COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 29, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Coronavirus: How do biosafety laboratories work?

The biosafety laboratories are divided into four biosafety levels (BSL) or pathogen/protection levels. At the lowest level of biosafety, precautions may consist in regular hand-washing and minimal protective equipment. At higher biosafety levels, stricter requirements are stipulated that the premises, equipment and work procedures must fulfil when handling these pathogens. Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) is commonly used for research and diagnostic work involving various microbes that can be transmitted by aerosols and/or cause severe disease. Surprising as it might seem, the corona viruses SARS-COV-1, MERS-CoV and the new SARS-COV-2 are currently classified only as BSL-3. Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) is the highest level of biosafety precautions. It is appropriate for work with agents that could easily be aerosol-transmitted within the laboratory and cause severe to fatal diseases in humans, and for which there are no available vaccines or treatments. These include a number of viruses such as the Ebola virus, the Marburg virus, the Lassa virus and the virus that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. Other pathogens handled at BSL-4 include the Nipah virus, the Hendra virus and some flavi viruses.

How safe is a BSL-4 Laboratory?

BSL-4 laboratories are designed to diagnose and investigate life-threatening pathogens without endangering the staff or the population at large. BSL-4 laboratories are completely independent, airtight units with their own air, power and water supplies, specially secured against technical faults. Multilevel safety systems prevent pathogens from escaping into the environment. In addition to negative air pressure, the air flowing in and out is filtered through a multilevel system (HEPA filter) to ensure that it is pure, and all waste products and wastewater are completely inactivated. All walls, ceilings and floors of a BSL-4 Laboratory are lined with a waterproof, easy-to-clean material, and the surfaces must be resistant to acids, alkalis and solvents as well as disinfectants. Even if an aircraft were to crash into such a BSL-4 laboratory or a bomb were to explode near or in one, there would be no danger, according to the Robert Koch-Institute, Germany's federal disease control and prevention agency. Access to the laboratory is restricted to a small number of selected, specially qualified staff, and is strictly monitored. They wear inflatable full-body protective suits with their own air supply.

India's Serum Institute to make millions of potential coronavirus vaccine doses

The Serum Institute of India said on April 28 that it plans this year to produce up to 60 million doses of a potential vaccine against the new coronavirus that is under clinical trial in Britain. Serum, the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume, is mass-producing the vaccine candidate developed by the University of Oxford, which started testing it on humans last week, and is a leader in the global race to develop an antidote to the novel coronavirus. As many as 100 potential COVID-19 candidate vaccines are now under development by biotech and research teams around the world, and at least five of these are in preliminary testing in people in what are known as Phase 1 clinical trials. “A majority of the vaccine, at least initially, would have to go to our countrymen before it goes abroad,” Serum owner, Indian billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla said, adding that Serum would leave it to the Indian government to decide which countries would get how much of the vaccine and when. Serum envisages a price of 1,000 rupees per vaccine but governments would give it to people without charge, he said.

The European Union's €1 trillion coronavirus question

In an earlier meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyens aid member states had agreed to place the €1 trillion recovery fund within the EU's Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), jargon for the EU's seven-year collective budget. However, the 2021-27 MFF is yet to be finalized. The central question as to whether the rescue fund will comprise of grants (that don't have to be paid back) or loans (which do) remains a persistent contradiction between states. In early April, von der Leyen said that the EU and member states had "put up €2.8 trillion to fight the crisis". Yet this primarily referred to the value of state aid programs offered by individual country budgets. Another recovery fund is the European Central Bank and its bond-buying program introduced by Mario Draghi in the middle of the eurozone crisis. Known as the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP), it has an overall envelope of €750 billion for bond purchases until the end of 2020. The EU has also confirmed other separate measures, including a short-time working support scheme (SURE) worth €100 billion, as well as extended credit lines from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the European Investment Bank.

U.S. Audits of Small-Business Loans Face Daunting Challenges

Small businesses that borrow money through the government’s aid program could face audits before the loans are forgiven, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on April 28, even as others warned that federal officials face daunting challenges in ensuring the funds are properly spent. The Treasury secretary said loans for more than $2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) would face full audits, with spot checks for smaller amounts. The government is issuing about $660 billion in loans under the PPP.

Investors are betting a handful of companies will emerge from the crisis even stronger

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, a shift was underway in the stock market: A few tech giants were responsible for a large chunk of the gains on Wall Street. The outbreak, which dovetails perfectly with the kinds of remote-working and shop-from-home products offered by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, has supercharged this shift, Matt Phillips reports.The top five companies in the S&P 500 — Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook — now account for 20 percent of the index, according to data from Goldman Sachs. The difference in investor expectations for large and small companies is stark: the NASDAQ 100, an index of the largest technology companies — which also happen to be the largest companies in the country — is up 1.2 percent this year. The Russell 2000 index, which tracks small public companies, is down 23 percent. “Investors are telling you that the bigger, stronger, more stable balance sheet company is going to win versus its smaller peer,” said Stuart Kaiser, head of equity derivatives research at UBS.

EU restarts work on regulating Big Tech

The European Union is overhauling for the first time in two decades the rules that govern the internet in light of the emergence of US dominant platforms but the process will be slow. After pausing work on this year’s Digital Services Act during the coronavirus crisis, senior EU officials are now considering plans to force companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to be more transparent. Alex Saliba, an MEP in charge of drafting recommendations for the new internet rules, said the pandemic has shown US technology companies can do more. Earlier this month, Google said it was requiring all advertisers using its platform to verify their identities and countries of origin, something the search giant demanded only in political ads.Separately, Facebook last week said it will start alerting users if they have been exposed to disinformation on its platform. Twitter has aggressively removed misleading or “potentially harmful” content since introducing new policies in March that broadened the company’s definition of harm.

Digital-ad downturn may complicate life for Google, Facebook

Demand for digital advertising is shrivelling after a decade of explosive growth amid the pandemic-fuelled downturn. For Google and Facebook, who together account for 70% of the U.S. market for digital ads, that so far has translated into tighter restraints on spending without the layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs that publishers and other industries have already imposed. The January-March earnings for Google parent Alphabet offer a first look at how the digital ad market has fared amid widespread orders requiring consumers to stay at home. The results released on April 28 provide an incomplete picture because ad demand in most parts of the world wasn't hit hard until late February and early March. That's when the coronavirus outbreak accelerated and governments imposed lockdowns to fight it. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged during a conference call that the company's ad sales had been "significantly impacted" during March and that the pain has spilled into this month, too. Facebook warned last month that its business was already being squeezed by the advertising downturn, although it didn't provide details.

Coronavirus brews trouble for tea, disrupts supply as demand spikes

The coronavirus outbreak is causing a rare stir in the usually staid global tea market, with labour lockdowns stifling supplies just as millions in lockdown drive up demand for the beverage known for its immunity-boosting properties. Five countries - China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Vietnam - account for 82% of global tea exports, but strict restrictions on movement to contain the coronavirus pandemic have already disrupted the key leaf-picking season, delayed some shipments by about a month and triggered a spike in prices. Fewer pickers combined with colder-than-normal temperatures last month are expected to trim output in top producer China this year, while production in No. 2 grower India and Sri Lanka have also been impacted by labour and weather issues. India’s output is likely to drop by 120 million kgs or 9% in 2020 as the lockdown initially forced plantations to suspend plucking during the opening harvest - the prized first flush - and then operate with about half the workforce, said Prabhat Bezboruah, chairman of India’s Tea Board.

Starbucks expects China recovery by September as coronavirus seen easing

Starbucks Corp said on April 28 said it sees sales in China, the company’s biggest growth market, recovering by the end of September, following a massive drop in same-store sales in the current quarter on fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Starbucks to close stores around the globe. For the full year, China same-store sales are seen decreasing 15% to 25%. “People are going to look at that (China forecast) as an indication of what they may have to face in the U.S., since China got hit first,” said Tony Scherrer, director of research and portfolio manager at Smead Capital Management, which owns Starbucks shares. About 90% of U.S. stores should be reopened by early June with extra safety protocols on a community-by-community basis, in a “thoughtful” way, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson said in an earnings call. Smead Capital’s Scherrer called Starbucks “one of the best performers in restaurants and retail right now.”

Streaming Movies Are Eligible for Oscars, Academy Says

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it expanded the eligibility rules for the Oscars to include films that weren’t released in cinemas because of the nationwide shutdown of movie theatres. For the first—and, the Academy said, only—time, a movie that was available just for streaming will be able to contend for best picture and other prizes. The temporary change, which will apply only for next year’s Oscars and will lapse when movie theatres reopen across the nation, was announced in a statement. “The Academy firmly believes there is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theatre. Our commitment to that is unchanged and unwavering. Nonetheless, the historically tragic COVID-19 pandemic necessitates this temporary exception to our awards eligibility rules,” President David Rubin and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson said, referring to the disease caused by the virus.

U.S. Marriage Rate Plunges to Lowest Level on Record

The share of Americans getting married has fallen to its lowest level on record, according to government figures released on April 29 that reflect how economic insecurity and changing norms are eroding the institution. The U.S. marriage rate fell 6% in 2018, with 6.5 new unions formed for every 1,000 people, according to a report by the National Centre for Health Statistics. That was the lowest rate since the federal government began keeping data in 1867, said Sally Curtin, a statistician at the centre and lead author of the study.

European economic activity shows early signs of post-lockdown rise

“There are some tentative signs of improvement in economic activity in the high-frequency data such as increased electricity consumption in Italy and Spain and slightly less depressed footfall in German cities over the past week,” said Jessica Hinds, Europe economist at Capital Economics. Yet she warned it was still “very early days” and other indicators “have yet to show much, if any, progress”. In Italy and Spain, electricity consumption has been rising since mid-April — in contrast to France, where it is still at very low levels in comparison with historic norms. The increase in energy use in the two countries partially reverses the sharp slowdown at the start of the lockdown and narrows the gap with last year’s levels, according to hourly data by ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity. Meanwhile data on mileage clocked up by German trucks has begun to show a mild uptick after a plunge that is set to leave April’s data as the largest contraction since records began in 2005.

Coronavirus threatens Communist party’s aim of widespread prosperity by end of 2020

When Xi Jinping became Chinese president in 2013, he inherited a three decades-long goal to ensure the country had achieved widespread prosperity on the eve of the Communist party’s 100th anniversary next year. Known as xiao kang she hui, a term often translated as “moderately prosperous society” and comparable to the western concept of middle class, the plan called for doubling gross domestic product from 2010 to 2020 and the eradication of extreme poverty. But economists said the outbreak of coronavirus and the collapse of economic growth for the first time in decades had dashed the Communist party’s hopes of declaring victory by the end of this year. And for Mr Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, it could prove a politically embarrassing and damaging miss. Originally a Confucian term, state media carefully defines it as “less affluent, than well off” but free from poverty. Xiao kang she hui was first used in reference to China’s economic goals by Deng Xiaoping, the reformist leader credited with opening up the country to the outside world, in the mid-1980s.

China's top legislature to open annual session on May 22

The 13th National People's Congress (NPC) will open its third annual session in Beijing on May 22. The decision was adopted on April 29 at the 17th session of the 13th NPC Standing Committee held from April 26 to 29. “Under the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, and through the hard work of the whole country and the people, the COVID-19 epidemic prevention and control situation in China is improving steadily and the normal economic and social life is gradually resuming”, according to a statement issued by the NPC Standing Committee. With various factors taken into consideration, the conditions for convening the NPC annual session at an appropriate time are ready, said the statement.

Hard to hold Tokyo Olympics without virus vaccine: Japan Medical Association

The head of the Japan Medical Association said on April 28 that it will be difficult to hold the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games next summer as currently rescheduled without a vaccine against the new coronavirus." My opinion is that it will be hard to host them unless an effective vaccine is developed," Yoshitake Yokokura, the group's president, said during an online press briefing organized by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo. He urged developers to "step up the pace in (producing) treatments and vaccines." Yokokura, however, declined to say whether his organization would oppose holding the games without a vaccine available. "The global state of infections at that particular time will be a key issue," he said. "It will be difficult even if the situation in Japan has become better if infections continue to spread" abroad. In late March, the Olympics were postponed with a new start date of July 2021 due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

US imposes new restrictions on exports to China

The United States on April 27 posted rule changes that impose new restrictions on exports to China, including on civil aircraft components and items related to semiconductors. The new rules will require licenses for U.S. companies to sell certain items to military entities in China even if they are for civilian use, and do away with a civilian exception that allows certain U.S. technology to be exported without a license, if they are for a non-military entity. The rules were posted for public inspection and will be published in the Federal Register on April 28. Washington trade lawyer Kevin Wolf said the rules are a response to China's policy of finding military applications for civilian items. He said the regulatory definitions of military use and user are broad and go beyond purchases by entities such as the People's Liberation Army. The administration also posted a third proposed rule change that would force foreign companies shipping certain American goods to China to seek approval not only from their own governments but from the United States as well.

20 countries sign pact to keep ports open for trade

Port authorities in 20 countries across three continents have signed an agreement to keep ports open for trade amid the coronavirus pandemic, in a move initiated by Singapore. From Los Angeles to Antwerp, and Abu Dhabi to Shanghai, the countries recognised, in a virtual roundtable, that the maritime sector plays a critical role in keeping trade flows open during this period. The port authorities committed to working together to ensure merchant ships can still berth at ports to carry out cargo operations and keep the global supply chain going, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said on April 24. The joint declaration commits signatories to continue to share experiences in combating Covid-19 while safeguarding "unimpeded maritime trade", and to ensure that best practices are adopted in areas such as the safe handling of cargoes. The agreement is the first by the Port Authorities Roundtable, a by-invitation event of leading port authorities in its sixth edition this year.

Military Expenditures support technology development, contribute to China's economy: analysts

China's military budget for 2020 could maintain a steady increase even though foreign reports have suggested that an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will hit military spending, but a slight decrease is also possible, Chinese analysts said on April 28. The budget figure is expected to be announced at China's annual two sessions, which have been delayed due to the epidemic but are edging near as the situation is being brought under control. Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times that China's military budget will maintain a moderate increase, and a growth rate slightly lower than last year's will be acceptable given the impact that COVID-19 has had on the economy. One reason behind a possible continued increase in 2020 is China's goal to build world-class armed forces, and 2020 is scheduled to be a milestone, analysts said. Song said China is facing military pressure from countries and regions like the US, which makes an increased military budget necessary.

Canberra asks Beijing’s envoy to explain ‘economic coercion’ comments

Australia has asked the Chinese ambassador to explain what it called a threat of “economic coercion” in response to Canberra’s push for an international inquiry into the source of the coronavirus. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on April 28 that Australia was a “crucial supplier” to China for essential imports like iron ore, and that Australia’s resources and energy helped power much of China’s manufacturing growth and construction, Reuters said. Cheng Jingye, Beijing’s ambassador to Australia, told a local newspaper on April 27 that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian beef, wine, tourism and universities in response to Australia’s call for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreak in Syria's Idlib a 'matter of time'

While it is difficult to predict exactly when a coronavirus case will be confirmed in Idlib, Syria's last rebel-held area in the country, the majority of the medics cited in April 28's report by Refugees International said they will be ill-prepared to cope with a severe outbreak. "Idlib is surrounded by areas that all have been hit by the coronavirus," report author Sahar Atrache told Al Jazeera. "The closure of crossings notwithstanding, routes remain opened to commercial traffic, so a risk of a virus outbreak remains," she said. As of April 28, the Damascus-based Syrian government has reported 43 coronavirus cases including three deaths, in areas under its control. The strategic M4 highway, which runs east-west through Idlib province, continues to be the focal point of local protests, turning the rebel-held Syrian province into a litmus paper for the success of Turkish and Russian joint moves. This weekend, the region witnessed the first military confrontation between Turkish forces and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) militants. As retaliation for Turkish forces opening fire on HTS militants on April 26— killing four protesters participating in Al-Karama sit-in — the militant group targeted a Turkish armored vehicle with a missile in Al-Nayrab.

For Further Reading:
  1. Deutsche Welle: Coronavirus: How do biosafety laboratories work?,
  2. Reuters: India's Serum Institute to make millions of potential coronavirus vaccine doses,
  3. Deutsche Welle: The European Union's €1 trillion coronavirus question,
  4. Wall Street Journal: U.S. Audits of Small-Business Loans Face Daunting Challenges,
  5. New York Times: Investors are betting a handful of companies will emerge from the crisis even stronger,
  6. Financial Times: EU restarts work on regulating Big Tech,
  7. Mainichi: Digital-ad downturn may complicate life for Google, Facebook,
  8. Mainichi: Google's growth slows as pandemic infests advertising market,
  9. Reuters: Coronavirus brews trouble for tea, disrupts supply as demand spikes,
  10. Reuters: Starbucks expects China recovery by September as coronavirus seen easing,
  11. Wall Street Journal: Streaming Movies Are Eligible for Oscars, Academy Says,
  12. Wall Street Journal: U.S. Marriage Rate Plunges to Lowest Level on Record,
  13. Financial Times: European economic activity shows early signs of post-lockdown rise,
  14. Financial Times: China slowdown puts Xi in political bind,
  15. Xinhua: China's top legislature to open annual session on May 22,
  16. Nikkei Asian Review: Hard to hold Tokyo Olympics without virus vaccine: medical group chief,
  17. Nikkei Asian Review: US imposes new restrictions on exports to China,
  18. Straits Times: 20 countries sign pact to keep ports open for trade,
  19. Global Times: COVID-19 may hit military budget, only mildly,
  20. RT: Canberra asks Beijing’s envoy to explain ‘economic coercion’ comments,
  21. Al Jazeera: Coronavirus outbreak in Syria's Idlib a 'matter of time',
  22. Arab News: Key Idlib highway remains focal point of protests,

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