3M to make more face masks, ramp up imports to U.S. after Trump order

3M to make more face masks, ramp up imports to U.S. after Trump order
(Reuters) – 3M Co said on Friday it would increase the production of respirators and import more masks into the United States, after President Donald Trump invoked a law to help ease a shortage in the items needed to protect health staff against the coronavirus.

The company said it will work closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prioritize orders for the masks.

Trump slammed 3M in a tweet late on Thursday after earlier announcing he was invoking the Defense Production Act to get the company to produce face masks.

The Defense Production Act, which was passed in 1950, grants the president the power to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security and other reasons.

U.S. trade adviser Peter Navarro said that the government had some issues making sure that enough of the masks produced by 3M around the world were coming back to the United States.

“The narrative that we aren’t doing everything we can as a company is just not true,” 3M Chief Executive Officer Mike Roman told CNBC television in an interview on Friday.

3M said on Friday it has secured China’s approval to export to the U.S. 10 million N-95 respirators manufactured by the company in China.

(Reporting by Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Devika Syamnath)

In Taiwan, anger at China over virus drives identity debate

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Anger at being confused with China amid the coronavirus outbreak and Beijing’s stepped-up efforts to assert sovereignty is stirring heated debate in Taiwan about how to further distance itself from its giant and often threatening neighbour.

At its core is a debate about whether to drop “China” from the island’s official name, the Republic of China.

During the virus crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO), which considers the island part of China, has listed Taiwan’s far lower case number under China’s, and China has repeatedly insisted only it has the right to speak for Taiwan on the global stage, including about health issues.

Taipei says this has confused countries and led them to impose the same restrictions on Taiwanese travellers as on Chinese, and has minimised Taiwan’s own successful efforts to control the virus.

Taiwan has been debating for years who it is and what exactly its relationship should be with China – including the island’s name. But the pandemic has shot the issue back into the spotlight.

Lin I-chin, a legislator for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said in parliament last month that Taiwan should change its English name to “Republic of Chunghwa”, an English rendering of the word Taiwan uses for China in its name.

“Taiwan has been brought to grief by China,” she said.

On Sunday, the New Power Party, one of Taiwan’s smaller opposition groups, released the results of a survey in which almost three-quarters of respondents said Taiwan passports should only have the word “Taiwan” on them, removing any reference to China.

“During this epidemic period, our people have been misunderstood by other countries, highlighting the urgency of changing the English name,” it said in a statement.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has given a cautious response to the passport idea, noting that according to the constitution, the official name is Republic of China and that the word Taiwan was already added to passport covers in 2003.

“In the future, if there is consensus between the ruling and opposition parties on this new name, the Foreign Ministry shall cooperate in handling it,” spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.

But the government is wary of a name change for Taiwan, saying there is no consensus for such a radical move.

Although the DPP supports the island’s independence – theoretically meaning the official formation of a Republic of Taiwan – President Tsai Ing-wen says there is no need to do so, as the island is already an independent country called the Republic of China. She often refers to the island as the Republic of China, Taiwan.

‘REPUBLIC OF TAIWAN’

Premier Su Tseng-chang has said changing the island’s name isn’t the most urgent issue facing Taiwan.

“If we want to change then it might as well be to ‘Republic of Taiwan’. Taiwan is more well known,” Su said in parliament. “But if there’s no national consensus, a name change isn’t the most important thing for now.”

Taiwan’s official name is a throwback to when the Kuomintang party fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists in 1949, and continued to claim to be China’s legitimate government.

“The Republic of China is a country, Taiwan is not,” Chen Yu-jen, a Kuomintang legislator from the island of Kinmen, which sits just offshore from the Chinese city of Xiamen, told parliament on Monday.

The statement drew a sharp rebuke from Su, who told reporters it meant Chen had no right to be a member of the legislature. Chen said she was simply stating the facts, and that Taiwan is a geographic name, not a national name.

China’s pressure on Taiwan diplomatically and militarily during the virus crisis has also reduced Beijing’s already low standing in the eyes of many Taiwanese.

A March poll commissioned by Taiwan’s China-policy making Mainland Affairs Council and carried out by Taipei’s National Chengchi University showed more than three-quarters of respondents believed China’s government was unfriendly to Taiwan’s, the highest level in a decade.

Any name change would infuriate China, which has a law mandating the use of force to stop Taiwan independence.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Chinese scientists seeking potential COVID-19 treatment find ‘effective’ antibodies

By Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) – A team of Chinese scientists has isolated several antibodies that it says are “extremely effective” at blocking the ability of the new coronavirus to enter cells, which eventually could be helpful in treating or preventing COVID-19.

There is currently no proven effective treatment for the disease, which originated in China and is spreading across the world in a pandemic that has infected more than 850,000 and killed 42,000.

Zhang Linqi at Tsinghua University in Beijing said a drug made with antibodies like the ones his team have found could be used more effectively than the current approaches, including what he called “borderline” treatment such as plasma.

Plasma contains antibodies but is restricted by blood type.

In early January, Zhang’s team and a group at the 3rd People’s Hospital in Shenzhen began analysing antibodies from blood taken from recovered COVID-19 patients, isolating 206 monoclonal antibodies which showed what he described as a “strong” ability to bind with the virus’ proteins.

They then conducted another test to see if they could actually prevent the virus from entering cells, he told Reuters in an interview.

Among the first 20 or so antibodies tested, four were able to block viral entry and of those, two were “exceedingly good” at doing so, Zhang said.

The team is now focused on identifying the most powerful antibodies and possibly combining them to mitigate the risk of the new coronavirus mutating.

If all goes well, interested developers could mass produce them for testing, first on animals and eventually on humans.

The group has partnered with a Sino-U.S. biotech firm, Brii Biosciences, in an effort “to advance multiple candidates for prophylactic and therapeutic intervention”, according to a statement by Brii.

“The importance of antibodies has been proven in the world of medicine for decades now,” Zhang said. “They can be used to treat cancer, autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases.”

The antibodies are not a vaccine but could potentially be given to at-risk people with the aim of preventing them from contracting COVID-19.

Normally it takes around two years for a drug even to get close to approval for use on patients, but the COVID-19 pandemic means things are moving faster, he said, with steps that would previously be taken sequentially now being done in parallel.

Zhang, who posted the findings online, hopes the antibodies can be tested on humans in six months. If they are found to be effective in trials, actual use for treatment would take longer.

Other experts urge caution.

“There’s a number of steps which will now need to be followed before it could be used as a treatment for coronavirus patients,” Hong Kong University infectious disease specialist Ben Cowling said when the finding was described to him by Reuters.

“But it’s really exciting to find these potential treatments, and then have a chance to test them out. Because if we can find more candidates, then eventually we’ll have better treatment,” Cowling said.

(Additional reporting by Roxanne Liu; Editing by Kim Coghill; Editing by Tony Munroe, Kate Kelland and Kim Coghill)

White House-led airlift of urgently needed medical supplies arrives in New York

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard-hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.

The airlift is a product of a team led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, which formed “Project Airbridge,” a partnership between large U.S. healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc, and the federal government.

Representatives of those companies were to attend a White House meeting later on Sunday with President Donald Trump to discuss the effort, the official said.

The goal is to expedite the arrival of critical medical supplies purchased by the companies over the next 30 days, using planes instead of ships to reduce the shipping time.

“At President Trump’s direction we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure that massive amounts of masks, gear and other PPE will be brought to the United States immediately to better equip our health care workers on the front lines and to better serve the American people,” Kushner said in a statement.

Trump, accused of initially playing down the threat from the virus, has been searching for supplies to fill the mounting need for equipment to protect healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers across the country are clamoring for equipment to protect themselves from infection as they deal with the flood of virus victims.

The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.

FEMA will distribute most of the supplies to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the rest going to nursing homes in the area and other high-risk areas across the country.

The flight from Shanghai, China, was the first of about 20 flights to arrive between now and early April, the official said. Additional flights will carry similar gear from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the official said.

“It will be allocated based on need,” the White House official said.

Involved in the effort are the FEMA transportation task force as well as officials at both the U.S. embassy in China as well as the State Department’s East-Asia Pacific team, the official said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

Coronavirus rages on, putting strain on U.S. doctors, nurses

By Gabriella Borter and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak came under increasing stress on Friday as the number of cases skyrocketed and hospital staff were forced to ration care for an overwhelming number of patients.

The United States surpassed two grim milestones on Thursday. The death toll soared past 1,000, reaching 1,261 by the end of the day, and the total number of infections topped 85,000, exceeding the national totals of China and Italy to make the United States the world leader in confirmed cases.

Worldwide, confirmed cases rose above 550,000 and deaths 25,000, the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center reported on Friday.

“This is past a movie plot. Nobody could ever think of this, or be totally prepared for this. You’re going to have to wing it on the fly,” said Eric Neibart, infectious disease specialist and clinical assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “The scale is unbelievable.”

After days of wrangling, the U.S. Congress may soon respond with a $2.2 trillion relief package, reinforcing an extraordinary array of economic measures that the U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out on Monday.

Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives said they expected to pass the measure on Friday, sending the bill to President Donald Trump, who has promised to sign it.

In addition to aiding hospitals in hot spots such as New York and New Orleans, the package will bring welcome relief to businesses and unemployed workers. With much of the country on lockdown, a record 3.3 million Americans filed jobless claims last week, nearly five times the previous record set during the recession of 1982.

The counties surrounding Chicago and Detroit were also emerging as areas of concern, said Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

One emergency room doctor in Michigan said he was using one paper face mask for an entire shift due to a shortage and that his hospital would soon run out of ventilators, the machines needed by sufferers of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, to help them breathe.

The doctor, Rob Davidson, urged Trump to use his executive authority to procure more test kits and ventilators.

“We have hospital systems here in the Detroit area in Michigan who are getting to the end of their supply of ventilators and have to start telling families that they can’t save their loved ones because they don’t have enough equipment,” Davidson said in a video he posted on Twitter.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said any realistic scenario about the unfolding outbreak would overwhelm the healthcare system. His state, which has become the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak with more than 37,000 cases and 385 deaths, is scrambling to create more sick beds.

It is looking to convert hotel rooms, office space and other venues into healthcare centers, while setting up a convention center as a temporary hospital. Some hospitals are scrambling to convert cafeterias and atriums into hospital rooms to house intensive care patients.

Mount Sinai hospital had 215 inpatients with COVID-19 as of Thursday.

“The fear is next week we’ll have 400,” Neibart said, expecting a shortage of doctors and nurses.

In lighter moments, Neibart said he and his colleagues joke about claiming their own makeshift spots, for when they inevitably fall ill with the virus, although he said they routinely check on one another’s well being.

COVID-19 claimed the life of Kious Kelly, a Mount Sinai nurse manager whose death has led to an outpouring of remembrances from former colleagues.

“I remember him running crazy, checking on us and making sure we were OK,” Diana Torres, a nurse at Mount Sinai, told Reuters. “He would deliver our messages to administration if we weren’t happy. He wanted good things for us.”

Torres and other colleagues have also infused their tributes with angry messages about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It seems like we are fighting the government, (the hospital) administration and the virus,” Torres said. “We can tackle one, but not all at once.”

The New York Police Department also announced the first coronavirus death among its ranks on Thursday. Custodial Assistant Dennis Dickson was a 14-year veteran, NYPD said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs may be asked to help in New York, even as it struggles to provide enough staffing and equipment for armed forces veterans.

Maria Lobifaro, a New York intensive care unit (ICU) nurse treating veterans with COVID-19, said staff normally change masks after every patient interaction. Now, they are getting one N95 mask to use for an entire 12-hour shift.

The ratio of patients to nurses in the ICU is usually two-to-one. As of Monday it was four-to-one, she said.

“Right now we can barely handle the veterans that we have,” Lobifaro said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Nick Brown and Maria Caspani in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta)

U.S. increases support for Taiwan, China threatens to strike back

By Ben Blanchard and Yew Lun Tian

TAIPEI/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has signed into law an act that requires increased U.S. support for Taiwan internationally, prompting a denunciation by China, which said it would strike back if the law was implemented.

China claims democratic and separately ruled Taiwan as its own territory, and regularly describes Taiwan as the most sensitive issue in its ties with the United States.

While the United States, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, the Trump administration has ramped up backing for the island, with arms sales and laws to help Taiwan deal with pressure from China.

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, signed by Trump into law on Thursday with strong bipartisan support, requires the U.S. State Department to report to Congress on steps taken to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations.

It also requires the United States to “alter” engagement with nations that undermine Taiwan’s security or prosperity.

Taiwan complains that China is poaching the dwindling number of countries that maintain formal ties with Taipei and has prevented it from participating in bodies like the World Health Organization.

China says Taiwan is merely one of its provinces, with no right to the trappings of a state.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen posted a picture on her Twitter page of Taiwan’s flag fluttering next to the U.S. one under the words “Friends in freedom, partners in prosperity”, to welcome Trump’s signing of the law.

It was “a testament to Taiwan-U.S. friendship & mutual support as we work together to address global threats to human health & our shared democratic values”, she wrote in English.

‘RESOLUTE STRIKE’

China has stepped up its military drills around Taiwan in recent weeks despite the outbreak of the coronavirus, which emerged in a central Chinese province late last year and spread rapidly in China and beyond.

Taiwan says China should focus more on fighting the disease than menacing it.

China is already angry about U.S. accusations it poorly handled the coronavirus outbreak, and the new law adds to Sino-U.S. tension.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the U.S. act contravened international law, was a “crude” interference in China’s internal affairs and obstructed other sovereign states from developing normal relations with China.

“We urge the United States to correct its mistakes, not implement the law, or obstruct the development of relations between other countries and China, otherwise it will inevitably encounter a resolute strike back by China,” Geng said, without giving details.

One of the authors of the act, Senator Cory Gardner, said it was needed to respond to Chinese pressure on, and bullying of, Taiwan.

“This bipartisan legislation demands a whole-of-government approach to ramp up our support for Taiwan, and will send a strong message to nations that there will be consequences for supporting Chinese actions that undermine Taiwan,” he said in a statement.

The United States has been particularly concerned about China hiving off Taiwan’s allies in the Pacific and Latin America, areas of the world Washington traditionally considers its zone of influence.

Taiwan now only has diplomatic relations with 15 countries, almost all small and developing nations like Nauru, Belize and Honduras.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. cybersecurity experts see recent spike in Chinese digital espionage

By Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter

(Reuters) – A U.S. cybersecurity firm said Wednesday it has detected a surge in new cyberspying by a suspected Chinese group dating back to late January, when coronavirus was starting to spread outside China.

FireEye Inc. said in a report it had spotted a spike in activity from a hacking group it dubs “APT41” that began on Jan. 20 and targeted more than 75 of its customers, from manufacturers and media companies to healthcare organizations and nonprofits.

There were “multiple possible explanations” for the spike in activity, said FireEye Security Architect Christopher Glyer, pointing to long-simmering tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and more recent clashes over the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 17,000 people since late last year.

The report said it was “one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor we have observed in recent years.”

FireEye declined to identify the affected customers. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not directly address FireEye’s allegations but said in a statement that China was “a victim of cybercrime and cyberattack.” The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined comment.

FireEye said in its report that APT41 abused recently disclosed flaws in software developed by Cisco, Citrix  and others to try to break into scores of companies’ networks in the United States, Canada, Britain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and more than a dozen other countries.

Cisco said in an email it had fixed the vulnerability and it was aware of attempts to exploit it, a sentiment echoed by Citrix, which said it had worked with FireEye to help identify “potential compromises.”

Others have also spotted a recent uptick in cyber-espionage activity linked to Beijing.

Matt Webster, a researcher with Secureworks – Dell Technologies’  cybersecurity arm – said in an email that his team had also seen evidence of increased activity from Chinese hacking groups “over the last few weeks.”

In particular, he said his team had recently spotted new digital infrastructure associated with APT41 – which Secureworks dubs “Bronze Atlas.”

Tying hacking campaigns to any specific country or entity is often fraught with uncertainty, but FireEye said it had assessed “with moderate confidence” that APT41 was composed of Chinese government contractors.

FireEye’s head of analysis, John Hultquist, said the surge was surprising because hacking activity attributed to China has generally become more focused.

“This broad action is a departure from that norm,” he said.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing; additional reporting by the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Richard Pullin and Paul Simao)

Rich nations pump aid into battered economy as coronavirus deaths in Italy overtake China

By Guy Faulconbridge and James Mackenzie

LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) – The world’s richest nations poured unprecedented aid into the global economy on Thursday as coronavirus cases ballooned in the new epicenter Europe, with the number of deaths in Italy outstripping those in mainland China, where the virus originated.

With over 236,000 infections and more than 9,700 deaths, the epidemic has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with painful periods such as World War Two, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu.

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres warned that a global recession, “perhaps of record dimensions”, was a near certainty.

“This is a moment that demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies,” Guterres told reporters via a video conference. “We are in an unprecedented situation and the normal rules no longer apply.”

Tourism and airlines have been particularly battered, as the world’s citizens hunker down to minimize contact and curb the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness. But few sectors have been spared by a crisis threatening a lengthy global recession.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he expected closure of the United States-Canada border to come into effect overnight on Friday. The U.S. State Department is expected to urge Americans not to travel abroad at all.

Markets have suffered routs unseen since the 2008 financial debacle, with investors rushing to the U.S. dollar as a safe haven. Wall Street tried to bounce back on Thursday. The benchmark S&P 500 swung into positive territory after falling as much as 3.3% and was up about 1%. U.S. oil prices rose 20%.

Policymakers in the United States, Europe and Asia have slashed interest rates and opened liquidity taps to try to stabilize economies hit by quarantined consumers, broken supply chains, disrupted transport and paralyzed businesses.

The virus, thought to have originated from wildlife in mainland China late last year, has jumped to 172 other nations and territories with more than 20,000 new cases reported in the past 24 hours – a new daily record.

Cases in Germany, Iran and Spain rose to more than 12,000 each. An official in Tehran tweeted that the coronavirus was killing one person every 10 minutes.

LONDON LOCKDOWN?

Britain, which has reported 144 deaths, was closing dozens of underground stations in London and ordering schools shut from Friday.

Some 20,000 soldiers were on standby, Queen Elizabeth headed for sanctuary in the ancient castle of Windsor, and the Tower of London was to close along with other historic buildings.

“Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe,” the 93-year-old monarch said in an address to the nation.

“I am certain we are up to that challenge. You can be assured that my family and I stand ready to play our part.”

Italian soldiers transported corpses overnight from an overwhelmed cemetery in Europe’s worst-hit nation where 3,405 people have died, more than in mainland China. Germany’s military was also readying to help.

Supermarkets in many countries were besieged with shoppers stocking up on food staples and hygiene products. Some rationed sales and fixed special hours for the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness.

Solidarity projects were springing up in some of the world’s poorest corners. In Kenya’s Kibera slum, for example, volunteers with plastic drums and boxes of soap on motorbikes set up handwashing stations for people without clean water.

Russia reported its first coronavirus death on Thursday.

Amid the gloom, China provided a ray of hope as it reported zero new local transmissions of the virus, a sign of success for its draconian containment policies since January. Imported cases accounted for all 34 new infections in China.

In the United States, where President Donald Trump had initially played down the coronavirus threat, infections surged with over 10,700 known cases and at least 163 deaths.

Trump has infuriated Beijing’s Communist Party rulers by rebuking it for not acting faster and drawn accusations of racism by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”.

“We continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus,” he said in opening remarks at a briefing with his coronavirus task force on Thursday.

The head of the U.S. National Guard said tens of thousands of its troops could be activated to help U.S. states deal with the outbreak now in all 50 states.

MOTOWN SHUTS CAR PLANTS

In a bewildering raft of financial measures around the world, the European Central Bank launched new bond purchases worth 750 billion euros ($817 billion). That brought some relief to bond markets and also halted European shares’ slide.

The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out its third emergency credit program in two days, aimed at keeping the $3.8 trillion money market mutual fund industry functioning. The Bank of England cut interest rates to 0.1%, its second emergency rate cut in just over a week.

China was to unleash trillions of yuan of fiscal stimulus and South Korea pledged 50 trillion won ($39 billion).

The desperate state of industry was writ large in Detroit, where the big three automakers – Ford Motor Co <F.N>, General Motors Co <GM.N> and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV <FCHA.MI> <FCAU.N> – were shutting U.S. plants, as well as factories in Canada and Mexico.

With some economists fearing prolonged pain akin to the 1930s Great Depression and others anticipating a bounceback, gloomy data and forecasts abounded.

In one of the most dire calls, J.P. Morgan economists forecast the Chinese economy to drop more than 40% this quarter and the U.S. economy to shrink 14% in the next. Ratings agency Moody’s prepared for mass downgradings.

In Britain, small gin distilleries have started producing hand sanitizer amid a national shortage, a trend mirrored across the globe from Australia to the United States.

And Monaco canceled its showcase Formula One Grand Prix, the most famous and glamorous race on the calendar, in another high-profile sporting casualty of the epidemic.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux around the world; Writing by Marius Zaharia, Andrew Cawthorne and Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot)

Trump stops Europe flights, China says coronavirus outbreak may end by June

Reuters
By Liangping Gao and Andrea Shalal

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Travelers scrambled to rebook flights and markets reeled on Thursday after U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and heightening global alarm over the coronavirus.

But China, where the disease originated, said its epidemic had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.

Trump had downplayed risks to the United States during the crisis, but with epidemics ballooning from Iran to Italy and Spain, he limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” he said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

That sent markets into a tailspin, with European shares plunging to their lowest in almost four years and oil also slumping.

It also sent stressed travelers rushing to airports to board last flights back to the United States.

“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a U.S. student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 a.m. to get home.

The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide, even throwing the Tokyo Summer Olympics into question. But its progress in the epicenter of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.

Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally of less than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.

“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission.

OVER BY JUNE?

The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year.

“If all countries could get mobilized, it could be over by June,” he said. “But if some countries do not treat the infectiousness and harmfulness seriously, and intervene strongly, it would last longer.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people across the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a Reuters tally.

Already annoyed at what it considered over-draconian travel restrictions by Washington early in the crisis, Beijing smarted again at latest U.S. criticism of its handling.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien accused China on Wednesday of initially covering up the Hubei outbreak, saying that cost the world two months in response time.

In fact, retorted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China’s efforts bought the world time and “immoral and irresponsible” remarks would not help U.S. epidemic efforts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) now officially describes the crisis as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading fast across the globe.

“Describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told diplomats in Geneva. “The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”

Trump’s surprise travel order, which starts at midnight on Friday, does not apply to Britain or to Americans undergoing “appropriate screenings”, he said. “The restriction stops people not goods,” he tweeted after his speech.

EU DISAPPROVAL

The 27-nation European Union (EU) bloc was not impressed.

“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to improve a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Council president Charles Michel said in a statement.

The market plunge hit airline and leisure stocks particularly hard.

“This is something that markets had not factored in … it’s a huge near-term economic cost,” Khoon Goh, head of Asia Research at ANZ in Singapore, said of the U.S. move.

Although exempt from Trump’s ban and no longer a member of the EU, Britain also expressed disappointment, saying it would have an impact on its economy.

But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence defended the new restrictions, saying the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted from Asia to Europe. “We know there will be more infections in the days ahead. We’re trying to hold that number down as much as possible,” Pence told NBC’s “Today” program.

In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the greater Seattle area, which accounts for the bulk of at least 38 U.S. fatalities from the disease.

Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot.

Despite fears for the Tokyo Olympics, the torch relay got started in Greece when the flame was lit by the rays of the sun in ancient Olympia – albeit in a scaled-down ceremony and without spectators.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Stella Qui, Kevin Yao and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, David Lawder, and Richard Cowan in Washington, Marine Strauus in Brussels, William Schomberg in London, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Karolos Grohmann in Ancient Olympia; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne)

North Korea fires three projectiles into sea; China urges dialogue

By Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea launched multiple short-range projectiles into the sea on Monday as part of firing drills, a week after it resumed missile tests following a three-month break, South Korea’s military said.

The projectiles, including from a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), flew up to 200 km (124 miles) and reached 50 km in altitude, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

They were launched from the eastern coastal town of Sondok, home to a military airfield where nuclear-armed North Korea fired missiles last year, the JCS said in a statement.

The JCS said the latest test appeared to be part of firing drills that have been under way since late last month and have been overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After a three-month halt in missile testing, North Korea tested an MLRS on March 2.

The JCS expressed “strong regret” over the launch and said it was watching for any more tests.

South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, held a video conference with the defense minister and intelligence chief to analyze the North’s latest test and its intent, the presidential Blue House said.

“The ministers once again pointed out that the continued firing drills are unhelpful for efforts to build lasting peace on the Korean peninsula,” the Blue House said in a statement.

Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono said the projectiles appeared to be ballistic missiles and did not fall into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, though the government was examining details about the launch.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said North Korea had fired at least three projectiles towards the eastern sea and a detailed analysis was being conducted.

China’s foreign ministry called for all sides to use dialogue and show flexibility, saying the situation was “complex and sensitive”.

“We also urge parties to make positive efforts to calm the situation for talks to continue, and to realise the denuclearisation and lasting peace in this region and the peninsula,” spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing.

Britain, Germany, France, Estonia and Belgium raised North Korea’s recent missile firings at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, calling them provocative action that violated U.N. resolutions.

North Korea’s foreign ministry criticized the European stand as “U.S.-instigated reckless behaviour”. The sister of Kim Jong Un said the drills were not meant to threaten anyone.

Hopes were raised for dialogue with North Korea on its nuclear weapons and missiles when Kim met U.S. President Donald Trump for a historic summit in Singapore in June 2018.

But no significant progress has been made despite two more meetings between the leaders.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin, additional reporting by Chris Gallagher in Tokyo, Idrees Ali in Washington and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel)