US Seeks Norms for Outer Space After ‘Irresponsible’ Russia Test 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday criticized an “irresponsible” Russian test that endangered the International Space Station with debris, and the Biden administration laid out a new strategy for responsible use of space. 

Harris convened the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council and asked members of the government body to promote responsible civil, commercial and national security-related behavior in space, where there are growing commercial interests and concerns about Chinese and Russian competition. 

“Without clear norms for the responsible use of space we stand the real risk of threats to our national and global security,” Harris said. 

She said Russia’s “irresponsible act” of testing anti-satellite technology last month created debris that endangered the International Space Station (ISS). 

U.S. officials have fretted over rising security activity by Washington’s major rivals in space. China’s test of hypersonic weapons this year raised the prospect of an arms race over Earth-orbiting systems that could dodge current missile defenses. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, are seeking to usher in a new era of private commercial space flights following years of private firms working alongside the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in rocket launches. 

President Joe Biden also signed an executive order on Wednesday adding the heads of the Education, Labor, Agriculture and Interior Departments as well as his national climate adviser to the National Space Council. 

The administration also wants the group’s work to increase space climate data and enhance scientific-related efforts that could aid job creation and U.S. competitiveness, it said in a statement. 

The National Space Council is separate from the U.S. Space Force military branch created under former President Donald Trump. 

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Biden Marks 33rd World AIDS Day With New Commitments

Marking the 33rd annual World AIDS Day on Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it would ramp up its domestic and international efforts to fight the HIV virus, which has killed 36 million people worldwide in four decades.

President Joe Biden also released Wednesday the domestic-focused National HIV-AIDS Strategy, which aims for a 90% reduction in new HIV cases in the U.S. over the next nine years. Currently, about 1.2 million Americans are thought to be living with the virus. The epidemic peaked in the U.S. in the 1980s.

The administration has said that racism that leads to unequal medical care is itself “a public health threat” that needs to be acknowledged in the battle against the virus. 

The president offered two new measures aimed at ending the epidemic in the United States by 2030 and boosting U.S. efforts to end the spread of HIV, the virus that can progress to AIDS, around the world.

“Today, we once more raise a two-story-tall red ribbon from the North Portico of the White House to remember how far we have come,” Biden told an audience of American activists, politicians and medical experts, including AIDS research pioneer Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “And the work we have left to finish, so we never forget the prices paid all along the way.” 

Internationally, where the bulk of new infections occur, the U.S. seeks to increase donor funding. On Wednesday, Biden said the U.S. would host the Global Fund to Fight AIDS replenishment conference next year. The U.S. is the fund’s largest donor, contributing about $17 billion to it last year. That’s in addition to a commitment Biden made earlier this year in which he sent $250 million of American Rescue Plan funding to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program established in 2003 by President George W. Bush to combat the disease internationally.

Slow, unequal response 

Still, it’s not clear whether even that infusion of funds will right the ship. The United Nations’ AIDS organization said Wednesday that the global goal to end the epidemic by 2030 has been derailed — and not just by the coronavirus pandemic that upended global health policy and practices.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the populations most at risk were not being reached with HIV testing, prevention and care services,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “The pandemic has made things worse, with the disruption of essential health services and the increased vulnerability of people with HIV to COVID-19. Like COVID-19, we have all the tools to end the AIDS epidemic, if we use them well. This World AIDS Day, we renew our call on all countries to use every tool in the toolbox to narrow inequalities, prevent HIV infections, save lives and end the AIDS epidemic.” 

Tedros has warned that discrimination and inequality are at the root of the epidemic, and that inattention to these problems would lead to 7.7 million AIDS-related deaths in the next 10 years. 

Other critics have knocked Biden for not moving fast enough on his promises to fight HIV. In August, the world’s premier medical journal, The Lancet, published a critique of Biden’s pace in nominating a new leader for PEPFAR. Biden announced his pick for the job, Cameroon-born John Nkengasong, a U.S. citizen who heads the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in late September. The Senate received the nomination in mid-October and referred it to the Committee on Foreign Relations, where it remains.

“During his candidacy, U.S. President Joe Biden committed to prioritizing the global AIDS response,” the authors — two American and two African activists — wrote in the medical publication. “This promise has been contradicted by a 6-month delay in nominating an ambassador-at-large to lead PEPFAR, which has functioned without a presidentially appointed health diplomat since Ambassador Deborah L. Birx was detailed to the White House Coronavirus Task Force in February 2020.”

On Wednesday, as he recognized Nkengasong among the crowd gathered at the White House, Biden was hopeful.

“We can do this,” he said. “We can eliminate HIV transmission. We can get the epidemic under control in the United States and in countries around the world. We have a scientific understanding. We have treatments. We have the tools we need. We’re going to engage with people with lived experience with HIV and ensure that our efforts are appropriate and effective and centered around the needs of the HIV community.”

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Biden HIV/AIDS Strategy Calls Racism ‘Public Health Threat’

The Biden administration in its new HIV/AIDS strategy calls racism “a public health threat” that must be fully recognized as the world looks to end the epidemic.

The strategy released Wednesday on the annual commemoration of World AIDS Day is meant to serve as a framework for how the administration intends to shape its policies, research, programs and planning over the next three years.

The new strategy asserts that over generations “structural inequities have resulted in racial and ethnic health disparities that are severe, far-reaching, and unacceptable.”

New HIV infections in the U.S. fell about 8% from 2015 to 2019, but Black and Latino communities — particularly gay and bisexual men within those groups — continue to be disproportionately affected, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population but accounted for more than 40% of new infections. The Latino population accounted for nearly 25% of new infections but makes up about 18.5% of the U.S. population.

Historically, gay and bisexual men have been the most disproportionately affected group. They account for about 66% of new HIV infections, even though they account for only 2% of the population, according to the CDC. In 2019, 26% of new HIV infections were among Black gay and bisexual men, 23% among Latino gay and bisexual men, and 45% among gay and bisexual men under the age of 35.

To reduce the disparities, the strategy includes calls for focusing on the needs of disproportionately affected populations, supporting racial justice, combating HIV-related stigma and discrimination and providing leadership and employment opportunities for people with or at risk for HIV.

Besides addressing racism’s impact on Americans battling the virus or at risk of contracting it, the new strategy also puts greater emphasis on harm reduction and syringe service programs, encourages reform of state laws that criminalize behavior of people with HIV for potentially exposing others and adds focus on the needs of the growing population of people with HIV who are aging.

More than 36 million people worldwide, including 700,000 in the U.S., have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic more than 40 years ago. Nearly 38 million people are living with HIV, including 1.2 million in the U.S.

President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced it will host the Global Fund to Fight AIDS replenishment conference next year. The United States has contributed about $17 billion to the fund, about a third of all donor contributions.

A giant red ribbon, a symbol of support for people living with HIV, was also displayed on the North Portico of the White House to mark World AIDS day. The two-story ribbon display has become an annual tradition at the White House since 2007.

“Honored to continue this tradition on #WorldAidsDay, remembering the lives lost to HIV/AIDS and supporting those living with the virus across the world,” first lady Jill Biden said in a Twitter posting that included a photo of her posing in front of the ribbon display. 

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WHO Works Toward International Pact on Pandemic Prevention 

The World Health Organization (WHO) Wednesday began a lengthy process to develop an international agreement on the prevention and control of future pandemics.

The WHO’s World Health Assembly – the organization’s decision-making body – approved the effort at the end of a rare, three-day special session at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. The plan, entitled “The World Together,” was created as the world is facing the new omicron variant of coronavirus. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the decision, saying the pandemic has exposed shortcomings in the application and implementation of international health regulations established by the WHO in 2005.

The agreement would establish international standards on issues ranging from data sharing and genome sequencing of emerging viruses to equitable distribution of vaccine and drugs. 

Wednesday’s decision begins the process of drafting and negotiating the agreement, which is not expected to be completed until May 2024.

The European Union (EU) had pushed for the agreement on an international legally binding treaty, along with about 70 countries, but Brazil, India and the United States were among those reluctant to commit to a treaty, diplomats said. 

More than 262.22 million people have been reported infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, and 5.46 million people have died of it since it emerged in China in December 2019. 

 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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EU Leaders Consider Mandatory Vaccinations to Fight Omicron Variant

European Union leaders said Wednesday they are considering a number of public health options, including vaccine mandates, to address the growing threat posed by the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said little is currently known about the variant, but enough is known to be concerned. She said they expect scientists to have a handle on the nature of the variant in about two to three weeks, but in the meantime are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. 

Von der Leyen said the best use of that time is to get more people vaccinated, and those who are inoculated should get booster shots. She said more than one-third of the European population — 150 million people — are not vaccinated.

The European Commission president said that while not everyone can be vaccinated, the majority of people can.

“This needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be had,” she said. 

Von der Leyen said Pfizer-BioNTech has indicated it can accelerate the production and distribution of its children’s vaccine, which will be available to European children beginning December 13.

She also said Pfizer and Moderna are set to deliver 360 million more doses of their vaccines by the end of March 2022, and that boosters are available to those who received their initial shots. 

The commission also urged EU members to commit to a day-by-day review of travel restrictions and a readiness to impose all necessary controls, including decisive action, if clusters of the omicron variant are found. 

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

 

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Nigeria Detects First Case of Omicron Variant from October

Nigeria has detected its first case of the omicron coronavirus variant in a sample it collected in October, weeks before South Africa alerted the world about the variant last week, the country’s national public health institute said Wednesday.

It is the first West African country that has recorded the omicron variant since scientists in southern Africa detected and reported it and adds to a list of nearly 20 countries where the variant has been recorded, triggering travel bans across the world. 

Genomic sequencing of positive cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria identified two cases of the omicron variant among travelers from South Africa, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control said in a statement issued by its director-general.

The two unidentified travelers arrived in the West African country last week, but the variant has also been confirmed in cases in Nigeria prior to their arrival.

“Retrospective sequencing of the previously confirmed cases among travelers to Nigeria also identified the omicron variant among the sample collected in October 2021,” Nigeria CDC director-general Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa said.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and if it can thwart the vaccine.

The Nigeria CDC urged the country’s states and the general public to be on alert and called for improved testing amid concerns that Nigeria’s low testing capacity might become its biggest challenge in the face of the new variant.

Testing for the virus is low in many states and even in the nation’s capital, Abuja. For instance, in parts of Kuje, a suburb of Abuja, Musa Ahmed, a public health official, told The Associated Press that no one has been tested for the virus for weeks.

The detection of the omicron variant in Africa’s most populous nation, with 206 million people, coincides with Nigeria’s new requirement that all federal government employees must be inoculated or present a negative COVID-19 test result done in the last 72 hours. 

With the vaccine mandate taking effect on Wednesday, there were chaotic scenes at several offices in the nation’s capital as civil servants without a vaccination card or a negative PCR test were turned away by security agents.

Many of the workers and security agents were not wearing face masks.

“Governments should invest in promoting narratives around vaccine safety, efficacy, and the broader public health security implications of poor vaccines uptake,” Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist at Gatefield, an Abuja-based consultancy. “If public servants are convinced about these issues, they are naturally more effective advocates to their constituents.”

Across Nigeria, the news of the omicron variant — which the World Health Organization has warned poses “very high” risk — has triggered concerns and renewed fears over the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the airport in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and economic hub, authorities insisted that travelers must wear their face masks at the counters, though not much attention is paid to many others flouting health protocols around the airport premises and in the city. 

Nigeria — with 214,218 confirmed infections including nearly 3,000 deaths — has updated its travel advisory, ordering incoming international travelers to have a PCR test 48 hours before embarking on their trip to the country and two more tests, two days and seven days after arrival. Incoming international arrivals must also isolate for seven days.

Amid global concern over the omicron variant, the Nigeria CDC director-general told reporters that the country remains at alert in the face of the emerging crisis.

“We are working very hard to enhance ongoing surveillance, especially for inbound travelers, and also trying to ramp up testing (including) at the land borders,” he said.

A slew of nations moved to ban travels from many countries especially southern African nations in the aftermath of the emergence of the omicron variant. But the move has been widely condemned by many including South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is currently in Nigeria on a two-day visit.

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FDA Panel Backs First-of-a-Kind COVID-19 Pill From Merck

A panel of U.S. health advisers on Tuesday narrowly backed a closely watched COVID-19 pill from Merck, setting the stage for a likely authorization of the first drug that Americans could take at home to treat the coronavirus. 

A Food and Drug Administration panel voted 13-10 that the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks, including potential birth defects if used during pregnancy. 

The recommendation came after hours of debate about the drug’s modest benefits and potential safety issues. Experts backing the treatment stressed that it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant and called on the FDA to recommend extra precautions before the drug is prescribed, including pregnancy tests for women of child-bearing age. 

The vote specifically backed the drug for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who face the greatest risks, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and asthma. Most experts also said the drug shouldn’t be used in vaccinated patients, who weren’t part of the study and haven’t been shown to benefit. 

The FDA isn’t bound by the panel’s recommendation and is expected to make its own decision before year’s end. The pill is already authorized in the United Kingdom. 

The drug, molnupiravir, could provide a much-needed weapon against the virus as colder weather pushes case counts higher and U.S. officials brace for the arrival of the new omicron variant.

Merck hasn’t specifically tested its drug against the new variant but said it should have some potency based on its effectiveness against other strains of the coronavirus. 

But that uncertainty frustrated many panelists as they grappled with whether to back the treatment for millions of Americans. 

“With no data saying it works with new variants, I really think we need to be careful about saying that this is the way to go,” said Dr. David Hardy of Charles Drew University School of Medicine and Science, who ultimately voted to back the drug. 

Effectiveness, dangers

The panel’s narrow-but-positive recommendation came despite new data from Merck that paint a less compelling picture of the drug’s effectiveness than just a few weeks earlier. 

Last week, Merck said final study results showed molnupiravir reduced hospitalization and death by 30% among adults infected with the coronavirus, when compared with adults taking a placebo. That effect was significantly less than the 50% reduction it first announced based on incomplete results. 

That smaller-than-expected benefit amplified experts’ concerns about the drug’s toxicity for fetuses. 

FDA scientists told the panelists earlier Tuesday that company studies in rats showed the drug caused toxicity and birth defects when given at very high doses. Taken together, FDA staffers concluded the data “suggest that molnupiravir may cause fetal harm when administered to pregnant individuals.” 

FDA is weighing a blanket restriction against any use in pregnant women or allowing it in rare cases. Some panelists said the option should be left open for pregnant mothers who have high-risk COVID-19 and may have few other treatment options. 

Dr. Janet Cragan, who backed the drug, said that even with tight restrictions, some pregnant women would inevitably take the drug.

“I don’t think you can ethically tell a woman with COVID-19 that she can’t have the drug if she’s decided that’s what she needs,” a panel member and staffer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think the final decision has to come down to the individual woman and her provider.”

Merck’s drug uses a novel approach to fight COVID-19: It inserts tiny errors into the coronavirus’ genetic code to stop it from reproducing. That genetic effect has raised concerns that the drug could spur more virulent strains of the virus. But FDA regulators said Tuesday that risk is theoretical and seems unlikely. 

Pfizer drug

While Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics were the first to submit their COVID-19 pill to the FDA, rival drugmaker Pfizer is close behind with its own pill under review. 

Pfizer’s drug is part of a decades-old family of antiviral pills known as protease inhibitors, a standard treatment for HIV and hepatitis C. They work differently than Merck’s pill and haven’t been linked to the kind of mutation concerns raised with Merck’s drug. 

Pfizer said this week that its drug shouldn’t be affected by the omicron variant’s mutations. 

The U.S. government has agreed to purchase 10 million treatment courses of Pfizer’s drug, if it’s authorized. That’s more than three times the government’s purchase agreement with Merck for 3.1 million courses of molnupiravir. 

Both drugs require patients to take multiple pills, twice a day for five days. 

 

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Space Junk Forces Spacewalk Delay, Too Risky for Astronauts 

NASA called off a spacewalk Tuesday because of menacing space junk that could puncture an astronaut’s suit or damage the International Space Station. 

Two U.S. astronauts were set to replace a bad antenna outside of the space station. But late Monday night, Mission Control learned that a piece of orbiting debris might come dangerously close. There wasn’t enough time to assess the threat so station managers delayed the spacewalk until Thursday. 

It’s the first time a spacewalk has been canceled because of threat from space junk. 

The space station and its crew of seven have been at increased risk from space junk since Russia destroyed a satellite in a missile test two weeks ago. 

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the object of concern was part of the Russian satellite wreckage. During a news conference Monday, NASA officials said the November 15 missile test resulted in at least 1,700 satellite pieces big enough to track, and thousands more too small to be observed from the ground but still able to pierce a spacewalker’s suit. 

NASA officials said astronauts Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron faced a 7% greater risk of a spacewalk puncture because of the Russian-generated debris. But they said it was still within acceptable limits based on previous experience. 

Marshburn and Barron arrived at the space station earlier this month. 

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Fauci: Existing Coronavirus Vaccines Provide ‘Some’ Protection Against Omicron Variant

The top U.S. infectious disease expert said Tuesday that vaccinated Americans have “some degree of protection” against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, but that scientists will not know for a few weeks how vaccines may need to be altered to best fight it. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, said at a White House coronavirus news briefing that the omicron “mutation profile is very different from other variants” of the coronavirus. 

While he said the three existing vaccines used in the U.S. could prevent people who have been inoculated from getting seriously ill from the omicron variant, it “remains uncertain … speculative” whether they will fully work against people getting sick. 

“We believe it is too soon to tell about the severity” of the omicron variant, he said. “We should have a much better idea in the next few weeks.” 

To date, he said, 226 cases of the omicron variant have been identified in 20 countries across the globe, but none so far in the United States. Health officials, however, say they assume the variant eventually will spread to the United States. 

“We are actively looking for the omicron variant in the U.S.,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Stephane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, which produces one of the vaccines used in the U.S., predicted in an interview with the Financial Times that existing vaccines would be much less effective in combating the omicron variant than the previous four variants of the coronavirus. 

“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level … we had with delta,” Bancel said, referring to the highly contagious variant that is the predominant strain throughout the U.S. and was first detected in India in late 2020. 

His comments sent U.S. stock indexes tumbling, as investors feared the effect of the omicron variant on the world economy, in which many countries are still struggling from the coronavirus onslaught that started in early 2020. 

Bancel said it could take months for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture effective new vaccines to deal with the specific molecular makeup of the omicron variant. 

Dutch officials said Tuesday that they detected the omicron variant in tests almost two weeks ago, days earlier than when two flights from South Africa transported infected passengers to the Netherlands. 

Walensky said 45 million adults are unvaccinated in the U.S., and millions more children, ages 5 to 18, are eligible to get shots, but their parents have yet to get them inoculated. 

In addition, Jeffrey Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said that 100 million vaccinated people in the U.S. are eligible for booster shots but have yet to get them.

He, too, said that vaccinations provide “some protection” against the omicron variant and that “boosters help that.” 

“We want to make sure Americans are doing all they can to protect themselves,” he said. 

 

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1st French Omicron Case on Indian Ocean Island of Reunion

Japan and France confirmed their first cases of the new variant of the coronavirus on Tuesday as countries around the world scrambled to close their doors or find ways to limit its spread while scientists study how damaging it might be.

The World Health Organization has warned that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”

French authorities on Tuesday confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had traveled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.

The man was placed in quarantine. He has “muscle pain and fatigue,” Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.

Japan on Tuesday confirmed its first case in a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, a day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant. A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.

Cambodia barred entry to travelers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the omicron variant. The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers on Nov. 15.

The new version was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.

WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.

Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients. 

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New Twitter CEO Steps From Behind the Scenes to High Profile 

Newly named Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has emerged from behind the scenes to take over one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile and politically volatile jobs. 

But his prior lack of name recognition, coupled with a solid technical background, appears to be what some big company backers were looking for to lead Twitter out of its current morass. 

A 37-year-old immigrant from India, Agrawal comes from outside the ranks of celebrity CEOs, which include the man he’s replacing, Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or SpaceX and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Those brand-name company founders and leaders have often been in the news — and on Twitter — for exploits beyond the day-to-day running of their companies.

Having served as Twitter’s chief technology officer for the past four years, Agrawal’s appointment was seen by Wall Street as a choice of someone who will focus on ushering Twitter into what’s widely seen as the internet’s next era — the metaverse. 

Agrawal is a “‘safe’ pick who should be looked upon as favorably by investors,” wrote CFRA Research analyst Angelo Zino, who noted that Twitter shareholder Elliott Management Corp. had pressured Dorsey to step down. 

Elliott released a statement Monday saying Agrawal and new board chairman Bret Taylor were the “right leaders for Twitter at this pivotal moment for the company.” Taylor is president and chief operating officer of the business software company Salesforce. 

Agrawal joins a growing cadre of Indian American CEOs of large tech companies, including Sundar Pichai of Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and IBM’s Arvind Krishna. 

He joined San Francisco-based Twitter in 2011, when it had just 1,000 employees, and has been its chief technical officer since 2017. At the end of last year, the company had a workforce of 5,500. 

Agrawal previously worked at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T in research roles. At Twitter, he’s worked on machine learning, revenue and consumer engineering and helping with audience growth. He studied at Stanford and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. 

While Twitter has high-profile users like politicians and celebrities and is a favorite of journalists, its user base lags far behind old rivals like Facebook and YouTube and newer ones like TikTok. It has just over 200 million daily active users, a common industry metric.

As CEO, Agrawal will have to step beyond the technical details and deal with the social and political issues Twitter and social media are struggling with. Those include misinformation, abuse and effects on mental health. 

Agrawal got a fast introduction to life as CEO of a high-profile company that’s one of the central platforms for political speech online. Conservatives quickly unearthed a tweet he sent in 2010 that read “If they are not gonna make a distinction between muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists.”

As some Twitter users pointed out, the 11-year-old tweet was quoting a segment on “The Daily Show,” which was referencing the firing of Juan Williams, who made a comment about being nervous about Muslims on an airplane.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a message for comment on the tweet. 

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Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey Steps Down

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down as the company’s leader.  

In a news release, Twitter said Dorsey would be replaced by Parag Agrawal, who has been the company’s chief technology officer since 2017. The move is effective immediately.  

“I’ve decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders. My trust in Parag as Twitter’s CEO is deep. His work over the past 10 years has been transformational. I’m deeply grateful for his skill, heart, and soul. It’s his time to lead,” Dorsey said in a statement.

Dorsey’s most recent tweet, posted Sunday, simply said, “I love twitter.”

Dorsey, 45, founded the microblogging platform in 2006 and was CEO until 2008 when he was pushed aside only to return to the top spot in 2015.  

Last year, Elliott Management, a major stakeholder in the company, wanted Dorsey to choose between being CEO of Twitter or CEO of Square, a digital payment company he founded.  

Twitter’s stock rose on the news, but trading of the shares was suspended.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Zimbabwe Says It’s Prepared for Omicron Variant

Zimbabwe’s government says the country is very prepared to handle the new COVID-19 variant – omicron – first reported in neighboring South Africa. The World Health Organization says a fourth wave of the pandemic is most likely to hit Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga – who doubles as the country’s health minister – has asked the nation not to be concerned about omicron.

“The country should not panic because we are very prepared. The ramping up of our vaccination program in the past month has seen marked increase in the vaccination uptake. That is the prevention which we are going to have for our people if any other variant comes. At least when your body is protected it is much better than when you are found naked,” said the vice president.

Zimbabwe has fully inoculated about 2.8 million people since February, when it began its vaccination program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has a target of vaccinating at least 10 million Zimbabweans — or 60% of the population — by the end of the year, a figure which might be difficult to reach given the scarcity of resources and short time left.

Itai Rusike, head of the nonprofit Community Working Group on Health, said Zimbabweans should panic about the new variant – initially named B.1.1.529 – since the country shares porous borders with South Africa and Botswana.

“And this new variant is coming at a time when the festive season is upon us. A whole lot of Zimbabweans, they use undesignated entry points. That poses a serious health challenge as they would not be properly screened and monitored as they come back to the country. What we want to encourage the government of Zimbabwe, is for them to strengthen their surveillance and monitoring system especially the land borders and make sure that the screening and monitoring at the entry points is also strengthened,” said Rusike.

Meanwhile, Humphrey Karamagi, a medical officer at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa, said on the WHO Twitter account that a fourth wave of COVID-19 is likely to hit the continent.

“A fourth wave in Africa is almost a certainty, as long as we have these factors in play, which is new variants coming up and the fact that people can be reinfected. And also, if we are getting new population who may not have been exposed. We would then have subsequent waves. Vaccination helps a lot in terms of reducing the severity of the disease [and] also reducing the risk of infection. The vaccine is not a magic bullet. So the vaccine is to work together with the public health measures to reduce the potential and risks of subsequent waves,” said Karamagi.

The WHO says COVID-19 has infected about 6.1 million people in Africa and claimed 152,113 lives. The world health body also says more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa.

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WHO Calls for Renewed COVID Prevention Efforts Amid Omicron’s Spread

The World Health Organization says renewed efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is needed as scientists scramble to determine the risks posed by the new omicron variant. Low vaccine rates combined with public fatigue over safety measures are putting more people in Africa at risk.

Experts say it’s no surprise a new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered.

Fewer than 8 percent of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19, creating an environment for the illness to spread and mutate.

Dr. Mary Stephen is a technical officer for the World Health Organization’s Africa office. 

She said in the absence of vaccines, the public needs encouragement to uphold other measures to reduce the spread and save lives.

“We cannot be tired; we have to continue to make sure we are complying with wearing of our face masks, keeping our distance away, avoiding unnecessary mass gatherings, ensuring good hand hygiene, so that it’s another layer of protection in addition to the vaccination,” she said.

South African scientists detected the omicron variant last week.

Research is under way to determine how transmittable it is and its reaction to vaccines.

Amid uncertainty, Britain, the United States and European Union reacted by imposing travel bans to southern Africa.

Stephen, however, said the variant has already crossed continents and that halting flights to African countries that have long enforced testing for travelers is the wrong response. 

“The world should react to them with solidarity. The solution is not about banning travel but our ability to identify these cases, identify the potential risks, mitigate the risks, while we are still facilitating international travel because we have seen the devastating effects that COVID had on the economy,” she said.

Jeremiah Tshukudu is all too familiar with the economic toll of the pandemic.

The 45-year-old Uber driver said two of his cars were repossessed last year because he could no longer afford the payments during lockdown.

Tshukudu said he fears he’s about to take another financial hit with the new variant.

“I see us like losing close to let’s say 50% of what we’ve been earning recently. Relying on Uber, business was down, that means I wouldn’t be able to provide for the family,” he said.

Despite the pandemic’s impact on him, Tshukudu said he’s still hesitant about getting vaccinated.

With the threat of a new variant, experts are hoping people like him will reconsider.

Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. 

“Hopefully, you know, with some concern over coming fourth wave, hopefully, you know, those that were on the fence may actually go and vaccinate,” she said.

More than 3,200 people in South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, a marked increase from the day before.

The government is campaigning for more people to get vaccinated and even offering grocery vouchers to those who get their shot.

Government data show that at least 41 percent of South African adults have now been vaccinated.

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Australian Government Vows to Unmask Online Trolls

Australia’s government said Sunday it will introduce legislation to unmask online trolls and hold social media giants like Facebook and Twitter responsible for identifying them.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government faces an election in the first half of 2022, said the law would protect Australians from online abuse and harassment.

“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them,” Morrison told reporters.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

Attorney General Michaelia Cash said the legislation, reportedly to be introduced to parliament by early 2022, is needed to clarify that the social media platforms, and not the users, were responsible for defamatory comments by other people.

Confusion had been sown by a High Court ruling in September that found Australian media, as users managing their own pages on a social network, could be held liable for defamatory third-party comments posted on their pages, Cash said.

Under the planned Australian legislation, the social media companies themselves would be responsible for such defamatory content, not the users, she said.

It would also aim to stop people making defamatory comments without being identified, she said.

“You should not be able to use the cloak of online anonymity to spread your vile, defamatory comments,” the attorney general said.

The legislation would demand that social media platforms have a nominated entity based in Australia, she said.

The platforms could defend themselves from being sued as the publisher of defamatory comment only if they complied with the new legislation’s demands to have a complaints system in place that could provide the details of the person making the comment, if necessary, Cash said.

People would also be able to apply to the High Court for an “information disclosure order” demanding a social media service provide details “to unmask the troll,” the attorney general said.

In some cases, she said, the “troll” may be asked to take down the comment, which could end the matter if the other side is satisfied.

Australia’s opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he would support a safer online environment for everyone.

But he said the government had failed to propose action to stop the spread of misinformation on social media and accused some of the government’s own members of spreading misinformation about COVID and vaccinations.

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