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Viral beginnings and vaccine races

A World Health Organization team investigates the origins of the pandemic

A member of the World Health Organization team arrives for a field visit at the Service Center for Party Members and Residents of Jiangxinyuan Community in Wuhan, China. Associated Press/Photo by Ng Han Guan

Viral beginnings and vaccine races

CHINA: The head of a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19 said bats and other animals remain a possible source and that transmission of the virus via frozen food warrants further investigation. But Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food scientist leading the WHO delegation, seemed to rule out a possible leak from a nearby virology lab, saying the evidence “indicates a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2.”

Other scientists investigating the origins pushed back against the preliminary conclusions, including Harvard/MIT’s Alina Chan. The Biden administration also did not endorse the findings, instead saying it had expressed concerns about “the need for full transparency and access” from China and the WHO “to all information.”

BELGIUM: A consortium led by the European Commission has failed to produce and deliver vaccines on a promised timetable—putting at particular risk poor countries counting on the COVAX mechanism for vaccine delivery (my report here). By Feb. 1, only 25 people had received COVID-19 vaccines in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

ALGERIA: Authorities allowed over 180 mosques in the Tizi Ouzou province and some Catholic churches to reopen following pandemic lockdowns but kept Protestant churches closed, according to a report the World Evangelical Alliance submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. Prior to the pandemic, 13 churches were forcibly closed; now all are.

MYANMAR: Protests against last week’s military coup have swelled in Yangon to hundreds of thousands despite bans and shootings by the military. The protesters are calling for the release of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and for the ruling generals to step aside—in what has for decades been one of the most locked-down countries in the world.

INDIA: A breakaway glacier sent floodwaters down the Himalayas, overwhelming two hydroelectric dams and leaving at least 200 people missing. In Tapovan, where a tunnel filled with mud and debris, at least 31 people were confirmed dead with about 170 unaccounted for. Survivors said they clung to scaffolding rods for hours as water flooded the tunnel.

IRAQ: Years after Islamic State (ISIS) killed more than 10,000 Yazidis and kidnapped thousands from their homeland, Yazidis returned to bury 103 victims—the first recovered remains from mass graves in the village of Kojo. As mourners neared the site and sobbed, one woman said, “My brother is a handsome tall guy, this grave is too short for him.”

About a third of the Yazidi population has emigrated from Iraq but the majority remain in camps for internally displaced people, Murad Ismael, a Yazidi advocate in the United States, said Wednesday in a hearing held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Underscoring the ongoing trauma, Ismael told USCIRF commissioners that two Yazidis have committed suicide in the camps in the past week.

SYRIA: At least 20 people have been killed in al-Hol Camp, including one in a public beheading. Aid workers and counterterrorism experts have warned of growing instability in the camp, with 62,000 residents the largest camp in Syria and home to tens of thousands of foreign fighters and families affiliated with ISIS. Some at al-Hol reportedly are operating a caliphate system.

UNITED NATIONS: The Biden administration reversed a decision by former President Donald Trump to exit the UN Human Rights Council due to its bias against Israel and welcome of rogue regimes. “The UN Human Rights Council is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled U.S leadership.”

HONDURAS: Lawmakers have taken the first steps to pass a constitutional amendment preventing the legalization of abortion. The move followed legalization in Argentina and a push among poor Latin American nations to follow suit, particularly with the Biden administration’s decision to fund abortion overseas.

RUSSIA: The Russian doctor who guided Alexei Navalny’s treatment before he was flown to Germany has died in the same ICU ward where he treated Navalny—“very unexpectedly,” according to hospital colleagues. Allies of Navalny— who is now serving a sentence of two years and eight months—plan new Valentine’s Day protests in courtyards designed to avoid police cordons this weekend.

IN MEMORIAM: George Shultz, whose diplomacy helped to seal the end of the Cold War, has died. Veteran foreign correspondent Michael Gordon has an extended obituary worth your time (subscription-based or just ask)—and I’m reposting Shultz’s op-ed on trust published on his 100th birthday in December.

I’M READING Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News by Jeffrey Bilbro.

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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