Looming Madagascar Famine Sparks Nutrition Emergency

Famine is looming in southern Madagascar and emergency food aid is needed for hundreds of thousands of people to head off a humanitarian disaster on the African island nation, the U.N. World Food Program warned.Five consecutive years of drought, exacerbated by unexpected sandstorms, have depleted people’s food stocks, forcing them to resort to desperate measures to survive. The WFP senior director of operations in Madagascar, Amer Daoudi, said at least 1.35 million people are suffering from acute hunger, many of whom are living off locusts, raw cactus fruits or wild leaves. He said malnutrition is soaring to alarming levels, putting the lives of many children under age five at risk. While on a diplomatic and governmental tour of the region, he said he saw horrific images of starving, malnourished and stunted children. FILE – Children shelter from the sun in Ankilimarovahatsy, Madagascar, a village in the far south of the island where most children are acutely malnourished, Nov. 9, 2020.”And not only the children,” Daoudi added. “Mothers, parents, and the population in the villages we visited. The situation is extremely, extremely worrisome, scary. They are on the periphery of famine.” The WFP official said most of Madagascar’s southern districts are in a nutrition emergency as acute malnutrition has almost doubled over the last four months. He said people are dying but it is difficult to get an accurate count. “If a child dies, they bury, there is no reporting, there is no official type of reporting to take these numbers,” he said. “Same thing with grownups. We are already witnessing whole villages shutting down and moving to the nearest urban centers.”   That movement, Daoudi said, is putting pressure on an already fragile food security situation in the cities.   He said WFP is short of money and limited in what it can do to address the hunger crisis.   Because of the cash crunch, he said his agency has been forced to cut food rations by half for up to 750,000 people who are living on a knife’s edge. WFP is asking for $75 million immediately to cover the needs of hundreds of thousands of starving people over the next few months. 
 

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Despite Glitch, NASA Thrilled With Performance of Mars Helicopter

Scientists with the U.S. space agency NASA Friday said the tiny helicopter they sent to Mars has exceeded their expectations, despite a glitch that forced its fourth flight to be rescheduled.
 
During a virtual news briefing on the Mars mission, scientists and engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the Ingenuity helicopter’s first three flights showed them enough capability that they are expanding the operation of the aircraft by 30 days, doubling its originally planned mission time.
 
NASA had originally described the Ingenuity project as a technology demonstration designed to test flight capability in the thin Martian atmosphere. Project Manager Mi Mi Aung, said it performed so well that it is transitioning from a demonstration to operation phase, in which the craft will be used to show how its unique capabilities can be applied.
 
Aung told reporters “It’s like Ingenuity is graduating.”NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter unlocked its rotor blades, allowing them to spin freely, on April 7, 2021, the 47th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)The craft had been scheduled to complete its fourth flight Thursday, but a software glitch prevented it from transitioning to flight mode. If it goes off as planned later Friday, the NASA team hopes to fly it 133 meters from its starting point — more than twice as far as its last flight — taking color pictures of the terrain below before returning to where it started.
 
Aung said the pictures will be used to put together three-dimensional images of the Martian landscape, from which staff will select a new landing site for the helicopter, which she said will take at least a week. The landing site will be the destination for Ingenuity’s fifth flight.
 
NASA officials said that the Perseverance rover has, so far, acted in support of the helicopter, transferring data from the craft and taking pictures of its flights. The researchers say communication between the two vehicles is also working better than expected and they now believe they can be as much as a kilometer apart and still maintain strong contact.
 
The Ingenuity team says the helicopter is providing NASA with data for how future missions will be designed, how those missions will utilize aircraft to explore to determine where rovers should go and explore areas where they cannot.
 
The 1.8-kilogram aircraft arrived on the planet packed away on NASA’s Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. Aside from solar batteries and a transmitter, Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments.
 

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NASA Mars Helicopter Fails to Respond for 4th Flight

The U.S. space agency NASA said the experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity, after three successful flights, failed to respond to commands to lift off for a fourth flight Thursday.
Scientists with the Ingenuity team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California say a software problem similar to one that delayed the experimental craft’s initial flight 11 days ago prevented the helicopter from transitioning to “flight mode.” The scientists plan to try again Friday.
The 1.8-kilogram aircraft arrived on the planet packed away on NASA’s Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. It was unfolded and dropped from the rover a little more than three weeks ago, and each of the three flights it has made so far have been successively more ambitious.
After first simply rising three meters off the Martian surface, hovering, and landing again,
Ingenuity’s second flight saw it rise to five meters, travel two meters to the east of its position, execute three turns, and return. On its third trip, it rose to five meters and traveled 50 meters, flying at a top speed of about two meters a second.
NASA scientists have planned the fourth flight to be the most ambitious yet. After rising to five meters, they plan to send the helicopter south, switch on its downward-facing navigation camera, and collect images of the surface every 1.2 meters until it travels a total of 133 meters. Ingenuity will then hover, take images with its color camera, and return to its original position.   
NASA has scheduled a news conference later Friday to discuss the overall mission.
 Our #MarsHelicopter has flown successfully three times & completed its mission objectives! What’s up next for the mighty little rotorcraft? Mission experts aim to push the limits. Find out how on Fri., April 30 at 12:30pm ET: https://t.co/dr0PRGvrPApic.twitter.com/PyLPJEQZHG— NASA (@NASA) April 29, 2021The space agency describes Ingenuity as a technology demonstration designed to test flight capability in the thin Martian atmosphere. It has specially designed rotors that spin much faster than they would have to on Earth to achieve flight. It also has innovative batteries and solar cells for recharging.
Aside from cameras, Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments. 

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EU Hits Apple with Music Streaming Charge in Boost for Spotify

EU regulators accused Apple on Friday of distorting competition in the music streaming market, siding with Spotify in a case that could lead to a hefty fine and changes in the iPhone maker’s lucrative business practices.
 
The preliminary findings are the first time Brussels has leveled anti-competitive charges against Apple, although the two sides have had bruising clashes in the past, most notably a multibillion-dollar tax dispute involving Ireland.
 
Apple, Spotify and other parties can now respond. If the case is pursued, the EU could demand concessions and potentially impose a fine of up to 10% of Apple’s global turnover – as much as $27 billion, although it rarely levies the maximum penalty.
 
Apple found itself in the European Commission’s crosshairs after Sweden-based Spotify complained two years ago that the U.S. tech giant unfairly restricted rivals to its own music streaming service Apple Music on iPhones.
 
The EU competition enforcer, in its so-called statement of objections setting out the charge, said the issue related to Apple’s restrictive rules for its App Store that force developers to use its own in-app payment system and prevent them from informing users of other purchasing options.
 
European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said there were clear signs Apple’s App Store rules were affecting music streaming rivals’ business development and affecting app developers more widely.
 
“They [app developers] depend on Apple App Store as a gatekeeper to access users of Apple’s iPhones and iPads. This significant market power cannot go unchecked as the conditions of access to the Apple App Store are key for the success of app developers,” she told a news conference.
 
Vestager said Apple should end restrictive practices and refrain from doing anything that would replicate them.
 
She also said other authorities were looking into the issue. “We have contact with other jurisdictions doing similar
cases, that could be the Dutch, the Australians, the Americans,”she said, adding she  also was interested in the app gaming market, although it was early days.
 
Apple rebuffed the EU charge. “Spotify has become the largest music subscription service in the world, and we’re proud of the role we played in that,” it said in a statement.
 
“They want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition,” it added.  
 Internet Gatekeepers
 
Spotify welcomed the EU move, describing it as “a critical step toward holding Apple accountable for its anticompetitive behavior, ensuring meaningful choice for all consumers and a level playing field for app developers.”
 
Reuters was first to report about the imminent EU antitrust charge in March.
 
Spotify, one of Europe’s few global success stories in consumer technology, is the market leader in music streaming with 356 million active users and 158 million paid subscribers.  
 
Apple Music, launched more recently in 2015, is estimated to have more than 70 million subscribers although the company does not give a separate figure for that part of its business.
 
Competition between the two companies has intensified in recent weeks, with both seeking to build their customer base via supremacy in the market for podcasts.
 
“Europe’s consumers expect and deserve access to a full range of music streaming services without their choices being restricted or prices being inflated unfairly by internet gatekeepers,” said European consumer organization BEUC.
 
The EU charge comes a week before Apple’s face off with Epic Games in a U.S. antitrust trial following a lawsuit by the “Fortnite” creator alleging that Apple has abused its dominance in the market for mobile apps.
 
Epic has complained to the Commission on the same issues. Last month, the UK Competition and Markets Authority opened an investigation into Apple after complaints the iPhone maker’s terms and conditions for app developers were unfair.

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YouTube Child Stars Top Charts but Raise Concerns

Videos of kids having fun are among the most popular on YouTube. They are also a fast-growing business, one that critics say comes with little regulation and oversight to protect children on either side of the screen. Michelle Quinn reports.
Producer: Michelle Quinn

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US Aid Arrives as India Grapples with COVID-Triggered Humanitarian Crisis

The first emergency aid of critical medical supplies arrived in India from the United States on Friday, as the country grapples with a humanitarian crisis after being hit with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
With the death toll soaring past 200,000, the race to save lives is getting more frantic with India’s health care system virtually crushed under the relentlessly rising numbers.
 
A U.S. Super Galaxy military transporter brought more than 400 oxygen cylinders and other hospital equipment as well as rapid coronavirus tests to New Delhi.
 
U.S. officials said that special flights which will also bring equipment donated by companies and individuals, will continue into next week.
 
President Joe Biden has pledged to support India in its fight against the coronavirus.
 
Some 40 countries including major powers Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Japan, and smaller countries such as Thailand and Taiwan, have promised to send medical supplies as part of an international aid effort to address the shortage of critical oxygen and medicine. China, with whom India’s ties are strained, has also offered to send aid.
 
“We are facing an unprecedented second wave of the pandemic,” Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said on Thursday.
For ordinary citizens that “unprecedented” situation means waging a desperate battle to save loved ones. The anguished appeals for oxygen, hospital beds, intensive care units, medicines and even wood to cremate the dead continue to dominate social media. At its overburdened crematoriums, grieving people wait into the night to perform the last rites for their family members.
 
While the Indian capital is one of the worst hit by the second wave, the virus is also wreaking havoc in other parts of the country.COVID-19 relief supplies from the U.S. are being unloaded from a U.S. Air Force aircraft at the Indira Gandhi International Airport’s cargo terminal in New Delhi, India, April 30, 2021.Adding to India’s woes, vaccines are in short supply — several Indian states said they will be unable to expand the vaccination program to people over the age of 18 beginning Saturday, as planned, because they do not have stock. So far, the vaccination drive was restricted to those above 45 years of age.
 
With hospitals overwhelmed, the Indian army has opened several of its hospitals to civilians and is helping in setting up medical facilities in several cities.
 
Amid the outcry from citizens, the Indian government has defended itself. Health Minister Shringla said this week that the country’s fatality rate per million was the lowest in the world and that the oxygen supplies were “adequate.”
 
India reported 386,452 news cases in the past 24 hours, while deaths from COVID-19 jumped by 3,498, according to health ministry data. For more than a week, the country has set a daily global record reporting over 300,000 infections.
 
But many experts say India’s official death count and total count of 18.8 million cases is an underestimate. There is also criticism that India did not pay sufficient attention to a new variant of the coronavirus that is infecting people.
 
About 350 scientists and medical researchers in an online appeal urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to allow them access to government data such as sequencing of virus variants, testing and recovered patients that could help study, predict and curb the spread of the coronavirus. The data is not available to non-government experts.
 
“While new pandemics can have unpredictable features, our inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community,” the appeal stated.
 
Public health experts say India’s health facilities are failing under the exponential rise in numbers because health officials neglected to ramp up health infrastructure during the six months when cases dipped amid complacency that the worst of the pandemic was over.
 
“We were clearly underprepared for the second wave. A lot of temporary facilities set up and staff were let go after the first wave,” said Anant Bhan, a public health expert. “So, when the cases increased, we were found wanting. The second issue is we took things too lightly too soon. There was not much adherence to public health measures such as masking, and large religious and political events were held, which aided the spread of the infection. Also, the spread of new variants which are more infectious in nature have led to this situation.” 

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Alarm Grows in Africa as it Watches India’s COVID-19 Crisis

Africa is “watching with total disbelief” as India struggles with a devastating resurgence in COVID-19 cases, the continent’s top public health official said Thursday, as African officials worry about delays in vaccine deliveries caused by India’s crisis.The African continent, with roughly the same population as India and fragile health systems, “must be very, very prepared” since a similar scenario could happen here, John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.An Indian man sleeps next to a sign urging people to stay at home as a precaution against coronavirus in the premises of a hospital in Hyderabad, India, April 29, 2021.”What is happening in India cannot be ignored by our continent,” he said, and urged African countries to avoid mass gatherings including political rallies. “We do not have enough health care workers, we do not have enough oxygen,” he warned.Africa’s vaccine supply heavily relies on India, whose Serum Institute is the source of the AstraZeneca vaccines distributed by the global COVAX project to get doses to low- and middle-income countries. India’s export ban on vaccines “has severely impacted the predictability of the rollout of vaccination programs and will continue to do so for the coming weeks and perhaps months,” Nkengasong said.”We are living in a world that is extremely uncertain now,” he added.Just 17 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent for a population of some 1.3 billion, according to the Africa CDC.The situation in India is “very sad to observe,” the World Health Organization’s Africa chief told reporters in a separate briefing. “We are very concerned about the delays that are coming in the availability of vaccines,” Matshidiso Moeti added.Her WHO colleague, Phionah Atuhebwe, called the delay “quite devastating for everybody” and said most African nations that received their first vaccine doses via COVAX will reach a “gap” in supply while waiting for second doses as early as May or June.”We call upon countries that have extra doses to do their part,” Atuhebwe said, adding that the WHO is reviewing the Chinese-made Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines this week.One unexpected COVID-19 vaccine donor is Congo, which Nkengasong said wants to give back some 1.3 million doses so they can be distributed to other African nations since it hasn’t been able to do it at home.There is “a lot of vaccine hesitancy” in the vast country, Nkengasong said. He didn’t immediately know how many people have received the doses there.A Muslim man walks past COVID-19 guidelines at the gate of Lekki Central mosque, in Lagos, Nigeria, April 16, 2021.There is a five-week timeline to get the doses administered elsewhere, he said, and Congo is working with COVAX to hand them over. He expressed hope that the doses can reach other people quickly during what he called “an extremely critical time.”Nkengasong didn’t know of other African countries saying they’re unable to use their doses but he urged them not to wait until the last moment to hand them back. Other countries in Europe, North America and Asia “can have their luxury” of vaccine options, he said, but “we do not have choices.”Moeti with the WHO commended Congo for its decision, calling it “extremely wise of the government to make this estimation” in a country with gaps in its health care system.She also warned that African countries must step up key public health measures to help avoid India’s scenario occurring here. The rate of testing for the coronavirus has dropped in “quite a few countries,” she said, and mentioned seeing data from one African nation in which the proportion of people not wearing face masks has risen to almost 80%.Only 43 million tests for the virus have been conducted across the African continent since the pandemic began, the Africa CDC chief said, with a 26% drop in new tests conducted in the past week.Nkengasong warned against travel bans, however, after Kenya this week announced it will suspend all passenger flights to and from India for two weeks starting midnight Saturday, while cargo flights continue.”It’s really unfortunate we are reacting in a very ad hoc manner in respect to flight movements,” he said, emphasizing the strength of authentic negative PCR tests. “It’s not people who are a threat, it’s the virus.”

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India’s Daily COVID Count Is Almost 400,000

The daily tally of COVID-19 cases in India continues to climb toward the 400,000 mark. Friday, the health ministry reported 386,452 new infections. The daily toll of new cases has been over 300,000 for nine consecutive days. Indian media are reporting that some public health experts believe that the actual tally of new infections may be at least five times higher than the official count.Aid from the U.S. and other countries arrived in India on Friday. U.S. assistance includes oxygen supplies, rapid diagnostic tests, and vaccine manufacturing materials.The second wave of the coronavirus has pushed India’s health care system to the brink of collapse, with hospitals at full capacity and an acute shortage of oxygen aggravating an already desperate situation. Many parks and parking lots have been converted into makeshift crematories that are working day and night to burn dead bodies.Indian public health experts have blamed the spread on more contagious variants of the virus, plus the easing of restrictions on large crowds when the outbreak appeared to be under control earlier this year.Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s European regional director, warned Thursday that “It is very important to realize that the situation in India can happen anywhere … when personal protection measures are being relaxed, when there are mass gatherings, when there are more contagious variants and the vaccination coverage is still low. This can basically create a perfect storm in any country.”Only the U.S. has more COVID cases than India. The U.S. has more than 32 million infections, while India has 18.3 million, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.More than a quarter of British health care workers are wary of the COVID-19 vaccine. Reasons for their reluctance included several conspiracy theories and the lack of people of color in vaccine trials.Vaccine maker Pfizer has begun exporting doses manufactured at one of its U.S. plants according to a report filed by Reuters. Reuters reports the vaccines went to Mexico.Meanwhile, the head of Australia’s drug regulatory agency said Thursday there is no evidence the AstraZeneca vaccine was responsible for the deaths of two people shortly after their inoculations.Two men in New South Wales state, including one in his 70s, died within days after receiving the vaccine.John Skerritt, the head of the government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, told reporters the men’s deaths are being investigated, but said “the current evidence does not suggest a likely association” between the deaths and the vaccination.The AstraZeneca vaccine has had a troubled rollout across the world, with many nations suspending its use after reports first surfaced of a severe side effect that combines blood clots with low platelet counts following inoculation, including a handful of deaths.

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NASA Astronaut Collins Remembered for ‘Carrying the Fire’

NASA Astronaut Michael Collins, who made history as part of the 1969 Apollo 11 crew to first land a person on the moon, has died at age 90.  In interviews with VOA’s Kane Farabaugh, Collins reflected on the importance of the mission and the contributions of the astronauts of his era, while keeping a focus on the future of crewed spaceflight and exploration.Producer and camera: Kane Farabaugh. 

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Kid YouTube Stars Top the Charts but Raise Concerns

Videos of kids having fun are among the most popular on YouTube. They are also a fast-growing business, one that critics say comes with little regulation and oversight to protect children on either side of the screen. Michelle Quinn reports.
Producer: Michelle Quinn

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Brazil Tops 400,000 Virus Deaths Amid Fears of Renewed Surge

Brazil on Thursday became the second country to officially top 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, losing another 100,000 lives in just one month, as some health experts warn there may be gruesome days ahead when the Southern Hemisphere enters winter.April was Brazil’s deadliest month of the pandemic, with thousands of people losing their lives daily at crowded hospitals.The country’s Health Ministry registered more than 4,000 deaths on two days early in the month, and its seven-day average topped out at above 3,100. That figure has tilted downward in the last two weeks, to less than 2,400 deaths per day, though on Thursday, the Health Ministry announced another 3,001 deaths, bringing Brazil’s total to 401,186.Local health experts have celebrated the recent decline of cases and deaths, plus the eased pressure on the Brazilian health care system — but only modestly. They are apprehensive of another wave of the disease, like those seen in some European nations, due to a premature resumption of activity in states and cities combined with slow vaccination rollout.Fewer than 6% of Brazilians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Our World in Data, an online research site. President Jair Bolsonaro, who is now being investigated by a Senate panel over his administration’s handling of the crisis, has repeated he will be the last to get a shot, and he has attacked mayors and governors who enforce restrictions to control the virus’ spread.Shortly after the grim landmark was published, Bolsonaro said in a live broadcast on his social media channels that “a big number of deaths has been announced,” adding that he is “sorry for every death.” But he repeated his stance against social distancing measures.”I pray to God so there is not a third wave” of the coronavirus, the president said. “But if the lockdown policies continue, this country will be dragged to extreme poverty.”Epidemiologist Wanderson Oliveira, one of the Health Ministry’s top officials at the start of the pandemic, said he expects a third wave to hit by mid-June. He told radio station CBN on Tuesday that the country’s immunization effort won’t prevent a new surge because many people won’t receive shots before winter, when indoor gatherings and activities are more common even in the tropical nation.”Our vaccination is such that in 2022, maybe we will have a much less tragic summer than we did now,” he said, referring to the last few months.He added he expects limited help from local leaders’ partial shutdowns, which have yielded weaker results than European-style lockdowns. Many Brazilians flouted social distancing recommendations and partial shutdowns even in the throes of the pandemic’s peak.Brazil’s vaccination program, though a far cry from its triumphant campaigns of decades past, has slowed the pace of deaths among the nation’s elderly, according to death certificate data published on Monday. Younger people remain unprotected and have begun falling ill in far greater numbers as a more transmissible variant circulates in Brazil.Adding to concerns, Brazil’s Health Ministry has repeatedly cut its outlook for vaccines in the short term. The country’s two biggest laboratories are facing supply constraints for imports from producers in China and India, which has become the pandemic’s global epicenter.

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US Government Probes VPN Hack Within Federal Agencies, Races to Find Clues

For at least the third time since the beginning of this year, the U.S. government is investigating a hack against federal agencies that began during the Trump administration but was only recently discovered, according to senior U.S. officials and private sector cyber defenders.  It is the latest supply chain cyberattack, highlighting how sophisticated, often government-backed groups are targeting vulnerable software built by third parties as a steppingstone to sensitive government and corporate computer networks.  The new government breaches involve a popular virtual private network (VPN) known as Pulse Connect Secure, which hackers were able to break into as customers used it.  More than a dozen federal agencies run Pulse Connect Secure on their networks, according to public contract records. An emergency cybersecurity directive last week demanded that agencies scan their systems for related compromises and report back.  The results, collected Friday and analyzed this week, show evidence of potential breaches in at least five federal civilian agencies, said Matt Hartman, a senior official with the U.S. Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency.  “This is a combination of traditional espionage with some element of economic theft,” said one cybersecurity consultant familiar with the matter. “We’ve already confirmed data exfiltration across numerous environments.”  The Ivanti logo and cyber binary codes are seen in this illustration taken April 20, 2021.The maker of Pulse Connect Secure, Utah-based software company Ivanti, said it expected to provide a patch to fix the problem by this coming Monday, two weeks after it was first publicized. Only a “very limited number of customer systems” had been penetrated, it added.  Over the last two months, CISA and the FBI have been working with Pulse Connect Secure’s maker and victims of the hack to kick out the intruders and uncover other evidence, said another senior U.S. official who declined to be named but is responding to the hacks. The FBI, Justice Department and National Security Agency declined to comment.  The U.S. government’s investigation into the Pulse Connect Secure activity is still in its early stages, said the senior U.S. official, who added the scope, impact and attribution remain unclear.  Security researchers at U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye and another firm, which declined to be named, say they’ve watched multiple hacking groups, including an elite team they associate with China, exploiting the new flaw and several others like it since 2019.  FILE – Security firm FireEye’s logo is seen outside the company’s offices in Milpitas, California.In a statement last week, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said China “firmly opposes and cracks down on all forms of cyberattacks,” describing FireEye’s allegations as “irresponsible and ill-intentioned.”  The use of VPNs, which create encrypted tunnels for connecting remotely to corporate networks, has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet with the growth in VPN usage so too has the associated risk.  “This is another example in a recent pattern of cyber actors targeting vulnerabilities in widely used VPN products as our nation largely remains in remote and hybrid work postures,” Hartman said.  Three cybersecurity consultants involved in responding to the hacks told Reuters that the victim list is weighted toward the United States and so far includes defense contractors, civilian government agencies, solar energy companies, telecommunications firms and financial institutions.  The consultants also said they were aware of fewer than 100 combined victims so far between them, suggesting a fairly narrow focus by the hackers.  Analysts believe the malicious operation began around 2019 and exploited older flaws in Pulse Connect Secure and separate products made by cybersecurity firm Fortinet before invoking the new vulnerabilities.  Hartman said the civilian agency hacks date to at least June 2020.  Hacking the supplyA recent report by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, studied 102 supply chain hacking incidents and found they surged the last three years. Thirty of the attacks came from government-backed groups, primarily in Russia and China, the report said.  The Pulse Connect Secure response comes as the government is still grappling with the fallout of three other cyberattacks.  FILE – The SolarWinds logo is seen outside its headquarters in Austin, Texas, Dec. 18, 2020.The first is known as the SolarWinds hack, in which suspected Russian government hackers commandeered the company’s network management program to burrow inside nine federal agencies.  A weakness in Microsoft’s email server software, named Exchange, exploited by a different group of Chinese hackers, also required a massive response effort, although there was ultimately no impact to federal networks, according to U.S. officials.  Then a weakness at a maker of programming tools called Codecov left thousands of customers exposed inside their coding environments, the company disclosed this month.  Some government agencies were among the customers whose credentials were taken by the Codecov hackers for further access to code repositories or other data, according to a person briefed on the investigation. Codecov, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on that case.  The U.S. plans to address some of these systemic issues with an upcoming executive order that will require agencies to identify their most critical software and promote a “bill of materials” that demands a certain level of digital security across products sold to the government.  “We think [this is] the most impactful way to really impose costs on these adversaries and make it that much harder,” said the senior U.S. official. 

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FDA Moves to Ban Menthol Cigarettes

Regulators are moving to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and cigars, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday.The move follows years of pressure from advocates who say that the tobacco products are targeted at African Americans and are responsible for higher death rates in this group from illnesses brought on by smoking.“Today’s action by the FDA to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, while long overdue, is a major step toward preventing a new generation from becoming tobacco users and saving lives,” said Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association.Companies have aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes in African American communities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 85% of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, compared with 46% of Hispanics and 29% of whites, the FDA noted.“For far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use,” FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Mitch Zeller said in a statement.Menthol soothes the irritation that tobacco smoke causes. Since the cigarettes are easier to smoke, an FDA review found that new smokers were more likely to start smoking and become regular users.By encouraging more people to start and making it harder for them to stop, a study found that menthol cigarettes were responsible for an extra 10.1 million people becoming smokers between 1980 and 2018.Congress banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but the law exempted menthol. Instead, it instructed the government to study the impacts of menthol on public health.FDA’s 2013 review determined that “menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with non-menthol cigarettes.”Public health groups petitioned the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes. The FDA proposed a ban in 2018 but did not follow through.Groups sued in 2020. Thursday was a court-ordered deadline for the FDA to respond to the petition.Some groups have expressed concerns that making menthol cigarettes illegal would make criminals of people who still sought them, disproportionately affecting minority communities.Zeller said that would not happen.”The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco products,” he said. “Our job will be to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make their way onto the market.”The agency aims to have a final rule in place within a year, officials said. But the effort may run into legal obstacles.Tobacco companies disagree with the FDA’s assessment of the risks.”As was true when the FDA first examined menthol in 2013, and as the published literature continues to demonstrate, there is no scientific basis to regulate menthol and non-menthol cigarettes differently,” said R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spokesperson Neassa Hollon.

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India Struggles with COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Amid New Infection, Death Rates

India set new records again Thursday in COVID-19 deaths and infections as its new vaccination registration program stumbled while millions of voters nonetheless turned out for an election in the state of West Bengal.Under the weight of a disastrous second surge of the disease, India’s efforts to begin registering its 1.4 billion people for inoculations stumbled Wednesday when the government launched a website for all Indians 18 and older to sign up for a vaccination drive that is set to begin Saturday.Many people flooded social media with complaints, however, that either the website had crashed or they were unable to make an appointment.The problems with the website come as the health ministry reported a record 379,257 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, including 3,645 fatalities, marking yet another one-day record for fatalities. The new figures have pushed India’s coronavirus casualty numbers well over 18.3 million total confirmed cases and 204,832 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Manika Goel, sits next to her husband who is suffering from the COVID-19 inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi, India, April 29, 2021.The second wave of the coronavirus has pushed India’s health care system to the brink of collapse, with hospitals at full capacity and an acute shortage of oxygen aggravating an already desperate situation.  Many parks and parking lots have been converted into makeshift crematories that are working day and night to burn dead bodies.Public health experts have blamed the spread on more contagious variants of the virus, plus the easing of restrictions on large crowds when the outbreak appeared to be under control earlier this year.West Bengal votingDespite the worsening crisis and soaring temperatures, many of the more than 8 million eligible voters in West Bengal state formed long lines at some of the more 11,800 polling stations Thursday to vote in the eighth and final phase of state elections.Indian women voters wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus wait outside a polling station to cast their votes during the last phase of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, April 29, 2021.Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were criticized over the last few weeks for holding massive election rallies in West Bengal. Health experts have suggested the rallies may have contributed to a record surge in the state, which recorded more than 17,000 new cases over the last day, its highest since the pandemic began.Other political parties also held rallies in the state.India’s vaccination drive has dragged at a slow pace since it was launched in January, with only 1.7% of the population fully vaccinated. The country has a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines as it struggles with a lack of raw materials needed to manufacture doses.The international community has responded by shipping critical supplies to India, including ventilators, oxygen concentrators, drug treatments and the raw materials necessary to develop vaccines.This photograph released by Indian External Affairs Ministry shows a shipment of oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other medical supplies arrived from Russia to India, April 29, 2021.The White House says an initial shipment of medical supplies worth $100 million will begin arriving in India on Thursday, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 face masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests, along with the raw materials that will allow India to manufacture 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca two-dose vaccine.The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory Wednesday urging Americans not to travel to India, becoming the latest country to impose a warning or outright prohibition on visiting the country.Meanwhile, the head of Australia’s drug regulatory agency said Thursday there is no evidence the AstraZeneca vaccine was responsible for the deaths of two people shortly after their inoculations.Two men in North South Wales state, including one in his 70s, died within days after receiving the vaccine.John Skerritt, the head of the government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, told reporters the men’s deaths are being investigated, but said “the current evidence does not suggest a likely association” between the deaths and the vaccination.The AstraZeneca vaccine has had a troubled rollout across the world, with many nations suspending its use after reports first surfaced of a severe side effect that combines blood clots with low platelet counts following inoculation, including a handful of deaths. 

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UN Calls on Countries to Take Action to Prevent Drowning

The U.N. General Assembly encouraged all countries Wednesday to take action to prevent drownings, which have caused over 2.5 million deaths in the past decade, over 90% of them in low-income and middle-income countries.The resolution, co-sponsored by Bangladesh and Ireland and adopted by consensus by the 193-member world body, is the first to focus on drowning. It establishes July 25 as “World Drowning Prevention Day.”The assembly stresses that drowning “is preventable” using “low-cost interventions” and calls on countries to consider introducing water safety, swimming and first aid lessons as part of school curricula. It encourages nations to appoint “a national focal point for drowning prevention,” develop countrywide prevention programs, and enact and enforce water safety laws.Unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding but they do reflect global opinion.According to the United Nations, the world’s highest drowning rates are in Africa while the highest number of drowning deaths are in Asia.”Drowning is a social equity issue that disproportionately affects children and adolescents in rural areas, with many countries reporting drowning as the leading cause of childhood mortality and drowning being among the 10 leading causes of death globally for 5- to 14-year-olds,” the resolution says.It notes “with concern” that the official global estimate of 235,000 annual deaths from drowning excludes drownings attributed to flood-related climate events and water transport incidents. This has resulted “in the underrepresentation of drowning deaths by up to 50 percent in some countries,” it says.The assembly says that “water-related disasters increasingly affect millions of people globally,” in part due to the escalating impact of climate change, “and that flooding affects more people than any other natural hazard, with drowning being the main cause of death during floods.”Bangladeshi Ambassador Rabab Fatima told the assembly after the resolution’s adoption: “The imperative to act on drowning is not simply moral or political. The economic cost is equally untenable.”
He said drowning is a leading cause of child mortality in Bangladesh and in the South Asia region, and the resolution’s call for preventive action is urgent.Ireland’s U.N. ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, called the resolution and designation of July 25 as a day for the world to focus on preventing drowning a moment “to highlight the immediate need for strategic and significant international action to save lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.”Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the World Health Organization’s global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases and injuries, said: “Encouraging governments to adopt effective measures to prevent drowning will save thousands of lives and call attention to this urgent public health issue.””We have the tools to prevent these deaths – and need to act on them now,” he said in a statement.

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US Government Taking Creative Steps to Counter Cyberthreats

An FBI operation that gave law enforcement remote access to hundreds of computers to counter a massive hack of Microsoft Exchange email server software is a tool that is likely to be deployed “judiciously” in the future as the Justice Department, aware of privacy concerns, develops a framework for its use, a top national security official said Wednesday.The department this month announced that it had obtained a warrant from a federal judge in Texas to remove web shells, or malicious code that gives hackers a foothold into networks, from hundreds of vulnerable computers affected by a hack that Microsoft has blamed on a group operating from China.The FBI operation was designed to disrupt the effects of a hack that affected many thousands of servers running the Microsoft Exchange email program. Many victims took steps on their own to safeguard their systems, but for those that who did not, the Justice Department stepped in to do it for them with a judge’s approval.It was the virtual equivalent of police going around the neighborhood locking doors that criminals had opened remotely.”We have a decision to make, which is are we going to go ahead and do that action ourselves or are we just going to leave that malware there, sort of unremediated,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, speaking at a virtual discussion hosted by the Project for Media & National Security at George Washington University.He said the operation was one of the very first of its kind and was the subject of extensive discussion by the FBI and the Justice Department. The department is figuring out how it plans to use that capability in the future.”We don’t yet have sort of worked out what our criteria are going to be going forward,” Demers said. “Now that we’ve had this experience, that’s the kind of discussion we’re having internally now.”This is not a tool of first resort that we’re going to be using a couple times a week as different intrusions come up,” he added. “This does require working with the private sector on the right solution. It does require testing to be sure that you’re not going to otherwise disrupt someone’s computer system.”Such operations will be done judiciously in the future, he said.Demers acknowledged concerns from some privacy advocates that the government, without permission of the computer system operators, had gained remote access and removed the web shells.But he pointed out that the department did obtain a judge’s permission and said the government felt compelled to act because, after a period of several weeks, there were still unremediated web shells that continued to serve as access point for “hackers of all stripes.””And so the choice that the government had was just continue to leave those open or take the court-authorized action that we did, and ultimately we decided to move ahead,” Demers said. “But to the extent possible before then, we had been notifying every victim that we could identify of the intrusion.”

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