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)

Coronavirus drives U.S. political protest off the streets and into online forums

By Elizabeth Culliford and Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At any other time, a divisive U.S. president dealing with a national crisis that is causing severe economic dislocation might bring throngs of demonstrators to the streets of Washington and state capitals across the country.

But the spread of the novel coronavirus, which had killed more than 23,560 people in the United States and infected 584,293 as of Monday night and shut down all but essential travel and businesses, has made physical protests nearly impossible.

Activists representing nurses, flight attendants, civil rights, voting rights, African Americans, people with chronic illnesses, renters and multiple other groups are reassembling online, hoping to influence lawmakers in Congress and officials in the White House.

But their impact may be limited, experts say.

The Poor People’s Campaign, which is demanding that the government’s $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief package better serve poor and low-income people, has converted a planned June 20 march in Washington into an online gathering on that date.

“What we’ve got to do is take everything we had planned to do in the street and do it through social media,” the Rev. William Barber, the campaign co-chair, told Reuters.

“We’re going to give a platform to all of these frontline essential workers who are not being treated like they’re essential,” he said, adding the campaign was gathering advice from film producers and other experts on how to tell stories at the event.

Health Care Voter, which is pushing to preserve the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, and lower prescription drug costs, had initially planned to do a bus tour in March and April, stopping in 30 cities from California to Maine.

Instead, it is holding digital events, including a March 31 national town hall featuring Democratic U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi that received 400,000 views – unprecedented for the group, campaign director Rosemary Enobakhare said.

“People are at home, honestly, and they want to be able to have these conversations,” said Enobakhare. “People are looking at ways to interact.”

March for Science, a grassroots movement that holds Earth Day rallies each year, has canceled its April street protests for virtual forums using videoconferencing app Zoom and Facebook Live to interview experts about the pandemic and public policy.

Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said the anti-corruption watchdog group had shifted much of its work to research the federal government’s coronavirus bailouts for big business but that it was challenging to get information out in a news environment dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said the civil rights group was dealing with the rush of news by ramping up spending on Facebook and Google ads and developing media partnerships.

HONKING ACTIONS, PETITIONS

While young activists may adapt well to moving their campaigns online, their efforts may be less effective than actual street protests, said Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, whose research focuses on activism.

“Large-scale protest events are opportunities to create collective identity for the people participating and to extend the constituency,” Fisher said.

Past in-person rallies against the Trump administration had that aim in mind rather than hoping the president might look out of the White House and change his policy, she said.

Some physical protests are still happening, but in new ways.

National Nurses United, which has 185,000 members, is pushing for Congress to get nurses proper personal protective equipment with a text campaign and protests at hospitals, said Malinda Markowitz, one of the presidents of the California Nurses Association affiliate.

“We have to make sure that we just have a very small group of nurses and they’re 6 feet (1.8 m) apart when they’re out there,” she said.

Barbara Suarez Galeano, organizing director for Detention Watch Network, a coalition of groups working to abolish immigration detention, said the network had been signing petitions and performing call-ins and “honking actions.” Last week in Chicago, people drove to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, the juvenile prison and finally the county jail, where more than 150 cars gathered to circle the building.

“There’s a lot of ways to be disruptive and still be visible,” said Suarez Galeano.

Petitions urging Whole Foods to grant paid leave to employees and for New York state to bar hospitals from banning support people in delivery rooms helped create change, activists say.

“The huge volume of petitions being created right now speaks to the urgency, concern and anxiety that millions of Americans feel as the COVID-19 pandemic dominates our day-to-day lives,” said Michael Jones, managing director of campaigns at Change.org.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Elizabeth Culliford; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. small-business rescue loan program enters fourth day plagued by technical problems

By Pete Schroeder and Michelle Price

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s $350 billion small-business rescue program entered its fourth day on Monday, plagued by technology and processing problems that are delaying disbursements to businesses hurt by the novel coronavirus, according to industry groups, bankers and an email seen by Reuters.

U.S. lenders, inundated by thousands of loan applications, struggled to access the government’s technology system for processing the paperwork over the weekend, and the paperwork itself changed more than once, the sources said.

“We know that your efforts have been frustrated with system issues, policy questions and slower than usual responses,” the Small Business Administration’s regional offices wrote to bankers on Saturday evening, according to an email seen by Reuters.

Many lenders have had problems signing up for new user accounts with the SBA’s platform, while bankers who already had accounts have had issues unlocking them or resetting passwords, the email said. It said the SBA was working to unlock all of the existing user accounts in one batch.

SBA also alerted lenders in the email that its technology platform’s loan authorization form was “not at all” compliant with the terms of the rescue program.

“Please do not close any loans using the current version of the loan authorization!” it said.

Congress created the unprecedented program as part of a $2.3 trillion stimulus package passed at the end of March to help businesses that have either shut down or have been dramatically curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Borrowers could apply for the loans via participating banks from Friday until June 30.

Over the weekend, the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), which represents thousands of small banks, complained to the Treasury and SBA about the “failed technology” and “massive delays” its members were experiencing with the SBA platform, which was not designed to process the huge program.

Community bankers also took to social media to complain about the form changes and being locked out of the system, rebutting claims by President Donald Trump that all was going well.

“Going well?! Hell nearly every community bank in the nation is locked out of the … SBA platform!” Noah W. Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of Grand Rapids State Bank, who chairs the ICBA, tweeted on Sunday.

A senior Trump administration official on Monday defended the progress made so far and said launching such a huge program in just one week was unprecedented.

“As of today – Day 4 – we’ve surpassed $35 billion originated; more than 100,000 small businesses have successfully applied and more than 2,000 lending institutions are up and running,” the person said.

“Starting today, the SBA is offering a lender hotline and our 68 district offices across the country will be available to assist lenders,” the official added.

The Trump administration originally promised the loans in a matter of days. It was unclear how much of that $35 billion had been dished out to businesses as of Monday since the banks are the ones who disburse the funds. According to two industry sources, paperwork problems have prevented all but a fraction of banks from distributing the funds.

“It would have been better to have all these things resolved at the front end,” said Carrie Hunt, general counsel for the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

Some small businesses say they have had problems even finding a willing lender given that many are backed up with thousands of applications and are not processing new clients.

Grant Geiger, CEO of EIR Healthcare, which makes modular healthcare products, said he spent Friday unsuccessfully searching for a bank to take his application after his current bank said it was not yet accepting submissions.

“We were ready last week. Friday morning, we had no place to go,” he told Reuters on Monday.

(Reporting by Michelle Price; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall)

Second coronavirus case confirmed in New York state, U.S. cases top 100

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A man who lives in a New York suburb and works in Manhattan tested positive for the novel coronavirus, bringing the total confirmed cases in the state to two, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday.

The 50-year-old man had an underlying respiratory illness and is hospitalized, Cuomo said at a news conference. He added that the patient had not traveled to countries considered the epicenter of the outbreak but had visited Miami recently.

Cuomo disclosed the second case after an Orthodox Jewish school in New York City canceled classes on Tuesday to allow for precautionary measures after a suspected case of coronavirus turned up within its community.

The SAR Academy and SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx borough said it was in touch with the city’s Department of Health and following its guidelines.

“At this time it important to remain calm,” a statement from school officials said.

The co-educational school, which describes itself as “modern Orthodox,” urged people to follow steps to prevent and minimize the spread of the infection, which had led to the reported deaths of six people in the United States as of Monday evening, all of them in Washington state.

About 100 people nationwide have tested positive for the virus, including the two people in New York, according to health officials.

There are more than 90,000 cases of the new coronavirus globally, with more than 80,000 of them in China. China’s death toll is 2,943, with more than 75 deaths elsewhere as 77 other countries and territories have reported the respiratory disease.

The man who tested positive remains hospitalized in serious condition, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, adding that the confirmation was made by the New York City Public Health Laboratory on its first day of testing.

“With the results confirmed within a number of hours, we were immediately able to take next steps to stop the spread of this virus,” de Blasio said. “We have said from the beginning that it is likely we will see more positive cases of the coronavirus.”

Previously all testing was conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a process that created in a delay of several days before the result was known.

The U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates on Tuesday in an emergency move designed to shield the world’s largest economy from the impact of the coronavirus. The Fed said it was cutting rates by a half percentage point to a target range of 1.00% to 1.25%.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by David Gregorio and Grant McCool)