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Coronavirus update: Markets tank as 'it becomes harder to reassure' a jittery public

Anjalee Khemlani
Senior Reporter

Increasing alarm over the coronavirus’ relentless spread outside of China sparked another global sell-off in markets on Thursday, with new cases and deaths on the rise across the world — including within the United States.

As Italy, South Korea and Iran grapple with mounting casualties, the World Health Organization’s director called on all governments to “pull out all the stops” to beat back the virus. Globally, cases have exceeded 96,000, with more than 3,200 deaths reported.

More than 160 confirmed cases in over a dozen U.S. states have been reported, resulting in at least 11 deaths — the latest infections surfacing in New York and New Jersey. Meanwhile, California declared a state of emergency in the wake of its first death, with Florida and Washington State also raising the red flag.

Both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly passed an $8.3 billion supplement to fund its response to the coronavirus outbreak, sending the bill to President Donald Trump’s desk. Around $3 billion of that is earmarked for vaccine development, with a number of companies ramping up efforts to develop testing and treatment.

Howard Forman, a doctor and professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told Yahoo Finance the virus outbreak is novel, with data coming in in real-time.

That means “we don’t have a very good sense for simple things like lethality, its infectiousness and its current prevalence in the population,” he told “On the Move” on Thursday.

With people getting increasingly panicky, “it’s becoming harder and harder to reassure them when we see, every day, tens, if not dozens, of cases now coming out,” Forman added.

Coronavirus toll rises around the world

Vice President Mike Pence, who’s heading up the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, flew to 3M (MMM) headquarters Thursday to meet the maker of the highly sought-after N95 face masks. The company was asked by the administration to produce 35 million more masks per month to meet growing demand.

Meanwhile, companies like Gilead Sciences (GILD), Quest Diagnostics (DGX) and Labcorp (LH) are pushing to accelerate the timetable for new testing and treatment methods.

Gilead is rolling out its clinical trials globally, with more sites to be announced soon.

Quest announced on Thursday it will be ready to test samples sent to its California lab by March 9 — with more locations rolling out the capability soon, while Labcorp announced its test was ready for physicians to order Thursday evening.

The announcements could help the administration meet its goal of 1 million tests available by the weekend, as Pence acknowledged on Thursday that the world’s largest economy doesn’t have enough tests to meet demand.

In a press briefing after meeting with Congress Thursday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, flanked by top health officials, said the goal of 1 million tests (or individual samples) would equate to about 400,000 people.

At an event hosted by lobbying group PhRMA Wednesday, Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day said there is still no indication of the cost of the antiviral treatment, remdesivir, but it has taken 10 years and billions of dollars to produce.

“It’s very difficult to talk about pricing until you know what value this medicine may, or may not, bring to patients and societies,” he said.

‘Expectation of a severe disruption’ as testing questions mount

Markets tumbled on Thursday, with conferences and large public events being sharply curtailed, or cancelled altogether. Analysts are becoming more pessimistic about the prospects for growth this year, as China remains hampered by the virus — even amid falling infection rates — and the U.S. at the tip of the iceberg.

“If you believe the market... there is an expectation of a severe economic disruption coming in the form of school closures, no large gatherings, widespread business closures, and everything else,” veteran market analyst Jim Bianco told “The Final Round” on Wednesday.

He estimated the S&P 500 Index could fall by an additional 20% from Wednesday’s closing levels. Yet some stocks, such as pharma and food companies, are seeing a bump from the outbreak, amid panic buying of key consumer staples.

Testing has been hampered with faulty reagents in the Centers for Disease Control’s kits, which have been sent to state and public health labs around the country.

According to the Association of Public Health Laboratories, there are 67 public health labs in 45 states able to test for Covid-19. It is expecting 13 more online soon, each able to conduct 100 tests per day.

The cost for running one specimen is about $300, but with startup costs it could be $900 per specimen, for public health labs conducting the CDC test. But that number would decrease as volume increases.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about whether private insurers will cover the price tag associated with commercial testing.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma explained that the lab test is deemed an essential health benefit — which means Medicare, Medicaid and individuals on the Affordable Care Act marketplace will likely not have to pay.

New York and Washington have required insurers that they have regulatory oversight of to waive all costs.

Late Thursday, one insurer announced it would cover the tests free of charge.

Cigna (CI) said it will waive co-pays, coinsurance or deductibles for customers enrolled in employer-sponsored plans in the United States, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid and the Individual & Family plans available through the Affordable Care Act.

Self-insured plans, or Administrative Services Only (ASOs), will have the option to opt in, the insurer said.

The announcement followed an earlier message from the national insurance trade group.

"We will cover needed diagnostic testing when ordered by a physician,” the American Health Insurance Plans announced on Thursday.

“We will take action to ease network, referral, and prior authorization requirements and/or waive patient cost sharing,” the group added.

There is no information yet on what commercial tests will cost.

The CDC kits are free, so being tested in a state or public health lab rather than a physician’s office or a hospital will ensure no out-of-pocket cost. Clinical facilities, like hospitals or doctor’s offices, are likely to charge for the visit as usual, experts said.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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