Bright alleges he was ousted from a high-level scientific post after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic.

Testifying on Thursday, Bright said, “We don’t have [a vaccine plan] yet, and it is a significant concern.” Asked if lawmakers should be worried, Bright responded, “absolutely”.

Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefence agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the country needs a plan to establish a supply chain for producing tens of millions of doses of a vaccine, and then allocating and distributing them fairly. He said experience so far with an antiviral drug that has been found to benefit Covid-19 patients has not given him much confidence about distribution. Hospital pharmacies have reported problems getting limited supplies.

The White House has begun what it calls “Operation Warp Speed” to quickly produce, distribute and administer a vaccine once it becomes available.

US President Donald Trump on Thursday dismissed Bright in a tweet as “a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”

Eager to restart the US economy, Trump has been urging states to lift restrictions, and many governors are doing so gradually, though consumers remain leery of going back to restaurants, social events and sporting competitions.

China gives new details of pandemic response

China said it did not know until January 19 how infectious the new coronavirus is, pushing back against accusations that it intentionally withheld information about the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan from the world.

While Chinese officials knew that there were signs of human-to-human transmission earlier, it was hard to ascertain the new virus’s level of contagiousness, said Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission, at a press briefing in Beijing on Friday. There are diseases like HIV that while infectious, are not easily transmitted from person to person, he said.

It was only on January 19 that Chinese scientists concluded that the virus spreads easily among people and China released that information to the world the next day, said Zeng.

The accounting of events from top officials came as China faces growing blame for a delay in sounding the alarm about the coronavirus, which allowed people to spread it unwittingly for some time. Zeng was responding to an Associated Press report in April that cited confidential documents showing Chinese officials waited six days before President Xi Jinping warned the public of the dangers of the virus outbreak.

Giving a rundown of events since the crisis began, Zeng said that China concluded on January 19 that it was dealing with a novel coronavirus and began developing test kits the next day. On January 12, it informed the World Health Organisation about the outbreak.

On January 14, a national meeting of provincial health officials was held. “Many uncertainties remained. We understood there’s more research needed on human-to-human transmission and we couldn’t rule out the chance of a further spread of the virus,” said Zeng. “But we couldn’t reach conclusions to many questions.”

The pandemic has revived tensions between the world’s two largest economies. China and the US are escalating disputes from visas to supply chains as the two countries continue blaming each other regarding the origins of the virus, a mystery that global experts are trying to unravel.

Meanwhile, China has gone a month without announcing any new deaths from the coronavirus.

The National Health Commission reported four new cases of the virus on Friday, all local cross-infections in the northeastern province of Jilin where a cluster of uncertain origin has been detected in recent days. The last time the commission reported a death was on April 14.

Just 91 people remain in treatment for Covid-19 and 623 others are under isolation and monitoring for being suspected cases or for having tested positive without showing symptoms, including 11 newly detected.

In total, China has reported 4,633 deaths among 82,933 cases since the virus was first detected late last year in Wuhan.

Pilot tests positive after quarantine in Hong Kong

A pilot previously given the all-clear for Covid-19 after his return to Hong Kong from London a month ago has

tested preliminary positive

for the coronavirus during a trip to a local hospital for surgery, according to medical sources.

If confirmed, the infection is likely to raise concerns over further transmission of the disease, with medical sources saying the man in his 40s came into contact with more than a dozen people at Princess Margaret Hospital, in Kwai Chung.

Because he had tested negative on his return to Hong Kong in April, and then completed his 14-day home quarantine, the man was on an ordinary ward after being admitted on Thursday. A confirmed positive result would take the number of people infected in the city to 1,052.

A medical source called the situation “quite worrying” as the pilot, who had suffered a finger injury, was not isolated on the orthopaedic ward, and came into contact with at least two doctors, three nurses, and more than 10 patients.

Free movement across Italy to be allowed from June 3

is set to allow free travel across the country from June 3, according to a draft decree seen by Reuters on Friday, as the government moves to unwind the coronavirus lockdown and revive the battered economy.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who shut down most of the economy in early March to combat the spread of the coronavirus, allowed the manufacturing and construction industries to return to full operations early this month, while also giving Italians slightly more liberty, allowing activities like walking, jogging and visits with family and loved ones.

The administration approved a second stimulus package worth 55 billion euros (US$59.5 billion) on Wednesday in a bid to reduce the economic impact of the pandemic. The plan focuses on liquidity for businesses and aid to families hurt by the lockdown. A 25 billion-euro package was passed in March.

The draft decree, which could still be modified before it is approved, also said all travel within separate Italian regions would be allowed from May 18.

German economy plunges into recession

The German economy plunged into a recession after suffering its steepest quarterly contraction since the 2009 financial crisis as shops and factories were shut down in mid-March to fight the spread of the coronavirus, preliminary data showed on Friday.

The 2.2 per cent first-quarter contraction was a foretaste of worse to come. Economists expect a deeper slump in the second quarter as the lockdown extended well into April and early May and sectors like tourism and indoor gastronomy remain shut.

Still, Germany appears to be fairing better than neighbouring France and Italy, whose economies contracted by 5.8 per cent and 4.7 per cent respectively in the first quarter.

This is partly due to a decision by Germany’s 16 states to allow factories and construction sites to stay open and an unprecedented rescue package by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, including state aid that allows employers to switch employees to shorter working hours to avoid mass layoffs.

Output data for the fourth quarter was revised to a contraction of 0.1 per cent from a previously reported stagnation, which meant Germany was technically in a recession after two successive quarterly output slumps, the data showed.

On the year, gross domestic product in Europe’s largest economy fell by 2.3 per cent from January to March after a 0.4 per cent expansion in the previous three months, seasonally adjusted figures from the Federal Statistics Office showed.

Russia reports more than 10,000 new cases

Health officials reported 10,598 new infections in the last 24 hours, bringing the country’s total to 262,843, the second-highest in the world after the US.

Russia says its high number of cases is due in part to a massive testing campaign that has seen more than six million tests carried out.

Moscow accounts for roughly half of all infections and the city said it would be launching mass voluntary tests for antibodies from Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced that a nationwide lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the virus would be eased, even as health officials record a steady increase in new cases.

Despite its high number of cases, Russia’s official coronavirus fatality rate is low in comparison to countries like the US, Britain, Italy and Spain.

The country reported 113 new coronavirus deaths on Friday, bringing Russia’s total to 2,418.

Singapore infections near 27,000


health ministry said on Friday it had confirmed 793 more coronavirus cases, taking the city state’s tally of infections to 26,891.

The vast majority of the new cases are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories. One case is a Singaporean/permanent resident.

While the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly in the dormitories, many of which the authorities have sealed off, the spread in the community apart from the migrant workers has been much slower, with an average of five new cases a day over the past week.

Only 21 people have died in Singapore after contracting Covid-19, one of the world’s lowest death tolls.

The government has said it will test all 320,000 migrants living in the dormitories and has promised to rehouse them when the pandemic subsides.

12,500 UK care home deaths linked to virus

More than 12,500 deaths of care home residents in were linked to the coronavirus, according to figures released on Friday, heaping further pressure on the government over its handling of the pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said 12,526 care home residents in England and Wales had died from the virus in March and April, with nearly three-quarters occurring within homes and the rest in hospitals.

However, the ONS suggested the actual death toll of care home residents could be far higher, noting it had recorded 23,136 more fatalities in the first four months of the year than in the same period in 2019.

Britain has the second-highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, according to official data, although the government has argued that global comparisons are fraught given different countries’ reporting methods.

The ONS and regional UK health bodies reported earlier this week they had registered 36,473 deaths from or mentioning the virus up until May 1, a tally second only to the US.

The figures also indicated that Britain’s excess mortality, which experts have said is the truest indicator of the virus’ impact, was close to 50,000. Department of Health figures say there have been 33,614 deaths of people who had tested positive for the virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, particularly in relation to care homes, with accusations they have been abandoned during the pandemic.

Opposition parties and whistle-blowers in the care sector have said hospitals allowed patients to be discharged from hospital into homes without adequate testing to determine if they had the virus.

Japan calls for probe into WHO’s virus response

Japan is joining a chorus of calls for an investigation into the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) initial response to the global coronavirus pandemic, with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi saying on Friday the probe should be conducted by an independent body.

“This disease has had a devastating impact on the entire world, and information must be shared between countries in a free, transparent and timely manner, lest we risk it spreading even more quickly,” Motegi said.

“There is a lot of discussion in the international community about precisely where the virus came from and the initial response,” he said. “There needs to be a thorough investigation, and it’s crucial that this be carried out by an independent body.”

A senior official at the Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Japan plans to voice this view at the annual meeting of the WHO’s decision-making body, to be held next week in a virtual setting.

The WHO has been accused by the US and some of its allies of turning a blind eye while China withheld information that could have helped limit the spread of the virus after it was first detected in the city of Wuhan.

US President Donald Trump has been one of the strongest critics of the WHO, saying it is “a puppet for China,” and has suspended funding to the UN agency.

WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus has rejected such accusations, urging countries not to politicise the virus that has now killed some 300,000 people worldwide.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also called for an investigation into the origin of the new coronavirus, standing his ground even as China announced plans to impose tariffs on Australian barley imports in a move many saw as retaliation.

South Korea sees 27 new cases

South Korea

has reported 27 new coronavirus cases, including 22 in the Seoul metropolitan area, where health authorities have been scrambling to test and isolate potential virus carriers after discovering dozens of infections linked to club goers.

Figures released by South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday brought national totals to 11,018 cases and 260 virus-related deaths.

Around 1,100 infections have been linked to international arrivals, but such cases have declined since April when the country stepped up border controls, including enforcing 14-day quarantines on all passengers arriving from abroad.

The transmissions linked to night spots shocked a country that had been relaxing social distancing guidelines and forced authorities to push back the reopening of schools, which is now scheduled to start with high school seniors on May 20.

During a virus briefing, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo expressed hope that the country could keep the outbreak under control, pointing out that the number of active cases was now below 1,000.

Virus could affect over 200 million in Africa: WHO

The new coronavirus could kill 150,000 people in in a year unless urgent action is taken, according to a WHO modelling study that says nearly a quarter of a billion people will be infected.

Authors of the research, published on Friday in the journal BMJ Global Health, predicted a lower infection rate than in other parts of the world like Europe and the US, with fewer severe cases and deaths.

But while they said many African nations had been swift to adopt containment measures, they warned that health systems could still quickly become overwhelmed. “Our model points to the scale of the problem for health systems if containment measures fail,” said the authors.

The study comes amid stark warnings that Covid-19 threatens a health emergency in developing nations where fragile health systems are already struggling with an array of other chronic diseases.

Experts at the World Health Organisation’s Africa office modelled likely rates of exposure to the virus and infection in the 47 countries under its regional remit, which excludes Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.

Some 231 million people, or 22 per cent (with a range of 16 to 26 per cent) of the 1 billion people in the region were expected to be infected in the 12 month period – most of them showing few or no symptoms. But an estimated 4.6 million people would need to be admitted to hospital, while 140,000 would have severe Covid-19 infection and 89,000 would be critically ill. That would lead to some 150,000 deaths (between 83,000 and 190,000) the study suggested.

Medical workers in protective suits carry the body of a coronavirus victim in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: AP
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Medical workers in protective suits carry the body of a coronavirus victim in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: AP

Cafes, bars reopen in parts of Australia

Restaurants, cafes and bars in Australia’s most populous state were reopening on Friday after a two-month shutdown under coronavirus lockdown measures, boosting the federal government’s bid to get people back in work and the economy back on track.

The easing of quarantine measures in New South Wales (NSW) state comes just a day after the national statistics office reported unprecedented record high job losses and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that worse was still to come.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian cautioned people to remain vigilant and maintain social distancing as restaurants, public pools and other businesses reopen under the proviso they limit customers to 10 at any one time.

“Easing restrictions has failed in so many places around the world and I don’t want that to happen in NSW, I want people to have personal responsibility for the way we respond,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Friday.

NSW officials reported eight new cases of Covid-19 on Friday, the highest daily tally in just over a week. The national daily increase has slowed to an average of less than 20 a day. Australia has recorded about 7,000 Covid-19 cases, including 98 deaths, significantly below the levels reported in North America and Europe.

In the Northern Territory, where case numbers have been low and there have been no deaths, pubs are opening with no restrictions on patron numbers and there are no limits on public gatherings or house visits.

Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state, is currently retaining most of its lockdown measures.

Slovenia opens borders after declaring epidemic over

Slovenia opened its borders on Friday after declaring an end to its coronavirus epidemic, despite new infections still being reported.

“Today Slovenia has the best epidemic situation in Europe, which enables us to call off the general epidemic,” Prime Minister Janez Jansa said, two months after the epidemic was declared.

The mountainous nation of two million people, which borders Italy, had reported some 1,500 coronavirus cases and 103 deaths as of Thursday.

But with the rate of new infections trailing off, the government ordered borders open for all EU citizens, while non-EU citizens will have to stay in quarantine.

“Since the danger of spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains, some general and special measures will remain in force,” it said in a statement, using a technical term for the Covid-19 disease.

Public gatherings remain banned while social distancing rules and mask wearing remain mandatory in public spaces.

Earlier this week, the government said some shopping centres and hotels would be allowed to reopen next week. It also announced football and all other team competitions could resume from May 23.

Surrogate-born babies stranded in Ukraine

Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman has appealed to authorities to find a solution for scores of infants born to surrogate mothers for foreign parents who are stranded because the country’s borders are closed under coronavirus restrictions.

Ukraine has a thriving surrogate industry and is one of the few countries that allows the service for foreigners.

“About 100 children are already waiting for their parents in different centres of reproductive medicine. And if quarantine is extended, then it will not be about hundreds, but about thousands,” said ombudswoman Lyudmila Denisova.

The issue attracted wide attention after Biotexcom, the country’s largest surrogate operation, posted a video showing dozens of babies in bassinets arrayed in tight rows in two large rooms of the hotel where the clinic puts up clients.

The video aims to reassure absent parent that their little ones are receiving good care, showing nurses bathing and caressing them.

Denisova said there are 51 babies in all at Biotexcom, 15 of them under the care of parents who were able to make it into the country before the shutdown but can’t leave. Ukraine’s restrictions are to remain in place until at least May 22.

The parents are from 12 countries: China, the US, Italy, Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Austria, Mexico and Portugal.

“The issue remains unresolved, but we are developing a mechanism to get out of the situation,” said Denisova, who met with Foreign Ministry representatives on Thursday.

Under the proposed mechanism, foreign parents would have to write a statement addressed to Denisova’s office, which would then contact the ministry with a request to give permission to enter Ukraine.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, DPA and Kyodo

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