US coronavirus
People line up to get a test at Elmhurst Hospital due to coronavirus outbreak on March 24, 2020 in Queens, New York, United States. Image Credit: AFP

Geneva: The United States could become the global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday.

Confirmed coronavirus cases around the world exceeded 377,000 across 194 countries and territories as of early Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, more than 16,500 of them fatal.

In Geneva, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said infections in the United States had greatly increased.

Over the previous 24 hours, 85 per cent of new cases were in Europe and the United States, and of those, 40 per cent were in the United States.

As of Monday, the virus had infected more than 42,000 people there, killing at least 559.

Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the US. So it does have that potential.” Some US state and local officials have decried a lack of coordinated federal action, saying that having localities act on their own has put them in competition for supplies.

President Donald Trump acknowledged the difficulty.

“The World market for face masks and ventilators is Crazy. We are helping the states to get equipment, but it is not easy,” he tweeted.

Defense Production Act

The Trump administration plans to use the Defense Production Act on Tuesday to procure 60,000 coronavirus test kits, amid severe shortages of kits, masks, ventilators and other crucial equipment for healthcare workers, a federal official said.

Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN the administration had decided to use the Defense Production Act because “there are some test kits we need to get our hands on.” It would be the first time the act is being used for the coronavirus crisis.

President Donald Trump invoked the act last week but said he would hold off on using it until it was necessary, prompting criticism from Democrats including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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The law, which dates to the Korean War of the 1950s, grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the US industrial base to support military, energy, space and homeland security programs,” according to the FEMA website.

“We’re actually going to use the DPA for the first time today. There are some test kits we need to get our hands on. And the second thing we’re going to do is insert some language into these mask contract we have - 500 million masks - DPA language will be in that today,” Gaynor said on CNN.

“So, again, we want to be thoughtful about not upsetting the balance, making sure that we can get it onto the market and the federal government not consume it all. So, we’re going to use it. We’re going to use it when we need it and we’re going to use it today.” The White House did not immediately comment.

‘No need to rely on Act’

Trump said in a Twitter post earlier on Tuesday he has not needed to rely on the act to get supplies. “The Defense Production Act is in full force, but haven’t had to use it because no one has said NO! Millions of masks coming as back up to States,” Trump said.

Cuomo has been urging the Trump administration to use the act to tell manufacturers they must produce desperately needed supplies to fight coronavirus.

“Only the federal government has that power and not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me,” Cuomo said at a briefing on Tuesday. “I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act.”