Asian Insider, Jan 19: India asks WhatsApp to withdraw privacy policy; Taro Kono to be vaccine minister

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents and commentators.

Hi all, 

In today’s bulletin: WHO panel report says China had Covid-19 related information in Dec 2019; Chinese city rushes to build quarantine centre; India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy; Indonesia and Malaysia to fight palm oil criticism in Europe; Japan’s new Covid-19 vaccine minister, and more.

Reading this on the web or know someone who might enjoy receiving Asian Insider? Our sign-up page is here.

China had Covid-19 related evidence in Dec 2019, says WHO panel

A World Health Organisation (WHO) panel has said China had some information about the novel coronavirus in December 2019 and could have moved quickly and decisively to contain the outbreak. 

The statement is contained in an interim report that details how governments and public health organisations worldwide responded slowly and ineffectively to the pandemic despite years of warnings. The interim report, authored by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, includes missteps by WHO itself. 

China had genome sequencing evidence that a novel virus was circulating in Wuhan in December 2019, the panel says in the report although details in the 34-page report are thin. To tackle the virus, country after country repeated the mistakes made by China, it notes.

The panel's statement comes as the WHO as well as the United States have urged China to allow a team of experts visiting the country to interview "care givers, former patients and lab workers" in the central city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and to give them access to medical data.

Chinese city rushes to build quarantine centre

China's Shijiazhuang city, in the country's north, is building thousands of prefabricated rooms on the outskirts of the city, on a scale reminiscent of its efforts in Wuhan early last year, as coronavirus infections rapidly spread. 

The construction commenced on Jan 13 soon after millions of people were placed under lockdown as infections spread and work is reportedly going on round the clock. The facility is expected to have enough rooms to hold more than 4,000 people once it is completed, CCTV said today. In a nearby province, over 20,000 people are already serving quarantine. 

This is just one of the indicators of the state of high alert in the country as the nation prepares for the Chinese New Year holiday when millions of city dwellers are expected to travel to their provinces. 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong seemed set to impose new measures, expand mandatory testing, and extend current restrictions with Covid-19 cases continuing to rise.

Also read:

Taiwan cancels major lantern festival as domestic Covid-19 cases rise

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw privacy policy update

In a surprise turn of events, India's technology ministry has asked WhatsApp to withdraw changes to its privacy policy on grounds that it could away choices for Indian users. The Facebook-owned tech company is reportedly considering the move with India being one of its biggest markets.

WhatsApp's announcement of a change in usage policy has sparked confusion and criticism worldwide and saw several users moving to social media platforms such as Telegram and Signal. Some reports hint that WhatsApp could delay the new policy from Feb to May.

Indonesia, Malaysia eye joint campaign in Europe to counter palm oil critics

South-east Asian neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia are coming together to join forces for the first time to run an advocacy campaign in Europe, where increasingly tight regulations are threatening palm oil sales, in their third-biggest market. A search is on for an advocacy firm for now.

Together, the two countries produce majority of the world's palm oil. However, the two have been accused of clearing vast areas of rich rainforests in their countries and exploiting migrant workers.

Japan taps Taro Kono as Covid-19 vaccine minister

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has tasked former Defence Minister Taro Kono with leading the country's vaccination drive, set to begin in February. Mr Kono has been seen as a potential rival to the PM and the announcement comes at a time when Mr Suga's ratings have been falling with people saying his administration has not moved fast enough to contain the pandemic.

In other news …

Chinese researchers clone jungle cat: A team of researchers at the Qingdao Agricultural University in Shandong province claims to have successfully cloned a jungle cat using a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. The researchers say this could enable them to study animal diseases further, develop new drugs and protect endangered species.

Qatar sovereign wealth fund plans Asia push: Qatar's sovereign wealth fund is looking east for deals in an effort to diversify an investment portfolio heavily weighted toward North America and Europe. This was mentioned by Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who is also the chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, which manages about US$300 billion (S$399 billion) of assets. 

South Korea's coding prodigy eyes IPO: Former child computer prodigy Kim Chang-han, who helped create one of the most successful games of all time called PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, or PUBG in 2017, is planning an initial public offering in mid-to-late 2021, that could be South Korea's biggest in years.

Thanks for reading today’s newsletter. We will be back tomorrow.     

Shefali