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WHO faces virus probe after Trump threat

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This handout image provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 19, 2020, shows World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reacting at the closing session of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization concluded its virtual annual meeting on May 19, 2020 at which member states resolved to launch an independent investigation into the WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.<br />Christopher Black / World Health Organization / AFP

The World Health Organization agreed Tuesday to launch an investigation into its coronavirus response, as Beijing accused Washington of shirking its responsibility after President Donald Trump threatened to quit the UN agency.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said dealing with the pandemic must come first, however, as COVID-19 continued to unleash death and economic devastation across the planet.

The toll in some hotspots was continuing to climb, with Britain revealing that more than 41,000 people have died of the disease there.

Other parts of the world are only just starting to feel the full force of the pandemic — such as in Latin America, where Brazil has overtaken Britain with the third-highest number of infections in the world, around 255,000 confirmed cases.

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Under pressure at home in the United States, which has far more virus cases and deaths than any other country, Trump has accused the WHO of being a “puppet” of China and of failing to do enough to combat the initial spread of the disease.

On Monday he threatened to make permanent a temporary freeze on US funding to the body.

Beijing hit back Tuesday, charging him with trying to “smear” China and damage the WHO for political ends.

“The US tries to use China as an issue to shirk responsibility and bargain over its international obligations to the WHO,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

Russia also denounced Trump’s threat.

“We are against breaking everything there is for the sake of one state’s political or geopolitical preferences,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by news agency Interfax.

The European Union backed the WHO too, saying it was “not the time for finger pointing” — putting Brussels once again in opposition to Washington when it comes to Trump’s treatment of international organisations.

With the row threatening the global response to the pandemic, WHO countries adopted a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response, and the measures taken by the agency.

Both the United States and China voted for the resolution, brought by the European Union at the WHO’s annual assembly, despite earlier fears that the tensions might make a full consensus impossible.

‘Permanent damage’
While the political row rages, countries around the world are trying to find a balance between bringing their economies back to life and risking a second wave of the disease.

More than 320,000 people have died of COVID-19 out of over 4.8 million infections worldwide since its emergence.

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The World Bank warned Tuesday that the crisis threatens to push some 60 million people into extreme poverty. The bank anticipates a five percent contraction in the world economy this year, with severe effects on the poorest countries.

In the US, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the American economy risks suffering “permanent damage” the longer the lockdown continues. US home-building meanwhile plunged by 30 percent.

Fresh data also showed the number of unemployed in Britain soared nearly 70 percent to 1.3 million in three months to March.

The economic damage caused by the virus has led to unprecedented emergency stimulus measures by governments and central banks, and the latest came from Europe where France and Germany proposed a fund worth 500 billion euros.

The path back to normality is slow, however.

Football players in England’s Premier League began returned to limited training on Tuesday, but the league suffered a blow when it emerged there had been six positive tests among players.

One effect of the lockdowns has been a drop in emissions from fossil fuels that cause global warming, with a 17 percent reduction globally in carbon pollution in April and a predicted drop of seven percent in 2020, research in Nature Climate Change said Tuesday.

However this would still “make barely a dent in the ongoing build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” said Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre.

‘Silent’ disease
Experts have warned that the social distancing measures that have affected more than half of humanity will remain necessary until a vaccine or viable treatment is found.

The global race to find a vaccine got a boost Monday when results from a trial by US biotech firm Moderna sparked optimism.

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In China, meanwhile, scientists at Peking University have said they are developing a drug that can help stop the pandemic by using antibodies that can neutralise the virus.

Trump, for his part, defended his bombshell announcement Monday that he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that his own government’s experts have said is not suitable for fighting the coronavirus.

“It doesn’t harm you,” he insisted during a Cabinet meeting at the White House Tuesday, adding that it “seems to be an extra line of defense.”

But the virus continues on its destructive path.

In Russia, the number of coronavirus cases hit nearly 300,000 on Tuesday after Moscow said the virus situation had stabilised. The Kremlin also said Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is returning to work after fighting off the coronavirus.

In Brazil, now the epicenter of Latin America’s outbreak, retired teacher Maria Nunes Sinimbu said COVID-19 had killed five of her family members, including three of her 12 children.

“People should be more careful with this disease. It’s silent,” said the 76-year-old.

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