The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.
TOP OF THE HOUR:
— AP Exclusive: VA medical facilities struggle to cope with coronavirus.
— Russia’s reported coronavirus caseload tops 60,000.
— Greece extends lockdown measures by week to May 4.
— Africa, feared next epicenter, has 43% jump in virus cases.
MOSCOW — Russia’s reported coronavirus caseload has surpassed 60,000.
The government registered 4,774 confirmed cases on Thursday, which brought the country’s total to 62,773. The official death toll rose to 555, with 42 people dying since the Wednesday.
Russia has been in lockdown since the first week of April, with the vast majority of regions ordering residents to stay home and not go out unless it’s to buy groceries and medicines or to take out the trash.
As the outbreak picked up speed, President Vladimir Putin indefinitely postponed a nationwide vote on the constitutional reform that would allow him to stay in power until 2036, as well as the traditional military parade on Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of World War II victory. The events had been scheduled for late April and early May and had dominated the Kremlin’s political agenda for months.
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany is committed to helping other European countries weather the coronavirus crisis and has the finances to do so.
Speaking to parliament before a European summit, Merkel told lawmakers Thursday that Germany was already contributing to a 500 billion euro European Union rescue package. She says it is important to ensure those funds were available by June 1 for “member states that don’t have the financial resources” to help citizens out of work because of lockdown measures.
Germany has run a balanced budget for a half-dozen years. Merkel noted that the pandemic has hit us during a time of healthy budgets and strong reserves.”
She says “we should be prepared, in the spirit of solidarity, to make significantly higher contributions to the European budget for a period of time.”
AMSTERDAM — The European Union group that regulates medicine is warning that malaria drugs used experimentally to treat the new coronavirus have potentially serious side effects, including seizures and heart problems.
The European Medicines Agency European said in a statement Thursday that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine — two medicines embraced by U.S. President Donald Trump and others as a potential COVID-19 treatment — are known to cause heart rhythm problems, especially if combined with other drugs.
There is currently no licensed treatment for COVID-19 and dozens of trials are underway globally. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have long been used to treat malaria and anti-inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. In addition to the heart problems, the two drugs can also cause liver and kidney damage, seizures and result in low blood sugar.
Part of a COVID-19 study in Brazil was suspended this month after doctors found one quarter of patients taking chloroquine developed irregular heart rhythms after taking a higher dose.
The EMA reminded doctors and patients to report any suspected side effects from hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to national authorities. “These must not be used without a prescription and without supervision from a doctor,” the agency said.
LONDON — The Scottish leader has outlined strategies for how Scotland will begin to ease the coronavirus lockdown, saying “a return to normal as we knew it is not on the cards in the near future.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Thursday that social distancing will be “a fact of life for a long time to come,” possibly for the rest of the year and beyond. Large gatherings at pubs and public events will likely be banned or restricted for some time.
She stressed that lockdown conditions will not be lifted like flicking a switch. Rather, she said, cautious steps will be taken and lockdown may be reintroduced when necessary. Options to relax restrictions include phased openings of parts of the economy.
Sturgeon’s comments echoed those of England’s chief medical officer. Chris Whitty said Wednesday “very socially disruptive” measures will likely have to remain in force for the rest of the year.
ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s government is extending the country’s lockdown measures by one week to May 4. They had been due to expire April 27.
The measures have shut down most economic activity in the country. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Thursday they will gradually be relaxed over the course of May and June. He said the plan for how businesses would be reopened will be announced by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis early next week.
Greece imposed lockdown measures early in its outbreak, a move that has been credited with keeping coronavirus-related deaths at low levels. The number of critically ill who require mechanical support to breathe also has been falling.
The country on Wednesday announced zero daily deaths for the first time since March. Greece’s death toll currently stands at 121 people while another 55 people are intubated in intensive care units. Confirmed infections stand at 2,408.
LONDON — Luxury automaker Aston Martin Lagonda says it will reopen one of its two British factories on May 5.
The company behind James Bond’s iconic automobile says work will resume at the St. Athan plant in south Wales, which employs about 300 people. It says it will follow social-distancing guidelines set out by public health authorities to protect its workforce.
A second Aston Martin factory at Gaydon will reopen at an unspecified date.
Britain’s car makers suspended production in March as Britain went into nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions have been extended at least until May 7, and the government is warning that life and the economy are unlikely to return to normal soon.
Other U.K. automakers, including the biggest, Vauxhall, say they are looking to reopen but have not announced a date.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The coronavirus crisis poses a threat to the unique wild Balkan rivers, environmental experts warn. They say investors are increasingly taking advantage of government lockdowns in the region to build hydropower projects in secret.
The global environmentalist groups EuroNatur and Riverwatch said in a statement Thursday the situation was particularly alarming in Bosnia, where construction of five dams on five “almost untouched” rivers has now “begun or is being pushed, in some cases without permits.”
The two groups urged Bosnian authorities to stop the erection of dams and “urgently impose a moratorium” on the construction of small hydropower plants and the granting of new concessions.
They further warned that “loopholes” presented by the pandemic appear to be “used unscrupulously” in other parts of Europe as well. They singled out Romania, where “massive illegal logging continues to increase.”
LISBON, Portugal — Health officials in Portugal say 40% of the country’s 820 deaths attributed to the coronavirus outbreak have occurred in nursing homes.
The General Directorate for Health said Thursday that 327 people have died at the homes.
Health chief Graca Freitas said the deaths were among “very old and sick people living in close quarters.”
Of the total deaths, 551 were of people over 80 years old. Portugal has reported just over 22,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Africa has registered a 43% jump in reported COVID-19 cases in the last week, highlighting a warning from the World Health Organization that the continent of 1.3 billion could become the next epicenter of the global outbreak.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in his weekly briefing Thursday that Africa also has a “very, very limited” and “very, very strained” testing capacity.
He said that means the surge in infections is likely to be even higher. WHO’s recent report painted a grim picture for Africa. It warned the virus could kill more than 300,000 people and push 30 million into desperate poverty. Nkengasong said Africa still has time to avert such a disaster but testing people and tracing virus cases is critical.
PARIS — French health authorities said France aims at being able to test 700,000 people for the virus each week when the country will start easing confinement restrictions on May 11.
The head of France’s national health agency, Jerome Salomon told French lawmakers Thursday that France is now able to do about 200,000 tests a week.
He said the lockdown exit strategy will include testing all people presenting COVID-19 symptoms. Mobile teams will trace those people with whom they may have recently been in contact. People infected with the virus will be put into quarantine at home or in specific facilities like hotels.
Measures such as social distancing and working at home when possible will be maintained “for several months,” he said.
Finance minister Bruno Le Maire said he hopes that most businesses will be able to reopen on May 11, except for restaurants and cafes. France, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, is under lockdown since March 17.
NEW DELHI — As India completes a month under the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, officials say the country hasn’t reached the stage of community transmission even as the caseload rises.
Stigma against patients was a key challenge with patients not seeking help in time and this was leading to increased deaths, said Dr. Randeep Guleria, one of the architects of India’s COVID-19 strategy at a news briefing Thursday. “Many of these patients can be saved,” he said.
Officials also said that with about half a million samples tested, it was “conscious of the fact that this wasn’t enough.” India has about 21,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 681 deaths.
While acknowledging the health system had “limitations”, officials said the country’s strategy hinged on most patients not having to go to the hospital to get treated.
They added that efforts had been made to bolster health care infrastructure while trying to ensure that supply chains for medical equipment aren’t affected by the lockdown, a ban on movement and manufacturing on all but essential services that is set to continue until May 3.
PRAGUE — A Prague court has canceled some restrictive measures approved by the Czech government to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Prague’s Municipal Court has ruled that the government’s restrictions limiting movement and shutting down retail businesses are illegal. Thursday’s verdict is final.
The court ruled after a complaint by medical expert Ondrej Dostal, who questioned the legality of those measures.
The restrictions were imposed by the Health Ministry. The court said the government should have approved the restrictions as part of its crisis measures under the state of emergency rules. It said a single ministry cannot have such right.
The government has until Monday to adopt the measures again and in line with law.
MADRID — Spain’s deputy prime minister says children under 14 will be allowed to leave their home for one hour supervised by an adult and walking no further than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their home.
With more than 21,000 officially recorded deaths, officials are now preparing for rolling back some of the strict lockdown. The confinement has helped slow the daily contagion rate increase from more than 20% to less than 2%, although Spain has not been testing widely and the real contagion is believed to be higher.
Factory and construction workers have already been allowed back to their jobs. But children have been mostly homebound for the past 40 days of strict confinement, a measure that has become increasingly criticized by parents and some educators.
Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias also apologized on behalf of Spain’s center-left coalition government for failing to be clear on the measures. The government this week said it was allowing children to go out for walks and not just accompanying parents for errands.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has decided to postpone the 2020 National Games to next year in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The multi-sport event held every four years, known as PON in Indonesian initials, was initially scheduled for October to be hosted by the country’s easternmost Papua province. The participants of this event are the athletes from all 34 provinces of Indonesia.
The decision was made after the Papua province failed to complete the construction projects for several venues due to the pandemic crisis, said Youth and Sports Minister Zainudin Amali in a virtual media conference on Thursday.
Amali said that construction materials from Java island were unable to enter Papua as the region closed its airports and sea ports since the outbreak hit the region last month.
He said October next year would be the most convenient time to host the PON as the country is expected to take part in at least seven International multisport events, including the Olympics in Tokyo.
Indonesia is bracing for hectic year in sports after COVID-19, as the country is also set to host FIFA’s Under-20 World Cup and the 2021 Indonesian MotoGP.
LONDON — The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office said up to half of coronavirus deaths across the region have been in nursing homes, calling it an “unimaginable tragedy.”
In a press briefing on Thursday, WHO Europe director Dr. Hans Kluge said a “deeply concerning picture” was emerging of the impact of COVID-19 on long-term homes for the elderly, where care has “often been notoriously neglected.” Kluge said health workers in such facilities were often overworked and underpaid and called for them to be given more protective gear and support, describing them as the “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.
Kluge said that while the coronavirus outbreaks in some European countries appear to be stabilizing or decreasing, the pandemic was far from over.
Kluge also noted that about half of the global burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths are in Europe and that in the last week, numbers have increased in the east, citing Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. He said WHO was soon sending teams to Belarus, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to boost their control efforts.
MADRID — Spain has recorded 440 new deaths overnight for the new coronavirus, bringing the total confirmed fatalities to 22,157, official data is showing on Thursday. With more than 4,600 new positive infections tested, the reported cases are now over 200,000, although the real number is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.
On Thursday, a new genetic study published by the Carlos III Institute, Spain’s main epidemiology research center, suggested that the new coronavirus was spreading in the country since mid-February, weeks before the first local contagion clusters were identified.
The country was celebrating an atypical World Book Day on Thursday, which is marked in the United Kingdom and Spain on the date in 1616 of the death of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, but this year away from outdoor bookstands.
In Barcelona, where the tradition brings people to gift each other a rose and a book to mark the patron saint of Catalonia, St. George, the Red Cross is delivering books to hundreds of children.
BEIJING — China says Australian calls for an independent investigation into the cause of the coronavirus outbreak are politically motivated and unhelpful in dealing with global pandemic.
Australia is among a number of countries and localities that are calling for more information from China about where the virus originated and whether all efforts were made to stop it spreading across China and then around the globe.
“At this critical moment, it is quite irresponsible to raise unfounded suspicious and unwarranted accusations for political purpose,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a daily briefing on Thursday.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been among officials who have called for a review of the virus’s origins.
Most scientists believe the virus originated among bats and was transferred through an intermediary mammal to people via the handling and consumption for food of wild animals. However, some in the media and government, including President Donald Trump and members of his administration, have urged further investigations into theories saying the virus escaped from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan where it was first detected late last year.
The top prosecutor in the U.S. state of Missouri on Tuesday announced a lawsuit alleging that Chinese officials are to blame for the pandemic. Geng on Wednesday denounced the legal action as “very absurd.”
LONDON — One of the two nurses singled out by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was discharged from the hospital after his treatment for COVID-19, has admitted he was “nervous at first” when hearing who he was assigned to care for.
Luis Pitarma, 29, who is originally from Aveiro in Portugal, said it was “quite overwhelming” but that his matron at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London told him to be himself.
Pitarma, who has worked at the hospital for nearly four years, said in an interview published on the hospital’s website, that Johnson made him “feel less nervous” when he asked to be called Boris.
Pitarma said he was by Johnson’s side during his three nights in the intensive care unit and that he was “extremely proud” Johnson thanked him.
Johnson spent a week in hospital, leaving on April 12. On his discharge, he highlighted the care he received from Pitarma and his New Zealand colleague Jenny McGee.
Johnson is still convalescing at his country retreat.
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has told the World Health Organization it tested 740 people for the new coronavirus as of April 17 but that all came out negative.
The North also said it so far released 25,139 people from quarantine since Dec. 31, according to Edwin Salvador, WHO’s representative to North Korea, in an email to the Associated Press on Thursday.
Salvador said North Korea’s health ministry has been sharing weekly updates with the WHO on its anti-virus efforts. He says the WHO is engaging with North Korea’s government to bring in the anti-virus supplies, including protective gear and laboratory reagents, from the Chinese border town of Dandong.
He says North Korea is currently bringing in all outside supplies, including COVID-19 related, by ship through Nampo port as all borders remain closed. Goods received are disinfected and quarantined in the port for 10 days. They are additionally disinfected and quarantined for another four days if headed for capital Pyongyang.
The North has said there hasn’t been a single virus case on its territory, but the claim is questioned by many outside experts.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” the North has banned foreign tourists, shut down nearly all cross-border traffic with China, intensified screening at entry points and mobilized health workers to monitor residents and isolate those with symptoms.
BEIJING — China will contribute an additional $30 million dollars to the World Health Organization to help fight the global coronavirus pandemic, on top of an earlier $20 million contribution, the foreign ministry said Thursday, amid plans by the U.S. to suspend its contributions to the United Nations body.
The announcement at a daily briefing on Thursday came amid criticism from the Trump administration and others that the WHO has not shown sufficient leadership in the fight against the virus, and has uncritically supported China, despite allegations the communist leadership initially suppressed news of the outbreak that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
PRAGUE — Czechs have been forming long lines to get tested in a study to determine undetected infections with the coronavirus in the population.
Some 27,000 people aged 18-89 across the country will be tested in the next two weeks, starting on Thursday, in different parts of the Czech Republic. In the capital of Prague and the second-largest city of Brno, children aged eight and older also will be included.
A significant number of people infected with the coronavirus suffer no or only mild symptoms, but there is concern that they might unwittingly spread the virus to others. At the same time, those people are expected to be immune to COVID-19 for some time in the future.
The results that will be known in early May should help authorities to adjust the plans to relax restrictive measures adopted to contain the pandemic.
The tests conducted on people who have symptoms detected over 7,000 people positive for the coronavirus in the Czech Republic while 210 have died, according to Health Ministry figures Thursday.
On Wednesday, a day-to-day increase of infected people dropped for third straight day to 99 as a record of 8,807 tests were conducted.
ISTANBUL — A Turkish Airlines plane has flown over central Turkey, on a path drawing out the Turkish flag to mark centennial celebrations for the founding of the Turkish parliament.
Celebrations for Turkey’s National Sovereignty and Children’s Day were changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, replacing parades and school ceremonies with observances in line with social distancing efforts.
Flight tracking website Flightradar24 showed a crescent and a star over Turkey outlined by a Boeing 777. Turkish televisions showed children with flags on their neighborhood streets. The government has also asked Turkish citizens to sing the national anthem in the evening.
Turkey ranks seventh in the world in the number of confirmed infections, which are nearing 100,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. The latest health ministry figures show 2,376 people have died.
The above item has been corrected to show the reported death toll is 2,376.
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she understands the urge to relax coronavirus restrictions as soon as possible, but is criticizing some states for moving too quickly, saying that they’re risking setting back what the country has achieved.
In an address to parliament on Thursday, to lawmakers sitting apart from one another in line with the country’s strict social distancing guidelines, Merkel said even though the numbers of new infections in Germany were starting to slow, there is still much work to be done.
She says “we’re not living in the final phase of the pandemic, but still at the beginning. We will be living with this virus for a long time.”
Without naming names, she said some state governments had moved “in part very briskly, if not to say too briskly” with the process.
In an apparent reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement he would be halting funds to the World Health Organization, Merkel lauded the work of the international agency.
She says “for the German government, I emphasize the WHO is an indispensable partner and we support them in their mandate.”
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean health authorities are planning to soon begin antibody tests to learn how widespread the coronavirus infection is within the population. They are also researching how long people maintain immunity after recovering from COVID-19.
Kwon Joon-wook, a senior official from South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday officials are considering a variety of options, such as testing groups of people in the worst-hit city of Daegu and nearby areas or obtaining blood samples from military conscripts.
He says such tests would be crucial in understanding how the virus spreads and preparing for another surge in infections, which he says could happen in the autumn or winter when cold temperatures move more people indoors.
South Korea on Thursday reported eight new infections and two more deaths, bringing its totals to 10,702 cases and 240 fatalities. Its caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting around 500 fresh cases a day. More than 8,200 of the cases were reported from Daegu and nearby towns.
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