Australia strengthens self isolation rules for returning citizens as coronavirus spreads

SYDNEY, March 27 (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday tightened enforcement on self isolation for thousands of citizens returning from overseas, saying states and territories would quarantine all arrivals in hotels.

The Australian Defence Force would also be deployed to help enforce the self-isolation rules, Morrison said.

The number of coronavirus cases in Australia surpassed 3,000 on Friday from less than 100 at the start of March, according to health authorities, raising fears about a wider spread in the community. The country has reported 13 deaths from the pandemic so far. (Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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Canada can ignore drug, device patents during outbreak under new law

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s emergency legislation on the coronavirus crisis gives the health minister powers to circumvent patent law and ensure medical supplies, medication or vaccines can be produced locally.

The measures could be used if demand exceeds supply or when a patent holder cannot produce for Canada, said Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in a statement on Thursday.

Patent holders would receive “adequate remuneration.”

“These provisions will help ensure that the existence of a patent covering an existing or new vaccine or treatment is not a barrier to securing needed supplies when those supplies cannot be secured from the patentee,” said the ministry.

The ministry said the new provisions applied equally to all patented inventions. They expire on Sept. 30, 2020.

Ventilators could be the legislation’s first target, pharmaceutical consultancy PDCI Market Access said in a note to clients. “The authorizations are not referred to as compulsory licenses in the legislation, however, that is their effect,” the note said.

Canada’s main pharmaceutical lobby group, Innovative Medicines Canada, said it was concerned that the legislation did not require the government to check in with the original manufacturer to see what it can supply before authorizing others to step in.

The bill, passed on Wednesday, accelerates a process that was already possible during public health emergencies, said Richard Gold, a pharmaceutical law expert at McGill University.

“This legislation makes it clear that companies that try to raise prices or assert patents during the crisis will be ignored,” and their patented products supplied by other companies, he said.

On March 19, Israel approved a generic version of AbbVie Inc’s anti-viral Kaletra as a possible treatment for COVID-19, even though the company’s patent does not expire in Israel until 2024. One recent study found the drug was not effective.

(This story adds dropped word in ninth paragraph)

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Russia confirms coronavirus case in Putin's administration, tightens curbs

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin confirmed a coronavirus case in President Vladimir Putin’s administration on Friday and the government said measures imposed in Moscow to fight the virus should be extended across Russia.

The official tally of confirmed cases jumped by a record daily amount for the third day in a row, bringing Russia’s total to 1,036. Four people have died of the coronavirus.

The Kremlin said it was taking measures to stop the virus spreading further after a staff member in the presidential administration contracted the virus. It said the person had not come into contact with Putin, but declined to identify them.

Putin has declared next week a non-working week, and Moscow, the vast country’s worst-affected area, will this weekend close all cafes, restaurants and shops apart from those selling food and medicine, until April 5. International flights have been suspended.

On Friday, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said measures in place in Moscow to halt the spread of the virus should be imposed across the country and urged Russians to stay at home and refrain from all but essential trips.

“Maybe on these days you were planning to visit a shopping center, pop into a cafe, go to a health resort, but it is important to understand that coronavirus comes from these trips, you get infected in crowded places,” he said.

Mishustin also ordered the country’s huge network of state-run hotels, resorts and recreational facilities to shut down from March 28 until June 1.

Russia’s mass domestic tourism and recreation sector is still dominated by the state, a legacy from Soviet times. Millions of Russians still holiday each year at state-run hotels, resorts, health spas and children’s camps.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia remains much lower than in many European countries, but the mayor of Moscow told Putin on Tuesday that the real scale of the problem in the capital far exceeded official figures.

An opinion poll by the Moscow-based Levada Centre showed the majority of Russians, some 59 percent, do not believe the official figures. Twenty-four percent said they “absolutely” did not believe them and 35 percent said they only partially believed them, the poll showed.

Anna Popova, the head of the state consumer health watchdog, said Russia was not yet seeing signs of an exponential growth in cases. Putin has said he hopes Russia would defeat coronavirus in two to three months if it imposed tough measures quickly.

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Brazil's Bolsonaro questions coronavirus deaths, says 'sorry, some will die'

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday cast doubt on Sao Paulo’s death toll from the coronavirus outbreak and accused the state governor of manipulating the numbers for political ends, without giving evidence for his claims.

Bolsonaro’s accusations were the latest broadside in an ugly battle with Brazil’s governors, who have chafed at the president’s view that protecting the economy takes priority over social distancing measures to combat the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Following the advice of public health experts, the vast majority of the country’s 26 governors have banned non-essential commercial activities and public services to contain the outbreak in their states.

“I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life,” Bolsonaro said in a television interview on Friday night. “You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”

Bolsonaro said that in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic powerhouse, the death toll seemed “too large.” Sao Paulo has the most cases and deaths so far of coronavirus in Brazil, at 1,223 cases and 68 deaths.

“We need to look at what is happening there, this cannot be a numbers game to favor political interests,” Bolsonaro said.

Earlier on Friday, Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a former Bolsonaro ally who many expect to be a rival in the 2022 presidential election, accused Bolsonaro of promoting “disinformation” by launching a TV ad campaign criticizing the restrictions, featuring the slogan “#BrazilCannotStop.”

The slogan is similar to a campaign in Milan before deaths in Italy soared.

ACTION TAKEN

Brazil’s justice ministry on Friday barred all non-resident foreigners from entering the country via its airports. The travel ban goes into effect on Monday and follows similar measures in several other South American nations.

Also on Friday, Brazil’s central bank called for emergency bond-buying powers in line with ‘quantitative easing’ policies in other countries, while unveiling a 40 billion reais credit line to help smaller companies with payroll.

Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said the government will offer 45 billion reais to self-employed and informal workers, adding that all the government’s coronavirus-fighting measures will total 700 billion reais over three months.

Confirmed coronavirus cases in the country jumped to 3,417 on Friday from 1,891 on Monday, as related deaths climbed to 92, according to the Health Ministry.

Bolsonaro’s popularity has slipped during the crisis, and many people across Brazil bang pots and pans in their windows nightly in protest at his handling of it.

In counterprotests on Friday, Bolsonaro supporters drove honking caravans through major cities to oppose the lockdowns, sharing social media videos with the #BrazilCannotStop hashtag.

The TV advertisement, shared on social media by Bolsonaro allies including his son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, was commissioned by the president’s office at a cost of 4.9 million reais ($1 million) without consulting the Health Ministry, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

“For the neighborhood salesmen, for the shop owners in city centers, for domestic employees, for millions of Brazilians, Brazil cannot stop,” said the ad, which shows scenes of crowded classrooms and street markets.

The slogan is similar to #MilanWillNotStop, which became popular in northern Italy in February. Italy went on to become a global epicenter of the outbreak, with more deaths than China.

The mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, has said he regrets sharing the hashtag.

“Many have referred to that video with a hashtag #MilanWillNotStop. It was a video which went viral on the internet. Everyone was sharing it, I also shared it, rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly,” Sala said in a television interview.

A Health Ministry official told reporters the ministry would not comment on Bolsonaro and that guidelines recommending social distancing remained the same.

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IATA pleads for more help for airlines after U.S. offers $58 billion aid

DUBAI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The International Air Transport Association (IATA) on Thursday urged the world’s major economies to act quickly to prevent irreversible damage to an airline industry that has seen demand crushed by the coronavirus crisis.

A number of governments have already stepped in to help airlines hammered by the virus-induced travel slump, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid, Singapore promising to keep its carrier aloft, and Australia easing competition rules.

As leaders from the Group of 20 nations met for a video summit, the world’s largest airline body asked governments in an open letter to provide or facilitate financial support for the industry.

“The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the globe and the resulting government-mandated border closings and travel restrictions have led to the destruction of air travel demand,” IATA Chief Executive Alexandre de Juniac wrote.

Underlining the industry’s plight, AirAsia, the region’s biggest budget carrier, became the latest airline to announce sweeping cuts to its schedule in response to the deepening crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It said some of its businesses would halt flights altogether for a period.

“Many airlines have been paying out more in refunds than they have received in new booking revenues,” said de Juniac, a former head of Air France-KLM.

Related Coverage

  • IATA urges G20 to support airline industry
  • Pilots' union criticises UK's coronavirus job retention scheme

“As a result, the average two-month cash reserves held by airlines are rapidly being exhausted,” he added, calling for direct financial support, loans or tax relief.

LOADING CARGO

In a desperate bid to preserve some revenues and keep global supply chains operating, U.S. Delta Air Lines, Air New Zealand and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways joined a list of carriers that have turned passenger planes into cargo-only transporters.

About half of the world’s air cargo normally travels in the bellies of passenger planes, so the cancellation of passenger flights has led to a sharp reduction in cargo capacity, with knock-on effects to food, industry and other vital trade.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Senate passed a $58 billion aid package late on Wednesday, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 airline staff wages. Those receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining pacts. [L1N2BI0XW]

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive pay, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to back the move on Friday. President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

PAYING A HEAVY PRICE

U.S. airlines, like others around the globe, have been reeling from the slide in passenger numbers.

United Airlines Holdings said capacity would drop 68% in April and Alaska Air Group cut its schedule by 70% for April and May. American Airlines suspended its dividend, drew down a $400 million credit line and secured an additional loan.

IATA, which estimates the pandemic will cost the global industry $252 billion in lost revenues this year, said earlier it had written to 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, Japan and South Korea for emergency support for carriers.

Singapore’s finance minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore Airlines Ltd would soon announce “corporate action” supported by state investor Temasek Holdings to tackle the crisis. Share trading in the carrier, which said this week it was seeking extra funds, was halted on Thursday.

Australia and New Zealand have joined other governments in announcing some financial relief. But this has not stopped carriers from putting staff on leave and grounding planes.

Virgin Australia plans to permanently cut more than 1,000 jobs among the 8,000 staff that have already been stood down. Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group said it would cut 6,000 travel agent roles globally.

In a move unthinkable under normal conditions, Australia’s competition regulator said it would allow Virgin, Qantas Airways and Regional Express to coordinate flight schedules and share revenue on 10 regional routes.

“We hope that this temporary measure will also support airlines’ ability to again compete with each other on these routes once the pandemic crisis has passed,” Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims said.

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U.S. Senate votes to grants struggling aviation sector big bailout

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted late Wednesday 96-0 to give the U.S. aviation industry $58 billion in aid, half in the form of grants earmarked to cover some 750,000 employees’ paychecks, in a badly needed lifeline for an industry facing the worst travel downturn in history.

The $2 trillion economic rescue package awards passenger airlines $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans, cargo carriers another $8 billion divided between loans and grants, and airport contractors like caterers up to $3 billion in grants. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote to approve the measure Friday and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it into law.

Senate Republicans had fought what they called a give away to airlines and initially offered only loans, while airlines had threatened to start laying off tens of thousands within days if they did not get cash.

“This is not a corporate bailout; it’s a rescue package for workers,” said Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson, who spearheaded the idea of direct payroll grants for employees ranging from janitorial staff and gate agents to mechanics and pilots.

Reuters reported Chao worked the phones late into the night talking to air carriers about what they needed to ensure they could maintain payrolls, a person briefed on call on Tuesday that lawmakers were nearing agreement on a deal for cash grants for payroll and other employee costs, after airlines made a last-minute effort to convince lawmakers they needed the cash to prevent furloughing tens of thousands of workers.

U.S. airline shares extended a Tuesday rally on hopes for cash relief and under the bill airlines are set to get cash assistance in as little as two weeks.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose party had proposed $58 billion in loans, said on Wednesday the grants were a key sticking point. He said Democrats insisted “we give away money to airlines and never get it back.”

In a win for labor, companies receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining agreements.

The draft bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive compensation, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package, but does not require it.

Airlines would also receive tax relief on fuel purchases and, in a move that may bring down passenger fares, a temporary suspension on ticket taxes.

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, travel demand has plummeted, with airlines drastically reducing flights and warning of more cuts to come.

Airlines keep canceling flights, borrowing money and slashing costs as demand falls.

Alaska Airlines said Wednesday it would cut its flights by 70% in April and May, while United Airlines said Wednesday would now cut 52% of U.S. flights and overall capacity by 68%. On Tuesday, 279,018 people were screened at all U.S. airport checkpoints, down 87% over last year.

Airlines accepting loans may have to ensure certain air services in order to maintain health care and pharmaceutical supply chains, including to remote communities, but other consumer and environmental protections sought by many Democrats did not make it into the draft bill.

Airlines and unions won crucial support for the grants from U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who worked the phones late into the night, telling lawmakers and others in the administration she was concerned about the impact of job losses and a decline in the U.S. aviation sector on competition, people briefed on the matter said.

“Without grants, airlines may be forced to choose bankruptcy over federal loans, if loan conditions are too inflexible,” Chao warned in a memo seen by Reuters.

Airlines have argued that they are key to restarting the economy once the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

U.S. airports, whose concourses have been nearly empty, are set to receive $10 billion in grants.

The government will also provide $25 billion in grants for U.S. transit systems and $1 billion for U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak, that have seen ridership fall dramatically as states ordered tens of millions of Americans to stay home and avoid non-essential travel.

Boeing Co could receive government loans under a $17 billion fund set aside for direct national security-related loans, Toomey said, adding that many companies could qualify. Boeing could also qualify under the broader $454 billion loan program.

“It is not meant to be exclusively for Boeing… You should not think of it as a Boeing allocation,” Toomey said.

Boeing had sought at least $60 billion in government loan guarantees for itself and the entire aerospace manufacturing sector. Boeing did not comment on Wednesday.

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U.S. senators make progress toward voting on $2 trillion coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A last-minute obstacle to passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus bill in the U.S. Senate was in the process of being resolved and would likely clear the way for prompt approval of the measure, Senator Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday.

Graham is one of a handful of Republican senators who raised objections to an unemployment compensation provision in the bill. The Senate will vote on the Republicans’ amendment to change the provision — a vote that likely will fail, Graham said, allowing a vote on passage of the legislation as written.

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Shut by coronavirus, London Zoo seeks donations to safeguard animals

LONDON (Reuters) – The world’s oldest zoo is shut to the public for the first time since World War Two as London locks down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but for the roughly 18,000 animals housed there, life must go on.

London Zoo, opened to scientists in 1828 and to the public in 1847, is one of the British capital’s most-loved attractions, but like everything else in the city it has been impacted by the ongoing crisis, raising concern about the animals’ welfare.

Unlike a museum or an art gallery, it is not just a case of locking the doors.

Captive animals are needy, whether big beasts such as lions, gorillas, zebras and giraffes or the Madagascan hissing cockroaches, or everything else in between.

It is a costly, and labor-intensive, business, and without the revenue from daily tickets sales — worth 27.8 million pounds ($33 million) last year from London Zoo and ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo — a prolonged shutdown is a nightmare scenario.

Add in the logistical problems posed for the small army of zookeepers, vets, security and ground staff (none classified as key workers) in getting to the Regents Park site, if they have not been forced to self-isolate, and it is unsurprising London Zoo is appealing for donations.

“Ordinarily, we are entirely reliant on public support, so without people coming through the gates the income isn’t coming in,” ZSL’s chief operating officer, Kathryn England, told Reuters on Wednesday. “We are really having to find other ways for people to show their support for us and donate instead.

“What is important is that we have been planning for this, so that we can make sure our staff can keep coming in and putting the health and welfare of our animals first,” she said. “Our animals eat a lot and we have to make sure our supply chains continue, with top-quality food. Whether that’s fruit and veg from Covent Garden, or meat, we need a continuous supply.”

To ensure they can get to work, many of the zoo’s 50 daily staff have opted to live in the zoo’s Lion Lodges that usually house overnight guests experiencing a “zoo sleepover”.

“They are not classified as key workers but they are absolutely essential to us,” England said.

“They are a team of astonishingly dedicated staff,” she said. “Some are staying on site to make sure the animals get the care they need. We need to make sure we have all the staff in.”

To safeguard the health of the animals, zookeepers wear protective clothing, such as face masks and gloves.

With no crowds wandering around, some might suggest the animals will be enjoying some rare peace and quiet. But that also brings challenges.

“The zookeepers are not only feeding them, mucking them out but also providing the enrichment that they need as well because this is very different environment that they’re in with no visitors,” England said.

“The big cats don’t seem to be bothered at all, like Bhanu our big lion. He’s just lounging around in the sun. But the pigmy goats and penguins are a bit confused.”

While England is confident the shutdown will not endanger any of the animals, she said the loss of revenue was one of the biggest challengers the zoo has faced.

“The (public’s) response has been overwhelming so far, but we are a charity and in a good year we would have 1 million people coming through the gates.

“We are really missing the crowds and we really want people to support us through our website www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo.”

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UPDATE 1-Portugal government sees 2020 recession due to coronavirus outbreak

(Adds detail, background)

LISBON, March 25 (Reuters) – Portugal’s Finance Minister Mario Centeno said on Wednesday that all scenarios pointed to an economic recession due to the impact of the coronavirus and restrictive measures implemented to stem the pandemic.

“We are working on scenarios to return to normality, but we will always be talking about a scenario of annual recession,” Centeno told a news conference.

Helped by solid economic growth of 2.2% last year, Portugal earlier on Wednesday reported a budget surplus of 0.2% of gross domestic product in 2019 – its first in 45 years of the country’s democratic history – after a deficit of 0.4% in 2018.

But the projected economic slump in Portugal and globally, combined with an abrupt strain on public finances due to the virus, means that the country would likely slide back to deficit this year, the finance minister said.

The government last Wednesday announced a 9.2 billion euro ($9.98 billion) package worth 4.3% of annual GDP to support workers and provide liquidity for companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak, on the same day it declared a state of emergency which has closed non-essential businesses and suspended thousands of jobs.

“The nature of this crisis is very different from what we faced in 2008 to 2009…. we are dealing with a temporary crisis by an exogenous shock to the economic system which affects our productive capacity with an intensity never seen before,” Centeno said.

Portugal has 2,995 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 43 reported deaths, far below other southern European countries such as Italy and Spain.

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