Notre-Dame renovation teams play catch-up as lockdown eases

PARIS (Reuters) – French renovation teams aim complete work on Notre-Dame Cathedral in time for the fifth anniversary of its 2019 fire despite the COVID-19 lockdown, the project leader said on Sunday, as admirers were allowed back into the adjoining square.

Casual passersby and faithful alike flocked to the Parvis de Notre-Dame as the square reopened with the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic “has unquestionably delayed the work”, said Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army general put in charge of the mammoth rebuilding programme.

But the goal remains to reopen for religious services in April 2024, Georgelin said, standing in front of the closed-off cathedral grounds. “There’s no reason to believe it cannot be met – we’ll have to find a way to catch up.”

The fire that engulfed the 850-year-old building on April 15 last year destroyed its spire and much of the roof. While the final renovation cost remains uncertain, an appeal for funds has raised close to 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion)

Renovation workers returned to the site six weeks after the pandemic halted operations. But health rules that remain in place are still limiting the pace of work, officials say.

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Italy records 75 new coronavirus deaths, 355 new cases

ROME (Reuters) – Deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic in Italy climbed by 75 on Sunday, against 111 the day before, the Civil Protection Agency said, while the daily tally of new cases fell to 355 from 416 on Saturday.

The total death toll since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21 now stands at 33,415 the agency said, the third highest in the world after those of the United States and Britain.

The number of confirmed cases amounts to 233,019, the sixth highest global tally behind those of the United States, Russia, Spain, Britain and Brazil.

People registered as currently carrying the illness fell to 42,075 from 43,691 the day before.

There were 435 people in intensive care on Sunday, down from 450 on Saturday, maintaining a long-running decline. Of those originally infected, 157,507 were declared recovered against 155,633 a day earlier.

The agency said 2.434 million people had been tested for the virus against 2.405 million on Friday, out of a population of around 60 million.

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Chinese vaccine could be ready by year-end, government body says

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Chinese-made coronavirus vaccine could be ready for market as early as the end of this year, China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) said in a social media post.

In trials, more than 2,000 people have received vaccines developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products. A vaccine could be ready for the market as early as the end of this year or early 2021, according to the May 29 post on Chinese social media platform WeChat.

Vaccines from the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products and the Beijing Institute of Biological Products had entered Phase II clinical trials. Both groups are affiliated with state-owned pharmaceutical group Sinopharm, whose management is overseen by SASAC.

The Beijing Institute of Biological Products’ production line will have an annual manufacturing capacity of 100 million to 120 million doses, according to the article.

China has five coronavirus vaccines in human trials. Neither company could be reached for comment on Saturday evening.

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German official sees Lufthansa bailout in reach, demands fairness

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The Berlin government is likely to reach a deal with Brussels on a $10 billion government bailout of stricken airline Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), senior government official Thomas Jarzombek said on Friday, but stressed the German airline needed fair treatment.

“Offers are on the table and we have a long record of finding agreement eventually,” Jarzombek, who coordinates aviation on behalf of the cabinet, told broadcaster RTL/ntv in a morning show.

“I am confident that this will also be the case here.”

The deal was thrown into doubt on Wednesday after Lufthansa’s supervisory board refused to accept the conditions attached by Brussels to the aid.

The board did not agree with EU requirements that Lufthansa permanently give up take-off and landing slots at Frankfurt and Munich airports, where it commands a two-thirds market share.

Jarzombek said Germany would clarify the necessary scope of conditions tied to the deal, comparing these with how Lufthansa rivals such as SAS (SAS.ST) or KLM/Air France (AIRF.PA) were treated.

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French coronavirus cases jump by 3,325 due to better tracking

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of coronavirus infections in France jumped on the same day the government announced an easing of lockdown rules, but the increase reflected the inclusion of new data rather than a rise in daily infections, the Health Ministry said.

The inclusion of data from a new tracking system boosted the number of confirmed coronavirus cases by 3,325 to 149,071, the biggest increase since a 4,183 increase on May 6, when data from a new laboratory were included.

“The increase compared to yesterday is due to more efficient tracking, not to the epidemiological situation in France,” the ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

It said that from now on France would use a new monitoring system that will allow for more complete tracking.

The ministry did not specify how much the case count had increased on Thursday. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases rose by 191, or 0.1%, to 145,555, a lower daily rate of increase than the 0.2% average seen the previous seven days.

The ministry said the virus’ total death toll rose by 66, or 0.2%, to 28,662, the same increase as on Wednesday and the eighth day that the number of deaths remained below 100.

In the first half of April, France reported over 1,000 deaths per day on several days, with a peak of 1,438 on April 15.

The ministry said the number of people in hospital fell by nearly 500, or 3%, to 15,208, and the number of people in intensive care fell by 72, or 4.8%, to 1,429. Both numbers have been on a downtrend since mid-April.

The slowdown in the infection rate and reduced pressure on France’s health system were key factors in the government’s decision to announce further easing of the lockdown rules on Thursday, including the reopening of bars, restaurants and beaches.

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Bill lengthening coronavirus small business loan terms nears U.S. House passage

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday neared passage of legislation increasing the amount of time, to 24 weeks from the current eight-week deadline, for small businesses to use Paycheck Protection Program loans.

As voting continued, the bill was headed to overwhelming passage in the House.

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Russia postpones July BRICS summit due to coronavirus

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it has decided to postpone the summit of the BRICS nations, initially scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg in July, due to the spread of the coronavirus.

The meeting of the heads of State Council of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has also been postponed. The events were due to be hosted by St Petersburg on July 21-23.

“The new dates for the summits will be determined depending on the further development of the epidemiological situation in the states of the groupings and around the world,” the organising committee said in a statement.

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Singaporean gets four months jail for COVID-19 Facebook post

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore jailed a taxi driver for four months on Wednesday over a Facebook post in which he falsely claimed food outlets would close and urged people to stock up due to impending COVID-19 restrictions.

Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, 40, deleted the message sent to a private Facebook group with around 7,500 members after 15 minutes, case records show, but the public prosecutor called for a sentence that would deter others.

Singapore, which has seen bouts of panic buying during a four-month battle with the virus, has imposed tough punishments on those who breach containment rules or spread misinformation as it tackles one of Asia’s highest COVID-19 rates.

“The psychological fight to allay fear and hysteria is just as important as the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19,” deputy public prosecutor Deborah Lee said in her sentencing submission, according to case records.

Lai, who represented himself and could not be reached for comment, was sentenced to four months’ jail on Wednesday, a spokesman for the State Courts said.

The offence of transmitting a false message in Singapore is punishable with a fine not exceeding S$10,000 ($7,000) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both.

Last month, a man who broke quarantine with 30 minutes remaining to buy a flatbread worth a few dollars was fined $1,000. Another man who breached an order to stay home to eat pork rib soup was jailed for six weeks.

According to case records, police received a complaint on April 20 about Lai’s post which said the government was closing food courts and coffee shops, and supermarkets would only open two days a week.

“Better go stock up your stuff for the next month or so,” the post said, on which people commented urging him not to spread such rumours.

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Scientists discover microbe that could stop malaria transmission

A new study shows that the Microsporidia MB microbe blocks malaria parasites from spreading in mosquitoes.

Scientists have discovered a new microbe that protects mosquitoes from being infected by malaria, a finding that could be a significant breakthrough in the fight against the spread of the disease, which is spread to humans through mosquito bites.

Research published on Monday by the nature communications journal revealed that none of the examined mosquitoes around Lake Victoria in Kenya, which were found to be carrying a microbe called Microsporidia MB, had the malaria parasite.


  • WHO warns malaria deaths in Africa could double amid pandemic

  • Malaria killed 405,000 in 2018 as medical funding stalled: WHO

  • Pioneering malaria vaccine for children introduced in Malawi

The finding of the microbe, which lives in guts and genitals of mosquitoes, could be a major discovery as preventing mosquitoes from getting infected means protecting humans as well.

Scientists are still trying to understand how Microsporidia actually blocks the malaria parasite.

The study suggests the microbe could be boosting mosquitoes’ immune systems to fight the parasite. Another possibility could be that the microbe impacts the insects’ metabolism to the point of making it inhospitable to the parasite.

“There are a few characteristics that we found in this microbe that gives us some clues of what we could use to get it out there,” research scientist Jeremy Herren of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology and the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, told Al Jazeera.

“That is the vertical transmission, meaning a mother mosquito infects all her offsprings by inserting the microbe in her eggs.”

While the large-scale distribution of mosquito nets treated with insecticides to people in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 15 years has contributed to a 40-percent reduction in the number of malaria cases, the study points to a recent plateau in cases to indicate that current control measures are insufficient and new strategies are needed to further stem the disease.

Malaria kills more than 400,000 people annually, most of them children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization. 

Two weeks ago, it warned that if the focus on slowing the spread of the new coronavirus leads to a 75-percent reduction in access to anti-malaria medicines, deaths could reach 769,000.

Talk to Al Jazeera

Bill Gates on ending disease, saving lives: ‘Time is on our side’

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Theatres, cinemas, summer camps to reopen as Swiss relax virus curbs

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland said on Wednesday it would lift curbs on larger public gatherings next month and free up travel within Europe’s 26-nation Schengen zone by July 6, further easing restrictions on public life as the coronavirus outbreak ebbs.

Summer camps, cinemas, theatres and concert halls can reopen under a decision to allow public events of up to 300 people once again from June 6. Spontaneous gatherings of up to 30 people can start on May 30, up from a limit of five now.

“We need to stay humble, but I think we have the situation under control,” Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters, stressing the need for people to maintain physical distance from each other and to closely monitor any fresh COVID-19 infections.

New Swiss cases of the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus rose by just 15 on Wednesday here to 30,776. The death toll reached 1,649.

Strict lockdowns since March to contain the spread of the virus left city centres and roads deserted as people stayed home.

“We can enjoy all the things that are now possible again,” President Simonetta Sommaruga said. “With today’s decision we can prepare ourselves for a new normality.”

The government will decide on June 24 whether to lift a ban on events with up to 1,000 people.

The landlocked Alpine republic reaffirmed plans to open its borders with France, Germany and Austria on June 15.

But it told its southern neighbour Italy, suffering one of the world’s highest tolls of COVID-19 infections and deaths, that Rome’s plan to lift border controls from June 3 was “too early”. Swiss authorities advised citizens to avoid Italy for now while next steps are coordinated.

Travel into Switzerland from outside the Schengen zone may not be possible until mid-July, the justice minister said.

Switzerland has already reopened shops, grade schools and beauty salons in efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s economic fallout.

In the town of Biere, some of the last soldiers deployed to help hospitals joined a ceremony marking the end of their service. “Eleven weeks is a long time and it means the soldiers can say we have done our job and go home and that things are now better in Switzerland,” Lieutenant Colonel Raoul Barca said.

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