New Year Eve Spurs Hope in China Even as Censors Target Online COVID Content

New Year’s Eve in China prompted an outpouring of reflection online, some of it critical, about the strict zero-COVID policy the country adhered to for almost three years and the impact of its abrupt reversal this month.

The sudden change to live with the virus has prompted a wave of infections across the country, a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France the latest countries to impose curbs on travelers from China.

Three years into the pandemic, China this month acted to align with a world that has largely reopened to live with COVID, after unprecedented protests that became a de facto referendum against the zero-COVID policy championed by President Xi Jinping. 

The protests were the strongest show of public defiance in Xi’s decade-old presidency and coincided with grim growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy.

On Saturday, people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, expressed hope the new year would bring better fortune.

Several people in Wuhan bemoaned how widely the virus has spread after lifting of all the pandemic curbs, with one, 45-year-old Chen Mei, saying she just hopes that in 2023 her teenage daughter can resume normal classes over the long term.

“When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said.

“Kids don’t have such good self discipline. And then for us adults sometimes because of the epidemic controls we have been locked up at home. It’s definitely had an impact.”

Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticized the removal of a viral video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.

Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties ordinary Chinese faced as a result of the strict COVID policy.

Weibo and Netease did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4 million hits before it disappeared from platforms around noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in.

“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

Overwhelmed hospital, funeral homes

The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoria fueling public concern.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported one new COVID death for Friday, the same as the day before — numbers which do not match the experience of other countries after they reopened.

U.K.-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday around 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totaling 18.6 million, it said.

At the central hospital of Wuhan, where former COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, patient numbers were down Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a hazmat-suit wearing worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters.

“This wave is almost over,” the worker said.

A pharmacist whose store is next to the hospital said most people in the city had now been infected and recovered.

“It is mainly old people who are getting sick with it now,” he said. “They have underlying conditions and can get breathing issues, lung infections or heart problems.”

New year, new challenges

In the first indication of the toll on China’s giant manufacturing sector from the change in COVID policy, data Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the sharpest pace in nearly three years.

Besides the growing economic toll, rising infections after lifting of the restrictions also have prompted international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging out of China.

Britain and France became the latest countries to require travelers from China to provide negative COVID-19 tests. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have all imposed similar measures.

The World Health Organization on Friday once again urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation in the country, as it continues to assess the latest surge in infections.

China’s narrow criteria for identifying deaths caused by COVID-19 will underestimate the true toll of the pandemic and could make it harder to communicate the best ways for people to protect themselves, health experts have warned.

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Share Data, WHO Urges China at COVID Surge Talks

The World Health Organization met Chinese officials for talks on Friday about the surge in COVID-19 cases, urging them to share real-time data so other countries could respond effectively.

The rise in infections in China has triggered concern around the globe and questions about its data reporting, with low official figures for cases and deaths despite some hospitals and morgues being overwhelmed.

The talks came after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged Beijing to be more forthcoming on the pandemic situation in the world’s most populous country.

The U.N. health agency said the meeting was “to seek further information on the situation, and to offer WHO’s expertise and further support.”

It said officials from China’s National Health Commission and National Disease Control and Prevention Administration briefed the WHO on China’s evolving strategy and actions on epidemiology, variant monitoring, vaccination, clinical care, communication and research and development.

“WHO again asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation — including more genetic sequencing data, data on disease impact including hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths,” it said.

It asked for data on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status, especially in vulnerable people and those over age 60.

‘Timely publication of data’

“WHO reiterated the importance of vaccination and boosters to protect against severe disease and death for people at higher risk,” the Geneva-based organization said.

“WHO called on China to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment, and expressed willingness to provide support on these areas, as well as on risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy.”

The U.N. agency said Chinese scientists were invited to engage more closely in WHO-led COVID-19 expert networks and asked them to present detailed data at a virus evolution advisory group meeting Tuesday.

“WHO stressed the importance of monitoring and the timely publication of data to help China and the global community to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective responses,” it said.

China said this month it would end mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country and that it had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus.

The surge in cases in China comes almost exactly three years after the first infections were recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Since then, more than 650 million confirmed COVID cases and over 6.6 million deaths have been reported, though the U.N. health agency acknowledges this will be a vast undercount.

The search for the origin of the virus remains unresolved, with Tedros insisting all hypotheses remain on the table, including the theory that the virus escaped from Wuhan’s virology laboratories.

Tedros has called on China to share data and conduct the studies requested by the WHO to better understand where the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease sprang from. 

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In 2022, AP Photographers Captured Pain of a Changing Planet

In 2022, photographers with The Associated Press captured signs of a planet in distress as climate change reshaped many lives.

That distress was seen in the scarred landscapes in places where the rains failed to come. It was felt in walloping storms, land-engulfing floods, suffocating heat and wildfires no longer confined to a single season. It could be tasted in altered crops or felt as hunger pangs when crops stopped growing. And taken together, millions of people were compelled to pick up and move as many habitats became uninhabitable.

2022 will be a year remembered for destruction brought on by a warming planet and, according to scientists, was a harbinger for even more extreme weather.

Parched earth

In June, two young men sat smoking in front of a boat that had previously been under water. The waterline in parts of Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada had dropped so much that the boat was now standing up in the mud. Such dramatic manifestations were seen in myriad places. 

In Germany, drought combined with a bark beetle infestation left large swaths of Harz forest trees spindly, while in Kenya mothers struggled to keep their children nourished and animals died because of a lack of water. Along the Solimoes River in the Brazilian Amazon, houseboat dwellers found themselves living on mud instead of water, as parts dried up.

In eastern France, normally lush sunflowers looked as if they had been fried, their leaves withered, and seeds blackened. Similar scars on the Earth’s surface were seen in reef-like structures exposed by receding waters in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the cracked bed of Hungary’s Lake Velence and the shrunken Yangtze River in southwestern China.

Storms and floods

While a lack of rain did damage in many places, in others too much precipitation altered landscapes and swallowed lives. Sometimes the same region, in a short amount of time, went from drought to deluge — what scientists refer to as a “whiplash effect.” This happened in parts of Yellowstone National Park last summer.

The country hardest hit by floods was Pakistan, with a third of its land submerged, millions of people displaced and at least 1,700 killed. But many countries were hit hard by storms.

In Cuba, a tropical cyclone in June led to so much flooding that rescuers moved through the streets of Havana in boats. Just a few months later, Hurricane Ian slammed into the island before continuing to Florida, leaving destruction and death in its wake.

Heavy floods were also seen in parts of Nigeria, India, Indonesia and numerous other places, while in one part of Brazil, a common aftereffect of flooding — landslides — killed more than 200 people.

To be sure, there were human attempts to better prepare and deal with flooding. One example: Chinese authorities continued to develop and expand “sponge cities,” which aim to use porous pavement and green spaces to absorb water and reduce the destruction of flooding.

Heat and fire

In recent years, wildfires have become commonplace across the Western U.S. amid a 23-year drought and rising temperatures. Compared to last year, there were slightly fewer wildfires in 2022 in California — the state routinely hardest hit — but many blazes still chewed through land and homes.

America was hardly alone. There were significant fires in Portugal, Greece, Argentina and many other countries. Images like a living room engulfed in flames, an evacuated woman clinging to a police officer and a man using a branch to protect his home were visceral reminders of the fury that fires unleash.

Along with fires, there were periodic bouts of extreme heat. A sweating British soldier, wearing a traditional bearskin hat outside Buckingham Palace, captured a reality for many Brits, as temperatures reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40.3 degrees Celsius), a record for the country.

How people coped with sauna-like conditions depended on the place. In Madrid, a fountain at an urban beach provided relief to parents and children. In Hungary, three people cooled off in a fill-up pool. And in Los Angeles, a woman stuck her head in front of an open fire hydrant.

Imperiled food

In October, Wilbur Kuzuzuk pulled a spotted seal to the edge of the lagoon in Shishmaref, a town in western Alaska that is on the verge of disappearing because of climate change.

The 600 residents of the Inupiat village have stayed put despite increasing risks to their way of life, including their food supply, as warming seas encroach on land and warming temperatures hurt habitats. But residents like Kuzuzuk know Shishmaref’s days are likely numbered: Twice the town has voted to relocate, though nothing has been put in motion.

All around the world there were clear threats to the food supply. In India, floods damaged corn and other crops, leaving farmers no choice but to try to salvage as much as possible. In Kenya and surrounding countries, drought increased hunger and pushed villagers to dig ever deeper in search of groundwater.

Climate migration

Taken together, all these problems pushed millions of people to migrate. Perhaps nowhere was that clearer than in Somalia, where severe drought led to starvation and prompted thousands of people to flee. Many migrants ended up in makeshift camps, like the one in Dollow, emaciated, young children in tow, desperately seeking food and water.

Much of the migration happened within borders. In India’s Ladakh region, a cold mountainous desert that borders China and Pakistan, shrinking grazable land, along with other effects of climate change, continued to force many to migrate from sparsely populated villages to urban settlements.

In Indonesia, a big driver of migration was encroaching seas. In Central Java, homes not outfitted with raised floors were swallowed, pushing those who didn’t have the means to seek other abodes.

In Kenya, a woman named Winnie Keben recounted how she lost her leg to a crocodile attack. She blamed the attack, in part, on the fact that rising water levels around Lake Baringo have brought animals closer to humans. Many scientists attribute that to climate change.

Keben’s home was also washed away, sending her family to another village.

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US Considers Airline Wastewater Testing as COVID Surges in China

As COVID-19 infections surge in China, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering sampling wastewater taken from international aircraft to track any emerging new variants, the agency told Reuters.

Such a policy would offer a better solution to tracking the virus and slowing its entry into the United States than new travel restrictions announced this week by the U.S. and other countries, which require mandatory negative COVID tests for travelers from China, three infectious disease experts told Reuters.

Travel restrictions, such as mandatory testing, have so far failed to significantly curb the spread of COVID, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.

“They seem to be essential from a political standpoint. I think each government feels like they will be accused of not doing enough to protect their citizens if they don’t do these,” he said.

The United States this week also expanded its voluntary genomic sequencing program at airports, adding Seattle and Los Angeles to the program. That brings the total number of airports gathering information from positive tests to seven.

But experts said that may not provide a meaningful sample size.

A better solution would be testing wastewater from airlines, which would offer a clearer picture of how the virus is mutating, given China’s lack of data transparency, said Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

Getting wastewater off planes from China “would be a very good tactic,” Topol said, adding that it’s important that the United States upgrade its surveillance tactics “because of China being so unwilling to share its genomic data.”

China has said criticism of its COVID statistics is groundless and downplayed the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more infectious but less severe. Still, doubts over official Chinese data have prompted many places, including the United States, Italy and Japan, to impose new testing rules on Chinese visitors as Beijing lifted travel controls.

Airplane wastewater analysis is among several options the CDC is considering to help slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries, CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in an email.

The agency is grappling with a lack of transparency about COVID in China after the country of 1.4 billion people abruptly lifted strict COVID lockdowns and testing policies, unleashing the virus into an under-vaccinated and previously unexposed population.

“Previous COVID-19 wastewater surveillance has shown to be a valuable tool and airplane wastewater surveillance could potentially be an option,” she wrote.

French researchers reported in July that airplane wastewater tests showed requiring negative COVID tests before international flights does not protect countries from the spread of new variants. They found the omicron variant in wastewater from two commercial airplanes that flew from Ethiopia to France in December 2021 even though passengers had been required to take COVID tests before boarding.

California researchers reported in July that sampling of community wastewater in San Diego detected the presence of the alpha, delta, epsilon and omicron variants up to 14 days before they started showing up on nasal swabs.

Osterholm and others said mandatory testing before travel to the United States is unlikely to keep new variants out of the country.

“Border closures or border testing really makes very little difference. Maybe it slows it down by a few days,” he said, because the virus is likely to spread worldwide, and could infect people in Europe or elsewhere who may then bring it to the United States.

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Iran Replaces Central Bank Governor Amid Currency Crash

Iran appointed a new head of its central bank Thursday after the currency crashed to its lowest level ever against the dollar amid mass protests and ongoing Western sanctions.

Mohammad Reza Farzin, 57, a senior banker and former deputy finance minister, was tapped to replace Ali Salehabadi, who resigned after 15 months at the post, the official IRNA news agency reported.

The rial was trading at about 430,000 to the dollar Thursday, down from 370,000 earlier this month. Already battered by years of Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the rial was trading at 315,000 when anti-government protests erupted in mid-September.

The protests were ignited by the death of a woman who was detained by the country’s morality police. The demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for an end to more than four decades of clerical rule. Security forces have launched a heavy crackdown, using live ammunition and birdshot, as well as beating and detaining protesters, according to rights groups.

At least 508 protesters have been killed and more than 18,600 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has closely monitored the unrest. Iranian authorities have not provided an official death toll.

Iran’s currency was trading at 32,000 rials to the dollar at the time of the 2015 nuclear accord that lifted international sanctions in exchange for tight controls on Iran’s nuclear program. That deal unraveled after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from it in 2018.

The Biden administration had been trying to restore the agreement until the protests broke out, but those talks hit a deadlock several months ago.

In a separate development on Thursday, Iran summoned the Italian ambassador over Rome’s criticism of its response to the protests.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani had summoned Iran’s envoy the day before to express concern over the crackdown, which he said had nothing to do with protecting Iran’s security.

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Scientists Study Link Between Winter Storms and Global Warming

The world is getting warmer, winters included. The United States, however, has experienced severe winter storms in recent years, and experts are taking a closer look at the link between these extreme cold events and climate change.

While the link between global warming and heat waves is very direct, the behavior of winter storms is governed by complex atmospheric dynamics that are more difficult to study.

Even so, “there are certain aspects of winter storms … where the climate change linkages are fairly strong and robust,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told AFP.

For example, the warming of bodies of water — lakes or oceans — influences the amount of snowfall.

In the United States, a mechanism called “lake-effect snow” occurs around the Great Lakes region on the Canadian border. The city of Buffalo, which sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, was hit hard by a lethal snowstorm over Christmas weekend.

The collision between cold air from the north with the warmer water of these lakes causes convection, which leads to snowfall.

“The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture (is) in the air, and the greater potential for lake-effect snows,” Michael Mann wrote in a 2018 paper.

“Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century.”

Polar vortex

There is, however, no consensus on other mechanisms, such as the effect of climate change on the polar vortex and jet stream air currents.

The polar vortex is an air mass above the North Pole, located high in the stratosphere. Humans dwell in the troposphere, and the stratosphere is located just above it.

It is surrounded by a band of rotating air, which acts as a barrier between the cold air in the north and the warmer air in the south. As the polar vortex weakens, this band of air begins to undulate and take on a more oval shape, bringing more cold air southward.

According to a 2021 study, this type of disturbance is occurring more often and is reflected during the following two weeks, lower in the atmosphere, where the jet stream is located.

This air current, which blows from west to east, again following the border between cold and warm air, then meanders in such a way that it allows cold air from the north to intrude at lower latitudes, particularly over the eastern United States.

“Everybody agrees that when the polar vortex becomes perturbed or disrupted, there is an increase in the probability of severe winter weather,” Judah Cohen, lead author of the study and climatologist for Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), told AFP.

And this “stretched” polar vortex is exactly what was observed just before the storm that hit the United States this December, he pointed out.

The same phenomenon was seen in February 2021, when a bitter cold snap hit Texas, causing massive power outages.

‘Active debate’

But the heart of the debate lies elsewhere: What is causing these increased disturbances in the polar vortex?

According to Cohen, they are linked to changes in the Arctic, accelerated by climate change. On the one hand, the rapid melting of sea ice, and on the other, an increase in snow cover in Siberia.

“This is a topic that I have been studying for over 15 years, and I am more confident today in the link than I have ever been in the past,” he told AFP.

This last point, however, remains “an active debate within the scientific community,” Mann said.

“Climate models are not yet capturing all of the underlying physics that may be relevant to how climate change is impacting the behavior of the jet stream.”

Future studies will still be needed in the coming years to unravel the mystery of these complex chain reactions. 

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US Lawsuit Claims Pharma Distributor Worsened Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. Justice Department is suing one of the largest U.S. drug distributors for failing to report suspicious orders of prescription opioids, saying the company’s “years of repeated violations” contributed to the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic. 

In a civil lawsuit filed Thursday, the department alleges that AmerisourceBergen and two subsidiaries violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to report “at least hundreds of thousands” of suspicious orders for prescription painkillers to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The department is seeking potentially billions of dollars in penalties.

“For years, AmerisourceBergen prioritized profits over its legal obligations and over Americans’ well-being,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said during a press call.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, distributors of controlled drugs are required to monitor and report suspicious orders to the drug agency.

The lawsuit alleges that AmerisourceBergen failed to report “numerous orders from pharmacies that AmerisourceBergen knew were likely facilitating diversion of prescription opioids.”

The complaint cites five such pharmacies.

A Florida pharmacy and a West Virginia pharmacy received opioids from AmerisourceBergen that the company allegedly knew “were likely being sold in parking lots for cash,” according to the complaint.

In Colorado, AmerisourceBergen distributed prescription painkillers to a pharmacy it allegedly knew was its largest purchaser of oxycodone 30mg tablets in the state.

AmerisourceBergen identified 11 patients at the pharmacy as potential “drug addicts.” Two of those patients later died of overdoses, according to the lawsuit.

In New Jersey, an online pharmacy that received opioids from AmerisourceBergen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling controlled substances, while the chief pharmacist at another pharmacy has been indicted for drug diversion.

“These incidents were part of the systematic failure by AmerisourceBergen, including dramatically understaffing and underfunding its compliance programs,” Philip Sellinger, U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, said during the press call. “In one year, AmerisourceBergen spent more on taxicabs and office supplies than on the Controlled Substances Act compliance budget.”

In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said the lawsuit represented an attempt to “shift the onus of interpreting and enforcing the law from the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to an industry they are tasked with regulating and policing.”

The five pharmacies were “cherrypicked” by the DOJ out of thousands the company serves, the statement said.

AmerisourceBergen is one of three major U.S. pharmaceutical distributors. The other two are McKesson and Cardinal Health.

In February the companies, along with pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, agreed to pay $26 billion to settle thousands of civil lawsuits brought by state and local governments. Most of the money will go toward treatment and prevention.

The U.S. drug epidemic has killed more than 1 million people since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioids are the main driver of U.S. drug overdose deaths. Of an estimated 108,000 drug overdose deaths reported in the country last year, 81,000 involved opioids such as fentanyl, according to the CDC.  

 

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US Pays to Clean Up Agent Orange on Vietnam War Anniversary

The United States earlier this month announced a contract worth up to $29 million to clean up dioxin contamination at the Bien Hoa Air Base in southern Vietnam, near Ho Chi Minh City, a consequence of U.S. use of the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The move is the most recent attempt to demonstrate cooperation between the two countries despite a still complicated relationship. 

The nations now work together on trade issues, climate change, and legacies of the war, such as the dioxin spraying or the so-called Christmas bombings, 50 years ago this month, when America dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. 

“This announcement represents the United States’ commitment to our partnership with Vietnam,” Aler Grubbs, the Hanoi-based Vietnam mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. “This contract will complete critical preparatory work, paving the way for the treatment phase of the project.” 

Some differences still remain between the United States and Vietnam, ranging from human rights to Bien Hoa itself, where the two have not been able to come to an agreement on a cemetery for former soldiers of South Vietnam, with which the U.S. was allied against communist North Vietnam in the war that ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory.

USAID said it finished a similar project in 2018 to clean up Agent Orange and other chemicals that it sprayed around Da Nang in central Vietnam to defoliate the jungle used by communist forces to hide during the war. It said compared to Da Nang, Bien Hoa would require dealing with four times as much soil that has been contaminated with the chemicals, still linked to birth defects. 

Similarly, samples of tilapia fish collected in Bien Hoa in 2010 continued to show levels of Agent Orange considered to be unhealthy, according to a report from the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the United Nations Development Program.

“We look forward to applying our specialized expertise to meet the project’s high safety and health requirements and technical specifications, and contribute to the overall success of the project,” said Vu Van Liem, general director of VINA E&C Investment and Construction JSC, the local corporation that has received the contract to excavate the soil and prepare it for treatment over a period of four years.

Both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments are participating in the entire cleanup across the country, which is estimated will require more than 10 years at a cost of approximately $450 million. Washington said it expects to spend $300 million in the end and has allocated more than $163 million so far.

The two nations have come a long way since the war, though they continue to have issues of disagreement. America has applied pressure on the autocratic government of Vietnam on a routine basis to recognize the freedom of speech and to release political prisoners while Hanoi denies it has any. 

In one of the more recent developments, for example, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said December 2 that Vietnam would be put on a “Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” along with Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Comoros.

“Countries that effectively safeguard [religion] and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not,” he said.

“We will continue to carefully monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief in every country around the world and advocate for those facing religious persecution or discrimination.”

Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not accept being put on the watch list.

“Recently Vietnam has been finalizing the legal system and the policies on religion and belief,” the ministry said in response on December 15.

“These efforts and achievements in ensuring freedom of religion and beliefs have been widely recognized by the international community.”

However, while Washington was pressuring Vietnam on one problem, it was also trying to solve another. The Agent Orange remediation in Bien Hoa was about more than cleaning up a mess decades after war. It was also about looking toward the decades to come, showing closer cooperation, such as potentially on addressing environmental problems in the future.

“This marks the largest contract yet by USAID to a local Vietnamese organization,” Grubbs said, “as we make a concerted effort to build Vietnamese expertise in this nascent area of environmental health and safety.”

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COVID Controls Offer Insight Into China’s Surveillance Network

For many outside China, this was the year that the term “surveillance state” became something they understood.

Western media reported in April on what were thought to be government-operated drones whirring through a locked-down Shanghai, China’s most populous city, where authorities reported a record 22,000 new cases of COVID-19 on a single day. In an unverified viral video, one drone trumpeted, “Control your soul’s desire for freedom” as it hovered over a housing compound at night.

Citizens were expected to download a “health code” app for smartphones that dictated their activities. Designed to curtail the spread of the virus, a green QR code meant freedom to move around. A red code barred movement.

In the city of Zhengzhou, authorities in June allegedly issued red codes, usually sent to people deemed by authorities to be at high risk of infection or already infected, to people heading to town to protest a local bank that was freezing their assets.

At the end of November, when unprecedented protests against the “zero-COVID” policy erupted nationwide, Western media reported that authorities began checking the smartphones of people near the demonstrations, looking for VPN software that allowed them access to sites and social platforms like Twitter beyond China’s “Great Firewall.”

By mid-December, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation to restrict the use of the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Wildly effective for spreading dancing baby videos and political messaging both real and fake, the lawmakers had security concerns about the data Beijing might be collecting from millions of users as each video played.

According to University of Virginia professor Aynne Kokas, who wrote the book “Trafficking Data: How China is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty,” Beijing’s strict zero-COVID response to the pandemic played a big role in showing the rest of the world what surveillance in China is like, including targeting dissidents.

“China’s handling of its zero-COVID policy and the enhancement of surveillance in China in order to achieve that zero-COVID policy has amplified global popular understanding of the scope and scale of China’s surveillance tech,” she told VOA Mandarin in an interview.

Many ways to watch

Street cameras are the primary mode of surveillance, with more than half of the world’s nearly 1 billion surveillance cameras located in China.

In addition to picking people out of crowds, surveillance cameras “aim to transform ‘unstructured information’ into ‘structured information,’ turning a chaotic visual field into something akin to a text file that can be easily, automatically analyzed, and searched,” according to an October report from Human Rights Watch.

Surveillance also includes the collection of biometric data, like voice samples, DNA, iris scans and gait “to form a multimodal portrait,” according to the HRW report. Forced biometric data collection has been tied to repression in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Chinese companies have supplied AI surveillance technology to 63 countries, 36 of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the government has launched a crackdown against Uyghurs, the big data system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP, closely tracks behaviors Beijing deems suspicious — such as avoiding neighbors or stopping cell phone use — and flags the individuals for interrogation.

Maintaining control, order

But the real effect of this sweeping surveillance system is social control, according to Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at HRW.

“IJOP is promoted as an anti-terrorism system, but if you study it carefully, anti-terrorism is not its real purpose,” said Wang. “The system uses variables such as whether someone goes to the gas station or how often their phone is turned off to measure suspicious behavior. Systems like IJOP are ineffective as anti-terrorism mechanisms.”

Beyond Xinjiang, in other parts of China, the government often promotes surveillance technology as a way to maintain social order, according to Bulelani Jili, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University studying Chinese technology.

“The CCP is always framing surveillance technologies as part of its needs and ambitions for political stability,” he told VOA Mandarin in an interview. “Both the promotion and application of surveillance technology has really been about ensuring political stability.”

But when China began experiencing unprecedented protests around the country late last month from people fed up with Beijing’s strict pandemic protocols, authorities employed that technology to locate protestors who believed they’d taken steps to hide themselves from the ubiquitous monitoring.

HRW China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the backlash against the zero-COVID policy and against the security forces that kept people from protesting outside banks in Henan and Anhui show that people are increasingly questioning Beijing’s positive stance on the use of surveillance technology.

TikTok restrictions

The final month of 2022 has seen a flurry of steps taken by Taiwan and the United States to restrict the use of TikTok due to security concerns posed by the Chinese-owned social media app.

In early December, Taiwan announced that government workers would be restricted from using TikTok on government devices. Then on December 18, Taiwan’s government announced it had opened a probe into TikTok on suspicion of illegally operating a subsidiary on the island.

In the U.S., 19 of its 50 states have at least partially blocked access to TikTok on government devices, with most of those restrictions coming in the past few weeks. The U.S. Senate also passed a bill December 14 that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.

These moves are signs of growing concern over the surveillance threats that TikTok poses outside China, analysts said, and more broadly, how the Chinese government uses technology to monitor people within China’s borders.

“One could see a situation where a staffer in the House or Senate would be using TikTok for entertainment purposes, but then that app could also monitor their other communications,” UVA’s Kokas said in an interview with VOA Mandarin. “When we’re talking about government phones, or government devices, those risks become even more elevated.”

Kokas said TikTok has the capacity to pose a number of national security threats, including spreading misinformation and disinformation. Gathering consumer data from TikTok also gives China a competitive advantage to build better products for the global marketplace.

At a regular press conference in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning rebutted the allegations about TikTok, saying that accusations of “spreading false information and using it as an excuse to suppress relevant Chinese companies has become a common practice in the United States.”

Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is logical to Kokas, but she cautioned that it is not a panacea.

“This isn’t going to solve Chinese consumer data gathering in the U.S. by any means,” she said. But “a TikTok ban for general users doesn’t make a lot of sense. We need a more expansive data security regime in the U.S.”

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Fact Box: COVID Rules For Travelers From China Around the World

Countries are imposing or considering imposing curbs on travelers from China amid a COVID-19 surge there after authorities relaxed “zero-COVID” rules.

They cite a lack of information from China on variants and are concerned about a wave of infections. China has rejected criticism of its COVID data and said it expects future mutations to be potentially more transmissible but less severe.

Below is a list of new regulations for travelers from China.

Countries Imposing Curbs

United States

The U.S. will impose mandatory COVID-19 tests on travelers from China beginning Jan. 5. All air passengers 2 and older will require a negative result from a test no more than two days before departure from China, Hong Kong or Macau. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said Americans should also reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong and Macau.

India

The country has mandated a COVID-19 negative test report for travelers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand, the health minister said. Passengers from those countries will be quarantined if they show symptoms or test positive.

Japan

Japan will require a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival for travelers from mainland China. Those who test positive will be required to quarantine for seven days. New border measures for China will go into effect at midnight Friday. The government will also limit requests from airlines to increase flights to China.

Italy

Italy has ordered COVID-19 antigen swabs and virus sequencing for all travelers coming from China. Milan’s main airport, Malpensa, had already started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai. “The measure is essential to ensure surveillance and detection of possible variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population,” Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said.

Taiwan

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre said all passengers on direct flights from China, as well as by boat at two offshore islands, will have to take PCR tests upon arrival, starting Sunday.

Countries Monitoring Situation

Australia

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia was continuing to monitor the situation in respect of China “as we continue to monitor the impact of COVID here in Australia as well as around the world.”

Philippines

The Southeast Asian country is being “very cautious” and could impose measures such as testing requirements on visitors from China, but not an outright ban, Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said.

Not Considering Curbs

Britain

Britain has no plans to bring back COVID-19 testing for those coming into the country, a government spokesperson said Thursday, when asked about a Daily Telegraph report saying it would consider curbs for arrivals from China.

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NASA Mulls SpaceX Backup Plan for Crew of Russia’s Leaky Soyuz Ship

NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can potentially offer an alternative ride home for some crew members of the International Space Station after a Russian capsule sprang a coolant leak while docked to the orbital lab.

NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, are investigating the cause of a punctured coolant line on an external radiator of Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is supposed to return its crew of two cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the December 14 leak, which emptied the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate crew cabin temperatures, has derailed Russia’s space station routines, with engineers in Moscow examining whether to launch another Soyuz to retrieve the three-man team that flew to ISS aboard the crippled MS-22 craft.

If Russia cannot launch another Soyuz ship, or decides for some reason that doing so would be too risky, NASA is weighing another option.

“We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary, but that is not our prime focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It was unclear what NASA specifically asked of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can find a way to increase the crew capacity of the Dragon currently docked to the station, or launch an empty capsule for the crew’s rescue.

But the company’s potential involvement in a mission led by Russia underscores the degree of precaution NASA is taking to ensure its astronauts can safely return to Earth, should one of the other contingency plans arranged by Russia fall through.

The leaky Soyuz capsule ferried U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They were scheduled to return to Earth in March 2023.

The station’s four other crew members — two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut — arrived in October via a NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which also remains parked at the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a gumdrop-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has become the centerpiece to NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low-Earth orbit. Besides Russia’s Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of ferrying humans to the space station and back.

Three possible culprits

Finding what caused the leak could factor into decisions about the best way to return the crew members. A meteroid-caused puncture, a strike from a piece of space debris or a hardware failure on the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

A hardware malfunction could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as the one it might send for the crew’s rescue, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.

“I can assure you that’s something they’re looking at, to see what’s back there and whether there’s a concern for it,” he said. “The thing about the Russians is they’re really good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said engineers would decide by Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day it would make the decision in January.

NASA has previously said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits,” with its crew compartment currently being vented with air flow allowed through an open hatch to the ISS.

Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s chief of crewed space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the hatch to the station were closed.

NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focusing on determining the leak’s cause, Jones said, as well as the health of MS-22 which is also meant to serve as the three-man crew’s lifeboat in case an emergency on the station requires evacuation.

A recent meteor shower initially seemed to raise the odds of a micrometeoroid strike as the culprit, but the leak was facing the wrong way for that to be the case, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week, though a space rock could have come from another direction.

And if a piece of space debris is to blame, it could fuel concerns of an increasingly messy orbital environment and raise questions about whether such vital equipment as the spacecraft’s coolant line should have been protected by debris shielding, as other parts of the MS-22 spacecraft are.

“We are not shielded against everything throughout the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t shield against everything.” 

 

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Italy to Screen All China Arrivals for COVID

Italy is making coronavirus tests for visitors from China mandatory following an explosion in cases in China, the health minister said Wednesday.

“I have ordered mandatory COVID-19 antigenic swabs, and related virus sequencing, for all passengers coming from China and transiting through Italy,” minister Orazio Schillaci said.

The measure was “essential to ensure the surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”, he said.

Coronavirus infections have surged in China as it unwinds hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

The Italian northern region of Lombardy introduced screening from Tuesday, a day before the measure was brought in nationwide.

Lombardy, the first region to impose a lockdown when coronavirus hit Europe in early 2020, is testing arrivals from China at Milan’s Malpensa airport at least until January 30, the foreign ministry said.

Swabs collected at Malpensa in recent days are already being analyzed by the national health ministry, to help identify any new variants.

 

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Americans Weigh Pros and Cons as Musk Alters Twitter

Marie Rodriguez of Bountiful, Utah, began using social media when she enlisted in the U.S. Navy. At first, she saw it as a positive thing.

“It helped me to really keep in touch with people at home while I was deployed and living overseas,” she told VOA.

However, in the two months since Tesla CEO Elon Musk acquired Twitter, Rodriguez and many of its hundreds of millions of users have been forced to reevaluate their feelings about the platform and about social media in general.

“I don’t think he’s been positive at all,” Rodriguez said. “He’s allowing all of these previously banned accounts back on the platform, and I’m seeing more offensive Tweets — more anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ hate speech.”

“Some social media platforms over-patrol,” she added, “but Twitter isn’t patrolling enough. The result is more trolling, more bots and more hate. I’ve definitely been using the platform less because of it.”

Musk is a polarizing figure among Americans. In his own self-created poll on the platform, 57.5% of respondents said he should resign as Twitter chief, compared to 42.5% who said he should stay. (Musk has said he will abide by the poll’s results and resign his post as soon as a replacement is hired.)

Independent surveys, however, have shown Musk’s actions to be less unpopular than his Twitter poll indicated. A Quinnipiac University survey from earlier this month, for example, found that Americans’ opinions are more evenly split, with 37% saying they approved of the way he’s operating Twitter, 37% disapproving and 25% offering no opinion.

“I’m generally critical of billionaires,” said Avi Gupta, a neurobiologist in the nation’s capital, “but I’m so far supportive of what Musk has done for Twitter. As far as free speech is concerned, definitely, but also the platform’s just a lot more exciting to follow.”

A new Twitter

Gupta said he became disenchanted with rival social media platform Instagram when he posted a photo of Ukrainian soldiers who appeared to be wearing patches containing Nazi symbols. The post was promptly removed by administrators.

“To me, in that example, what Instagram is saying is that reporting on Nazism is no different than glorifying it,” Gupta explained. “It’s a form of censorship, but it was happening in pre-Musk Twitter, too. They were too quick to suspend accounts when they challenged mainstream thinking — whether it be about the Ukraine war, U.S. military interventions or COVID.”

“Since Musk,” he added, “I don’t have to censor myself as much, and you’re seeing previously banned accounts from politicians and scientists welcomed back. You have to balance that with stopping dangerous hate speech, of course — which I think they’re doing OK with — but overall, I think it’s been a good thing.”

According to University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication Professor Damian Radcliffe, Musk arrived at Twitter with an entrepreneurial reputation and a desire to grow the platform that appealed to many users.

Others, however, expressed concerns about what Musk’s commitment to freedom of speech and a scaling back of platform moderation might mean, as well as the implications of users now being able to purchase a verified “blue check” account.

“Those worries seem to have been justified,” Radcliffe told VOA. “I personally have seen a lot of people I follow leave the platform. They’re pointing to a less civil discourse, as well as a greater prevalence of misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories in their feed as the main reasons they’re departing.”

In the two months since he took over, Musk has reinstated several previously banned Twitter accounts — most notably that of former U.S. President Donald Trump, though Trump eschewed the platform after his reinstatement. Musk has also banned (and sometimes reinstated) the accounts of several journalists.

“It’s been wild to watch as he came in talking about free speech,” said Ron Gubitz, executive director of a New Orleans nonprofit organization. “But then, all of a sudden, he’s suspending journalists’ accounts, banning an account tracking his jet, and — albeit temporarily — saying we couldn’t post links to other social media.”

Gubitz is a self-described “Twitter head,” having been on the platform for more than 14 years. He said he’s been disappointed in how it has operated since Musk’s purchase.

“Initially it was annoying because the discourse was all about Musk,” he said to VOA. “What is Musk saying? What is he going to do? It felt middle-school gossipy.”

“But the user interface has also actually gotten worse since he took over,” Gubitz added. “The platform isn’t updating well for me, it’s not adding enough new tweets, there are ads at the top of the screen every time I refresh and the whole thing just feels less secure. I’m cool with change, but this is going in the wrong direction.”

America’s relationship with social media

“I use Twitter less and less every day and I’ve actually removed the app from my phone,” said Kimm Rogers, a musician from San Diego, California. “I used to see tweets from the people I follow, but now my feed shows me [acquitted Wisconsin shooter] Kyle Rittenhouse, Elon Musk and [Texas Republican Senator] Ted Cruz. There’s a lot more hate especially towards black people, LGBTQ and Jewish people. There’s also more porn showing up in my feed as well as lots of disinformation over vaccines and the war in Ukraine.”

“It’s just hard on my psyche to see the lack of common decency and the cruelty often inflicted on others on this site,” Rogers added, “It diminishes my view of humanity.”

Polls show opinions on the direction of Twitter are often connected to political leanings. Quinnipiac’s December poll showed that 63% of Republican respondents said they viewed Musk favorably, while only 9% of Democrats said the same.

Many left-leaning users have threatened to leave the platform entirely. According to information from the Twitter analytics firm Bot Sentinel, approximately 877,000 accounts were deactivated in the week after Musk purchased Twitter. Nearly 500,000 were temporarily suspended. In total, that’s more than double the usual number and has included prominent celebrities who cited a rise in hate speech and the banning of journalists as their reason for leaving.

More recently, some users have organized “Twitter Walk-out Days” in which they log off for a period of time in protest. Others have threatened to move to other social media platforms that better align with their values.

If those users do move on, Nicole Dahmen, professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, says it won’t be the first time users shifted away from a form of technology.

“Leaving Twitter is the latest iteration of unfriending Facebook a decade ago or killing your television in the 1980s,” Dahmen told VOA. “There are valid reasons to consume and participate with these mediums and there are even more valid reasons to leave them. They’ve ultimately trivialized American discourse, and our political, social and emotional health has suffered.”

But it’s not just Twitter that appears to be experiencing a plateauing of popularity around the world. From 2018 to 2022, average daily social media use increased by only five minutes — from 142 minutes to 147 minutes — according to Statista.com. During the previous four years, average social media use increased by a whopping 38 minutes per day.

Sense of community

“Social media can be a great thing in how it creates a sense of community and allows us to find commonalities,” said Ivory Burnett of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Burnett said she prefers Twitter over other platforms because it encourages what she sees as more authentic, “less cosmetic” interactions.

“When used for good, it’s the megaphone for an entire generation,” she told VOA. “But it also results in bullying, misunderstanding and crowd-thinking that makes it easier to spread hate and harm.”

But, like so many who, despite their frustrations with the platform, say they don’t want to start over elsewhere after dedicating so many years to building a following on Twitter, Burnett said she has no intention of leaving.

“Leave? I’ve never considered leaving,” she said and laughed. “I’ll be here until my login stops working.”

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Easing of Quarantine Sparks Surge of Interest in China Travel

Chinese and international airlines are reviewing schedules and coping with a flood of inquiries about travel to China following this week’s announcement that strict quarantine requirements for arriving travelers will be dropped early next month.

According to the Chinese state-run media the Beijing News and Cailian Press, data from the Chinese travel website “Ctrip” shows that searches for popular cross-border destinations, including Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the United States, increased tenfold within a half-hour after Monday’s announcement.

Searches related to outbound and group tours during the Spring Festival have increased sixfold.

According to Bloomberg, Hong Kong residents also rushed to the internet to search for flights to key mainland cities, with Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou being the most searched cities.

The decision to drop quarantine rules for inbound travelers comes after three years of strict international travel control as part of the country’s signature zero-COVID campaign.

The Chinese National Health Commission announced that the new measures will start on January 8.

“Those who come to China should undergo a nucleic acid test 48 hours before their departure, and those with a negative result can come to China without applying for a health code from our embassy or consulate abroad,” according to a document from the NHC. Arrivals into China with negative nucleic acid tests will be able to “enter society.”

The new order also requires all localities to “orderly resume Chinese citizens’ outbound tourism.”

In response, U.S. carrier United Airlines; European airlines company Lufthansa Group, which includes SWISS and Austrian Airlines; and Philippine Airlines announced they are looking into resuming additional flight operations to mainland China.

A staffer at Lexiang travel agency in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens in New York City, told VOA Mandarin that she has seen about a 30% increase of the number of travel inquiries to China. She provided only her family name, Wang, because she doesn’t want to attract attention from the Chinese authorities.

She said dozens of people have contacted her since the announcement to inquire about getting a Chinese visa or booking a flight to China.

A staffer at another Flushing travel agency who doesn’t want to reveal his identity because he doesn’t want to draw attention, told VOA Mandarin that more than a dozen people have reached out to the agency for information about getting a Chinese visa or COVID-related information for traveling in China since Monday’s announcement. He said there were barely any such inquiries in the past three years.

He said that most of the people who reached out to the firm are considering traveling to China to visit sick family members, rather than to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year.

He said that since the airlines haven’t started to add more flights, fares are still high and China hasn’t resumed issuing multi-entry visas, so people who want to travel still can’t just pack and go.

Reactions vary

China’s decision has been met with mixed reactions from Chinese netizens on social media.

Some celebrated the end of the quarantine rules, which clears the way for them to travel overseas.

“A long, long nightmare, I finally woke up,” one commented.

“A ridiculous era has finally come to an end,” said another commenter.

However, some commenters doubt whether easing regulations will repair the damage done in the past three years.

“There is no such thing as ‘everything goes back to the way it was.’ The lives of countless people have been completely changed, and they can only bite the bullet and live in this parallel timeline. It’s like they broke a mirror and then glued it back together, it’s not the same mirror as before,” said one comment on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Three years of Chinese government propaganda insisting on zero-COVID and highlighting the dangers of the virus have made many netizens feel uncomfortable with the sudden “opening up.” They worry that the move will worsen the current outbreak.

“A smorgasbord of strains is coming,” wrote one commenter.

Some consider virus a biological weapon

Many nationalists have bought into a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by the United States to attack China; they fear that opening China will make it easier for the U.S. to attack again.

“It’s time to come to China to poison,” said one comment.

Others seem to look forward to a move that could spread the virus from China to other countries.

“Spread the virus all over the world!! No one gets left behind!” said one comment. “Europe, America, Japan, South Korea and India! Every single one! Don’t even think about running away!”

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US House Bans TikTok on Official Devices

The popular Chinese video app TikTok has been banned from all U.S. House of Representatives-managed devices, according to the House’s administration arm, mimicking a law soon to go into effect banning the app from all U.S. government devices.

The app is considered “high risk due to a number of security issues,” the House’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) said in a message sent on Tuesday to all lawmakers and staff and must be deleted from all devices managed by the House.

The new rule follows a series of moves by U.S. state governments to ban TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd, from government devices. As of last week, 19 states have at least partially blocked the app from state-managed devices over concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to track Americans and censor content.

The $1.66 trillion omnibus spending bill, passed last week to fund the U.S. government through September 30, 2023, includes a provision to ban the app on federally managed devices and will take effect once President Joe Biden signs the legislation into law.

“With the passage of the Omnibus that banned TikTok on executive branch devices, the CAO worked with the Committee on House Administration to implement a similar policy for the House,” a spokesperson for the Chief Administrative Officer told Reuters on Tuesday.

The message to staff said anyone with TikTok on their device would be contacted about removing it, and future downloads of the app were prohibited.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new rule.

U.S. lawmakers have put forward a proposal to implement a nationwide ban on the app.

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India Inspects Drug Factories as Gambia Controversy Lingers

India’s pharmaceuticals regulator has begun inspecting some drug factories across the country, the health ministry said on Tuesday, as it tries to ensure high standards after an Indian company’s cough and cold syrups were linked to deaths in Gambia.

India is known as the “pharmacy of the world” and its pharmaceuticals exports have more than doubled over the past decade to $24.5 billion in the past fiscal year.

The deaths of at least 70 children in Gambia has dented the industry’s image, though India says the drugs made by New Delhi-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd were not at fault.

“Joint inspections are being conducted all over the country as per standard operating procedures,” the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a statement. “This will ensure high standards of quality compliance with respect to drugs manufactured in the country.”

The ministry said it was inspecting “drug manufacturing units” that were at risk of making non-standard, adulterated, or spurious drugs but did not name any company.

Some health experts say India’s drug regulations are lax, especially at the level of states where thousands of factories operate.

The government in October suspended all of Maiden’s production, based in the state of Haryana, for violation of manufacturing standards.

But India’s main drugs officer told the World Health Organization this month that tests of samples from the same batches of syrups that Maiden sent to Gambia were compliant with government specifications. Maiden too said its drugs were fine.

The WHO said labs contracted by it in Ghana and Switzerland found excess levels of ethyleneglycol and diethyleneglycol contaminants in the Maiden syrups.

A Gambian parliamentary committee said last week that Maiden was responsible for the deaths of at least 70 children from acute kidney injury and called on the government to pursue legal action.

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