U.S. Senate leader hopes for quick passage of House coronavirus small business bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday he hoped the Senate would soon pass legislation already passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives easing terms of the coronavirus small-business loan program.

“I hope and anticipate the Senate will soon take up and pass legislation that just passed the House, by an overwhelming vote of 417 to one, to further strengthen the Paycheck Protection Program so it continues working for small businesses that need our help,” McConnell, a Republican, said.

Under the House-passed bill, businesses receiving forgivable loans under this new program would have 24 weeks, instead of the current eight weeks, to utilize the loans intended to help keep businesses operating and retain employees.

The legislation also contains other changes to provide more flexibility to the program as small businesses try to reopen following months of closures or curtailed operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurants and hotels are among the largest beneficiaries of the Paycheck Protection Program created in late March.

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WHO and other experts say no evidence of COVID-19 losing potency

LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) – World Health Organization experts and a range of other scientists said on Monday there was no evidence to support an assertion by a high profile Italian doctor that the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic has been losing potency.

Professor Alberto Zangrillo, head of intensive care at Italy’s San Raffaele Hospital in Lombardy, which bore the brunt of Italy’s COVID-19 epidemic, on Sunday told state television that the new coronavirus “clinically no longer exists”.

But WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, as well as several other experts on viruses and infectious diseases, said Zangrillo’s comments were not supported by scientific evidence.

There is no data to show the new coronavirus is changing significantly, either in its form of transmission or in the severity of the disease it causes, they said.

“In terms of transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of severity, that has not changed,” Van Kerkhove told reporters.

It is not unusual for viruses to mutate and adapt as they spread, and the debate on Monday highlights how scientists are monitoring and tracking the new virus. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed more than 370,000 people and infected more than 6 million.

Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said major studies looking at genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 did not support the idea that it was becoming less potent, or weakening in any way.

“With data from more than 35,000 whole virus genomes, there is currently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severity,” he said in an emailed comment.

Zangrillo, well known in Italy as the personal doctor of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said his comments were backed up by a study conducted by a fellow scientist, Massimo Clementi, which Zangrillo said would be published next week.

Zangrillo told Reuters: “We have never said that the virus has changed, we said that the interaction between the virus and the host has definitely changed.”

He said this could be due either to different characteristics of the virus, which he said they had not yet identified, or different characteristics in those infected.

The study by Clementi, who is director of the microbiology and virology laboratory of San Raffaele, compared virus samples from COVID-19 patients at the Milan-based hospital in March with samples from patients with the disease in May.

“The result was unambiguous: an extremely significant difference between the viral load of patients admitted in March compared to” those admitted last month, Zangrillo said.

Oscar MacLean, an expert at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, said suggestions that the virus was weakening were “not supported by anything in the scientific literature and also seem fairly implausible on genetic grounds.”

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Marriott opens all hotels in China, sees steady U.S. recovery: CEO

(Reuters) – Marriott International (MAR.O) has reopened all its hotels in China and is seeing a steady recovery in the United States, its biggest market, Chief Executive Officer Arne Sorenson said on Monday.

Shares of the hotel operator, which owns the Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis luxury brands, rose as much as 8.1% to $95.64 in afternoon trading after Sorenson said the occupancy rate in China was 40% currently, up from 7% to 8% in February, when COVID-19 started spreading.

“It’s not just leisure travel growing, but it is business travel. Chinese are flying again,” Sorenson said at a Goldman Sachs conference.

In the United States, Marriott’s hotels that remained open crossed the 20% occupancy threshold and continue to see an improvement, Sorenson said.

“The (U.S.) hotels that are performing strongest are those that are most dependent on drive to business.”

The company had an occupancy rate of about 12% in North America in April, with 16% of its hotels closed temporarily.

However, Sorenson warned that it could take Marriott a few years to get back to levels of occupancy seen in 2019, when its global occupancy rate was 71%.

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Asia's factory pain worsens as China's recovery fails to lift demand

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asia’s factory pain deepened in May as the slump in global trade caused by the coronavirus pandemic worsened, with export powerhouses Japan and South Korea suffering the sharpest declines in business activity in more than a decade.

A series of manufacturing surveys released on Monday suggest any rebound in businesses will be some time off, even though China’s factory activity unexpectedly returned to growth in May.

China’s Caixin/Markit Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) hit 50.7 last month, marking the highest reading since January as easing of lockdowns allowed companies to get back to work and clear outstanding orders.

But with many of China’s trading partners still restricted, its new export orders remained in contraction, the private business survey showed on Monday. China’s official PMI survey on Sunday showed the recovery in the world’s second-largest economy intact but fragile.

Japan’s factory activity shrank at the fastest pace since 2009 in May, a separate private sector survey showed while South Korea also saw manufacturing slump at the sharpest pace in more than a decade.

Capital Economics said the region’s manufacturing sector is in deep recession.

“Industry is likely to have seen an initial jump from the easing of lockdown restrictions. And things are likely to continue improving very gradually over the coming months as external demand recovers,” Capital Economics wrote. “But output is still likely to be well below normal levels for many months to come as domestic and global demand remain very depressed.”

Taiwan’s manufacturing activity also fell in May. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines saw PMIs rebound from April, though the indices all remained below the 50-mark threshold that separates contraction from expansion.

Official data on Monday showed South Korea extending its exports plunge for a third straight month.

Asia’s economic woes are likely to be echoed in other parts of the world including Europe, where economies continue to suffer huge damage in factory and service sectors.

With many countries starting to ease lockdown restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus, which has infected over 5.5 million people globally, equity markets are rallying on hopes for a swift return to health and prosperity.

But the trough in global economic activity will be deeper and the rebound is likely to take longer than previously predicted as the pandemic spreads in waves.

The International Monetary Fund warned last month the global economy will take much longer than expected to recover fully from the virus shock, suggesting a downgrade to its current projection for a 3% contraction this year.

A U.S.-China spat over Hong Kong’s status and Beijing’s handling of the pandemic could sour business sentiment and add to already huge strains on the global economy.

The final au Jibun Bank Japan Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to a seasonally adjusted 38.4 from 41.9 in April, its lowest since March 2009.

South Korea’s IHS Markit purchasing managers’ index (PMI) edged down to 41.3 in May, the lowest since January 2009 and below 41.6 in April.

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UK foreign minister defends lockdown easing as the 'right step'

LONDON (Reuters) – British foreign minister Dominic Raab defended on Sunday the government’s “careful” loosening of the coronavirus lockdown, saying it was the “right step to be taking at this moment in time”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under fire from some scientists for easing a lockdown put in place 10 weeks ago, with several saying it was a premature and risky move in the absence of a fully functioning system to track new outbreaks.

With Britain experiencing one of the world’s highest death rates from COVID-19, the government says it is easing the stringent lockdown “cautiously” to balance the need to restart the economy, but also to try to prevent another increase in the number of infections. Some say Britain is not prepared.

“We are confident that this is the right step to be taking at this moment in time,” Raab told Sky News. “We are taking those steps very carefully, based on the science but also based on our ability now to monitor the virus.”

From Monday, up to six people will be able to meet outside in England, some school classes will restart, elite competitive sport can resume without fans and more than 2 million people who have been “shielding” will be allowed to spend time outdoors.

Johnson is under pressure from some in his governing Conservative Party and businesses to start re-opening the economy, after spending billions to help protect companies and workers from the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

At the heart of the strategy to ease the lockdown is a system to test and trace those people who have come into contact with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The government said on Sunday it had met its 200,000 capacity testing target, including the means for 40,000 antibody tests a day, a day early, a move health minister Matt Hancock described as “an important milestone”.

Ministers also say the tracing system is already working, but some scientists say it is too early to say whether it is fit for purpose. [L8N2DC056]

Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group who sits on the government’s scientific advisory group, said he shared other scientists’ “deep concern.”

“I think I share with all my scientific colleagues, or virtually all my scientific colleagues, a deep concern that we need to go with great caution,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, adding there was still a large number of cases in Britain.

“I think unlocking too fast carries a great risk that all the good work that has been put in by everyone to try to reduce transmission may be lost. So we do need to proceed with great, great care at this point.”

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has offered the nation slightly different guidance to that in England, agreed with scientists that the easing must be “very cautious”.

“I agree with the opinion that has been expressed over the weekend that we’ve got to be very cautious,” Sturgeon told Sky News. “This virus hasn’t gone away, there is still a significant risk that it could run out of control again.”

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UK taking 'right steps' to ease virus lockdown, says foreign minister

LONDON (Reuters) – British foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday the “careful” easing of the coronavirus lockdown was now the “right step” to take, shrugging off criticism for moving too quickly to allow people more social contact.

“We are confident that this is the right step to be taking at this moment in time,” Raab told Sky News. “We are taking those steps very carefully, based on the science but also based on our ability now to monitor the virus.”

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Two UN peacekeepers in Mali die of coronavirus: Live updates

All the latest as Brazil’s coronavirus toll reaches 27,878, making it the country with fifth-highest number of deaths.

  • United States President Donald Trump has said the US is ‘terminating’ its relationship with the World Health Organization, saying the group has not made coronavirus reforms.

  • The WHO and 37 countries launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, an alliance aimed at making coronavirus vaccines, tests, treatments and other technologies available to all countries. 

  • India’s coronavirus death and case tolls have passed China’s, after the country recorded 175 new deaths and 7,466 new cases.

  • More than 5.9 million cases of coronavirus have been confirmed around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Some 364,000 people have died, while more than 2.4 million have recovered.

Here are the latest updates:

Saturday, May 30

03:08 GMT – Two UN peacekeepers die of coronavirus

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, announced the deaths of two UN peacekeepers from COVID-19.

Both peacekeepers were serving in Mali, he said, praising “the service, sacrifice and selflessness” of the more than 95,000 men and women serving in the UN’s 13 peacekeeping missions around the world.

According to the UN peacekeeping department, there have been 137 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in UN peacekeeping operations, with the greatest number by far – 90 cases – in Mali. The deaths are the first from the virus among peacekeepers.

02:55 GMT – China reports four new cases 

China reported four new confirmed cases of coronavirus at the end of Friday, all brought from outside the country and no new deaths.

Just 63 people remained in treatment and another 401 were under isolation and monitoring for showing signs of having the virus or of testing positive for it without showing any symptoms.

China has reported a total of 4,634 deaths among 82,999 cases since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese industrial city of Wuhan.

01:36 GMT – Twelve migrants test positive at Mexico shelter

Twelve migrants have tested positive for coronavirus at a government-run shelter in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican labour ministry said.

The migrants have been isolated to prevent further spread of the virus in the Leona Vicario centre, which houses 337 people, the ministry said.

Ciudad Juarez, a gritty industrial city that neighbours the US city of El Paso, Texas, has received thousands of migrants under a Trump administration policy that sends US asylum seekers to Mexico to await the outcomes of their cases.

01:05 GMT – Brazil death toll hits 27,878, surpassing hard-hit Spain

Brazil’s coronavirus deaths have reached a total 27,878, surpassing the toll of hard-hit Spain and making it the country with the fifth-highest number of fatalities.

The Ministry of Health said Brazil saw 1,124 deaths in 24 hours. It also had a record number of new cases – 26,928 in one day – bringing the total number of infections to 465,166.

As of the end of Friday, Spain had recorded 27,121 deaths, with virus fatalities there rapidly slowing. Brazil could soon surpass France, which has seen 28,714 deaths.

“There is no way to foresee” when the outbreak will peak, the Ministry of Health said, and experts say the number of cases in Brazil could be 15 times higher than the confirmed figure because there has been no widespread testing.

00:55 GMT – Merkel rejects Trump invite to attend G7 summit in Washington

German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned down US President Donald Trump’s invitation to attend an envisaged summit of the Group of Seven (G7) nations in the United States, according to Politico.

“The federal chancellor thanks President Trump for his invitation to the G7 summit at the end of June in Washington. As of today, considering the overall pandemic situation, she cannot agree to her personal participation, to a journey to Washington,” the report quoted German government spokesman Steffen Seibert as saying.

“She will of course continue to monitor the development of the pandemic.”

Trump believes there would be “no greater example of reopening” than holding a G7 summit in the US near the end of June, the White House said on Tuesday.

00:21 GMT – Chile, Peru secure credit lines from IMF

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a two-year $24bn credit line for Chile as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic. The move comes a day after the IMF approved a $11bn credit line for Peru.

The Flexible Credit Line (FCL) is a renewable funding mechanism granted to countries with strong economic policy track records, and Chile is only the fifth country to receive one. Along with Peru, Mexico and Colombia currently have FCLs in place.    

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said the backstop should help to boost market confidence, and Chile intends to treat the credit line as “precautionary and temporary”, and exit the backstop after 24 months.      

Peru likewise sees the programme as precautionary, and will consider exiting once the crisis has passed and “the insurance provided by an FCL arrangement would no longer be necessary”.

Hello and welcome to Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m Zaheena Rasheed in Male, Maldives. 

You can find all the updates from yesterday, May 29, here. 

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House Democrats launch inquiry into Medicare stimulus payouts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. House of Representatives Democrats on Friday launched an inquiry into whether the Health and Human Services Department misdirected billions of dollars in coronavirus stimulus money to healthcare providers facing criminal or civil fraud investigations.

In a letter to Secretary Alexander Azar, Representatives Lloyd Doggett and Katie Porter accused the department of evading questions about how it decided to dole out $50 billion for its provider relief fund and demanded answers about how the funds will be clawed back from possible fraudsters.

Reuters reported exclusively this month that HHS had sent Medicare providers under criminal and civil investigations stimulus money, after it direct-deposited $30 billion into the bank accounts of any medical provider who billed Medicare for services in 2019.

Doggett and Porter cited Reuters’ reporting in their letter.

“Funds meant for frontliners went to hospitals previously closed, mega-corporations, and possible fraudsters,” Doggett said in a statement. “The Trump Administration should immediately provide a full accounting of how these millions landed, as they so often do with this Administration, in the pockets of corporate interests and those under investigation for fraud.”

An HHS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

Reuters could not determine what portion of the recipients are facing such inquiries.

After sending the funds, HHS asked all the providers to sign a lengthy attestation that stipulates they have been or will be treating patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Those who do not respond by HHS’ deadline will be assumed to have accepted the terms and conditions.

HHS previously told Reuters it has mechanisms in place to recoup the funds and address fraud.

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French mortality rate in May below previous years despite epidemic

PARIS (Reuters) – French mortality rates between May 1 and 18 were six percent lower than for the same period last year and one percent below the rate seen over that period in 2018, despite the coronavirus epidemic, statistics agency INSEE said on Friday.

During the peak of the epidemic between March 1 and April 30, French mortality rates were 26% higher than the year-earlier period and 16% higher than the corresponding period in 2018, provisional data showed.

“Since May 1… we no longer excess mortality compared to the two previous years” the agency said in a statement.

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American Airlines CEO quells U.S. bankruptcy talk, says demand improving

(Reuters) – American Airlines Group Inc (AAL.O) is not considering a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, Chief Executive Doug Parker said on Wednesday and dismissed speculation that a major U.S. carrier could disappear due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Bankruptcy is failure. We’re not going to do that,” Parker told a conference, adding: “I don’t think you’ll see any airline go by the wayside as a result of this crisis.”

Shares in American rose 5.5% in late trading.

The U.S. airline industry is expected to be 10% to 20% smaller in the summer of 2021, Parker said, and its recovery would depend on how passenger demand and revenues evolve.

Earlier this month, Boeing Co (BA.N) Chief Executive Dave Calhoun told NBC he thought that a major U.S. carrier could go out of business in the fall, when government payroll aid for airlines will expire.

U.S. airlines, suffering an unprecedented downturn in air travel because of the pandemic, have warned they may need to eliminate jobs after Oct. 1 but Parker said the company aimed to avoid furloughs.

Nearly 40,000 of its more than 100,000 employees have opted for an early retirement, reduced work schedule or temporary leaves, he said.

American’s revenues are down by about 90% due to the outbreak, but demand is improving and net receipts have been in positive territory for the past 2-1/2 weeks after a period when airlines were receiving more cancellations than new bookings.

“More and more people are feeling more comfortable today, but we need to get to a point where all Americans are as comfortable flying as they should be,” he said.

American’s planes were about 56% full over the long U.S. Memorial Day weekend, albeit in drastically reduced capacity, he said. American is flying about 20% of its normal schedule.

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