Day: October 1, 2021

Fauci Calls Merck COVID Pill Data ‘Impressive’

Members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team said Friday that recent trials showing the effectiveness of the U.S. drug company Merck’s experimental new COVID-19 pill were certainly good news, but they stressed that vaccines would remain the best way to end the pandemic. 


During the response team’s virtual briefing, top U.S. infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said early data from the studies on the Merck COVID-19 pill were “impressive,” including a 50% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said the U.S. government had already arranged to buy 1.7 million doses of the pill, with an option for more if needed.

If approved for emergency use, the Merck pill would be the first COVID-19 treatment that could be taken orally and not through injection or intravenous drip. Fauci said he would not predict when the pill might be approved as both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluate the medication.

Vaccinations still seen as best choice

But, Zients said, while the pill is very good news, vaccinations are still the best way out of the pandemic, and the response team spent the bulk of its briefing presenting statistics to encourage the unvaccinated 70 million U.S. residents to take the shot.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new data from her agency demonstrated the vaccination’s value at preventing serious illness. The data, collected in August during the peak of the surge of infections caused by the delta variant of the virus, showed that areas where 55% or less of the total population was vaccinated had more than twice the infection rates of areas with greater vaccine coverage. Hospitalization and death rates also were significantly higher where vaccination rates were lower. 


Fauci presented statistics compiled over the past 30 days at hospitals in King County in Washington state, information he said also demonstrated the vaccine’s effectiveness against the delta variant. That data showed that unvaccinated people were eight times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, 41 times more likely to be hospitalized from it and 57% more likely to die from it.


Noting the recent overall decline in new cases and hospitalizations in the past few weeks, Fauci said people should not interpret that decline to mean they now did not need to be vaccinated. He said the best way to prevent resurgences of the disease and end the pandemic was to get vaccinated.



European-Japanese Probe BepiColombo to Fly by Mercury on Friday

A joint mission of the European and Japanese space agencies, the spacecraft BepiColombo is set to make a close, initial flyby of Mercury on Friday as part of a seven-year mission to put two probes in orbit around the solar system’s closest planet to the sun. 

In a statement on its website, the European Space Agency explains the spacecraft, launched in 2018, will swoop by Mercury on Friday at an altitude of about 200 kilometers (124.3 miles), capturing imagery and data that will give scientists preliminary information on the planet they hope to explore in depth when the mission puts two probes into orbit there in 2025. 

The ESA says the British-built spacecraft will make use of the gravitational swing of nine planetary flybys — one at Earth, two at Venus, and six at Mercury — together with the spacecraft’s solar electric propulsion system, to help steer into Mercury’s orbit. 

The craft made a second flyby of Venus and collected pictures of the planet as it passed within 570 kilometers (354 miles) of its surface.

The spacecraft’s main mission — in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — is to study the structure of Mercury and its magnetic field. When BepiColombo finally arrives, it will release two probes that will independently investigate the surface and magnetic field of Mercury. 

The ESA-developed probes will operate in Mercury’s inner orbit, while the JAXA probe will be in the outer orbit to gather data that would reveal the internal structure of the planet, its surface and geological evolution. 

Scientists hope to build on the insights gained by NASA’s Messenger probe, which ended its mission in 2015 after a four-year orbit of Mercury. The only other spacecraft to visit Mercury was NASA’s Mariner 10 that flew past the planet in the mid-1970s. 

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. 



US Scientists Aim to Bring the Woolly Mammoth Back to Life

Geneticists, led by Harvard Medical School’s George Church, aim to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by 2027. But some experts aren’t sure it’s such a good idea. Karina Bafradzhian has the story.


Nigerian Author Helps Children Stay Informed with Coronavirus Book

As COVID-19 has spread in Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country, so have myths about the virus, especially among children. A Nigerian author has written a children’s book to help them understand the pandemic and ways to avoid being infected.

A team of educators arrives at a government school in Abuja. Equipped with books, face masks and sanitizers, they’re here to educate schoolchildren about the coronavirus pandemic and personal hygiene.

The initiative is the brainchild of team leader Raquel Kasham Daniel, a Nigerian author and founder of the nonprofit Beyond the Classroom Foundation.

She started the foundation 11 years ago to help make education accessible to vulnerable children. But she said when COVID-19 hit Nigeria last year, she had to focus on teaching children how to stay safe or reduce their risk of contracting the virus through her books.

“Because COVID was evolving, I knew we’ll not have one edition of the book,” she said. “So, we’ve had different editions of the book where I’ve had to update it from time to time. The support that we’ve received has mostly come from social media and some funders who have seen our work.”

The COVID-19 children’s book is titled There’s a New Virus in Town. It contains colorful images, along with text, to help children better understand the coronavirus. It also contains a quiz at the end where children can guess the next character or topic.


Twelve-year-old Jemila Abdul read it at the Abuja school.

“I’ll wash my hands regularly, and I’ll wear face masks, keep social distances, and keep my compound clean,” she said.

Nine-year-old Peculiar Oyewole said he’ll keep safe in order to keep his friends safe.

“I was angry because the coronavirus killed so many people,” he said. “I don’t want it to kill my friends.”

Nigeria has recorded more than 200,000 cases of the coronavirus, but authorities say myths and misinformation about the pandemic continue to spread, and children are among the most susceptible.

Daniel’s program, which has reached some 14,000 children so far, is helping to address this problem not only in schools but also among vulnerable groups.

“Some will say only older people are dying because God wants to save the children, that God is cleaning the Earth,” Daniel said. “We heard all sorts of things. So, what we do with our volunteers is to teach them and arm them with information about this myth and teach them (that) when you get on the field, this is how to debunk it.”

Nigerian authorities have been making efforts to educate the public and try to overcome misinformation, which authorities blame for a slow vaccine uptake.

But in the meantime, Daniel will be having an impact on kids.



Reviving the Arts Amid a Pandemic 

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold early last year, artists such as Patricia Boyer of Charlotte, North Carolina, were panic-stricken. Who would see — not to mention purchase — her creations when much of America was on lockdown? 


“It was really bad, because here you are with all this art, and you’re like ‘what am I going to do with it?’,” the 65-year-old painter told VOA. “And the anxiety level was through the roof.” 


Amid a severe economic downturn and restricted in-person interactions, artists were forced to get creative. Boyer, who specializes in acrylic on canvas, said she was able to display some of her art with the help of friends and colleagues. 


“I now have my inventory in three different spaces — one of my friends got me in her gallery. So, it’s a way for me to get my name out,” Boyer said.  


Artists have faced unprecedented challenges triggered by the pandemic. Data published by the National Endowment for the Arts show, from 2019 to 2020, unemployment rates more than tripled for fine artists like Boyer and surpassed 50% for many types of performing artists. 


Among major U.S. economic sectors, creative industries were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, second only to the hospitality sector. 

Arts scene reemerges in Charlotte 

After more than a year of gloom, artists recently had cause to rejoice. Last weekend saw the resumption of Festival in the Park, a showcase of artisans and artwork Charlotte has held every year since 1964 — except last year.


The event draws a wide variety of artists and entrepreneurs, including photographers, ceramists, jewelers, bakers, carpenters, tattoo artists and puppeteers. 


“I love coming out here and meeting so many people,” Boyer said between conversations with clients. “This is the best thing that’s happened in a long time for me. I look at all these people and I am just in awe that people are coming out to support us artists during COVID.” 


Signs remain of the toll the pandemic has taken on artists. VOA spoke with Haydar Serezli, a jeweler based in Atlanta. He pointed to a drop in vendor attendance compared with pre-pandemic festivals. 


“It’s a little different this year,” said Serezli, who has been displaying work at Festival in the Park since 2011.“The amount of people coming, that’s stayed the same. But the vendors, many artists, we’ve known them for years, didn’t come.” 


The event drew 130 vendors this year, down from an average of 180 in previous years. 


“For us (Serezli and his wife), the pandemic didn’t affect us as badly. But for many artists around here, it wasn’t as easy for them. So, I hope some of them can come back around next year,” Haydari told VOA. 

Renewal after 2020 

“The biggest challenge was scaling it back,” said David Dalton, who has served on the festival’s board of directors for 30 years.


Even so, Dalton pointed to a sense of jubilation at the event. 


“Look at this crowd here,” Dalton remarked, gesturing at festivalgoers. “You can tell everyone’s been penned up.” 

Dalton added, “It’s an entirely outdoor event, but we’re still doing what we can for COVID (precautions).” 


Hand sanitizer stands dotted the grounds, and the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department staffed a booth to distribute pamphlets with tips for preventing coronavirus transmission. 


Signs were placed throughout the park urging mask-wearing, although relatively few attendees were seen with face coverings. 

Charlotte resident Jason Norvell said he has attended the past six festivals. 


“Personally, I’m vaccinated so I’m not really worried about being out in public. It’s great weather, so we thought, ‘hey let’s come out and have a nice evening,’” Norvell told VOA. “I think, frankly, so many people are kind of fed up with being cooped up, and so they want excuses to go to activities.” 

“It felt so nice to attend this year,” said Hayley Schnackenberg, who grew up in Charlotte and works remotely as a technology consultant.


“Some of the best memories I have as a kid” were from going to the festival, she added. “There’d be dancers from local schools or local theaters and those were some of the things that I felt were missing [this year].” 



Lithuania Urges Users to Ditch Chinese Smartphone Over ‘Built-In Censorship Tool’ 

A popular Chinese-manufactured phone has a built-in censorship tool that can blacklist search terms on the web, according to research by the Lithuanian government, which is urging owners of the phones to replace them. 

The Lithuanian Ministry of Defense analyzed three popular Chinese-made phones currently sold in Europe: the Xiaomi Mi 10T 5G; the Huawei P40 5G; the OnePlus 8T 5G. It reported finding a censorship tool built into the Xiaomi phone that can block certain search terms, including “Long live Taiwan’s independence,” “Free Tibet,” “Democratic Movement,” and “Voice of America.” 


“It is very, very worrying that there is a built-in censorship tool and of keywords, which filters or could filter your search on the web,” Lithuanian Vice Defense Minister Margiris Abukevicius told VOA.




Xiaomi is the most popular smartphone brand in Europe. The Lithuanian researchers said the blacklist function was turned off on the Xiaomi phone sold in Europe, but it can be activated remotely. The list of blocked search terms appears to be continually updated. There were 449 words or phrases on the blacklist in April 2021. By September, that number had tripled to 1,376.


“We clearly saw that all of those key words are politically motivated,” Abukevicius said. “Terms such as Tibet, Taiwan, democracy, U.S., and some companies like yours [Voice of America], are mentioned in that list. And they are adding [words] not only in Chinese, they are also adding words in Latin [script].”


German security services also have begun a technical examination of the Xiaomi phone. 


Xiaomi did not respond to VOA requests for comment. The firm said this week it was engaging an independent expert to assess the findings. 



The Lithuanian researchers found the Huawei P40 5G model collected users’ data — including how long they spent using the apps — and stored it on servers outside the European Union, beyond the jurisdiction of the EU’s strict data laws.


The report said Huawei’s official app store, called AppGallery, directed users to apps containing malware.


“A portion of the mobile applications contained on the application distribution platforms are imitations of the original applications, with malicious functionality or virus infestation; such applications can be downloaded and installed by the user on the mobile phone, thereby jeopardizing the security of the device and the data contained in it,” the report said. 


“Data security risks have also been identified in the Xiaomi device; factory-installed system applications send statistical data on the activity of certain applications installed on the device to servers of the Chinese cloud service provider Tencent, located in Singapore, the USA, the Netherlands, Germany and India,” the researchers wrote. 


In a statement, Huawei told VOA, “Huawei has always adhered to the principle of integrity, abided by the laws and regulations of the countries and regions where it operates. Huawei has a strong cybersecurity record in more than 170 countries and regions and has served over 3 billion users. Data is never processed outside the Huawei device.” 


It added, “Huawei is transparent about the necessary data it collects from customers, which is kept to a minimum and used to enhance personalization and the user’s experience. Huawei makes it clear that these apps are from publicly available sources, so the user isn’t forced to download an app.”


National security 

Lithuania has told government workers to get rid of the Xiaomi and Huawei phones. Abukevicius told VOA that other countries should take note of the research. 


“On the basis of national security, really, we are looking for ways to protect our state institutions and institutions working in national security and give them a chance to only work with trusted suppliers. When it comes to consumers, we are giving recommendations of course, you know, to really avoid using cloud services, avoid using some applications, Chinese-made applications,” Abukevicius said. 


China has yet to comment on the report. Many Western countries, including the United States, have blocked Huawei from the rollout of 5G mobile networks, fearing the company poses a security risk. 


“I think our research is an illustration of how we should go beyond that discussion in the telecommunications sector, that we should think about other sectors,” Abukevicius said. 


Diplomatic tensions 


The report comes against a backdrop of tense relations between Lithuania and China.


Both countries have withdrawn their ambassadors after Lithuania agreed to allow Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there using its own name. China claims Taiwan as its own territory. 


In many countries, Taiwan’s diplomatic missions are named after the capital, Taipei, rather than the island itself. In retaliation, Beijing last month halted rail freight to Lithuania and suspended trading licenses for Lithuanian producers.


The United States has reiterated its support for Lithuania in the face of what Washington called “economic coercion” by China. 



Lithuania Urges Users to Ditch Chinese Smartphone Over ‘Built-In Censorship Tool’

A popular Chinese-made phone has a built-in censorship tool that can blacklist search terms on the web, according to research by the Lithuanian government. The country is urging owners of the phones to replace them, as Henry Ridgwell reports.


Australia to Reopen Borders After 18 Months Of COVID-19 Isolation

Australia will reopen its international borders in November to allow vaccinated travelers into the country for the first time in 18 months.

Australia banned most foreign nationals in March of last year and required its citizens to seek official permission to leave the country. Now it is preparing to reopen to the world. Under a government plan, international passengers will be able to quarantine at home for seven days rather than the current 14-day mandatory period in hotel isolation.

There will be no travel restrictions for fully vaccinated Australians entering or leaving the country, although major airlines have warned they are not yet ready for a swift increase in flights. The government is also working toward quarantine-free travel with other countries, including New Zealand.

Passengers who are not vaccinated, or who have received a drug that is not recognized by Australian authorities, will be required to undergo 14 days in official quarantine.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday that Sydney, the New South Wales state capital, would most likely be the first city to allow international travelers back.

However, he warned that domestic travel could still be restricted.

“Now, Sydney is the biggest arrivals port for Australia,” he said. “Now, that is good news if you are anywhere around the world because that is where most of the flights go. Now, if you live in another state, it may well be that your state may not let you back into your state, and so you’ll need to remain in New South Wales until they let you do that.”

Western Australia and Queensland are threatening to keep their internal borders closed to other parts of the country with high delta variant infections.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was not told about the prime minister’s plan to resume international travel.

“I am not going to agree to anything when I haven’t seen any formal paperwork,” she said. “It would be irresponsible, and I think Queenslanders would expect me to see some paperwork to understand the issues before an announcement is made.”

Australia has recorded 105,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. More than 1,200 people have died.

Millions of Australians, including residents in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, remain in lockdown.

The government plans to gradually ease restrictions when double-dose vaccination rates reach 70% and beyond. They are currently just over 55%.

Gladys Berejiklian, who has guided New South Wales through the pandemic, unexpectedly quit as leader after it was revealed she was being investigated by the state’s corruption watchdog.