Day: October 6, 2021

Americans Being Warned of Deadly Fake Medication

Americans are being warned to beware of potentially deadly fake prescription pills that are laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl and the highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine. The counterfeit tablets are linked to a wave of drug overdoses killing unsuspecting users.

In its first warning in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said international and domestic criminal networks were mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription medication.

“Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram at a news conference in Washington.

The notification was issued last week after the DEA announced it had seized more than 1.8 million fake pills during a two-month undercover operation and had arrested more than 810 people. In a statement, the agency said it had confiscated more than 9.5 million potentially lethal pills in the last year.

“Illicit fentanyl was responsible for nearly three-quarters of the more than 93,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States in 2020,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. Health officials report fentanyl was responsible for nearly 70,000 of the overdose deaths.

Powerful pills

U.S. law enforcement investigators say the majority of counterfeit medication found in America is being made in labs in Mexico using chemicals imported from China. The DEA believes Chinese traffickers have switched from primarily manufacturing finished fentanyl to exporting precursors of the synthetic opioid to Mexican cartels, which then manufacture illicit fentanyl. U.S. officials are now seeking greater cooperation from Mexican law enforcement agencies to disrupt trafficking in the country.

DEA laboratory testing revealed that two out of five fentanyl-laced fake pills seized contained a potentially deadly dose of just 2 milligrams. Fentanyl can be 100 times more powerful than morphine. Drug researchers say a deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

“The fake pills seized were capable of killing more than 700,000 people,” Milgram noted, adding that law enforcement agencies have sought to shut down criminal distribution networks selling tablets that look exactly like name-brand prescription medications. “We are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children.”

The DEA alert said medications prescribed by doctors and dispensed by licensed pharmacists were safe, but pills acquired by other avenues were potentially deadly.

Decades of death 

Since 1999, more than 500,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses, both prescription and nonprescription. Deaths rose in nearly all states, with the highest increases in California, Kentucky, Vermont, South Carolina and West Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The more than 9.5 million fake tablets seized this year represented 430% more than the number seized in 2019. The DEA also confiscated ingredients used to make tens of millions of pills, including more than 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine.

“The pervasiveness of these illicit drugs, and the fatal overdoses that too often result, is a problem that cuts across America from small towns to big cities and everything in between,” said Monaco.

The most common counterfeit pills are being made to look identical to prescription medications such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin or stimulants like amphetamines. Investigators say the fake medications are widely available and sold on social media platforms as well as on the streets.

“The illicit drug supply introduces even greater uncertainty about what people are taking, and that contributes to overdoses.” Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, told VOA. “If someone combines fentanyl with heroin or methamphetamine or another illicit product, it can be deadly.”


US Rolls Out New Cybersecurity Requirements for Rail, Air 

The United States is taking new steps to make sure the country’s air and surface transportation sectors will not be crippled by ransomware or cyberattacks.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the measures Tuesday at a virtual cybersecurity conference, warning that recent incidents such as the SolarWinds hack and the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack showed that “what is at stake is not simply the way we communicate or the way we work, but the way we live.”

The new security directives target what the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration describe as “higher risk” rail companies, “critical” airport operators, and air passenger and air cargo companies.

Cybersecurity coordinators

Mayorkas said that going forward, the rail companies will have to name a cybersecurity coordinator who will report any incidents and create contingency plans in the case of a cyberattack.

The aviation companies will also be required to appoint a cybersecurity coordinator and report incidents to the DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Similar cybersecurity directives are already in place for 2,300 critical maritime companies that, starting this month, will have to submit plans to identify and address cyber vulnerabilities.

The U.S. Coast Guard is also working with the International Maritime Organization to require that passenger and cargo vessels arriving in U.S. ports have plans to deal with cyber emergencies.

“Whether by air, land or sea, our transportation systems are of utmost strategic importance to our national and economic security,” Mayorkas said.

Spike in ransoms paid

Top U.S. officials, including Mayorkas and FBI Director Christopher Wray, have warned that cyberattacks and ransomware attacks, in particular, have become a persistent threat.

“Last year, victims paid an estimated $350 million in ransoms, a 311% increase over the prior year, with the average payment exceeding $300,000,” Mayorkas told U.S. lawmakers at a hearing last month.

“We’re now investigating over 100 different types of ransomware, each with scores of victims,” Wray added.

U.S. officials have blamed Russia for many of the attacks, saying that despite Moscow’s assurances, they have seen few indications the Kremlin is doing anything to address the problem.

Russian officials deny any role in the recent, high-profile ransomware attacks.

Speaking at a separate cybersecurity forum Tuesday, the head of U.S. Cyber Command warned the problem with ransomware is likely to persist.

“Our adversaries are targeting everyone,” General Paul Nakasone told the Mandiant Cyber Defense Summit. “What was once viewed as criminal behavior has become a national security issue.”

To help facilitate the fight against cyberattacks and ransomware attacks, U.S. lawmakers are considering several bills that would require private companies to report intrusions and attacks on the government.

“We’re optimistic the legislation will pass,” Mayorkas said Wednesday at the annual Billington CyberSecurity Summit.

“I think we’re at a point, seeing the arc of cybercrimes and the cyberthreats, that really there’s an urgency to it,” he said.



Amazon’s Twitch Hit by Data Breach Inc.’s livestreaming e-sports platform Twitch said Wednesday that it had been hit by a data breach. It gave no details.

An anonymous hacker claimed to have leaked Twitch data, including information related to the company’s source code, clients and unreleased games, according to Video Games Chronicle, which first reported the news of the hack.

Twitch confirmed the breach and said its “teams are working with urgency to understand the extent of this.”

The company declined to comment further and said (( it would “update the community as soon as additional information is available.” Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The hacker’s motive was to “foster more disruption and competition in the online video streaming space,” according to the Video Games Chronicle report.

About 125GB of data was leaked, including information on Twitch’s highest-paid video game streamers since 2019, such as a $9.6 million payout to the voice actors of popular game “Dungeons & Dragons” and $8.4 million to Canadian streamer xQcOW, the report said.

“Twitch leak is real. Includes significant amount of personal data,” cyber security expert Kevin Beaumont tweeted.

Twitch, which has more than 30 million daily visitors on average, has become increasingly popular with musicians and video gamers. They interact with users while live streaming content.

The platform, which was boycotted earlier this year by users for not doing enough to block harassment, previously made a move to ban users for offenses such as hate-group membership and credible threats of mass violence.


WHO Backs Malaria Vaccinations for African Children

The World Health Organization recommended Wednesday that children in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions on the continent with moderate-to-high malaria transmission receive a malaria vaccine.

The vaccine, known as Mosquirix, proved effective in a pilot program in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that has reached more than 800,000 children since 2019. 

The WHO said malaria is a top killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa, causing the deaths of more than 260,000 children under age 5 every year. 

The vaccine, which requires four doses, counters P. falciparum, “the most deadly malaria parasite globally, and the most prevalent in Africa,” WHO said in a press release. 

“For centuries, malaria has stalked sub-Saharan Africa, causing immense personal suffering,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use. Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.” 

Substantial benefit

According to WHO, pilot program data showed that more than two-thirds of children who were not sleeping under bed nets were benefiting from the vaccine, and that there was a 30% reduction in “deadly severe malaria, even when introduced in areas where insecticide-treated nets are widely used and there is good access to diagnosis and treatment.”

The pilot program also found that the vaccine had a “favorable safety profile” and was “cost effective.” 

According to The Wall Street Journal, it could still be years until the vaccine is widely available. 

The vaccine has been under development for 30 years by GlaxoSmithKline, a global pharmaceutical company; PATH, a global nonprofit focused on health issues; and some African research organizations, WHO said. 

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation provided late-stage development funding for the vaccine, WHO said. 


German, American Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Wednesday awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two scientists for their work – independently – in developing a new way of building molecules, a process with applications throughout industry.

Speaking in Stockholm, academy Secretary General Goran Hansson said chemists Benjamin List of Germany’s Max Planck Institute and David MacMillan of Princeton University will split this year’s prize.

In presenting the award, the academy explained the two chemists developed new, organic catalysts to help build molecules.

Catalysts are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product, and are essential to constructing molecules for research and industry.

The academy said previously, it was believed there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. But over the last 20 years, List and MacMillan, working independently of each other, have developed a third type of catalyst, known as asymmetric organocatalysis.

In the words of the academy, “Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.”

Using these reactions, researchers can build molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of disease.

The Nobel Prizes for medicine and physics were awarded earlier this week. The prizes for literature, peace and economics to be awarded over the next week.

Some information for this report comes from AP. 


Facebook Called On to Answer Criticism About Negative Effects

Facebook is in the hot seat again. A recent Wall Street Journal report cites internal knowledge of its harmful effects and the company’s reticence to act. A whistleblower, a former Facebook employee, came out in public this week to testify against the social media company, only adding to the scrutiny. Tina Trinh reports. 

Produced by: Tina Trinh



In America: Remembering Lives Lost to COVID

COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919. One artist is determined that the more than 700,000 lives lost will not be forgotten. VOA’s Amy Hybels has the story.

Camera: Amy Hybels