A medical worker dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) assists a patient with COVID-19 in the hemodialysis care unit ward of Moscow City Clinical Hospital 52 in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

COVID cases approach five million worldwide — Global virus update

A medical worker dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) assists a patient with COVID-19 in the hemodialysis care unit ward of Moscow City Clinical Hospital 52 in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Key Developments:

  • Virus Tracker: Cases top 4.8 million; deaths exceed 319,000
  • US airlines see signs of life after April travel collapse
  • HK unemployment rate soars; jobless claims rise in Britain
  • COVID patients testing positive after recovery aren’t infectious
  • Moderna to raise as much as $1.3 billion to fund vaccine
  • Crisis brings gaming boom, adding billions to makers’ wealth

EU Cheers WHO’s Approval of Resolution

The European Union hailed the World Health Assembly’s approval of an EU-sponsored resolution on the virus, saying the move highlights the importance of a “collective response” to the pandemic.

“Strengthening multilateralism is now more important than ever,” EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in a statement after the endorsement by the governing body of the WHO. “The role of equitable access to a vaccine in bringing the pandemic to an end is crucial.”

The EU earlier criticised Trump’s threat to permanently cut U.S. funding for the WHO.

“This is the time for solidarity; it is not the time for finger-pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation,” Virginie Battu-Henriksson, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, the 27-nation EU’s executive arm, told reporters in Brussels.

Separately, the UK’s Lancet medical journal said Trump’s claim that the WHO ignored reports of a new virus spreading last year — including an article in the Lancet — is wrong and “damaging.”

“The Lancet published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China,” the journal said in an emailed statement. “It is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place.”

Southwest Sees Signs of Life in Bookings

Southwest Airlines Co. joined other US carriers noting nascent signs of revival, saying that bookings in May are outpacing cancellations for the first time since March and that travel reservations for next month are showing “modest improvement.”

US Housing Starts Slump by Most on Record (8:34 a.m. NY)

US home construction starts plunged in April by the most in records back to 1959, as the nationwide lockdown hammered the housing market and broader economy.

Residential starts plummeted 30.2% to an 891,000 from a month earlier, the lowest level since February 2015, according to a government report released Tuesday. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey called for a 900,000 pace. Applications to build, a proxy for future construction, dropped 20.8%, the most since July 2008, to a five-year low.

Singapore to Reopen More Businesses

Singapore will allow more businesses to reopen on June 2 — increasing the active proportion of the economy to three-quarters. Restrictions will be introduced in three phases provided “community” infection rates remain low during the current lockdown ending June 1 and health workers are protected, officials said at a press briefing Tuesday.

The government will extend more support to businesses and their workers, with a priority on companies that remain closed on June 1, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is expected to announce details of a fourth stimulus package next Tuesday in parliament.

Chinese Tycoon Expects Vaccine Trials at Home Soon

The billionaire founder of Fosun Group expects to soon win approvals for testing a vaccine against the new coronavirus in his home country China. In March, Guo’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. teamed up with German partner BioNTech SE, which has already been conducting human clinical trials of the vaccine in Germany. Early-stage results should be available soon, the tycoon said.

Guo declined to elaborate on when Fosun Pharmaceutical will obtain all the required approvals. The group has also been working with overseas partners in trying to find an effective medicine against the virus, but so far it hasn’t found any, he said.

Walmart Sales Soar on Stockpiling

Walmart Inc. posted strong quarterly sales fueled by coronavirus-related stockpiling, showing how it’s one of the few retailers that’s thriving even amid the unprecedented carnage in the US retail sector. Comparable-store sales, a key retail metric, increased 10% for US Walmart stores in the period, compared with the 8.6% estimate compiled by Consensus Metrix. That’s the fastest pace of growth in almost two decades. Profit in the quarter also beat expectations.

The “significant uncertainty” surrounding the length and intensity of the coronavirus’s impact prompted the retailer to withdraw its full-year guidance, given just three months ago. Still, Walmart said its “business fundamentals are strong.”

Earlier, Home Depot also suspended its full-year forecast citing uncertainty related to the duration of COVID-19 and its impact on the broader economy, while Kohl’s suspended its dividend and stock buyback.

Singapore May Announce Fourth Stimulus Package

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will deliver a statement in Parliament on May 26 on plans to help businesses and individuals amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Straits Times reported. The statement is expected to contain a fourth round of COVID-19 support measures since February, the paper said,

Russian Prime Minister Returns to Office

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin returned to his position nearly three weeks after he tested positive for coronavirus. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree canceling a temporary transfer of Mishustin’s authority to First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov, who was named acting premier on April 30.

Following his diagnosis, Mishustin, 54, reappeared on state television on May 8 and has repeatedly participated in video-conferences with Putin and other ministers since then. Mishustin, three government ministers and at least five State Duma deputies have been diagnosed with the virus, as well as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Mishustin returns to office with Russian cases just shy of 300,000, having nearly tripled since he tested positive at the end of last month. After a surge over the past few weeks, the number of new diagnoses is now starting to decline.

German Investor Confidence Jumps

Investors are growing more confident that the German economy will recover from its worst postwar slump in the second half of the year, with businesses resuming activity after the government lifted restrictions. A ZEW gauge measuring investor expectations for the next six months climbed to 51.0, the highest level in five years and above all estimates in a Bloomberg survey.

At the same time, concerns about the present state of Europe’s largest economy are running deep amid rising unemployment and surging bankruptcies. A leading business lobby said German gross domestic product will contract by 10% in 2020. Europe’s largest economy would then bounce back with a 5% expansion next year, the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, or DIHK, said.

The group’s 2020 outlook is worse than the government’s forecast of a 6.3% contraction this year.

UK Virus-Related Deaths Rise to More Than 40,000

The number of deaths linked to coronavirus in the UK exceeded 40,000, making it the first country in Europe to reach that threshold. Almost 43,000 fatalities mentioned COVID-19 on the death certificate through May 16, according to the latest data registered with national statistics offices. Mortalities are leveling off in the countries, with England and Wales reporting a decrease in the number of deaths involving the virus on the previous week.

The government is facing calls to be more open about its strategy to combat the pandemic, with some lawmakers called for the publication of the scientific advice behind Britain’s response to the virus.

Austria’s Virus Reproduction Rate Rises

Austria’s so-called reproduction factor has risen above 1 again after an outbreak clustered around a temporary work agency in and around capital Vienna. The reproduction factor, calculated on the basis of 13 days of new infections, had been below 1 since April 4 and rose to 1.07 as of May 15, according to health Agency AGES, which publishes the factor in varying intervals.

A rate above one indicates every infected person is statistically passing it to more than one other person. Austria was among the first European countries to ease the coronavirus lockdown from April 14 after containing infections early and quickly. A surge of infections in Vienna and the province surrounding it this month have driven up the 7-day average of daily new infections to 55, the highest since May 2.

Hong Kong Unemployment Rate Rises to Highest Since 2009

Hong Kong’s jobless rate rose for a seventh straight month to the highest in more than a decade, as the economy remains in recession amid the coronavirus pandemic and braces for the prospect of renewed political unrest.

The jobless rate for the February-to-April period rose to 5.2%, worse than the median estimate of 4.6% among economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The level is the highest since October 2009, the data show. The rise extended the longest stretch of increases since the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

China Dismisses Trump’s WHO Comments

Trump’s latest complaints of favouritism by World Health Organization are “futile,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday. The comments come after Trump escalated his threats against the international body over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would permanently cut US funding if it does not make sweeping reforms.

In a four-page letter detailing his many grievances with the WHO, Trump called on the group to “demonstrate independence from China,” renewing a complaint that led him in April to temporarily suspend US funding. He posted the letter late Monday on Twitter.

Indian Cases Pass 100,000

India’s infections are rising at the fastest pace in Asia, just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi further relaxed a nationwide lockdown to boost economic activities. Infections in the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people were at 100,328, including 3,156 deaths, as of Tuesday. As many as 5,242 new cases were added on Tuesday.

India is now among the nations worst hit by the epidemic, with a 28% increase in cases since last week. Neighbor and nuclear rival Pakistan has 42,125 cases including 903 deaths. Its cases increased by 19% over the same period.

UK Jobless Claims Surge

The number of Britons seeking jobless benefits spiked the most on record last month as the lockdown sent shock waves through the U.K. economy. Jobless claims rose 856,500 to more than 2 million in April, the Office for National Statistics said. The claimant count rate climbed to 5.8%, the highest in more than two decades.

Europe Lockdowns Pummel Car Sales

European car sales dropped the most on record after the coronavirus halted production and closed dealerships from Spain to Germany. Passenger vehicle registrations in the European Union, the European Free Trade Association and the U.K. fell 78% year-over-year. Companies sold just 292,182 cars — the lowest number since data-gathering began in 1990.