COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 13, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Medical
Is the TB Vaccine responsible for the large deaths in West?

The novel coronavirus is rampaging across the world, but its impact is not equal; it is hammering some populations, while leaving others relatively unscathed. One determining factor in morbidity and infection may be a 100-year-old tuberculosis vaccine. The three hardest-hit countries – the US, Italy and Spain – do not use it. However, countries that have been lightly hit – including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – do. Countries that use it in their vaccination programs had a fatality rate of four per million people, according to a recently published study. Conversely, people in countries who do not vaccinate with it were 10 times more likely to die at a rate of 40 deaths per million people. Spain, France and Switzerland discontinued universal BCG policies. The US, Italy and the Netherlands have not adopted universal BCG requirements. The vaccine was widely implemented in East Germany, and there are reportedly fewer deaths in that region versus the rest of the country.

Two thirds of COVID-19 patients improve after Gilead drug – NEJM

More than two-thirds of severely ill COVID-19 patients saw their condition improve after treatment with remdesivir, an experimental drug being developed by Gilead Sciences Inc., according to new data based on patient observation. The analysis, published on April 10 by the New England Journal of Medicine called the findings “hopeful,” but cautioned that it is difficult to interpret the results since they do not include comparison to a control group, as would be the case in a randomized clinical trial. In addition, the patient numbers were small, the details being disclosed are limited, and the follow-up time was relatively short. Gilead last month sharply limited its compassionate use program for remdesivir and is conducting its own clinical trials of the antiviral drug, with results expected in coming weeks. Researchers in China as well as the U.S. National Institutes of Health are also testing the drug in COVID-19 patients. The new analysis includes patients in the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan who received a 10-day course of intravenous remdesivir.

Beijing tightens grip over coronavirus research

China has imposed restrictions on the publication of academic research on the origins of the novel coronavirus, according to a central government directive and online notices published by two Chinese universities that have since been removed from the web. Under the new policy, all academic papers on Covid-19 will be subject to extra vetting before being submitted for publication. Studies on the origin of the virus will receive extra scrutiny and must be approved by central government officials, according to the now-deleted posts. A medical expert in Hong Kong who collaborated with mainland researchers to publish a clinical analysis of Covid-19 cases in an international medical journal said his work did not undergo such vetting in February. Since late January, Chinese researchers have published a series of Covid-19 studies in influential international medical journals. Some findings about early coronavirus cases -- such as when human-to-human transition first appeared -- have raised questions over the official government account of the outbreak and sparked controversy on Chinese social media.

Strategic
Germany to lead EU 'coronavirus presidency,' says foreign minister

Germany has promised strong leadership to help EU countries to overcome the coronavirus pandemic when it takes up the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on July 1. In an editorial for the German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the country would assume a "coronavirus presidency to overcome the health crisis and its consequences." The presidency is responsible for the functioning of the EU's legislative upper house. The position, currently held by Croatia, rotates among member states every six months and helps determine the bloc's agenda. When Germany takes over the presidency, Maas said one of the first tasks would be to "gradually lift the restrictions on travel and the internal market in an incremental and coordinated manner." The German minister called for closer collaboration, such as the joint procurement and production of life-saving medical goods, while keeping supply chains open and improving civil protection. "Anyone who undermines the European Union's fundamental values should not expect to benefit fully from the Union's financial advantages," he warned.

In coronavirus-gripped Washington, rhetoric rises but anti-China bills stall

There has been “far and away” more China-related legislation introduced during the current congressional session than even counterterrorism legislations introduced following 9/11, noted Anna Ashton, who closely tracks movements on Capitol Hill in her work heading government affairs at the US-China Business Council. In March alone, lawmakers introduced at least 20 China-related bills, ranging from demands that China pay for the US pandemic costs to calls for an international investigation of Beijing’s coronavirus response. However, amid the pandemic, the fate of about 300 earlier bills and resolutions challenging Beijing is now in limbo. While passage of substantive non-coronavirus legislation is unlikely, many lawmakers are still pushing resolutions decrying China’s handling of the outbreak. For many inside Washington, the pandemic has put the “exclamation mark” on a years-long erosion of trust in Beijing’s governance. Perceptions of China’s coronavirus missteps have consolidated concerns on a number of threads including grievances over national security and technology, human rights, and the whole panoply of trade issues.

Kudlow: ‘Pay the Moving Costs’ Of American Companies Leaving China

The same day Japan announced that it would spend upwards of $2.2 billion to get its corporations out of China and either back home or spread throughout southeast Asia, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said the U.S. should “pay the moving costs” of every American company that wants out of China. “I would say, 100 percent immediate expensing across the board for plant, equipment, intellectual property, structures, renovations... In other words, if we had 100 percent immediate expensing, we would literally — literally pay the moving costs of American companies,” Kudlow said on the FOX Business Network's America Works Together Town Hall which aired on April 9. The Chinese Global Times issued a strong rebuttal of the proposal on April 12.

UK spy agencies urge China rethink once Covid-19 crisis is over

Britain’s intelligence community believes the UK needs to reassess its relationship with China after the coronavirus crisis subsides and consider if tighter controls are needed over high-tech and other strategic industries. Issues being aired are whether the UK wants to restrict takeovers of key companies in high-tech areas such as digital communications and artificial intelligence, and whether it should reduce Chinese students’ access to research at universities and elsewhere. Intelligence agencies have been urging a greater emphasis on Chinese activity for months and the announcement of Ken McCallum as the new director general of MI5 at the end of last month was accompanied by a promise that the organisation would focus more clearly on Beijing. Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government pursued a policy of actively courting Chinese investment in areas such as nuclear power and telecoms. When Theresa May took over as prime minister, she ordered a review of the China General Nuclear Power Group’s investment in the new Hinckley Point nuclear plant, but it was allowed to proceed.

Russia records over 2,000 new Covid-19 cases in a SINGLE day, a NEW daily high

Since April 11, 2,186 more people in Russia have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the nationwide total to 15,770, according to the emergency team in charge of managing the country's response to the deadly infection. The fresh figure drastically ups the curve, as only 1,667 new cases were recorded across the country the day before. The bulk of the newly infected – 1,306 and 278 respectively – are in Moscow and its surrounding region, where authorities have recently introduced electronic permits to control people’s mobility amid the quarantine. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, has reported 69 cases. Russia is yet to reach the peak of its coronavirus outbreak, with top health officials expecting to pass it by the end of this month. Previously, President Vladimir Putin extended the nationwide paid holiday to April 30 in an effort to encourage citizens to stay indoors.

Sri Lanka makes cremations compulsory for coronavirus deaths

Sri Lanka has made cremations compulsory for coronavirus victims, ignoring protests from the country's Muslim population which says the rule goes against Islamic tradition. Three Muslims are among the seven people who have so far died from the infectious disease in the country. Their bodies were cremated by the authorities despite protests from relatives. "The corpse of a person who has died or is suspected to have died, of ... COVID-19 shall be cremated," Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said on April 12. The decision has also been criticised by rights groups. The World Health Organization (WHO) said people dying from coronavirus "can be buried or cremated".

N. Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament meets amid global pandemic

North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament gathered on April 12, a day after leader Kim Jong Un presided over a ruling party politburo meeting where he called for strict measures to prevent an outbreak of the new coronavirus. Photos released by state news agency KCNA on April 13 showed hundreds of lawmakers sitting in close proximity to each other with no masks or other visible anti-infection measures. North Korea has said it has tested at least 700 people and has put more than 500 in quarantine, but has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) told Reuters last week. "The state emergency anti-epidemic campaign will continue to be intensified to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with a priority given to the life and safety of the people," said a report submitted to the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), according to KCNA. North Korea took swift steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including blocking nearly all travel with neighboring China and Russia, suspending international tourism and imposing long quarantines on thousands of people, including foreign diplomats.

ASEAN+3 Summit on April 14

The Special ASEAN Summit and the Special ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN Plus Three countries or 10+3) Summit on COVID-19 Response are scheduled to take place on April 14 in video conference, with the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his capacity as ASEAN Chair 2020, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung told an online press conference in Hanoi. On April 7, at the end of a special video conference of the ASEAN health ministers in enhancing cooperation on COVID-19 response, the ministers adopted a joint statement, agreeing to collectively enhance the exchange and sharing of timely data and information on COVID-19 on the prevention, detection, control and response measures, epidemiologic surveillance updates, risk assessment results, epidemiological and clinical studies on the virus and the disease, and technical guidelines.

Top US health official Fauci says gradual restart of US economy possible in May

The United States’ top infectious disease expert said on April 12 that the economy in parts of the country could have a “rolling re-entry” as early as next month, provided health authorities can quickly identify and isolate people who will inevitably be infected with the coronavirus. Dr Anthony Fauci also said he “can't guarantee" that it will be safe for Americans to vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3. Rather than flipping a switch to reopen the entire country, Fauci said a gradual process will be required based on the status of the pandemic in various parts of the U.S. and the availability of rapid, widespread testing. Once the number of people who are seriously ill sharply declines, officials can begin to “think about a gradual re-entry of some sort of normality, some rolling re-entry," Fauci said. In some places, he said, that might occur as soon as May.

Economic
OPEC secures record global oil cuts deal under US pressure

Saudi Arabia and Russia ended their oil price war on April 12 by finalising a deal to make the biggest oil production cuts in history, following pressure from US President Donald Trump to support an energy sector ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. OPEC said it would cut 9.7m barrels a day in oil production in May and June, equivalent to almost 10 per cent of global supply, and continue with lower reductions until April 2022, in an effort to stabilise global crude markets. The cuts would be more than twice those made by the cartel during the global financial crisis. OPEC officials added that the cuts could end up being much greater, at around a fifth of global supply.

World Bank forecasts worst economic slump in South Asia in 40 years

India and other South Asian countries are likely to record their worst growth performance in four decades this year due to the coronavirus outbreak, the World Bank said on Sunday. The South Asian region, comprising eight countries, is likely to show economic growth of 1.8% to 2.8% this year, the World Bank said in its South Asia Economic Focus report, well down from the 6.3% it projected six months ago. India’s economy, the region’s biggest, is expected to grow 1.5% to 2.8% in the fiscal year that started on April 1. Other than India, the World Bank forecast that Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh will also see sharp falls in economic growth. Three other countries - Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives - are expected to fall into recession, the World Bank said in the report, which was based on country-level data available as of April 7.

G20 nations close in on debt deal for poor countries

The G20 group is planning to offer lower income countries a moratorium on bilateral government loan repayments as part of an “action plan” to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and stave off an emerging markets debt crisis, a senior G20 official said. The initiative, due to be finalised at a finance ministers’ meeting this week, would see a freeze on sovereign debt repayments for six or nine months, or possibly through to 2021, in line with an appeal last month from the IMF and World Bank. Wealthy nations and multilateral institutions would use the period of the moratorium to draw up “very clear criteria, country-by-country of what exactly is going to happen. Is it debt relief totally? Is it just a deferment, a rescheduling?” the official said.

Coronavirus hit means Australia is about to run out of luck

No developed nation has beaten the odds for the past three decades better than Australia. Its recession-free run has confounded economic gravity and the naysayers. But the coronavirus shock upending everything is fast bringing Australia back to earth. Economists forecast that gross domestic product will contract in 2020, prompting the government to roll out a record stimulus package. Rating agency S&P Global is hinting that Canberra's days of AAA credit many be numbered. What makes Australia particularly unlucky, though, is that three long-neglected bubbles are suddenly deflating: demand from China, runaway housing prices and political hubris. And so far, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's steps to stabilize growth including an $80 billion rescue plan strike many as inadequate to the challenge.

Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, China Offers Tax Breaks for Exports of Wild Animals

Chinese authorities have shut down domestic wild animal traders on fears their goods sparked the coronavirus pandemic. Now its finance ministry officials are offering tax incentives to the multibillion-dollar animal-products industry to ship some of the creatures overseas, according to Chinese government documents.

Beijing doing its part in trade deal with US despite coronavirus crisis – Chinese ambassador

As part of the first phase of the trade deal, China is still purchasing US agricultural goods and continuing to remove restrictions on foreign companies entering its financial market, Ambassador Cui Tiankai said, as cited by state-linked outlet Global Times. “As far as I know, even for the last few weeks, when we are faced with this very serious, critical (coronavirus) situation, people are still working on the implementation of the phase one deal. Hopefully, we can still do it,” the diplomat said. “We also hope that the economic teams of the two countries can sit together or hold video conferences to assess the changing situation and coordinate our response,” the Chinese ambassador said, warning against “any escalation of tensions” in such “critical” times. According to the terms of the accord, China was set to buy a total of $200 billion more in US goods over the next two years than it did in 2017. The purchases include agricultural products, manufactured goods, services, and energy products.

Hitachi anticipates wave of Chinese infrastructure spending

Japanese conglomerate Hitachi anticipates a wave of infrastructure spending in China as Beijing tries to turbocharge the economy’s recovery from the coronavirus outbreak. The group, which makes everything from nuclear power plants to bullet trains, said its elevator factory in China had resumed production and that it expected the construction industry to rebound as cities end their lockdowns. “These situations create the need for governments to actually get the workforce back and therefore infrastructure spending will rise,” said Alistair Dormer, head of group’s rail and mobility businesses. “All the indications are that China is going ahead at full speed.” Beijing is due to release figures on the economy’s first-quarter performance on April 17, with economists predicting a sharp contraction.

European ports and warehouses brace for surge in containers

European ports and warehouses face a logjam of manufactured goods in the coming weeks as container ships which set off from Asia before the coronavirus pandemic spread. Merchandise which retailers ordered in the brief period when the Chinese economy was grinding back into gear, but before European countries went into lockdown, is starting to land at ports such as Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg. Three-quarters of goods enter the EU by sea, while 30 per cent of trade within the bloc goes by vessels, so any hold-ups at maritime terminals could rapidly ripple through the distribution network. Port operators say they are fully equipped to deal with the influx of containers without tailbacks outside harbours. Shipping companies like French group CMA CGM are offering to offload cargo at intermediate points before the final destination, such as Piraeus in Greece and Algeciras in Spain for vessels on their way to northern Europe.

For Further Reading:

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