Biden to hit reset on nation’s fight against COVID-19 on his first day as president

By Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Wednesday will immediately reset the nation’s response to the COVID-19 crisis when he heads to the Oval Office after being sworn in to lead a country reeling from its worst public health crisis in more than a century.

As part of a first sweep of executive actions, Biden will order that all federal employees wear masks and make face coverings mandatory on federal property. He will establish a new White House office to coordinate the coronavirus response and halt the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, a process initiated by former President Donald Trump.

Biden was also poised to nominate an acting U.S. surgeon general as soon as Wednesday, a person familiar with the decision told MSNBC, following the resignation of Trump appointee Jerome Adams.

Biden’s executive actions, particularly the mask mandate, are intended to set an example for state and local officials to rein in the virus, which has hobbled the U.S. economy. The United States has reported nearly 200,000 new COVID-19 cases and 3,000 deaths per day on a seven-day rolling average, according to Reuters data. More than 123,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

Scientists and public health experts have said face masks can help prevent the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, but the coverings have become a flashpoint in American life reflecting the nation’s larger political divide.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Gabriella Borter in Florida; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Pandemic could be WHO’s Chernobyl moment, review panel says

By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic could be the catalyst for much-needed reform of the World Health Organization just as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 forced urgent changes at the U.N. nuclear agency, a co-chair of an independent review panel said.

The panel, set up to investigate the global response to the coronavirus, said the WHO is under-powered, under-funded and required fundamental reform to give it the resources it needs to respond more effectively to deadly disease outbreaks.

“We are not here to assign blame, but to make concrete recommendations to help the world respond faster and better in future,” the panel’s co-chair, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.

The panel’s report said on Monday that Chinese officials should have applied public health measures more forcefully in January to curb the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and criticized the WHO for not declaring an international emergency until Jan. 30.

“While member states turn to the WHO for leadership, they have kept it under-powered and under-resourced to do the job expected of it,” Johnson Sirleaf said, adding that she believes the WHO “is reformable.”

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the WHO Executive Board at the start of a debate on the report that it was “committed to accountability” and change.

Many governments around the world, including those in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The U.N. health agency was also rocked by a decision last year by the United States to halt its funding, and has been accused of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, a charge the WHO denies.

Johnson Sirleaf and her co-chair, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, noted repeatedly that the WHO’s ability to enforce its advice, or enter countries to investigate the source of disease outbreaks, is severely curtailed.

The said the pandemic had shown that the WHO’s 194 member states must act swiftly to reform the Geneva-based agency, boost its funding, and give it powers to enforce international health regulations.

“Is that this (Chernobyl) moment for WHO and the global health system?,” Clark asked, adding that WHO member states “are going to have to face up to this.”

The United States has accused the WHO of being “China-centric,” which the agency denies. European countries led by France and Germany have pushed for shortcomings in the WHO’s funding, governance and legal powers to be addressed.

Describing the funding of the WHO as “woeful,” Clark told the briefing: “The WHO is not empowered for the task. Everything is done on the basis of cooperation.”

“Is that enough in this day and age, when a pathogen can spread so quickly?,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Kate Kelland in London, editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Mexico aims to make up for Pfizer vaccine shortfall with others

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday the government aimed to compensate for a reduction in deliveries of COVID-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer Inc with those from other providers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday it was in advanced talks with Pfizer about including its vaccine in the agency’s portfolio of shots to be shared with poorer countries.

Mexico had been expecting weekly deliveries of some 400,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine developed with Germany’s BioNTech SE. As a result of the U.S. drugmaker’s WHO agreements, Mexico would for now only be receiving half that total, Lopez Obrador told a regular news conference.

It was not clear how long the reduction would last. Pfizer did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is currently the only one being administered in Mexico, which has reported the fourth-highest death toll from the pandemic worldwide.

Mexico has also signed deals to acquire vaccines from Britain’s AstraZeneca Plc and China’s CanSino Biologics. Mexico has approved the AstraZeneca shot and expects to have it by March. It is still reviewing the CanSino vaccine.

Lopez Obrador also noted Mexico was about to complete its review of a Russian vaccine, and would soon have it available, an apparent reference to the Sputnik V product.

Mexico suffered a setback to its drive to inoculate the public with the news over the weekend that the official in charge of the program, Miriam Veras Godoy, had stepped down for personal reasons, according to the health ministry.

(Reporting by Raul Cortes; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Vaccine nationalism puts world on brink of ‘catastrophic moral failure’: WHO chief

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The world is on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure” in sharing COVID-19 vaccines, the head of the World Health Organization said on Monday, urging countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the prospects for equitable distribution were at “serious risk” just as its COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme aimed to start distributing inoculations next month.

He noted 44 bilateral deals were signed last year and at least 12 have already been signed this year.

“This could delay COVAX deliveries and create exactly the scenario COVAX was designed to avoid, with hoarding, a chaotic market, an uncoordinated response and continued social and economic disruption,” he said.

Such a “me-first approach” left the world’s poorest and most vulnerable at risk, he said at the opening of the body’s annual Executive Board meeting in virtual format.

“Ultimately these actions will only prolong the pandemic,” he added, urging countries to avoid making the same mistakes made during the H1N1 and HIV pandemics.

The global scramble for shots has intensified as more infectious virus variants circulate.

Tedros said more than 39 million vaccine doses had been administered in 49 higher-income countries whereas just 25 doses had been given in one poor country.

A delegate from Burkina Faso, on behalf of the African group, expressed concern at the meeting that a few countries had “hoovered up” most of the supplies.

Observers say this board meeting, which last until next Tuesday, is one of the most important in the U.N. health agency’s more than 70-year history and could shape its role in global health long after the pandemic ends.

On the agenda is reform of the body as well as its financing system, which was revealed as inadequate after its largest donor, the United States, announced its withdrawal last year.

“WHO has to remain relevant and … has to come out of this crisis with more strength than before,” said WHO Executive Board Vice-Chair Bjoern Kuemmel of Germany in comments last week.

But he expected resistance from some countries to pressure to boost financial contributions.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Michael Shields and Nick Macfie)

Global COVID-19 death toll tops 2 million

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B

(Reuters) – The worldwide coronavirus death toll surpassed 2 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, as nations around the world are trying to procure multiple vaccines and detect new COVID-19 variants.

It took nine months for the world to record the first 1 million deaths from the novel coronavirus but only three months to go from 1 million to 2 million deaths, illustrating an accelerating rate of fatalities.

So far in 2021, deaths have averaged over 11,900 per day or one life lost every eight seconds, according to a Reuters tally.

“Our world has reached a heart-wrenching milestone ,” United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said in a video statement.

“Behind this staggering number are names and faces: the smile now only a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one,” he said, calling for more global coordination and funding for the vaccination effort.

By April 1, the global death toll could approach 2.9 million, according to a forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Given how fast the virus is spreading due to more infectious variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the worst could be ahead.

“We are going into a second year of this. It could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during a Wednesday event.

The United States has the highest total number of deaths at over 386,000 and accounts for one in every four deaths reported worldwide each day. The next worst-affected countries are Brazil, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Combined, the five countries contribute to almost 50% of all COVID-19 deaths in the world but represent only 27% of the global population.

Europe, the worst-affected region in the world, has reported over 615,000 deaths so far and accounts for nearly 31% of all COVID-related deaths globally.

In India, which recently surpassed 151,000 deaths, vaccinations are set to begin on Saturday in an effort that authorities hope will see 300 million high-risk people inoculated over the next six to eight months.

(Reportintg by Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B in Bengalaru; Additional reporting by Chaithra J in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Second year of pandemic ‘could even be tougher’: WHO’s Ryan

GENEVA (Reuters) – The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic may be tougher than the first given how the new coronavirus is spreading, especially in the northern hemisphere as more infectious variants circulate, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

“We are going into a second year of this, it could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during an event on social media.

The worldwide death toll is approaching 2 million people since the pandemic began, with 91.5 million people infected.

The WHO, in its latest epidemiological update issued overnight, said after two weeks of fewer cases being reported, some five million new cases were reported last week, the likely result of a letdown of defenses during the holiday season in which people – and the virus – came together.

“Certainly in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe and North America we have seen that sort of perfect storm of the season – coldness, people going inside, increased social mixing and a combination of factors that have driven increased transmission in many, many countries,” Ryan said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, warned: “After the holidays, in some countries the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Amid growing fears of the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in Britain but now entrenched worldwide, governments across Europe on Wednesday announced tighter, longer coronavirus restrictions.

That includes home-office requirements and store closures in Switzerland, an extended Italian COVID-19 state of emergency, and German efforts to further reduce contacts between people blamed for failed efforts, so far, to get the coronavirus under control.

“I worry that we will remain in this pattern of peak and trough and peak and trough, and we can do better,” Van Kerkhove said.

She called for maintaining physical distancing, adding: “The further, the better…but make sure that you keep that distance from people outside your immediate household.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Miller in Zurich; editing by Mark Heinrich)

WHO reform needed in wake of pandemic, public health experts say

By Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason

LONDON (Reuters) – The role and remit of the World Health Organization (WHO) should be examined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reforms will likely be needed to free it from politics and give it more independence, public health experts said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and Chikwe Ihekweazu, the head of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control, said the United Nations health agency had faced difficulties in leading a global response to the pandemic.

“We need to reflect on how the global architecture can be improved,” Ferguson said, including a need to rethink “the governance of organizations such as the WHO”.

“One of the challenges it faces is being truly independent,” he said. “Typically, it is influenced by big states. Historically that has been western countries like the United States, and now it’s very much China as well – and that can sometimes prove challenging in situations like the last year.”

Many governments around the world, including in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The WHO has been rocked by a decision last year by the United States to halt its funding and has been accused of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow in sharing crucial information on the new coronavirus which first appeared in the city of Wuhan.

The WHO has repeatedly dismissed such accusations, and China insists it has been open and transparent.

Speaking on the same Reuters Next conference panel, Sweden’s Tegnell said that in his view, “this crisis compared to many of the crises in the last decade has become a lot more politicized.”

“That has made the WHO’s role a lot more difficult,” he said.

Nigeria’s Ihekweazu said he hoped the year ahead would see the world work together more closely to tackle the pandemic, particularly in improving equitable access to vaccines designed to prevent the disease.

‘YEAR OF VACCINES’

While vaccines against COVID-19 are starting to be rolled out in some wealthier countries in Europe and the Americas, poorer nations may have to wait some months before they have access to supplies.

“There’s no doubt this year will be the year of vaccines,”Ihekweazu said, adding that he had just seen an updated map of countries where vaccines have been given already.

“Looking at it from a global perspective, it is heartbreaking,” he said. “But it’s early days, it is January, so we’ll have to see how the year pans out.”

All three experts said they expected populations in their countries and others to face restrictions designed to slow the spread of the pandemic for at least the first half of 2021, and maybe longer if the rollout of vaccines takes more time.

But they said they hoped that by the end of the year, life might start to look a little more like a pre-pandemic normal.

“We have to remember that in the world around us, most likely, this virus will keep on transmitting,” said Tegnell. “So we need to keep a high level of preparedness in place. It’s not going to be an easy life.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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.”