World News

As Iran coronavirus deaths rise, Rouhani hits back at criticism

Iranian president says economy is a factor in the country’s COVID-19 response as punishing US sanctions remain in place.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hit back at criticism over the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying he had to weigh protecting the country’s sanctions-hit economy while tackling the worst outbreak in the region.

Iran, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries from the virus, reported 123 more deaths on Sunday in the past 24 hours, pushing its overall toll to 2,640 amid 38,309 confirmed cases.


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The president reacted on Sunday at criticism of its lagging response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the region, which has so far infected 38,309 people in the Islamic Republic, and killed more than 2,600 others – according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University in the United States. 

Rouhani described international outcry at the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran as a “political war”, saying he had to weigh protecting the economy while tackling the virus, labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Leaders around the world are struggling to strike a balance between containing the pandemic and preventing their economies from crashing.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Rouhani said the government had to consider the effect of mass quarantine efforts on Iran’s beleaguered economy, which is under heavy US sanctions.

“Health is a principle for us, but the production and security of society is also a principle for us,” Rouhani said. “We must put these principles together to reach a final decision.”

“This is not the time to gather followers,” he added. “This is not a time for political war.”

In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear deal signed three years earlier between Iran and world powers. Washington has since imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran that prevent it from selling oil on international markets. 

Iran has urged the international community to lift sanctions and is seeking a $5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Last week, United Nations rights chief called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran facing the new coronavirus pandemic to be “urgently re-evaluated” to avoid pushing strained medical systems into collapse.

“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said.

In recent days, Iran has ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and banned travel between cities. But those measures came long after other countries in the region imposed more sweeping lockdowns.

Just over a week after saying he expected the measures taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus to be eased by early April, Rouhani warned on Sunday that “the new way of life” in Iran was likely to be prolonged.

“We must prepare to live with this virus until a treatment or vaccine is discovered, which has not yet happened to date,” he added.

“The new way of life we have adopted” is to everyone’s benefit, Rouhani noted, adding that “these changes will likely have to stay in place for some time”.

After the president’s warning, the reopening of schools following this year’s Persian New Year holidays of March 19 to April 3 appears unlikely.

On a positive note, Rouhani said he had been told by top health experts and doctors that “in some provinces, we have passed the peak [of the epidemic] and are on a downward trajectory”.

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World News

China bans foreign visitors after imported coronavirus cases rise

Beijing takes action to curb surge of infected people arriving from new hotspots overseas, as local cases dwindle.

China will ban entry to all foreigners, including non-nationals with valid visas and residence permits, from midnight on Friday in a move to curb the numbers of imported coronavirus cases.

The other measures announced by the foreign ministry include reducing the number of international flights and limiting the capacity on board to 75 percent.


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The ministry added that entry of foreign nationals with visas issued after the announcement will not be prevented.

“Entry with diplomatic, service, courtesy or C visas will not be affected,” a ministry statement said on Thursday. “Foreign nationals coming to China for necessary economic, trade, scientific or technological activities or out of emergency humanitarian needs may apply for visas at Chinese embassies or consulates.”

In recent weeks, China’s tally of cases has reduced dramatically, with only a handful of domestic patients each day.

However, there has been a surge of infected people arriving from new hotspots overseas. This pushed Beijing to take action to halt a second wave of infections in China, where the virus was reported to have first emerged.

Majority of cases imported

On Friday, mainland China reported its first local coronavirus case in three days and 54 new imported cases.

The 55 new cases detected on Thursday were down from 67 a day earlier, the country’s National Health Commission said on Friday, taking the tally of infections to 81,340. More than 65,000 of those have recovered, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University in the US.

China’s death toll stood at 3,292 as of Thursday, up by five from a day earlier.

After first appearing in China’s Wuhan last December, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 175 countries and territories.

The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

The number of confirmed cases worldwide has now surpassed 530,000 while the death toll is higher than 24,000, with some 126,000 patients having recovered.

The US, Italy, China, Iran and Spain are among the countries hardest hit.

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World News

Undocumented struggle to access coronavirus tests in Lebanon

Prohibitively high costs for undocumented people leave some migrant workers fearing for their lives.

Beirut, Lebanon – Hospitals on the front lines of Lebanon’s coronavirus outbreak have either turned away undocumented people or are setting prohibitively high costs for tests, leading them to fear for their health and wellbeing.

Al Jazeera spoke with two former domestic workers of Ethiopian origin who sought testing at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), the main COVID-19 testing and treatment centre in the country.


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Both said they were turned away because they did not have identification documents.

Many live-in migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are left without documents when they escape abusive employers, because of the pervasive practice of employers confiscating passports and IDs.

When asked for comment, a source at RHUH, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, confirmed that the hospital’s policy was to turn away those without documents so long as they were not in need of emergency care.

“We must provide the state with the name of any person who we test, so that if it is positive we can inform both the state and the person. We can’t do that without a name,” the source said, adding that they could not rely simply on contact information.

“To be very clear, anyone who comes to us in an emergency condition and needs treatment will be given treatment, but if they are not an emergency case we can’t,” the source said.

Health Minister Hamad Hasan did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, an employee at the coronavirus ward of Beirut’s St George Hospital, one of the largest in the capital, told Al Jazeera that undocumented people would have to pay for testing themselves, at a cost of 750,000 Lebanese pounds (about $498).

It is a prohibitively high cost for people who struggle to pay for basic needs such as food and rent.

The employee said patients were first given blood and lung scans, then another more precise scan, and only then, if all indicators pointed towards the coronavirus, a COVID-19 test.

The test itself is available at some private clinics at a cost of about 150,000 Lebanese pounds (about $99).

As of Saturday, Lebanon recorded 412 cases of COVID-19, with eight deaths and 27 recoveries, according to government statistics. At the current rate, the number of cases is doubling every five to six days.

Fear of spread

Tenteb, a 32-year-old former domestic worker who has lived in Lebanon for more than 10 years, told Al Jazeera she began feeling coronavirus-like symptoms – strong cough and headache – in early March.

“I got very scared, because I am living in a three-room apartment with 14 people,” she said, “all of them former domestic workers who either ran away from abusive employers or were laid off during Lebanon’s economic crisis.”

An estimated 250,000 domestic workers reside in Lebanon, coming from a host of African and Southeast Asian countries.

Most earned monthly wages equating to between $150 and $250 before Lebanon began its slide into economic and financial crisis in 2019.

The subsequent depreciation of the local currency by more than 40 percent has in turn slashed the value of their wages, and many Lebanese employers have cited the economic crisis as a reason to pay domestic workers late, or not at all.

Under the notorious kafala system, domestic workers cannot leave their employers without consent. This leads many to languish in abusive and difficult working conditions, while others decide to escape, effectively becoming illegal residents in Lebanon.

Escapees face imprisonment, fines and deportation if they are caught by authorities, and so many, like Tenteb, are left living in limbo.

Tenteb said only two of the 14 women at her residence, including herself, were still earning a salary before the coronavirus outbreak began in Lebanon in late February.

Now, both of them have been laid off due to a partial national lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

She said she suspected her strong cough had led her employer to let her go, and she immediately sought testing for the coronavirus. But she was turned back from RHUH and was left to self-medicate with “antibiotics, vitamins and panadol”.

Tenteb still does not know whether she has COVID-19, and says that those she lives with have “thankfully not yet developed any symptoms”.

‘Black or white’

Mary, a former domestic worker who began experiencing symptoms last week, was turned away from the RHUH and was unable to afford a test at the St George Hospital.

Speaking on behalf of Mary due to a language barrier, Rosa, a 29-year-old Ethiopian woman who has lived in Lebanon for five years, said they had struggled to move from one hospital to another as Mary’s symptoms grew worse.

Rosa said they eventually paid for a coronavirus test at a hospital on the southern outskirts of Beirut. It came back negative.

“While that’s great, it’s not the most important point here,” Rosa said. “Ok, she’s foreign and has no papers, but this is a dangerous virus that Europe can’t even deal with.”

“How will Lebanon control this virus if they do this? This is more important than anything: documents, nationality, black or white. We all live here together in Lebanon. I don’t know how they think.”

Diala Haidar, a Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that, under the human right to health: “Healthcare goods, facilities and services should be available and accessible to everyone without discrimination, especially to the most vulnerable or marginalised groups of the population, [including undocumented migrants].”

Lebanon has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”, including the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases”.

The Listening Post

Coronavirus: Tracking the Outbreak, or Spying on People?

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World News

'Stigmatised': India's coronavirus 'heroes' come under attack

Health and other frontline workers have been threatened, many of them evicted from rented houses over fear of infection.

Doctors, nurses and other frontline workers in the fight against coronavirus in India, who have been hailed as “heroes”, have come under attack and in some cases evicted from their homes by panicked residents.

Some e-commerce giants have even halted deliveries partly due to the harassment of staff, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi said abuse of hospital workers had become a “huge issue”.


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Reports of attacks and abuse have come from across India, increasing with the imposition this week of a 21-day nationwide lockdown. In at least one case, police were accused of beating a delivery driver carrying medicines.

Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor in the western city of Surat, described how she was accosted as she returned home from a long day at a hospital that is treating COVID-19 patients.

She said neighbours blocked her at the entrance to her apartment building and threatened “consequences” if she continued to work.

“These are the same people who have happily interacted with me (in the past). Whenever they’ve faced a problem, I’ve helped them out,” the 36-year-old told AFP.

“There is a sense of fear among people. I do understand. But it’s like I suddenly became an untouchable.”

This week, doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences appealed to the government for help after health workers were forced out of their homes by panicked landlords and housing societies.

“Many doctors are stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” the letter said.

Modi called on Indians to stop treating medical workers as pariahs, describing those fighting the virus as “God-like”.

“Today they are the people who are saving us from dying, putting their lives in danger.”

Health workers are not the only ones facing the brunt of the frightened population in an environment where misinformation and rumours are thriving.

Airline and airport staff, who are still being called on for evacuations of Indians stuck overseas and to manage key cargo deliveries, have also been threatened.

Indigo and Air India have condemned threats made against their staff.

An Air India flight attendant told AFP her neighbours threatened to evict her from her apartment while she was heading to the United States, saying she would “infect everyone”.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said, afraid to reveal her name over the fear of further stigmatisation.

“I was scared that even if I did go home, would someone break open the door or call people to kick me out?”

Her husband had to ask the police for help.

Others have not been as lucky, the flight attendant said, with one colleague – who declined to speak to AFP – forced out of her home and now living with her parents.

“With all the fake news and WhatsApp forwards, they don’t know what is going on, so there’s this paranoia that makes them behave like this,” she said.

T Praveen Keerthi, general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (IPCA), told AFP the organisation had received more than 50 complaints from airline crew.

“Airline staffers are being stopped from entering their own residential premises by security guards,” he said.

“We also have families and children that we leave at home to help fellow citizens … The least we expect is for our colleagues to not be harassed and ostracised.”

Airport workers involved in moving essential supplies have also faced attacks as have delivery workers transporting medicines and groceries.

E-commerce giant Flipkart temporarily suspended services this week.

The Walmart-owned group said it only resumed home deliveries after police guaranteed “the safe and smooth passage of our supply chain and delivery executives”.

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World News

Unanswered questions as Nigeria braces for coronavirus lockdown

Small business owners worry about cash flow as Nigeria prepares to go into lockdown later on Thursday.

Nigerians are bracing for a partial lockdown from Thursday as authorities try to contain the spread of coronavirus cases in the country of about 200 million people.

Markets, religious centres, schools, offices and leisure spots have already been shut in some states since last week. 


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“We are determined to be more aggressive in enforcing the measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus,” information minister Lai Mohammed said in the capital Abuja on Thursday.

“Time is running out. We have a short window within which to stop this pandemic or face an explosion in terms of the cases. We cannot afford to be complacent.”

The country has 51 confirmed cases of coronavirus and has recorded one death.

On Tuesday, Lagos, the nation’s commercial capital with an estimated population of 20 million, advised residents to stay at home and only permitted shops selling essential items like groceries, medicine and life-saving products to remain open.

“I urge that all travel to and from Lagos, whether by air or by road, be avoided at this time,” Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said on Tuesday.

Many residents resorted to panic buying on Wednesday as they rushed to stock up on food and other essentials in the face of Thursday morning deadline.

In Abuja the government has implemented a similar directive that will come into effect on Thursday.

“I am happy with the directive by government. It enables me to spend time with my family and avoid contact with people who visit my office,” said a worker in Abuja who did not want to be named.

“I work at the front desk and I have to attend to a lot of people daily. I was already worried at the level of exposure to suspected cases of coronavirus.”

Nyesom Wike, governor of the country’s oil capital, Rivers State, said he would close the state’s borders to people crossing from Thursday evening. The state’s capital, Port Harcourt, is home to the offices of some oil majors such as Nigeria LNG and Royal Dutch Shell.

Some top government officials, including the chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, and a state governor have tested positive for coronavirus, according to local newspaper The Cable.

Some government officials have taken to social media to reveal they are in self-isolation after coming in contact with confirmed cases.

Military deployment?

The Nigerian army is reportedly preparing to deploy for a coronavirus lockdown, according to sources close to the military.

Reuters news agency reported that the soldiers are expected to forcibly transfer the sick to hospitals across the country and enforce curbs on movement to try.

According to an army memo seen by Reuters, the military also plans to protect government food storage from looters.

The Nigerian army has not confirmed the plans.

With millions asked to stay at home, concerns have been raised about fiscal stimulus to cushion the effects on the informal sector which constitutes a bulk of the country’s population.

Michael Babajide runs a business centre in Abuja and has three staff working for him.

“I earn daily income. Closing my shop is going to affect me greatly. I know it’s for my health and the health of others but how do I pay my bills? I have workers’ salary to pay too,” he said. “If this thing lasts for much longer and we can’t open our shop, I may be forced to sack my workers. I won’t be able to pay them with no work to generate money,” he told Al Jazeera.

The government is yet to announce measures in place to address the concerns of private businesses.

“The group under the poverty line, those that live by the day, how do you tell them to stay at home without providing for them? The government needs to intervene,” Abuja resident Rita Egbujovbo told Al Jazeera.

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World News

UN says coronavirus threat to 'whole of humanity': Live updates

UN appeals for $2bn to help poorer nations cope, as Europe’s COVID-19 death toll mounts and US passes $2trn rescue bill.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has launched an appeal for $2bn in international humanitarian aid to help poorer countries tackle the coronavirus pandemic, as the death toll in Italy and Spain continued to climb.

Guterres said COVID-19 was a threat to the “whole of humanity and the whole of humanity must fight back.”

As the UN launched the initiative, more deaths were reported in Europe – now the epicentre of the pandemic – with Spain recording more than 700 fatalities in 24 hours. It is now the second-worst affected country in the world after Italy.

In the United States, meanwhile, a sweeping $2 trillion measure to aid workers, businesses, and the healthcare system finally passed the Senate after a series of hiccups stalled progress late on Wednesday. It has now gone back to the lower house for approval.

More than 471,400 people around the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. More than 114,000 have recovered, while about 21,000 people have died.

Here are the latest updates:

Thursday, March 25

03:30 GMT – US Senate passes $2 trillion coronavirus package

After a series of last minuted hiccups, the US Senate has finally passed a $2 trillion package to support the health system, workers and business hurt by the coronavirus outbreak.

We’ll have more on that story shortly.

03:30 GMT – Parliament in Spain votes to extend state of emergency until April 11

Spain’s parliament has voted in favour of the government’s request to extend the state of emergency – and a nationwide lockdown – by two weeks.

The emergency was first declared on March 14 and includes strict stay-at-home rules.

More people have died in Spain from COVID-19 than any other country except for Italy.

02:50 GMT – Cases in US near 70,000, with more than 1,000 dead

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US is nearing 70,000 with more than 1,000 people now reported to have died from COVID-19, according to AFP.

More on how each state is handling the outbreak here.

02:45 GMT – Japan to set up coronavirus HQ, possible emergency declaration

Japan’s government is preparing to set up a special headquarters on coronavirus as early as Thursday afternoon, in a move that could set the stage for declaring a state of emergency over the outbreak, the Kyodo news agency reported.

The prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease is seen as posing a “grave danger” to lives and if its spread threatens the economy.

02:30 GMT – Overseas arrivals to South Korea to be refused entry without app

Yonhap news agency is reporting that South Korea will deny entry to people arriving in the country from overseas if they refuse to install an app to monitor them while they are in self-isolation.

02:25 GMT – Border closures, flight suspensions leave people stranded

Countries around the world have advised their citizens overseas to return home as quickly as they can as lockdowns accelerate, borders are sealed off, and even transit passengers banned.

But that’s easier said than done.

Al Jazeera’s Ian Neubauer spoke to people stuck in limbo at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.

01:50 GMT – Mexico to suspend all non-essential activity from Thursday

Mexico’s Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell says all non-essential activities in the country will be suspended from Thursday. 

Mexico has reported 475 confirmed cases of coronavirus and six deaths.

01:20 GMT – South Korea cases rise by 104, five more deaths

South Korea’s just given its latest update. The country confirmed 104 new cases, bringing the total to 9,241, with five more deaths.

Some 414 people were discharged from hospital after making a full recovery. In all, 4,144 people in South Korea have been cured of the virus.

00:10 GMT – China cases climb again; all from overseas

Mainland China has reported a further increase in coronavirus cases – all of them in people returning to the country from overseas.

The National Health Commission reported 67 new cases as of the end of Wednesday, compared with 47 a day earlier.

The number of deaths rose by six to 3,287.

No new domestically transmitted cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were reported on the Chinese mainland on Wednesday

00:00 GMT – Trump administration cut CDC China staff

Reuters news agency is reporting that the administration of US President Donald Trump cut the staff of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) working in China by two-thirds in the two years before the coronavirus emerged.

Most of the reductions were at the Beijing office. The CDC’s headcount in China has dropped from about 47 when Trump took office in January 2017 to about 14 now, Reuters said.

21:59 GMT (Wednesday) – $2 trillion virus rescue bill hits delay in Senate

The $2 trillion economic rescue package to provide aid to American businesses, workers and healthcare systems strained by the coronavirus outbreak has run into last-minute delays in the Senate.

The measure is the largest economic relief bill in US history. More on that story here.

Read all the updates from yesterday (March 24) here.

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World News

UN launches virus aid plan, says 'all of humanity' at risk

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says solidarity and global action are ‘crucial’.

Poorer countries need $2bn of international humanitarian aid to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said in launching a major donation appeal on Wednesday.

“COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity – and the whole of humanity must fight back,” Guterres said in announcing the initiative. “Global action and solidarity are crucial. Individual country responses are not going to be enough.”


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Just last week, as the novel coronavirus spread to more and more countries, killing thousands and infecting many more, Guterres warned that unless the world came together to curb the spread, millions of people could die.

In recent days, Guterres has called for much stronger global coordination on the response to the pandemic.

In a Monday letter to the G20 group of leading economic powers, he pushed for a “war-time” stimulus bill “in the trillions of dollars” to help poor countries.

According to the UN chief, the plan “aims to enable us to fight the virus in the world’s poorest countries, and address the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially women and children, older people, and those with disabilities or chronic illness”, said Guterres.

If fully funded, “it will save many lives and arm humanitarian agencies and NGOs with laboratory supplies for testing, and with medical equipment to treat the sick while protecting health care workers”, he added.

The amount of money sought by the plan is small compared to the $2 trillion that the United States Congress is poised to approve as a rescue effort for devastated US consumers, companies and hospitals as the world’s largest economy grinds to a sudden halt.

Two scenarios

The UN plan is designed to last from April to December – suggesting the world body does not see the health crisis abating any time soon.

The exact total of $2.012bn is supposed to flow in in response to appeals that various UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme, have already made.

Guterres said in parallel, humanitarian aid provided yearly by member states to help 100 million people around the world must continue.

Otherwise, he said, the coronavirus pandemic could lead to rampant outbreaks of other diseases such as cholera and measles, as well as higher levels of malnutrition.

“This is the moment to step up for the vulnerable,” Guterres said.

As spelled out in an 80-page booklet, the UN plan will be carried out by UN agencies that work directly with nongovernmental organisations.

It will be coordinated by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, of the United Kingdom.

The money will be used for a variety of purposes: to set up handwashing facilities in refugee camps, launch public awareness campaigns, and establish humanitarian air shuttles with Africa, Asia and Latin America, the UN said.

The exact needs of some countries are still being identified.

The plan names 20 or so nations as deserving top priority for aid, including some enduring war or some degree of conflict, including Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela and Ukraine.

But countries such as Iran and North Korea are also analysed in the booklet.

The plan foresees two general scenarios as to how the pandemic might evolve.

Under the first, the pandemic is brought under control relatively quickly as its rate of spread slows over the course of three or four months. This, the UN said, would allow for a relatively swift recovery in terms of public health and the economy.

But under the second model, the pandemic spreads quickly in countries that are poor or developing, mainly in Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas.

“This leads to longer periods of closed borders and limited freedom of movement, further contributing to a global slowdown that is already under way,” said the UN.

Inside Story

How can obstacles to widespread coronavirus testing be overcome?

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World News

Bangladesh scientists create $3 kit. Can it help detect COVID-19?

Bangladesh pharma regulator allows mass production of dot blot test kit but researchers say it has its limitations.

Dhaka, Bangladesh – A group of scientists in Bangladesh has developed a $3 testing kit they claim can detect coronavirus in less than 15 minutes.

The South Asian nation’s pharmaceutical regulator – the Directorate General of Drug Administration (DGDA) – gave its green light for the mass production of the kit last Thursday, saying it would ease the pressure on the pathology services struggling with coronavirus detection.

Bangladesh’s largest vernacular daily Prothom Alo reported last week that only 1,732 testing kits are available in a country of nearly 180 million people.

Besides, according to a report of The Business Standard, the Bangladesh government has so far prepared only 29 intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients in five Dhaka hospitals. 

Most private hospitals that have ICU facilities are refusing to admit patients with even mild symptoms amid the COVID-19 scare.

Similar kit developed in China

The kit developed by Bangladesh’s Gonoshasthaya-RNA Biotech Limited is similar to one developed in January by scientists in China as the coronavirus outbreak intensified in the Chinese province of Hubei.

A report by The Guardian said the Australian regulatory authority “urgently approved four Australian companies” to import the testing kit developed by the Chinese scientists after those companies sought to supply it into the Australian market.

But the Australian regulatory authority is yet to approve the kit for use in the country, according to a report in The Guardian.

Some experts say that because the kit looks for antibodies produced by the white blood cells in response to the virus rather than the virus itself, there is a margin of error where it could return a false negative if used at the wrong time.

The standard laboratory test for coronavirus is known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), which detects the virus’s genome rather than antibodies produced to fight it.

Dr Bijon Kumar Sil, leader of the Bangladeshi research team that invented the kit, told Al Jazeera that their test, known as the ‘dot blot test’, looks for antibodies in the blood that are created in response to a given virus.

“Coronavirus or any types of virus enter the body through the nose, mouth or eyes, then attaches to cells in the throat that produce a protein,” said Sil.

He said viruses are made up of an outer shell of protein, which carries the virus’s DNA or RNA – the genetic code with the instructions for making new copies of the virus.

‘It’s cheap to produce’

The infected cell reads the RNA and begins making proteins which eventually multiplies the virus, said Sil.

“But as the infection progresses inside the human cell, the human immune system at one stage produces specific antibody in blood to fight against the specific virus,” he said.

“Antibodies are one of the key weapons against viruses in our immune system’s arsenal,” he said.

“Our dot blot test detects the specific antibody in the blood created by the white blood cell in response to coronavirus,” he said adding that the antibody assays use blood serum, saliva and sputum samples to provide the results within few minutes.

Dr Sil invented a similar kit for detecting the SARS coronavirus while working in Singapore during the outbreak of the respiratory disease in 2003. The Chinese government later bought the patent of the kit he developed as it was proven to be effective in detecting the SARS coronavirus “in most cases”.

“The best part of this rapid kit is it’s cheap (approximately $3) to produce unlike the RT-PCR testing kit which one is expensive,” he said.

An RT-PCR kit costs about $120 to $130. A specialised biosafety lab is also needed to house a PCR machine, each of which may cost $15,000 to $90,000, Dr Mohibullah Khondoker, a member of Dr Sil’s research team said.

Khondoker said only a few pathological laboratories in Bangladesh has the desired biosafety level to conduct RT-PCR tests, “whereas our rapid dot blot test can be conducted by most of the laboratories”.

Limitations of the dot-blot kit

Dr Md Shajedur Rahman Shawon, researcher at Centre for Big Data Research in Health, University of New South Wales in Australia, however, said ‘dot blot test’ has its disadvantages.

Shawon said the rapid kit looks for antibodies in the blood produced in response to infection by coronavirus, whereas the RT-PCR looks for the virus itself (through RNA extraction) in respiratory specimens.

“Since the rapid test relies on the presence of a sufficient amount of antibodies in the blood, factors like timing of the test, previous infections, immune status of a person, cross-reaction with other antigens, can produce false results,” he said.

The Australia-based researcher said the false results could take two forms: false-negative and false-positive.

The false-negative results will tell a person who is actually infected with coronavirus that they are not, which could lead to them spreading it further because they do not think they need to take precautions.

On the other hand, a false-positive result tells a person that they are infected when, in fact, they are not. This might be less dangerous than false-negatives in the case of a highly contagious virus like coronavirus, said Dr Shawon.

“Several labs around the world are trying to develop such a rapid kit, but none has received approval from public health authorities because of lack of reliability and validity of these kits,” he said.

“While rapid kits can be used as a screening tool, their efficacy in detecting true-positive and true-negative cases need to be assessed before any approval by the regulator can be made,” he added. 

A better option in current situation

When asked about the supposed disadvantages of the test kit, Dr Sil said, “The rapid dot blot test could record false-negative if used at a wrong time.”

“Sometimes, it takes more than three days to develop antibodies in the blood cell, so if a test is conducted before three days, then it might come as false-negative,” he said.

“Under normal circumstances, RT-PCR is the only ‘gold standard’ test for detecting coronavirus, but the current situation is anything but normal. Here, a rapid dot blot test can be given a shot as countries like Bangladesh are suffering from acute coronavirus test kit crisis,” he added.

Dr Khondorker told Al Jazeera that Bangladesh has one of the most fragile healthcare systems in the world.

“There is no health insurance facility for most of the people, and people can’t afford even basic healthcare. So when we developed our kit, we kept the cost in mind and tried to make it as cheap as possible,” he said.

Khondoker added that they are working day and night to increase the efficiency of the test kit.

“You understand this is no less than a war-like situation now. There are possibilities of witnessing a boom of coronavirus-affected patients in the next few weeks. It is impossible to test them all with methods like RT-PCR as that method is not only expensive but also time-consuming,” he said.

“But our method gives result within 15 minutes and, at present, I would say it works in 90 percent of cases.”

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World News

Afro-jazz legend Manu Dibango dies after contracting coronavirus

The 86-year-old Cameroonian, best known for the 1972 hit ‘Soul Makossa’ died in Paris, according to a representative.

Renowned Afro-jazz star Manu Dibango has died after contracting the new coronavirus, his representatives and official Facebook page have announced.

The 86-year-old Cameroonian, best known for the 1972 hit, Soul Makossa, is one of the first worldwide stars to die as a result of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“He died early this morning in a hospital in the Paris region,” his music publisher Thierry Durepaire said.

A message on his official Facebook page confirmed that his death had come after he contracted COVID-19.

“His funeral service will be held in strict privacy, and a tribute to his memory will be organized when possible,” the message said. 

Funerals in France have been limited to 20 people who are in the closest circle of the deceased because of a lockdown to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The saxophonist was one of the pioneers of Afro-jazz and also fused funk with traditional Cameroonian music.

His biggest hit was the B-side of a song to support the Cameroon football team in the African Cup of Nations but was picked up and popularised by New York DJs.

In 2009, he accused Michael Jackson of borrowing one of his hooks for two songs on the legendary album, Thriller. Jackson settled out of court.

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World News

Is Russia prepared for a coronavirus outbreak?

Russians say infection could spread quickly as authorities are slow to act, while the rich allegedly hoard ventilators.

Even though Russians have generations-old, almost genetic resistance to wars, famines, political instability and purges, the coronavirus pandemic seems totally different, says Natalya Amelina, a Russian hairdresser in Moscow.

The jovial mother of two understands that at 45, she is not among the people most at risk of the infection.

But still, she is torn between “panic and carelessness”, after witnessing what she describes as a slow response by authorities to the danger.

“In Moscow, authorities are pretending to be getting ready, but nothing has changed so far, except for the shelves in the shops. People are sweeping everything off the shelves,” she told Al Jazeera.


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Only one Russian, a 79-year-old woman in Moscow, has died of pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus, and 438 people have been diagnosed with the infection as of Monday, including 71 in the past 24 hours, officials say.

Russia’s numbers are far fewer than the hundreds of deaths reported daily in Italy, where at least 5,476 have died, and in France, where there are some 16,000 confirmed cases.

Just over 150,000 people have been tested for COVID-19, so far in Russia, a nation of 143 million that stretches across nine time zones and borders 14 nations, including Norway and China, where the virus originated.

That gives Russia one of the world’s lowest ratios.

There is only one lab in Russia capable of conducting coronavirus tests. It uses equipment produced in the western Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Russia’s first confirmed coronavirus patient said he was tested three times, and the second test came negative.

“The virus was confirmed in my third test, it was not seen in my blood but was in my saliva,” David Berov wrote on Instagram on March 5. “As I was told, they could barely see it, so that’s why they were in doubt for so long.”

The low number of detected infections has prompted some critics to claim that that the Kremlin is hiding the real number.

“There is an outbreak of coronavirus worldwide. In Russia, there is an outbreak of pneumonia that is treated outside hospitals. And, as usual, there is an outbreak of official lies and of intimidation of health workers,” Anastasiya Vasilyeva of the Doctors’ Alliance, a Moscow-based trade union, said in a video posted online on Thursday.

The number of pneumonia cases that can potentially be caused by coronavirus increased by 37 percent in Moscow year-on-year in January, according to Rosstat, Russia’s state-run statistics agency.

Its data shows that Moscow recorded 6,921 pneumonia cases in January, up from 5,058 the previous year. Nationwide, pneumonia cases also grew by over three percent year-on-year.

Until Thursday, Russians arriving from abroad, including pandemic-struck nations, were not isolated.

Fiction writer Svetlana Volkova, a resident of St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, said that her friends returned from Austria, which borders Italy and where authorities have reported more than 3,000 cases and six deaths.

The travellers had their temperature taken at the airport and were instructed to self-isolate.

“They nodded their heads and took the metro home,” Volkova told Al Jazeera. “No one stopped them.”

She believes Russians may contribute to the epidemic.

“Having been told not to leave their homes, [Europeans] don’t. Try to keep Russians under control like that,” she said.

Another observer said that Russians belatedly realised the perils of the pandemic.

“On the surface, yes, on social media Russians mostly neglect the virus and don’t understand its danger,” Germany-based, Russia-born historian Nikolay Mitrokhin told Al Jazeera.

“But now, we understand that Italians and Germans had the same attitude” before authorities imposed restrictions, he said.

Russia is closing its borders on Wednesday. It has already banned outdoor festivities and public gatherings, shut down schools and gyms, closed access to attractions such as the Red Square mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

The Kremlin has stopped short of cancelling the April 22 nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments that include the “nullification” of President Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms that will allow him to stay in power until 2036.

But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said of the vote: “The health of the country’s citizens is most important … If the growth of the epidemiological situation gives cause to reschedule, then it will be done.” 

Putin said in televised remarks on March 18: “Thank God, we have things under control in general. I hope it will go on like this in the future.” 

The pandemic is already litmus-testing Russia’s underfunded healthcare system. 

After the 2014 annexation of Crimea and widely publicised, expensive infrastructure projects such a bridge linking the Black Sea peninsula to mainland Russia, the healthcare system underwent significant budget and personnel cuts.

The effect was immediate.

“There were four ambulances in our district, and now we have only one,” Tatyana Korotkykh, a 57-year-old living in a village outside the Urals Mountains city of Chelyabinsk, told Al Jazeera.

“My brother died of a heart attack last year, because this single ambulance was reviving [someone else] and got to him four hours after he called.”

Another factor that may contribute to the spread of the virus is technological.

Only 42 percent of Russian companies can allow their employees to work from home, according to a poll by Bitrix24, a business consultancy.

Survival of the richest? 

Meanwhile, many Russians are preoccupied with purely economic problems.

Russia’s recent oil price war with Saudi Arabia sent hydrocarbon prices down along with the ruble, and the temporary shutdown of businesses prompts fears of financial losses.

“Everything is falling apart. We may sink lower than in 2008,” when a global economic crisis hit Russian business hard, Stanislav, a wholesale alcohol distributor, told Al Jazeera.

And just as in the West, where, unlike most people, the rich can afford coronavirus tests and have been buying up private plane tickets as they head to remote areas, wealthy Russian are focused on their health and self-isolation.

They rush to set up private clinics in their suburban mansions and hoard ventilators that help coronavirus victims breathe, depriving average Russians of access to the life-saving equipment, The Moscow Times reported on Saturday.

“Our oligarchs never invested in local hospitals because they never thought they would have to be treated there,” cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin was quoted as saying. “Now, they might experience the hell that they helped create.”

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