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What We Know About the W.H.O.’s Inquiry on the Origin of Covid

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More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, the World Health Organization released a report on Tuesday laying out theories on how the virus first spread to humans — but it is already raising more questions than answers, including from the health body’s own leader.

The report, drafted by a 34-member team of Chinese scientists and international experts who led a mission to Wuhan, China, examines a series of politically contentious questions, including whether the virus might have accidentally emerged from a Chinese laboratory.

Some members of the expert team have raised concerns about China’s refusal to share raw data about early Covid-19 cases. In an unusual move, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, acknowledged those concerns while speaking about the report on Tuesday. He said he hoped future studies would include “more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

Here’s what we know about the report.

For months, scientists, politicians and others outside China have promoted the theory that the virus might have emerged after a laboratory accident in China. While many experts doubt this theory, they have urged the W.H.O. team to rigorously investigate the possibility.

The report dismisses the lab leak theory outright, calling it “extremely unlikely.” The experts largely base their conclusion on conversations with scientists in Wuhan.

But Dr. Tedros, the W.H.O. chief, took the unexpected step of publicly raising doubts, saying that the theory required further investigation and that he was ready to deploy more experts to do so.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said on Tuesday at a briefing for member states on the report, according to prepared remarks released to the news media. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The experts had said that officials at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory known for its research on bat coronaviruses, assured them that they were not handling any viruses that appeared to be closely related to the coronavirus that caused the recent pandemic, according to meeting notes included in the report. They also said that staff members had been trained in security protocols.

The report noted that a separate laboratory run by the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention had moved in late 2019 to a new location near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where many early cases of Covid-19 emerged. The expert team said that there appeared to be no connection, writing that the lab had not reported any “disruptions or incidents caused by the move” and had not been doing research on coronaviruses.

Some critics have suggested that the team seemed to take the Chinese official position at face value and did not adequately investigate lab officials’ assertions.

Raina MacIntyre, who heads the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said the report seemed to dismiss the idea of a lab leak “without strong evidence.”

“A lab accident is certainly a possibility,” she said.

The expert team concluded that the coronavirus probably emerged in bats before spreading to humans through an intermediate animal. But the team said there was not enough evidence to identify the species or to pinpoint where the spillover of the virus from animals first occurred.

Early in the pandemic, Chinese officials floated theories suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak might have started at the Huanan market. More than a year later, the role of animal markets in the story of the pandemic is still unclear, according to the report.

The expert team found that many early cases had no clear connection to Huanan market, which sold sika deer, badgers, bamboo rats, live crocodiles and other animals, according to vendor records cited in the report.

Among those initial confirmed cases, about 28 percent had links to the Huanan market and 23 percent were tied to other markets in Wuhan, while 45 percent had no history of market exposure, according to the report.

“No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn,” the report says.

It says that further studies of farms and wild animals in China are needed, and that more clues about the markets’ role may emerge.

The expert team offers a long list of recommendations for additional research: more testing of wildlife and livestock in China and Southeast Asia, more studies on the earliest cases of Covid-19 and more tracing of pathways from farms to markets in Wuhan.

But it is unclear whether China, which has repeatedly hindered the W.H.O. inquiry, will cooperate. Chinese officials have sought to redirect attention elsewhere, suggesting that the virus could have emerged in the United States or other countries.

Experts say the delays in the inquiry have hurt the ability to prevent other pandemics.

“This delay has obviously compromised the ability of the investigation to reconstruct the origins of Covid-19 and identify ways of reducing the risk of such events happening again in the future,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

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Chad’s longtime president Idriss Déby dies after fight against rebels

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President Idriss Déby died from wounds suffered on the battlefield during a fight against rebels.

Chad President Idriss Déby — who ruled the central African country for over 30 years — died Tuesday of wounds suffered on the battlefield during a fight against rebels, the military announced.

The stunning announcement on national media came just hours after officials had declared the 68-year-old the winner of the April 11 election, paving the way for him to stay in power for six more years.

The military said Déby had taken “the heroic lead in combat operations against terrorists who had come from Libya.”

After being wounded in battle, he then was taken to the capital, Gen. Azem Bermandoa Agouma said.

“In the face of this worrying situation, the people of Chad must show their attachment to peace, to stability and to national cohesion,” Agouma said.

Chad President Idriss Deby
A supporter carries a picture of Chad President Idriss Deby during a Peace Process rally in Darfur.
REUTERS

An 18-month transitional council will be led by the late president’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, the military said, as it imposed a nightly 6 p.m. curfew.

Déby, a former army commander-in-chief, first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses.

Chadian President Idriss Deby inspects a seized rebel technical in Adre, Chad.
Chadian President Idriss Deby inspects a seized rebel technical in Adre, Chad.
AFP via Getty Images

He had survived several armed rebellions over the years and managed to stay in power until this latest insurgency led by a group calling itself the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.

The rebels are believed to have armed and trained in Libya before crossing into Chad on April 11.

President of Chad Idriss Deby
Deby first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre.
EPA

Déby was a major French ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, hosting the base for the French military Operation Barkhane and providing forces to the peacekeeping effort in Mali.



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Big rise in numbers of migrant children on Mexico-US border

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The American space agency has successfully flown a small helicopter on Mars.

The drone, called Ingenuity, was airborne for less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating what represents the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world.

Confirmation came via a satellite at Mars which relayed the chopper’s data back to Earth.

The space agency is promising more adventurous flights in the days ahead.

Ingenuity will be commanded to fly higher and further as engineers seek to test the limits of the technology.

The rotorcraft was carried to Mars in the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February.

Graphic

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said a delighted MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“We’ve been talking for so long about our ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on Mars, and here it is.”

This is a reference to Wilbur and Orville Wright who conducted the first powered, controlled aircraft flight here on Earth in 1903.

Ingenuity even carries a small swatch of fabric from one of the wings of Flyer 1, the aircraft that made that historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, more than 117 years ago.

Shadowimage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH
image captionThe chopper saw its own shadow in its navigation images
Navigation photoimage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH
image captionThis navigation image was acquired with the chopper’s feet just off the surface

There were cheers in the JPL control centre as the first photos of the flight arrived back on Earth. In the background, MiMi Aung could be heard saying: “It’s real!”

To claps from her colleagues, she tore up the contingency speech to have been used in the event of failure.

media captionMoment Nasa reacts to successful Ingenuity flight

The demonstration saw the Mars-copter rise to just over 3m, hover, swivel 96 degrees, hover some more, and then set down. In all, it managed almost 40 seconds of flight, from take-off to landing.

Getting airborne on the Red Planet is not easy. The atmosphere is very thin, just 1% of the density here at Earth. This gives the blades on a rotorcraft very little to bite into to gain lift.

There’s help from the lower gravity at Mars, but still – it takes a lot of work to get up off the ground.

media captionHow this Nasa helicopter made history on Mars

Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power (a peak power of 350 watts) to turn those blades extremely fast – at over 2,500 revolutions per minute for this particular flight.

Control was autonomous. The distance to Mars – currently just under 300 million km – means radio signals take minutes to traverse the intervening space. Flying by joystick is simply out of the question.

Asked whether she was surprised the flight had worked, MiMi Aung said: “No, I’m not. We really had nailed the equations, the models and the verification here on Earth in our laboratory tests. So, it then became a question of: have we chosen the right materials to build Ingenuity, to survive the space environment, to survive the Mars environment?

“We’ve gone from ‘theory says you can’ to really now having done it. It’s a major first for the human race,” she told BBC News.

Ingenuity has two cameras onboard. A black-and-white camera that points down to the ground, which is used for navigation, and a high-resolution colour camera that looks out to the horizon.

Sample navigation images sent back to Earth revealed the helicopter’s shadow on the floor of the crater as it came back in to land.

The Perseverance rover was watching and snapping away from a distance of 65m. Its full-sequence video can be seen at the top of this page.

Selfie of helicopter and roverimage copyrightNasa
image captionA selfie of the Ingenuity helicopter and the Perseverance rover

Nasa has announced that the “airstrip” in Jezero where Perseverance dropped off Ingenuity for its demonstration will henceforth be known as the “Wright Brothers Field”.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations’ civil aviation agency – has also presented Nasa and the US Federal Aviation Administration with an official ICAO designator: IGY.

“India Golf Yankee, with the call sign ‘Ingenuity’, and those details will be officially included in the next edition of ICAO’s designators for aircraft, operating agencies, aeronautical authorities and services,” explained Håvard Grip, the Mars helicopter’s chief pilot at JPL.

Monday’s successful maiden outing means that a further four flights will be attempted over the coming days, with the first of these occurring as early as Thursday. Each succeeding flight will build on what has gone before.

“What we’re talking about here is going higher, going further, going faster, stretching the capabilities of the helicopter in those ways,” Dr Grip explained.

“We’re putting the pedal down and going for it,” added Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at Nasa.

Wright Brothers
image captionThe Wright Brothers’ first successful flight lasted 12 seconds

The hope is this initial demonstration could eventually transform how we explore some distant worlds.

Drones might be used to scout ahead for future rovers, and even astronauts once they eventually get to Mars.

Michael Watkins, JPL director, said: “What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension; they’ve freed us from the surface now forever in planetary exploration, so that we can now make a combination of driving on the surface and sampling the surface, doing reconnaissance, and even scientific experimentation on inaccessible places for a rover. This is exactly the way we build the future.”

Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said ideas for larger helicopters were already being discussed.

“We are thinking of things in the 25-30kg class of vehicles, and those vehicles would carry maybe about 4kg of science instruments,” he told reporters.

Nasa has already approved a helicopter mission to Titan, the big moon of Saturn. Dragonfly, as the mission is known, should arrive at Titan in the mid-2030s. It will be easier to fly on this moon given its very thick atmosphere.

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‘My Dear Papa Was a Very Special Person,’ Prince Charles Says

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Prince Charles spoke in Tetbury, England, on Saturday about the life of his father, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday at 99.

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