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Biden’s Infrastructure Push Spurs a Flurry of Lobbying in Congress
Author: Emily Cochrane, Pranshu Verma and Luke Broadwater
Lawmakers in both parties are lining up to get their pet projects and policy priorities included in the expansive package.

Columbian Newspaper

Piece of space junk might have washed up in Waldport
Author: Jim Day, Albany Democrat-Herald, Ore.

Don’t look now, but charred space debris is washing up on the Oregon Coast.

Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office officials are reporting that they have recorded what is possibly a component from a SpaceX vehicle. The debris washed up at Alsea Bay near Waldport and was briefly stored near a local business.

Deputies responded Friday afternoon and set up an exclusion perimeter while the nature of the object was being assessed. Central Oregon Coast Fire and Rescue also responded and determined the object was not an immediate hazardous materials threat. After further consultation with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, SpaceX was contacted.

SpaceX was not able to determine if the object was a component of one of their spacecrafts. However it did appear consistent with a composite overwrapped pressure vessel component, which is a piece designed to hold fluid or gas under high pressure. SpaceX engineers looked at numerous photographs of the debris and heard reports from deputies before advising that the object could be safely transported.

The object, deputies said, was transported to a secure location by deputies so additional evaluation could be made regarding the object’s origin.

The object might have been a piece from the Falcon X rocket that created such a startling show in the skies over the West Coast in late March. Another piece was found on an eastern Washington farm last week.

Spokane mayor, council president may strike deal on fluoride study
Author: Adam Shanks, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.

After months of stalemate, the city is nearly ready to commission a study of fluoridating its water supply.

Spokane leaders have renegotiated the terms of the grant used to fund the analysis in order to assuage the concerns of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

The Spokane City Council accepted a $4 million grant to study and implement a fluoridation system from The Arcora Foundation last September, but it came with stipulations that have caused the administration to balk.

The mayor worried the city would end up footing the bill, and that the study would lead to a hasty decision to fluoridate without adequate public input.

Under the previous agreement, if the city studied fluoridation but ultimately decided not to implement such a system, it would have to pay the money back to the foundation. Now, the terms are being tweaked to ensure that the city can spend $600,000 to study – and possibly decline – fluoridation without having to repay the Arcora Foundation.

On the same yet-to-be-scheduled night it authorizes the city to issue a request for proposals to begin the feasibility study, the council will also vote on a resolution promising Woodward that it will not jump to fluoridate without first engaging the public, according to Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who outlined the verbal agreement for The Spokesman-Review on Friday.

The changes are enough to satisfy Woodward, who until now had held up the study.

“The mayor would like to see a full discussion at the community level with that information so we’re transparent,” Marlene Feist, the city’s public works director, said on Friday.

The Arcora Foundation is the nonprofit philanthropic arm of insurance company Delta Dental. It contributed $3 million toward the effort, with the remaining $1 million raised by the nonprofit Better Health Together.

Vanetta Abdellatif, president and CEO of The Arcora Foundation, wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review that it was willing to relax the terms of its original grant “to help provide greater fiscal certainty as the city explores the feasibility of having Spokane residents join more than 73% of the US population who have access to fluoridated drinking water.”

Spokane is the largest city in Washington to not add fluoride to its water, which dental health organizations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say can reduce tooth decay and address equity gaps in dental health. The city has periodically debated whether to add the mineral to its water supply but never taken the leap.

Most recently, in 2000, voters narrowly advised against fluoridation. The proposal to fluoridate the city’s water supply again quickly sparked opposition last year, as many expressed doubts about the safety of fluoride despite assurances from health agencies and organizations.

In 2020, amid the pandemic, some members of the City Council initially appeared poised to argue that rampant tooth decay and a lack of fluoride amounted to a public health emergency that should be immediately remedied without a public advisory vote.

The most fervent fluoride-supporting city council members backed off on ordering fluoride immediately be added to the city’s water supply. Instead, they agreed to accept the grant and launch a study of a fluoridation system.

Fluoridate supporters and opponents agree that adding the mineral to Spokane’s water supply would not be simple. Though many cities treat their water at a single source, Spokane has seven separate wells and an eighth coming soon. That means each well would have to be outfitted with the equipment to add fluoride.

The feasibility study and 25% design of the system that’s part of the agreement would help illuminate just how costly it might be to maintain a fluoridation system, both upfront and on an annual basis.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that it’s not doable, but that’s where the cost might be an issue,” Beggs said.

The Arcora Foundation and local funders of the effort would look to raise additional money if the buildout costs exceed $4 million, Abdellatif said.

Safe Water Spokane, a group formed last year to resist fluoridation, has argued that fluoridation is a waste of taxpayer money.

“Ninety-nine percent of the water isn’t even ingested, but literally goes down the drain through toilets, showers, car washes and other uses,” Jeff Irish, the group’s chair, said in a statement last December.

On Friday, Irish argued in a statement to The Spokesman-Review that the issue was about more than “dollars and cents.”

“The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence has shown that fluoridated water diminishes IQ and increases ADHD rates,” wrote Irish, contradicting the position of groups like the American Dental Association. “Children and their parents will pay for that the rest of their lives. Safe Water Spokane stands firm: this should be stopped now.”

It will likely take more than a year before the analysis is complete and the public review process begins, city leaders agree. City staff are already preparing a request for proposals and the study should go out to bid this spring.

Some city leaders, including Woodward, have voiced discomfort with endorsing fluoridation without first putting the matter to a public vote. The agreement outlined between the City Council and Woodward’s administration still does not settle the issue.

“It saves that question for another day after we have the data,” Beggs said.

Still, the agreement outlined by city officials is a step forward in at least gathering information about fluoridation, both for those in favor and opposed to it, after months of uncertainty. Weeks after the council approved the grant, a study had yet to commence and Woodward signaled her trepidation in a Dec. 2 letter.

“As I expressed earlier this fall, I continue to advocate for a thoughtful approach to evaluating the capital needs and cost of adding fluoride to the city’s water supply,” Woodward wrote.

“I remain concerned that any grant money spent on evaluating a fluoridation system would have to be repaid if we ultimately decide not to install a fluoridation system.”

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
Author: Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions as world powers and Tehran continue to negotiate over its tattered nuclear deal.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Israel, where its media nearly uniformly reported a devastating cyberattack orchestrated by the country caused the blackout.

If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.

Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.

He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.

Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.

“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.

The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.'”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.

Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.

“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”

Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.

Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.

Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.

“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.

The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.

Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.

The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.

On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

[–][–][–]

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Religious leaders recall Prince Philip’s spiritual curiosity
Author: Associated Press

LONDON — Churches in Britain held services Sunday to remember Prince Philip as people of many religions reflected on a man whose gruff exterior hid a strong personal faith and deep curiosity about others’ beliefs.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby led a service of remembrance at Canterbury Cathedral in southeast England for the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, who died Friday at the age of 99.

Welby, who is set to preside at Philip’s funeral on Saturday at Windsor Castle, led prayers for Philip, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, and contemplated “a very long life, remarkably led.”

In London’s Westminster Abbey, where Philip married the then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Dean of Westminster David Hoyle remembered the former naval officer’s “self-effacing sense of service.”

Most people’s glimpses of Philip in a religious setting were of him beside the queen at commemorative services, or walking to church with the royal family on Christmas Day. But his religious background and interests were more varied than his conventional role might suggest.

Born into the Greek royal family as Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, he was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. His father was exiled and his family left Greece when Philip was very young. He became an Anglican when he married Elizabeth, who as queen is supreme governor of the Church of England.

In the 1960s, he helped set up St. George’s House, a religious study center at the royal family’s Windsor Castle seat, where Philip would join clergy, academics, businesspeople and politicians to discuss the state of the world.

He was a regular visitor to Mount Athos, a monastic community and religious sanctuary in Greece, and was a long-time patron of the Templeton Prize, a lucrative award for contribution to life’s “spiritual dimension” whose winners include Mother Teresa.

Philip’s longstanding environmentalism, which saw him serve as patron of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, was connected to his faith. He organized a 1986 summit in Assisi, Italy where representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism pledged to protect the environment. Philip said at the time that “a new and powerful alliance has been forged between the forces of religion and the forces of conservation.”

Blunt-spoken and quick-witted, Philip also was known for making remarks that could be deeply offensive, some of them sexist and racist. But former Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who was born in Uganda, said those who saw Philip as a bigot were wide of the mark.

“If somebody challenged him, you would enter into an amazing conversation,” Sentamu told the BBC. “The trouble was that because he was the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of the queen, people had this deference.

“I’m sure sometimes he regretted some of those phrases, but in the end it’s a pity that people saw him as somebody who makes gaffes,” Sentamu said. “Behind those gaffes was an expectation of a comeback, but nobody came back, and the gaffe, unfortunately, stayed.”

Inderjit Singh, a prominent British Sikh leader, said Philip had a strong knowledge of Sikhism and “contributed to the understanding and harmony between differing faith communities.”

“He recognized what we should all recognize….We are all of one common humanity,” Singh said.

Philip’s faith may have been partly a legacy of his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who established an order of nuns, sheltered Jews in Nazi-occupied Greece during World War II and is buried below a Russian Orthodox church in east Jerusalem.

“I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special,” Philip said on a 1994 trip to Israel, where he visited his mother’s grave. “She was a person with deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress.”

His interests in religion and ecology have been passed on to his eldest son, Prince Charles. The heir to the throne is a strong environmentalist who has said he wants to be “defender of faiths” when he takes the throne, rather than the monarch’s official title as defender of the Anglican faith

Thailand hits new daily record with nearly 1,000 virus cases
Author: Associated Press

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Health Ministry warned Sunday that restrictions may need to be tightened to slow the spread of a fresh coronavirus wave, as the country hit a daily record for new cases.

The ministry confirmed 967 new infections, the highest ever in a 24-hour period, bringing Thailand’s total to 32,625 cases since January last year – including 97 deaths. The expanding outbreak comes after the country kept the virus largely in check for most of last year.

If the number of cases is still rising in two weeks, measures beyond the current restrictions on nightlife and longstanding social distancing rules will need to be put in place, said Dr. Sophon Iamsirithaworn, deputy director general of the Department of Disease Control.

Most of the recent cases have been traced to an outbreak that originated last month at several nightlife entertainment venues in Bangkok, Sophon said. He said people should be working from home and exercise vigilance.

Tests among those infected at the Bangkok nightspots found some patients infected with the U.K. variant of the coronavirus, which has been found to be more infectious than the original strain.

The rapid rise in cases has been most marked in the capital, Bangkok, and the tourist destinations of Chiangmai in the north and Chonburi province in the east, home to the seaside resort town of Pattaya.

As a hub for commerce and transport throughout the country, Bangkok is a potential vector for the transmission of any disease. The risk is heightened this week as Thais celebrate their traditional Songkran new year’s holiday, during which many normally leave the capital to celebrate with their families in their old hometowns.

Despite the risk, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha did not issue any ban on inter-provincial travel when he announced measures last week to combat the spread of the virus.

His government ordered 41 provinces to close their entertainment venues for 14 days. Provincial governors were given the power to take additional measures, including entry bans, closures, curfews and tests of visitors from other provinces.

Chiang Mai provincial health officials are requiring visitors from Bangkok and four surrounding provinces to self-quarantine for the duration of their stay, up to 14 days, the state Thai News agency reported. A 280-bed field hospital has been set up to treat COVID-19 patients.

Bangkok Criminal Court on Saturday sentenced the managers of two clubs to which the outbreak was traced to two months in jail for violating emergency measures instituted last year covering health regulations to guard against the virus, said Maj. Gen. Sophon Sarawat, chief of the district where the establishments are located.

The outbreak has become a political issue because of charges that senior members of government may have patronized the clubs and flouted health regulations. The country’s transport minister tested positive for the virus, but he and other Cabinet members have denied the allegations.

Dr. Sophon explained that another reason the situation is “worrisome” is because the age groups among which most cases are found are in the 20-29 and 30-39 age brackets.

“These groups have active lifestyles, therefore they can spread the virus to larger numbers of people,” Sophon said. He noted also that they are relatively young and strong, tending to show little or no symptoms, thus masking their illness.

Bangkok has already made arrangements for hospitals to expand their number of beds and to set up field hospitals on military property.

A longer-term concern is that Thailand has been lagging in vaccinating its 69 million population, making it more difficult to bounce back from the latest outbreak. According to Deputy Government Spokesperson Traisuree Taisaranakul a total of 537,380 coronavirus vaccine doses were administered in 77 provinces though Friday.

Brazil’s virus outlook darkens amid vaccine supply snags
Author: Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — April is shaping up to be Brazil’s darkest month yet in the pandemic, with hospitals struggling with a crush of patients, deaths on track for record highs and few signs of a reprieve from a troubled vaccination program in Latin America’s largest nation.

The Health Ministry has cut its outlook for vaccine supplies in April three times already, to half their initial level, and the country’s two biggest laboratories are facing supply constraints.

The delays also mean tens of thousands more deaths as the particularly contagious P.1 variant of COVID-19 sweeps Brazil. It has recorded about 350,000 of the 2.9 million virus deaths worldwide, behind only the U.S. toll of over 560,000.

Brazil’s seven-day rolling average has increased to 2,820 deaths per day, compared with the global average of 10,608 per day, according to data through April 8 from Johns Hopkins University.

The death toll is forecast to continue rising in the next two weeks to an average of nearly 3,500 per day before receding, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Public health experts blame President Jair Bolsonaro for refusing to enact strict measures to halt infections and for clashing with governors and mayors who did.

Failure to control the spread has been compounded by the Health Ministry betting big on a single vaccine, AstraZeneca, then buying only one backup, the Chinese-manufactured CoronaVac, after supply problems emerged. Authorities ignored other producers and squandered opportunities until it was too late to get large quantities of vaccine for the first half of 2021.

With extensive experience in successful, massive vaccination programs, Brazil should have known better, said Claudio Maierovitch, former head of Brazil’s health regulator.

“The big problem is that Brazil did not look for alternatives when it had the chance,” he said. “When several countries were placing their bets, signing contracts with different suppliers, the Brazilian government didn’t even have vaccination on its agenda.”

For months, Bolsonaro’s administration ignored pleas to sign more than one contract for vaccines. The president publicly questioned the reliability of other shots and scoffed at contractual terms, suggesting that recipients of the Pfizer vaccine would have no legal recourse were they to transform into alligators. He insisted he wouldn’t force anyone to get vaccinated and only recently said he might get a shot himself.

Denise Garrett, vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute that advocates for expanding global vaccine access, said she despaired at the government strategy. Brazil has been far and away Latin America’s immunization front-runner, so much so that she hadn’t seen it in the same league as the region’s other countries.

Given the problems in vaccine development and distribution, “it’s definitely not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket,” she said from Washington.

Stalled supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine in January amid pressure for Brazil to begin its vaccination campaign prompted the Health Ministry to acquire tens of millions of shots from Sao Paulo state’s Butantan Institute, which is mixing an active ingredient from China with a sterile solution and bottling it. The shots were the fruit of the state’s negotiations with Chinese company Sinovac and went ahead despite Bolsonaro’s criticisms.

Brazil’s government also dragged its feet in signing on to the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative providing vaccines to poorer nations. It ultimately bought the bare minimum – enough for 10% of its population of 210 million.

“I was so anxious when that was going on; I couldn’t believe they weren’t going to sign it,” said Garrett, who is Brazilian. “When I heard they signed, I was relieved. We were all relieved. But they signed for the minimum amount possible. … Brazil isn’t in a better vaccination position now because of the incompetence or inactivity of the federal government.”

In February, Brazil began signing contracts with other pharmaceutical companies, but none of their shots have been administered. Of the 10% of people who received one dose so far, the vast majority received Butantan’s shot and the rest got the AstraZeneca shot, which government health institute Fiocruz is bottling.

Both Brazilian labs face supply problems. Butantan said Wednesday it was suspending production while it awaits shipments of the active ingredient from China. Fiocruz has produced only 4 million of the 50 million doses it agreed to deliver by the end of April.

That threatens to reduce the speed of vaccinations, which finally hit 1 million doses per day last week, according to a consortium of local media that compiles data from state health secretariats.

Intensive care units for COVID-19 patients in most Brazilian states are above 90% capacity. Seven of every 10 hospitals in the country risk running out of supplemental oxygen and anesthetic in the next few days, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported April 8.

At the municipal hospital of Sao Joao de Meriti, a city in Rio de Janeiro’s metropolitan area, the ICU ward is almost full, with many patients sharing space and oxygen bottles while being treated. Hospital director Altair Soares Neto said health professionals scarcely find time to sleep.

“Will we have the medicines, the oxygen, the conditions to care for this patient accordingly? Today we do. But, if cases keep growing, sometime we will fight chaos,” he said.

The surge of deaths has brought widespread outcry. Brazil’s Association of Collective Health, which has nearly 20,000 members including doctors, nurses and health experts, published an open letter this week demanding a three-week national lockdown, echoing increasingly urgent calls from others.

Bolsonaro has refused proposed lockdowns, arguing their economic impact would be even more devastating than the virus. He even took three states to the Supreme Court last month for adopting such restrictions.

“If we just wait for the vaccine to reach all risk groups, many people will die,” said the health association’s president, Gulnar Azevedo e Silva. “There is no national coordination. And if we don’t have that, what happens? Chaos.”

An agreement for FioCruz to acquire AstraZeneca’s technology would allow Brazil to produce an entirely locally made vaccine and make the nation less vulnerable to constraints on imported active ingredients. Fiocruz forecasts deliveries will start in September. But that date could be pushed back due to the complexity of the process and strict quality control, its press office said in an emailed response to questions.

While visiting Fiocruz on Friday, health minister Marcelo Queiroga told reporters there are other countries that are also experiencing problems with their supply of active ingredients, and that vaccines won’t remedy Brazil’s high level of COVID-19 deaths in the short-term. He said the government doesn’t have a “magic wand to fix all the problems.”

Carla Domingues, former coordinator of Brazil’s national immunization program, praised the country for approaching 1 million doses per day but said it had the infrastructure for a stronger campaign if only the government had secured the vaccines.

“Of course, we would like to vaccinate more, like in the U.S., but we can’t,” she said. “We’re going to have to live with this virus for a long time.” [–][–][–] Associated Press photographer Felipe Dana contributed to this report.

Jordanian prince makes first public appearance since arrest
Author: Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s Prince Hamzah on Sunday made his first public appearance since he was placed under house arrest last week, reciting Quranic verses together with King Abdullah II at the graves of their forefathers. The gesture appeared to be an attempted show of unity on a major Jordanian holiday.

Abdullah has attempted to signal in recent days that the situation is under control. But Sunday’s staged event left it unclear whether the king and his popular half brother have truly put aside their differences. The conflict had escalated into the most serious public rift in the ruling family in decades, although Hamzah has denied any wrongdoing.

Hamzah joined members of the Jordanian royal family marking the centenary of the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan, a British protectorate that preceded the kingdom. The royal palace released a photo and video with Abdullah and Hamzah joining other dignitaries at the grave of their father, the late King Hussein, and the late King Talal, their grandfather.

A photo and video showing the family together reciting the opening chapter of the Quran appeared to be aimed at sending a message of unity at a sensitive time for the kingdom. The chapter, known as the Fatiha, is traditionally recited at people’s gravesides.

It was the first time that Hamzah was seen in public since he was placed under a form of house arrest on April 3 following accusations that he was involved in a “malicious plot” to destabilize the kingdom.

In statements leaked to the media, Hamzah denied the accusations and accused the country’s government of corruption and incompetence. Hamzah has said his actions are out of love for the country. But his past criticism of government policies, and more recently, his outreach to powerful tribal leaders critical of the government, have been seen as threats to the king.

Abdullah subsequently said authorities had thwarted an attempt at sedition involving his half brother and some 18 suspects, while saying he was angry and in shock. Abdullah also suggested there was continued control over Hamzah’s movements, saying the prince was “with his family at his palace, under my care.”

Authorities have imposed a sweeping gag order on any coverage of the royal dispute in a sign of how sensitive they are to how it is perceived. The gag order and the king’s willingness to sanction his own brother also reaffirmed what Jordanians understand as their “red line” – an absolute ban on criticizing the monarch or the royal family.

Sunday’s appearance by Hamzah indicated that he was safe, but it remained unclear whether he had come voluntarily or been released from the restrictions on his movement. Hamzah, wearing a suit, traditional headdress and blue surgical mask, joined his relatives in prayers but did not comment in public. His whereabouts after the ceremony were not immediately known.

There also has been no sign that authorities have released up to 18 other detainees, including members of one of the powerful tribes on which the monarchy has historically relied.

Even before the palace drama, Jordan was grappling with an economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with one in four people out of work. Longstanding complaints about corruption and misrule have fueled scattered protests in recent months.

At the same time, the region’s strategic landscape is shifting as powerful Gulf states pursue closer ties with Israel, potentially undermining Jordan’s role in the Middle East peace process.

The United States, along with regional allies, have all rallied behind the king. Jordan has long been seen as a relatively stable western ally in the Middle East in a turbulent region. But the past year of the coronavirus has rocked the country’s largely tourism-dependent economy.

Abdullah and Hamzah are both sons of King Hussein, who ruled Jordan for nearly a half-century before his death in 1999 and remains a widely beloved figure. Abdullah had appointed Hamzah as crown prince upon his succession but stripped him of the title in 2004 and gave his eldest son the title instead.

Jordan has a large Palestinian population, including more than 2 million refugees from past wars with Israel and their descendants. The monarchy has granted most of them full citizenship but has historically viewed them with suspicion. Its main base of support is powerful tribes from east of the Jordan River, who dominate the security forces.

For decades, the monarchy has cultivated close ties with the U.S. and other Western nations, which it has used to press for the creation of a Palestinian state including the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

That strategy has hit a wall in recent years as the peace process has ground to a halt. Israel and Jordan made peace in 1994 and maintain close security ties, but relations have soured amid a series of recent diplomatic spats.

At the same time, Gulf countries have been cultivating closer ties with Israel over their shared antipathy toward Iran, relations made public last year when the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations with Israel in a U.S.-brokered deal. Saudi Arabia has at times appeared to be weighing a similar move.

Official: Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness low
Author: Associated Press

BEIJING — In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country’s top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to get a boost.

Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conference Saturday in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

Beijing has distributed hundreds of millions of doses abroad while trying to promote doubt about the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine made using the previously experimental messenger RNA, or mRNA, process.

“It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunization process,” Gao said.

Officials at a news conference Sunday didn’t respond directly to questions about Gao’s comment or possible changes in official plans. But another CDC official said developers are working on mRNA-based vaccines.

Gao did not respond to a phone call requesting further comment.

“The mRNA vaccines developed in our country have also entered the clinical trial stage,” said the official, Wang Huaqing. He gave no timeline for possible use.

Experts say mixing vaccines, or sequential immunization, might boost effectiveness. Researchers in Britain are studying a possible combination of Pfizer-BioNTech and the traditional AstraZeneca vaccine.

The coronavirus pandemic, which began in central China in late 2019, marks the first time the Chinese drug industry has played a role in responding to a global health emergency.

Vaccines made by Sinovac, a private company, and Sinopharm, a state-owned firm, have made up the majority of Chinese vaccines distributed to several dozen countries including Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Hungary, Brazil and Turkey.

The effectiveness of a Sinovac vaccine at preventing symptomatic infections was found to be as low as 50.4% by researchers in Brazil, near the 50% threshold at which health experts say a vaccine is useful. By comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been found to be 97% effective.

Health experts say Chinese vaccines are unlikely to be sold to the United States, Western Europe and Japan due to the complexity of the approval process.

A Sinovac spokesman, Liu Peicheng, acknowledged varying levels of effectiveness have been found but said that can be due to the age of people in a study, the strain of virus and other factors.

Beijing has yet to approve any foreign vaccines for use in China.

Gao gave no details of possible changes in strategy but cited mRNA as a possibility.

“Everyone should consider the benefits mRNA vaccines can bring for humanity,” Gao said. “We must follow it carefully and not ignore it just because we already have several types of vaccines already.”

Gao previously questioned the safety of mRNA vaccines. He was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying in December he couldn’t rule out negative side effects because they were being used for the first time on healthy people.

Chinese state media and popular health and science blogs also have questioned the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

As of April 2, some 34 million people in China have received both of the two doses required for Chinese vaccines and about 65 million received one, according to Gao.

The Sinovac spokesman, Liu, said studies find protection “may be better” if time between vaccinations is longer than the current 14 days but gave no indication that might be made standard practice.

Some GOP-led states target abortions done through medication
Author: Associated Press

About 40% of all abortions in the U.S. are now done through medication – rather than surgery – and that option has become all the more pivotal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abortion rights advocates say the pandemic has demonstrated the value of medical care provided virtually, including the privacy and convenience of abortions taking place in a woman’s home, instead of a clinic. Abortion opponents, worried the method will become increasingly prevalent, are pushing legislation in several Republican-led states to restrict it and in some cases, ban providers from prescribing abortion medication via telemedicine.

Ohio enacted a ban this year, proposing felony charges for doctors who violate it. The law was set to take effect next week, but a judge has temporarily blocked it in response to a Planned Parenthood lawsuit.

In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is expected to sign a ban on telemedicine abortions. The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Greef, has called medication abortions “the Wild West of the abortion industry” and says the drugs should be taken under close supervision of medical professionals, “not as part of a do-it-yourself abortion far from a clinic or hospital.”

Opponents of the bans say telemedicine abortions are safe, and outlawing them would have a disproportionate effect on rural residents who face long drives to the nearest abortion clinic.

“When we look at what state legislatures are doing, it becomes clear there’s no medical basis for these restrictions,” said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state policy and advocacy with the Center for Reproductive Rights. “They’re only meant to make it more difficult to access this incredibly safe medication and sow doubt into the relationship between patients and providers.”

Other legislation has sought to outlaw delivery of abortion pills by mail, shorten the 10-week window in which the method is allowed, and require doctors to tell women undergoing drug-induced abortions that the process can be reversed midway through – a claim that critics say is not backed by science.

It’s part of a broader wave of anti-abortion measures numerous states are considering this year, including some that would ban nearly all abortions. The bills’ supporters hope the U.S. Supreme Court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, might be open to overturning or weakening the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the nationwide right to end pregnancies.

Legislation targeting medication abortion was inspired in part by developments during the pandemic, when the Food and Drug Administration – under federal court order – eased restrictions on abortion pills so they could be sent by mail. A requirement for women to pick them up in person is back, but abortion opponents worry the Biden administration will end those restrictions permanently. Abortion-rights groups are urging that step.

With the rules lifted in December, Planned Parenthood in the St. Louis region would mail pills for telemedicine abortions overseen by its health center in Fairview Heights, Illinois.

A single mother from Cairo, Illinois, more than a two-hour drive from the clinic, chose that option. She learned she was pregnant just a few months after giving birth to her second child.

“It wouldn’t have been a good situation to bring another child into the world,” said the 32-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition her name not be used to protect her family’s privacy.

“The fact that I could do it in the comfort of my own home was a good feeling,” she added.

She was relieved to avoid a lengthy trip and grateful for the clinic employee who talked her through the procedure.

“I didn’t feel alone,” she said. “I felt safe.”

Medication abortion has been available in the United States since 2000, when the FDA approved the use of mifepristone. Taken with misoprostol, it constitutes the so-called abortion pill.

The method’s popularity has grown steadily. The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, estimates that it accounts for about 40% of all abortions in the U.S. and 60% of those taking place up to 10 weeks’ gestation.

“Beyond its exceptionally safe and effective track record, what makes medication abortion so significant is how convenient and private it can be,” said Megan Donovan, Guttmacher’s senior policy manager. “That’s exactly why it is still subject to onerous restrictions.”

Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, says medication abortions account for a quarter of the abortions it provides. Of its 1,558 medication abortions in the past year, only 9% were done via telemedicine, but the organization’s president, Kersha Deibel, said that option is important for many economically disadvantaged women and those in rural areas.

Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, countered that “no woman deserves to be subjected to the gruesome process of a chemical abortion potentially hours away from the physician who prescribed her the drugs. ”

In Montana, where Planned Parenthood operates five of the state’s seven abortion clinics, 75% of abortions are done through medication – a huge change from 10 years ago.

Martha Stahl, president of Planned Parenthood of Montana, says the pandemic – which increased reliance on telemedicine – has contributed to the rise in the proportion of medication abortions.

In the vast state, home to rural communities and seven Native American reservations, many women live more than a five-hour drive from the nearest abortion clinic. For them, access to telemedicine can be significant.

Greef, who sponsored the ban on telemedicine abortions, said the measure would ensure providers can watch for signs of domestic abuse or sex trafficking as they care for patients in person.

Yet advocates of the telemedicine method say patients are grateful for the convenience and privacy.

“Some are in a bad relationship or victim of domestic violence,” said Christina Theriault, a nurse practitioner for Maine Family Planning who can perform abortions under state law. “With telemedicine, they can do it without their partner knowing. There’s a lot of relief from them.”

The group has health centers in far northern Maine where women can get abortion pills and take them at home under the supervision of health providers communicating by phone or videoconferencing. It spares women a drive of three to four hours to the nearest abortion clinic in Bangor, Theriault said.

Maine Family Planning is among a small group of providers participating in an FDA-approved research program allowing women to receive the abortion pill by mail after video consultations. Under the program, the Maine group also can mail pills to women in New York and Massachusetts.

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