Day: January 19, 2021

South Africa Coronavirus Cases Decline, But New Variant Spreading Quickly

South Africa is reporting both good and bad news in the battle against the coronavirus, seeing a decline in confirmed cases along with the spread of a new, more infectious strain of the virus.  First, the good news from South Africa’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize. The nation is still experiencing its second wave of the virus, but in the past week, Mkhize said, South Africa saw a 23% decline in confirmed cases.   “It has been encouraging to know that, despite the mutations, we are still able to protect ourselves with the armor that we have established,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “This week has seen some promising signs of decline in transmission – yesterday we noted a 23% decrease in new cases nationally compared to 7 days prior. This could be attributable to many factors, including enhanced physical distancing facilitated by lockdown regulations. We must thank South Africans for adhering to the regulations, difficult and frustrating as it may be.” And now for the more concerning news. The head of the nation’s coronavirus task force, epidemiologist Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, says the recently detected, more infectious variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, is spreading quickly in South Africa.Healthcare workers tend to a patient at a temporary ward set up during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, January 19, 2021.“Its affinity and its ability to bind to the human cell is now stronger,” he said in a briefing late Monday. “And that’s what enables it to become a more efficient virus in the way it transmits …. So this drastic change that we’re seeing is being driven by a virus that certainly, biologically looks like it can attach to human cells more efficiently.”  But, he adds, scientists haven’t concluded that this variant is more severe. In fact, he said, current data suggests it is not.  And he quickly allayed fears that the 1.5 million vaccine doses expected to land in South Africa by February won’t work on this new strain.    “I will not even attempt to speculate on that matter,” he said. “I’ll wait for the data. And certainly, we have no empirical evidence yet on whether vaccines are effective against this variant. Those studies are still under way.”  And, in a rare departure from science, Dr. Karim took a moment to talk politics, urging against calling this mutation the “South Africa variant.” When researchers first spotted this new variant, they were careful not to call it that in scientific papers. He explained why this matters.   “There are variants across the world,” he said. “And even if they were found in one country, we don’t even know if that’s where they originated from, and they will rapidly spread to many countries. The B.1.1.7 is now in almost 50 countries. The  501.V2 is already available in more than 10 countries. Just like how we objected when the U.S. president called SARS-Cov-2 ‘the China virus,’ we should not call this variant by its country, we should call it by its name.”  So what does all this new science mean for the average South African? Not much, doctors said. Their basic guidance remains the same: prevent transmission by staying home if you can, distance from others, wash your hands and always wear a mask in public.   

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Serbia Becomes First European Country to Use Chinese COVID Vaccine for Mass Rollout

Hundreds of members of Serbia’s military lined up on Tuesday in their camouflage uniforms at an exhibition hall in Belgrade where nurses injected them with a Chinese-made vaccine against COVID-19.
Last week Serbia received one million doses of Chinese Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the first European country to start a mass inoculation program with it.
Serbia is vaccinating essential workers such as police officers, teachers and soldiers after last month starting to treat the elderly in care homes and medical workers with its supplies of vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech , and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Belgrade maintains close ties with Beijing and Chinese companies have invested billions of euros in Serbia, mainly in infrastructure and energy projects.
Defense minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said over 700 members of the military, including himself had been vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.
“I have been inocculated with the Chinese vaccine which we completely trust … I’ve said I will get the same vaccine as our troops,” Stefanovic told reporters.
More than 20,000 Serbians have been vaccinated so far since the mass inoculation began in late December.
Over the weekend, President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia expects to get another 250,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine and 20,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines in the coming days.
In the Western Balkan region, inoculation has started only in Serbia and Albania, while Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have not yet received supplies of any vaccine.
China approved the shot developed by Sinopharm’s BIBP in late December, its first COVID-19 vaccine for general public use. No detailed efficacy data has been released, but BIBP has said the vaccine is 79.34% effective based on interim data.
In Serbia, which has a population of about 7 million, 3,771 people have died from COVID-19 and 347,111 fell ill with it.

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Meghan Seeks Court Ruling over ‘Serious Breach’ of Privacy

Lawyers for the Duchess of Sussex asked a British judge on Tuesday to settle her lawsuit against a newspaper before it goes to trial by ruling that its publication of a “deeply personal” letter to her estranged father was “a plain and a serious breach of her rights of privacy.”
Meghan’s latest attempt to protect her privacy laid bare more details of her fraught relationship with her estranged father, who claims he has been “vilified” as a dishonest publicity-seeker.
The former Meghan Markle, 39, is suing Associated Newspapers for invasion of privacy and copyright infringement over five February 2019 articles in the Mail on Sunday and on the MailOnline website that published portions of a handwritten letter to her father, Thomas Markle, after her marriage to Britain’s Prince Harry in 2018.
Associated Newspapers is contesting the claim, and a full trial is due to be held in the autumn at the High Court, in what would be one of London’s highest-profile civil court showdowns for years.
The duchess is seeking a summary judgment that would find in her favor and dismiss the newspaper’s defense case. Her lawyer, Justin Rushbrooke, argued that the publisher had “no real prospect” of winning the case.
“At its heart, it’s a very straightforward case about the unlawful publication of a private letter,” he said at the start of a two-day hearing, held remotely because of coronavirus restrictions.
Lawyers for the duchess say Thomas Markle, a retired television cinematographer, caused anguish for Meghan and Harry before their May 2018 wedding by giving media interviews and posing for wedding-preparation shots taken by a paparazzi agency. In the end, he didn’t attend the wedding ceremony after suffering a heart attack.
Rushbrooke said Meghan’s letter, sent in August 2018, was “a message of peace” whose aim was “to stop him talking to the press.”
He said the duchess took steps to ensure the five-page, 1,250-word letter wouldn’t be intercepted, sending it by FedEx through her accountant to her father’s home in Mexico. The letter implored Thomas Markle to stop speaking to the media, saying: “Your actions have broken my heart into a million pieces.”
The last sentences, read out in court, were: “I ask for nothing other than peace. And I wish the same for you.”
Rushbrooke said the fact that the duchess is a public figure “does not reduce her expectation of privacy in relation to information of this kind.”
He said “the sad intricacies of a family relationship … is not a matter of public interest.”
Lawyers for Associated Newspapers argue that Meghan wrote the letter knowing it would eventually be published. They say it came into the public domain when friends of the duchess described it in anonymous interviews with People magazine.
Thomas Markle says he allowed the Mail to publish portions of the letter to “set the record straight” after reading the People article.
In a written witness statement submitted by the defense, he said the article “had given an inaccurate picture of the contents of the letter and my reply and had vilified me by making out that I was dishonest, exploitative, publicity-seeking, uncaring and cold-hearted, leaving a loyal and dutiful daughter devastated.”
“I had to defend myself against that attack,” he said.
“The letter was not an attempt at a reconciliation. It was a criticism of me,” Markle added. “The letter didn’t say she loved me. It did not even ask how I was. It showed no concern about the fact I had suffered a heart attack and asked no questions about my health. It actually signaled the end of our relationship, not a reconciliation.”
In October, judge Mark Warby agreed to Meghan’s request to postpone the trial, scheduled to begin this month, until October or November 2021. He said the reason for the delay should remain secret.
Meghan, an American actress and star of TV legal drama “Suits,” married Harry, one of the grandsons of Queen Elizabeth II, in a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle in May 2018. Their son, Archie, was born the following year.
A year ago, Meghan and Harry announced they were quitting royal duties and moving to North America, citing what they said was the unbearable intrusions and racist attitudes of the British media. They recently bought a house in Santa Barbara, California.

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Fashion Illustrator Thanks NYC Nurses Through Art

New York City-based fashion illustrator and writer Rebecca Moses decided to turn a quarantine art project into a gift to all New York City nurses. Nina Vishneva has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Natalia Latukhina, Alexander Barash

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Garth Brooks Joins Lineup of Entertainers at Biden Inaugural

Add Garth Brooks to the lineup of entertainers at the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“This is a great day in our household,” the country music superstar said during a virtual press conference Monday, two days before Biden is to be sworn in. “This is not a political statement. This is a statement of unity.”
Brooks, who joins Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez among others, performed during the inaugural celebration of President Barack Obama in 2009. He turned down a chance to play for President Donald Trump in 2017, citing a scheduling conflict.
Invited by incoming first lady Jill Biden, Brooks has known the Bidens for more than a decade, when Joe Biden was Obama’s vice president.
Brooks said that for this week’s inaugural, he will perform solo doing “broken down, bare-bones stuff,” and hinted at covering material by songwriters from outside the U.S.
He does not plan to sing his socially conscious “We Shall Be Free,” which he performed at the Obama inaugural.
Brooks praised the Bidens for being “hellbent on making things good” and said he welcomed the chance to help the country heal.
“I want to spend the next 10 years of my life not divided. I’m so tired of being divided,” he said.

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Skirting the Water: An Electric Bike Opens Up New Horizons for Bikers

Take a ride on a new kind of bike — one that skirts across lakes and waterways – powered by an electric engine and a battery. Michelle Quinn got a ride.Camera: Michelle Quinn   
Producer: Rob Raffaele   

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California First in US to Post More than 3 Million Total COVID-19 Cases    

California has become the first U.S state to post more than 3 million total coronavirus cases.  As of Tuesday, the western state, home to 40 million residents, has 3,015,644 confirmed infections, including 33,724 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. According to the Associated Press, it took California 292 days from the first confirmed infection on January 25 to November 11 of last year to reach 1 million infections.  The state has since undergone a dramatic surge of new infections that has pushed health care systems to the verge of collapse, recording 2 million cases by Christmas Eve — a space of 44 days — and reaching the 3 million mark in less than 30 days. The grim milestone comes as California’s mass vaccination efforts have hit a major roadblock.  A vile of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen at an ambulance company in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., an. 9, 2021.The state’s epidemiologist Sunday recommended that providers stop using a batch of the Moderna vaccine after some recipients had to seek treatment for  possible severe allergic reactions.   The incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will reverse a decision by President Donald Trump to lift coronavirus-related travel bans on most non-U.S. citizens arriving from much of Europe and Brazil, beginning January 26.    “This action is the best way to continue protecting Americans from COVID-19 while enabling travel to resume safely,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House.  However, President-elect Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, responded a few minutes later on Twitter, saying: “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”   On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) FILE – A worker in a protective suit is seen at the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Jan. 10, 2020.Experts in South Africa say a new variant of novel coronavirus first detected in that country late last year is 50% more contagious than the original version.  The experts say the new strain, dubbed 501Y.V2, binds stronger and more readily to human cells. The South Africa strain is one of several new strains discovered around the world that has aggravated the spread of the virus, which now stands at just over 95.6 million total infections worldwide, including over 2 million deaths. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed Monday to forge ahead with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, despite a surge in coronavirus infections in the country.    “We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world,” Suga said in a speech to Parliament.     A recent surge in cases in Japan has forced the government to close its borders to nonresident foreigners and to declare a state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo.      Recent media polls in Japan show about 80% of the Japanese public think the Olympics will not or should not be held this year.     The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed once because of the pandemic, having originally been scheduled for summer 2020.  

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Turkey Hits Twitter, Pinterest with Advertising Bans

Turkey imposed advertising bans Tuesday on Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest for not complying with a new law requiring social media companies to appoint a local representative to handle content removal orders.
 
The rules that went into effect in October have drawn criticism from human rights and media freedom groups who argue Turkey’s government is trying to stifle dissent.
 
The law calls for a local representative to respond to requests to remove content that violates privacy and personal rights within 48 hours.
 
Facebook said Monday it would appoint such an envoy, while highlighting in a statement the need for users to be able to freely express themselves.
 
Other companies have complied with the rules, including YouTube, TikTok, Dailymotion and VKontakte.
 
Any company that does not comply faces the possibility of having its bandwidth reduced, making it difficult for users to access the service.

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COVID-19 Threat Will Likely Keep Border Closed in 2021, Australia Says 

Australia has said it could keep its external borders closed for the rest of 2021 because of the coronavirus. 28,721 coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia since the pandemic began. 909 people have died, according to the Health Department.Australia closed its international borders to foreign travelers in March. It’s been a key part of the nation’s COVID-19 strategy, along with mass testing, sophisticated contact tracing and strict lockdowns.  FILE – Travelers wait in line at a Virgin Australia Airlines counter at Kingsford Smith International Airport, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Sydney, Australia, March 18, 2020.The cautious response to the pandemic has been mostly successful. There are estimated to be 203 active coronavirus cases in Australia, and airlines had hoped overseas travel would resume as early as July. But that is unlikely, according to the head of the health department, professor Brendan Murphy. He was asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. if the nation’s international border controls would be relaxed this year. “The answer is probably no,” he said. “I think we will go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions even, you know, if we have a lot of the population vaccinated. We do not know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus and it is likely that quarantine will continue for some time. So, I think at the moment we have got this light at the end of the tunnel — the vaccines. So, we are going to go as safely and as fast as we can to get our population vaccinated and then we will look at what happens.” An inoculation campaign is set to begin in Australia next month. Citizens, permanent residents and some foreign nationals with exemptions are allowed to enter Australia if they complete a 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense. However, there are strict quotas on the number of travelers allowed to return home because of capacity constraints within the hotel system and concerns about the spread of the highly contagious British strain of coronavirus.Tennis player Latisha Chan of Taiwan (C) leaves the hotel for a training session in Melbourne on Jan. 19, 2021, while quarantining for two weeks ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament.This month, authorities have granted entry to about 1,200 tennis players, staff and officials for the Australian Open. Under biosecurity guidelines, players are allowed to train at dedicated venues for a few hours each day. But several recent arrivals have tested positive to the virus, forcing dozens of players to be confined to their hotel rooms for two weeks. Australia created a so-called travel bubble with neighboring New Zealand late last year, but it only operates one-way with inbound flights to Australia.  The border closures have hit the tourism industry hard. In 2019, more than 9 million overseas tourists visited Australia. The education sector, once popular with Chinese and Indian students, has also been badly damaged by Australia’s travel ban on most foreign nationals. Australians wanting to travel overseas must have government permission. 
  

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Powerful 6.4 Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Western Argentina

A powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit San Juan Province in Argentina late Monday night, according to early reports from the U.S. Geological Survey.   The quake, which was felt as far away as Santiago, Chile, sent items flying off store shelves, damaged buildings and caused cracks in a highway in San Juan, based on videos posted on twitter.  There were also reports of power outages, but no immediate confirmation of casualties.   San Juan Governor Sergio Unac on Tuesday urged people to stay calm while they assess the impact from the quake, which was followed by a series of less powerful aftershocks.     The U.S. Tsunami Warning System said the earthquake in west central Argentina did not pose a tsunami threat and no warning was posted.     Initial reports indicate the quake, struck at a shallow depth of 10 kilometers beneath the epicenter near Pocito, Argentina. 

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