13:15 GMT28 February 2021
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    On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued fresh claims against China over its alleged role in the Covid-19 pandemic, saying the US has evidence the virus may have originated among workers of a Chinese biolab long before the first case was officially reported. Beijing has yet to respond, but previously dubbed Pompeo a “real master of lies.”

    Researchers from China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the People’s Liberation Army, and public health research institutes fear the global death toll from COVID could spike from roughly 2 million – as it stands now – to 5 million in less than two months, the South China Morning Post reports, citing a scientific report.

    The research, led by Dr. Xu Jianguo of the Chinese CDC, suggests that in the worst case scenario, confirmed cases would grow from the 93 million today to 170 million over the next two months, with one fifth of total cases predicted in the US alone, and India, Brazil, and Russia expected to follow with 15.5, 15, and 6 million total cases each, respectively.

    Xu, who has been involved in studying the new coronavirus since at least January 2020, said avoiding the worst case scenario would require people in countries around the world to continue following social distancing and mask guidelines, and, possibly, the acceleration of vaccination programmes.

    Under the "optimistic" scenario, the death toll would be limited to 300,000, rather than 3 million. An anonymous researcher from the Institut Pasteur in Shanghai told the Post that the latter scenario could cause a collapse of the global health care system, in part because “people die en masse when they cannot get even the most basic care in hospitals.” Countries around the world have suffered spiking fatalities rates from a range of ailments unrelated to COVID-19, including heart disease, cancers, and other serious maladies because hospital capacity has been converted for COVID use.

    The virus’ continuing mutation is another major problem, according to Xu and his colleagues, with researchers saying it could become a permanent seasonal phenomenon if it adapts to hide effectively in the human body. With this in mind, the researchers suggested that even China’s comparatively successful strategy of strict, pinpoint containment may prove ineffective.

    At the same time, the researchers warned Chinese authorities against launching mass vaccination campaigns in areas with few or no cases, saying the disease’s ongoing mutation could see mutated strains "cheat" the human immune system and spread more easily, worsening complications.

    The researchers published their findings in Disease Surveillance, a Chinese peer-reviewed journal.

    Blame Game Heats Up

    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit China with new allegations over the global coronavirus crisis on Friday, saying the US government “has reason to believe that several researchers” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology had become “sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

    The diplomat referred to scientific reports from last year that the Wuhan lab had been involved in researching a bat coronavirus with a 96.2 percent whole-genome level identical to SARS-Cov-2, and accused lab officials of failing to be “transparent” or “consistent about its work” with the genetically similar virus. Pompeo also accused the lab of collaborating with the Chinese Defence Ministry on secret projects.

    Pompeo’s remarks followed the arrival in Wuhan of a ten-person team of World Health Organisation (WHO) scientists earlier this week, with their mission including studying the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including just how the novel coronavirus was able to jump from bats to humans.

    The US and China have spent nearly a year arguing about the virus’s origins, with Washington and its allies claiming last spring that it may have escaped from the Wuhan biolab, and China countering by suggesting the US Army may have spread the virus in the city during the 2019 Military World Games. Neither side has offered conclusive evidence to back up their claims. However, media investigations in the summer of 2020 revealed that Chinese, American, Canadian and Australian scientists and institutions all collaborated heavily at the Wuhan lab, including in experiments involving bat coronaviruses. The US National Institutes of Public Health, for example, reportedly committed some $3.7 million in grant money for bat virus transmission research.

    This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (C) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.
    © AFP 2021 / HECTOR RETAMAL
    This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory (C) on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on May 13, 2020.
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