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Defense Secretary Esper ‘reluctant’ to call Taliban truce a victory

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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on December 20, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNBC he was “reluctant” to call the temporary truce agreement Washington reached with the Taliban on Friday a victory or a loss.

The truce agreement that the U.S. reached with the Taliban was a plan for “a reduction in violence” in Afghanistan, Esper told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Saturday. Calling for negotiations to begin between Afghans on opposing sides of the conflict next month, the truce represents a breakthrough after more than 18 years of war.

Asked whether it was a triumph for the U.S., Esper said: “I’m reluctant to call things victories or losses, but I think it’s the way forward. It enables us to reduce our footprint, our presence in Afghanistan going forward. I think it’s most important for the Afghan people … they deserve better than what they’ve had.”

He said that if the “Taliban live up to their end of the deal” this “sets the stage for us to consider the peace agreement.”

This would see the U.S. withdraw some of its military presence in Afghanistan, reducing troops down to around 8,600, Esper said. There are around 13,000 U.S. troops reportedly in Afghanistan currently. The peace deal would also call for a nationwide cease-fire and a pledge from the Taliban to not host terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

5G: Pentagon investing ‘hundreds of millions’ into competing with China

When asked why China was the Pentagon’s top concern, Esper said that looking at the U.S.’s national defense strategy the country was now “in an era of great power competition,” meaning it needed to “focus more on high-intensity warfare going forward.”

He said that the U.S.’s long-term challenges were therefore “China number one, Russia number two.”

He argued that China was continuing to grow in military strength, economic power and commercial activity but was doing so “in many ways illicitly or using the international rules-based order against us to continue this growth, to acquire this technology and to do the things that undermine our nations.”

Esper said the Pentagon was putting “hundreds of millions of dollars” into finding an alternative to Huawei’s 5G technology by running “test beds at several of its bases” where it was inviting commercial vendors and could “put aside unnecessary regulation that inhibits the testing.”

The Defense Secretary said the U.S. needed to move as “quickly as we can” to develop this technology, otherwise “China’s domination of this market will continue to grow.”

With regard to coronavirus, Esper said China’s political model meant there was a “lack of transparency,” where it was “suppressing the truth, putting a heavy hand on local authorities, (which) actually enabled the virus to spread.”

He believed a more “open” political system, where China was willing to “admit the shortcomings” would have “tamped down this virus arguably much more quickly.”

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White House advisor Fauci says coronavirus vaccine trial is on target and will be ‘ultimate game changer’

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Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Chris Kleponis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The first human trial testing a potential vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is “on track” with public distribution still projected in 12 to 18 months, which would be the “ultimate game changer” in the fight against the pandemic, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.

U.S. health officials have been fast-tracking work with biotech company Moderna to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. They began their first human trials on a potential vaccine March 16. 

The trial had to test three different doses of the vaccine, Fauci said, adding that they’ve already tested the first two doses and are now administering the highest dose to human volunteers to see if there are any adverse reactions to it.

“It’ll take a few months to get the data to where we’ll feel confident to go to the phase two, and then a few months from now we’ll be in phase two and I think we’re right on target for the year to year and a half,” Fauci said at a White House press conference with President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.

Fauci said world health leaders dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 932,000 people globally, have all agreed that COVID-19 may cycle back in future seasons, and the only protection would be the development of a vaccine. 

“The ultimate solution to a virus that might be coming back would be a vaccine,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. “The same way a vaccine for other diseases that were scourges in the past that now we don’t even worry about.” 

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator, said she’s been asking universities and private companies to develop rapid coronavirus tests to confirm whether health-care workers that have been treating coronavirus patients already have the antibodies to fight it.

She said the U.S. owes it to health-care workers — many of whom have been treating coronavirus patients for a month now — “the peace of mind that would come from knowing that you already were infected, you have the antibody, you’re safe from reinfection 99.9% of the time.” She said U.S. universities can get those tests out by Friday.

However, Fauci said that it’s not their priority right now. The main focus is to develop widespread testing for somebody who is infected so they can conduct better case finding and isolation.

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Global reported cases head toward 1 million

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This is a live blog. Please check back for updates.

All times below are in Beijing time.

7:30 am: Singapore has 1,000 reported cases

Based on the latest reported figures from the health ministry, Singapore now has 1,000 recorded instances of COVID-19 infection. The city-state had been praised for its handling of the crisis in January and February by implementing strict measures to quarantine suspected cases and contact tracing for potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

Social distancing markers are seen at a cafe outlet as authorities implement a social distancing measures to combat the coronavirus on March 28, 2020 in Singapore.

Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

But, the number of cases in Singapore has grown in recent weeks as more residents returned from abroad and tested positive. As of April 1, noon local time, the country reported 74 new cases of COVID-19 infection, of which 20 were “imported,” 29 were linked to previous clusters and 25 had no apparent links discovered yet. 

Three people have died from the disease in Singapore;  245 patients have been discharged and another 291 remain clinically well but isolated as they still test positive for the virus. — Saheli Roy Choudhury

7:24 am: Global cases top 930,000 as death toll nears 47,000

As many as 932,605 cases of coronavirus infection have been recorded around the world and at least 46,809 people have died, according to the latest information compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The United States reported the most number of infections at 213,372, while Italy’s death toll remains the highest for a single country at 13,155. At least 193,177 people appeared to have recovered. 

Italy and Spain each have reported more than 100,000 infection cases as the coronavirus pandemic shows few signs of abating. — Saheli Roy Choudhury

All times below are in Eastern time.

7:05 pm: Updated map of US cases, which now total 213,372

7:02 pm: Trump says that the government ordered hospital gowns from Walmart

President Donald Trump said that he spoke to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and put in a “big big order” for gowns.

“Let it be shipped directly to the side of the hospital because we save a lot of time when we do that,” Trump said.

Doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers around the country have called for more “PPE” or personal protective equipment like gowns and facemasks to protect them from the coronavirus while working at hospitals. — Kif Leswing

6:34 pm: Trump says he doesn’t know if China underreported coronavirus numbers: ‘I’m not an accountant from China’

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Coronavirus, global economy, currencies in focus

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Stocks in Asia were set to trade lower at the open on Thursday as markets globally continue their rocky start to the second quarter.

The S&P/ASX 200 fell about 2.97% in early trade as almost all the sectors saw losses. The heavily-weighted financial subindex dropped about 4.9% as shares of the country’s major banks sold off.

Meanwhile, futures pointed to a lower open for Japanese stocks. The Nikkei futures contract in Chicago was at 17,920 while its counterpart in Osaka was at 17,600. That compared against the Nikkei 225’s last close at 18,065.41.

Markets in India are closed on Thursday for a holiday.

Concerns over the economic impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has roiled markets in recent weeks, continue to weigh on investor sentiment. The rapid spread of the disease across the world has resulted in drastic measures by authorities such as widespread lockdowns that have left economies effectively frozen in many places globally.

So far, more than 932,000 people have been infected worldwide while at least 42,000 lives have been taken by the virus, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

Overnight stateside, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 973.65 points lower at 20,943.51 while the S&P 500 slid about 4.41% to end its trading day at 2,470.50. The Nasdaq Composite also shed 4.41% to close at about 7,360.58.

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was at 99.673 after rising from levels below 99 earlier this week.

The Japanese yen traded at 107.25 per dollar following lows above 108 seen earlier in the week. The Australian dollar changed hands at $0.608 after slipping from levels above $0.612 yesterday.

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