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Wuhan lab denies virus link as online mega-concert raises spirits

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Beijing (AFP)

A laboratory in the Chinese city at ground zero of the global coronavirus outbreak has rejected US theories that it spawned the pandemic, as President Donald Trump warned Beijing of consequences if it was "knowingly responsible".

The denial came as world governments were debating how and when to ease lockdowns that have kept more than half of humanity -- 4.5 billion people -- confined to their homes and crippled the global economy.

Many of the world's 260 million Orthodox Christians were forced to mark Easter at home on Sunday, with church leaders telling worshippers to stay indoors and conducting services online or on television.

But in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, who has cast doubt on the gravity of the pandemic and allowed events such as football matches to continue, defiantly visited a church without a face mask.

Hoping to spread cheer to those under lockdown, the world's top musicians -- from the Rolling Stones to Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder and teen superstar Billie Eilish -- joined forces for a virtual mega-concert on Saturday.

The six-hour online event aimed to cultivate a sense of community during a pandemic that has killed at least 160,000 people worldwide, with more than 2.3 million confirmed infections.

- 'Should be consequences' -

"Was it a mistake that got out of control or was it done deliberately?" Trump said Saturday, questioning the origins of the highly contagious disease which first emerged in the city of Wuhan in December.

"If they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences," he said.

The virus was probably first transmitted to humans at a Wuhan market where exotic animals were slaughtered, according to Chinese scientists.

But conspiracy theories that the virus came from a maximum-security virology lab have been brought into the mainstream by US government officials.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said an investigation was under way into how the virus "got out into the world".

"There's no way this virus came from us," Yuan Zhiming, the head of the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is equipped to handle dangerous viruses, said in an interview with state media.

"I know it's impossible."

Australia has called for an independent investigation into the global response to the pandemic, including the World Health Organization's handling of the crisis.

Its foreign minister said the country would "insist" on a review that would probe, in part, China's response to the outbreak.

Trump has already withdrawn US funding to the WHO, accusing it of "severely mismanaging and covering up" the spread of the virus.

- Lockdown protests -

The US has the highest caseload of any country, with more than 735,000 confirmed infections, and over 39,000 deaths.

But as Americans and others around the world chafe after weeks under stay-at-home orders, resentment is rising.

Anti-lockdown protests on Saturday drew hundreds of people in states including Texas, Maryland, New Hampshire and Ohio. Many waved American flags and some carried weapons.

The small but spreading movement drew encouragement from Trump, who tweeted that three states should be "liberated" from the stay-home orders.

He has called for a rapid return to normality to limit damage to the US economy -- while largely leaving the final decision on easing lockdowns to state officials.

- 'Months without work' -

With 22 million Americans out of work as businesses closed, families are turning to food banks to get by, waiting hours for donations in long lines of cars.

"We have gone for months without work," a woman who gave her name only as Alana said at a food distribution centre in Chelsea in suburban Boston.

Mounting evidence suggests that social distancing has slowed the pandemic.

Yet in poorer and more densely populated parts of the world, many governments are still struggling to enforce restrictions on movement that are piling misery on the needy and spreading hunger.

The virus has also thrown the spotlight on care homes, with a UK charity warning the death tolls in such facilities in Britain could be five times higher than the official numbers.

Separated from relatives for fear of their spreading infection -- and from neighbours who have already fallen to the outbreak -- some in the care homes fear death from loneliness.

"It's gloomy to not be able to see anyone. To be all alone. You fear the worst in moments like these," said Marc Parmentier, 90, a resident at a care home outside Brussels.

Hard-hit Spain on Saturday extended a nationwide shutdown but said it would ease restrictions to allow children time outside.

Elsewhere, a patchwork of countries including Switzerland, Denmark and Finland began reopening shops and schools.

Germany is set to follow suit on Monday with some shops back open after declaring the virus "under control", while Italy -- at one time the European epicentre of the crisis -- was tentatively mulling easing restrictions.

Iran allowed some businesses to reopen Saturday despite being home to the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.

"How can I keep staying home? My family is hungry," said Hamdollah Mahmoudi, a shopworker in Tehran's Grand Bazaar.

Wearing masks, the players had bouquets of flowers thrust into their hands as supporters clad in the team's orange colours held banners and sang to welcome them home.

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