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UN pushes for virus vaccine as Trump disinfectant theory sparks outrage

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Geneva (AFP)

The United Nations on Friday launched a global push to speed up production of a vaccine for the new coronavirus as US President Donald Trump came under fire for suggesting injecting patients with disinfectant.

The pandemic has upended life around the planet as nations try to stop the spread of the disease that has so far claimed more than 190,000 lives, infected nearly three million people and hammered the global economy.

Across the globe more than four billion people are still under some form of lockdown or stay-at-home order even as governments begin easing restrictions, weighing the risk of more infections against growing economic fallout.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Africa had to start the holy month of Ramadan on lockdown with bans on prayers in mosques and on the large gatherings of families and friends to break the daily fast.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said defeating the pandemic will now require the biggest health effort ever seen as the United Nations joined forces with world leaders and the private sector to develop and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

"We face a global public enemy like no other," Guterres told a virtual briefing. "A world free of COVID-19 requires the most massive public health effort in history."

"None of us is safe until all of us are safe," the UN chief said. "COVID-19 respects no borders. COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to people everywhere."

French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Angela Merkel joined the briefing. But absent were leaders from China, where the virus surfaced late last year, and from the United States, now the hardest hit nation with more than 50,000 dead and more than 870,000 confirmed cases.

- 'Irresponsible, dangerous' -

While the disease appears to be peaking in Europe and the United States, other nations are still in the early stages of the fight and the WHO has warned strict measures should remain until there is a viable treatment or vaccine.

The race is on around the world to develop one, with the University of Oxford launching a human trial, while Germany announced similar trials will start by next week.

But experimental coronavirus treatment remdesivir failed in its first randomised clinical trial, inadvertently released results show, dampening hopes for the closely watched drug.

At a White House briefing, scientists said they had found the virus was quickly destroyed by sunlight, raising the possibility the pandemic could ease as the northern hemisphere summer approaches.

"Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" Trump said. "It sounds interesting to me."

But experts -- and disinfectant manufacturers -- cautioned against any such experiment.

"This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible, and it's dangerous," Vin Gupta, pulmonologist and health expert told NBC News.

In a bid to restart its economy, the US state of Georgia starts restrictions further than most on Friday, allowing businesses like gyms and hair salons to reopen -- a move seen as too far by some.

The Czech government also eased its virus restrictions, allowing freedom of movement for the first time in nearly six weeks and announcing it will reopen the country's borders to EU business travellers.

- Mecca's Grand Mosque deserted -

In the Saudi holy city of Mecca, the Grand Mosque, usually packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims during Ramadan, was deserted as religious authorities suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage.

"We are used to seeing the holy mosque crowded with people during the day, night, all the time... I feel pain deep inside," said Ali Mulla, the muezzin who gives the call to prayer at the Grand Mosque.

But despite the coronavirus threat, clerics and conservatives in some countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia -- the world's largest Muslim-majority nation -- have pushed back against social distancing rules, refusing to stop gatherings in mosques.

Several thousand people attended evening prayers on Thursday at the biggest mosque in the capital of Indonesia's conservative Aceh province, and there were similar scenes at many sites in Pakistan.

The WHO called for a stop to some Ramadan activities to lower the risk of infections, and authorities in several countries have explicitly warned of the threat from large religious gatherings.

Distancing measures and the severe economic impact of the pandemic have also meant many charitable activities during Ramadan, especially food distribution and other donations, have been hit hard.

- Massive economic stimulus -

The economic devastation wreaked by lockdowns indoors is huge, with the world facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression.

US lawmakers covered their faces with masks and voted in small groups to approve a $483 billion stimulus plan, on top of a $2.2 trillion package already enacted.

The money will back small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy and hard-pressed hospitals as the world's biggest economy reels, with more than 26 million people losing their jobs since the pandemic hit.

In Europe -- the hardest-hit continent with over half the global number of deaths -- leaders haggled by video conference over their own package that could top one trillion euros, as the European Central Bank chief warned of the risk of "acting too little, too late".

The 27-nation European Union has agreed to ask the bloc's executive arm to come up with a rescue plan by May 6, sources told AFP.

The crucial economic discussions come as parts of Europe slowly loosen restrictions after progress on reducing the number of new infections.

But experts have warned of a possible second wave, and authorities are ramping up their capacity to deal with it in Germany -- where curbs on public life have been eased recently.

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