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US states loosen lockdowns as coronavirus drug approved

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More US states eased pandemic lockdown measures on Friday even as coronavirus deaths rose, while American authorities greenlighted an experimental drug for emergency use on patients.

Washington also renewed its warnings to Beijing a day after President Donald Trump threatened to slap tariffs on China, with the White House accusing Chinese authorities of “slow-walking” coronavirus data and putting US lives at risk.

India meanwhile announced that the world’s biggest lockdown — on most of the nation’s 1.3 billion people — would continue for two more weeks.

But several European countries have begun to ease restrictions that have shut in half the world, joining some Asian nations that feel they have already turned a corner.

The United States took a major step in that direction, with Texas becoming the largest state yet to ease lockdowns, despite reporting 50 deaths on Thursday, the most there since the outbreak began.

Stores, restaurants, movie theaters, malls, museums and libraries were allowed to reopen in Texas but at just 25 percent capacity. The governor urged residents to wear face masks and maintain social distancing.

Receptionist Diane Curtis headed to a mall in Houston to buy shoes and “get out of the house.”

“Eventually it’s like every other sickness that comes around,” she said of coronavirus. “It’ll go away but it’ll probably take time.”

With about 1.1 million confirmed cases, more than 64,500 of them fatal, the United States has the highest tolls of any country.

Trump, eager for a turnaround, announced Friday that US regulators have authorized the use of remdesivir to treat serious virus cases. A major clinical trial found that the antiviral helped patients with serious cases of COVID-19 recover faster.

Meanwhile, the White House again pointed fingers at Beijing.

“It’s no secret that China mishandled this situation,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, highlighting what she described as Beijing’s failure to quickly share the virus’s genetic sequence or information on human-to-human transmission.

“Slow-walking some of that information put American lives at risk,” McEnany said.

Washington’s sharp rhetoric, including Trump’s unproven allegation Thursday that the virus might have come from a Chinese lab — an accusation rejected by Beijing — and threats of more US trade tariffs sent stocks in London and New York tumbling.

The FTSE shed 1.7 percent while the Dow Jones Industrial Average slid more than 2.5 percent.

Tech giants Apple and Amazon became the latest firms to announce worrying results as corporations around the world shed staff and slash profit forecasts.

The economic mood darkened further with the release of a manufacturing survey that pointed to a historic decline in US output in April due to the pandemic.

In more positive signs, South Africa and Austria were allowing some businesses to reopen from Friday, and hard-hit Spain’s latest daily death toll confirmed the pandemic there was slowing.

“The road ahead will be long and hard, and we will make mistakes,” warned South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.

But despite his caution, Johannesburg construction company owner Sean Lawrenson woke up at the crack of dawn for his first run in weeks.

“Gosh, I forgot how beautiful it was, how much I missed it. It felt great,” Lawrenson said, wearing a black face mask and beanie.

While death rates are slowing in most of Europe, the pandemic’s global toll has topped 235,000, according to an AFP tally of official sources.

More than 3.3 million infections have been recorded globally, likely a gross underestimate with many countries only testing the most serious cases.

‘We don’t know’
Scientists believe the killer virus jumped from animals to humans, emerging in China late last year, possibly from a market in Wuhan selling exotic animals for meat.

But speculative theories have swirled about a top-secret lab in the central Chinese city.

Asked Thursday if he had seen anything to make him think the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the source of the outbreak, Trump replied: “Yes, I have.”

But he refused to give details and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated he had not seen definitive evidence.

Regarding reports that he could cancel US debt obligations to China, Trump said he could “do it differently” by “just putting on tariffs.”

The World Health Organization asked to be allowed to take part in a Chinese investigation into the “animal origins” of the pandemic.

Several investigations into the source of the virus were ongoing, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said, adding that the global agency was “not currently involved in the studies in China” but would be “keen” to participate.

Lockdowns ease
The pandemic has disrupted economies worldwide and kept billions indoors, but now that numbers are steadying countries are starting to chart a course out of restrictive lockdowns.

British Health Minister Matt Hancock announced that the UK has hit its target of conducting 100,000 coronavirus tests a day, a step toward eventually lifting lockdown rules in the country that this week overtook Spain to record the world’s third-highest death toll.

Germany has accelerated plans to lift its lockdown, preparing to ease curbs on public life and reopen churches, museums and zoos after restarting shopping last week.

Neighboring Austria followed suit Friday with people allowed to gather in groups of 10 or less.

And in Belgium, patients who survived the virus and emerged from comas were still too weak to leave hospitals.

“What is painful is to have to recover reflexes and actions that are completely natural,” said 74-year-old Pierre Fonteyne, as he gingerly returned to walking.

There were signs the epidemic may just be getting underway in places that so far have been spared the worst.

In northern Nigeria’s Kano state, cases have almost tripled in a few days.

Nasiru Sani Gwarzo, head of a presidential COVID-19 taskforce, told AFP the region appeared to be “at the threshold of the community transmission stage.”