Hopes rise in virus battle as US scientists hail drug trial
WASHINGTON, United States —US scientists on Wednesday hailed a potential breakthrough in the coronavirus fight as a trial showed patients responding to an antiviral drug, fueling global hopes for a return to normal.
The medical news was enough to propel a rebound on Wall Street even after data showed the pandemic had plunged the United States into its worst economic slump in a decade and Germany predicted its biggest recession since the aftermath of World War II.
In the first proof of successful treatment against the illness that has claimed more than 226,000 lives, a clinical trial of the drug remdesivir showed that patients recovered over 30 percent more quickly than those on a placebo.
Anthony Fauci, who oversaw the study, told reporters at the White House: “The data shows that remdesivir has a clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery.”
Fauci, the veteran top US scientist in the fight against infectious diseases, likened the finding to the first retrovirals that worked, albeit with modest success, against HIV in the 1980s.
The trial, which involved 1,063 people across 68 locations in the US, Europe and Asia, showed that “a drug can block this virus,” Fauci said.
Remdesivir failed in trials against the Ebola virus and a smaller study, released last week by the World Health Organization, found limited effects among patients in Wuhan, China, where the illness was first detected last year.
Senior WHO official Michael Ryan declined to weigh in on the latest findings Wednesday, saying he had not reviewed the complete study.
“I think a lot more data will come out,” he told reporters.
“We are all hoping — fervently hoping — that one or more of the treatments currently under observation and under trial will result in altering clinical outcomes” and reducing deaths, he said.
The UN body said its emergency committee will meet Thursday for the first time since it declared coronavirus an international emergency three months ago.
US President Donald Trump has assailed the WHO as not responding quickly or aggressively enough, although critics say he is trying to deflect from his own response.
US deaths from the virus this week topped the country’s 58,220 fatalities in the Vietnam War — standing at 60,475 as of 2200 GMT Wednesday.
The United States has suffered the most deaths, with Britain’s toll on Wednesday becoming the world’s third worst at 26,097. More than 27,000 people have died in Italy.
– ‘Unprecedented’ contraction –
Experts have warned that only a full-scale vaccine will allow the full removal of restrictions that put half of humanity under some form of lockdown.
But governments are increasingly loosening the more suffocating rules in the face of devastating impact on the global economy.
The United States announced that economic output collapsed 4.8 percent in the first quarter, ending more than a decade of expansion.
Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned that economic activity will likely drop “at an unprecedented rate” in the second quarter — grim news for Trump as he seeks re-election.
Private sector economists are predicting a decline in growth by as much as 40 percent in the quarter through June after at least 26 million people were thrown out of work.
It will take “some time to get back to anything nearly resembling full employment,” Powell told reporters.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has succeeded in holding off the devastating death tolls elsewhere — but still forecasts an overwhelming economic hit.
Germany “will experience the worst recession in the history of the federal republic” founded in 1949, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier warned, predicting that GDP would shrink by a record 6.3 percent.
The International Labour Organization said half the global workforce — around 1.6 billion people — are in “immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.”
One of the worst-hit areas of the world economy is the aviation industry.
World air traffic suffered a massive drop of more than half in March compared with the same period last year, the “largest decline in recent history”, the International Air Transport Association said.
US plane-builder Boeing announced plans to reduce its workforce by 10 percent and slash production of its main airliners while European aviation giant Airbus also reported big losses.
– Risks to children –
While the world keeps looking for signs of progress against the pandemic, research is also revealing frightening new details about the coronavirus.
Britain and France have both warned of a possible coronavirus-related syndrome emerging in children — including abdominal pain and inflammation around the heart.
“I am taking this very seriously. We have absolutely no medical explanation at this stage,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said.
Experts have also warned of longer-term psychological tolls on both children and adults after weeks or even months in isolation.
New York said it would take action to clean subway trains after photos and videos of homeless people seeking shelter in the underground transit system sparked wide outrage.
“The cars were filthy, they were disgusting, homeless people were there with all their belongings,” Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters.
As businesses reopen, authorities are making clear it will not be business as usual.
Berlin, like the rest of Germany, said it would be requiring masks to enter shops.They are already compulsory on buses, trains and trams.
“It’s the right thing,” said Heike Menzel, 54, who was stacking shelves in Bio Company supermarket, wearing a simple black fabric mask. “You’re protecting others.”
– Sharp toll rise in Britain –
Unlike much of continental Europe, Britain has not unveiled a way to exit the lockdown.
The sharp rise in its COVID-19 toll, which caused Britain to surpass Spain, came as it included deaths in places such as care homes for the first time.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially resisted shutting down the country — and himself became the highest-profile coronavirus patient, entering intensive care as he fought for his life.
He returned to work this week and on Wednesday became a father again when his partner Carrie Symonds gave birth to a boy.
China, however, appears to have brought the virus under control after a brutal start of the year.
The communist state announced that its top legislature will hold its annual meeting next month, after having postponed it from March for the first time due to the disease. —with Femke Colborne in Berlin and AFP bureaus