China lab head says ‘no way this virus came from us’
The head of a laboratory in Wuhan - the epicentre of COVID-19 - says "there's no way this virus came out from us" after claims in the US suggest it has.
Institute of Virology director Yuan Zhiming told state media on Sunday while he understood why people had jumped to conclusions about the institute, none of the laboratory staff had been infected with the coronavirus.
"We clearly know what kind of virus research is going on in the institute and how the institute manages viruses and samples," he said.
"It's bad when some are deliberately trying to mislead people.
"This is entirely based on speculation."
The lab director contested the thesis, already rejected by scientists, the virus could have been originally generated in the laboratory.
The first infections with the coronavirus were linked with an animal market in Wuhan.
Experts believe the virus comes from bats and might also have been spread via another host animal.
"There is no evidence to prove the virus has artificial or synthetic traces," Mr Zhiming said.
His comments come a day after US President Donald Trump said the US was investigating whether the virus could have originated in the Wuhan lab.
"It seems to make sense," he said.
AUSTRALIA CALLS FOR INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF COVID-19 CRISIS
Mr Zhiming's comments also come as the Morrison Government leads the international call for an independent review of the COVID-19 crisis to determine the origin of the virus and if more could have been done to slow its spread.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said transparency - particularly from the Chinese Government - would be "key" to any review.
"An independent review would identify for us (facts) about the genesis of the virus, about the approaches to dealing with it, and addressing it about the openness with which information was shared," she said.
"(And) about interaction with the World Health Organization … with other international leaders.
"All of those sorts of things will need to be on the table."
Ms Payne said every country would need to agree to a mechanism for the review, but argued it should not be done by the WHO as its own activities would likely be assessed.
"We've been able to do those sorts of things in the past for key independent reviews, often on egregious human rights issues, for example," she said.
"I think that there will be a path through.
"But it will need parties and countries to come to the table with a willingness to be transparent and to engage in that process, and also ensure that we have a review mechanism in which the international community can have faith."
On Friday China revised its death toll for the city of Wuhan - ground zero of the outbreak - to 3,869 fatalities, almost 50 per cent higher than previously reported.
According to Chinese state media these deaths were missed by local officials in Wuhan because the city's medical facilities were overwhelmed.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the federal government only had confidence in Australia's coronavirus numbers.
"Australia's own figures have been identified by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as the most accurate of 83 countries around the world," he said.
"I think that is the baseline for judging how each individual country is going."
China has long been criticised for being slow to publicly announce it had detected clusters of pneumonia cases with no known source in December 2019, preventing health officials or journalists from sounding the alarm at the time.
Companies connected to China have also been condemned for stockpiling personal protective equipment to send to the mainland during the peak of the virus crisis.
As the pandemic spread around the world, other countries have been forced to recall faulty PPE imported from China.
Labor's health spokesman Chris Bowen said the opposition backed an independent review of the COVID19 outbreak and as Australia's top diplomat Ms Payne must work to make it a "reality".
"I imagine and would hope that she is engaging with her (international) colleagues to bring that inquiry about," he said.
"It should be independent the WHO should feed into that inquiry, but it should be independent."
PROTESTS AGAINST COVID-19 LOCKDOWNS CONTINUE IN US
Protests to reopen the economy continued across the United States on Sunday as officials in the country's coronavirus epicentre said New York's infections had peaked.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said hospitalisations, deaths and new cases were down in New York State, which accounts for one-third of America's COVID-19 cases.
"If you look at the past three days, you could argue we are past the plateau and starting to descend," Mr Cuomo said as he announced the state's daily deaths had fallen below 550 for the first in more than a fortnight.
"We're not at the plateau anymore, but we're still not in a good position."
Hospitalization numbers are down.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) April 18, 2020
Emergency rooms are less crowded.
Intubations are down.
That’s because of what we have ALL done to flatten the curve.
But it's not over yet. We must keep doing what we're doing.
America is grappling with how soon and how much of the country will reopen, with protesters in several states demanding the lifting of restrictions.
Mr Trump last week unveiled a three-phase plan which handed authority to states to manage how they deal with the pandemic.
Within hours of his announcement, beaches were packed in Florida and states including Texas announced they would shortly reopen shops and commence non-essential surgeries.
Mr Trump urged his supporters in several states to push for the end of lockdown.
Mr Trump took to Twitter to say "LIBERATE" about the Democrat-held states of Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia where demonstrations against restrictions have occurred over the past week.
Several more states joined the protests yesterday as health authorities warned testing for the virus needed to be dramatically increased to avoid new outbreaks.
And as thousands took to the streets, the death toll spiked in northeastern states including emerging hot spots in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Hundreds rallied in the capitals of Texas, Indianapolis, Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida and New Hampshire, some saying "Live free or die", others saying, "let us work".
Others chanted "Fire Fauci", referring to the top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anothy Fauci.
America's economy has been ravaged by the coronavirus shutdown, with one-in-eight working adults having applied for unemployment benefits in the past month.
Mr Trump has been pushing to reopen the country by May 1, despite pushback from the health advisers on his White House coronavirus task force.
The debate has been muddied by fluctuating modelling, with a previous peak potential death toll of 240,000, that was announced last month, now sitting around 60,000 for the US.
Mr Trump has in recent days declared any toll of less than 100,000 as a victory.
So far, more than 38,000 Americans have died, with the international death toll around 160,000.
It comes as the 2020 presidential race has turned its focus to China's role in the spread of the virus.
Pro-Trump groups have been attacking the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for his previous support of China, while Mr Biden's campaign released TV ads targeting Mr Trump's praise earlier this year for China.
BRITAIN NOT CONSIDERING LIFTING COVID-19 LOCKDOWN
Britain is not considering lifting the lockdown imposed about four weeks ago to control the COVID-19 outbreak given "deeply worrying" increases in the death toll.
Britain is at or near the peak of a health crisis in which more than 15,000 people have died.
It is the fifth highest national death toll of a pandemic linked to at least 150,000 deaths worldwide.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said a Buzzfeed report stating the government was considering lifting the lockdown in phases over the coming months was not correct.
"The facts and the advice are clear at the moment that we should not be thinking of lifting of these restrictions yet," Mr Gove told Sky News on Sunday.
With hospitals under strain, health workers have criticised the government's advice personal protective equipment worn while treating patients infected with coronavirus could be reused, as supplies run low across the country.
An 84-tonne delivery of PPE from Turkey, which ministers had said would arrive on Sunday, has been delayed, Sky News reported.
The latest data show 15,464 people have died in British hospitals after testing positive for the novel coronavirus. It is a total which has increased by more than 800 for three days running.
A further 2500 have died in care homes during the week to April 13, according to the National Care Forum, a representative body for the adult social care sector.
"One of the things that is deeply worrying and concerning is the high level of deaths," Mr Gove said.
"The evidence suggests that the rate of infection and the death rate is flattening, but we're not absolutely certain that we are yet on a downward trajectory."
Mr Gove described as "grotesque" a Sunday Times story that said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had skipped five crisis meetings to address the coronavirus pandemic early in the outbreak.
"The prime minister took all the major decisions. Nobody can say that the prime minister wasn't throwing heart and soul into fighting this virus," he said, adding that the story overall was "slightly off-beam".
Jonathan Ashworth, an MP for the opposition Labour Party, said this comment was "possibly the weakest rebuttal of a detailed expose in British political history".
And in news from the UK that could send shivers down Aussie spines, The Sun reports that pubs will be the last parts of society to reopen in a phased exit from the coronavirus lockdown.
Brits will remain in lockdown for another three weeks to slow the spread of the deadly bug - with the UK government reportedly two weeks away from announcing how the country will emerge from the drastic measures.
Government sources said one plan is to lift the lockdown in phases, with outdoor spaces to be opened first while crowded space like pubs would be last.
It's a model likely to be copied by Australia.
CHIEF NURSING AND MIDWIFERY OFFICER: HOSPITAL CHANGES TO COME
Australian healthcare workers are being reminded to stay at home if are unwell, just like the rest of the nation's residents, to keep those most vulnerable to COVID-19 safe.
Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan encouraged healthcare workers to "seek guidance and help through the telephone lines, your GP or your employer about what you should do" at a press conference on Sunday afternoon.
Commenting on elective surgery, she said IVF was "very much at the front of mind for us".
"We are working through a plan for the return of further elective surgery in the coming weeks," she said.
"The National cabinet has asked the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to provide them with that advice on Tuesday, and it is likely we will see a staged increase in elective surgery now we have the confidence we have that supply - that critical supply of PPE behind us to support that- and certainly we were well aware of the importance of IVF to the community and particularly those who are keen to continue with their program, so we will hope to be able to provide advice on that in the near future."
Ms McMillan said as of Sunday morning 6606 people were infected with the coronavirus - 51 needing intensive care and 33 on ventilation across the country.
Commenting on the northwest Tasmanian coronavirus outbreak, Ms McMillan said an Australian medical assistance team has been deployed to help.
"That as a team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pathologists, a whole range of people who have gone there to provide the service that can no longer be done because all of the healthcare workers or a majority of them in that area have had to be isolated because of that outbreak," she said.
There are more than 800 people registered as a part of AUSMAT on a database that we keep updated and they are all trained and a large number of them are ready right now if we need to call on them to support Australia in whatever way it might be needed."
AUSSIES STRANDED UNLESS FLIGHT BOOKED HOME
The family of an Australian dancer stranded on one of 40 ships off the coast of the US and in the Caribbean due to the coronavirus pandemic has spoken out, saying "they are doing the quarantining and wearing the masks on the ship even though there is no virus on there and no passengers".
Tina Keast, the mother of dancer Amber Jenkins who is one of 107 Australians involved, said her daughter was floating off the coast of Florida and was still on board the Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas despite passengers offloading a week ago.
A lack of available flights has meant the Australians are stranded and are not sure when they will be able to fly home.
"Amber is safe," Ms Keast told AAP on Saturday.
"She is being fed, is well looked after, has a guest room, and they are doing the quarantining and wearing the masks on the ship even though there is no virus on there and no passengers."
Australia's ambassador to the US Arthur Sinodinos used social media on Friday to write a letter to the stranded Australians, assuring them the government was "working tirelessly to assist with your safe and timely repatriation to Australia".
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prohibited cruise ship crew from travelling on commercial flights in the US.
"This is making it extremely difficult for cruise lines to make viable logistical arrangements for the repatriation of its crew members," Mr Sinodinos wrote.
The Australian government has worked with cruise ship companies across the globe to help facilitate the return of Australian passengers and crew.
There are no longer Australian passengers on cruise ships, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said.
Ms Keast said her daughter was booked on a flight three weeks ago but it was cancelled. They hope a charter flight can be organised to get the Australians home.
The Adventure of the Seas is scheduled to dock at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday for supplies. However, Ms Jenkins will not be able to disembark unless she has a flight booked.
"The cruise company is really looking after them well and everyone on the ship is happy," Ms Keast said.
"If they can get a charter flight organised for all of them to fly home, they will all jump on and do it."
AUSTRALIA HAS 'ACHIEVED SUSTAINED, GENUINE FLATTENING'
Health Minister Greg Hunt says Australia has achieved "a sustained and genuine flattening of the curve".
The growth rate of new coronavirus cases has now been kept below one per cent for seven days in a row.
Across the country, 184 people remain in hospital, including 51 in intensive care and 33 on ventilators.
ELECTIVE SURGERIES MAY RESUME SOON
Elective surgeries and IVF could be greenlit to restart within a week as social distancing eases pressure on hospitals and more protective gear arrives in Australia.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was hopeful the country's medical expert panel and National Cabinet will be in a position to make a decision on recommencing some surgeries at either its Tuesday or Thursday meeting.
"In particular I know that the prime minister and myself have been very focused on IVF (which) is an important and indispensable treatment," he said.
"So we are hopeful that over the course of this week, there will be some positive news."
Mr Hunt said restarting elective procedures depended on the pressure on hospitals and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).
"At this point, Australians have done magnificently and we are not facing a threat to our hospitals, now it is about securing the master and PPE," he said.
NEW YORK HAS 'NO CAUSE TO CELEBRATE'
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced 540 more coronavirus deaths overnight across his state, which is the epicentre of the pandemic in America - down 110 fatalities from a day earlier, and the lowest tally since April 1.
But as other US states push to reopen sooner rather than later, Governor Cuomo said New York has no cause to celebrate.
"Happy days are not here again," the governor said at his daily press briefing. "That is still an overwhelming number every day."
The tally included 36 more people who died in nursing homes, which have been hard-hit by COVID-19.
"It is the feeding frenzy for this virus," he said.
At least 7090 new cases were reported in the last day, for a statewide total of 236,732.
There were 2000 new hospitalisations, bringing that number to around the same level as in March, he said.
"We're not at a plateau anymore, but we're not at a good position," said Mr Cuomo.
Intubations - people being put on to ventilators with an 80 per cent fatality rate from there - were down by 48 patients, but there are still 4246 patients hooked up to ventilators in New York hospitals, he said.
"Intubations are down which is very good news," he said.
The infection rate is declining, but reopening the state too quickly could have disastrous consequences, the governor warned.
"Everybody wants to reopen," Mr Cuomo said. "The tension on reopening is: How fast can you reopen and what can you reopen without raising that infection rate?"
Over 23,000 more people were tested for the bug in the past day, bringing that number to 596,532.
The key to reopening is testing on a massive scale, he said.
"The trick with testing is not that we don't know how to do it … it's bringing this up to scale," Mr Cuomo said.
BODIES PILE UP OUTSIDE FUNERAL HOME
But despite the apparent good news, neighbours walking by an infamous Brooklyn funeral home this week were shocked by the sight of bagged bodies piled outside, unrefrigerated and in full view.
"At one point they had 20 bodies outside," said a local resident who lives a block from the English Brothers Funeral Home.
"Kids walking by can see them. I was so disgusted that I snuck all the way in one day and saw bodies in bags on gurneys without covers. They're not refrigerated. I don't know if these people died of coronavirus or not but if they did and the virus is circulating in the air?"
Frank Restivo, 63, who's owned the mortuary for decades and who was implicated but not charged in a body-harvesting scandal in 2005, didn't flinch when the New York Post called him on Friday.
"I know," he said, when asked about the corpses outside. "We've got no more room inside."
Because of COVID-19, Mr Restivo said that he had 40 bodies packed inside the funeral home and was forced to put the other bodies in the side yard.
"The families beg us to take the bodies - which we wish the hospitals could keep a little longer since they have morgues and refrigeration. We've never needed refrigeration until now."
SCOMO ASKS AUSSIES TO CO-OPERATE WITH APP
Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to Twitter to assure Australians an app being developed by the government to trace coronavirus cases will not be mandatory.
The app is one of three measures Mr Morrison flagged earlier this week as needing to be addressed to lift the country's current COVID-19 restrictions.
He said at least 40 per cent of Australians had to use the app to make it effective.
The app would use Bluetooth technology to alert users if anyone they had contact with tested positive to the virus.
The App we are working on to help our health workers trace people who have been in contact with coronavirus will not be mandatory.— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) April 18, 2020
Mr Morrison tweeted downloading the app "will not be mandatory", but that the government was seeking the "co-operation and support of Australians to download the app to help our health workers, to protect our community and help get our economy going again".
In an interview on Friday he appeared not to rule out making the software mandatory if not enough Australians signed up to make it effective, drawing howls of protests from Labor and others.
We will be seeking the cooperation and support of Australians to download the app to help our health workers, to protect our community and help get our economy going again.— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) April 18, 2020
The other measures Mr Morrison flagged as needed to ease restrictions include an expanded testing regimen and an enhanced local response to potential outbreaks.
Originally published as China lab head says 'no way this virus came from us'