Bird flu is ravaging South Africa’s endangered Cape cormorants, killing as much as five percent of the world’s remaining population, a conservation group said Wednesday.
“We know that we have over 12,000 dead cormorants so far, which is most likely underreported,” said Katta Ludynia, research manager for the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
The long-necked birds live along the coast from South Africa to Angola, and they number only 234,000 adults.
About 500 are dying every day from avian influenza, but not all beaches are monitored and some corpses may have washed out to sea, Ludynia said.
The strain of bird flu is not dangerous to humans, but spreads quickly through cormorant colonies.
The deaths include many chicks, as this is the breeding season.
The bird flu outbreak comes as cormorants are already under pressure from declining fish stocks, especially those of sardines.
Lack of food may have weakened their defences, helping to account for the high death toll.
Early this year, hundreds of cormorant chicks were abandoned in a startling incident that conservationists said may have also been caused by hunger.
“There is very high commercial fishing pressure on sardines, but there have also been environmental pressures related to climate change,” Ludynia said.
Bird flu cannot be treated in cormorants. Ludynia said the only solution is to stop the spread by removing carcasses quickly and euthanising birds that show symptoms before they can spread it further.
With a pandemic debt suspension program in its final weeks, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva on Wednesday encouraged creditors in more advanced nations to continue offering aid to poor countries.
Early in the pandemic, G20 nations agreed to the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), which offered 73 low- and middle-income countries the ability to halt debt payments during the pandemic.
That will expire at the end of the year, and the IMF chief encouraged countries to offer relief under the “Common Framework” aimed at DSSI-eligible countries that continue to struggle with their debt loads.
“We must speed up the implementation of the G20’s Common Framework for debt resolution,” Georgieva wrote in the Washington-based crisis lender’s blog released ahead of a gathering of the bloc’s leaders in Rome beginning Saturday.
“The keys are to provide more clarity on how to use the framework and offer incentives to debtors to seek framework treatment as soon as there are clear signs of deepening debt distress,” she wrote.
While the DSSI offers repayment over a fixed timeframe following a grace period, the Common Framework is more flexible, with repayment periods based on countries’ individual circumstances and provisions to require participation from private and other lenders.
More than 40 countries have received DSSI relief totaling $5 billion since it took effect in May 2020, according to the World Bank.
The pandemic aid program was originally scheduled to conclude at the end of last year but was extended through the end of 2021.
World Bank President David Malpass earlier this month called for a comprehensive plan to deal with debt loads in low-income countries, which surged 12 per cent to a record $860 billion in 2020 amid the pandemic downturn.
He said the DSSI “wasn’t broad enough,” adding, “I think there should be consideration by the world of what to do after January 1. And a suspension is something that could be considered.”
Israel advanced plans for building more than 3,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, a military spokesman said, a day after the US forcefully criticised such construction.
The Civil Administration’s high planning committee gave the final green light to 1,800 homes and initial approval for another 1,344, a spokesman for the military body that oversees civilian matters in the Palestinian territories told AFP.
The approvals came a day after the United States criticised Israel for its policy of building settlements, with President Joe Biden’s administration saying it “strongly” opposed new construction on the West Bank.
His administration’s position on the matter stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Donald Trump, whose presidency saw the US offer a green light to Israel’s activity on occupied Palestinian land.
The homes approved on Wednesday were spread across the West Bank, from the suburbs of Jerusalem to new neighbourhoods of settlements deep inside the territory.
Israel’s housing ministry had separately on Sunday published tenders to build 1,355 new homes in the West Bank.
About 475,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state.
Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem has continued under every Israeli government since 1967.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Tuesday for the immediate release of Sudan’s prime minister, who was detained in a military coup.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok “must be released immediately,” Guterres told a press conference as the UN Security Council prepared to hold an emergency meeting on the putsch in Sudan.
On Monday soldiers detained Hamdok, his ministers and civilian members of Sudan’s ruling council, who have been heading a transition to full civilian rule following the 2019 overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.
Guterres said “geopolitical divides” were preventing the Security Council from taking strong measures as countries around the world grapple with the pandemic and social and economic problems.
“These factors are creating an environment in which some military leaders feel that they have total impunity, they can do whatever they want because nothing will happen to them,” Guterres said.
“My appeal is for especially the big powers to come together for the unity of the Security Council in order to make sure that there is effective deterrence in relation with this epidemic of coups d’etat,” he said.
Japan’s Princess Mako married her university sweetheart on Tuesday, but it was a low-key union bereft of traditional rituals, with the couple voicing sadness over the controversy that haunted their engagement.
Under the rules of the imperial family, Emperor Naruhito’s 30-year-old niece Mako gave up her royal title as she wed Kei Komuro, who is the same age and works for a US law firm.
“To me, Kei is irreplaceable. Our marriage is a necessary step for us to be able to protect our hearts,” she told reporters after the marriage was registered.
“I have been scared, feeling sadness and pain whenever one-sided rumours turn into groundless stories,” she added as the newlyweds read out rehearsed statements in a soberly decorated hotel function room.
Since announcing their engagement in 2017, the couple has faced tabloid scandals and vicious online sniping over allegations that Komuro’s family had run into financial difficulties.
After much delay, they finally tied the knot with no wedding ceremony, reception banquet or any of the usual rites — opting to do so privately, away from a public that has not always been kind.
Mako also turned down a large payment usually offered to royal women on their departure, reportedly up to 153 million yen ($1.35 million), and they are now said to be planning a move to the United States.
Royals are held to exacting standards in Japan, and Mako has developed complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the media attention, according to the Imperial Household Agency.
“I love Mako. We only get one life, and I want us to spend it with the one we love,” Komuro said.
“I feel very sad that Mako has been in a bad condition, mentally and physically, because of the false accusations.”
The couple did not answer questions from reporters verbally, to make the experience less stressful for Mako, the household said.
But in a document given to reporters, she said her condition was “not good”.
Women in the imperial family cannot ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne, and lose their royal status when they marry a commoner.
TV footage showed the princess bid farewell to her family on Tuesday morning, bowing to her mother and father, Crown Prince Akishino, and hugging her sister.
Despite the negative press coverage and small but angry protests against the marriage, more than half of respondents in a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily said they thought it was a good thing.
“The most important thing is that she is happy,” Tokyo resident Machiko Yoshimoto, in her 60s, told AFP.
“It would have been better to have a festive atmosphere, instead of this difficult situation, which is rather sad and regrettable,” said Shigehiro Hashimoto, 54.
While Japanese media initially fawned over Komuro, reports soon emerged that his mother had failed to repay a four-million-yen loan from a former fiance.
As pressure grew on the couple, the wedding was postponed and Komuro moved to New York for law school in 2018, a move seen as a bid to defuse negative attention.
Mako said on Tuesday she had encouraged Komuro to “establish a life overseas”.
Their reported plan to move to the US, where Komuro works, has drawn inevitable comparisons with another royal couple who faced a media onslaught: Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
It is not clear if Mako will work, but she is well qualified, having studied art and cultural heritage at Tokyo’s International Christian University. She also holds a Master’s degree from Britain’s University of Leicester.
The Japanese throne can pass only to male members of the family, and the children of female royals who marry commoners are not included.
There has been some debate over changing the rules, and a government panel in July compiled notes on the issue including a proposal that royal women stay in the family, even after marriage.
Although polls show the public broadly support women being allowed to rule, any change is likely to be slow, with traditionalists vehemently opposed.
Women activists in Kabul held up signs that read “why is the world watching us die in silence?” on Tuesday, protesting the international community’s inaction on the crisis in Afghanistan.
Around a dozen women risked the wrath of the Taliban, who have banned demonstrations and shut them down using violence since taking power in August, holding banners affirming their “right to education” and “right to work”, before the Islamists stopped the press from approaching the march.
“We are asking the UN secretary-general to support our rights, to education, to work. We are deprived of everything today,” Wahida Amiri, one of the organisers for the Spontaneous Movement of Women Activists in Afghanistan, told AFP.
Their demonstration, addressing the “political, social and economic situation” in Afghanistan was initially planned to take place near the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
But it was moved at the last minute to the entrance of the former “Green Zone”, where the buildings of several Western embassies are located, although most of their missions left the country as the Taliban took control.
Taliban gunmen at the entrance to the ultra-secure area initially asked the demonstrators and the press to move away.
An AFP reporter then saw a reinforcement of a dozen Taliban guards — most of them armed — push back journalists and confiscate the mobile phone of one local reporter who was filming the protest.
“We have nothing against the Taliban, we just want to demonstrate peacefully,” Amiri said.
Symbolic demonstrations by women have become a regular occurrence in Kabul in recent weeks as the Taliban have still not allowed them to return to work or permitted most girls to go to school.
Last Thursday about 20 women were allowed to march for more than 90 minutes, but several foreign and local journalists covering the rally were beaten by Taliban fighters.
China placed a city of four million under lockdown on Tuesday in a bid to stamp out a domestic coronavirus spike, with residents told not to leave home except in emergencies.
Beijing imposed strict border controls after the new coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019, slowing the number of cases to a trickle and allowing the economy to bounce back.
But as the rest of the world opens up and tries to find ways to live with the virus, China has maintained a zero-Covid approach that has seen harsh local lockdowns imposed over just a handful of cases.
Tuesday’s fresh restrictions came as China reported 29 new domestic infections — including six cases in Lanzhou, the provincial capital of northwestern province Gansu.
Residents of Lanzhou will be required to stay at home, authorities said in a statement.
Officials added the “entry and exit of residents” would be strictly controlled and limited to essential supplies or medical treatment.
Bus and taxi services had already been suspended in the city, and state media said Tuesday that Lanzhou station had suspended more than 70 trains, including key routes to major cities like Beijing and Xi’an.
Flights to Lanzhou were also being cancelled, with a Southern Airlines representative telling AFP that all their flights from Beijing’s Daxing airport to Lanzhou were cancelled due to public safety, without any date given to resume.
China’s latest outbreak has been linked to the contagious Delta variant, with the tally from the latest outbreak hitting 198 cases since October 17.
Health officials have warned that more infections may emerge as testing is ramped up in the coming days to fight the outbreak, which has been linked to a group of domestic tourists who travelled from Shanghai to several other provinces.
Strict stay-at-home orders have already been imposed on tens of thousands of people in northern China.
In Beijing — which reported three new cases Tuesday — access to tourist sites has been limited and residents advised not to leave the city unless necessary.
Some 23,000 residents in one housing compound in Changping district have been ordered to stay indoors after nine cases were found there in recent days, local outlet Beijing News reported.
Community mahjong and chess rooms have been closed, and residents have been told to reduce large gatherings where possible.
Organisers on Sunday indefinitely postponed a marathon at which 30,000 runners were expected.
Mass testing is underway in 11 provinces and authorities have suspended many inter-provincial tour groups.
While the country’s case numbers are extremely low compared with elsewhere in the world, authorities are determined to stamp out the latest outbreak with the Winter Olympics just over 100 days away.
Those deemed to have failed in controlling Covid are often dismissed from their posts or punished.
On Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the party secretary of Ejin Banner in the northern Inner Mongolia region had been sacked, “due to poor performance and implementation in epidemic prevention and control”.
The city has also been hit by the latest wave which has mostly spread in northern areas in China.
Six other officials were punished for their “slack response” to the latest flare-up, state media reported, and a local police bureau deputy director was removed from the position.
Beijing police have launched three criminal investigations into alleged Covid safety breaches, deputy director of the city’s public security bureau said Sunday.
A high-level medical panel of US government advisors will meet Tuesday to decide whether to authorize the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11 years old.
If, as is widely expected, the independent experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) vote in favor, an emergency authorization could follow within weeks.
This would make 28 million younger children eligible for the shots in November.
The question before the panel: based on the scientific evidence available, do the benefits of the two-dose vaccine, given three weeks apart, outweigh the known risks?
Ahead of the meeting, the FDA uploaded an analysis by Pfizer that showed the vaccine — given at 10 micrograms instead of 30 micrograms as in older groups — was 90.7 percent effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19, and there were no serious safety issues.
The FDA also posted its own briefing document containing a risk-benefit analysis, which indicated the agency’s scientists believe the benefits exceed the most worrying potential side-effect for this age group: myocarditis, or heart inflammation.
“My initial thought is that the benefits of vaccinating children five through 11 years outweigh the risks of myocarditis and other safety concerns that people may have,” Henry Bernstein, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York, told AFP.
Overall, 160 children aged five to 11 have died from Covid-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic, according to official data — a tiny fraction of the total of more than 730,000.
But millions have been infected and thousands hospitalized. There have also been more than 5,000 cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare but highly serious post-viral complication, which has claimed 46 lives.
“Of course, (we) want to protect the children, but we also want them to not be transmitting SARS-CoV-2 virus to family members and other people in the community,” said Bernstein.
– Myocarditis rate likely low –
Pfizer evaluated safety data from a total of 3,000 vaccinated participants, with the most common side-effects mild or moderate, including injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain and chills.
There were no cases of myocarditis or pericarditis (inflammation around the heart), but the company said there were not enough study volunteers to be able to detect highly rare side-effects.
Very rare instances of myocarditis were only detected in adolescents after the vaccine was authorized in June and given to millions of people in that age group, rather than the thousands that were tested in trials.
Scientists believe it will be even rarer among younger children, but don’t expect to know just how rare until it is green-lighted.
The FDA acknowledged that, hypothetically speaking, if Covid-19 transmission was crushed within communities — as was the case last in June 2021 — the number of vaccine-induced myocarditis cases could exceed the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations prevented.
But even then, it added, the benefits might still exceed the risks, because non-hospitalized Covid-19 cases can have more serious consequences than side-effects, which are normally temporary.
The United States is emerging from its latest wave driven by the Delta variant.
But cases remain high in northern states such as Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, which are experiencing colder weather and have lagging vaccination rates.
Overall, 57 percent of the total population is now fully vaccinated.
Vaccine confidence has risen in recent months, but the United States remains behind every other G7 nation in percent of population fully vaccinated.
The UN warned Tuesday of severe humanitarian problems in central Somalia after 100,000 people were displaced by fighting between pro-government forces and Sufi militants.
Fighters loyal to Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) occupied the strategic town of Guricel earlier this month, before being driven out last week by national forces and paramilitaries in operations that killed at least a dozen people, including civilians.
“We are concerned, even alarmed, by the ongoing fighting in Guricel which is now continuing for the past few days,” the UN Special Representative for Somalia, James Swan, told a press briefing.
“First and foremost, we are concerned by its humanitarian consequences, which have been severe. Reports are still initial but they signal nearly 20,000 families displaced, representing some 100,000 people.”
He also warned of “very troubling reports of damage to hospitals and civil society facilities as a consequence of the fighting,” adding that such attacks amounted to a violation of international humanitarian law.
The UN earlier said that many of those fleeing the violence had sought shelter in villages that are already grappling with drought and water shortages.
Guricel is the second-largest town in the Galmudug region, which has witnessed a long-armed struggle by the Sufi militia.
The ASWJ has controlled many of the major cities in Galmudug over the past decade, and efforts to broker a military and political settlement to their feud with regional authorities have not succeeded.
The Sufi group’s recent military advances in Galmudug coincide with upper house elections in the region, which is the last of Somalia’s five federal member states to complete the long-overdue process.
The Horn of Africa nation has been struggling to hold elections and fend off a long-running Islamist insurgency, with al-Shabaab militants regularly carrying out attacks across the country.
Swan said the violence in Galmudug was “a distraction from other critical priorities, namely the completion of the electoral process and the continuation of the fight against al-Shabaab.”
Elections in Somalia follow a complex indirect model, whereby state legislatures and clan delegates pick lawmakers for the upper and lower houses of parliament, who in turn choose the president.
The presidential election is nearly a year overdue, with the process dogged by political infighting at the highest level of government, and feuds between Mogadishu and some states.
US biotech firm Moderna said Monday its Covid vaccine was safe and produced a strong immune response in children aged 6-11, adding it would submit trial data to global regulators soon.
The news comes as a panel of government advisors was preparing to meet Tuesday on the question of whether to authorize the Pfizer vaccine in kids aged 5-11, with top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci predicting it would be available by mid-November.
“We are encouraged by the immunogenicity and safety profile of mRNA-1273 in children aged 6 to under 12 years and are pleased that the study met its primary immunogenicity endpoints,” Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said in a statement.
An interim analysis from a mid-to-late stage clinical trial of 4,753 children showed that two doses of vaccine produced a high level of neutralizing antibodies — Y-shaped proteins that bind to the coronavirus and block it from entering human cells.
The vaccine was dosed at 50 micrograms, which is half of what is used among adults, but still produced on average 1.5 times as many antibodies in children as it did in young adults given the higher dose.
The majority of adverse events were mild or moderate, including fatigue, headache, fever, and injection site pain.
These early results, released via a press statement, do not yet include a vaccine efficacy estimate, which may be expected at a later time once cases have accrued.
– FDA meeting on Pfizer –
The Moderna news comes as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to convene a panel of advisors to vote on whether to greenlight the Pfizer shot for younger children, paving the way for 28 million more Americans to be vaccinated.
A briefing document posted on the FDA’s website indicated the agency believes benefits outweigh the most worrying side effect for this age group, namely myocarditis, or heart inflammation.
“The overall analysis predicted that the numbers of clinically significant Covid-19-related outcomes prevented would clearly outweigh the numbers of vaccine-associated excess myocarditis cases,” the document said.
But it acknowledged the benefit-risk calculus would differ when community transmission is very low, as was the case in the United States in June 2021.
The FDA also uploaded Pfizer’s efficacy analysis, with the company estimating a two-dose course of its vaccine at 10 micrograms was more than 90 percent effective in preventing symptomatic disease.
Overall, more than 150 children aged 5 to 11 have died from Covid in the United States since the start of the pandemic, according to official data.
“If all goes well, and we get the regulatory approval and the recommendation from the CDC, it’s entirely possible, if not very likely, that vaccines will be available for children from 5 to 11 within the first week or two of November,” Fauci told ABC News Sunday.
Colombia’s government announced Sunday it is working towards extraditing the country’s most-wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” to the United States, a day after he was captured in a major operation in the jungle.
“There is an extradition order against Otoniel, and this extradition order… remains in progress,” Defense Minister Diego Molano told the daily El Tiempo newspaper in an interview.
“This is the path for all those who commit transnational crimes,” Molano told reporters later, adding that nearly 30 percent of the many tons of cocaine exported from Colombia went through the so-called Gulf Clan, the country’s largest drug trafficking gang, led by Otoniel.
The 50-year-old drug lord, whose real name is Dairo Antonio Usuga, was arrested Saturday in northwest Colombia’s dense jungle in an operation involving some 700 uniformed agents backed by 18 helicopters, according to the army.
The United States had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Otoniel, one of the most feared men in Colombia.
“This is the hardest strike to drug trafficking in our country this century,” President Ivan Duque said Saturday, adding that the arrest was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar,” the notorious Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
“We are going for more, we are going for victory against all high-value targets,” Duque vowed from a military base in the country’s northwest.
The government accuses other armed groups such as the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and rebels who walked away from the peace pact signed with the FARC guerillas in 2016, of financing themselves with drug trafficking revenue.
Born to a poor family, Otoniel joined the EPL, a Marxist guerrilla group that demobilized in 1991. A paramilitary fighter, he ultimately headed the Gulf Clan, with a force of some 1,600 men and a presence in almost 300 municipalities nationwide, according to the independent think tank Indepaz.
In Colombia Otoniel had 128 outstanding arrest warrants for drug trafficking and recruitment of minors, among other crimes.
“He murdered more than 200 members of the security forces… Many soldiers have suffered because of this murderer and his friends,” Duque said.
Otoniel also preyed on minors, “intimidating families and extorting them in order to take their daughters’ virginity,” the president added.
In five decades of a US-backed drug war, Colombia has killed or captured several drug lords, including kingpin Escobar, who was shot by security forces in 1993.
But the country remains the world’s leading cocaine producer, with the United States its biggest buyer.