World News

CasPhotography/iStockBy IBTISSEM GUENFOUD, ABC News

(PARIS) -- Starting Thursday, people in Lebanon are asked to stay home, day or night, without exemptions for grocery shopping or exercising, to curb a new surge in coronavirus cases.

Lebanon has entered a national state of emergency, which includes a 24-hour curfew prohibiting citizens from leaving their home from Jan. 14 until the morning of Jan. 25, Brig. Gen Mahmoud al Asmar, spokesperson of the Lebanese Higher Defense Council, announced earlier this week.

Only a limited category of essential workers, such as health care workers and journalists, are allowed to venture outside. Travel in and out of the country is also heavily reduced and under further restrictions, including a minimum 72-hour quarantine upon arrival.

The government decided to confine the entire population as it faced the critical situation of the country’s hospitals running out of beds for patients.

The Beirut port explosion in August 2020 destroyed several hospitals, and two years of a dire financial crisis have already put pressure on a weak health care system. Now the country faces its highest daily death toll and highest daily case numbers, with an average of 5,000 COVID-19 cases a day.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Public Health announced Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan tested positive for COVID-19 and is being treated at the hospital.

"The whole health care system is on the brink of collapse," said Dr. Firass Abiad, surgeon and CEO of Beiruit's Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where he said the ICU is running at full capacity. "All hospitals in Lebanon are facing shortages because of the economic crisis and some medical supplies and medication. Unfortunately because of the surge, this situation has worsened at the moment."

Abiad said his hospital has not had to turn patients away yet, but it is something he worries about as emergency rooms fill up.

"We are hoping that the society will show a high compliance with these new measures," he said.

Gatherings over the holiday season are being held responsible for the current surge in cases. The Lebanese government eased measures against the spread of the virus over the holidays, allowing restaurants, hotels and even nightclubs to open up.

Lebanon leads the number of cases per million population in the Arab world, as COVID-19 infections hit new records after the holiday season, according to the Global Health Institute at the American University of Beirut. The country, which has a 6.8 million population, has one of the fastest increasing daily number of cases.

With a 70% increase in contaminations compared to the seven days preceding, the country is one where the epidemic is spreading fastest in the world, after Portugal, Nigeria and Ireland, according to data from Agence France-Presse.

Scenes of panic at grocery stores were plentiful in the last days before the complete closure of the country, as the Lebanese lined up in front of supermarkets to stock up.

However, in a country in the midst of an economic and financial crisis, food insecurity will likely rise under the new lockdown, Soha Zaiter, the executive manager of the Lebanese Food Bank, said.

"We have a lot of people working day by day, if they do not go out in the morning, they cannot buy food or pay the rent," Zaiter told ABC News. "People cannot afford to stay like this, yet the government is not making any plans to cover the expenses of people that are in need. The demand is getting higher and higher."

The Lebanese Food Bank is planning to distribute around 6,000 food boxes across Lebanon, in addition to blankets and heaters for the most in need.

"People need us more than ever before," Zaiter said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday answers questions during a press conference on June 19, 2020. - Department of Defense/Marvin LynchardBy ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- With tensions running high between Iran and the United States in recent weeks, the Navy's top admiral believes the U.S. has the right naval assets in the Middle East to deter Iranian aggression.

Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told reporters during a trip to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, that the recent return of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the waters of the Middle East was intended "to maintain stability, at a time when things could potentially become unstable."

Asked for his assessment of tensions in the region, Gilday said that "right now, things seem to be very stable in the region."

There had been some speculation that Iran might retaliate against U.S. forces in the region on the anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed senior Iranian general Qossem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020. And while the date has now passed, tensions between Iran and the U.S. still exist.

American B-52 bombers have recently carried out long-range missions to demonstrate the U.S. military's strategic capabilities and Iran has carried out large scale naval and drone exercises.

"We're sending a very clear signal to Iran and others that we have the capabilities in place to respond should we be required to," Gilday said.

Gilday said the Navy's presence in the region and cooperation with 33 coalition countries has deterred Iranian malign activity and reassured U.S. allies and partners in the region.

"We're not looking for trouble, we're not trying to instigate anything," he said. "Our focus is to maintain stability in the region and right now my assessment is that we have the right forces in place."

Two weeks ago, the USS Nimitz was abruptly ordered to return to the Middle East just days after the Pentagon announced it was headed back to the U.S. following a nine-month deployment.

The original plan to end the carrier's deployment was intended to send a message to Iran that the U.S. was de-escalating tensions ahead of the anniversary of Soleimani's death.

But threats from Iranian leaders aimed at President Donald Trump around the time of the announcement led Trump to reverse the Pentagon's decision and direct the carrier back to the region.

It is unclear how long the carrier will remain in the region after what was already a lengthy deployment.

The extension also means the Navy will have to delay scheduled maintenance to prepare the USS Nimitz for future deployments.

As for the crew of the Nimitz, "They're doing just fine," Gilday said, describing his videoconference with the ship's senior leaders.

"They understand the mission that they've been assigned to do," Gilday added. "Although they've been extended, they understand the importance of it."

During his two-day visit to Bahrain, Gilday said Navy sailors did not ask him about the situation in the U.S. following last week's assault on the U.S. Capitol.

His sense is that sailors are "well-informed" about what has been going in the country, but they understand their sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution.

"That's our job, and I think that we just need to keep our heads down and you would expect the American public would expect that we would be focused on mission, and that there would be nothing but stability in the United States military," he said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tempura/iStockBy LIEZL THOM, ABC News

(PRETORIA, South Africa) -- The World Health Organization's emergency committee will meet two weeks early on Thursday to discuss the new coronavirus variants from South Africa and Britain that have rapidly spread to at least 50 countries and sparked widespread alarm.

The newly identified variants, which appear to be significantly more infectious than the strain that emerged in China in 2019, come as spiking virus numbers force many nations to enforce new lockdowns.

The committee normally gathers every three months but the WHO said the director-general pulled the meeting forward "to consider issues that need urgent discussion."

"These are the recent variants and considerations on the use [of] vaccination and testing certificates for international travel," the global body said Wednesday.

Mutations to Sars-CoV-2 are raising concerns among scientists who are scrambling to work out if they will respond to vaccines.

In particular, one mutation, detected initially in South Africa and on subsequent variants in Brazil and Japan, has raised alarm among researchers, who are studying the variant, known as 501Y.V2 to determine whether current vaccines will be effective.

Experts say the vaccines will very likely still work against the new variants. Studies to confirm are ongoing, but those experiments take time.

Professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, Marc Mendelson, told ABC News that it remains undetermined whether the South African variant is really more contagious. "Studies to date suggest that people infected with this variant have an increase in the viral load, which is likely to increase the ability of that person to transmit to others. The evidence is supported by the speed of increase numbers being infected during the second wave, both in South Africa and in the U.K., which has a separate variant which also carries the same mutation at position 501 in the spike protein," Mendelson, who is also the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, told ABC News.

Mendelson said a lot of urgent work is underway to study the mutation and he's hopeful that some answers will be forthcoming within the next few weeks. "The most pressing question is around whether the mutations in the variant will affect vaccine responses. Then there's the question of whether the variant is associated with more severe disease? I am not seeing evidence of that on the ground (at my hospital), but subtle differences need a lot of data to pick it up, so that is anecdotal evidence. However at present, there is no signal that it causes more severe disease."

A preliminary study found that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine appears to work against the mutated virus, but more studies are needed because the South African variant has a number of additional mutations, including changes to some to the virus' spike protein.

According to Mendelson, the spike protein is not only vital for entry of the virus, but is also the site targeted by antibodies humans produce to control the viral infection. "Put simply, these antibodies neutralize the virus by binding to specific sequences of the spike protein, preventing it binding to a receptor on our cells and therefore preventing entry. If you can prevent entry of the virus into cells, you can prevent it replicating and inhibit it from causing an infection. The reason for concern is once again, a number of mutations in the genetic code of the virus that the variant has. The resulting changes in structure of the spike protein, could reduce the binding of antibodies to their recognition sites and therefore reduce the ability of our immune system to prevent the virus from entering cells and taking hold."

According to the WHO, the South African identified strain has been found in 20 countries, territories and areas after first being reported to the WHO on Dec. 18.

"From preliminary and ongoing investigations in South Africa, it is possible that the 501Y.V2 variant is more transmissible than variants circulating in South Africa previously," the agency's weekly report said.

"Moreover, while this new variant does not appear to cause more severe illness, the observed rapid increases in case numbers has placed health systems under pressure." The geographical spread of both variants is likely underestimated, said the WHO.

Fears over the increased transmissibility of the new variants are prompting fresh lockdowns and extra measures to contain COVID-19.

The South African strain is causing more concern, however, due to an additional mutation that has scientists on edge, one named E484K, which may render certain vaccines less effective.

The WHO also noted that a third new coronavirus variant "of concern," found in Japan, needs further investigation.

"The more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. High levels of transmission mean that we should expect more variants to emerge," the WHO stated. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person.

More than 90 million COVID-19 infections have been recorded globally since cases first appeared in December 2019. The death toll from the pandemic is nearing two million people.

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(LONDON) -- Hindu pilgrims in India have begun gathering along the Ganges River on the first day of Kumbh Mela, despite coronavirus restrictions in what is often described as the largest religious festival in the world.

Images from the northern town of Haridwar which is host to this year’s event taken on Thursday showed thousands gathering to take a dip in the Ganges on the first day of the festival.

Kumbh Mela takes place over a number of weeks and the pilgrims believe that submerging in the river will help absolve them of their sins.

Ordinarily tens of millions of Indians gather over the course of the festival which is famous for the colorful scenes and the presence of the Sadhus, or holy men.

However, India is still very much in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic and the numbers expected to travel from around the country has raised fears of more community spread.

In the early months of the pandemic, part of the spread of the virus around the country was attributed to day-laborers traveling long distances home to adhere to COVID-induced lockdowns.

"The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions," one organizer, who suggested that up to a million people could join at the festival on Thursday, was quoted as saying by Agence-France-Presse. "I'm sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety."

This year’s festival will continue until April. The festival itself is celebrated at four different river banks considered to be holy, with this year’s host, Prayagraj, based on the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

India has so far had over 10.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 151,727 recorded deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Vladislav Zolotov/iStockBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- The Tower of London’s ‘Queen raven,’ Merlina, is missing and presumed dead after not being seen for several weeks, Historic Royal Palaces said.

Legend has it that if there are less than six ravens at the Tower of London the “kingdom will fall,” but thankfully there are still seven ravens at the tower, despite Merlina’s absence.

“We have some really unhappy news to share,” a spokesperson for Historic Royal Palaces said in a statement. “Our much-loved raven Merlina has not been seen at the Tower for several weeks, and her continued absence indicates to us that she may have sadly passed away.”

We have some really unhappy news to share. Our much-loved raven Merlina has not been seen at the Tower for several weeks, and her continued absence indicates to us that she may have sadly passed away. (1/4)

— The Tower of London (@TowerOfLondon) January 13, 2021

While the ravens are often known to roam outside the Tower of London, Merlina had always returned to the Ravenmaster, “with whom she shared a wonderfully close bond,” the spokesperson said.

There are now seven ravens at the Tower, which is one more than the usual six that is required to prevent the fall of the kingdom, so there are no immediate plans to replace Merlina.

The authorities are hopeful that a new chick will arrive soon as part of their breeding program and that the raven “will be up to the formidable challenge of continuing” the much-loved bird’s legacy.

“Since joining us in 2007, Merlina was our undisputed ruler of the roost, Queen of the Tower Ravens,” the spokesperson said. “She will be greatly missed by her fellow ravens, the Ravenmaster, and all of us in the Tower community.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


bedo/iStockBy PETE MADDEN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Turkish authorities have rebuffed a request from the United Nations for more information on the murders of Syrian-American journalist Halla Barakat and her mother, Orouba Barakat.

In a letter dated Oct. 7, published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard sought clarity on the depth of the investigation into the brutal 2017 killings, calling it a matter of "international concern."

"The political nature of the Barakats' work, and the death threats they received, make it imperative that a possible politically-motivated killing be considered and investigated and the evidence for and against that conclusion shared with the family and the public," Callamard wrote. "Such an investigation would make it more likely that all culpable parties are identified."

In response, Turkish officials defended their actions, declined to provide any further information and reasserted the "complete conscientious opinion" that the murders were committed over "family issues."

"As in all cases, the investigation and prosecution of the present case was carried out by Turkish authorities with utmost diligence," Turkish officials wrote on Dec. 2. "As the hearings were held openly, the Government is of the view that due transparency was provided in the process."

The exchange, sparked by an 18-month investigation of the killings by ABC News and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, represents the first official response to lingering questions about the case raised by the Barakat family allies, who contend that the motivations behind the murders -- and the possibility of a broader conspiracy -- were not adequately probed after Turkish authorities declined the FBI's offer of forensic assistance.

Callamard declined to comment beyond saying that she was "analyzing the situation to see what my next steps might be."

Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, had previously called on State Department officials to appeal to their Turkish counterparts to grant the authorization for "FBI work on the ground." He said he was encouraged that Callamard is seeking answers but disappointed in the lack of engagement from Turkish authorities.

"Unfortunately, the Turkish government was not detailed or comprehensive in its response, leaving many loose ends in the investigation," Price told ABC News and Reveal in a statement. "My hope is that the UN special rapporteur will continue seeking the truth – Halla and Orouba Barakat deserve justice. I support the U.S. government using its diplomatic tools to help ensure this case is given every possible consideration."

Suzanne Barakat, a family member in San Francisco who has led the effort to bring further scrutiny to the case, responded to the Turkish letter by renewing her demand for U.S. and Turkish law enforcement to cooperate in reexamining the evidence.

"If they think this was all done well, there shouldn't be any concern with us all collaborating and getting the evidence we have and corroborating all the different pieces," Suzanne told ABC News and Reveal. "If they are in fact aligned in seeking justice in Halla and Orouba's names, then I don't see why there would be any issue about collaborating."

The Barakats were fierce critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the Istanbul-based opposition to his regime. Their brutal double murder in September 2017 in Istanbul sparked headlines around the world, and a suspicion among their family, friends and colleagues that their work may have threatened powerful figures with the motive and means to silence them.

The crime scene, to many observers, suggested the work of a professional. Halla was an American citizen -- born in North Carolina while Orouba was visiting relatives there -- who had worked for a U.S. media outlet. So two U.S. lawmakers from the state, Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. Price, soon called for a thorough investigation. H.R. McMaster, then a senior member of the Trump administration, even invited Suzanne Barakat to the White House, where, she said, intelligence officials and diplomats assured her that the case was a priority.

By then, Turkish authorities had arrested and secured a confession from a distant relative named Ahmed Barakat, who had been working for Orouba since arriving in Turkey from Syria six months earlier. Orouba owed him money, Ahmed told prosecutors, according to court documents, claiming that when he confronted her in the apartment she shared with her daughter Orouba refused to pay and attacked him with a kitchen knife, which he then used to kill her. When Halla screamed, he said, he killed her, too.

After a brief trial, Ahmed was convicted and given two life sentences. The case, as far as prosecutors were concerned, was closed.

But questions about the case lingered, so in the three years since the murders, a trans-Atlantic team of journalists -- some based in Turkey, others in the United States, some of whom knew Halla and Orouba personally -- sought answers to those questions. That reporting, led by ABC News, where Halla briefly worked in the months before her death, and Reveal, was featured in a special edition of Nightline and an episode of the Reveal podcast in October.

ABC News and Reveal obtained hundreds of pages of documents from the investigation led by the Turkish National Police -- including police statements, autopsy reports, witness testimony, evidence inventories and court transcripts. Coupled with more than a dozen interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, government officials and outside experts familiar with the case, the documents reveal several inconsistencies and outright contradictions in the official narrative. And records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, filed by Reveal, show that despite assurances from officials at the White House National Security Council and U.S. Department of State to the contrary, the FBI never opened a case.

Those findings prompted Callamard, the human rights and international law expert who determined in June 2019 that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the premeditated killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to launch her own inquiry.

Citing a "presumption that crimes committed against journalists are in relation to their work and reporting until proven otherwise," Callamard questioned whether Turkish authorities had adequately examined that possibility.

"It is unclear whether the investigative authorities consider if [Ahmed] acted in concert with or at the direction of others," Callamard wrote, "such as representatives of the Syrian Government, or of an armed group such as ISIL."

She posed many of the same questions raised by the ABC News and Reveal reports about the effectiveness of the Turkish investigation, the level of transparency provided the family, and the apparent lack of international cooperation in pursuing the evidence. Then she echoed the call from the Barakat family and U.S. lawmakers to permit the involvement of U.S. law enforcement.

"Given Ms. Halla Barakat's US citizenship, would your Excellency's Government reconsider receiving assistance from the FBI," Callamard wrote, "particularly with respect to investigating aspects of the case relating to social media?"

Suzanne Barakat hopes that fresh scrutiny will change the official narrative. Shortly after ABC News and Reveal's investigation aired, Suzanne and her attorney met with officials at an FBI field office to present their case for further investigation.

"What we're looking for is just answers and the truth," Suzanne told ABC News and Reveal. "The Turks have some answers."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


nycshooter/iStockBy JULIA JACOBO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- A potential silver lining of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, a drop in greenhouse gas emissions because of the massive reduction in ground and air travel during lockdowns, may not be as drastic as previously thought, new research shows.

Researchers in the U.K. from the University of Birmingham looked at 11 large cities -- Beijing, Wuhan, Milan, Rome, Madrid, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Delhi -- and discovered that although air quality did improve, it was by less than expected. Their findings were published Wednesday in Science.

When scientists separated the effects of the lockdown restrictions from weather and business-as-usual events, they found that clearing the air of secondary pollutants such as ozone and fine particulate matter may prove more complicated than reducing precursor emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that result from chemical processes in the atmosphere.

But while recent studies have explored the air quality impacts of the early 2020 lockdowns, many have not accounted for weather, which can moderate pollutant concentrations, according to the study.

Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist for Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, told ABC News last month that transportation saw the largest reductions in emissions in 2020, accounting for about 40% of all reductions.

The study's authors found that reductions in automobile traffic led to an immediate decline in nitrogen oxide levels across all cities. However, less than 30% of the shift could be attributed to lockdown effects in most cases, in part due to continued emissions from other sources.

Ozone concentrations actually increased during the lockdown, the researchers found. Additionally, sudden decreases in particulate matter, isolated from weather and business trends, were not observed immediately after lockdowns began.

The research shows that massive drops in transportation-linked emissions are not a single solution to improving air quality but perhaps part of a larger, systemic overhaul, especially in cities, that takes into account "both primary emissions and secondary processes to maximize the overall benefits to air quality and human health."

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(DUBLIN) -- Ireland’s prime minister on Wednesday made a solemn state apology to the women and children that suffered in church-run homes for unmarried mothers and their babies, as the country confronts a landmark report documenting decades of abuse at the institutions, where thousands of infants reportedly died.

The report presents the findings of a public inquiry into the so-called Mother and Baby Homes that during the 20th Century, generations of unmarried women in Ireland were forced into after becoming pregnant and then often forcibly separated from their children.

The report, published on Tuesday, and the apologies were presented as a moment of national reckoning and atonement for an extraordinarily dark piece of Ireland’s history, one that again forces it to grapple with the role of the Catholic Church.

“On behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologize for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home," Prime Minister Micheál Martin said during a speech to Ireland’s parliament the Dáil on Wednesday.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction," Martin said. “As the Commission says plainly – ‘they should not have been there.’”

The Catholic Church in Ireland and some of the religious orders that ran the homes, also issued apologies in response to the report. Archbishop Eamon Martin, the leader of the Church in Ireland, on Tuesday said he “unreservedly” apologized to survivors.

The report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which runs around 3,000 pages, provides a detailed anatomy of institutions—bleak, usually gated places where life was strictly regimented and often resembled a prison.

In testimonies, survivors describe intense stigma and callous treatment. Some women described being kidnapped and forcibly taken by their families to the homes.

The report found the homes featured an exceptionally high infant mortality rate, recording that 9,000 children died at 18 homes between 1922 and 1998. That was 15% of all the institutions' children, almost double the national rate of infant mortality.

Around 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children were kept in the homes, according to the report, which said Ireland likely had the highest proportion of women admitted to such institutions in the world in the 20th Century.

It blamed the homes' existence on a toxic alignment between the Catholic Church, the state and an extremely conservative, misogynistic society.

Despite often being aware of the appalling death rates and conditions in the homes, the report said the Irish state did almost nothing to intervene. There was “little evidence that politicians or the public were concerned about these children,” the report said.

Martin acknowledged that, saying the state “failed you, mothers and children.”

Campaigners and survivors of the institutions described mixed feelings, though, with some saying the report failed to convey what they endured and warning it ignored some key issues such as forced adoption.

Catherine Corless, a local historian who helped first trigger an intense public examination of the homes' history, told Irish media on Tuesday she was “deflated” by the report and felt it let down survivors.

Corless, in 2014, uncovered death certificates for nearly 800 children who died at the former Bon Secours home in Tuam in western Ireland, but only found a burial record for just one child. Investigators then found a mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children in an underground sewage structure on the grounds of the home. The provoked horror in Ireland and around the world set off a national discussion that led to the report.

Martin held a webinar with Corless and other survivors on Tuesday ahead of his apology in parliament. Afterward, Corless and others said they had been upset by his comments.

“The survivors are well-used to the government making promises but what disturbed them mostly was that Micheál Martin put the blame back onto society,” Corless told the public broadcaster RTE.

While critical of the state and church, the report said the mistreatment of the women was fundamentally a product of a bigoted Irish society, where ordinary people cast out unmarried mothers and ‘illegitimate’ children.

“Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families,” an opening passage of the report reads. “It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge - a harsh refuge in some cases - when the families provided no refuge at all.”

Catherine Conolly, an opposition MP, heavily criticized the report, saying it was “incomprehensible” that it had concluded there was no evidence the church and state had forced women into the institutions.

“All the evidence given confirms this,” she told parliament. “I find the whole thing actually repulsive to tell you the truth.”

Although they appreciated the apology, several survivors said they wished it had come once they had had time to digest the huge report.

“It’s too early and too late,” Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers are believed to have died in Tuam, told The Irish Independent Tuesday. “The apology should actually wait until people have sight of the report and can settle.”

Martin pledged to fulfill the report’s recommendations and outlined a series of measures that would be taken to redress the victims, including financial compensation and access to medical care. The government said it would also bring legislation that would give survivors the right to access their records, including adoption records.

That is a key demand of survivors, many of whom don't know their relatives' fate or who their parents are.

“An apology on its own is not enough,” Martin told parliament. He noted how many former residents described feeling shame about their situation.

“The shame was not theirs,” Martin said. “It was ours. It remains our shame.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Oleksii Liskonih/iStockBy VICTOR ORDONEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday it will detain all cotton and tomato products produced in China’s Xinjiang province.

The Withhold Release Order (WRO) issued by CBP is based on information that “reasonably indicates” the use of forced labor within China’s so-called “re-education” camps. CBP also claims China is oppressing its Muslim population in that region.

“The goal isn’t just to interdict shipments ... that's actually the fallback plan,” Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday. “The goal of the WRO is that they stop and that the shipments never arrive -- the ultimate goal is that China abandons these horrific practices.”

This is the fourth WRO that CBP has issued in 2021 and the second on products originating in Xinjiang. China’s Xinjiang province accounted for eight of the 13 WROs that CBP issued in 2020 -- all stemming from allegations of forced labor.

CBP officials and human rights experts estimate that somewhere between 1 million to 3 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and others are being detained in what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dubbed "internment camps" throughout China's Xinjiang province. There are about 1,300 of these facilities scattered throughout the region and they've allegedly forced detainees to work without compensation in nearby factories, according to those same officials.

Evidence from Chinese government documents and media reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang are forced to pick cotton by hand via state-mandated labor, according to a report by the Center for Global Policy published last month. The Chinese government strongly denies all claims of forced labor in Xinjiang.

“I've said this before and I'll say it again: Made in China does not just indicate a country of origin,” said Cuccinelli. “It's a warning label.”

Cotton is Xinjiang's largest export; cotton exports from China are approximately a $9 billion industry. Last month, CBP issued a WRO on Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which had accounted for 17% of those cotton exports.

CBP has not yet quantified Xinjiang’s tomato export output, but China’s overall output of tomatoes is a $10 million industry, according to export data from 2019.

CBP officials emphasized on the call Wednesday that most of the onus falls on importers and consumers -- urging them to diligently research their supply chains prior to purchasing items from China in general.

“If you're buying apparel and it's considerably lower than the fair market value everywhere else, there's a reason for that,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan. “Take a few minutes, understand where it's coming from -- is it coming from this region?”

Human rights coalitions have praised the action taken from the U.S. against Beijing’s alleged abuses.

“CBP’s action is a high-decibel wakeup call to any apparel brand that continues to deny the prevalence and problem of forced-labor produced cotton from the Uyghur region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, a member of the coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour. “The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over.”

Scrutiny against China’s actions in Xinjiang has mounted in recent months over allegations of forced sterilization of their Uighur population that surfaced last summer.

The scrutiny made its way to social media last week, when Twitter removed a controversial tweet by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. In the tweet, the embassy shared an unsubstantiated report on population growth in Xinjiang and wrote that Muslim women in the province were "no longer baby-making machines," adding that the decrease in population growth had led to a drop in terrorism.

“After further review we have taken action on this tweet for violating our rules against dehumanization,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Adam Smigielski/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has said he will return to Russia this week for what could be a dramatic homecoming following his poisoning with a nerve agent this summer.

Navalny has been in Germany since August where he was treated for the poisoning and had pledged to return home despite the attempt to kill him and recent threats from Russian authorities to jail him.

In a social media post on Wednesday he wrote he has a bought a plane ticket to arrive in Moscow this Sunday.

“The question ‘to return or not’ never stood before me. Sunday, January 17, I will return home on the Pobeda flight. Come meet me,” Navalny wrote on Twitter Wednesday, referring to a flight with a budget Russian airline.

Navalny spent weeks recovering in a Berlin hospital where he was airlifted after suddenly falling critically ill on a flight in Siberia in August.

A German military lab later found he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union and used in a 2018 assassination attempt against the Russian former double agent Sergey Skripal in the U.K.

Navalny’s poisoning has since been linked to a hit squad from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service or FSB.

Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, publishing high-profile investigations into alleged corruption among powerful officials and building a grass-roots protest movement.

Almost since the moment he emerged from a coma caused by the poisoning, Navalny pledged the assassination attempt would not dissuade him from going back to Russia, prompting speculation on whether the Kremlin might seek to stop him.

In recent weeks, Russian authorities have abruptly moved to change a previous suspended jail sentence against Navalny to real prison time and opened a new criminal case against him that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Navalny has said the cases are politically motivated and are intended to deter him from returning to Russia and to force him into exile now that the effort to kill him has failed.

On Tuesday, it emerged Russia’s prison service has requested a Russian judge to jail Navalny in absentia for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence handed to him years earlier.

Navalny was given the suspended sentence in 2014 in a trial for fraud that he said was politically motivated and that the European Court of Human Rights later ruled had been unjust. The ruling at the time was widely interpreted by independent observers as an attempt to block Navalny’s political activities and prevent him from running for office.

Court documents published Tuesday showed Russia’s federal penitentiary service has asked a court to convert Navalny’s suspended sentence to real jail time, even though the suspended sentence had already expired on Dec. 30.

Russian prosecutors last month also announced they were bringing “large-scale fraud” charges against Navalny and some of his colleagues for allegedly embezzling donations from their activist organizations.

The moves raise the prospect that Navalny could face arrest once he returns to Russia.

The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said there are no obstacles to Navalny returning to Russia and told reporters to address questions about his sentencing to the penitentiary service.

Navalny has faced a campaign of physical and legal harassment over the years, targeted by police as well as pro-Kremlin activists. He has blamed his poisoning directly on President Vladimir Putin.

Putin and Russian officials have denied any involvement.

But an investigation by the independent group Bellingcat last month presented evidence identifying several members of an alleged FSB hit squad that had followed Navalny since at least 2017 and were present in the city of Tomsk when he was poisoned.

Navalny himself later called one of the alleged agents and recorded him apparently unwittingly admitting to the plot to kill him.

Speaking to an audience last month Putin did not dispute the FSB had followed Navalny but denied they would have poisoned him, saying if they had “they would have finished the job.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


AnonyMouseBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Over the past few years a highly secretive network working out of Sweden has been opening our eyes to a world we had not given much thought too before. But no, this isn’t Wikileaks or the hackers’ group Anonymous. This is "AnonyMouse," an anonymous collection of artists behind the installation of tiny buildings, stores and cafes across the streets of Sweden and Europe designed to be inhabited by mice.

The scenes, like the fairy tales that inspired them, are dreamy and adorable, to say the least. A miniature record store, complete with mouse variations on some of the most classic albums of all time, a bottlecap banjo, a tiny bistro, a travel agent, a jazz club -- all crafted to the tiniest detail.

“Well, it started with a few of us just wanting to construct something in a public setting, and the discussion narrowed in on our love for the movies of Disney and [American film director] Don Bluth, and Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren and Beatrix Potter,” AnonyMouse, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told ABC News. “We like to think of it as something we, ourselves, would love to stumble upon in an otherwise dull concrete environment.”

The group has been working for the past five years ever since they built a “little Italian bistro and a nut shop” into one sidewalk. Now, they‘ve completed an estimated 30 installations, mostly in Malmo and Stockholm in Sweden -- but installations have also popped up in Bayonne in the south of France and the Isle of Man off the coast of the U.K.

After scouting a location, the group then research the local history of the area they are in to inform their design.

Once sketched out, the constructions take up to two months to build before they are installed in the dead of night.

“We just want to bring a little bit of magic into people's everyday lives, and maybe inspire someone to create something on their own street,” AnonyMouse said. “We like to imagine a world where small animals live parallel to us, and recycle objects we lose or throw away, so a bottle cap becomes a chair, a box of matches a table, a stamp becomes a painting and a trash can becomes a restaurant.”

Last summer, interest in AnonyMouse’s work grew substantially with the group amassing over 70,000 followers on Instagram.

Michael Gehrisch, an American photographer based in Lund, Sweden, captured a few of the dream-like miniature scenes on video, which show stunned onlookers bending impossibly low to the ground to take pictures and admire the work.

“I had been following AnonyMouse for a couple of years, and had traveled to nearby Malmö to see the installations, but the locations weren't ideal for timelapse,” he told ABC News. “So when AnonyMouse showed up in Lund in locations with next to no traffic I thought it would be fun to give the artist(s) some feedback and insight into the public appreciation of their work. A thank you of sorts.”

Even with their recent success, the artists’ collective will not be sacrificing their treasured anonymity anytime soon.

“As long as we remain anonymous each viewer can project whoever they want us to be,” the anonymous artist said. “And also, the pun is pretty good, so if we revealed ourselves we would have to change our name.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(WASHINGTON) -- Hours before he was expected to depart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled his final overseas trip amid a torrent of global criticism against President Donald Trump, including by the U.S. allies that Pompeo was expected to meet.

The top U.S. diplomat was scheduled to see NATO's secretary-general and Belgium's foreign minister in Brussels, according to the State Department. But he also reportedly canceled a second stop to Luxembourg, whose foreign minister called Trump "a political pyromaniac" after the president's remarks led to the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol last week.

Pompeo has faced backlash of his own, including from U.S. diplomats, for standing by Trump even as other Republicans condemned his speech, blamed him for the violence and called on him to recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect. For weeks, Pompeo has at times boosted Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud or declined to acknowledge Trump's electoral loss, even as he has overseen the agency's transition and met with Biden's pick to succeed him, Anthony Blinken.

While he has condemned the violent mob and called for prosecutions, Pompeo has also defended Trump's time in office as a boost for the U.S.

"History will reflect on the good work that this president and our administration has done," he told a conservative talk radio host Tuesday.

Top European officials declined to meet Pompeo in the Trump administration's final days. An European Union spokesperson told ABC News that there were never any plans for Pompeo to meet E.U. officials like Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, or Josep Borrell, the E.U.'s top diplomat.

Neither the Luxembourgish embassy in Washington nor the Foreign Ministry responded to questions. Reuters reported Tuesday that its foreign minister Jean Asselborn declined to meet Pompeo and that Pompeo canceled a stop there, while AFP reported the visit was canceled by the American side over Asselborn's condemnation of Trump, given Pompeo's staunch loyalty to the president.

"Mr. Trump is a criminal, a political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court," Asselborn told broadcaster RTL Luxembourg last Thursday. "The sixth of January 2021 was a 9/11 attack on democracy itself, and Trump was the one who egged it on."

The State Department cited the transition to the Biden administration in canceling all official travel this week, including Pompeo's trip to Brussels, home to NATO and E.U. headquarters.

"We are fully committed to the completion of a smooth and orderly transition process to be finalized over the next 8 days," spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, adding the agency was "pleased with the level of cooperation and professionalism that has been displayed."

Just one day earlier, Ortagus announced that Pompeo would meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sophie Wilmès, Belgian foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

The decision also grounded U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft's scheduled trip to Taiwan. She would have been the third senior Trump official to do so in recent months, with each visit angering the Chinese government that considers Taiwan a breakaway province. A spokesperson for Taiwan's representative office in Washington told ABC News they "understand and respect the transition priorities of the U.S. Department of State."

It's unclear why Pompeo wanted to make the quick trip to Brussels with less than a week in the administration. His brief time left in office is likely one reason European officials declined to meet him, but that opposition was compounded by the pro-Trump mob ransacking the Capitol last week and interrupting Congress' certification of Biden's victory.

That violence, fueled by Trump and other Republicans' weeks of attacks on the election's credibility, was met with widespread criticism by U.S. allies, including both Stoltenberg and Wilmès.

"Shocking scenes in Washington, DC. The outcome of this democratic election must be respected," Stoltenberg tweeted Wednesday as the siege unfolded in Washington.

But like Asselborn, Wilmès had gone further and specifically cited Trump's role in inciting the mob.

"Some kind of speeches as a result of dividing a society can really create this kind of problematics," she told BBC News last week. "I was saddened to see that President Trump, when things were evolving really badly and it took so much time to calm down people, still kept saying that the election were a fraud."

Leaders of other top U.S. allies said the same.

"I regret very much that President Trump since November has not conceded his defeat -- and not yesterday either. Doubts about the outcome of the election were stoked, and that set the atmosphere that made last night's events possible," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.

Even Trump's closest friends on the world stage denounced him. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday, "In so far as the president consistently has cast doubt on the outcome of a free and fair election, I believe that that was completely wrong. What President Trump has been saying about that has been completely wrong, and I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Getty ImagesBy MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Bobi Wine says he has been jailed, detained, beaten and shot at more times than he can count.

But the 38-year-old pop star-turned-politician, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, told Kenyan radio station Hot 96 FM that it's all "worth it."

"We are not allowed to express ourselves," Wine told the station during an interview Tuesday morning. "And we are saying enough is enough."

Wine is the main opposition candidate challenging Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Thursday's election. He has hopes of ushering in the first-ever peaceful transfer of power in modern Ugandan history. But the days, weeks and months leading up to the vote have been marred by protests and violence, with authorities periodically arresting Wine, his campaign team and supporters.

In November, at least 54 people were killed amid a crackdown on protests after Wine was detained. Museveni said they died in "senseless riots," but Wine claimed security forces had gunned down more than 100 people. The charismatic and energetic opposition leader has been seen at recent campaign rallies wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet in place of his trademark red beret.

Just a few minutes into Tuesday's interview with Hot 96 FM, a commotion could be heard in the background as Wine explained that the Ugandan military had showed up at his home in the capital, Kampala.

"I'm sorry, even right now as we speak, we are being raided by the military. I have to end the interview because I can see soldiers beating my security guard," he said before hanging up the phone.

Wine confirmed the raid on Twitter, saying soldiers "arrested all my security guards and anyone they could see around my premises."

"No reason for the arrest was given," he tweeted. "Such acts of impunity are all kicks of a dying horse."

Wine did not respond to ABC News' request for comment or an interview Tuesday.

There were reports that the Ugandan government has banned social media ahead of Thursday's vote. A letter seen by Reuters from the Uganda Communications Commission, dated Jan. 12, ordered the country's internet service providers to block all social media platforms and messaging applications "until further notice."

ABC News has reached out to the Uganda Communications Commission for comment.

"We are concerned by reports that the Government of Uganda has ordered Internet service providers to block social media platforms, messaging apps, and select content in the run up to general elections on Jan 14," Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs, said on Twitter. "Such restrictions undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Meanwhile, Facebook said it has removed Ugandan government-linked accounts and pages that were seeking to "manipulate public debate" before the election. The move comes after the U.S. social media giant took the unprecedented step of indefinitely blocking U.S. President Donald Trump's accounts on both Facebook and Instagram, following last week's violent riot that saw a pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

"We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate on our platform. Since 2017, we’ve taken down over 100 of these networks worldwide for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB), which we publicly share in our monthly reports," a Facebook spokesperson told ABC News in a statement Tuesday. "This month, we removed a network of accounts and Pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB to target public debate ahead of the election. They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage Pages, comment on other people's content, impersonate users, re-share posts in Groups to make them appear more popular than they were. Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network. We found this network to be linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Uganda."

The Government Citizens Interaction Center did not respond to ABC News' request for comment Tuesday.

Before stepping onto Uganda's political stage, Wine had a decade-long career in music and became well-known in East Africa, singing about corruption, poverty and social justice in catchy tunes that blended reggae, Afrobeat and dancehall. His song "Kiwani" was featured on the soundtrack for the 2016 Disney movie "Queen of Katwe."

During a by-election in 2017, Wine won a seat in Uganda's parliament as an independent. He became leader of the opposition National Unity Platform party last year and is widely considered the frontrunner among the 10 candidates challenging Museveni in Thursday's election.

Wine, who grew up in the slums of Kampala and calls himself the "ghetto president," has garnered a large following among Uganda's youth with his pledges to tackle corruption and unemployment in a country where more than 75% of the population is below the age of 30 and jobless rates are sky-high.

Museveni, a 76-year-old former army general who took power by force in 1986, is seeking his sixth elected term in office. Uganda's constitution once barred anyone 75 and older from holding the presidency. But Museveni backed a controversial law that removed the age limit in late 2017, and Uganda's Supreme Court later rejected a legal challenge to the constitutional amendment.

Museveni's leadership is credited for restoring peace and stability to the East African nation, after the brutal reigns of two dictators. But his iron grip on power has drawn rebuke as critics have accused his government of enabling rampant corruption and committing human rights abuses.

One activist in Kampala, who requested anonymity for their safety, told ABC News that security forces have been using COVID-19 restrictions as a means to harass, detain and torture journalists, opposition party members and their supporters during campaign rallies.

In a recent interview with NPR, Museveni said it is the rich like him who will truly help "the ghetto people" of Uganda and that he draws inspiration from George Washington, the first president of the United States.

"I want to do what Washington did to work for the economic and, in some cases, even political integration of Africa," Museveni told NPR.

Washington, however, did not seek reelection after two terms in office. Museveni said that's because the U.S. electorate and economic systems were more sophisticated.

"When the social direction of a society is already set, then anybody can run it. The problem is that, you know, because the direction is not set. So it's very risky," he told NPR. "People don't know whether to go north or south ... If people are really clear that the direction is the north and everybody is no longer -- there's no more argument about that, then anybody can lead. I can say, now you know the way, let me go."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public DomainBy CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- With a little over a week left in the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions Monday on Cuba's government and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, sparking a barrage of criticism against the latest 11th-hour moves to change U.S. foreign policy.

Congress was so infuriated, particularly about the Houthi designation, that lawmakers' staff berated a group of State Department officials who were briefing them on the designations Monday morning.

"You need to stop f---ing lying to Congress," one staffer told the officials, according to two congressional aides.

Pompeo returned Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which brings with it the strictest of U.S. sanctions. But designating the Houthis, a rebel group that controls over 80% of Yemen's population, as a foreign terrorist organization will have particularly devastating consequences, according to U.S. officials and aid groups that work in the war-torn country.

"This is pure diplomatic vandalism," said David Miliband, president and CEO at the International Rescue Committee, adding that for his staff in Yemen, "This designation makes their task all but impossible. ... (The) cost of terrorism designations in the middle of complex conflicts and humanitarian crises can be measured in innocent lives lost."

After nearly six years of war, Yemen, home to 28 million people, is the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has warned in recent weeks that it could soon face famine, in addition to the coronavirus and cholera, a collapsed economy, widespread malnutrition and deadly attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The Houthi rebels, increasingly armed by Iran since the start of the conflict, took control of most major cities in 2015. The U.N.-recognized government now controls a slight majority of the territory, but few major population centers despite support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose U.S.-backed coalition has bombarded Yemen for years.

Both sides have been accused of war crimes. But the Trump administration has fiercely defended the Saudi coalition, with Trump using his veto power to maintain U.S. assistance and bypass Congress to sell the coalition billions of dollars in weapons. Individual Houthi leaders have been sanctioned over the years, but Pompeo's decision to designate the entire movement, known formally as Ansar Allah, essentially criminalizes working with them, which aid groups say they have to do.

That jeopardizes the international flow of aid, food and medicine that more than 70% of Yemeni civilians rely on at a time when the humanitarian response is already severely underfunded, including because the U.S. suspended hundreds of millions of aid last year.

Lawmakers' staff pressed the State Department officials on why Congress hadn't been briefed on the decision months after it was first reported by the press, according to the two congressional aides. When the officials responded that any press leaks were premature, one staffer interrupted to demand they "stop f---ing lying."

Several staffers asked the officials whether they knew how many children were going to die because of this "political stunt," they added. Officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development admitted the humanitarian implications of the sanctions would be "catastrophic," according to one aide. Foreign Policy magazine first reported on the tense call.

"Yemen imports 90% of its food. In light of near-famine conditions that have already existed in Yemen, this designation will have a devastating effect on Yemen's food supply and other critical imports unless the executive branch acts now to issue the necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance prior to designation," said two top Republican lawmakers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair James Risch and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul, in a statement.

Those exemptions are not yet in place, but even when they are, humanitarian groups have warned they will make little difference because of the legal hurdles they'd have to jump through. The designation largely prevents them from negotiating with the Houthis for access to needy populations, makes it impossible to import any goods, scares away banks or insurance companies from working with aid groups or even sparks retaliation by Houthi forces.

"The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping," Pompeo said in a statement late Sunday night, and "to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors."

During the same briefing call, the State Department officials informed Congress that Pompeo would re-list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that the Obama administration removed in 2015 as part of its diplomatic overtures to the island nation.

The designation restricts assistance from the U.S. and some international institutions like the World Bank; criminalizes certain kinds of trade; and bans defense sales or exports, including "dual use" items that are for civilian and military purposes.

In a statement Monday, Pompeo cited the Cuban government hosting ELN negotiators, even after Colombia asked they be extradited for a deadly bombing, as well as harboring fugitives sought by U.S. law enforcement, including for murder.

"With this action, we will once again hold Cuba's government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice," Pompeo said.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted the decision as "hypocrisy" after Trump "incited a domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol" last Wednesday.

"It is essential that the State Sponsor of Terrorism list be used judiciously to maintain its seriousness and integrity and that a country is never added to the list unless it meets the legal standard," he added, urging President-elect Joe Biden's team to add removing Cuba to its "long 'to-do' list."

The Biden administration will be able to reverse the decision, but it will take -- at a minimum -- 45 days because of the statutory requirements around state sponsor of terrorism designations. It's one of several changes they may seek to make as Trump has severely limited U.S. travel to the country and all but cut off U.S. remittances to the Cuban people.

But it's an open question which of the Trump administration's final act foreign policy changes Biden's team will rescind, including another Pompeo change over the weekend -- lifting all restrictions on U.S. officials meeting and communicating with Taiwanese officials. That move made it easier for the two sides to hold meetings or communicate even though the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


simon2579/iStockBy ZOE MAGEE, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Trials have begun in London for the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines with the first dose for a new nasal vaccine being developed by the U.S. company Codagenix having been administered at a quarantine facility in London, it was announced Monday morning.

“This vaccine is one of the first of the next generation COVID-19 vaccines, it is a single dose, needle free, intranasal, live attenuated COVID-19 virus vaccine.” Cathal Friel, Executive Chairman, of Open Orphan, the company running the trials said in a statement.

To make it to the finish line, the vaccine will need to prove it's safe and effective in three stepwise experimental 'phases' -- a process that could take many months.

But this vaccine, called COVI-VAC, is different from current commercially available vaccines. It uses a “weakened form of the naturally occurring virus that will not cause disease but will generate a strong immune response,” explains Codagenix CEO Robert Coleman, PHD. “Historically, live attenuated vaccines have been very effective, providing long-lasting and broad immunity and typically relying on a single dose.”

Meanwhile, Coleman said, “the current mRNA, VLP, and adenovirus-based vaccines target only the Spike protein, limiting the range of antibodies that can be produced.”

And as Sybil Tasker, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer of Codagenix notes, COVI-VAC could be more effective at fighting mutant strains of the virus that may emerge in the future, “As a live attenuated vaccine, COVI-VAC has the potential to provide a broader immune response in comparison to other COVID-19 vaccines that target only a portion of the virus, which could prove critical as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 have begun to emerge.”

COVI-VAC was developed using an algorithm which essentially recodes viral genes, Coleman explains, “to cause slow, inefficient translation of viral genes in the human cell in a process Codagenix refers to as “de-optimization.”

“We input the sequence of the target virus into our algorithm and the software digitally deoptimizes the viral gene. We then synthesize the corresponding DNA and swap or stitch it into the natural virus’s genome. This process essentially converts the natural virus from foe to friend -- rendering it harmless but able to engender a broad immune response.”

Using a live attenuated virus in a vaccine is nothing new, “Most of the vaccines we get as children are so called live-attenuated vaccines. That is, they can cause an infection but do so so weakly that there is no danger from the infection, but immunity is generated in the same way as for the normal virus,” Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at Reading University said.

“The main problem with this approach is that, historically, making the weakened strain took a lot of trial and error. This new approach makes the weakened strain in one step.”

As the Codagenix vaccine uses a weakened form of live virus there is a small chance that volunteers could transmit the virus in the community or even suffer from some disease. To mitigate these potential risks, the trials are being conducted in a secure quarantine facility in East London.

“It is an added extra level of caution,” Andrew Catchpole the Chief Scientific Officer in charge of the trials told ABC News, adding that, ”There is no regulatory requirement for the vaccine to be tested at a quarantine facility.”

Catchpole is hVIVO’s Chief Scientific officer, and is also expected to head the team which will conduct the first human challenge trials for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Codagenix sought an inpatient facility with experience with vaccines and live viruses, and an onsite laboratory for the first-in-human evaluation of COVI-VAC to allow for thorough evaluation of product safety and real-time volunteer monitoring,” Coleman said.

The first small group of young healthy adult volunteers will be given the dose by dropping it into their nose and they will then be closely monitored and regularly tested. The trial will follow a standard dose escalation methodology.

“The first phase of this study is expected to provide the evidence to back up this expectation of a short duration of virus shedding in addition to demonstrating that the vaccine virus is indeed highly weakened and does not cause disease,” Catchpole told ABC News.

Unlike the vaccines that have been authorized, Codagenix believes its vaccine could provide long-term immunity against COVID-19, with only one or two doses needed over a lifetime, similar to that of the MMR or chicken pox vaccines.

“Most live attenuated vaccines by design cannot fully replicate viruses, this vaccine is different in that it can. Being able to do this maximizes the immune response and gets as natural as possible immune protection just as if the person were exposed to the actual virus,” Catchpole added.

But it is still early days, with the hurdles of more phases of clinical trials ahead, “this study will facilitate the vaccine then moving into phase 2 efficacy and immunogenicity testing clinical studies” explains Catchpole.

Nonetheless Codagenix is confident and has worked at what it calls “lightning speed” to get to this stage and have teamed up with the world’s largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute of India.

“As soon as it became clear that the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak was about to become a global problem, our scientists jumped into action to generate a live attenuated vaccine against COVID-19. Codagenix and our global partner, Serum Institute of India, are committed to serving the unmet need to protect against COVID-19, especially in lower income countries around the world.”

Coleman hopes that the simplicity with which this vaccine can be given -- just be squirting it into someone’s nose -- matched with the ease it can be produced and transported will make it a major player in the world’s fight against COVID-19.

But Jones warns that there’s a still a long way to go.

“They are far behind the current vaccines so whether they will get anywhere fast enough to make a contribution is not clear," he said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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