Italy sees 812 more coronavirus deaths, but new cases fall steeply

ROME (Reuters) – The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy has risen by 812 in the last 24 hours, the Civil Protection Agency said on Monday, reversing two days of declines.

Italy, the world’s hardest hit country which accounts for more than a third of all global fatalities, saw its total death tally rise to 11,591 since the outbreak emerged in northern regions on Feb. 21.

More positively, the number of new cases rose by just 4,050, the lowest amount since March 17, reaching a total of 101,739.

However, the decline in new infections may be partly explained by a reduction in the number of tests, which were the fewest for six days.

Italians have been under nationwide lockdown for three weeks and officials said the restrictions, which were due to end on Friday, look certain for at least two more weeks.

“We have to agree on this with other regions, but I think we are talking about (maintaining the block) until at least mid-April,” Attilio Fontana, head of the worst-affected Lombardy region, told reporters.

The governor of the southern region of Puglia said on Saturday the restrictions should stay until May.

Underscoring the dangers of the disease, the national doctors’ association announced the deaths of 11 more doctors on Monday, bringing the total to 61.

Not all of them had been tested for coronavirus before they died, it said, but it linked their deaths to the epidemic.

Lombardy, which is centered on Italy’s financial capital Milan, accounts for almost 60% of the total deaths in Italy and some 40% of cases.

Fontana said the unprecedented curbs on movement, gatherings and business activity were preventing an exponential rise in cases, and needed to be kept in place.

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“We’re on the right track, we’re maintaining a (chart) line that’s not uphill, but it’s not downhill either,” he said.

The head of the national health institute, Silvio Brusaferro, who is advising the government on how to handle the crisis, also said that for restrictions to be eased “the number of new cases has to fall significantly.”

“For sure the re-opening will happen gradually … we are even considering the British idea of ‘stop and go’, which envisages opening things for a certain amount of time and then closing them again,” he told La Repubblica daily.

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UK PM Johnson's adviser Cummings isolating with coronavirus symptoms

LONDON (Reuters) – The coronavirus outbreak at the heart of the UK government spread on Monday with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, self-isolating with symptoms just days after the British leader himself tested positive.

A Downing Street spokesman said Cummings, one of the most powerful men in the government, had developed symptoms of COVID-19 over the weekend and was staying at home.

Johnson on Friday became the first leader of a major world power to announce he had tested positive for the virus. His health minister, Matt Hancock, also tested positive and the government’s chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty, is self-isolating.

The spokesman said Johnson was working from his finance minister’s office in Number 11 Downing Street.

“He is chairing the daily meetings using video conferencing facilities, he’s working from the Chancellor’s office, he has been able to do everything that he needs to do lead the coronavirus response,” the spokesman told reporters.

“I can confirm that Dom (Cummings) is not in Number 10 today and that he is self-isolating after developing symptoms over the weekend,” the spokesman said. The spokesman was not able to confirm if Cummings was still working, but said he had not been tested for the virus and was not expected to be.

Cummings was seen sprinting out of Downing Street shortly after Johnson revealed he had tested positive. Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment on the adviser’s rapid departure.

Last week, Cummings denied a newspaper report which said he had prioritized herd immunity and the economy in the coronavirus crisis at the expense of pensioners dying.

Britain initially took a modest approach to containing the spread of the disease compared to Italy and France.

But Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. He is now self-isolating.

Scientists say the virus’s incubation period is estimated at between one and 14 days, and there have been anecdotal accounts of people spreading the disease without having symptoms.

The spokesman said Downing Street had drafted in experienced former staffers, including Isaac Levido who helped mastermind Johnson’s election campaign, to help with work to fight the coronavirus.

Besides meetings in Downing Street, Johnson ventured beyond Downing Street last week. On Wednesday, a day before his positive test, Johnson answered questions at a weekly session in parliament’s House of Commons chamber.

Johnson also spoke with several lawmakers. Minister for Scotland Alister Jack, who sat next to Johnson before the session, said on Saturday he had developed a temperature and a cough and was now working from home in isolation.

Health officials said on Sunday that figures showed that 1,228 patients in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) had died.

As of 0800 GMT on March 29, a total of 127,737 people in the UK have been tested, of whom 108,215 were confirmed negative and 19,522 were confirmed positive.

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Fiat Chrysler looks to resume some Italian production next week: union

MILAN (Reuters) – Fiat Chrysler (FCA) (FCHA.MI) is looking to resume some vehicle production from next week at three plants in Italy if it gets the green light from the government, a union representative said on Monday.

Earlier this month, Italy banned travel within the country and ordered a freeze on all business activities deemed non-essential, including the car industry, until April 3 to curb the spread of coronavirus.

FCA informed unions last week that if the government gave it the go-ahead, the automaker would be ready to resume some of its operations on April 6, Gianluca Ficco, a representative for metal workers union UILM, said.

The sites concerned would be the assembly line for the Jeep Compass in Melfi in southern Italy, Atessa’s plant making light commercial vehicles in central Italy and preparatory operations for the new electric 500 in Turin’s Mirafiori factory, he said.

A spokesman for FCA confirmed that for now, the plan was to resume those three lines next week.

However, Ficco said he did not know whether the government would allow non-essential activities to restart then and thought Rome was more likely to extend the ban.

“In any case, when operations restart, FCA will have to make sure that the highest health and safety conditions are assured in all factories,” he said. “Safety devices will have to be increased for sure”.

Luxury carmaker Ferrari (RACE.MI), which, like FCA, is controlled by Exor (EXOR.MI), the investment firm of Italy’s Agnelli family, said on Friday it would reopen its two Italian plants on April 14, provided it had supplies.

Exor said last week that current plant closures at companies it controls, though temporary, might continue.

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Indian police officers beat up locals defying coronavirus lockdown rules in brutal video

Footage of police officers in India beating residents with sticks and forcing people who fail to comply with the government-imposed coronavirus lockdown to do squats has emerged on social media and media outlets across the world. In videos shown by Channel 4 News on Sunday, residents can be seen doing squats on the street confined in circles drawn on the floor to maintain social distancing within the group of those facing the same punishment.  

Police in western India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said on Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country’s 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.

But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

Many have been walking for days, some with families including small children, on deserted highways with little access to food or water.

On Sunday, about 500 workers clashed with police in the western city of Surat demanding they be allowed to go home to other parts of India because they had no jobs left.

“The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available…However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat deputy commissioner of police Vidhi Chaudhari said.

She said the workers, most of them employed in the shuttered textile industry in Surat, were driven indoors by tear gas volleys and on Monday 93 of them were detained for violating lockdown orders.

India has registered 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on Monday. The number of known cases is small compared with the United States, Italy and China, but health officials say India is weeks away from a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

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A health official said the large scale movement of people into the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus widely, compounding the challenge of containing the outbreak in the world’s second-most populous country.

“It’s an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up, like having migratory populations moving from one place to another.

Like non-affected states adjoining affected states,” said Dr S.K. Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks of illness.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, health workers dressed in protection suits sprayed disinfectant on a group of migrant workers who were also trying to make the journey home to their villages, local television showed.

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They were made to sit on a street corner in the Bareilly district and doused with hose pipes, prompting anger on social media.

Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, later said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal they had also turned their hoses onto migrant workers.

“I have asked for action to be taken against those responsible for this,” he said in a tweet.

The federal government said on Monday that it had no plans to extend the shutdown beyond the three-week period.

But neighbouring Nepal announced it would prolong its shutdown for another week from Tuesday. The landlocked country has reported only five cases of the virus and no deaths, but it is concerned contagion will spread as more people travel.

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Exclusive: American Airlines in talks to hire Millstein for aid advice

NEW YORK (Reuters) – American Airlines Group Inc (AAL.O) is in advanced talks to hire Guggenheim Securities co-chairman James Millstein for advice on tapping a $50 billion industry relief package available from the U.S. Treasury Department to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, people familiar with the matter said.

Millstein is one of Wall Street’s most seasoned debt restructuring bankers and from 2009 to 2011 was the chief architect of the Obama administration’s overhaul of certain financial firms the government had bailed out, including insurance giant American International Group Inc (AIG.N).

While American Airlines has said it has not yet decided whether it will seek U.S. government aid, Millstein’s anticipated appointment indicates the largest U.S. airline is actively preparing for such a move and girding for negotiations with Treasury officials.

Coronavirus relief legislation enacted last week provides up to $25 billion in loans and loan guarantees for U.S. airlines that have suffered from an unprecedented decline in passengers, with an additional $25 billion available in direct cash grants that could result in the U.S. government receiving ownership stakes in the companies.

Were Millstein to be hired, he would be advising American Airlines on the form and terms of aid it should pursue and how to navigate the U.S. Treasury Department’s process for requesting the financial assistance, the sources said. Advice given to the Fort Worth, Texas-based company would be done in his own capacity, independent of Guggenheim, the sources added.

The sources cautioned that no decision on American Airlines accepting U.S. government aid had yet been made and requested anonymity to discuss the confidential preparations.

American Airlines declined to comment, while Millstein did not respond to a request for comment.

American Airlines said last week it would be slashing its capacity 60% in April compared with the same period a year ago and up to 80% in May due to a dramatic reduction in customers and travel restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus. Its shares have lost roughly half their value in the last five weeks, giving it a market capitalization of about $6 billion.

The company disclosed this month it had access to more than $7.3 billion of liquidity. Its long-term debt as of the end of December totaled about $23.9 billion.

American Airlines Chief Executive Doug Parker said last week that the company would be eligible for up to $12 billion in total U.S. aid. He added that combining government relief with a “relatively high available cash position” would “allow us to ride through even the worst of potential future scenarios.”

Some terms of the cash grants “aren’t currently well defined,” Parker said, adding that the company was not yet certain it would meet the conditions necessary to receive those funds. He said he expected the aid terms “will not be onerous.”

Millstein, a former Lazard Ltd (LAZ.N) banker, has worked on bankruptcies and other challenges facing many U.S. conglomerates over the last two decades, including representing unionized workers in labor negotiations with General Motors Co (GM.N) and other automakers.

Millstein sold his restructuring advisory firm to Guggengeim in 2018. He most recently advised Puerto Rico on its debt woes, as well as California on how to best grapple with catastrophic wildfires and the bankruptcy of power utility PG&E Corp (PCG.N).

Millstein worked with Parker when he advised US Airways on its merger with American as part of the latter’s bankruptcy reorganization in 2013. Parker was CEO of US Airways before assuming the same role in the combined company.

POTENTIAL STRINGS ATTACHED

Should American Airlines seek government aid, it may be forced to accept conditions. Requirements for airlines receiving cash grants include continuing to fly in and out of all U.S. airports that currently have commercial air service, and agreeing to avoid involuntary furloughs of employees, both through the end of September.

The aid would also include restrictions on executive compensation and stock buybacks, as well as suspension of dividend payments. Similar strings are attached to government loans.

United Airlines Holdings Inc (UAL.O) and Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), the other two largest U.S. carriers, have expressed cautious optimism about the government assistance, while warning further measures would be required to stabilize their businesses.

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Polish presidential challenger urges boycott of May vote, halts campaign

WARSAW (Reuters) – The main Polish opposition candidate running for president called on Sunday for a boycott of the country’s May election due to the coronavirus and completely suspended her campaign, adding to doubts about whether the vote will go ahead as planned.

The ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has so far defied calls to postpone the May 10 election, infuriating the opposition by introducing postal voting rules less than six months before the vote in a move branded unconstitutional by critics.

“Let’s boycott these elections. Poles stay home, your life is the most important thing,” Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, the presidential candidate of the center right Civic Platform (PO) party, told reporters, calling on other candidates to suspend their campaigns.

Her appeal followed protests from numerous mayors, who have said it will be impossible to hold the vote safely in May.

On Sunday, the mayor of the southern town of Bedzin, Lukasz Komoniewski, wrote on Facebook that he would not sign documents to allow elections to take place there.

Incumbent President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is well ahead in the polls and his election is crucial to the government’s hopes of implementing its socially conservative agenda as the president holds the power to veto laws.

Critics say PiS is keen to hold the elections in May to capitalize on Duda’s current strong position and avoid a later election where the fallout from the pandemic could dent his popularity.

Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, the agrarian Polish Peasants’ Party’s (PSL) presidential candidate, was quoted by state-run news agency PAP as saying he was focusing on amendments to the government’s package of anti-crisis economic measures.

The campaign manager of left-wing candidate Robert Biedron likened Kidawa-Blonska’s move to “political retirement”, PAP reported.

On Saturday, Duda said he hoped the election would go ahead as planned but the situation was unpredictable.

“If it did happen that the epidemic was raging … then in that situation the election date could turn out to be unsustainable, but I am counting on it that we will be able to calmly hold these elections,” he told state-run news channel TVP Info.

Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski said on Thursday that an assessment should be made in two weeks.

Nearly three-quarters of Poles believe the election should be postponed, according to an opinion poll on Wednesday.

France and Bavaria in Germany held local elections on March 15. Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, estimates that the Bavarian elections resulted in around 2,000 extra coronavirus cases.

France postponed the second round of its local elections.

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Germany's coronavirus support will last two months, think tank tells paper

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Germany’s 750 billion euro ($834 billion) package to soften the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Europe’s largest economy will last for about two months, an independent economics think tank told a German newspaper group.

“In the short term, we are in a kind of war economy in which the state plays a bigger role in coordinating the economy than normally,” Reint Gropp, head of the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.

If Germany’s lockdown lasts beyond two months, another rescue package would be needed and could stretch the country’s finances to an extent that would result in unprecedented budget deficits, he said.

Several economic think tanks and politicians have said that Germany needs to make sure its shutdown does not cripple the economy, but Chancellor Angela Merkel and several of her ministers spoke out at the weekend against a quick loosening of restrictions.

Gropp said that Germany should now devote large resources to conducting regular, perhaps weekly, coronavirus tests for all workers and let them return to work if possible.

“If someone is not infected or already immune, he or she should be able to move about and work freely,” he said. “It is not a viable solution to keep everyone in quarantine for several months, no matter if they belong to a high-risk group, are healthy or already immune.”

Armin Laschet, premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and a possible successor to Merkel as Chancellor, told a sunday newspaper that more and faster tests are needed.

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Coronavirus strain related to COVID-19 first spotted THREE YEARS AGO, scientists say

The disease first emerged in the city of Wuhan towards the end of last year – but much is yet to be discovered about the mechanism by which it did so. Last week a 57-year-old trader at Huanan seafood market was tentatively identified as the first person there to contract the illness, on December 10. However, she suggested she did so by using toilet facilities shared with wild meat sellers, meaning the search for Patient Zero – the first person infected after COVID-19 jumped species – continues.

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, and co-authored by Yi Guan from the University of Hong Kong and Yan-Ling Hu from Guangxi Medical University in China, seeks to shed light on the mystery.

They write: “Although bats are likely reservoir hosts for SARS-CoV-2, the identity of any intermediate host that might have facilitated transfer to humans is unknown.”

Their research had identified COVID-19-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins (Manis javanica) which had been seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China.

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Strikingly, a strain similar to the one which is now rampaging through the human population appears to have been present in five out of a total of 18 Malayan pangolins obtained from anti-smuggling operations in southern China between August 2017 and January 2018.

Additionally, they detected similar coronaviruses in three out of 12 additional animals seized in another Chinese province in 2018, and in another animal in a third province from which a sample was taken in 2019.

The viruses isolated have a sequence similarity of between 85 and 92 percent to SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for the coronavirus which causes COVID-19.

One sample showed strong similarities in a region which encodes the “spike” of the virus, thereby facilitating entry into host cells.

None of the pangolin coronaviruses identified so far have a specific alternation in their sequences which is seen in human SARS-VoV-2, meaning the role the animals have playing in the transmission of the illness to humans remains unclear.

Nevertheless, the study authors highlight pangolins as the only mammals other than bats to date which have been found to be infected with a SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus, suggesting they play an important role in the “ecology of coronaviruses”.

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Their report concludes: “The discovery of multiple lineages of pangolin coronavirus and their similarity to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets to prevent zoonotic transmission.”

Co-researcher Prof Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney added: “The role that pangolins play in the emergence of Sars-CoV-2 is still unclear.

“However, it is striking that the pangolin viruses contain some genomic regions that are very closely related to the human virus.

“The most important of these is the receptor-binding domain that dictates how the virus is able to attach and infect human cells.”

The pangolin is heavily hunted in China, both for its meat, and its skin and scales, which are used in traditional medicine.

Epidemiologists are keen to identify Patient Zero, the discovery of whom would offer vital clues about the origins of the outbreak and the way in which it has spread.

While the World Health Organization’s first press release about the subject, issued on January 5, indicated it first became aware of the illness on December 30, leaked Chinese Government data has suggested the first case was identified on November 17 at the latest, and possibly significantly earlier.

The study’s findings, specifically the confirmation that a strain closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was spotted in 2017, raises the possibility of the illness being in circulation significantly longer than previously believed.

Johns Hopkins University in the US put the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide at 678,720 as of 12.50pm this afternoon, with 31,700 deaths.

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Britain orders 10,000 ventilators in fight against coronavirus: source

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has placed an order for 10,000 ventilators to be made by a consortium of companies including Ford (F.N), Airbus (AIR.PA) and Rolls-Royce (RR.L) as part of efforts to fight the coronavirus, an industry source told Reuters.

Governments around the world are trying to boost the number of ventilators – mechanical breathing devices that can blow air and oxygen into the lungs – available to their health services.

The equipment is crucial for the care of people who suffer lung failure, which can be one of the complications suffered by patients with severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But they do not necessarily save people.

An announcement is due on Monday, the source said.

British media previously reported the news. A spokeswoman at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office declined to offer an immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

Britain’s publicly funded National Health Service has a little more than 8,000 ventilators at its disposal, senior government minister Michael Gove said on Sunday.

The government is boosting capacity through agreements made with the private sector and overseas suppliers as well as domestic production.

“We’ve done a deal with (vacuum cleaner company) Dyson, which means that – provided all the appropriate tests are passed – we can have an additional 10,000 ventilators,” Gove said.

“There are other companies, from McLaren to Rolls-Royce and others, who are changing the way in which they manufacture in order to join in the national effort to increase the ventilator capacity available.”

McLaren said its Formula One car-making, data and electronics operations are fulfilling a number of tasks to help with the crisis, including making components.

“McLaren Automotive is facilitating duplicating and expanding the production of existing devices to meet demand …(and) is designing bespoke trolleys on which the ventilators are fixed for use in clinical settings.”

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China guards against second wave of coronavirus coming from abroad

WUHAN, China (Reuters) – The growing number of imported coronavirus cases in China risked fanning a second wave of infections at a time when “domestic transmission has basically been stopped”, a spokesman for the National Health Commission said on Sunday.

“China already has an accumulated total of 693 cases entering from overseas, which means the possibility of a new round of infections remains relatively big,” Mi Feng, the spokesman, said.

In the last seven days, China has reported 313 imported cases of coronavirus but only 6 confirmed cases of domestic transmission, the commission’s data showed.

There were 45 new coronavirus cases reported in the mainland for Saturday, down from 54 on the previous day, with all but one involving travelers from overseas.

Most of those imported cases have involved Chinese returning home from abroad.

Airlines have been ordered to sharply cut international flights from Sunday. And restrictions on foreigners entering the country went into effect on Saturday.

Five more people died on Saturday, all of them in Wuhan, the industrial central city where the epidemic began in December. But Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, has reported only one new case on the last 10 days.

A total of 3,300 people have now died in mainland China, with a reported 81,439 infections.

Saturday marked the fourth consecutive day that Hubei province recorded no new confirmed cases. The sole case of domestically transmitted coronavirus was recorded in Henan province, bordering Hubei.

With traffic restrictions in the province lifted, Wuhan is also gradually reopening borders and restarting some local transportation services.

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“It’s much better now, there was so much panic back then. There weren’t any people on the street. Nothing. How scary the epidemic situation was,” a man, who gave his surname as Hu,

told Reuters as he ventured out to buy groceries in Wuhan.

“Now, it is under control. Now, it’s great, right?”

All airports in Hubei resumed some domestic flights on Sunday, with the exception of Wuhan’s Tianhe airport, which will open to domestic flights on April 8. Flights from Hubei to Beijing remain suspended.

A train arrived in Wuhan on Saturday for the first time since the city was placed in lockdown two months ago. Greeting the train, Hubei Communist Party Secretary Ying Yong described Wuhan as “a city full of hope” and said the heroism and hard work of its people had “basically cut off transmission” of the virus.

More than 60,000 people entered Wuhan on Saturday after rail services were officially restarted, with more than 260 trains arriving or traveling through, the People’s Daily reported on Sunday.

On Sunday, streets and metro trains were still largely empty amid a cold rainy day. Flashing signs on the Wuhan Metro, which resumed operations on Saturday, said its cars would keep passenger capacity at less than 30%.

The Hubei government on Sunday said on its official WeChat account that a number of malls in Wuhan, as well as the Chu River and Han Street shopping belt, will be allowed to resume operations on March 30.

Concerns have been raised that a large number of undiagnosed asymptomatic patients could return to circulation once transport restrictions are eased.

China’s top medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, played down that risk in comments to state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday. Zhong said asymptomatic patients were usually found by tracing the contacts of confirmed cases, which had so far shown no sign of rebounding.

With the world’s second-biggest economy expected to shrink for the first time in four decades this quarter, China is set to unleash hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus.

The ruling Communist Party’s Politburo called on Friday for a bigger budget deficit, the issuance of more local and national bonds, and steps to guide interest rates lower, delay loan repayments, reduce supply-chain bottlenecks and boost consumption.

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