US strikes stimulus deal worth trillions
The White House and Senate leaders announced an agreement on Wednesday (local time) to an unparalleled, US$2 trillion ($A3.4 trillion) emergency bill to rush aid to American businesses, workers and a health care system slammed by the coronavirus pandemic.
It's the largest economic rescue bill in history. The package is intended as a weekslong or monthslong patch for an economy spiralling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that's killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide.
Underscoring the effort's sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that's half the size of the entire US$4 trillion ($A6.7 trillion) annual federal budget.
"A fight has arrived on our shores," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we're going to win it." "Big help, quick help, is on the way," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Mr McConnell likened the massive bill to "a wartime level of investment into our nation."
A Senate vote appeared likely Wednesday, with a House vote to follow.
"We're going to pass this legislation later today," vowed Mr McConnell.
Central to the bill are a Republican-led plan to send direct checks to millions of Americans, up to US$3400 ($A5600) for a family of four, and loans to businesses.
They said passage of the legislation was expected in the Republican-led Senate by the end of Wednesday (local time).
That would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House. In a written statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the bipartisan agreement "takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people" but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.
"House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action," she said.
House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.
House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for US President Donald Trump's signature by a voice vote without having to call politicians back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.
The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.
It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a US$367 billion ($A614 billion) program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.
MAKESHIFT MORGUES SET UP IN NEW YORK
Just days after New York leaders ordered people to stay home, authorities mobilised to head off a potential public health disaster on Wednesday, the city's emergence as America's biggest coronavirus hot spot a warning flare for the rest of the country.
A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, and the city's police, their numbers dwindling by the day as more fall sick, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing.
Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals the way the virus did in Italy and Spain.
Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 20,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the US topped 800, with more than 60,000 infections.
New York State alone accounted for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, most of them in New York City.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, again pleading for help in dealing with the coming onslaught, attributed the cluster to the city's role as a gateway to international travellers and the sheer density of its population, with 8.6 million people sharing subways, elevators, apartment buildings and offices.
"Our closeness makes us vulnerable," he said. "But it's true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is."
SPAIN'S VIRUS DEATHS OVERTAKE CHINA'S
Meanwhile, Spain's death toll rose past 3400, eclipsing China's, after a one-day spike of 700 fatalities. It is now second only to Italy, with over 7500 deaths.
"If we are not already at the peak, we are very close," said Fernando Simon, head of Spain's health emergency co-ordination centre. "I cannot say that we have reached it."
Even once the numbers crest, it would be "counter-productive" to think about relaxing restrictions anytime soon, he added.
More than 435,000 people worldwide have been infected and the number of dead closed in on 20,000, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Overall, more than 100,000 have recovered.
STATES PUSH FOR EXPANSION OF VIRUS TESTING
States and territories will be able to expand coronavirus testing criteria beyond national guidelines at their own discretion if they have the ability to do so.
The National Cabinet agreed to an expanded list of criteria for coronavirus testing at a meeting on Wednesday night, and also included a provision allowing each state government to go further if they had the capacity to do more tests.
People who have two or more symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever at or above 38C, a cough, shortness of breath or sore throat and are in specific settings will be able to be tested even if they have not been overseas or had contact with a known case.
The extended "suspected cases" testing will be offered to people in aged care, the military, boarding schools, correctional facilities, detention centres and remote Aboriginal communities.
Tests will also be available to people with at least two symptoms who are also "in a geographically localised area with elevated risk of community transmission" as defined by local health authorities.
"This is the minimum testing criteria," a statement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
"States and territories have the discretion to expand their own criteria for testing if they have capacity."
National leaders also agreed to implement "nationally consistent public health directions," at the state and territory level on self-quarantine for individuals diagnosed with coronavirus.
The Cabinet extended the deadline for the suspension of semi urgent Category 2 and 3 elective surgeries at private hospitals to 11.59pm on 1 April 2020.
PATHOLOGY LABS LOSING BUSINESS
Pathology labs that carry out blood and other medical tests are going bust in a bizarre outcome from coronavirus.
While it was expected cafes, pubs and small businesses would close their doors as a result of the virus shutdown, medical testing labs were expected to be one of the few boom industries.
However, a major national laboratory MedLab has told News Corp they have lost around two thirds of their business as a result of COVID-19.
The reason is that people are too scared they will catch COVID19 if they go to see their GP. So while doctors are ordering hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests, they are requesting very few other pathology ones.
Most of the coronavirus tests (close to 200,000) are being carried out by public pathology labs. Medlab says it does not want to lay off staff and is calling on the Federal Government to impose a cap on the amount of rent Pathology companies have to pay GPs for collection centres in their clinics.
Medlab's general manager Mannu Kala said the downturn in the viability of the pathology business was also a direct result of inflated pathology rents in GP practices.
News Corp revealed last year it now costs Australian pathology companies more to rent a broom cupboard in a GP clinic than a penthouse on Fifth Ave in New York.
And the exorbitant rents, which breach government rules, were adding $6 to the cost of every blood test.
Mr Kala wants the maximum rent paid to GPs to be capped at $60,000 per annum.
The government promised pathology firms in the 2016 election that it would fix the problem but it has taken no action except to collect information on the size of rents.
BREAKTHROUGH COULD SPEED UP VACCINE TESTING
Scientists in Singapore have managed to track gene changes in COVID-19 in a breakthrough that could speed up testing of potential vaccines against the coronavirus.
As a result it could take just days to evaluate potential vaccines instead of months.
The scientists are working with US firm Arcturus Therapeutics, on COVID-19 vaccine trials.
"You can know from the way the genes change - what genes are turned on, what are turned off," said Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of Duke-NUS Medical School said.
Swift assessment of such changes triggered by a vaccine allowed the scientists to determine its effectiveness and side effects instead of relying solely on responses from humans who received it.
Meanwhile, The journal Nature Biotechnology reports CRISPER researchers are also working on using the gene-editing technique to make faster, more accurate tests for COVID-19.
And work wide there are 14 fast point of care tests under development that take just 15 minutes to get a result.
As the pandemic grows, the spotlight is increasingly falling on testing as a way to contain the spread - for the lack of it has potentially been hiding a large number of cases.
FINGER-PRICK TESTING A 'GAME-CHANGER': UK
A coronavirus home test kit will be available "within days" - from Amazon and Boots pharmacies in the UK, the British Government has revealed.
The finger-prick test, which detects antibodies to the virus in the blood, is able to determine if someone has or has already had COVID-19.
According to The Sun, when a person gets infected by the virus, the body starts making specially designed proteins called antibodies to fight the infection.
After they recover, those antibodies stay floating in the blood for months, even years.
MPs heard that 3.5 million antibody tests have now been bought and will allow key workers - like doctors and nurses - to go back to work.
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England (PHE), told the Science and Technology Committee that the public will be able to carry out coronavirus antibody tests at home "within days".
She said a small number of the checks would be tested in a laboratory before being distributed via Amazon and in places like Boots pharmacies.
Prof Peacock added: "Once we are assured that they do work, they will be rolled out into the community.
"Testing the test is a small matter, and I anticipate that it will be done by the end of this week.
"In the near future people will be able to order a test that they can test themselves, or go to Boots, or somewhere similar to have their finger-prick test done."
Currently, Public Health England is only testing patients for COVID-19 in hospital with nasal swabs.
This test only shows whether someone has the virus - and not whether they have already recovered from it.
However, the new at-home test would reveal if someone has had the bug and built up immunity, and is therefore unlikely to catch it again.
A Boots UK spokesman told The Sun Online: "We are keen to work with the Government to explore opportunities to support COVID-19 testing.
"However we do not have any type of COVID-19 tests in our stores.
"Customers should not make a trip to a Boots store or pharmacy for this purpose."
PUTIN DELAYS VOTE THAT WOULD EXTEND RULE
Citing the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday (local time) postponed a nationwide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that include a change potentially allowing him to stay in office until 2036. Putin didn't set a new date for the plebiscite, which was originally scheduled for April 22, saying that it would depend on how the pandemic develops in Russia. The country reported its first two deaths from the virus on Wednesday. He also announced during a televised address to the nation that the government doesn't want Russians to go to work next week, except for those in essential sectors. Stores, pharmacies and banks will stay open, he said.
"Health, life and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us," Mr Putin said.
"That is why I believe that the vote should be postponed. We will assess how the situation in the regions and the country as a whole develops, and will set a new date for the vote based exclusively on professional opinion and advice from doctors and experts."
Under the current law, Mr Putin wouldn't be able to run for president again in 2024 because of term limits. A new measure would reset his term count, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms if he chooses.
The 67-year-old Putin has been in power since 2000, longer than any other ruler in the country since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Originally published as US strikes stimulus deal worth trillions