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Chinese Firm Offers to Replace Faulty Test Kits Sold to Spain

A Chinese company offered Friday to replace thousands of faulty coronavirus test kits after Spanish health authorities – desperate for materials to cope with the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll – complained they did not work as promised.China has sold face masks and other medical equipment through a series of personal contacts with Spanish authorities, including discussions between chief executives of Chinese tech giant Alibaba and Spain’s King Felipe.But the first shipment of 640,000 test kits was found to have “insufficient sensibility” to reliably identify infected patients, according to Health Minister Salvador Illa, who announced Thursday that 58,000 kits had been returned.FILE – This undated file photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus.The Chinese company supplying the test kits, Shenzhen Bioeasy Technology, said in a statement quoted by Reuters that the incorrect results may have resulted from a failure to collect samples or use the kits correctly.The firm said it had not adequately communicated with clients how to use the kits and would resend them “assuring the sensitivity and specificity needed to help Spain fight against COVID-19.”Spanish medical experts, who have examined the 9,000 kits delivered last week, said they have only a 30 percent probability of detecting the virus.“They are useless,” said Victor Jimenez Cid, a senior professor in microbiology at Madrid’s Complutense University. For a test to be effective it must have a 70 percent to 80 percent probability of detecting the virus, Cid said.The failure of Bioeasy’s testing kits is a painful setback for Spanish medical authorities, who are struggling to cope with more than 64,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 4,900 deaths, second only to Italy.It is also hugely embarrassing to China, which is seeking to rehabilitate a national image tarnished by its faulty early response to the virus in Wuhan by offering assistance to other hard-hit countries.“First they send us the virus, then they sell us the medications to stop it and then defraud us. It’s great for China” said a guest in a panel discussion on a broadcast on the Spanish TV channel La Sexta.An emergency worker wearing a protective suit closes the door of an ambulance transferring a COVID-19 patient in Barcelona, Spain, March 27, 2020.The test is performed by dipping a swab with a sample of a patient’s saliva in a protein extraction that gives color indications of the virus’s presence. The speedy method is essential for emergency examinations by hospitals as well as improvised drive-through facilities that Spanish authorities are setting up to isolate and quickly treat cases of contamination.Until now, Spanish hospitals have relied on slower molecular laboratory testing, which requires specialized personnel and take four hours to produce a result. Tests like those offered by Bioeasy are supposed to produce a diagnosis in 15 minutes.Mass testing methods proved essential in South Korea’s successful effort against coronavirus and they are recommended by the World Health Organization as an essential way of controlling the pandemic’s spread.A priest wearing a gloves to protect against coronavirus waits in front the cemetery chapel during the coronavirus outbreak in Madrid, Spain, March 27, 2020.The Chinese embassy in Spain tweeted that Shenzen Bioeasy is not licensed to sell the product and is not included on a list of “recommended suppliers,” which its ministry of commerce offered the Spanish government.Spain’s health ministry said Bioeasy products have been approved by European Union quality control agencies and that the “specifications of this test, at least of the lot that was received, do not correspond with EU quality certifications.”Officials said the deal with Bioeasy was made through an unidentified intermediary.Health ministry emergency coordinator Fernando Simon said Spain is trying to import 6 million testing kits from China and other EU countries. He also said that “intense efforts” are underway with Spanish biotechnology firms to produce them. 

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Congressman Raises Concerns Over Trump Administration Tactics on Kosovo

A prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday issued a highly critical statement on U.S. policy toward Kosovo.Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Since than the country has been recognized by more than 110 countries, including the United States, but not by Serbia and its ally Russia.House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat, said there is something wrong with the U.S. foreign policy toward Kosovo and “we need to correct it.”In his statement, Engel expressed his serious concerns “with the heavy-handed tactics the Trump administration is using with Prishtina,” Kosovo’s capital.Engel was referring to State Department pressure on Prishtina, especially on the government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, to lift tariffs the country had imposed on Serbia.“This administration turned to economic penalties just a few short weeks after the Kurti government took office. Rather than letting a new government facing a pandemic staff its agencies and set up internal procedures, the U.S. contributed to a political crisis in Prishtina over the tariffs on Serbia,” Engel said.On March 25, after only 50 days in office, the Kurti government did not survive a no-confidence vote in parliament, initiated by its ruling coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).The government was dismissed following political bickering over whether to declare a state of emergency to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and after Kurti dismissed the LDK internal affairs minister, Agim Veliu.Kurti’s government is expected to continue as a caretaker government, pending creation of a new government.“There are good reasons for Kosovo to lift tariffs, mostly that they are hurting Kosovo more than they are providing leverage to reach a peace deal with Serbia,” Engel said.“Regardless, tariffs are a legitimate tool of a sovereign nation. As such, they’ve been imposed around the world by [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump against friends and foes, alike, for economic and political reasons,” Engel said.Engel said the Trump administration used “overbearing tactics with a friend which relies on our support” instead of working with Kurti government, “as it sought to work with the previous Kosovo government” to forge policies that promote lasting peace and prosperity.“Strong-arming a small democracy is the act of a bully,” Engel said.While Serbian diplomats are campaigning around the world to “derecognize” Kosovo’s independence, and Serbia is purchasing heavy weaponry from Russia and strengthening the relationship with Moscow, the pressure imposed on Prishtina for its tariffs on Serbia has been “decidedly unbalanced,” Engel said.The U.S., he added, should work with European allies “to treat both countries as independent and sovereign partners, applying consistent standards to both sides as we try to restart peace talks.”The arms purchases from Russia require U.S. sanctions on Serbia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed in the aftermath of 2016 Russian interference in U.S. elections, Engel said.“Neither have we imposed those sanctions, nor have we energetically pressed Serbia to end its derecognition efforts,” Engel said.“When U.S. law says we should sanction Serbia due to its security ties with Russia, we should.”    

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Reaction to News UK’s Johnson Has Tested Positive for Coronavirus

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday he had tested positive for coronavirus and was in self-isolation at his Downing Street office.
 
Here is reaction to the news.
   Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of UK’s Opposition Labor Party 
 
“I wish the Prime Minister a speedy recovery and hope his family are safe and healthy. Coronavirus can and does affect anyone. Everyone be safe. Our own health depends on everybody else.”   
 Indain Prime Minister Narendra Modi 
 
“You’re a fighter and you will overcome this challenge as well. Prayers for your good health and best wishes in ensuring a healthy UK.”
 Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster 
 
“Best wishes to the Prime Minister and Carrie (Symonds, Johnson’s fiancee). No one is immune. Let’s all follow the guidelines.”
 Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon 
 
“I send my very best wishes to Boris Johnson and his family. I don’t underestimate for anybody how difficult it is to be positive for this virus so I certainly send my best wishes to him for a very speedy recovery.”

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Scotland Reports 1,059 Coronavirus Cases, 33 Deaths

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reports that as of Friday, there were 1,059 cases of COVID-19 in Scotland — an increase of 165 from Thursday.
 
At a news conference Friday in Edinburgh, Sturgeon also reported an additional eight deaths from the virus overnight, bringing the total number of fatalities in Scotland to 33.
 
The first minister said she expects those numbers to be an underestimate. She urged people to stay indoors, and to go out only for essential shopping and exercise, or care for others.   
 
Sturgeon also stressed the importance of supporting mental health during the coronavirus crisis, and she announced Friday about $4.7 billion in additional funding for National Health Service mental health support services, including 24-hour support phone lines and internet services. 

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COVID-19 Diaries: Arriving Home to a Totally Changed Rome

We made it home to Italy, just north of Rome, last Friday and that’s when our two-week quarantine began.As soon as we arrived, we had to declare to the local health authorities that we understood the rules — we were to stay indoors and not leave the house, not even for food. All I can say is thank goodness home deliveries are working!It took my 18-year-old twin sons and me an entire day to get home from England. We are only too aware that we were very lucky; three days earlier the EU had announced that travel into the Schengen area was halted for 30 days, with the only exception for returning long-time residents.From London Heathrow airport, we flew to Dusseldorf, Germany, to catch a completely booked connecting flight to Rome. Many on our initial flight were university students headed for Milan who discovered their connecting flight had been cancelled. No one told them what they should do. In fact, Dusseldorf airport was deserted and our flight to Rome was one of only a handful that had not been cancelled.My sons study in the south of England and I had gone there to attend a parents-teacher evening on Feb. 27. At that time, Italy had locked down 11 towns in the north due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I could not have known that soon that would be the fate of the whole of Italy.Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
An empty street leads to the ancient Colosseum, in Rome, March 24, 2020.Finally, we could go and collect our suitcases in what was another deserted airport terminal. I had never seen Rome airport so empty, with all its shops closed. I had made sure that a car with driver was waiting for us. As we were driven on Rome’s notoriously busy ring road, we could not believe how few cars we passed.As we drove into town, there were many police roadblocks, but no one stopped us. We had to collect some keys at one address, pick up some things for the kids somewhere else and finally pick up my car to drive home. We were able to achieve all that driving through a spectral Rome.We saw virtually no people or cars – a surreal scene for residents long accustomed to Rome’s unbearable traffic with its honking cars and scooters whizzing by left and right. It dawned on us very quickly there would be no freedom of movement for any of us; our lives would be radically different.Medical personnel talk outside the retirement home Giovanni XIII, where coronavirus swabs were carried out on the staff of the facility, after the death of a patient, in Rome, March 24, 2020.We were exhausted but happy to get home at 11 pm. We went to bed knowing our lives in Italy were not going to be anything like what we knew in the past. And the next morning that reality hit us — no leaving the house, no food except what was left in the elevator of our building for us, no speaking with anyone except on the phone or WhatsApp. No going for a walk, no going to the gym, no meeting up with friends. Outside, cafes, restaurants and shops all were closed.The weather at this time of the year is beautiful and we are allowed out on our terrace of course. But when we look outside we see no one; everyone is locked up at home in self-isolation. The rare person who walks by heading to buy food is wearing a protective mask and gloves. The boys and I look at each other and ask ourselves a question no one is able to answer: How long is this going to last? 

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Italy Hopes Virus Is Easing But Fears New Onslaught in South

Doctors and nurses in Italy’s overwhelmed northern hospitals have welcomed a slight stabilizing in the number of coronavirus infections but fear the virus is still silently spreading in the south two weeks into the West’s most extreme nationwide shutdown.As the dead in Italy keep piling up, virologists warn that the actual number of Italy’s positive cases is up to five times as high as the official count of 80,539. That means infections will still climb even with Italians ordered to stay home for all but essential activity.Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s pandemic, has by far the most virus deaths of any nation in the world, a grim tally of 8,165. On Friday, Italy is on track to surpass China in its infection count and have the most cases of any nation behind the U.S.”It is something devastating,” said the Rev. Mario Carminati, who has turned over a church in the tiny Lombard town of Seriate to host coffins before they are taken by military convoy to be cremated. This week, dozens were lined up in two neat rows down the central aisle, and were immediately replaced by new ones when they were taken away.”At least the relatives and family know that someone is taking care of them, with a prayer and a benediction before they are taken away,” he said.Despite the toll, officials have also expressed cautious optimism that the exponential spread of the virus is starting to slow in the hard-hit north, thanks to two weeks of military-enforced stay-at-home orders. For several days this week, new infections and deaths showed signs of slowing down, and emergency rooms weren’t seeing the tsunami of sick that characterized the first weeks of the pandemic following Italy’s first positive test Feb. 20.”The numbers are still high, but for a few days now the numbers have stopped rising, thank God,” said Dr. Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, one of the hardest hit of Italy’s public hospitals.  Some 500 medical personnel at the hospital are infected, and Lorini said he has found himself treating colleagues, friends, children of friends and parents of friends in his overwhelmed 88-bed ICU that serves a city of 120,000.  He marvels that he is still standing and wonders if maybe he was infected early on with slight symptoms and developed immunity. Nationwide, at least 33 doctors have died and 6,414 medical personnel have tested positive”We know it before we go into battle, and we accept it,” Lorini told The Associated Press.Elsewhere in Bergamo, the Italian army’s Alpini mountaineering forces are building a field hospital to be staffed, in part, by some of the 150 medical personnel sent by Russia, one of only a handful of countries along with China and Cuba to respond to Italy’s urgent appeal for medical equipment, protective masks and personnel.  But the need is also growing in the south, where hospitals are even less prepared and equipped than the prosperous north.  “It’s a matter of hours, not days,” the governor of the Campania region that includes Naples wrote to the central government, complaining that his urgent requests for ventilators had gone unheeded. “There is a real chance of adding a tragedy of the south to the tragedy of the north.”Cateno De Luca, mayor of the Sicilian city of Messina, took the extraordinary step of recording a warning to residents in his nasal, gravelly voice for drones to play as they fly over the seaside city monitoring residents’ movements.  “Don’t go outside! That is an order from Mayor De Luca!” the drone blasts.Italy’s high death toll and aggressive spread of the virus has led Italian epidemiologists to estimate that the true number of infected could be as high as 450,000, and that under-testing is putting Italians at risk of further contagion. Currently, Italy only tests people showing symptoms, because its labs cannot process any more, and to date more than 360,000 tests have been performed.Virologist Dr. Andrea Crisanti, director of molecular medicine at the University of Padua and a consultant for the Veneto regional government, points to the only controlled epidemiological study done in the outbreak, in the tiny Veneto town of Vo’Euganeo, as evidence that Italy’s true numbers of infection are much higher — and that the risk of not testing more widely is enormous.Italy recorded its first death in Vo, and the town was locked down Feb. 22 and the entire population of 3,300 tested. According to the study, 3% of Vo’s residents were infected, but between 50%-75% of them were asymptomatic. But because all positive cases were identified, isolated and quarantined, regardless of whether they were symptomatic, Vo has seen its new infections crumble.  
“This tiny town has taught us a lot,” Crisanti told state-run RAI radio.  Crisanti said the Vo study showed that even asymptomatic people transmit the virus, since the few new infections registered between tests were within households of asymptomatic people. The only way to stop the spread, he told RAI, is more testing, active surveillance of all positive cases and quarantine.Based on the Vo results, Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia is planning to vastly ramp up testing across the region, aiming to reach 20,000 tests a day and hand out protective masks to each family. Already, Veneto has tested nearly 80,000 people, and compared to hard-hit Lombardy next door, has a comparatively low mortality rate with 287 dead and 6,935 positive cases. 
The government on March 10 imposed a nationwide lockdown after an initial quarantine of a dozen small towns in Lombardy and Veneto failed to stop the spread of the virus. On Thursday, Italy idled all non-essential production and industry, the most widespread manufacturing shutdown in the world.  
The industrial lobby Confindustria has estimated it could cost 70 billion-to-100 billion euros ($77 billion-$110 billion) of national wealth a month if 70% of companies are closed.  
Two weeks in, the measures appear to be having their effect on the virus, slowing new infections and relieving pressure on the health system. By Thursday, more than 10,000 of Italy’s 80,000 infected had been cured.
Twenty days after coming down with a fever, and after nearly a week in an air-pressurized helmet pumping oxygen into his virus-ravaged lungs, Fausto Russo is now breathing on his own and hopes to go home as early as Sunday from the Santa Maria Goretti hospital in Latina, near Rome.  
“It’s a horrible sensation, not being able to breathe,” said Russo, a 38-year-old fitness trainer. “Imagine putting your head under water.”  
Lorini, the doctor, knows well the toll that the virus takes on both patients and hospital staff. When he goes home each night, a five-minute walk from the hospital, he allows himself a few minutes to listen to music and “unplug” from the intensity of the ICU ward.  
His current favorite song is Bruce Springstein’s “Secret Garden.” He smiles as he thinks about the lyrics. “You’ve gone a million miles/ How far’d you get/ To that place where/ You can’t remember/ And you can’t forget.”
“Listen to it today,” Lorini suggested. “It will give you a sense of tenderness.”

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Spain Enters Third Week of Coronavirus Lockdown

As Spain entered the third week of lockdown Friday, the streets of Barcelona, the second-most populous municipality, were empty due to the coronavirus pandemic.Iconic tourist attractions in the capital of Catalonia region, such as Arc de Triomf, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and La Rambla were deserted.The only people occasionally seen on the street were those walking dogs.On a Barcelona beach, police were patrolling the area, with no one else venturing out.Spain is the hardest-hit country by the coronavirus in Europe after Italy, recording more than 56,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 4,100 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.

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Global Army of Volunteers Mobilizes to Battle Coronavirus

More than half a million people in Britain have volunteered to help the National Health Service cope with the coronavirus epidemic. Across the world, people are stepping forward to help the most vulnerable – offering hope that societies can overcome the huge disruption caused by the virus. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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