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WHO Agrees to Independent Inquiry of Pandemic Response With China’s Backing

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  • The World Health Organization said it will support an independent investigation into how it has handled the pandemic, as well as an inquiry into the source of the coronavirus.
  • The move, announced at the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, was made after China agreed to the idea. China had previously opposed an inquiry, arguing that it would be used to blame them for the outbreak and politicize the event.
  • The WHO director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also warned countries against opening up too early.
  • The warning comes as China was forced to re-impose a lockdown of 100 million people, while the U.S. and other hot-spot European countries continue to reopen and Brazil surpasses Spain and Italy in cases.

WHO Investigation

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Monday that it will agree to an independent investigation into the organization’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the origins of the virus.

The announcement was made at the WHO’s 73rd annual World Health Assembly, where leaders from all over the world gathered virtually for the two-day event.

The meeting of the 194 member countries comes at a crucial time during the coronavirus pandemic when the international spotlight is firmly placed on the WHO and its role throughout the global outbreak.

A resolution calling for both investigations was at the top of the agenda as member states went into the highly-anticipated meeting, and the proposal had been in the works for some time.

Australia first floated the idea of an independent inquiry last month, but China fervently rejected the proposal, arguing that any investigation was just an attempt to blame them for the outbreak or politicize the situation.

Angered with Australia’s plan, China threatened to boycott Australian goods and moved to cut off major imports to the country last week.

However, China started to warm up to the proposition as drafts of a resolution calling for an investigation started gaining more support among member countries and began to shift focus on the international effort to manage the pandemic rather than where the virus started.

China’s Reversal

By Monday, the resolution had the backing of more than 120 member nations. In his opening remarks to the WHO assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a stunning reversal and announced that China was backing the plan.

“China supports a comprehensive evaluation of the global response to the epidemic after the global epidemic is under control, to sum up experiences and remedy deficiencies,” he said.

While Xi did not address criticisms that Chinese officials had covered up early warnings of the outbreak in Wuhan, he did call on other countries to “step up information sharing.”

“All along we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” he continued. “We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”

The Chinese leader also said that he would be giving $2 billion to help the international fight against COVID-19. Xi did not say exactly what he was giving the money to, but he called on member nations to support the WHO and the work it has been doing.

“At this critical juncture, to support the WHO is to support international cooperation and the battle to save lives,” he said.

The remarks appear to be a jab at President Donald Trump, who withdrew U.S. funding from the WHO last month after he accused the organization of being too close with Beijing, covering up China’s mistakes, failing to share information in a timely manner, and generally bungling its response to the pandemic.

The move received was widely condemned by global leaders, but Trump has not been the only one to accuse China of covering up the virus in its early stages. He has also not been the only one critical of the WHO and its director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been criticized for repeatedly praising China’s response to the virus.

Tedros, for his part, also voiced his support for the resolution following Xi’s opening statement. 

“I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response,” he said.

Tedros also called for a more comprehensive global framework for pandemic preparedness and warned against countries reopening too soon.

“Countries that move too fast, without putting in place the public health architecture to detect and suppress transmission, run a real risk of handicapping their own recovery,” he added.

Countries Reopen as Cases Grow 

Tedros’ remarks come at a significant time when countries all over the world move to ease restrictions, even as infections and deaths continue to rise.

As of Monday morning, over 4.7 million cases and nearly 317,000 deaths have been confirmed worldwide. At the same time, the global community is seeing more countries beginning to reopen and more complications arising from that process.

More than 100 million people in China’s northeast region are now being forced back under lockdown conditions because of a new, growing cluster of infections. 

For China, which moved swiftly and authoritatively to clamp down on the virus and only reopened when nearly all cases were eradicated, the move marks a highly significant landmark in the global effort to lift restrictions.

“China’s swift and powerful reaction reflects its fear of a second wave after it curbed the virus’s spread at great economic and social cost,” Bloomberg explained in an article published Sunday.

“It’s also a sign of how fragile the re-opening process will be in China and elsewhere as even the slightest hint of a resurgence of infections could prompt a return to strict lockdown.”

But a multitude of countries, including some that have not gotten as strong of a handle on the virus, are still pushing to reopen.

In the U.S., a vast majority of states have begun to ease restrictions in at least some form despite the fact that cases are still growing. As of Monday morning, the U.S. had reported nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases and nearly 90,000 deaths.

This is especially alarming in some states like Texas, where gyms and movie theaters were set to open Monday, just two days after the state reported its highest single-day increase of new cases.

But widespread reopenings are not limited to the U.S. On Monday, Italy lifted many of Europe’s strictest restrictions and is now allowing restaurants, cafes, clothing retailers, hairdressers, and museums to open.

Meanwhile, Spain and other European nations have also begun to reopen shops and other small businesses.

While former hot-spots like Spain and Italy begin to lift restrictions, on Sunday, it was reported that Brazil officially surpassed both countries in confirmed cases. On Monday, the country reported over 244,000 infections.

The spike in Brazilian cases comes as the country’s second health minister in less than a month resigned over President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro has received significant backlash for how he has managed the outbreak in his country. He has repeatedly downplayed it, pushed against distancing and quarantine measures, and even joined protests calling to end distancing and bring back military dictatorship-era policies.

During a recent interview, when a journalist asked him about the rapid spread of the virus in Brazil, he responded, “So what? What do you want me to do?”

Brazil, however, is not alone. Other Latin American countries are also grappling with growing outbreaks across the continent. According to reports, cases have also been surging in Mexico and Peru.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (NBC News) (Bloomberg)

International

U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.

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The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.


New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle

A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.

Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.

In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.

Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.

However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased. 

In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.

High Court Ruling

The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.” 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.

If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.

Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe

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The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.


More Information About Omicron

Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.

One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.

Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa —  where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.

Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.

Studies on Vaccine Efficacy 

Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.

According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses. 

By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.

Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.

Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)

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40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox

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The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.


Camels Booted From Beauty Contest

More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.

The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.

However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”

Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.

An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.

“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”

While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.

In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (The Guardian) (ABC News)

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