200514 Beijing
A barber cuts the hair of an elderly woman at a public park in Beijing on May 13, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Chinese hackers are trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research, US authorities said Wednesday, ratcheting up tensions between the superpowers as markets slumped on warnings from the US Federal Reserve that prolonged shutdowns could cause “lasting damage”.

Europe, meanwhile, pushed ahead with plans to gradually reopen for summer tourism, even as fears persist of a second wave of infections in the pandemic that has forced more than half of humanity behind closed doors in recent months.

With some countries scrambling after a fresh surge in cases and the global death toll exceeding 294,000, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday that the virus “may never go away.”

Currently there is no proven therapy for COVID-19. An effective vaccine could allow countries to fully reopen and potentially earn millions of dollars for its creators.

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With such high stakes, hackers linked to Beijing are attempting to steal research and intellectual property related to treatments and vaccines, two US security agencies warned Wednesday.

“China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to COVID-19,” the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said.

Neither offered evidence or examples to support the allegation.

Washington has increasingly blamed Beijing for the outbreak caused by the virus that first emerged in China late last year.

Asked on Monday about earlier reports that the US believed Chinese hackers were targeting US vaccine research, President Donald Trump replied: “What else is new with China? What else is new? Tell me. I’m not happy with China.”

Beijing has repeatedly denied the US accusations.

‘Lasting damage’

The value of a vaccine was underscored as Jerome Powell, head of the US Federal Reserve, cautioned Wednesday that lingering shutdowns could cause “lasting” economic damage.

Powell’s warning burst the balloon on Wall Street, analysts said, with stocks sliding on the comments even as he also said the US economy should rebound “substantially” once the outbreak is reined in.

The Fed chief said crisis measures, including spending beyond the nearly $3 trillion already approved in the US, would be crucial to a strong recovery.

Trump, trying to jumpstart the economy as he seeks re-election this year, is pushing past warnings from health officials - including top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, who has cautioned that reopening too soon risks triggering “an outbreak that you may not be able to control.”

Some hint of the cost of moving too quickly could be seen in European markets, given a further mauling Wednesday by data showing fresh outbreaks in South Korea and Germany.

Russia, now the country with the second-highest number of virus cases, recorded more than 10,000 new infections after authorities this week eased stay-at-home orders.

Fears were also growing of a second wave in China, with the northeastern city of Jilin put in partial lockdown and Wuhan, where the virus was first reported last year, planning to test its entire population after clusters of new cases.

France reopens some beaches

Still, with no vaccine in sight and dire economic data pointing to the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, many countries were trying to navigate through reopening.

Desperate to save millions of tourism jobs, the European Union set out plans for a phased restart of travel this summer, with EU border controls eventually lifted and measures to minimize infections, like wearing masks on shared transport.

In a sign that France might be ready for summer holidays, some beaches reopened on Wednesday - but only for swimming and fishing, while sunbathing remained prohibited.

People in England were allowed to leave their homes more freely as figures from Britain on Wednesday showed its economy shrinking by two percent in January-March, its fastest slump since 2008 and with a far worse contraction to come.

Hospitals turn people away

Elsewhere, however, cases were surging.

Chile imposed a total lockdown in its capital Santiago after a 60 per cent leap in infections over the past 24 hours.

Brazil - emerging as a new global hotspot despite President Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as a “little flu” - registered its highest virus death toll in a single day, with 881 new fatalities.

The United States, which has confirmed almost 1.4 million cases, saw a sharp rise in fatalities, with 1,894 new deaths reported on Tuesday after daily tolls fell below 1,000.

Health experts have warned of potentially devastating consequences as the virus spreads through the developing world, where healthcare systems are under-funded and isolation is often not possible.

In northern Nigeria, surging tolls have sparked fears the virus is spreading, with hospitals shutting their doors to the sick.

Civil servant Binta Mohammed said she had to watch her husband die from “diabetic complications.”

“The four private hospitals we took him to refused to admit him for fear he had the virus,” she said.

‘Tough old lady’

But there were stories of hope amid the gloom, including two centenarians who survived the virus.

In Spain, 113-year-old Maria Branyas fought off the illness during weeks of isolation at a retirement home where several other residents died from the disease.

And in Russia, 100-year-old Pelageya Poyarkova was discharged from a Moscow hospital after her own recovery.

Russian television showed Poyarkova wearing a mask and clutching red roses as she exited in a wheelchair.

“She turned out to be a tough old lady,” the hospital’s acting director Vsevolod Belousov said.