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WHO Chief Presses Case Against COVID-19 ‘Vaccine Nationalism’

The World Health Organization director-general on Tuesday continued to press his case against what he calls “vaccine nationalism,” saying poor countries have had to “watch and wait,” while wealthy nations forge ahead with vaccination programs.In his closing remarks to the 10-day WHO executive board meeting in Geneva, agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “With every day that passes, the divide grows larger between the world’s haves and have-nots.”He said the world faces a “catastrophic moral failure” if it does not work for vaccine equity. He cited recent studies showing how such policies hurt the global economy by leaving some nations behind.“Vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion and almost half of that — $4.5 trillion — would be incurred in the wealthiest economies,” Tedros said.The WHO-organized vaccine cooperative programs designed to provide vaccines and COVID-19 treatments to poor nations are facing shortfalls in vaccines and funding. Meanwhile, Tedros said, wealthy nations in some cases have ordered millions of surplus doses.At the very least, he said, the world needs to work together to ensure that the vaccinations are underway for health workers and older people in all countries within the first 100 days of this year.“We have 74 days left. Time is short, and the stakes could not be higher. Every moment counts,” he said. 

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EU Leader Urges US to Join Digital ‘Rule Book”’

The European Union (EU) Tuesday called upon the United States to join the alliance in creating a common rule book to rein in the power of internet companies like Facebook and Twitter to combat the spread of fake news as well as protect data.
In a wide-ranging virtual speech to the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted how much the world has changed by referencing last year’s EU concerns over the possibility of U.S. tariffs on European automobiles.
   
“Today, a year later, we are worrying about whether democracy itself might have been permanently damaged in the last four years,” said Von der Leyen. He also referenced the storming of the U.S. Capitol, calling it “beyond my imagination” and said it served as a reminder of the “dangers that social media poses to our democracy.”
The European Commission president called on U.S. President Joe Biden to join the 27-nation bloc’s efforts to better regulate tech platforms. She added there needs to be a “framework” for “far-reaching decisions” such as Twitter’s move to cut off former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.
She said it needs to be clearly laid out how internet companies make decisions about disseminating, promoting or removing content.  
“No matter how tempting it may have been for Twitter to switch off President Trump’s account, such serious interference with freedom of expression should not be based on company rules alone,” said Von der Leyen. “There needs to be a framework of laws for such far-reaching decision.”
During Tuesday’s speech, Von der Leyen also urged pharmaceutical companies to “honor their obligations” on the supply of COVID-19 vaccines, saying the EU had invested billions in their development “for the common good.”
The bloc on Monday criticized pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, accusing it of failing to guarantee the delivery of coronavirus vaccines without a valid explanation.
The EU also expressed displeasure over vaccine delivery delays from Pfizer-BioNTech last week.

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On the Brink of Extinction, the Northern White Rhino Now Has a Chance at Survival 

The northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction.  Poachers decimated the population, but now science has a chance to bring it back.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports.Camera:  Reuters Produced by: Arash Arabasadi  

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Data Inconclusive on Efficacy of Moderna Vaccine Against COVID-19 Variants

World Health Organization experts say more clinical evidence is needed to know whether the Moderna vaccine protects against COVID-19 variants.  The conclusion came as WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, known as SAGE, issued interim recommendations for use of the Moderna vaccine against COVID-19.
   
Health officials are concerned about the new strains of COVID-19, which recently were found in South Africa and Britain and have since migrated to other places. The appearance of these variants has triggered consternation and many questions regarding their potential impact on the efficacy of newly developed vaccines against the coronavirus.
 
U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna announced Monday its COVID-19 vaccine appeared to protect people against the emerging strains.  WHO Director of the Immunization Department, Vaccines and Biologicals, Kate O’Brien, says she is aware of the report.   
 
She noted Moderna, however, has just said it has the ability to modify the vaccine to work against the mutant strains but has not actually modified it.  She said more clinical evidence was needed to know whether the two-dose regimen of the vaccine protects against the coronavirus variants.
    
“This is an area that we are concerned about, and I think the readiness of vaccine manufacturers and the preparedness that they have to potentially make modifications to the vaccines that they are continuing to develop is very welcome,” she said.   
    
O’Brien says most of the available evidence indicates the vaccines in hand are an extremely valuable tool in fighting the pandemic and in ultimately crushing the virus.
 
Based on current evidence, SAGE members recommend an interval of 28 days between Moderna’s first and second shots.  They say the interval between the two doses may be extended to 42 days only under exceptional circumstances.
 
SAGE Chairman Alejandro Cravioto said the experts oppose the preferential vaccination of international travelers against COVID-19, given the limited supply of available vaccines.
    
“We feel that unless the traveling is essential, people should try to stay home and keep the social distancing measures that have been put in place, that have been proven to be much better to prevent infection than any other measures so far,” Cravioto said.   
    
The WHO recommends pregnant women not be inoculated with either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines unless the benefit outweighs the potential vaccine risks.  It cites as examples that vaccines would be beneficial for health workers at risk of exposure, and pregnant women with co-morbidities, who would be in danger of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.
 

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Internet Outages, Slowdowns Reported from Boston to Washington

People from Boston to the Washington area were reporting internet outages or slow service Tuesday. According to Downdetector.com, which tracks outages, users reported problems with Verizon, Google, Zoom, YouTube, Slack and Amazon Web Services. Many of those services have become staples for millions of Americans working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Students attending school virtually also depend on the services. Verizon reported that a fiber cable in the city of New York borough of Brooklyn had been severed, but it was unclear if that was causing all the problems.  Downdetector also showed that Comcast users were reporting outages or slowdown. Comcast is a rival internet service provider. Amazon Web Services, which provides cloud services to many companies, also reported connectivity issues, according to The Washington Post. 

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Argentina Set to Receive More Russian COVID-19 Vaccine

Argentina is set to receive another batch of a Russian vaccine against COVID-19 on Tuesday, just days after Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner became the country’s latest leader vaccinated with the Sputnik V vaccine.    
 
The vice president was given the shot three days after President Alberto Fernández was given his first dose.
 
Argentina is one of the largest countries to begin vaccinating its citizens with Sputnik V vaccine, which its developers claim is more than 90 percent effective against COVID-19.
 
Argentina approved the use of Sputnik V for people 60 years of age and older last week, as it expands the vaccination program to a larger segment of the population.  
 
Argentina is also awaiting the first batch of vaccine created AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
 
The South American country is working on obtaining the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine while still having access to the Covax equitable distribution of vaccine, which is run by the World Health Organization.
 
So far, Argentina has recorded more than 1.8 million confirmed cases and 47,034 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Covid Resource Center.

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South African President Urges Wealthy Nations Not to Hoard COVID-19 Vaccines 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Tuesday wealthy countries should not hold onto excess stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccines, and that the world needs to work together to fight the pandemic. FILE – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment facilities in Johannesburg, April 24, 2020.Ramaphosa told a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum that those who have hoarded vaccines need to release them “so that other countries can have them.” “The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses of vaccines,” Ramaphosa said.  “Some countries even acquired up to four times what their population needs … to the exclusion of other countries.” The South African leader said the world is not safe if some countries are vaccinating their people, but others are not. Fighting emerging strainsU.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna said Monday its COVID-19 vaccine appears to produce virus-neutralizing antibodies against new variants of the coronavirus found in Britain and South Africa.      In a statement, the company said it conducted studies to ensure the two-dose regimen of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is protective against emerging strains of the virus detected to date.       The company says it will continue a clinical strategy “to proactively address the pandemic as the virus continues to evolve,” including testing the effectiveness of an additional booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine.      The recent emergence of several coronavirus variants, which have shown to be more transmissible — and in the case of a strain first identified in Britain, possibly more lethal — has made vaccinations a top issue for health officials.       Scientists said last week that while the British variant was associated with a higher level of mortality, it was believed that existing vaccines were still effective against it. However, a more contagious South African variant may reduce the effectiveness of current vaccines, scientists said.      The news from Moderna comes as the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world approaches 100 million.   Indonesia’s Health Ministry announced Tuesday the country’s total number of infections had surpassed 1 million.  The milestone comes weeks after Indonesia launched an effort to vaccinate two-thirds of the country’s 270 million people. New US travel requirements In the United States, new rules go into effect Tuesday requiring all travelers aged two years or older, including U.S. citizens, to show a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery from the disease before they will be allowed to board a U.S.-bound flight. FILE – Travelers queue with their luggage in the departures hall at Terminal 2 of Heathrow Airport in west London on Dec. 21, 2020, as a string of countries around the world banned travelers arriving from the UK.President Joe Biden on Monday reimposed an entry ban on foreign travelers who have recently been in Brazil, Britain and much of Europe. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday at a news briefing, “With the pandemic worsening and more contagious variants spreading, this isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel.”  Health officials in the state of Minnesota also said Monday they had detected the first known U.S. case of the Brazilian coronavirus variant in a patient who recently returned after traveling to the country. 

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NASA Astronauts Move to Repair, Upgrade Space Station Module

Two NASA astronauts are set to embark on two spacewalks in a week’s time outside the International Space Station. The first of the two spacewalks will be Wednesday and will focus on completing the installation of the Bartolomeo science payloads platform outside the European Space Agency’s Columbus module, according to a NASA media advisory.  The tasks will include the replacement of a nickel-hydrogen battery with a lithium-ion one. The pair will also upgrade cameras with high-definition ones. And adding antenna and cable rigging for power and data connections, including a high-bandwidth link for European ground stations. The Bartolomeo platform, named for the younger brother of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, was delivered to the space station last March. NASA flight engineers Michael Hopkins, a veteran of two previous spacewalks, and Victor Glover will be outside the space station for about 6½ hours beginning at 7 a.m. EST.  The second spacewalk, on February 1, will wrap up the battery replacement work, in addition to replacing older cameras with high-definition ones on the Destiny laboratory and upgrading cameras and lights on a robotic arm’s camera system outside the Kibo module. Both spacewalks will be broadcast on the NASA website, beginning at 5:30 a.m. EST. Since 2017, the station has been replacing batteries on the module but one of them failed, necessitating the need for replacement now, according to deputy manager of the Space Station, Kenny Todd. The second spacewalk is expected to “make sure we are good for the long term” after the first walk has installed communication antenna and completed some outfitting work, Todd said. The astronauts have been preparing for about a year for the mission, he said. For the past 20 years, 242 people from 19 countries have visited the unique microgravity laboratory that has hosted more than 3,000 research investigations from researchers in 108 countries and areas. 

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Twitter to Crowdsource Content Policing

Twitter on Monday unveiled a new tool it is piloting to combat misinformation. Called Birdwatch, the crowdsourcing tool aims to enlist other Twitter users to vet tweets they think contain misinformation.Instead of deleting an offending tweet or having Twitter attach a warning label, users will be able to add annotations to the tweet to “provide informative context,” according to a Twitter blog post.For now, the added notes will not be visible to all users, as the program is a pilot project with only a limited number of U.S. volunteers. The company would eventually like to have the notes visible to all.”We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding contact that people trust and find valuable,” Twitter wrote.The move comes as social media companies face increasing pressure from those who say their platforms spread misinformation, and those who say they are too censorious.Twitter’s approach differs from Facebook, which uses a team of third-party fact-checkers.“We know there are a number of challenges toward building a community-driven system like this — from making it resistant to manipulation attempts to ensuring it isn’t dominated by a simple majority or biased based on its distribution of contributors. We’ll be focused on these things throughout the pilot,” Twitter said. 

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Kerry Says US ‘Proud to Be Back’ in Paris Climate Agreement

World leaders gathered virtually Monday for the Climate Adaption Summit, an online meeting hosted by the Netherlands with hopes of developing practical solutions and funding for dealing with climate change between now and 2030.The online program featured leaders from around the world, including China’s Deputy Prime Minister Han Zheng, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leaders. Representing the United States was former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been appointed by President Joe Biden to be Washington’s new special climate envoy. Kerry told the group the Biden administration has made fighting climate change a top priority and said the U.S. is proud to be back as a leader on the issue.“We have a president now, thank God, who leads, tells the truth and is seized by this issue,” Kerry said. “And President Biden knows that we have to mobilize in unprecedented ways to meet a challenge that is fast accelerating. And he knows we have limited time to get it under control.”Kerry said that is the reason Biden immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement that former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from formally last November. Trump originally announced the U.S. was pulling out of the agreement in 2017, but United Nations regulations prevented it from being official until November. Biden rejoined the agreement on his first day in office. As secretary of state under former President Barack Obama in 2015, Kerry helped negotiate the original agreement, bringing China to the table at the U.N. climate conference in Paris.

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