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WHO team set to visit Wuhan in January to probe Covid origins

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A World Health Organization team set up to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic is set to arrive in China in January, amid criticism from the US over the probe’s scope and transparency.

Questions of how, where and when the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, first began infecting humans are central to scientists’ efforts to avoid the next outbreak. 

More than a year after cases were first discovered in central Wuhan, a WHO-convened team of specialists hoped to arrive China in January, said the global health organisation.

Scientific research into the source of the outbreak has found similar, but non-identical, strains of the virus in horseshoe bats, and one popular theory suggests that the virus was then transmitted to an intermediary host before making the jump to humans. Many details of the process, however, remain unclear.

The debate has stoked the worst diplomatic feud between Washington and Beijing in decades. The Trump administration has repeatedly blamed China for failures in detecting and controlling the virus, and accused Beijing of concealing important details of the early outbreak.

Beijing maintains that the virus’s origins are unclear and that it could have come from outside China. Both sides have dabbled in conspiracy theories suggesting the virus may have been man-made or leaked from a lab.

“It’s really not about finding a guilty country,” Fabian Leendertz, a biologist at Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and one of the experts on the team, told the Associated Press. “It’s about trying to understand what happened.”

One early hypothesis that linked “patient zero” to a Wuhan market, which sold wild animals, is now considered unlikely because many early cases had no obvious connection to the location.

At a meeting of the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body, in May, member states agreed that a team of international experts should travel to China to conduct research into the origins. 

But the advance team for the investigation failed to travel to Wuhan, sparking criticism from US diplomats that the WHO was allowing China to dictate terms.

Terms of reference for the investigation released in early November again drew Washington’s ire by stating that the team of international experts would “augment, rather than duplicate” studies already carried out by China. 

The US, in response, said the terms were “not negotiated in a transparent way” and labelled them “inconsistent” with the investigation’s mandate.

WHO experts have since said that the team will both review Chinese studies and consider whether additional research is required.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said this month that Wuhan studies “looking at the first cases that were detected are really, really critical”.

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Ebay to sell South Korea unit for $3.1bn as local rivals target Coupang

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Ebay is set to sell its South Korea business to a local consortium for $3.1bn, according to people with knowledge of the matter, as rivals seek to turn up the heat on SoftBank-backed Coupang in the world’s fourth-largest ecommerce market.

The consortium, which consists of South Korea’s biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer E-Mart and internet group Naver, plans to buy an 80 per cent stake in eBay Korea for Won3.5tn ($3.1bn) with the US company retaining the remainder, said the people.

The purchase could help the consortium to overtake fast-growing Coupang, which raised $4.6bn in an initial public offering in New York in March to become the biggest player in South Korea’s highly competitive ecommerce market. Japanese technology group SoftBank is a large investor in Coupang.

Ebay Korea was the country’s third-largest ecommerce company with a 13 per cent market share last year, according to research group Euromonitor. Its three platforms — Gmarket, Auction and G9 — recorded Won20tn in transactions last year, data from Meritz Securities showed.

Euromonitor has forecast that South Korea’s ecommerce market will grow by 11 per cent this year to $116bn. But it is a fragmented market of more than a dozen players, with Coupang and Naver controlling 19 per cent and 14 per cent shares in terms of transaction volume, respectively.

South Korea is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing ecommerce markets, driven by its tech-savvy population, high-speed internet infrastructure and densely populated environment. Ecommerce accounted for 35.8 per cent of the retail market last year, compared with 28.6 per cent in 2019, Euromonitor data showed.

E-Mart plans to fund the deal with Won3tn of asset-backed loans with the remainder paid by its cash holdings, while Naver will contribute Won100bn, according to an industry official close to the situation.

“Despite the funding structure, E-Mart needs Naver to make up for its weak online networks,” said the official.

Conglomerate Lotte Group and E-Mart were the final bidders for eBay Korea. Both have struggled to catch up with Coupang, which is investing heavily in logistics to boost its delivery times. Coupang almost doubled its revenues last year to $12bn as more consumers shifted to online shopping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Both Lotte and E-Mart were eager to take over eBay’s operations but E-Mart offered about Won500bn more,” added the industry official.

Naver is one of Korea’s most popular internet portals and more than 40 per cent of eBay Korea’s customers access it via the former’s search engine.

Shinsegae, E-Mart’s parent company, and Naver partnered in March by swapping stakes in each other worth Won250bn.

Ebay Korea declined to comment. E-Mart said in a regulatory filing that it was in talks with eBay but a sale had not been finalised. Naver said in a separate filing that the deal had not been concluded.



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ByteDance revenues more than doubled in 2020 to $34.3bn

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ByteDance increased its revenues 111 per cent last year to $34bn and had 1.9bn monthly users across its apps at the end of the year, said its incoming chief executive Liang Rubo on Thursday, according to people familiar with the matter.

The owner of the short-video apps TikTok and Douyin recorded a surge in users as coronavirus lockdowns across the world left people searching for more entertainment online. Douyin, the Chinese sister app to TikTok, was ByteDance’s largest driver of revenue and has become a destination for shoppers looking to buy products from livestreaming presenters.

Facebook, the world’s biggest social media group, reported 2.85bn monthly users as of March 31.

ByteDance recorded an annual gross profit of $19bn but a net loss of $45bn for the year because of non-cash items including share-based compensation and fair-value changes of its shares, and heavy investment in new businesses, the people said. The company had 110,000 employees at the end of they year.

The financials were first reported by the Wall Street Journal and Chinese media.

Its chief rival in China, Kuaishou, reported a net loss of $15.4bn on $8.5bn in revenue last year — four times less than ByteDance — and 481m monthly users during the period. Kuaishou is trading in Hong Kong at a market capitalisation of HK$801bn ($103bn), while ByteDance has yet to reveal its plans for an initial public offering.

ByteDance raised about $5bn in December at a $180bn valuation, according to people familiar with the matter. The Beijing-based company is the world’s most valuable start-up, according to CB Insights. 

Liang made his first all-hands staff meeting speech on Thursday after he began the transition to chief executive last month, following founder Zhang Yiming’s announcement that he would step down at the end of the year. Zhang said he wanted to focus on innovation and “longer-term initiatives”.

Liang, a ByteDance co-founder who staff regard as Zhang’s loyal right-hand man, was previously head of human resources. Even after a six-month handover period, staff said they expected him to not make big changes and to continue taking direction from Zhang.

As Beijing increases its scrutiny of tech giants, several high-profile founders and chiefs have stepped back this year. Colin Huang stepped down as chair of ecommerce platform Pinduoduo in March, days after Eric Jing resigned as chief of Ant Group.

Liang told employees he was disclosing the financial figures as part of a drive for greater transparency at the company.



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Coronavirus latest: Royal Caribbean delays inaugural sailing of ship due to Covid cases

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Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’
Monique Roffey in London with a poster of her novel ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’, which is published in paperback this month by Vintage © Monique Roffey

In April 2020, as coronavirus spread around the world, Monique Roffey published her seventh book.

She went with UK-based Peepal Tree Press, a small Caribbean-focused independent company, to publish The Mermaid of Black Conch after the majors rejected her fantastical tale of a mermaid from another era.

“Indie published me in the eye of the storm,” Roffey says. “I did everything I could to get it noticed.”

The Trinidadian-born author crowdfunded £4,500 for a publicist for her novel but as the healthcare crisis took hold she feared her mermaid tale would slide by unnoticed.

She was struggling to pay the rent while the Covid-19 crisis cancelled book tours and festivals.

“Covid was potentially disastrous for my book,” she says. “It was in danger of falling into the Covid chasm.”

But then the lyrical tale of loneliness, love and otherness caught the attention of the literary world and judges applauded it. In January, the novel won the prestigious £30,000 Costa book award, with judges calling it “extraordinary”, “captivating” and “full of mythic energy and unforgettable characters”.

And, bingo, suddenly everyone wanted to read about the mermaid Aycayia, says Roffey, who (full disclosure) attended the same school in the outskirts of Port-of-Spain as I did. 

The story has sold about 60,000 copies in print and online and this month it is published in paperback format by Vintage. For two consecutive weeks this year the novel topped The Times bestseller list. Film rights could well be next.

“Against all the odds, I have done well during Covid,” Roffey says from her home in London. “In 20 years of writing, with many ups and downs, I have seen nothing quite like this.”

Her novel of fantasy and folklore tapped into a desire for reading and imagination during the dark days of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Roffey joined many authors pivoting online with book launches and literary festivals, which meant she gained global readers.

“In 2020, the nation turned to books for comfort, escapism and relaxation,” says the Publishers Association, the UK’s trade organisation that serves book and journal publishers. “Reading triumphed, with adults and children alike reading more during lockdown than before.”

Income from fiction rose 16 per cent last year to £688m, while the total for consumer publications rose 7 per cent in the UK to £2.1bn, the UK trade body says. 

“Basically a book, which was roundly ignored, rejected, published in the first Covid wave and that nobody registered,” was relaunched, Roffey says.

From nobody wanting the book, suddenly billboards of its cover are cropping up around town, she adds.

This is the sixth article in a series for the blog that explores the effects of the pandemic on people and businesses around the world



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