelchair, who told Reuters he came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police escorted him away.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic,” court security officials said.

A former lawyer, Zhang arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 1 from her home in Shanghai.

Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Detained in mid-May, she went on hunger strike in late June, court documents seen by Reuters say. Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and livestream the trial were ignored, her lawyer said.

Other citizen-journalists who have disappeared in China without explanation include Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.

While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend has said.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva. Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Hugh Lawson and Nick Macfie)

One year on, Wuhan market at epicentre of virus outbreak remains barricaded and empty

By Cate Cadell

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – For over six years, 38-year-old Wuhan restaurant owner Lai Yun started most days the same way – with a trip to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, just ten minutes walk from his house.

“I’d send the kids to school, have breakfast and then walk over to the market. It was very convenient,” he said.

That changed on Dec. 31, 2019, after four cases of a mystery pneumonia were linked to the market and it was shuttered overnight. By the end of the month, the city had begun a grueling 76-day lockdown that came with just hours notice and barred people from leaving their homes.

Almost a year since the outbreak began, COVID-19 has claimed more than 1.5 million lives, and the Wuhan wet market where it was initially detected stands empty even as the city around it has come back to life.

It’s become a symbol of the fierce political and scientific battle raging around the origin of the virus with Beijing continuing to spar with the United States and other countries, accusing them of bias.

A team of World Health Organization experts has yet to visit Wuhan, let alone the market. Health authorities in China and abroad have warned that origin tracing efforts could take years and yield inconclusive results.

In Wuhan, where the stigma of being the first coronavirus epicenter hangs heavy, over a dozen residents and business owners told Reuters they don’t believe the virus began in the city.

“It certainly couldn’t have been Wuhan… surely another person brought it in. Or surely it came from some other product brought from outside. There were just certain conditions for it to appear here,” said a wet market vendor in the city’s center who gave his name as Chen.

In recent months, Chinese diplomats and state media have said they believe the market is not the origin but the victim of the disease, and have thrown support behind theories that the virus potentially originated in another country.

RESTRICTED ACCESS

Experts say the market still plays a role in the investigation and is therefore unlikely to be demolished, though much of that research will rely on samples taken immediately after the outbreak began.

“The first cluster of cases was there, so at least it would be of interest to find out the origin of those and put forward a few hypotheses, like whether it’s more likely from the wild animals or perhaps points to a human super-spreader,” said Jin Dong-Yan, professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong.

Access to the area remains heavily restricted. People who visited before the lockdown remember a bustling building with hundreds of stalls divided into sections for red meat, seafood and vegetables.

Recently, the local government has added leafy green plants and traditional Chinese paintings to the semi-permanent blue barricades encircling the area. Inside, wooden boards line the stalls and windows.

On the second floor above the empty market, shops selling glasses and optometry equipment reopened in June.

This week, a guard at the entrance to the eyewear market took temperatures and warned journalists not to take videos or photos from inside the building.

“Maybe some people have some bad feelings about it, but now it’s just an empty building … who feels anxious about an empty building?” said a shop assistant selling contact lenses, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

While Wuhan hasn’t reported any new locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 since May, for some who relied on the market making ends meet is still a struggle.

Lai, who reopened his Japanese restaurant in June, says the market’s closure and subsequent public panic about the safety of imported seafood has increased the cost of procuring some ingredients five-fold.

“Our goal for the next year is to just survive.”

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

Trump spy chief labels China biggest threat to freedom since World War Two

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. intelligence official stepped up President Donald Trump’s harsh attacks on Beijing on Thursday by labeling China the biggest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War Two and saying it was bent on global domination.

“The intelligence is clear: Beijing intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically,” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in an opinion article posted on the Wall Street Journal website.

Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman appointed by Trump to the top U.S. spy job last spring, said China posed “the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War Two.”

Ratcliffe said China’s economic espionage approach was threefold: “Rob, Replicate and Replace.”

He said the strategy was for Chinese entities to steal American companies’ intellectual property, copy it and then supplant U.S. companies in the global market place.

He also charged that China had stolen U.S. defense technology to “fuel” an aggressive military modernization plan launched by President Xi Jinping.

Ratcliffe said that Chinese authorities had even “conducted human testing” on members of the Chinese army “in hopes of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.”

He did not elaborate on this charge.

Ratcliffe’s Wall Street Journal essay was the latest broadside against China from the Trump administration as it seeks to cement the president’s tough-on-China legacy.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alexandra Hudson)