GENEVA — The World Health Organization said Monday an advance team looking into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak has concluded its mission in China, and the United Nations health agency is preparing the deployment of a larger group of specialists to the suspected outbreak zone.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the “international team” will deploy to Wuhan, the city where the pandemic is believed to have erupted late last year. Tedros said “terms of reference” have been drawn up by the WHO and China, but he did not specify.
He said “evidence and hypothesis” generated from the work would “lay the ground for further, longer-term studies.”
The comments came amid an increasingly heavy toll from the pandemic in the United States, Brazil, and India, as investigators seek to clarify the origins of the virus and how it may have jumped from animals to humans late last year.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, noted “gaps in the epidemiological landscape” and said it would be assessed what studies to conduct and what data to collect. He said the two-person advance team had not returned from China, and had not been “debriefed” yet.
“The real trick is to go to the human clusters that occurred first and then to work your way back systematically looking for that first signal at which the animal human species barrier was crossed,” Ryan said. “Once you understand where that the barrier was breached, then you move into the studies in a more systematic way on the animal side.”
The WHO press office, contacted by the Associated Press after the news conference, did not provide details of the terms of reference, say whether they would be made public, or indicate how big the international team would be or when it could be sent to China.
Tests show 2.5% of Italians had virus, more in north
ROME — Antibody testing in Italy indicates that nearly 1.5 million people, or about 2.5 percent of the population, have had the coronavirus. But officials said Monday that huge geographic variations in the results confirmed a nationwide lockdown was “absolutely crucial” to preventing the country’s south from getting slammed as badly as its north.
The Health Ministry and the national statistics agency based their assessment on tests performed May 25-July 15 on a sample of nearly 65,000 Italians selected for their location, age, and type of work. The government carried out the testing to understand how widely the virus circulated in the first country in the West to be overwhelmed by COVID-19, given that the bulk of confirmed cases and deaths occurred in northern Italy.
The sampling indicated that 1.482 million Italians nationwide had come into contact with the virus and developed an immunological response to it, six times more than Italy’s reported number of confirmed cases, said Linda Laura Sabbadini, a director at the Italian National Institute of Statistics.
But there were significant geographic disparities: An estimated 7.5 percent of the Lombardy region’s residents had virus antibodies versus 1.9 percent in neighboring Veneto.
The variations were even more stark when compared with southern Italy: Only 0.3 percent of residents in Sicily came into contact with the virus, and less than 1 percent of residents had antibodies in six other southern regions.
Dr. Franco Locatelli, a key government adviser on the pandemic, said the geographic variability in the results showed that Italy’s three-month nationwide lockdown was “absolutely crucial to sparing central and southern Italy from the same epidemiological wave that hit the north.”
London lockdown possible under UK containment plans
The UK’s plans to block further spikes in coronavirus allow for ministers to lock down London, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said, as officials prepare for the resurgence of coronavirus in the months ahead.
The so-called Contain Strategy, unveiled last month, ‘‘does set out the possibility of a power to restrict people’s movement and potentially close down local transport networks,’’ spokesman James Slack told reporters on Monday when asked whether the government had war-gamed sealing off the capital.
His remarks followed a report in the Sunday Times newspaper that ministers could curb travel in and out of the M25 highway encircling London and ban overnight stays in the city if there’s a surge in cases.
The strategy says ministers can use public health laws passed in 1984 to close businesses and venues, impose restrictions on the movement of people, prevent overnight stays away from home, limit the size of gatherings, and shut down local and national transport systems.
Philippine capital returning to lockdown as virus surges
MANILA — The Philippine president has agreed to place the capital and outlying provinces back under a lockdown after medical groups warned that the country was waging “a losing battle” against the coronavirus amid an alarming surge in infections.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Monday that metropolitan Manila, the capital region of more than 12 million people, and five densely populated provinces will revert to stricter quarantine restrictions for two weeks starting Tuesday.
The move, which economic officials oppose, will again prohibit nonessential travel outside of homes.
President Rodrigo Duterte had relaxed the country’s lockdown on June 1 in an effort to restart the stalled economy.
Outbreak hits Norway cruise ship, could spread at coast
COPENHAGEN — A Norwegian cruise ship line halted all trips and apologized Monday for procedural errors after a coronavirus outbreak on one ship infected at least 5 passengers and 36 crew members. Health authorities fear the ship also could have spread the virus to dozens of towns and villages along Norway’s western coast.
The confirmed virus cases from the MS Roald Amundsen raise new questions about safety on all cruise ships during a pandemic even as the devastated cruise ship industry is pressing to resume sailings after chaotically shutting down in March.
The Hurtigruten cruise line was one of the first companies to resume sailing during the pandemic, starting cruises to Norway out of northern Germany in June with a single ship, then adding cruises in July to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.
The 41 people on the MS Roald Amundsen who tested positive have been admitted to the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsoe, north of the Arctic Circle, where the ship currently is docked. The cruise line said it suspended the ship and two others from operating for an indefinite period.
First students resume class in Germany after shutdown
BERLIN — Children returned to school Monday in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the first in the country to start the new school year following nationwide shutdowns at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek has advocated mask requirements inside school buildings. But the school system is largely a matter for the 16 state governments in Germany, and as the state’s 152,700 pupils returned to class in cities like Rostock and Schwerin, regional officials had not yet implemented such a rule.
The sparsely populated state has been Germany’s least-affected by the pandemic, with 877 positive tests for COVID-19 and 20 virus-related deaths among its 1.6 million residents.
In Hamburg, where students return on Thursday, and Berlin, where they return next week, state governments have ordered masks be worn. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s education minister, Bettina Martin, has said she was working on a proposal to require them as well.
Mexico’s school year to begin with instruction on TV
MEXICO CITY — Distance learning will begin for more than 30 million Mexican school children Aug. 24, but a return to classrooms will remain an uncertain goal, the country’s education secretary said Monday.
Secretary Esteban Moctezuma Barragán and executives from the country’s largest television networks presented in broad strokes a plan to put educational instruction on television.
Moctezuma said that risks to in-person education continue to be too high. Officials fear children could become coronavirus carriers, infecting relatives at home.
Mexico has reported more than 430,000 COVID-19 infections and nearly 48,000 deaths.