COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 3, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Medical
Serology tests for coronavirus antibodies could help restart society

At the root of almost every plan to restart society is a new kind of coronavirus test that searches not for the virus itself, but the remnants floating in people’s blood of the battle between their immune systems and the infection. A report by Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Trump, highlights the blood-based tests as an important way to reopen society. Germany has said it will start looking for disease-fighting antibodies in a study of 100,000 people, and could issue certificates that indicate someone has immunity.But experts on testing warn that these new serology tests come with logistical and scientific challenges just as big, if not bigger, than the ones that made the scale-up of diagnostic testing for active infections so difficult. The mass deployment of blood-based testing will require many millions of accurate tests, a system to take reliable samples, and a slew of decisions that may have to be made based on incomplete knowledge.

Coronavirus: Grassroots project adapts snorkelling masks for use against COVID-19

Two German students have developed adaptors that should enable full-face snorkelling masks to be used as emergency breathing masks for COVID-19 patients in Germany. Jan Schulte-Austum and Kai Echelmeyer are seeking industry and medical support to test their invention, which expands on a concept already in use in Italy and Spain. The idea gained traction in Italy, after medical shortages forced doctors to improvise. With speedily designed adaptors, full-face snorkelling masks can attach to hospital's BiPAP machines that then pump pressurized air into masks, making sure patients' lungs don't collapse.The specially-adapted masks mean doctors can sometimes avoid intubating patients with respiratory problems. With medical supplies in increasingly short supply, the ad-hoc solution can save lives.The masks cannot be used for the most serious cases, which require a complete ventilator system, but it can be a stop-gap solution.

The Loneliness of the “Social Distancer” Triggers Brain Cravings Akin to Hunger

A study on isolation’s neural underpinnings implies many may feel literally “starved” for contact amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology posted a preliminary report of the first study in humans that shows both loneliness and hunger share signals deep in a part of the brain that governs very basic impulses for reward and motivation. The findings point to one telling conclusion: our need to connect is apparently as fundamental as our need to eat.The paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, describes a carefully designed experiment using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain responses to loneliness and hunger. After a baseline brain scan, 40 adult participants underwent a 10-hour session depriving them of food and another 10-hour session denying them social contact. Both sessions served as a control condition for each other.

Strategic
Global coronavirus cases surpass one million

Global coronavirus cases surpassed 1 million on April 2 with more than 52,000 deaths as the pandemic further exploded in the United States and the death toll climbed in Spain and Italy.Italy has had the most deaths, more than 13,900, followed by Spain. The United States has the most confirmed cases of any country, more than 240,000 as of April 2.

C.I.A. Hunts for Authentic Virus Totals in China, Dismissing Government Tallies

The C.I.A. has been warning the White House since at least early February that China has vastly understated its coronavirus infections and that its count could not be relied upon as the United States compiles predictive models to fight the virus, according to current and former intelligence officials. For American officials, the totals are critical to getting a better understanding of how Covid-19 will affect the United States in the months to come and of the effectiveness of countermeasures like social distancing, according to American intelligence agencies and White House officials. So far, to the frustration of both the White House and the intelligence community, the agencies have been unable to glean more accurate numbers through their collection efforts. But American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world. Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse, current and former intelligence officials said.

UN adopts resolution calling for global cooperation on COVID-19

The UN General Assembly on April 2 approved a resolution calling for "international cooperation" and "multilateralism" in the fight against COVID-19, in the first text to come out of the international body since the pandemic's outbreak.The resolution, which was approved by consensus, also stresses "the need for full respect for human rights" and that "there is no place for any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic". Russia was unsuccessful in opposing the resolution with its own text that was supported by four other countries.The UN resolution stresses the central role of the body in the global health and economic crisis. It was submitted by Switzerland, Indonesia, Singapore, Norway, Liechtenstein and Ghana, and adopted by 188 of the 193 states that make up the body, diplomats said.The Russian text - which also discussed cooperation but included an implicit demand for a general lifting of international sanctions, seen as a brake on efforts to fight the virus - was supported by the Central African Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Moon pushing for virtual summit of ASEAN+3 leaders

Cheong Wa Dae is pushing for a virtual summit of ASEAN+3 (ASEAN members plus Korea, China and Japan) to advance multilateral cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a presidential aide, on April 2. "Close consultations are underway to realize the summit," vice presidential spokesman Yoon Jae-kwan said during a briefing. "These countries have a lot of exchanges with Korea, so forming a consensus with them is very important."

Economic shock of coronavirus casts pall on NATO spending goals

The economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to undermine NATO defence targets cherished by US President Donald Trump, diplomats and experts say, as governments move closer to spending goals only by virtue of shrinking economies. Agreed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence has been embraced by Trump and he held an exclusive lunch in London last year for the allies that had reached it. NATO’s annual report in March showed that nine countries, including the United States, were estimated to have reached the target in 2019, with other big allies including France and Turkey not far off. NATO militaries are at the forefront of Europe’s response, delivering medical supplies via airlifts and helping to build temporary hospitals. However, in view of recession, defence expenditures will rise in proportion to GDP if they remain at current levels.

South Korea to allow absentee voting by coronavirus patients in parliament elections

South Korea will allow coronavirus patients to vote by mail or as absentees in parliamentary elections this month, as a two-week campaign kicked off on April 2 in a country grappling with a steady rise in new infections.Voters go to the polls on April 15 to elect 300 members of the National Assembly for the next four years, in an exercise posing challenges over how to rein in the virus at polling places while ensuring people’s right to vote. Roughly 4,000 patients receiving treatment will be able to cast ballots by mail or absentee voting ahead of time, Interior Minister Chin Young said.The National Election Commission has urged all voters to wear mask in polling stations, make use of sanitizers and gloves available there, and keep a distance from others. Officials will run temperature checks at the entrance and perform regular disinfections. However, more than 87,000 citizens living in 55 countries suffering major epidemics, including the United States and Europe, or about half of eligible voters abroad, will not be able to vote as South Korea does not allow mail ballots for those overseas.

In about-turn, Catalonia seeks Spanish military help for coronavirus

The separatist government of Spain’s Catalonia region abandoned its initial reluctance and asked the national military on April 2 for assistance in tackling the coronavirus. Spain has the world’s second highest death toll after Italy, and Catalonia is its second worst-hit region with 2,093 deaths and 21,804 cases recorded and 1,855 people in intensive care. Last month, an official of the Catalonia government, whose independence quest has created political turmoil in recent years, said military help was “totally unnecessary.”However, Alba Verges, a senior health official in the north eastern region, told Catalunya Radio that assistance from military health personnel would now be welcome. “We need hands. Catalonia’s head of government Quim Torra also told SER Catalunya radio he would be thankful for any help from the Spanish military and doctors outside the region.

Elections, ties with China shaped Iran's coronavirus response

Iranian authorities ignored warnings by doctors in late December and January of an increasing number of patients with high fevers and lung infections in the historic city of Qom, which turned out to be the epicentre of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, said two health ministry officials, a former ministry official and three doctors. And, when the authorities did become aware of domestic cases of the flu-like virus in early January, they didn’t announce the news until weeks later, out of concern that releasing detailed information would unsettle the public ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for February 21, according to a senior official with direct knowledge of the matter. Qom, among Iran’s most important cities, has close links to China and is home to many Chinese. Iran’s health minister has publicly said that the virus is believed to have arrived from China by a merchant from Qom, who died of the virus. Iran has now reported more than 47,500 cases of coronavirus and more than 3,000 deaths, making it the worst hit country in the Middle East.

Central Asia virus responses run gamut from crisis to nonchalance

As COVID-19 infections rose in its Central Asian neighbours, Tajikistan went about its business as usual, holding lavish spring equinox celebrations in late March. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan registered their first cases shortly after Kazakhstan, prompting immediate measures in all three countries. As of April 1, there were 363 confirmed cases in Kazakhstan, with three deaths, 173 cases in Uzbekistan, with two fatalities, and 107 confirmed infections in Kyrgyzstan, with no deaths. On March 26, Kyrgyzstan became the world's first country to receive a coronavirus bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Turkmenistan, a closed, secretive state has no officially recorded infections, although reports from within the country indicate a spike in hospital admissions for patients diagnosed with an acute respiratory viral infection.The sharp fall in oil prices and the economic slowdown in China, meanwhile, have only made matters worse for the region's energy exporters. But Central Asian governments have been eager to show their support for China during the coronavirus crisis, with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan dispatching medical supplies in February to help contain the epidemic. Supplies are now heading in the reverse direction.

US officials weigh mechanics of a coronavirus election

A battle is brewing between Republicans and Democrats over whether to allow widespread mail-in voting in November.The last time the US faced an election quandary like the current one was in 1918, when a mid-term vote was held amid the Spanish flu pandemic. Then, as now, widespread quarantines were in place and businesses were shuttered. Voter turnout ended up being abnormally low - 40 percent - and the opposition Republican Party took complete control of Congress from incumbent President Woodrow Wilson's Democrats. In the $2.2 trillion rescue package enacted by the US in March, Congress provided $400m to help the states deal with the coronavirus effect on the election. Democrats sought to include a provision mandating all 50 states allow universal mail-in balloting, but the effort was rebuffed by Republicans. Democrats generally want to encourage turnout and Republicans are often seen placing controls on voting. The underlying reason is that if everyone voted, the outcomes would likely be to Democrats' advantage.

US Democratic National Convention postponed until August

The US Democratic Party has pushed back its presidential convention from July to August, in the latest disruption to the 2020 electoral calendar over concerns about the escalating coronavirus pandemic.The decision came a day after Joe Biden — the former US vice-president who has an almost insurmountable lead over rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary — said the party should push back the event from July. He has 1,217 of the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination, compared to 914 for Mr Sanders, the Vermont senator.The Democratic convention is the biggest event on the political calendar before the general election. It is when the party will formally decide on the nominee who will challenge President Donald Trump in November.The Republicans are scheduled to hold their presidential convention in North Carolina in August, where Trump faces no serious opposition.

Economic
US Corporate Stalwarts emphasize clarity of economic lockdown

The US should totally shut down to stem the spread of COVID-19, according to Bill Gates. “We’re entering into a tough period that if we do it right, we’ll only have to do it once for six to 10 weeks, but it has to be the whole country,” Gates told CNN in an interview. “We have to raise the level of testing and the prioritization of that testing quite dramatically, in order to make sure we go through one shutdown.”While Gates acknowledged that imposing lockdown measures would have an economic impact, he argued that one closure across the US would be more effective than a state-by-state shutdown. Black Rock chief executive Larry Fink has said the US economy will recover from the coronavirus pandemic which would likely be brought under control in three to four months in that country. This is not a financial crisis, but a crisis of confidence, says the Black Rock CEO. Black Rock is the largest money-management firm in the world with more than $6.5 trillion in assets under management.

Global lay-offs surge as 6.6m Americans file jobless claims

Global job losses have surged with millions of Americans and Europeans seeking unemployment benefits as lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic wreak havoc on some of the world’s biggest economies. A record 6.6m Americans filed for jobless aid last week, the US labour department said on April 2, more than double the 3.3m that applied for benefits two weeks ago and far higher than economists’ forecasts. About 4m French workers — equivalent to a fifth of France’s private sector employees — had applied for temporary unemployment benefits during the past two weeks, according to data released on April 2. Spain recorded the biggest jump in unemployment in its history, with more than 800,000 people losing their jobs last month. The country was already grappling with joblessness of 14 per cent and almost all the job losses came from people on temporary contracts, who represent more than a quarter of the workforce.In the UK, almost 1m people have applied for universal credit, a state benefits scheme, while in Ireland about 34,000 companies have signed up for a government wage-subsidy programme in less than a week.

Rash of downgrades gives rating agencies sense of déjà vu from 2008

The credit rating agencies — led by the big three of S&P Global, Moody’s and Fitch — have pushed through large amounts of rating downgrades as the Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated. March had the fastest pace of downgrades, on records going back to at least 2002, according to a report last week from Bank of America. The bank added that more issuers could expect to have their ratings docked in the weeks ahead.To critics, this is a rerun of the 2008 financial crisis, when ratings that were set too high came tumbling down, magnifying a sense of alarm, particularly in markets for securitised products that were packed with mortgage-backed bonds.

Investor appetite returns for junk bonds

Junk bond funds attracted record inflows in the week ending April 1 as investors begin to show renewed appetite for riskier corners of the credit market.Mutual funds and exchange traded funds that invest in junk bonds had $7bn in inflows, the biggest-ever weekly sum, ending a five-week run of outflows. The inflows were led by a record $5.9bn flowing into funds that invest in US junk bonds, according to EPFR Global data. Junk bonds are a high-yielding high-risk security, rated below investment grade, typically issued by a company seeking to raise capital quickly in order to finance a takeover.

US Air Force to release $882 million to Boeing: official

The US Air Force will release $882 million in payments to Boeing that were held back due to flaws in the KC-46 air refuelling tanker, a Pentagon official said on April 2. Will Roper, the Air Force’s chief buyer, told reporters the initiative will free up billions of dollars in funding for numerous contractors, not just Boeing. “If we want to have a defense industrial base coming out of COVID-19, that’s able to continue building,” Roper said, “every day is a new challenge.” Boeing’s financial situation has become increasingly precarious as economic fallout from the coronavirus has frozen key lending markets and cut off demand for Boeing’s commercial aircraft. The Air Force plans to buy 179 of the KC-46 Pegasus jets, which refuel other aircraft mid-air, but the program has been plagued with problems, including foreign object debris found on board the planes and issues with a camera system used during the refuelling process. Boeing will pay for the changes later, Roper said.

China’s New Coronavirus Policies Disrupt US Air Cargo Operations

China’s new coronavirus policies roiled the operations of FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., rattling flight crews, disrupting cargo shipments and prompting appeals from the carriers to the White House and other US officials to stave off supply-chain disturbances amid the pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.The disruptions were caused by more stringent Chinese coronavirus testing procedures—including nasal swabs—and quarantine threats that flight crews objected to, the people said.

Carriers, Samsung, LG support online classes

South Korea’s leading mobile carriers and technology companies have come out with emergency tech-support measures for schools and families as unprecedented online classes begin April 9 at elementary through high schools around the nation. The new school year here usually begins in March, but the country postponed it three times, pushing it back by five weeks amid fears that schools could become vulnerable to cluster infections of COVID-19. SK Broadband (SKB), KT and LG Uplus will provide their networks free of charge for teachers, students and parents when viewing educational content while Samsung, LG Electronics and the government will provide some 63,000 units of smart devices such as tablets to students from low-income families.The move comes after the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) asked domestic tech companies for support as the government is not 100 per cent capable of establishing remote-education.All data usage will be exempted when users visit education websites such as EBS. Since March 16, telecom companies have been exempting data usage for several education websites including Edunet, Science All, Entry and Career Net.

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