Push for COVID-19 vaccine as Trump disinfectant theory sparks uproar

Paul Handley, Anuj Chopra - Agence France-Presse
Push for COVID-19 vaccine as Trump disinfectant theory sparks uproar
A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on February 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. The facility develops novel therapies for some of the worlds most difficult diseases.
Kena Batancur / Getty images North America / AFP

WASHINGTON, United States — The United Nations on Friday launched a global push for a coronavirus vaccine as President Donald Trump triggered an uproar by suggesting patients be treated with disinfectant and the US death toll passed 50,000.

Across the Muslim world, hundreds of millions of faithful opened the Ramadan holy month under stay-at-home conditions, facing bans on prayers in mosques and on the traditional large gatherings of families and friends to break the daily fast. 

With effective medical treatments still far away, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said defeating the pandemic will require global organizations and world leaders joining forces with the private sector to develop and distribute a novel coronavirus vaccine.

"We face a global public enemy like no other," Guterres said. "A world free of COVID-19 requires the most massive public health effort in history."

The UN chief's appeal came a day after the US president prompted an outcry with his suggestion that industrial cleansers be used to treat patients.

"Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" Trump mused during a televised briefing. "It sounds interesting to me."

As experts -- and disinfectant manufacturers -- rushed to caution against any such dangerous experiment, the president tried to walk back his comments claiming he had been speaking "sarcastically."

Early stages

Confirmed coronavirus cases hit 2.77 million worldwide Friday, with deaths at 193,930.

New reported cases seem to have leveled off at about 80,000 a day, as distancing measures have taken root and the daily death toll in Western countries appeared to be falling -- a sign hopeful epidemiologists have been looking for.

Yet other nations are still in the early stages of the fight and the World Health Organization has warned strict measures should remain in place.

New cases were accelerating in countries with low testing or late and limited mitigation like Russia, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Maldives, and Guatemala.

In Argentina, with some 3,400 cases and 167 deaths so far, prisoners rioted and demanded their release from a Buenos Aires jail on Friday after confirmation of a coronavirus case inside the facility.

Global vaccine cooperation

In Geneva, the WHO hosted a virtual conference on global cooperation to develop a vaccine, together with French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany's Angela Merkel, the wealthy Gates Foundation and GAVI, the global vaccine alliance.

"The world needs the development, production and equitable delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics," Guterres said.

"Not a vaccine or treatments for one country or one region or one-half of the world, but a vaccine and treatment that are affordable, safe, effective, easily administered and universally available, for everyone, everywhere," he said.

Notably absent from the group were leaders of China, where the virus surfaced, and the United States, which has accused the WHO of not warning quickly enough about the original outbreak in China. 

Mecca's Grand Mosque deserted

The pandemic put a damper on the opening of Ramadan, during which Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours and then, after evening prayer, dine with family and friends.

In the Saudi holy city of Mecca, the Grand Mosque, usually packed with tens of thousands of people during Ramadan, was deserted as religious authorities suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage.

"We are used to seeing the holy mosque crowded with people during the day, night, all the time... I feel pain deep inside," said Ali Mulla, the muezzin who gives the call to prayer at the Grand Mosque.

But clerics and conservatives in some countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim-majority nation -- have pushed back against social distancing rules, refusing to stop gatherings in mosques.

Several thousand attended evening prayers on Thursday at the biggest mosque in the capital of Indonesia's conservative Aceh province, and there were similar scenes at many sites in Pakistan.

Economic contraction

The economic devastation wreaked by the global lockdown is huge, with the world facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Russia's central bank said its economy would shrink up to six percent this year, hit doubly by the coronavirus and the plunge in oil prices.

In the United States, the Congressional Budget Office forecast GDP will contract by 12 percent in the April-June quarter and the federal deficit, due to massive stimulus spending, will explode to $3.7 trillion in 2020.

Trump on Friday signed the newest financial support package, providing $483 billion for small businesses and hard-pressed hospitals.

Across the United States, state leaders were weighing whether to start gradually lifting lockdown measures.

But the governor of Georgia was under attack for going so far as to approve the opening of businesses where  social distancing is difficult, like gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors.

"If I don't cut hair I don't make money," said mask-wearing Atlanta barber Chris Edwards, as he trimmed the hair of an unmasked client. "We're being safe, we're being clean, it's all you can do."


In Europe, leaders haggled over their own relief package that could top one trillion euros, as the European Central Bank chief warned of the risk of "acting too little, too late."

The 27-nation European Union has agreed to ask the bloc's executive arm to come up with a rescue plan by May 6, sources told AFP.

The crucial economic discussions come as parts of Europe slowly loosen restrictions after progress on reducing the number of new infections.

Belgium became the latest to ease, announcing Friday that businesses and schools will gradually reopen from the middle of May.

"The spread of COVID-19 has been slowed down, but the virus has not disappeared," Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes.

Experts have warned of a possible second wave of infections, particularly in the fall when temperatures cool.

Virologist Christian Drosten of Berlin's Charite hospital said the coronavirus could return with a "totally different force."

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