The Latest: Hacker groups using COVID-19 themes for attacks

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.


— AP Exclusive: ER staff saves lives, suffers in hot spot.

—2 pet cats in New York test positive for virus.

—Italy tops 25,000 coronavirus-related deaths.


BOSTON — Google’s security team says it has identified more than a dozen government-backed malicious groups using COVID-19 related themes for phishing and hacking.

The company’s Threat Analysis Group says in a blog post that some have tried to trick people into downloading malware by impersonating international health organizations. It said one South American group, known as Packrat, spoofed the World Health Organization’s login page.

Google says people who work at public health agencies are becoming targets due to the new coronavirus and it’s proactively adding extra security for such people — more than 50,000 high-risk accounts in all.

One campaign Google highlighted targeted personal accounts of U.S. government employees — the specific employers were not named — with phishing lures. Senders posing as American fast-food franchises offering free meals and coupons tried to get recipients to enter their Google account credentials.

While Google said it has not seen an overall increase in phishing attacks by government-backed groups, the use of COVID-19 themes represents a change in tactics.


BOSTON — The Massachusetts death toll in the coronavirus pandemic has surged past 2,000, about doubling in seven days as the state becomes a hot spot.

There were 221 new deaths, pushing the overall toll to 2,182, officials said. It was the most virus deaths reported in a single day in Massachusetts, and the first time the state has recorded more than 200 in a day.

There were more than 1,700 new cases reported, bringing the number of confirmed cases close to 43,000. More than half the deaths — 1,205 — were reported in long-term care centers, such as nursing homes. The average age of people who have died of confirmed COVID-19 is 82, officials said.

Vice President Mike Pence recently said the White House is closely watching the Boston area, and the coordinator of the federal coronavirus task force said officials are “very much focused” on Massachusetts.


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California hospitals are allowed to resume scheduled surgeries.

Gov. Gavin Newsom calls it the first significant change to the state’s stay-at-home order that has been in place for more than a month due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The change covers surgeries that are not emergencies. Newsom says examples include procedures for tumors, heart valves and chronic disease. The change does not include purely cosmetic surgeries.

Newsom says state officials will be monitoring hospitals closely to make sure they are not overwhelmed. If there is a surge of coronavirus cases, the scheduled surgery ban could be put back in place.


TBILISI, Georgia — Several hundred farmers blocked a main road in the country of Georgia in a protest against strict measures taken to try to stifle the spread of coronavirus.

The protest in Marneuli took place on the same day that the Georgian parliament voted to extend a state of emergency through May 22.The farmers in the town about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the capital Tbilisi complained that markets and stores are short on food and supplies and that they cannot sell their agricultural products.

Georgia has reported 416 cases of coronavirus infection and five deaths.


BRUSSELS — The European Union is aiming to set up a humanitarian air bridge to help move aid, equipment and facilities to parts of Africa hit hardest by the coronavirus.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says “France has been proposing to be the first country that can participate.”

Borrell says the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, has “means and tools” and will study ways to take the project forward. He provided no details about how it would work or when it might be operational.


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Highway Patrol says it is temporarily banning rallies at the state Capitol and other state facilities because of the pandemic.

The change in policy came after hundreds of protesters gathered on the Capitol grounds in Sacramento on Monday, many without wearing masks or following recommendations to remain more than six feet apart to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The same group had planned additional rallies in coming days against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders that people remain at home except for essential activities. Additional similar rallies have been happening across California and the nation, with more planned.


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s health minister has reported 117 additional COVID-19 fatalities in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 2,376.

Fahrettin Koca also reported 3,083 new confirmed infections in the country, raising the total to 98,674. The number of new cases was the lowest since April 4 and down from the 4,611 cases reported the previous day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that the number of daily infections is stabilizing and that the country could transition to normal life after a religious holiday at the end of May.

“The data indicates that the outbreak is under control,” Koca told reporters.

But he warned against any relaxation of measures to contain the spread, especially during the upcoming holy Muslim of month of Ramadan, when people traditionally hold fast-breaking dinners with family and friends.


MADRID — Spain’s parliament has approved the government’s proposal to extend the country’s state of emergency for a further two weeks, through May 9.

The state of emergency was declared on March 14, granting the government extraordinary powers to maintain a lockdown to help control the coronavirus outbreak.

Spain will further relax its confinement rules next Monday when it lets children under 14 years old out for walks with a parent. Factory and construction workers have already been allowed back to their jobs.

The confinement has helped slow the daily contagion rate increase from more than 20% to less than 2%. Spain has had over 21,000 deaths, second only to the United States and Italy, and 208,000 infections, second only to the U.S.


PARIS — The head of France’s national health agency says there’s no evidence that nicotine protects smokers from the virus — and warned that smoking remains the country’s No. 1 killer.

Jerome Salomon noted data released by the Paris hospital network suggesting an unusually low proportion of smokers among those hospitalized with the virus, compared to the 25% of smokers in the French population. French researchers have proposed further study, notably on nicotine and the virus.

But Salomon insisted that the data so far is based on observation only, and an eventual nicotine link is only an unproven hypothesis at this stage.


HELENA, Mt. — Gov. Steve Bullock is easing coronavirus restrictions for Montana.

Bullock says Montana’s churches can hold services Sunday and some businesses will be able to reopen Monday as long as they practice social distancing.

Restaurants, bars and casinos can reopen on May 4 with reduced capacity and an 11:30 p.m. closure time. Schools have the option to return to in-classroom instruction on May 7, but districts can choose to continue distance learning, as well, Bullock says.


GENEVA — The World Health Organization chief says he hopes the United States will reconsider its freeze in funding for his agency and vowed to keep working on “saving lives” despite calls for his resignation from some U.S. lawmakers.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says he hopes the U.S. believes WHO is “an important investment, not just to help others, but for the U.S. to stay safe” amid the coronavirus outbreak.

President Donald Trump last week announced a temporary halt to funding for the U.N. health agency from the United States — its biggest donor — alleging a WHO cover-up and missteps handling the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated some of the U.S. allegations, while other U.S. officials said the halt involved new funding and was expected to continue for 60 to 90 days.

A group of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives last week suggested that Trump condition any voluntary U.S. contributions to the WHO this year on Tedros’ resignation.

Asked about whether he was considering that, Tedros said: “I will continue to work day and night because this is a blessed work, actually, and responsibility saving lives, and I will focus on that.”


ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — The foreign minister of Turkmenistan, one of a handful of countries that have not reported any cases of coronavirus infection, has denied that the country is hiding information.

“If there were even one confirmed case of coronavirus, we would immediately inform the World Health Organization about it in accordance with our obligations,” Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said.

Health Minister Nurmukhammed Amannepesov said Turkmenistan is holding 151 people in quarantine to determine possible infection, most of them long-distance truck drivers and ship crew members. The secretive former Soviet republic shares a long border with Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.


ISLAMABAD — A top Pakistani health official says Prime Minister Imran Khan has tested negative for the coronavirus.

The test results ended speculation Khan might have been infected after meeting with someone who tested positive this week.

Pakistan has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of the virus with 212 fatalities.


NEW YORK — Two pet cats in New York state have tested positive for the coronavirus, marking the first cases in companion animals in the United States, federal officials say.

The cats, which had mild respiratory illnesses and are expected to recover, are thought to have contracted the virus from people in their households or neighborhoods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say.

The finding, which comes after positive tests in seven tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo, add to a small number of confirmed cases of the virus in animals worldwide. U.S. authorities say that while it appears some animals can get the virus from people, there’s no indication the animals are transmitting it to human beings.

The two cats live in different parts of the state; the USDA and CDC wouldn’t say where specifically.

Authorities are recommending that any pet owners with COVID-19 avoid contact with their animals as much as possible, including wearing a face covering while caring for them.


UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations General Assembly has rejected two resolutions on the coronavirus pandemic, one from Russia and the other from Saudi Arabia. It was the second defeat for a Russian resolution on COVID-19 by the 193-member world body.

Under new voting rules instituted because the assembly isn’t holding meetings during the pandemic, a draft resolution is circulated to member nations. If a single country objects before the deadline — in this case noon EDT on Wednesday — the resolution is defeated. Normally, assembly resolutions are adopted by majority votes or by consensus.

General Assembly spokeswoman Reem Abaza confirmed objections had been raised against the Russian and Saudi draft resolutions.

The original Russian resolution, which failed to win approval on April 2, called for abandoning trade wars and protectionist measures and said no unilateral sanctions should be applied without approval from the U.N. Security Council.

The revised resolution, which was defeated Wednesday, kept the reference to ending protectionist practices and dropped the reference to unilateral sanctions. But it welcomed an April 3 statement by the main group of developing countries at the United Nations which includes a call on the international community “to adopt urgent and effective measures to eliminate the use of unilateral coercive economic measures against developing countries.”

Saudi Arabia currently chairs the Group of 20 major global economies and its draft would have welcomed their March 26 summit call for “effective and coordinated action” to fight COVID-19, and their statement “on injecting 5 trillion United States dollars into the global economy, as part of targeted fiscal policy, economic measures and guarantee schemes to counteract the social, economic and financial impacts of the pandemic.”

The General Assembly previously approved two resolutions on COVID-19, but the more powerful Security Council has not taken any action so far.


ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he has enlisted former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to help create a “tracing army” that will find people infected with the coronavirus and get them into isolation. New York will work on the massive effort with neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut.

Wide-scale testing, tracing and isolation are considered crucial to taming the outbreak in the hard-hit region.

The governor says “we will literally need thousands” of people to trace the contacts of infected people. Cuomo says the state will start by asking 35,000 medical field students at state and city universities to get involved. The governor says Bloomberg will oversee the design of the program.


ROME — Deaths in Italy related to the coronavirus pandemic topped 25,000 on Wednesday.

The number of dead and new positives continue to plateau for Italy, the first western country to be hit by the crisis. The civil protection agency reported 437 people had died with the virus in the last 25 hours, a 1.7% increase in the death toll to 25,085. The number of positive cases rose 1.5% to 183,857.

Pressure on health services continued to ease, with fewer people both hospitalized and in intensive care. Italy’s interior minister, meanwhile, confirmed that none of some 150 migrants rescued by an aid group and quarantined at sea have tested positive for the virus.


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