How the Philippines Finally Got its COVID-19 Caseload Under Control

The Philippines has gotten a measure of control over its once-runaway COVID-19 outbreak through strict lockdowns and a year of school closures, coupled with widespread use of face protectors, experts and citizens on the ground say.The Southeast Asian country known for its migratory population — Filipinos work throughout the developed world — has reported fewer than 2,000 new cases per day most of the time since October, down from as much as 6,275 cases previously. Daily counts fell below 1,000 at the start of January.Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, only Indonesia struggled last year with the same level of  daily COVID-19 caseload surges. Most countries around Northeast Asia, including the coronavirus’s apparent source, China, recovered early last year, despite isolated flare-ups.Border closures that remain in effect and enforced stay-home orders in the nation of 109 million’s larger cities get the most credit for bringing cases down, residents and a United Nations official say.Meanwhile, medical personnel are better equipped now to do tests for the virus and trace the contacts of the sick than they were a year ago, according to Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines’ Quezon City.Adding support, ordinary Filipinos have accepted the use of face masks and face shields in public.Public school classes have not met in person for a year, said Behzad Noubary, Philippine deputy UNICEF representative.“These are the aspects that have contributed to [caseload declines] — the international closure, which has lasted a long time, and a really, really prolonged lockdown,” Noubary told VOA in a call on Thursday.“Schools have been closed a year now, no in-person classes since then, and most of the country has been in quite strict lockdown,” he said.In June, when caseloads were higher, stay-home orders had begun easing before hospitals could get their equipment ready and coordinate with each other to handle the coronavirus, said Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.People still went outside without masks then, sometimes to find work in an increasingly desperate economy, as well as to join friends and relatives in tight spaces where the virus could quickly spread.Local authorities, however, now sometimes enforce stay-home orders so strictly they even force residents to turn back if they go out too far from their doorways, domestic media and people on the ground say.Meanwhile, metro Manila reportedly plans new curfews from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Monday because of a recent spike in cases.Ordinary people are doing their share now in controlling cases, Rabena said.“It’s because the people have exercised more caution,” Rabena said. “Here, when you go out, you wear a mask and a face shield. Everybody is still careful. Compared to last year of course, this year is much better.”Marivic Arcega, operator of an animal feed distributor in the Manila suburb of Cavite, has gone all-out to keep herself and her surroundings safe.She employs only a “skeletal” staff plus a driver who does delivery, Arcega said. A son takes college courses online and another lives in central Manila but seldom comes home. When he does visit, Arcega said, he rides in a friend’s car rather than taking public transit. Her husband never goes out. Customers are told to keep a distance.“Us here at the store, no facemask, no entry, and then my cashier is enclosed in a booth, and we’re all wearing face shields,” said Arcega, 52. “I stay inside my office and don’t interact with the customers anymore. If they speak to me, [it is] from the door of my office. They don’t really come in.”The millions of vaccine doses that the Philippines has secured so far are boosting morale, Rabena said. The government aims to loosen neighborhood quarantine rules as more people become immunized, he believes.Officials hope to pull the Philippines out of a sharp recession caused by store closures and people being stuck at home rather than able to work outside. The country’s economy contracted 9.5% last year after sharp annual upturns in the previous half-decade.If family incomes shrink 30%, per a worst-case estimate, up to 45% of Philippine children would live in poverty, up from 24% now, Noubary said. The Philippines, he said, already has paid a “significant price” in terms of child poverty.UNICEF has supplied personal protective equipment and cleaning solutions to poor families and helped provide vaccines that are on the ground today. It is now nudging the government to reopen schools little by little in parts of the archipelago with low COVID-19 caseloads as online learning has caused 2.7 million children to drop out of the school system, Noubary said.

The ‘Quad’ Aims to Ramp Up Southeast Asia Vaccine Production to 1 Billion Doses

U.S. President Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan, India, and Australia are meeting virtually Friday for a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, where they will discuss strategies to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region, including an offer to match Beijing’s ambitious vaccine diplomacy.The Quad is launching a financing mechanism to ramp up production of up to a billion doses of vaccines by 2022 to address a shortage in the Indo-Pacific region, mainly in Southeast Asian countries, a Biden administration official said in a briefing call to reporters Thursday.The group has put together “complex financing vehicles” to dramatically increase vaccine production capacity the official said. A second administration official said the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is working with companies in India and the governments of Japan and Australia to increase production of vaccines already authorized by the World Health Organization.The administration did not say whether this Quad vaccine mechanism would be separate from, or part of, COVAX, the global mechanism to distribute 2 billion doses of vaccines to 94 poorer countries by the end of the year, partly by using AstraZeneca/Oxford University-developed vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public–private global health partnership funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gavi has been the dominant player in the financing and distribution of various vaccines since its founding in 2000, but it is unclear whether Gavi will be involved in the Quad vaccine mechanism.Biden has been under pressure to respond to Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy as he seeks to vaccinate all Americans first by ensuring that the U.S. vaccine stockpile is “over-supplied,” to prepare to vaccinate against new variants, and to vaccinate children. There is currently not enough data to determine which of the three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. is safe and effective for children.Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed in May that Chinese-made vaccines would become a “global public good”. Since then, Beijing has pledged roughly half a billion doses of its vaccine to more than 45 countries, according to a country-by-country Associated Press tally. After China’s initial failures in handling the outbreak, some see Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy as a face-saving tactic and a means to expand its influence.Countering ChinaThe Quad is not a formal military alliance but often seen as a counterweight to growing Chinese military and economic influence in Asia. The 90-minute Friday meeting would be the first leaders’ summit since the Quad’s first meeting in 2004 following the tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.“President Biden has worked hard to bring these leaders together to make a clear statement of the importance of the Indo-Pacific region,” the administration official said. The official added that during the leaders’ meeting, there will be an “honest, open discussion about China’s role on the global stage.”Analysts say there is wide expectation that the summit will elevate the Biden administration’s agenda in the Indo-Pacific.“This is a pretty big signal that this is a high priority for the new administration,” Sheila A. Smith a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.Following the Quad summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel together to Japan and South Korea next week, followed by a solo trip by Austin to India.Without providing details on the timing, the administration also announced that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be the first leader to visit Biden at the White House in person.The U.S. wants to return to strong U.S. alliances in the region to project strength to China, according to Bonnie Glaser, director of China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.“The Biden administration has crafted this arrangement to signal that it is engaging from a position of strength,” she said.State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged Thursday that over the course of recent years these alliances “in some cases have atrophied, in some cases, they have frayed.”In November 2017, former President Donald Trump in Vietnam outlined the U.S. vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”While the Trump administration’s strategy in the region focused largely on maritime security and trade, the Biden administration is seeking a more comprehensive approach, including cooperation to defeat COVID-19, combat climate change, ensure a resilient supply chain and post-pandemic economic recovery.“It’s a whole – how does the region look going forward, and how do we maintain the prosperity that has long been part of the Indo-Pacific?” Smith said.After the series of meetings with regional allies, Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday.

UN: Pandemic Blocked Access to Birth Control in 115 Low- and Medium-Income Countries

The UNFPA reported that almost 12 million women in 115 low- and medium-income countries were unable to gain access to contraception services for an average of 3.6 months during the past year due to the pandemic, resulting in 1.4 million unintended pregnancies.“Pregnancies don’t stop for pandemics, or any crisis. We must ensure that women and girls have uninterrupted access to lifesaving contraceptives and maternal health medicines,” Dr. Natalia Kanem, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, the international organization’s sexual and reproductive health agency, said Thursday in a statement.However, “The international community pulled together to mitigate the worst-case scenario,” despite the roadblocks to contraceptives, Kanem said.“As the world’s largest procurer of contraceptives for developing countries, UNFPA worked with its partners from governments, civil society and the private sector and took immediate measures to mitigate” the pandemic’s impact, the U.N. agency said in a statement. “UNFPA secured early funding from governments, added more suppliers to its roster and closely monitored global inventory levels, transferring surplus stock to countries in urgent need amongst other measures. As a result of this shared commitment and quick action, the disruption in access to family planning was less severe than it could have been.”“Roll up your sleeve and do your part,” former U.S. President George Bush says in a new public service ad, urging Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine. Bush and his wife, Laura, were featured in the video, along with three other former U.S. presidents — Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and their wives – Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Rosalyn Carter.“This vaccine means hope,” former President Obama said in the ad.Denmark, Norway and Ireland have temporarily halted their use of the AstraZeneca vaccine while authorities investigate whether the vaccine is linked to blood clots. Thirty cases of the clots have been reported out of 5 million doses of the vaccine. The European Medicines Agency said in a statement “the vaccine’s benefits continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be administered while investigation of cases of thromboembolic events is ongoing.”Tanzania has not reported any COVID-19 cases since May. The BBC reports, however, that the lack of reports may be misleading. The news agency said it talked with a doctor in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, who said there had been a “marked increase” in admissions of patients with respiratory symptoms and patients requiring oxygen. “We’re getting no guidance on how to treat patients,” the doctor told the BBC.India reported more than 23,000 new COVID-19 cases Friday.Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria has tested positive for the coronavirus. She is next in line to ascend the throne. Her husband, Prince Daniel, has also tested positive. The Swedish court said Thursday the couple and their two children are in quarantine.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported more than 118 million global COVID-19 cases Friday. The U.S., with 29.2 million infections, has more cases than anywhere else in the world. India follows with11.3 million cases and Brazil comes in a close third with 11.2 million.

Biden Marks a Year of COVID-19

In his first prime-time address Thursday night, President Joe Biden marked one year since widespread pandemic shutdowns began across the United States and asked Americans to help with the challenges ahead. White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has this story.

Perseverance Rover Shoots Lasers on Mars

While NASA’s Mars rover roams the Red Planet searching for signs of ancient life, scientists on Earth follow clues in a Turkish lake that may hold some answers.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.Camera: NASA/AP/AFP/REUTERS/SPACEXProduced by: Arash Arabasadi   

Large Asteroid to Pass by Earth on March 21, NASA says 

The largest asteroid to pass by Earth this year will approach within about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) of our planet on March 21, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said Thursday.The U.S. space agency said it would allow astronomers to get a rare close look at an asteroid.The asteroid, 2001 FO32, is estimated to be about 3,000 feet (915 meters) in diameter and was discovered 20 years ago, NASA said.”We know the orbital path of 2001 FO32 around the sun very accurately,” said Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies. “There is no chance the asteroid will get any closer to Earth than 1.25 million miles.”That is roughly 5.25 times the distance from Earth to the moon, but still close enough for 2001 FO32 to be classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid.”NASA said 2001 FO32 would pass by at 77,000 mph (124,000 kph), faster than the speed at which most asteroids encounter Earth.“Currently, little is known about this object, so the very close encounter provides an outstanding opportunity to learn a great deal about this asteroid,” said Lance Benner, principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.Reflections to be studiedNASA said astronomers hope to get a better understanding of the asteroid’s size and a rough idea of its composition by studying light reflecting off its surface.“When sunlight hits an asteroid’s surface, minerals in the rock absorb some wavelengths while reflecting others,” NASA said. “By studying the spectrum of light reflecting off the surface, astronomers can measure the chemical ‘fingerprints’ of the minerals on the surface of the asteroid.”Amateur astronomers in some parts of the globe should be able to conduct their own observations.“The asteroid will be brightest while it moves through southern skies,” Chodas said.“Amateur astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere and at low northern latitudes should be able to see this asteroid using moderate-size telescopes with apertures of at least 8 inches in the nights leading up to closest approach, but they will probably need star charts to find it,” he said.NASA said more than 95% of near-Earth asteroids the size of 2001 FO32 or larger have been cataloged and none of them has any chance of impacting our planet over the next century.  

Iran Cracks Down on Pop Music Video It Deems Decadent With Arrests

Iranian authorities have arrested multiple music producers connected to a California-based Iranian pop singer, his management company and Iranian media said Thursday. It was seen as Tehran’s latest effort to halt what it deems decadent Western behavior.The arrests came as Iranian social media have been awash with criticism of popular underground Iranian singer “Sasy,” or Sasan Heidari Yafteh, who has released a new music video. Called “Tehran Tokyo,” the video features actresses, including an American porn star, gyrating in kimonos and short, tight dresses atop cars and inside bars. The clip racked up 18 million views within a week.Over the years, Sasy has become known for lyrics that Iranian conservatives see as tainting the country’s moral probity. In a previous song also featuring a porn actress, he instructed teenagers to take alcohol shots if they can’t fall asleep and to scroll through Instagram instead of finishing their homework.In Iran, where the government retains tight controls over traditional media like newspapers and television, authorities have used courts to patrol social media platforms beyond their reach. Hours before the video went live late Wednesday, Iranian security forces detained two popular music arrangers who worked on the song in the southern city of Shiraz and raided their studio, said Sasy’s manager, Farshid Rafe Rafahi, the CEO of Los Angeles-based EMH Productions. The brothers, Mohsen and Behrouz Manouchehri, now face prosecution by a criminal court in Tehran, he added.Porn performer featuredA week ago, the song’s teaser, featuring porn performer Alexis Texas dancing to clubby Farsi pop, fueled such public consternation that authorities pledged to investigate the app that carried the video. Soon, Iran’s guardians of conservative morals cracked down on those associated with publicizing or producing the clip.FILE – This photo provided by AZ Films shows California-based Iranian pop singer Sasy with American adult film actress Alexis Texas in the music video for “Tehran Tokyo,” Feb 26, 2021, in Los Angeles.”It’s pretty crazy. She’s just dancing like any person in any ordinary music video. She’s not doing anything inappropriate in these scenes,” said Rafahi, referring to Texas. “Sasy’s mission isn’t to create havoc. It’s to make people happy.”Semiofficial news agencies in Iran confirmed several arrests Wednesday, alleging that Sasy’s associates in Iran had produced music “contrary to culture.”The Fars news agency, believed to be close to Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, also accused the music producers in Iran of running gambling websites at Sasy’s behest. Rafahi said the gambling accusations stemmed from a misunderstanding, given that a poker website helped sponsor the music video.Sasy is now a permanent resident of the U.S. and has lived in exile since leaving his career as a successful underground rapper in Iran in 2009. Since the video came out, Iran has promised to “pursue his case with international legal authorities,” according to the Fars report.While hardliners consider the song a Western assault on Islamic teachings, thousands in the country are of a different mind. In thrall to the catchy beat, scores of teenagers and twentysomethings posted videos on social media lip-syncing, dancing and striking poses to “Tehran Tokyo” in their living rooms, kitchens and workplaces. In the clips, many women wear bright lipstick and few cover their hair with the hijab.’Decisive judicial action’Iranian semiofficial news agencies reported that those who “cooperated with Sasy” would face “decisive judicial action.” It remains uncertain whether police also detained any of the lip-syncing fans.Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution installed the clerically overseen system that endures today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has extended its reach into most aspects of Iranian society, with laws banning women from dancing in public or appearing outside without the hijab. Authorities have cracked down on music in the past; they arrested young Iranians who appeared in videos dancing to Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” in 2014.Under pressure from hardliners, the Iranian government long has blocked access to various websites and social media platforms, from YouTube and Facebook to Twitter and Telegram. Young Iranians still manage workarounds, accessing social media to share Sasy’s outlawed songs through VPNs and proxies.  

 This Week’s Space News 

While NASA’s Mars rover roams the Red Planet searching for signs of ancient life, scientists on Earth follow clues in a Turkish lake that may hold some answers.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.Camera: NASA/AP/AFP/REUTERS/SPACEXProduced by: Arash Arabasadi  

Biden Signs Coronavirus Relief Package

U.S. President Joe Biden signed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package into law Thursday, opening the door for the release of federal aid for financially ailing American households and businesses.Biden, a Democrat, signed the package one day after the House of Representatives approved the bill 220-211 without Republican support and one day earlier than the White House initially had planned.“This historic legislation is about building a backbone in this country and giving people in this country, working people, middle-class folks, people who built the country, a fighting chance,” Biden said as he prepared to sign the bill.Republican lawmakers objected to the package, saying it was too large and did not sufficiently target those who were most in need of economic assistance. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday called the bill “costly, corrupt and liberal.”No federal minimum wage hikeThe measure narrowly passed in the Senate on Saturday after the chamber altered some aspects of a bill approved earlier by the House. Among the changes was the removal of an increase in the federal minimum wage.White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks to reporters at the White House, March 11, 2021, in Washington.White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised the legislation at a news conference Monday, saying that while there were some changes on the margins as the Senate acted, it represented the “core” of what Biden proposed.On Tuesday, she said Biden and other senior administration officials planned to continue to tout the benefits of the relief plan after it passed.“We certainly recognize that we can’t just sign a bill,” Psaki told reporters. “We will need to do some work and use our best voices, including the president, the vice president and others, to communicate to the American people the benefits of this package.“So, I think you can certainly expect the president to be doing some travel, and we’ll have more details on that in the coming days,” she said. 

Facebook Scraps Trans-Pacific Cable

Facebook has scrapped plans to connect California, Taiwan and Hong Kong via a 12,000 kilometer underwater cable, citing tensions between the U.S. and China.
The social media giant told the Wall St. Journal, which broke the story, it was halting the project due to political pressure from the U.S. government, which noted potential national security concerns.
“Due to ongoing concerns from the U.S. government about direct communication links between the United States and Hong Kong, we have decided to withdraw our [Federal Communications Commission] application,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We look forward to working with all the parties to reconfigure the system to meet the concerns of the U.S. government.”  
Facebook, along with several Chinese companies including China Telecom, applied for permits to start the cable in 2018. The cable would have sped up the flow of data across the Pacific.
This is not the first time a Pacific cable that included Hong Kong has been placed on hold. In September of 2020, Google and Facebook shelved the Pacific Light Cable Network that would have linked the U.S. with Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.  
Around the same time, Facebook and Amazon ditched a proposed cable link between San Francisco and Hong Kong called the Bay to Bay Express Cable. 

AP-NORC Poll: 1 in 5 in US Lost Someone Close in Pandemic

About 1 in 5 Americans say they lost a relative or close friend to the coronavirus, highlighting the division between heartache and hope as the country itches to get back to normal a year into the pandemic.
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research illustrates how the stage is set for a two-tiered recovery. The public’s worry about the virus has dropped to its lowest point since the fall, before the holidays brought skyrocketing cases into the new year.
But people still in mourning express frustration at the continued struggle to stay safe.  
“We didn’t have a chance to grieve. It’s almost like it happened yesterday for us. It’s still fresh,” said Nettie Parks of Volusia County, Florida, whose only brother died of COVID-19 last April. Because of travel restrictions, Parks and her five sisters have yet to hold a memorial.
Parks, 60, said she retired from her customer service job last year in part because of worry about workplace exposure, and now she is watching with dread as more states and cities relax health rules.
Only about 3 in 10 Americans are very worried about themselves or a family member being infected with the virus, down from about 4 in 10 in recent months. Still, a majority are at least somewhat worried.  
“They’re letting their guard down and they shouldn’t,” Parks said. “People are going to have to realize this thing is not going anywhere. It’s not over.”  
COVID-19’s toll is staggering, more than 527,000 dead in the U.S. alone, and counting.
But “it’s hard to conceptualize the true danger if you don’t know it personally,” said Dr. K. Luan Phan, psychiatry chief at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.  
For those who lost a loved one, “that fear is most salient in them. They’re going to be a lot more cautious as businesses reopen and as schools start back,” Phan said.  
And without that first-hand experience, even people who heeded health officials’ pleas to stay masked and keep their distance are succumbing to pandemic fatigue because “fears tend to habituate,” he said.  
Communities of color were hardest hit by the coronavirus. The AP-NORC poll found about 30% of African Americans, like Parks, and Hispanics know a relative or close friend who died from the virus, compared with 15% of white people.  
That translates into differences in how worried people are about a virus that remains a serious threat until most of the country — and the world — gets vaccinated. Despite recent drops in cases, 43% of Black Americans and 39% of Hispanics are very or extremely worried about themselves or a loved one getting COVID-19, compared to just 25% of white people. (For other racial and ethnic groups, sample sizes are too small to analyze.)
While vaccines offer real hope for ending the scourge, the poll also found about 1 in 3 Americans don’t intend to get their shot. The most reluctant: Younger adults, people without college degrees, and Republicans.
The hardest-hit are also having the hardest time getting vaccinated: 16% of Black Americans and 15% of Hispanics say they already have received at least one shot, compared to 26% of white people. But majorities in each group want to get vaccinated.  
Currently demand for vaccines still outstrips supply, and about 4 in 10 Americans, especially older adults, say the sign-up process has been poor.
John Perez, a retired teacher and school administrator in Los Angeles, spent hours trying to sign up online before giving up. Then a friend found a drive-thru vaccination site with openings.
“When I was driving there for the first shot, I was going through a tunnel of emotions,” the 68-year-old said. “I knew what a special moment it was.”
Overall, confidence in the vaccines is slowly strengthening. The poll found 25% of Americans aren’t confident the shots were properly tested, down somewhat from 32% who expected they wouldn’t be in December, just before the first ones were cleared.
“We were a little skeptical when it was first coming out because it was so politicized,” said Bob Richard, 50, of Smithfield, Rhode Island. But now, he said his family is inclined to get the shots — if they can sort through the appointment system when it’s their turn.
The poll found two-thirds of Americans say their fellow citizens nationwide haven’t taken the pandemic seriously enough.
“The conflict with people who don’t take it serious as I do, it’s disappointing,” said Wayne Denley, 73, of Alexandria, Louisiana.  
Early on, he and his wife started keeping a list of people they knew who’d gotten sick. By November, they’d counted nine deaths and dozens of infections. He’d share the sobering list with people doubtful of the pandemic’s toll, yet still would see unmasked acquaintances while running errands.
“I’m glad I wrote them down — it helped make it real for me,” Denley said. “You sort of become numb to it.”
There are exceptionally wide partisan differences. Most Democrats, 60%, say their local communities failed to take the threat seriously enough and even more, 83%, say the country as a whole didn’t either.  
Among Republicans, 31% say their localities didn’t take the pandemic seriously enough, and 44% said that of the country. But another third of Republicans say the U.S. overreacted.
The differences translate into behavior: More than three-quarters of Democrats say they always wear a mask around others compared to about half of Republicans.  
And the divisions have Phan, the psychiatrist, worried.
“We’ve survived something that we should be grateful for having survived it. How do we repay or reciprocate that good fortune? The only way to do it is to be stronger in the year after the epidemic than before,” he said.

AstraZeneca Vaccine Stopped in Denmark After Reports of Blood Clots

Denmark health officials announced Thursday they are suspending the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for 14 days as it investigates reports of patients developing blood clots after being inoculated.
On his Twitter account, Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said authorities were looking into “signs of a possible serious side effect in the form of fatal blood clots,” though he made clear the stoppage was a “precautionary measure,” saying it was not possible yet to conclude whether the clots were linked to the vaccine.
The Danish Medicines Agency also confirmed the investigation on Thursday in a statement, saying it would work with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and other European pharmaceutical authorities following the reports.
Austria suspended use of a batch of the vaccine earlier this week after a recipient was diagnosed with multiple blood clots and later died, and another was hospitalized with blockage in the arteries of their lungs – otherwise known as a pulmonary embolism.
The EMA investigated and issued a statement Wednesday saying it found no evidence so far linking the AstraZeneca vaccine to the two cases in Austria. The EMA said four other countries – Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Latvia – have stopped inoculations from the batch while an investigation continues.
The batch in question went to 17 EU countries.
In a statement regarding the Austria cases, AstraZeneca said earlier this week its vaccine is subject to strict and rigorous quality controls and that there have been “no confirmed serious adverse events associated with the vaccine.”

Fulbrights Score with Support from Colleges, Universities

The U.S. Department of State has released the names of scholars who have been selected for the coveted Fulbright Scholarships, with an emphasis on the colleges and universities that produced the most successful applicants.  “When I received my letter, I was in the car with my friend, and I screamed for probably a full minute,” said Amanda Cronin, a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who was notified on February 25 that she would be placed in an English teaching program in Argentina next March. The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled the popular visiting program as Fulbright scholars are prevented from traveling without restrictions. This year, Fulbright published a list of colleges and universities which lent intense support and advice to students while they compile the considerable documentation and time required to apply to the Fulbright program.  The scholarships are awarded to young professionals in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree and to faculty, administrators, or researchers of U.S. institutions to participate in education and cultural exchanges around the world.  For international students, researchers and young professionals, the program brings about 4,000 Fulbright Foreign Students and Visiting Scholars to the United States from more than 160 countries worldwide each year to study, lecture, conduct research, or teach their native language in U.S. institutions of higher education, according to its website.  This year’s top research institutions that award doctoral degrees are Georgetown University in District of Columbia (39 scholars), Brown University in Rhode Island (38), Harvard University in Massachusetts (35), Princeton University in New Jersey (34), Yale University in Connecticut (32), University of Chicago in Illinois (31), New York University in New York City (29), University of Notre Dame in Indiana (29), Columbia University in New York City (28), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in Michigan (28).   This year’s top 10 Fulbright producing institutions that award bachelor’s degrees are Bowdoin College in Maine (24 scholars),  Smith College in Massachusetts (16), Middlebury College in Vermont (15), Oberlin College in Ohio (14), Amherst College in Massachusetts (13), Davidson College in North Carolina (13), Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania (11), Macalester College in Minnesota (11), Williams College in Massachusetts (11) and Bate College in Maine (10).  “These experiences often lay the foundation for Fulbright and other postgraduate research proposals,” said Janice Jaffe, acting director of student fellowships and research at Bowdoin College in Maine. Students apply each year to engage in independent faculty-mentored research, she told VOA.  Margaret Lamb, the director of fellowships and postgraduate scholarships at Smith College in Massachusetts said many students at the college come from abroad and that the school’s study abroad program is robust.  “Our students see themselves as activists, change makers, and scholars,” Lamb said. Smith College has a program named Smith’s Fulbright Fast Track, with goals of connecting faculty and staff with students and helping them design their proposals. Students can choose a host country, an English teaching assistantship or research project, and planning curriculum and study abroad projects with guidance from faculty and staff and to improve their proposals.  “The fact that so many in our community — faculty, advisers, alumnae, and peers — are familiar with Fulbright [Program] helps get candidates started on defining a personal Fulbright project and in gathering the support to prepare an application that meets the requirements of the program with rigor, creativity, and confidence,” Lamb told VOA in an email response. The U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education (IIE), an exchange program, have been working with Fulbright Commissions and U.S. embassies around the world to assess when the Fulbright Scholars Program can resume. Resumption of travel for the program will depend on travel warnings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the State Department, the ability of participants to obtain visas, flight availability, the operating status of foreign host institutions, administrative resources at U.S. embassies, and the availability of local facilities to protect public health, the Fulbright Scholars website stated in October 2020.  If in-person exchanges are not possible, 2020-2021 Fulbright scholars may defer their start dates. However, once a host country has been approved for an in-person exchange, Fulbright finalists do not have the option for country re-assignments, nor can they extend beyond the year they are awarded. For finalists that withdraw from the cycle, they will be considered a Fulbright alumni and may re-apply for future Fulbright cycles, according to the Fulbright website. Rene Cordero is a 2020 Fulbrighter who was planning to write his dissertation about student political movements during the 1960s and 1970s in the Dominican Republic during the authoritarian regime of Joaquin Balaguer. He planned to do research in the country’s government agency, Archivo General de la Nación (General Archive of the Nation). However, Cordero’s research was impacted due to the pandemic.  “I have had to alter some of the structure of my dissertation” said Cordero, a graduate student at Brown University in Rhode Island. “It has also hindered the oral history aspects of my research.”   Allison Cheung, another 2019 Fulbright Scholar, was conducting research on the accuracy of diagnostic tests in new diseases at the University of Melbourne when the pandemic halted travel last year. She remained in Australia to continue her research, postponing her plans to attend medical school in the U.S.“I was worried that if I stayed here [in Australia], I wouldn’t be able to go back to the U.S. in time to start medical school,” said Cheung in a video interview on the Fulbright YouTube channel. “But then I realized that this is an opportunity that I’ll probably only have once in my career, to work directly in a global pandemic.” As a new Fulbrighter, Cronin said she understands how the pandemic has taken a toll on students who anticipated travel. “I do feel really awful for those students who weren’t able to travel after working so hard,” she said in a video interview with VOA. “Because I know how intense the application processes and I mean, we’re all feeling the effects of this pandemic. But this one is tough, because it is seemingly a combination of your accomplishments, and then you can’t follow through on it and demonstrate that you have the ability.”However, Cronin remains optimistic about the future. “I don’t mind at all if it is a delayed start date. Just having the award is a huge honor and [an] accomplishment in itself,” she said. “A year from now, we will hopefully be in a better place as a country here [ the U.S.]. And as a world, in general, because vaccine distribution has been increasing across the board.”Fulbright Recipients Say Evacuation Overseas Was ConfusedDecisions around staying or going from host countries came late

Fauci: US Could Reach Pre-Pandemic ‘Normals’ by September

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that current vaccination levels indicate the United States could reach pre-pandemic levels of “normal life” by late August or early September.  
Fauci made the comment during a virtual news briefing on herd immunity by the White House COVID-19 Response Team.  
Fauci said their best estimates regarding when herd immunity would be reached and enough people are considered immune from the virus range between 70% to 85% of the U.S. population.  
He said at current vaccination rates, that level should be reached at the end of the North American summer. But he also said that if the nation is vaccinating 2 million to 3 million people a day, society is increasingly more protected.  
 “You don’t have to wait until you get full herd immunity to get a really profound effect on what you can do,” he said.
Fauci said as the pace of vaccination ramps up, and the most vulnerable to the virus are protected, some government restrictions could be lifted.
 Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cautioned that at this point, only about 10% of the population is fully vaccinated. But the CDC anticipated loosening federal guidelines as more people receive shots.
Fauci also said that a refusal from a significant number of people to get vaccinated will delay when the nation reaches the endpoint of the pandemic.
Also at the briefing, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services procured an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. 

British Museum Collects First Meteorite Fragments in UK in 30 Years

The British Natural History Museum said it has recovered fragments of the first meteorite collected in the United Kingdom in 30 years and one of the rarest ever discovered.  On the night of February 28, a fireball was seen streaking across the sky over southwestern Britain, dazzling onlookers and exciting scientists. No fragments from a meteorite — what a meteor is called once it lands on Earth — had been recovered in the nation since 1991.  Museum researchers asked people to look in an area north of the town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire County. They received calls from the town of Winchcombe. Scientists went door to door asking people if they had seen anything. Several had, including a family that said a piece landed in their driveway.Researchers were even more excited when they realized the fragment was an extremely rare type known as a carbonaceous chondrite, which has never been found in Britain.Researcher Sara Russell explained that with about 65,000 known meteorites in the world, only 51 of them have been a carbonaceous chondrite, a mineral substance that is believed to date back 4.6 billion years to about the time the solar system was forming.  The coal-black mineral contains all the original ingredients that created asteroids, comets, and ultimately, planets like the Earth.Russell said she had the opportunity to work with material gathered on an asteroid from a recent Japanese space mission.“This material looks exactly like the material they are collecting,” she said. 

Malawi to Debate Liberalizing Abortion in Face of Conservative Opposition

Abortion is illegal in Malawi, unless the mother’s life is at risk, but that doesn’t stop an estimated 140,000 women per year having unsafe terminations that leave 12,000 women dead and countless others permanently scarred. Despite these numbers, efforts to liberalize current abortion laws are facing resistance from conservative groups.After getting pregnant at age 17, “Melita” – not her real name – saw abortion as her only option to stay in school.But Malawi’s 160-year-old abortion law only allows termination to save the life of a mother.So Melita went to a witchdoctor.    She says a few hours after taking a concoction of herbs, she started bleeding heavily. The pain felt around my cervix was unbearable, says Metlia, and I started crying while rolling on the floor.Melita’s uterus had ruptured and had to be removed.Though she can no longer have children, Melita knows she was lucky.I have heard stories of women dying from back street abortions, she says. So, after experiencing persistent abdominal pain and bleeding, says Malita, I was very scared that I would also die.Research by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute and the Malawi College of Medicine shows 140,000 Malawian women have unsafe abortions each year. The dangerous procedures leave about 12,000 of them dead and countless survivors, like Melita, permanently scarred.Campaigners have since 2015 been pushing a bill on expanding legal abortions to cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and threats to health.Safe abortion advocate Brian Ligomeka says expanding abortion law would save lives of many mothers and alleviate maternal complications. (Lameck Masina/VOA)“There are three additional grounds that are there. When enacted, the new law will allow women who face physical and mental dangers to their lives to access abortion,” said Brian Ligomeka who is with the Safe Abortion Campaign groupBut protests in 2016 from conservative and religious groups, who call any abortion murder, delayed debate on the bill.Pastor Zacc Kawalala, a church leader in Blantyre, strongly preaches against abortion, describing it as murder. (Lameck Masina/VOA)”God considers life from conception, said Pastor Zacc Kawalala, a church leader in Blantyre. “God knows you while you are in your mother’s womb. God places you in your womb. And the Bible also tells us in Jeremiah chapter 20 that thanks to God the womb of my mother was not my grave. If somebody dies before they are born it’s like the womb was their grave.”Malawi’s lawmakers are expected to finally debate the bill before the current parliamentary session ends on March 26.

Russia Clamps Down on Twitter

Russia’s Internet regulatory body, Roskomnadzor, announced it had slowed down Twitter’s ability to function in Russia effective Wednesday — part of what authorities said was an initial penalty for the American social media platform’s failure to delete illegal content inside the country.According to a statement posted on Roskomnadzor’s website, 100 percent of mobile devices and 50 percent of stationary devices using Twitter would face a disruption in service in an effort to “protect Russian citizens.””The mechanism envisions slowing down the transfer of photo and video content without any limitations on text messages. Users will be able to exchange messages freely,” Roskomnadzor official Vadim Subbotin later clarified in comments to reporters.Subbotin added the restrictions would remain in place until Twitter complied with the request to remove offending content.Failure to do so, added Subbotin, could lead to a full blockage of Twitter inside the country.In its statement, Roskomnadzor said Twitter had failed to remove 3,168 tweets promoting drug use, child pornography, and teenage suicide and ignored “over 28,000 initial and repeated requests” to address content violations.There was no immediate comment from Twitter about the new restrictions.“Nobody has any desire to block anything,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov when asked about the issue in his daily call with journalists.“But taking measures that force the company to fulfill our laws is completely justifiable.”President Vladimir Putin had criticized the internet for preying on Russian youth during a meeting with young volunteers last week.“We all unfortunately know what the internet is and how it’s used to spread entirely unacceptable content,” said Putin, who argued the Web should be bound by “moral laws.”Kremlin(ru) goes darkThe moves against Twitter were quickly followed by news that a series of key Russian government websites — including the Kremlin’s main portal — were inaccessible to users.Other state websites that appeared to experience problems included the Interior Ministry, Russia’s Federal Council and Duma, the Ministry of Economic Development and even Roskomnadzor — the Internet governing body that announced the penalties against Twitter to begin with.Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development later clarified the problems had nothing to do with the actions against Twitter but were caused by technical issues at the state service provider Rostelecom.Yet it was an explanation that did little to tame speculation that something larger was unfolding online.The coming cyberwar?The move against Twitter marked the latest in a simmering battle between Russia’s government and global tech companies.The Kremlin has alleged that Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are platforms that promote content supportive of Russia’s opposition while penalizing Russian state media content.Earlier this month, Russia announced it was suing Twitter and four other global tech companies for failing to delete posts expressing support for protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navanly.Meanwhile, the problems with Russian government websites follow reports the Biden administration was preparing a cyber response —- both overt and covert — to what it insists is the Kremlin’s responsibility for the massive SolarWinds hack of U.S. government agency websites in 2020.Concerns over cyberattacks, and their fallout, have been a contentious aspect of the U.S.-Russian relationship since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — when the U.S. accused Russia of using cyber tools to interfere in the race.  In 2019, Russia passed a law in defense of a “sovereign internet” — a measure that includes a “kill switch” intended to isolate Russian infrastructure from the worldwide web, if attacked.Internet activists argue the action is just the latest in a series of laws intended to tighten government control of the internet and clamp down on free speech.But experts have long questioned whether Russia’s internet governing body was capable of carrying out its threats to block big tech or the internet as a whole.In 2019, Roskomnadzor was widely mocked for botching its efforts to block the social message app Telegram.  The effort to kill the service in Russia ended up disrupting service for hundreds of websites and commercial services, even as the app continued to function. On Wednesday, analysts suggested a similar dynamic was at play in the new fight between Russian censors and Twitter.“Russia’s slowing down of Twitter caused the outage of government websites,” explained Andrei Soldatov, a leading expert on Russian cybersecurity in a post to social media.“What was meant to be partly a nationwide test of the Sovereign Runet infrastructure, partly a warning to global platforms, (and partly a soothing message to Putin getting emotional), failed on all fronts.”As if to underline that fact, his message was posted to…where else? Twitter.Russia’s slowing down of Twitter caused the outage of govt websites.
What was meant to be partly a nationwide test of the Sovereign Runet infrastructure, partly a warning to global platforms, (and partly a soothing message to Putin getting emotional), failed on all fronts.
— Andrei Soldatov (@AndreiSoldatov) March 10, 2021

How One Small Pennsylvania Pharmacy Is Vaccinating Thousands

Behind the counter of Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, near Philadelphia, owner Mayank Amin has been working late into the night since his independent drugstore received state approval to administer COVID-19 vaccines in late January.
There are thousands of emails to sort through and phone calls to field, supplies to organize, appointments to schedule.
Amin, known as Dr. Mak, set up a vaccination clinic on Super Bowl Sunday at the local firehouse that drew more than 1,000 people who kept their appointments for shots despite the snow that day.
“It was just like a party out there,” Amin, 36, recalled during an interview with Reuters in late February. “It was something you could have never imagined in your life, to see four strangers carrying somebody on a wheelchair to get them through the mud and into the building.”
Thanks to deep ties with their communities and the trust they have been able to establish over the years, some local pharmacists are instrumental in reaching people who might be reluctant to get vaccinated or may not know about vaccination efforts, said Jennifer Kates, the director of global health and HIV policy at Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Those local pharmacies are a really important trusted voice,” Kates said.
The vaccine rollout, which the administration of former President Donald Trump left to the states to carry out without a federal blueprint or sufficient funding, has proven to be choppy. Under President Joe Biden supply has increased but some distribution and access hurdles persist.
Montgomery County, where Schwenksville is located, has one of the highest per capita vaccination rates in the state, according to the state health department website. Pennsylvania ranks 28 out of 50 states with 18% of residents getting at least one shot, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. 
 Surprise shot
On a gray Saturday morning in late February, Amin slipped into a Superman costume, the remnant of Halloweens past that he now sometimes wears for vaccinations, and drove through the frozen suburbs to deliver two COVID-19 vaccines to home-bound patients.
“What a surprise!” 74-year-old on Gail Bertsch said after Amin and a few volunteers, whom she had not been expecting, knocked on her door. She and her husband James, who suffers from dementia, both got injections.
“I can’t believe we can actually have this done,” she said.
Amin has also vaccinated people by appointment at his pharmacy, including holding a special clinic for pregnant women and another one for children with underlying health conditions.
Among them was the pharmacist’s nephew, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to form in the brain, nerves, and other parts of the body.
Some 3,000 people have received first shots of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech through Skippack Pharmacy since early February, Amin said. Among some 1,000 residents who received second doses over the weekend were Chester and Martha Pish, 97 and 98 years old respectively, who have been married 78 years.
The effort has been all-consuming for Amin, and riddled with hurdles, including organizing vaccine stocks — which sometimes arrive at a few hours’ notice, a side effect of the supply chain hiccups that are among the problems that have plagued the rollout.
The young pharmacist reunites with his pregnant wife only on weekends as a health precaution and spends the week at his parents’ home in Lansdale. The couple will welcome their first child in May.
“I want to be there when my child is born, and I want to make sure that all my people are vaccinated by then,” he told Reuters. “If I can, that would be my dream.” 
Come together
Pandemic hardship and now the drive to get shots into people’s arms have united his Montgomery County community behind the young pharmacist.
On a recent Friday, five volunteers converged in the back of the store. They filled spreadsheets with patients’ contact information and checked the inventory of vaccination supplies.
Amin has just one other full-time employee, Jacquelyn Ziegler, and two pharmacy student interns, Erica Mabry and Isabelle Lawler. But he can count on dozens of volunteers, including family members, to answer the phone and help less tech-savvy patients navigate the online system to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
“It’s just incredible how everyone has kind of like filtered into this one space,” said event planner Courtney Marengo, one of Amin’s volunteers.
Amin said he did not set out to own a pharmacy. But he moved to fill a void left when Skippack, a 50-year-old local institution, was bought out by national giant CVS in 2018. The chain acquired Skippack Pharmacy’s assets but left it shuttered. Amin bought the pharmacy from CVS before the pandemic in hopes of keeping the resource in the community.
“I feel like sometimes things fall into your lap at certain points in your life,” he said. “You might not have planned for it to happen, but things happen for the right reason.”

Russia Restricts Twitter, Threatens Ban

Russia said Wednesday it was restricting the use of Twitter on the grounds the company has not removed banned content. State communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said if Twitter does not comply with Russian law, there will be further actions against the service, including a complete ban. The agency said Wednesday’s action involved slowing service speeds for all those in Russia accessing Twitter on mobile devices and half of those using the service in other ways. Twitter did not immediately comment on the new restrictions. The move is the latest by Russia to tighten control of the internet. It previously banned a number of websites, including Dailymotion and LinkedIn. 

Nearly 60 dead in Myanmar protests

In Myanmar’s Kachin State, authorities chased and fired at protesters. Since the military took over the government last month, nearly 60 people have died. What’s next for protesters and the junta? Plus, a new U.N. report on violence against women. And developments in quantum technology.