Month: January 2021

Germany Reports 850 COVID-19 Deaths in 24 Hours

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier says he will begin leaving a light in a window at his official residence, Bellevue Palace, to remember those killed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Steinmeier has called on Germans to do the same as a remembrance that “the dead in the corona pandemic are not just statistics for us.”  He added, “Even if we don’t know their names and families, we know that every figure stands for a loved one whom we miss infinitely.”With more than 850 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous 24-hour period, Germany said Friday its death toll has surpassed the 50,000 mark. Less than two weeks ago, according to an Associated Press report, Germany’s death toll was 40,000.  U.S. President Joe Biden spent his first full day in office Thursday signing executive orders addressing the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected more people in the United States than anyplace else in the world. The U.S. has 24.6 million of the world’s more than 97 million infections. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases speaks via video link during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 21, 2021.In a related story, the Reuters news agency says the COVAX initiative announced Thursday that it is aiming to deliver 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to poor countries in 2021, and hopes to fulfill supply deals for wealthier ones in the second half of the year.  The world is racing against time to produce and deliver billions of doses of new coronavirus vaccines to blunt the pandemic, which has killed over 2 million people out of a total of over 97 million confirmed COVID-19 infections, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Vaccination efforts have run into numerous difficulties, however, including logistical hurdles,  bureaucratic failures and a basic shortage of vaccines, which has led to residents across the U.S. having had their vaccine appointments canceled. In Peru, a group of doctors launched a hunger strike this week to protest the government’s lack of preparation for a second wave of COVID-19 cases.Dr. Teodoro Quiñones, the secretary-general of Peru’s physician’s union, and at least a half-dozen doctors are staging a strike in a makeshift tent outside the headquarters of the health ministry in the capital, Lima.  He told The New York Times the state-run EsSalud network dismissed COVID-19 specialists after the first wave receded and failed to hire them back when more and more new cases began filling up hospital intensive care units.  The South American country has more than a million confirmed coronavirus infections, including over 39,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. 

more

WHO Welcomes US Back After Biden Moves to Retain Membership

The World Health Organization (WHO) Friday formally welcomed back the United States, after President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week to retain U.S. membership.
Speaking at the agency’s regular briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the United States was a founding member of the organization in 1948 and has long played a vital role in global health.  
Tedros said he welcomes Biden’s commitment, “not just to remaining part of the WHO family, but to working constructively with the WHO, its Member States and the multilateral system to end the COVID-19 pandemic and address the many health challenges we face globally.”
The director-general also noted that the U.S. committed to joining the WHO-organized international vaccine cooperative, COVAX. Tedros said the cooperative has signed an agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 40 million doses of its vaccine.  
He said they also expect 150 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, pending its approval for emergency use by the WHO. Tedros said if all goes as planned, COVAX is on schedule to begin delivering vaccines by February and meeting its goal of delivering 2 billion doses by the end of year.
The WHO director-general also thanked U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whom he said he spoke with Thursday on her first full day in office. He said he told the vice president he was grateful for the new administration’s commitment to advancing women’s health as well as action on climate change.

more

Baseball Legend Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron Dies at 86

The Atlanta Braves Major League baseball team announced Friday Hall of Famer Hank Aaron has died at the age of 86.
 
The team says Aaron died peacefully in his sleep Thursday.  
 
Aaron spent all but two years of his 23-year major league baseball career with the Braves organization.  
 
In a statement on the Braves web site, Chairman Terry McGuirk said the team was “devasted” at news of Aaron’s death. “Henry Louis Aaron wasn’t just our icon, but one across Major League Baseball and around the world.”
 
Aaron was known as the all-time greatest hitter, but he is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974. By the time he retired two years later, he had 755 home runs, a record that stood until 2007 when it was broken by Barry Bonds. Aaron remains in second place.
 
Aaron joined the then-Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and moved with the team in 1965 to Atlanta, where he played until 1974. He played his final two seasons back in Milwaukee, with the Brewers before retiring in 1976.  
 
In his career, Aaron was always among baseball’s best. He was the National League (NL) Most Valuable Player in 1957 — the same year the Braves won the World Series — and he was a two-time NL batting champion, a three-time Gold Glove winner for his defensive play as a right fielder and a record 25-time All-Star.
 
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 1999, MLB created the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the best hitter in both leagues.
 
Off the field, Aaron was an activist for civil rights, having been a victim of racial inequalities. He was born in Mobile, Alabama, and didn’t play organized high school baseball because only white students had teams.  
 
During the buildup to passing Ruth’s home run mark, threats were made on his life by people who did not want to see a Black man break the record.
 
After his retirement, as an executive with the Braves, Aaron worked to help find Black players meaningful employment after their playing days were over.
“On the field, Blacks have been able to be super giants,” he once said. “But once our playing days are over, this is the end of it, and we go back to the back of the bus again.”

more

Vaccination Uncertainty in Japan Casts Doubt Over Olympics

Japan is publicly adamant that it will stage its postponed Olympics this summer. But to pull it off, many believe the vaccination of its 127 million citizens for the coronavirus is key.  
    
It’s an immense undertaking in the best of circumstances and complicated now by an overly cautious decision-making process, bureaucratic roadblocks and a public that has long been deeply wary of vaccines.  
    
Japan hopes to start COVID-19 vaccinations in late February, but uncertainty is growing that a nation ranked among the world’s lowest in vaccine confidence can pull off the massive, $14 billion project in time for the games in July, casting doubt on whether the Tokyo Olympics can happen.
    
Japan has secured vaccines for all its citizens, and then some, after striking deals with three foreign pharmaceutical makers – Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca and Moderna Inc. Its swift action was seen as proof of its resolve to stage the games after a one-year postponement because of the pandemic.  
    
The country needs foreign-made vaccines because local development is only in its early stages.
    
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in a speech this week, said vaccines are “the clincher” in the fight against the pandemic and vowed to start vaccinations as soon as late February, when health ministry approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the first applicant, is expected.
    
Suga pledged to provide “accurate information based on scientific findings, including side effects and efficacy,” an attempt to address the worries of vaccine skeptics.  
    
Under the current plan, inoculations will start with 10,000 front-line medical workers. Then about 3 million other medical workers will be added ahead of high-risk groups such as the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and caregivers. The rest of the population is expected to get access around May or later, though officials refuse to give an exact timeline.
    
Japan is under a partial state of emergency and struggling with an upsurge of infections. There have been about 351,000 cases, with 4,800 deaths, according to the health ministry.  
    
Many people are skeptical of the vaccination effort, partly because side effects of vaccines have often been played up here. A recent survey on TBS television found only 48% of respondents said they wanted a COVID-19 vaccination. In a Lancet study of 149 countries published in September, Japan ranked among the lowest in vaccine confidence, with less than 25% of people agreeing on vaccine safety, importance and effectiveness.  
    
Many Japanese have a vague unease about vaccines, said Dr. Takashi Nakano, a Kawasaki Medical School professor and vaccine expert. “If something (negative) happens after inoculation, people tend to think it’s because of the vaccine, and that’s the image stuck in their mind for a long time.”  
    
The history of vaccine mistrust in Japan dates to 1948, when dozens of babies died after getting a faulty diphtheria vaccine. In 1989, cases of aseptic meningitis in children who received a combined vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, prompted lawsuits against the government, forcing it to scrap the mix four years later.  
    
A 1992 court ruling held the government liable for adverse reactions linked to several vaccines, while defining suspected side effects as adverse events, but without sufficient scientific evidence, experts say. In a major change to its policy, Japan in 1994 revised its vaccination law to scrap mandatory inoculation.  
    
While several Japanese companies and research organizations are currently developing their own coronavirus vaccines, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. will distribute the Moderna vaccine and produce the Novavax vaccine in Japan.
    
Masayuki Imagawa, head of Takeda’s Japan vaccine business unit, said his company last year considered developing its own vaccine. But instead, it decided to prioritize speed and chose to import Moderna’s product and make the Novavax vaccine at Takeda’s factory in Japan. He said the decision was not influenced by the Olympics.
    
Experts also worry about running into logistical challenges and bureaucratic roadblocks in staging a massive inoculation project that involves five government ministries along with local towns and cities. The government has budgeted more than $14 billion for the vaccine project.
    
Thousands of medical workers would have to be mobilized to give the shots, monitor and respond in case of any problems. Securing their help is difficult when hospitals are already burdened with treatment of COVID-19 patients, said Hitoshi Iwase, an official in Tokyo’s Sumida district tasked with preparing vaccinations for 275,000 residents.  
    
While vaccines are considered key to achieving the games, Prime Minister Suga said they won’t be required.
    
“We will prepare for a safe and secure Olympics without making vaccination a precondition,” Suga said Thursday, responding to a call by opposition lawmakers for a further postponement or cancellation of the games to concentrate on virus measures.
    
Uncertainty over vaccine safety and efficacy make it difficult to predict when Japan can obtain wide enough immunity to the coronavirus to control the pandemic.
    
“It is inappropriate to push vaccinations to hold the Olympics,” said Dr. Tetsuo Nakayama, a professor at Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences. “Vaccines should be used to protect the people’s health, not to achieve the Olympics.” 

more

New COVID-19 Variants Are Different – What that Means for Us

New coronavirus variants appearing in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere have experts concerned. Not only do they spread faster than existing strains, it’s possible that vaccines against them might not work as well, though that hasn’t been a problem so far. Here’s how these variants are different and why scientists think vaccines will still work.

more

Brazil to Receive More COVID-19 Vaccines Friday as President Defends Government Effort

Brazil expects to receive 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday in its buildup to launching a mass immunization program.
 
The vaccine is due to arrive a day after President Jair Bolsonaro fended off criticism by health officials over whether Brazil has enough vaccine to begin its nationwide immunization program.
 
Bolsonaro, who has long played down the impact of the coronavirus, even after he contracted the disease, said the government will provide the vaccine to all Brazilians free of charge.    
 
However, health officials say the country’s 6 million doses of the China-based Coronavac vaccine and nearly 5 million doses of the vaccine on order is well below what is needed to immunize Brazilians.
 
A second wave of coronavirus cases and concern over the government’s ability to secure more vaccine prompted the new mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, to tweet Thursday that it will not be possible to host annual carnival celebrations in July.
 
Brazil has more than 8.6 million coronavirus cases and 212,831 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Resource Center.  
 
Brazil’s COVID-19 mortality total is second only to the United States’ 406,417 deaths as of Thursday evening.

more

Australia Demands Foreign Travelers Take COVID-19 Test

Beginning Friday, foreign nationals granted special permission to fly to Australia take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their departure. Masks will also be compulsory on all international flights.Australia has had a fortress-like approach to COVID-19. It closed its borders to most foreign travelers in March to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.But 25,000 overseas passengers have been granted travel exemptions since the pandemic began, while a similar number have been rejected. People allowed into Australia include those wishing to attend a funeral of a close relative, those needing urgent medical care or key workers with critical skills.Arrivals, including foreign diplomats and transit passengers, now need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test at check-in prior to departure.There are some exemptions. They include international air crew, children under the age of 4, and travelers flying from New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.All passengers face 14 days’ mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival in Australia. Masks will also be compulsory on international flights into the country.“These are difficult and will be challenging for many people, and I am apologetic that we need to put in place these restrictions,” said Greg Hunt, Australia’s federal health minister. “The fact that we have new, more virulent strains that are emerging around the world – these remind us of precisely why we have been able to keep Australians safe, but we have to be ever-vigilant and responding to international events as they occur.”Australian citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return to Australia. They, too, must go into quarantine in a hotel at their own expense, but they do not need to take a COVID-19 test before their flight home.Along with border closures, mass screenings for the coronavirus have been a key part in Australia’s strategy to contain the virus. More than 12.5 million tests – an average of one for every two people – have been carried out.Strict lockdowns have also been important, and there are signs the economic harm inflicted by the pandemic is beginning to ease.Official government figures show that nine out of 10 of the jobs lost during the coronavirus crisis were recovered before Christmas, with the Australian economy rebounding as outbreaks were brought under control.The health department estimates there are 170 active COVID-19 infections in Australia.Nearly 29,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia since the pandemic began, and 909 people have died, according to the department of health.

more

Public Face of South Africa’s COVID-19 Fight Dies of Virus Complications

South Africa is mourning the sudden death of Jackson Mthembu, a cabinet minister and presidential adviser who was the public face of South Africa’s fight against COVID-19.President Cyril Ramaphosa offered condolences in a statement Thursday, saying he was shocked and saddened that 62-year-old Mthembu had died from COVID-related complications.He is the first of six South African cabinet members infected with COVID-19 to succumb to the disease.Mthembu revealed last week that he tested positive for the virus during a checkup for abdominal pain.His death comes as South Africa battles a second wave of COVID-19 propelled by a virus variant believed to be more easily spread.So far, South Africa has confirmed more than 1.3 million infections and 39,501 deaths, according to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

more

Judge Says Amazon Won’t Have to Restore Parler Web Service

Amazon won’t be forced to immediately restore web service to Parler after a federal judge ruled Thursday against a plea to reinstate the fast-growing social media app, which is favored by followers of former President Donald Trump.U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle said she was not dismissing Parler’s “substantive underlying claims” against Amazon but said it had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction forcing it back online.Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service on Jan. 11. In court filings, it said the suspension was a “last resort” to block Parler from harboring violent plans to disrupt the presidential transition.The Seattle tech giant said Parler had shown an “unwillingness and inability” to remove a slew of dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others.The social media app, a magnet for the far right, sued to get back online, arguing that Amazon had breached its contract and abused its market power. It said Trump was likely on the brink of joining the platform, following a wave of his followers who flocked to the app after Twitter and Facebook expelled Trump after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.Rothstein said she rejected “any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler’s users have engaged in.” She also faulted Parler for providing “only faint and factually inaccurate speculation” about Amazon and Twitter colluding with one another to shut Parler down.Political motives?Parler CEO John Matze asserted in a court filing that Parler’s abrupt shutdown was motivated at least partly by “a desire to deny Trump a platform on any large social-media service.” Matze said Trump had contemplated joining the network as early as October under a pseudonym. The Trump administration last week declined to comment on whether he had planned to join.Amazon denied its move to pull the plug on Parler had anything to do with political animus. It claimed that Parler had breached its business agreement “by hosting content advocating violence and failing to timely take that content down.”Parler was formed in May 2018, according to Nevada business records, with what co-founder Rebekah Mercer, a prominent Trump backer and conservative donor, later described as the goal of creating “a neutral platform for free speech” away from “the tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords.”Amazon said the company signed up for its cloud computing services about a month later, thereby agreeing to its rules against dangerous content.Matze told the court that Parler has “no tolerance for inciting violence or lawbreaking” and has relied on volunteer “jurors” to flag problem posts and vote on whether they should be removed. More recently, he said the company informed Amazon it would soon begin using artificial intelligence to automatically pre-screen posts for inappropriate content, as bigger social media companies do.Amazon last week revealed a trove of incendiary and violent posts that it had reported to Parler over the past several weeks. They included explicit calls to harm high-profile political and business leaders and broader groups of people, such as schoolteachers and Black Lives Matter activists.Move to EpikGoogle and Apple were the first tech giants to take action against Parler in the days after the deadly Capitol riot. Both companies temporarily banned the smartphone app from their app stores. But people who had already downloaded the Parler app were still able to use it until AWS pulled the plug on the website.Parler has kept its website online by maintaining its internet registration through Epik, a U.S. company owned by libertarian businessman Rob Monster. Epik has previously hosted 8chan, an online message board known for trafficking in hate speech. Parler is currently hosted by DDoS-Guard, a company whose owners are based in Russia, public records show.DDoS-Guard did not respond to emails seeking comment on its business with Parler or on published reports that its customers have included Russian government agencies.Parler did not return requests for comment this week about its future plans. Though its website is back, it has not restored its app or social network. Matze has said it will be difficult to restore service because the site had been so dependent on Amazon engineering, and Amazon’s action has turned off other potential vendors.The case has offered a rare window into Amazon’s influence over the workings of the internet. Parler argued in its lawsuit that Amazon violated antitrust laws by colluding with Twitter, which also uses some Amazon cloud services, to quash the upstart social media app.Rothstein, who was appointed to the Seattle-based court by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, said Parler presented “dwindlingly slight” evidence of antitrust violations and no evidence that Amazon and Twitter “acted together intentionally — or even at all — in restraint of trade.” 

more

Climate Change Returns to White House Agenda with Biden Executive Order

President Joe Biden immediately began to reverse the Trump administration’s policies on climate change with one of 17 executive orders signed Wednesday after his inauguration.That’s in addition to the move to rejoin the Paris agreement to limit climate-changing greenhouse gases. After four years of federal disinterest in the issue, the order calls on all federal agencies “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.”  Among its dictates is the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that perhaps more than any other has become a symbol of the rise and fall and rise of climate policy over the past three administrations.  FILE – President Joe Biden pauses as he signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 20, 2021.Keystone XL aims to connect tar sand pits in Canada’s Alberta province with crude oil refineries in the southern United States. This sludgy oil takes more energy to extract and refine than standard crude oil, so its total impact on the climate is therefore even greater than that of standard fossil fuels.  Environmental groups strongly opposed the pipeline. They persuaded then-President Barack Obama to kill the project in 2015. Energy dominance In a preview of his “energy dominance” agenda, then-President Donald Trump revived Keystone XL with an executive order signed just days after taking office in 2017.  Trump consistently favored domestic fossil fuel production over environmental regulations. He loosened rules on leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and natural gas development. He shrank the land area protected in national monuments to allow for more energy extraction. He weakened efficiency standards for appliances and vehicles, saying that the standards made these items more expensive.  FILE – Demonstrators gather to protest then-President Donald Trump’s plan to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, in Albany, N.Y., Feb. 15, 2018.Biden’s executive order starts the process of reversing those policies. It instructs agency chiefs to consider “suspending, revising or rescinding” Trump’s rules.  In all, the FILE – A depot used to store pipes for TransCanada Corp.’s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, North Dakota, Nov. 14, 2014.The Sierra Club, a major environmental group, called Biden’s order a “huge and hard-fought victory.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing a large swath of U.S. businesses, called it “a politically motivated decision” that “will harm consumers and put thousands of Americans in the building trades out of work.” Not all of Biden’s actions drew the ire of the business community, however. In a separate statement, the U.S. Chamber said it “welcomes President Biden’s action to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.” Business groups have not supported all of Trump’s rollbacks, so they may not object to tightening them again.  Major oil companies opposed weakening rules on methane leaks. Automakers split over Trump’s vehicle efficiency rules.  Also, many of Trump’s rules are being challenged in court. Biden’s order says his attorney general does not have to defend them.  Heating up In signing the order, Biden acknowledged that these executive actions are “all starting points” and much more will need to be done.  And soon. The year FILE – Green lights are projected onto the facade of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, France, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement at a news conference, June 1, 2017.The United States is not on track to meet its Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Experts say even the world’s commitments under the Paris agreement are not enough to ward off potentially catastrophic levels of global warming.  Biden proposed an aggressive agenda to tackle climate change, but executive orders alone will not be enough. He will need Congress to pass legislation.  With a narrow Democratic majority in the House and an evenly split Senate, the task will not be easy. Republicans from fossil fuel-producing states have signaled their opposition. Biden’s policies “from Day One hurt American workers and our economy,” West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito said in a statement.  His executive order “comes at the expense of low-income and rural families that rely upon industries opposed by liberal environmental groups,” she said. “My constituents and I have not forgotten the harm brought by this approach under the Obama administration.”

more