South Africa Rejects AstraZeneca Doses For Covid-19 Immunization Drive


PUNE, India — South Africa has rejected the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine — one of the only two vaccines approved by India — as it is concerned with its efficacy.

The African nation had already imported one million doses of the vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India near Pune in the southern state of Maharashtra. Each vaccine dose cost $5.35.

After halting a planned rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccines, the nation started administering Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines that are yet to be authorized. They are being rolled out for the first time outside a major clinical trial.

“We will not be taking more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at this stage due to concerns about its efficacy,” Anban Pillay, deputy director-general, health ministry, South Africa, told Zenger News.

“We have not returned the doses to Serum Institute but are sharing them with countries on the African continent via the African Union,” Pillay said.

A new South African variant of coronavirus was first reported in December 2020. Reports by the World Health Organization states it has higher transmissibility and is more susceptible to younger persons. There is no evidence that it is deadlier than the other variants.

A placebo-controlled phase I/II trial was conducted by South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand in collaboration with Oxford University. The study recruited 2,000 relatively healthy and young volunteers with a median age of 31 years and with few comorbidities.

The trial aimed to assess the safety, immunogenicity, and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the prevention of Covid-19 caused by the new variant. The efficacy of the vaccine against mild and moderate Covid-19 disease was 21.9 percent. This was below the minimal efficacy threshold of 50 percent recommended for emergency use of a vaccine candidate.

On asking about the efficacy of the vaccination, Serum Institute declined to comment.

“The variant has significant changes on the spike protein, which seems to allow it to escape antibody response and affect vaccine effectiveness. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine seems to be effective despite the development of the variant,” Pillay said.

AstraZeneca said its vaccine could protect against Covid-19 given that the neutralizing antibody activity was equivalent to that of Covid-19 vaccines that have demonstrated protection.

However, African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended other countries to practice caution while handling AstraZeneca against the South African variant of the virus, and suggested other shots be prioritized.

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, approved the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine through Covax, which aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. The authorization will allow Serum Institute to begin supplies under the WHO-backed Covax initiative.

Trays containing the AstraZeneca/Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

“The [AstraZeneca] vaccine was reviewed on Feb. 8 by WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), which makes recommendations for vaccines’ use in populations (i.e. recommended age groups, intervals between shots, advice for specific groups such as pregnant and lactating women). The SAGE recommended the vaccine for all age groups 18 and above,” the WHO said.

Like the AstraZeneca jab, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was tested in South Africa,” said Shailendra K Saxena, Vice Dean, Centre for Advanced Research, King’s George Medical University in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.

“A randomized multicenter, double-blinded controlled trial on safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine in HIV-uninfected people in South Africa was performed, which showed that a two-dose regimen of the vaccine did not show protection against mild-moderate Covid-19 due to the UK variant,” he said.

“This trial produced lower efficacy rates than others Johnson & Johnson conducted around the world—57 percent protection against moderate to severe infections, compared with 66 percent in Latin America, and 72 percent in the U.S.—but it appears to be able to handle the South African variant of the coronavirus more ably than AstraZeneca’s offering.”

In India, four people have tested positive for the South African variant and one has tested positive for a Brazilian variant. “They have been quarantined and their contacts checked,” said Saxena.

“India has so far reported about 187 cases of a UK variant. Five states — Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh — have been witnessing an upsurge in daily cases amid rising fears of the spread of new variants from South Africa and Brazil, whose first cases were reported on Feb. 16.”

These people returned from the African continent; one from Angola, one from Tanzania, and the other two from South Africa. They entered India in January 2021.

“FDA-authorized vaccines remain effective in protecting the American public against currently circulating strains. However, if there is an emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variant(s) in the U.S. that are moderately or fully resistant to the antibody response elicited by the current generation of Covid-19 vaccines, it may be necessary to tailor the vaccines to the variant(s),” the US FDA said on Feb. 22.

“Further discussions will be necessary to decide whether in the future, modified Covid-19 vaccines may be authorized without the need for clinical studies,” it said.

(Edited by Gaurab Dasgupta and Amrita Das.)

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Robbed Blind: Smiling Blonde Crook Swindled $16,000 From Disabled Senior


BREITENWORBIS, Germany — The German police have released a video of a blonde lady approaching an old woman, pretending to be her grandson’s girlfriend and stealing away her life savings.

The footage showed the blonde suspect, who spoke German with an East European accent, took away the cash €13,000 ($15,738) which was the 81-year-old’s life savings, and then disappearing off with a huge grin on her face.

German police said this was the first time a so-called “nephew fraudster” was captured on camera.

The old woman hands the cash over to the fraudster. (Landespolizeiinspektion Nordhausen/Newsflash)

The victim later told the police that the woman spoke bad German and was not able to say much more than “money, money, money”.

The Nordhausen Criminal Police Department said they have received over a dozen leads after the video was shared online in mid-January.

The old woman’s real grandson, Daniel Schmiegel, 40, from the district of Ammern, is also determined to see justice served and has offered a reward for anyone that provides the name of the criminals.

“I will give €2,000 ($2,420) to anyone who provides information leading to the perpetrators. They took all of my grandmother’s savings,” said the businessman, who owns a local bike shop, on Feb 10.

“She is 90 percent blind and almost completely deaf and lost her husband two years ago. That must be punished.”

“Nephew fraudsters” target old and confused people by ringing up and claiming to be a family member in urgent need of financial aid and then get them to hand over their savings.

In this case, the victim from the German state of Thuringia, got a phone call from an anonymous caller claiming to be her grandson and looking for cash.

The worried elderly woman willingly agreed to take out her savings to hand to her grandson. The caller said he would ask his girlfriend to stop and collect it.

The pensioner arranged the money and was informed to meet the girlfriend outside a nearby kindergarten.

However, she apparently failed to realize that she was being filmed by a surveillance camera at a nearby building site.

Police have confirmed that a similar incident had happened earlier as well which was captured on camera as well.

An 87-year-old victim from the municipality of Asbach-Sickenberg in Thuringia lost €40,000 ($48,405) when he handed over the money to a girl at his front door.

A neighbor managed to witness the situation and claimed the person matched the blonde woman from the surveillance video.

As per the victim, the girl was between 25 and 30 years old, slim, with hair tied in a braid.

The police are still looking for more evidence and checking for a connection between both cases.

(Edited by Ritaban Misra and Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar.)

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Eight Bodies, Heartbreaking Note Found In Car Stranded In Libyan Desert


KUFRA, Libya — The Kufra police found eight bodies belonging to one family, all of whom died after they lost their way in the Libyan desert.

Images of the tragedy show the relatives’ dead bodies, along with their belongings, strewn around the vehicle, some of them already partially buried in the sand. It was alleged that 13 others were missing after their car broke down in the desert. All the people are expected to have ended up dying of starvation and thirst.

As per the local media, 21 people were traveling on a Toyota Sequoia when it broke down in a tranche of the desert 400 kilometers (249 mi) south-west of the Libyan oasis town of Kufra.

The officials found a moving letter in which a woman appears to be aware of her impending fate. “Forgive me, my mother, for not having reached you,” the letter read.

The dead bodies of five men and three women were found by the car, and the remaining passengers, reportedly including children, are believed to still be missing in the desert.

An investigation by the Libyan police concluded that the family left the city of Al-Fashir in Sudan in August last year and were believed to be headed to Kufra, which is a transit point on one of the migrant routes to the Libyan coast.

As per the Libyan authorities, a report was received by the Kufra police station on Feb. 10, stating a traffic accident had occurred. As soon as the concerned authorities arrived at the site of the accident, the motorized vehicle was found, along with a number of bodies, clothes and a bag.

As per the local media, 21 people were traveling on a Toyota Sequoia when it broke down in a tranche of the desert. (The Kufra Primary Prosecution Office/Newsflash)

After the inspection of the vehicle, two identity cards of Muhammad Emuhammed and Mona Muhammad were retrieved from the location. Both were from Al-Qasim Al-Fiqi.

The vehicle was found early last week, some six months after the group’s departure, with a handwritten note inside penned by one of the family members named as Muzna Saifuddin Hasan.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing and is trying to locate the other 13 people missing in the desert.

The Libyan Desert forms the northern and eastern parts of the Sahara Desert. It describes that part of the Sahara that lies within the present-day state of Libya.

As per the UN Refugee Agency and Danish Refugee Council’s Mixed Migration, an estimated 72 people die each month on treacherous land routes to Libya from east and West Africa before they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

“The report found that at least 1,750 people died, and many others were subjected to extreme violence at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, militias and State officials while attempting the journey to Libya in 2018 and 2019,” it said.

“Around 28 percent of those deaths happened during attempts to cross the Sahara Desert. Other hotspots included southern Libya, Agadez in Niger and the Malian capital of Bamako. Nearly a third of respondents interviewed by the MMC had witnessed or survived sexual violence.”

More than 6,200 refugees and migrants have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya so far in 2020 compared to 9,035 during the whole of 2019.

Civil war has raged in southern Sudan from 1955 to 1972 and again from 1983 to the present.

“This situation has been compounded by regional conflicts in other parts of Sudan and wars in neighboring countries,” states an article ‘The impact of war on women and children: case study of Sudan’ by the National Library of Medicine. “The consequences of war are taking their toll on the entire region and are intensified by environmental hazards, desertification, drought, and famine.”

The victims of the war are civilians who are forced to choose between disastrous alternatives: if they flee, they lose their homes, their livelihoods, and their communities; if they stay, they watch these things being destroyed around them.

(Edited by Saptak Datta and Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar.)

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I SAW THE SIEGE: Del. Stacey Plaskett Was Ready To Fight


During Black History Month, Zenger News presents “I Saw the Siege,” a series of on-camera interviews with African-American eyewitnesses to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

WASHINGTON — A House Democrat who co-prosecuted former president Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial says she was prepared to mix it up with rioters who ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Del. Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI) told Zenger News that as U.S. Capitol Police ordered members of Congress and their staffs to evacuate to a secure location, she was “thinking, you know — just being black — just like, “Yo! We might have to scrap!”

Plaskett said she was stunned to find that among a large assembly of lawmakers and their aides locked inside a holding room, many Republicans were not wearing Covid-19 masks. She decided to leave, she said, taking her chances in Capitol hallways to reach the safety of her office in an adjacent building.

“Republicans were not wearing masks, and we were so many of us thinking, ‘I’m out of here,’” said Plaskett. She texted her staff that she was walking back. “I’d rather be able to run from rioters and fight with them [than] from a virus that may be out in this room that I can’t see and don’t know how to fight.”

With the pandemic shrinking office staffs to skeleton crews, Plaskett’s employees were mostly at home — including the most junior. “One of the things I was thankful for is we didn’t have young staffers in the office,” she said. “I didn’t want them to feel jaded about this country and public service.”

Del. Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI) told Zenger News that as U.S. Capitol Police ordered members of Congress and their staffs to evacuate to a secure location, she was “thinking, you know — just being black — just like, “Yo! We might have to scrap!” (Claire Swift/Zenger News)

Electoral College votes were to be counted in a Joint Session of Congress to certify the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. And as Republicans challenged the votes from swing states, Trump’s supporters marched on the Capitol. Push quickly came to shove, and rioters breached the building.

Plaskett watched the beginning of the saga from behind a locked door, “wondering if they were going to get through and get us.” Later, in the secure room, she saw a range of emotional reactions from other congressmen and women: “Some people were shell shocked, some people were angry, some people were so sad, heartbroken.”

Del. Plaskett says that she’d “rather be able to run from rioters and fight with them [than] from a virus” when choosing to leave the secure location for Congress members during the insurrection when some members were not wearing masks. (U.S. House Office of Photography/Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in housing projects, Plaskett has vivid memories of boarding an elevator in a low-income high rise, watching her step to avoid human waste and empty liquor bottles, pushing buttons in the hope that one would work. A world away amid suburban Connecticut greenery, she attended the posh Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school, recruited by the minority advancement organization A Better Chance.

“Having to switch between these worlds all the time” made her feel a “huge responsibility when I was [at school], to be the best,” she said, knowing that her mostly white, upper-crust classmates were watching her closely, sometimes skeptically.

“Right or wrong,” she said, “they were going to judge other black people by what I was doing.” They elected her class president more than once.

A 21-year-old Plaskett became a mother during her senior year at Georgetown University. Two more sons would join the first, none of them yet five years old, by the time she graduated from law school at American University. Future impeachment co-manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was her Constitutional Law professor. Now 54, she has five children, including a sixth-grader, and one grandchild.

After tours as a New York City prosecutor, a congressional staffer and a Justice Department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, Plaskett declared herself a Democrat in 2008. She moved her family to her “ancestral homeland” of St. Croix, a 22-mile-long island in the Caribbean Sea.

She became quickly “frustrated at the things I saw,” learning that “47 percent of children in the Virgin Islands live in poverty.”

“It’s not a paradise for a lot of people there,” said Plaskett, describing why she ran for office.

“My family has been involved in politics,” she said. “My uncles, when they came back from the Vietnam War, and before that, were involved in labor politics.” They organized cane cutters and fought for unions. On her mother’s side, she is related to Dean Hamilton Jackson, one of the Virgin Islands’ most notable labor leaders. “He fought the Danish government, when we were owned by Denmark, for us to be able to have free press.”

St. Croix gained an historical renaissance from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “Hamilton,” since Alexander Hamilton lived there from early in childhood until 1772, when he headed to New York in the years before the American Revolution. Hubert Harrison, a thought leader of the Harlem Renaissance, was a U.S. Virgin Islands native. So was Denmark Vesey, Plaskett said, “a man who was free and started a slave rebellion so others would be free, and lost his life for it.”

Del. Stacey Plaskett entered politics after becoming frustrated with the shortcomings of government in the Virgin Islands, including high rates of poverty amongst children. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

What Plaskett saw on Jan. 6, she said, was a more sinister uprising, “the attempted overthrow of the government of the United States, attempted by the president, Donald John Trump, inciting an insurrection to retain power. By any means necessary, right? He had run out of nonviolent means.”

Trump, Plaskett said, took “the frustration, ignorance and hatred of people” and directed their outrage “to our seat of democracy, to try and assassinate the Vice President, simply to maintain power. I think that’s what people saw. That’s what I hope they saw.”

With the rioters gone in the evening hours of Jan. 6, and with government workers cleaning up after them, lawmakers considered their options. The U.S. Constitution requires them to certify the presidential election on that specific date, but there was blood in at least one carpeted hallway and broken glass peppered the marble everywhere.

Impeachment manager Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., walks through the Senate during a break in the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump who was charged with incitement of insurrection after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. (Caroline Brehman-Pool/Getty Images)

“A lot of people were like, ‘Let’s go home, let’s come back in the morning and get this done,’” she told Zenger. “And members were like ‘Hell no. This is going to happen tonight.’” Congress resumed its Joint Session at about 8 p.m. and finished its duty at 3:32 a.m. Plaskett remembers “leaving the Capitol late, late, late at night. And the utter silence.”

“When I finally left I felt exhausted,” she says. “And bewildered, about what was going to happen next.”

(Edited by David Martosko and Kristen Butler, Visuals Produced by Claire Swift, Jorge Diaz and Allison Itz,  Director of Photography, Todd Nash/Justin Feltman)

Click here to see the complete interview with Del. Stacey Plaskett.

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Reform Redux: Senate Could Bring Major Voting, Anti-Corruption Bill To Floor


House Democrats want to make sweeping changes to campaign finance and election law, and that begins with H.R. 1, the “For The People Act.”

It passed in the House but languished in the GOP-controlled Senate in 2019 — this is round two.

Its return comes in the aftermath of a tumultuous 2020 presidential election, in which former President Donald J. Trump made numerous unsupported statements about voter manipulation.

“The bill contains the reforms we need to restore democracy,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program. He considers it a historic piece of election reform legislation he likens to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the bill references. “We strongly support this bill.”

H.R. 1 includes election, campaign finance, anti-corruption and voter registration measures. It also makes statehood for Washington, D.C. more attainable. In addition, it has provisions for presidents and vice presidents to reveal their taxes returns. Given that complexity, it has its critics.

The Conservative Action Project calls the bill a “fantasy of the left”  and writes it would cause “damage to the free speech, privacy and integrity that are central components to free and fair elections in America.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the bill a “political power grab”  by Democrats when it came to the Senate in 2019. He prevented the bill from coming up for a vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says the For The People Act is a “political power grab” by Democrats. (Caroline Brehman-Pool/Getty Images)

“Those arguments are completely baseless,” said Weiner. He explained the core policies in the bill tend to find bipartisan favor in voter polling, and said he sees nothing in the bill that would benefit one party over the other. “It’s sad that voter access has become a partisan issue.”

Weiner sees the bill as a victory for both sides of the aisle.

“The reason this bill needs to be a top priority is because the proper functioning of our democracy affects pretty much every other issue that people care about,” he said. “You would see an election system in which everyone who is eligible has a meaningful opportunity to participate, and in which the priorities of ordinary voters on both the left and the right take more precedence over entrenched interests.”

Introduced in the House on Jan. 4 by Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and referred to committee, the bill has garnered 217 co-sponsors and is expected to come before the full House first, followed then by the Senate in the spring.

“H.R.1. , in many respects, it represented the coming together of a tremendous set of very robust reform proposals proposed over many, many years,” Rep. Sarbanes said in a video on his website. “We had to respond in a meaningful way to this undue influence that big money and corporations and other insiders have in Washington. So H.R. 1 is a direct product of what the American people have been telling us for years.”

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced the For The People Act in the House of Representatives. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Throughout the country’s history, the best way to defend democracy is to strengthen democracy. S. 1 [the Senate has introduced the bill as well] would be the most significant democracy reform in more than half a century,” stated Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, which helped develop its policies.

The bill increases voter access by promoting internet registration, allows for increased same-day voter registration and lists restrictions on voting by mail. It also increases early voting, allows convicted felons who have served their sentence to vote again, and makes Election Day a federal holiday.

“If you want to engage folks who don’t feel like they have a stake in the process, then you need to make it feel more accessible, and that’s what this bill does,” said Weiner.

The bill requires that donations over $10,000 to politically active nonprofits be publicly disclosed, as well as requiring disclaimers and increased transparency on online political ads. It would also put in place stricter rules for foreign lobbying and super PACs.

“In general, anything that raises the barrier to speaking about politics, whether it’s record-keeping or identity verification, is going to result in fewer people speaking about politics,” said Will Duffield, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

The disclosure and data collection involved will likely be helpful for journalists and for helping them and the public understand where messages come from, said Duffield. But he sees pitfalls, such as Facebook and other platforms determining what qualifies as political rhetoric.

He cites the Penzy’s Spices experience when trying to run anti-Trump ads for their spices on Facebook. They weren’t influencing policy or election results, but still needed to go through a private review because of their election-focused ad. Weiner doesn’t agree: “It just says that Penzey’s ad would go into a database, and that the public could look it up.” However, he does worry that expense ad pricing would favor incumbents.

To avoid the pitfalls, Duffield suggests legislators “keeping it to the old definition of electioneering communication — anything that advocates for or against or mentions a candidate for federal office — would make it both more limited in scope, but also more interpretable for these platforms.”

If passed, the bill would also establish limitations and disclosure rules on presidential inaugural committees, as well as require independent commissions to determine congressional district lines (for states with multiple congressional districts) in an attempt to thwart gerrymandering. The commissions would have 15 members divided equally among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Each proposed district from the commission would have to earn both a majority vote and at least one vote from each respective party’s committee member.

In addition, the bill seeks to bolster ethics requirements by making the disclosure of 10 years of tax returns by all presidential and vice presidential candidates the law, and prevent congressional representatives from serving on corporate boards. The president and vice president would be required to disclose their tax returns while in office.

Releasing of such returns became a major controversy during the last administration, as Trump refused to disclose his tax returns throughout his campaign and term.

“Disclosure advances the core values of democracy,” said Weiner. “The bill makes it clear that transparency is free enhancing. It needs to be calibrated to ensure it doesn’t deter people from speaking, but the Supreme Court acknowledged in Citizens United, that transparency furthers our public discourse. I find [the argument that the bill will limit free speech] inconsistent with what the Supreme Court itself has said and adopted as the framework for thinking about these issues.”

It also proposes statehood for D.C. — this means the populated portion of D.C. excluding the National Mall, White House grounds, congressional buildings, and other federally owned portions of the mall.

“The bill interferes with the ability of states and their citizens to determine qualifications for voters, to ensure the accuracy of voter registration rolls, to secure the integrity of elections, to participate in the political process, and to determine the district boundary lines for electing their representatives,” The Heritage Foundation wrote in an update to its 2019 statement on the legislation.

The Brookings Institute has a more practical take: “Republican opposition to D.C. statehood rests in large part on politics. Given the overwhelming Democratic voting in Washington, it would be unlikely that Republicans would elect a House member or senator from D.C. As a metric, since 2000, the Democratic presidential nominee captured, on average, over 89% of the vote.”

Other bill supporters include including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 national organizations. Its statement had over 50 directly undersigned organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the League of Women Voters.

The House has promised to pass H.R. 1 quickly, the expectation is it will leave committee and come to a floor vote and approval in March. It is a priority of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), but will need 60 votes to pass, which may be difficult to secure.

(Edited by Fern Siegel and Matthew B. Hall)

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A Covid Success Story After 315 Days


Elsa being applauded in her release from the hospital. Notes: Picture provided by the hospital (H. Gregorio Maranon/Newsflash)

MADRID — After spending 315 days in the hospital for treatment of Covid-19,  a 52-year-old woman was applauded by medical personnel on her way out.

The patient, identified only as Elsa, arrived at Madrid’s Hospital Gregorio Maranon on April 7, 2020, with Covid-19 symptoms. The woman, who had previously been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“Elsa remained in an ICU for about half of the 315 days she was treated at the center. In the meantime, she suffered several infections and a cerebral stroke,” a hospital press release on Feb. 16 stated. “She was intubated and had to be placed on extracorporeal life support, also known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), for a month to help keep her alive.”

Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) is a machine similar to the heart-lung by-pass machine used in open-heart surgery. It pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.

The video  shows Elsa’s emotional moment as she leaves the hospital and is visibly moved by the medical workers’ applause and rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’

Elsa was to celebrate her 53rd birthday — at home — on Feb. 16, one day after leaving the hospital.

(Edited by Pallavi Mehra and Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar)

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NBA Legend Isiah Thomas Sets Up to Dominate the Pan-American Cannabis Space


NNPA NEWSWIRE — Superstar and NBA Icon Isiah Thomas, whose Cheurlin Champagne is one of the best-selling in the world, announced that his company, ISIAH International, LLC, will invest $3 million into One World Pharma, Inc., a U.S. based, fully licensed, pure-play hemp and cannabis ingredient producer in Columbia.

Staff and Wire Report
(NNPA Senior Correspondent Stacy M. Brown contributed to the article)

NBA Icon Isiah Thomas continues to make history in a post-playing career that’s fast becoming as legendary as years on the hardwood.

The superstar, whose Cheurlin Champagne is one of the best-selling in the world, announced that his company, ISIAH International, LLC, will invest $3 million into One World Pharma, Inc., a U.S.-based, fully licensed, pure-play hemp and cannabis ingredient producer in Columbia.

“Let it be known,” Thomas, using his favorite hashtag, tweeted about the deal. “There are few, if any, reliable, industrial scale, global supply chain companies in this space and we intend to be one. I am pleased to initiate this next chapter of growth,” Thomas added.

According to a news release, the $3 million investment will fund the expansion of farm operations, additional certifications for THC seeds already approved by the government of Colombia, Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification and the build-out of a GMP certified state-of-the-art THC/CBD extraction facility.

The investment will be made in installments over six months, with the first tranche of $250,000 having already been funded.

The farm expansion through this funding is expected to allow One World Pharma to significantly increase revenue in the second quarter of 2021 through the increased sale of seeds, newly approved cuttings, and extracted oil.

Thomas made the substantial financial commitment through ISIAH International reportedly because of his belief in the bright future of the global cannabis market, which leading research firms assert will reach $47 billion in annual sales by 2025.

ISIAH International is a holding company with interests in a diversified portfolio of companies.

Wholly owned Thomas, ISIAH International invests in companies with strong market positions and growth potential.

With this investment, Thomas becomes one of the largest minority business owners in the Pan-American cannabis space.

“We could not be more thrilled. When Isiah Thomas assumed the role of CEO, he lent us his good name and his world-renowned leadership and business acumen. Today, he provides the funding for the Company to truly execute on its plan to become a leading international supplier of the finest cannabis ingredients,” Dr. Kenneth Perego, OWP’s Executive Chairman, noted in the news release.

“After extensive analysis of Colombia, the world market and these most recent developments at the Company, I passionately believe there is a tremendous opportunity to build a world class, valuable, environmentally and socially conscious company that is a significant player in the global cannabis and industrial hemp industries,” stated Isiah Thomas, on behalf of ISIAH International.

“There are few, if any, reliable, industrial scale, global supply chain companies in this space and intend to be one.  I am pleased to initiate this next chapter of growth.”

Department Of Labor Nixes Program To Report Underpayment Of Wages Without Penalties


The Department of Labor has axed a program that let businesses report wage violations to avoid penalties.

The department announced in a statement on Jan. 29 that it was discontinuing its pilot program for businesses to voluntarily report and repay underpayment of federal minimum wage and overtime violations to employees.

The 2018 program allowed employers to self-report these violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act to “avoid litigation, penalties or damages, and prohibited affected workers from taking any private action on the identified violations,” per the department.

The primary goals were to resolve claims quickly without litigation, to bolster “employer compliance with overtime and minimum wage obligations, and to ensure more employees receive the back wages they are owed — faster.”

The program only operated at the federal level. Employers were still subject to state agency action if appropriate.

The Payroll Audit Independent Determination, or PAID program utilized an online portal called Workers Owed Wages that posed a series of interactive questions to workers who believed they were owed back wages.

Any unpaid wages reported by employers were listed in the database searchable by worker name, and workers were directed to the closest Wage and Hour Division office for resolution of the amount they were owed. The caveat: The program limited filing lawsuits and involving employers in future claims.

Some information regarding the program’s effectiveness has been removed from the current Department of Labor website stating: “As of January 20, 2021, information in some news releases may be out of date or not reflect current policies.”

Construction workers walk past vehicles lined up at a drive-in COVID-19 testing center in South Los Angeles amid the coronavirus pandemic. Renewed penalties for wage and hour violations are affecting businesses still struggling to access pandemic aid passed by Congress. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In a July 2020 statement, the Wage and Hour Division reported the program resulted in “more than $7 million in back wages found for more than 11,000 workers.” The report gave analysis of data collected from April 1, 2018, through Sept. 15, 2019, and suggested “self-audits allowed [Wage and Hour Division] to increase back wages delivered to employees with minimal impact on existing priorities and resources.”

But a report submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 29, 2020 citing total payments back to employees has been removed. Even though the report boasted average back pay at $55,828, the median was actually $7,898 — with stark differences in the real amount received by employees remunerated under the program. According to the departmental report, “Over half of cases (51%) resulted in back wages under $10,000, including two cases with no back wages, while 10 cases found between $110,000 and more than $746,000 in back wages.”

Cheryl Stanton, the former administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, stated in a July 14, 2020 news release: “For employers that missed payroll, or otherwise inadvertently found themselves in violation of the FLSA as they dealt with the effects of the coronavirus, PAID allows them to step forward, pay their workers the wages they earned, and get back to business.”

However, current Wage and Hour Division Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman was unimpressed by the program’s reported results.

“Workers are entitled to every penny they have earned,” said Looman. “The Payroll Audit Independent Determination program deprived workers of their rights and put employers that play by the rules at a disadvantage. The U.S. Department of Labor will rigorously enforce the law, and we will use all the enforcement tools we have available,” she said in the Jan. 29 release.

Looman was formerly executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. Construction, restaurants, building maintenance and other industries are considered some of the most likely offenders of wage and hour violations.

A significant portion of those employers owing back pay were state and local governments that would not have been required to pay back liquidated damages and had a shorter ‘lookback’ period of two years, instead of the maximum three years. The Wage and Hour Division could have sought pre-litigation liquidated damages in some cases of egregious or willful violations, but as of July 1, 2020, approval was required to take such action.

Federal overtime regulations are clear. Waiving overtime by mutual agreement is a violation, despite any extenuating circumstances as a result of pandemic staffing shortages. As of right now, there are no additional programs for employers impacted due to the pandemic.

However, the Department of Labor still supervises settlements according to the Fair Labor and Standards Act, which states: “The Secretary [of Labor] is authorized to supervise the payment of the unpaid minimum wages or the unpaid overtime compensation owing to any employee or employees.”

Small business employers confronted additional wage and hour violations over fallout from pandemic-forced closures. They also faced issues with the administration by some banking institutions of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020.

The failure to administer the Paycheck Protection Program properly under Inspector General Glenn Fine, who was removed April 7, 2020, added to the economic instability. (Fine was appointed by Congress as the chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee — a watchdog panel created to oversee fair distribution of the $2 trillion CARES Act provisions.)

Following that, larger, high-revenue companies received loans in the millions. Other businesses had difficulty navigating the process of finding a lender, and many larger banks would not loan the federally backed disaster aid funds with loan-forgiveness options to new account holders, only those with accounts existing prior to March 2020. However, state and locally mandated closures only began in March 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The disparity in disbursements was met with tremendous public outcry, as small businesses were left waiting for funds. Additional funding was provided April 24, 2020 by the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, which addressed the funding shortage and panic of small businesses that applied but were left in limbo.

A restaurant waitress wears a protective face mask while taking orders at outdoor seating. Construction, restaurants, building maintenance and other industries are considered some of the most likely offenders of wage and hour violations. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A second round of Paycheck Protection Program business loans was made available to “first-draw” applicants in Jan. 2021 — meaning a contingent of eligible businesses still have not received federal disaster aid funds for almost a year.

Second draw loans are now available, and a second round of applications are open for those who did not receive funds previously. “The [Small Business Administration] is working to ensure the economic aid is accessible to all that are eligible, including those hit hardest, while protecting program integrity and ensuring as quick distribution as possible of the aid,” public affairs officer Shannon Giles told Zenger. “The agency is conducting extensive outreach campaigns so there is full awareness of what’s available to those affected.”

However, Paycheck Protection Program loans are not made by the Small Business Administration, which states:

“PPP loans are made by lending institutions and then guaranteed by SBA. Borrowers apply to lenders and self-certify that they are eligible for PPP loans. The self-certification includes a good faith certification that the borrower has economic need requiring the loan and a certification that the borrower has applied the affiliation rules and is a small business, among other certifications.

“The lender then reviews the borrower’s application, and if all the paperwork is in order, approves the loan and submits the information to SBA. All PPP loans are subject to SBA review and all loans over $2 million will automatically be reviewed. Eligibility and compliance will be reviewed during the loan forgiveness process.”

It is thus still important to maintain good records and for employers to take every action possible to avoid the occurrence of enforcement issues. More developments are likely on the horizon under the Biden administration.

(Edited by Fern Siegel and Kristen Butler)

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Europe Wants Biden Admin Cooperation To Regulate Big Tech


The world is waiting to see if — and how — the new White House administration will take on the tech industry.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 26, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to help build a worldwide “digital economy rulebook” to control data giants.

It’s a far-reaching concept, but Feb. 10 saw two major moves on data regulation in Europe. First, the European Union’s top data regulator called for a complete ban on targeted advertising based on consumer surveillance as part of the December Digital Services Act, co-introduced with the Commission’s Digital Marketing Act.

Meanwhile, the European Council reached agreement on its decades-long negotiating position around existing electronic privacy rules. It’s still unclear whether the privacy rules will undermine or complement the General Data Protection Regulation, which is currently considered the gold standard in the global industry. However, that regulation was just one piece of the privacy approach intended by European Union leaders. Developments on the European regulatory front could set the groundwork for a joint global policy collaboration.

The implications of a global digital rule book are many. One top priority Von der Leyen noted was to create a legal framework for actions by governments or corporations involving social media and data management. Companies such as Google and Facebook are already regulated when they serve consumers in Europe, but they may come under more scrutiny.

Companies such as Google and Facebook are already regulated when they serve consumers in Europe, but they may come under more scrutiny. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

A global approach would hold companies to the same standard of content accuracy on their networks, while also making censorship actions subject to common legal enforcement. In particular, Von der Leyen was concerned about propaganda supporting extremist views and how easily it spreads.

It’s currently left up to private companies to decide what content they allow on their applications. In the wake of the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol, European Commission authorities say that isn’t enough.

A rule book may also require uniform standards for data privacy regulations, including how companies utilize user data and algorithm transparency. Under a global digital rule book, there may be requirements for disclosing how algorithms manage consumer data.

Regulating market behavior in the digital space is a related issue. Apple and Facebook are at odds over use of consumer data for marketing. Under a global rule, companies may be subject to regulation or banned altogether from tracking user activity for the purpose of displaying ads tailored to their preferences. While targeted advertising is seen by some consumers as merely an unsettling annoyance, officials have warned of a darker side — especially in relation to child welfare, human trafficking and cyber crime.

Julie Brill, a former federal trade commissioner who is now vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft, answered the question of how to balance innovation and privacy at World Bank’s Virtual Data Privacy Day by stressing the necessity of “responsibly and appropriately unlocking the value of data.” She stated that some company executives have for years wanted better guidelines to balance the two.

“One of the ways we can really focus on innovation in the future and ensuring we get the value of data, is by building those guardrails more clearly, so that organizations … know what they can do,” Brill said. “Because right now … there is a lot of confusion, and that’s particularly true in the United States.”

Meg Leta Jones, from the Institute for Technology Law & Policy at Georgetown Law Center and the Brussels Privacy Hub at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, considers the proposal of a global rule book as a positive move.

“My initial thoughts on the proposal are that joint action could be incredibly productive,” Jones said. “The EU and U.S. face many of the same challenges with misinformation, data protection, privacy and infrastructure, so trying to work together on these issues could be quite fruitful and prevent further problems down the line.”

However, Jones says similar struggles of partisanship and corporate lobbying affect both governing bodies.

“But the EU and U.S. also face many of the same challenges with political infighting over misinformation, conflations between data protection and privacy, and conflicts over technological infrastructure versus markets that could make collaboration really difficult,” she said.

Critics see potential U.S. reticence to rules possibly favoring European industry interests over larger American companies with a strong global footprint.

“The difficulties to collaboration raised by internal tensions will be amplified by international tensions,” Jones said. “Namely, different starting points for expression and data protection, the emphasis on ‘consumer’ rights with limited choices, and the financial success of tech companies during an economic crisis. That said, there’s some low-hanging fruit that the EU and U.S. could agree on, and I hope they do.”

The U.S. has seen more than 30 bills related to privacy introduced since 2018, though none have been passed at federal level. States are now enacting their own, complicating compliance countrywide. Compared to the already highly-regulated approach to the digital economy in Europe, there is a growing desire to reach common ground in order to move forward.

(Edited by Carlin Becker and Kristen Butler)

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Oil And Gas Data Show Market Is Balanced, But Be Mindful Of The Weather


U.S. crude oil and petroleum product inventories suggest the market is finding a balance between supply and demand, but the impact from the severe winter weather hitting the U.S. south could change that, analysts said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, part of the Energy Department, published data Thursday showing total commercial crude oil inventories declined by a staggering 7.3 million barrels for the week ending Feb. 12, much lower than the 5.8 million barrel draw anticipated by the American Petroleum Institute.

“The large drop in U.S. oil inventories shows that the rebalancing of the oil market is well underway, supported by lower net-imports and recovering oil demand,” Giovanni Staunovo, an oil analyst at Swiss investment bank UBS, told Zenger News. “The coming weeks will show large swings in data caused by the colder weather in the southern United States.”

U.S. Energy Information Agency data show U.S. gasoline inventory levels are within the five-year average. (U.S. Energy Information Agency)

Dozens of refineries in the U.S. south are offline because of the arctic blast moving through the region. As much of 40 percent of total U.S. oil production, or around 4 million barrels per day, was knocked out because of frozen pumps and well heads. That will no doubt show up as a sizable drain on commercial crude oil inventories next week.

Staunovo added the decline in crude oil storage levels was due primarily to a 1.2 million bbarrels per day increase in total U.S. crude oil exports and a slight dip in overall production last week, figures that will again show an impact from severe weather.

Crude oil prices dipped into negative territory midway through the Thursday session, shrugging off the sizable drain on inventories as the thermometer in Texas inched back to the seasonal norm of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tamas Varga, an analyst at London oil broker PVM, said  the market was balancing out as the total inventories of commercial stockpiles hold at just 1.1 percent above the five-year average.

On the nation’s appetite for total petroleum products supplied, a demand indicator that includes things such as gasoline and diesel, the Energy Information Administration reported levels were actually down by 2.4 percent from this time last year. Though still weak, it’s a marked improvement over the 9.3 percent year-on-year difference reported at the start of January.

Breaking those products down finds petroleum distillates, which include diesel, drawing down by about 3.4 million barrels, suggesting deliveries are robust.

Federal data out next week could confirm that if it shows consumer spending was strong for at-home shopping in January. Distillates supplied over the past four weeks is up 10.2 percent from this time last year.

Crude oil and petroleum inventories will be affected by the severe winter weather blanketing Texas. (Josh Redd/Unsplash)

Gasoline, however, is another story.

Sub-zero temperatures across much of the country has forced many people to stay home. Total gasoline products supplied is down 9.9 percent from the same period last year, suggesting consumer-driven demand is still far below pre-pandemic levels.

Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at The Price Futures Group, said the energy sector will have to play catch up due to the extreme February weather. Supply levels are within the five-year range, but will no doubt take a nose-dive in the coming weeks.

“I’m afraid this is the best it’s going to get for a while,” he told us from Chicago.

(Edited by Bryan Wilkes and Alex Patrick)

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