A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out

In less polarized times, Dr. Shi was a symbol of China’s scientific progress, at the forefront of research into emerging viruses.

She led expeditions into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the field.

“She’s a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.

Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.

Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status. She built her career at the institute, starting as a research assistant in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.

Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and started studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people around the world. In 2011, she made a breakthrough when she found bats in a cave in southwestern China that carried coronaviruses that were similar to the virus that causes SARS.

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European leaders back efforts to strengthen the W.H.O.

Leaders of France and Germany voiced support on Monday for making the World Health Organization more independent and building up its ability to respond to global health crises.

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke at the opening of the weeklong annual policymaking assembly for the global public health body. Its 194 member states are scheduled to discuss how the W.H.O. coped with the coronavirus pandemic and how global health institutions need to be strengthened to prepare for the next challenge.

The European Union has drafted a proposal to give the W.H.O. powers to rapidly and independently investigate disease outbreaks, bypassing the kind of delays the organization faced from China in trying to investigating the coronavirus outbreak. But the proposal has run into strong resistance from a number of states, including China and Russia.

“We have to have institutions that are up to the task,” Mr. Macron told the opening session of the assembly in a video statement. He urged member states to increase the organization’s budget and reduce its dependence on a few big donor states.

“This organization has to be robust in times of crisis, it has to be flexible enough to react to emergencies, and it has be solid when it comes to controversies,” as well as free of political pressure, he said.

Ms. Merkel called for establishing a global health threat council that would monitor states’ compliance with international health regulations, and she urged states to support an international treaty on how to tackle future global pandemics.

The W.H.O. should continue to play a leading role in global health care, Ms. Merkel said. “If it is to do so, however, we must provide it with lasting financial and personal support,” she said. “We have been talking about this for years, but now it is all the more important to act,” she said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O. chief, warned that vaccine nationalism and “scandalous inequity” in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines was perpetuating the pandemic. He called for action to vaccinate at least 10 percent of the population of every country by September.

Meeting that target would require states to vaccinate 250 million people in low- and middle-income countries in the next four months, he noted. “We need hundreds of millions more doses,” he said, “and we need them to start moving in early June.”

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Indian Vaccine Manufacturer Signals it Won’t Export Doses Before Year’s End

The vaccination woes of some of the world’s poorest nations will continue as the Serum Institute of India, a crucial manufacturing pillar in the plan to supply two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to low-income countries, signaled that it would not be able to provide vaccines beyond India before the year’s end.

The revelation, tucked into a statement by the vaccine manufacturing giant that attempted to deflect mounting criticism, was another setback for Covax, the global vaccine partnership for the poor. It is already more than 140 million doses behind schedule, and the Serum Institute’s announcement suggested it was all but impossible to meet the goal of two billion doses by the end of the year.

The announcement once again underscored the glaring contrast of inequality: As some of the richer nations tout levels of vaccinations that allows them to reopen their society, most of the poorer nations have barely gotten a start.

“We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritize India,” the Serum institute of India said in the statement on Tuesday. “We also hope to start delivering to Covax and other countries by the end of this year.”

Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, licensed to it with the commitment that a large share would go to poor nations.

As part of its plan to have two billion doses by the end of the year, Covax has been counting on hundreds of millions of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine produced by Serum Institute, as well hundreds of millions of as a second vaccine called Novavax that the company is developing.

After India’s devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, the institute diverted all its manufacturing powers to domestic needs, falling behind on commitments to the Covax partnership as well as on bilateral commercial deals with many countries. The institute played down each delay as temporary. But Tuesday’s statement makes clear it is unlikely to meet commitments before the end of the year.

So far, the Covax alliance has supplied only 65 million vaccines, spread across 124 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The W.H.O. said the global alliance was already 140 million doses behind and likely to miss another 50 million doses in June.

“Once the devastating outbreak in India recedes, we also need the Serum Institute of India to get back on track and catch up on its delivery commitments to Covax,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chief of W.H.O.

the government’s mismanagement of the crisis.

India has administered about 180 million doses of vaccines. Only about 5 percent of the country’s adult population. The vaccination rate has fallen to about 1.8 million doses a day, which means it would take the country more than three years to vaccinate 80 percent of its population.

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Biden Dips Into U.S. Vaccine Supply to Send 20 Million Doses Abroad

WASHINGTON — President Biden, heeding widespread calls to step up his response to the pandemic’s surge abroad, said on Monday that his administration would send 20 million doses of federally authorized coronavirus vaccine overseas in June — the first time he has pledged to give away doses that could be used in the United States.

The donation is another step toward what Mr. Biden promised would be an “entirely new effort” to increase vaccine supplies and vastly expand manufacturing capacity, most of it in the United States. He also put Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, in charge of developing a global strategy.

“We know America will never be fully safe until the pandemic that’s raging globally is under control,” Mr. Biden said in a brief appearance at the White House. “No ocean’s wide enough, no wall’s high enough, to keep us safe.”

With new cases and deaths plummeting as vaccination rates rise in the United States, the epicenter of the crisis has moved to India and other nations. A growing and bipartisan chorus of diplomats, health experts and business leaders has been pushing the president to do more to end what the AIDS activist Asia Russell calls “vaccine apartheid.”

There is a huge disconnect growing where, in some countries with the highest vaccination rates, there appears to be a mind-set that the pandemic is over, while others are experiencing huge waves of infection,” Dr. Tedros said.

Variants like B.1.617, first discovered in India and recently designated a variant of concern by the W.H.O., are contributing to the spread of infections and worry many researchers.

Dr. Tedros called for well-supplied nations to send more of their vaccine allocations to harder-hit countries, and for vaccine developers and manufacturers to hasten delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to Covax, an international initiative dedicated to equitable distribution of the vaccine, noting an appeal by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director.

Mr. Biden took office vowing to restore the United States as a leader in global public health, and he has taken certain steps to do so: rejoining the World Health Organization, pledging $4 billion to an international vaccine effort and providing financial support to help Biological E, a vaccine manufacturer in India, produce at least one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.

To broaden supply further, Mr. Biden recently announced he would support waiving intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines. But activists say simply supporting the waiver is not enough; Mr. Biden must create the conditions for pharmaceutical companies to transfer their intellectual property to vaccine makers overseas, they argue. They view his efforts as piecemeal.

“We’re after 100 days into the administration, and what Biden should be delivering is a global battle plan against vaccine apartheid, and the announcement today is lines on a Post-it note,” Ms. Russell said, adding, “There must be a global strategy led by the U.S. that’s based on technology transfer, on forcing pharma to come to the table to share the recipe.”

assert that a fix is already at hand as they aggressively expand production lines and contract with counterparts around the world to yield billions of additional doses.

An open letter to the president, made public last week by a bipartisan group including business leaders, diplomats and a former defense secretary, argued that such a waiver “would make little difference and could do harm.”

While global health activists are strongly in favor of the waiver, some said they welcomed the views of the business community. They see clear parallels to their work fighting the global AIDS epidemic.

“It shows an unprecedented willingness of pharma and its allies in the private sector to admit what all of us having been saying for months — the private sector alone cannot and will not ensure global vaccine access,” James Krellenstein, a founder of PrEP4All, a nonprofit aimed at ensuring universal access to H.I.V. prevention and treatment, wrote in an email on Sunday. “It really shifts the burden to the Biden administration,” he added.

The organizer of the open letter, Hank Greenberg, the chairman of Starr Companies and former chairman of American International Group, the insurance industry giant, said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Biden’s announcement did not go far enough.

Mr. Greenberg, 96, a veteran of World War II, said he was inspired to write after a former chief executive of an A.I.G. subsidiary who later became the ambassador from the Philippines to the United States told him he was not able to get vaccinated. Like Mr. Biden, he used language that evoked the war effort.

“If we don’t do it,” he asked, “who will?”

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U.S. to Donate 20 Million Doses for Global Vaccination Effort

The United States will send at least 20 million coronavirus vaccine doses in June to countries struggling against the pandemic, answering calls that the Biden administration isn’t doing enough to help countries that face dire shortages of vaccines and other treatments.

President Biden said on Monday that those 20 million doses, of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, would be in addition to 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which the U.S. plans to donate once the vaccine is cleared for use by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not clear exactly how long it will take the F.D.A. to authorize AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

“We know America will never be fully safe until the pandemic that’s raging globally is under control,” Mr. Biden said during a news conference at the White House. “No ocean’s wide enough, no wall is high enough, to keep us safe.”

Mr. Biden’s announcement on Monday afternoon came not long after a World Health Organization news conference at which the director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that countries with high vaccination rates had to do more to help countries that were being hit hard by the coronavirus, or the entire world would be imperiled.

Britain, which have seen a decline in cases and deaths in recent weeks, relaxed restrictions as the virus battered India and other Asian countries.

Variants like B.1.617, first discovered in India and recently designated a variant of concern by the W.H.O., are contributing to the spread of infections and worry many researchers.

Dr. Tedros called for well-supplied nations to send more of their vaccine supplies and allocations to harder-hit countries, and for vaccine developers and manufacturers to hasten delivery of hundreds of millions of doses to Covax, an international initiative dedicated to equitable distribution of the vaccine, noting an appeal by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director.

Ms. Fore released a statement on Monday saying that Covax would soon complete delivering 65 million doses, but that it should have delivered at least 170 million and that the effort could be short by as much as 190 million doses by the time Group of 7 leaders gather in England in June.

convincing the remaining unvaccinated people to get the shot.

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance to allow people who have been vaccinated to forgo their masks indoors and outdoors in many situations. The decision caused confusion in states and individuals, some who were eager to return to a semblance of normalcy and others who said they planned to stay masked indefinitely.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of C.D.C., said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the agency’s suggestions were “not permission to shed masks for everybody, everywhere.”

On Monday, Dr. Tedros’s message was more straightforward.

“No one is safe until we are all safe,” he said.

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More Scientists Urge Broad Inquiry Into Coronavirus Origins

A group of 18 scientists stated Thursday in a letter published in the journal Science that there is not enough evidence to decide whether a natural origin or an accidental laboratory leak caused the Covid-19 pandemic.

They argued, as the U.S. government and other countries have, for a new investigation to explore where the virus came from.

The organizers of the letter, Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, said they strove to articulate a wait-and-see viewpoint that they believe is shared by many scientists. Many of the signers have not spoken out before.

“Most of the discussion you hear about SARS-CoV-2 origins at this point is coming from, I think, the relatively small number of people who feel very certain about their views,” Dr. Bloom said.

issued a report claiming that such a leak was extremely unlikely, even though the mission never investigated any Chinese labs. The team did visit the Wuhan lab, but did not investigate it. A lab investigation was never part of their mandate. The report, produced in a mission with Chinese scientists, drew extensive criticism from the U.S. government and others that the Chinese government had not cooperated fully and had limited the international scientists’ access to information.

The new letter argued for a new and more rigorous investigation of virus origins that would involve a broader range of experts and safeguard against conflicts of interest.

Recent letters by another group of scientists and international affairs experts argued at length for the relative likelihood of a laboratory leak. Previous statements from other scientists and the W.H.O. report both asserted that a natural origin was by far the most plausible.

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, said he signed the new letter because “the recent W.H.O. report on the origins of the virus, and its discussion, spurred several of us to get in touch with each other and talk about our shared desire for dispassionate investigation of the origins of the virus.”

“I certainly respect the opinion of others who may disagree with what we’ve said in the letter, but I felt I had no choice but to put my concerns out there,” he said.

Another signer, Sarah E. Cobey, an epidemiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, said, “I think it is more likely than not that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from an animal reservoir rather than a lab.”

But “lab accidents do happen and can have disastrous consequences,” she added. “I am concerned about the short- and long-term consequences of failing to evaluate the possibility of laboratory escape in a rigorous way. It would be a troublesome precedent.”

The list of signers includes researchers with deep knowledge of the SARS family of viruses, such as Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, who had collaborated with the Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli in research done at the university on the original SARS virus. Dr. Baric did not respond to attempts to reach him by email and telephone.

often cited paper in March 2020 that dismissed the likelihood of a laboratory origin based largely on the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. “We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” that paper stated.

Speaking for himself only, Dr. Relman said in an interview that “the piece that Kristian Anderson and four others wrote last March in my view simply fails to provide evidence to support their conclusions.”

Dr. Andersen, who reviewed the letter in Science, said that both explanations were theoretically possible. But, “the letter suggests a false equivalence between the lab escape and natural origin scenarios,” he said. “To this day, no credible evidence has been presented to support the lab leak hypothesis, which remains grounded in speculation.”

Instead, he said, available data “are consistent with a natural emergence of a novel virus from a zoonotic reservoir, as has been observed so many times in the past.” He said he supported further inquiry into the origin of the virus.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, has criticized the politicization of the laboratory leak theory.

She supports further investigation, but said that “there is more evidence (both genomic and historical precedent) that this was the result of zoonotic emergence rather than a laboratory accident.”

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Many States with Bad Recent Outbreaks Show Cases and Hospitalization Drops

Many of the states that have suffered the worst recent coronavirus outbreaks have seen notable declines both in new cases and in hospitalizations over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database.

For example, in Michigan, which has had one of the country’s steepest drops, the average number of daily cases sank 45 percent and hospitalizations tumbled 32 percent over that time period, as of Tuesday.

The average number of new cases is also down 30 percent in Minnesota, 38 percent in Pennsylvania and 33 percent in Florida in the past two weeks. In the same three states, hospitalizations are down 20 percent, 27 percent and 11 percent.

The progress for states like Michigan, which recently began to recover from one of its worst stretches in the pandemic, could indicate that vaccinations are beginning to rein in the virus in the United States. Hospitalization data can often lag behind case numbers for a number of reasons.

lower vaccination rates but did not see the same recent spike in case numbers as its northern neighbor.

“I don’t see us having a national surge. We’re not going to be like India. I do think the vaccine levels have surely helped us tremendously in taking that off the table,” Dr. Osterholm said. “But I do think at the state level, where we have substantial populations that need to be vaccinated, we could still see substantial activity.”

the pace of U.S. vaccinations had declined. Nearly all states now have a glut of vaccine doses that could be quickly redirected to adolescents once the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine has been authorized for 12- to 15-year-olds.

President Biden is pursuing a strategy focused on local outreach and expanded accessibility to the vaccine to help reach his goal of at least partly vaccinating 70 percent of Americans by Independence Day.

“If it’s available, if it’s nearby, if it’s convenient, people are getting vaccinated,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Wednesday, highlighting initiatives like walk-up availability and free Uber and Lyft rides to vaccination sites.

Making it easier to get vaccinated could appeal to the roughly 30 million Americans who say they would get the shot, but have not yet done so for myriad reasons. Local officials and private businesses are also offering a wide range of different incentives, like free subway rides, beer, baseball tickets and cash payouts, to convince more reluctant Americans to get vaccinated.

The changes in the trajectory of the virus in the United States comes as other regions of the world, especially India and Southeast Asia, are getting hit hard. A number of variants are also spreading around the world, and scientists told a U.S. congressional panel on Wednesday that variants will pose a continuing threat to the nation.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., said on Monday that the world was seeing a plateau in known cases, “but it is an unacceptably high plateau with more than 5.4 million cases and almost 90,000 deaths last week.”

He continued, “Any decline is welcome but we have been here before, over the past year many countries have experienced a declining trend in cases and deaths, have relaxed public health and social measures too quickly, and individuals have let down their guard only for those hard-won gains to be lost.”

Bryan Pietsch contributed reporting.

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India continues to shatter case records as it awaits international aid.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine, unlike those of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, has also not been granted emergency use authorization by the F.D.A. The administration would not specify which countries will receive the vaccine, and Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, cautioned at a news conference that the donations of doses would not happen right away.

Previously, the administration said on Sunday that it had removed impediments to the export of raw materials for vaccines and would also supply India with therapeutics, test kits, ventilators and personal protective gear. Britain, France and Germany have also promised to send medical equipment to India, a key producer of vaccines for lower-income countries.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, we are determined to help India in its time of need,” President Biden said on Twitter on Sunday.

Two Indian-American businessmen — the Microsoft chief executive, Satya Nadella, and the Google chief, Sundar Pichai — have both said that their companies will provide financial assistance to India.

“Devastated to see the worsening Covid crisis in India,” Mr. Pichai wrote on Twitter, pledging $18 million to aid groups working in the country.

At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, called the situation in India “beyond heartbreaking.”

“W.H.O. is doing everything we can, providing critical equipment and supplies, including thousands of oxygen concentrators, prefabricated mobile field hospitals and laboratory supplies,” Dr. Tedros said, adding that the organization has deployed 2,600 staff to India to provide surveillance and vaccination help.

Linda Qiu contributed reporting.

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Blinken Calls for More Thorough Investigation of Covid Origins in China

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Sunday criticized the Chinese government for a lack of transparency during the pandemic, particularly during “the early stages of Covid,” and he called for a more thorough investigation of the origins of the coronavirus.

A report of a joint inquiry by the World Health Organization and China published last month did not conclusively establish how or when the virus began spreading, and did little to allay Western concerns that the Chinese Communist Party bent the investigation to its advantage. Mr. Blinken, echoing those concerns, called on Beijing to make “a real commitment to transparency, to information sharing, to access for experts.”

“I think China knows that in the early stages of Covid, it didn’t do what it needed to do,” Mr. Blinken said in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “One result of that failure is that the virus got out of hand faster and with, I think, much more egregious results than it might otherwise.”

Mr. Blinken urged more investigation.

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” he said of the virus’ origins. “We need to do that precisely so we fully understand what happened, in order to have the best shot possible preventing it from happening again.”

sought to blame China for the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S., often fanning the flames of xenophobia in their public campaign to shirk responsibility for a poor response to the pandemic. Mr. Blinken’s comments, however, illustrated the Biden administration’s willingness to convey skepticism of the official narrative coming from Beijing.

Mr. Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, had asserted with little evidence months into the pandemic the notion that the coronavirus originated in a research laboratory in Wuhan, China. He had pressed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support the unsubstantiated theory, but most agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found.

Days before the W.H.O. released their report, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Trump administration also speculated that the virus originated in a lab in China. The former official, Dr. Robert Redfield, offered no evidence and emphasized that it was his opinion.

The international W.H.O. team of experts who investigated the origins of the virus in China dismissed the lab theory in their report as “extremely unlikely.” But Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, 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.

The Chinese foreign ministry and state media rejected criticism from the White House and others that Beijing had not been transparent during the W.H.O. inquiry.

said in a statement last month. “To politicize this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins, jeopardize anti-pandemic cooperation, and cost more lives.”

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