EU wrestles with virus rescue plan as China battles new outbreak

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Europe Union (EU) leaders yesterday debated a giant post-coronavirus recovery plan as China raced to prevent a second wave that it said may have originally come from Europe.

The disease was meanwhile already present in Italy as far back as last December, experts said, underscoring the difficulty of tracking and containing the pandemic.

But with the world trying to both limit the economic pain of COVID-19 even as it guards against a resurgence, top United States (US) expert Dr Anthony Fauci offered a ray of hope as he said he did not see America returning to fresh lockdown.

The disease has so far killed 450,000 people and infected 8.4 million people worldwide, as well as causing historic levels of economic disruption as countries and continents shut down to stop its spread.

Many European countries began re-opening this month after painful lockdowns that devastated economies. Europe also remains the hardest-hit continent with over 190,000 deaths.

A man driving an electric tricycle filled with vegetables rides near the closed off Xinfadi agricultural products wholesale market in Beijing. PHOTO: AFP

Facing the biggest recession in the EU’s history, leaders held a virtual summit on the European Commission’s proposal for a EUR750 billion (USD840 billion) rescue fund.

The plan is seen as a key gesture of solidarity and unity for the troubled bloc.

But opposition is fierce from the “frugal four” – the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Austria – who have promised to fight to rein in spending.

On the other side are countries such as Italy and Spain that were the first and hardest hit by the pandemic, having already been crippled by overstretched finances.

China, where the disease first publicly emerged in December last year, has been cracking down on a fresh outbreak in the capital Beijing.

Chinese authorities said studies of genome data, which it had shared with the World Health Organization (WHO), suggest the new outbreak in Beijing “came from Europe”, but is different from what is currently spreading there.

“It is older than the virus currently circulating in Europe,” Zhang Yong of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

He raised the possibility of the virus lurking in imported frozen food or in the wholesale market itself, resulting in similarities to older strains.

Chinese scientists have said the virus likely emerged in a market that sold wildlife in the central city of Wuhan last December, but Beijing officials have recently suggested that it may have originated elsewhere.

In Italy, a study by the national health institute said the coronavirus was present in two cities in the north last December, over two months before the first case was discovered there.

Researchers discovered genetic traces of SARS-CoV-2 – as the virus is officially known – in samples of waste water collected in Milan and Turin at the end of last year, and Bologna in January, the institute said on Thursday.