UK Set to Formally Apply for Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc Membership 

Britain will next week formally apply to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc of 11 countries, with negotiations set to start later this year, the government has said.Since leaving the European Union, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.”One year after our departure for the EU we are forging new partnerships that will bring enormous economic benefits for the people of Britain,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.Trade minister Liz Truss told Times Radio: “On Monday I am putting in the letter of intent” and that she expected formal negotiations will start in the spring.Reuters reported on Thursday that Britain will not publish an assessment of the economic benefits of CPTPP membership before requesting to join it – contrary to earlier promises.Previous government economic analyses of Brexit have pointed to small boosts to economic output from additional trade deals.The government said joining CPTPP would remove tariffs on food and drink and cars, while helping to boost the technology and services sectors.”Applying to be the first new country to join the CPTPP demonstrates our ambition to do business on the best terms with our friends and partners all over the world and be an enthusiastic champion of global free trade,” Johnson said. 

Thousands Flee Hong Kong for UK, Fearing China Crackdown 

Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the sometimes painful decision to leave behind their hometown and move to Britain since Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the Chinese territory last summer. Their numbers are expected to swell to the hundreds of thousands. Some are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony in 2019. Others say China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most say they don’t plan to ever go back. The moves are expected to accelerate now that 5 million Hong Kongers are eligible to apply for visas to Britain, allowing them to live, work and study there and eventually apply to become British citizens. Applications for the British National Overseas visa officially opened Sunday, though many have already arrived on British soil to get a head start. FILE – A British National Overseas passports (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.Britain’s government said some 7,000 people with British National Overseas passports — a travel document that Hong Kongers could apply for before the city was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 — have arrived since July on the previously allowed six month visa. It estimates that over 300,000 people will take up the offer of extended residency rights in the next five years. “Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about U.K. immigration, maybe less than 10 a month,” said Andrew Lo, founder of Anlex Immigration Consultants in Hong Kong. “Now we receive about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it.” Mike, a photojournalist, said he plans to apply for the visa and move to Leeds with his wife and young daughter in April. His motivation to leave Hong Kong came after the city’s political situation deteriorated following the anti-government protests and he realized that the city’s police force was not politically neutral. The police have been criticized by pro-democracy supporters for brutality and the use of excessive violence. Mike said moving to Britain was important as he believed the education system in Hong Kong will be affected by the political situation and it will be better for his daughter to study in the U.K. Mike agreed to speak on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of fear of official retaliation. Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the U.K. becomes extremely low, with no language or education qualification requirements. British National Overseas passport holders need to prove that they have enough money to support themselves for six months and prove that they are clear of tuberculosis, according to the U.K. government. Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the U.K. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals. Cindy, a Hong Kong businesswoman and the mother of two young children, arrived in London last week. In Hong Kong she had a comfortable lifestyle. She owned several properties with her husband and the business she ran was going well. But she made up her mind to leave it all behind as she felt that the city’s freedoms and liberties were eroding and she wanted to ensure a good future for her kids. Cindy, who spoke on the condition she only be identified by her first name out of concern of official retaliation, said it was important to move quickly as she feared Beijing would soon move to halt the exodus. FILE – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions in parliament in London, Britain, Jan. 20, 2021 in this still image taken from a video.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week the visa offer shows Britain is honoring its “profound ties of history” with Hong Kong, which was handed over to China on the understanding that it would retain its Western-style freedoms and much of its political autonomy not seen on mainland China. Beijing said Friday it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a travel document or form of identification, and criticized Britain’s citizenship offer as a move that “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It was unclear what effect the announcement would have because many Hong Kongers carry multiple passports. Beijing drastically hardened its stance on Hong Kong after the 2019 protests turned violent and plunged the city into a months-long crisis. Since the security law’s enactment, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and the movement’s young leaders have either been jailed or fled abroad. Because the new law broadly defined acts of subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism, many in Hong Kong fear that expressing any form of political opposition — even posting messages on social media — could land them in trouble. “This is a really unique emigration wave — some people haven’t had time to actually visit the country they’re relocating to. Many have no experience of living abroad,” said Miriam Lo, who runs Excelsior UK, a relocation agency. “And because of the pandemic, they couldn’t even come over to view a home before deciding to buy.”  

Wrangle Over Valuable Art Uncovered in Cypriot Ghost Town  

The abstract figures of naked women gyrating to the rhythms of a five-piece band had shocked many people almost 60 years ago as they eyed the artwork for the first time on the walls of a popular restaurant-nightclub in Cyprus.   The valuable and very rare concrete relief by Christoforos Savva, Cyprus’ most avant-garde artist of the 1960s, had lain hidden for decades in the underground recesses of the Perroquet nightclub in abandoned Varosha — an inaccessible ghost town that had been under Turkish military control since a 1974 war ethnically cleaved the island nation.   But with Varosha’s controversial partial opening last November, the artwork has again come to light following a report by local newspaper Politis. Now, the man who says he commissioned the art from Savva is asking authorities for help to have it removed and transported to the country’s national gallery for all to see.   Former Perroquet owner Avgerinos Nikitas, 93, a Greek Cypriot, has appealed to a committee composed of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots that’s tasked with protecting Cyprus’ cultural treasures on both sides of the divide to help remove the 13 sections.   “In return, I pledge to cede these pieces to the National Collection as a small contribution to Christoforos Savva’s huge body of work,” Nikitas said in a letter obtained by The Associated Press, addressed to the committee as well as Cyprus’ education ministry.   But the whole venture could be derailed as the Greek Cypriot family that owns the Esperia Tower hotel that hosted the Perroquet club insist that the artwork legally belongs to them. They say they won’t allow their “private property” to be removed and transferred and are warning of legal action.   Speaking on behalf of his family, Panayiotis Constantinou told the AP that their lawyer has advised them that the hotel, the club and everything inside it belongs to the family, regardless of the Savva artwork’s cultural value.   “We respect and value culture, but this is private property about which we haven’t been asked anything about removing it, and on top of that, someone else lays claim to it,” Constantinou said.   Art historians credit Savva as one of the most influential artists of the time who brought the country’s inward-looking, traditionalist art world into modernity in the years immediately after Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960.   A painter and sculptor, Savva shifted away from the established, representational art styles by encompassing influences like cubism, which he picked up during his stays in London and Paris through the 1950s, into his voluminous artwork. He died in 1968.   “Savva was an innovator who always sought to break new ground and challenge the conservative times in which he lived,” said Andre Zivanari, director of the Point Center for Contemporary Art.   Savva’s work reflected the joie de vivre of Varosha, which at the time was Cyprus’ most progressive, popular tourist resort — a favorite with visitors from Europe and beyond, said Yiannis Toumazis, an art history professor and a Greek Cypriot member of the committee on culture.   That all changed in the summer of 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish armed forces took over an empty Varosha and kept it virtually sealed off until last November, when breakaway Turkish Cypriot authorities re-opened a stretch of beach to the public.   The move caused much consternation among the suburb’s Greek Cypriot residents and protests from the island’s internationally recognized government amid concerns that the Turkish Cypriot north’s hardline leadership aimed to place the entire area under its control.   Cyprus’ former first lady and cultural committee co-chair Androulla Vassiliou told the AP that the body would look at bringing the reliefs to the island’s southern part, once new Turkish Cypriot members are appointed.   The previous Turkish Cypriot committee members collectively resigned last December for what they said was a divergence of views with the new Turkish Cypriot leadership over its aim to steer talks to resolve Cyprus’ division away from a federation-based arrangement.   The reclamation of artwork that disappeared amid the confusion of war isn’t without precedent. Last February, the culture committee successfully engineered the return of 219 paintings — including some of the most significant works produced by Greek Cypriot artists — that were thought lost or stolen in the north.   In return, Turkish Cypriots received rare archival footage from state broadcaster CyBC of Turkish Cypriot cultural and sporting events dating from 1955 to the early 1960s. The swap was hailed as a tangible way of bolstering trust among Greek and Turkish Cypriots.   Toumazis said the return of Savva’s reliefs would be another trust-boosting milestone, but better still would be if people could return to their properties in Varosha.   “It would be nice if people themselves returned to what they owned, rather than having any artwork being transferred to them,” he said. 

More than 500 Detained in Russian Protests Supporting Opposition Leader

Russian police detained at least 500 protesters Sunday, as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny started to take to the streets for a second weekend.Defying arrests and criminal probes, the first protests took place in Siberia and Russia’s Far East, including the port city of Vladivostok.Navalny associates called again for nationwide demonstrations ahead of his trial, to start Tuesday.More than 250 of the arrests preceded an expected rally in Moscow, where demonstrations are usually the largest.Moscow police announced the closure of seven metro stations and have restricted the movement of pedestrians to downtown.Authorities have also ordered some restaurants and shops in the city center closed and above-ground transportation diverted.Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia in mid-January, ending a nearly five-month recovery in Germany from a poisoning attack he suffered while traveling in Siberia in August.The United States and the European Union have strongly condemned Navalny’s arrest and hundreds of arrests made last week and called for their immediate release. 

Britain Focused on Collaboration with EU after Vaccine Row, Minister Says

Britain’s focus is on “collaboration” with the European Union on vaccines, the country’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi told The Sunday Telegraph, after a showdown between the two sides over vaccine exports.Zahawi told the newspaper in an interview that Britain’s focus was on collaborating with the bloc and that the country had tried to help Brussels with its vaccine supply problems and would continue to do so.  The EU had on Friday attempted to restrict some exports of COVID-19 vaccines by invoking an emergency Brexit clause before reversing part of its announcement within hours.   

WHO Team Visits Wuhan Hospital That Treated Early Cases

Scientists with the World Health Organization’s team investigating the source of the coronavirus that has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million have visited one of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, that treated some of the first patients.Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter that the stories she’d heard at Jinyintan hospital were “quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialised in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan. Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) A woman wearing a face mask walks past a closed souvenir shop near Berlin’s famed tourist magnet Checkpoint Charlie, Jan. 29, 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic.Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britain, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal and South Africa — will not be allowed into Germany. However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.Fourteen University of Michigan students were in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus. One of the students was reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break.Health officials in South Carolina said they had detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.The U.S. remained the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center said Saturday.The Pentagon on Saturday announced it would delay a plan to vaccinate the 40 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it needed to “review force protection protocols,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a tweet.  No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) January 30, 2021The Pentagon has said it intends to vaccinate all the personnel who work at the detention center, or about 1,500 people. At that time, the vaccine will also be offered to the prisoners, none of whom has received a vaccination yet.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of Saturday morning, nearly 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed in the U.S. and nearly 30 million had been administered.The CDC said 24 million people had received one or more doses, and 5.3 million people had received a first dose.The total included both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.   

Russia Warns Navalny Supporters Not to Attend Sunday Protests 

Russian police have issued a strong warning against participating in protests planned for Sunday to call for the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.The warning came amid detentions of Navalny associates and opposition journalists and a police plan to restrict movement Sunday in the center of Moscow.Navalny was arrested January 17 after flying back to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning. His detention sparked nationwide protests one week ago in about 100 cities; nearly 4,000 people were reported arrested.The next demonstration in Moscow is planned for Lubyanka Square. The Federal Security Service, which Navalny claims arranged to have him poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent on behalf of the Kremlin, is headquartered in the square. The Russian government has denied a role in the 44-year-old’s poisoning.A Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) soldier stands at a central avenue in front of a restaurant promoter, a day before a planned protest in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 30, 2021.The city police department said much of central Moscow from Red Square to Lubyanka would have pedestrian restrictions and that seven subway stations in the vicinity would be closed Sunday. Restaurants in the area also are to be closed, and the iconic GUM department store on Red Square said it would open only in the evening.Russian Interior Ministry spokeswoman Irina Volk cited the coronavirus pandemic in a Saturday warning against protests. She said participants found in violation of epidemiological regulations could face criminal charges.The January 23 protests in support of Navalny were the largest and most widespread seen in Russia in many years, and authorities sought to prevent a repeat. Police conducted a series of raids this week at apartments and offices of Navalny’s family, associates and anti-corruption organization.Oleg Navalny, brother of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained for allegedly breaching COVID-19 safety restrictions, stands inside a defendant dock as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia Jan. 29, 2021.His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put under two-month house arrest Friday, as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during last weekend’s protests.Sergei Smirnov, editor of the Mediazona news site that was founded by members of the Pussy Riot punk collective, was detained by police Saturday as he was leaving his home. No charges against him were announced.Navalny fell into a coma August 20 while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he had been exposed to the Novichok nerve agent.Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that he was poisoned.FILE – Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station on Jan. 18, 2021, in Khimki, outside Moscow, following a court ruling that ordered him jailed for 30 days.Navalny was arrested when he returned to Russia on the ground that his months recovering in Germany violated terms of a suspended sentence he received in a 2014 conviction for fraud and money laundering, a case that he says was politically motivated.Just after the arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour video on his YouTube channel about a lavish Black Sea residence purportedly built for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The property features amenities like an “aqua-discotheque,” a hookah lounge equipped for watching pole dancing and a casino. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times and inspired a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet.Putin has said that neither he nor any of his close relatives owns the property, and the Kremlin has insisted it has no relation to the president even though it’s protected by the federal bodyguard agency FSO, which provides security for top government officials.Russian state television later aired a report from the compound that showed it under construction and included an interview with an engineer who claimed the building would be a luxury hotel.On Saturday, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a close Putin associate and his occasional judo sparring partner, claimed he owned the property.   

Activists Rally Behind French-Vietnamese Woman’s Agent Orange Lawsuit

Activists gathered Saturday in Paris to support people exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, after a French court examined the case of a French-Vietnamese woman who sued 14 companies that produced and sold the powerful defoliant dioxin used by U.S. troops.Former journalist Tran To Nga, 78, described in a book how she was exposed to Agent Orange in 1966, when she was a member of the Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, who fought against South Vietnam and the United States.”Because of that, I lost one child due to heart defects. I have two other daughters who were born with malformations. And my grandchildren, too,” she told The Associated Press.In 2014 in France, she sued firms that produced and sold Agent Orange, including U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.Tran is seeking damages for her multiple health problems, including cancer, and those of her children in legal proceedings that could be the first to provide compensation to a Vietnamese victim, according to an alliance of nongovernmental organizations backing her case.So far only military veterans from the U.S. and other countries involved in the war have won compensation. The justice system in France allows citizens to sue over events that took place abroad.Backed by the NGO alliance Collectif Vietnam Dioxine, which called for Saturday’s gathering at Trocadero Plaza, Tran’s legal action is aimed at gaining recognition for civilians harmed by Agent Orange and the damage the herbicide did to the environment.U.S. forces used Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and to destroy Viet Cong crops during the war.Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons of the chemical agent across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in the soil and in the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses from it, including the children of people who were exposed during the war.”That’s where lies the crime, the tragedy, because with Agent Orange, it doesn’t stop. It is passed on from one generation to the next,” Tran said.The court in Evry, a southern suburb of Paris, heard Tran’s case Monday.Bayer argues any legal responsibility for Tran’s claims should belong to the United States, saying in a statement that the Agent Orange was made “under the sole management of the U.S. government for exclusively military purposes.”Tran’s lawyers argued that the U.S. government had not requisitioned the chemical but secured it from the companies through a bidding process.The court’s ruling is scheduled to be given May 10.

Sources: Lithuanian President Nominates Belarus Opposition Leader for Nobel Prize

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has nominated Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for the Nobel Peace Prize, two sources with knowledge of the matter said Saturday.Nauseda nominated the activist, who has been living in Lithuania since fleeing her homeland in the wake of a disputed August 9 presidential election, to show his support for the Belarusian democratic movement and its demand for free elections, one of the sources said.Months of mass protests erupted in Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory over Tsikhanouskaya in the poll. Thousands of protesters were rounded up and nearly all opposition political figures were driven into exile or jailed.A former teacher, Tsikhanouskaya ran for president after her husband, an opposition blogger with political ambitions, was detained ahead of the election. From her Vilnius office she has demanded that Lukashenko stand down, free jailed protesters and hold free elections.Last week she urged the European Union and the United States to be “braver and stronger” in their actions to help end Lukashenko’s rule.Nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are to close January 31 and the winner is scheduled to be announced in November. Thousands of people can make nominations for the award, including members of national parliaments, former laureates and leading academics.Last year’s winner was the U.N. World Food Program. 

US Issues Mask-Wearing Mandate

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a mask-wearing mandate late Friday to apply on all forms of public transportation, part of the U.S. effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The order, which goes into effect Monday (at 11:59 p.m. EST, 4:59 GMT Tuesday), requires people to wear masks “while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States,” and “at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States.”The order said: “”Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic.” Also Friday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed an extension to an order that was scheduled to expire Sunday concerning evictions for failure to pay rent or mortgage payments. The CDC director said in a statement, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to our nation’s health. Despite extensive mitigation efforts, COVID-19 continues to spread in America at a concerning pace. The pandemic has also exacerbated underlying issues of housing insecurity for many Americans. Keeping people in their homes and out of congregate settings, like shelters, is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.”As the number of COVID-19 infections continues to climb and highly contagious variants of the virus have emerged, some countries are imposing new travel restrictions. A man walks on an empty Promenade des Anglais during a nationwide curfew, from 6 p.m to 6 a.m, due to restrictions against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Nice, France, Jan. 29, 2021.France is prohibiting all travel to and from non-European Union countries.  Under the new policy beginning Sunday, travelers from EU countries seeking entry into France will have to provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britian, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal, and South Africa – will not be allowed into Germany.   However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.  Fourteen University of Michigan students are in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus.  One of the students is reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break. Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.Johnson & Johnson One-dose Vaccine 66% Successful US pharmaceutical maker calls vaccine 85% effective in preventing serious illness U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device maker Johnson & Johnson says after a global trial, the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed is 66% effective in preventing infection.The one-dose vaccine, which was developed by the company’s Belgian subsidiary, Janssen, appears to be 85% effective in preventing serious illness, even against the South African variant.Of the 44,000 people who participated in the trial in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, no one who was given the vaccine died, the company said.The U.S. has agreed to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine with an option to buy 200 million more, according to the company.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth vaccine approved to fight the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Saturday that there are more than 102 million global COVID-19 cases.  The U.S. remains the location with the most cases at 25.9 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million.

France, Germany to Begin New COVID-Related Travel Regulations

As the number of COVID-19 infections continues to climb and highly contagious variants of the virus have emerged, some countries are imposing new travel restrictions. France is prohibiting all travel to and from non-European Union countries.  Under the new policy beginning Sunday, travelers from EU countries seeking entry into France will have to provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britian, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal, and South Africa – will not be allowed into Germany.   However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.  Fourteen University of Michigan students are in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus.  One of the students is reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break. Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.Johnson & Johnson One-dose Vaccine 66% Successful US pharmaceutical maker calls vaccine 85% effective in preventing serious illness U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device maker Johnson & Johnson says after a global trial, the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed is 66% effective in preventing infection.The one-dose vaccine, which was developed by the company’s Belgian subsidiary, Janssen, appears to be 85% effective in preventing serious illness, even against the South African variant.Of the 44,000 people who participated in the trial in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, no one who was given the vaccine died, the company said.The U.S. has agreed to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine with an option to buy 200 million more, according to the company.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth vaccine approved to fight the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Saturday that there are more than 102 million global COVID-19 cases.  The U.S. remains the location with the most cases at 25.9 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million.

NBCUniversal Vows Auditions for Actors with Disabilities

Actors with disabilities will be included in auditions for each new film and television production at NBCUniversal, which becomes the second major media company to make such a commitment.NBCUniversal said Friday that the pledge covers projects by the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Universal Studio Group, NBC network and Peacock streaming service.The pledge was made in response to calls for change by the Ruderman Family Foundation, following a similar commitment the disability rights advocate received from CBS Entertainment in 2019.“My hope is that other major studios in the industry will now see NBCUniversal and say, ‘This is something that makes sense and we’re also going to commit to this,’” said Jay Ruderman, head of the Boston-based foundation. Disney, Sony and major streaming services including Netflix and Amazon are among others the foundation would like to enlist, he said.As more people with disabilities are seen in roles, “it will have ramifications throughout society,” Ruderman told The Associated Press. Comcast-owned NBCUniversal signed on after a series of conversations with the foundation, he said.The company is committed “to creating content that authentically reflects the world we live in and increasing opportunities for those with disabilities is an integral part of that,” said NBCUniversal executive vice president Janine Jones-Clark, whose portfolio includes film, TV and streaming inclusion.Outside calls for action are important and “hold the industry accountable of the work we still need to do in order to see systemic change,” Jones-Clark said in a statement.According to the most recent foundation report, only about 22% of characters with disabilities on network and streaming shows in 2018 were “authentically portrayed by actors with disabilities.” That’s an improvement over 2016’s finding that 5% of such TV roles went to actors with disabilities.Actor Kurt Yaeger a member of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disability Committee, lauded the new agreement. “It’s what I’ve been pushing for 10 years,” he said, given how infrequently studios and producers open the door to people with disabilities.Yaeger, who uses a prosthetic leg because of a motorcycle accident, has appeared as a guest actor in more than 50 TV episodes, including ABC’s The Good Doctor and Netflix’s upcoming Another Life. That’s more than most people who are auditioning regularly for continuing series roles, he said, adding, “I’d like more of those opportunities for me and my fellow performers with disabilities.”While NBCUniversal’s commitment is a “great start,” Yaeger said he wants to see every other network and studio do the same thing and allow their progress to be monitored.Eileen Grubba, an actor and disability activist, said NBCUniversal’s action, coupled with that of CBS Entertainment, could lead to wider change. Grubba, whose credits include HBO’s Watchmen and NBC’s New Amsterdam, already considered both companies to be leaders in disability diversity.“The two of them together, standing up and saying, ‘This will happen, this will be done,’ puts pressure on the rest of the industry,” said Grubba, who uses a leg brace because of childhood spinal cord damage. “This is a massive win for this community and for inclusion, and hopefully for all the people who have been in this industry many, many years without ever getting opportunities.”The growing pressure on movie and TV makers to give women, people of color and the LGBTQ community greater representation may have increased awareness of one of the country’s largest and overlooked minority groups, Ruderman said.According to the Centers for Disease Control, 26% of the U.S. population has some form of disability. Their near invisibility on screen, both as characters and actors, influences how the community is perceived, Ruderman said.“Not seeing people who have disabilities in film and on TV does impact society, it does shape attitudes,” he said. Three decades since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, unemployment remains high among people with disabilities and “a lot of that has to do with stigma.”“I don’t think you can mandate through legislation how people feel. But I think that entertainment can change the way people feel,” Ruderman said.Although the agreement with NBCUniversal doesn’t establish hiring goals, Grubba said the value of getting a chance to audition shouldn’t be undersold.“It requires repeated attempts to get good at it,” she said. “And when you’re competing against people who audition 10 times a week and you’re only getting in one to three times a year, if you’re lucky, you don’t have the same skills in dealing with the pressures and the best way to get through them.”

Putin Signs Extension of Last Russia-US Nuclear Arms Treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a bill extending the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States a week before the pact was set to expire.Both houses of the Russian parliament voted unanimously Wednesday to extend the New START treaty for five years. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden had discussed the nuclear accord a day earlier, and the Kremlin said they agreed to complete the necessary extension procedures in the next few days.New START expires February 5. The pact’s extension doesn’t require congressional approval in the U.S., but Russian lawmakers had to ratify the move. Russian diplomats said the extension would be validated by exchanging diplomatic notes once all the procedures were completed.The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.Biden indicated during the U.S. presidential campaign that he favored the preservation of New START, which was negotiated during his tenure as vice president under Obama.Trump administration’s demandsRussia had long proposed prolonging the pact without any conditions or changes, but the administration of former President Donald Trump waited until last year to start talks and made the extension contingent on a set of demands. The talks stalled, and months of bargaining failed to narrow differences.After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.Earlier this month, Russia announced that it would follow the U.S. in pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed surveillance flights over military facilities to help build trust and transparency between Russia and the West.Arms control advocates hailed New START’s extension as a boost to global security and urged Russia and the U.S. to start negotiating follow-up agreements.Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the country’s lead negotiator on New START, said earlier this week that Russia was ready to sit down for talks on prospective arms cuts that he indicated should also involve non-nuclear precision weapons with strategic range.Trump argued that the treaty put the U.S. at a disadvantage, and he initially insisted on adding China as a party to pact. Beijing bluntly rejected the idea. The Trump administration then proposed extending New START for one year and sought to expand it to include limits on battlefield nuclear weapons and other changes, and the talks stalled.  

EU Drug Regulator Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine for Emergency Use

European Union regulators on Friday approved the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the third vaccine approved for use on the European continent.
Amid criticism the bloc is not moving fast enough to vaccinate its population, the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) expert committee unanimously recommended the vaccine for adults, despite concerns of inadequate data proving its effectiveness for people over 55.
Addressing reporters from agency headquarters in Amsterdam, EMA chief Emer Cooke told reporters the agency had approved the drug for conditional or emergency use because clinical studies found the vaccine to be about 60% effective at fighting the coronavirus — lower than the two previously approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which show efficacy in the 90% range.
Many EU health officials had been anticipating approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it is less expensive and does not require deep-freeze storage like the Pfizer-BioNTech drug.
Earlier Friday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn indicated the vaccine would be approved, but not recommended for patients older than 65, as the clinical studies lacked data regarding its efficacy for patients in that age range.  
But Emer said EMA’s experts determined, based on the immune results seen in patients between the ages of 18 and 55 years, older adults are expected get the same protection from the vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine had already been approved for use in Britain and a number of other countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still considering the drug company’s application for emergency use. 

Why is Kremlin Tagging Protesters ‘Political Pedophiles’?

Russia’s state-controlled media has been turning to a disinformation playbook it has used before in a bid to discredit protesters agitating for the release from prison of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, say analysts.Navalny was detained on his return to Moscow for parole violations after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning. His arrest has triggered the largest anti-Kremlin protests seen in Russia since 2011, and Washington is being blamed for the demonstrations, with Kremlin officials and state media presenters alleging that Western powers, mainly the U.S., are behind the agitation.“Washington is becoming a convenient pretext for accusations, although in reality it has very little to do with what is happening,” Donald Jensen, director of the United States Institute of Peace, a research organization, told VOA’s Russian service. “This is a question for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and the Russian people, and it is clear that a significant minority of Russians are unhappy.”FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks via video call, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov looks on, during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 17, 2020.Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, has compared the Navalny protests to the popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine of 2013-2014, which he and other Kremlin officials also accused the West of fomenting.He told the state-owned weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakti the West needs Navalny, “To destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheavals, strikes and new Maidans.”“What this can lead to we see in the example of Ukraine, which in essence, has lost its independence,” he added. Maidan revoltDisinformation analysts also are drawing comparisons to the Maidan revolt — not as an example of Western intervention, but in terms of the Kremlin’s information management strategy launched to try to save Putin ally President Viktor Yanukovych from ouster.They say many of the same memes, tropes and conspiracy theories dissimulated during the Maidan revolt are being used now to try to shape a narrative discrediting pro-Navalny protesters.In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of pro-Europe protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan to demand Yanukovych’s resignation, Kremlin-controlled media portrayed the people behind the uprising as being opposed to traditional, socially conservative Russian values of family and religion.FILE – People attend a rally at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in central Kyiv, Dec. 8, 2013.Among the memes Russian disinformation channels broadcast were those conflating the agitation with homosexuality, warning of the risk that a homo-dictatorship would be established in Ukraine, according to analysts.“There’s a long tradition of pro-Kremlin propaganda using homophobic rhetoric to discredit pro-democracy activism,” said Zarine Kharazian, an analyst at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, part of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. The lab studies disinformation campaigns.The protesters in the early days of the revolt were predominately young and their occupation of the Maidan, one of Kyiv’s central squares, was sparked by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Because the EU supports same-sex marriage, Russia’s state-controlled media’s “starting point was that the European Union was homosexual, and so the Ukrainian movement toward Europe must be, as well,” according to Yale academic Timothy Snyder.Writing in his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” Snyder noted, “In November and December 2013, the Russia media covering the Maidan introduced the irrelevant theme of gay sex at every turn.” ‘Political pedophilia’As the anti-Kremlin protests erupted this week in Moscow, St. Petersburg and about 70 other towns across Russia, state-controlled media appeared again to color the political agitation with sexual politics, accusing protest leaders of “political pedophilia,” part of an official claim that most protesters were manipulated minors.Sociologists say the protesters came from a range of age groups, although some 25 percent were 18- to 25-year-olds. Nonetheless, Russian officials say Navalny and his supporters have been exploiting the vulnerability of children and the young, persuading them to demonstrate in the streets. “This is a serious operation,” alleged Valery Fadeyev, head of Putin’s human rights council.FILE – Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link during a court hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest outside Moscow, Russia, Jan. 28, 2021.TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya, complained on his marquee show “News of the Week.” “There are people who are so low, they drag children into politics, like political pedophiles. Is this bad? It’s horrible.” Other presenters on Russian newscasts also tagged protesters as “political pedophiles.”Pedophilia, with or without the qualifier “political,” is a charged word in Russia, say disinformation analysts. They argue that the government has a long propaganda history of linking homosexuality with pedophilia. They say labeling the protesters as pedophiles has to be understood within a larger state project of defining Russia’s identity in terms of traditional values, delineating Russia from a Western world often portrayed by the Kremlin as dissolute and decadent.“I do think it’s an attempt to paint opposition protests as ‘Western’ and fundamentally at odds with ‘traditional Russian values,’” said Kharazian. “The equating of homosexuality and pedophilia is based on common homophobic tropes of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ or in some way ‘perverted.’ And beyond Maidan, these homophobic narratives have also been applied to protests in Armenia, Venezuela, Georgia and elsewhere.“It is hard to say if this tactic will work for a wide swathe of Russians, but for those already receptive to anti-Western propaganda, it certainly is potent,” she said.Putin avoided mentioning his foe Navalny by name in a midweek speech to the World Economic Forum. But he warned against the “destruction” of traditional values. “The social and values crisis is already having negative demographic consequences, from which mankind is at risk of losing entire civilizational and cultural continents.”FILE – Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021.Putin himself has defended Russia’s anti-gay laws in the past by equating gays with pedophiles, saying Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of homosexuality.In an interview in 2014 with ABC TV, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, he suggested that gays are more likely to abuse children. And in September 2013, Putin talked about the excesses of Western political correctness, which he said had “reached the point where there are serious discussions on the registration of parties that have propaganda of pedophilia as their objective.”Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a colleague of Kharazian, says the Kremlin-controlled media’s homophobic tropes are “playing into the prejudices of some of the more conservative Russians. It’s not just about influencing the audience, but also using the audience’s prejudices to discredit the protests,” he said. 
 

Capitol Police Bolstering Travel Security for Lawmakers

The Capitol Police are stepping up security at Washington-area transportation hubs and taking other steps to safeguard traveling lawmakers as Congress continues to react to this month’s deadly assault on the Capitol.
Capitol Police will be stationed at area airports and Washington’s Union Station railway hub on busy travel days, the House’s chief law enforcement officer wrote in an email obtained Friday by The Associated Press. Timothy P. Blodgett, the acting sergeant at arms, wrote that officials were setting up an online portal so lawmakers can notify them of travel plans and urged legislators to report threats and suspicious activity.  
“Members and staff should remain vigilant of their surroundings and immediately report anything unusual or suspicious,” said the email, sent late Thursday.  
Blodgett said lawmakers have previously been advised that they can use office expense accounts to pay for security to protect their offices and events in their districts and for self-protection while performing official duties. It also cited a 2017 Federal Elections Commission opinion that they can use campaign contributions to install security systems at their homes.  
President Joe Biden is in “close touch” with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about congressional security, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.  
Pelosi told reporters Thursday that lawmakers face threats of violence from an “enemy” within Congress and said money would be needed to improve security. Pelosi’s comments were a startling acknowledgment of escalating internal tensions between the two parties over safety since the Jan. 6 Capitol attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump.  
Also Thursday, the acting chief of the Capitol Police said “vast improvements” are needed to protect the Capitol and adjacent office buildings, including permanent fencing.  
Such barricades have ringed the complex since the deadly Jan. 6 riot, but many lawmakers have long resisted giving the nation’s symbol of democracy the look of a besieged compound, and leaders were noncommittal about the idea.
Pelosi focused her comments on the anxiety and partisan frictions that have persisted in Congress since Trump supporters’ assault on the Capitol, which led to five deaths. She told reporters she thinks Congress will need to provide money “for more security for members, when the enemy is within the House of Representatives, a threat that members are concerned about.”
Asked to clarify what she meant, Pelosi said, “It means that we have members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.”
Some lawmakers who voted for this month’s House impeachment of Trump have reported receiving threats, and initial moves to enhance safety procedures have taken on clear partisan undertones. Some Republicans have loudly objected to having to pass through newly installed metal detectors before entering the House chamber, while Pelosi has proposed fining lawmakers who bypass the devices.
Pelosi did not say whom she meant by her reference to an “enemy” within the House, and a spokesperson provided no examples.  
First-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has expressed support for baseless QAnon conspiracy theories, has liked Facebook posts that advocated for violence against Democrats and the FBI. One post suggested shooting Pelosi in the head.
Asked to comment, Greene sent a written statement accusing Democrats and journalists of attacking her because she is “a threat to their goal of Socialism” and supports Trump and conservative values.  
Earlier this month, the HuffPost website reported that Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., set off a newly installed metal detector while trying to enter the House chamber and was found to be carrying a concealed gun. Other Republicans have also talked about carrying firearms, which lawmakers are permitted to do, though not on the House or Senate floors.
Since the attack, the Capitol grounds have been surrounded by barrier fences and patrolled by National Guard troops. Yogananda D. Pittman, acting chief of the Capitol Police, said in a statement that based on security assessments by her agency and others, some changes should be lasting.
“I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol,” said Pittman.  
Pelosi took no immediate stance about permanent fencing. Drew Hammill, the speaker’s spokesperson, said she would await a Capitol security review led by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré “to understand what infrastructure changes are necessary.”  
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters he would “defer to the experts.”
Others panned the permanent fencing suggestion. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said she was “adamantly opposed” and had heard no justification for its need. Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., a former Marine, said it would be wrong to turn the Capitol into a “fortress.”
The public is barred from carrying firearms on Capitol grounds. Members of Congress can keep guns in their offices or transport them on the campus if they’re unloaded and securely wrapped.  
The House impeached Trump this month on a charge of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. A Senate trial is set to begin February 9.  
Trump made incendiary remarks to a throng of supporters shortly before the riot, urging them to march to the building. Lawmakers at the time were formally certifying Biden’s election victory, which Trump has repeatedly and falsely attributed to fraud.

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