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China opposes studying lab leak in any new virus origins probe

China opposes studying lab leak in any new virus origins probe
China opposes studying lab leak in any new virus origins probe

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China pushed back against the World Health Organization’s call for another probe into the coronavirus’s origins that includes examining whether it leaked from a lab, saying there’s no evidence for the theory and it defies common sense.

The pathogen most likely arose in an animal, which transmitted it to humans via an intermediate host, a group of top Chinese science officials insisted at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday. They praised an earlier report from the WHO that pointed primarily to animals, while finding that the lab leak hypothesis was “extremely impossible.”

The Wuhan laboratory at the center of the controversy “never had the virus,” said Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist who headed the team of Chinese experts working with the WHO. “There’s no need for us to put more resources into a lab leak probe.”

The hypothesis was once dismissed as a conspiracy theory by opponents of former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration raised the possibility ahead of the 2020 election. The premise subsequently gained traction as scientists questioned China’s reluctance to provide access to primary source material, attention grew over efforts among some virologists to make viruses stronger, called “gain of function” work, and some world leaders called for a deeper probe.

While China has consistently rejected the lab hypothesis, officials sought to draw a line in the sand Thursday, signaling Beijing won’t engage on the origin hunt if the theory remained in play. It was China’s most direct pushback to date on calls from the WHO and others to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s high-level lab, which studied bat-borne pathogens and other coronaviruses.

“The plan on the second phase of the origin study, it contains language that does not respect science or common sense,” said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission. “We won’t follow such a plan.”

U.S. President Joe Biden in May said the U.S. intelligence community was divided on whether the virus emerged from human contact with animals or from a laboratory accident, and he ordered them to “redouble their efforts” and report back by late August. The move renewed suspicion that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers are known to have been studying other coronaviruses.

Chinese officials said they are committed to uncovering the origins of the novel coronavirus, a matter that deserves serious study and should be based on science. The WHO’s plans to make the lab leak hypothesis a priority for the next stage of research has been contaminated by political posturing and displays “arrogance against science,” Zeng said.

China has been in the crosshairs since the start of the pandemic in late 2019, after being criticized for delaying research efforts and restricting the access of independent investigators. Now global leaders including the head of the WHO, the Australian government and others are calling on Beijing to cooperate with the next stage of deciphering the virus’s creation story, which is essential to understanding what befell the globe and reducing the risk of future pandemics.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in March said the global body’s first probe didn’t adequately analyze the possibility of a lab accident before deciding it’s most likely the pathogen spread from bats to humans via another animal. He said scientists would benefit from “full access to data,” including biological samples from at least September 2019, and he was willing to deploy more resources to investigate.

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Sydney outbreak a ‘national emergency’ as cases spike

Sydney outbreak a ‘national emergency’ as cases spike
Sydney outbreak a ‘national emergency’ as cases spike

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Sydney’s fast-growing coronavirus outbreak has become a “national emergency,” state leaders said Friday, as Australia’s largest city reported another record number of new infections.

Admitting a monthlong lockdown had so far failed to stop a delta-variant outbreak, the state of New South Wales pleaded for Canberra to urgently send more vaccines and resources.

Declaring the outbreak a national emergency could pave the way for more federal government involvement in stemming the crisis.

“We have an obligation on behalf of the nation to contain the virus,” said New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian. “There is no doubt that the numbers are not going in the right direction.”

Her state on Friday reported 136 new cases, a record for this outbreak, which now totals 1,782.

With the virus “spreading everywhere” and half the country’s 25 million people currently in lockdown, Berejiklian said the government must “refocus” its glacial vaccine rollout.

Just 12% of Australians have been fully vaccinated, thanks to problems with supplies of Pfizer jabs and scepticism about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We need, at least, more first doses of Pfizer,” Berejiklian said, while warning Sydney’s 5 million residents that restrictions could run until October.

She also announced nonessential workers in specific areas of Sydney would now be barred from leaving, tightening a lockdown that is almost certain to be formally extended next week.

“It is fairly apparent that we will not be close to zero (cases) next Friday,” Berejiklian said. “We will have a clearer view next week on what August, September, and October look like.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday apologized for the country’s slow vaccine rollout, admitting targets had not been met.

“I take responsibility for the vaccination program. I also take responsibility for the challenges we’ve had,” he said. “Obviously, some things are within our control, some things that are not.”

With Sydney cases spiraling, the premier of Victoria state, Dan Andrews, called for a “ring of steel” to be thrown up around the city, banning any travel in or out.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a travel bubble between the two countries would be suspended for at least eight weeks.

Australians will no longer have quarantine-free entry to New Zealand, while return flights would be arranged for New Zealanders in Australia.

“There are now multiple outbreaks, and in differing stages of containment, that have forced three states into lockdown,” Ardern said.

“The health risk to New Zealanders from these cases is increasing … now is the time for a suspension to ensure New Zealanders aren’t put at undue risk from COVID-19 and to ensure we retain our hard-won gains.”

Quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia began in April after more than a year of closed borders and was hailed by tourism operators as a “savior for businesses”.

However, New Zealand has several times since halted the bubble with individual states and territories as outbreaks erupted in Australia.

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China urged to stop forcibly returning North Korean defectors

China urged to stop forcibly returning North Korean defectors
China urged to stop forcibly returning North Korean defectors

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North Korea updates

Human rights activists have urged Beijing to stop repatriating North Korean refugees over fears that more than 1,000 people detained in China could be tortured by Kim Jong Un’s security officials.

At least 1,170 North Koreans are detained in China, including 450 men in a prison in Changchun, a city in north-eastern Jilin province, according to Human Rights Watch.

The calls came amid concerns about a sharp fall in the number of North Korean defectors who have successfully escaped, navigating dangerous journeys through China to South Korea.

Just two defectors arrived in South Korea in the second quarter of the year, a record low and following 229 in all of 2020, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification. That is down from more than 1,000 in 2019 and close to 3,000 in 2009.

The criticism of Beijing also followed a report by Radio Free Asia that China repatriated about 50 North Koreans this month. The report has not been independently confirmed by the Financial Times.

The event would have probably marked the first case of mass forced returns since January 2020, when North Korean authorities instituted sweeping crackdowns on trade and travel in response to the risk of Covid-19 transmission from China.

“China is obligated not to force back anyone who would be at risk of persecution or torture upon return,” said Lina Yoon, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, noting that Beijing was a party to UN conventions to protect refugees and prevent torture.

“Since anyone who returns to North Korea after fleeing will likely be tortured or otherwise mistreated, all have a claim for refugee status in whichever country they reach,” she said.

The long-term decline in the number of escapers reflects harsher security procedures imposed in the borderlands of North Korea and China following the rise to power of Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping.

Beijing has long been wary of the risks of destabilisation in North Korea, which could cause a flood of refugees across its 1,352km border with the nuclear-armed state.

Estimates of the number of North Koreans in China range upwards from 50,000. Many defectors live in China for years, some paying off debts, before they venture to south-east Asia, where they can be accepted and processed through South Korean embassies.

But experts who help defectors reach safety said Beijing’s increasingly strict controls on internal movement and the uptake of technological surveillance had created new risks.

The number of brokers willing to assist North Korean defectors has also fallen, a sign of the effectiveness of the crackdown on both sides of the border.

Pyongyang has not reported a single coronavirus infection since the start of the pandemic. North Korean observers remain uncertain about the likelihood of any near-term vaccination programme despite mounting signs of a severe economic downturn and worsening humanitarian situation in the country.

North Korea could access Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs via the Covax programme under Gavi, a UN-backed alliance, but foreign experts have not gained access to the country to assess the status of its distribution networks.

Some experts expect trade flows with China might slowly pick up over the coming months via new, highly controlled disinfection zones near Sinuiju, North Korea’s main road artery with Dandong in north-eastern China.

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Troubled Tokyo Olympics to open under Covid cloud

Troubled Tokyo Olympics to open under Covid cloud
Troubled Tokyo Olympics to open under Covid cloud

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The most troubled Olympics in modern history finally open in Tokyo on Friday, struggling to shake off lingering virus fears after a one-year postponement and a build-up marred by scandal and controversy.

Eight years after Japanese newscasters shed tears as Tokyo celebrated winning the right to stage the Games, Friday’s opening ceremony will take place before empty stands and with the city in a state of emergency.

Fears that the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could trigger a super-spreader event have prompted organizers to clamp the Games in a biosecure straitjacket.

Overseas fans are banned for the first time ever and domestic spectators will be kept out of all but a handful of venues.

Athletes, support staff and media are subject to strict Covid-19 protocols, including regular testing and daily health checks. 

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Sun fails to shine on Japan’s solar sector

Sun fails to shine on Japan’s solar sector
Sun fails to shine on Japan’s solar sector

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It was a speech to inspire environmentalists and energy investors. Addressing both houses of Japan’s parliament last October, new prime minister Yoshihide Suga vowed to make a “green society” a core focus of his government. Among the most promising technologies for bringing this about, he said, would be solar power.

The problem — even as he made the announcement and sent bureaucrats scrambling to create the programmes to make it happen — was Japan’s growing list of solar company failures.

And while shifts in government policy have played a part in these, some analysts see a more worrying dynamic: the possibility that the economics of solar power in Japan reveal a serious threat to its sustainability plans.

Between the start of 2018 and the end of 2020, 256 solar companies were forced to declare bankruptcy, according to business information firm Teikoku Databank. Their failure, surviving competitors say, reflects a far more challenging operating environment than many had ever predicted.

The rate of new bankruptcies currently appears to be falling, but analysts at Tokyo Shoko Research note that last year the total debt of bankrupt solar companies almost doubled from 2019 levels — reaching a record ¥46bn ($415m). They suggest that emergency Covid-19-related subsidies may be masking the full extent of the crisis.

“Businesses supported by financial assistance may be ‘short of breath’, and the number of bankruptcies in 2021 may increase,” the analysts warn.

Generous to a fault

The most common explanation given for the business failures is the sharp pullback by Japan on a renewable energy scheme conceived a decade ago in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent closure of the country’s nuclear reactors.

One highlight of this new policy, which aimed to encourage investment in solar energy, was a system of subsidies in the form of feed-in tariffs (FITs) — agreed prices at which electricity would be bought from solar providers, in order to reduce investment risk. 

The initial generosity of the FITs when launched in 2012 had the desired effect. Hundreds of investors and operators concluded that by locking in those tariffs at a time when solar equipment costs were falling fast and land in Japan was relatively cheap their potential pay-off far outweighed their risk.

However, in some areas of Japan, particularly the sunny southern island of Kyushu, the sudden concentration of new solar farms led to summer generation surpluses and periodic exclusions from the grid.

So, after about a year, the government started cutting the FITs. It also introduced retroactive deadlines for plants licensed before the tariff cuts to begin operations.

For many companies, these FIT reductions meant their profitability calculations no longer worked. They also seemed to jar with the government’s stated objective of building a thriving alternative energy industry.

Taishi Sugiyama, a research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies think-tank and an expert on Japan’s alternative energy industries, argues that the FIT scheme was “too generous”. “At one point, it was the most expensive solar generation in the world,” he says. “The government changed the policy to reduce the costs following a lot of criticism. Once the FIT rates were decreased, it was quite natural that some generators went into bankruptcy.”

Older and costlier

Nathan Schmidt, a partner at Japanese law firm Nishimura & Asahi who has worked extensively on alternative energy projects, says the FITs were always intended to taper, and most investors should have known that. 

But a less predictable problem, he says, is that the cost of building and running solar projects in Japan has not fallen as quickly as it has in other countries — where investors’ lower outgoings have offset falling FIT rates.

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This cost issue stems from Japan’s demographics: with more than 28 per cent of its population aged over 65, Japan is the “oldest” country in the world and has lower unemployment than many big economies.

As a result, Japan’s solar energy companies — and other industries serving Suga’s “green society” — face stiff competition for labour and specialists, pushing up pay. 

For some operators, the change in FITs has pushed them towards other alternative energy sources.

Ryota Suzuki, director of operations for renewables group Renova, says that the company took advantage of the early FITs and locked in reliable revenues for at least 13 years, but it has no further plans for solar projects in Japan. It will concentrate on biomass, wind and geothermal projects instead.

Others have taken a more aggressive approach to Tokyo’s policy shift, echoing the way some Japanese firms took on the Spanish government when it also reduced FIT rates more quickly than expected in the 2010s. One Hong Kong-based investor, Shift Energy, is making the first-ever use of a 24-year-old bilateral investment treaty to lodge an arbitration claim against Japan.

The case centres on the claim that government policy exposed investors to unreasonable risks.

Japan battled hard but unsuccessfully to settle the matter without formal arbitration. Lawyers warn that, should Shift Energy be successful, the door would be opened for many others to attempt a similar claim.

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Tokyo’s troubled Games offer taste of problems to come

Tokyo’s troubled Games offer taste of problems to come
Tokyo’s troubled Games offer taste of problems to come

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After record-breaking rainfall, and with just three weeks to go before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan watched in horror as entire buildings were washed down the hillsides of the popular tourist town of Atami.

The landslides, which claimed 18 lives and left 10 missing as they swept through residential streets, took place about an hour’s drive outside the Japanese capital. And the ruined town is just a few kilometres from the mountain bike course where Olympians will compete next week.

The Atami deluge came during a fortnight when hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes as rainfall records were broken in eight of Japan’s 47 prefectures, including Tokyo.

Now, Japanese climate change experts say the time has come for more resources to be channelled into improving forecasting, and for sporting events to be organised around the increasing likelihood of extreme weather. Tokyo’s Olympics, in this light, may be a turning point for interactions between large-scale event planning and the effects of climate change.

Aftermath: a soldier looks at the wreckage left by a landslide in Atami earlier this month
Aftermath: a soldier looks at the wreckage left by a landslide in Atami earlier this month © AFP via Getty Images

“My impression is that, even now, event planners do not take enough notice of the risk of extreme weather events, but will have to start to do so,” says Yu Kosaka, a climate change specialist at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. She predicts that heatwaves and torrential downpours will become more common.

Although research may give Japanese forecasters a better grasp of the likelihood of such catastrophes, Kosaka says, big sports events should start building more flexibility into their location and timing as a matter of course.

Changes of plan

Even before the deluge of July 2021, the Tokyo Olympics had become a powerful symbol of how human plans — even those as big, expensive and grandiose as the Olympic Games — are vulnerable to nature.

In November 2019, despite claiming in its bid documents that Tokyo in July was “mild”, Olympic organisers reluctantly moved the showcase marathon from Tokyo to the cooler city of Sapporo in the far north.

Spectatorless sport: the Japanese and Canadian women’s football teams warm up for an Olympic match in Sapporo
Spectatorless sport: the Japanese and Canadian women’s football teams warm up for an Olympic match in Sapporo © Asano Ikko/AFP via Getty Images

The much-debated decision followed the temperature in central Tokyo hitting its highest ever recorded level in the previous July and doctors warning about the consequences for runners.

That was a significant compromise, but it was eclipsed by the decision in March 2020 to postpone the Games as the world confronted a pandemic for which, at the time, it saw no end.

The Japanese government’s decision this year to press ahead with the Games is not popular. More than 50,000 athletes, coaches, officials and support staff will descend on Japan at a time when it has double-vaccinated only a small percentage of its population against Covid-19 and infections in Tokyo continue to rise.

Further compromises have also been necessary to keep the Games viable. These include decisions to bar spectators from almost all events, to hold the final stages of the torch relay off public roads, and to make athletes and teams submit to tight restrictions and constant infection testing.

Expect the unexpected

Medical experts say that planners of the Olympics and other mass sporting events need to view the hosting of the Tokyo games in the correct perspective: not as a one-off triumph of determination, but simply the first of many organisational challenges in a Covid era that could last for years.

“It depends on the size of the mass gatherings but such events will, in the future, all have to be held with consideration of infection control and the risk of disease outbreak,” warns Yasutaka Mizuno, who is a director of Tokyo’s Global Healthcare Clinic and an expert in epidemics.

In an interview with the FT, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, described the Tokyo Games as the “most complex and difficult ever”, because there is no blueprint for ensuring the safety of athletes.

“When we decided about the postponement, I’m happy now with hindsight that we did not know how difficult it would be — because, then, we may have had second thoughts,” he said.

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But even if or when the pandemic subsides, such complexity will be the norm for such events, says Hisashi Nakamura, deputy director at Japan’s Climate Science Research Laboratory at the University of Tokyo.

Consideration of global warming and its many potential effects will have to be treated as standard elements in the planning process.

More computing power, Nakamura argues, must be thrown into forecasting models in order to boost their resolution and to help maximise organisers’ preparedness.

“As we have seen, planners need to see extreme events coming,” he says.

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Why Japan’s whalers are an endangered species

Why Japan’s whalers are an endangered species
Why Japan’s whalers are an endangered species

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Hideki Tokoro, the last and only hope of Japan’s commercial whaling industry, wears a light-blue suit, a patterned blue shirt, a tie with whales on it and a large whale tie pin.

A self-made accountant who founded his own firm, Tokoro was brought in last year to run Kyodo Senpaku after working on a previous restructuring. The company owns and operates Japan’s only long-range whaling vessel — the Nisshin Maru — and dominates the controversial industry.

With Japan now withdrawing subsidies from whalers, Tokoro is on a mission to make Kyodo Senpaku turn a profit. His success or failure is likely to determine whether Japan remains a whaling nation or not.

“We’re now engaging in heavy promotional activity,” he says, in a rare interview with the Financial Times. “We need to get this shrinking market back on the increase.”

The commercial challenge Tokoro has taken on shows the profound crisis triggered in his industry by Japan’s 2019 withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission, the global regulatory body, and resumption of whaling within its exclusive economic zone.

Researchers with harpoons

As an IWC member, Japan had agreed to abide by the organisation’s catch
quotas — which, since 1986, have been set at zero for commercial whaling. Japan got round this moratorium via a loophole in the IWC’s founding convention, which permits whales to be killed “for purposes of scientific research”, with quotas determined by individual governments. The resulting “research whaling” programme was bitterly opposed by conservationists and other IWC members.

Ultimately Japan grew tired both of the IWC’s refusal to countenance a revival of commercial whaling, and of the expensive subsidies for research whaling. Pushed by powerful politicians from its whaling heartlands, Tokyo chose to leave the IWC, avoid international waters and let the industry sink or swim on its own commercial merits.

Kyodo Senpaku now has a government-set quota of 1,550 tonnes, which must be caught inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — less than the 2,400 tonnes previously permitted, and comprising less commercially attractive species.

“Initially, everyone was excited to restart commercial whaling, and then the reality hit that the allowable catch was reduced,” Tokoro says.

Traditionally, whale is regarded in Japan not as a delicacy but as a source of cheap protein. It was widely used in school dinners during the 1950s and 1960s and still has that image.

Tokoro, who insists that whaling is an ecological positive, wants to rebuild consumer demand and finance a replacement for the Nisshin Maru, which is nearing the end of its life.

The Nisshin Maru, Japan’s only long-range whaling ship, is nearing the end of its life. Replacing it is expected to cost $6bn
The Nisshin Maru, Japan’s only long-range whaling ship, is nearing the end of its life. Replacing it is expected to cost $6bn © The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Our targets are wealthy people and the young. The older Japanese people are, the more they regard whale as a low-level food,” he says.

Tokoro has teamed up with an Italian restaurant to produce whale haute cuisine. Talking in the office of his accountancy business, he shows a promotional CD of karaoke tunes and produces a tub of whale ice-cream to try. Made from 30 per cent whale oil, it is sorbet-like, with a slightly unpalatable citrus flavour.

Economic realities

Tokoro’s ebullience masks a grim financial situation. Sales fell from ¥3bn ($27m) in the 2018 financial year to ¥2.6bn ($24m) in 2020 as the price of whale fell from ¥1,200 ($11) per kilogramme to around ¥800, before picking up again more recently.

Kyodo Senpaku makes a large operating loss. Until last year, it received a ¥1.3bn annual subsidy, which has now been replaced by ¥1bn in government loans for each of the next three years. From 2024, it must survive on its own resources, all while financing a new ship that Tokoro expects to cost ¥6bn.

Tokoro is scornful of change-averse bureaucrats and of Japan’s coastal whalers, such as those who carry out the infamous Taiji dolphin hunt. “We’re aiming to be self-sufficient but the land-based whalers can’t possibly do it,” he says, because of their low sales and high costs.

Anti-whaling groups argue that hunting the marine mammals is both cruel and ecologically unsustainable. Governments such as the UK and Australia oppose whaling, and have blocked any attempt to lift the IWC moratorium.

Tokoro argues the opposite: that failure to hunt whales is unsustainable. He says whale numbers have been growing by 4 per cent a year since the moratorium began and claims they are putting pressure on fish stocks. “In the future, if we plan to catch fish then we’ll have to hunt whales,” he says.

More stories from this report

Joji Morishita, a professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology and Japan’s last commissioner at the IWC before it withdrew, says there is little evidence to support Tokoro’s theory. But he adds that Japan’s quotas are based on strict IWC calculations to ensure sustainability, and that current levels of whaling have little impact on whale populations.

The switch to whaling only in Japan’s exclusive economic zone has reduced international pressure, and Japan’s coast guard can prevent campaigners carrying out direct action against whalers in local waters.

Tokoro is defiant towards activists who regard whales as different from other animals killed for food. “To the people who say that whales are cute like pandas, so you shouldn’t eat them, all we can say is ‘fine’,” he says.

But the greater threat to Kyodo Senpaku is the changing tastes of the Japanese public and the short remaining lifespan of the Nisshin Maru, without which it will in effect be out of business.

Unless Tokoro can revive the nation’s appetite for whale, the industry is likely to die not from international outrage, but from Japanese indifference.

 

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