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In another Trump win, court tosses Democrats’ suit over his businesses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by Democratic lawmakers that accused Donald Trump of violating anti-corruption provisions in the U.S. Constitution with his business dealings, capping a week of political victories for the Republican president.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the more than 210 House of Representatives and Senate Democrats lacked the required legal standing to bring the case, reversing a lower court judge’s decision that had allowed the case to proceed.

Two days after being acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, Trump hailed the ruling as a “total win,” telling reporters that “it was another phony case.” Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer for the lawmakers, said they were disappointed in the decision and were weighing their next steps.

Trump still faces two similar lawsuits pending in other courts that also accuse him of violating the Constitution’s rarely tested “emoluments” clauses that bar presidents from taking gifts or payments from foreign and state governments.

The lawsuits all have focused on his ownership of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, just blocks from the White House. The hotel, opened by Trump shortly before he was elected in 2016, has become a favored lodging and event space for some foreign and state officials visiting Washington.

The ruling came during a week of positives for Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3. He previewed election themes in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, benefited from the chaotic aftermath of Monday’s Democratic presidential nomination contest in Iowa, and was given a lift by Friday’s strong jobs report.

Reuters/Ipsos polling shows that Trump’s approval rating has been largely unchanged by impeachment, with 42 percent of Americans approving of his performance as president.

Unlike past presidents, Trump – a wealthy real estate developer-turned politician, has retained ownership of his business interests while serving in the White House. The emoluments lawsuits have accused him of making himself vulnerable to bribery by foreign governments.

In the case dismissed on Friday, the appeals court decided that it was bound by Supreme Court rulings that have limited the ability of individual members of Congress to litigate questions that affect the legislative branch as a whole.

The Democratic lawmakers “can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself,” the three-judge panel wrote. “But we will not – indeed we cannot – participate in this debate.”

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One of the two other emoluments lawsuits against Trump, brought by the Democratic attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland, is awaiting a ruling by the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year revived the other emoluments lawsuit, which was brought by a public interest advocacy group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

At least one of those cases could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to legal experts.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn and Jeff Mason; Editing by Will Dunham and Andy Sullivan

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Coronavirus cases on cruise ship marooned off Japan rise to 61

TOKYO (Reuters) – Dozens more people on a cruise ship quarantined in a Japanese port tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday and thousands of passengers remained confined to their cabins, only allowed on deck briefly for fresh air.

The Diamond Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, was placed on a two-week quarantine on arriving at Yokohama on Monday after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong was diagnosed with the virus.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a news conference 41 people on the ship had tested positive for coronavirus on Friday, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 61. Twenty one of the new cases were Japanese.

Those infected were moved to hospitals in Tokyo and neighbouring towns, the Health Ministry said. Blue and white tarpaulin sheets were hung up to screen them from the view of other passengers.

About 3,700 people are aboard the Diamond Princess, which usually has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.

The Princess Cruise website describes the ship as “your home away from home” and it will remain so for most passengers at least until Feb. 19. The quarantine period could be extended if necessary, a Japanese government official said.

Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s top emergency expert, said new cases would push back quarantine.

“We need to find a way to break that vicious cycle and find a way of organising the patients on board in a way that we can get people off the ship in due course, Ryan said.

The 61 cases came from a sample of 273 people who had been tested because they had showed symptoms or been in close contact with those who did. More tests will be done if more passengers developed symptoms, Kato said.

For the stranded passengers, promised “a treasure trove of exceptional delights” in the ship’s brochure, the new infections spelled more gloom.

Staff distributed thermometers and passengers were told mental health experts were available for phone consultations.

“We have instructions to monitor our temperatures and report if we’re above 37.5,” a 43-year-old Hong Kong resident on the ship with his family told Reuters.

Passengers wearing face masks are seen on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, where 10 more people were tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Normal human body temperature is generally accepted to be 37 Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit).

Passengers were finding out about the new infections from the internet before they were announced on the ship, said the Hong Kong man, who declined to be identified.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, an American whose parents are on the ship, said she hoped U.S. officials would help get them off.

“They are all breathing circulated contaminated air so they could be getting everyone infected,” Rhodes-Courter said.

CRUISE SHIP CONCERN

The Japanese official said the government saw no risk of the virus being spread by the ship’s ventilation system.

Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious disease at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said the potential for cruise ships spreading the epidemic across the world was becoming a serious concern.

“Cruise ships are environments where respiratory infections can spread very quickly,” he said.

They also carry the risk of transmitting a viral infection to other countries as passengers embark and disembark.

“I would be surprised if we don’t see more problems with cruise ships in the coming weeks,” Hunter said.

Transport Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba told reporters Japan had asked another cruise ship, the Westerdam, not to make a port call in the country.

The governor of the U.S. island territory of Guam, in the Pacific Ocean, on Friday rejected a U.S. State Department request to allow the Westerdam to dock there.

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The new ship cases take the total number of coronavirus infections in Japan to more than 80, according to Reuters calculations. Kato said Japan was not including those cases in its national count, which stands at 21.

The outbreak, which has killed about 700 people in mainland China and two elsewhere, has stoked concern about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which begin on July 24.

Games organisers have set up a task force to coordinate with health authorities on how to respond to the epidemic.

Reporting by Ju-min Park, Elaine Lies, Rocky Swift, Kiyoshi Takenaka, David Dolan, Tim Kelly and Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo, Kate Kelland in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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France must put gene-edited crops under GMO rules this year – court

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government must in the coming months change its policy on crops developed using a breeding technique called mutagenesis to adhere to stricter rules for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a court ruled on Friday.

The decision by France’s top administrative court follows a ruling by the Europe Union’s highest court in 2018 that mutagenesis, often called gene-editing, should be subject to GMO regulations.

The court cases reflect intense debate in Europe between environmental activists who say new genetic breeding techniques pose the same risks as long-contested GMO crops, and farming and biotech industries who argue that such methods are similar to natural processes and vital for research.

France is the EU’s largest agricultural producer and bans cultivation of GMO crops.

In its decision published on Friday, the Conseil d’Etat ordered the government to revise within six months regulations on GMO varieties to include mutagenesis-based crops.

Such crops that are already approved for growing should be listed within nine months, with the possibility that some varieties be banned from cultivation, the court ruled.

The authorities should also evaluate potential risks related to herbicide-resistant crops developed using mutagenesis, it said.

The government will study how to implement the court’s ruling in line with EU legislation, the French agriculture and environment ministries said in a joint statement.

Such herbicide-tolerant varieties represented about 20-30% of the area planted with sunflower seed and 2-5% of the rapeseed area, the statement said.

The European Commission is looking at options to update GMO legislation to take account of new breeding techniques and in the light of the 2018 ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice.

Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Susan Fenton

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Prince Harry speaks at JP Morgan event in Miami – royal source

FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex visit Canada House in London, Britain January 7, 2020. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan attended an event organised by American bank JP Morgan in Miami, Florida, on Thursday, a royal source said, one of the couple’s first engagements since stepping down from royal duties.

The source said Harry, Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, spoke at the event although he was not believed to have given a keynote address. It was not known whether he was paid.

A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

A spokesman for JP Morgan declined to comment.

The couple’s attendance at the event comes a month after they announced they would be stepping down from royal duties and spending more time in North America.

Under an agreement reached with senior members of the royal family which comes into effect in the Spring, they will no longer be receiving UK public funds.

Reporting by Michael Holden, additional reporting by Elizabeth Dilts in New York; Writing by James Davey; Editing by Stephen Addison

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Two days after his acquittal, Trump ousts two star impeachment witnesses

(Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday ousted the two witnesses who provided the most damaging testimony during his impeachment investigation: Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

Two days after Trump was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate on charges of trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Vindman — the top Ukraine expert at the White House’s National Security Council — was escorted out of the building, according to his lawyer.

“Vindman was asked to leave for telling the truth,” said his lawyer, David Pressman.

Hours later, Sondland said he had been fired from his post as U.S ambassador to the European Union.

The two men served as star witnesses during the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ impeachment investigation last year.

Vindman’s twin brother Yevgeny, who worked as a lawyer at the NSC, also was escorted out of the White House, according to Michael Volkov, who represented Vindman when he testified in the impeachment inquiry.

Trump has said he is still upset with Democrats and government officials involved in the impeachment investigation, even after he was acquitted on Wednesday.

“I’m not happy with him. You think I’m supposed to be happy with him?” he said of Vindman on Friday.

An NSC spokesman declined to comment.

Vindman, a decorated combat veteran, testified in November that he “couldn’t believe what I was hearing” when he listened in on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskiy that became the focus of the inquiry.

FILE PHOTO: Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, arrives to testify before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Trump asked Zelenskiy to launch investigations into both Democratic rival Joe Biden and a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, colluded with Democrats to harm Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Sondland, a wealthy Republican donor and Oregon hotelier who served as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, testified that he was following Trump’s orders when he pushed Ukrainian officials to carry out investigations sought by the president.

“I am grateful to President Trump for having given me the opportunity to serve,” he said.

The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sondland’s removal.

“This is as clear a case of retribution as I’ve seen during my 27 years in the Senate,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Biden’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination suffered a serious setback when he came in fourth place at the Democrats’ first state contest in Iowa this week.

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Vindman’s two-year stint at the White House had been due to end in July. An Army spokesperson said both brothers had been reassigned to the Army, but declined to give further information “out of respect for their privacy.”

Another senior White House aide who testified over impeachment, Jennifer Williams, left this week for a post at the U.S. military’s Central Command, according to Bloomberg News.

Vindman downplayed concerns that he would suffer payback for speaking out when he testified to Congress. “I will be fine for telling the truth,” he said.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, David Morgan, Mark Hosenball, Idrees Ali and Ted Hesson; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Daniel Wallis

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Russia foreign minister slams U.S. sanctions during visit to Venezuela

CARACAS (Reuters) – Russia’s foreign minister on Friday slammed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela during a visit to Caracas, providing a public show of support for President Nicolas Maduro as Washington mulls ramping up pressure on the South American nation.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro shakes hands with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Sergei Lavrov arrived in Caracas on Thursday, only hours after the U.S. State Department suggested its Venezuela sanctions program could begin targeting Russia, whose oil companies have helped Maduro by buying much of the OPEC nation’s crude.

Assistance from Russia could be decisive for Maduro to boost oil production and restore economic growth after a surprise opening of the economy last year that followed years of hyperinflation and the exodus of 5 million people.

“We have agreed to deepen our economic, commercial and investment cooperation in several areas despite the illegitimate sanctions,” Lavrov said alongside Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez following an afternoon meeting with Maduro.

“The most promising sectors are energy, natural resources and industry,” Lavrov said in comments broadcast on state television, without providing details.

U.S. President Donald Trump met at the White House this week with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“We consider sanctions to be unacceptable,” Lavrov said during an earlier televised meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Jorge Arreaza, and other Venezuelan officials. “It is outrageous that unilateral actions by the United States affect social and humanitarian projects.”

Lavrov also said “unilateral” actions by Washington could interfere with humanitarian projects. He voiced support for a government-backed dialogue effort as an alternative to “uprisings and interventions.”

Opposition leaders have said Maduro uses dialogue proceedings as a stalling tactic.

U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams said on Thursday that Russia’s support for Maduro’s government may “no longer be cost-free.”

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on Venezuela state-run airline Conviasa, which it said was being used to “shuttle corrupt officials around the world.”

“The Trump administration will not allow Maduro and his proxies to continue stealing from the Venezuelan people and abusing state-owned assets to advance their own corrupt and destabilizing activities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

It is not evident that Washington is prepared to impose sanctions on Russian oil companies due to the potential impact on crude markets.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; Editing by Will Dunham, Steve Orlofsky and Dan Grebler

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Kobe Bryant helicopter engines showed no sign of ‘catastrophic internal failure’ – NTSB

FILE PHOTO: Muralist Jonas Never paints a portrait of late retired basketball player Kobe Bryant at the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, California, U.S. February 5, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

(Reuters) – The two engines of the luxury helicopter that crashed into a steep hillside, killing basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others near Los Angeles last month, showed no evidence of a “catastrophic internal failure,” federal investigators said on Friday.

The interim report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on its crash probe 12 days after the Jan. 26 accident also said examination of the rotor assemblies found damage “consistent with powered rotation at the time of impact.”

The findings, while preliminary, pointed to no obvious signs of mechanical problems that might have contributed to the fiery crash in which Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and all seven others aboard the helicopter perished.

The NTSB investigative update said: “viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure.”

The report did not rule out that mechanical issues might yet be identified when the engines and other parts recovered from the wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76B are disassembled and more closely examined.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said two days after the tragedy that clouds, fog and limited visibility reported in the vicinity of the crash would be a key focus of the investigation.

Friday’s report said videos and photographs taken by the public in the area depict fog and low clouds obscuring the hilltops around the crash site, including security video footage showing the helicopter disappearing into clouds moments before it went down.

The NTSB also quoted a witness from a mountain bike trail in foothills surrounded by mist who recounted briefly glimpsing the helicopter emerge from clouds as it rolled to the left before crashing seconds later a short distance away from him.

The pilot, an experienced aviator certified as an instructor, was navigating by visual orientation, not by instrument guidance, during the entirety of the ill-fated flight, the NTSB said.

Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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Canadian lawyers file lawsuit against Iran over victims of downed Ukrainian plane

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canadian lawyers, who previously successfully sued Iran, are seeking class action status in a lawsuit on behalf of victims aboard a Ukrainian plane shot down over Tehran last month, looking for at least C$1.5 billion ($1.1 billion) in compensation.

FILE PHOTO: Hundreds attended a candle light vigil for the victims of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS-752 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Blair Gable

The suit names Iran, its supreme leader, the elite Revolutionary Guards and others as defendants.

Iran admitted its missiles downed the Ukrainian airliner by mistake on Jan. 8, killing all 176 people aboard, including 57 Canadians.

The lead plaintiff in the case is anonymous, preliminarily identified as John Doe, and described as immediate family to a victim identified as Jack Doe. 

The filing says John Doe’s identity must be protected because of the risk that “his Iranian family would be put at risk of harm or death by the Iranian regime.”

The suit alleges that the downing of the plane was “an intentional and deliberate act of terrorism.”

Iranian authorities did not immediately comment on Friday, when government offices are closed.

Jonah Arnold is co-lead counsel with his father Mark Arnold, who has represented clients in several suits against Iran, including a 2017 appeal decision that led to seizure of some Iranian assets in Canada.

The 2017 ruling was in a case brought by U.S. victims of bombings, killings and kidnappings that U.S. courts ruled Iran was responsible for. But the plaintiffs could not claim the $1.7 billion in judgements in the United States.

It was not clear whether Iran has any assets remaining in Canada. Arnold said the case would likely unfold over years, and any judgement could be renewed and enforced in the future.

“Providing a voice for the families and seeking compensation for them in the courts is the primary objective,” Jonah Arnold said. “When we get there, and we need to look for those assets, that’s what we’ll do.”

Besides Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, others named in the lawsuit are top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the head of the unit responsible for shooting down the plane, Amirali Hajizadeh.

Foreign states are not typically within the jurisdiction of Canadian courts. A 2012 Canadian law limited that immunity for countries Ottawa lists as “foreign state supporters of terrorism,” currently Iran and Syria.

The suit was filed Jan. 24 in Toronto, but it is not clear whether it has been served on defendants in Iran.

FILE PHOTO: Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne looks on during a news conference, standing next to Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister Idrees Zaman and British MP Andrew Murrison, after a meeting of the International Coordination and Response Group for the families of the victims of the Ukraine International flight which crashed in Iran, at the High Commission of Canada in London, Britain January 16, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Arnold said the Canadian government is required to ensure that happens, and that he has received confirmation that the suit is “en route.”

Global Affairs Canada did not immediately comment. 

The case is Doe v Islamic Republic of Iran et al, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, No. CV-20-635078.

Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai; Editing by Bill Berkrot

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WHO warns against hoarding of protective gear amid coronavirus scare

A woman wears a mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus outbreak, in Bangkok, Thailand February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

GENEVA (Reuters) – Demand for masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear has risen by up to 100 times and prices have soared due to the China coronavirus, producing a “severe” disruption in supply, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.

“This situation is exacerbated by widespread use of personal protective equipment outside patient care,” he told reporters in Geneva, adding that he had spoken to manufacturers and distributors to ensure supplies for those who need them.

He also said he could see practices like hoarding in order to ensure higher prices and called for solidarity from the public and private sector.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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Coronavirus brings China’s surveillance state out of the shadows

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – When the man from Hangzhou returned home from a business trip, the local police got in touch. They had tracked his car by his license plate in nearby Wenzhou, which has had a spate of coronavirus cases despite being far from the epicentre of the outbreak. Stay indoors for two weeks, they requested.

FILE PHOTO: The rising sun is seen behind surveillance cameras near Tiananmen Square before a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

After around 12 days, he was bored and went out early. This time, not only did the police contact him, so did his boss. He had been spotted near Hangzhou’s West Lake by a camera with facial recognition technology, and the authorities had alerted his company as a warning.

“I was a bit shocked by the ability and efficiency of the mass surveillance network. They can basically trace our movements with the AI technology and big data at any time and any place,” said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Chinese have long been aware that they are tracked by the world’s most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance. The coronavirus emergency has brought some of that technology out of the shadows, providing the authorities with a justification for sweeping methods of high tech social control.

Artificial intelligence and security camera companies boast that their systems can scan the streets for people with even low-grade fevers, recognise their faces even if they are wearing masks and report them to the authorities.

If a coronavirus patient boards a train, the railway’s “real name” system can provide a list of people sitting nearby.

Mobile phone apps can tell users if they have been on a flight or a train with a known coronavirus carrier, and maps can show them locations of buildings where infected patients live.

Although there has been some anonymous grumbling on social media, for now Chinese citizens seem to be accepting the extra intrusion, or even embracing it, as a means to combat the health emergency.

“In the circumstances, individuals are likely to consider this to be reasonable even if they are not specifically informed about it,” said Carolyn Bigg, partner at law firm DLA Piper in Hong Kong.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES

Telecoms companies have long quietly tracked the movements of their users. China Mobile (0941.HK) promoted this as a service this week, sending text messages to Beijing residents telling them they can check where they have been over the past 30 days. It did not explain why users might need this, but it could be useful if they are questioned by the authorities or their employers about their travel.

“In the era of big data and internet, the flow of each person can be clearly seen. So we are different from the SARS time now,” epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said in an interview with China’s state broadcaster CCTV last week, comparing the outbreak to a virus that killed 800 people in 2003.

“With such new technologies, we should make full use of them to find the source of infection and contain the source of infection.”

The industry ministry sent a notice to China’s AI companies and research institutes this week calling on them to help fight the outbreak. Companies have responded with a flurry of announcements touting the capabilities of their technology.

Facial recognition firm Megvii said on Tuesday it had developed a new way to spot and identify people with fevers, with support from the industry and science ministries. Its new “AI temperature measurement system”, which detects temperature with thermal cameras and uses body and facial data to identify individuals, is already being tested in a Beijing district.

SenseTime, another leading AI firm, said it has built a similar system to be used at building entrances, which can identify people wearing masks, overcoming a weakness of earlier technology. Surveillance camera firm Zhejiang Dahua (002236.SZ) says it can detect fevers with infrared cameras to an accuracy within 0.3ºC.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua, Zhu Jiansheng of the China Academy of Railway Sciences explained how technology can help the authorities find people who might be exposed to a confirmed or suspected coronavirus case on a train.

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“We will retrieve relevant information about the passenger, including the train number, carriage number and information on passengers who were close to the person, such as people sitting three rows of seats before and after the person,” he said.

“We will extract the information and then provide it to relevant epidemic prevention departments.”

($1 = 6.9968 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Editing by Jonathan Weber and Peter Graff