Pakistan, Afghanistan Mark Polio Day Amid Optimism for Eradication 

Pakistan and Afghanistan, the only two countries where polio still paralyzes children, marked World Polio Day (October 24) Sunday amid excitement and hopes that global eradication of the crippling disease is within reach. 

The neighboring countries constitute a bloc where the disease has been endemic; but each has detected just one case of wild polio so far this year compared to 53 in Afghanistan and 81 in Pakistan in October 2020. The number of cases so far in 2021 is the lowest in history, according to World Health Organization officials.

A polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has faced challenges in particular over the past two years — due to vaccine hesitancy and the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a five-month pause in polio immunization campaigns starting in March of 2020.

 

“We have reason to be optimistic,” said Aziz Memon of Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program.

 

Memon told VOA the declining trend of reported polio cases and negative environmental samples suggest “a positive outlook” for polio eradication in Pakistan and Afghanistan, stressing the need for capitalizing on what he described as an “unprecedented” opportunity to stop wild polio transmission. 

 

“We are currently in the high season for polio transmission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it’s never been more important to ensure that polio immunization and surveillance remain a top priority, particularly as the pandemic continues to threaten immunization programs around the world,” he said. 

 

Memon said restrictions on public movement to prevent COVID-19 from spreading was one of the key contributing factors leading to the recent decline in polio cases in Pakistan. 

 

“Inter-city and intra-city public transportation remained suspended across the country during the pandemic lockdowns, which restricted many nomadic families from traveling to other cities in search of job opportunities,” he said.

 

Memon said the resumption of mass polio vaccination campaigns and the natural immunity induced by the wild polio outbreaks of previous years have also contributed to the current reduction in cases. 

 

The Pakistani government reported earlier this month that its third vaccination campaign of the year in mid-September succeeded in the administering of polio drops to more than 40 million children across the country. 

 

Afghan house-to-house drive 

 

The United Nations last week announced that a house-to-house polio vaccination drive for all children under 5 in Afghanistan will restart on November 8 for the first time in more than three years, now that the conflict-torn country’s new Taliban government has granted approval. 

“Given that Pakistan and Afghanistan are a single epidemiological bloc, this represents a great opportunity for both countries to reach even more children with lifesaving polio vaccines,” said Memon, while welcoming the Taliban’s decision to lift the ban on house-to-house polio vaccination. 

Rotary’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative was founded in 1988. The program has since reduced infections by more than 99.9 percent worldwide and immunized nearly 3 billion children against polio, preventing more than 19.4 million cases of paralysis. But Rotary officials predict “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eradicated within 10 years. 

International eradicators warn outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPVs) also pose a major barrier to achieving a polio-free world, calling for increased vigilance in swiftly addressing it.

 

The outbreak occurs if not enough children in any given community are vaccinated and the weakened live poliovirus contained in the oral polio vaccine starts to circulate, mutating to a form that can cause paralysis. 

 

“Multiple countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, are facing outbreaks of cVDPV type 2, and to address them, a new polio vaccine that carries less risk of changing to a harmful form that could cause paralysis in low-immunity settings has been developed,” Memon said.

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Report: Global Vaccine Collaboration is ‘Largely Failed’ 

A Financial Times report says COVAX, the global collaboration established to ensure that poor countries have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, has “largely failed.” 

“Wealthy countries have received over 16 times more COVID-19 vaccines per person than poorer nations that rely on the COVAX program backed by the World Health Organization,” the newspaper reported.

Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries have not yet received their first shots of the vaccine, while people in the wealthiest countries have access to booster shots, following their initial inoculations.

The disparity, The Financial Times warned, “could lead to a rise in cases and the emergence of more virulent strains, and hold back the global economic recovery.” 

The World Health Organization’s director-general said Friday 82 countries are at risk of not meeting WHO’s goal of having 40% of every country’s population vaccinated against COVID by the end of the year. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “For most of those countries, it’s simply a problem of insufficient and unpredictable supply.” 

Earlier this month, Britain reported its highest daily number of COVID-19 related deaths since March 9. A government advisor told a BBC television show Saturday that people should not wait for government mandates to begin initiating measures to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, told BBC Breakfast, “I think hospitals in many parts of the country are barely coping actually” under the weight of COVID cases.

“The sooner we all act,” Openshaw said, “the sooner we can get this transmission rate down and the greater the prospect of having a Christmas with our families.”

British Prime Minister Boris continues to dismiss calls for renewed COVID-19 restrictions, saying there is nothing to indicate those moves will be necessary in the coming months, despite the fact Britain is experiencing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections. 

Russia is preparing for or a weeklong workplace shutdown and the reimposition of a partial lockdown because of a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Daily coronavirus deaths in Russia have been rising for weeks because of sluggish vaccination rates, casual attitudes toward precautionary measures and the government’s hesitance toward tightening restrictions. The country’s national task force on COVID-19 said only about one-third of Russia’s 146 million people have been vaccinated, straining the country’s health system. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that employees would observe “non-working days” from October 30 to November 7, during which they would still receive salaries. He said the period, in which four of the seven days are state holidays, could start earlier or be extended in certain regions. 

The rollout of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine in Namibia was postponed Saturday by the country’s health ministry after the vaccine’s regulator in neighboring South Africa raised concerns about its safety for people at risk of HIV. 

The regulator said it would not approve an emergency-use application for the vaccine at this time because some studies suggest that the delivery system, known as a vector, used to inoculate people with the Sputnik V vaccine can cause men to be more susceptible to HIV. 

 

The vaccine’s manufacturer, Gamaleya Research Institute, said Namibia’s postponement was not based on scientific evidence. 

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday a global count of 243.3 million COVID cases and almost 5 million COVID deaths. The center said 6.7 billion vaccines have been administered.

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Zoom Gets More Popular Despite Worries About Links to China

Very few companies can boast of having their name also used as a verb. Zoom is one of them. The popularity of the videoconferencing platform continues to grow around the world despite continued questions about whether Chinese authorities are monitoring the calls.

Since Zoom became a household word last year during the pandemic, internet users including companies and government agencies have asked whether the app’s data centers and staff in China are passing call logs to Chinese authorities.

“Some of the more informed know about that, but the vast majority, they don’t know about that, or even if they do, they really don’t give much thought about it,” said Jack Nguyen, partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City.

He said in Vietnam, for example, many people resent China over territorial spats, but Vietnamese tend to Zoom as willingly as they sign on to rivals such as Microsoft Teams. They like Zoom’s free 40 minutes per call, said Nguyen.

Whether to use the Silicon Valley-headquartered Zoom, now as before, comes down to a user-by-user calculation of the service’s benefits versus the possibility that call logs are being viewed in China, analysts say. China hopes to identify and stop internet content that flouts Communist Party interests.

The 10-year-old listed company officially named Zoom Video Communications reported over $1 billion in revenue in the April-June quarter this year, up 54% over the same quarter of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic drove face-to-face meetings online. In the same quarter, the most recent one detailed by the company, Zoom had 504,900 customers of more than 10 employees, up about 36% year on year.

Zoom commanded a 42.8% U.S. market share, leading competitors, as of May 2020, the news website LearnBonds reported. Its U.S. share was up to 55% by March this year, according to ToolTester Network data.

Tech media cite Zoom’s free 40 minutes and capacity for up to 100 call participants as major reasons for its popularity.

Links to China?

Keys that Zoom uses to encrypt and decrypt meetings may be sent to servers in China, Wired Business Media’s website Security Week has reported. Some encryption keys were issued by servers in China, news website WCCF Tech said.

Zoom did not answer VOA’s requests this month for comment.

Zoom has acknowledged keeping at least one data center and a staff employee in China, where the communist government requires resident tech firms to provide user data on request. In September 2019, the Chinese government turned off Zoom in China, and in April last year Zoom said international calls were routed in error through a China-based data center.

“Odds are high” of China getting records of Zoom calls, said Jacob Helberg, a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology.

“If you have Zoom engineers in China who have access to the actual servers, from an engineering standpoint those engineers can absolutely have access to content of potential communications in China,” he said.

Zoom said in a statement in early April 2020 that certain meetings held by its non-Chinese users might have been “allowed to connect to systems in China, where they should not have been able to connect,” SmarterAnalyst.com reported.

Excitement and caution

Zoom said in 2019 it had put in place “strict geo-fencing procedures around our mainland China data center.”

“No meeting content will ever be routed through our mainland China data center unless the meeting includes a participant from China,” it said in a blog post.

Among the bigger users of Zoom is the University of California, a 10-campus system that switched to online learning in early 2020. Zoom was selected following a request for proposals “years” before the pandemic, a UC-Berkeley spokesperson told VOA on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the United States, NASA has banned employees from using Zoom, and the Senate has urged its members to avoid it because of security concerns. The German Foreign Ministry and Australian Defense Force restrict use as well, while Taiwan barred Zoom for government business last year. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, which has caused decades of political hostility.

“For Taiwan, there’s still some doubt,” said Brady Wang, a Taipei analyst with the market intelligence firm Counterpoint Research, referring particularly to Zoom’s encryption software. “And in the final analysis, these kinds of choices are numerous, so it’s not like you must rely on Zoom.”

LinkedIn’s withdrawal from China announced this month may spark new scrutiny over Zoom, said Zennon Kapron, founder and director of Kapronasia, a Shanghai financial industry research firm.

“I think when you look at the other technology players that are currently in China or that have relations to China such as Zoom, there will be a renewed push probably by consumers, businesses and even regulators in some jurisdictions to really try to understand and pry apart what the roles of Chinese suppliers or development houses are in developing some of these platforms and the potential security risks that go with them,” Kapron said.

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Facebook Dithered in Curbing Divisive User Content in India

Facebook in India has been selective in curbing hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content, according to leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press, even as its own employees cast doubt over the company’s motivations and interests.

From research as recent as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, the internal company documents on India highlight Facebook’s constant struggles in quashing abusive content on its platforms in the world’s biggest democracy and the company’s largest growth market. Communal and religious tensions in India have a history of boiling over on social media and stoking violence.

The files show that Facebook has been aware of the problems for years, raising questions over whether it has done enough to address these issues. Many critics and digital experts say it has failed to do so, especially in cases where members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, are involved.

Modi has been credited for leveraging the platform to his party’s advantage during elections, and reporting from The Wall Street Journal last year cast doubt over whether Facebook was selectively enforcing its policies on hate speech to avoid blowback from the BJP. Both Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialized by a 2015 image of the two hugging at Facebook headquarters.

According to the documents, Facebook saw India as one of the most “at risk countries” in the world and identified both Hindi and Bengali languages as priorities for “automation on violating hostile speech.” Yet, Facebook didn’t have enough local language moderators or content-flagging in place to stop misinformation that at times led to real-world violence.

In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it has “invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali” which has “reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half” in 2021. 

“Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online,” a company spokesperson said. 

This AP story, along with others being published, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

In February 2019 and ahead of a general election when concerns about misinformation were running high, a Facebook employee wanted to understand what a new user in the country saw on their news feed if all they did was follow pages and groups solely recommended by the platform.

The employee created a test user account and kept it live for three weeks, during which an extraordinary event shook India — a militant attack in disputed Kashmir killed more than 40 Indian soldiers, bringing the country to near war with rival Pakistan.

In a report, titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarizing, Nationalistic Messages,” the employee, whose name is redacted, said they were shocked by the content flooding the news feed, which “has become a near constant barrage of polarizing nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore.”

Seemingly benign and innocuous groups recommended by Facebook quickly morphed into something else altogether, where hate speech, unverified rumors and viral content ran rampant.

The recommended groups were inundated with fake news, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobic content. Much of the content was extremely graphic.

“Following this test user’s News Feed, I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total,” the researcher wrote.

The Facebook spokesperson said the test study “inspired deeper, more rigorous analysis” of its recommendation systems and “contributed to product changes to improve them.”

“Separately, our work on curbing hate speech continues and we have further strengthened our hate classifiers, to include four Indian languages,” the spokesperson said.

Other research files on misinformation in India highlight just how massive a problem it is for the platform.

In January 2019, a month before the test user experiment, another assessment raised similar alarms about misleading content. 

In a presentation circulated to employees, the findings concluded that Facebook’s misinformation tags weren’t clear enough for users, underscoring that it needed to do more to stem hate speech and fake news. Users told researchers that “clearly labeling information would make their lives easier.”

Alongside misinformation, the leaked documents reveal another problem dogging Facebook in India: anti-Muslim propaganda, especially by Hindu-hardline groups.

India is Facebook’s largest market with over 340 million users — nearly 400 million Indians also use the company’s messaging service WhatsApp. But both have been accused of being vehicles to spread hate speech and fake news against minorities.

In February 2020, these tensions came to life on Facebook when a politician from Modi’s party uploaded a video on the platform in which he called on his supporters to remove mostly Muslim protesters from a road in New Delhi if the police didn’t. Violent riots erupted within hours, killing 53 people. Most of them were Muslims. Only after thousands of views and shares did Facebook remove the video.

In April, misinformation targeting Muslims again went viral on its platform as the hashtag “Coronajihad” flooded news feeds, blaming the community for a surge in COVID-19 cases. The hashtag was popular on Facebook for days but was later removed by the company.

The misinformation triggered a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech toward Muslims.

Criticisms of Facebook’s handling of such content were amplified in August of last year when The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories detailing how the company had internally debated whether to classify a Hindu hard-line lawmaker close to Modi’s party as a “dangerous individual” — a classification that would ban him from the platform — after a series of anti-Muslim posts from his account.

The documents also show how the company’s South Asia policy head herself had shared what many felt were Islamophobic posts on her personal Facebook profile. 

Months later the India Facebook official quit the company. Facebook also removed the politician from the platform, but documents show many company employees felt the platform had mishandled the situation, accusing it of selective bias to avoid being in the crosshairs of the Indian government.

As recently as March this year, the company was internally debating whether it could control the “fear mongering, anti-Muslim narratives” pushed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu nationalist group that Modi is also a part of, on its platform.

In one document titled “Lotus Mahal,” the company noted that members with links to the BJP had created multiple Facebook accounts to amplify anti-Muslim content.

The research found that much of this content was “never flagged or actioned” since Facebook lacked “classifiers” and “moderators” in Hindi and Bengali languages. 

Facebook said it added hate speech classifiers in Hindi starting in 2018 and introduced Bengali in 2020.

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250 Km/h Without a Driver: Indy Autonomous Cars Gear Up for Race

There will be cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday but no drivers in sight as racing teams mark a milestone in autonomous vehicle development.

Nine single-seaters will take part in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC), a competition with a $1 million prize that aims to prove “autonomous technology can work at extreme conditions,” said Paul Mitchell, CEO of co-organizer Energy Systems Network (ESN).

Cars will not race on the “Brickyard” track at the same time but will start one after the other — with the winner being the fastest over two full-speed laps.

Teams are made up of students from around the world. Each group was given the same Dallara IL-15 car, which looks like a small Formula One vehicle, and the same equipment, which includes sensors, cameras, GPS and radars.

On race day, it is not drivers that will make the difference — but about 40,000 lines of code programmed by each team. 

The software kickstarts the engine and a powerful computer wedged in the bucket where the driver usually sits.

The MIT-PITT-RW team, the only one made up entirely of students without supervision, got their car only six weeks ago.

Engineering student Nayana Suvarna, 22, does not yet have a driving license but was nonetheless reluctantly designated as team manager. 

“I didn’t know anything about car racing,” she said with a smile, “but I’m becoming a fan.”

The MIT-PITT-RW’s car hit 130 km/h in testing, but Suvarna believes it capable of overtaking 160 on Saturday. 

‘Generation of talent’

 

Other teams have gone much faster. 

The car belonging to the PoliMOVE team, a partnership between the universities of Alabama and Politecnico in Milan, drove past the pits at around 250 km/h on Thursday.

But the car skidded at the next turn, spinning 360 degrees before coming to a stop on the inside lawn. 

“It was a miracle we didn’t crash,” said Sergio Matteo Savaresi, professor at Politecnico.

There was no glitch to blame: only cold tires and a slight oversteer. 

“We actually reached the very limit of the car,” said Savaresi, who oversees the PoliMOVE team. 

“A professional driver at that speed with tires like these would have done exactly the same.”

The Robocar, made by manufacturer Roborace, has held the speed record for an autonomous car since 2019, clocking in at 282 km/h — but on a straight course, not a circuit.

The concept of self-driving cars has captured imaginations since the 1950s, but the tech needed to make them a reality has been boosted over the past five years.

Most big car manufacturers are working on autonomous driving projects, often in collaboration with tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft or Cisco.

IAC participants do not see speed as the primary goal. 

“If people get used to seeing cars like these going 300 kilometers per hour… and they don’t crash,” said Savaresi, they may eventually think that such cars are safe “at 50 kilometers per hour.”

According to a Morning Consult survey published in September, 47 percent of Americans considered autonomous vehicles less safe than those driven by humans.

The race’s other goal is to enable tech sharing. 

Mitchell said several teams plan to make their code publicly available and open source after the competition.

“So, you’re going to take some of the most advanced AI algorithms ever developed for autonomous vehicles, and put it out there for industry, for startups, for other universities to build on.”

The project also aims to “develop a generation of talent,” Savaresi said.

“The people who are competing in this challenge are going to go and start companies, they’re going to go work for companies. And so I think the innovations from this competition will live on for many years.”

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UN Prepares Polio Vaccination Campaign for Children in Afghanistan 

U.N. agencies are preparing to launch a polio vaccination campaign for all children under 5 in Afghanistan, a country where the potentially crippling disease persists despite a more than three-decade-long campaign that has nearly eradicated it worldwide.

Vaccine doses will begin to be administered in Afghanistan on November 8 for the first time in three years, now that the country’s new Taliban government has granted approval.

“This is a huge development that now we can go all across Afghanistan and deliver the vaccine house to house,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told VOA.

Jafari described the upcoming campaign as “a real combination of excitement and extreme fear — excitement because it looks like a real opportunity to eradicate wild polio virus finally.”

Warning that the virus might still be “lurking in some hard-to-reach populations,” he said it’s critical that the WHO “maintain this momentum to vaccinate our children so that the virus has nowhere to go.”

“Both Afghanistan and Pakistan really actually need to switch gears,” Jafari declared.

Polio’s presence in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where a U.N. polio vaccination effort begins in December, means the disease can still spread globally. Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program, predicts “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eliminated within 10 years.

The WHO announced the vaccination campaign on Tuesday, five days before the observance of World Polio Day, part of Rotary International’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

Since the GPEI began in 1988, when there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries every year, polio cases have been cut by 99.9%, according to Rotary International.

The Taliban prohibited teams organized by the U.N. from conducting door-to-door vaccinations in parts of Afghanistan under their control over the past three years.

The ban and the recently ended war in Afghanistan prevented vaccines from being administered to 3.3 million of the country’s 10 million children over that period.

Taliban support

The Taliban did not comment on the agreement, but Jafari said, “The Taliban have always been supportive of polio eradication. … In fact, the polio education program started in Afghanistan when they were in government” previously from 1996 to 2001.

Jafari said the Taliban vaccination restriction “was imposed purely for considerations of security and the nature of conflict at the time, and that has now obviously changed drastically. So their commitment to support polio education remains, and this is an expression of that.”

He said the WHO has always “maintained dialogue” with the Taliban, in keeping with its “very neutral and impartial program” that enables children to be vaccinated “wherever they are.”

Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, said in an interview with VOA that GPEI continues to be successful, noting only two cases of polio have been detected in the recent past, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.

“We have gone the longest time ever since detecting a case of the wild poliovirus. We’ve reached almost nine months, but now is not the time to be complacent,” she cautioned. “We need to build on this progress. We need to continue immunizing children against polio, and we need to intensify our disease detection systems so that with so few cases we’ll be able to tell and prove that there is no polio circulating.”

Pandak said that while Rotary International was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress made this year, “we need to also focus on other diseases, especially for children, because some of their immunization campaigns have been canceled due to COVID. So we really need to be able to protect children from diseases such as polio, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus celebrated Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, by acknowledging her “contribution to revolutionary advancements in medical science.”

The “HeLa cells” from Lacks, an African American, are the oldest and most used human cell line in existence. They were taken from her without permission at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 before her death, and their use has resulted in many other medical breakthroughs and research involving maladies such as AIDS and cancer.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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Major Oil Producer Saudi Arabia Announces Net-zero by 2060

One of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, announced Saturday it aims to reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060, joining more than 100 countries in a global effort to try and curb man-made climate change.

The announcement, made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in brief scripted remarks at the start of the kingdom’s first-ever Saudi Green Initiative Forum, was timed to make a splash a little more than a week before the start of the global COP26 climate conference being held in Glasgow, Scotland.

Although the kingdom will aim to reduce its emissions, Prince Mohammed said the kingdom would do so through a so-called “Carbon Circular Economy” approach. That approach focuses on still unreliable carbon capture and storage technologies over efforts to actually reduce global reliance on fossil fuels. The announcement only pertains to Saudi Arabia’s efforts within its national borders and does not impact its continued aggressive investment in oil and exporting its fossil fuels to Asia and other regions.

“The transition to net zero carbon emissions will be delivered in a manner that preserves the kingdom’s leading role in enhancing the security and stability of global energy markets, particularly considering the maturity and availability of technologies necessary to manage and reduce emissions,” a statement by the Saudi Green Initiative forum said.

The kingdom’s oil and gas exports form the backbone of its economy, despite efforts to diversify away from reliance on fossil fuels for revenue.

The global summit COP26 starting Oct. 31 will draw heads of state from across the world to try and tackle global warming and its challenges. It is being described as “the world’s last best chance “to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels. The summit is expected to see a flurry of new commitments from governments and businesses to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Leaked documents first reported by the BBC emerged Thursday showing how Saudi Arabia and other countries, including Australia, Brazil and Japan, are apparently trying to water down an upcoming U.N. science panel report on global warming. The documents are purportedly evidence of the way in which some governments’ public support for climate action is undermined by their efforts behind closed doors.

Saudi Arabia has pushed back against the recommendation that fossil fuels be urgently phased out of the energy sector. Instead, the kingdom is touting, thus enabling nations to continue burning fossil fuels by sucking the resulting emissions out of the atmosphere, according to Greenpeace, which obtained the documents.

The kingdom repeatedly seeks to have the report’s authors delete references to the need to phase out fossil fuels, as well as the panel’s conclusion that there is a “need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales,” according to the leaked documents

Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates – another major Gulf Arab energy producer – announced it too would join the “net zero” club of nations with a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The UAE did not announce specifics on how it will reach this target but said its Ministry of Climate Change and Environment would work with the energy, economy, industry, infrastructure, transport, waste, agriculture and other sectors on the government’s strategies and policies to achieve net zero by 2050.

The UAE says it is home to three of the largest solar facilities in the world and is the first country in the Middle East to deploy nuclear power.

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Apple Updates App Store Payment Rules in Concession to Developers

Apple has updated its App Store rules to allow developers to contact users directly about payments, a concession in a legal settlement with companies challenging its tightly controlled marketplace.

According to App Store rules updated Friday, developers can now contact consumers directly about alternate payment methods, bypassing Apple’s commission of 15 or 30%.

They will be able to ask users for basic information, such as names and e-mail addresses, “as long as this request remains optional”, said the iPhone maker.

Apple proposed the changes in August in a legal settlement with small app developers.

But the concession is unlikely to satisfy firms like “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, with which the tech giant has been grappling in a drawn-out dispute over its payments policy.  

Epic launched a case aiming to break Apple’s grip on the App Store, accusing the iPhone maker of operating a monopoly in its shop for digital goods or services.

In September, a judge ordered Apple to loosen control of its App Store payment options, but said Epic had failed to prove that antitrust violations had taken place.

For Epic and others, the ability to redirect users to an out-of-app payment method is not enough: it wants players to be able to pay directly without leaving the game.

Both sides have appealed. 

Apple is also facing investigations from US and European authorities that accuse it of abusing its dominant position.

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Another Whistleblower Accuses Facebook of Wrongdoing: Report

A former Facebook worker reportedly told U.S. authorities Friday the platform has put profits before stopping problematic content, weeks after another whistleblower helped stoke the firm’s latest crisis with similar claims.

The unnamed new whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal financial regulator, that could add to the company’s woes, said a Washington Post report.

Facebook has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing the company knew of potential harm fueled by its sites, prompting U.S. lawmakers to renew a push for regulation.

In the SEC complaint, the new whistleblower recounts alleged statements from 2017, when the company was deciding how to handle the controversy related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

“It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine,” Tucker Bounds, a member of Facebook’s communications team, was quoted in the complaint as saying, The Washington Post reported.  

The second whistleblower signed the complaint on October 13, a week after Haugen’s testimony before a Senate panel, according to the report.

Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook put profits over safety, which led her to leak reams of internal company studies that underpinned a damning Wall Street Journal series.

The Washington Post reported the new whistleblower’s SEC filing claims the social media giant’s managers routinely undermined efforts to combat misinformation and other problematic content for fear of angering then-U.S. President Donald Trump or for turning off the users who are key to profits.

Erin McPike, a Facebook spokesperson, said the article was “beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years would only report stories after deep reporting with corroborating sources.”  

Facebook has faced previous firestorms of controversy, but they did not translate into substantial U.S. legislation to regulate social media.

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China’s Reach Into Africa’s Digital Sector Worries Experts

Chinese companies like Huawei and the Transsion group are responsible for much of the digital infrastructure and smartphones used in Africa. Chinese phones built in Africa come with already installed apps for mobile money transfer services that increase the reach of Chinese tech companies. But while many Africans may find the availability of such technology useful, the trend worries some experts on data management.

China has taken the lead in the development of Africa’s artificial intelligence and communication infrastructure. 

In July 2020, Cameroon contracted with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication infrastructure company, to equip government data centers. In 2019, Kenya was reported to have signed the same company to deliver smart city and surveillance technology worth $174 million. 

A study by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, found that Huawei has developed 30% of the 3G network and 70% of the 4G network in Africa. 

Eric Olander is the managing editor of the Chinese Africa Project, a media organization examining China’s engagement in Africa. He says Chinese investment is helping Africa grow.

“The networking equipment is really what is so vital and what the Chinese have been able to do with Huawei, in particular, is they bring the networking infrastructure together with state-backed loans and that’s the combination that has proven to be very effective. So, a lot of governments that would not be able to afford 4G and 5G network upgrades are able to get these concessional loans from the China Exim Bank that are used and to purchase Huawei equipment,” Olander said.

Data compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based defense and policy research organization, show China has built 266 technology projects in Africa ranging from 4G and 5G telecommunications networks to data centers, smart city projects that modernize urban centers and education programs.  

But while the new technology has helped modernize the African continent, some say it comes at a cost that is not measured in dollars. 

China loaned the Ethiopian government more than $3 billion to be used to upgrade its digital infrastructure. Critics say the money helped Ethiopia expand its authoritarian rule and monitor telecom network users. 

According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, Huawei technology helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments spy on government critics.  In 2019, Uganda procured millions of dollars in closed circuit television surveillance technology from Huawei, ostensibly to help control urban crime.

Police in the East African nation admitted to using the system’s facial recognition ability supplied by Huawei to arrest more than 800 opposition supporters last year.

Bulelani Jili, a cybersecurity fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, says African citizens must be made aware of the risks in relations with Chinese tech companies.

“There is need [for] greater public awareness and attention to this issue in part because it’s a key metric surrounding both development but also the kind of Africa-China relations going forward…. We should also be thinking about data sovereignty is going to be a key factor going forward.” 

Jili said data sharing will create more challenges for relations between Africa and China. 

“There are security questions about data, specifically how it’s managed, who owns it, and how governments depend on private actors to provide them the technical capacity to initiate certain state services.”  

London-based organization Privacy International says at least 24 African countries have laws that protect the personal data of their citizens. But experts say most of those laws are not enforced. 

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PM Ardern: New Zealand Must Be 90% Vaccinated to Reopen

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday the country will end its strict COVID-19 lockdown once 90% of its citizens are fully vaccinated. 

The nation of 5 million people has been among the best in the world at containing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, largely because New Zealand closed its borders for most of the last 18 months to non-residents. 

The strategy to eliminate COVID-19 worked for the most part, with the nation reporting only 28 deaths over the course of the pandemic. Earlier this year, much of the country had all but returned to normal. 

But in August, the Delta variant of the virus prompted an outbreak in the nation’s largest city, Auckland. The city of 2 million has been locked down for much of the past nine weeks. 

At a news conference in the capital, Wellington, Ardern said, while the nation should be proud of all it achieved during the early months of the pandemic, the delta variant has made it very hard to maintain its elimination strategy. She said rather than remain locked down, the way to move forward is through vaccinations. 

Ardern said, based on consultations with experts and examination of data, officials established the 90% vaccination criteria for each of the nation’s 20 district health regions. She said, once that target is reached in a given district, people will be free to do what they want, as long as they provide proof of vaccination. 

The prime minister said, “Basically, if you want to be guaranteed that no matter the setting that we are in that you can go to bars, restaurants and close-proximity businesses like a hairdresser, you’ll need to be vaccinated.” 

The New Zealand Health Ministry says 58 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated as of Friday. 

 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

 

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Researchers in Uganda Start Trials for HIV Injectable Drug

Uganda has kickstarted a trial for the injectable HIV drugs cabotegravir and rilpivirine. Researchers and those living with HIV say the trial will likely end pill fatigue, fight stigma, improve adherence and ensure patients get the right dosage.

The two drugs have been in use as tablets. The World Health Organization last year licensed their use as injectables.

While the two injectables already went through trials in Europe and North America, this will be the first time they are tested in an African population for efficacy and safety in an African health care system.

Uganda is one of three African countries, along with Kenya and South Africa, which got approval from the WHO to carry out the trials. However, Kenya and South Africa have yet to acquire approvals to start their trials, expected by the end of the year.

Uganda and Kenya will both have three trial sites and there will be two in South Africa, with a total of 512 participants — 202 from Uganda, 160 from Kenya and 150 from South Africa.

Dr. Ivan Mambule, the lead project researcher at the Joint Clinical Research Center, says participants will need one injection every two months.

“We are going to choose participants who are already on ART [anti-retroviral treatment] and are stable on ART. And we will randomize them to either continue on their normal treatment, which is the pill that they’ve been taking, or to switch them to this injectable. The injection is on the buttock,” he expressed.

Uganda has 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Barbara Kemigisa who is living with HIV and founded the Pill Power Foundation working with rural women, says the injectable drugs will increase adherence to treatment and ensure people get the right dosage.

“One of the things that affects adherence is the fact that people have to hide medicine. In the village, people are hiding medicine in the kitchen roof, in trees, in bushes, in a baby’s shoe…If someone is wrapping the medicine in like five plastic bags and digs a hole in the garden and keeps the medicine there, by the time someone is taking that medicine, it’s no longer medicine, it’s poison,” Kemigisa points out.

Nicholas Niwagaba, who has worked with young people living with HIV welcomes the trial, saying it will reduce the pill burden and fight stigma.

“Young people feel like, this is a lot of pills to take. Those who are on the first line, they will have to take one tablet a day. There are those who are on second line and they have to take more than one pill and they have to take it in the morning and in the evening. And of course, this requires you to have actually a balanced diet which is really a challenge for most of young people especially those from vulnerable communities,” he says.

According to the WHO, there are 25.7 million people living with HIV in Africa. With only the pill currently available to manage the scourge, this injectable may come as a relief for people living with HIV/AIDS. 

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New Zealand Scientists Investigate Microplastics’ Impact on Climate Change

New Zealand scientists have found that microplastics have a direct impact on global warming. They published the first study linking airborne plastic fragments and fibers to climate change Wednesday. They also found that microplastics, which have been widely detected on land and in rivers and oceans, are detrimental to health.

This is the first study to investigate the effects of airborne microplastics on climate. The plastic fragments and fibers are carried by the wind. Microplastics are created by the breakdown of carpets, clothing and paint, as well as tires and larger plastics that degrade over time.

Researchers in New Zealand have found that for now, their influence on climate change is small. But if the global average concentration of microplastics increases to levels already seen in some cities, the impact “will be significant,” they say. 

Laura Revell, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said the airborne particles do affect the environment.

“They are good at scattering solar radiation, or sunlight, back to space, which causes a minor cooling influence on Earth’s climate, and they also are quite good at absorbing the infrared radiation that is emitted by the Earth, which means they also contribute to the greenhouse effect,” she said. “But overall, it is that interaction with sunlight that plays out. So, overall, they have a very, very small cooling influence on Earth’s climate.”

Revell said laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can damage lung tissue. Aquatic organisms such as zooplankton can also mistake the plastic for food, which can interfere with the ocean’s carbon cycle, where carbon is recycled naturally by the environment.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that this is actually a good thing in terms of climate change and that they are offsetting the effects of greenhouse gas warming because, for a start, the effect is very small in the present day and then there are also these other damaging effects to humans and to other ecosystems.” 

Researchers have estimated that globally, 5 billion tons of plastic waste have accumulated in landfills and the natural environment to date. They have warned that amount could double over the next 30 years if current trends in plastic production and waste management continue. 

The research is a collaboration between New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington.

It is published in the leading scientific journal Nature.

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In Colombia, Blinken Announces Deal to Curb Amazon Deforestation

After a day of high-level talks in Colombia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Thursday a regional partnership to address deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

“We’ll give much-needed financial assistance to help manage protected areas and Indigenous territories, and we’ll help scale up low-carbon agricultural practices to farmers throughout the Amazon,” he said in the capital, Bogota, after touring its botanical gardens.

“This new regional partnership will help prevent up to 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere while capturing another 52,000 metric tons of carbon, and we estimate it will save — save — more than 45,000 hectares of forest,” Blinken added.

The Amazon spans eight countries in South America, including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Amazon and other rainforests are crucial because they take in carbon dioxide and produce about one-fifth of the world’s oxygen. About a third of Colombia is in the Amazon.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has ambitious climate goals, including zero deforestation by 2030. Blinken observed in his remarks that Duque won an International Conservation Award this year from the International Conservation Caucus Foundation.

UN conference

Blinken’s announcement came a little more than a week before the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, opens in Glasgow, Scotland, where about 100 world leaders will discuss climate change and how to combat it.

In Glasgow, “the entire planet is hoping for important announcements — actions,” he said.

The secretary was wrapping up a trip to Ecuador and Colombia that focused on discussing migration policy and upholding democracy.

“The core focus of this trip for me, my first trip to South America as secretary of state, is how we make democracies deliver for our people,” Blinken said minutes before the talks began. “That is our common challenge. It’s our common responsibility. And that’s true in our countries and it’s true across the hemisphere.”

Blinken said many common issues would be discussed during the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue, including COVID-19, the climate crisis and migration.

“We know that one way we can deliver is by working closely with our partners and allies on the biggest challenges we face, and that’s exactly what the United States and Colombia are doing,” Blinken said.

Blinken told reporters Wednesday after meeting with Duque that the two countries have many areas of potential cooperation, including cloud computing, health technology and agriculture.

The United States is asking countries in the Western Hemisphere to step up pledges to tackle the immediate challenges of irregular migration as it expands eligibility for legal migration to the United States.

Migration ministerial

Blinken held talks Wednesday with more than a dozen officials from Latin America at a regional migration ministerial in Bogota. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joined the gathering virtually.

The United States discussed options, including assisting with voluntary returns to their home countries for migrants who do not have valid asylum claims.

Duque confirmed that his government had received resources from the U.S. to tackle what he called ”the most complicated migration crisis in the world”: the Venezuelan migration crisis.

In a speech earlier Wednesday in Ecuador, Blinken outlined several challenges that democracies face in the Western Hemisphere, including corruption, civilian security, and the economic and social well-being of the people.

He said he was optimistic they could be overcome and noted that the survival of a democracy driven by ordinary people was vital to the shared future of the region.​

VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Texas Asks Supreme Court to Leave Restrictive Abortion Law in Place

The U.S. state of Texas on Thursday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to leave in place its restrictive law banning most abortions after the administration of President Joe Biden had asked the country’s highest court to block the statute. 

In its court filing, Texas, the second most populous U.S. state, defended an order by a three-judge 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that allowed the anti-abortion law to go back into effect after a lower-court judge put it on hold.  

The state contended, “In sum, far from being demonstrably wrong, the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that Texas is likely to prevail was entirely right.” It told the high court there was no reason to rush into a decision pending further review at the appellate level. 

The Biden administration has argued that the law is “clearly unconstitutional” because it bans abortions at roughly six weeks of a pregnancy, long before a fetus can survive outside the womb. In its major abortion rulings, the Supreme Court has made it clear that states can regulate but not prohibit abortions before the point of fetal viability, about 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. 

Since the law went into effect, clinics in Texas say abortions in the state are down by about 80%, with women going to clinics in other states to obtain abortions. 

The Texas abortion law is unique in that it also gives private citizens the right to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion. Individual citizens can be awarded $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits.

Aside from the Texas case, in December, the Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold or overturn a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks.

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Warming Temperatures Could Spark Conflicts in Global Hot Spots, Reports Say 

More than just altering the environment, climate change is threatening to permanently and dangerously reshape the global security landscape, according to a series of new assessments by U.S. military, intelligence and security officials.

The reports, ordered earlier this year by U.S. President Joe Biden as part of an effort to better confront the impact of climate change, warn no country will be spared, and that some parts of the world already may be reaching a tipping point.

“As climate change converges with other drivers — especially geostrategic competition, emerging technology and global-demographic trends — it is reshaping the risk landscape,” the Department of Homeland Security said in its climate change strategic framework, released Thursday.

“The corrosive impact of these trends will make nations increasingly vulnerable to domestic instability, with sweeping implications for regional and border security and core national security interests,” it added.

Preparing for calamities

Defense officials said they are already being forced to prepare for worst-case scenarios, from mass migration events to shifts in the balance of power in key regions to the possibility some countries could collapse outright, spawning “instability across the globe.”

“Competitive advantage in the future will go to those who can fight and win in this rapidly changing strategic and physical environment,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

The Pentagon’s risk assessment warned climate change is likely to spark instability in at least four regions – the Middle East and South Asia, Africa, Europe, and Central and South America – with three of them likely to see increased demand for humanitarian aid.

The U.S. intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate on climate change is even more dire, pointing to looming disaster for key countries in South and East Asia, and in Central America.

And where existing governments are unable to meet the challenges of climate change, insurgents and terrorists appear poised to exploit the situation.

“We assess that most of the countries where al-Qaida or ISIS have a presence are highly vulnerable to climate change,” the intelligence estimate warned.

Countries in Central Africa, already confronting rising terror threats, also may find themselves overwhelmed.

“Under-resourced and ill-equipped militaries will face severe strains when they are called upon to respond to more natural disasters in their own and neighboring countries,” the assessment said.

In Central America, prolonged dry spells and excessive rains could force 30% of the working population to flee.

No country spared

U.S. intelligence officials also warn that even countries with the most resources could find themselves at odds, predicting intense competition between the U.S. and China over key mineral and clean energy technologies by 2040.

“The United States and others … are in a relatively better position than other countries to deal with the major costs and dislocation of forecasted change, in part because they have greater resources to adapt, but will nonetheless require difficult adjustments,” according to the estimate.

“Adjusting to such changes will often be wrenching, and populations will feel negative effects in their daily lives,” it said. “The impacts will be massive even if the worst human costs can be avoided.”

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