WASHINGTON: A top US scientist warned Friday that the new coronavirus can be spread through normal breathing, fueling recommendations that everyone wear masks as several nations posted record death tolls.
With half of humanity under lockdown orders, governments have been racing to find ways to flatten the rise of the virus, which has infected more than one million people around the world.
Anthony Fauci, the veteran US expert who is leading the government’s scientific response, backed recent scholarship that found SARS-CoV-2 can be suspended in the ultrafine mist let out when people exhale.
Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told Fox News that the guidance on masks would be changed “because of some recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak, as opposed to coughing and sneezing”.
The World Health Organization has been more cautious, saying the airborne threat was only known to occur during certain medical treatments, and the United States until now has only advised sick people and their caretakers to cover their faces.
But Vice President Mike Pence said authorities will issue new nationwide advice in the coming days and several local leaders have already gone ahead.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, the coronavirus epicentre of the United States, has recommended that everyone in the nation’s largest city wear masks when going outside – advice backed Friday by the governor of Pennsylvania.
“The only way we can cut the growth of this virus is to act as if we all have it,” Governor Tom Wolf told reporters.
But with the United States and Europe facing severe shortfalls in protective gear, Fauci and local leaders urged people to save clinical masks for health professionals and patients.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a national address ordered all people to wear masks when going to markets and banned anyone under 20 from going outside.
Rising tolls but hope in Europe
More than 53,000 people have died from Covid-19 since it was first detected late last year in China, and the United States, Spain and Britain all reported their highest daily death tolls.
The United States on Thursday recorded 1,169 Covid-19 fatalities, the highest in one day in any country, according to a tracker at Johns Hopkins University.
Worse may be coming as a quarter of global infections are in the United States, where President Donald Trump has warned of a “very, very painful” first two weeks of April.
Europe reached the dark milestone of 40,000 dead, with Spain on Friday reporting more than 900 deaths in the past 24 hours.
Spaniard Javier Lara survived after being put on oxygen in an overcrowded intensive care unit – a shock to a 29-year-old who was athletic and doesn’t smoke.
“I was panicking that my daughter would get infected. When I started showing symptoms, I said I wouldn’t hold her or go near her,” he said, describing facing death with an eight-week-old as the “worst moment” in his life.
But even while Europe has recorded the most deaths, there were signs the peak there may be passing.
Worst-hit Italy recorded 766 new deaths but its infections rose by just 4%, the lowest yet, according to the civil protection service.
Guarded hope also came from Germany, which is credited with containing the virus through especially strict rules such as banning gatherings of more than two people.
“It’s true that the latest figures, as high as they are, give us a little bit of hope, as the growth in new infections is slower than it was a few days ago,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
“But it is definitely much too early to see a clear trend in that, and it is certainly too early to think in any way about relaxing the strict rules we have given ourselves,” she added.
Prosperous countries have borne the brunt of the disease, but there are fears of an explosion among the world’s most vulnerable living in conflict zones or refugee camps.
“The worst is yet to come,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, referring to countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. “The Covid-19 storm is now coming to all these theatres of conflict.”
Grim economic news
The world economy has been pummelled by the virus and the associated lockdowns, with the US economy shedding 701,000 jobs in March – its worst showing since March 2009 in the wake of the subprime banking crisis. Even more dire figures are expected for April.
The situation is no better in Europe, where the Irish central bank said the country’s economic output could be slashed by 8.3% this year.
Financial ratings agency Fitch predicted the US and eurozone economies would shrink this quarter by up to 30% and the Asian Development Bank warned the global economy could take a US$4.1 trillion hit – equivalent to 5% of worldwide output.
Latin America is heading into a “deep recession” with an expected drop of 1.8 to 4.0% in GDP, according to the UN economic commission for the region.
New measures taken
China’s central bank became the latest to announce special stimulus measures when it cut reserve requirements for smaller banks in order to release around 400 billion yuan in liquidity.
In signs that the world wants to avoid a repeat of the crisis, the African country of Gabon said it was banning the sale and consumption of bats and pangolins, the critically endangered, scaly mammals.
Pangolins are heavily trafficked from Gabon to China, where their meat is considered a delicacy.
The novel coronavirus is believed to have come from bats, but researchers think it might have spread to humans via another mammal such as pangolins through an unsanitary meat market in Wuhan.
The virus has chiefly killed the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but recent deaths among teenagers and babies have highlighted the dangers for people of all ages.
In Kenya, the health ministry said a six-year-old boy had died and in Spain, mothers like 34-year-old Vanesa Muro who gave birth with Covid-19 are warned not to touch their newborns without wearing gloves and masks.
“It’s hard,” she told AFP at her home in Madrid. “He grabs your finger, the poor little thing, and holds on to the plastic, not on to you.”
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