AP — Scientists on Wednesday announced the first effective treatment against the coronavirus — an experimental drug that can speed the recovery of COVID-19 patients — in a major medical advance that came as the economic gloom caused by the scourge deepened in the US and Europe.
The US government said it is working to make the antiviral medication remdesivir available to patients as quickly as possible.
“What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious-disease expert. “This will be the standard of care.”
The news came as the US government reported that American output is shriveling at an alarming rate in the biggest and fastest collapse since the Depression. The virus has killed over 220,000 people worldwide since December, including about 60,000 in the US, and led to lockdowns and other restrictions that have closed factories and other businesses around the world.
Amid the shutdowns, the US said its gross domestic product, or output of goods and services, shrank at an annual rate of 4.8% in the January-March period, the sharpest quarterly drop since the global meltdown of more than a decade ago.
And the worst is yet to come: The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the GDP of the world’s biggest economy will plunge at a 40% annual rate during the three-month period that ends in June.
The latest figures on people applying for unemployment benefits in the US are set to be released Thursday, with economists estimating perhaps 1 in 6 American workers, or about 30 million people, have lost their jobs over the past six weeks.
The US unemployment rate for April will come out at the end of next week, and economists have forecast that it could range as high as 20% of the workforce — a level not seen since the Depression.
Among those out of work is Derek Nye Lockwood, 51, a New York City tailor-to-the-stars. He saw his work come to a screeching halt in mid-March when stay-at-home orders shut down galas and fashion events.
“We are moving a million miles an hour. All of a sudden, it just stopped,” Lockwood said.
He is hopeful his sewing skills will be in demand down the line, but for now, he is sewing masks for hospitals out of his apartment.
Confirmed infections globally reached more than 3.2 million, including 1 million in the US, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers of deaths and infections are believed to be much higher because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
Biotech company Gilead Sciences and the US government reported that in a major study, remdesivir shortened the time it takes for COVID-19 patients to recover by four days on average —from 15 days to 11. Also, a trend toward fewer deaths was seen among those on the drug, Fauci said.
The study was run by the US National Institutes of Health and involved 1,063 hospitalized coronavirus patients around the world.
An effective treatment could have a profound effect on the outbreak, since a vaccine is probably a year or more away.
Economic damage, meanwhile, is piling up elsewhere around the world.
Globally, the United Nations’ main labor body raised its prediction of full-time-equivalent job losses in the second quarter to an estimated 305 million.
It also projected that 1.6 billion workers in the “informal economy,” including those working without proper contracts or oversight by government regulation, “stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.” That is nearly half the global workforce of 3.3 billion people.
In Europe, almost every measure of the economy is in free-fall. Figures due to be released Thursday are expected to show a drop of about 4% in the first three months of the year in the eurozone, and an even steeper hit is projected this quarter. Unemployment is expected to rise to about 8% in March.
The figure would be worse if not for massive amounts of government support to keep millions of workers on payrolls. Government debts are exploding to cover the costs of such relief.
“The lockdowns to contain the COVID-19 pandemic are taking an unprecedented toll on the European economy,” said Florian Hense, an economist at Berenberg Bank.
In Paris, aircraft maker Airbus reported a first-quarter loss of 481 million euros ($515 million), laid off thousands of workers and sought billions in loans to pull through the crisis.
Italy’s credit rating was lowered in the first downgrade of a major economy as a result of the crisis. Its rating stands just one level above junk bond status. Italy expects its economy to shrink by 8% this year.
Germany’s economy minister said the government is projecting a contraction of about 11% in GDP by the end of the quarter. But he also predicted a sharp recovery in 2021.
Many economists are skeptical the US economy will bounce back quickly later in the year, noting that the virus could flare up again or consumers and employees might be too worried to return to business as usual.
“The virus has done a lot of damage to the economy, and there is just so much uncertainty now,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.
In other developments, British raised its death toll to more than 26,000 after adding more than 3,800 nursing home deaths that were previously not included.
With the crisis easing in places like Italy, France and Spain, European governments are turning their attention to rethinking public transportation to get their economies up and running again without setting off a second wave of infections.
Solutions include putting red stickers on the floor to tell bus passengers in Milan how far apart to stand. The Dutch are putting on longer, roomier trains. Berlin and many other cities are opening up more lanes to bicyclists. And in Britain, bus passengers are using the middle or rear doors to reduce the risk to the driver.
In China, where the virus first emerged late last year, the government announced that its ceremonial parliament will be held late next month after its original meeting was postponed. The session will involve 3,000 members.