Indian police find bodies on riverbank amid raging COVID-19

Hundreds of bodies found buried along Indian riverbanks

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Bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims are seen in shallow graves buried in the sand near a cremation ground on the banks of Ganges River in Prayagraj, India, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh) more >

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By RAJESH KUMAR SINGH and BISWAJEET BANERJEE

Associated Press

Sunday, May 16, 2021

PRAYAGRAJ, India (AP) – Police are reaching out to villagers in northern India to investigate the recovery of bodies buried in shallow sand graves or washing up on the Ganges River banks, prompting speculation on social media that they were the remains of COVID-19 victims.

In jeeps and boats, the police used portable loudspeakers with microphones asking people not to dispose of the bodies in rivers. “We are here to help you perform the last rites,” police said.

On Friday, rains exposed the cloth coverings of bodies buried in shallow sand graves on the riverbank in Prayagraj, a city in Uttar Pradesh state.

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Navneet Sehgal, a state government spokesman, on Sunday denied local media reports that more than 1,000 corpses of COVID-19 victims had been recovered from rivers in the past two weeks. “I bet these bodies have nothing to do with COVID-19,” he said.

He said some villagers did not cremate their dead, as is customary, due to a Hindu tradition during some periods of religious significance and disposed of them in rivers or digging graves on riverbanks.

K.P. Singh, a senior police officer, said authorities had earmarked a cremation ground for those who died of COVID-19 on the Prayagraj riverbank and the police were no longer allowing any burials on the riverfront.

Sehgal state authorities have found “a small number” of bodies on the riverbanks, he said, but didn’t give a figure.

Ramesh Kumar Singh, a member of Bondhu Mahal Samiti, a philanthropic organization that helps cremate bodies, said the number of deaths is very high in rural areas, and poor people have been disposing of the bodies in the river because of the exorbitant cost of performing the last rites and shortage of woods. The cremation cost has tripled up to 15,000 rupees ($210).

Health authorities last week retrieved 71 bodies that washed up on the Ganges River bank in neighboring Bihar state.

Authorities performed post mortems but said they could not confirm the cause of death due to decomposition.

A dozen corpses were also found last week buried in sand at two locations on the riverbank in Unnao district, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh state capital. District Magistrate Ravindra Kumar said an investigation is underway to identify the cause of deaths.

India’s two big states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with nearly 358 million people in total, are among the worst hit in the surge sweeping through the country with devastating death tolls. Hapless villagers have been rushing the sick to nearby towns and cities for treatment, many of them dying on the way, victims of India‘s crumbling health care.

After hitting record highs for weeks, the number of new cases was stabilizing, said Dr. V.K. Paul, a government health expert.

The Health Ministry on Sunday reported 311,170 confirmed cases in the past 24 hours, down from 326,098 on Saturday.

It also reported 4,077 additional deaths, taking the total fatalities to 270,284. Both figures are almost certainly a vast undercount, experts say.

Misinformation surges amid India’s COVID-19 calamity

Misinformation surges amid India’s COVID-19 calamity

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In this April 19, 2021, file photo, people wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus wait to test for COVID-19 at a hospital in Hyderabad, India. Misinformation about the coronavirus is surging in India as the death toll from … more >

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By David Klepper and Neha Mehrotra

Associated Press

Friday, May 14, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) — The man in the WhatsApp video says he has seen it work himself: A few drops of lemon juice in the nose will cure COVID-19.

“If you practice what I am about to say with faith, you will be free of corona in five seconds,” says the man, dressed in traditional religious clothing. “This one lemon will protect you from the virus like a vaccine.”

False cures. Terrifying stories of vaccine side effects. Baseless claims that Muslims spread the virus. Fueled by anguish, desperation and distrust of the government, rumors and hoaxes are spreading by word of mouth and on social media in India, compounding the country’s humanitarian crisis.

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“Widespread panic has led to a plethora of misinformation,” said Rahul Namboori, co-founder of Fact Crescendo, an independent fact-checking organization in India.

While treatments such as lemon juice may sound innocuous, such claims can have deadly consequences if they lead people to skip vaccinations or ignore other guidelines.

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” Life began to resume, and so did attendance at cricket matches, religious pilgrimages and political rallies for Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

Four months later, cases and deaths have exploded, the country’s vaccine rollout has faltered and public anger and mistrust have grown.

“All of the propaganda, misinformation and conspiracy theories that I’ve seen in the past few weeks has been very, very political,” said Sumitra Badrinathan, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies misinformation in India. “Some people are using it to criticize the government, while others are using it to support it.”

Distrust of Western vaccines and health care is also driving misinformation about sham treatments as well as claims about traditional remedies.

Satyanarayan Prasad saw the video about lemon juice and believed it. The 51-year-old resident of the state of Uttar Pradesh distrusts modern medicine and has a theory as to why his country’s health experts are urging vaccines.

“If the government approves lemon drops as a remedy, the … rupees that they have spent on vaccines will be wasted,” Prasad said.

Vijay Sankeshwar, a prominent businessman and former politician, repeated the claim about lemon juice, saying two drops in the nostrils will increase oxygen levels in the body.

While Vitamin C is essential to human health and immunity, there is no evidence that consuming lemons will fight off the coronavirus.

The claim is spreading through the Indian diaspora, too.

“They have this thing that if you drink lemon water every day that you’re not going to be affected by the virus,” said Emma Sachdev, a Clinton, New Jersey, resident whose extended family lives in India.

Sachdev said several relatives have been infected, yet continue to flout social distancing rules, thinking a visit to the temple will keep them safe.

India has also experienced the same types of misinformation about vaccines and vaccine side effects seen around the world.

Last month, the popular Tamil actor Vivek died two days after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination. The hospital where he died said Vivek had advanced heart disease, but his death has been seized on by vaccine opponents as evidence that the government is hiding side effects.

Much of the misinformation travels on WhatsApp, which has more than 400 million users in India. Unlike more open sites like Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp – which is owned by Facebook – is an encrypted platform that allows users to exchange messages privately.

The bad information online “may have come from an unsuspecting neighbor who is not trying to cause harm,” said Badrinathan, the University of Pennsylvania researcher. “New internet users may not even realize that the information is false. The whole concept of misinformation is new to them.”

Hoaxes spread online had deadly results in 2018, when at least 20 people were killed by mobs inflamed by posts about supposed gangs of child kidnappers.

WhatsApp said in a statement that it works hard to limit misleading or dangerous content by working with public health bodies like the World Health Organization and fact-checking organizations. The platform has also added safeguards restricting the spread of chain messages and directing users to accurate online information.

The service is also making it easier for users in India and other nations to use its service to find information about vaccinations.

“False claims can discourage people from getting vaccines, seeking the doctor’s help, or taking the virus seriously,” Fact Crescendo’s Namboori said. “The stakes have never been so high.”

___

Klepper reported from Providence, R.I. Associated Press writer Mallika Sen contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

US allows diplomats, embassy families to leave Nepal

US allows diplomats, embassy families to leave Nepal

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Family members watch as Nepalese army personnel in PPE suits salute to pay tribute to the COVID-19 victims before cremating their bodies near Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, Friday, May 7, 2021. Across the border from a devastating surge in … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The State Department said Friday it is allowing non-essential diplomats and the families of all American staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu to leave Nepal at government expense due a surge in coronavirus cases.

The department also advised private Americans to reconsider any plans they may have to visit the Himalayan country and asked those already there who wish to leave to submit information to the embassy. That step suggests the embassy may organize charter flights out of the country in the absence of regularly scheduled commercial flights.

“On May 7, the Department of State authorized the voluntary departure of family members of U.S. government employees and non-emergency U.S. government employees from Nepal,” the department said. “Commercial flights departing Nepal are currently not regularly available. U.S. citizens who wish to depart Nepal should register their interest with the embassy.”

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Nepal borders India, which is seeing a devastating surge in COVID-19 cases. The State Department has already implemented so-called “authorized departure” for non-essential workers and families of staff at U.S. embassies and consulates in India.

Doctors in Nepal have warned of a major crisis as daily cases hit record highs and hospitals were running out of beds and oxygen. Nepal reported 9,070 new confirmed cases Thursday, compared with 298 a month ago. The number of fatalities also reached peaks with 58 Wednesday and 54 Thursday, for a total of 3,529.

US backs waiving intellectual property rules on vaccines

US backs waiving intellectual property rules on vaccines

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President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he speaks about the American Rescue Plan, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By JAMEY KEATEN and ZEKE MILLER

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is throwing its support behind efforts to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to speed the end of the pandemic.

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position in a Wednesday statement, amid World Trade Organization talks over easing global trade rules to enable more countries to produce more of the life-saving vaccines.

“The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” Tai said in the statement.

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But she cautioned that it would take time to reach the required global “consensus” to waive the protections under WTO rules, and U.S. officials said it would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of COVID-19 shots.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said Tai. “The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.”

Tai’s announcement comes hours after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries that have been wrangling over the issue, but agree on the need for wider access to COVID-19 treatments, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.

The WTO’s General Council – made up of ambassadors – was taking up the pivotal issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support in the developing world and among some progressive lawmakers in the West.

Rockwell said a WTO panel on intellectual property was set to take up the waiver proposal again at a “tentative” meeting later this month, before a formal meeting June 8-9.

No consensus — which is required under WTO rules — was expected to emerge from the ambassadors’ two-day meeting Wednesday and Thursday. But Rockwell pointed to a change in tone after months of wrangling.

“I would say that the discussion was far more constructive, pragmatic. It was less emotive and less finger pointing than it had been in the past,” Rockwell said, citing a surge in cases in places like India. “I think that this feeling of everyone-being-in-it-together was being expressed in a way that I had not heard to this point.”

Authors of the proposal, which has faced resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical and biotech industries, have been revising it in hopes of making it more palatable.

Okonjo-Iweala, in remarks posted on the WTO website, said it was “incumbent on us to move quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to begin and undertake text-based negotiations.”

“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward,” that is “acceptable to all sides,” she said.

Co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between different diplomatic missions to make their case, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. A deadlock persists, and opposing sides remain far apart, the official said.

The argument, part of a long-running debate about intellectual property protections, centers on lifting patents, copyrights and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages. The aim is to suspend the rules for several years, just long enough to beat down the pandemic.

The issue has become more pressing with a surge in cases in India, the world’s second-most populous country and a key producer of vaccines – including one for COVID-19 that relies on technology from Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca.

Proponents, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolbox and insist there’s no better time to use them than during the once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken 3.2 million lives, infected more than 437 million people and devastated economies.

More than 100 countries have come out in support of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of Congress – all fellow Democrats of Biden – sent him a letter last month that called on him to support the waiver.

Opponents say a waiver would be no panacea. They insist that production of coronavirus vaccines is complex and simply can’t be ramped up by easing intellectual property, and say lifting protections could hurt future innovation.

Indian minister pivots to virtual G-7 meeting after COVID-19 exposure

Indian minister pivots to virtual G-7 meeting after COVID-19 exposure

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In this image made from UNTV video, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar speaks during a U.N. Security Council high-level meeting on COVID-19 recovery focusing on vaccinations, chaired by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, at UN headquarters, … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

India’s external affairs minister attended Group of 7 meetings in London virtually Wednesday after learning he might have been exposed to the coronavirus by other members of his delegation.

“Was made aware yesterday evening of exposure to possible Covid positive cases. As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well,” S. Jaishankar tweeted Wednesday.

Mr. Jaishankar self-isolated in the United Kingdom along with the rest of the Indian delegation after two members tested positive. They hadn’t shown up at the main venue yet, so in-person meetings among other countries went ahead.

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India isn’t part of the G-7 but was invited to participate in the Foreign and Development Minister’s Meeting.

Mr. Jaishanker posted a screenshot of his virtual meeting with the message: “So far, yet so near.”

The COVID-19 scare raised questions about the U.K.’s decision to hold the event in person.

It also highlighted the crisis in India, which is recording record numbers of cases and struggling to help patients. The U.S. and other nations have scrambled to provide oxygen and other supplies.

WTO chief seeks text to advance debate over COVID-19 vaccine

WTO chief seeks text to advance debate over COVID-19 vaccine

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FILE – In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, left, walks at the entrance of the WTO, following a photo-op upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take office … more >

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By JAMEY KEATEN

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

GENEVA (AP) – The World Trade Organization chief appealed to member countries on Wednesday to quickly present and negotiate over a text that could temporarily ease trade rules that protect COVID-19 vaccine technology, as a way to ramp access to doses at a time of urgent need.

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries that have been wrangling over the issue, but agree on the need for wider access to COVID-19 treatments, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.

The WTO’s General Council – made up of ambassadors – was taking up the pivotal issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools that South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support in the developing world and among some progressive lawmakers in the West.

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“What was striking about today was this very strong declaration by all members on this shared objective – which is ramping up production and distribution of these vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics in the developing world, where there is a great inequity in terms of of distribution,” Rockwell told reporters, summarizing the debate.

The United States, among other rich countries that have hesitated about or outright opposed the idea, is shaping up as a potential lynchpin – with the Biden administration seemingly on the fence about the matter.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted Wednesday that Biden had expressed support for similar waiver ideas during his campaign, but as president is running “a process … that includes all stakeholders in the administration.”

“And that process will take a series of months, and requires a unanimous point of view to move forward,” she told reporters in Washington. “We take intellectual property incredibly seriously, and we also, though, are in the midst of a historic global pandemic, which requires a range of creative solutions.”

“We’re looking at it through that prism,” Psaki added. “I expect we’ll have more, now that the WTO meetings are underway, we’ll have more to say very soon on this.”

Rockwell said most member states “would say this is the most important issue facing our organization today.”

“I’m not going to put odds on on how likely it is to find an agreement,” he said. “But when people begin to voice very clearly their shared objectives, it makes it easier to get to ‘yes.’”

The pace of efforts at the Geneva-based trade body have been outstripped by the speed of the spread of the pandemic. The World Health Organization across town said earlier Wednesday that weekly case counts have been at record highs in the last two weeks.

Rockwell said a WTO panel on intellectual property was set to take up the waiver proposal again at a “tentative” meeting later this month, before a formal meeting on June 8-9.

No consensus — which is required under WTO rules — was expected to emerge from the ambassadors’ two-day meeting on Wednesday and Thursday. But Rockwell pointed to a change in tone after months of wrangling.

“I would say that the discussion was far more constructive, pragmatic. It was less emotive and less finger pointing than it had been in the past,” Rockwell said, citing a surge in cases in places like India. “I think that this feeling of everyone-being-in-it- together was being expressed in a way that I had not heard to this point.”

Authors of the proposal, which has faced resistance from many countries with influential pharmaceutical and biotech industries, have been revising it in hopes of making it more palatable.

Okonjo-Iweala, in her remarks posted on the WTO Web site, said it was “incumbent on us to move quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to begin and undertake text-based negotiations.”

“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward,” that is “acceptable to all sides,” she said.

Co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between different diplomatic missions to make their case, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. A deadlock persists, and opposing sides remain far apart, the official said.

Some proponents saw more hope for the proposal after Biden’s top envoy on trade, Katherine Tai, said last month that gaping inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines between developed and developing countries were “completely unacceptable,” and that mistakes made in the global response to the HIV pandemic mustn’t be repeated.

The argument, part of a long-running debate about intellectual property protections, centers on lifting patents, copyrights, and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages. The aim is to suspend the rules for several years, just long enough to beat down the pandemic.

The issue has become more pressing with a surge in cases in India, the world’s second-most populous country and a key producer of vaccines – including one for COVID-19 that relies on technology from Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca.

Proponents, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolbox and insist there’s no better time to use them than during the once-in-a-century pandemic that has taken 3.2 million lives, infected more than 437 million people and devastated economies.

More than 100 countries have come out in support of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of Congress – all fellow Democrats of Biden – sent him a letter last month that called on him to support the waiver.

Opponents say a waiver would be no panacea. They insist that production of coronavirus vaccines is complex and simply can’t be ramped up by easing intellectual property, and say lifting protections could hurt future innovation.

___

Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report from New York.

___

Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at:

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

UK announces plan for ‘quantum leap’ in relations with India

UK announces plan for ‘quantum leap’ in relations with India

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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears a Welsh flag face mask during a visit to Barry Island, Wales, as part of the Welsh Conservative Party’s Senedd election campaign, Monday, May 3, 2021. (Matthew Horwood/PA via AP) more >

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By DANICA KIRKA and SYLVIA HUI

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Britain said Tuesday it’s agreed to increase cooperation with India in areas including trade, science and health as Indian authorities battle a surge in coronavirus infections that threatens to overwhelm the nation’s health care system.

Plans for a “quantum leap” in relations between the two countries were released after a video meeting between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

Prior to the meeting, Britain announced 1 billion pounds ($1.4 billion) of trade deals with India, including an investment by the Serum Institute of India that will aid in the development of vaccines against COVID-19 and other diseases.

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The two leaders agreed to deepen ties between the U.K. and India over the next decade, including plans to negotiate a free-trade agreement and double the amount of trade between the two over the next decade. A free-trade deal with India, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, would be a coup for Johnson’s government, which is trying to increase its trade with countries outside the European Union following the U.K.’s departure from the bloc.

Historic links between the U.K. and India have been highlighted in recent days as the British government and its citizens rushed to help a country struggling with shortages of oxygen, medicines and hospital beds amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.

In the U.K., home to about 1.6 million people of Indian descent, many have been horrified by images of mass cremations and doctors struggling to keep up with rising numbers of critically ill patients.

“In the last week, the British people have stepped up in their thousands to support our Indian friends during this terrible time in a demonstration of the deep connection between the UK and India,″ Johnson said after the meeting. “This connection will only grow over the next decade as we do more together to tackle the world’s biggest problems and make life better for our people.″

Also Tuesday, British authorities announced a deal with India to resolve longstanding migration issues. The agreement will make it easier for Britain to return Indian citizens who have no legal right to live in the U.K. The deal also opens up new pathways for young professionals to live and work in the two countries for up to two years.

The trade package includes a 240 million-pound ($332 million) investment in the U.K. by the Serum Institute, the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, that will support clinical trials, research and possibly vaccine production, the British government said. The Serum Institute, in collaboration with Codagenix, has started early-stage trials of a one-dose nasal vaccine against COVID-19.

Trade between the U.K. and India totals about 23 billion pounds ($31.9 billion) annually, less than 5% of Britain’s trade with the EU.

Britain added India to its “red list” of countries with high coronavirus outbreaks on April 23, banning arrivals for anyone from India except for U.K. citizens and residents. The move added to a sense of isolation and helplessness for many in Britain who feel cut off from their loved ones in India.

EU: Time to open up to COVID-19 vaccinated tourists

EU: Time to open up to COVID-19 vaccinated tourists

Oktoberfest canceled again, despite move to open up

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In this March 30, 2021, file photo, German federal police officers check passengers arriving from Palma de Mallorca for a negative coronavirus test as they arrive at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. The European Commission proposed Thursday, April 29, 2021, … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Monday, May 3, 2021

The European Commission proposed Monday to open member countries to vaccinated tourists from the U.S. and other places by early summer while including an “emergency brake” in case the COVID-19 picture suddenly worsens from aggressive variants.

Many European nations rely on tourists from the U.S. and other places to support their economies, and the 27-nation coalition had been working on ways to improve movement within the bloc. Monday’s announcement was a way to demonstrate the EU’s splendor will be open to countries elsewhere as vaccines reach arms.

“This reflects the latest scientific advice showing that vaccination considerably helps to break the transmission chain,” the commission said.

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A person would be considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving the last recommended dose of a vaccine that’s received market-authorization in the EU. Children of vaccinated persons would be admitted with a negative test.

The plan, which will be debated this week, also envisions making it easier for unvaccinated persons to visit by raising the threshold for what’s considered unacceptable transmission in their home countries. For instance, Chinese tourists might not be immunized with an EU-approved vaccine, but they could still enter if their country keeps a lid on transmission.

Individual EU members can still require a negative test from travelers, though Monday’s proposals were designed to reinstitute nonessential trips instead of banning tourists and other travelers outright.

“Time to revive Flag of European Union tourism industry & for cross-border friendships to rekindle — safely,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. “We propose to welcome again vaccinated visitors & those from countries with a good health situation.”

Like other places, the EU issued lockdowns, canceled big events and limited travel throughout the yearlong pandemic.

Even as the commission looked at ways to open up on Monday, the state of Bavaria said it had to cancel Oktobertfest, known locally as “Wiesn,” for a second year instead of welcoming revelers from Sept. 18 to Oct. 3 as planned.

“The risk is simply too great that people could be infected with the coronavirus here,” Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter said. “I know how hard this is not only for the visitors, but also how much it affects all those who work at the Wiesn and now have to do without income once again — from the waiters and waitresses to the stall operators, showmen and innkeepers. But the Wiesn can only exist completely or not at all.”

The festival involves crowds of beer drinkers gathered around tables in a party atmosphere. Yet more broadly, the EU signaled Monday it wants to get tourists back onto its street and picturesque beaches.

Parts of Southern Europe are particularly dependent on travelers to keep their struggling economies afloat.

Europe is working on a vaccine passport, or Digital Green Certificate, to facilitate the proposal.

“Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, Member States should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data,” the commission said.

The commission said it is worried about dangerous mutation in the virus, so they proposed a fallback plan to tighten things again as necessary.

“The emergence of coronavirus variants of concern calls for continued vigilance,” it said. “Therefore as counter-balance, the commission proposes a new ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, to be coordinated at EU level and which would limit the risk of such variants entering the EU.”

The threat of variants from elsewhere is the main threat to countries seeing progress due to vaccination. That’s why the U.S. and other places banned travel from India as it sees an unprecedented surge that may be fueled by variants.

Australia recently took things to an extreme, saying as of Monday even its citizens could not enter from India. The decision outraged Indian-Australians and others who said it was without precedent.

Russia turns to China to make Sputnik shots to meet demand

Russia turns to China to make Sputnik shots to meet demand

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In this Dec. 10, 2020, file photo, a Russian medical worker prepares a shot of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Moscow. Russia is turning to multiple Chinese firms to manufacture the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in an effort to … more >

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By Huizhong Wu and Daria Litvinova

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Russia is turning to multiple Chinese firms to manufacture the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in an effort to speed up production as demand soars for its shot.

Russia has announced three deals totaling 260 million doses with Chinese vaccine companies in recent weeks. It’s a decision that could mean quicker access to a shot for countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa that have ordered Russia‘s vaccine, as the U.S. and the European Union focus mainly on domestic vaccination needs.

Earlier criticism about Russia‘s vaccine have been largely quieted by data published in the British medical journal The Lancet that said large-scale testing showed it to be safe, with an efficacy rate of 91%.

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Yet, experts have questioned whether Russia can fulfill its pledge to countries across the world. While pledging hundreds of millions of doses, it has only delivered a fraction.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said demand for Sputnik V significantly exceeds Russia’s domestic production capacity.

To boost production, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which bankrolled Sputnik V, has signed agreements with multiple drug makers in other countries, such as India, South Korea, Brazil, Serbia, Turkey, Italy and others. There are few indications, however, that manufacturers abroad, except for those in Belarus and Kazakhstan, have made any large amounts of the vaccine so far.

Airfinity, a London-based science analytics company, estimates Russia agreed to supply some 630 million doses of Sputnik V to over 100 countries, with only 11.5 million doses exported so far.

RDIF declined to disclose how many doses are going to other countries. Through April 27, less than 27 million two-dose sets of Sputnik V have been reportedly produced in Russia.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which has been in charge of international cooperation for Sputnik V, said in April it would produce 100 million doses in collaboration with Hualan Biological Bacterin Inc., in addition to an earlier deal announced in March for 60 million doses with Shenzhen Yuanxin Gene tech Co.

The two deals are in addition to a deal announced last November with Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding Co, which had paid $9 million to manufacture and sell the Sputnik V vaccine in China. RDIF said in April the terms of the deal were for 100 million doses with a subsidiary company belonging to Tibet Rhodiola.

Russia is “very ambitious and unlikely to meet their full targets,” said Rasmus Bech Hansen, founder and CEO of Airfinity. Working with China to produce Sputnik V could be a win-win situation for both Russia and China, he added.

In recent years, Chinese vaccine companies have turned from largely making products for use domestically to supplying the global market, with individual firms gaining WHO preapproval for specific vaccines – seen as a seal of quality. With the pandemic, Chinese vaccine companies have exported hundreds of millions of doses abroad.

Chinese vaccine makers have been quick to expand capacity and say they can meet China’s domestic need by the end of the year.

“This is an acknowledgment of the Chinese vaccine manufacturers who can produce at volume,” said Helen Chen, head of pharmaceuticals LEK Consulting, strategy consultancy firm in Shanghai, in an email.

However, none of the three Chinese companies have yet to start manufacturing Sputnik V.

Tibet Rhodiola started constructing a factory in Shanghai at the end of last year and expects production to start in September, the company said at an annual meeting for investors last month. Tibet Rhodiola’s chairman Chen Dalin also said that after the successful technology transfer, they will start with an order of 80 million doses to sell back to Russia. An employee at the company declined to transfer a phone call request to the company’s media department for comment.

The timeline for the newest deals are also unclear. Hualan Bio was among the 10 largest vaccines manufacturers in China in 2019. Phone calls to Hualan Bio went unanswered.

A spokeswoman for Shenzhen Yuanxing declined to say when the company will start production but said their order would not be for sale within China. RDIF had said the production will start this month.

In spite of the delays, Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has made gains.

From the outset, Russia, the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, aimed to distribute it globally. Within weeks of giving Sputnik V regulatory approval, RDIF started actively marketing it abroad, announcing multiple deals to supply the shot to other countries. It is so far winning the “public relations” battle, analysts said in a new report examining Russia and China’s vaccine diplomacy from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Russia has been able to build stronger diplomatic ties and in areas where it hasn’t been able to,” before, said Imogen Page-Jarrett, an analyst at EIU. “They have this window of opportunity while the US, E.U. and India are focusing on domestic and the rest of the world is crying out for a vaccine supply.”

U.S. sending aid to India amid COVID-19 crisis

U.S. sending aid to India amid COVID-19 crisis

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A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen inside a car provided by a Gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 24, 2021. Indias medical oxygen shortage has become so dire that this gurdwara began offering free breathing … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The U.S. is sending protective gear, therapeutic drugs and raw materials for vaccines to India as it battles a catastrophic wave of COVID-19 cases that is taxing its health system, depleting oxygen supplies and forcing cremation centers to operate around the clock.

“Just as India sent assistance to the United States as our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said.

President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, made the commitment Sunday in a phone call with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval.

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The U.S. will send ingredients that will accelerate the production of Covishield, a version of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot that is being produced by India’s vaccine-producing Serum Institute.

It also is sending supplies of therapeutics, rapid-test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India, which is consistently recording more than 300,000 cases per day, exceeding the height of the U.S. spike over the winter holiday period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send a team of experts to work with the U.S. Embassy and Indian health ministries.

India has a relatively young population and seemed to be spared the worst of COVID-19’s horrors when it first swept the globe, but now it is battling aggressive variants and considered the global epicenter of the pandemic.

A shortage of oxygen is exacerbating the crisis, with more than 20 COVID-19 patients suffocating to death after an oxygen leak at a hospital in Maharashtra state.

Ms. Horne said the White House is “pursuing options to provide oxygen generation and related supplies on an urgent basis.”

Virus ‘swallowing’ people in India; crematoriums overwhelmed

Virus ‘swallowing’ people in India; crematoriums overwhelmed

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Multiple funeral pyres of victims of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for mass cremation in New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 24, 2021. Indian authorities are scrambling to get medical oxygen to hospitals where … more >

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By Sheikh Saaliq and Aijaz Hussain

Associated Press

Sunday, April 25, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) – With life-saving oxygen in short supply, family members in India are left on their own to ferry coronavirus patients from hospital to hospital in search of treatment as the country is engulfed in a devastating new surge of infections. Too often their efforts end in mourning.

The stories are told on social media and in television footage, showing desperate relatives pleading for oxygen outside hospitals or weeping in the street for loved ones who died waiting for treatment.

One woman mourned the death of her younger brother, aged 50. He was turned away by two hospitals and died waiting to be seen at a third, gasping after his oxygen tank ran out and no replacements were to be had.

SEE ALSO: China deploys unlikely weapon to muscle out U.S. on global stage: COVID-19 vaccine

She blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for the crisis.

“He has lit funeral pyres in every house,’’ she cried in a video shot by India’s weekly magazine The Caravan.

For the fourth straight day, India on Sunday set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by an insidious new variant that emerged here. The surge has undermined the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.

The 349,691 confirmed infections over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.

Experts say this toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many COVID-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.

The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India‘s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.

In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet officials say there are still hours-long waits.

At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8 million put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.

“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site.

The unprecedented rush of bodies has forced the crematorium to skip individual ceremonies and exhaustive rituals that Hindus believe release the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

“We are just burning bodies as they arrive,” said Sharma. “It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”

The head gravedigger at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people have been buried during the pandemic, said more bodies are arriving now than last year. “I fear we will run out of space very soon,” said Mohammad Shameem.

The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that’s being sold on the black market at an exponential markup.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen,” in a statement made Saturday by India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister only in January had declared victory over COVID-19, and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy,” a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

Caught off-guard by the latest deadly spike, the federal government has asked industrialists to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs in short supply. But health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable – and it didn’t.

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the government should have used the last year, when the virus was more under control, to stockpile medicines and develop systems to confront the likelihood of a new surge.

“Most importantly, they should have looked at what was going on in other parts of the world and understood that it was a matter of time before they would be in a similar situation,’’ Kuppalli said.

Instead, the government’s premature declarations of victory over the pandemic created a “false narrative,” which encouraged people to relax health measures when they should have continued strict adherence to physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.

Modi is facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies that experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections. At one such rally on April 17, Modi expressed his delight at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly surge was inevitable with India already counting 250,000 new daily cases.

Now, with the death toll mounting, his Hindu nationalist government is trying to quell critical voices.

On Saturday, Twitter complied with the government’s request and prevented people in India from viewing more than 50 tweets that appeared to criticize the administration’s handling of the pandemic. The targeted posts include tweets from opposition ministers critical of Modi, journalists and ordinary Indians.

A Twitter spokesperson said it had powers to “withhold access to the content in India only” if the company determined the content to be “illegal in a particular jurisdiction.” The company said it had responded to an order by the government and notified people whose tweets were withheld.

India’s Information Technology Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Even with the targeted blocks, horrific scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and cremation grounds spread on Twitter and drew appeals for help.

The U.S. is actively looking at ways to boost aid to India, including sending oxygen supplies, virus tests, drug treatments and personal protective equipment.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, told ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. would review how to increase India’s vaccine supply, such as by sending doses or helping India “to essentially make vaccines themselves.”

Help and support were also offered from archrival Pakistan, with politicians, journalists and citizens in the neighboring country expressing solidarity. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, PPE and related items.

“Humanitarian issues require responses beyond political consideration,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said.

The Indian government did not immediately respond to Qureshi’s statement.

____

Hussain reported from Srinagar, India.

Canada reaches deal with Pfizer for vaccines in future years

Canada reaches deal with Pfizer for vaccines in future years

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives the thumbs up after receiving his COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Ottawa on Friday April 23, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP) more >

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By ROB GILLIES

Associated Press

Friday, April 23, 2021

TORONTO (AP) – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday Canada has reached an agreement with Pfizer for 35 million booster shots next year and 30 million in 2023 in case the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines fades with time and need to be reinforced.

He said the country of 38 million also has options for tens of millions more in future years should they be needed. He said the government is talking with other vaccine manufacturers about their plans for booster shots, too.

The vaccines are so new that experts don’t yet have firm data on how long their protection will last, or if they will be affected by emerging variants of the virus.

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So far, Pfizer’s ongoing trial indicates the company’s two-dose vaccine remains highly effective for at least six months, and likely longer. People who got Moderna’s vaccine also still had notable levels of virus-fighting antibodies six months after the second required shot.

“Canadians expect us to be ready for whatever happens. There is certainly a hope that booster shots might not be necessary, but we are much better to ensure that we are prepared in case they are,” Trudeau said at news conference in Ottawa.

Trudeau made the announcement shortly before he and his wife Sophie were scheduled to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine that some people have been reluctant to get because of reports of rare blood clots.

The province of Ontario recently dropped eligibility for AstraZeneca for people 40 and above.

The prime minister says 30% of eligible adults in Canada have received at least one vaccine. All eligible Canadians are expected to be able to get at least one dose by the end of June.

Vaccinations have ramped up in Canada, but health experts say more-contagious variants and mistakes by the most populous province, Ontario, have contributed to a third wave of infections there. Ontario reported more than 4,500 new cases on Friday.

Canada banned all flights from India and Pakistan on Thursday after saying that half the people who testing positive for the new coronavirus after arriving in Canada by airplane came from that region. India set a global record in daily infections for a second straight day with 332,730.

The Pacific Coast province of British Columbia, meanwhile, restricted nonessential travel between three regional health districts to try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, who is also the minister of public safety, said the order forbids recreational travel between the districts, but allows trips for essential reasons such as school, work, health care or commercial transportation.

The Latest: Mayors ask Biden for consult on climate migrants

The Latest: Mayors ask Biden for consult on climate migrants

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Participants release a mask from an earth-shaped balloon as they perform a skit against climate change during the Earth Day ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) more >

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By

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Latest on President Joe Biden‘s global climate summit (all times local):

2:30 p.m.

The mayors of a dozen major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York City and San Diego, are asking President Joe Biden to consult them as the administration studies how to identify and resettle people displaced by drought, rising seas and other effects of climate change.

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The request was made in a letter sent to Biden on Thursday, the same day his administration convened a summit of world leaders to discuss taking action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

No nation offers protection to people specifically displaced because of climate change. Biden issued an executive order Feb. 4 ordering national security adviser Jake Sullivan to consult federal agencies on how to do that and issue a report in August.

The mayors say they should be consulted as well since cities are on the frontlines of receiving most of the migrants, refugees and others displaced by storms, drought and other effects of global warming. The mayors of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, Miami and Houston also signed the letter.

According to a World Meteorological Organization report released Monday, climate change has produced an average of 23 million refugees a year since 2010. Nearly 10 million were recorded in the first six months of last year. Most moved within their own country.

___

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GLOBAL CLIMATE SUMMIT:

Saying the United States and other big economies “have to get this done,” President Joe Biden opened a global climate summit aimed at getting world leaders to dig deeper on emissions cuts.

Read more:

Biden summit draws climate vows from sparring global leaders

– EXPLAINER: How come nations’ climate targets don’t compare?

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___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON:

1:20 p.m.

Pope Francis is urging participants in the U.S.-hosted global climate summit to ensure that the post-pandemic world is cleaner, purer and preserved.

Francis delivered a short video message Thursday to the summit, praising the initiative. He said: “I wish you success in this beautiful decision to meet, walk together going forward, and I am with you all the way.”

Francis has made his environmental appeal a hallmark of his papacy, denouncing how wealthy countries have plundered God’s creation for profit at the expense of poor and indigenous people.

In his message, Francis said the coronavirus pandemic has provided world leaders with an opportunity to come out better than before. He said: “And our concern is to see that the environment is cleaner, more pure and preserved.”

___

11:55 a.m.

International climate activist Greta Thunberg has urged Congress to end fossil fuel subsidies at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the issue.

The hearing took place Thursday, the day the Biden administration convened a summit of world leaders to discuss taking action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Thunberg was one of several activists and policy experts who testified at the hearing, convened by Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who chairs the environment subcommittee.

Thunberg says, “The fact that we are still having this discussion and even more that we are still subsidizing fossil fuels directly or indirectly using taxpayer money is a disgrace.”

Hours before Thunberg testified, NowThis released a video featuring Thunberg criticizing the targets for emissions reduction world leaders are discussing at the Leaders’ Climate Summit.

Thunberg says in the video leaders present “very insufficient targets.”

___

11:45 a.m.

After livestreamed remarks by dozens of world leaders at the U.S.-hosted global climate summit, the conversation has turned to money.

President Joe Biden says, “Good ideas and good intentions aren’t good enough.” He says, “We need to ensure that the financing will be there.”

Biden says combatting climate change will require mobilizing finance on an unprecedented scale. He says the U.S. on Thursday would announce an international climate finance plan, involving not only governments but also the private sector. He calls on Wall Street to join the climate fight.

Biden says investing in green businesses isn’t a drain on the economy but an opportunity. He says climate change “is more than a threat” and presents the largest opportunities for job creation in the future.

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness says the amount of money pledged by developed countries to help developing countries leapfrog to cleaner technologies needs to be increased.

___

11:35 a.m.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has shifted his tone on preservation of the Amazon rainforest at the U.S.-led climate summit, exhibiting willingness to step up commitment even as many critics continue doubting his credibility.

Bolsonaro said Thursday he agrees with U.S. President Joe Biden’s “call for the establishment of ambitious commitments.” Brazil’s leader says he is “determined that our climate neutrality will be reached by 2050.”

Bolsonaro also said he would double the amount of money for environmental authorities’ oversight. It’s unclear how that reconciles with immediate spending, as the 2021 budget outlook for the environment ministry is the lowest for any year this century.

The speech shows Bolsonaro’s administration realizes it needs to at least start talking the talk in the face of international and domestic pressure.

Dan Wilkinson runs Human Rights Watch’s environmental program and says this is “a different tone from the Bolsonaro who was in complete denial two years ago.” Wilkinson says it’s “going to be hard for anyone to take it seriously.”

Bolsonaro says Brazil requires outside funds to curb deforestation of the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Last week a group of 15 U.S. senators penned a letter to Biden complaining of Bolsonaro’s woeful environmental track record and urging the U.S. to condition any support for Amazon preservation on significant progress reducing deforestation.

___

11:20 a.m.

Youth activist Xiye Bastida has told world leaders the climate crisis is the result of powerful people like them who are “perpetuating and upholding the harmful systems of colonialism, oppression, capitalism and market-oriented brainwashed solutions″ to global problems.

In a hard-hitting speech Thursday at the virtual climate summit, the Mexican teenager said solutions to global warming “must be aligned with the fact that climate justice is social justice.″

She says current economic and political systems “rely on the existence of sacrifice zones” that “target the global South and Black and brown communities to the global North.”

She says instead of just talking about climate change, world leaders “need to accept that the era of fossil fuels is over.” She demands an immediate transition to renewable energy worldwide and an end to fossil fuel subsidies and infrastructure, including new pipelines.

The 19-year-old Bastida is a leader of Fridays for Future, an international youth movement that includes Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg spoke to the U.S. Congress at a separate event.

___

10 a.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for international cooperation to tackle climate change at a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden.

In his speech, Putin urged “broad and effective international cooperation in the calculation and monitoring of volumes of all types of harmful emissions into the atmosphere.”

Putin said Thursday, “Russia is genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation so as to look further for effective solutions to climate change as well as to all other vital challenges.”

Putin says Moscow is ready to offer a number of joint projects and consider preferences for foreign companies willing to invest in clean technologies, including those in Russia.

The Russian leader says he has tasked the government to “significantly cut the accumulated volume of net emissions” by 2050 in Russia, refraining from naming a concrete goal.

___

9:50 a.m.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has welcomed the United States’ new commitment to halve emissions as a “game-changing” announcement. Johnson will be hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year.

As host of COP-26, Johnson said Thursday at President Joe Biden’s climate summit he wanted to see “similar ambitions” around the world.

Johnson says, “I think we can do it. To do it we need scientists in all of our countries to work together to produce the technological solutions that humanity is going to need.”

He says the developed world will have to find more resources to support developing countries’ move to a greener future. He says, “It’s going to mean the richest nations coming together and exceeding the $100 billion commitment they already made in 2009.”

Johnson stresses the economic dividend that could emerge from efforts to tackle climate change.

___

9:30 a.m.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in says his country will no longer finance the construction of coal power plants in other nations as he promises stronger contributions to international efforts to curb global warming.

In a virtual climate summit convened by President Joe Biden on Thursday, Moon said his country will provide a more ambitious target for reducing carbon emissions by the end of the year. South Korea in December had announced a 2030 target to cut its carbon emissions by 24.4% from the country’s 2017 level.

South Korea has faced international criticism for its continued investment in coal plants in other countries even as it pushes to phase out coal power at home.

Moon’s office says his pledge doesn’t affect South Korea’s participation in ongoing projects to build two new coal plants in Indonesia and another one in Vietnam.

___

9:20 a.m.

World leaders including China’s President Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel are addressing a virtual global summit on climate change hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Speaking from their home countries, the world leaders pledge action to lower carbon emissions, although they differ on details.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga emphasized the global nature of the event, saying, “Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, everyone.” He was speaking at nearly 10 p.m. in Japan and in the morning on the U.S. East Coast.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the effort “is not bunny hugging” but is about growth and jobs – and the survival of the planet.

Merkel calls the battle against climate change “a huge task.”

Putin’s remarks came after French President Emmanuel Macron began but had technical difficulties. Putin boasted that his country has significantly reduced its carbon emissions and will met an ambitious goal for 2050. Then Macron spoke again.

___

9:10 a.m.

India’s prime minister says he and U.S. President Joe Biden are launching an Indo-U.S. climate and clean energy agenda for 2030 partnership that will mobilize investments, demonstrate clean technology and enable green collaboration.

Narendra Modi told world leaders at a virtual summit called by Biden on Thursday that India is doing its part and its renewable energy target of 450 gigawatts by 2030 shows its commitment to clean energy. India also has taken several bold steps in promoting clean energy, energy efficiency, afforestation and biodiversity.

Modi says India has taken the lead in multilateral initiatives, such as the International Solar Alliance and the coalition of disaster resilient infrastructure.

Modi says India’s per capita carbon footprint was 60% lower than the global average because of its lifestyle, which is still rooted in sustainable traditional practices.

___

8:45 a.m.

China’s President Xi Jinping reiterates his country’s pledge to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

Xi spoke at the global climate summit hosted by the United States on Thursday. He says, “We must be committed to green development. To improve the environment is to boost productivity.”

Xi says developed countries, responsible for greater historical carbon emissions, should bear more responsibility for making changes at home and helping developing countries finance their transition to low-carbon economies.

He says, “We must be committed to the principle to common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Xi emphasizes that China is aiming to move from peak carbon to net zero in a short time period –- just 30 years, or the span of one generation.

___

8:35 a.m.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says the world is “at the verge of the abyss” because of climate change and must take aggressive steps to avoid catastrophe.

Speaking at a global virtual summit on climate change Thursday, Guterres called for world leaders to build a global coalition for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – “every country, every region, every city, every company and every industry.″

Guterres says the next decade must be one of transformation, with major polluters such as the United States and other advanced countries submitting detailed, ambitious plans to slow climate change.

Guterres says countries around the world must put a price on carbon, end subsidies for fossil fuels, ramp up investments in renewable energy and green infrastructure and stop the financing of coal and the building of new coal power plants.

He calls for advanced countries to phase out coal by 2030, with other countries phasing it out by 2040.

___

8:30 a.m.

The U.S. climate summit has started with an audio glitch, audio glitch.

For the first few minutes, during nearly all of Vice President Kamala Harris’ introduction of President Joe Biden, praising his history of climate advocacy, every word echoed. Echoed.

Then when Biden came on, the video and the audio were out of sync, while he urged the world “to move now” on what he called “the climate crisis.”

Biden said Thursday, “The cost of inaction keeps mounting. The United States isn’t waiting.”

Harris ticked off recent climate disasters including hurricanes hitting Central America during a year of record Atlantic storms.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls the problem “an existential threat” and says the world is “on red alert.”

Biden says this is the “decisive decade.” He says, “This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”

Biden says the richest economies “have to step up.”

___

8 a.m.

The Biden administration has opened a global climate summit including 40 world leaders.

President Joe Biden is pledging to cut at least in half the climate-wrecking coal and petroleum fumes that the U.S. pumps out. That’s a commitment Biden hopes will spur China and other big polluters to speed up efforts of their own.

Former Vice President Al Gore praised the pledge on Thursday, saying, “Today President Biden showed that his administration is up to the task of tackling climate change.”

Japan also announced a new target, pledging to cut its emissions 46% below 2013 levels by 2030.

The two-day summit will include China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the pope and will be livestreamed.

Low on beds, oxygen, India adds global high 314K coronavirus cases

Low on beds, oxygen, India adds global high 314K coronavirus cases

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Workers unload empty oxygen cylinders returning from hospitals at a gas supplier facility in Bengaluru, India, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. India has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases daily, bringing pain, fear and agony to many … more >

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By Ashok Sharma

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) — India reported a global record of more than 314,000 new infections Thursday as a grim coronavirus surge in the world’s second-most populous country sends more and more sick people into a fragile health care system critically short of hospital beds and oxygen.

The 314,835 infections added in the past 24 hours raise India‘s total past 15.9 million cases since the pandemic began. It’s the second-highest total in the world next to the United States. India has nearly 1.4 billion people.

Fatalities rose by 2,104 in the past 24 hours, raising India‘s overall death toll to 184,657, the Health Ministry said.

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A large number of hospitals are reporting acute shortages of beds and medicine and are running on dangerously low levels of oxygen.

The New Delhi High Court on Wednesday ordered the government to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to save people’s lives. “You can’t have people die because there is no oxygen. Beg, borrow or steal, it is a national emergency,” the judges said, responding to a petition by a New Delhi hospital seeking the court’s intervention.

The government is rushing oxygen tankers to replenish supplies to hospitals.

Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Thursday that “demand and supply is being monitored round the clock.” He said in a tweet that to address the exponential spike in demand, the government has increased the quota of oxygen for the seven worst-hit states.

Lockdowns and strict curbs have brought pain, fear and agony to many people in New Delhi and other cities.

In scenes familiar across the country, ambulances are rush from one hospital to another, trying to find an empty bed. Grieving relatives line up outside crematoriums where the number of dead bodies has jumped several times.

“I get numerous calls every day from patients desperate for a bed. The demand is far too much than the supply,” said Dr. Sanjay Gururaj, a doctor at Bengaluru-based Shanti Hospital and Research Center.

“I try to find beds for patients every day, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to help them. In the last week, three patients of mine have died at home because they were unable to get beds. As a doctor, it’s an awful feeling,” Gururaj said.

Yogesh Dixit, a resident of northern Uttar Pradesh state, said earlier this week that he had to buy two oxygen cylinders at 12,000 rupees ($160) each, more than twice the normal cost, for his ailing father because the state-run hospital in Lucknow had run out of supplies.

He bought two “because the doctors can ask for another oxygen cylinder at any time,” he said, adding that he had to sell his wife’s jewelry to meet the cost.

The main cremation ground at Lucknow, the state capital, received nearly 200 bodies on Sunday. “The bodies were everywhere, they were being cremated on sidewalks meant for walking. I have never such a flow of dead bodies in my life,” said Shekhar Chakraborty, 68.

In Kanpur, also in Uttar Pradesh, 35 temporary platforms have been set up on Bithoor-Sidhnath Ghat along the Ganges River to cremate bodies.

The Health Ministry said that of the country’s total production of 7,500 metric tons (8,300 U.S. tons) of oxygen per day, 6,600 metric tons (7,275 U.S. tons) was being allocated for medical use.

It also said that 75 railroad coaches in the Indian capital have been turned into hospitals providing an additional 1,200 beds for COVID-19 patients.

The Times of India newspaper said that the previous highest daily case count of 307,581 was reported in the U.S. on Jan. 8.

—-

Associated Press writers Krutika Pathi in Bengaluru, India, and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.

Relics seized from smugglers are returning to Afghanistan

Relics seized from smugglers are returning to Afghanistan

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Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani, accompanied by embassy staff, speaks as she gives the Associated Press a tour at the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, of looted and stolen Afghan religious relics and antiquities recovered … more >

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By BEN FOX

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – Precious relics of Afghanistan’s ancient past are returning home as the nation confronts deepening uncertainty about its future.

A collection of 33 artifacts seized from a New York-based art dealer who authorities say was one of the world’s most prolific smugglers of antiquities was turned over by the U.S. to the government of Afghanistan this week.

“The significance of the material is huge,” Roya Rahmani, the country’s ambassador to the U.S., said Wednesday. “Each one of these pieces are priceless depictions of our history.”

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Rahmani formally took control of the collection in a ceremony Monday in New York with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations, which recovered the artifacts as part of a larger investigation into the trafficking of antiquities from a number of countries.

Now, after briefly being displayed at the embassy in Washington, the masks, sculptures and other items, some from the second and third centuries, are en route to Kabul, where they are expected to go on display at the National Museum.

It’s the same museum where members of the Taliban destroyed artifacts in 2001 as part of a cultural rampage rooted in a fundamentalist version of Islam in which depictions of the human form are considered offensive.

The Taliban is now out of power. But it controls much of the country outside of Kabul amid stalled talks with the government and the looming withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after two decades of war. Rahmani concedes it’s a delicate time.

“However, what I know is that our security forces are determined to defend our people,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The government is committed to do its part for peace and stability in a way that would bring durable peace.”

They may get a chance earlier than expected. Germany’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday that discussions are underway among military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4.

President Joe Biden has already said the U.S. would remove all its troops by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the American invasion to dislodge the Taliban in 2001 for allowing al-Qaida to operate from Afghanistan.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Taliban had already become internationally notorious for enforcing a harsh form of Islamic law that kept women out of public view and for destroying – with rockets, shells and dynamite – the famed giant, sixth century sandstone Buddha statues built into a cliff in Bamiyan province.

The destruction of the statues was on the ambassador’s mind as she prepared to ship the artifacts to her homeland, not only because a mural of the sandstone Buddhas adorns the room at the embassy where visitors gathered this week to see the relics.

Rahmani, her country’s first female ambassador to the United States, recalls that she wept when she first learned what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas. It was an important moment, she says, because she had pledged never to let anyone see her cry as a way to defy the male-dominated culture of her homeland.

“I broke my vow,” she said. “I really cried hard. I wept and wept.”

In contrast, the items are “returning to a government and people who cherish their past” and will make sure they are preserved for future generations, Rahmani said. She doesn’t expect the Taliban, if they return to power, would dare to destroy them.

“Our security forces and our government would not let that happen,” she said. “We are determined not to let that happen.”

Like the statues, some of the recovered antiquities depict Buddha. There’s also a marble statue of Shiva and a Greek mask. The artifacts reflect the multicultural influences on Afghanistan, an important center of trade and commerce, according to Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow who studies the country.

There are at least 2,600 archaeological sites around the country, said Hiebert, who helped authenticate some of the items after they had been confiscated by federal agents and discuss the relics at a gathering Tuesday at the embassy.

Afghanistan is one of the richest countries in archaeology and history in the world,” he said. And there’s very good reason, of course. For 6,000 years there’s been civilization based in Afghanistan.”

That also makes it an attractive target to looters, which is how the items eventually ended up in the United States.

In 2007, Homeland Security Investigations, an agency that deals with cases of smuggling that traverse international borders, received information about looted artifacts brought to the New York City area from India.

It eventually led to the indictment of a New York art gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor, and seven others as well as the seizure of more than 2,600 artifacts, valued at more than $140 million. He is jailed in India on charges and faces extradition to the U.S. when that case is resolved.

In the meantime, the U.S. government is working to repatriate the looted material, much of which was found in a series of raids on storage units in the New York City area.

They have already returned relics to Nepal and Sri Lanka and soon will turn over artifacts to Thailand, said Stephen Lee, the supervisor special agent in charge of HSI’s cultural property, arts and antiquities unit. The 33 items being sent to Afghanistan, valued at around $1.8 million, are the first to go back there as part of this investigation.

“They belong to the people of Afghanistan,” Lee said. “That’s their cultural history.”

Biden to meet virtually with leaders of Japan, India, Australia; ‘Quad’ to tackle COVID-19, climate

Biden to meet virtually with leaders of Japan, India, Australia; ‘Quad’ to tackle COVID-19, climate

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President Joe Biden speaks during an event to mark International Women’s Day, Monday, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

President Biden will meet virtually Friday with Indo-Pacific leaders who form the “Quad” to discuss the COVID-19 response, economic cooperation and climate change.

During the session, Mr. Biden will speak directly to Prime Ministers Yoshihide Suga of Japan, Narendra Modi of India and Scott Morrison of Australia.

“Formed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and formalized in 2007, the Quad has met regularly at the working and foreign-minister level. However, Friday will be the first time that the Quad is meeting at the leader level,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”

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Ms. Psaki said the meeting shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an attempt to reengage in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement that former President Trump withdrew from so he could pursue bilateral deals.

“They’re key partners to the United States,” Ms. Psaki said of the Quad nations. “There’s a range of issues to discuss and work together on.”

Diplomats: UN fails to approve call to end Tigray violence

Diplomats: UN fails to approve call to end Tigray violence

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A medical clinic that was looted and vandalized in Zana, is seen in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. The United Nations in its latest humanitarian report on the situation in Tigray says the "humanitarian situation … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Saturday, March 6, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – An attempt to get U.N. Security Council approval for a statement calling for an end to violence in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and to spotlight the millions in need of humanitarian assistance was dropped Friday night after objections from India, Russia and especially China, U.N. diplomats said.

Three council diplomats said Ireland, which drafted the statement, decided not to push for approval after objections from the three countries.

The press statement would have been the first by the U.N.’s most powerful body on the Tigray crisis, which is entering its fourth month. Fierce fighting reportedly continues between Ethiopian and allied forces and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders who once dominated Ethiopia’s government and alarm is growing over the fate of Tigray’s 6 million people. No one knows how many thousands of civilians have been killed.

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On Tuesday, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock warned that “a campaign of destruction” is taking place, saying at least 4.5 million people need assistance and demanding that forces from neighboring Eritrea accused of committing atrocities in Tigray leave Ethiopia.

The proposed statement made no mention of foreign forces or sanctions — two key issues — but did call “for an end to violence in Tigray.”

The draft statement also noted “with concern” the humanitarian situation in Tigray, “where millions of people remain in need of humanitarian assistance” and the challenge of access for aid workers. It called for “the full and early implementation” of the Ethiopian government’s statements on Feb. 26 and March 3 committing to “unfettered access.”

Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private, said China wanted the statement to focus only on the humanitarian situation, with no reference to the violence in Tigray. India only wanted a minor change, and Russia reportedly supported its ally China at the last minute, the diplomats said.

Accounts of a massacre of several hundred people by Eritrean soldiers in the holy city of Axum in Tigray have been detailed in reports by The Associated Press and then by Amnesty International. Federal government and regional officials in Tigray both believe that each other’s governments are illegitimate after elections disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human Rights Watch echoed the reports on Friday, saying Eritrean armed forces “massacred scores of civilians, including children as young as 13,” in the historic town of Axum in Tigray in November 2020. It called on the U.N. to urgently establish an independent inquiry into war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Tigray.

China uses global COVID-19 vaccine exports to one-up U.S.

China deploys unlikely weapon to muscle out U.S. on global stage: COVID-19 vaccine

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As vice president, Joseph R. Biden visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. He called for intimate U.S. economic and trade integration with the emerging communist power. (Associated Press/File) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Biden administration says it is committed to strategically countering China on the global stage, but Beijing has already seized the public relations high ground in the soft-power fight to win friends and influence through strategically placed COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to countries in need.

Amid storied complaining that the world’s wealthier nations are hoarding precious stocks, China has grabbed the international spotlight by pledging roughly half a billion vaccine doses to more than 45 countries, with Russia and India also competing in the scramble to ship doses around the world.

The competition is hitting close to home. Across the southern U.S. border, Mexico has accepted shipments of Chinese and Russian vaccines to help fight the pandemic.

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Doubts over the efficacy of Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are swirling among some scientists, who argue that the Biden administration is wise to avoid shipping U.S.-made vaccines anywhere before the U.S. stockpiles enough doses for its own residents. But others say the administration is asleep at the switch while Beijing exploits the pandemic to score a Cold War-style propaganda victory over the West.

“We are clearly losing on messaging and optics at the moment,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University. “Right now, if you’re Peru or Mexico, where are you getting vaccines from? It’s not the U.S.; it’s from China or Russia.”

“I think countries are going to have long memories of who helped them in a time of crisis,” he said. For all the rhetoric about “reasserting U.S. engagement” around the world, the Biden administration is “losing a moment of opportunity to reassert U.S. leadership in the global arena” through vaccine distribution.

The Associated Press reported this week that Chinese vaccines have been shipped to more than 25 countries, with shots delivered to another 11, while only a small clutch of wealthy nations has managed to get the pricier, U.S.-produced Pfizer and Moderna shots.

With just four of China’s many vaccine makers able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, the news agency reported, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s less-celebrated shots.

India, which is manufacturing two vaccines, started donating doses to a number of neighboring countries in January, while Russia has given doses of its Sputnik V vaccine to more than a dozen nations. Sputnik V has been registered or approved for emergency use in more than 40 countries around the world, and Russian ambassadors in countries such as Iran and Bolivia have made it a point to publicize heavily when the Sputnik V vaccine arrives for the locals.

Chinese officials publicly deny that they are waging a vaccine diplomacy race. They describe the vaccine as a “global public good.” Chinese experts also have rejected ties between vaccine distribution and any attempt by China’s communist regime to burnish its global image after facing widespread criticism for its handling of the first outbreaks of the virus in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

But some can’t resist comparing what they say has been China’s generosity with American stinginess.

“By the end of February, China has provided vaccine assistance to 69 countries and two international organizations,” Wang Wenwen, an editor with the state-controlled Global Times, wrote Thursday. “It has also exported its vaccine to 28 countries.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the U.S. is living in its self-built wall of unilateralism and the lingering ‘America First’ mentality.”

Focused on home

Biden administration officials have brushed aside questions about China’s COVID-19 diplomacy push, stressing that their focus at the moment is on vaccinating Americans.

When asked this week whether the administration is considering sharing part of the U.S. vaccine supply with Mexico, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded with a flat “no.”

Once the U.S. population is taken care of, she said, “we’re happy to discuss further steps.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also sidestepped questions about whether the White House fears it is ceding its leadership to China, even as the administration frames Beijing as the chief threat to the United States.

“I think as the months go on and as we vaccinate our own people and make sure that every American is protected, we’ll also be engaged in helping the world get vaccinated,” Mr. Blinken told PBS’s “Newshour.” “Because at the end of the day, we will not be fully secure until the world is vaccinated, not just Americans.”

He said the U.S. is “contributing billions of dollars to creating greater access to vaccines.”

Indeed, the Biden administration went to lengths in mid-February to highlight the decision to commit some $4 billion to COVAX, the international effort orchestrated by the World Health Organization to bolster the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to poorer nations.

Officials framed the commitment as a stark contrast with the Trump administration, which spurned both the WHO and the multinational COVAX effort. But even the $4 billion now authorized by Mr. Biden has strings attached.

The president told a virtual Group of Seven summit last month that Washington will deliver half upfront, with the rest contingent on other G-7 nations making good on their own pledges.

The U.S. record on supporting global vaccine efforts has drawn mixed reactions from experts.

“I believe in a modest form of vaccine nationalism,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. The Biden administration, he said, was wise to vaccinate key segments of the U.S. population such as health care workers first, even when there may be a diplomatic advantage to sharing doses with other nations in need.

“You’ve got to take care of the neediest folks in your own country first,” he said. “If you’re not in control of what’s going on in your own country, it’s hard to help others. … Think of it as the airplane mask rule: Put your own mask on before you help others.”

Mr. Caplan said much of what China, Russia and India have done to date amounts to “tokenism” because the total number of doses being shared isn’t enough to dramatically dent global COVID-19 rates.

“I don’t think the Chinese are giving enough to make a huge difference, and we don’t even know that their vaccines work that well,” he said. “I’m not overly worried that we’re getting outmaneuvered or somehow asleep at the international security switch.”

He added, “I think these are minor chess moves that are not going to have a long-term impact on foreign policy, because it’s too little in the way of help and it’s too obvious in terms of trying to curry favor. The bigger questions of help will be here soon, in say four or five months, when we have a lot of vaccines around and you could really do some serious distribution.”

A push to prepare

But others say the U.S. should be doing more now.

“As Americans get vaccinated, we need to do more to vaccinate others,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

While Mr. Cronin told The Times that “President Biden’s commitment of $4 billion to the global vaccine fund is a demonstration of U.S. leadership,” he stressed that “even more should be done” and suggested a “bolder” move may be for the United States to “lift the patent on vaccine formulas.”

Others say the patent issue is sticky because few nations have the scientific expertise to quickly reproduce vaccines on their own.

In the interim, there are signs that the Biden administration is exploring a joint plan for distributing vaccines in Asia with allies Japan, India and Australia — member nations of the “Quad,” an informal alliance that U.S. officials have increasingly sought to promote as a counter to China.

Biden administration Indo-Pacific policy coordinator Kurt Campbell has spearheaded the effort, according to the Financial Times, which reported this week that Mr. Campbell has held several meetings with ambassadors from the Quad.

The White House has declined to comment on details of the behind-the-scenes effort, although a spokesperson told The Times on Thursday that “expanding global vaccination, manufacturing and delivery” are “issues the United States is regularly discussing with allies and partners like Australia, India and Japan.”

Duke’s Dr. Udayakumar, meanwhile, said reliance on “existing platforms like the Quad would make sense as part of overall strategy but doesn’t address needs and vaccine diplomacy efforts in Africa and Latin America.”

“It also leaves open the question of the role of COVAX relative to bilateral and other multilateral efforts,” he said, adding that the U.S. should be engaging in public diplomacy tied to an initiative for sharing vaccine doses in the near future.

“We will pretty confidently have vaccines in excess of our needs by July, so we need to start planning now for what we’re going to do with excess,” Dr. Udayakumar told The Times.

He added that the Biden administration may be holding back a more aggressive policy for delivering vaccines internationally because pushing such a policy at the current moment could complicate difficulties the administration is already having in getting Congress to pass a domestic COVID-19 relief bill.

But, Dr. Udayakumar said, “even if we were just talking about making doses available in June or July, that would be a lot better than the current story, which is that the U.S. is hoarding doses while India, China and Russia are sharing them.”

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

Pakistan expert: Religiosity aiding spike in militancy

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FILE – In this Aug. 5, 2012, file photo, Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater … more >

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By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Militant attacks are on the rise in Pakistan amid a growing religiosity that has brought greater intolerance, prompting one expert to voice concern the country could be overwhelmed by religious extremism.

Pakistani authorities are embracing strengthening religious belief among the population to bring the country closer together. But it’s doing just the opposite, creating intolerance and opening up space for a creeping resurgence in militancy, said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

“Unfortunately, instead of helping to inculcate better ethics and integrity, this phenomenon is encouraging a tunnel vision” that encourages violence, intolerance and hate, he wrote recently in a local newspaper. “Religiosity has begun to define the Pakistani citizenry.”

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Militant violence in Pakistan has spiked: In the past week alone, four vocational school instructors who advocated for women’s rights were traveling together when they were gunned down in a Pakistan border region. A Twitter death threat against Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attracted an avalanche of trolls. They heaped abuse on the young champion of girls education, who survived a Pakistani Taliban bullet to the head. A couple of men on a motorcycle opened fire on a police check-post not far from the Afghan border killing a young police constable.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen military and paramilitary men have been killed in ambushes, attacks and operations against militant hideouts, mostly in the western border regions.

A military spokesman this week said the rising violence is a response to an aggressive military assault on militant hideouts in regions bordering Afghanistan and the reunification of splintered and deeply violent anti-Pakistan terrorist groups, led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The group is driven by a radical religious ideology that espouses violence to enforce its extreme views.

Gen. Babar Ifitkar said the reunified Pakistani Taliban have found a headquarters in eastern Afghanistan. He also accused hostile neighbor India of financing and outfitting a reunified Taliban, providing them with equipment like night vision goggles, improvised explosive devises and small weapons.

India and Pakistan routinely trade allegations that the other is using militants to undermine stability and security at home.

Security analyst and fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Asfandyar Mir, said the reunification of a splintered militancy is dangerous news for Pakistan.

“The reunification of various splinters into the (Tehreek-e-Taliban) central organization is a major development, which makes the group very dangerous,” said Mir.

The TTP claimed responsibility for the 2012 shooting of Yousafzai. Its former spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who mysteriously escaped Pakistan military custody to flee to the country, tweeted a promise that the Taliban would kill her if she returned home.

Iftikar, in a briefing of foreign journalists this week, said Pakistani military personnel aided Ehsan’s escape, without elaborating. He said the soldiers involved had been punished and efforts were being made to return Ehsan to custody.

The government reached out to Twitter to shut down Ehsan’s account after he threatened Yousafzai, although the military and government at first suggested it was a fake account.

But Rana, the commentator, said the official silence that greeted the threatening tweet encouraged religious intolerance to echo in Pakistani society unchecked.

“The problem is religiosity has very negative expression in Pakistan,” he said in an interview late Friday. “It hasn’t been utilized to promote the positive, inclusive tolerant religion.”

Instead, successive Pakistani governments as well as its security establishments have exploited extreme religious ideologies to garner votes, appease political religious groups, or target enemies, he said.

The 2018 general elections that brought cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan to power was mired in allegations of support from the powerful military for hard-line religious groups.

Those groups include the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, whose single-point agenda is maintaining and propagating the country’s deeply controversial blasphemy law. That law calls for the death penalty for anyone insulting Islam and is most often used to settle disputes. It often targets minorities, mostly Shiite Muslims, who makeup up about 15% of mostly Sunni Pakistan’s 220 million people.

Mir, the analyst, said the rise in militancy has benefited from state policies that have been either supportive or ambivalent toward militancy as well as from sustained exposure of the region to violence. Most notable are the protracted war in neighboring Afghanistan and the simmering tensions between hostile neighbors India and Pakistan, two countries that possess a nuclear weapons’ arsenal.

“More than extreme religious thought, the sustained exposure of the region to political violence, the power of militant organizations in the region, state policy which is either supportive or ambivalent towards various forms of militancy … and the influence of the politics of Afghanistan incubate militancy in the region,” he said.

Mir and Rana both pointed to the Pakistani government’s failure to draw radical thinkers away from militant organizations, as groups that seemed at least briefly to eschew a violent path have returned to violence and rejoined the TTP.

Iftikar said the military has stepped up assaults on the reunited Pakistani Taliban, pushing the militants to respond, but only targets they can manage, which are soft targets.

But Mir said the reunited militants pose a greater threat.

“With the addition of these powerful units, the TTP has major strength for operations across the former tribal areas, Swat, Baluchistan, and some in Punjab,” he said. “Taken together, they improve TTP’s ability to mount insurgent and mass-casualty attacks.”

China, India urge further measures to ease border tensions

China, India urge further measures to ease border tensions

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In this image taken from video footage run Feb. 19, 2021 by China’s CCTV via AP Video, soldiers bandage the head of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) regimental commander Qi Fabao as Indian and Chinese troops face off in the … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEIJING (AP) – The foreign ministers of China and India are urging further steps to stabilize tensions along their disputed border following the pullback of forces from an area where a deadly clash broke out last summer.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, on Thursday that the disengagement by front-line troops had “significantly eased the situation” and that now is the time to maintain the momentum of consultations, build trust and “achieve peace and tranquility in the border areas,” his ministry said.

In a statement Friday, Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said the two sides “should now quickly resolve the remaining issues” along the Line of Actual Control high in the mountainous Ladakh region. He said that with their forces disengaging at friction points, “the two sides could also look at broader de-escalation of troops in the area and work towards restoration of peace and tranquility.”

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China said last week that four of its soldiers were killed in the June 2020 clash, the first time Beijing has publicly conceded its side suffered casualties. The fighting was the deadliest incident between the Asian giants in nearly 45 years.

Immediately after the June 2020 clash on a high ridge in the Ladakh region’s Galwan Valley, India announced it had lost 20 of its soldiers in a battle in which fists, clubs, stones and other improvised weapons were used to avoid a firefight.

That led to multiple rounds of talks, and a breakthrough appeared to have been achieved at a September meeting between the two ministers in Moscow.

Troops began to withdraw on Feb. 10 from the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake and have pulled back to the positions they held prior to the start of tensions last year. Troops reportedly remain in a standoff in Depsang and at least two other places, Gogra and Hot Springs.

Each side accused the other of instigating the violence, which has further strained a difficult relationship dating partly from a 1962 border war. The fiercely contested Line of Actual Control stretches from Ladakh in the west to India’s eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims in its entirety.

___

Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

China acknowledges four deaths months after clash with India

China acknowledges four deaths months after clash with India

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In this image taken from video footage run Feb. 19, 2021, by China’s CCTV via AP Video, Indian and Chinese troops face off in the Galwan Valley on the disputed border between China and India, June 15, 2020. China’s military … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, February 19, 2021

China revealed Friday that four of its soldiers died in a clash with Indian troops on a disputed border high in the Himalayas in June, a deadly encounter that brought the world’s two most populous nations to the brink of open warfare.

India acknowledged within days of the incident that it had lost 20 soldiers in the incident, but until now China’s Communist Party leadership had refused to give a full accounting of Chinese losses. No shots were fired as the two sides reportedly battled with fists, steel rods and rocks in the Galwan Valley.

Chinese officials on Friday identified four “martyrs” from the People’s Liberation Army killed in the fighting and again insisted that India was to blame for breaching the hazily drawn “Line of Control” dividing the two countries.

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It was the bloodiest fighting between the two Asian powers since a brief but bloody border war in 1962.

The PLA Daily, the newspaper for China’s People’s Liberation Army, on Friday also reported that five members of Chinese frontier security forces, including a regimental commander, were being honored for their actions that day. The report noted that Indian officials had previously “boasted” that China’s losses were heavier in the fight.

After months of rising tensions following the event, Indian and Chinese leaders appeared to be seeking to cool tensions recently, moving back troops from a lake that has been a flashpoint in the border dispute earlier this month. An Indian commander told The Associated Press that commander-level talks for further pullbacks are set for this weekend.

But the PLA Daily account published Friday also painted India as the clear aggressor in the June incident, and Chinese government officials said India had purposely overstated the extent of Chinese casualties.

Friday’s account was meant in part to help global audiences “understand the truth and the right and wrong of the incident,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.

UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access

UN chief urges global plan to reverse unfair vaccine access

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In this image made from UNTV video, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a U.N. Security Council high-level meeting on COVID-19 recovery focusing on vaccinations, chaired by British Foreign Secretary Dominc Raab, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, at UN … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sharply criticized the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, saying 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all vaccinations and demanding a global effort to get all people in every nation vaccinated as soon as possible.

The U.N. chief told a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council that 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine and declared that “at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community.”

Guterres called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan to bring together those with the power to ensure equitable vaccine distribution — scientists, vaccine producers and those who can fund the effort.

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And he called on the world’s major economic powers in the Group of 20 to establish an emergency task force to establish a plan and coordinate its implementation and financing. He said the task force should have the capacity “to mobilize the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors.”

Guterres said Friday’s meeting of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations — the United States, Germany, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Italy — “can create the momentum to mobilize the necessary financial resources.”

Thirteen ministers addressed the virtual council meeting organized by Britain on improving access to COVID-19 vaccinations, including in conflict areas.

The coronavirus has infected more than 109 million people and killed at least 2.4 million of them. As manufacturers struggle to ramp up production of vaccines, many countries complain of being left out and even rich nations are facing shortages and domestic complaints.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX program, an ambitious project to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, has already missed its own goal of beginning coronavirus vaccinations in poor countries at the same time that shots were rolled out in rich countries. WHO says COVAX needs $5 billion in 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council the Biden administration “will work with our partners across the globe to expand manufacturing and distribution capacity and to increase access, including to marginalized populations.”

President Joe Biden has rejoined the WHO and Blinken announced that by the end of February the United States will pay over $200 million in previously assessed and current obligations to the U.N. agency, which Washington will seek to reform.

America’s top diplomat said the U.S. also plans to provide “significant financial support” to COVAX through the GAVI vaccine alliance, and will work to strengthen other multilateral initiatives involved in the global COVID-19 response. He gave no details.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the growing “immunity divide” and called on the world to “come together to reject `vaccine nationalism,’ promote fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, and, in particular, make them accessible and affordable for developing countries, including those in conflict.”

At WHO’s request, he said, China will contribute 10 million doses of vaccines to COVAX “preliminarily.”

China has donated vaccines to 53 developing countries including Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan and Palestine, which is a U.N. observer state. It has also exported vaccines to 22 countries, he said, adding that Beijing has launched research and development cooperation on COVID-19 with more than 10 countries.

India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also called for a halt to “vaccine nationalism” and encouragement for internationalism. “Hoarding superfluous doses will defeat our efforts towards attaining collective health security,” he warned.

Jaishankar said India has been at the forefront of the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, initially providing medicine, ventilators and personal protective equipment and now directly sending made-in-India vaccines to 25 nations across the world, with 49 additional countries from Europe and Latin America to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands slated to receive vaccines “in the coming days.”

Two vaccines, including one developed in India, have been granted emergency authorization, the minister said, and as many as 30 vaccine candidates are in various stages of development.

Jaishankar announced “a gift of 200,000 doses” of vaccine for about 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving in a dozen hotspots around the world.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, whose country is currently president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, called for speeding up COVAX and stopping the ”undue hoarding” and “monopolization of vaccines.”

He urged that priority be given to countries with limited resources, saying “it’s been pointed out that these countries won’t have generalized access until the middle of 2023 if current trends persist.”

“What we are seeing is a huge gap,” Ebrard said. “In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a huge division affecting so many in such a short space of time. That is why it’s important to reverse this.”

He urged the international community not to establish mechanisms that could prevent the speedy delivery of vaccines but instead to strengthen supply chains “that will promote and guarantee universal access.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month and presided at the virtual meeting, urged the U.N.’s most powerful body to adopt a resolution calling for local cease-fires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Cease-fires have been used to vaccinate the most vulnerable communities in the past,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t… We have seen it in the past to deliver polio vaccines to children in Afghanistan, just to take one example.”

Britain says more than 160 million people are at risk of being excluded from coronavirus vaccinations because they live in countries engulfed in conflict and instability, including Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward said: “Humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies need the full backing of the council to be able to carry out the job we are asking them to do.”

Britain has drafted a Security Council resolution that the U.K. hopes will be adopted in the coming weeks, she said.

Joe Biden opts for Asia strategy used by Trump

In Asia, Biden opts for strategic path blazed by Trump

Embraces 'Quad' to counter China

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Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned at the World Economic Forum last month that the U.S. risked starting a “new Cold War” if they tried to rally the rest of the world against Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Thursday, February 11, 2021

President Biden has promised a full-blown reset of what he and his advisers see as the disastrous foreign policy of the Trump years, but when it comes to U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific, the Biden team has spent its first weeks in office borrowing from the last administration’s playbook.

At the heart of the approach has been an embrace of Mr. Trump’s push to elevate the “Quad” linking the U.S., India, Japan and Australia as a go-to economic and military alliance aimed at containing communist China’s regional and global rise.

During a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Mr. Biden specifically pushed the idea that a first-of-its-kind “virtual head of state-level meeting” of the Quad countries be held soon, The Washington Times learned. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is believed to have done the same in a call with his Indian counterpart.

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Such a meeting would be the highest-level engagement yet by the four Pacific Rim democracies.

The Quad concept has been around for more than a decade but truly gained traction during the final years of the Trump administration under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. India’s participation would be particularly noteworthy, given that New Delhi, traditionally resistant to joining alliances, is perceived to be the most reluctant about formalizing any strategic arrangement aimed at containing China.

China is the biggest export market for Australia and Japan, leaving both U.S. allies wary of an explicitly anti-Beijing alliance.

The Trump administration first pushed the idea in the National Security Strategy it published in Mr. Trump’s first year in office, when the U.S. was launching an aggressive campaign against Chinese trading practices. China’s growing military prowess and increasingly aggressive foreign policy moves spurred talk in Washington of an “Asian NATO” to confront Beijing the way the Soviet Union was constrained in Europe during the Cold War.

By late last year, the push resulted in clear progress in building up the security identity of the Quad. Elements of the U.S., Indian, Japanese and Australian navies gathered twice in November in the Bay of Bengal for their largest-ever joint military drills, sparking fiercely critical Chinese commentary.

Mr. Biden spoke via telephone this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since taking office on Jan. 20. Mr. Xi appeared eager to steer the Biden administration away from head-to-head confrontation. He warned in a speech just days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration that continued U.S. efforts to rally other nations against China could spark a “new cold war.”

The Chinese government’s readout of the Biden-Xi phone call was also noticeably more restrained and positive than was the summary given by the White House.

Substance and style

The Biden administration has begun a reversal of Trump-era foreign policy moves in other areas of the world, most notably the Middle East. The new president has made early moves to pull back from what had been an increasingly close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and has signaled an interest in thawing relations with Iran.

But analysts say the administration is largely tracking the hard-line substance, if not the confrontational style, that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo charted over the past four years with China. The approach also benefits from rising bipartisan distrust of China on Capitol Hill and in popular U.S. opinion polls.

“The Trump administration took that step, and it’s not one this new administration is walking away from,” said Daniel S. Markey, a former State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “I believe that a strategic organizing principle of the Biden administration overseas will be this long-term competition with China.”

The Biden approach will be “more diplomatic” and likely less pugnacious rhetorically, Mr. Markey said in an interview, although he noted that the new administration has embraced a sharp tone on Beijing’s aggression toward Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims. The Trump administration, in its final days, officially characterized the Chinese treatment of Uighurs as a policy of genocide.

The Biden administration’s policy toward Asia as a whole has also been similar, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. “For all we hear about how the Biden administration is going to do a complete [180] on foreign policy,” Mr. Kugelman said in an interview, “there’s going to be a fair amount of continuity on policy toward Asia.

“The style of Biden’s process will be very different in that there will be greater focus on diplomacy and multilateralism,” he said. “But it makes perfect sense that there would be continuity in the Asia policy, because the main driver of the policy is concern about China, and I think that concern is a bipartisan matter in the sense that … whichever party controls the White House is going to feel similarly about the need to work with allies and partners in the region to try and counterbalance China.”

Mr. Kugelman added that while there has been increased energy around the idea of the Quad in recent years, he thinks it a stretch to portray it as growing into an “Asian NATO” anytime soon.

Chinese strategists routinely dismiss the idea that the Quad can evolve into a “mini-NATO” aimed at containing Beijing, though they also track U.S. diplomatic efforts almost obsessively.

“In Asia, an ‘Asian NATO’ will not emerge until the day when China’s relations with all other major countries deteriorate,” the Chinese state-controlled Global Times said in an editorial this week. “China’s current foreign policy determines that it will not be the enemy of all Asian countries.”

‘Serious competitor’

In his first major speech on foreign policy as president, Mr. Biden last week described China as America’s “most serious competitor” and stressed that “we’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; [and] push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance.”

At the same time, he emphasized the need to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” He made no reference to the Quad or the Trump administration’s attempt to promote it.

However, Mr. Biden’s top advisers on foreign policy have spent the past three weeks underscoring the importance of the Quad and, at times, even openly recognizing the former administration’s success at promoting it with U.S. allies.

During an online forum discussion on Jan. 29, newly appointed National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described the Quad as “one very positive thing we will be building on.”

“I think we really want to carry forward and build on that format, that mechanism which we see as a fundamental foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region,” Mr. Sullivan said at the forum, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters this week that “the Quad is a key example of the United States and our closest partners, including, in this case, India, pulling together for the good of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

“We view the Quad as having essential momentum and important potential, and that’s why we’re going to build on it by deepening cooperation on areas of traditional focus — and that includes maritime security — while also working closely with Quad partners to confront some of the defining issues of our time,” Mr. Price said Tuesday.

When asked whether a Quad summit is in the works, Mr. Price said, “We don’t have anything to announce at this time.”

Mr. Markey said this week that the real-world impact and future of the Quad alliance is a work in progress.

“As ambitious as everybody might be for the Quad, there’s still not much there there,” he said. “The challenge for the Biden administration is to try and fill it out. If the Trump administration convinced everyone, including the Indians, that this is something worth building on, what is now going to be built? That’s the hard part, and that’s where we are now.”

Major questions loom over economic aspects of the Quad and whether the four countries have a common interest to counterbalance China’s growing economic clout and push for global influence via its Belt and Road initiative to fund infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe, Africa and even South America.

Despite such uncertainties, Felix K. Chang at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute said recent years have seen political leadership in all of the Quad countries “shift their views on China, due to its more aggressive behavior in the East China Sea toward Japan, its economic intimidation of Australia, and its willingness to escalate border tensions with India.”

China has made it easier for ‘the Quad’ to gel,” said Mr. Chang, although he added the grouping “still faces many challenges before it can be considered solid.”

South Africa scraps AstraZeneca vaccine, will give J&J jabs

South Africa scraps AstraZeneca vaccine, will give J&J jabs

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In this Nov. 30, 2020, file photo, Thabisle khlatshwayo, who received her first shot for a COVID-19 vaccine trial, receives her second AstraZeneca shot at a vaccine trial facility set at Soweto’s Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa. … more >

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By Andrew Meldrum

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa will give the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to its front-line health workers beginning next week as a study to see what protection it provides from COVID-19, particularly against the variant dominant there, the health minister said Wednesday.

Zweli Mkhize said South Africa has scrapped plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because it “does not prevent mild to moderate disease” of the variant.

The one-shot J&J vaccine is still being tested internationally and has not been approved in any country.

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But Mkhize, in a nationally broadcast address, declared that the vaccine is safe, relying on tests of 44,000 people done in South Africa, the United States and Latin America.

The J&J vaccine will be used to launch the first phase of South Africa’s campaign in which the country’s 1.25 million health workers will be inoculated, he said, adding that the workers will be closely monitored.

“The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been proven effective against the 501Y.V2 variant and the necessary approval processes for use in South Africa are underway,” he said. The J&J vaccine has been in clinical tests in South Africa and is in production here, under contract from J&J.

Those shots will be followed by a campaign to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people in South Africa by the end of the year. The country will also be using the Pfizer vaccine and others, possibly including the Russian Sputnik V, Chinese Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines, Mkhize said.

South Africa had purchased 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, and the first million doses arrived this month. The first AstraZeneca shots had been meant for front-line health workers.

The locally dominant variant is more contagious and drove a resurgence of COVID-19 that caused nearly twice the cases, hospitalizations and deaths experienced in the initial surge of the disease in South Africa.

South Africa and many other African and poor countries had looked to the AstraZeneca vaccine as it is cheaper and does not require storage in ultra-cold freezers. It is also being produced in large quantities in India for shipment elsewhere.

An added complication for South Africa is that its AstraZeneca doses arrived with an April 30 expiration date. South Africa is looking to swap them, Mkhize said.

South Africa by far has the largest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent with nearly 1.5 million confirmed, including almost 47,000 deaths. That represents 41% of the total for all 54 nations in Africa.

After a resurgence that spiked in early January, cases and deaths are now declining, but medical experts are already warning that South Africa should prepare for another upsurge in May or June, the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.

Biden, Modi pledge cooperation as both deal with China

Biden, Modi pledge cooperation as both deal with China

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President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By AAMER MADHANI

Associated Press

Monday, February 8, 2021

President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, with the leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies agreeing to strengthen their nations’ partnership at a moment when both countries face strained relations with China.

India is in the midst of a 9-monthslong military standoff with China along their disputed border in eastern Ladakh. Tens of thousands of soldiers are facing each other at friction points in the region in sub-zero temperatures. At the same time, Biden is determined to depart from former President Donald Trump’s hot-and-cold relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump alternately courted and cajoled Beijing, pressing for a major trade agreement while downplaying China’s efforts to squelch pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Trump also initially assured Americans that China had the coronavirus “very well under control” before later blaming the Chinese government – often using xenophobic language – for being responsible for the worst public health crisis in the U.S. in more than a century.

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The White House said in a statement that Biden and Modi “agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific” and added that the leaders “resolved that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld” in Myanmar, days after a military coup in the southeast Asian nation.

Biden and Modi are no strangers. As a senator, Biden was an important advocate of the 2008 civil nuclear deal between the countries.

The 2008 nuclear accord paved the way for the supply of U.S. high-tech equipment that India wanted along with the technology. The accord ended India’s isolation after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States is also supporting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a move that has been blocked by China.

Modi wrote on Twitter that he wished Biden success as he launches his administration.

“President @JoeBiden and I are committed to a rules-based international order. We look forward to consolidating our strategic partnership to further peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” Modi tweeted.

Modi also had a warm relationship with Trump.

Trump last year, weeks before the pandemic locked down much of the globe, made a two-day visit to India that included a raucous rally at a 110,000-seat cricket stadium. The Republican president hosted Modi in 2019 in the U.S., a visit that included a side trip to Houston that drew about 50,000 people, many from the large Indian diaspora in the U.S.

___

Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Brazil awaits vaccine cargo from India amid supply concerns

Brazil awaits vaccine cargo from India amid supply concerns

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Health workers prepare doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., during the start of the vaccination plan on indigenous lands at the Ticuna de Umariacu village health post in Tabatinga, Amazonas state, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 19, … more >

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By DIANE JEANTET and DAVID BILLER

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazil‘s government on Friday awaited the arrival of 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine from India, but experts warned the shipment will do little to shore up an insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.

Brazil’s Health Ministry on Thursday announced that the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, was being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based. Fiocruz has an agreement to produce and distribute the vaccine.

The 2 million doses from India only scratch the surface of the shortfall, Brazilian public health experts told The Associated Press, as far more doses will be needed to cover priority groups in the nation of 210 million people, and shipments of raw materials from Asia have been delayed.

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“Counting doses from Butantan (a Sao Paulo state research institute) and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” said Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. That shortage “will interfere with our capacity in the near-term to reach collective immunity.”

A flight from India planned for last week was postponed, derailing the federal government’s plan to begin immunization with the AstraZeneca shot. Instead, vaccination began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where Butantan has a deal with its producer, Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

Countries around the world, particularly developing nations, are struggling to source sufficient vaccines for their populations. Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan has yet received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredients.

India’s foreign ministry said Friday evening at a press briefing in New Delhi that vaccines had been dispatched to Brazil and Morocco.

“As you can see, the supply of Indian-made vaccines is underway, both as gifts as well as on commercial basis,” ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

Fiocruz said in a statement Thursday the Health Ministry could begin distribution of the imported AstraZeneca shots Saturday afternoon, following a quality control inspection.

Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunization, and it used materials imported from China to bottle an additional 4.8 million shots. The health regulator on Friday approved use of the latter batch for distribution to states and municipalities across Brazil.

Scheffer estimated in a report he published Monday that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians without any vaccines. The government’s own immunization plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups.

“We are doing what is possible to get the vaccine,” President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday night in his weekly Facebook live broadcast, adding that his government will make free, non-mandatory vaccination available to all Brazilians.

Brazil has recorded 214,000 deaths related to COVID-19, the second-highest total in the world after the United States, and infections and deaths surging again.

While Brazil has a proud history of decades of immunization campaigns, in this pandemic it has struggled to cobble together a complete plan and suffered multiple logistical pitfalls.

“The vaccination plan is badly done in general,” said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s important that the information be transparent and clear for the population to know how this vaccination process will be done.”

There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus – stemming from allies of Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government – might explain the delay in getting the required inputs.

Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, told AP that such a reading is overly simplistic amid heightened global demand.

“Of course, since Bolsonaro isn’t on good terms with the Chinese government, he doesn’t really have the direct access,” Stuenkel said from Sao Paulo. “There is a chance that the bad relationship does wind up putting Brazil further down the line of recipients, but not because the Chinese are saying actively, ‘Let’s punish Brazil,’ but perhaps because other presidents have a better relationship.”

The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported Wednesday that Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello met with China’s ambassador in Brasilia and that Bolsonaro had requested a call with China’s leader Xi Jinping. Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro on international relations, said in a television interview the same day that Brazil is seeking suppliers from other countries.

“Negotiations are well advanced,” Martins told RedeTV!. He added that there is “a big fuss over nothing.”

Lawmakers including House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and the president of the Brazil-China parliamentary group, Sen. Roberto Rocha, also met with the Chinese ambassador.

Butantan had planned to supply Brazil‘s Health Ministry with 46 million doses by April. It is awaiting the import of 5,400 liters of the active ingredient before the end of the month to make about 5.5 million doses, and new shipments from China depend on authorization from the Chinese government, according to a statement from its press office.

Fiocruz had initially scheduled the delivery of 100 million doses to begin in February and 110 million more in the second half of the year. As of Dec. 30, its plan was down to delivering 30 million doses by the end of February, but the first delivery has been postponed to March, the institute said.

Brazil doesn’t have vaccines available for its population,” Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist at Fiocruz who has treated COVID-19 patients, said this week. “That’s absolutely unjustifiable.” ___ AP journalist Ashok Sharma contributed from New Delhi

Brazil announces incoming vaccine cargo amid supply concerns

Brazil announces incoming vaccine cargo amid supply concerns

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An Tenonde Pora Indigenous woman gets a shot of China’s Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine for COVID-19 in Tenonde Pora village, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello) more >

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By DIANE JEANTET and DAVID BILLER

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazil’s health ministry announced Thursday that a shipment of 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine is coming from India, a report coming as public health experts sound the alarm over insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.

The vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, will clear customs in Sao Paulo on Friday before being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based, the ministry said. Fiocruz has a partnership with AstraZeneca and Oxford for the vaccine’s distribution and production.

A flight from India planned for last week was delayed, derailing the federal government’s plan to begin immunization with the AstraZeneca shot. Instead, vaccination began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where the state’s Butantan Institute has a deal with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

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Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan have received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredient.

The announcement of the 2 million doses from India comes as increasingly vocal Brazilian experts express concern about the influx of raw materials from Asia needed to produce vaccines for the nation of 210 million people.

“Counting doses from Butantan and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, told The Associated Press. “It will interfere with our capacity in the near-term to reach collective immunity.”

The Indian Embassy in Brasilia didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the announced shipment nor the cause for last week’s delay.

Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunization, and it used materials imported from China to bottle an additional 4.8 million shots. The health regulator must approve use of the latter batch before it can be distributed to states and municipalities across Brazil.

Scheffer estimated in a report he published Jan. 18 that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians included in priority groups without any vaccines. The government’s own immunization plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups.

Brazil has recorded 212,000 deaths related to COVID-19, the second-highest total in the world after the United States, and infections and deaths surging again.

While Brazil has a proud history of decades of immunization campaigns, in this pandemic it has struggled to cobble together a complete plan and suffered multiple logistical pitfalls.

“The vaccination plan is badly done, in general,” said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s important that the information be transparent and clear for the population to know how this vaccination process will be done.”

There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus – namely those stemming from allies of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government – might explain the delay behind getting the required inputs.

Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, told AP that such a reading is overly simplistic amid heightened global demand.

“Of course, since Bolsonaro isn’t on good terms with the Chinese government, he doesn’t really have the direct access,” Stuenkel said from Sao Paulo. “There is a chance that the bad relationship does wind up putting Brazil further down the line of recipients, but not because the Chinese are saying actively, ‘Let’s punish Brazil,’ but perhaps because other presidents have a better relationship.”

The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported Wednesday that Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello met with China’s ambassador in Brasilia and that Bolsonaro had requested a call with China’s Xi Jinping. Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro on international relations, said in a television interview the same day that Brazil is seeking suppliers from other countries.

“Negotiations are well advanced,” Martins told RedeTV!. He added that there is “a big fuss over nothing.”

Lawmakers including House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and the president of the Brazil-China parliamentary group, Sen. Roberto Rocha, also met with the Chinese ambassador.

Butantan had planned to supply Brazil‘s Health Ministry with 46 million doses by April. It is awaiting the import of 5,400 liters of the active ingredient before the end of the month to make about 5.5 million doses, and new shipments from China depend on authorization from the Chinese government, according to a statement from its press office.

Fiocruz had initially scheduled the delivery of 100 million doses to begin in February and 110 million more in the second half of the year. As of Dec. 30, its plan was down to delivering 30 million doses by the end of February, but the first delivery has been postponed to March, the institute told AP.

Brazil doesn’t have vaccines available for its population,” Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist who has treated COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, said at an event in Rio this week while receiving an award. “That’s absolutely unjustifiable. There nothing, no explanation that could justify that.”

Fire hits building at Indian producer of COVID-19 vaccines

Fire hits building at Indian producer of COVID-19 vaccines

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Smoke rises from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker that is manufacturing the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine for the coronavirus, in Pune, India, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) more >

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By Rafiq Maqbool

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

PUNE, India (AP) — A fire broke out Thursday at a building under construction at Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, possibly affecting its future expansion of COVID-19 vaccine production.

Firefighters were extinguishing the flames, the fire office in Pune city in southern Maharashtra state said. The cause of the fire and extent of damage were not immediately clear.

“We have rescued three people and there are no casualties,” said fire official Prashant Ranpise, who was supervising rescue operations.

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The company said the fire was restricted to a new facility it is constructing to increase production of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure it is better prepared for future pandemics.

It said the fire did not affect existing facilities making COVID-19 vaccines or a stockpile of around 50 million doses.

“So far the most important thing is that there have been no lives lost or major injuries due to the fire, despite a few floors being destroyed,” company CEO Adar Poonawalla said.

Images showed huge plumes of smoke billowing from the building as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Dozens of company workers in lab suits left the compound.

Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest maker of vaccines and has been contracted to manufacture a billion doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine.

Poonawalla said in an interview with The Associated Press last month that it hopes to increase production capacity from 1.5 billion doses to 2.5 billion doses per year by the end of 2021. The new facility is key to the expansion.

Of the more than 12 billion coronavirus vaccine doses expected to be produced this year, rich countries have already bought about 9 billion, and many have options to buy even more. As a result, Serum Institute is likely to make most of the vaccines that will be used by developing nations.

India gives 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal

India gives 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal

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A van stands parked waiting to transport AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccines, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, at Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. India sent 1 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Nepal … more >

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By BINAJ GURUBACHARYA

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) – India sent 1 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Nepal on Thursday, a gift that is likely to help repair strained ties between the two neighbors.

Nepal health minister Hridayesh Tripathi said the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will be given to health workers and other front-line personnel within a week to 10 days.

Tripathi said Nepal would like to purchase 4 million more doses, and asked for the Indian government’s help. There was no immediate response from Indian officials who were the airport when the vaccine arrived.

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Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali flew to India last week to formally request the vaccine.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, began supplying coronavirus vaccine to its neighbors this week as it attempts to strike a balance between maintaining enough doses to inoculate its own people and helping developing countries without the capacity to produce their own vaccine.

India’s foreign ministry said it sent 150,000 doses to Bhutan and 100,000 doses to the Maldives on Wednesday, and would send more to Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Seychelles in coming weeks.

Relations between India and Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute which led to an exchange of strong-worded statements by the two sides.

India has also accused Nepal‘s Communist government of becoming closer to other giant neighbor, China.

Asia Today: China records new cases, defends response

Asia Today: China records new cases, defends response

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A woman wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus rides a public bus in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. China is now dealing with coronavirus outbreaks across its frigid northeast, prompting additional lockdowns and travel … more >

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Associated Press

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

BEIJING (AP) – China’s capital, Beijing, recorded seven more coronavirus cases on Wednesday amid a lingering outbreak in the country’s north.

Another 46 were recorded in Jilin province, 16 in Heilongjiang on the border with Russia, and 19 in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing.

China has now recorded a total of 88,557 cases since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, with 4,635 deaths.

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China is hoping to vaccinate 50 million people against the virus by mid-February and is also releasing schools early and telling citizens to stay put during the Lunar New Year travel rush that begins in coming days.

A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization criticized China and other countries this week for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier, prompting Beijing to concede it could have done better but also to defend its response.

“As the first country to sound the global alarm against the epidemic, China made immediate and decisive decisions and insisted on timely detection, reporting, isolation, and treatment despite incomprehensive information at the time. We have gained time to fight the epidemic and reduce infections and deaths,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters on Tuesday.

“We are firmly opposed to politicizing issues related to virus tracing, as this will not help the international community to unite and cooperate in the fight against the pandemic,” Hua said.

A team of experts from WHO are quarantined in Wuhan ahead of beginning field visits aiming to shed light on the origins of the virus that is thought to have jumped to humans from animals, possibly bats.

Other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

– India has began supplying coronavirus vaccines to its neighboring countries, as the world’s largest vaccine making nation strikes a balance between maintaining enough doses to inoculate its own people and helping developing countries without the capacity to produce their own shots. India’s Foreign Ministry said the country will send 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, manufactured locally by Serum Institute of India, to Bhutan and 100,000 to the Maldives on Wednesday. Vaccines will also be sent to Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and the Seychelles in coming weeks, the ministry said. Spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the government will ensure that domestic vaccine makers have adequate stocks to meet domestic needs as they supply other countries in the coming months. Of the more than 12 billion coronavirus vaccine doses expected to be produced this year, rich countries have already bought about 9 billion, and many have options to buy even more. This means that Serum Institute, which has been contracted by AstraZeneca to make a billion doses, is likely to make most of the vaccines that will be used by developing nations.