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China hits out at US after report of new visa restrictions

BEIJING (AP) — China on Thursday accused critics in the U.S. government of “an escalation of political suppression” against Beijing following a report of...

Indian movie superstar Rajinikanth to launch political party

NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian movie superstar Rajinikanth said Thursday he plans to launch his own political party in southern India in January, ending years of speculation by millions of his fans on his political future.He said in a tweet that he will make an announcement on Dec. 31, apparently in relation to legislative elections in Tamil Nadu state expected around June next year. He started taking an active part in politics in 2017.Rajinikanth, 69, is one of India’s most popular stars with more than 175 films since 1975, mostly in the Tamil and Telugu languages.“In the upcoming Assembly elections, the emergence of spiritual politics will happen for sure. A wonder will happen,” he tweeted. An announcement on matters connected to the party's launch will be made Dec. 31, he said.His political prospects appear bright following a vacuum created by the deaths of Jayaram Jayalalithaa, an actor-turned politician with the governing party in the state, and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.Cinema has always influenced Tamil politics by turning actors into popular politicians.C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were scriptwriters who went on to become chief ministers. M.G. Ramachandran, a top actor-turned-politician, also had a strong following.Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, Rajinikanth worked as a bus conductor for three years before joining an acting school. He started in small roles as a villain in Tamil cinema and worked his way up, landing roles in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan also tried his hand in politics as a member of India’s Parliament, representing the Congress party in support of his friend, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the 1980s. He resigned after three years following allegations that he accepted bribes in the purchase of artillery guns. His name was later cleared in the scandal.

The Latest | Young S. Koreans taking crucial university exam

SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 COVID-19 patients, are taking the country’s highly competitive university entrance exam despite a viral resurgence that has forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.The Education Ministry says about 493,430 students began taking the one-day test at about 1,380 test sites across South Korea on Thursday. It says the test sites include hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of others placed under self-quarantine will take the exam.The annual test is a crucial step for many students’ lives in the education-obsessed country. The university from which a South Korean graduates significantly affects job prospects, social standings and even marriage partners.This year’s test was originally scheduled for November but was delayed due to the virus outbreak. ___THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:— U.K. approves Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, puts Britain on track to start vaccinations soon— International Red Cross seeks equitable access to vaccines— Russia and Germany hit record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths— Tokyo Olympic fans from abroad may have health tracked by app___Follow AP’s coverage at and’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:___ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister has announced a plan for vaccinations starting with an experimental inactivated vaccine later in December to combat the COVID-19 pandemic amid a surge in infections and deaths.Minister Fahrettin Koca had previously announced an agreement with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac for 50 million doses of CoronaVac, with the first shipment to arrive after Dec. 11. The minister said early-use authorization would be granted after Turkish labs confirm the vaccine's safety. “If developments continue positively as we expect, Turkey would be among the first countries in the world to begin vaccinations in the early phase,” Koca said Thursday.Health care workers, citizens above 65 and people living in care homes will be the first groups to be vaccinated. Next will be essential workers and people above 50 with at least one chronic disease. Third will be people younger than 50 with at least one chronic illness, young adults and other workers would be vaccinated. The fourth and final phase will be for the rest of the population. Turkey’s president has said the vaccine will be administered free of charge.In November, The Lancet published a study about the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine, saying efficacy was determined to be moderate.___NEW DELHI — India is reporting less than 40,000 new daily coronavirus cases for a fourth straight day as it awaits a vaccine rollout for its vast population.With 35,551 new infections reported, India’s total confirmed cases crossed 9.5 million on Thursday. Its single-day cases have remained below the 50,000 level for more than three weeks.The Health Ministry also reported 526 deaths in the past 24 hours, taking India’s total confirmed fatalities to 138,648.India’s capital reported 3,944 new cases in the past 24 hours with positivity rate at a two-month low of 5%. It also recorded 82 more fatalities.India doesn’t have any advance purchase agreement with any vaccine manufacturer. The Serum Institute of India, which has been testing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, says it will apply for emergency approval by Indian authorities in two weeks. The institute is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.India’s Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories is conducting tests for Russian vaccine Sputnik V.___UNITED NATIONS — Nearly 100 world leaders and several dozen ministers are slated to speak at the U.N. General Assembly’s special session starting Thursday on the response to COVID-19 and the best path to recovery from the pandemic which has claimed 1.5 million lives, shattered economies in countries rich and poor.Assembly President Volkan Bozkir says when he took the reins of the assembly in September it would have been better to hold the high-level meeting in June. Nonetheless, he said Wednesday that the session “provides a historic moment for us to come together to beat COVID-19.” ___NEW YORK — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts the country is about to go through “the most difficult time in the public health history of the nation.”Dr. Robert Redfield made the comment during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation webcast Wednesday.Redfield says earlier surges in COVID-19 illnesses were concentrated in one area of the country or another, and health care workers and equipment could be shifted from one place to another to deal with it. But now, he says,all parts of the country are seeing rising infections and illnesses.In Redfield’s words: “The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”___SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California has reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus case, shattering the state’s previous one-day record of 18,350 as Gov. Gavin Newsom — himself quarantined at home after his family was exposed — considers a new stay-at-home order.Following an early summer surge that prompted a new round of restrictions, California’s cases plummeted in August and September and the state relaxed restrictions, allowing more businesses to operate, indoor religious services to resume and many schools to reopen for classroom instruction. But new cases have exploded in recent weeks. A record 8,500 people are in hospitals, including more than 2,000 in intensive care units.___ATLANTA — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has signed off on an expert panel’s recommendation that health care workers and nursing home residents be the first to get coronavirus vaccinations when shots become available.Dr. Robert Redfield’s decision was posted on the CDC website Wednesday.Experts believe that when a vaccine becomes available, doses will be limited in the first weeks and months. That will mean officials will have to decide whether certain people should be first in line. Doctors have been watching for federal advice about how priorities should be set.On Tuesday, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 that the first people vaccinated should be health-care workers and patients in nursing homes, long-term chronic care hospitals, and other U.S. long-term care facilities.___BOSTON -- A coalition of U.S. colleges and universities is urging Congress to pass a new coronavirus relief bill with at least $120 billion for higher education, saying the sector faces a crisis of “almost unimaginable” scale.The letter signed by the American Council on Education and 100 other groups says financial losses caused by the pandemic are far worse than schools had expected. Colleges have laid off thousands of workers to cut costs, but the letter says the pared-down operations will unstainable without additional federal help.Colleges have had to increase financial aid to help students who are struggling to pay tuition, and schools have lost revenue from closed dorms and dining halls.Enrollments have also decreased amid the pandemic, with a 13% drop in freshmen across all U.S. institutions. At the same time, many states have cut their higher education budgets.___AUSTIN, Texas — The mayor of Austin, Texas, is apologizing for taking a family vacation to Mexico in November at the same time he was telling residents to stay home because of a worsening surge in coronavirus cases. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Wednesday that his trip to Cabo San Lucas “set a bad example.” The apology came hours after the Austin American-Statesman published a story revealing the vacation, which Adler had previously never mentioned publicly.At one point during the trip to Mexico, Adler even posted a video on Facebook telling people in Austin that now was “not the time to relax” and urging them to stay home. Texas this week surpassed 9,000 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 for the first time since summer. The mayor has been among the state’s most vocal politicians in pleading for vigilance during the pandemic.___TORONTO — Canada’s health minister says health officials will soon complete a review of the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. Health Minister Party Hajdu on Wednesday described the United Kingdom’s decision to authorize the vaccine as “encouraging.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been facing criticism since Trudeau admitted last week that other countries with domestic vaccine production are likely to inoculate their citizens first before shipping doses to Canada. Health Canada’s chief medical adviser said last week that several vaccine candidates are under review, and the first could be approved sometime this month. Dr. Supriya Sharma said at a briefing Nov. 26 that the agency expected to make a decision on approval around the same time as regulators in the United States and Europe.

Asian shares advance on optimism over vaccines, stimulus

Shares were mostly higher in Asia on Thursday, helped by progress toward rolling out coronavirus vaccines and talk of reaching a compromise on new help for the U.S. economy. Shares rose in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and Sydney but fell in Shanghai. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo edged up less than 0.1% to 26,809.37, its highest close in more than 29 years.As countries prepare to begin vaccinating health care workers and others at high risk against the coronavirus, hopes are rising that the pandemic will be brought under control, allowing economies to recover. The rollout of a vaccine in the U.S. could begin this month, if regulators give their approval. Drugmakers Pfizer and BioNTech said they won permission for emergency use of their COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, which will be one of the first countries to begin vaccinating its population against the virus. The vaccine is the world’s first coronavirus shot that’s backed by rigorous science and a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic and helping economies return to normal. “The vaccine has been the big prize for risk markets," Stephen Innes of Axi said in a commentary. Vaccinations will reduce virus counts, resulting in a “collective demand lift for the world economy, and global geopolitical risk has also diminished after the U.S. presidential election. A much clearer view across the valley to economic recovery should mean more upside," he said. Hong Kong's Hang Seng climbed 0.6% to 26,695.68 and South Korea's Kospi added 0.5% to 2,688.34. In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 picked up 0.4% to 6,615.30. The Shanghai Composite index shed 0.4% to 3,434.81. India's Sensex edged 0.2% higher and shares were mixed in Southeast Asia. Overnight, the S&P 500 index rose 0.2% to an all-time high of 3,669.01, a second straight record close. It spend much of the day drifting between small gains and losses. A pullback in technology stocks and companies that rely on consumer spending kept the gains in check.Treasury yields continued to head mostly higher, a sign of growing confidence in the economic outlook. Investors were not deterred by new data Wednesday showing that hiring by U.S. companies slowed last month. Nor by a report showing economic activity slowed in Novembe r as coronavirus cases surged.The S&P 500 is now up about 13.6% for the year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.2% on Wednesday, to 29,883.79. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite, which also opened the month with a new record, slipped 0.1% to 12,349.37.Optimism about vaccine developments have tempered lingering concerns over rising virus cases in the U.S., though worries persist about the economic fallout from new government restrictions on businesses aimed at limiting the spread.Unemployment remains high as the COVID-19 outbreak widens the gulf between average people and the wealthiest Americans. Payroll processor ADP said Wednesday that its latest survey of private U.S. employers shows they added 307,000 jobs last month. That fell short of Wall Street analysts’ expectations for a gain of 405,000 jobs, according to FactSet.The report precedes a broader jobs survey from the Labor Department due out Friday. Economists are forecasting that will show employers added about 441,000 jobs in November, down from a gain of 638,000 in October.Traders are hoping Democrats and Republicans may reach a deal on some amount of economic stimulus for the economy before 2021, though they remain divided on the details and the cost. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers during a House Financial Services Committee hearing that Congress needs to approve COVID-19 relief funds without further delay. was the biggest decliner in the S&P 500, tumbling 8.5% after announcing a deal late Tuesday to buy messaging platform Slack for $27.7 billion. Microsoft slipped 0.4%. Lyft climbed 9.6% after the ride-hailing company posted a smaller loss this quarter and better margins. The news helped boost rival Uber Technologies up 7%.Treasury yields headed higher, giving banks a boost because they allow them to charge more lucrative interest rates on loans. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 0.96% from 0.92% late Tuesday. It was steady at 0.94% on Thursday.In other trading, U.S. benchmark crude oil lost 24 cents to $45.04 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It gained 73 cents to $45.28 per barrel on Wednesday.Brent crude, the international standard, gave up 20 cents to $48.05 per barrel.The U.S. dollar bought 104.46 Japanese yen, up from 104.43 yen late Wednesday. The euro rose to $1.2121 from $1.2113.

Angry Indian farmers besiege capital in trucks

NEW DELHI (AP) — Instead of cars, the normally busy highway on the outskirts of New Delhi that connects most northern Indian towns to the capital is filled with tens of thousands of protesting farmers, many wearing colorful turbans. Their convoy of trucks, trailers and tractors stretches for at least three kilometers (1.8 miles). Inside, they have hunkered down, supplied with enough food and fuel to last weeks.It’s a siege of sorts and the mood among the protesting farmers is boisterous. Their rallying call is “Inquilab Zindabad” (“Long live the revolution”).The farmers are protesting new laws they say will result in their exploitation by corporations, eventually rendering them landless.Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, rattled by the growing rebellion, insists the reforms will benefit them.But the farmers aren’t yielding.At night, they sleep inside the trailers or under the trucks. During the day, they sit huddled in groups at the backs of the vehicles, surrounded by mounds of rice, lentils and vegetables.They take early morning cold showers in the open and spend lazy afternoons reading newspapers on neatly spread foam mattresses. Sitting cross-legged on a piece of cloth under their trucks, they play cards to fill the time.Meals are prepared in enormous pots stirred with wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles. Food is served in hundreds of makeshift roadside soup kitchens. Washed clothes are hung neatly to dry on ropes stretched between tractors.“We aren't going to leave this place,” said Gurpreet Singh, 26, a biotechnology student from a farming family. “It's a fight for our survival.”Every day, thousands more join the protesters.The protests started in September but drew nationwide attention last week when the farmers marched from northern Punjab and Haryana, two of India's largest agricultural states. On their way to the capital, they pushed aside concrete barricades set up by police and braved tear gas, batons and water cannons.Now, on the outskirts of New Delhi, they are blocking highways, unwilling to withdraw and threatening to besiege the capital if their demands aren’t met.“It will be a long battle,” said farmer Darshan Singh Khatauli, 65. “It is up to the government when they want to end this.”

China testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms

WUHAN, China (AP) — In the early days in Wuhan, the first city first struck by the virus, getting a COVID test was so difficult that residents compared it to winning the lottery.Throughout the Chinese city in January, thousands of people waited in hours-long lines for hospitals, sometimes next to corpses lying in hallways. But most couldn’t get the test they needed to be admitted as patients. And for the few who did, the tests were often faulty, resulting in false negatives.The widespread test shortages and problems at a time when the virus could have been slowed were caused largely by secrecy and cronyism at China’s top disease control agency, an Associated Press investigation has found. The flawed testing system prevented scientists and officials from seeing how fast the virus was spreading — another way China fumbled its early response to the virus. Earlier AP reporting showed how top Chinese leaders delayed warning the public and withheld information from the World Health Organization, supplying the most comprehensive picture yet of China’s initial missteps. Taken together, these mistakes in January facilitated the virus' spread through Wuhan and across the world undetected, in a pandemic that has now sickened more than 64 million people and killed almost 1.5 million.China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention gave test kit designs and distribution rights exclusively to three then-obscure Shanghai companies with which officials had personal ties, the reporting found. The deals took place within a culture of backdoor connections that quietly flourished in an underfunded public health system, according to the investigation, which was based on interviews with more than 40 doctors, CDC employees, health experts, and industry insiders, as well as hundreds of internal documents, contracts, messages and emails obtained by the AP.The Shanghai companies — GeneoDx Biotech, Huirui Biotechnology, and BioGerm Medical Technology -- paid the China CDC for the information and the distribution rights, according to two sources with knowledge of the transaction who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution. The price: One million RMB ($146,600) each, the sources said. It’s unclear whether the money went to specific individuals.In the meantime, the CDC and its parent agency, the National Health Commission, tried to prevent other scientists and organizations from testing for the virus with their own homemade kits. In a departure from past practice for at least two epidemics, the NHC told Wuhan hospitals to send virus samples — from which tests can be developed — only to labs under its authority. It also made testing requirements to confirm coronavirus cases much more complicated, and endorsed only test kits made by the Shanghai companies.These measures contributed to not a single new case being reported by Chinese authorities between Jan. 5 and 17, even though retrospective infection data shows that hundreds were infected. The apparent lull in cases meant officials were slow to take early actions such as warning the public, barring large gatherings and curbing travel. One study estimates that intervention two weeks earlier could have reduced the number of cases by 86 percent, although it's uncertain whether earlier action could have halted the spread of the virus worldwide. When tests from the three companies arrived, many didn’t work properly, turning out inconclusive results or false negatives. And technicians were hesitant to use test kits that would later prove more accurate from more established companies, because the CDC did not endorse them.With few and faulty kits, only one in 19 infected people in Wuhan was tested and found positive as of Jan. 31, according to an estimate by Imperial College London. Others without tests or with false negatives were sent back home, where they could spread the virus. Days after he first started coughing on Jan. 23rd, Peng Yi, a 39-year-old schoolteacher, waited in an eight-hour line at a Wuhan hospital. A CT scan showed signs of viral infection in both his lungs, but he couldn’t get the test he needed to be hospitalized.When Peng finally got a test on Jan. 30, it turned out negative. But his fever wouldn’t drop, and his family begged officials for another test.His second test, on Feb. 4, turned out positive. It was too late. Weeks later, Peng passed away.“There were very, very few tests, basically none….if you couldn’t prove you were positive, you couldn’t get admitted to a hospital,” his mother, Zhong Hanneng, said in a tearful interview in October. “The doctor said there was nothing that could be done.” China was hardly the only country to grapple with testing, which varied widely from nation to nation. Germany, for example, developed a test that became the World Health Organization gold standard days after the Chinese government released genetic sequences on Jan. 12. But in the U.S., the CDC declined to use the WHO design and insisted on developing its own kits, which turned out to be faulty and led to even longer delays than in China.Other countries also had the benefit of learning from China’s experience. But China was grappling with a new pathogen, and it wasn’t yet clear how bad the pandemic would be or how many tests would be needed.“It was very early,” said Jane Duckett, a professor at the University of Glasgow examining the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus. She said the government was “just trying to figure it out.” Still, the hiccups and delays in China were especially consequential because it was the first country to detect the virus. “Because you have only three companies providing testing kits, it kept the capacity of testing very limited,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was a major problem that led to the rapid increase in cases and deaths.”China’s foreign ministry and China’s top medical agency, the National Health Commission, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. “We did a brilliant job, we worked so hard,” said Gao Fu, the head of China CDC, in a videoconference in July. “Unluckily, unfortunately, this virus we are facing, it’s so special.” __________None of the first three diagnostics companies tapped to make test kits for the biggest pandemic in a century were well-known in the industry. For one engineer from a Wuhan-based diagnostics firm, the Shanghai competitors popped out of nowhere “like bamboo shoots” – all the more so because his company had the factories and expertise to produce testing kits in the city where the virus was first detected.“We were surprised, it was very strange,” the engineer said, declining to be named to speak on a sensitive topic. “We hadn’t heard about it at all, and then suddenly there’s test kits from certain companies you have to use, and you can’t use ones from anyone else?”BioGerm was officially founded just over three years ago in a conference room, where the CEO mulled how to survive in a small and crowded market for test kits. GeneoDx had fewer than 100 employees, according to Tianyancha, a Chinese corporate records database – compared to competitors that employ hundreds or even thousands of staff.But what the companies lacked in resources or experience, they made up for in connections.Company posts, along with hundreds of internal emails and documents obtained by The Associated Press, show extensive ties between the three companies and top China CDC researchers in Beijing and Shanghai. Chinese regulators barred AP attempts to obtain credit reports on the companies, saying they were classified as “confidential enterprises” during the outbreak. Despite China’s efforts over the years to reform public health and push for open bidding in a competitive marketplace, medical companies still cultivate personal relationships with officials to secure deals, according to seven executives from different competitors. Under President Xi Jinping, China has cracked down on corruption, but industry insiders say a lack of firm boundaries between public and private in China’s health system can create opportunities for graft.It’s unclear whether the agreements between the China CDC and the three test kit companies violated Chinese law. They raise questions around potential violations of bribery laws, along with rules against abuse of authority, self-dealing and conflicts of interest, said James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based corporate attorney and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Even amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, “there is no excuse for the flow of cash from these companies to the CDC,” he said.Chinese bribery laws also state that any financial transaction has to be recorded and documented clearly. The AP was unable to ascertain whether the agreements between the CDC and the Shanghai companies were documented, but a CDC employee with access to some of the agency’s finances said there was no record of them. Despite the questions around bribery, other experts caution that the state may have designated the three companies to make test kits under special laws on the procurement of emergency goods during major natural disasters. The Chinese government is pushing to cultivate domestic companies focused on emergency response technologies, including test kits, to protect its national interest.“Things will be different in the middle of a crisis,” said Lesli Ligorner, a Beijing-based attorney specializing in anti-corruption law. “Anything affecting the national interest can be deemed to be of utmost importance for special regulations... I wouldn’t be so quick to rush to judgement.”China CDC guidelines state that the agency is responsible for maintaining a reserve of testing chemicals to screen for rare pathogens, but do not specify how to procure them. An AP search of CDC procurement bids did not turn up any records, even though some other emergency procurements were publicly documented.The China CDC has about a sixth the staff of its separate American equivalent, and they often earn far lower wages than in the private sector. So many employees from the China CDC have departed for private sector jobs over the past decade, draining its labs of talent.Among those who left was BioGerm’s founder, Zhao Baihui, the former chief technician of the Shanghai CDC’s microbiology lab. Emails and financial records obtained by the AP show that Zhao first started BioGerm’s predecessor through an intermediary in 2012, while she was still at the Shanghai CDC. In the next five years, she sold thousands of dollars’ worth of test kits to her own workplace through the intermediary even as she herself was at times in charge of purchasing, internal emails, records and contracts obtained by the AP show. After quitting the CDC in 2017, Zhao spearheaded lucrative contracts with government officials – such as one worth 400,000 RMB ($60,000) with Shanghai customs officials where her husband worked, and another worth 55,500 RMB ($8,400) with CDC officials in Shanghai’s Pudong district, the emails and contracts show. Zhao declined to speak when reached by phone, and did not respond to an emailed request for comment.Another of the three companies, GeneoDx, enjoyed special access because it is a subsidiary of the state-run firm SinoPharm, which is managed directly by China’s cabinet. Before the outbreak, GeneoDx largely imported kits and acquired foreign technology to expand its business rather than develop its own products, according to company posts and a China CDC employee familiar with its operations.In October 2019, GeneoDx co-organized an internal CDC training conference on emerging respiratory diseases in Shanghai. Tan Wenjie, the CDC official who ran the training, was later put in charge of developing test kits, according to an internal document the AP obtained. In November, the company won a contract to sell 900,000 RMB ($137,000) worth of test kits to Tan’s institute. GeneoDx did not respond to requests for comment or interviews. The National Health Commission did not respond to a request for a comment or an interview with Tan.Also in attendance at the invitation-only event was BioGerm, as well as other companies that used the conference to promote their products, blurring the line between the government and the private sector. China CDC staff were invited to join a BioGerm group on WeChat, a Chinese messaging application, which CEO Zhao later used to sell coronavirus test kits, according to a CDC employee and a screenshot seen by the AP. The last company, Huirui, is a longtime partner with Tan, the CDC official in charge of test kits. Its founder, Li Hui, coauthored a paper with Tan on coronavirus tests in 2012 and “jointly developed” a test kit for the MERS outbreak in 2015 with Tan’s institute.In an interview, CEO Li said the CDC routinely contracted with his company to make emergency testing chemicals. He said Tan’s lab at the China CDC had contacted him on Jan. 4 or 5 to make testing chemicals for the coronavirus based on CDC designs. He denied any personal relationship with Tan or any payments to the CDC.“We’ve been working with the CDC to respond to emerging new diseases for about ten years, not just for a day or two, it’s normal,” Li said. Their connections situated the three little-known companies in prime position in January, when a then-unknown pathogen was about to sweep the country and the world and change their fortunes._________The first step in making test kits is to get samples of the virus and decode its genetic sequence. This leads to test designs, essentially a recipe for the tests. In the past, such as with H7N9 in 2013, the China CDC sent test designs to laboratories across the country just days after identifying the pathogen. It also shipped along the chemical compounds needed – in effect the ingredients – for hospitals and CDC branches to mix their own test kits as soon as possible.At first it looked like the China CDC was using the same playbook this time. The CDC had found the genetic map, or genome, of the virus by Jan. 3. By the next day, under CDC official Tan, the Emergency Technology Center at its Institute for Viral Disease Control had come up with test designs. But this time, the government held back information about the genome and test designs. Instead, the China CDC finalized “technology transfer” agreements to give the test designs to the three Shanghai companies, according to four people familiar with the matter. The selection process was kept secret. The CDC did not have the authority to altogether prevent other scientists with competing agencies and companies from getting samples through back door routes and coming up with their own test recipes. But it tried to stymie such efforts and stop testing from being carried out. For example, Dr. Shi Zhengli, a renowned coronavirus expert at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, obtained patient samples on her own, found the genome from them and came up with a test by Jan. 3, according to a slideshow presentation she gave in March. But her lab fell under the jurisdiction of a competing agency to the CDC, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. The CDC barred her from obtaining more samples and testing for cases.“There’s no open collaboration mechanism,” said a public health expert who often works with the China CDC, declining to be named for fear of damaging relations there. “Everyone wants their turf.”Provincial CDC staff were told that instead of testing and reporting cases themselves, they had to send patient samples to designated labs in Beijing for full sequencing, a complicated and time-consuming procedure. Otherwise, the cases would not be counted in the national coronavirus tally. “It was absolutely abnormal,” said a CDC lab technician, who declined to be identified out of fear of retribution. “They were totally trying to make it harder for us to report any confirmed cases.”In secret evaluations of test kits on Jan. 10, the CDC also approved only those from the three Shanghai companies, according to internal plans and instructions obtained by the AP. The Chinese government finally made its genomes public on Jan. 12, a day after another team published one without authorization. That opened the door for more companies to make their own test kits. However, China’s top health agency, the National Health Commission, still urged medical staff to buy the test kits from Huirui, BioGerm and GeneoDx that the CDC had validated, according to internal instructions obtained by the AP. The evaluations and selections of test kits were conducted with the knowledge and direction of China’s top health official, Ma Xiaowei, according to a CDC post on Jan. 13. On Jan. 14, Ma held an internal teleconference to order secret preparations for a pandemic, as AP earlier reported. After that, China’s health authorities relaxed the requirements to confirm cases and started distributing the CDC-sanctioned test kits. BioGerm began taking orders from provincial CDC staff across the country on WeChat, a Chinese social media application.“We’ve been entrusted by the national CDC to issue kits for you,” Zhao said, according to a screenshot of one of the group chats obtained by The Associated Press.“Quick! Give me, give me,” said one staffer in the Sichuan CDC.But the kits from GeneoDx kept showing inconclusive results, the CDC technician told the AP, and eventually her superior ordered her to toss them aside. The kits from Huirui were also unreliable, and the only ones that worked consistently were from BioGerm, she said. “The quality was not good. Bad, poor quality,” said a public health expert familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified to avoid damaging ties with the China CDC. “But because they had a collaboration with the (CDC) Institute for Viral Disease Control and… they paid a million yuan, they were on the list.”BioGerm’s test kits were more dependable in part because they used chemicals from Invitrogen, a subsidiary of U.S. biotech giant Thermo Fisher. Huirui and GeneoDx used their own mixes instead, with more unreliable results. Much larger competitors, including Chinese genetics giant BGI and Tianlong, developed their own kits in January, which were later found to be more effective than those made by the Shanghai companies. But those test kits weren’t endorsed by the China CDC. “No test protocol, no primers and probes, then of course there’s no way to confirm cases,” said another China CDC employee who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. “And then, all of a sudden, you tell all the CDCs: purchase from these companies, now go for it. Then – chaos and shortage. Valuable time wasted.”Chen Weijun, BGI’s chief infectious disease scientist, also said the early products recommended by the China CDC had “quality problems.” When asked why the China CDC selected the three Shanghai companies, Chen demurred.“You better ask the CDC this question,” said Chen, who collaborated with CDC researchers to publish the first paper on the virus. “But actually, everyone understands what’s going on, why this happened, right? You can reach your own conclusions, right?”_______________A day after the first test kits finally arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 16, the case count began to rise again. But test kits were scarce. Some other cities in the same province didn’t get kits until Jan. 22, and even those were often flawed. Samples from 213 patients in February using GeneoDx tests suggested a false-negative rate of over 30 percent, a study by Shenzhen doctors found. A March clinical trial report showed that among the test kits certified at the time, GeneoDx was the worst performer, followed by BioGerm. In general, the rate of false negatives for COVID tests varies widely, from 2% to more than 37%. Philippe Klein, a French doctor who treated foreign patients in Wuhan during the outbreak, estimated that about 20 percent of the tests turned up false negatives. Still, he said, delays in producing accurate tests kits are natural at the start of an outbreak.“The Chinese did a lot in a short time,” Klein said. “It was a new test, so in the beginning, there was a lack of tests, of course.”On Jan. 22, the National Health Commission quietly removed the names of the three Shanghai companies from its coronavirus guide as preferred distributors. After the Chinese government ordered Wuhan shut down on Jan. 23, the three companies faced massive logistical hurdles to getting their tests in.On Jan. 26, officials set up a fast-track “green channel” for companies to get their test kits approved. The National Medical Products Administration approved test kits from seven companies, including BioGerm and GeneoDx but not Huirui. Li, Huirui’s CEO, said it was because his company was inexperienced in obtaining regulatory approvals for commercial tests. But it took time for other companies to ramp up production and ship tests in, leaving Wuhan struggling to meet demand into early February and depriving many residents of treatment. Peng died on Feb. 19. His mother now passes the days gazing blankly out her window, sobbing and lighting candles in his memory.“In the eyes of officials, he was like a grain of sand or a blade of grass. But in our home, he was our sky, he was our everything,” Zhong said. “Without him, we can never be happy again.” The same pandemic that killed Peng brought the Shanghai test kit companies and related scientists fame and fortune. In September, Tan, the China CDC researcher in charge of developing test kits, was appointed the inaugural director of a new National Novel Coronavirus Center. In a nationally televised ceremony, GeneoDx’s parent firm won plaudits from President Xi for “outstanding” contributions in the struggle against COVID-19, including developing a test kit.Huirui has expanded and is now selling commercial test kits for the first time — not in China, but in Latin America, CEO Li said. And the pandemic has allowed BioGerm to “stand out,” reaching its business targets much faster than planned, said top marketing executive Guo Xiaoling at a trade show in late August at a five-star hotel.“Because of the epidemic, 2020 has been a really special year,” Guo said. “The country and the economy suffered major damage. But for our nucleic acid diagnostics industry, this year has actually been a bonus.”___Contact AP’s global investigative team at

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai denied bail on fraud charge

HONG KONG (AP) — Outspoken Hong Kong pro-democracy advocate and media tycoon Jimmy Lai was refused bail on Thursday on a fraud charge amid a growing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous city.Jimmy Lai of Next Digital, which publishes the Apple Daily newspaper, was among 10 people arrested Aug. 10 on what police said was suspicion of violating a national security law and collusion with a foreign country. Lai, 73, was later released on bail but police raided his company’s offices in October and took away documents. On Wednesday, Lai and two Next Digital executives were charged with fraud over accusations that they violated lease terms for Next Digital office space. Lai appeared in court Thursday and was denied bail. His case has been adjourned till April 16.

Australian leader seeks conciliation in dispute with China

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A diplomatic war of words between Australia and China over a graphic tweet seemed to finally cool on Thursday as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison struck a much more conciliatory tone.Morrison's change in approach came even after he was thwarted in getting his views out directly to Chinese people over the messaging app WeChat, after the Chinese company deleted his post on the grounds it could distort historical events and confuse the public. Earlier this week, Morrison expressed indignation and anger at the tweet posted by a Chinese official that showed a fake image of a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat.The post took aim at alleged unlawful killings and abuses by Australian soldiers during the conflict in Afghanistan.Earlier this week, Morrison called the tweet “truly repugnant” and “deeply offensive” and demanded an apology from China. But China had not backed down, saying that Australia should be the one examining its actions.On Thursday, Morrison took a much different approach, telling reporters in Canberra that his aim was for the two countries to have a “happy coexistence.” “My position and my government’s position is to seek constructive engagement," Morrison said. “The relationship with China is a mutually beneficial one. It supports both our countries, it is good for both of our countries.” China is Australia's largest trading partner. Morrison said Australia had made its views very clear on both the tweet and the WeChat message.WeChat is ubiquitous in China and is used for everything from getting news to making electronic payments. The company is held responsible for ensuring content doesn't attract negative attention, and censorship is relatively common.Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he was disappointed about both the tweet and the deleted post. “What the prime minister did in his WeChat message before it was disappointingly deleted was he made it very clear Australia is proud of its service men and women who wear the uniform,” Frydenberg said.The rift between the two nations has grown since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China has since imposed tariffs and other restrictions on a number of Australian exports.

S. Koreans take college entrance exam amid viral resurgence

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 confirmed COVID-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam Thursday despite a viral resurgence that forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.About 493,430 students were taking the one-day exam at about 1,380 sites across the nations, including hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of other test-takers in self-quarantine sat separately from others, according to the Education Ministry. The annual exams are crucial for many students in the education-obsessed country, where job prospects, social standing and even who you marry can often depend on which university you graduate from. Education officials said authorities banned military exercises and will temporarily stop air traffic to reduce noise during English-language listening parts of Thursday’s exams, as they did in past years. Government offices and many private companies asked their employees to come in late, and the country’s stock market delayed its opening to clear roads for test-takers.This year’s exams had been originally scheduled for November but were delayed due to the virus outbreak. Experts say on-and-off online classes have widened the gap between high achievers and low performing students due to reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties.“If the exam had been delayed again, our kids would have felt much more psychological pressure ... I think it’s fortunate the exam is taking place now,” said Kim Sun-wha, mother of a test-taker. “I hope everyone would avoid making mistakes, do their best and get good results.”Mothers hugged their children and patted their backs before they entered a temporary exam site set up at a high school in Seoul. One shouted, “Don’t be nervous! Do Well!” and another screamed “Cheer up!” Students are required to wear masks during the test, have their temperature taken and maintain distance from each other. Those with a fever will go to separate testing areas. There are a total of 1,383 sites, an increase of 198 from last year.In recent days, South Korean officials have urged the public to stay home and avoid gatherings as much as possible to provide a safe environment for those taking the exams. Park Yu-mi, an anti-virus official in Seoul, also asked companies to have at least one-third of their employees work from home.There are worries that the nationwide exams could accelerate the viral spread in South Korea. South Korea on Thursday reported 540 new cases, taking the total to 35,703. Last week it reimposed stringent distancing guidelines in the greater Seoul area and other places to try to suppress a spike in new infections. __Associated Press journalists Kim Tong-hyung and Kim Yong Ho contributed to this report.

China: Moon probe preparing to return rock samples to Earth

BEIJING (AP) — China’s latest lunar probe has finished taking samples of the moon’s surface and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, the government announced Thursday. The Chang’e 5, the third Chinese probe to land on the moon, is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for Beijing’s space program, which also has a probe en route to Mars carrying a robot rover. The Chang’e 5 touched down Tuesday on a mission to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since 1976.The probe “has completed sampling on the moon, and the samples have been sealed within the spacecraft,” the China National Space Administration said in a statement. Plans call for the upper stage of the probe to be launched back into lunar orbit to transfer the samples to a capsule for return to Earth.