Polio is Back in Indonesia, Sparking Vaccination Campaign

Children in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up Monday for polio vaccinations in the Sigli town square on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eliminated in the country less than a decade ago. 

The virus was first detected in October in a 7-year-old boy suffering from partial paralysis in the province of Aceh near Sigli, and since then three other cases have been detected, prompting the mass immunization and information drive. 

Officials say that polio immunization rates in the conservative province are well behind the rest of the country, with efforts hampered by widespread disinformation the vaccine is incompatible with religious beliefs, among other things. The government has also been prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations since they became available. 

The campaign that started Monday aims to vaccinate some 1.2 million children in the province, said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the Health Ministry’s director general for disease control and prevention. 

“There is no cure for polio, the only treatment is prevention and the tool for prevention is vaccination,” Rondonuwu said, adding that the child is still able to walk, albeit with a limp. 

With some 275 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous, and the largest Muslim-majority nation. 

Aceh is particularly conservative, and is Indonesia’s only province allowed to practice Shariah, which was a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a war with separatists. 

False rumors that the polio vaccine contains pork or alcohol, prohibited according to Muslim beliefs, have proliferated, especially in rural areas, complicating vaccination efforts, said the head of the Aceh Health Office, Hanif, who only goes by one name like many Indonesians. 

“We cannot work alone, we need support from all parties, including religious leaders, so that people understand the importance of immunization,” said Hanif. 

Azhar, the father of the 7-year-old who contracted polio, said he had opted not to immunize his son after other villagers where he lived told him the vaccines may cause harmful chemicals or non-halal substances. 

“My neighbors said that my son doesn’t need to be immunized and I didn’t want my son get sick because of harmful chemicals that are against Islam,” the 45-year-old said. 

For Dewi Safitri, a mother of three who was getting them vaccinated on Monday, it was simply a matter of not knowing it was necessary. 

She said she was convinced after health workers spelled out the risks of paralysis or death if her children were to go unvaccinated. 

“I didn’t even know about immunization,” she said. 

The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the global eradication of polio in 1988 and since then, wild poliovirus cases have decreased by more than 99%, according to the World Health Organization. 

It was eliminated in Indonesia in 2014 and is today only still endemic in two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Polio primarily affects children under the age of 5, according to the WHO. Unvaccinated people of any age can contract the disease, however, and sporadic cases continue to crop up. 

In September in New York, for example, the state stepped up its polio-fighting efforts after the disease was detected in the wastewater in the New York City area. 

Officials began checking for signs of the virus there after the first case of polio in the United States was identified in July in Rockland County, which is north of the city. It was confirmed in a young adult who was unvaccinated. 

The statewide polio vaccination rate is 79% but Rockland’s rate was lower, and New York health officials urged all unvaccinated residents, including children by 2 months of age, to get vaccinated immediately. 

Last week, new poliovirus cases were found in Afghanistan, Algeria, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, according to the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

Of the three other children in Indonesia from the same village as the initially confirmed case none had their basic vaccinations, Rondonuwu said. 

“It has to be reported as an outbreak, because it had been declared eradicated in Indonesia, but it turns out that there is still wild polio virus,” he said. 

Rondonuwu said his ministry is keeping a close watch on the cases by doing door-to-door screening to ensure that there are no additional infections that have not been reported. 

The polio virus is transmitted person-to-person, generally through the “fecal-oral” route, according to the WHO. In Indonesia, authorities have also pointed to unsanitary conditions as a probable cause of the new infections after finding out that some local residents still defecate directly into a river where children are often found playing. 

Across Indonesia, polio vaccination coverage has been slipping since the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the challenges of reaching people in the archipelago nation of five main islands and thousands of smaller ones, 73.4% of Indonesians are now fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and 87.5% have at least one shot. 

For polio, 86.8% of babies were vaccinated in their first year in 2020 nationwide, which fell to 80.7% in 2021 as the country was forced to focus most of its health facilities and workers on addressing the pandemic. 

By comparison, only 50.9% of the infants born in Aceh in 2021 received a polio vaccination. It was the second lowest on a national scale after West Papua, where only 43.4% of babies were vaccinated. 

The nationwide decline was part of a broader drop in basic immunizations, such as for measles and rubella, according to UNICEF. 

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist from Australia’s Griffith University, said the discovery of polio in Aceh must be responded to seriously because “the threat is real for Indonesia,” noting that basic immunization coverage is still low, putting the country in a high-risk category. 

“This is what the government really has to pursue, because it’s dangerous if we don’t,” Budiman said. 

“We must move immediately by strengthening basic immunization or there will be a potential additional health disaster for Indonesia.” 

 

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China Eases Some Anti-COVID Restrictions as Protests Mount

China eased some of its pandemic rules on Monday but affirmed its “zero COVID” strategy even as protests erupted throughout the country against the restrictions, and some demanded the resignation of President Xi Jinping.

The government made no mention of the demonstrations, the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades, but the slight relaxation of the rules appeared aimed at quelling the demonstrations.

Over the weekend, protesters shouted, “Lift the lockdown!” in a city in China’s western region, while across the country in Shanghai, the financial center, protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a quiet show of dissent.

A Shanghai resident told VOA he no longer fears the spread of the epidemic because it has become normalized.

He said, “I just eat whatever I want to eat, and do whatever I want to do. What is there to worry about? It’s a cold. It’s normal.”

Others in Shanghai chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” in referring to the Communist Party. Police detained dozens of protesters, driving them away in police vans and buses, although the exact number was not clear.

Xi’s “zero COVID” policy has sharply limited infections through stringent lockdowns that have disrupted everyday life in the country of 1.4 billion people. Protests erupting at locations around the country appears to indicate that many Chinese have grown weary of the lengthy quarantines and widespread testing.

The Beijing city government said Monday it would no longer set up gates to block people from entering apartment compounds where infections have been found. It, however, made no mention of a deadly fire last week in the western Xinjiang region that spawned protests over whether firefighters and victims trying to escape a building were blocked by locked doors and other anti-infection controls.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” the China News Service quoted a city epidemic control official as saying.

The government blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire to the strict COVID measures.

In addition to easing the rules in Beijing, officials in Guangzhou, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis that is the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, said some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.

 Urumqi, where the deadly fire occurred, and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest, said that markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.

The “zero COVID” policy aims to isolate every infected person and has helped China to keep its case numbers, as a percentage of its overall population, lower than those in the United States. As a result, millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes for up to four months.

On Monday, China recorded 40,437 new cases, while the U.S. figure on Sunday was 41,997.

Despite the protests and relaxation of some rules, the ruling party newspaper People’s Daily called for its anti-coronavirus strategy to be carried out effectively, indicating Xi’s government has no plans to change course.

 “Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice,” a People’s Daily commentator wrote.

US Reaction to China Lockdowns

The U.S. Mission in China said it has regularly raised concerns with the Chinese government about the COVID restrictions and their effect on Americans living in or visiting the country.

“We encourage all U.S. citizens to keep a 14-day supply of medications, bottled water, and food for yourself and any members of your household,” U.S. officials said.

In Washington, the U.S. National Security Council said it supports the right of Chinese people to peacefully protest the COVID restrictions.

“We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” a spokesperson said, adding, “We think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero COVID strategy.”

(VOA’s Mandarin service also contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.)

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UN: Great Barrier Reef Should Be on Heritage ‘Danger’ List

A United Nations-backed mission is recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites, warning that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action the world’s largest coral reef is in peril.

The warning came in a report published Monday following a 10-day mission to the reef last March by officials from UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reef, a living place of immense variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia, has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1981.

Australia’s federal government and Queensland’s state authorities should adopt more ambitious emission reduction targets, in line with international efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Feedback from Australian officials, both at the federal and state level, will also be reviewed before UNESCO, the U.N.’s Paris-based cultural agency, makes any official proposal to the World Heritage committee.

The text is damning about recent efforts to stop mass bleaching and prevent pollution from contaminating the reef’s natural waters, saying they have not been fast nor effective enough. Uncurbed emissions lead to increased water acidity, which can be toxic.

More money should be found to increase the water quality and stop the site’s decline, the report concludes.

In an email to AP, the U.N. cultural agency said: “In recent months, we have had a constructive dialogue (with) Australian authorities. But there is still work to be done.”

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Pakistan Launches Polio Drive 

Pakistan authorities said they are launching a five-day polio drive to eradicate the crippling disease from the country.

Officials said 100,000 healthcare workers begin working Monday to vaccinate 13.5 million children under the age of five across 36 high risk districts, including Islamabad, the capital.

“Our aim is to ensure timely and repeated vaccination of eligible children,” said Shahzad Baig, the coordinator of the national emergency operations center.

“High-risk districts are our top priority and we are keen to eliminate the polio virus from the challenging areas, while protecting the rest of the region, as well,” said Baig.

Twenty cases of the wild polio virus were reported this year in Pakistan, including 17 in the country’s volatile North Waziristan district, located on the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has come close, several times, to eradicating polio, but militants have convinced some parents that the vaccines cause sterility, but there is no scientific basis to back such statements.

Baig is urging all Pakistani parents and caregivers to make sure that their children are vaccinated “instead of hiding them or refusing to take the necessary drops during all vaccination drives.” He said, “it is important to realize that the polio virus still exists in our surroundings, and no child is safe until all children are truly vaccinated.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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China Prepares to Send New 3-Person Crew to Space Station

Final preparations were being made Monday to send a new three-person crew to China’s space station as it nears completion amid intensifying competition with the United States.

The China Manned Space Agency said the Shenzhou-15 mission will take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday night.

The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last “in the construction phase of China’s space station,” agency official Ji Qiming told reporters Monday.

Fei, 57, is a veteran of the 2005 four-day Shenzhou-6 mission which was the second in which China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang are flying in space for the first time.

The station’s third and final module docked with the station earlier this month, one of the last steps in a more than decade-long effort to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit.

The astronauts will overlap briefly onboard the station, named Tiangong, with the previous crew, who arrived in early June for a six-month stay.

Tiangong has room to accommodate six astronauts at a time. Previous missions to the space station have taken about 13 hours from liftoff to docking.

Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and can dock occasionally with it for maintenance.

No other future additions to the space station have been publicly announced.

The permanent Chinese station will weigh about 66 tons – a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day find itself the only space station still running if the International Space Station adheres to its 30-year operating plan.

China’s crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, but it truly got underway in 2003, when China became only the third country after the U.S. and Russia to put a human into space using its own resources.

The program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded methodically and almost entirely without outside support. The U.S. excluded China from the International Space Station because of its program’s military ties.

China has also chalked up successes with uncrewed missions, and its lunar exploration program generated media buzz last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back pictures of what was described by some as a “mystery hut” but was most likely only a rock. The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon.

China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars. Officials are also considering a crewed mission to the moon.

No timeline has been offered for a crewed lunar mission, even as NASA presses ahead with its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.

China’s space program has also drawn controversy. Beijing brushed off complaints that it has allowed rocket stages to fall to Earth uncontrolled after NASA accused it of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris” when parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.

China’s increasing space capabilities also feature in the latest Pentagon defense strategy.

“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare,” the strategy said.

The U.S. and China are at odds on a range of issues, especially self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing threatens to annex with force. China responded to a September visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island, holding wargames in surrounding waters and staging a simulated blockade, something that could trigger an American military response.

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Worried About Ebola, Uganda Extends Outbreak Epicenter’s Quarantine

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has extended a quarantine placed on two districts that are the epicenter of the country’s Ebola outbreak by 21 days, adding that his government’s response to the disease was succeeding.

Movement into and out of the Mubende and Kassanda districts in central Uganda will be restricted up to Dec. 17, the presidency said late Saturday. It was originally imposed for 21 days on Oct. 15, then extended for the same period Nov. 5.

The extension is “to further sustain the gains in control of Ebola that we have made, and to protect the rest of the country from continued exposure,” according to Museveni.

The government’s anti-Ebola efforts were succeeding with two districts now going for roughly two weeks without new cases, the president said.

“It may be too early to celebrate any successes, but overall, I have been briefed that the picture is good,” he said in a statement.

The East African nation has so far recorded 141 infections. Fifty-five people have died since the outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever was declared on Sept. 20th.

Although the outbreak was gradually being brought under control, the “situation is still fragile,” Museveni said, adding that the country’s weak health system and circulation of misinformation about the disease were still a challenge.

The Ebola virus circulating in Uganda is the Sudan strain, for which there is no proven vaccine, unlike the more common Zaire strain, which spread during recent outbreaks in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. 

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Bird Flu in Nebraska Prompts Slaughter of Additional 1.8M Chickens

Just like on other farms where bird flu has been found this year, all the chickens on the Nebraska farm will be killed to limit the spread of the disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than 52.3 million birds in 46 states — mostly chickens and turkeys on commercial farms — have been slaughtered as part of this year’s outbreak.

Nebraska is second only to Iowa’s 15.5 million birds killed with 6.8 million birds now affected at 13 farms.

In most past bird flu outbreaks the virus largely died off during the summer, but this year’s version found a way to linger and started to make a resurgence this fall with more than 6 million birds killed in September.

The virus is primarily spread by wild birds as they migrate across the country. Wild birds can often carry the disease without showing symptoms. The virus spreads through droppings or the nasal discharge of an infected bird, which can contaminate dust and soil.

Commercial farms have taken steps to prevent the virus from infecting their flocks, including requiring workers to change clothes before entering barns and sanitizing trucks as they enter the farm, but the disease can be difficult to control. Zoos have also taken precautions and closed some exhibits to protect their birds.

Officials say there is little risk to human health from the virus because human cases are extremely rare, and the infected birds aren’t allowed to enter the nation’s food supply. Plus, any viruses will be killed by properly cooking poultry to 74 degrees Celsius (165 degrees Fahrenheit).

But the bird flu outbreak has contributed to the rising prices of chicken and turkey along with the soaring cost of feed and fuel.

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COVID Protests Hit Shanghai as Anger Spreads Across China

Protests simmered in Shanghai early Sunday, as residents in several Chinese cities, many of them angered by a deadly fire in the country’s far west, pushed back against heavy COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

A fire Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city’s Wulumuqi Road — which borrows its name from Urumqi — for a vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!” the crowds in Shanghai shouted, according to a video circulated on social media.

At one point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi!” according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest of the Chinese leadership.

A large group of police looked on and sometimes tried to break up the crowd.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-COVID policy even as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Videos from Shanghai widely shared on Chinese social media showed crowds facing dozens of police and calling out chants including: “Serve the people,” “We don’t want health codes” and “We want freedom.”

Some social media users posted screenshots of street signs for Wulumuqi Road, both to evade censors and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling for all of “you brave young people” to be careful. Many included advice on what to do if police came or started arresting people during a protest or vigil.

Anger nationwide

Shanghai’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, an ordeal that provoked anger and protest.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, but that effort has been challenged by a surge in infections as China faces its first winter with the highly transmissible omicron variant.

While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported by health authorities on Sunday for the previous day.

On Friday night, crowds took to the streets of Urumqi, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air after the deadly fire, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media.

Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

In Beijing, 2,700 kilometers away, some residents under lockdown staged small protests or confronted local officials on Saturday over movement restrictions, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting the curbs ahead of schedule.

A video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the capital marching around an open-air carpark Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic both for the economy and the health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in note last week, as efforts to contain the outbreak will require additional localized lockdowns in many cities.

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COVID Protests in China’s Urumqi Region

Protesters, angry about long COVID-19 lockdowns, have taken to the streets in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region.

The protests followed a high-rise apartment building fire in Urumqi on Thursday that killed 10 people and concerns that the lockdown measures may have prevented firefighters from entering the building quickly and may have hampered the exit of some residents.

The demonstrations also follow online discussions, now removed, on Chinese social media questioning why there are maskless spectators at the World Cup games, while China continues to subject its citizens to long lockdowns.

“More than 120 countries in the rest of the world have lifted their COVID restrictive measures quite some time ago,” began one of the questions posed by a writer who said he lives in north central Shannxi province, home to China’s ancient capital city Xi’an.

“Why should they lead freer lives than Chinese citizens? I did not see anyone sporting face masks at the Qatar World Cup opening ceremony and did not hear of any attendee showing proof of negative COVID tests; does this mean they live on a different planet from us?”

Urumqi has been under lockdown since August. However, it is reporting about 100 new COVID cases each day.

Urumqi is also home to many Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that human rights groups and western governments say suffered many human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government. China rejects the charges as interference in its internal affairs.

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China Reports Third Consecutive Daily Record for New COVID Cases

China reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, of which 3,474 were symptomatic and 31,709 were asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Saturday, setting a new high for the third consecutive day.

That compared with 32,943 new cases a day earlier — 3,103 symptomatic and 29,840 asymptomatic infections, which China counts separately.

Excluding imported cases, China reported 34,909 new local cases on Friday, of which 3,405 were symptomatic and 31,504 were asymptomatic, up from 32,695 a day earlier.

There were no deaths, keeping fatalities at 5,232. As of Friday, mainland China had confirmed 304,093 cases with symptoms.

Mega-cities continue to struggle to contain outbreaks, with Chongqing and Guangzhou recording the bulk of new cases.

Chongqing, a southwestern city of 32 million people, reported 7,721 new local cases for Friday, a jump of almost 20% from the previous day.

Guangzhou, a prosperous city of nearly 19 million people in southern China, reported 7,419 new local cases for Friday, down slightly from 7,524 cases a day earlier.

New local cases for Friday in the capital Beijing jumped 58% to 2,595, according to figures released by local health authorities Saturday.

There are COVID outbreaks in almost all Chinese provinces, with Hebei, Sichuan, Shanxi and Qinghai provinces each registering more than a thousand new cases on Friday.

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US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

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NASA’s Orion Capsule Enters Far-Flung Orbit Around Moon

NASA’s Orion capsule entered an orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles around the moon Friday, as it neared the halfway mark of its test flight.

The capsule and its three test dummies entered lunar orbit more than a week after launching on the $4 billion demo that’s meant to pave the way for astronauts. It will remain in this broad but stable orbit for nearly a week, completing just half a lap before heading home.

As of Friday’s engine firing, the capsule was 380,000 kilometers from Earth. It’s expected to reach a maximum distance of almost 432,000 kilometers in a few days. That will set a new distance record for a capsule designed to carry people one day.

“It is a statistic, but it’s symbolic for what it represents,” Jim Geffre, an Orion manager, said in a NASA interview earlier in the week. “It’s about challenging ourselves to go farther, stay longer and push beyond the limits of what we’ve previously explored.”

NASA considers this a dress rehearsal for the next moon flyby in 2024, with astronauts. A lunar landing by astronauts could follow as soon as 2025. Astronauts last visited the moon 50 years ago during Apollo 17.

Earlier in the week, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with the capsule for nearly an hour. At the time, controllers were adjusting the communication link between Orion and the Deep Space Network. Officials said the spacecraft remained healthy.

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London to Expand Vehicle Pollution Zone to Cover 9 Million People

Older and more heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay to enter the entire metropolitan area of London starting next August, the British capital’s mayor said Friday.

Sadiq Khan said the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) would be expanded beyond its current confines starting August 29 to encompass the entire 9 million people of greater London.

Announcing a parallel expansion of bus services in outer London, he argued that air pollution from older and heavier vehicles was making Londoners “sick from cradle to the grave.”

The ULEZ has proved transformational, the mayor said, and its extension would mean “5 million more people will be able to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives.”

But the plan has prompted a fierce backlash from political opponents and some residents in the capital, who point to a survey indicating that most Londoners opposed extending the zone.

The two-month outreach exercise was held earlier this year by Transport for London, which runs the capital’s various transport systems. The survey heard from 57,913 people, including nearly 12,000 campaigners on either side of the issue.

Although it found 55% of respondents had “some concern” about their local air quality, the survey also recorded 59% as opposed to the ULEZ being expanded.

That rose to 70% in the outer London areas set to be part of the enlargement.

“Sadiq Khan has broken his promise to listen to Londoners,” the Conservative grouping in London’s lawmaking assembly said on Twitter.

“He must U-TURN on the ULEZ expansion.”

The zone has been expanded once since it was introduced in April 2019 and currently covers a large area within London’s North and South Circular inner ring-roads and the city center.

Unless their vehicles are exempt, drivers entering the zone must pay a daily charge of $15.

Gasoline cars first registered after 2005, and diesel cars after September 2015, typically meet the ULEZ standards for nitrous oxide emissions and are exempt.

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

A coroner ruled in 2020 that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013, the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

Air pollution is “affecting children before they’re even born, and giving them lifelong health issues,” the campaign group Mums for Lungs tweeted.

“Good news for the health of all Londoners,” it said in response to the ULEZ announcement.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. climate envoy and former mayor of New York, said Khan was “helping to clean London’s air and set an example for cities around the world.”

But opponents of the ULEZ argue it amounts to a tax on poorer drivers least able to afford to replace their polluting vehicles and has hurt small businesses.

The announcement will be “a hammer-blow for desperate drivers and businesses already struggling with crippling fuel costs” during a cost-of-living crisis, said the head of roads policy for motoring body the RAC, Nicholas Lyes.

All cars and vans entering central London during the daytime also pay a “congestion charge” of 15 pounds, a measure first introduced in 2003.

Similar programs have been set up in several other British towns and cities to reduce emission levels and improve air quality.

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Global Wildlife Summit Approves Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species on Friday approved a plan to protect 54 more shark species, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and cruel shark fin trade. 

Members of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families will now have their trade tightly controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

The binding resolutions were adopted by consensus on the final day of the two-week meeting by delegates from 183 countries and the European Union. 

“Proposal 37 approved,” Shirley Binder, Panamanian delegate and head of the plenary, said of the requiem shark proposal, after Japan failed to get the blue shark removed from the measure. 

The proposal regarding the hammerhead shark passed without debate. 

Binder earlier told AFP the “historic decision” would mean up to 90 percent of sharks in the market would now be protected.  

The insatiable appetite in Asia for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, has spurred their trade. 

Despite being described as almost tasteless and gelatinous, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets. 

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds). 

“This will be remembered as the day we turned the tide to prevent the extinction of the world’s sharks and rays,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). 

The shark species will now be listed on what is known as CITES Appendix II, which is for species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled. 

“The crucial next step will be to implement these listings and ensure they result in stronger fisheries management and trade measures as soon as possible,” Warwick said. 

 

From villain to darling 

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, drawing horror with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and occasional attacks on humans. 

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem. 

Joaquin de la Torre of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told AFP that more than 100 million sharks are killed every year. 

“Sharks and rays are the most threatened species, more even than elephants and big cats,” he said.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers. 

In many parts of the world, fishermen lop the shark’s fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss. 

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

Exploitation

Delegates have been considering 52 proposals to change the protection levels of more than 600 species.

They also approved new protections for the guitarfish ray, crocodiles, frogs and some turtle species. 

“Many of the proposals adopted here reflect there is ongoing overexploitation and unsustainable trade, and escalating illegal trade, and some are due to complex interactions of other threats reducing species populations in the wild, including climate change, disease, infrastructure development and habitat loss,” said Susan Liberman of WCS. 

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union. 

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Musk Plans to Relaunch Twitter Premium Service, Again

Elon Musk said Friday that Twitter plans to relaunch its premium service that will offer different colored check marks to accounts next week, in a fresh move to revamp the service after a previous attempt backfired.

It’s the latest change to the social media platform that the billionaire Tesla CEO bought last month for $44 billion, coming a day after Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts and causing yet more uncertainty for users.

Twitter previously suspended the premium service, which under Musk granted blue-check labels to anyone paying $8 a month, because of a wave of imposter accounts. Originally, the blue check was given to government entities, corporations, celebrities and journalists verified by the platform to prevent impersonation.

In the latest version, companies will get a gold check, governments will get a gray check, and individuals who pay for the service, whether or not they’re celebrities, will get a blue check, Musk said Friday.

“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates,” he said, adding it was “painful, but necessary” and promising a “longer explanation” next week. He said the service was “tentatively launching” Dec. 2.

Twitter had put the revamped premium service on hold days after its launch earlier this month after accounts impersonated companies including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, and even Musk’s own businesses Tesla and SpaceX, along with various professional sports and political figures.

It was just one change in the past two days. On Thursday, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts, following the results of an online poll he conducted on whether accounts that have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” should be reinstated.

The yes vote was 72%. Such online polls are anything but scientific and can easily be influenced by bots. Musk also used one before restoring former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

“The people have spoken. Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted Thursday using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

The move is likely to put the company on a crash course with European regulators seeking to clamp down on harmful online content with tough new rules, which helped cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said giving blanket amnesty based on an online poll is an “arbitrary approach” that’s “hard to reconcile with the Digital Services Act,” a new EU law that will start applying to the biggest online platforms by mid-2023.

The law is aimed at protecting internet users from illegal content and reducing the spread of harmful but legal content. It requires big social media platforms to be “diligent and objective” in enforcing restrictions, which must be spelled out clearly in the fine print for users when signing up, Meyers said.

Britain also is working on its own online safety law.

“Unless Musk quickly moves from a ‘move fast and break things’ approach to a more sober management style, he will be on a collision course with Brussels and London regulators,” Meyers said.

European Union officials took to social media to highlight their worries. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission published a report Thursday that found Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it this year compared with 2021.

The report was based on data collected over the spring — before Musk acquired Twitter — as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the bloc’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation. It found that Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

The numbers may yet worsen. Since taking over, Musk has l aid off half the company’s 7,500-person workforce along with an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation. Many others have resigned, including the company’s head of trust and safety.

Recent layoffs at Twitter and results of the EU’s review “are a source of concern,” the bloc’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders tweeted Thursday evening after meeting with Twitter executives at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin.

In the meeting, Reynders said he “underlined that we expect Twitter to deliver on their voluntary commitments and comply with EU rules,” including the Digital Services Act and the bloc’s strict privacy regulations known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Another EU commissioner, Vera Jourova, tweeted Thursday evening that she was concerned about news reports that a “vast amount” of Twitter’s European staff were fired.

“If you want to effectively detect and take action against #disinformation & propaganda, this requires resources,” Jourova said. “Especially in the context of Russian disinformation warfare.”

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Uganda Closes Schools to Fight Ebola, New Cases Fall

Uganda closed schools nationwide on Friday to curb the spread of Ebola, despite the health minister insisting to AFP that new cases had declined.

The directive to close schools two weeks before the end of term was announced earlier this month following the deaths of eight children from the highly contagious disease. 

But in recent weeks, the number of new infections registered in the capital, Kampala, and the epicenters of Mubende and Kassanda has declined, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng told AFP.

“The major breakthrough in this fight against Ebola for Uganda is that the communities have realized that Ebola is deadly and it kills,” she said. 

“We encourage the population to remain alert and cooperate with the health teams if we are to win this battle and there are signs Uganda is winning,” she added.

Uganda’s WHO office said Thursday that as of November 22, no case had been declared for nine days in Kamapala, 10 days in Mubende and 12 days in Kassanda.

The outbreak has claimed 55 lives out of 141 known cases, according to Ugandan authorities, who have imposed lockdowns in Mubende and Kassanda.

The measures include a dusk-to-dawn curfew, a ban on personal travel and the closure of markets, bars and churches.

At a school in Kampala, one parent told AFP he was relieved to take his child home.

“I think this early closure was really necessary, because of the situation, the Ebola situation in the country,” said banker Joab Baryayaka. “We trust they are safer with us than staying at school, where we cannot guarantee the situation.”

Since the outbreak was declared in Mubende on September 20, the disease has spread across the East African nation.

President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly ruled out imposing nationwide COVID-like restrictions.

According to WHO criteria, an outbreak of the disease ends when there are no new cases for 42 consecutive days — twice the incubation period of the disease.

The strain now circulating is known as the Sudan Ebola virus, for which there is no vaccine, although several would-be jabs are heading toward clinical trials.

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids. Common symptoms are fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. 

Outbreaks are difficult to contain, especially in urban environments.

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China Reports Another One-Day COVID Case Record, Tightens Curbs

China on Friday reported another single-day record-high number of COVID-19 infections, as cities across the country enforced measures and curbs to try to control outbreaks. 

Excluding imported infections, China recorded 32,695 new local COVID-19 cases on Thursday, of which 3,041 were symptomatic and 29,654 were asymptomatic, up from 31,144 a day earlier, which was the previous record.

Big outbreaks are numerous and far-flung, with the southern city of Guangzhou and southwestern Chongqing recording the bulk of the new cases, although hundreds of new infections have been reported daily in cities such as Chengdu, Jinan, Lanzhou, Xian and Wuhan. 

Cases quadrupled in Shijiazhuang to 3,197 on Thursday from the previous day.  

China’s capital, Beijing, reported 424 symptomatic and 1,436 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with 509 symptomatic and 1,139 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government data showed. 

Financial hub Shanghai – where a COVID lockdown that began in mid-April crippled the city of 25 million residents for two months – reported nine symptomatic cases and 77 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with nine symptomatic cases and 58 asymptomatic cases a day before, the local health authority reported. 

Guangzhou, a city in the south of nearly 19 million people, reported 257 new locally transmitted symptomatic and 7,267 asymptomatic cases Thursday, compared with 428 symptomatic and 7,192 asymptomatic cases a day before, local authorities said. 

Chongqing reported 258 new symptomatic locally transmitted COVID-19 infections and 6,242 asymptomatic cases for Thursday, compared with 409 symptomatic and 7,437 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government authorities said. 

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