COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 30, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Is a Chinese BSL-4 Lab accidentally responsible for the pandemic?

There are two virus research-related facilities in Wuhan- Wuhan Institute of Virology and the other is the Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Unlike Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which is closer to the alleged wet market responsible for the pandemic, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is located a certain distance from the Hunan seafood market. It is a biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, lab, meaning it incorporates the highest level of security, and went online there in 2018. The BSL-4 lab's construction came out of long-standing cooperative ties between China and France. But France was also part of the international community that pointed out a flaw in the framework for ensuring the safety of virus research in China. What has also drawn attention is that Chinese President Xi Jinping was talking about enacting a "biosafety law" at the earliest during an executive meeting of the party's Central Committee on Feb. 14. On Oct. 21 last year, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament received its first report detailing the draft biosecurity law. Another controversy that has also gained traction is bats native to the provinces of Yunnan and Zhejiang -- and that do not live in Wuhan -- were suspected to be the virus's carrier.

Africa Braces for a Record Wave of Locusts

A new swarm threatens to be the largest ever, threatens food security across much of East Africa as it braces for the full impact of the coronavirus. The flood waters swamped bean and corn fields and created a breeding ground for a swarm of desert locusts (the size of Manhattan) that fanned out, destroying a swath of farmland across eight East African nations earlier this year. Now their offspring are threatening a historic infestation—a second wave of locusts, 20 times as large as the first, that the U.N. warns could chew their way through 2 million square miles of pastureland, farms and gardens, around half the size of Western Europe.

What do China two sessions in May mean for domestic, global economies?

China has set the date for this year's "two sessions" - the annual meetings of its top legislative body and top consultative body - in late May. The two sessions will reinforce the victory China won over the coronavirus. The meetings are expected to fully expedite economic recovery across the country. The upcoming two sessions are expected to focus on two economic topics. First they will look at how to coordinate the scientific fight against the virus, a full economic recovery and people's livelihoods. Second, they will set work priorities, targets and tasks for this year's national economic and social development. How China responds to the complex and changing international situation will also become a major focus of the two sessions. Some in the US, Japan and European countries have called their companies to move their factories out of China, in part to shift blame. The relationship between China and the world and the relationship between the world's biggest powers will be important topics.

Japan to extend state of emergency

Japan's government plans to extend a nationwide state of emergency beyond May 6, as the country's coronavirus outbreak has yet to subside. The public could be urged to stay at home for about one month longer under a proposal to be discussed at an expert meeting on May 01. Japan had 13,944 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 435 deaths as of April 29. Abe said that announcing an extension too close to the May 6 end date "will lead to confusion." The prime minister aims to give the public some time to prepare by making an announcement after the meeting on May 01 and finalizing details as early as May 04. Possibilities include extending the state of emergency until the end of May or until June 7. Public transportation and stores selling daily necessities, like supermarkets, can continue to operate. Residents still can go to the hospital, shop for necessities, and take walks outside.

Oman tells state firms to fire expats, hire locals: ONA

Oman's finance ministry told state companies on April 29 to replace foreign workers with locals, as part of efforts to develop the national workforce, state-owned Oman News Agency reported. More than a third of Oman's 4.6 million residents are expatriates, according to official statistics. The move is part of the government's so-called "Omanisation" policy, which is aimed at improving the number and quality of jobs available for Omani citizens. Low oil prices and the economic slowdown caused by the new coronavirus outbreak are straining the finances of Oman, a relatively small energy producer with debt rated "junk" by all the major rating agencies.

Pompeo: US will stop Iran buying weapons when UN lifts arms embargo

The United States insisted on April 29 it would not allow Iran buy conventional weapons when a UN arms embargo is lifted later this year. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the world realizes that Tehran cannot be allowed to be sold weapons systems while it continues to wreak havoc in the Middle East. The embargo is due to expire in October and the US is hoping to find a way to get the UN Security Council to agree to extend and strengthen the measure. “We’re not going to let that happen,” Pompeo said when asked about the embargo expiring. Pompeo said the US would work with the Security Council to extend the prohibition, but if that failed, it would evaluate “every possibility.” Pompeo also accused Iran of flying support to Venezuela - another country that the US is targeting with heavy sanctions.

IMF calls on world to make green recovery from COVID-19

Fiscal measures implemented by governments against the novel coronavirus need to be harmonized to combat climate change and ensure an environmentally sustainable recovery from the pandemic, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on April 29. "If this recovery is to be sustainable—if our world is to become more resilient—we must do everything in our power to promote a green recovery," said Kristalina Georgieva. Georgieva noted that taking measures now to fight the climate crisis is not just a “nice-to-have” but a must-have if we are to leave a better world for our children. "When governments provide financial lifelines to carbon-intensive companies, they should mandate commitments to reduce carbon emissions," she said. Recalling the 2008 global financial crisis, she said some automakers committed to higher fuel efficiency standards then. "With oil prices at record-low levels, now is the time to phase out harmful subsidies," she said, adding governments need to prioritize investment in green technologies, clean transport, sustainable agriculture and climate resilience.

Pakistan braced for COVID-19 peak in late June as daily death rate hits record high

Pakistan would likely see the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases peak around the end of June, the government’s planning minister announced on April 29 as the country recorded its highest daily death rate since the start of the outbreak. Speaking at a media briefing in Islamabad, Asad Umer, who heads the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), said: “On the basis of available data from the last two months and also after analyzing world data, we are expecting the peak of COVID-19 in Pakistan somewhere between the end of June and early July.” The NCOC has been responsible for coordinating Pakistan’s response to the deadly virus pandemic. It consists of provincial and federal institutions as well as the military and its standing committee is chaired by Mirza. “Federal and provincial information ministries are also part of the NCOC to help us spread relevant information,” Umer added.

Hazardous material: Dealing with the vast medical waste of the Covid-19 pandemic

Across the world authorities have been scrambling to supply health workers with equipment needed to treat the surge of Covid-19 patients. But a new problem is emerging: How to deal with the vast amounts of medical waste the pandemic is creating, including the masks, gloves, gowns and other protective gear used by doctors and nurses, all of which could be contaminated by the virus. “We had to implement a number of important measures, such as almost doubling our mechanical treatment capacity, doubling our teams in place in order to ensure all the treatment. And also, working seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Joël Keller, director of treatment at Vandoeuvre-lés-Nancy plant in eastern France, told AFP. Once delivered from hospitals across the country the waste is incinerated at temperatures of 1100°C. But not all medical waste is treated so carefully. Photos published by news agency Reuters earlier this month appeared to show medical workers at a New York hospital disposing of equipment in a public bin on a street, moments after transferring bodies to a refrigerated truck.

China’s Medical-Goods Market Is ‘Wild West’ Amid Surging Coronavirus Demand

Urgent late night inspections at Chinese mask factories. Hurried million-dollar wire transfers to secure ventilator deals. Middlemen lurking outside a Shanghai factory offering masks of unknown provenance… China’s supply chain for medical goods is devolving into a free-for-all as foreign governments, hospitals and businesses—and all their middlemen—descend on the country to secure ventilators and masks and other protective gear. Inundated with prospective buyers, Chinese factories are taking advantage of their plum position, dictating buying conditions and demanding advance payments in full, while buyers must quickly vet newly-minted vendors, sometimes by video from the other side of the world.

US GDP falls 4.8% in worst economic decline since 2008

The US economy shrank in the first quarter by its fastest rate since the 2008 financial crisis, ending the longest expansion on record as lockdowns aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic choked off economic activity. Gross domestic product, or the value of all goods and services produced by the economy, shrank at a 4.8 per cent annualised rate in the first three months of the year, according to the preliminary estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis published on April 29. That marked the steepest drop since the 8.4 per cent contraction at the end of 2008 and compared with economists’ forecasts for a narrower 4 per cent decline in output. The blow to the American consumer, the biggest driver of US economic growth, was evident in a 7.6 per cent drop in personal consumption, which marked the biggest decline since 1980. Counter-intuitively, healthcare was one of the sectors that provided the biggest drag on the economy, as hospitals stopped performing lucrative elective procedures in order to focus on dealing with coronavirus patients.

Fed warns of lasting ‘medium-term’ economic damage

In its statement on April 29, the Federal Open Market Committee stopped short of any big new monetary policy action or guidance, after injecting a heavy dose of stimulus to prop up the economy and markets in the past two months. FOMC said it would keep rates close to zero “until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals” — using the same language as in March. During his press conference, Mr Powell said the Fed would move “forcefully, proactively and aggressively” to support the economy, but added a call for further action from Congress and the White House, saying “direct fiscal support” might be needed to “limit long-lasting damage”. More than $3tn in fiscal stimulus measures have been put in place, and negotiations are starting on a new package. Mr Powell said this was the time to use “the great fiscal power of the United States”. Mr Powell pointed to three big medium-term risk factors: the fact that the trajectory of the virus was still “shrouded in uncertainty”, the danger the US would lose some of its productive capacity as workers became disconnected from the labour force, and the global dimension of the crisis.

EU split over halting bailouts for tax haven firms

Of the EU-27, France, Poland, and Denmark have so far proposed barring companies that are based, or have subsidiaries, in tax havens from receiving coronavirus-linked bailouts. Italy may soon join them after Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio added his voice to calls to tackle tax havens. But Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands differ as they take in tax revenues from profits made in other countries, via incentives to house the headquarters of foreign firms. The Netherlands reportedly takes in $10 billion of corporate tax from other EU countries per year, with France and Italy taking 2.7 billion pounds and 1.5 billion pounds respectively, according to The Tax Justice Network. The Tax Justice Network, which tracks corporate tax avoidance, claims $500 billion (€460 billion) in tax every year is lost from multinational corporations. It noted that this was 250 times greater than the UN's appeal for a $2 billion fund to tackle coronavirus in the world's poorest countries, which has yet to be met. Meanwhile, the European Commission confirmed on April 24 that its existing rules allow individual EU countries to block coronavirus aid from going to companies based in tax havens. Tax experts believe such national measures could help boost transparency and moves toward a level playing field in global corporate taxation.

U.S. Tags Amazon Sites as ‘Notorious Markets’

The Trump administration accused Inc. of tolerating counterfeit sales on its online platforms in foreign countries, prompting the e-commerce giant to respond that the hit was politically motivated. The U.S. trade representative’s office on April 29 put Amazon’s web domains in Canada, France, Germany, India, and the U.K. on its “notorious markets” list of platforms that are believed to facilitate intellectual-property violations. Although the list carries no legal weight, it is meant to draw attention and focus scrutiny on a company’s practices. Amazon appears alongside services such as MP3Juice, Rutracker and illegal file-sharing site The Pirate Bay. Chinese ecommerce site Pinduoduo was also included on this year’s list, and Alibaba has made an appearance in years past. Last year, Amazon sued the US Department of Defense after being passed over for a $10bn cloud computing contract by the Pentagon, which selected Microsoft instead. In what was seen as another targeting of Amazon’s business, the president has urged the US Postal Service to increase what it charged online retailers for handling packages as it contends with a budget shortfall due to Covid-19.

Russia’s Aging Infrastructure Threatens Oil Output Pact

Russia faces considerable obstacles to cutting production, such as low-yielding fields that are expensive to maintain and restart. Russia’s adherence to a hard-fought oil production deal with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. could be imperilled by its aging industrial infrastructure and the unique challenges of winding down a broad network of wells across its vast landmass. Moscow, Riyadh and Washington agreed in early April to lead a multinational coalition that aims to cut 13% of global oil production through the end of June. The curbs are meant to address a sharp drop in demand caused by global travel restrictions and business shutdowns.

Air traffic plunges 53% in March 2020 – IATA

World air traffic suffered a massive drop of more than half in March compared with the same period last year thanks to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, the airline industry's trade body said April 29. The 52.9% drop when measured by total revenue per passenger kilometres "was the largest decline in recent history, reflecting the impact of government actions to slow the spread of COVID-19," said the International Air Transport Association (IATA).Many of the roughly 290 airlines who are members of the association have been hard hit by the slump in air travel demand with much of the world in lockdown as governments fight to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Those airlines together represent 82% of global air traffic. United States aerospace giant Boeing and British Airways have notably announced this week they expect to make thousands of job cuts after traffic volume fell to levels not seen since 2006.

Coronavirus: China’s hi-tech hub Shenzhen suffered record economic contraction in first quarter of 2020

Shenzhen’s economy shrank by 6.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, marking the worst performance in the city’s 40-year history, as China’s Silicon Valley was unable to avoid the impact of the coronavirus. China’s hi-tech hub across the border from Hong Kong is the home to the likes of Huawei, ZTE and Tencent. Shenzhen, which officially has a larger economy than Hong Kong, is facing a testing year as production and services contracted while the city’s property prices kept rising. The province of Guangdong, in which Shenzhen is located, reported a 6.7 per cent economic contraction in the same period.“I think the second quarter is very critical for Shenzhen or the Greater Bay Area. It is difficult to say whether the economy can return to positive growth in the second quarter, but we see that March's economic situation has eased compared to February,” said Guo Wanda, vice-president of the China Development Institute, a Shenzhen-based think tank.

Germany’s Das Coronavirus Podcast: Christian Drosten on Immunity after Virus Illness

Christian Drosten: I continue to fully assume that there is an immunity that may wane after two years or maybe a little longer. We even see in the first patients that we track that the antibodies themselves drop after two months in some individual patients. But antibodies are only a correlate, so only an indication of immunity. It is not that the antibodies alone make and manage immunity. They are just an indicator of an infection that has passed. So I would rather consider the situation at the moment. I wouldn't say an ELISA or antibody test like that is proof of immunity. Those who are positive are immune. I would rather say that whoever is positive has survived the disease. If this is a technically clean test, we have already talked about it; there is a lot of chance of error. But if the error is excluded, it is an infection that has survived. Then I would continue to argue that surviving infection provides protection. It doesn't have to be sterile immunity. So it doesn't have to be a situation where I can't get the virus at all. That's how it will be in the beginning, after the infection I can't get infected again. But after a time, a year and a half, two or three years, I can become infected with the same virus again.

Hopes rise in COVID-19 battle as US scientists hail remdesivir drug trial

US scientists on April 29 hailed a potential breakthrough in the coronavirus fight as a trial showed patients responding to antiviral drug remdesivir, fuelling global hopes for a return to normal. The medical news was enough to propel a rebound on Wall Street even after data showed the pandemic had plunged the United States into its worst economic slump in a decade and Germany predicted its biggest recession since the aftermath of World War II.In the first proof of successful treatment against the illness that has claimed more than 226,000 lives globally, a clinical trial of the drug remdesivir showed that patients recovered more than 30 per cent quicker than those on a placebo. Dr Anthony Fauci, who oversaw the study, told reporters at the White House: "The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery." The trial, which involved 1,063 people across 68 locations in the US, Europe and Asia, showed that "a drug can block this virus", Fauci said.

Academics probe links between coronavirus and toxic air pollution

The limited amount of academic research on the subject includes a report by researchers at Harvard University, which is currently being peer-reviewed, that looked at fatalities from the virus and historic levels of dangerous particulate matter known as PM 2.5 across 3,000 US counties. The researchers — who adjusted for variables including population size, availability of hospital beds, levels of obesity and smoking — found that small increases in particle pollution levels in the years before the pandemic were associated with an 8 per cent rise in death rates “The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the Covid-19 crisis,” they wrote. Regular and long-term exposure to air pollutants is linked with a range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer. A sufferer of one of these underlying conditions who contracts Covid-19 is more likely to die than someone in good health. Yet the academic research on the links between coronavirus and air pollution is preliminary, and indicates a correlation rather than causation.

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