OPEC Agrees Oil Cut Extension to End of 2018

OPEC agreed on Thursday to extend oil output cuts until the end of 2018 as it tries to finish clearing a global glut of crude while signalling it could exit the deal earlier if the market overheats.

Non-OPEC Russia, which this year reduced production significantly with OPEC for the first time, has been pushing for a clear message on how to exit the cuts so the market doesn’t flip into a deficit too soon, prices don’t rally too fast and rival U.S. shale firms don’t boost output further.

The producers’ current deal, under which they are cutting supply by about 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in an effort to boost oil prices, expires in March.

Two OPEC delegates told Reuters the group had agreed to extend the cuts by nine months until the end of 2018, as largely anticipated by the market.

OPEC also decided to cap the output of Nigeria at around 1.8 million bpd but had yet to agree a cap for Libya. Both countries have been previously exempt from cuts due to unrest and lower-than-normal production.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has yet to meet with non-OPEC producers led by Russia, with the meeting scheduled to begin after 1500 GMT.

Before the earlier, OPEC-only meeting started at the group’s headquarters in Vienna on Thursday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said it was premature to talk about exiting the cuts at least for a couple of quarters and added that the group would examine progress at its next meeting in June.

“When we get to an exit, we are going to do it very gradually… to make sure we don’t shock the market,” he said.

The Iraqi, Iranian and Angolan oil ministers also said a review of the deal was possible in June in case the market became too tight.

International benchmark Brent crude rose more than 1 percent on Thursday to trade near $64 per barrel.

Capping Nigeria, Libya

With oil prices rising above $60, Russia has expressed concerns that such an extension could prompt a spike in crude production in the United States, which is not participating in the deal.

Russia needs much lower oil prices to balance its budget than OPEC’s leader Saudi Arabia, which is preparing a stock market listing for national energy champion Aramco next year and would hence benefit from pricier crude.

“Prices will be well supported in December with a large global stock draw. The market could surprise to the upside with even $70 per barrel for Brent not out of the question if there is an unexpected interruption in supply,” said Gary Ross, a veteran OPEC watcher and founder of Pira consultancy.

The production cuts have been in place since the start of 2017 and helped halve an excess of global oil stocks although those remain at 140 million barrels above the five-year average, according to OPEC.

Russia has signaled it wants to understand better how producers will exit from the cuts as it needs to provide guidance to its private and state energy companies.

“It is important… to work out a strategy which we will follow from April 2018,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Wednesday.

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New Dengue Vaccine Could Worsen Disease in Some People

Drugmaker Sanofi says that its dengue vaccine, the world’s first, should only be given to people who have previously been sickened by the virus, according to new long-term data.

 

In a statement, Sanofi said it had recently examined six years of patient data. Scientists concluded that while the vaccine protects people against further infection if they’ve already been infected with dengue, that’s not the case for people who haven’t previously been sickened by the disease.

 

“For those not previously infected by dengue virus…the analysis found that in the longer term, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination,” Sanofi said. “These findings highlight the complex nature of dengue infection.”  

 

People who catch dengue more than once can be at risk of a hemorrhagic version of the disease. The mosquito-spread disease is found in tropical and sub-tropical climates worldwide. It causes a flu-like disease that can cause joint pain, nausea, vomiting and a rash. In severe cases, dengue can cause breathing problems, hemorrhaging and organ failure.

 

The World Health Organization says that about half the world’s population is at risk of dengue and estimates that about 96 million people are sickened by the viral infection every year.

 

Sanofi is proposing that national authorities update their prescribing information. It also said doctors should assess the likelihood of prior dengue infection in people before choosing whether they should get the vaccine.

“For individuals who have not been previously infected by dengue virus, vaccination should not be recommended,” Sanofi said. The vaccine is currently recommended in most dengue-endemic countries for people over age nine.

 

The company expects to take a 100 million euro ($118 million) loss based on the news.

 

There is no specific treatment for dengue and there are no other licensed vaccines on the market.

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More Than Half the World’s Population Lacks Social Protection

The International Labor Organization says a majority of the world’s population, four billion people, have no social protection, leaving them mired in an endless cycle of poverty. 

The report says 45 percent of the global population is covered by at least one social benefit.  But that leaves 55 percent without any social protection, a situation ILO Director General Guy Ryder calls unacceptable.

“That means that they do not receive any child benefit, any maternity benefit, any unemployment protection, any disability benefit, any old age pension and that they do not actively contribute to social security systems,” Ryder said.

The consequences are severe and tangible.  The report finds the lack of social protection leaves people vulnerable to illness, poverty, inequality and social exclusion.  The ILO regards the situation as a significant obstacle to economic growth and social development.

Ryder tells VOA governments would benefit from considering social protection as an investment in their populations.

“Social protection is a human right and we should be pursuing it because it is a human right,” Ryder said. “But, also, I think there is a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that when social protection systems are in place and where they function well and one can think of the whole cycle of protection from kids right through to old age, then you reap economic benefits from it.” 

The report says the lack of social protection is most acute in Africa, Asia, and the Arab States.  It recommends those regions increase their public expenditure to at least guarantee basic social security coverage to all their people.

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Eurozone Recovery Fueling Jobs But Wages, Prices Lag

The buoyant economic recovery across the 19-country eurozone has pushed unemployment down to its lowest level in nearly nine years but has yet to translate to a sustained pick-up in wages and prices, official figures indicated Thursday.

 

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, said the jobless rate fell to 8.8 percent in October, from 8.9 percent the previous month. That’s the lowest since January 2009, when the region, like the world economy, was reeling from the global financial crisis and the ensuing deep recession.

 

Across the region, there were 14.34 million people out of work, down 1.5 million in the past year. That’s clear evidence that the economic recovery, which has gathered momentum during 2017, has invigorated the jobs market, especially in some of those countries that saw the biggest spikes in unemployment after the financial crisis. That’s especially true in Spain, which for much of the past few years lumbered under the weight of an unemployment rate of around 25 percent. Now, following strong growth, unemployment has fallen to 16.7 percent.

 

Though the eurozone is growing strongly, inflation is still a way short of the European Central Bank’s goal of just below 2 percent, a level it considers healthiest for the economy.

 

Eurostat said its headline measure of consumer price inflation rose to 1.5 percent in November, largely because of higher energy prices. While up from October’s 1.4 percent, it was below expectations in markets for a rise to 1.6 percent and indicates that underlying inflation pressures largely related to wages remain modest despite falling unemployment. The core rate of inflation, which strips out volatile items like food, energy, alcohol and tobacco, was stuck at 0.9 percent in November – again below expectations of a rise to 1 percent.

 

ECB President Mario Draghi has said there are a number of reasons why wages are not rising strongly, including the possibility that after years of low interest rates and weak inflation, wage negotiators may have been focused more on keeping jobs than on securing higher pay. He said these kinds of factors are likely to be “transitory” and that the recent “remarkable” increases in employment should start to show in a rise in nominal wages. With spare capacity in the economy diminishing, the hope is that a pick-up in wages that can support consumer demand and give inflation a boost.

Over the past few years, the ECB has enacted a series of stimulus measures, including cutting its main interest rate to zero, in the hope of getting inflation back up to target. Recently it eased up on its bond-buying stimulus program, which aims to keep market interest rates low, amid mounting evidence of economic growth.

 

Economists are not predicting any further changes soon, with Thursday’s figures adding to that perception.

 

“Today’s figures are unlikely to prompt the bank to accelerate the process of monetary normalization,” said Pablo Shah, an economist at the Center for Economics and Business Research.

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Hollywood’s Long-Awaited Movie Museum to Open in 2019

The founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, said at its inception in 1927 that the organization needed a library and museum. The Academy, best known for giving Oscars at its annual awards ceremony, soon got its library, but has been waiting nearly a century for the museum. 

The long wait is nearly over, said film historian Kerry Brougher during a tour of the site of the $388 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is under construction and scheduled to open in 2019 with Brougher as its director. The 27,000-square meter facility will be built around a historic department store that was built in 1939, and which, since 1994, has been used for exhibitions of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next door. The expanded facility will include a glass-domed sphere with a view of the Hollywood Hills and a 1,000-seat theater.

​Brougher says the museum will open as Hollywood enters a new phase in creating entertainment, extending its reach beyond movie theaters. “Film is expanding,” he says. “It’s in the theaters still, but it’s also projected onto buildings, it’s also on your iPhone, it’s on your computer…It’s part of the art gallery world, with film installations.” And while films and multi-media projects are made worldwide, he says the heart of the industry is still in Hollywood.

​The museum will feature exhibits from the Academy’s collection of 12 million photographs and 80,000 screenplays, and which include props, costumes and set elements from such classic films as Casablanca, Psycho and The Ten Commandments.

Known as the Academy Museum, the venue will also feature Oscar statuettes donated by people who won them.

Brougher says visitors will have the feeling that they are in a movie in immersive exhibits. They will even get a chance to walk on a red carpet and accept their own Academy Award.

It will be “like a journey,” Brougher says. “You won’t necessarily know what’s coming next, what’s around the next corner. And you’ll be in environments sometimes that make you feel like you’ve gone back to the past, that you’re in the era that you’re actually exploring.”

​Visitors to Los Angeles have been able to tour movie studios and view the sidewalk plaques that honor movie stars or the footprints of them in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. They can visit the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are presented, but beyond that, they are often at a loss, says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I think they wander around wondering where they can experience this great golden ticket…to the movies,” he says. “Now they’ll have a place.” That will include the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the movie business and who will finally be able to visit a site that celebrates LA’s iconic industry, Garcetti notes.

​​

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NBC Fires Morning Show Host Over Harassment Allegations

The U.S. television network NBC has fired its leading morning news anchor, Matt Lauer, just days after receiving a complaint against him describing sexual misconduct. Hours later, U.S. lawmakers discussed how to handle harassment on Capitol Hill. Esha Sarai reports.

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AIDS Day: A Moment to Reflect on Progress Against a Deadly Scourge

Friday marks World AIDS Day, and the World Health Organization is promoting a campaign of universal health coverage to help the 36.7 million people around the world living with HIV/AIDS. Gabrielle Weiss reports for VOA on the efforts of a Washington, D.C., clinic, Whitman Walker Health.

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Photo Exhibit Recaptures Bhutanese-Nepali Lost History

As refugees resettle in a new country, their identities are often lost in the transition. A photo exhibit in the U.S. Midwestern city of Columbus, Ohio, offers a small window into one local refugee community. VOA’s June Soh explored the exhibit that sheds light on the refugees’ brave journeys from Bhutan through refugee camps in Nepal before finally settling in central Ohio.

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Facebook Suspends Ability to Target Ads by Excluding Racial Groups

Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday it was temporarily disabling the ability of advertisers on its social network to exclude racial groups from the intended audience of ads while it studies how the feature could be used to discriminate.

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told African-American U.S. lawmakers in a letter that the company was determined to do better after a news report said Facebook had failed to block discriminatory ads.

The U.S.-based news organization ProPublica reported last week that, as part of an investigation, it had purchased discriminatory housing ads on Facebook and slipped them past the company’s review process, despite claims by Facebook months earlier that it was able to detect and block such ads.

“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Sandberg wrote in the letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to a copy posted online by ProPublica.

It is unlawful under U.S. law to publish certain types of ads if they indicate a preference based on race, religion, sex or certain classifications.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 2.1 billion users and $36 billion in annual revenue, has been on the defensive for its advertising practices.

In September, it disclosed the existence of Russia-linked ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The same month it turned off a tool, also reported by ProPublica, that had inadvertently let advertisers target based on people’s self-reported jobs, even if the job was “Jew hater.”

Sandberg said in the letter that advertisers who use Facebook’s targeting options to include certain races for ads about housing, employment or credit will have to certify to Facebook that they are complying with Facebook’s anti-discrimination policy and with applicable law.

Sandberg defended race- and culture-based marketing in general, saying it was a common and legitimate practice in the ad industry to try to reach specific communities.

U.S. Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Facebook’s action was appropriate.

“When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed,” Kelly, a Democrat, said in a statement. “When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated. Thankfully, we’ve been able to establish a constructive pipeline of communication that’s resulted in a positive step forward.”

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Simple Water Test could Prevent Crippling Bone Disease

A fast color-changing test that detects fluoride in drinking water could help prevent the crippling bone disease skeletal fluorosis in developing countries. Faith Lapidus has details.

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Cloud Clothing Packs Computing Power Under Your Shirt

For individuals, storing information in the cloud means it can be available to them anywhere they have a connection to the internet. It can be cheap, and it can be useful, but because all that data is going back and forth, it’s not quite as secure as storing everything on your phone or home computer. But what if you could wear your information? That’s the idea behind some National Science Foundation-supported research into cloud clothing. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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New, Long-acting Drugs Cut Frequency of Migraine Headaches in Trials

New, long-acting drugs may offer hope to millions of people who suffer from migraines. Studies of two of these medicines, given as shots every month or so, found they cut the frequency of the notoriously painful and disabling headaches.

The drugs are the first preventive medicines developed specifically for migraines. They work by interfering with a substance involved in modifying nerve signaling and progression of pain and symptoms.

“It’s a whole new direction” for treatment and an important advance for people who don’t want to take or aren’t helped by the daily pills sometimes used now to prevent recurrences, said Dr. Andrew Hershey, neurology chief at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

He had no role in the research but has tested other migraine drugs and wrote a commentary published with the studies Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Migraines plague more than a billion people worldwide, more than 38 million in the U.S. alone. They’re more severe than an ordinary headache — throbbing, squeezing pain and pressure, often accompanied by vision problems, sensitivity to light, noise or smells, and nausea. They can leave people unable to work or do simple things like cooking or even holding a conversation.

What studies show

One study tested erenumab, from Amgen and Novartis, in about 900 people who averaged eight migraines a month. Nearly half had already tried other preventive medicines.

For six months, they were given monthly shots into the abdomen of a high dose of the drug, a low dose or a dummy medicine. The number of days they suffered migraines each month dropped by three to four in the drug groups and nearly two in the placebo group. Half of the patients on the higher dose saw their migraine days cut at least in half.

“I very definitely benefited,” said Anne Vickers, who got the lower dose through one of the study leaders at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Missouri.

“I can have anywhere from 15 to 18 headaches per month, and probably five of those days are migraines,” but that dropped 40 percent on the drug, she said. “I have three kids, so for me it meant having more days when I was able to live my everyday life, cook a meal at home, go to events at school.”

The second study tested fremanezumab, from Teva Pharmaceutical, for chronic migraines, defined as headaches on 15 or more days per month, at least eight of them migraines.

About 1,000 patients were given monthly shots for three months: One-third got the drug each time, another third got the drug the first time and then dummy shots the next two times, and the rest got dummy shots each time.

Monthly headache days dropped by four to five in the groups given the drug and by two to three for those given dummy treatments.

The caveats

Average reductions of one or two days a month are modest, but “there are some patients who have had a complete response — they become headache-free,” Hershey said.

No worrisome side effects emerged, but the studies were very short, so long-term safety and effectiveness are unknown.

The new drugs were not tested against existing ones, only placebo treatments.

Many study leaders work for or have other financial ties to the drugmakers, and the companies helped analyze results.

Biotech drugs like these tend to be very expensive, and if they’re approved, insurers may set big co-pays or require patients to try older medicines first, Hershey said. When the drugs did work, the benefit was seen right away, so there’s less financial risk in trying one or two doses.

“The patient will know quickly if this is a drug for them, and if not, move on to something else,” Hershey said.

Both drugs have been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. Eli Lilly and Co. and Alder Biopharmaceuticals also are testing similar drugs.

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Poll: Nearly Half of Americans Oppose Republican Tax Bill

Opposition has grown among Americans to a Republican tax plan before the U.S. Congress, with 49 percent of people who were aware of the measure saying they opposed it, up from 41 percent in October, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Congressional Republicans are trying to rush their tax legislation to a vote on the Senate floor before the end of the week. President Donald Trump strongly backs the bill and wants to sign it into law before the end of the year.

In addition to the 49 percent who said they opposed the Republican tax bill, 29 percent said they supported it and 22 percent said they “don’t know,” according to the Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll of 1,257 adults conducted from Thursday to Monday.

When asked “who stands to benefit most” from the plan, more than half of all American adults surveyed selected either the wealthy or large U.S. corporations. Fourteen percent chose “all Americans,” 6 percent picked the middle class and 2 percent chose lower-income Americans.

The tax bill being crafted in the Senate would slash the corporate tax rate, eliminate some taxes paid only by rich Americans and offer a mixed bag or temporary tax cuts for other individuals and families.

As congressional discussion on the bill has unfolded, public opposition to it has risen, on average, following Trump’s unveiling of a nine-page “framework” on September 27 that started the debate in earnest, Reuters/Ipsos polling showed.

On October 24, for example, among adults who said they had heard of the “tax reform plan recently proposed by congressional Republicans,” 41 percent said they opposed it, while 31 percent said they “don’t know” and just 28 percent said they supported it.

Trump and his fellow Republicans are determined to make a tax code overhaul their first major legislative win since taking control of the White House and Congress in January.

The House of Representatives on November 16 approved its own tax bill. The Senate is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to begin debating its proposal, as the measure moves toward a decisive floor vote later this week.

The two chambers would need to reconcile differences between their plans before legislation could be sent to the White House for Trump’s signature.

In the November 23-27 poll, 59 percent of Republicans supported the tax bill, 26 percent said they did not know and 15 percent opposed it. Among Democrats, 82 percent opposed it, 11 percent said they did not know and 8 percent supported it.

 

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Snapchat Seeks to Attract More Users by Redesigning App

Snapchat is separating what friends share and what media organizations publish in an attempt to appeal to a broader range of users.

The photo messaging app has not been gaining enough users, especially beyond its core of younger people. Parent company Snap Inc.’s stock is down sharply since its initial public offering earlier this year.

Users will now see two separate feeds — one from friends and one from publishers and non-friend accounts they follow. Before, Snapchat was mixing those posts, much the way Twitter, Facebook and other rivals continue to do. Snap hinted at changes three weeks ago, but didn’t provide details then.

CEO Evan Spiegel took a jab at rivals, writing that social media “fueled ‘fake news’” because of this content mixing.

 

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With Deforestation Rising, Colombia Businesses Join Fight to End Destruction

Colombia’s palm oil industry and big businesses have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains as the country battles to reverse the growing destruction of its tropical rainforests.

The commitment signed this week makes Colombia the first country in the world to launch its own chapter of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global effort by governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations.

The TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance aims to help businesses shift to deforestation-free supply chains by sharing best practices, monitoring forest clearance and training small farmers in sustainable agricultural methods.

It also aims to promote development of certified sustainable products from beef to palm oil for consumers to buy in local supermarkets.

Rainforests in Colombia, Latin America’s largest palm oil producer, are coming under increasing pressure, and deforestation is rampant.

Deforestation in the country’s Amazon region rose 23 percent and across the country rose by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016, said Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s environment minister.

Norway is one of four main donor countries, along with the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, backing the TFA 2020, an initiative hosted by the World Economic Forum.

“These numbers have been higher than what we expected and that’s why it is important to intensify efforts,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Getting the private sector to commit to deforestation-free supply chains is a “critical part of the puzzle” to protect forests, he said.

First such cooperation

“This is the first time in Colombia we see the government and the private sector joining forces like this,” he said.

“My hope and belief is that this partnership will find ways of ensuring that it is not only an agreement on paper but something that will happen in practical terms.”

Protecting forests helps cut carbon emissions, a key driver of climate change. When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.

Colombia is home to a swath of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined and has declared a goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.

Its rainforests have been increasingly threatened since a 2016 peace deal to end its decades-long civil war opened up former conflict areas to business, agriculture and development, Helgesen said.

Trees also are being cleared for cattle ranching, illegal mining and growing coca — the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Signing up with the Alliance are about 25 palm oil producers and buyers, Colombia’s Federation of Oil Palm Growers and Alqueria S.A., its third-largest dairy company. Also signing up are retail giant Grupo Exito and international companies operating in Colombia such as consumer goods company Unilever.

“The launch of the TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance is important as a strengthening mechanism for joint action in Colombia to reach our deforestation goals,” said Mariana Villamizar, a spokeswoman for Grupo Exito.

Producers and buyers from the beef, dairy and timber sectors are expected to join the partnership soon.

Each company will set targets to achieve zero deforestation across their often complex supply chains, and the government and NGOs will help monitor deforestation.

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Foreign Visitors to US Fall Sharply From 2016

The number of international visitors to the United States through June fell sharply from last year, according to government data released Wednesday.

And the number of business travelers fell by much more than the drop in tourists, according to the monthly report from the Commerce Departments National Travel and Tourism Office.

Total foreign visitors fell four percent compared to the first six months of last year, with travelers from Mexico down more than nine percent and from Britain down six percent, but visits from Canada up nearly five percent.

Excluding Canada and Mexico, overseas visitors fell nearly six percent, but business travel dropped nearly nine percent compared to a 5.6 percent decline in tourists.

President Donald Trump in his first year in office repeatedly promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and has ordered bans on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Visits from the Middle East plunged 30 percent in the first half of the year, and from Africa dropped 27 percent. There also were double-digit declines in visitors from South and Central America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

Among the top 20 countries with the most visitors, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and India saw travelers fall well over 10 percent.

In contrast, arrivals from South Korea jumped 18 percent, while Ireland saw a 4.7 percent increase, Italy was up 4.2 percent, Spain 3.5 percent and France 1.5 percent, according to the monthly data.

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