WHO warns of global shortage of equipment to fight coronavirus

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    WASHINGTON/GENEVA. — The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday warned of a global shortage and price gouging for protective equipment to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus and asked companies and governments to increase production by 40% as the death toll from the respiratory illness mounted.

    Meanwhile, the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates on Tuesday in an emergency move to try to prevent a global recession and the World Bank announced $12 billion to help countries fight the coronavirus, which has taken a heavy toll on air travel, tourism and other industries, threatening global economic growth prospects.

    The virus continued to spread in South Korea, Japan, Europe, Iran and the United States, and several countries reported their first confirmed cases, taking the total to some 80 nations hit with the flu-like illness that can lead to pneumonia.

    Despite the Fed’s attempt to stem the economic fallout from the coronavirus, US stock indexes closed down about 3%, safe-haven gold rose 3% and analysts and investors questioned whether the rate cut will be enough if the virus continues to spread.

    US lawmakers were considering spending as much as $9 billion to contain local spread of the virus.

    In Iran, doctors and nurses lack supplies and 77 people have died, one of the highest numbers outside China. The United Arab Emirates announced it was closing all schools for four weeks.

    The death toll in Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit country, jumped to 79 on Tuesday and Italian officials are considering expanding the area under quarantine. France reported its fourth coronavirus death, while Indonesia, Ukraine, Argentina and Chile reported their first coronavirus cases.

    About 3.4% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have died, far above seasonal flu’s fatality rate of under 1%, but the virus can be contained, the WHO chief said on Tuesday.

    “To summarize, COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

    Health officials have said the death rate is 2% to 4% depending on the country and may be much lower if there are thousands of unreported mild cases of the disease.

    Since the coronavirus outbreak, prices of surgical masks have increased six-fold, N95 respirators have tripled in cost and protective gowns cost twice as much, the WHO said.

    It estimates healthcare workers each month will need 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million pairs of goggles.

    The coronavirus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has spread around the world, with more new cases now appearing outside China than inside.

    There are almost 91,000 cases globally of which more than 80,000 are in China. China’s death toll was 2,946, with more than 166 fatalities elsewhere.

    In a unanimous decision, the Fed said it was cutting rates by a half percentage point to a target range of 1.00% to 1.25%.

    Finance ministers from the G7 group of rich countries were ready to take action, including fiscal measures where appropriate, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said. Central banks would continue to support price stability and economic growth.

    AGGRESSIVE
    CONTAINMENT

    In the United States, there are now over 100 people in at least a dozen states with the coronavirus and nine deaths, all in the Seattle area.

    Amid criticism of Americans not being able to get tested for coronavirus unless they met certain limited criteria, US Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday that anyone can now get tested with a doctor’s order under new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    New York state reported its second case, a man in his 50s who works in Manhattan and has been hospitalized.

    The public transportation agency in New York, the most densely populated major US city of more than 8 million, said on Twitter it was deploying “enhanced sanitizing procedures” for stations, train cars, buses and certain vehicles.

    China has seen coronavirus cases fall sharply, with 129 in the last 24 hours the lowest reported since Jan. 20.

    With the world’s second largest economy struggling to get back on track, China is increasingly concerned about the virus being brought back into the country by citizens returning from new hotspots elsewhere.

    Travelers entering Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy would have to be quarantined for 14 days, a city official said. Shanghai has introduced a similar order.

    The worst outbreak outside China is in South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in declared war on the virus, ordering additional hospital beds and more masks as cases rose by 600 to nearly 5,000, with 34 deaths.

    WHO officials also expressed concerns about the situation in Iran, saying doctors lacked respirators and ventilators needed for patients with severe cases.

    WHO emergency program head Michael Ryan said the need in Iran was “more acute” than for other countries.

    While the case numbers in Iran appear to be bad, he said, “things tend to look worse before getting better.”

    The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday said the summer games in Tokyo set to begin on July 24 were still expected to happen despite Japan having nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases and 12 deaths. Health officials said they would continue to monitor the situation in Japan before any final decision on the Olympics is made.

    DRUGS VS VIRUS

    TOKYO. – Takeda Pharmaceutical Co said on Wednesday it was developing a drug for high-risk patients infected with the new coronavirus, joining several other drugmakers seeking to develop a treatment for an illness that has killed over 3,000 people.

    The Japanese firm said it was working on a plasma-derived therapy which had previously been shown to be effective in treatment of severe acute viral respiratory infections.

    Its research would require antibodies from patients who have recovered from the coronavirus infections or who have been vaccinated, once a vaccine has been developed.

    “By transferring the antibodies to a new patient, it may help that person’s immune system respond to the infection and increase their chance of recovery,” Takeda said in a statement.

    It is also studying whether its currently marketed or pipeline products might be effective treatments for infected patients, the company said, adding those efforts were at an early stage.

    Takeda joins other drugmakers working on developing drugs to treat the flu-like disease which has struck more than 90,000 people worldwide.

    US-based Gilead Sciences Inc said last week it had started two late-stage studies to test its drug, remdesivir, in patients with severe and moderate cases of the illness.

    Pfizer Inc said on Monday it had identified certain antiviral compounds it has in development that have the potential to inhibit coronaviruses and is engaging with a third party to screen the compounds.

    FACEBOOK WEIGHS IN

    Facebook Inc. will provide free advertisements to the WHO as it seeks to ensure users are not misinformed about the virus, its risks and how to react to it, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said on Tuesday.

    “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support,” Zuckerberg said in the Facebook post.

    Users who search for posts on the virus on Facebook would now see a pop-up that directs them to the WHO or local health authority for the latest information, Zuckerberg said.

    He also pledged again that the company would remove false claims and conspiracy theories flagged by leading global health organizations to help combat misinformation about the coronavirus.

    Facebook will be working with global health experts and give support and “millions more in ad credits” to other organizations.

    In February, the company said it would ban advertisements for products offering any cures or prevention around the coronavirus outbreak, and those that create a sense of urgency around the situation.

    MORE DEATHS

    Three more deaths from the coronavirus were reported by Washington state on Tuesday as the nation’s largest and only fatal outbreak of the respiratory disease reached beyond the Seattle area in what appeared to be the first known instance of coast-to-coast transmission.

    A North Carolina resident tested positive after returning from a trip to Washington state, where the individual was exposed, and apparently infected, during a visit to a nursing facility at the center of a recent surge in cases in suburban Seattle.

    The total number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus in the greater Seattle area rose to 27 on Tuesday, including nine deaths, up from 18 cases and six deaths tallied on Monday, the state Department of Health reported.

    AUSSIE PANIC-BUYING

    SYDNEY. – Australia’s major grocers put strict limits on purchases of toilet paper on Wednesday, after shoppers stripped shelves in a rush of panic buying spurred by fears over a coronavirus, while the country recorded its fourth case of local transmission.

    One of the first nations to take a hard line in tackling the epidemic, Australia imposed border controls a month ago on visitors from the epicentre of the outbreak in China.

    However, Australia now has 44 cases, four of them involving people who caught the disease despite not having left the country.

    Despite the few sufferers compared to countries such as Iran and South Korea, social media has been awash in recent days with photographs and videos of people stockpiling goods, from staples to sanitisers.

    The demand for toilet paper, in particular, has sparked the trending hashtags #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis on Twitter, along with photographs of overloaded shopping trolleys, and calls for calm from baffled officials.

    “We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time,” Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a parliamentary panel on Wednesday.

    The biggest grocery chain, Woolworths Group Ltd, limited sales to four packs a shopper, to keep up stock levels while suppliers ramp up production. The local arm of Costco Wholesale Corp limited buyers to one bulk buy pack each.

    Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weighed in on a purchasing trend that appears to be at odds with other countries’ stockpiling of items with a long shelf-life, such as tinned goods, telling the public major grocers had assured him they could meet any spike in demand. – Reuters