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Trump seeks to force General Motors to produce ventilators

Trump seeks to force GM

President Donald Trump issued an order Friday that seeks to force General Motors to produce ventilators for coronavirus patients under the Defence Production Act.

Trump said negotiations with General Motors had been productive, “but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course.”

Trump said “GM was wasting time” and that his actions will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.

Previously Trump has been reluctant to use the act to force businesses to contribute to the coronavirus fight. GM is among the farthest along of U.S. companies trying to repurpose factories to build ventilators. It's working with Ventec Life Systems, a small Seattle-area ventilator maker to increase the company's production and GM will use its auto electronics plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to make the machines.

Experts say that no matter how many ventilators companies can crank out, it may not be enough to cover the entire need, and it may not come in time to help areas now being hit hard with critical virus cases.

U.S. hospitals now have about 65,000 ventilators fully capable of treating severe coronavirus patients. They could cobble together about 170,000, including some simpler versions that won't work in all cases, said Dr. Lewis Rubinson, chief medical officer at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey and lead author of a 2010 medical journal article on the matter.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine has projected that 960,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. may need to be put on ventilators at one point or another during the outbreak.

Rubinson said it’s unlikely the U.S. would need that many ventilators at the same time, estimating it will need more like 300,000 fairly quickly. If social distancing works, people will get sick at different times, allowing hospitals to use ventilators on multiple patients.

GM said Friday it could build 10,000 ventilators per month starting in April with potential to make even more.

After Trump invoked the act, GM said in a statement that it has been working around the clock for more than a week with Ventec and parts suppliers to build more ventilators. The company said its commitment to build Ventec’s ventilators “has never wavered.”

Trump said from the Oval Office that the government thought it had a deal for 40,000 ventilators but GM cut the number to 6,000 and talked about a higher price than previously discussed.

“I didn't like it,” he said. "So we did activate it with respect to General Motors.

At his daily briefing Friday evening, Trump said cost became an issue with GM. “We didn't want to play games with them," he said, adding that GM now agrees with him and he may be able to pull the order.

He also said wasn't happy with GM for closing its factory in Lordstown, Ohio. “I didn't go into it with a very favourable view,” he said.

GM said it is offering resources to Ventec “at cost.” Ventec, not GM, is talking with the government, and the only changes Ventec has made have been at the government's request, said Chris Brooks, the company's chief strategy officer. GM would merely be a contract manufacturer for Ventec, he said.

Ventec ventilators, which are portable and can handle intensive care patients, cost about $18,000 each, Brooks said. That's much cheaper than the more sophisticated ventilators used by hospitals that can cost up to $50,000, he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made multiple requests since Sunday for estimates of how many ventilators it can build at what price, and has not settled on any numbers, according to Brooks. That could slow Ventec's efforts to ramp up production because it doesn't know how many breathing machines it must build, he said.

Trump's action came just after a series of tweets attacking GM and CEO Mary Barra. The president also cajoled Ford to build ventilators fast. Ford responded that it's “pulling out all the stops.”

It was a dramatic shift in tone from the night before, when the president told Fox News that pleas by hospitals for more ventilators are exaggerated.

“I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” he said.

“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators," Trump continued. "You know, you’re going to major hospitals sometimes, they'll have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they're saying, ‘can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

In the most severe cases, the coronavirus damages healthy tissue in the lungs, making it hard for them to deliver oxygen to the blood. Pneumonia can develop, along with a more severe and potentially deadly condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can damage other organs.



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Value of a statistical life focuses debate in United States

How much is a life worth?

The contrast could hardly be more stark.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has said that if all of his sweeping, expensive measures to stem the coronavirus saved one life, it would be worth it. President Donald Trump has another view: The costs of shutting down the economy outweigh the benefits, telling Americans that 35,000 people a year die from the common flu.

Though it may seem crass, the federal government actually has long made a calculation when imposing regulations, called “the value of a statistical life,” that places a price tag on a human life. It has been used to consider whether to require seat belts, airbags or environmental regulations, but it has never been applied in a broad public health context.

The question is now an urgent one given that Trump in recent days has latched on to the notion that the cure for the pandemic should not be worse than the disease and argued that “more people are going to die if we allow this to continue” if the economy remains closed. He has targeted a return to a semblance of normalcy for the economy by Easter Sunday, April 12.

Critics say he’s presenting the nation with a false choice at a moment when deaths and infections from the virus are surging.

“We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,” said Cuomo, whose state has seen far more infections and deaths from COVID-19 than any other state. “And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”



Famous Dutch tulip gardens lonely during pandemic

Not tiptoeing through tulips

The manicured lawns and pathways winding the flower beds at the Keukenhof spring garden, normally crowded with thousands of visitors on any given sun-splashed spring day, were deserted Thursday.

A lonely worker pushed his wheelbarrow through the garden, carrying out maintenance even though nobody will be allowed to visit the Dutch park this season because of restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“It feels very bad, you can imagine," said Keukenhof Director Bart Siemerink. "It really hurts. For all the gardeners, for all the people involved.”

In a normal year, there are plenty of people — some 1,300 — involved in grooming the garden, working in stores and restaurants and maintaining order in the busy parking lot.

But this is not a normal year and now only about 40-50 staff are working to maintain the park to ensure it can reopen in 2021.

The Keukenhof's annual eight-week opening, which usually attracts some 1.5 million visitors from more than 100 countries, was postponed last week, and on Wednesday cancelled altogether. It's not the only major Dutch tourist site that has fallen victim to the virus' march across the world. The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are shuttered, and even the brothels in the city's Red Light district have closed down.





Fashion mogul Ralph Lauren donates $10 million to virus fight

Ralph Lauren donates $10M

Designer Ralph Lauren has pledged to contribute $10 million to aid the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The 80-year-old fashion icon announced the news on Thursday.

"Now more than ever, supporting each other in this time of need has become our mission," the statement on the brand's Instagram account reads.

"As we face this global challenge together, the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation is committing $10 million to help our teams and communities around the world."

Lauren now joins stars like Angelina Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively among the stars who have made $1 million-plus contributions to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.



British Prime Minister Johnson tests positive for coronavirus

British PM tests positive

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for the new coronavirus, but remains in charge of the U.K.'s response to the outbreak.

Johnson, 55, said Friday that he was tested for COVID-19 on the advice of the chief medical officer after showing “mild symptoms” involving a temperature and a persistent cough.

“I’ve taken a test, that’s come out positive so I am working from home, I am self-isolating, and that’s entirely the right thing to do," he said in a video message posted on his Twitter account.

“But be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fightback against coronavirus.”

Johnson is the highest-profile political leader to have contracted the virus, and his positive test comes at the end of a week when he effectively closed down much of the British economy and introduced strict curbs on people's day-to-day movements in an attempt to stem the march of the coronavirus outbreak in the United Kingdom.

“The way we will get through it is of course by applying the measures that you have heard so much about,” he said. “And the more effectively we comply with those measures, the faster our country can come through this epidemic and the faster we’ll bounce back.”

As well as thanking everyone in the public services for their “amazing national effort,” Johnson also praised everyone who is staying at home.

“That’s the way we’re going to win," he said.

The government said that if Johnson is unable to work, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will replace him.

Johnson has met in person with some senior ministers and officials this week, and has appeared at press conferences alongside his top medical and scientific advisers.

Earlier this week Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, announced that he had tested positive for the virus.



Trump says feds developing new guidelines for virus risk

Rated by virus risk

U.S. President Donald Trump says federal officials are developing guidelines to rate counties by risk of virus spread, as he aims to begin to ease nationwide guidelines meant to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to the nation's governors, Trump said the new guidelines are meant to enable state and local leaders to make “decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other measures they have put in place.” States and municipalities would still retain authority to set whatever restrictions deem necessary.

“I think we can start by opening up certain parts of the country: you know, the farm belt, certain parts of the Midwest, other places,” Trump said Thursday in an interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. “I think we can open up sections, quadrants, and then just keep them going until the whole country is opened up."

The president has been trying for days to determine how to contain the economic fallout of the guidelines issued by his administration as well as local leaders to slow the tide of infections.

“Every day that we stay out it gets harder to bring it back very quickly," Trump said during a Thursday press conference.

Last week, Trump unveiled a 15-day program advising against large gatherings and calling for many Americans to remain at home. The guidelines, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are voluntary, but many state and local leaders have issued mandatory restrictions in line with, or even tighter than, those issued by the CDC.

The White House was still developing the new guidelines and gathering the data to back them up, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House co-ordinator for coronavirus response, told reporters Thurday.

“What we are trying to do is utilize a very laser-focused approach rather than an generic horizontal approach," she said.

Birx acknowledged concerns that people could simply move between areas with different infection risks — and potentially different restrictions on movement and gathering amid the outbreak.

“Part of this will be the need to have highly responsible behaviour between counties,” she said, saying the administration would provide additional guidance to states next week, once the new plan is finalized.



March Madness cancellation to cost NCAA $375 million

NCAA set to lose $375M

Cancelling March Madness because of the coronavirus pandemic will cost the NCAA about $375 million that it would have distributed to 350 schools across the nation.

Some will be able to absorb the losses better than others.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will distribute $225 million to its Division I member schools in June, nearly two-thirds less than the $600 million scheduled to be handed out in installments from April to June.

Schools that compete in the wealthiest conferences, with billion-dollar television contracts fueled by major college football, might not notice much of a difference in the short term. Schools competing in mid-major conferences are preparing to make sacrifices.

“For us, a million dollars, that's huge,” Atlantic Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart said.

Ohio State President Michael Drake, chairman of the NCAA board of governors, said in statement the association will undertake cost-cutting measures to be determined in the upcoming weeks.

“The association has prepared for a financial catastrophic event like the one we face now,” Drake said. “While we certainly have challenges ahead, we would be in a far worse position had it not been for this long-standing, forward-focused planning.”

Former NCAA executive Greg Shaheen said the association could trim expenses related to the championship events it runs.

“Look at the breadth of the 90 championships and only maybe a half dozen that cover their own costs,” he said.

The NCAA spent $153.8 million to run championship events last year.

Shaheen said millions could potentially be saved on travel costs, amenities provided to athletes and maybe even cutting the number of teams selected to compete.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said his 10-member league would have expected about $24 million from NCAA distributions. Instead, he estimated, the Big 12 will receive about $10 million.

“We're going to take some hits there,” Bowlsby said.

Bowlsby said the Big 12 is likely to be down $15 million to $18 million total this academic year in terms of revenue, but could tap reserve funds to meet conference distribution projections. Last year, the Big 12 distributed about $35 million to each of its member schools.

“We have some unknowns in our budget that remain and will probably remain for a while, but I expect that we will be able to make our members whole on what we forecast as this year's distribution,” Bowlsby said. “It's a whole new ballgame if we find ourselves not playing football because of this. It affects everything we do.”

At football powerhouse Clemson, NCAA tournament revenue is generally 2%-3% of its annual athletic budget, this year at $134 million.

"It's not an insignificant amount, but there have not been discussions to cut student-athlete services based on the announcement," athletic spokesman Jeff Kallin said.

The NCAA pulled in more than $1 billion in revenue last year, including $867.5 million from the television and marketing rights for the Division I men's basketball tournament. But March Madness was cancelled March 19, a week before the first round was scheduled to begin.



US could get stake in airlines in exchange for virus grants

Could get stake in airlines

The Trump administration is raising the possibility of the government getting ownership stakes in U.S. airlines in exchange for $25 billion in direct grants to help the carriers survive a downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.

Details were unclear on Thursday, but one approach being considered by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is to give the government warrants — options to buy shares in airlines that accept grant money, the people said.

A key factor would be the price at which the government could exercise the warrants. Airlines would balk if the government could buy their shares near the current, depressed prices.

The issue is wrapped up in discussions between the Trump administration and Republicans and Democrats in Congress over a $2 trillion plan designed to soften the economic blow of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that Mnuchin disclosed the plan for the government to take stakes in airlines during final negotiations over the rescue plan.

Aid to airlines is one of the last sticking points in Washington's negotiations over the economic-rescue plan, which includes $500 billion in loans and guarantees to businesses, state and local governments.

The White House and Senate Republicans had favoured only zero-interest loans and loan guarantees to the airlines, while Democrats supported the industry’s request if they were accompanied by conditions such as a ban on stock buybacks and limits on executive compensation.

Some lawmakers questioned the need to give cash from taxpayers to the airlines, which have enjoyed a decade-long run of huge profits and spent much of it buying back their own shares. Buybacks tend to raise stock prices by reducing the number of shares in circulation, which can benefit executives whose compensation is mostly in stock awards and options — not salary.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, asked for $50 billion in aid to passenger airlines — equally divided between cash grants and loans — and another $8 billion for cargo airlines. When it appeared that the airlines might not get grants needed to make payroll costs -- only loans – the carriers and their labour unions mounted a furious lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, promising to delay massive layoffs if the government gave the companies an infusion of cash.

The trade group's CEO, Nicholas Calio, praised a long list of officials involved in crafting the relief package, starting with President Donald Trump, and said he hoped the government would release the money quickly and “with as few restrictions as possible.” He didn't mention equity stakes for the government in his statement.

The relief package, which was passed by the Senate and now goes to the House, includes restrictions on other companies that receive aid besides airlines:

  • Employment: Companies that receive loans through the $500 billion emergency fund must maintain current employment levels “to the extent practicable” and in any event not to cut more than 10% of their workforce through September.
  • Stock buybacks: Companies will be barred from buying back their own shares for at least 12 months after the loan term ends. No dividends on common stock during the same period.
  • Executive pay: No increase in compensation for any executive who was paid more than $425,000 last year. For those who made more than $3 million last year, the maximum compensation they could receive is $3 million plus half of any difference over that amount.
  • Golden parachutes: Severance for employees who made more than $425,000 last year can't exceed twice their 2019 compensation.
  • New watchdog: A new government office and a panel appointed by Congress will monitor how loans and loan guarantees are used, with the goal of preventing abuse.


World leaders vow to co-ordinate virus response in video call

'We are at war with a virus'

The head of the United Nations told leaders of the world’s 20 major industrialized nations during an emergency virtual summit Thursday that "we are at war with a virus — and not winning it” despite dramatic measures by countries to seal their borders, shutter businesses and enforce home isolation for well over a quarter of the world's population.

The unusual video call in lieu of a physical gathering comes as governments around the world stress the importance of social distancing to curb the spread of the highly infectious virus, which has prompted closures, curfews and lockdowns globally.

The Group of 20 nations, criticized for not taking cohesive action against the virus or its economic impact, vowed to work together and said they are collectively injecting more than $4.8 trillion into the global economy to counteract the social and financial impacts of the pandemic.

In a final statement after the meeting, the G20 said they were committed to strengthening the World Health Organization’s mandate. They said “global action, solidarity and international co-operation” were needed more than ever, but made no specific commitments.

“The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities," the group said. “The virus respects no borders."

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged G20 leaders to adopt a war-time plan to tackle the pandemic.

“It took the world three months to reach 100,000 confirmed cases of infection,” he said. “The next 100,000 happened in just 12 days. The third took four days. The fourth, just one and a half.”

“This is exponential growth and only the tip of the iceberg,” Guterres said, adding that countries must be able to combine systematic testing, tracing, quarantining and treatment, as well as co-ordinate an exit strategy to keep it suppressed until a vaccine becomes available.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said later that the secretary-general “thought the meeting was an important step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go for truly concerted and effective global leadership in response to this pandemic and its impact.”

The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told the G20 leaders: “We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart — if we let it.“

He urged leaders to fight without excuses, without regrets, thanking countries that have already taken steps to fight the pandemic and urging them to do more. He also encouraged leaders to unite, saying no country can fight COVID-19 alone.

Saudi Arabia, which is presiding over the G20 this year, opened the meeting with an urgent appeal by King Salman for the world's most powerful nations to finance the research and development of a vaccine for the virus.

“This human crisis requires a global response. The world counts on us to come together and co-operate in order to face this challenge," the Saudi monarch said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced during the call that the UK was providing additional funding to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which is supporting the development of vaccines, bringing its contribution to 250 million pounds ($302 million).

The meeting was not open to the media, and governments and organizations distributed the participants' comments after it concluded.

In the video call, world leaders like India's Narendra Modi, Japan's Shinzo Abe and Canada's Justin Trudeau, whose wife has contracted the virus, could be seen in little boxes on a screen seated at desks in photos shared on Twitter by European Council President Charles Michel.

President Donald Trump was shown seated at the end of a long conference table in Washington with other American officials in photos shared on social media by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

"We talked about the problem. And hopefully it won't be a problem for too much longer," Trump said about the call. "The United States is working with our friends and partners around the world to stop the spread of the virus.

"We discussed how vitally important it is for all of our nations to immediately share information and data. And we've been doing that to a large extent, but we'll do it even more. Tremendous spirit among all of those countries at 20 countries. ... A tremendous spirit to get this over with."

The meeting also included Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was taking part in the summit from her apartment in Berlin where she is in quarantine after a doctor who gave her a pneumonia vaccine had tested positive for the virus. Two tests on Merkel have come back negative, but she'll still need more tests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested setting up a special fund under the IMF that would offer interest-free loans, and he emphasized the need to create “green corridors” for free movement of supplies and technologies intended to deal with the pandemic. He also proposed a moratorium on sanctions with regard to essential goods.

Putin noted "it's a matter of life and death," emphasizing the need to get rid of “political rubbish.”

He did not name any specific country but appeared to refer to U.S. sanctions on Iran, which has been badly hit by the outbreak. Russia has also faced waves of Western sanctions over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, whose country has been hardest-hit in Europe by COVID-19, said the G20 must use all fiscal and monetary policy tools to safeguard economies, “and national responses must be co-ordinated, enhancing their effectiveness.”



US indicts Venezuela's Maduro on narcoterrorism charges

US indicts Maduro

Nicolás Maduro effectively converted Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups as he and his allies stole billions from the South American country, the Justice Department charged in several indictments against the embattled socialist and his inner circle that were made public Thursday.

The co-ordinated actions attacked all the key planks of what it called the “corrupt Venezuelan regime,” including the Maduro-dominated judiciary and the armed forces, which holds major influence over decision-making.

One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, head of the rubber-stamping constitutional assembly, of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.” Criminal acts to advance a drug and weapons conspiracy that prosecutors contend dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez's revolution in 1999 occurred as far afield as Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleged.

Maduro blasted back by accusing the U.S. and Colombia of “giving orders to flood Venezuela with violence.”

“As head of state, I am obligated to defend peace and the stability of our homeland given any circumstance that arises,” he tweeted.

As the indictments were announced, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department would offer cash rewards of up to $55 million for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and his associates. It offered rewards up to $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million each for the others.

“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end.”

In Miami, prosecutors charged Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno with laundering in the U.S. at least $3 million in illegal proceeds from case fixing in Venezuela, including one involving a General Motors factory. Much of the money he spent on private aircraft, luxury watches and shopping at Prada, prosecutors allege. Maduro's Defence Minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics in a May 2019 indictment unsealed in Washington.

The shock indictment of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Caracas as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela's health system and oil-dependent economy driven deep into the ground by years of corruption and U.S. sanctions. Maduro has ordered Venezuelans to stay home to try to stave off the spread of the virus that officials say has infected 106 people.



Meghan to narrate Disney nature film in first post-royal job

Meghan narrates for Disney

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has her first post-royal job: narrating a Disney documentary about elephants.

Disney announced Thursday that the duchess, who is married to Britain’s Prince Harry, is lending her voice to “Elephant,” to be released April 3 on the Disney+ streaming service. It’s one of a series of animal- and nature-themed features released to mark Earth Month.

The film follows an elephant family on a 1,000-mile journey across the Kalahari Desert.

Harry and Meghan shocked the world in January by announcing that they were quitting as senior royals, relinquishing official duties and seeking financial independence.

Since late last year they have been based on Vancouver Island, and will officially end royal duties on March 31.

The grandson of Queen Elizabeth II married the American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle in May 2018, in a ceremony watched by millions around the world. The couple later said they found scrutiny by the British media — which they said tipped into harassment — intolerable.



China bars most foreigners to curb imported virus cases

China bars most foreigners

China says it is temporarily barring most foreigners from entering the country as it seeks to curb the number of imported coronavirus cases.

The foreign ministry announced late Thursday that even foreign citizens with residence permits will be prevented from entering starting on Saturday. All visa-free transit policies will also be temporarily suspended.

It said diplomatic workers will be exempt, and foreign citizens coming to China for “necessary economic, trade, scientific or technological activities or out of emergency humanitarian needs” can still apply for visas.

The ministry said in a statement that: “The suspension is a temporary measure that China is compelled to take in light of the outbreak situation and the practices of other countries.”

The coronavirus outbreak originated in China. But as its number of domestic virus cases has dwindled, the country has had to contend with infections brought by people who have recently arrived from overseas. Such infections have accounted for the majority of China’s new cases for more than a week.



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