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Australia curbs gatherings, locks down travellers, in new coronavirus measures

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous states will restrict public gatherings to two people from midnight, state leaders said on Monday, as part of a wave of new measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus which has infected more than 4,000 across the country.

The neighbouring eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria account for most of Australia’s total COVID-19 infections and death toll, which stands at 17.

“It is only in exceptional circumstances that you should leave home,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in Sydney on Monday.

“We will get through this. We are in a position now which allows us to control the spread as much as possible.”

Police in neighbouring Victoria will issue fines of A$1600 ($984) to people who breach a limit of two people gathering in public, unless the group is from one household.

“Unless you want to be burying an elderly relative or your best mate, or your parents … do the right thing,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said in Melbourne on Monday.

The small island state of Tasmania also imposed a two-person limit on public gatherings from midnight, and became the country’s first state to ban people from alternating between their main home and their second home, if they have one.

“There will not be movement between your shack and your primary place of residence, allowing you to alternate and sleep nights in both,” state premier Peter Gutwein said, using the slang for holiday homes.

“You will need to make a choice,” he added.

Tasmania reported its first coronavirus death overnight, which took the country’s total deaths from the illness to 17. Confirmed COVID-19 cases are around 4,200 nationwide, although authorities said the rate of daily infections had halved in recent days.

Amid the extraordinary shutdown of businesses and resulting layoffs, the regulators and banks have taken measures to pause loan repayments for six months. Overnight, the federal government said it was putting a six-month moratorium on evicting renters.

All travellers arriving home in Australia from overseas meanwhile must go into monitored quarantine in hotels or other facilities for 14 days, under police supervision, according to measures implemented at the weekend.

Australia has swayed in recent weeks between policies designed to keep as many businesses open as possible, and a more aggressive push to lock down the country, causing some confusion.

Amid concerns distressed assets could be snapped up by overseas buyers, Australia said on Monday that all foreign investment proposals would be assessed by the relevant government agency during the duration of the crisis.

While most virus cases have been detected in major cities, clusters have also emerged in tourist destinations, such as in the Barossa Valley, a wine region in South Australia.

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Britons warned some coronavirus lockdown measures could last months

LONDON (Reuters) – Some lockdown measures to combat coronavirus in Britain could last months and only be gradually lifted, a senior medical official said on Sunday as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Britain has reported 19,522 confirmed cases of the disease and 1,228 deaths, after an increase of 209 fatalities as of 5 p.m. local time on Saturday compared with the previous day, the health ministry said.

“The important thing is this is a moving target,” Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries said.

“If we do well it moves forward and comes down and we manage all our care through our health and care systems sensibly in a controlled way and that is what we are aiming for,” she told a news conference.

“This is not to say we would be in complete lockdown for six months but it means that as a nation we have to be really, really responsible and keep doing what we are all doing until we are sure that we can gradually start lifting various interventions.”

Her warning came as Johnson wrote to 30 million households in Britain urging them to stick to strict rules to prevent the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) from being overwhelmed by a surge in cases.

“We know things will get worse before they get better,” Johnson said. “At this moment of national emergency, I urge you, please, to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

The number of tests being carried out has hit 10,000 a day, senior minister Michael Gove said and authorities are trying to acquire more ventilators.

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Britain has placed an order for thousands of the devices to be made by a consortium of companies including Ford (F.N), Airbus (AIR.PA) and Rolls-Royce (RR.L).

The repurposing of industry echoes Britain’s Second World War effort, with housing minister Robert Jenrick saying that all parts of the country are now on an “emergency footing” as strategic coordination centers are established.

“This is an unprecedented step in peacetime,” he said.

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Coronavirus lockdowns give Europe's cities cleaner air

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Air pollution has decreased in urban areas across Europe during lockdowns to combat the coronavirus, new satellite images showed on Monday, but campaigners warned city-dwellers were still more vulnerable to the epidemic.

Cities including Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Milan and Frankfurt showed a reduction in average levels of noxious nitrogen dioxide over March 5-25, compared with the same period last year, according to the Sentinel-5 satellite images.

That coincides with lockdowns in many European countries which have curbed road transport – the largest source of nitrogen oxides – and slowed output at gas-emitting factories.

The new images, released by the European Space Agency (ESA) and analyzed by the non-profit European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), show the changing density of nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems and cancer, like heat maps.

Daily weather events can influence atmospheric pollution, so the satellite pictures took a 20-day average and excluded readings where cloud cover reduced the quality of the data.

Data from the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed a similar trend over March 16-22. In Madrid, average nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 56% week-on-week after the Spanish government banned non-essential travel on March 14.

The EPHA said people living in polluted cities may be more at risk from COVID-19, because prolonged exposure to bad air can weaken the immune system, making it harder to fight infection.

“That connection is very likely,” Zoltan Massay-Kosubek, policy manager for clean air at EPHA, told Reuters. “But because the disease is new, it still has to be demonstrated.”

Air pollution can cause or exacerbate lung cancer, pulmonary disease and strokes.

China also recorded a drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution in cities during February, when the government imposed draconian lockdown measures to contain the raging epidemic.

In some regions of Poland, however, nitrogen dioxide levels remained relatively high during the period despite its lockdown, perhaps due to the prevalence of coal-based heating.

Countries that went into lockdown later – such as Britain, which did so on March 23 – look set for a pollution reprieve in coming weeks, EPHA said.

Air pollution causes around 400,000 premature deaths each year in Europe, EEA data show.

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France moves patients from swamped hospitals as death toll climbs

PARIS (Reuters) – France used two high-speed trains and a German military plane to move more than three dozen critically ill coronavirus patients on Sunday to ease the pressure on overwhelmed hospitals in eastern France.

The Grand Est region was the first in France to be hit by a wave of coronavirus infections that has rapidly moved westwards to engulf the greater Paris region, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.

The number of coronavirus deaths in France since March 1 climbed 13% to 2,606 on Sunday, while the total number of confirmed infections rose above 40,000.

The specially adapted trains carried 36 patients to the Nouvelle-Acquitaine region in the southwest, where a line of ambulances waited outside Bordeaux station.

“We urgently need to relieve congestion in the region’s intensive care units, because you have to stay one step ahead,” Francois Braun, head of the SAMU paramedics, told RTL radio.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday warned France’s 67 million people that the toughest weeks in the fight against epidemic were still to come, as the number of patients on life support rose to more than 4,600.

Hospitals are racing to add intensive care facilities, sometimes taking ventilators out of operating theaters as they build makeshift units. Student medics are being drafted in and retired doctors are returning to the wards.

President Emmanuel Macron has deployed the army to help to move the sick while a field hospital has been set up in the eastern city of Mulhouse.

Paramedics in hazmat suits loaded several patients on life-support into a German Airbus (AIR.PA) A400M aircraft in Strasbourg for transfer across the border to the German city of Ulm.

European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin hailed the German aid as a symbol of European solidarity, though she expressed frustration at the failure of European Union members to agree on how to mitigate the sharp economic downturn.

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Coronavirus strain related to COVID-19 first spotted THREE YEARS AGO, scientists say

The disease first emerged in the city of Wuhan towards the end of last year – but much is yet to be discovered about the mechanism by which it did so. Last week a 57-year-old trader at Huanan seafood market was tentatively identified as the first person there to contract the illness, on December 10. However, she suggested she did so by using toilet facilities shared with wild meat sellers, meaning the search for Patient Zero – the first person infected after COVID-19 jumped species – continues.

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, and co-authored by Yi Guan from the University of Hong Kong and Yan-Ling Hu from Guangxi Medical University in China, seeks to shed light on the mystery.

They write: “Although bats are likely reservoir hosts for SARS-CoV-2, the identity of any intermediate host that might have facilitated transfer to humans is unknown.”

Their research had identified COVID-19-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) which had been seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China.

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Strikingly, a strain similar to the one which is now rampaging through the human population appears to have been present in five out of a total of 18 Malayan pangolins obtained from anti-smuggling operations in southern China between August 2017 and January 2018.

Additionally, they detected similar coronaviruses in three out of 12 additional animals seized in another Chinese province in 2018, and in another animal in a third province from which a sample was taken in 2019.

The viruses isolated have a sequence similarity of between 85 and 92 percent to SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for the coronavirus which causes COVID-19.

One sample showed strong similarities in a region which encodes the “spike” of the virus, thereby facilitating entry into host cells.

None of the pangolin coronaviruses identified so far have a specific alternation in their sequences which is seen in human SARS-VoV-2, meaning the role the animals have playing in the transmission of the illness to humans remains unclear.

Nevertheless, the study authors highlight pangolins as the only mammals other than bats to date which have been found to be infected with a SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus, suggesting they play an important role in the “ecology of coronaviruses”.

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Their report concludes: “The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission.”

Co-researcher Prof Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney added: “The role that pangolins play in the emergence of Sars-CoV-2 is still unclear.

“However, it is striking that the pangolin viruses contain some genomic regions that are very closely related to the human virus.

“The most important of these is the receptor-binding domain that dictates how the virus is able to attach and infect human cells.”

The pangolin is heavily hunted in China, both for its meat, and its skin and scales, which are used in traditional medicine.

Epidemiologists are keen to identify Patient Zero, the discovery of whom would offer vital clues about the origins of the outbreak and the way in which it has spread.

While the World Health Organization’s first press release about the subject, issued on January 5, indicated it first became aware of the illness on December 30, leaked Chinese Government data has suggested the first case was identified on November 17 at the latest, and possibly significantly earlier.

The study’s findings, specifically the confirmation that a strain closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was spotted in 2017, raises the possibility of the illness being in circulation significantly longer than previously believed.

Johns Hopkins University in the US put the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide at 678,720 as of 12.50pm this afternoon, with 31,700 deaths.

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Stay at home, Russia's Orthodox Church head tells worshippers

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church exhorted believers on Sunday to pray from their homes in the latest call from religious leaders around the world to avoid gatherings that could help the coronavirus’ spread.

Russia has been relatively lightly hit so far, with nine deaths and 1,534 cases, but it recorded 270 new infections in the last day and is stepping up containment measures.

“Refrain from visiting churches,” Russian news agency RIA cited Patriarch Kirill as saying on Sunday, even though Orthodox services went ahead, including one led by him.

He urged people to adhere strictly to authorities’ instructions “before someone dies in our families.”

About 60% of Russia’s 144 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians, but fewer were worshipping in churches on Sunday and some were wearing masks, according to media reports.

Russia has halted international flights, closed borders, announced a non-working week from this weekend, and closed shops and entertainment venues in Moscow and some other regions.

But Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on Sunday many Muscovites were still going out even though the majority of infections, more than 1,000, were in the capital.

At least 52,000 people took walks in city parks on Saturday, and many elderly people made long trips on public transport, Sobyanin said on his website.

“The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase,” Sobyanin wrote. “An example of miserable Italian and Spanish cities, even New York, where tens and hundreds of people die every day, is in front of everyone’s eyes.”

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Britain orders 10,000 ventilators in fight against coronavirus: source

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has placed an order for 10,000 ventilators to be made by a consortium of companies including Ford (F.N), Airbus (AIR.PA) and Rolls-Royce (RR.L) as part of efforts to fight the coronavirus, an industry source told Reuters.

Governments around the world are trying to boost the number of ventilators – mechanical breathing devices that can blow air and oxygen into the lungs – available to their health services.

The equipment is crucial for the care of people who suffer lung failure, which can be one of the complications suffered by patients with severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But they do not necessarily save people.

An announcement is due on Monday, the source said.

British media previously reported the news. A spokeswoman at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office declined to offer an immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

Britain’s publicly funded National Health Service has a little more than 8,000 ventilators at its disposal, senior government minister Michael Gove said on Sunday.

The government is boosting capacity through agreements made with the private sector and overseas suppliers as well as domestic production.

“We’ve done a deal with (vacuum cleaner company) Dyson, which means that – provided all the appropriate tests are passed – we can have an additional 10,000 ventilators,” Gove said.

“There are other companies, from McLaren to Rolls-Royce and others, who are changing the way in which they manufacture in order to join in the national effort to increase the ventilator capacity available.”

McLaren said its Formula One car-making, data and electronics operations are fulfilling a number of tasks to help with the crisis, including making components.

“McLaren Automotive is facilitating duplicating and expanding the production of existing devices to meet demand …(and) is designing bespoke trolleys on which the ventilators are fixed for use in clinical settings.”

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Modi apologizes to India's poor as lockdown criticism mounts

MUMBAI, March 29 (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation’s poor for forgiveness on Sunday, as the economic and human toll from his 21-day nationwide lockdown deepens and criticism mounts about a lack of adequate planning ahead of the decision.

Modi on Tuesday announced a three week-lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. But, the decision has particularly stung millions of India’s poor, leaving many hungry and forcing tens of thousands of jobless migrant laborers to walk hundreds of kilometers from cities to their native villages. (Full Story) (Full Story)

“I would firstly like to seek forgiveness from all my countrymen,” Modi said in a nationwide radio address.

The poor “would definitely be thinking what kind of prime minister is this, who has put us into so much trouble,” he said, urging people to understand there was no other option.

“Steps taken so far… will give India victory over corona,” he added.

Modi, whose government on Thursday announced a $22.6 billion economic stimulus plan to provide direct cash transfers and food handouts to India’s poor, however, did not offer any clarity on future plans.

In an op-ed published on Sunday, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 – warned that even more aid for the poor is needed.

“Without that, the demand crisis will snowball into an economic avalanche, and people will have no choice but to defy orders,” they wrote in the Indian Express.

There is still broad support for strong measures to avoid a coronavirus catastrophe in India, a country of some 1.3 billion people where the public health system is poor.

But opposition leaders, analysts and even some citizens are increasingly criticizing its implementation.

“It’s shameful that we’ve allowed any Indian citizen to be treated this way & that the Gov’t had no contingency plans in place for this exodus,” tweeted opposition politician Rahul Gandhi as images and footage of migrant laborers walking long distances to return home dominated newspaper headlines and news bulletins.

Police said four migrants were killed on Saturday when a truck ran into them in the western state of Maharashtra.

On Saturday, a migrant collapsed and died in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh while on a 270 kilometers (168 miles) walk home, according to a police official.

“We will die of walking and starving before getting killed by corona,” said migrant worker Madhav Raj, 28, as he walked by the road in Uttar Pradesh.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India rose to 979 on Sunday, including 25 deaths.

Although experts largely agree that a stringent lockdown in India is necessary to keep the spread of the virus in check, the economic fallout of the move is causing anger among the poor.

“We have no food or drink. I am sat down thinking how to feed my family,” said homemaker Amirbee Shaikh Yusuf, 50, in Mumbai’s sprawling Dharavi slum, around lunchtime on Saturday.

“There is nothing good about this lockdown. People are angry, no one is caring for us.”

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UK's William and Kate urge mental health wellbeing during coronavirus outbreak

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Prince William and his wife, duchess Kate, urged people on Sunday to take care of their mental health during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The last few weeks have been anxious and unsettling for everyone. We have to take time to support each other and find ways to look after our mental health,” read a post on their Kensington Palace Twitter feed.

“By taking simple steps each day we can all be better prepared for the times ahead.”

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China says imported virus cases raise risk of new infection wave

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The rising number of imported coronavirus cases in China have raised the possibility that the country will undergo a second wave of infections, a spokesman of the country’s health authority said on Sunday.

“China already has an accumulated total of 693 cases entering from overseas, which means the possibility of a new round of infections remains relatively big,” said Mi Feng of the National Health Commission.

China reported 45 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, all but one of which were patients diagnosed after entering the country from overseas.

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