The Latest: China accuses US of trying to shift virus focus

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The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

– Bleak figures from China and US show economic hit from virus.

– China accuses the U.S. of trying to shift the focus of the coronavirus pandemic.

– Two French women were arrested in a fraud investigation involving protective masks.

– A U.K. public health expert predicts 40,000 virus deaths in Britain.

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BEIJING – China is accusing the U.S. administration of attempting to shift the focus from its own defects in dealing with coronavirus by talking-up a theory that the global pandemic was started by a pathogen that escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

“Anyone discerning can tell at a glance that the purpose of the U.S. is simply to confuse the public, divert attention, and shirk responsibility,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing on Friday. “We have said many times that tracing of the virus’ origin is a serious scientific issue and requires scientific and professional assessment.”

Officials including President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have suggested the lab theory may be valid, with Pompeo saying, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers – that China hasn’t shared the answers – I think is very, very telling.”

Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology specializes in research on animal-to-human transmission of such viruses but there is no evidence to backup the theory that the virus came from the lab.

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PARIS – Two French women have been arrested in Israel in an investigation into alleged fraud over protective masks, now in demand in France and elsewhere due to the spread of the coronavirus.

The prosecutor’s office in the French city of Rennes said in a statement Friday that fraudsters had used a counterfeit email address similar to that of the largest French maker of masks, Kolmi Hopen, near the city of Angers, to sell their apparently non-existent wares. An investigation showed that emails of other makers of protective equipment also were used.

The same alleged fraud team, posing as the French Treasury, also contacted individuals to collect unpaid taxes.

On Tuesday, Israeli police, working with French investigators, arrested two French women, aged 37 and 70 and from the same family, in Netanya. They are suspected of being at the center of the fake efforts to sell masks and hydroalcoholic gel in France, according to a statement from Philippe Astruc, prosecutor in the western city of Rennes.

Israeli police were questioning the two French women, and French judicial officials in Rennes formally opened an investigation into fraud and attempted fraud, money laundering and association with criminals.

The fraud ploy came to light earlier this month after Kolmi Hopen, whose masks have been requisitioned by France, received numerous queries from France and overseas for prices of its masks.

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LONDON – A leading public health expert says “system errors” have led to Britain having likely the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe, as the U.K. government comes under pressure over its record in fighting the pandemic.

Anthony Costello, a professor at the Institute for Global Health at University College London, said the U.K. “could see 40,000 deaths” by the time the first wave of the outbreak is over.

As of Thursday, 13,729 people had died in U.K. hospitals after testing positive for the coronavirus. The number does not include hundreds, and maybe thousands, of virus-related deaths in nursing homes and other settings.

Costello has been a prominent critic of the government’s strategy, saying it has not been testing enough people for the virus and has failed to trace and isolate people who have been in contact with the infected.

Britain was slower than many other European countries to impose mandatory restrictions on business and daily life to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A lockdown was imposed March 23 and on Thursday was extended for at least three more weeks.

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LONDON – Prince William says the “most important thing” to do to deal with the mental stress of the coronavirus lockdown is to talk.

In an online video chat with the BBC with his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, William said it’s “always underestimated” how much talking can help in maintaining mental health especially in an environment like this.

The royal couple have supported an initiative by Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters platform, by voicing a new film which signposts people to access tips and support for their mental health and well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. The film is set to be broadcast from April 20.

Catherine said “we mustn’t forget our mental well-being as well.”

William said members of the royal family have “really appreciated” being able to talk to each other online, though he conceded that the younger generation are a “little bit more tech-savvy.”

Williams also said he was initially “quite concerned” when he heard his father, Prince Charles, contracted the coronavirus given he is 71, and in the “fairly risky” category. Charles ended up having mild symptoms and came out of self-isolation on March 30.

William also laid out his hope that the world comes out of the pandemic in a better place, that it “recenters, refocuses and brings us all together.”

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BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbs are set this weekend to celebrate Orthodox Christian Easter inside their homes because an 84-hour curfew will be in place as part of measures against the spread of the new coronavirus.

The government-imposed curfew will start at 5 p.m. on Friday and last until 5 a.m. on Tuesday. This means that only people will special permits will be allowed to go out of their homes.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has asked the authorities to revoke the curfew early on Sunday to allow for the believers to attend Easter liturgies, but this has been rejected from fear of the virus spreading through the crowds.

The Head of the church, Patriarch Irinej, then urged the flock to stay at home with their families and follow the advise of the epidemiologists. Patriarch Irinej says “this is an opportunity for us to think carefully about ourselves and the whole world.”

Nonetheless, dozens of citizens have visited churches in Serbia that are open before the start of the curfew.

Serbia has imposed some of the harshest measures in Europe to contain the outbreak. They include banning people over 65 years old from leaving their homes and a daily and weekend curfews.

Serbia has reported 103 deaths from the new coronavirus.

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DHAKA, Bangladesh – Bangladesh has reported 15 more deaths and 266 cases of new infections from coronavirus over last 24 hours, the country’s health minister said Friday.

Health Minister Zahid Maleque said with the latest figures the death toll reached 75 and the number of infections stood at 1,838. He said health workers collected samples from 2,190 people across the country during last 24 hours and found 266 people positive. He said about 500 infected people remained hospitalized Friday.

Experts say Bangladesh, a nation of 160 million people, lacks proper management in handling the situation. Bangladesh is enforcing weekslong lockdown across the country until April 25 to contain the virus from spreading.

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SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea says it’s continuing to see a rise in patients who test positive for the coronavirus for a second time after being diagnosed as recovered. However, the risk of transmissions from such cases so far appears to be low.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday at least 163 people have tested positive again after their initial release from hospitals, accounting for more than 2% of the country’s 7,829 recoveries.

She says the patients on average were 13.5 days removed from their release when they tested positive again, although the longest gap was 35 days.

Jeong says none of the patients were in serious condition although 61 of them were exhibiting mild symptoms. Officials are monitoring about 300 people who contacted the patients but have so far detected no transmissions of the virus.

While health authorities are investigating the causes of such cases, including whether they are linked to virus mutations, they have so far downplayed the possibility that people could get re-infected after making a full recovery.

They say it’s more likely that infections were re-activated after remaining dormant in patients whose bodies hadn’t fully developed immunity after experiencing mild symptoms.

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BERLIN – Germany’s official statistical office said Friday that some 2.6 million students will soon return to schools as the country relaxes its pandemic lockdown rules.

Authorities in Germany’s 16 states agreed this week to allow a staggered reopening of schools, with students in their final two years of high school and the final year of primary returning first.

Germany, a country of 83 million people, has so far recorded almost 137,700 confirmed infections of the new coronavirus, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Compared to other countries Germany has had relatively few deaths – 4,052 so far – less than a third the number seen in Britain, which has fewer confirmed cases.

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MADRID – Spain’s official gazette has published Friday a government order for the country’s 17 autonomous regions to unify the criteria on counting the dead in the coronavirus pandemic.

The government says that it’s following World Health Organization guidance and insists on counting only those who die having tested positive for the virus, whether they show or not symptoms and no matter where the death takes place.

That figure on Thursday rose above the 19,000 mark, with a total of more than 182,000 infections. But the accounting system leaves out the patients who died with symptoms but not tested.

The difference is significant.

The northeastern Catalonia region, for example, had 3,700 fatalities recorded earlier this week with tests but only in hospitals, not at centers for pensioners or private homes. And when it looked at the data of death certificates in funeral houses it found 3,200 additional fatalities that could potentially be linked to the COVID-19.

The scale of the tragedy at nursing homes is also a source of confusion. Regional governments are reporting that over 11,000 have died with the virus or its symptoms in these supervised facilities, a figure that is also believed to be inconsistent because each of the Spanish regions has different criteria when it comes to include or not cases unconfirmed by tests, or how to count those who die at day-care centers for the disabled.

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LONDON – London Mayor Sadiq Khan says wearing face coverings, such as bandannas and scarves, could provide people with another layer of protection against the coronavirus and is lobbying the British government to change its advice.

Khan told BBC radio that the evidence he has seen is that wearing a non-medical facial covering “reduces the chances” of those who have the virus of giving it to somebody else. However, he did concede that it “doesn’t necessarily limit your changes of catching the virus.”

He said changing the advice would be helpful for those in public transport or in shops, where some people may find it difficult to abide by the social distancing guidelines of staying two meters (6 feet) apart.

Khan said it’s important that there’s a “consistent approach” across the country and that’s why he’s lobbying the government and its advisers.

The government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, said Thursday that the evidence around masks being helpful in preventing the spread of the coronavirus is “weak,” while conceding it was a “live issue.”

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BERLIN – Germany’s health minister says the coronavirus outbreak in the country has become “manageable,” with new data showing the rate of new infections has slowed significantly.

Jens Spahn told reporters in Berlin on Friday that the increase in COVID-19 cases isn’t exponential anymore, but linear.

Figures released by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control center, show that the number of people infected by every person with COVID-19 has fallen to 0.7, from over 1 just a few days ago.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that this so-called reproduction rate was a key indicator the government would take into account when deciding whether to relax the lockdown.

Spahn noted that since April 12, the country has also had more people recovered from COVID-19 than active cases.

Experts say early and widespread testing has helped Germany keep a lid on the outbreak. Spahn said the country has so far conducted 1.7 million tests and is able to carry out 700,000 a week if necessary.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

A man reads a medical report while holding CT scans between his legs near a hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province Thursday, April 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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