Price pinch: global economy caught in perfect storm

By Guy Faulconbridge, Andrew MacAskill, Daniel Leussink and Leika Kihara

LONDON/TOKYO (Reuters) -From beef bowls in Tokyo to fried chicken in London, consumers are beginning to feel the pinch from the surge in costs coursing through the global economy.

The rebound in economic activity as coronavirus restrictions are eased has exposed shortages across supply chains, with companies scrambling to find workers, ships and even fuel to power factories, threatening the recovery.

Britain’s biggest chicken producer warned that the country’s 20-year cheap food binge is coming to an end and said food price inflation could hit double digits.

“The days when you could feed a family of four with a 3 pound ($4) chicken are coming to an end,” Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of the 2 Sisters Group, said.

An acute shortage of warehouse workers, truckers and butchers as the world’s fifth-largest economy deals with Brexit as well as COVID-19 is exacerbating strains which are being felt globally by international business.

IKEA is leasing more ships, buying containers and re-routing goods between warehouses as the world’s largest furniture brand seeks to mitigate a “perfect storm” of global supply chain disruptions.

Jon Abrahamsson, chief executive at Inter IKEA, told Reuters he expects the crisis to extend into 2022, with the biggest challenge getting goods out of China, where around a quarter of IKEA products are made.

IKEA said stores in North America have been hardest hit by product shortages, followed by Europe.

In the United States, President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged the private sector to help ease supply chain blockages that are threatening to disrupt the U.S. holiday season.

Biden said the Port of Los Angeles would join the Port of Long Beach in working round-the-clock to unload about 500,000 containers, while Walmart, Target and other big retailers would expand overnight operations to help out.

Even in Japan, where weak growth has meant that prices of many things – as well as wages – haven’t risen much in decades, consumers and businesses are facing a price shock for basics such as coffee and beef bowls.

Japan’s core consumer inflation only stopped falling in August, snapping a 12-month deflationary spell. Economists and policymakers expect to see recent price rises reflected in official data in the coming months.

With central bankers on high alert and inflation in Spain, Ireland and Sweden hitting 13-year highs, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde repeated that the upswing in Europe is seen as temporary and said there were no signs that the recent surge is becoming embedded in wages.

“The impact of these factors should fade out … in the course of next year, dampening annual inflation,” Lagarde said.

Euro zone inflation is expected to hit 4% before the end of the year, twice the ECB’s target, and a growing number of economists see it remaining above target throughout 2022.

COLD FRONT

Dwindling power supplies suggest a bleak winter outlook in some parts of the world.

As northern China chills, coal prices held near record highs, with power plants stocking up to ease an energy crunch that sent factory gate inflation in the world’s second-largest economy to an at-least 25 year high in September.

Meanwhile, Coal India, the world’s biggest coal miner, said it had temporarily stopped supplying non-power users as India battles one of its worst ever power supply deficits.

China’s power crisis, caused by shortages of coal, high fuel prices and booming post-pandemic industrial demand has halted production at numerous factories, including many supplying big brands such as Apple.

Weak demand is capping consumer inflation, however, forcing policymakers to walk a tightrope between supporting the economy and further stoking producer prices.

There are few signs of any reprieve in energy costs, with Brent crude oil futures above $84 a barrel on expectations that soaring natural gas prices will drive a switch to oil to meet winter heating needs.

The International Energy Agency said the crunch could boost oil demand by half a million barrels per day (bpd).

“Higher energy prices are also adding to inflationary pressures that, along with power outages, could lead to lower industrial activity and a slowdown in the economic recovery,” the IEA said in its monthly oil report.

Top economic institutes cut their joint forecast for 2021 growth in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, to 2.4% from 3.7% as supply bottlenecks hamper output, confirming a Reuters story.

In response to the crisis, the White House has been speaking with U.S. oil and gas producers about helping to bring down fuel costs, two sources familiar with the matter said.

The average U.S. retail cost of a gallon of gasoline is at a seven-year high, and the U.S. Energy Department expects winter fuel costs to surge. Oil and gas production remains below the nation’s peak reached in 2019.

CHIPS STILL DOWN

Dutch navigation and digital mapping company TomTom warned that supply chain problems in the auto sector could last well into 2022.

“Collectively we have underestimated how big the supply chain issues, and especially for semiconductor shortages, have been or have become”, TomTom Chief Financial Officer Taco Titulaer told Reuters.

A global semiconductor chip shortage has forced carmakers still recovering from coronavirus disruptions to halt production again.

Italian-American vehicle maker CNH Industrial said on Wednesday it will temporarily shut several European agricultural, commercial vehicle and powertrain manufacturing plants because of problems procuring components.

Soaring demand is, however, proving a boon for some.

Taiwan’s TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, reported a nearly 14% jump in third quarter profit.

TSMC and Taiwan have become central to efforts to resolve the global chip shortage, which has also hit manufacturers of smartphones, laptops and consumer appliances.

Some companies, such as Toyota Motor Corp are intensifying efforts to restart production. The Japanese carmaker hopes to do so in December with a rebound in shipments from pandemic-hit suppliers, three sources told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Muyu Xu, Shivani Singh, David Stanway, Noah Browning, James Davey, Liangping Gao, Stella Qiu and Ryan Woo; Writing by Alexander Smith; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Catherine Evans)

Global supply disruptions could still get worse, central bankers warn

By Balazs Koranyi and Francesco Canepa

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Supply constraints thwarting global economic growth could still get worse, keeping inflation elevated longer, even if the current spike in prices is still likely to remain temporary, the world’s top central bankers warned on Wednesday.

The disruptions to the global economy during the pandemic have upset supply chains across continents, leaving the world short of a plethora of goods and services from car parts and microchips to container vessels that transport goods across the seas.

“It’s … frustrating to see the bottlenecks and supply chain problems not getting better, in fact at the margin apparently getting a little bit worse,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told a conference.

“We see that continuing into next year probably and holding inflation up longer than we had thought,” Powell told the European Central Bank’s Forum on Central Banking.

Speaking alongside Powell, ECB chief Christine Lagarde voiced similar concerns, arguing that the end of these bottlenecks, once thought by economists to be just weeks away, is uncertain.

“The supply bottlenecks and the disruption of supply chains, which we have been experiencing for a few months … seem to be continuing and in some sectors accelerating,” Lagarde said. “I’m thinking here about shipping, cargo handling and things like that.”

VERY ATTENTIVE

Global inflation has spiked in recent months on a surge in energy prices, and the production bottlenecks are pushing prices even higher, raising fears that the runup, if it lasts long enough, could seep into expectations and raise the overall profile of inflation.

Indeed, Lagarde said the ECB would be “very attentive” to these second-round effects while Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, another speaker at the forum, said he would keep a “very close watch” on inflation expectations.

“If this period of higher inflation, even though it ultimately is very likely to prove temporary, if it lasts long enough, will it start affecting, changing the way people think about inflation? We monitor this very carefully,” Powell added.

The problem is that central banks, the main authority for controlling prices, have no influence over short-term supply disruptions, so they are likely to be bystanders, waiting for economic anomalies to self-correct without lasting damage.

“Monetary policy cannot solve supply side shocks. Monetary policy cannot produce computer chips, it cannot produce wind, it cannot produce truck drivers,” Bailey said.

Still, even as policymakers called for heightened attention to inflation, all maintained their long standing view that the spike in inflation would be temporary and price rises would moderate next year, moving back to or below central bank targets.

Concerns about “sticky” inflation have fueled a debate about the need to unwind crisis-era stimulus measures, and comments from Wednesday’s panel reinforced expectations for the world’s biggest central banks to move on vastly different schedules, staying out of sync for years to come.

The Fed, the BoE and the Bank of Canada have openly discussed policy tightening while central banks in such countries as South Korea, Norway and Hungary have already raised interest rates, beginning a long road to policy normalization.

The ECB and the Bank of Japan are meanwhile likely to be the last movers, exercising extreme caution after undershooting their inflation targets for years.

The ECB even refuses to discuss tapering and already signaled its tolerance for overshooting its inflation target as it would rather move too late than too early.

This sort of patience was only reinforced by Lagarde and Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, even as both provided a relatively upbeat outlook on growth, arguing that their economies could be back at their pre pandemic levels in the coming months.

(Additional reporting by Leika Kihara, Howard Schneider, Dan Burns, David Milliken and Andy Bruce; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Oil firms as demand hopes outweigh rise of COVID-19 variant

By Noah Browning

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose on Tuesday as broad hopes for a demand recovery persisted despite new outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus prompting fresh mobility curbs worldwide.

Brent crude futures were up 50 cents, or 0.7%, at $75.18 a barrel by 1400 GMT, having slumped by 2% on Monday.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures rose 55 cents, or 0.8%, to $73.46 after a 1.5% retreat on Monday.

“From a global perspective, there are seemingly growing concerns over the increase in the COVID-19 Delta variant,” said StoneX analyst Kevin Solomon.

“The market has grown relatively immune to COVID-19 developments, but if lockdowns occur in larger demand centers in Asia, we may see the market’s nonchalance abate.”

Spain and Portugal, favorite summer holiday destinations for Europeans, imposed new restrictions on unvaccinated Britons on Monday, while Australians also faced tighter curbs owing to flare-ups of the virus across the country.

However, the market still expects the rollout of vaccination programs to brighten the demand outlook, analysts said.

“The narrative of the past few months has not changed: the war against the virus is being gradually won, the global economy and oil demand are recovering,” said PVM Oil analyst Tamas Varga.

“Oil supply is being effectively managed. Therefore dips are probably viewed by ardent bulls as attractive buying opportunities.”

The virus flare-up comes as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia and allies, together known as OPEC+, are set to meet on July 1 to discuss easing their supply curbs.

OPEC’s demand forecasts show that in the fourth quarter global oil supply will fall short of demand by 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd), giving the producers some room to agree to add output.

Analysts expect OPEC+ to step up supply in August because the market has tightened on strong growth in fuel demand in the United States and China, the world’s two biggest oil consumers.

Investors will be looking to the latest U.S. inventory data for cues on the demand outlook. Crude stocks are likely to have extended their fall for a sixth straight week while gasoline stocks are also expected to have declined, a preliminary Reuters poll showed.

(Additional reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by David Evans and David Goodman)

Global officials urge rich countries to donate excess COVID-19 vaccine doses, money

By Stephanie Nebehay and Michelle Nichols

GENEVA/NEW YORK (Reuters) -Top U.N., financial and vaccine officials on Thursday urged rich countries to donate excess COVID-19 vaccine doses to an international effort to supply low and middle income countries in a bid to get the global economy back on track.

At a virtual event by the Gavi Vaccine Alliance to boost support for the COVAX equitable vaccine sharing initiative, the officials also appealed for another $2 billion by June for the program, which is aiming to buy up to 1.8 billion doses in 2021. So far, COVAX has shipped more than 38 million vaccine doses to 111 countries.

“Global supply is incredibly tight right now. But we also know that many high income countries have ordered more vaccines than they need,” said Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley.

He urged them to share excess doses “as soon as possible to cover the high risk populations during this supply constrained period.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a donation of enough vaccine doses for more than 800,000 people to COVAX, which is run by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Vaccine Alliance Gavi, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all pledged new funds to COVAX on Thursday.

“Many countries now have dollars available to spend on doses, but rapid deliveries aren’t available. I would like to underline here the importance for countries that have the prospect of excess vaccine supplies to release them as soon as possible,” said World Bank President David Malpass.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said some countries who had signed up to COVAX had not received any doses, none had received enough and some were not receiving their second-round vaccine allocations on time.

“There remains a shocking and expanding disparity in the global distribution of vaccines,” he warned at the Gavi event.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore called on wealthier countries to invest generously in COVAX and donate surplus doses because it was the only way to end the pandemic and get “the global economy back on track.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said another $22 billion was needed for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which includes COVAX and also supports treatments and testing.

“These numbers may seem high, but they are small compared to the global economic loss if this crisis continues. The new virus strains make it clear that we need to move faster,” she said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Oil steady near $70/bbl on hopes of recovering demand

By Laura Sanicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil hovered near $70 a barrel on Friday, supported by production cuts by major oil producers and optimism about a demand recovery in the second half of the year.

Benchmark Brent fell 22 cents, or 0.3%, to $69.41 a barrel by 1:25 p.m. EST (1825 GMT) while U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude was at $65.85 a barrel, fell 17 cents, or 0.3%.

Brent is on track to end the week flat after prices touched a 13-month high on Monday, following seven straight weeks of gains.

“Demand for risky assets such as oil continues to be buoyed by the White House relief package and an almost daily flow of optimistic vaccine headlines,” said Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch and Associates in Galena, Illinois.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries forecast a stronger oil demand recovery this year, weighted to the second half. OPEC, Russia and its allies decided last week to maintain its output curbs almost unchanged.

U.S. drillers are also holding back, cutting the number of oil and natural gas rigs operating for the first time since November, according to data from energy services firm Baker Hughes Co.

“The stronger-than-expected rebound in the second half of this year implies that the global economy and hence oil demand outlook is close to shaking off its COVID woes,” PVM analysts said.

RBC Capital analysts said the fundamentals for summer gasoline was the most bullish in nearly a decade.

The United States, world’s largest oil consumer, saw a big draw on U.S. gasoline stocks last week as the winter storm in Texas disrupted refining output.

Sustained higher oil prices are expected to encourage U.S. producers to increase output, which could eventually weigh on prices, JPMorgan analysts wrote.

JPMorgan expects U.S. oil output to average 11.36 million barrels per day this year compared with 11.32 million bpd in 2020.

Earlier this week, the government revised down 2021’s decline expected in U.S. crude production. Output is seen falling 160,000 bpd to 11.15 million bpd, a smaller decrease than its previous monthly forecast for a 290,000-bpd drop.

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasalla, Florence Tan; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio)

G20 to show united front on support for global economic recovery, cash for IMF

By Michael Nienaber and Andrea Shalal

BERLIN/WASHINGTON/ROME (Reuters) – The world’s financial leaders are expected on Friday to agree to continue supportive measures for the global economy and look to boost the International Monetary Fund’s resources so it can help poorer countries fight off the effects of the pandemic.

Finance ministers and central bank governors of the world’s top 20 economies, called the G20, held a video-conference on Friday. The global response to the economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus was at top of the agenda.

In the first comments by a participating policymaker, the European Union’s economics commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said the meeting had been “good,” with consensus on the need for a common effort on global COVID vaccinations.

“Avoid premature withdrawal of supportive fiscal policy” and “progress towards agreement on digital and minimal taxation” he said in a Tweet, signaling other areas of apparent accord.

A news conference by Italy, which holds the annual G20 presidency, is scheduled for 17.15  (1615 GMT).

The meeting comes as the United States is readying $1.9 trillion in fiscal stimulus and the European Union has already put together more than 3 trillion euros ($3.63 trillion) to keep its economies going despite COVID-19 lockdowns.

But despite the large sums, problems with the global rollout of vaccines and the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus mean the future of the recovery remains uncertain.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz warned earlier on Friday that recovery was taking longer than expected and it was too early to roll back support.

“Contrary to what had been hoped for, we cannot speak of a full recovery yet. For us in the G20 talks, the central task remains to lead our countries through the severe crisis,” Scholz told reporters ahead of the virtual meeting.

“We must not scale back the support programs too early and too quickly. That’s what I’m also going to campaign for among my G20 colleagues today,” he said.

BIDEN DEBUT

Hopes for constructive discussions at the meeting are high among G20 countries because it is the first since Joe Biden, who vowed to rebuild cooperation in international bodies, became U.S. president.

While the IMF sees the U.S. economy returning to pre-crisis levels at the end of this year, it may take Europe until the middle of 2022 to reach that point.

The recovery is fragile elsewhere too – factory activity in China grew at the slowest pace in five months in January, hit by a wave of domestic coronavirus infections, and in Japan fourth quarter growth slowed from the previous quarter with new lockdowns clouding the outlook.

“The initially hoped-for V-shaped recovery is now increasingly looking rather more like a long U-shaped recovery. That is why the stabilization measures in almost all G20 states have to be maintained in order to continue supporting the economy,” a G20 official said.

But while the richest economies can afford to stimulate an economic recovery by borrowing more on the market, poorer ones would benefit from being able to tap credit lines from the IMF — the global lender of last resort.

To give itself more firepower, the Fund proposed last year to increase its war chest by $500 billion in the IMF’s own currency called the Special Drawing Rights (SDR), but the idea was blocked by then U.S. President Donald Trump.

Scholz said the change of administration in Washington on Jan. 20 improved the prospects for more IMF resources. He pointed to a letter sent by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to G20 colleagues on Thursday, which he described as a positive sign also for efforts to reform global tax rules.

Civil society groups, religious leaders and some Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress have called for a much larger allocation of IMF resources, of $3 trillion, but sources familiar with the matter said they viewed such a large move as unlikely for now.

The G20 may also agree to extend a suspension of debt servicing for poorest countries by another six months.

($1 = 0.8254 euros)

(Reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Jan Strupczewski in Brussels and Gavin Jones in Rome; Andrea Shalal and David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Susan Fenton and Crispian Balmer)

Biden to press for $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan with governors, mayors

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with a bipartisan group of mayors and governors on Friday as he continues to push for approval of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan to bolster economic growth and help millions of unemployed workers.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will also receive an economic briefing from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, shortly after she takes part in the first meeting of the Group of Seven rich economies since the new U.S. administration took office.

Biden’s proposed spending package, coming on top of $4 trillion enacted by his predecessor Donald Trump, will have important consequences for the global economy which is slowly recovering – but very unevenly – after last year suffering its worst downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Taking part in the Oval Office meeting will be Republican and Democratic elected officials whose states and cities have been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. Many have seen tax revenues fall and costs soar as they race to vaccinate their citizens.

The group includes four governors, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, and five mayors, including Jeff Williams of Arlington, Texas, a Republican.

Williams, who met with Yellen virtually last week, said his city urgently needed the federal aid earmarked for state and local governments in Biden’s rescue plan. He said cities were crushed when Congress removed similar aid from a previous relief bill that passed in December.

“We’ve been crippled. We haven’t gotten help,” Williams told Reuters. “Our property taxes are down and costs are way up. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, this is the right solution so we can achieve economic growth much faster.”

Arlington, which is home to the largest General Motors plant in the world, is bracing for a 10% drop in the appraised value of its commercial properties, which would cut revenues by some $30 million after an $18 million loss last year, Williams said.

More than 400 mayors wrote to leaders in Congress earlier this month to urge them to pass Biden’s relief package, but Republicans are backing a far less ambitious plan.

Biden on Thursday said the U.S. coronavirus death toll was likely to reach 500,000 next month, but said the United States was on track to have enough vaccine for 300 million Americans by the end of July.

Yellen, a former Federal Reserve Board Chair, will have a mixed message when she briefs Biden on the economy. While economic growth is picking up, unemployment remains high and many communities of color are not expected to recover for years.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Britain prepares for COVID-19 vaccine as Oxford forecasts result this year

By Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Late-stage trial results of a potential COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca could be presented this year as the British government prepares for a possible vaccination rollout in late December or early 2021.

A vaccine is seen as a game-changer in the battle against the coronavirus, which has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide, shuttered swathes of the global economy and turned normal life upside down for billions of people.

There are more than 200 candidates under development and the vaccine being developed by Oxford and licensed to British drugmaker AstraZeneca is seen as a front-runner.

“I’m optimistic that we could reach that point before the end of this year,” Oxford Vaccine Trial Chief Investigator Andrew Pollard said of the chances of presenting trial results.

Pollard told British lawmakers that establishing whether or not the vaccine worked would likely come this year, after which the data would have to be carefully reviewed by regulators and then a political decision made on who should receive it.

“Our bit – we are getting closer to but we are not there yet,” Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said.

Asked if he expected the vaccine would start to be deployed before Christmas, he said: “There is a small chance of that being possible but I just don’t know.”

The National Health Service (NHS) in England is preparing to start distributing possible COVID-19 vaccines before Christmas in case one is ready by the end of the year.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be one of the first from big pharma to be submitted for regulatory approval, along with Pfizer and BioNTech’s candidate.

“If I put on my rose-tinted specs, I would hope that we will see positive interim data from both Oxford and from Pfizer/BioNTech in early December and if we get that then I think we have got the possibility of deploying by the year end,” Kate Bingham, the chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, told lawmakers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was the prospect of a vaccine in the first quarter of 2021. AstraZeneca is presenting its third quarter financial results on Thursday.

‘GAME CHANGER’

Work on the Oxford viral vector vaccine, called AZD1222 or ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, began in January. It is made from a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.

The chimpanzee cold virus has been genetically changed to include the genetic sequence of the so-called spike protein which the coronavirus uses to gain entry to human cells. The hope is that the human body will then attack the novel coronavirus if it sees it again.

If Oxford’s vaccine works, it could eventually allow the world to return to some measure of normality.

Asked what success looked like, Pollard said: “Good is having vaccines that have significant efficacy – so whether, I mean, that is 50, 60, 70, 80 percent, whatever the figure is – is an enormous achievement.

“It’s a complete game changer and a success if we meet those efficacy end points,” he said, adding it would relieve pressure on the health system.

But Pollard and Bingham agreed that the world would not return to normal immediately. Asked about the chances of a vaccine that would wipe out the coronavirus next year, Bingham said the prospects were “very slim.”

“(But the chances) to get a vaccine that has an effect of both reducing illness, and reducing mortality (are) very high,” Bingham said, adding she was more than 50% confident there would be such a vaccine by early summer.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alexander Smith)

U.S. still worried about China’s labs amid coronavirus: Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday the United States remains worried about laboratories in China and the world needs to get to the bottom of how the novel coronavirus began there.

The United States and China have traded insults and accusations during the deadly coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 200,000 people around the world and brought the global economy to a crawl.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on April 15 that his government was investigating whether the coronavirus pandemic originated in a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged. Those claims have no basis in fact, the head of the lab told Reuters on Tuesday.[nL3N2CG18V]

“I can tell you there were real concerns about the labs inside of China,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News. “I’m still concerned that the Chinese Communist Party is not telling us about all of what’s taking place in all of the labs.”

A Washington Post opinion column this month said the U.S. State Department in 2018 warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management weaknesses at a Wuhan laboratory.

Pompeo said Chinese authorities are continuing to withhold information about the virus and will not allow U.S. experts access.

“In spite of our best efforts to get experts on the ground, they continue to try and hide and obfuscate. That’s wrong, it continues to pose a threat to the world and we all need to get to the bottom of what actually happened here,” he told Fox.

Most scientists now say the new coronavirus originated in wildlife, with bats and pangolins identified as possible host species.

Yuan Zhiming, a director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology also rejected theories that the lab had accidentally released a coronavirus it had harvested from bats for research purposes.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

WHO raises global risk of coronavirus from ‘high’ to ‘very high’

By Stephanie Nebehay and Ryan Woo

GENEVA/BEIJING (Reuters) – The rapid spread of the coronavirus increased fears of a pandemic on Friday, with six countries reporting their first cases and the World Health Organization (WHO) raising its global spread and impact risk alert to “very high”.

World shares fell again, winding up their worst week since the 2008 global financial crisis and bringing the global wipeout to $6 trillion.

Hopes that the epidemic that started in China late last year would be over in months, and that economic activity would quickly return to normal, have been shattered.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his organization was not underestimating the risk.

“That is why we said today the global risk is very high,” he told reporters in Geneva. “We increased it from ‘high’ to ‘very high’.”

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the scenario of the coronavirus reaching multiple or all countries “is something we have been looking at and warning against since quite a while.”

Switzerland joined countries banning big events to try to curb the epidemic, forcing cancellation of next week’s Geneva international car show, one of the industry’s most important gatherings.

Tedros said mainland China had reported 329 new cases in the last 24 hours, the lowest there in more than a month, taking its tally to more than 78,800 cases with almost 2,800 deaths.

China’s three biggest airlines restored some international flights and the Shanghai fashion show, initially postponed, went ahead online.

TROOPS DEPLOYED

But as the outbreak eases in China, it is surging elsewhere.

Mexico, Nigeria, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands and Lithuania reported their first cases, all with travel history connected to Italy, the worst-affected European country. Mexico is the second Latin American country to register the virus, after Brazil.

Countries other than China now account for about three-quarters of new infections.

Bulgaria said it was ready to deploy up to 1,000 troops and military equipment to the border with Turkey to prevent illegal migrant inflows as it steps up measures against the coronavirus. It has not reported any cases.

Mongolia, which has yet to confirm a case, placed its president, Battulga Khaltmaa, in quarantine as a precaution after he returned from a trip to China, state media reported.

A Chinese official said some recovered patients had been found to be infectious, suggesting the epidemic may be even harder to eradicate than previously thought.

Lindmeier said the WHO was looking very carefully into reports of some people getting re-infected.

In addition to stockpiling medical supplies, some governments ordered schools shut and canceled big gatherings to try to halt the flu-like disease.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was considering invoking special powers to expand production of protective gear.

In Europe, Germany warned of an impending epidemic and Greece, a gateway for refugees from the Middle East, announced tighter border controls.

The death toll in Italy rose to 17 and those testing positive rose to 655. Germany has nearly 60 cases, France about 38 and Spain 23, according to a Reuters count.

OLYMPIC DOUBTS

South Korea has the most cases outside China. It reported 571 new infections on Friday, bringing the total to 2,337, with 13 people killed.

The head of the WHO’s emergency program, Dr Mike Ryan, said Iran’s outbreak may be worse than realized – its toll of 34 dead is the highest outside China. Tedros said he expected a WHO team to be in Iran by Sunday or Monday.

U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring the spread of the coronavirus in Iran and India, where only a handful of cases have been reported, sources said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had offered to help Iran, raising doubts about its willingness to share information.

Japan is scheduled to host the 2020 Olympics in July but Ryan said discussions were being held about whether to go ahead.

Organizers will decide next week on the ceremonial torch relay, due to arrive on March 20 for a 121-day journey. Confirmed cases in Japan have risen above 200, with four deaths, excluding more than 700 cases on a quarantined cruise liner, Diamond Princess.

A British man infected on the ship had died, bringing the death toll among passengers to six, Kyodo newswire reported.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had called for schools to close and vowed to prevent a severe blow to an economy teetering on the brink of recession.

In Moscow, authorities were deporting 88 foreigners who violated quarantine measures, the RIA news agency cited Moscow’s deputy mayor as saying.

Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, where the coronavirus has killed two and infected more than 90, quarantined a pet dog of a coronavirus patient after it tested “weak positive”, though authorities had no evidence the virus can be transmitted to pets.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ryan Woo, Yingzhi Yang in Beijing, Lisa Lambert and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Sangmi Chai in Seoul, Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Kate Kelland in London, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia, Michael Shields and Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Writing by Robert Birsel, Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Jon Boyle and Timothy Heritage)