France, England Widen Availability of COVID-19 Vaccines

To fight a rise in cases caused by the coronavirus variants, France and England moved Monday to increase vaccinations.France is now allowing all adults to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were vaccinated Monday.”Like Brigitte and I, like 25 million French people have already done, let’s get vaccinated! To protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones,” Macron, who contracted the disease caused by the coronavirus in December, tweeted.As of Monday, France had confirmed more than 5.7 million cases of COVID-19 and 109,690 deaths caused by the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.People paddle board backdropped by Brighton Palace Pier on England’s south coast, May 30, 2021. The bank holiday weekend and relaxation of England’s coronavirus restrictions has enabled many people to visit beaches. In Britain, health officials opened London’s Twickenham rugby station as a mass vaccination site. No appointments were required. The country, which is experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases, is trying to contain a fast-spreading virus variant that was first identified in India and accounts for most of its new cases.The United Kingdom had confirmed 4.5 million COVID-19 cases on Monday, and 128,044 deaths.Beginning June 7, Germany plans to make the coronavirus vaccine available to all people older than 16.As of Monday, Germany had nearly 3.7 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 88,469 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Variants renamedThe World Health Organization, responding to criticisms that the scientific names of the various coronavirus variants were too complicated or stigmatized certain countries, on Monday assigned the variants letters of the Greek alphabet.The four main variants are generally referred to as the Brazil, India, South Africa and U.K. variants. Critics have told the WHO the scientific names were too complicated. For example, the so-called South African coronavirus variant goes by several names, such as B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2.The variants’ scientific names will remain the same, the WHO said. The change affects the names given the variants when being discussed with the public. The U.K., South Africa, Brazil and India variants have now been given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, respectively, according to the order in which they were detected, the WHO said.”No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted.No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants, incl epi, molecular and sequencing to be carried out and shared. We need to continue to do all we can to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 A Bolivian woman walks past a stand that provides information about COVID-19, as authorities have started to vaccinate people who make a living crossing the border between Bolivia and Peru, in Desaguadero, Bolivia, May 21, 2021.Peru toll revisedAlso Monday, Peru Health Minister Oscar Ugarte revised the coronavirus death toll for the country, from 69,342 to 180,764.“What is being said is that a significant number of deaths were not classified as caused by COVID-19,” Ugarte said, adding that the criteria for assigning COVID-19 as the cause of death was changed. Previously, only patients who “had a positive diagnostic test” were considered to have died from the coronavirus, he said.The criteria were broadened beyond people who tested positive for the virus to include probable cases with “an epidemiological link to a confirmed case,” according to a panel composed of experts from public and private health entities in Peru and from the World Health Organization, the Agence France-Presse reported.The country’s death toll had been questioned since early last year, and experts warned the death toll was being undercounted.Vietnam ramps up testingBecause of a recent surge in coronavirus cases, all 9 million residents in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, will be tested for the coronavirus, city officials said.The state newspaper, Vietnam News, said the city has a testing capacity of 100,000 samples a day, according to The Associated Press.The country has been battling a surge in the coronavirus since the end of April, tallying more than 4,000 cases. Since early last year, Vietnam has had only 7,321 confirmed cases of the virus and 47 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. Bullet trains are seen parked at a station in preparation for the upcoming Lunar New Year travel peak in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, Jan. 27, 2021.China restricts travelMeanwhile, China reimposed on Monday travel controls on Guangdong province after the region recorded 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 24-hour period ending at midnight Sunday.Provincial officials said that anyone leaving the province, which has a population of 113.4 million people, must provide the results of a nucleic acid test within the previous 72 hours.As of Monday, China had recorded 102,991 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,846 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. 

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Spam Is No Longer Just Luncheon Meat for Sandwiches

Before “spam” became a computer term, it was an American luncheon meat that was exported and embraced by cultures around the world, especially Asians. Spam is sold in more than 40 countries worldwide, and immigrants in the U.S. are serving it — but with a twist. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee went on a Spam culinary tour in Los Angeles.Producer: Elizabeth Lee   Camera: Elizabeth Lee, Roy Kim

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UN Watchdog: Access to Key Iranian Data Lacking Since February 23

The United Nations’ atomic watchdog hasn’t been able to access data important to monitoring Iran’s nuclear program since late February when the Islamic Republic started restricting international inspections of its facilities, the agency said Monday.  The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document distributed to member countries and seen by The Associated Press that it has “not had access to the data from its online enrichment monitors and electronic seals, or had access to the measurement recordings registered by its installed measurement devices” since February 23.  While the IAEA and Iran earlier acknowledged the restrictions limited access to surveillance cameras at Iranian facilities, Monday’s report indicated they went much further. The IAEA acknowledged it could only provide an estimate of Iran’s overall nuclear stockpile as it continues to enrich uranium at its highest level ever.Iran started limiting inspections in a bid to put pressure on the government of U.S. President Joe Biden to lift crippling sanctions reimposed after then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran unilaterally in 2018.  Under the deal, the IAEA placed around 2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment. Those seals communicated electronically to inspectors. Automated measuring devices also provided real-time data from the program.Talks are currently underway in Vienna for the U.S. to rejoin the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.  Since the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, Iran has been steadily violating its various restrictions, including on the types of centrifuges it is allowed to use, the amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to stockpile, and the purity to which it is allowed to enrich.In the IAEA report, the agency for the first time released estimates of Iran’s stockpile rather than precise figures, saying that as of May 22, Iran’s total stockpile was 3,241 kilograms, up about 273 kilograms from the last quarterly report.  That was down from an increase of nearly 525 kilograms reported in the last quarterly report.Though it wasn’t immediately clear what led to the decrease, it comes as an explosion in April at its underground Natanz nuclear facility affected centrifuges there. Iran has yet to offer a full accounting of what happened in an attack it described as “nuclear terrorism.” Israel, which is widely suspected of carrying out the assault, hasn’t commented publicly on it.The nuclear deal signed in 2015 with the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia only permits Iran to keep a total stockpile of 202.8 kilograms of enriched uranium.  The agency said the current stockpile includes 62.8 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20% purity, and 2.4 kilograms enriched to 60% purity — well above the 3.67% purity allowed under the JCPOA.  Despite Iran’s violations of the deal, the other nations involved have stressed that the agreement was still important, as it allowed international inspectors to continue their surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities.Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran’s program to see if it is complying with the nuclear deal.Iran’s hard-line Parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories didn’t provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February.  IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi was able to negotiate a last-minute deal in February, however, that promised the IAEA it would hold onto footage shot by its surveillance cameras and would hand them over if diplomats reached a deal in Vienna to lift the sanctions it faces. Otherwise, Tehran said it would delete the images.  That deal has yet to come, but Grossi was able to negotiate a one-month extension last week.That means his agency still can’t access the images taken by the cameras for the time being but could regain access to the material if a deal is reached — a situation Grossi called an emergency measure that was “not ideal.”The last-minute discussions further underscored the narrowing window for the U.S. and others to reach terms with Iran as it presses a tough stance with the international community over its atomic program.The negotiations and tensions over the program come as Iran faces an upcoming June 18 presidential election to select the replacement for the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, whose administration reached the 2015 nuclear deal. Analysts believe hard-liners have an edge going into the vote.
 

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Pakistan’s COVID-19 Positivity Rate Dips, But ‘We Aren’t Out of the Woods’, Official Tells VOA

Pakistan reported Monday that the national coronavirus positivity rate had remained well below 5% over the past week, with the country’s top health official attributing the declining trend to “effective” government policies, including restrictions on public movement and effective screening of international travelers.Officials recorded 43 deaths and detected more than 2,100 new cases in the last 24 hours, raising the national tally of deaths to nearly 21,000 and infections to more than 921,000 since the pandemic hit the South Asian nation early last year.The national positivity ratio decreased to just over 4% from more than 11% a couple of weeks ago.Last week, health authorities reported the detection of the first case of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus which has caused record infections and deaths in neighboring India, threatening Pakistan’s gains against the disease.But Faisal Sultan, an infectious disease physician who is also special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told VOA that an “effective” screening system for international travelers and other measures to deal with the health crisis have so far enabled the country to keep the situation under control in a country of about 220 million.“I would say we are not out of the woods yet, but it seems at this point that I don’t foresee an India-like situation,” Sultan, who is directing all health-related interventions and measures against the pandemic, told VOA in a detailed interview at his office in Islamabad.People queue to receive the first shot of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Karachi, Pakistan, May 8, 2021.“We really do think that to reach our targets, we need to go over the 500,000 a day mark, perhaps the 600,000 a day mark. So, I think that we really need to ramp up our vaccinations.”Sultan said government surveys have found that “at least two-thirds” of the Pakistani population is willing to get vaccinated.“So, the vaccine centers will have to go close to their homes. It will have to be easy and accessible. It will have to be so easy that in the United States, even normal retail pharmacies were allowed to do the vaccination,” he said.Sultan said the government really needed “to get at least a quarter of its population” in dense urban areas vaccinated before Pakistan “can even talk about any relaxation” in coronavirus-related restrictions, including asking those inoculated against the disease to remove their masks.Health care systemPrime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which took office in August 2018, has from the outset focused on the country’s underfunded and largely neglected national health care system.The focus, Sultan noted, enabled the government to timely position itself to combat the pandemic, despite critical economic challenges facing Pakistan.“We added over 7,000 oxygenated beds into the health care system across Pakistan. The second expansion that was done is even more important — a 66% increase in the medical oxygen capacity was done. Had we not done that, we would have faced a crisis. We came to about 90% capacity in the ongoing third wave,” Sultan explained.A vendor refills oxygen cylinders which will supply private hospitals for COVID-19 patients, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 26, 2021.Pakistan initially received vaccine donations from close ally China to launch the national vaccination drive in early March before purchasing large quantities of vaccine doses to ensure supplies for the national campaign.“They came out, gifted us the first lot, although we had told them we can pay for it. But they insisted. I think it speaks volumes about the level of trust and cooperation between China and Pakistan,” Sultan said.The Pakistani government is using the Chinese-made Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines. It has also received just over a million doses of AstraZeneca under a United Nations-backed program for poor nations, known as COVAX.Pakistani officials say they are in conversations with several suppliers, and the government will have procured about 20 million additional vaccine doses by end of July.“The only challenge is, in an environment where everybody wants the vaccine, to have a steady supply so that you don’t run out of it. This is a challenge that will stay for the rest of the world,” Sultan said, noting that Pakistan was in talks with several suppliers to secure enough doses to sustain domestic supplies.Beijing has also trained Pakistani staff and established a facility at Islamabad’s National Health Institute, where the one-dose CanSino vaccine is being filled from the concentrate provided by China. Sultan noted that the rare facility has the capacity to roll out about 3 million doses of CanSino a month to help boost the vaccination drive.“It may be a small step for us that we have started filling the vaccine from concentrate. But it is a vital step toward actually manufacturing the vaccine in Pakistan, and I think it may take a few months,” he said. 

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UNICEF Says Malnutrition Spikes for Haiti Kids Amid Pandemic

Severe acute childhood malnutrition is expected to more than double this year in Haiti as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, a spike in violence and dwindling resources, a UNICEF report said Monday.
More than 86,000 children under age 5 could be affected, compared with 41,000 reported last year, said Jean Gough, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“I was saddened to see so many children suffering from malnutrition,” she said after a weeklong visit to Haiti. “Some will not recover unless they receive treatment on time.”
Severe acute malnutrition is considered a life-threatening condition.  
In a slightly less dangerous category, acute malnutrition in kids younger than 5 in Haiti has risen 61%, with some 217,000 children expected to suffer from it this year, compared with 134,000 last year.  
Overall, UNICEF said, about 4.4 million of Haiti’s more than 11 million inhabitants lack sufficient food, including 1.9 million children.
Gough told The Associated Press during a recent visit to a hospital in the southern city of Les Cayes that UNICEF has only a one-month supply left of a special food paste given to children in need and is seeking $3 million by the end of June.  
Officials said the pandemic also has disrupted health services, with childhood immunization rates dropping from 28% to 44%, depending on the vaccine. The decrease has led to a rise in diphtheria cases as health workers brace for an expected measles outbreak this year.
UNICEF noted that unvaccinated children also are more likely to die from malnutrition.
Lamir Samedi, a nurse who works at a community health center in the southern town of Saint-Jean-du-Sud, said the target was to vaccinate 80% of children in the area, but they had yet to reach 50%.
Among the children hospitalized is 11-month-old Denise Joseph, who lay quietly in a crib in Les Cayes after being diagnosed with tuberculosis two weeks ago.
 
“She never eats,” said her grandmother, Marie-Rose Emile, who is caring for the infant since her mother also is ill. Emile is struggling to provide for the baby, saying she has barely harvested any beans, corn or potatoes this year.
Gough, the UNICEF official, said she was discouraged by the dismal numbers of malnutrition and drop in childhood immunizations. She said more outreach services are needed because not enough people are visiting community health centers.
Among those visiting a health center for the first time was 27-year-old Franceline Mileon, who brought her young child after hearing a health official with a bullhorn in her neighborhood announcing that a vaccination program had begun. She sat on a bench, coddling her baby, as she waited for a nurse to weigh her.
Overall, UNICEF said it needs nearly $49 million this year to meet humanitarian needs in Haiti, adding that little of that amount has been pledged. The agency $5.2 million of that amount would go toward nutrition and $4.9 million for health, including childhood immunizations.

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British, Other Western Intel Agencies Assist US in Wuhan Probe

Britain’s intelligence agencies — along with other Western European security services — are assisting a new American investigation to try to establish the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to officials on both sides of the Atlantic.  The central focus of the investigation is on the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as suspicions mount that the novel bat-derived virus roiling the world, and which has led to at least four million deaths, may have leaked from its lab, a claim Beijing has furiously denied.British officials briefed London newspapers Sunday that the thesis the virus escaped from the lab is “plausible” and “feasible,” a turnaround from British intelligence’s skepticism for most of the past 18 months of the possibility that the pandemic may have been triggered by a lab leak. Other Western intelligence agencies were also skeptical last year of the leak theory, seeing it as being only a remote possibility.But last week, U.S. President Joe Biden instructed American intelligence agencies to investigate the leak theory and report back within three months. Biden’s order came after U.S. intelligence discovered more details about three researchers at the Wuhan lab who fell ill in November 2019, several weeks before the first identified case of the outbreak — and more than a month before China informed the World Health Organization of “cases of pneumonia” of an “unknown cause” had been detected in Wuhan.The researchers were hospitalized with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but also with common seasonal respiratory illnesses, according to a U.S. intelligence report first publicly disclosed by The Wall Street Journal.The new details have added to circumstantial evidence supporting the theory that the virus may have spread to humans after a leak from the Wuhan lab, say Western officials.FILE – An aerial view shows the P4 laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in Wuhan, China, April 17, 2020.A WHO-led team report earlier this year ruled the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely,” and favored the prevailing theory that the coronavirus most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market, jumping from an animal, likely a bat or pangolin, to humans. But the WHO inquiry has come under mounting criticism from some prominent Western scientists — as well as Western governments, who say the Chinese authorities blocked the WHO team during a four-week visit to Wuhan in January.
Eighteen of the world’s top epidemiologists and geneticists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for an independent inquiry into the lab leak theory.British intelligence officials confirmed to Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that British security agencies are cooperating with the new American probe. “We are contributing what intelligence we have on Wuhan, as well as offering to help the American to corroborate and analyze any intelligence they have that we can assist with,” an official was quoted as saying.They added: “What is required to establish the truth behind the coronavirus outbreak is well-sourced intelligence rather than informed analysis, and that is difficult to come by.”Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic say the probe will include using artificial intelligence systems to help data mine everything from Chinese social media comments to intercepted phone and electronic communications in China. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, also known as GCHQ, the eavesdropping spy agency and the country’s largest intelligence service, will be key in Britain’s collaboration with the U.S., British officials told VOA.With few on-the-ground intelligence sources in China, Western intelligence agencies are believed to be trawling the so-called “dark web” to unearth information posted and shared there anonymously by Chinese scientists and officials secretly critical of the Communist government.FILE – A technician is seen inside the the P4 laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in Wuhan, China, Feb. 23, 2017.British lawmakers are welcoming the redoubled effort to identify the origins of the pandemic. “The silence coming from Wuhan is troubling. We need to open the crypt and to see what happened, to be able to protect ourselves in the future,” Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee said on Sunday.  China’s authorities have denied there was any leak from the Wuhan lab, which conducts research on viruses and receives some funding from the U.S. government. Last year, Chinese propagandists blamed the coronavirus outbreak on a U.S. Army sports delegation which visited Wuhan and touted several conspiracy theories subsequently discredited by prominent virologists and epidemiologists.Last week, China’s Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party daily tabloid newspaper, condemned Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, for saying he supported investigating multiple theories of the virus’ origins, including probing whether it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.Fauci said it was important to increase efforts to unearth why, where and how the pandemic began because knowing the origin could help prevent future outbreaks of coronaviruses. “I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” he said.The Global Times accused Fauci of attempting “to hype the old and groundless narrative that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan.” It said the leak theory “is a blatant lie, a conspiracy created by U.S. intelligence agencies and media outlets to slander China, and China has denied it.”
 

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Smokers at Greater Risk of Dying from COVID-19 

In marking World No-Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization is urging smokers to quit their habit, warning they are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than non-smokers.     Head of WHO’s Tobacco Control Program, Vinayak Prasad tells VOA a plethora of scientific studies over the past year confirm smokers face a 50%  higher risk of developing severe disease and death from COVID-19.    “It is logical because smoking does compromise on the lung functions and this virus does attack the lungs. So, that is where we see the rational for taking measures to not use tobacco,” he said.    The World Health Organization is urging smokers to join its year-long quit tobacco campaign, which helps countries scale-up their tobacco-control services. These include running national awareness campaigns, opening new cessation clinics, and offering nicotine replacement therapies.   Prasad says it is of utmost importance to make users aware of the risks they run. He says some eight million people will die prematurely this year from tobacco-related illnesses, such as cancers, heart disease and respiratory illnesses. Most of these deaths will occur in low-income countries.   He notes it usually takes decades for these deadly illnesses to develop. Therefore, preventing young people from taking up this habit is essential as that can lead to a life-long addiction.    FILE – Customers puff on e-cigarettes at the Henley Vaporium in New York City, Dec. 18, 2013.He accuses the tobacco industry of targeting young people to get them hooked on their products by offering freebies, such as tickets to concerts, nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes. This, he says has been met with success in many countries. For example, he notes 38% of Indonesia’s teenage boys smoke. “Likewise, in European settings for example, the girls’, the women’s tobacco use is so high, that the male to female difference is no longer there… The industry is continuing to reap all of these benefits they can getting more and more women, targeting the girl child, adolescents from this divide, and then continuing to push their products in developing countries,”  he said.  WHO reports imposing substantial taxes on tobacco products is one of the most effective ways of getting smokers to quit. Other successful smoke-reduction measures include a ban on advertisements and promotions, health warnings on tobacco products and designating areas as smoke-free zones. 

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Climate Talks Resume Online as Pressure to Act Grows

For the first time since 2019 and following a flurry of net-zero pledges from the world’s largest emitters, UN climate negotiations resume Monday in a virtual format just six months before the crunch COP26 summit. The talks, nominally hosted by the United Nations climate change program in the German city of Bonn, will all be informal, meaning that no decisions will be taken during the three-week dialogue. But with increasingly dire warnings from scientists that the pace of global warming is already outstripping humanity’s best plan to cut emissions, the pressure for progress to be made on several thorny issues is high.   In 2018, countries agreed to many elements of the Paris agreement “rulebook”, governing how each nation implements its goals. But several issues remain unresolved, including rules about transparency, carbon markets, and a unified timeframe for all countries to ratchet up their emissions cuts.At the last UN climate summit in December 2019, countries also failed to agree upon a universal system of reporting climate finance. Nathan Cogswell, a research associate at the World Resources Institute, said a deal on greater transparency was “a central component of the effective implementation of the Paris agreement”. “The upcoming session will hopefully help parties get closer to that.”   One of the thorniest debates during recent UN climate talks has been Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with the trade of emissions cuts.   A major sticking point remains over rules to avoid double counting emissions reductions within both bi-lateral and international carbon markets. Some wealthy nations without the natural resources — forests, for instance — to mitigate their contribution to climate change have spent huge amounts on projects to preserve those habitats in other countries.    Currently both the buying and selling nations may count the project towards their domestic climate action, opening the door for the same cut to be counted twice.   Cogswell said that a failure to agree on a protection against double counting emissions reductions by the end of the COP26 in Glasgow in November would “weaken the ambition of global efforts” to fight climate change.  ‘Not ideal’COVID-19 forced Britain and the UN to shelve talks originally scheduled for last year until the end of 2021. As the pandemic continues to rage, particularly among developing nations most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, negotiators will need to achieve tangible progress during the three-week Bonn talks. “The absence of a COP left a tremendous amount of work to be done… if we want to deliver at Glasgow,” said Marianne Karlsen, chair of a major technical forum at the UN-led negotiations.   The two-week sessions — expanded this year to three — normally involve thousands of representatives from more than 180 countries, and often rely on behind-closed-doors bargaining between delegates to get deals done.   Karlsen said the virtual configuration of talks was “not ideal at all”.   “We really wanted to be able to have all the interactions of when we meet in person but there was no other option,” she said. Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, chair of the UN’s SBSTA technical working group, said delegates needed to use the virtual negotiations to “prioritize a way to capture progress, so we can capture that progress when we meet in person, and make decisions” in Glasgow. “It’s important that we send a clear message to the world: We are very much engaged in resolving the Paris rulebook and to tackling this climate change conundrum.” 

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A bid to unseat Netanyahu

New Right party leader Naftali Bennett announced Sunday that he’d support a “unity government” with Yesh Atid party’s head Yair Lapid. That would give Lapid enough seats in the Israeli government to end the tenure of Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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From Uzbekistan to Inspecting American Bridges: An Engineer’s Story

About 40% of the more than 617,000 bridges in the U.S. are at least 50 years old, and of that number more than 46,000 are in dangerously poor condition. The job of bridge inspectors is to locate and identify their structural deficiencies. Svitlana Prestynska met with one such inspector and filed this report from Denver, Colorado, narrated by Anna Rice.

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Studies Reveal China’s Dominant Position in High-Tech Minerals

New clean energy technologies like solar power and electric vehicles are expected to remake the global energy industry. Trillions of dollars used to drill and ship oil and gas will instead be spent finding and processing the specialized minerals used to make high-tech gear including advanced electric generators and powerful, compact batteries.Energy analysts say this will challenge the United States, which will likely need to import vastly more minerals like cobalt, lithium and aluminum, at the same time that China has increased its control over the supply of some key resources.People cool off in the beach near the mining pipeline “Puerto Coloso” of the “Escondida” cooper mine in Antofagasta, Chile, Feb. 16, 2017.A VOA examination of U.S. government data shows how China has become the main supplier for some of the most important raw materials that Western countries import, giving Beijing leverage over the materials that go into everything from advanced fighter jets to solar panels.Not only has Beijing bought up some of the world’s biggest mines for these minerals, the country also has invested heavily in the processing facilities that refine the raw materials into industrially-useful products, strengthening Beijing’s position in global supply chains.Beijing has already given the world reason to worry about its reliability as a global supplier. In 2011, it used its position as the top global supplier of rare earth metals to cut exports, driving up prices. China’s critics say Beijing’s dominant position in so-called “critical minerals” gives them similar leverage.Aerial view of evaporation pools of the new state-owned lithium extraction complex, in the southern zone of the Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia, on July 10, 2019.35 critical mineralsThe United States has designated A man watches a conveyor belt loaded with chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi, Congo, on Feb. 16, 2018, before being exported, mainly to China, to be refined.Chinese dominance in U.S. allies’ supply chainsOther Western countries have different lists of minerals considered critical to their economies. Among the lists of Australia, U.K. and Canada, rare earth minerals account for only one of the 24, 41 and 31 critical minerals, respectively.  The European Union classifies light and heavy rare earths as two separate critical elements on its 30 Critical Raw Materials (CRM) list.A study published last year by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, a science and technology service agency, found that the production of a Rafale fighter aircraft requires a total of 16 CRMs, of which only three are rare earth elements. Although each country makes up its own list of “critical minerals” based on its strategic needs, China is a dominant supplier in all of the lists.In the EU’s list, China is the largest source of imports for 10 minerals. Among the 24 critical minerals identified by the Australian government in its Critical Minerals Prospectus 2020 report, China is listed as the largest producer of 11 of them.   In the U.K.’s Risk List, China is the leading producer of 23 minerals.Similar findings were reported by Chinese researchers as well.  A study published by China Geological Survey stated that “after combing through the list of Critical Minerals in the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and other countries, it can be seen that half or more of the country’s main producing countries and main sources of imports are our country.”The 2019 report said that of the 35 key minerals in the U.S., the largest supplier of 13 CMs is China, and China is also the largest producer of 19 CMs.This story originated in VOA’s Mandarin Service. 

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Australians Rush for Vaccines as COVID Lockdown Continues in Victoria

Record numbers of COVID-19 vaccinations have been completed in Australia as a snap seven-day lockdown continues in the nation’s second most-populous state.Seven million people in Victoria are subject to strict stay-at-home orders after a growing cluster of infections was detected in recent days. Australia has managed to mostly contain the coronavirus through lockdowns, the closure of its international borders and strict quarantine measures for returning citizens, but the national vaccination program has been beset by supply issues and hesitancy among many Australians.There are estimated to be 100 active coronavirus cases in Australia, according to the Health Department. About half are in Victoria, which is under a seven-day lockdown. It is the state’s fourth shutdown since the pandemic began.The number of infections in Australia is small compared to other countries, including Japan, Brazil and the United States.However, community transmission of the virus has been rare in recent months and the outbreak in Victoria is significant.There has been complacency in the community and mounting hesitancy about vaccines and possible side effects, which have delayed the national inoculation plan.Health authorities in Victoria, though, have said the lockdown has sent residents flocking to injection centers across the country in record numbers.However, some experts believe that it might be too late to prevent another wave of infections in Australia’s second most populous state.“We have been here before,” said Dr. Michelle Ananda-Rajah, an infectious diseases expert at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital. “I think, though, that the stakes are higher this time because we have all the factors for what is essentially a perfect storm. We have a largely unvaccinated population; we have winter approaching, and we have an unforgiving variant on the loose at the moment. You know, Victoria is primed at the moment for a third wave, and we need to do everything possible to prevent that from happening.”Melbourne, the Victoria state capital, endured Australia’s longest COVID-19 lockdown last year. Once again, the nation’s second-biggest city finds itself under tight restrictions.Masks are now mandatory. Places of worship and schools are closed. Victorians can only leave home for essential work, shopping, exercise, caregiving or to get a coronavirus vaccine.Businesses are facing heavy losses.A man infected with a highly contagious COVID-19 variant who stayed at a quarantine hotel for returning travelers is thought to be the source of the outbreak.Australia has recorded more than 30,000 coronavirus cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, according to government statistics.

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Tanzanian Muslims Fear Missing Hajj Due to Vaccination Delay

Saudi Arabia is requiring all pilgrims for the scaled-back, annual Hajj in July to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In Tanzania, where vaccinations have still not begun, Muslims hoping to go to Mecca are urging authorities to start jabbing. Charles Kombe reports from Dar es Salaam.
Camera: Rajabu Hassan       Producer: Robert Raffaele

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Dangerously Trending: Driverless Tesla Videos on Social Media

It was a boozy joyride captured for TikTok with a soundtrack provided by Justin Bieber and with a Tesla serving as the “Designated Driver” for the night.In the short video, three young men are shown dancing in their seats, beers nearby, as the vehicle moves down the highway near other cars at 105 kph, as shown on the speedometer.Nobody is behind the steering wheel.The video clip, which has been “liked” by nearly 2 million people and shared 105,000 times, is just one of many similar ones on social media reviewed by AFP.Such behavior is illegal and flouts the instructions of the automaker, which says on its website that Tesla’s driver-assistance system is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment.”Besides Tesla’s “Autopilot” system, which matches a vehicle’s speed to that of surrounding traffic and assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, Tesla offers what it calls “full self-driving capability.”That program’s capabilities include helping park a car, maneuver a vehicle in and out of a tight parking space and guide a car from a highway on-ramp to an off-ramp.Tesla will alert the driver and ultimately disengage the self-driving system if the driver’s seatbelt is not buckled, or if the hands of the driver are not detected on the steering wheel.Fooling the systemHowever, these protections have proved little match for Tesla motorists determined to misuse their vehicles. The magazine Consumer Reports released a video in which an incredulous tester easily duped a Tesla into driving with no one at the wheel.”Idiots will be idiots, they will find a way to trick the system and that’s not Tesla’s fault, they can put a bunch of other things here people will just defeat it,” a poster calling himself “Dirty Tesla” said in a video on his YouTube page, which has 55,000 subscribers.(“Dirty Tesla” has described himself as the president of a Tesla owner’s club in Michigan but declined to give his name.)But Tesla itself has been less than clear, directing users to follow the rules even as it employs confusing terminology for its driver-assistance programs, and as its leader, Elon Musk, makes sweeping statements about the technology.Musk early this year predicted the company’s vehicles would achieve Level 5 autonomy, or full self-driving, in 2021. Yet in 2015, the billionaire had said that goal would be reached within two years.”Some companies are more careful than others in how they advertise,” said Andrew Kun, an expert in human-computer interactions at the University of New Hampshire.”The problem is overtrust, thinking that the system can do more than it is really able to do,” Kun said. “Of course, that’s the issue with calling it ‘Autopilot’ when it really isn’t.”Deadly accidentsAdding gravity to the matter, a series of fatal crashes have raised suspicions that Tesla’s technology may have been misused.On April 17, two people were killed near Houston after a Tesla smashed into a tree.A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board did not weigh in on whether anyone was behind the wheel. Local police had said nobody was in the driver’s seat.In a fatal crash in May near Los Angeles also under investigation, the driver had posted images on social media of himself driving his Tesla without his hands on the wheel.Despite billions of dollars spent thus far, automakers have yet to produce a vehicle with full autonomy.Tesla’s system has reached Level 2 autonomy under the scale of the Society of Automotive Engineers, still a ways from full autonomy and requiring a person in the driver’s seat who can take control if necessary.California regulators have said they are reviewing whether Tesla’s marketing misleads consumers — specifically, whether it has violated a regulation that “prohibits a company from advertising vehicles for sale or lease as autonomous unless the vehicle meets the statutory and regulatory definition of an autonomous vehicle,” the Department of Motor Vehicles told AFP. 

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Malaysia Ramps Up Harassment of Government Critics, Rights Groups Say

Rights groups say Malaysian authorities are ramping up the use of criminal investigations into journalists, protesters and opposition lawmakers to harass the government’s critics, shrinking the space for free speech and a free press in the Southeast Asian country.“Basic freedoms have come increasingly under attack since Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government came to power last year through backdoor maneuvering, and this latest wave of investigations and harassment clearly aims to silence political opponents and all forms of dissent,” Carlos Zarate, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, said in a statement put out this week by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a network of lawmakers from across the region.Muhyiddin rose to the prime minister’s post early last year without an election after he and other lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to form a new bloc of parties with a slim majority in Parliament. With the requisite consent of the country’s constitutional monarch, Al-Sultan Abdullah, he instituted a state of emergency in January that suspended Parliament and allowed him to rule by decree.Muhyiddin said he needed the emergency powers to combat the pandemic. Analysts say it is more likely a bid to postpone his own coalition’s collapse at the hands of disaffected partners by avoiding a no-confidence vote. Rights groups in turn say the latest wave of investigations into government critics stems at least in part from Muhyiddin’s mounting anxiety about his political survival.‘Censor yourself’The ASEAN parliamentarians’ group said police interrogated five opposition lawmakers this month alone, along with more than two dozen activists, most of them over a series of peaceful protests of the government.Police have also issued summonses for journalists over their articles five times since the emergency took effect, according to a trio of local journalists’ associations.“So the message that’s coming out is, unless you censor yourself … you’re going to be summoned,” Wathshlah Naidu, executive director of Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism, told VOA.“This is extremely troubling because all these [cases] are pointing to the fact that we are reaching a situation that media journalists are even afraid of asking the right questions and publishing because they fear being threatened.”Calls to the prime minister’s office seeking comment went unanswered. Emails requesting interviews with the national police and the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees the police, were also unanswered.Malaysia slipped 18 places during the past year in Reporters Without Borders’ annual index of press freedom around the world, from 101 out of 180 countries to 119, by far the largest slide of any nation on the list.In one recent case, two reporters were summoned for covering allegations that police brutality had caused the death in custody of milk trader A. Ganapathy. In another, the Home Affairs Ministry said it would be summoning two news outlets for articles quoting a top official who appeared to make light of allegations that a secondary school teacher had made jokes about rape in class.“To say that that is criminal, to investigate that as a criminal investigation shows a real lack of either understanding of or respect for the role of the media in a democracy,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.Lakhdhir also highlighted the case of opposition lawmaker Syed Saddiq, who was questioned by police over a video he posted of himself online calling for accountability in the milk trader’s death.“He is an MP; this is his job,” she said. “And even if these cases don’t result in prosecutions, there’s a harassment element and an intimidation element, especially with some of the heavy-handed tactics they’re using, that is intended to create a sort of culture of self-censorship.”Last month, police allegedly smashed a hole through graphic artist Fahmi Reza’s door before arresting him. Fahmi is under investigation for sedition for posting a Spotify playlist online on the theme of jealousy to poke fun at Malaysia’s Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah. The queen was reported to have called those who alleged she had jumped the line for a COVID vaccine, “jealous.”‘Fear factor’To rights groups this is but the latest example of the overbroad interpretation of a set of vaguely worded laws Malaysian authorities have been using for years to snare the government’s critics. They say amending or abolishing those laws will be key to reclaiming the quickly shrinking space for free speech and a free press in the country.“We are walking backwards very fast,” said Zulfikar Anwar Ulhaque, no stranger to the authorities’ attention himself.The multiple-award-winning cartoonist, better known as Zunar, said he has been arrested seven times and charged nine times under six laws in the past 11 years for his politically charged drawings. He and his book publishers have had their offices repeatedly raided by police.On May 7 police interrogated Zulfikar yet again, this time over a cartoon he posted to his social media accounts lampooning the Kedah state chief minister for cancelling a public holiday marking a Hindu festival, citing COVID-19 concerns. The police also confiscated his mobile phone and demanded his passcode.“There is no place for people to speak up now in mainstream media, no venue for them to go [to] because all the media are controlled by the government, and because of that people turn to social media,” he said.Rights groups fear the crackdown on journalists, activists and lawmakers is rippling through society, piling pressure on ordinary Malaysians to keep any critical thoughts about the government to themselves.Zulfikar, who is now 59, said he is worried about what it means for new political cartoonists.“This is the fear factor,” he said. “They are hoping that people will [be] scared — those who try to do cartoons, serious cartoons, try to do political cartoons to criticize the government. They will think twice, they will think twice because of this.”     

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Congressman Ted Lieu, D, California

In honor of Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month, host Carol Castiel sits down (via Microsoft Teams) with California Democratic Congressman, Ted Lieu, an immigrant from Taiwan who sits on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. He rose from relative poverty to earn a law degree with high honors; Lieu joined the military where he served as judge advocate in the General’s Corps and currently serves as Colonel in the Air Forces Reserves. One of the nine House managers during former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial for inciting the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, Congressman Lieu discusses the significance of a bipartisan commission, immigration reform and infrastructure legislation, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, cybersecurity, Afghanistan, and US-China relations. 

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