WHO and other experts say no evidence of COVID-19 losing potency

LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) – World Health Organization experts and a range of other scientists said on Monday there was no evidence to support an assertion by a high profile Italian doctor that the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic has been losing potency.

Professor Alberto Zangrillo, head of intensive care at Italy’s San Raffaele Hospital in Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy’s COVID-19 epidemic, on Sunday told state television that the new coronavirus “clinically no longer exists”.

But WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, as well as several other experts on viruses and infectious diseases, said Zangrillo’s comments were not supported by scientific evidence.

There is no data to show the new coronavirus is changing significantly, either in its form of transmission or in the severity of the disease it causes, they said.

“In terms of transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of severity, that has not changed,” Van Kerkhove told reporters.

It is not unusual for viruses to mutate and adapt as they spread, and the debate on Monday highlights how scientists are monitoring and tracking the new virus. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed more than 370,000 people and infected more than 6 million.

Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said major studies looking at genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 did not support the idea that it was becoming less potent, or weakening in any way.

“With data from more than 35,000 whole virus genomes, there is currently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severity,” he said in an emailed comment.

Zangrillo, well known in Italy as the personal doctor of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said his comments were backed up by a study conducted by a fellow scientist, Massimo Clementi, which Zangrillo said would be published next week.

Zangrillo told Reuters: “We have never said that the virus has changed, we said that the interaction between the virus and the host has definitely changed.”

He said this could be due either to different characteristics of the virus, which he said they had not yet identified, or different characteristics in those infected.

The study by Clementi, who is director of the microbiology and virology laboratory of San Raffaele, compared virus samples from COVID-19 patients at the Milan-based hospital in March with samples from patients with the disease in May.

“The result was unambiguous: an extremely significant difference between the viral load of patients admitted in March compared to” those admitted last month, Zangrillo said.

Oscar MacLean, an expert at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, said suggestions that the virus was weakening were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds.”

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WHO has worked 'day and night' on pandemic, funding lags: Tedros tells board

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) has worked non-stop since the novel coronavirus emerged, informing its 194 member states of its evolution and providing technical advice, its director-general said on Friday.

“WHO has worked day and night to coordinate the global response at all three levels of the organisation, providing technical advice, catalysing political solidarity, mobilising resources, coordinating resources and much more,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the WHO Executive Board.

“So far almost $800 million has been pledged or received towards WHO’s appeal for COVID-19 programmes, leaving a gap of just over $900 million,” Tedros told the 34-member board holding a virtual three-hour session.

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Republican senators ask U.N. chief for independent WHO review panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leading Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Friday asked the United Nations to conduct an independent review of the World Health Organization response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying the body appeared to have shown “remarkable deference” to China.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the senators – led by Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – said the panel should be set up immediately and “include an interim assessment of the WHO’s performance to date” and recommendations for reforms.

Signatories included Senators Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Cory Gardner, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, John Barrasso, Rob Portman, Rand Paul, Todd Young, Ted Cruz and David Perdue.

While implicitly critical of the WHO, the senators’ letter took a less confrontational line than President Donald Trump, who last week halted funding while Washington reviewed the WHO response. Trump accused the WHO of promoting China’s “disinformation,” saying it likely led to a wider outbreak.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week the WHO’s handling of the pandemic showed the need to overhaul WHO and warned that Washington may never restore WHO funding and could even work to set up an alternative to the U.N. body.

“The WHO appears to have shown remarkable deference to the Chinese government throughout this pandemic,” the Republican senators wrote. “Restoring confidence in the WHO … will require greater transparency, accountability, and reform.”

When asked about the letter, a U.N. spokesman referred to an April 8 statement by Guterres when he said it will be essential to learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic so similar challenges can be effectively addressed in the future.

“But now is not that time,” Guterres said.

The new coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has so far infected some 2.7 million globally and 191,470 people have died, according to a Reuters tally.

The Republican letter cited a 2015 interim assessment panel, which reviewed the WHO response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Those independent experts were appointed by the WHO director-general at the request of the WHO executive board: 34 members qualified in health and elected for three years.

While the Geneva-based WHO is part of the U.N. family, referred to as a U.N. specialized agency, it is an independent international organization with its own funding and decision-making body: the 194-member World Health Assembly.

Australia said on Thursday it would push for an international investigation into the coronavirus outbreak at next month’s annual meeting of the assembly.

World leaders pledged on Friday to accelerate work on tests, drugs and vaccines against COVID-19, but the United States did not take part in the launch of the WHO initiative.

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WHO says it hopes U.S. will reconsider funding, but focus is on ending pandemic

GENEVA (Reuters) – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that he hoped the Trump administration would reconsider its suspension of funding, but that his main focus was on ending the pandemic and saving lives.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a Geneva news conference: “I hope the freezing of the funding will be reconsidered and the U.S. will once again support WHO’s work and continue to save lives.”

“I hope the U.S. believes that this an important imvestment, not just to help others but for the U.S. to stay safe also,” Tedros said.

Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, said that it was important to understand the animal origins of the new coronavirus which jumped the species barrier to humans in China late last year, adding: “It can be breached again”.

The WHO stands ready to work with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to conduct an investigation into the animal origin, and has offered assistance to China’s government, Ryan said.

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The ‘king of oud’ who was felled by coronavirus

Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, a founding father of modern Somali music, died in London after contracting coronavirus at the age of 91. The BBC’s Mary Harper was a friend of his.

Whenever Hudeidi played his oud, it was impossible to keep still.

Bodies swayed, hands clapped and fingers snapped. His music was transporting and somehow possessed your whole being.

But there was even more to Hudeidi, or the “king of oud” as he was popularly known, than his sublime music.

He was a life force; warm, generous, humble and funny.

Bus driver as student

From the moment I met him, I felt I was part of his family.

I was not the only one. He welcomed everybody to his London home, preparing strong Yemeni coffee and offering a bed to anyone who needed it.

It was an informal music school, with people coming from all over the world to learn from the maestro.

One student was a Somali woman in her 60s who had never before been allowed to learn music. Another was a bus driver.

Hudeidi was born in the Somali port city of Berbera in 1928. He grew up across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen and was attracted to music from a young age.

“Whenever I saw the police band playing drums, I would run after them, imagining I was beating those instruments. I would get carried away, losing the sense of time, until a member of the family would find me and take me home,” he once said.

When Hudeidi was 14 years old, his father took him to a party in Aden. An oud was being played and Hudeidi fell in love.

He described his affection for the rounded wooden instrument as an illness; whenever he saw one, he just had to pick it up and play.

Stringed instrumentoften described as similar to the European lute

Its historystretches back thousands of years

Centralto a lot of Arab music

Made of woodtypically with 11 strings, five are paired together

It was around this time that Hudeidi met the legendary Somali composer and oud player, Abdullahi Qarshe.

“One day I began to touch and caress his oud. Qarshe noticed this immediately and asked me what kind of things my father bought me to take to school.

“I said: ‘Books and pencils’. Qarshe said that was fine but that he should also buy me a basic oud.”

‘Devil’s work’

Hudeidi learned quickly and shone as a player, winning prizes at carnivals and making a name for himself. He moved back to Somaliland, then on to Djibouti where he was booted out by the French colonisers for singing political songs.

He went back home, where he also got in trouble with the authorities. At one time they tried to ban his music, describing it as the “devil’s work”.

The musician once wrote a letter to the head of the National Security Service asking: “Where is that large vessel brimming with fresh milk and the lush grass they had promised?”

He said this angered the man, who “sent a stern word to me to the effect that if I did not stop such mischief, they would see to it that my high reputation among Somalis would be ruined”.

His popularity made other performers jealous. He described how some envious musicians poured ghee into his oud, which led him to compose the verse:

If I am not precious to you, Oh Ms Nothing

And your succour is no more, I, too, have given up on you

Hudeidi eventually settled in London but travelled all over the world, delighting people with his musical mastery. Age was no issue. He was still playing concerts in his 90s.

End of Youtube post by Aar Maanta

Despite his exalted status, the ‘king of oud’ never liked making a fuss.

I remember a prize-giving ceremony in London where he was being presented with a lifetime achievement award. It was a black-tie event and Hudeidi’s niece brought a bow tie for him to wear, but he was having none of it.

In the end, we had an amusing tussle with him as we tried to persuade him to wear it, at least for going up to the podium.

He also had a cross-generational appeal.

‘The best father’

I went to one of his concerts in the basement of a small bookshop in London.

Somehow, the famous young Somali musician Aar Maanta got wind he was playing there. He rushed from home with his oud, ran down the stairs to the crowded room, grabbed a chair and started playing with Hudeidi, both men grinning and laughing as they worked their magic.

Sultan Ali Shire is Hudeidi’s official biographer. He was also a long-time student of his and describes Hudeidi as “the man who sowed the seeds of Somali music as it is today and the best father anyone could have”.

Another of his students – and one who sometimes played in public with him – is author Nadifa Mohamed, who was like a daughter to Hudeidi.

“He was everything to me,” she says. “He started off as a teacher of music, but taught me history, culture and language too. Music poured out of him; even in his kitchen he would start drumming his fingers on the worktops.”

‘High-octane performances’

Hudeidi said it was not always possible to separate music from politics, especially during times of hardship, like the dictatorship of long-serving former President Siad Barre, or the long years of conflict, drought and other difficulties.

“He was a patriot with grounded civic principles,” says the US-based Somali professor Ahmed Samatar. “An artistic pioneer with bottomless stamina. He gave us over 70 years of high-octane performances.”

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Mohamed says Hudeidi was “always a rebel, supporting people’s right to be individuals”.

This spirit did not sit well with everybody, including his parents, who were never happy with his musical career, right from the time he was a child.

“We were at war with each other,” said Hudeidi. “Kick and punch became the medium of our encounters. It was as if their boy had decided to destroy his life before it even bloomed.”

Many of Hudeidi’s songs have become part of Somalis’ DNA, no matter where they come from, no matter which clan they belong to.

His favourite song was one he wrote for his brother, Uur Hooyo or Mother’s Womb:

You, the abundant light

That my eyes graze on

Do not take me lightly

You who shared

My mother’s womb

He saw music and his teaching as a way of trying to maintain cultural continuity despite the divisions caused by 30 years of conflict.

“The hearts of Somali musicians are heavy with sorrow that comes from our broken common history and thus the loss of our rich cultural heritage,” he said.

He also saw music as a way of making sense of things.

“The artistic imagination not only sharpens our view of the world. It also presents us with ways of understanding, speaking about, dreaming about and conducting our lives.”

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