Medics: Iraq has Confirmed Thousands More COVID-19 Cases Than Reported

Iraq has thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases, many times more than the 772 it is has publicly reported, according to three doctors closely involved in the testing process, a health ministry official and a senior political official.
The sources all spoke on condition of anonymity. Iraqi authorities have instructed medical staff not to speak to media.
Iraq’s health ministry, the only official outlet for information on the COVID-19 disease, could not immediately be reached for comment. Reuters sent voice and written messages asking its spokesman if the actual number of confirmed cases was higher than the ministry had reported and if so why.
The ministry said in its latest daily statement on Thursday that the total recorded confirmed cases for Iraq were 772, with 54 deaths.
But the three doctors, who work in pharmaceutical teams helping test suspected COVID-19 cases in Baghdad, each said that confirmed cases of the disease, based on discussions among fellow medics who see daily results, were between about 3,000 and 9,000 although they each gave different estimates.
The health ministry official, who also works in testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, said that there were more than 2,000 confirmed cases from eastern Baghdad alone, not counting the number in other areas or provinces.
The political official, who has attended meetings with the health ministry, also said thousands of cases were confirmed.
The new coronavirus has hit Iraq’s neighbor Iran worse than any country in the region. Iraq has close trade and religious ties with Iran and a large border, which Iraq shut in February over fears of the spread of the infection.
Iraq’s healthcare system, among other infrastructure, has been stretched by decades of sanctions, war and neglect, one among several problems that spurred mass anti-government protests in recent months.
Governments across the world have struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States, Italy and Spain are the countries worst hit by the disease, which has infected nearly a million people worldwide and killed nearly 47,000.
The three Iraqi doctors and the political official said national security officials have attended health ministry meetings and urged authorities not to reveal the high figures because it could create public disorder with a rush on medical supplies, and make it harder to control the disease’s spread.
The health ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment on any such discussions.
One of the doctors said the death toll was also likely higher than the official toll, but not by much. “On Saturday last week alone, about 50 people were buried who died from the disease,” he said. At that time the official death toll was 42.
Testing facilities are limited and Iraq has publicly acknowledged that the actual number of cases must be higher than the number of confirmed cases.
Many doctors blame the accelerating spread of the disease on people refusing to be tested or isolated and on the flouting of a nationwide curfew, including by thousands of pilgrims who flocked to a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad last month.
The three doctors and the health official said many new cases were from eastern Baghdad where those pilgrims live.
Separately, some Shi’ite pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria have tested positive for coronavirus, a senior Iraqi official and health officials said on Sunday.

Lassa Fever Epidemic in Nigeria Far Deadlier Than COVID-19

Along with the global coronavirus virus pandemic, Nigeria is also battling a deadly Lassa fever outbreak that so far this year has killed at least 176 people in the country. Doctors say the illness is an annual problem in Africa that deserves more attention. Ifiok Ettang reports from Jos, Nigeria.

India PM Plans Staggered Exit From Vast Coronavirus Lockdown

India will pull out of a three-week lockdown in phases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Thursday, as officials battle to contain the country’s biggest cluster of coronavirus infections in the capital, New Delhi.
The shutdown, which has brought Asia’s third-largest economy to a shuddering halt, is due to end on April 14.
Modi had ordered India’s 1.3 billion people indoors to avert a massive outbreak of coronavirus infections, but the world’s biggest shutdown has left millions without jobs and forced migrant workers to flee to their villages for food and shelter.
He told state chief ministers that the shutdown had helped limit infections but that the situation remained far from satisfactory around the world and there could be a second wave.
“Prime minister said that it is important to formulate a common exit strategy to ensure staggered re-emergence of the population once lockdown ends,” the government quoted him as saying in a video conference.
India has had 1,965 confirmed infections, of whom 50 have died, low figures by comparison with the United States, China, Italy and Spain.
But the big worry is the emergence of a cluster in Delhi because of a gathering held by a Muslim missionary group last month that has spawned dozens of cases across the country, officials said.
Thousands of people visited the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat in a cramped corner of Delhi over several days in March, including delegates from Muslim-majority countries Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
About 9,000 people linked to the Tablighi have been tracked down including 1,300 foreigners and transferred to either quarantine centers or hospitals, a top official said.
These people had either attended prayers and lectures at the Tablighi’s headquarters in the densely packed neighborhood or came into contact with them later.
“This has emerged as a critical node in our fight against the coronavirus,” the official leading the operation to trace potential virus carriers told Reuters. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Tablighi is one of the world’s largest proselytizing groups, drawing followers from the South Asian Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam.
Its leader, Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, issued an audio message to his followers asking them to cooperate with the government to fight the disease.
“We have to take precautions, follow the guidance of the doctors and give full support to the government such as not crowding into places,” he said. “This is not against the principles of Islam.”
Muslims make up about 14% of India’s 1.3 billion population, the largest Muslim minority in the world.
Health experts have warned that the death toll could surge across South Asia, home to a fifth of the world’s population and with weak public health systems.
Bangladesh, home to about 160 million people, has extended a lockdown that was initially intended to last 10 days by a week, so it will last till April 11, the Public Administration Ministry said in a statement.
Pharmaceuticals and export-oriented factories such as the garments industry, which account for over 80 percent of overseas shipments, can keep running, the ministry said.
“If the garment factory owners want, they can run their factories following proper health guidelines,” Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi said.
Sri Lanka’s central bank asked Sri Lankans overseas to deposit their foreign currency holdings in Sri Lankan banks to help the country tide over the economic pain.
The island nation’s key export earners, including tourism, textiles and garments and worker remittances, have ground to a halt.
Following is data on the spread of the coronavirus in South Asia, according to government figures:
* Pakistan has registered 2,291 cases, including 31 deaths.
* India has registered 1,965 cases, including 50 deaths.
* Sri Lanka has registered 148 cases, including three deaths.
* Afghanistan has registered 196 cases, including four deaths.
* Bangladesh has registered 56 cases, including six deaths.
* Maldives has registered 28 cases and no deaths.
* Nepal has registered six cases and no deaths.
* Bhutan has registered five cases and no deaths.

12,000 Apply to Be Next US Astronauts

NASA may have just found the next man to walk on the moon — or the first woman to land on Mars — or someone who can float above the Earth and make repairs to the International Space Station.Wednesday was the deadline for submitting an application to join the next class of astronauts.NASA says more than 12,000 people applied — the largest number in three years — proving that those who believe Americans have lost interest in space are wrong.“We’ve entered a bold new era of space exploration with the Artemis program, and we are thrilled to see so many incredible Americans apply to join us,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday. “The next class of Artemis Generation astronauts will help us explore more of the moon than ever before and lead us to the red planet.”The Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, with Cygnus resupply spacecraft onboard, launches from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, Feb. 15, 2020.Artemis is the name NASA has given to its next big era in space exploration — and among the 12,000 would-be astronauts could be a name that becomes as legendary as John Glenn, the pioneering Gemini program, Neil Armstrong and Apollo.NASA received applications from every one of the 50 states and four U.S. territories. But the odds of being picked to fly into space are remote.Candidates must have a master’s degree in science, technology, math or engineering.NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board will assess each applicant’s qualifications and invite those who pass to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for interviews and medical tests before making a final selection.The board must pare down the 12,000 hopefuls to around 12.It’s an exclusive club. Only 350 men and women have been chosen for astronaut training since the 1960s. NASA currently has 48 astronauts in the pool.FILE — A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, carrying the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 mission, lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., June 25, 2019.“We’re able to build such a strong astronaut corps at NASA because we have such a strong pool of applicants to choose from,” selection board manager Anne Roemer said. “It’s always amazing to see the diversity of education, experience and skills that are represented in our applicants. We are excited to start reviewing astronaut applications to identify the next class of astronaut candidates.”So how does one person who dreams of space stand out among 12,000 other dreamers?Astronaut Kayla Barron, who was part of the NASA class of 2017, said if you’re lucky enough to qualify as a finalist, there is no reason to feel intimidated or that you can’t be yourself.“When I go into that interview room and sit at the end of this long table with all of these astronauts and senior NASA officials … what are they looking for? What do they want from me? For some reason the last thing I thought before I walked [in] the door was,  ‘Don’t make any jokes,’ ” she recalled with a laugh. “Because I was so worried I was going to say something sarcastic or whatever.”This NASA image obtained March 24, 2020, shows the city lights at the intersection of Europe and Asia as they sparkle as the International Space Station orbited 262 miles above.But when one of the panel members made a joke seemingly at Barron’s expense, she said, “I dished it right back at him. And there was this moment of silence and I was like, ‘Oh, no, that was the one I wasn’t supposed to do.’ But then [astronaut] Kjell Lindgren started laughing … everyone started laughing and it just relaxed me … just be yourself, be honest about who you are. I think that goes a long way.”When the astronauts are chosen, they will go through about two years of training in such skills as spacewalking and robotics. They must also show people skills, including leadership and teamwork — two qualities that are essential for living on the International Space Station, taking a trip to the moon or enduring a long journey to Mars.NASA expects to introduce the new astronaut candidates in the summer of 2021 with plans for a trip to the moon in 2024 and a mission to Mars in the next decade.

China Releases Data on Asymptomatic Coronavirus Cases

China’s National Health Commission (NHC) announced Wednesday it has more than 1,300 asymptomatic coronavirus cases, the first time it has acknowledged cases of people testing positive for the virus but not showing symptoms.At a news briefing in Beijing, commission spokesman Mi Feng said the 1,367 asymptomatic cases were under quarantine and medical observation.The commission had said Tuesday it would begin releasing figures on asymptomatic cases in response to “public concern” about the figures.The French news agency AFP reports there had been mass calls online for the NHC to release the information after it was reported an infected woman in Henan province had been exposed to three asymptomatic cases.While the proportion of people who have contracted the virus but remain asymptomatic is currently unknown, scientists say these “carriers” can still pass COVID-19 onto others who do end up getting sick.For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.  But the virus can also lead to more serious symptoms and even death. 

Astronomers Find Best Evidence of ‘Intermediate-Size’ Black Hole

Astronomers using the U.S. space agency NASA’s orbiting Hubble telescope, as well as two orbiting x-ray observatories, say they have gathered the best evidence yet of a so-called “intermediate mass” black hole.A report published Tuesday in the Astrophysical Journal, and reported by NASA, explains that the so-called intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) are about 50,000 times the mass of our sun.
They are smaller than the supermassive black holes that lie at the cores of large galaxies, but larger than stellar-mass black holes formed by the collapse of a massive star. 
IMBHs are a long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution. They have been particularly difficult to find because they are smaller and less active than supermassive black holes.  
University of New Hampshire astronomer Dacheng Lin—who published the report—tells NASA that he and his team essentially caught an IMBH in the act of gobbling up a star that came too close to its gravitational pull.
Lin said they used the Hubble to explore data collected from both NASA and the European Space Agency X-ray detection satellites to determine its precise location.
The researchers say finding this mid-size black hole means there could be others out there, and it raises questions as to whether they eventually grow into the supermassive size.

Scientists Create Simple Respirator for Partially Recovered COVID Patients

Businesses and research facilities have joined a global effort to defeat the coronavirus. With respirators in short supply in many countries, a German university is developing rudimentary, no-frills devices to aid COVID-19 sufferers who are on the path to recovery, freeing fancier models for those whose lives are still in danger. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports.

Europe Faces ICU Bed Crunch, Rushes to Build Field Hospitals

Facing intense surges in the need for hospital ICU beds, European nations are on a building and hiring spree, throwing together makeshift hospitals and shipping coronavirus patients out of overwhelmed cities via high-speed trains and military jets. The key question is whether they will be able to find enough healthy medical staff to make it all work.Even as the virus slowed its growth in overwhelmed Italy and in China, where it first emerged, hospitals in Spain and France reached their breaking points and the U.S. and Britain  braced for incoming waves of desperately ill people.
“It feels like we are in a third world country. We don’t have enough masks, enough protective equipment, and by the end of the week we might be in need of more medication too,” said Paris emergency worker Christophe Prudhomme.
In a remarkable turnaround, rich economies where virus cases have exploded are welcoming help from the less wealthy. Russia sent medical equipment and masks to the U.S. on Wednesday. Cuba sent doctors to France. Turkey sent a planeload of masks, hazmat suits, goggles and disinfectants to Italy and Spain.London is just days from unveiling a 4,000-bed temporary hospital built in a massive convention center to take non-critical patients so British hospitals can free up space and keep ahead of expected virus demand. Still, there are concerns about finding thousands of medical workers to run it.Spain has already boosted its hospital beds by 20%. Dozens of hotels across Spain have been turned into recovery rooms, and authorities are building field hospitals in sports centers, libraries and exhibition halls.Europe’s greatest need at the moment, however, is intensive care units, which are essential in a pandemic in which tens of thousands of patients quickly descend into acute respiratory distress. Those ICU units are much harder to cobble together quickly than standard hospital beds.Milan opened an intensive care field hospital Tuesday at the city fairgrounds for 200 patients, complete with a pharmacy and radiology wards. It expects to eventually employ some 900 staff. The move came after the health situation turned extreme in Italy’s Lombardy region, where bodies overflowed in morgues, caskets piled up in churches and doctors were forced to decide in some cases which desperately ill patient would get a breathing machine.”We aren’t happy to have done this,” fairgrounds foundation head Enrico Pazzali said. “It something I never would have wanted to do.”The pressure is easing on hard-hit Italian cities like Bergamo and Brescia as the rate of new infections in Italy has slowed and hospitals have boosted ICU capacity. Still, many people are dying at home or in nursing homes because hospitals are saturated and they could not get access to ICU breathing machines.  With over 12,400 dead so far, Italy has the most coronavirus deaths of any nation in the world.
Italy, Britain and France are among countries that have called in medical students, retired doctors and even airplane attendants with first aid training to help, although all need re-training.
The medical staffing shortage has been exacerbated by the high number of infected medical personnel. In Italy alone, nearly 10,000 medical workers have been infected and more than 60 doctors have died.Dr. Silvio Brusaferro, the head of Italy’s institutes of health, said three weeks into a nationwide lockdown, the country is seeing the rate of new infections level off.  “(But) arriving at the plateau doesn’t mean we have conquered the peak and we’re done,” he warned. “It means now we should start to see the decline if we continue to place maximum attention on what we do every day.”In neighboring France, nearly 500 people died Tuesday and Paris hospitals are overflowing.
“We had an extremely difficult night, we are at the end of our hospitalization capacity,” Aurélien Rousseau, director of the Paris regional health agency, said Wednesday on France-Info radio.The Paris region more than doubled its ICU capacity over the past week – but the beds are already full. So Paris was sending some critically ill patients to less-saturated regions on specially fitted high-speed trains Wednesday and Thursday. Others have been moved by military plane, helicopter or warship.  One reason Germany is in better shape  than all other European countries is its high proportion of ICU beds, at 33.9 per 100,000 people, compared to 8.6 in Italy.For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and can lead to death.As U.S. health authorities warned the number of dead could reach up to 240,000 even with social distancing measures in place, the New York region also rushed to set up extra hospital capacity.A 1,000-bed emergency hospital set up at the mammoth Javits Convention Center began taking non-coronavirus patients Tuesday to help relieve the city’s overwhelmed health system. A Navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds was expected to accept patients soon, and the indoor tennis center that hosts the U.S. Open tournament is being turned into a hospital.”I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” President Donald Trump said at a Tuesday briefing, as he extended social distancing guidelines until April 30. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”The U.S. recorded a big daily jump of 26,000 new cases, bringing its total infections to more than 189,000, the highest in the world. The U.S. death toll leapt to over 4,000, and refrigerated morgue trucks were parked on New York streets to collect the dead.Worldwide, more than 860,000 people have been infected and over 42,000 have died, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Italy and Spain accounted for half of all the deaths. China, where it began late latest year, on Wednesday reported just 36 new COVID-19 cases.Some have chosen to ignore social distancing guidelines. In Louisiana, buses and cars filled a church parking lot Tuesday evening as worshippers flocked to hear a pastor who is facing charges for holding services despite a ban on gatherings.A few protesters also showed up at the Life Tabernacle Church, including one with a sign that read: “God don’t like stupid.”  Two ships carrying passengers and crew from an ill-fated South American cruise are urging Florida officials to let them dock. Two people aboard with the virus have died, and nine have tested positive. Trump said, for humanitarian reasons, Florida should do so.

Scientists Report Coronavirus Shutdowns Have Reduced Seismic ‘Noise’

Researchers who study Earth’s movements say mandatory shutdowns of transportation systems and other human activities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a drop in what they call seismic “noise” around the world.An article published Tuesday in the scientific research journal Nature explains that human activity, such as moving vehicles and industrial machinery, can move Earth’s crust the way earthquakes and volcanic activity do. And researchers say the lack of such human activity in recent days has made a significant difference.Royal Observatory of Belgium seismologist Thomas Lecocq says vibrations caused by human activity have dropped by one-third since coronavirus containment measures were introduced in that country.  Researchers at the California Institute of Technology reported a similar drop in the Los Angeles area, as did researchers in Britain.Nature reports the reduced human-generate “noise” has allowed scientists to get more accurate and sensitive readings regarding earthquake aftershocks in urban areas that might otherwise go undetected.  The researchers say this also allows for the study of more subtle vibrations, such as those generated by ocean waves crashing, which help when probing the Earth’s crust.

Europe’s Hospitals Among The Best But Can’t Handle Pandemic

As increasing numbers of European hospitals buckle under the strain of tens of thousands of coronavirus patients, the crisis has exposed a surprising paradox: Some of the world’s best health systems are remarkably ill-equipped to handle a pandemic.  
Outbreak experts say Europe’s hospital-centric systems, lack of epidemic experience and early complacency are partly to blame for the pandemic’s catastrophic tear across the continent.
“If you have cancer, you want to be in a European hospital,” said Brice de le Vingne, who heads COVID-19 operations for Doctors Without Borders in Belgium. “But Europe hasn’t had a major outbreak in more than 100 years, and now they don’t know what to do.”  
Last week, the World Health Organization scolded countries for “squandering” their chance to stop the virus from gaining a foothold, saying that countries should have reacted more aggressively two months ago, including implementing wider testing and stronger surveillance measures.
De le Vingne and others say Europe’s approach to combating the new coronavirus was initially too lax and severely lacking in epidemiological basics like contact tracing, an arduous process where health officials physically track down people who have come into contact with those infected to monitor how and where the virus is spreading.  
During outbreaks of Ebola, including Congo’s most recent one, officials released daily figures for how many contacts were followed, even in remote villages paralyzed by armed attacks.
After the new coronavirus emerged late last year, China dispatched a team of about 9,000 health workers to chase thousands of potential contacts in Wuhan every day.  
But in Italy, officials in some cases have left it up to ill patients to inform their potential contacts that they had tested positive and resorted to mere daily phone calls to check in on them. Spain and Britain have both declined to say how many health workers were working on contact tracing or how many contacts were identified at any stage in the outbreak. 
“We are really good at contact tracing in the U.K., but the problem is we didn’t do enough of it,” said Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Exeter in southwestern England.  
As cases began picking up speed in the U.K. in early March, Pankhania and others desperately pleaded for call centers to be transformed into contact tracing hubs. That never happened, in what Pankhania calls “a lost opportunity.”  
Pankhania added that while Britain has significant expertise in treating critical care patients with respiratory problems, like severe pneumonia, there are simply too few hospital beds to cope with the exponential surge of patients during a pandemic.
“We are already running at full capacity, and then on top of that we have the arrival of the coronavirus at a time when we’re fully stressed and there isn’t any give in the system,” he said, noting years of reductions in bed capacity within Britain’s National Health Service.  
Elsewhere, the fact that health care workers and hospital systems have little experience with rationing care because European hospitals are generally so well resourced is now proving problematic.  
“Part of the issue is that Italian doctors are getting very distressed to make decisions about which patients can get the ICU bed because normally they can just push them through,” said Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, who has studied health systems across Europe. “Not having the triage experience to do that in a pandemic situation is very overwhelming.”
In a departure from their normal role as donors who fund outbreak responses in poorer countries, countries including Italy, France and Spain are all now on the receiving end of emergency aid.  
But Dr. Chiara Lepora, who heads Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in the hot spot of Lodi in northern Italy, said the pandemic had revealed some critical problems in developed countries.
“Outbreaks cannot be fought in hospitals,” she said. “Hospitals can only deal with the consequences.”
Doctors in Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak, described the new coronavirus as “the Ebola of the rich” in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, warning that health systems in the West are at risk of being as overrun by COVID-19 as West African hospitals were in the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.  
“Western health systems have been built around the concept of patient-centered care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward community-centered care,” they wrote.  
That model of community care is more typically seen in countries in Africa or parts of Asia, where hospitals are reserved for only the very sickest patients and far more patients are isolated or treated in stripped-down facilities — similar to the field hospitals now being hastily constructed across Europe.  
Even Europe’s typically strong networks of family physicians are insufficient to treat the deluge of patients that might be more easily addressed by armies of health workers — people with far less training than doctors but who focus on epidemic control measures. Developing countries are more likely to have such workforces, since they are more accustomed to massive health interventions like vaccination campaigns.  
Some outbreak experts said European countries badly miscalculated their ability to stop the new coronavirus.  
“But I think the fact that this is a new disease and the speed at which it moved surprised everyone,” said Dr. Stacey Mearns of the International Rescue Committee.  
Mearns said the current scenes of desperation across Europe — doctors and nurses begging for protective gear, temporary morgues in ice rinks to house the dead — were unimaginable just weeks ago. In Spain, 14% of its coronavirus cases are infected medical workers, straining resources at a critical time.
“We saw hospitals and communities get overwhelmed like this during Ebola in West Africa,” she said. “To see it in resource-wealthy nations is very striking.”