Topic: COVID-19

Let’s developments about the 2019-nCoV coronavirus.

China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins

MOJIANG, China (AP) — Deep in the lush mountain valleys of southern China lies the entrance to a mine shaft that once harbored bats with the closest known relative of the COVID-19 virus. The area is of intense scientific interest because it may hold clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide. Yet for scientists and journalists, it has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity and secrecy.A bat research team visiting recently managed to take samples but had them confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered not to speak to the press. And a team of Associated Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to roads and sites in late November. More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government is strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China. The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military, the AP has found. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by The AP. A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.As a result, very little has been made public. Authorities are severely limiting information and impeding cooperation with international scientists.“What did they find?” asked Gregory Gray, a Duke University epidemiologist who oversees a lab in China studying the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to people. “Maybe their data were not conclusive, or maybe they suppressed the data for some political reason. I don’t know…I wish I did.”The AP investigation was based on dozens of interviews with Chinese and foreign scientists and officials, along with public notices, leaked emails, internal data and the documents from China’s cabinet and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic. As the AP previously documented, this culture has delayed warnings about the pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with the World Health Organization and hampered early testing. Scientists familiar with China’s public health system say the same practices apply to sensitive research.“They only select people they can trust, those that they can control,” said a public health expert who works regularly with the China CDC, declining to be identified out of fear of retribution. “Military teams and others are working hard on this, but whether it gets published all depends on the outcome.”The pandemic has crippled Beijing’s reputation on the global stage, and China’s leaders are wary of any findings that could suggest they were negligent in its spread. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Health Commission, which are managing research into the coronavirus’ origins, did not respond to requests for comment.“The novel coronavirus has been discovered in many parts of the world,” China’s foreign ministry said in a fax. “Scientists should carry out international scientific research and cooperation on a global scale.”Some Chinese scientists say little has been shared simply because nothing of significance has been discovered.“We’ve been looking, but we haven’t found it,” said Zhang Yongzhen, a renowned Chinese virologist.China’s leaders are far from alone in politicizing research into the origins of the virus. In April, President Donald Trump shelved a U.S.-funded project to identify dangerous animal diseases in China and Southeast Asia, effectively severing ties between Chinese and American scientists and complicating the search for virus origins. Trump also has accused China of setting off the pandemic through an accident at a Wuhan lab — a theory that some experts say cannot be ruled out but as yet has no evidence behind it. Research into COVID-19’s origins is critical to the prevention of future pandemics. Although a World Health Organization international team plans to visit China in early January to investigate what started the pandemic, its members and agenda had to be approved by China. Some public health experts warn that China’s refusal to grant further access to international scientists has jeopardized the global collaboration that pinpointed the source of the SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago. Jonna Mazet, a founding executive director of the UC Davis One Health Institute, said the lack of collaboration between Chinese and U.S. scientists was “a disappointment” and the inability of American scientists to work in China “devastating.” “There’s so much speculation around the origins of this virus,” Mazet said. “We need to step back...and let scientists get the real answer without the finger-pointing.”_______The hidden hunt for the origins of COVID-19 shows how the Chinese government has tried to steer the narrative.The search started in the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan, a sprawling, low-slung complex where many of the first human coronavirus cases were detected. Scientists initially suspected the virus came from wild animals sold in the market, such as civet cats implicated in the spread of SARS.In mid-December last year, Huanan vendor Jiang Dafa started noticing people were falling ill. Among the first was a part-time worker in his 60s who helped clean carcasses at a stall; soon, a friend he played chess with also fell ill. A third, a seafood monger in his 40s, was infected and later died.Patients began trickling into nearby hospitals, triggering alarms by late December that alerted the China CDC. CDC chief Gao Fu immediately sent a team to investigate.At first, research appeared to be moving swiftly. Overnight on Jan. 1, the market suddenly was ordered shut, barring vendors from fetching their belongings, Jiang said. China CDC researchers collected 585 environmental samples from door handles, sewage and the floor of the market, and authorities sprayed the complex down with sanitizer. Later, they would cart out everything inside and incinerate it.Internal China CDC data obtained by the AP shows that by Jan. 10 and 11, researchers were sequencing dozens of environmental samples from Wuhan. Gary Kobinger, a Canadian microbiologist advising WHO, emailed his colleagues to share his concerns that the virus originated at the market.“This corona(virus) is very close to SARS,” he wrote on Jan. 13. “If we put aside an accident...then I would look at the bats in these markets (sold and ‘wild’).”By late January, Chinese state media announced that 33 of the environmental samples had tested positive. In a report to WHO, officials said 11 specimens were more than 99% similar to the new coronavirus. They also told the U.N. health agency that rats and mice were common in the market, and that most of the positive samples were clustered in an area where vendors traded in wildlife. In the meantime, Jiang avoided telling people he worked at Huanan because of the stigma. He criticized the political tussle between China and the U.S.“It’s pointless to blame anyone for this disease,” Jiang said.As the virus continued spreading rapidly into February, Chinese scientists published a burst of research papers on COVID-19. Then a paper by two Chinese scientists proposed without concrete evidence that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory near the market. It was later taken down, but it raised the need for image control.Internal documents show that the state soon began requiring all coronavirus studies in China to be approved by high-level government officials — a policy that critics say paralyzed research efforts. A notice from a China CDC lab on February 24 put in new approval processes for publication under “important instructions” from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Other notices ordered CDC staff not to share any data, specimens or other information related to the coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals. Then on March 2, Xi emphasized “coordination” on coronavirus research, state media reported.The next day, China’s cabinet, the State Council, centralized all COVID-19 publication under a special task force. The notice, obtained by the AP and marked “not to be made public,” was far more sweeping in scope than the earlier CDC notices, applying to all universities, companies and medical and research institutions. The order said communication and publication of research had to be orchestrated like "a game of chess” under instructions from Xi, and propaganda and public opinion teams were to “guide publication.” It went on to warn that those who publish without permission, “causing serious adverse social impact, shall be held accountable.”“The regulations are very strict, and they don’t make any sense,” said a former China CDC deputy director, who declined to be named because they were told not to speak to the media. “I think it’s political, because people overseas could find things being said there that might contradict what China says, so it’s all being controlled.”After the secret orders, the tide of research papers slowed to a trickle. Although China CDC researcher Liu Jun returned to the market nearly 20 times to collect some 2,000 samples over the following months, nothing was released about what they revealed. On May 25, CDC chief Gao finally broke the silence around the market in an interview with China’s Phoenix TV. He said that, unlike the environmental samples, no animal samples from the market had tested positive.The announcement surprised scientists who didn’t even know Chinese officials had taken samples from animals. It also ruled out the market as the likely source of the virus, along with further research that showed many of the first cases had no ties to it.__________With the market proving a dead end, scientists turned more attention to hunting for the virus at its likely source: Bats.Nearly a thousand miles away from the wet market in Wuhan, bats inhabit the maze of underground limestone caves in Yunnan province. With its rich, loamy soil, fog banks and dense plant growth, this area in southern China bordering Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar is one of the most biologically diverse on earth.At one Yunnan cave visited by the AP, with thick roots hanging over the entrance, bats fluttered out at dusk and flew over the roofs of a nearby small village. White droppings splattered the ground near an altar in the rear of the cave, and Buddhist prayer strings of red and yellow twine hung from the stalactites. Villagers said the cave had been used as a sacred place presided over by a Buddhist monk from Thailand. Contact like this between bats and people praying, hunting or mining in caves alarms scientists. The coronavirus’ genetic code is strikingly similar to that of bat coronaviruses, and most scientists suspect COVID-19 jumped into humans either directly from a bat or via an intermediary animal. Since bats harboring coronaviruses are found in China and throughout Southeast Asia, the wild animal host of COVID-19 could be anywhere in the region, said Linfa Wang at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “There is a bat somewhere with a 99.9% similar virus to the coronavirus,” Wang said. “Bats don’t respect these borders.COVID-19 research is proceeding in countries such as Thailand, where Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, a coronavirus expert, is leading teams of scientists deep into the countryside to collect samples from bats. During one expedition in August, Supaporn told the AP the virus could be found “anywhere” there were bats.Chinese scientists quickly started testing potential animal hosts. Records show that Xia Xueshan, an infectious diseases expert, received a 1.4 million RMB ($214,000) grant to screen animals in Yunnan for COVID-19. State media reported in February that his team collected hundreds of samples from bats, snakes, bamboo rats and other animals, and ran a picture of masked scientists in white lab coats huddled around a large, caged porcupine.Then the government restrictions kicked in. Data on the samples still has not been made public, and Xia did not respond to requests for an interview. Although Xia has co-authored more than a dozen papers this year, an AP review shows, onlytwo were on COVID-19, and neither focused on its origins. Today, the caves that scientists once surveyed are under close watch by the authorities. Security agents tailed the AP team in three locations across Yunnan, and stopped journalists from visiting the cave where researchers in 2017 identified the species of bats responsible for SARS. At an entrance to a second location, a massive cave teeming with tourists taking selfies, authorities shut the gate on the AP.“We just got a call from the county,” said a park official, before an armed policeman showed up. Particularly sensitive is the mine shaft where the closest relative of the COVID-19 virus — called “RaTG13” — was found. RaTG13 was discovered after an outbreak in 2012, when six men cleaning the bat-filled shaft fell ill with mysterious bouts of pneumonia, killing three. The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the China CDC both studied bat coronaviruses from this shaft. And although most scientists believe the COVID-19 virus had its origins in nature, some say it or a close relative could have been transported to Wuhan and leaked by mistake.Wuhan Institute of Virology bat expert Shi Zhengli has repeatedly denied this theory, but Chinese authorities haven’t yet allowed foreign scientists in to investigate. Some state-backed scientists say research is proceeding as usual. Famed virologist Zhang, who received a 1.5 million RMB ($230,000) grant to search for the virus’ origins, said partnering scientists are sending him samples from all over, including from bats in Guizhou in southern China and rats in Henan hundreds of miles north.“Bats, mice, are there any new coronaviruses in them? Do they have this particular coronavirus?” Zhang said. “We’ve been doing this work for over a decade. It’s not like we just started today.”Zhang declined to confirm or comment on reports that his lab was briefly closed after publishing the virus’ genetic sequence ahead of authorities. He said he hasn’t heard of any special restrictions on publishing papers, and the only review his papers go through is a routine scientific one by his institution. But scientists without state backing complain that getting approval to sample animals in southern China is now extremely difficult, and that little is known about the findings of government-sponsored teams._______Even as they controlled research within China, Chinese authorities promoted theories that suggested the virus came from elsewhere.The government gave Bi Yuhai, the Chinese Academy of Sciences scientist tapped to spearhead origins research, a 1.5 million RMB grant ($230,000), records show. A paper co-authored by Bi suggested an outbreak in a Beijing market in June could have been caused by packages of contaminated frozen fish from Europe.China’s government-controlled media used the theory to suggest the original outbreak in Wuhan could have started with seafood imported from abroad — a notion international scientists reject. WHO has said it is very unlikely that people can be infected with COVID-19 via packaged food, and that it is “highly speculative” to suggest COVID-19 did not start in China. Bi did not respond to requests for an interview, and China has not provided enough virus samples for a definitive analysis.The Chinese state press also has widely covered initial studies from Europe suggesting COVID-19 was found in wastewater samples in Italy and Spain last year. But scientists have largely dismissed these studies, and the researchers themselves acknowledged they did not find enough virus fragments to determine conclusively if it was the coronavirus. And in the last few weeks, Chinese state media has taken out of context research from a German scientist, interpreting it to suggest that the pandemic began in Italy. The scientist, Alexander Kekule, director of the Institute for Biosecurity Research, has said repeatedly that he believes the virus first emerged in China.Internal documents show the Chinese government also has sponsored studies on the possible role of the Southeast Asian pangolin, a scaly anteater once prized in traditional Chinese medicine, as an intermediary animal host. Within the span of three days in February, Chinese scientists put out fourseparatepaperson coronaviruses related to COVID-19 in trafficked Malayan pangolins from Southeast Asia seized by customs officials in Guangdong.But many experts now say the theory is unlikely. Wang of the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore said the search for the coronavirus in pangolins did not appear to be “scientifically driven.” He said blood samples would be the most conclusive evidence of COVID-19’s presence in the rare mammals, and so far, no incriminating matches have been found. WHO has said more than 500 species of other animals, including cats, ferrets and hamsters, are being studied as possible intermediary hosts for COVID-19. The Chinese government is also limiting and controlling the search for patient zero through the re-testing of old flu samples. Chinese hospitals collect thousands of samples from patients with flu-like symptoms every week and store them in freezers. They could easily be tested again for COVID-19, although politics could then determine whether the results are made public, said Ray Yip, the founding director of the U.S. CDC office in China. “They’d be crazy not to do it,” Yip said. “The political leadership will wait for that information to see, does this information make China look stupid or not?...If it makes China look stupid, they won’t.”In the U.S., CDC officials long ago tested roughly 11,000 early samples collected under the flu surveillance program since Jan. 1. And in Italy, researchers recently found a boy who had fallen ill in November 2019 and later tested positive for the coronavirus.But in China, scientists have only published retrospective testing data from two Wuhan flu surveillance hospitals — out of at least 18 in Hubei province alone and well over 500 across the country. The data includes just 520 samples out of the 330,000 collected in China last year.These enormous gaps in the research aren’t due just to a lack of testing but also to a lack of transparency. Internal data obtained by the AP shows that by Feb. 6, the Hubei CDC had tested over 100 samples in Huanggang, a city southeast of Wuhan. But the results have not been made public.The little information that has dribbled out suggests the virus was circulating well outside Wuhan in 2019 — a finding that could raise awkward questions for Chinese officials about their early handling of the outbreak. Chinese researchers found that a child hundreds of miles from Wuhan had fallen ill with the virus by Jan. 2, suggesting it was spreading widely in December. But earlier samples weren’t tested, according to a scientist with direct knowledge of the study.“There was a very deliberate choice of the time period to study, because going too early could have been too sensitive,” said the scientist, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution.A WHO report written in July but published in November said Chinese authorities had identified 124 cases in December 2019, including five cases outside Wuhan. Among WHO’s aims for its upcoming visit to China are reviews of hospital records before December.Coronavirus expert Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, said identifying the pandemic’s source should not be used to assign guilt.“We’re all part of this together,” he said. “And until we realize that, we’re never going to get rid of this problem.”_______Kang reported from Beijing and Cheng reported from London. Associated Press journalists Han Guan Ng and Emily Wang in Wuhan, China, Haven Daley in Stinson Beach, California, and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, contributed to this report.Follow Dake Kang, Sam McNeil and Maria Cheng on Twitter at @dakekang, @stmcneil and @mylcheng.Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected]

Tribes try to shield elders and their knowledge from virus

As Monica Harvey watched, crowds flocked to a Sam's Club in northern Arizona where she works, picking shelves clean of toilet paper and canned goods. Native American seniors couldn't move fast enough, and Harvey saw their faces fall when they reached empty shelves.The Navajo woman wanted to help tribal elders get household staples without leaving their homes and risking exposure to COVID-19, so she started Defend Our Community, a group that delivers supplies.Tribes across the nation are working to protect elder members who serve as honored links to customs passed from one generation to the next. The efforts to deliver protective gear, meals and vaccines are about more than saving lives. Tribal elders often possess unique knowledge of language and history that is all the more valuable because tribes commonly pass down their traditions orally. That means losing elders to the virus could wipe out irreplaceable pieces of culture.“When you lose an elder, you lose a part of yourself,” said Harvey, who lives in Leupp, Arizona, east of Flagstaff. “You lose a connection to history, our stories, our culture, our traditions."Harvey remembers her own grandfather explaining the stories behind Navajo songs and teaching her Navajo words from the songs. She often listened to her grandparents speaking Navajo while she practiced the words under her breath.In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has increased food distributions to elders and offered financial aid to those who were struggling to pay rent or utilities. Concern for elders is also apparent in the tribe's COVID-19 vaccine-distribution plans. Participants and workers in the tribe's elder program are first in line for the shots, along with hospital workers and first responders. Next are those whose first language is Cherokee and others considered “tribal treasures," an honor given to members who keep Cherokee art, language and other culture alive through their work.An effort among the Blackfeet in Montana is helping the tribe's 600-plus members connect with elders who need support. Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot Nation is providing its citizens with masks and telemedicine, delivering meals to their doors and organizing home visits to give flu vaccines.“Elders are like libraries. Losing one is like a library burning down,” said Loren Racine, creator of a Facebook page offering help in the Blackfeet community.Roy Boney Jr., who manages a Cherokee language program, said the vast majority of Cherokee speakers are elders. They make up a small pool of people the program relies on to teach the language he calls the “beating heart” of Cherokee identity.“For decades our language has been taken from us through forced assimilation,” Boney said. “Elders hold our history and culture but also our language. ... Our elders are precious.”Almost half of the Cherokee who received care from the tribe’s health services but died from the coronavirus were fluent Cherokee speakers. Losing even a handful of speakers can be devastating for language preservation and other cultural practices, Boney said.“With them goes so much information in terms of language knowledge, dialect, specialized knowledge of medicine and traditional practices,” he said. “All these things we’re trying to revitalize and save, they’re the heart of all of it."Mashantucket Pequot elders shifted to a virtual format for the intergenerational gatherings where they tell traditional stories. An elders council also helps to organize Pequot language bingo nights and Schemitzun, the annual Festival of the Green Corn.“When we heard how COVID-19 was spreading, we were immediately concerned for our elders and how losing them would affect the tribe, so we immediately started working to protect them,” said the tribe's chief medical officer, Setu Vora.The tribe has no known COVID-19 deaths.Pequot elders play an important role in the effort to revive the tribe's language, which is no longer widely spoken. Elders still remember relatives who spoke the language and can verify the definitions and context of certain words. A handful of the tribe’s 2,000 members are becoming somewhat proficient in Pequot as they research and reclaim new words, Vora said.Karen Ketcher was among 28 Cherokee Nation elders who have died from the coronavirus. She was weeks shy of her 71st birthday and had decades of experience working for the tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her knowledge was unmatched and invaluable, said her granddaughter, Taryn King.“There’s so much at stake when this virus hits our communities,” said King, 31, of Silwell, Oklahoma. She described elders as “the glue that holds our communities together.”At work, Ketcher was affectionately called “Granny.” She was the go-to person for questions about Cherokee policies, tribal governance and how to apply for grants. She also was the first stop for snacks, help mending holes in sweaters or questions about community relations.One co-worker, Kamisha Hair, went into Ketcher's office shortly before the tribe temporarily closed it in March because of the pandemic. She assured Ketcher things would be OK and implored her to pray.The two hugged and said they loved each other. Ketcher died in April.Relatives held a small outdoor service for her. When they returned to town, other Cherokees had lined the streets to pay their respects.“Losing an elder like Granny is like losing a piece of your identity,” Hair said. “It dies with them, and you can never get it back.”___Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed. Fernando and Fonseca are members of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow Fernando on Twitter at Follow Fonseca at

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Surging virus, plummeting temperatures challenge shelters

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After three years on the streets, Tiecha Vannoy and her boyfriend Chris Foss plan to weather the pandemic this winter in a small white “pod” with electricity, heat and enough room for two.Portland this month assembled neat rows of the shelters, which resemble garden sheds, in three ad-hoc “villages” — part of an unprecedented effort unfolding in cold-weather cities nationwide to keep people without permanent homes safe as temperatures drop and coronavirus cases surge.“We just get to stay in our little place. We don’t have to leave here unless we want to,” said Vannoy, wiping away tears as they moved into the shelter near a downtown train station. "It’s been a long time coming. He always tells me to have faith, but I was just over it.”The pandemic has caught homeless service providers in a crosscurrent: demand is high but their ability to provide services is constricted. Shelter operators who already cut capacity to meet social distance requirements face new stresses with winter looming. Coming in from the cold can now mean spending a night in a warehouse, an old Greyhound bus station, schools or an old jail. And people experiencing homelessness face difficult choices. Many are hesitant to enter the reduced number of spaces available to escape the cold for fear of catching the virus.“Those (are) folks who would under normal circumstances maybe come into a drop-in center to warm up, or go into the subway to warm up, or go into a McDonald’s to warm up — and just not having those options available to them. What then?” asked Giselle Routhier of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City. By some projections, coronavirus cases will increase into January, when longer cold snaps tend to increase demand for shelter. With the extension of a federal eviction moratorium that ends Dec. 31 in limbo, housing advocates predict up to 23 million Americans could lose their housing.With more space needed, providers have gotten creative. In Troy, New York, Joseph’s House and Shelter is renting 19 rooms in an old convent for a seasonal shelter. The Poverello Center in Missoula, Montana, cut its capacity by half in April and scrambled to add 150 socially distant beds at a new winter shelter in a warehouse. Portland opened new shelters in a former Greyhound bus station and an unused jail and is renting out 300 rooms at six motels in addition to the 100 pods.Pallet, the company that makes the 64- or 100-square-foot pods, said it has provided 1,500 beds to cities and towns across the U.S. since the pandemic began. Vannoy and Foss were terrified to stay in crowded shelters and worried about the safety of collecting used soda cans for change. Charities they’d relied on for hot lunches, free clothes and warm showers closed. At one point, Foss went a month without changing clothes. Now, they have a safe space.“People just locked themselves in the house, I get it," Foss said of the sudden dearth of services. “But it really made it dirty and nasty and you really had to put your own instincts for survival into high gear.”Many localities are using federal CARES Act money to increase winter shelter options for people amid COVID-19 — and some say the solutions provide a glimpse of what would be possible with more consistent, long-term funding. Portland is paying $1 million a month to rent the motel rooms for homeless people at high-risk of COVID complications. In Delaware, a former 192-room Sheraton Hotel purchased for $19.5 million by New Castle County for use as an emergency shelter opened last week.“There’s something a little poetic about taking a pretty nice hotel and putting the most vulnerable individuals up in those hotels to see if we can transition them to something different," said County Executive Matt Meyer.In Ithaca, New York, advocates have expanded outreach to encampments and other places where people are sheltering. When Jose Ortiz tested positive for the coronavirus last month, he was able to isolate at his elaborately crafted shelter in “The Jungle,” a patch of woods on the city’s outskirts where dozens of people settle in tents and more permanent structures. Advocates brought him food, water, a propane heater and cough drops as they kept tabs on him, said Deb Wilke, homeless crisis alleviation coordinator at Second Wind Cottages.“This is my home, so this is where I want to be,” Ortiz said outside his camp, complete with a tarp-covered “treehouse” built waist-high off the ground, “and they were pretty good at making sure that I had whatever I needed.”The encampment is served by the Christian ministry Loaves & Fishes, which boxes up about 250 lunches or dinners a day for delivery around the area. Meanwhile, more staff are being hired this winter for telemedicine services launched by the non-profit REACH Medical. “I think it’ll be a bit more work trudging through snow on top of mud,” said REACH community health worker Matt Dankanich, who makes regular rounds through the wooded encampment with a nurse. He can connect people with doctors and other providers through encrypted video calls.Still, despite masks and distancing, outbreaks have hobbled some operations. An outbreak that started during Thanksgiving at the Union Gospel Mission in Portland eventually sickened 18 people in transitional housing. As a result, the organization temporarily closed its doors, stopped daily meal distribution, shut down its thrift shop and briefly shuttered another winter shelter. The mission has since rebounded and is preparing to serve more than 1,000 Christmas meals.In Missoula, coronavirus outbreaks have sent one-third of The Poverello Center’s staff into quarantine twice already. Meanwhile, the motel purchased by the city for shelter is full nearly every day, said executive director Amy Allison Thompson. In Ithaca, Ortiz's health has improved. Others in the encampments are expected to seek shelter in the city when temperatures become bone-chilling. But he's reluctant to leave behind his “cozy” place in the woods.“All my things are here. My home is here,” he said. “So it’s hard for me to just pick up and leave.”___Hill reported from Ithaca, New York.

The superspreaders behind top COVID-19 conspiracy theories

As the coronavirus spread across the globe, so too did speculation about its origins. Perhaps the virus escaped from a lab. Maybe it was engineered as a bioweapon.Legitimate questions about the virus created perfect conditions for conspiracy theories. In the absence of knowledge, guesswork and propaganda flourished.College professors with no evidence or training in virology were touted as experts. Anonymous social media users posed as high-level intelligence officials. And from China to Iran to Russia to the United States, governments amplified claims for their own motives.The Associated Press collaborated with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab on a nine-month investigation to identify the people and organizations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus. Their claims were explosive. Their evidence was weak. These are the superspreaders. FRANCIS BOYLEWHO HE IS: A Harvard trained law professor at the University of Illinois, Boyle drafted a 1989 law banning biological weapons and has advised the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Palestinian Authority.Boyle has no academic degree in virology or biology but is a longstanding critic of research on pathogens. He has claimed Israeli intelligence was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; that SARS, the swine flu and Ebola have been genetically modified; and that West Nile virus and Lyme disease escaped from a U.S. biowarfare lab. He has also claimed that Microsoft founder Bill Gates “was involved” in the spread of Zika.COVID CLAIM: Boyle says the coronavirus is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-level lab in Wuhan, China. He maintains it shows signs of nanotechnological tinkering and the insertion of proteins from HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus. He alleges that U.S. researchers helped create it, and that thousands of doctors, scientists, and elected leaders are conspiring to hide the truth.Boyle promoted his claim in an email to a list of news organizations and personal contacts on Jan. 24, 2020. That same day, he was interviewed on a podcast called “Geopolitics and Empire.” That podcast was cited by a little-known Indian website, GreatGameIndia, and went viral, with Boyle’s comments picked up and featured in Iranian-state TV, Russian state media, and fringe websites in the U.S. and around the world. He's since repeated his claims on Alex Jones' show Infowars.EVIDENCE? Boyle bases his argument on circumstantial evidence: the presence of a Biosafety Level 4 lab in Wuhan, the fact that other viruses have escaped from other labs in the past, and his belief that governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.Biosafety Level 4 labs - or BSL4 labs - have the highest level of biosafety precautions.“It seemed to me that obviously, this came out of the Wuhan BSL 4,” Boyle told The Associated Press, dismissing the accepted explanation that the virus emerged from the Wuhan market as “completely preposterous.”A World Heath Organization team concluded it was extremely unlikely the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab, and other experts have said the virus shows no signs of genetic manipulation.___GREATGAMEINDIAWHAT IT IS: A website that was an early promoter of the theory that the coronavirus was engineered. Its Jan. 26, 2020, story on “Coronavirus bioweapon-How China Stole the Coronavirus From Canada and Weaponized It” was picked up by far-right financial blog Zero Hedge and shared to thousands of social media users before it was promoted by conservative website RedStateWatcher and received more than 6 million engagements. COVID CLAIM: GreatGameIndia claims that the virus, which has now killed more than 2 million people worldwide, was first found in the lungs of a Saudi man and then sent to labs in the Netherlands and then Canada, where it was stolen by Chinese scientists. The article relies in part on speculation from Dany Shoham, a virologist and former lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence. Shoham was quoted discussing the possibility that COVID is linked to bioweapon research in a Jan. 26, 2020, article in the conservative U.S. newspaper The Washington Times. In that article, Shoham was quoted saying there was no evidence to support the idea that the virus has escaped from a lab, but GreatGameIndia did not include that context in its piece.“We do stand by our report,” said website co-founder Shelley Kasli wrote in an email. “In fact, recently Canadians released documents which corroborated our findings with Chinese scientists... A lot of information is still classified.”EVIDENCE? The coronavirus most likely first appeared in humans after jumping from an animal, a World Health Organization panel announced this month, saying an alternate theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab was unlikely.America's top scientists have likewise concluded the virus is of natural origin, citing clues in its genome and its similarity to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, who has been studying the virus since its genome was first recorded, has said it is clear that the virus was not engineered or accidentally released. “It is something that is clearly selected in nature,” Racaniello said. “There are two examples where the sequence tells us that humans had no hand in making this virus because they would not have known to do these things.”___THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH ON GLOBALIZATIONWHAT IT IS: The Montreal-based center publishes articles on global politics and policy, including a healthy dose of conspiracy theories on vaccines and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It’s led by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Ottawa and a conspiracy theorist who has argued the U.S. military can control the weather.The center publishes authors from around the world — many of whom have advanced baseless claims about the origins of the outbreak. In February, for instance, the center published an interview with Igor Nikulin suggesting the coronavirus was a U.S. bioweapon created to target Chinese people.The center’s website,, “has become deeply enmeshed in Russia’s broader disinformation and propaganda ecosystem” by peddling anti-U.S. conspiracy theories, according to a 2020 U.S. State Department report which found that seven of its supposed writers do not even exist but were created by Russian military intelligence.COVID CLAIM: While the center has published several articles about the virus, one suggesting it originated in the U.S. caught the attention of top Chinese officials.On March 12, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian retweeted an article published by the center titled: "China’s Coronavirus: A Shocking Update. Did The Virus Originate in the US?” “This article is very much important to each and every one of us,” he posted in English on Twitter. “Please read and retweet it. COVID-19: Further Evidence that the Virus Originated in the US.”He also tweeted: “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation.”The story by Larry Romanoff, a regular author at the center, cites several debunked theories, including one that members of the U.S. military brought the virus to China during the Military World Games in fall 2019. Romanoff concludes that it has now “been proven” that the virus originated from outside of China, despite scientific consensus that it did.EVIDENCE? The World Health Organization has concluded that the coronavirus emerged in China, where the first cases and deaths were reported. No evidence has surfaced to suggest the virus was imported into China by the U.S. Chossudovsky and Romanoff did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Romanoff's biography lists him as a visiting professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, but he is not listed among the university's faculty. The university did not respond to an email asking about Romanoff's employment.Romanoff's original article was taken down in the spring, but Zhao's tweet remains up.___IGOR NIKULINWHO IS HE? A four-time failed political candidate, Nikulin is prominently quoted in Russian state media and fringe publications in the west as a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq who served on a U.N. commission on biological and chemical weapons in the 1990s.COVID CLAIM: Nikulin argues the U.S. created the virus and used it to attack China. He first voiced the belief in a Jan. 20, 2020, story by Zvezda, a state media outlet tied to the Russian military. He appeared on Russian state TV at least 18 times between Jan. 27, 2020, and late April of that year.Once the virus reached the U.S., Nikulin changed his theory, saying “globalists” were using the virus to depopulate the earth.Nikulin has expressed support for weaponizing misinformation to hurt the U.S. in the past. On his website, he suggests claiming the U.S. created HIV as a way to weaken America from within. Russian intelligence mounted a similar 1980s disinformation campaign dubbed “Operation INFEKTION.”“If you prove and declare... that the virus was bred in American laboratories, the American economy will collapse under the onslaught of billions of lawsuits by millions of AIDS carriers around the world,” Nikulin wrote on his website.EVIDENCE? Nikulin offered no evidence to support his assertions, and there are reasons to doubt his veracity.Former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler, for whom Nikulin claims to have worked, said he had no memory of Nikulin, and that his story sounded “sloppily fabricated, and not credible.”No U.N. records could be found to confirm his employment.In an exchange with the AP over Facebook, Nikulin insisted his claims and background are accurate, though he said some records from U.N. work were destroyed in an American bombing during the Iraq invasion.When told that Butler didn't know him, Nikulin responded “This is his opinion."___GREG RUBINIWHO HE IS: Greg Rubini is the name of an internet conspiracy theorist who claims to have high-level contacts in intelligence and listed his location on Twitter as “classified,” until he was kicked off the platform. His posts have been retweeted thousands of times by supporters of QAnon, a conspiracy theory centered on the baseless belief that Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state” and a secret sect of satanic pedophiles and cannibals.COVID CLAIM: Rubini has tweeted that Dr. Anthony Fauci created the coronavirus and that it was used as a bioweapon to reduce the world's population and undermine Trump.EVIDENCE? Rubini's doesn’t appear to be the intelligence insider that he pretends to be.Buzzfeed attempted to track down Rubini last year and determined it is the alias of a 61-year-old Italian man who has worked in marketing and music promotions. A previous version of his Twitter bio indicates he is a fan of classic rock and the films of Stanley Kubrick.Attempts to reach Rubini online and through business contacts were unsuccessful.Rubini has bristled at efforts to verify his claims. When a social media user asked: “My question to you @GregRubini is, ‘Where and what is your proof?’ Rubini responded curtly: “And my question is: why should I give it to you?”Twitter suspended Rubini's account in November 2020 for repeated violations of its policies.______KEVIN BARRETTWHO HE IS: A former lecturer on Islam at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Barrett left the university amid criticism for his claims that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by people linked to the U.S. and Israeli governments.Barrett calls himself “a professional conspiracy theorist, for want of a better term” and has argued government conspiracies were behind the 2004 Madrid bombing, the 2005 London bombing, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting.COVID CLAIM: Barrett said he is “80%” sure coronavirus was created by elements within the U.S. government as a bioweapon and used to attack China.Iran was a secondary target, he has argued. Writing for Iran’s PressTV, he said the early outbreak in that country “suggests that the Americans and/or their partners the Israelis... may have deliberately attacked Iran.”Barrett further detailed his views during an interview with the AP.“It seemed fairly obvious to me that the first hypothesis one would look at when something as extraordinary as this COVID pandemic hits, is that it would be a US bio-war strike,” he said.EVIDENCE? Barrett cited reports that the US warned its allies in November 2019 about a dangerous virus emerging from China. Barrett said that’s long before authorities in China knew about the severity of the outbreak.Official sources have denied issuing any warning. If the U.S. did know about the virus that soon, it was likely thanks to intelligence sources within China, which may have known about the virus as early as November 2019, according to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.___LUC MONTAGNIERWHO HE IS: Montagnier is a world-renowned virologist who won the Nobel prize in 2008 for discovering HIV. COVID CLAIM: During an April interview with the French news channel CNews, Montagnier claimed that the coronavirus did not originate in nature and was manipulated. Montagnier said that in the process of making the vaccine for AIDS, someone took the genetic material and added it to the coronavirus. Montagnier cites a retracted paper published in January from Indian scientists who had said they had found sequences of HIV in the coronavirus. AP made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact Montagnier.EVIDENCE: Experts who have looked at the genome sequence of the virus have said it has no HIV-1 sequences. In January, Indian scientists published a paper on bioRXIV, a repository for scientific papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a traditional scientific journal. The paper said that the scientists had found “uncanny similarity of unique inserts" in COVID-19 and HIV. Social media users picked up the paper as proof that the virus was engineered. As soon as it was published, the scientific community widely debunked the paper on social media. It was later withdrawn. ___SUPREME LEADER ALI KHAMENEI and HOSSEIN SALAMIWHO THEY ARE: Khamenei is the second and current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has the final say on all matters of state, including the economy, military and health divisions. Since being elected to office in 1981, Khamenei has maintained his skeptical view of the U.S. as Iran’s foremost enemy. The tensions between the two countries boiled over in 2018 when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions. At the time, Khamenei remarked, “I said from the first day: Don’t trust America.”Hossein Salami was appointed by Khamenei as commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in April 2019. He leads the country’s paramilitary force that oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program and responds to threats from both inside and outside the country. COVID CLAIM: Salami declared on March 5, 2020, that Iran was engaged in a fight against a virus that might be the product of an American biological attack. On those grounds, Salami ordered a Ground Force Biological Defense Maneuver to test the country’s ability to combat a biological attack. Beginning March 16, the Ground Force, in close collaboration with the Health Ministry, began holding nationwide biodefense drills. Khamenei was among the first and most powerful world leaders to suggest the coronavirus could be a biological weapon created by the U.S. During his annual address on March 22 to millions of Iranians for the Persian New Year, Khamenei questioned why the U.S. would offer aid to countries like Iran if they themselves were suffering and accused of making the virus.Khamenei went on to refuse U.S. assistance, saying “possibly (U.S.) medicine is a way to spread the virus more." Last month, he refused to accept coronavirus vaccines manufactured in Britain and the U.S., calling them “forbidden.” The Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to multiple requests for comment. EVIDENCE: There is no evidence that the U.S. created the virus or used it as a weapon to attack Iran.__Follow Klepper on Twitter: Amiri on Twitter: Dupuy on Twitter:

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