Spacewalking Astronauts Prep Station for New Solar Wings

Spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year.NASA’s Kate Rubins and Victor Glover put the first set of mounting brackets and struts together, then bolted them into place next to the station’s oldest and most degraded solar wings. But the work took longer than expected, and they barely got started on the second set before calling it quits.Rubins will finish the job during a second spacewalk later this week.The spacewalkers had to lug out hundreds of pounds of mounting brackets and struts in 2.5-meter (8-foot) duffel-style bags. The equipment was so big and awkward that it had to be taken apart like furniture, just to get through the hatch.Some of the attachment locations required extra turns of the power drill and still weren’t snug enough, as indicated by black lines. The astronauts had to use a ratchet wrench to deal with the more stubborn bolts, which slowed them down. At one point, they were two hours behind.”Whoever painted this black line painted outside the lines a little bit,” Glover said at one particularly troublesome spot.”We’ll work on our kindergarten skills over here,” Mission Control replied, urging him to move on.With more people and experiments flying on the space station, more power will be needed to keep everything running, according to NASA. The six new solar panels — to be delivered in pairs by SpaceX over the coming year or so — should boost the station’s electrical capability by as much as 30%.Rubins and Glover tackled the struts for the first two solar panels, set to launch in June. Their spacewalk ended up lasting seven hours, a bit longer than planned.”Really appreciate your hard work. I know there were a lot of challenges,” Mission Control radioed.The eight solar panels up there now are 12 to 20 years old — most of them past their design lifetime and deteriorating. Each panel is 34 meters (112 feet) long by 12 meters (39 feet) wide. Tip to tip counting the center framework, each pair stretches 73 meters (240 feet) longer than a Boeing 777’s wingspan.Boeing is supplying the new roll-up panels, about half the size of the old ones but just as powerful thanks to the latest solar cell technology. They’ll be placed at an angle above the old ones, which will continue to operate.A prototype was tested at the space station in 2017.Rubins’ helmet featured a new high-definition camera that provided stunning views, particularly those showing the vivid blue Earth 435 kilometers (270 miles) below.  “Pretty fantastic,” observed Mission Control.Sunday’s spacewalk was the third for infectious disease specialist Rubins and Navy pilot Glover — both of whom could end up flying to the moon.They’re among 18 astronauts newly assigned to NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program. The next moonwalkers will come from this group.Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris put in a congratulatory call to Glover, the first African American astronaut to live full time at the space station. NASA released the video exchange Saturday.”The history making that you are doing, we are so proud of you,” Harris said. Like other firsts, Glover replied, it won’t be the last. “We want to make sure that we can continue to do new things,” he said.Rubins will float back out Friday with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to wrap up the solar panel prep work and to vent and relocate ammonia coolant hoses.Glover and Noguchi were among four astronauts arriving via SpaceX in November. Rubins launched from Kazakhstan in October alongside two Russians. They’re all scheduled to return to Earth this spring.

FDA Approves Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Use in US

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally authorized the use of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine Saturday, clearing the way for shots to go into arms as early as Monday.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 85% effective against serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data from a study that spanned three continents. The shot kept its protection even in the countries where the South African variant is spreading.The one-and-done inoculation has been eagerly awaited by health officials who want to speed vaccinations in a race against the coronavirus and its worrisome mutations. As of Saturday evening, more than 28.5 million Americans have had COVID-19 and nearly 512,000 have died from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Biden: Don’t let upPresident Joe Biden praised the “exciting news for all Americans” in a statement Saturday evening but urged Americans not to let their “guard down now.”“I want to be clear: This fight is far from over,” he said. “I urge all Americans — keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced and keep wearing masks. As I have said many times, things are still likely to get worse again as new variants spread, and the current improvement could reverse.”An FDA advisory panel unanimously endorsed the vaccine Friday, paving the way for the agency’s authorization.Edmond Lomas III receives his COVID-19 vaccination at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit, Feb. 27, 2021.The one-dose vaccine is the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA, after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.By the end of March, Johnson & Johnson has said it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer, The Associated Press reported. Johnson & Johnson is also seeking authorization for emergency use of its vaccine in Europe and from the World Health Organization.Auckland lockdownIn New Zealand, residents of Auckland, a city of nearly 2 million people, began a seven-day lockdown Sunday, the second in the month since the more contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus emerged there.Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the lockdown Saturday because of a person who was infectious for a week but had not isolated.”It is more than likely there will be additional cases in the community,” Ardern told a press conference Sunday, although no new cases had been recorded.New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people, identified its first COVID-19 case on February 29, 2020, and since then has seen almost 2,400 cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins data. 
Japan reported 329 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, slightly down from 337 a day earlier, according to national broadcaster NHK. FILE – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at the Hallam Conference Centre in London, Dec. 18, 2019.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress said in a study that the pandemic had provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.In Russia, the coronavirus crisis center confirmed 11,359 new coronavirus cases on Sunday and 379 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of infections in the country stands at 4,246,079 to date and the death toll at 86,122. Elsewhere, the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, has tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement comes a week before Pope Francis’ March 5-9 trip to the country. Leskovar, whose title is apostolic nuncio, said in a statement that he was experiencing only light symptoms so far. “This is not going to influence the pope’s program, which is going on as planned,” he said. 
France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. A Nice resident and her dog go for a bike ride during virus-related confinement in Nice, southern France, Feb. 27, 2021. Nice and the surrounding coastal area will be under weekend lockdowns for at least two weeks.France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. The Czech government announced tighter restrictions beginning March 1. In Latin America, new containment measures were imposed in several Brazilian cities and states. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28.5 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10.5 million.   

What Is Clubhouse and Why Did It Get So Popular?

There’s a new player in the social media webspace: it’s called Clubhouse. But unlike other social media platforms this one isn’t open to just anyone. Mariia Prus looked into why the platform got so popular so fast.
Camera: Oleksii Osyka

Russia Seeks to Strengthen Old Ties with Myanmar Junta

Russia’s appetite for influence and lucrative arms sales in Southeast Asia has been whetted by the latest coup in Myanmar, where isolated generals remain distrustful of China but still require allies on the United Nations Security Council.Chinese investments had flourished in Myanmar under the now-deposed civilian government effectively led by former opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military, also known as Tatmadaw, benefitted through state owned enterprises brought under its control before Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won historic 2015 elections.However, relations between junta leaders and Beijing have long been strained over Chinese interference across their common border – an existential threat not shared with Russia – and Beijing’s assistance to long-running ethnic insurgencies, including the sale of weapons to rebels.Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Russia and China are both maneuvering to protect their vested interests in Myanmar.“We’ve seen Russia step up to the plate twice with its actions in the Security Council on the Myanmar question and again joining with China and others in the human rights council to potentially oppose any form of condemnation of the new regime,” he said.Russia and China used their power in the Security Council to water down the world body’s response to the coup, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.China labeled the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” while Russia called it a “purely domestic affair,” and, according to The Irrawaddy, a news site, even asked the international community for “practical assistance to the new authority of Myanmar.”That was despite the message from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said he would do everything in his power to pressure Myanmar and “make sure that this coup fails.”Guterres has also consistently slammed the repression and violence inflicted upon protesters.Numbering hundreds of thousands, resistance groups have held nonviolent protests, marching through cities, promoting boycotts and labor strikes in response to the Feb. 1 coup and the Tatmadaw’s refusal to accept the November elections results.A riot police officer fires a rubber bullet toward protesters during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.The United States, Canada and New Zealand have already imposed sanctions on military leaders and pressure is mounting on the European Union, Australia and Japan to follow suit.“Faced with the threat of sanctions from the West, Myanmar sees Russia as a natural ally in thwarting Western pressure and in managing regime consolidation,” said Mohan Malik, visiting fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defense Department institution in Washington.“Given China’s tendency to extract maximum concessions for its backing of the junta, Russia plays an important role as a counterweight to China both as an arms supplier and as a permanent member of the UNSC,” he said, referring to the U.N. Security Council.According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Myanmar spent $2.4 billion on weapons between 2010 and 2019, including $807 million on Russian-made arms and $1.3 billion on Chinese munitions, often criticized as faulty.Moscow has faced growing criticism at home from its own Muslim community incensed over Myanmar’s alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, blamed on Min Aung Hlaing.Protests have erupted in Grozny, where Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov warned he would oppose policies that support the Myanmar junta and has reportedly found support among Muslims in the neighboring Caucasus regions and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.Analysts, though, said Moscow’s appetite for access to railroads, seaports and trade routes and its liking for barter deals, which appeals to the junta, would counter any opposition at home.“The most interesting thing I think we see in the Russian case is some of the frankness on the Russian side about what this means for the future of Myanmar-Russian relations,” Murg said.“You see defense contractors, others, basically licking their lips saying this is a new day, there are a lot of new opportunities for Russians in a post-coup Myanmar,” he added.A protester uses a slingshot as demonstrators clash with riot police officers during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.An initial military-technical agreement was reached between Myanmar and Russia in 2001, according to the Warsaw Institute, a nonprofit Polish think tank.Myanmar has since acquired 30 Russian-made MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 jet trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-tank and artillery systems and six Su-30SME warplanes.In late 2019 Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin confirmed progress in fresh efforts at developing military cooperation with Myanmar, along with Cold War allies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.Then, a week before the coup, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went to Myanmar and signed off on a deal to supply the formidable Pantsir-S1 air defense system, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment. He also finalized a flight safety agreement.Arun Sahgal, senior fellow for strategic and regional security at the Delhi Policy Group in India, said democracy remains an issue but, importantly for Moscow and Naypyitaw, India – a major buyer and servicer of Russian arms – would continue to do business with the junta.Sahgal said India will “need to have a dealing with the government of Myanmar whoever is there and from inside to push the generals on the path of reconciliation with the political class rather than make a big song and drum about it.“But they also look at Russia as a source of reasonably cheap weapons systems which are good, and which suits their purpose and there is also an eye that whatever they buy it can be maintained either by Russians or through contacts with India,” Sahgal added.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Ever since our ancient ancestors gazed into the night skies to look at stars, and other celestial objects, humans have wondered if we are alone in the cosmos. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute joins Rick Pantaleo on the Science Edition of Press Conference USA to talk about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Nigerian Bandits Blame Crime on Government Neglect

In Nigeria, Friday’s predawn abduction of 317 female students from a government school in Zamfara state was the latest in a surge of kidnappings in the country’s north.It’s not yet clear who was responsible for the girls’ abduction. But members of an armed gang who met with a VOA Hausa reporter and another journalist at their Sububu Forest hideout in Zamfara earlier this week contend they – and others like them – have turned to hostage-taking and other crimes because they have little choice to survive.They said these “bandits” are mostly ethnic Fulanis like they are, traditionally nomadic herders who have seen public grazing lands shrink and their cattle and sheep stolen by soldiers and rustlers. They said various governments have neglected and even harassed them – and failed to protect their way of life.“Everyone knows we are herders. This country is blessed with oil and other natural resources,” but that bounty doesn’t filter down, Shehu Rekep, the group’s deputy, said in justifying its crimes. “We have not been educated, we don’t have security, and the government is not doing anything for us. We are being killed, but we are always reported as the killers.”The bandits’ campArmed men on motorcycles fetched the journalists from an appointed meeting place to visit the gang’s forest hideout in the far northern part of Zamfara state for an interview last Monday. Someone fired a gun skyward, announcing their arrival. Roughly 30 men milled about the clearing, soon joined by at least 20 others, including several women. Most wore scarves that covered their faces, and they carried assault rifles. Some had rifles equipped with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.They gathered near a man sitting on a carpet beneath a shade tree. Rekep introduced him.“Kachalla Halilu Sububu Seno, leader of all terrorists,” Rekep said, using a courtesy title. Kachalla means gang leader in Fulani.Halilu commands a network of about 1,000 bandits in Zamfara state, his deputy said. The leader also claims to control some gangs in southern Nigeria. Rekep also wields influence, citing connections to bandits in the French-speaking countries of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Central African Republic.Rekep said that, in a peace deal negotiated two years ago between his gang and communities in the Shinkafi government area, the gang provides protection in exchange for a relatively undisturbed base of operations.Traditional herders took up arms out of desperation, the group’s leaders said.They said central and state governments in the last 20 years have abandoned herding communities, failing to provide academic or religious education or other social services, with limitations on grazing rights – particularly in Nigeria’s south – leaving them illiterate, jobless and hopeless. They also said herders face excessive taxes when trying to sell their livestock at market, and sometimes encounter extortion or brutality by military and police personnel.Shehu Rekep, deputy of an armed group of “bandits” in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state, contends they have taken up crime because government hasn’t protected their livelihood as herders.The bandit leaders told VOA that many of their members have lost relatives in clashes with security agents and rival groups.”Security forces and vigilantes kill us,” Rekep said. “We also kill every day.”He also said that captives are released when ransom is paid – but that bandits will shoot anyone who resists them. He did not disclose how many people had been killed because ransom demands went unmet.FILE – In this photo released by the Nigeria State House, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation on a live telecast, Oct. 22, 2020.Won’t ‘succumb to blackmail’Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari denounced Friday’s kidnapping at the Government Girls Science Secondary School in Zamfara’s town of Jangebe, saying his administration “will not succumb to blackmail by bandits” seeking ransom payments.But authorities in federal and state governments have been criticized for paying large ransoms.“Between 2011 and 2020, Nigerians paid more than $18 million to liberate themselves or loved ones,” The Washington Post reported this week, citing data from the consulting firm SB Morgen.To deter abductions, at least two northwestern states – Kebbi and Jigawa – have passed laws prescribing death sentences for convicted kidnappers.This report originated in VOA’s Hausa Service, with Sani Shu’aibu Malumfashi reporting from Nigeria’s Zamfara state and Hassan Maina Kaina from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Haruna Shehu, Murtala Sanyinna and Lawal Isah Ikara also contributed.     

Journalist’s Home Set Ablaze Amid Niger Violence

The home of a Radio France International (RFI) reporter was burned down Thursday during post-election violence in Niger’s capital, Niamey.
RFI correspondent Moussa Kaka and his family were not harmed in the attack, but their house was badly damaged.
The French public broadcaster said it believes Kaka was targeted for his journalism and noted the attack took place just four days after the second round of the presidential election.  
“This is a very serious attack on the freedom of the press and the safety of our colleague,” RFI said in a statement Friday. It added that Kaka plans to file a complaint with police.  
Several houses and buildings were set on fire this week amid tensions following the vote.  
The electoral commission declared the ruling party’s candidate Mohamed Bazoum the winner in Sunday’s runoff vote. Opposition candidate Mahamane Ousmane disputed the result, calling them fraudulent.
Ousmane previously served as president, from 1993 to 1996, when the military overthrew him.
“Two people in Niger have died in post-election violence and hundreds have been arrested,” the government said Thursday in a statement.
The arson comes a few months after Kaka, a longtime correspondent for RFI, received anonymous threats online, RFI said.  
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Kaka has been dealing with death threats for more than two months. Arnaud Froger, who is head of RSF’s Africa desk, said the journalist received more than 1,000 death threats.   
“He had already filed a complaint back in December and nothing has happened so far,” Froger told VOA.  
With tensions mounting, Froger said it was “regrettable” that more wasn’t done to prevent attacks. “It is the duty of political leaders not to incite their supporters to violence,” he said.   
Niger’s Interior Minister Alkache Alhada blamed a prominent opposition figure, Hama Amadou, for stoking the unrest.  
Amadou lost his presidential bid in 2016 and was prevented from running this time because of criminal conviction. He publicly supported Ousmane in the vote. There was no immediate response from Amadou, Reuters said.
 Some information for this report came from Reuters.

US Judge Approves $650M Facebook Privacy Lawsuit Settlement

A federal judge on Friday approved a $650 million settlement of a privacy lawsuit against Facebook for allegedly using photo face-tagging and other biometric data without the permission of its users.U.S. District Judge James Donato approved the deal in a class-action lawsuit that was filed in Illinois in 2015. Nearly 1.6 million Facebook users in Illinois who submitted claims will be affected.Donato called it one of the largest settlements ever for a privacy violation.”It will put at least $345 into the hands of every class member interested in being compensated,” he wrote, calling it “a major win for consumers in the hotly contested area of digital privacy.”Jay Edelson, a Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit, told the Chicago Tribune that the checks could be in the mail within two months unless the ruling is appealed.“We are pleased to have reached a settlement so we can move past this matter, which is in the best interest of our community and our shareholders,” Facebook, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, said in a statement.The lawsuit accused the social media giant of violating an Illinois privacy law by failing to get consent before using facial-recognition technology to scan photos uploaded by users to create and store faces digitally.The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act allowed consumers to sue companies that didn’t get permission before harvesting data such as faces and fingerprints.The case eventually wound up as a class-action lawsuit in California.Facebook has since changed its photo-tagging system.

Third US COVID Vaccine on Verge of Approval

The U.S. moved a step closer Friday to having another vaccine in its coronavirus arsenal, after an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration unanimously endorsed Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID vaccine.Formal authorization for the vaccine could come in the next few days. The one-dose vaccine would become the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went on television Friday to encourage African Americans to receive the COVID-19 inoculations.“We’re looking at historic fear of vaccines and a fear of the health care industry,” said Rep. Barbara Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan.Black and Latino communities are being inoculated at lower rates in the U.S. than their white counterparts, public health officials say.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress says in a study that the pandemic has provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports early Saturday more than 113 million global COVID infections with more than 2.5 million deaths.The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10 million.Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has issued a report titled The New Necessary: How We Future-Proof for the Next Pandemic that calls for international cooperation in the future to identify and test for any new outbreak. The report also called on countries to work together to produce vaccines.Blair told The Guardian, “Had there been global coordination a year ago, I think we could have shaved at least three months off this virus,” in a reference to the outbreak of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

US Advisers Endorse Single-shot COVID-19 Vaccine From Johnson & Johnson

U.S. health advisers endorsed a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson on Friday, putting the nation on the cusp of adding an easier-to-use option to fight the pandemic. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to quickly follow the recommendation and make Johnson & Johnson’s shot the third vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S. Vaccinations are picking up speed, but new supplies are urgently needed to stay ahead of a mutating virus that has killed more than 500,000 Americans. After daylong discussions, the FDA panelists voted unanimously that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks for adults. If the FDA agrees, shipments of a few million doses could begin as early as Monday. More than 47 million people in the U.S., or 14% of the population, have each received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which FDA authorized in December. But the pace of vaccinations has been strained by limited supplies and delays because of winter storms.While early Johnson & Johnson supplies will be small, the company has said it can deliver 20 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine protects against the worst effects of COVID-19 after one shot, and it can be stored up to three months at refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to handle than the previous vaccines, which must be frozen. EffectivenessOne challenge in rolling out the new vaccine will be explaining how protective the Johnson & Johnson shot is after the astounding success of the first U.S. vaccines. The two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots were found to be about 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers from Johnson & Johnson’s study are not that high, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. One dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19. After adding in moderate cases, the total effectiveness dropped to about 66%. Some experts fear that lower number could feed public perceptions that Johnson & Johnson’s shot is a “second-tier vaccine.” But the difference in protection reflects when and where Johnson & Johnson conducted its studies.Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was tested in the U.S., Latin America and South Africa at a time when more contagious mutated versions of the virus were spreading. That wasn’t the case last fall, when Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were wrapping up testing, and it’s not clear if their numbers would hold against the most worrisome of those variants. Importantly, the FDA reported this week that, just like its predecessors, the Johnson & Johnson shot offers strong protection against the worst outcomes, hospitalization and death. Studying 2nd doseWhile Johnson & Johnson is seeking FDA authorization for its single-dose version, the company is also studying whether a second dose boosts protection. Panel member Dr. Paul Offit warned that launching a two-dose version of the vaccine down the road might cause problems. “You can see where that would be confusing to people thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t get what I needed,’ ” said Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s a messaging challenge.” Johnson & Johnson representatives said they chose to begin with the single shot because the World Health Organization and other experts agreed it would be a faster, more effective tool in an emergency. Cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically since the January peak that followed the winter holidays. But public health officials warned that those gains may be stalling as more variants take root in the U.S. “We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, speaking at the White House on Friday. She noted that new COVID-19 cases have increased over the past few days. While it’s too early to tell if the trend will last, Walensky said adding a third vaccine “will help protect more people faster.” More vaccines are in the pipeline.  On Sunday, a CDC panel is expected to meet to recommend how to best prioritize use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Experts Warn Crime Gangs Capable of Selling Fake Vaccines

International crime fighting agencies say organized crime groups have all the networks and methods needed to smuggle falsified, substandard and stolen COVID-19 vaccines across Africa.  
Interpol crime intelligence analyst John-Patrick Broome said, as is the case in the rest of the continent, criminal gangs in East Africa import fake medicines from Asia, mostly China and India. The fake drugs often lack any active ingredients and many actually have harmful substances, he said.  
“Illicit medications are primarily entering the market in eastern Africa through … avoidance of regulations, there’s violence-based criminality and there’s corruption as well, and corruption which is at a number of different levels,” Broome said.  
China and India are expected to produce much of Africa’s vaccine supply.  That’s already a “big red flag,” says Nigerian journalist Ruona Meyer, whose work has exposed government officials and pharmaceutical company executives working with criminals to distribute falsified medicines in West Africa. Both countries are known as sources for faked pharmaceuticals.  Meyer says there won’t be enough vaccines, and as infection rates and deaths spike in some countries, criminals will introduce fakes into supply chains.  FILE – A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India, April 9, 2020.She points out they did that easily with chloroquine, when demand for the anti-malarial drug skyrocketed last year after it was touted as a coronavirus treatment.  
“So, you had people who started producing fakes. You had people who started breaking down these routes. You had cases where these things were hijacked at ports. Again, they want to break that supply chain,” Meyer said.  
Authorities throughout West and Central Africa seized large quantities of fake and substandard chloroquine. Police in Cameroon shut down several pharmaceutical manufacturers producing fake chloroquine.  
“The infrastructure alone is mind-boggling, to be able to do all these things. Nobody does all these things if there is no demand,” she said.  
One sign of the corruption sometimes found in medicine distribution is the 2015 conviction of two Dutch former United Nations consultants for rigging a contract for life-saving drugs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A court in Britain found Guido Bakker and Siibrandus Scheffer guilty of accepting a bribe of more than $900,000 to steer a contract to a Danish pharmaceutical company.  Lawyers Marius Schneider and Nora Ho Tu Nam represent some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies when their products are faked in Africa.  
 FILE – An agent stands next to a container full of illegal and fake drugs seized by Ivorian authorities in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Nov. 6, 2018.Ho Tu Nam said criminal organizations have been waiting eagerly for immunization programs to start, and for vaccine shortages.   
“Now people are aware that the vaccine exists; people know it’s being rolled out in certain countries, and I think it’s a perfect time for those syndicates to come in and say, ‘We have the vaccine; you’re not getting it in the hospitals, you’re not getting it in your private clinics, so come to us.’” she said.  
And they have been successful in the past. Schneider says groups dealing in black market vaccines do their best to make their products look legitimate.  
“We have seen instances where NGOs … have been engaged in the distribution of these vaccines. These NGOs had as a mission to distribute real vaccines to the people. Employees on the ground in African countries were implicated in vaccine traffic,” Schneider said.  
Investigators say often such cases are settled out of court, in confidential settlements. But in one known case, employees of a multi-national pharmaceutical company were caught helping a criminal network distribute fake vaccines in Africa.  
Mark Micallef of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says North Africa could be a major entry point for falsified and substandard vaccines.  
He said “uncontrolled” trafficking of fake medicines, such as the pain reliever tramadol, has been happening across the vast region for decades.  
“Fake vaccines — I think there’s a big danger of that in the Maghreb itself, so unregulated territories in Libya, definitely. But, also in Tunisia and maybe border areas of Egypt, less so in Algeria, perhaps, but especially in the northern Sahel,” Micallef warned.  
Criminals dealing in fake medicines exploit gaps in health services and this will be especially true of COVID-19 shots, and that, Micallef said, will make the crime very difficult to control in North Africa.  
“This form of trafficking is tapping an actual health sector need. And the fear is that in the case of the vaccines, a similar scenario might unfold where there are shortages, especially in the border areas, that are preyed upon by criminal enterprise trying to fill that gap,” he said.  

New Zealand Supporting Drone Project to Monitor Rare Dolphins

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday her government is supporting a new project using drones designed to monitor and protect the Maui dolphin, one of the world’s rarest marine mammals.  Maui dolphins are found only in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and current estimates suggest there are only 63 adult members of the species left.  The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), nonprofit wildlife technology organization MAUI63 and the World Wildlife Fund-New Zealand.  The project is designed to use the small, unmanned vehicles to find and track Maui dolphins, fly over them without disturbing them, and collect data on their habitat, population size and other behaviors.  Ardern told reporters the drones will allow government agencies and others to focus conservation efforts where they are needed most to protect the animals.”We have drawn basically geographical areas where we have restricted certain types of fishing, but this will help us understand where they are, their movements, where the extra protections are required,” she said. Maui dolphins are the smallest of the world’s dolphin species, measuring less than two meters long, and weighing up to 50 kilograms. Unlike other dolphins, they have distinctive round dorsal fins, and short snouts. They breed slowly, adding only one individual dolphin per year, and have relatively short lifespans, facts which may have contributed to their decline. 

One Dose of Pfizer Vaccine Reduces Transmission, Study Finds

Three new British studies show the Pfzier-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which is considered a two-dose vaccine, reduced transmission of the virus after one dose, particularly in people who had previously tested positive.
One study conducted by Britain’s University of Cambridge Hospital and published Friday suggests a single dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine can reduce by four times the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections. According to researchers, that indicates the vaccine could significantly reduce the risk of transmission of the virus from people who are asymptomatic, as well as protecting others from getting ill.
Lead researcher on the study, Cambridge University Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Mike Weekes, said, “This is great news – the Pfizer vaccine not only provides protection against becoming ill from SARS-CoV-2 but also helps prevent infection, reducing the potential for the virus to be passed on to others.”
The study has not been peer reviewed but researchers say they published ahead of that review because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic.
Two other studies, published late Thursday in the British medical journal The Lancet, indicate a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is enough to protect people who have had COVID-19 from getting it again.  
The studies were conducted by the University College London and Public Health England, and the Imperial College of London.
In other news regarding the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the U.S. Food and Drug administration late Thursday said the vaccine can be kept at conventional freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, rather than the ultra-cold temperatures originally required for the vaccine.
The makers of the vaccine had applied for the approval last week, after their studies concluded the vaccine was still safe and effective when stored at conventional freezer temperatures. The ruling will make the vaccine far easier and less expensive to distribute and store.

Carter Center Targets Online Threats in Ethiopia

With internet access increasing in many emerging democracies, use of social media is changing the ways that candidates and voters interact.  It’s also changing how the non-profit U.S.-based Carter Center assesses elections. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, monitoring online disinformation and threats to prevent political violence is a new front in the center’s democracy initiatives and is a focus ahead of elections in Ethiopia.Camera: Kane Farabaugh    Producer: Kane Farabaugh

Vaccination ‘Passports’ May Open Society, but Inequity Looms

Violet light bathed the club stage as 300 people, masked and socially distanced, erupted in gentle applause. For the first time since the pandemic began, Israeli musician Aviv Geffen stepped to his electric piano and began to play for an audience seated right in front of him.“A miracle is happening here tonight,” Geffen told the crowd.Still, the reanimating experience Monday night above a shopping mall north of Tel Aviv night was not accessible to everyone. Only people displaying a “green passport” that proved they had been vaccinated or had recovered from COVID-19 could get in.The highly controlled concert offered a glimpse of a future that many are longing for after months of COVID-19 restrictions. Governments say getting vaccinated and having proper documentation will smooth the way to travel, entertainment and other social gatherings in a post-pandemic world.But it also raises the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.’Left behind’Other governments are watching Israel churn through the world’s fastest vaccination program and grapple with the ethics of using the shots as diplomatic currency and power.Inside Israel, green passports or badges obtained through an app are the coin of the realm. The country recently reached agreements with Greece and Cyprus to recognize each other’s green badges, and more such tourism-boosting accords are expected.Anyone unwilling or unable to get the jabs that confer immunity will be “left behind,” said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.“It’s really the only way forward at the moment,” Geffen said in an interview with The Associated Press.The checks at the club’s doors, which admitted only those who could prove they are fully vaccinated, allowed at least a semblance of normality.“People can’t live their lives in the new world without them,” he said. “We must take the vaccines. We must.”The vaccine is not available to everyone in the world, whether due to supply or cost. And some people don’t want it, for religious or other reasons. In Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, only about half the adult population has received the required two doses.There is new pressure from the government to encourage vaccinations. Israeli lawmakers on Wednesday passed a law allowing the Health Ministry to disclose information on people who have yet to be vaccinated. Under the policy, names can be released to the ministries of education, labor, social affairs and social services, as well as local governments, “with the purpose of allowing these bodies to encourage people to get vaccinated.”The government is appealing to the emotional longing for the company of others — in Israel’s storied outdoor markets, at concerts like Geffen’s, and elsewhere.“With the Green Pass, doors just open for you. You could go out to restaurants, work out at the gym, see a show,” read an announcement on Feb. 21, the day much of the economy reopened after a six-week shutdown.Then it raised a question at the center of the global quest to conquer the pandemic that has hobbled economies and killed nearly 2.5 million people: “How to get the pass? Go and get vaccinated right now.”Fraught ethical landscapeIt’s that simple in Israel, which has enough vaccine to inoculate everyone over 16, although the government has been criticized for sharing only tiny quantities with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he intends to send excess vaccine to some of the country’s allies. Israel’s attorney general said Thursday night the plan has been frozen while he reviews the legalities.Most countries don’t have enough vaccine, highlighting the fraught ethical landscape of who can get it and how to lift the burden of COVID-19.“The core human rights principle is equity and nondiscrimination,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.“There’s a huge moral crisis in equity globally because in high-income countries like Israel or the United States or the EU countries, we’re likely to get to herd immunity by the end of this year,” he said. “But for many low-income countries, most people won’t be vaccinated for many years. Do we really want to give priority to people who already have so many privileges?”It’s a question dogging the international community as wealthier countries begin to gain traction against the coronavirus and some of its variants.Last April, the initiative known as COVAX was formed by the WHO, with the initial goal of getting vaccines to poor countries at roughly the same time shots were being rolled out in rich countries. It has missed that target, and 80% of the 210 million doses administered worldwide have been given in only 10 countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.Ghana on Wednesday became the first of 92 countries to get vaccines for free through the initiative. COVAX announced that about 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the African nation. That’s a fraction of the 2 billion shots the WHO aims to deliver this year.As those countries begin vaccinations, wealthier nations are starting to talk about “green passport” logistics, security, privacy and policy.The British government said it is studying the possibility of issuing some kind of “COVID status certification” that could be used by employers and organizers of large events as it prepares to ease lockdown restrictions this year.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the policy could cause problems.“We can’t be discriminatory against people who, for whatever reason, can’t have the vaccine,” he said.Many countries around Europe are scrambling to develop their own vaccine certification systems to help revive summer travel, generating a risk that different systems won’t work properly across the continent’s borders.“I think there is huge potential for not working well together,” said Andrew Bud, CEO of facial biometrics company iProov, which is testing its digital vaccination passport technology within the U.K.’s National Health Service.But the technical knots around vaccine passports may be the easier ones to solve, he said.The bigger challenges “are principally ethical, social, political and legal. How to balance the fundamental rights of citizens … with the benefits to society.”  

Biden Touts Milestone of 50 Million Vaccine Shots

US President Joe Biden commemorated on Thursday the 50 millionth shot of the COVID-19 vaccine since his swearing-in, just days after the nation passed 500,000 coronavirus deaths. White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has this story.Producer: Barry Unger

50 Million COVID-19 Vaccines Administered in US

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted an event at the White House Thursday honoring the 50 millionth coronavirus vaccination administered in the country.Four people — an elementary school counselor, a grocery store employee and two firefighter EMTs — were vaccinated against the virus at the White House Thursday afternoon to commemorate the milestone..@POTUS watching vaccination to commemorate 50 million #COVID19 shots under his watch.— Patsy Widakuswara (@pwidakuswara) February 25, 2021 “Fifty-million shots in just 37 days since I’ve become president,” Biden told reporters at the event, noting that despite extreme weather conditions, the United States is on track to surpass his promise to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office.Almost half of Americans over the age of 65 have received at least one of two shots of the vaccine, according to the White House.50 million shots in the past 37 days — no other country has done it.There are about 55m Americans who are over 65:– Six weeks ago, only 8% had gotten a shot– Today, almost 50% have gotten at least one shotLong way to go, but what a change these past weeks!— Ronald Klain (@WHCOS) February 25, 2021But U.S. officials have warned that there is still a long road ahead. Biden urged Americans to continue wearing masks and said Thursday he cannot provide a date for when things will return to “normal.”The president’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also cautioned, “We are still at an unacceptably high baseline level,” preventing the resumption of normal society.Earlier this week, the United States confirmed that half a million people had died of COVID-19 — the highest death rate from the virus in the world. In 2020, the virus shaved a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War II, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Tech Executives Warn Full Extent of US Cyber Breach Still Unknown

U.S. lawmakers launched an investigation this week into the December 2020 SolarWinds hack that included a breach of many private and U.S. government computer systems. As VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports, tech leaders are telling lawmakers the full scope of the breach is still not known.  Camera: Adam Greenbaum  Produced by: Katherine Gypson

African Countries Kick Off Inoculation Campaigns with Chinese-Made COVID-19 Vaccine

As countries kick off vaccination campaigns in Africa amid mistrust over COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, health ministers are among the first ones to take the shots. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports on Senegal and Zimbabwe, two countries that began inoculating their populations using Sinopharm — the Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine.

First Asylum-Seekers from Mexico’s Matamoros Border Camp Enter US

The first asylum-seekers from a Mexican border camp that had become a symbol of Trump-era immigration restrictions entered the United States on Thursday under a new policy meant to end the hardships endured by migrants in dangerous border towns. The United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the initial group comprised 27 people who had been living in the makeshift camp in Matamoros opposite Brownsville, Texas. Some residents have lived there for more than a year under former President Donald Trump’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program requiring asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings. The first group of 27 migrants leave their camp towards the Gateway International Bridge to be processed and seek asylum in the U.S., in Matamoros, Mexico, Feb. 25, 2021.A new process under President Joe Biden will gradually allow thousands of MPP asylum-seekers to await courts’ decisions within the United States. Some migrants last week were permitted to cross into San Ysidro, California. Francisco Gallardo, who runs a migrant shelter in Matamoros and provides humanitarian aid at the camp, welcomed the news that the process had begun in Matamoros, but said it should have come sooner. “It’s good that they are doing it, but unfortunately coming late,” he said. Freezing temperatures at the U.S.-Mexico border had made the Matamoros camp a priority, the Department of Homeland Security said on Wednesday. Migrants at the camp have struggled to ensure proper hygiene and to protect themselves from organized crime in a state that is one of the most violent in Mexico. “The camp was a space that had multiple risks for the migrants,” said Misael Hernandez, a researcher on migration issues at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Mexico’s migration institute did not immediately respond to a request for comment.