China Accused of Offering Bounties to Afghan ‘Nonstate Actors’ to Kill US Troops 

Media reports say U.S. President Donald Trump recently received unconfirmed intelligence information indicating that China offered money to nonstate actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers.A senior Trump administration official Thursday confirmed to VOA details of “the declassified intelligence” published by the Axios news website the previous day. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.“The intelligence was included in the president’s briefing on December 17, and Trump was verbally briefed on the matter by national security adviser Robert O’Brien,” FILE – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin speaks during a press conference in Beijing, Nov. 13, 2020.“The international community has a fair conclusion on who is flexing muscles, waging proxy wars and stirring up problems that disrupt regional peace and stability,” Wang said, without elaborating.It was not known immediately whether President-elect Joe Biden has also been briefed on the findings about the alleged Chinese plot.“Our teams will seek to learn as much as we can about these allegations from the outgoing administration, and this is another illustration of why we need full cooperation, including from the Department of Defense,” an unnamed Biden transition official told CNN.U.S.-China relations have lately been strained over trade, intellectual property and other issues.  Washington has also been highly critical of human rights abuses China is allegedly committing against the Uighur Muslim minority in its western Xinjiang region.Beijing denies allegations it is suppressing rights of the Muslim community, saying they are part of a Western propaganda campaign aimed at maligning China.It was unclear whether the so-called nonstate actors China allegedly offered bounties to were part of the Taliban waging a deadly insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.Earlier this year, U.S. media reports indicated that Russia allegedly had sought to pay militants linked to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers.Trump, however, has not publicly called Russia out on the issue, dismissing the reports as “fake news.” White House Updates More Lawmakers on Alleged Russian Bounties on US Troops in Afghanistan News reports say Trump was briefed earlier this year, but US leader insists he was not The U.S. is reducing its troops in Afghanistan as part of a deal it signed with the Taliban in February aimed at ending the Afghan war, the longest overseas intervention in U.S. history. The Trump administration says that there will be around 2,500 U.S. soldiers left in Afghanistan by mid-January.The February agreement requires America and its allies to withdraw all their forces from the country by May 2021. It has also initiated the first direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a power-sharing deal and a nationwide cease-fire.The intra-Afghan negotiations started on September 12 and will resume in Qatar on January 5 after a three-week break.Paris Huang of VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this report.

California Reports Coronavirus Variant Case

Health officials in the U.S. state of California said a patient there has been infected with a coronavirus variant first detected in Britain, and that it is likely more cases will be identified in the United States.California is the second state with the COVID-19 variant strain, following a case in Colorado earlier this week.As was true with the Colorado case, the California Department of Public Health said the person infected there also had no known travel history.California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly called the development “concerning” and stressed the importance of known methods of preventing coronavirus spread, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home and avoiding travel.”It appears that this particular mutation does make the virus better at transmitting from one person to another,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist.During an online discussion Wednesday with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Fauci said virus mutations are normal, and that he was “not surprised” additional cases of the COVID-19 variant would be found in the country.He also said the variant is not believed to cause more severe illness than earlier forms, and that vaccines already being deployed should be just as effective against it.The United States has begun vaccinations of frontline health care workers and high-risk populations such as those living in nursing homes using two vaccines given emergency use authorization.The vaccines will then be made available to other groups in the coming months.Fauci said if the vaccination program progresses as it should through May, June and July, then by early fall there will be “enough good herd immunity to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality – schools, theaters, sports events, restaurants.”The United States has recorded 342,000 COVID-19 deaths, including more than 3,700 on Wednesday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Alarm in Australia as COVID-19 Infections Grow

Tough New Year’s Eve restrictions are being put in place as Australia’s biggest city struggles to contain growing coronavirus clusters.Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak has been described by health officials as “a bit of a roller coaster ride.” Australia’s biggest city accounts for most of the estimated 204 active infections across the country.Parts of its northern coastal suburbs, where a cluster of cases emerged about two weeks ago, remain in lockdown. Infections have been detected in other parts of the city.The authorities have banned large gatherings on New Year’s Eve to “avoid super spreading events.” Sydney’s famous fireworks display will go ahead, but crowds won’t be allowed to gather around the harbor to watch.Gatherings have been limited, and visits to nursing homes banned for at least a week to try to curb the spread of the virus.“Please, the last thing we want is to welcome in 2021 with a super-spreading event,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “2021, all of us are hoping, will be easier on us than 2020 and let us start the year off on a positive foot by doing the right thing, by respecting the restrictions that are in place, but also demonstrating common sense.”Experts are calling for the state government to impose a citywide lockdown as infections grow.In response, other Australian states and territories are restricting travel for residents from Sydney.In Victoria, six coronavirus cases have been reported in the past two days, which authorities have linked to infections further north in Sydney.Residents in Victoria are being urged not to travel to neighboring New South Wales, and masks will become mandatory indoors. Residents are not required to wear a mask inside their own homes, but they must if they visit friends or go shopping.Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley said a swift response to the outbreak is needed.“Now that we have got links to the New South Wales outbreaks here in Victoria, we are having to respond really quickly to get on top of that, and a part of that is to make sure that as the situation seemingly continues to deteriorate in New South Wales that we respond appropriately,” he said.Australia has recorded 28,380 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Its just over 200 active estimated COVID-19 cases is small by many international standards, but in the context of Australia, a country that has taken a very cautious approach to the virus, the number is cause for alarm.With fewer than 1,000 deaths related to COVID-19 since the pandemic, Australia has fared better than many other developed nations.Health officials in Sydney have blamed “an avalanche of complacency” for recent outbreaks.

Scientists Trying to Understand New Virus Variant

Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new variants of the coronavirus, especially the one moving through England and now popping up in the U.S. and other countries.Scientists say there is reason for concern and more to learn but that the new variants should not cause alarm.Worry has been growing since before Christmas, when Britain’s prime minister said the coronavirus variant seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. On Tuesday, Colorado health officials said they had found it there. And on Wednesday, California officials reported a case.Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.Q: Where did this new variant come from?A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population.Most changes are trivial. “It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or if it acquires a lot of changes that make it very different from previous versions.Q: How does one variant become dominant?A: That can happen if one variant takes hold and starts spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.It also can happen if a mutation gives a new variant an advantage, such as helping it spread more easily than other ones that are circulating.Scientists are still working to confirm whether the variant in England spreads more easily, but they are finding some evidence that it does. The variant “out-competes the other strains and moves faster and infects more people, so it wins the race,” Landrigan said.The British variant was first detected in September, WHO officials said. A new South African variant also has emerged.Q: What’s worrisome about the British variant?A: It has many mutations — nearly two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the version that’s been most common in England so far. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but it has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.Q: Does it make people sicker or more likely to die?A: “There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues we’ve got to watch,” Landrigan said. As more patients get infected with the new variant, “they’ll know fairly soon if the new strain makes people sicker.”A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said that “the information that we have so far is that there isn’t a change” in the kind of illness or its severity.Q: What do the mutations mean for treatments?A: A couple of cases in England raise concern that the mutations in some of the emerging new variants could hurt the potency of drugs that supply antibodies to block the virus from infecting cells.Studies on antibody response are under way, Van Kerkhove said.One drugmaker, Eli Lilly, said that tests in its lab suggest that its drug remains fully active.Q: What about vaccines?A: Scientists believe current vaccines will still be effective against the variant, but they are working to confirm that. On Wednesday, British officials reiterated that there is no data suggesting the new variant hurts the effectiveness of the available vaccines.Vaccines induce broad immune system responses besides just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they are expected to still work, several scientists said.Q: What can I do to reduce my risk?A: Follow the advice to wear a mask, wash your hands often, maintain social distance and avoid crowds, public health experts say.”The bottom line is we need to suppress transmission” of the coronavirus, said the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.”The more we allow it to spread, the more mutations will happen.”  

California Has Nation’s 2nd Confirmed Case of Virus Variant

California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus, offering a strong indication that the infection is spreading more widely in the United States.Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said.Newsom did not provide any details about the person who was infected.The announcement came 24 hours after word of the first reported U.S. variant infection, which emerged in Colorado. That person was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials said a second Guard member may have it, too.The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.”The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the U.S. does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.The two Guard members had been dispatched Dec. 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in the small town of Simla, in a mostly rural area about 90 miles outside Denver, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist. They were among six Guard members sent to the home.Nasal swab samples taken from the two as part of the Guard’s routine coronavirus testing were sent to the state laboratory, which began looking for the variant after its spread was announced in Britain earlier this month, Herlihy said. Samples from staff and residents at the nursing home are also being screened for the variant at the lab, but so far no evidence of it has been found, she said.The Colorado case announced Tuesday involves a man in his 20s who had not traveled recently, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel while further genetic analysis is done on his sample, officials said.The nursing home said it is working closely with the state and is also looking forward to beginning vaccinations next week.Several states, including California, Massachusetts and Delaware, are also analyzing suspicious virus samples for the variant, said Dr. Greg Armstrong, who directs genetic sequencing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said the CDC is working with a national lab that gets samples from around the country to broaden that search, with results expected within days.The discovery in Colorado has added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, that has killed more than 340,000 people and sickened nearly 20 million in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.Johns Hopkins said 3,927 people died Wednesday of COVID-19 in the U.S., a new daily record.Britain is seeing infections soar and hospitalizations climb to their highest levels on record. The variant has also been found in several other countries.Scientists have found no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it. But a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients.The discovery overseas led the CDC to issue rules on Christmas Day requiring travelers arriving from Britain to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. But U.S. health officials said the Colorado patient’s lack of travel history suggests the new variant is already spreading in this country.Topol said it is too late for travel bans.”We’re behind in finding it. Colorado is likely one of many places it’s landed here,” he said. “It’s all over the place. How can you ban travel from everywhere?”Colorado public health officials are conducting contact tracing to determine its spread.Researchers estimate the variant is 50% to 70% more contagious, said Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.”Instead of only making two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” France said. “That means we’ll have more cases in our communities. Those number of cases will rise quickly and, of course, with more cases come more hospitalizations.”London and southeast England were placed under strict lockdown measures earlier this month because of the variant, and dozens of countries banned flights from Britain. France also briefly barred trucks from Britain before allowing them back in, provided the drivers got tested for the virus.New versions of the virus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China a year ago. It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population. The fear is that mutations at some point will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.  

Students Want Universities to Boost Communication During Pandemic

College students say clearer communications with their institutions could improve learning during the COVID-19 pandemic that has limited most classes to online.Better communications include transparent decision-making, a 24/7 chatbot, text messaging and better IT support, according to a poll of 2,200 students and staff in Spain, the United States, Britain, Australia, France, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.While all students reported diminished trust with university leadership during the pandemic, students in the U.S., Britain and Spain reported the greatest amount of disconnect from their institutions.Students and staff also asked for testing for COVID-19 and personal protection equipment (PPE) such as masks. Contact tracing was another measure students and staff said was important.To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide, including 341,000 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.When asked, “What are your expectations of your institutions in moving forward?” students said they wanted more career advice, support and “credentials other than a degree,” such as internships or co-ops.Students also asked for more flexibility in their online education, such as course options and scheduling around other responsibilities, like jobs.Reduced tuition and more financial aid were ways institutions could help students during the pandemic, the student respondents said.Despite complaints about online learning, 44% of students polled agreed that they were learning as much online as they would in person, while 32% disagreed and 25% were neutral on the issue.The poll was conducted in August and September 2020 by the research arm of the customer-management company, Salesforce. The questionnaire was devised by Ipsos, and the Chronicle for Higher Education. The poll was released in November.

Britain Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine, Offering Hope Amid Surge in COVID-19 Infections 

Britain became the first country to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Wednesday. Scientists say the vaccine could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.   Regulators say the vaccine has shown around 70% effectiveness against COVID-19, a relatively high figure compared to vaccines for many other diseases.   “This vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca, has been approved for use in people aged 18 years and older, with two standard doses, four to 12 weeks apart,” said Dr. June Raine, CEO of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).   “As I’ve said before, and I will say again today, the safety of the public always comes first. The MHRA’s approval has been reached following a thorough and scientifically rigorous review of all the evidence of safety, of quality and of effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca,” Raine added, during a press conference Wednesday in London.   Earlier in December, Britain was the first of several Western nations to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is around 95% effective. However, it is more expensive at around $20 per dose and must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.   In contrast, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine costs around $4 per dose and only needs to be stored at refrigerator temperatures.  In an interview with VOA, Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading in Britain, said those attributes make the drug particularly suitable for less well-funded health systems.  “Developing countries with a less sophisticated cold chain and with smaller budgets will be able to use this vaccine,” Clarke said. Research into the optimum dosing regimen for the AstraZeneca vaccine is ongoing. Britain plans to administer the first dose to as many people as possible, rather than focusing only on elderly and vulnerable groups. A second dose will follow up to 12 weeks later for longer-term protection. Wei Shen Lim, chair of Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, explained the decision.  “What is impressive about the vaccine studies is that after the first dose, individuals acquire a high level of protection shortly after the dose. Currently in the U.K., we know that COVID infection rates are very, very high. The immediate urgency is for rapid and high levels of vaccine uptake,” he told the press conference Wednesday.   Clarke said questions remain on the British government’s approach. “There is government pressure to increase the coverage of vaccination. And that’s understandable,” he said. “People want it done as quickly as possible. But if you end up putting more people in [the] hospital because they’re vulnerable and they didn’t get the regimen of the vaccine, then that means that our hospitals are still going to be under pressure.”   Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said the approval was a cause for great optimism.  “I’m confident … that the NHS will be able to deliver these shots into people’s arms at the speed at which it can be manufactured,” he told Sky News. “And I’m also now, with this approval this morning, highly confident that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring, that we can now see our route out of this pandemic.”   The road to recovery will be difficult. Britain is struggling with a surge of infections driven by a new variant of the coronavirus that doctors say is over 50% more infectious. There are record numbers of hospitalizations, with patients being treated in ambulances as hospital beds are running short.   “Control room staff are having to make incredibly difficult decisions to decide who gets an ambulance and in what order, quite often with huge numbers of people waiting for ambulances,” said Will Broughton, a trustee at Britain’s College of Paramedics. “And they have nobody left to send.”   Several cases of the new mutant virus have been found in other countries. Scientists say its spread makes the global rollout of vaccines even more urgent.       

Britain Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine, Offering Hope Amid COVID Surge

Britain approved another vaccine for the coronavirus Wednesday, this one developed by Oxford University and the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, scientists say the vaccine could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.Camera: Henry Ridgwell   Produced by: Henry Hernandez 

At least 7 dead in Croatia earthquake

Croatia has deployed its military to assist with clean-up operations as the search for the missing continues after a second deadly earthquake At least 7 people have died and more than 20 are injured. Plus, authorities in Spain conducted a raid on an international weapons ring. And learning lessons from the deep Atlantic Ocean.

At least 7 dead in Croatia earthquake

Croatia has deployed its military to assist with clean-up operations as the search for the missing continues after a second deadly earthquake At least 7 people have died and more than 20 are injured. Plus, authorities in Spain conducted a raid on an international weapons ring. And learning lessons from the deep Atlantic Ocean.

New US Dietary Guidelines: No Candy, Cake for Kids Under 2

Parents now have an extra reason to say no to candy, cake and ice cream for young children. The first U.S. government dietary guidelines for infants and toddlers, released Tuesday, recommend feeding only breast milk for at least six months and no added sugar for children under age 2. “It’s never too early to start,” said Barbara Schneeman, a nutritionist at University of California, Davis. “You have to make every bite count in those early years.” The guidelines stop short of two key recommendations from scientists advising the government. Those advisers said in July that everyone should limit their added sugar intake to less than 6% of calories and men should limit alcohol to one drink per day. Instead, the guidelines stick with previous advice: Limit added sugar to less than 10% of calories per day after age 2. And men should limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day, twice as much as advised for women. “I don’t think we’re finished with alcohol,” said Schneeman, who chaired a committee advising the government on the guidelines. “There’s more we need to learn.” The dietary guidelines are issued every five years by the Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. The government uses them to set standards for school lunches and other programs. Some highlights: Infants, toddlers and moms Babies should have only breast milk at least until they reach 6 months, the guidelines say. If breast milk isn’t available, they should get iron-fortified infant formula during the first year. Babies should get supplemental vitamin D beginning soon after birth. Babies can start eating other food at about 6 months and should be introduced to potential allergenic foods along with other foods. “Introducing peanut-containing foods in the first year reduces the risk that an infant will develop a food allergy to peanuts,” the guidelines say. There’s more advice than in prior guidelines for pregnant and breastfeeding women. To promote healthy brain development in their babies, these women should eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week. They should be sure to choose fish — such as cod, salmon, sardines and tilapia — with lower levels of mercury, which can harm children’s nervous systems. Pregnant women should not drink alcohol, according to the guidelines, and breastfeeding women should be cautious. Caffeine in modest amounts appears safe, and women can discuss that with their doctors. Alcohol and men In July, the science advisers suggested men who drink alcohol should limit themselves to one serving per day — a 12-ounce can of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a shot of liquor. Tuesday’s official guidelines ignored that, keeping the advice for men at two drinks per day. Dr. Westley Clark of Santa Clara University said that’s appropriate. Heavy drinking and binge drinking are harmful, he said, but the evidence isn’t as clear for moderate drinking.  Lowering the limit for men would likely be socially, religiously or culturally unacceptable to many, Clark said, which could have ripple effects for the rest of the guidelines. “They need to be acceptable to people, otherwise they’ll reject it outright and we’ll be worse off,” he said. “If you lose the public, these guidelines have no merit whatsoever.” More careful scientific research into the long-term effects of low or moderate levels of drinking is needed, he said. What’s on your plate? Most Americans fall short of following the best advice on nutrition, contributing to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Much of the new advice sounds familiar: Load your plate with fruits and vegetables, and cut back on sweets, saturated fats and sodium.  The guidelines suggest making small changes that add up: Substitute plain shredded wheat for frosted cereal. Choose low-sodium canned black beans. Drink sparkling water instead of soda. “It is really important to make healthier choices, every meal, every day, to develop a pattern of healthy eating,” said Pam Miller of the Agriculture Department’s food and nutrition service. There’s an app to help people follow the guidelines available through the government’s My Plate website. Read labels The biggest sources of added sugars in the typical U.S. diet are soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, snacks, candy and sweetened coffee and tea. These foods contribute very little nutrition, so the guidelines advise limits. There’s information on added sugar on the “Nutrition Facts” label on packaged foods. Information on saturated fats and sodium is on the label too. 

Argentina’s Senate Poised to Vote on Legalizing Abortion

Argentina was on the cusp of legalizing abortion Tuesday over the objections of its influential Roman Catholic Church, with the Senate preparing to vote on a measure that has the backing of the ruling party and already has passed in the lower house. 
If passed, the bill would make Argentina the first big country in predominantly Catholic Latin America to allow abortion on demand. The vote is expected to be close after what was expected to be a marathon debate, beginning at 4 p.m. local time (1900 GMT) and likely to stretch into Wednesday morning. 
Demonstrators both for and against the bill came from around the country to stand vigil in front of the Senate building in Buenos Aires. Argentine senators attend a session to debate an abortion bill in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 29, 2020.”Argentina is a pro-life country,” one woman, who said she was from Cordoba province, told local television as she sat in a folding chair under an umbrella sheltering her from the Southern Hemisphere summer sun. She and others who knelt in prayer nearby said they were against the proposed change in law. 
Maria Angela Guerrero of the Campaign for Legal Abortion activist group, speaking to reporters in front of the Senate, said she was “cautiously optimistic” the bill would pass. 
On the other side of the debate is the Catholic Church, which is calling on senators to reject the proposal to allow women to end pregnancies up to the 14th week. Argentina is the birthplace of Pope Francis. 
Argentine law now allows abortion only when there is a serious risk to the health of the mother or in cases of rape. 
 A woman against an abortion bill prays as Argentina’s Senate prepares to vote on a measure that has the backing of the ruling party and has already passed the lower house, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 29, 2020.Legal abortion is extremely rare in Latin America because of the long history of opposition by the Church. Across the region, abortions are available on demand only in Communist Cuba, comparatively tiny Uruguay, and some parts of Mexico. 
The change in law has been rejected by Argentina’s Congress before, but this is the first time such a bill is being presented to lawmakers with support from the ruling government. In 2018, before center-left Peronist Alberto Fernandez was elected president, a similar bill was rejected by a slim margin. 
The measure is accompanied by side legislation aimed at assisting women who want to continue their pregnancies and face severe economic or social difficulties. 

California Expected to Extend Stay-at-Home Orders as Health Care System Overwhelmed

The western U.S. state of California is expected to extend strict stay-at-home orders Tuesday for residents in two major areas of the state as it struggles with increasing numbers of new COVID-19 infections.  Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday it was “self-evident” that the restrictions first imposed three weeks ago for central San Joaquin Valley and Southern California will be extended as intensive care units in hospitals are filled or nearly filled to capacity.  San Joaquin Valley is home to California’s vital agricultural sector, while Southern California includes the major cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. FILE – An ambulance crew waits with a patient outside the Coast Plaza Hospital emergency room during a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Los Angeles, California, Dec. 26, 2020.The situation has become so dire that hospitals in those regions have been turning away patients seeking emergency care and erecting tents as makeshift treatment rooms to treat the overflow of COVID-19 patients.   California has become the latest epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.  According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Center, the state has 2,192,694 total confirmed COVID-19 infections, including 24,419 deaths.  Governor Newsom warned Monday that the state was about to undergo a “surge on top of a surge, arguably on top of another surge” as many Californians ignored urgings from health experts not to travel during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. An airline worker in Christmas themed attire assists travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Dec. 28, 2020.U.S. officials said nearly 1.3 million people went through U.S. airports on Sunday following the Christmas holiday, the highest level of air travel in more than nine months.  India is the latest nation to report discovery of a new variant of the novel coronavirus scientists say is far more contagious than the initial strain.  The Health Ministry says six people who returned to India from Britain in recent weeks have tested positive for the new strain.  The six patients and their close contacts have been placed in isolation, and the ministry says it has tracked down their fellow travelers.  India has suspended all flights from Britain until the end of the month, joining such countries as South Korea, Finland, Japan and Saudi Arabia.   The head of the World Health Organization is calling for an increase in genomic sequencing of the coronavirus after new variants have been detected in Britain and South Africa. FILE – World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference in Geneva.WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at an online news conference Monday from Geneva that “only if countries are looking and testing effectively, will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope.” He said WHO is working closely with scientists worldwide to “better understand any and all changes to the virus” and their impacts, and he called on countries to share any genetic information with WHO and other countries. A person walks past a roadside public health information sign, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, near Oxford, Britain, Dec. 28, 2020.British authorities are expected to approve the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine this week.  If approved, AstraZeneca’s vaccine will become the fifth to have been rolled out to fight the virus. Early tests showed that the vaccine was 70% effective for preventing illness, compared to 95% reported by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. Russia and China also have their own vaccines. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency is reporting that U.S. pharmaceutical firm Moderna has agreed to supply 20 million doses of its new COVID-19 vaccine to the Asian nation.  Yonhap says the South Korean presidential office confirmed the agreement had been reached after a videoconference Monday between President Moon Jae-in and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel. The agreement comes as South Korea reported 40 new COVID-19 fatalities, its highest single day figure since the start of the pandemic, raising its total death toll to 859.  Health officials also confirmed 1,046 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 58,725.   Also Monday, another COVID-19 vaccine candidate is beginning its final-stage testing in the United States. The testing for the vaccine candidate, made by Novavax, will involve 30,000 volunteers to determine whether the vaccine is effective and safe.FILE – A researcher lifts a vial with a potential COVID-19 vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Maryland, March 20, 2020, one of the labs developing a vaccine for the coronavirus.The trials will focus on high-risk older adults, as well as people from Black and Hispanic communities who have been disproportionately affected by the virus. The latest vaccine on the horizon comes as the world reached the grim milestone of 81 million people worldwide infected by the virus with 1.7 million world deaths globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.  The United States leads the world in both the number of total infections with 19.2 million and deaths with over 334,000 people. 

WHO: The world must prepare for future pandemics

Top officials at the World Health Organization held their final briefing of the year Monday, warning that COVID-19 should serve as a “wake up call” and that the world should prepare a possibly more severe pandemic in the future. Plus, what impact will two acts in the new U.S. government funding bill have on Sino-U.S. relations? And what impact has the pandemic had on the film industry?

WHO: The world must prepare for future pandemics

Top officials at the World Health Organization held their final briefing of the year Monday, warning that COVID-19 should serve as a “wake up call” and that the world should prepare a possibly more severe pandemic in the future. Plus, what impact will two acts in the new U.S. government funding bill have on Sino-U.S. relations? And what impact has the pandemic had on the film industry?

Study: Britain Must Vaccinate 2 Million a Week to Prevent Third COVID-19 Wave

Britain must vaccinate 2 million people a week to avoid a third wave of the coronavirus outbreak, a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has concluded. Britain has had more than 71,000 deaths from the coronavirus and has recorded more than 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 infections as of late Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. “The most stringent intervention scenario, with tier 4 [restrictions] England-wide and schools closed during January and 2 million individuals vaccinated per week, is the only scenario we considered which reduces peak ICU burden below the levels seen during the first wave,” the study said. “In the absence of substantial vaccine roll-out, cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths in 2021 may exceed those in 2020,” it said. FILE – Staff members deliver injections of the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to patients in their cars at a drive-in vaccination center in Hyde, Greater Manchester, northwest England, Dec. 17, 2020.An accelerated uptake of 2 million vaccinated per week “is predicted to have a much more substantial impact,” it added. The study has yet to be peer-reviewed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his scientific advisers have said a variant of the coronavirus, which could be up to 70% more transmissible, was spreading rapidly in Britain, although it is not thought to be more deadly or to cause more serious illness. That prompted tight social mixing restriction measures for London and southeast England, while plans to ease curbs over Christmas across the nation were dramatically scaled back or scrapped altogether. Media reports over the weekend said that the United Kingdom will roll out the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine starting January 4, with its approval by the country’s medical regulator expected within days. Earlier this month, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to roll out the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The British government said Thursday that 600,000 people in the United Kingdom have received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine since inoculations began. 

UN Chief Issues Message of Hope, Healing for New Year

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a message of hope and healing for the new year to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide whose lives have been shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Guterres does not hide his sorrow at the difficulties engendered by this once-in-a-century pandemic. COVID-19, he says, has upended the lives of millions, plunging the world into suffering and grief. FILE – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, Nov. 20, 2020.He describes 2020 as a year of trials, tragedies and tears, a year that continues to create havoc and claim new victims as COVID-19 rages on. The pandemic, he says, has increased poverty, inequality and hunger to new heights.  
“But the new year lies ahead,” he says. “With it, we see rays of hope: People extending a helping hand to neighbors and strangers. Front-line workers giving their all. Scientists developing vaccines in record time. Countries making new commitments to prevent climate catastrophe.”   
Guterres says climate change and the pandemic are crises not easily overcome. He says it will take enormous work, commitment and above all a willingness of all people to work together for the same goal. 
“If we work together in unity and solidarity, these rays of hope can reach around the world. That is the lesson of this most difficult year. … Together, let us make peace among ourselves and with nature, tackle the climate crisis, stop the spread of COVID-19 and make 2021 a year of healing.”   
Guterres says 2021 can be a year of healing divisions that were made worse from the deadly infection and broken economies if people work together. He says the best New Year’s resolution for 2021 is to heal the planet. 

US Approves Delivery Drones Over Populated Areas

In the not-so-distant future, America’s evening skies could be filled with the buzzing sounds of delivery drones.On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of delivery drones over populated areas at night. Many see the move as the next step to widespread adoption of drone deliveries.“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”Delivery companies like UPS and Amazon have been investing in the technology for years. Both companies have seen surging profits during the coronavirus pandemic as more Americans turn to home delivery for many items, including groceries.Alphabet’s Wing is also investing in drone technology.The FAA said the new regulations provide “an essential building block toward safely allowing more complex” drone operations. According to the new FAA rules, drones of more than a certain weight must have remote identification capabilities and be equipped with anti-collision lights. The FAA also said the drones cannot have any exposed rotating parts that could potentially injure a person.In some cases, the drones can be operated above moving vehicles “depending on the level of risk.” The new rules will become effective 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register next month.Despite the new regulations, Bloomberg reports it will still be years before delivery drones are widely used. 

WHO: Don’t squander virus sacrifices

In a holiday message, the head of the World Health Organization urged people around the globe celebrating holidays not to squander the sacrifices made by first-line professionals during the pandemic. This as vaccines continue to be rolled out. Plus, what impact has the pandemic had on climate change? And as 2020 comes to a close, a look at ten of the best African music videos.

US-Backed SDF Targets IS Militants in Eastern Syria

U.S.-backed forces are carrying out new raids against militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terror group in eastern Syria.The new campaign led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) targets remnants of IS in Deir al-Zour province, which borders Iraq.The SDF, a Kurdish-led military alliance, said its ongoing operations have been focused on active IS cells in the northern part of the province.“On December 26, our Special Forces and International Coalition Forces arrested a member of a terrorist cell north of Deir al-Zour, during a joint raid operation,” the SDF said in a statement Sunday.The SDF added that its forces also seized “quantities of ammunition” during the same operation.The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF Sunday carried out additional raids, which were supported by the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat IS. The war monitor has researchers across war-torn Syria.FILE – A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard at a prison where men suspected to be affiliated with the Islamic State group are jailed in northeast Syria in the city of Hasaka, Oct. 26, 2019.Despite its territorial defeat in March 2019, IS continues to carry out terror attacks against civilians and SDF forces in Deir al-Zour and other parts of eastern Syria.In recent weeks, IS cells have intensified their activity in the area. According to the Syrian Observatory, an SDF fighter was killed and another wounded after an explosive device targeted their vehicle Saturday in Deir al-Zour’s al-Shuhail town.IS militants also have increased their attacks against Syrian government troops and allied militias in the country’s desert and other parts of central Syria.Earlier this month, the SDF said its counterterrorism units captured six IS militants in the countryside of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka provinces.Last week, the U.S.-led coalition said its local partners in northeast Syria are an important part of the fight against IS.“As our partners continue to show their capabilities in the fight, it is important for the Coalition to continue to build relationships as part of (its) support (for) stabilization,” the coalition said on Twitter.Our partners in NE Syria remain an important part of the fight to #DefeatDaesh. As our partners continue to show their capabilities in the fight it is important for the Coalition to continue to build relationships as part of #SupportToStabilization.— Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) December 23, 2020Experts say while IS currently has no capability to hold territory in Syria or Iraq, the militant group will likely continue to carry out major attacks in both countries.