U.S. task force to tackle coronavirus market manipulation, hoarding

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is launching a task force to address market manipulation, hoarding and price gouging related to the coronavirus pandemic, following an order by President Donald Trump to crack down on such crimes.

At the same time, federal law enforcement agencies across the country are prioritizing investigations into an array of coronavirus-related crimes following reports they have surged.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said among the reported crimes were the targeting of federally-insured Medicare patients with fake tests or unnecessary antiretroviral prescriptions.

“You should be on the lookout for these sorts of schemes,” Rosen wrote in the memo, which was directed to the heads of all the Justice Department’s law enforcement components and all U.S. Attorneys offices.

Other reported crimes included threats of violence to local mayors and robberies of patients and doctors leaving hospitals.

In a separate memo, Attorney General William Barr said the new task force on hoarding and price gouging will be led by Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

“We must do the best we can to protect Americans’ rights and safety in this novel and troubling time,” Barr wrote.

Barr earlier this month directed federal prosecutors to prioritize crimes related to the coronavirus outbreak. That initiative required each U.S. Attorney’s office to appoint a designated prosecutor to oversee coronavirus fraud cases.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 660 people in the United States and infected more than 50,000, with some officials warning the crisis could last for months.

Law enforcement officials who specialize in healthcare and drug-related crimes who spoke with Reuters this week said they anticipated rising crime as fraudsters seek to capitalize on people’s fears about the outbreak.

Marking its first coronavirus case, the Justice Department revealed on Sunday it had closed down a website selling non-existent vaccines.

Barr has already launched investigations into the hoarding and price gouging of critical medical supplies, part of actions tied to an executive order by President Donald Trump that authorizes the criminal prosecution of anyone whose purchases exceed reasonable limits.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Jane Wardell)

WHO warns of global shortage of medical equipment to fight coronavirus

By Andrea Shalal and Stephanie Nebehay

WASHINGTON/GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday warned of a global shortage and price gouging for protective equipment to fight the fast-spreading coronavirus and asked companies and governments to increase production by 40% as the death toll from the respiratory illness mounted.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates on Tuesday in an emergency move to try to prevent a global recession and the World Bank announced $12 billion to help countries fight the coronavirus, which has taken a heavy toll on air travel, tourism and other industries, threatening global economic growth prospects.

The virus continued to spread in South Korea, Japan, Europe, Iran and the United States, and several countries reported their first confirmed cases, taking the total to some 80 nations hit with the flu-like illness that can lead to pneumonia.

Despite the Fed’s attempt to stem the economic fallout from the coronavirus, U.S. stock indexes closed down about 3%, safe-haven gold rose 3% and analysts and investors questioned whether the rate cut will be enough if the virus continues to spread.

U.S. lawmakers were considering spending as much as $9 billion to contain local spread of the virus.

In Iran, doctors and nurses lack supplies and 77 people have died, one of the highest numbers outside China. The United Arab Emirates announced it was closing all schools for four weeks.

The death toll in Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit country, jumped to 79 on Tuesday and Italian officials are considering expanding the area under quarantine. France reported its fourth coronavirus death, while Indonesia, Ukraine, Argentina and Chile reported their first coronavirus cases.

About 3.4% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have died, far above seasonal flu’s fatality rate of under 1%, but the virus can be contained, the WHO chief said on Tuesday.

“To summarize, COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Health officials have said the death rate is 2% to 4% depending on the country and may be much lower if there are thousands of unreported mild cases of the disease.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, prices of surgical masks have increased sixfold, N95 respirators have tripled in cost and protective gowns cost twice as much, the WHO said.

It estimates healthcare workers each month will need 89 million masks, 76 million gloves and 1.6 million pairs of goggles.

The coronavirus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has spread around the world, with more new cases now appearing outside China than inside.

There are almost 91,000 cases globally of which more than 80,000 are in China. China’s death toll was 2,943, with more than 125 fatalities elsewhere.

In a unanimous decision, the Fed said it was cutting rates by a half percentage point to a target range of 1.00% to 1.25%.

Finance ministers from the G7 group of rich countries were ready to take action, including fiscal measures where appropriate, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said. Central banks would continue to support price stability and economic growth.

AGGRESSIVE CONTAINMENT

In the United States, there are now over 100 people in at least a dozen states with the coronavirus and nine deaths, all in the Seattle area.

New York state reported its second case, a man in his 50s who works in Manhattan and has been hospitalized.

The public transportation agency in New York, the most densely populated major U.S. city of more than 8 million, said on Twitter it was deploying “enhanced sanitizing procedures” for stations, train cars, buses and certain vehicles.

China has seen coronavirus cases fall sharply, with 129 in the last 24 hours the lowest reported since Jan. 20.

With the world’s second largest economy struggling to get back on track, China is increasingly concerned about the virus being brought back into the country by citizens returning from new hotspots elsewhere.

Travelers entering Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy would have to be quarantined for 14 days, a city official said. Shanghai has introduced a similar order.

The worst outbreak outside China is in South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in declared war on the virus, ordering additional hospital beds and more masks as cases rose by 600 to nearly 5,000, with 34 deaths.

WHO officials also expressed concerns about the situation in Iran, saying doctors lacked respirators and ventilators needed for patients with severe cases.

WHO emergency program head Michael Ryan said the need in Iran was “more acute” than for other countries.

While the case numbers in Iran appear to be bad, he said, “things tend to look worse before getting better.”

The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday said the summer games in Tokyo set to begin on July 24 were still expected to happen despite Japan having nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases and 12 deaths. Health officials said they would continue to monitor the situation in Japan before any final decision on the Olympics is made.

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

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington and Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kate Kelland in London, Takahiko Wada in Tokyo; Writing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Alexander Smith, John Stonestreet and Bill Berkrot)

Amazon bars one million products for false coronavirus claims

By Jeffrey Dastin

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc has barred more than 1 million products from sale in recent weeks that had inaccurately claimed to cure or defend against the coronavirus, the company told Reuters on Thursday.

Amazon also removed tens of thousands of deals from merchants that it said attempted to price-gouge customers. The world’s largest online retailer has faced scrutiny over the health-related offers on its platform, and earlier this week Italy launched a probe into surging prices around the internet for sanitizing gels and hygiene masks while it battled the biggest outbreak in Europe.

The coronavirus has caused at least 2,797 deaths globally. New reported infections around the world now exceed those from mainland China, where the flu-like disease arose two months ago out of an illegal wildlife market. Governments from Australia to Iran have closed schools, scrapped events and stockpiled medical supplies to contain the virus’s spread.

One offer comparison site showed recent examples of higher-than-usual prices for masks on Amazon made by U.S. industrial conglomerate 3M Co.

A merchant Thursday offered a 10-pack of N95 masks for $128, a Reuters reporter saw when clicking through the buying options on Amazon. That was up from a recent seller average price of $41.24, according to the tracking website camelcamelcamel.com. The item was no longer available in a check later in the day.

A two-pack respirator was offered new at $24.99 earlier this week by a third-party seller, up from a recent average of $6.65 when sold by Amazon, the price-following site showed.

“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” a spokeswoman said in a statement, citing the company’s policy that product information must be accurate and that Amazon can take down offers that hurt customer trust, including when pricing “is significantly higher than recent prices offered on or off Amazon.”

It declined to specify the exact threshold at which an item is considered unfairly priced.

The company said it has monitored for price spikes and false claims through a mix of automated and manual review of listings.

(This story refiles to delete extraneous words in second paragraph)

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Henderson and Cynthia Osterman)

American caravan arrives in Canadian ‘birthplace of insulin’ for cheaper medicine

Type 1 diabetes advocates from the United States depart a Canadian pharmacy after purchasing lower cost insulin in London, Ontario, Canada June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osor

By Tyler Choi

TORONTO (Reuters) – A self-declared “caravan” of Americans bused across the Canada-U.S. border on Saturday, seeking affordable prices for insulin and raising awareness of “the insulin price crisis” in the United States.

The group called Caravan to Canada started the journey from Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday, and stopped at London, Ontario on Saturday, to purchase life-saving type 1 diabetes medication at a pharmacy.

The caravan numbers at approximately 20 people, according to Nicole Smith-Holt, a member of the group. Smith-Holt said her 26-year-old son died in June 2017 because he was forced to ration insulin due to the high cost. This is Smith-Holt’s second time on the caravan.

Caravan to Canada trekked the border in May for the same reasons, which Holt-Smith said was smaller than the group this week. She said Americans have gone to countries like Mexico and Canada for more affordable medications in the past and continue to do so.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported in May that Canadian pharmacists have seen a “quiet resurgence” in Americans coming to Canada looking for cheaper pharmaceuticals.

Insulin prices in the United States nearly doubled to an average annual cost of $5,705 in 2016 from $2,864 in 2012, according to a study in January.

Allison Nimlos, a Type 1 diabetes advocate from the United States, shows the less expensive Canadian insulin she purchased (right) after leaving a Canadian pharmacy in London, Ontario, Canada June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

Allison Nimlos, a Type 1 diabetes advocate from the United States, shows the less expensive Canadian insulin she purchased (right) after leaving a Canadian pharmacy in London, Ontario, Canada June 29, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

While not everyone purchased the same amount of insulin, Smith-Holt said most people are saving around $3,000 for three months of insulin, and as a whole, the group is saving around $15,000 to $20,000.

Prescriptions for insulin are not required in Canadian pharmacies Smith-Holt said, but the caravan has them so they can prove to the border patrol they are not intending to resell them when returning to the United States.

Quinn Nystrom, a leader of T1International’s Minnesota chapter, said on May via Twitter that the price of insulin in the United States per vial was $320, while in Canada the same medication under a different name was $30.

T1International, a non-profit that advocates for increased access to type 1 diabetes medication, has described the situation in U.S. as an insulin crisis.

“We know that many people couldn’t make this trip because they cannot afford the costs associated with traveling to another country to buy insulin there,” said Elizabeth Pfiester, the executive director of T1International in a press release.

An itinerary states the caravan will stop at the Banting House in London, Ontario later in the day. The Banting House is where Canadian physician and scientist Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin, lived from 1920 to 1921, and is called the “birthplace of insulin”, according to the Banting House website.

Smith-Holt said the group is not currently planning any future trips, but they could be organized in the near future depending on need. She hopes for long-term solutions in the United States like price caps, anti-gouging laws, patent reform and transparency from pharmaceutical companies.

(Reporting by Tyler Choi, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Mosul edges towards full siege, families struggle to find food

An Iraqi soldier searches a house during clashes with Islamic State fighters in Al-Qasar, southeast of Mosul.

By Maher Chmaytelli and Ulf Laessing

BAGHDAD/MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A full siege is developing in Mosul as poor families struggle to feed themselves after prices rose sharply following the U.S.-backed offensive on the Islamic State-held city in northern Iraq, humanitarian workers said on Tuesday.

Some of the poorest families are finding it hard to feed themselves while others are hoarding and hiding food as they expect prices to rise further as the battle that started six weeks ago takes hold of the city.

A Kurdish Iraqi woman inspects her destroyed kitchen after returning to her house in the town of Bashiqa which was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a battle with Islamic State militants,

A Kurdish Iraqi woman inspects her destroyed kitchen after returning to her house in the town of Bashiqa which was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a battle with Islamic State militants, north of Mosul, Iraq November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

“Key informants are telling us that poor families are struggling to put sufficient food on their tables,” U.N Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told Reuters. “This is very worrying.”

Iraqi government and Kurdish forces surround the city from the north, east and south, while Popular Mobilisation forces – a coalition of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups – are trying to close in from the west.

Retail prices rose sharply last week, after Popular Mobilisation fighters cut the supply route to Mosul from the Syrian half of the self-styled caliphate, declared by Islamic State two years ago over Sunni-populated parts of Iraq and Syria.

More than a million people are still believed to live in parts of Mosul under the control of the Islamic State fighters, who seized the largest city in northern Iraq as part of a lightning advance across a third of the country in 2014.

With the last supply route cut off, basic commodity prices in Mosul could double “in the short term”, said a humanitarian worker, who declined to be identified.

Some 100,000 Iraqi government troops, Kurdish security forces and mainly Shi’ite militiamen are participating in the assault on Mosul that began on Oct. 17, with air and ground support from a U.S.-led international military coalition.

The capture of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq, is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate.

“ACUTE NEED”

Iraqi forces moving from the east have captured about a quarter of Mosul, trying to advance to the Tigris river that runs through its center, in the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“In a worst case, we envision that families who are already in trouble in Mosul will find themselves in even more acute need.” Grande said. “The longer it takes to liberate Mosul, the harder conditions become for families.”

Islamic State arrested on Sunday about 30 shop owners accused of raising food prices in the city, to try to suppress discontent, witnesses said on Monday.

The group is relentlessly cracking down on people who could help the offensive in Iraq. Most of the people executed previously in Mosul were former police and army officers, suspected of disloyalty or plotting rebellions against the militants’ harsh rule.

The Iraqi military estimates there are 5,000-6,000 insurgents in Mosul, dug in amid civilians to hamper air strikes, resisting the advancing troops with suicide car bombs and sniper and mortar fire that also kill civilians.

An air strike targeting Islamic State fighters hit a clinic south of Mosul on October 18, killing at least eight civilians, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

NO RETREAT

Iraqi and coalition forces did not confirm the report, which said two militants and the Sunni hardline group’s transport minister were also killed in the strike.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to be somewhere near the Syrian border, has told his fighters there can be no retreat from the city.

Some 74,000 civilians have fled Mosul so far, and the United Nations is preparing for a worst-case scenario which foresees more than a million people made homeless as winter descends and food shortages set in.

A Reuters correspondent in eastern Mosul saw civilians fleeing the fighting in Aden, a district supposed to be under Iraqi government control, in an indication of the difficulty the troops are encountering in holding terrain.

“Daesh is still there,” said Ehab, a high school student, referring to Islamic State by one of its Arab acronyms. “They drive around in cars; the situation is very, very difficult there. I am glad I made it out alive.”

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Millership)