WHO issues new clinical advice on treating COVID-19 patients

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) issued fresh clinical advice on Tuesday for treating COVID-19 patients, including those displaying persistent symptoms after recovery, and also said it advised using low-dose anti-coagulants to prevent blood clots.

“The other things in the guidance that are new are that COVID-19 patients at home should have the use of pulse oximetry, that’s measuring the oxygen levels, so you can identify whether someone at home is deteriorating and would be better off having hospital care,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

The WHO advised clinicians to put patients into the awake prone position, on their front, shown to improve the oxygen flow, she said.

“Also we recommend, we suggest, the use of low-dose anti-coagulants to prevent blood clots forming in blood vessels. We suggest the use of lower doses rather than higher doses because higher doses may lead to other problems,” Harris said.

She added that a WHO-led team of independent experts, currently in the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the first human cases were detected in December 2019, is due to leave quarantine in the next two days to pursue its work with Chinese researchers on the virus origins.

She declined to comment on reports of delays in roll-out of vaccines in the European Union. She said she had no specific data and the WHO’s priority was for health workers in all countries to be vaccinated in the first 100 days of the year.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge)

COVID-19 patients still have symptoms 6 months later; interferon may be helpful treatment after all

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Half a year later, COVID-19 patients still have symptoms

Most patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have at least one symptom six months after falling ill, according to findings from a study in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in late 2019. Doctors there tracked 1,733 patients who were diagnosed and hospitalized between January, 2020 and May. Six months later, 76% had at least one symptom including fatigue or muscle weakness (seen in 63%), sleep difficulties and anxiety or depression. Most of those who had been severely ill had ongoing lung problems and chest abnormalities that could indicate organ damage, while 13% of patients whose kidneys functioned normally in the hospital went on to develop kidney problems later, researchers reported on Friday in The Lancet. “We are only beginning to understand” some of the long-term effects of COVID-19, study coauthor Bin Cao from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing said in a statement. “Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital,” highlighting the need for post-discharge care.

Interferon boosts proteins that deny entry to coronavirus

An experimental inhaled form of interferon being tested for treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients may not have a limitation researchers had feared. A potential problem with interferon is that it increases levels of a protein called ACE2, which the new coronavirus uses as a gateway into cells. In test tube experiments, researchers looked at cells that line the path from the nose into the lungs and discovered there are actually two forms of ACE2 – the well known one and a short form that lacks the entryway used by the virus. Interferon increases the short form of ACE2 but not the longer form, they found, which means it does not appear to boost entry points for the virus. “We were excited to discover a new form of ACE2,” Dr. Jane Lucas of the University of Southampton, who co-led the study reported on Monday in Nature Genetics, said in a statement. “We believe this may have important implications for managing COVID-19 infection.” An inhaled interferon from Synairgen Plc is being tested in late-stage trials.

Saliva viral load improves prediction of COVID-19 severity

The amount of the new coronavirus in saliva might help guide doctors’ care of patients because it is a better predictor of disease course than viral load in swab samples obtained from the nose and the back of the throat, researchers said. They studied 26 mildly ill COVID-19 patients, 154 hospitalized patients – including 63 who became critically ill and 23 who eventually died – and 108 uninfected individuals. Saliva viral load, but not nasopharyngeal viral load, was linked with COVID-19 risk factors like age and gender, and with immune system responses. Saliva viral load was also superior to nasopharyngeal viral load at predicting critical illness and death, the researchers reported on Wednesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. Saliva contains inhaled germs that are cleared from the lungs by the body’s protective mechanisms, coauthor Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University explained in a tweet on Sunday. The saliva viral load therefore reflects how well the virus is making copies of itself all the way through the respiratory tract, from the nose to the lungs, and not just in the nose and back of the throat, Iwasaki said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

China says WHO team to probe COVID-19 origins will arrive Thursday

BEIJING/GENEVA (Reuters) – A World Health Organization (WHO) team of international experts tasked with investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic will arrive in China on Jan. 14, Chinese authorities said on Monday.

Lack of authorization from Beijing had delayed the arrival of the 10-strong team on a long-awaited mission to investigate early infections, in what China’s foreign ministry called a “misunderstanding”.

The National Health Commission, which announced the arrival date, delayed from its early January schedule, did not detail the team’s itinerary, however.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the news and said that studies would begin in the central city of Wuhan where the first human cases were identified.

“We look forward to working closely with our (Chinese) counterparts on this critical mission to identify the virus source & its route of introduction to the human population,” Tedros wrote on Twitter. He previously said he was “very disappointed” when experts were denied entry earlier this month, forcing two members of the team to turn back.

China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread since it first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late in 2019.

The United States has called for a “transparent” WHO-led investigation and criticized its terms, which allowed Chinese scientists to do the first phase of preliminary research.

Ahead of the trip, Beijing has been seeking to shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began, with senior diplomat Wang Yi saying “more and more studies” showed it emerged in multiple regions.

A health expert affiliated with the WHO said expectations should be “very low” that the team will reach a conclusion from their trip to China.

WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan sought to defuse tensions around the trip at a virtual press briefing later on Monday.

“We are looking for the answers here that may save us in future – not culprits and not people to blame,” he said, adding that the WHO was willing to go “anywhere and everywhere” to find out how the virus emerged.

While other countries continue to struggle with infection surges, China has aggressively doused flare-ups.

Sunday’s 103 new cases were mainland China’s biggest daily increase in more than five months, as new infections rise in the province of Hebei, surrounding the capital, Beijing.

Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, went into lockdown and Hebei closed down some sections of highways in the province to curb the spread of the virus.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Michael Perry and Toby Chopra)

China doubles down on COVID narrative as WHO investigation looms

By David Stanway

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – As a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) prepares to visit China to investigate the origins of COVID-19, Beijing has stepped up efforts not only to prevent new outbreaks, but also shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began.

China has dismissed criticism of its early handling of the coronavirus, first identified in the city of Wuhan at the end of 2019, and foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday that the country would welcome the WHO team.

But amid simmering geopolitical tensions, experts said the investigators were unlikely to be allowed to scrutinize some of the more sensitive aspects of the outbreak, with Beijing desperate to avoid blame for a virus that has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide.

“Even before this investigation, top officials from both sides have been very polarized in their opinions on the origins of the outbreak,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.

“They will have to be politically savvy and draw conclusions that are acceptable to all the major parties,” he added.

While other countries continue to struggle with infection surges, China has aggressively doused flare-ups. After a new cluster of cases last week, the city of Shenyang sealed off entire communities and required all non-essential workers to stay home.

On Saturday, senior diplomat Wang Yi praised the anti-pandemic efforts, saying China not only curbed domestic infections, but also “took the lead in building a global anti-epidemic defense” by providing aid to more than 150 countries.

But mindful of the criticism China has faced worldwide, Wang also became the highest-ranking official to question the consensus about COVID-19’s origins, saying “more and more studies” show that it emerged in multiple regions.

China is also the only country to claim COVID-19 can be transmitted via cold chain imports, with the country blaming new outbreaks in Beijing and Dalian on contaminated shipments – even though the WHO has downplayed those risks.

TRANSPARENCY

China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread further.

The topic remains sensitive, with only a handful of studies into the origins of COVID-19 made available to the public.

But there have also been signs China is willing to share information that contradicts the official picture.

Last week, a study by China’s Center for Disease Control showed that blood samples from 4.43% of Wuhan’s population contained COVID-19 antibodies, indicating that the city’s infection rates were far higher than originally acknowledged.

But scientists said China must also share any findings suggesting COVID-19 was circulating domestically long before it was officially identified in December 2019.

An Italian study showed that COVID-19 might have been in Europe several months before China’s first official case. Chinese state media used the paper to support theories that COVID-19 originated overseas and entered China via contaminated frozen food or foreign athletes competing at the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019.

Raina MacIntyre, head of the Kirby Institute’s Biosecurity Research Program in Australia, said the investigation needed to draw “a comprehensive global picture of the epidemiological clues”, including any evidence COVID-19 was present outside of China before December 2019.

However, political issues mean they are unlikely to be given much leeway to investigate one hypothesis, that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said MacIntyre.

“I think it is unlikely all viruses in the lab at the time will be made available to the team,” she said. “So I do not think we will ever know the truth.”

U.S., EU criticize China for jailing citizen-journalist who reported on COVID-19

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The European Union and United States on Tuesday criticized the jailing of a citizen-journalist in China who reported on the early outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan.

A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term on Monday to Zhang Zhan, who reported at the peak of the crisis in the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Her lawyer said Zhang was jailed on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that he strongly condemned Zhang’s conviction and called for her immediate and unconditional release, accusing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of restricting and manipulating information about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

“Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth,” Pompeo said, adding that the United States would always support the right of Chinese citizens to express themselves freely.

U.S.-China relations have plunged to their worst level in decades as the world’s top two economies spar over issues ranging from the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong, trade and espionage.

The EU also called for Zhang’s immediate release, as well as for freedom for jailed human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, and several other detained and convicted human rights defenders and individuals who engaged in reporting in the public interest.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated,” an external affairs spokesman for the 27-nation EU said in a statement.

Separately, the EU called on China to “guarantee procedural fairness and due process of law” for 10 Hong Kong activists on trial in China after being caught at sea and accused of trying to flee to Taiwan.

In a statement it called for the immediate release of the group and their swift return to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, where they went on trial on Dec. 28 in a closed court and without appointed lawyers of their choice.

The EU criticism over the cases comes a day before EU and Chinese leaders are expected to clinch a deal to give European companies better access to the Chinese market.

Citizen-journalist Zhang was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the holiday season in the West, to minimize scrutiny.

“The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern,” the EU spokesman said.

(Reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels and Daphne Psaledakis in Washingtond; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

China jails citizen-journalist for four years over Wuhan virus reporting

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – A Chinese court on Monday handed down a four-year jail term to a citizen-journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of this year’s coronavirus outbreak on the grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, her lawyer said.

Zhang Zhan, 37, the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicenter than the official narrative.

“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” said Shao Wenxia, Zhang’s mother, who attended the trial with her husband.

Zhang’s lawyer Ren Quanniu told Reuters: “We will probably appeal.”

The trial was held at a court in Pudong, a district of the business hub of Shanghai.

“Ms. Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech,” Ren had said before the trial.

Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang’s trial to take place during the Western holiday season to minimize Western attention and scrutiny. U.S. President Donald Trump has regularly criticized Beijing for covering up the emergence of what he calls the “China virus”.

The United Nations human rights office called in a tweet for Zhang’s release.

“We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release,” it said.

Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers such as doctors warned. State media have credited the country’s success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

The virus has spread worldwide to infect more than 80 million people and kill more than 1.76 million, paralyzing air travel as nations threw up barriers that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.

In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang’s detention, although some supporters were undeterred.

A man in a wheelchair, who told Reuters he came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police escorted him away.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic,” court security officials said.

A former lawyer, Zhang arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 1 from her home in Shanghai.

Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Detained in mid-May, she went on hunger strike in late June, court documents seen by Reuters say. Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and livestream the trial were ignored, her lawyer said.

Other citizen-journalists who have disappeared in China without explanation include Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.

While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend has said.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva. Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Hugh Lawson and Nick Macfie)

U.S. denounces terms for WHO-led inquiry into COVID origins

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States, which has accused China of having hidden the extent of its coronavirus outbreak, called on Tuesday for a “transparent and inclusive” WHO-led international investigation into the origin of the pandemic, criticizing its current terms.

The Trump administration has accused the World Health Organization of being “China-centric” and of being its puppet, which WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has denied.

The virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, is believed to have emerged in the Chinese central city of Wuhan late last year, possibly from bats at a market with live animals.

Chinese scientists are carrying out research into its origins and how it jumped the species barrier. A WHO-led international team formed in September is to develop plans for longer-term studies building on China’s findings, according to the WHO’s published terms of reference.

Garrett Grigsby, head of the global affairs office at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the WHO’s ministerial assembly that member states had been informed of the investigation’s terms of reference only a few days ago.

The terms were “not negotiated in a transparent way with all WHO member states” and “the investigation itself appears to be inconsistent” with its mandate, he said, without elaborating.

“Understanding the origins of COVID-19 through a transparent and inclusive investigation is what must be done to meet the mandate,” Grigsby said.

Britain called for prioritizing the probe, adding: “We expect the investigation and its outcomes to be grounded in robust science.”

Sun Yang, of China’s National Health Commission, did not mention the investigation in his speech on Tuesday, but said that China supports “WHO’s continued leadership role”.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, speaking for the European Union on Monday, called for “full transparency and cooperation” during all phases of the investigation.

WHO’s top emergency expert Mike Ryan said on Oct. 30 that the WHO-led team and its Chinese counterparts had held a first virtual meeting regarding joint investigations and would deploy on the ground in time.

A separate independent panel said on Tuesday it was working to establish “an accurate and authoritative chronology” behind the first outbreaks and responses. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were named in July to co-lead the WHO panel.

Trump announced a temporary halt to U.S. funding to the WHO in April, prompting condemnation from many world leaders. The United Nations said in July it had received formal notification of the U.S. decision to leave the body next year.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Catherine Evans and Nick Macfie)

Special Report: Plastic pandemic – COVID-19 trashed the recycling dream

By Joe Brock

(Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a rush for plastic.

From Wuhan to New York, demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping has surged. Since most of that cannot be recycled, so has the waste.

But there is another consequence. The pandemic has intensified a price war between recycled and new plastic, made by the oil industry. It’s a war recyclers worldwide are losing, price data and interviews with more than two dozen businesses across five continents show.

“I really see a lot of people struggling,” Steve Wong, CEO of Hong-Kong based Fukutomi Recycling and chairman of the China Scrap Plastics Association told Reuters in an interview. “They don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The reason: Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as a fossil fuel. The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil. In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic.

Already since 1950, the world has created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science. Most is hard to recycle, and many recyclers have long depended on government support. New plastic, known to the industry as “virgin” material, can be half the price of the most common recycled plastic.

Since COVID-19, even drinks bottles made of recycled plastic – the most commonly recycled plastic item – have become less viable. The recycled plastic to make them is 83% to 93% more expensive than new bottle-grade plastic, according to market analysts at the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS).

The pandemic hit as politicians in many countries promised to wage war on waste from single-use plastics. China, which used to import more than half the world’s traded plastic waste, banned imports of most of it in 2018. The European Union plans to ban many single-use plastic items from 2021. The U.S. Senate is considering a ban on single-use plastic and may introduce legal recycling targets.

Plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of climate change.

The manufacture of four plastic bottles alone releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car, according to the World Economic Forum, based on a study by the drinks industry. The United States burns six times more plastic than it recycles, according to research in April 2019 by Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and former vice chair of the U.S. Federal climate committee.

But the coronavirus has accentuated a trend to create more, not less, plastic trash.

The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic, according to a study in September by Carbon Tracker, an energy think tank.

This is because, as a growing fleet of electric vehicles and improved engine efficiency reduce fuel demand, the industry hopes rising demand for new plastic can assure future growth in demand for oil and gas. It is counting on soaring use of plastic-based consumer goods by millions of new middle-class consumers in Asia and elsewhere.

“Over the next few decades, population and income growth are expected to create more demand for plastics, which help support safety, convenience and improved living standards,” ExxonMobil spokeswoman Sarah Nordin told Reuters.

Most companies say they share concerns about plastic waste and are supporting efforts to reduce it. However, their investments in these efforts are a fraction of those going into making new plastic, Reuters found.

Reuters surveyed 12 of the largest oil and chemicals firms globally – BASF, Chevron, Dow, Exxon, Formosa Plastics, INEOS, LG Chem, LyondellBasell, Mitsubishi Chemical, SABIC, Shell and Sinopec. Only a handful gave details of how much they are investing in waste reduction. Three declined to comment in detail or did not respond.

Most said they channel their efforts through a group called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is also backed by consumer goods companies, and which has pledged $1.5 billion over the next five years on that effort. Its 47 members, most of whom are in the plastics industry, had combined annual revenue of almost $2.5 trillion last year, according to a Reuters tally of company results.

In total, commitments by the Alliance and the companies surveyed amounted to less than $2 billion over five years, or $400 million a year, the Reuters survey found. That’s a fraction of their sales.

Plans to invest so heavily in new plastic are “quite a concerning move,” said Lisa Beauvilain, Head of Sustainability at Impax Asset Management, a fund with $18.5 billion under management.

“Countries with often undeveloped waste management and recycling infrastructure will be ill-equipped to handle even larger volumes of plastic waste,” she said. “We are literally drowning in plastics.”

Since the coronavirus struck, recyclers worldwide told Reuters, their businesses have shrunk, by more than 20% in Europe, by 50% in parts of Asia and as much as 60% for some firms in the United States.

Greg Janson, whose St. Louis, Missouri, recycling company QRS has been in business for 46 years, says his position would have been unimaginable a decade ago: The United States has become one of the cheapest places to make virgin plastic, so more is coming onto the market.

“The pandemic exacerbated this tsunami,” he said.

The oil and chemicals companies that Reuters surveyed said plastic can be part of the solution to global challenges related to a growing population. Six said they were also developing new technologies to reuse waste plastic.

Some said other packaging products can cause more emissions than plastics; because plastic is light, it is indispensable for the world’s consumers and can help reduce emissions. A few called on governments to improve waste management infrastructure.

“Higher production capacities do not necessarily mean more plastic waste pollution,” said a spokesman at BASF SE of Germany, the world’s biggest chemicals producer, adding that it has been innovating for many years in packaging materials to reduce the resources required.

The new plastic wave is breaking on shores across the globe.

MAKE PLASTIC

Richard Pontillas, 33, runs a family-owned “sari-sari” or “sundries” store in Quezon City, the most populous metropolis in the Philippines. The liquid goods he sells used to be packaged in glass. Many customers, in fact, brought in their own bottles to be refilled.

Merchants like him are among key targets for the plastic industry, looking to extend a trend established after 1907, when Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite. Since World War Two, mass-produced plastic has fueled economic growth and spawned a new era of consumerism and convenience packaging.

“Many years ago … we relied on goods repackaged in bottles and plastic bags,” said Pontillas, whose store sells rice, condiments and sachets of coffee, chocolate drink and seasonings.

Today, thousands of small-scale vendors in the developing world stock daily goods in plastic pouches, or sachets, which hang in strips from the roofs of roadside shacks and cost a few cents a go.

Already, 164 million such sachets are used every day in the Philippines, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an NGO. That’s nearly 60 billion a year.

Consumer goods firms including Nestle and P&G say they are working hard to make their packaging either recyclable or reusable. For example, P&G said it has a project in schools in the Manila region which aims to collect one million sachets for “upcycling.”

But sachets are very difficult to recycle. They are just one form of pollution that the pandemic is adding to, clogging drains, polluting water, suffocating marine life and attracting rodents and disease-carrying insects.

So are face masks, which are made partly from plastic.

In March, China used 116 million of them – 12 times more than in February, official data show.

Total production of masks in China is expected to exceed 100 billion in 2020, according to a report by Chinese consultancy iiMedia Research. The United States generated an entire year’s worth of medical waste in two months at the height of the pandemic, according to another consultancy, Frost & Sullivan.

Even as the waste mounts, much is at stake for the oil industry.

Exxon forecasts that demand for petrochemicals will rise by 4% a year over the next few decades, the company said in an investor presentation in March.

And oil’s share of energy for transport will fall from more than 90% in 2018 to just under 80% or as low as 20% by 2050, BP Plc said in its annual market report in September.

Oil companies worry that environmental concerns may blunt petrochemical growth.

The U.N. said last year that 127 countries have adopted bans or other laws to manage plastic bags. BP’s chief economist Spencer Dale said in 2018 that global plastic bans could result in 2 million barrels per day of lower oil demand growth by 2040 – around 2% of current daily demand. The company declined further comment.

USE PLASTIC

This year alone, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BASF have announced petrochemical plant investments in China worth a combined $25 billion, tapping into rising demand for consumer goods in the world’s most populous country.

An additional 176 new petrochemical plants are planned in the next five years, of which nearly 80% will be in Asia, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie says.

In the United States since 2010, energy companies have invested more than $200 billion in 333 plastic and other chemical projects, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry body.

Those investments have come as the U.S. industry sought to capitalize on a sudden abundance of cheap natural gas released by the shale revolution.

The industry says disposable plastics have saved lives.

“Single-use plastics have been the difference between life and death during this pandemic,” Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Plastic Industry Association (PLASTICS), the industry’s lobbying group in the United States, told Reuters. Bags for intravenous solutions and ventilators require single-use plastics, he said.

“Hospital gowns, gloves and masks are made from safe, sanitary plastic.”

In March, PLASTICS wrote to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, calling for a rollback of plastic bag bans on health grounds. It said plastic bags are safer because germs live on reusable bags and other substances.

Researchers led by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a U.S. government agency, found later that month that the coronavirus was still active on plastic after 72 hours, compared with up to 24 hours on cardboard and copper.

The industry’s letter was part of a long-standing campaign for single-use material.

The ACC’s managing director for plastics, Keith Christman, said the chemicals lobby is opposed to plastic bans because it believes consumers would switch to using other disposable materials like glass and paper, rather than reusing bags and bottles.

“The challenge comes when you ban plastic but the alternative might not be a reusable product … so it really wouldn’t accomplish much,” Christman said.

Plastic makes up 80% of marine debris, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global alliance backed by governments, NGOs and companies including Shell, which is also a member of the ACC.

Plastic pollution has been shown to be deadly to turtles, whales and baby seals and releases chemicals that we inhale, ingest or touch that cause a wide range of harms including hormonal disruption and cancer, the United Nations says.

RECYCLE?

Plastic recyclers have faced new problems in the pandemic.

Demand for recycled material from packaging businesses fell by 20% to 30% in Europe in the second quarter compared with the previous year, ICIS says.

At the same time, people who stayed at home created more recycling waste, said Sandra Castro, CEO of Extruplas, a Portuguese recycling firm which transforms recycled plastics into outdoor furniture.

“There are many recycling companies that may not be able to cope,” she said. “We need the industry to be able to provide a solution to the waste we produce.”

In the United States, QRS’s Janson said that for two months after the pandemic lockdowns, his orders were down 60% and he dropped his prices by 15%.

And the pandemic has added to costs for big consumer companies that use recycled plastic.

The Coca-Cola Co told Reuters in September it missed a target to get recycled plastic into half its UK packaging by early 2020 due to COVID-19 delays. The company said it hopes now to meet that by November.

Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo have been the world’s top three plastic polluters for two years running, according to a yearly brand audit by Break Free From Plastic, an NGO.

These companies have for decades made voluntary goals to increase recycled plastic in their products. They have largely failed to meet them. Coke and Nestle said it can be hard to get the plastic they need from recycled sources.

“We often pay more for recycled plastic than we would if we purchased virgin plastic,” a Nestle spokesperson said, adding that investment in recycled material was a company priority.

Asked how much they were investing in recycling and waste cleanup programs, the three companies named initiatives totaling $215 million over a seven-year period.

At current investment levels in recycling, brands will not meet their targets, analysts at ICIS and Wood Mackenzie say.

TOSS

Even if existing recycling pledges are met, the plastic going into the oceans is on course to rise from 11 million tonnes now to 29 million by 2040, according to a study published in June by Pew Trusts, an independent public interest group.

Cumulatively, this would reach 600 million tonnes – the weight of 3 million blue whales.

In response to mounting public concerns, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste says it will partner existing small-scale NGOs that clean up waste in developing countries.

One venture, which helps women earn money from selling plastic scrap in Ghana, says it has successfully diverted 35 tonnes of plastic from becoming litter since March 2017.

That’s less than 0.01% of the annual plastic waste generated in Ghana, or 2% of the plastic waste that the United States exported to Ghana last year, according to World Bank and U.S. trade data.

“We do realize change won’t happen overnight,” said Alliance president and CEO Jacob Duer. “What is important for us is that our projects are not seen as the end, but the beginning.”

In the Philippines, Vietnam and India, as much as 80% of the recycling industry was not operating during the height of the pandemic. And there was a 50% drop in demand for recycled plastic on average across South and Southeast Asia, according to Circulate Capital, a Singapore-based investor in Asian recycling operations.

“The combination of the impact of COVID-19 and low oil prices is like a double whammy” for plastic recycling, said Circulate’s CEO, Rob Kaplan.

“We’re seeing massive disruption.”

(Reporting by Joe Brock; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Quezon City, Catarina Demony in Lisbon, Noah Browning in London, Karen Lema in Manila, Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Concerns grow that kids spread virus

U.S. students are returning to school in person and online in the middle of a pandemic, and the stakes for educators and families are rising in the face of emerging research that shows children could be a risk for spreading the new coronavirus.

Several large studies have shown that the vast majority of children who contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have milder illness than adults. And early reports did not find strong evidence of children as major contributors to the deadly virus that has killed more than 780,000 people globally.

But more recent studies are starting to show how contagious infected children, even those with no symptoms, might be.

Grave situation in renewed South Korea outbreak

Novel coronavirus infections have spread nationwide from a church in the South Korean capital, raising fears that one of the world’s virus mitigation success stories might yet suffer a disastrous outbreak, a top health official said on Thursday.

“The reason we take the recent situation seriously is because this transmission, which began to spread around a specific religious facility, is appearing nationwide through certain rallies,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing.

The positive cases from the rallies include people from nine different cities and provinces across the country. Kim did not identify those places but said 114 facilities, including the places of work of infected people, were facing risk of transmission.

Brazil sees signs spread is slowing

The spread of the coronavirus in Brazil could be about to slow, the Health Ministry said, amid reports the transmission rate has fallen below a key level and early signs of a gradual decline in the weekly totals of cases and fatalities.

The cautious optimism comes despite figures again showing a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases and death toll in the last 24 hours, cementing Brazil’s status as the world’s second biggest COVID-19 hot spot after the United States.

According to ministry data, Brazil saw a drop in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases to 304,684 last week from a peak of 319,653 in the week ending July 25. The weekly death toll fell to 6,755 from a peak of 7,677 in the last week of July.

Trump touts convalescent plasma as treatment

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday touted the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19 and suggested a reported decision by regulators to put on hold an emergency authorization for its use could be politically motivated. “I’ve heard fantastic things about convalescent plasma,” Trump told a briefing.

An emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the use of blood plasma as a coronavirus treatment has been put on hold over concerns the data backing it was too weak, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.

People who survive an infectious disease such as COVID-19 are left with blood plasma containing antibodies the body’s immune system created to fight off a virus. This can be transfused into newly infected patients to try to aid recovery.

China backs Wuhan park after pool party

Chinese state newspapers threw their support behind an amusement park in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday after pictures of a densely packed pool party at the park went viral overseas amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Videos and photos of an electronic music festival at the Wuhan Maya Beach Water Park on July 11 raised eyebrows overseas, but reflected life returning to normal in the city where the virus causing COVID-19 was first detected, the official English-language China Daily newspaper said in a front-page story.

Another story in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, cited Wuhan residents as saying the pool party reflected the city’s success in its virus-control efforts.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; Editing by Mark Potter)

U.S. health chief, visiting Taiwan, attacks China’s pandemic response

By Yimou Lee

TAIPEI (Reuters) – U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar attacked China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday and said that if such an outbreak had emerged in Taiwan or the United States it could have been “snuffed out easily”.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized Beijing for trying to cover up the virus outbreak, first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and prevaricating on information sharing. China angrily denies the accusations.

“The Chinese Communist Party had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus. But they chose not to, and the costs of that choice mount higher every day,” Azar said in Taipei, capital of self-ruled Taiwan, an island China claims as its own.

As the virus emerged, China did not live up to its “binding” international obligations in a betrayal of the cooperative spirit needed for global health, he added, wearing a face mask as he has done for all his public events in Taiwan.

“I believe it is no exaggeration to say that if this virus had emerged in a place like Taiwan or the United States, it might have been snuffed out easily: rapidly reported to public health authorities, who would have shared what they knew with health professionals and with the general public,” Azar said.

“Instead, Beijing appears to have resisted information sharing, muzzling doctors who spoke out and hobbling the world’s ability to respond.”

The United States has the highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world and President Donald Trump has come under scathing attack from critics at home for not taking what he calls the “China virus” seriously enough.

Taiwan has been praised by health experts for its early and effective steps to control the outbreak, with only 480 infections, including seven deaths.

Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday as the highest-level U.S. official to visit in four decades, a trip condemned by China.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has vowed to bring it under its rule, by force if necessary.

Chinese fighter jets on Monday briefly crossed the median line of the sensitive Taiwan Strait, and were tracked by Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles, part of what Taipei sees as a pattern of harassment by Beijing.

Washington broke off official ties with Taipei in 1979 in favor of Beijing but is still Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier. The Trump administration has made strengthening its support for the democratic island a priority as relations with China sour over issues including human rights, the pandemic, Hong Kong and trade.

Azar said the world should recognize Taiwan’s health accomplishments and not try to push it out, pointing to Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization due to Chinese objections.

“This behavior is in keeping with Beijing’s approach to WHO and other international organisations. The influence of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) far outweighs its investment in this public health institution – and it uses influence not to advance public health objectives, but its own narrow political interests.”

Both China and the WHO say Taiwan has been provided with the help it needs during the pandemic, which Taiwan disputes.

(Reporting by Yimou Lee; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)