Adam Smigielski/iStockBy MORGAN WINSOR and JAMES BWALA, ABC News
(LONDON) -- Hundreds of students who were abducted from an all-girls boarding school in northwestern Nigeria last week have been released, authorities said Tuesday.
Gunmen kidnapped 317 students from the Government Girls Junior Secondary School (GGSS) in the rural town of Jangebe in Zamfara state before dawn on Friday, according to a statement from Mohammed Shehu, spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force's Zamfara State Police Command. The incident -- the latest in a recent string of mass abductions of students in the West African nation -- caused international outrage, with the United States condemning the attack.
Zamfara state police and the Nigerian military have conducted joint operations to rescue the schoolgirls.
The governor of Zamfara state, Bello Matawalle, announced early Tuesday that 279 schoolgirls have been freed. The terms of their release were not immediately known. It's also unclear whether others remain in captivity, as the discrepancy in the numbers was not explained.
"It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe from captivity," Matawalle said in a statement posted on Twitter, along with photos of some of the girls. "This follows the scaling of several hurdles laid against our efforts. I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe."
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took to Twitter to express his "overwhelming joy" over the release of the schoolgirls.
"I join the affected families and the people of Zamfara State in welcoming and celebrating the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe," Buhari tweeted. "This news bring overwhelming joy. I am pleased that their ordeal has come to a happy end without any incident."
"We are working hard to bring an end to these grim and heartbreaking incidents of kidnapping," he added. "The Military and the Police will continue to go after kidnappers. They need the support of local communities in terms of human intelligence that can help nip criminal plans in the bud."
Last week, in the wake of the abduction, Buhari warned that policies of paying ransoms to bandits have "the potential to backfire with disastrous consequences."
"We will not succumb to blackmail by bandits and criminals who target innocent school students in the expectation of huge ransom payments," he tweeted Friday.
Schools in rural Nigeria have been targeted in attacks and kidnappings in recent years. On Saturday, 27 students, five staff members and nine family members of the staff were freed more than a week after being taken from an all-boys boarding school in the west-central town of Kagara in Niger state. In December, 344 students were released about a week after being kidnapped from another boys' boarding school in the northwestern town of Kankara in Katsina state. The Nigerian government has said no ransom was paid for their release and, in both cases, authorities blamed the attacks on armed groups, locally called bandits, who are known to abduct students for money in many Nigerian states.
One of the most well-known kidnappings was in April 2014, when members of the jihadist group Boko Haram snatched 276 students from their dormitory at an all-girls boarding school in the northeastern town of Chibok in Borno state. Some of the girls managed to escape on their own, while others were later rescued or freed following negotiations. But the fate of dozens remains unknown.
Boko Haram, whose name in the local Hausa language roughly translates to "Western education is forbidden," has waged an Islamist insurgency in northeastern Nigeria since 2009 and has been targeting schools for a number of years, with the Chibok attack being the most notorious and widely publicized. The group's uprising was fueled largely through the its systematic campaign of abducting children and forcing thousands of girls and boys into their ranks, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). A faction of Boko Haram has been aligned with ISIS since 2015.
In a statement Saturday reacting to the news that the Kankara students were freed, UNICEF Nigeria representative Peter Hawkins lamented that children are victims of attacks on their schools "far too often in Nigeria."
"Such attacks not only negate the right of children to an education, they also make children fearful of going to school, and parents afraid to send their children to school," Hawkins said. "Schools must be safe places to study and develop, and learning should not become a perilous endeavour.”
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
JeanUrsula/iStockBy LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) -- A lawsuit accusing the Saudi crown prince of overseeing an assassination attempt on a former Saudi spymaster similar to the one that sealed the gruesome fate of Jamal Khashoggi may hamper efforts to mend the already fraught U.S.-Saudi relationship, experts say.
The lawsuit, which was filed last summer against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by former Saudi intelligence official Saad Aljabri, claims that Aljabri was the target of a failed assassination attempt akin to the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist whose death sparked global backlash and complicated ties between Riyadh and Washington.
On Friday, the Biden administration released an intelligence report determining that MBS, as the crown prince is colloquially known, "approved" the plot to murder Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul -- a notable step toward holding the kingdom to account for the extrajudicial killing on foreign soil. The release of the report was immediately followed by a set of travel visa restrictions for Saudi government officials and sanctions against a key aide to MBS.
In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it "completely rejects the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom's leadership," claiming that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.
Aljabri, 62, has been locked in a heated and complex legal dispute with Saudi leadership since last August. His accusations contained in the lawsuit against MBS are lurid and specific -- and bear an eerie resemblance to the circumstances that led to Khashoggi's death, including the allegation that MBS authorized it. Most notably, Aljabri claims MBS sent a "hit squad" to murder him in Canada, where he has been in exile since fleeing the Saudi kingdom in 2017.
The alleged threats against Aljabri demonstrate "that Jamal Khashoggi was not a one-off," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News.
"It's part of a pattern of really horrific human rights abuses, up to and including murder, conducted by the crown prince against people he, for one reason or another, sees as political enemies or political threats," Riedel said.
Douglas London, a 34-year CIA veteran with expertise in the Middle East, said the threats facing Aljabri present President Joe Biden's administration an opportunity "to demonstrate its credibility as being an advocate for democratic institutions and human rights."
"We can't sit idly by and watch a country that we're pretending to be allies with go ahead and execute people abroad like this," said London, who is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
A veteran Saudi intelligence official, Aljabri once served as a key deputy to Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, a member of the Saudi royal family and former head of the government's powerful interior ministry. MBN was detained last year as part of bin Salman's efforts to consolidate power in Riyadh.
London, who said he worked closely with Aljabri during the Obama administration on a range of strategic initiatives in the region, described Aljabri as "an excellent partner … very thoughtful, very patient, very considerate." Aljabri was MBN's "right-hand man," London said, with a portfolio of high-profile counterterrorism responsibilities, including acting as a liaison to U.S. intelligence.
Generations of U.S. spymasters considered MBN and Aljabri "crucial partners" in the fight against al Qaeda, Riedel said. In 2010, for example, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections, bin Nayef and Aljabri helped American officials thwart a terrorist plot to bomb two airplanes over American cities.
"Mohammed bin Nayef and Aljabri provided us with the flight details of those aircrafts. You don't get better intelligence than that," Riedel told ABC News. "So, the two of them are not only heroes in their own country, they are people that we owe because they helped to save American lives."
In 2017, however, MBS ascended to the role of crown prince and took control of the kingdom's vast security and intelligence apparatus. Aljabri fell out of favor and, sensing a change in the government power structure, left Riyadh for Canada, where he remains in exile.
In Aljabri's lawsuit against MBS, which was filed in the U.S. last August, his lawyers wrote that MBS has "personally orchestrated an attempted extrajudicial killing of [Aljabri], an attempt that remains ongoing to this day."
The lawsuit includes several details about the alleged attempt on his life -- including the rationale, strategy and timing -- which appear to bear a striking resemblance to the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi's death.
Like Khashoggi, Aljabri claims to have "sensitive information" that could potentially expose "bin Salman's covert political scheming within the Royal Court, [and] corrupt business dealings," the lawsuit reads.
"That is why defendant bin Salman wants him dead -- and why defendant bin Salman has worked to achieve that objective over the last three years," claims the suit.
In the complaint, Aljabri alleges that MBS "dispatched a private hit squad to North America to kill [him]" less than two weeks after the assassination of Khashoggi in Istanbul, but that the team was turned away at a Canadian airport.
"Like the team that murdered Khashoggi, those sent to kill [Aljabri] … were also members of defendant bin Salman's personal mercenary group, the Tiger Squad," his lawsuit claims.
In February, Aljabri claimed in court documents that Saudi officials "repeatedly pressured" one of his daughters "to travel to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey" in September 2018, and that "only days later, the Tiger Squad successfully executed Jamal Khashoggi inside the same facility."
Two of Aljabri's other children have been detained in Saudi Arabia, Aljabri claimed.
The Saudis have denied the accusations leveled in Aljabri's U.S. lawsuit and recently filed a motion to dismiss the case. Meanwhile, in Canadian civil court, a coalition of Saudi government-controlled entities accused Aljabri in January of siphoning billions of dollars for himself and his family before fleeing to Toronto -- a claim Aljabri denies.
An Ontario-based judge has agreed to temporarily freeze Aljabri's assets. But as Riedel notes, the Canadian litigation may be more significant for what it reveals about the Saudis than its effect on Aljabri's pocketbook.
"What it shows to me is that [MBS] is nowhere near as firmly in control as he likes to portray," Riedel said.
Furthermore, the disclosures in court documents may serve to divulge sensitive information about the machinations of the Saudi elite -- and could further incriminate MBS and his circle of advisers.
According to records filed by Saudi companies as part of the Canadian case, for example, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund took control of a private aviation firm called Sky Prime Aviation Services in 2017, a year before Khashoggi's death.
In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that the two jets used to transport operatives who allegedly carried out the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul belonged to Sky Prime, citing Turkish officials. The Canadian court documents were first reported by CNN.
Without a strong response from the U.S., bin Salman and his allies are unlikely to halt extrajudicial retaliation against dissidents like Khashoggi and Aljabri, Riedel said. But the stakes may be even higher than that.
"Saudi Arabia has been an incredibly stable country for more than 100 years, but it's not so stable anymore -- and the Biden administration ought to be thinking about that," Riedel said. "MBS is not just a threat to Khashoggi and Aljabri; he is a threat to the very survival and viability of the Saudi state. If he's now left in the line of succession and becomes king, we may find a Saudi Arabia that is very unstable and could become prey to very abrupt and unpredictable political change."
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty ImagesBy KARSON YIU and MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News
(HONG KONG and LONDON) -- Myanmar's ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was seen Monday for the first time since she was detained in a military coup one month ago, appearing in a Naypyitaw court via videoconference.
The Nobel laureate, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was initially charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios. She was later charged with violating a natural disaster law by breaching COVID-19 protocols while campaigning during last year's elections.
Suu Kyi, 75, appeared in court after a weekend of the deadliest violence that the Southeast Asian country has seen since the army seized power on Feb. 1. Police and security forces confronted peaceful demonstrations in several locations across Myanmar on Sunday and fired live rounds into the crowds, killing at least 18 people and wounding over 30 others, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which cited "credible information" that it had received. Tear gas and stun grenades were also reportedly used in various locations.
More than 1,000 people, some of whom remain unaccounted for, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained in Myanmar over the past month, mostly without any form of due process. On Sunday alone, at least 85 medical professionals and students as well as seven journalists who were present at the demonstrations were detained, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office.
"We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protestors," Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office, said in a statement Sunday. "The people of Myanmar have the right to assemble peacefully and demand the restoration of democracy. These fundamental rights must be respected by the military and police, not met with violent and bloody repression. Use of lethal force against non-violent demonstrators is never justifiable under international human rights norms."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took to Twitter on Sunday night to condemn the "abhorrent violence against the people of Burma," using Myanmar's former name under British colonial rule. Blinken said the U.S. government "will continue to promote accountability for those responsible" and "stand[s] firmly with the courageous people of Burma."
Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since she was arrested along with other leaders of her NLD party on Feb. 1, signalling an end to Myanmar's already fragile experiment with democracy.
Suu Kyi, who is still revered in Myanmar despite losing some of her international luster for her refusal to condemn the army’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority, is understood to have had a tentative shared power agreement with the military since she was named state counsellor in 2016, offering the government a veneer of democratic legitimacy as they embarked on a decade of reforms. The role of state counsellor, akin to a prime minister or a head of government, was created because Myanmar's 2008 constitution barred Suu Kyi from becoming president, since her late husband and children are foreign citizens.
The Nov. 8 general election was meant to be a referendum on Suu Kyi’s popular civilian government but her party expanded their seats in Parliament, securing a clear majority and threatening the military's tight hold on power. The constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries.
The new civilian-led government was supposed to convene for the first time on Feb. 1 but power was instead handed over to Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, who is already under U.S. sanctions for his role in the human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. An order signed by the acting president granted full authority to Hlaing to run the country and declared a state of emergency that will last for at least one year, citing widespread voter fraud in the November election. Hlaing’s office said in a statement that the military would hold a "free and fair general election" after the state of emergency ends. Voter rolls will be checked and the country's election commission, which last week rejected the military's allegations of voter fraud, will be "re-established," according to the statement.
The military previously ruled Myanmar for nearly five decades before appearing to slowly transition to democratic rule a decade ago and holding its first general elections in years in 2015, which was also a landslide victory for the NLD. Suu Kyi had spent 15 years under house arrest while leading the struggle for democracy against the Burmese military junta and was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her "nonviolent" efforts.
Since the Feb. 1 takeover, a movement of protests across Myanmar has been growing -- and the junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council, has become more and more violent in its response. The initial restraint shown by authorities in the immediate aftermath of the bloodless coup has given way to an increased use of lethal force as weeks of internet shutdowns, threats and mass arrests have not deterred thousands of people from voicing their opposition.
During Suu Kyi's virtual court appearance in the capital on Monday, police and protesters faced off again some 200 miles south in Yangon, the country's largest city, with videos posted on social media showing clouds of tear gas as protesters clad with construction helmets ran for cover.
Suu Kyi is believed to be under house arrest at her residence in Naypyidaw. If she is found guilty of any of the charges launched against her, the resulting prison sentence will likely overlap with the election the junta has promised would take a place in a year.
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ABCBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(NEW YORK) -- The world got its first look over the weekend at Prince Harry's and Meghan's sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey, which is being billed as a bombshell interview in which Harry and Meghan give more insights as to why they stepped down from their royal roles.
“You’ve said some pretty shocking things here," Winfrey says to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in a pair of clips released Sunday by CBS.
In one of the clips, Winfrey says there was "no subject that was off limits" and asks Meghan if she was “silent or silenced."
Meghan remains silent as Winfrey interjects, "Almost survivable -- sounds like there was a breaking point."
The interview, which will air March 7 as a two-hour primetime special, is Harry's and Meghan's first joint interview about their decision to transition out of their working roles in the royal family. The couple, who now live near Winfrey in California, completed their last official royal engagement nearly one year ago.
Buckingham Palace confirmed last month that Harry and Meghan will not return as working members of the royal family.
In the interview with Winfrey, Harry -- whose mother, Princess Diana, died in 1997 after being injured in a Paris car crash while being pursued by paparazzi -- said his "biggest concern was history repeating itself."
"For me, I'm just really relieved and happy to be sitting here, talking to you with my wife by my side," he said.
As an image of a young Prince Harry with his late mother is shown, the prince is heard saying, "Because I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for her going through this process by herself all those years ago because it has been unbelievably tough for the two of us but at least we had each other."
Princess Diana and Harry's father, Prince Charles, separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, one year before Diana died.
Harry shared a similar sentiment in an interview with The Late Late Show host James Corden that aired last week, saying he and Meghan left a "toxic" media environment in the U.K.
"There was a really difficult environment, as I think a lot of people saw. We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health," said Harry, who has recently waged legal battles with some British tabloids. "I was like, 'This is toxic,' so I did what any husband and any father would do, which is like, I need to get my family out of here."
"But we never walked away. And as far as I'm concerned, whatever decisions are made on that side, I will never walk away," added Harry, who described his move as a royal as "stepping back rather than stepping down." "I will always be contributing ... my life is public service, so wherever I am in the world, it's going to be the same thing."
Harry's and Meghan's interview with Winfrey was announced last month, one day after Harry and Meghan revealed they are expecting their second child.
"Winfrey will speak with Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, in a wide-ranging interview, covering everything from stepping into life as a Royal, marriage, motherhood, philanthropic work to how she is handling life under intense public pressure," Viacom, the parent company of CBS, said in a statement announcing the special. "Later, the two are joined by Prince Harry as they speak about their move to the United States and their future hopes and dreams for their expanding family."
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
ABC NewsBy BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News
(HONG KONG) -- Hong Kong is a step closer to being left without a democratic opposition camp as authorities brought charges against 47 activists for conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law.
It’s the most wide-reaching use yet of the controversial legislation which was imposed by Beijing eight months ago and would leave the majority of Hong Kong's once-vocal opposition detained, in prison or in exile.
They are among 55 activists and politicians who were arrested in a sweeping police operation in January. Most of them were running in or organizing an unofficial primary in July last year to select candidates for September’s legislative election which the government later announced it would postpone by a year because of the pandemic.
The 47 detainees include some of Hong Kong’s most well-known activists, including veteran democrat Benny Tai, Claudia Mo and Leung Kwok-hung. Among the younger generation of activists, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Sam Cheung were also detained. Joshua Wong, who is already in prison, was also charged. John Clancey, the American lawyer previously arrested, was not among those who were charged on Sunday. The 79-year-old has been told to report to police again on May 4.
Under Hong Kong’s security law, they could all receive a maximum sentence of life in prison.
As the 47 appeared at West Kowloon Magistracy on Monday, prosecutors argued that the primary poll was part of a ploy to veto government budgets after gaining a majority in the legislature. Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, its mini-Constitution, if a government budget is vetoed twice, then the Hong Kong leader must step down.
Outside of the court, hundreds of their supporters queued up for one of the limited seats inside the courthouse to listen to proceedings and some had been there to save a spot since 5 a.m.
By 9 a.m., the four rows of people queuing extended around the side of the court building and grew into a lively gathering -- something not seen since COVID-19 restrictions and the security law were implemented.
The crowd chanted protest slogans and held up signs calling for the 47 defendants to be released.
Yellow umbrellas were raised and some people folded out copies of the pro-democracy Apple Daily as a symbol of resistance while others flashed the three-finger Hunger Games salute, used by protesters in Myanmar and Thailand.
One supporter, who did not want to divulge her name, told ABC News she was there to “stand up to Beijing’s bullying and fight for the remaining democracy in Hong Kong.” Like many of the other supporters outside of the court, the 25-year-old wore black, “to show unity”.
By the afternoon police had raised purple and blue flags several times, warning the crowd to leave the area as they were breaching the illegal assembly and national security laws, after some citizens chanted the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
Speaking with ABC News, veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan said the subversion charge is a clear attempt to “wipe out the pro-democracy camp for future elections.”
“The absurdity of the charge also shows again that the National Security Law is an instrument of political suppression against dissent and to spread fear among the people,” said Lee.
Authorities say the primary poll was an attempt to overthrow the government.
Before reporting to a local police station on Sunday, Sam Cheung told reporters that he hopes he’s still young when he comes out of prison and that he’d planned on studying for a PhD.
“I hope everyone won’t give up on Hong Kong. Everyone fight on,” said the 27-year-old.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the United States condemns "the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong's elections" and called for their immediate release. Blinken's tweet went on to say, "Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The U.S. stands with the people of Hong Kong."
Sunday’s events come just days before China’s annual parliament is set to meet later this week for the National People’s Congress. Beijing is expected to be announcing significant changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, having said in recent weeks that only "Patriots" can run for office.
Beijing is also likely to tout the success of the security law as protests have died down since it came into effect.
Officials say the law is necessary to restore stability after mass protests gripped the semi-autonomous city for months in 2019, mounting one of the biggest challenges to China’s Communist Party rule in decades.
However, the legislation has come under intense criticism from the international community, with the U.S. and the European Union saying the law stifles freedoms meant to be guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" arrangement.
Prominent activists already in custody include media tycoon Jimmy Lai and 25-year-old Agnes Chow, while many others have fled the city.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
Samir Hussein/ Samir Hussein/WireImageBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News
(LONDON) -- Prince Philip has been transferred to a second hospital as he continues to receive treatment for an infection, according to Buckingham Palace.
The Duke of Edinburgh, 99, was transferred Monday from King Edward VII Hospital in London, where he was admitted on Feb. 17, to St Bartholomew's Hospital, a teaching hospital also located in London.
In addition to receiving treatment for an infection, which the palace has not identified, Philip is also being tested and observed for a preexisting heart condition, according to Buckingham Palace.
"The Duke remains comfortable and is responding to treatment but is expected to remain in hospital until at least the end of the week," the palace said in a statement Monday.
The Duke of Edinburgh, who will turn 100 in June, was taken by car from Windsor, England, to the King Edward VII Hospital in London on Feb. 17 for what the palace initially described as a "precautionary measure" after Philip reported feeling unwell.
Philip's illness is not COVID-19-related, a royal source told ABC News.
Philip's oldest son, Prince Charles, visited his father at King Edward VII Hospital on Feb. 20 and stayed for around 30 minutes. Visitors are only allowed at the hospital in "exceptional circumstances" because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the hospital's website.
Charles, who was photographed entering the hospital wearing a face mask, is believed to be the only family member so far to have visited Philip in the hospital.
The duke's youngest child, Prince Edward, told Sky News late last month that he had spoken with his father by phone.
"As far as I'm aware, well, I did speak to him the other day, so he's a lot better thank you very much indeed, and he's looking forward to getting out, which is the most positive thing," Edward said of Philip. "So we keep our fingers crossed."
Philip's grandson, Prince William, also spoke about his condition while visiting a vaccine center in Norfolk, telling longtime royal photographer Arthur Edwards that Philip is "OK," adding, "They're keeping an eye on him."
While Philip is hospitalized in London, Queen Elizabeth remains at Windsor Castle, where she has been staying with her husband for most of the coronavirus pandemic.
The queen and Philip celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in November.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
Ray Hems/iStockBy JULIA JACOBO, ABC News
(NEW YORK) -- An iceberg larger than New York City has broken off an ice shelf in Antarctica, scientists say.
The 490-square mile glacier broke off the Brunt Ice Shelf, where the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station is located, the research organization announced. New York City is approximately 302 square miles.
Glaciologists have been expecting a large calving event for at least a decade, according to BAS. The first indication that the glacier would break off was in November, when a new chasm named the North Rift -- the third major crack to become active in the ice shelf in the last 10 years -- headed toward another chasm about 20 miles away.
The rift then pushed northeast more than half a mile a day starting in January, cutting through the 490-foot thick ice shelf, scientists said. The iceberg formed when the crack widened on Feb. 26, releasing it from the ice shelf.
"Our teams at BAS have been prepared for the calving of an iceberg from Brunt Ice Shelf for years," Director of British Antarctic Survey Dame Jane Francis said in a statement.
The BAS monitors the ice shelf daily using an automated network of high-precision GPS instruments surrounding the station, which measure how the ice shelf is deforming and moving. Satellite images from the European Space Agency, NASA and German satellite TerraSAR-X are also used, Francis said.
The impact of the calving event on the ice shelf is unclear, scientists said. Over the coming weeks or months the iceberg may move away or could run aground and remain close to the ice shelf, Francis said.
The BAS research station is currently closed for the Antarctic winter and will likely be unaffected by the calving event, scientists said. The BAS said the station was moved further inland in 2016 to "avoid the paths" of two chasms named "Chasm 1," which formed in 2012, and the "Halloween Crack," which formed in 2016. Neither have grown in the past 18 months.
British Antarctic Survey Director of Operations Simon Garrod said in a statement that moving the station was a "wise decision."
"Our job now is to keep a close eye on the situation and assess any potential impact of the present calving on the remaining ice shelf," Garrod said. "We continuously review our contingency plans to ensure the safety of our staff, protect our research station and maintain the delivery of the science we undertake at Halley."
Staff has only been employed at the BAS Antarctic station during the summer since 2017 due to the difficulty of evacuation during the dark winter months, when skies are pitch black.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
omersukrugoksu/iStockBy GUY DAVIES and BRUNO ROEBER, ABC News
(LONDON) -- Sweden’s novel approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has drawn both praise and fierce criticism, not just inside the Scandinavian country, but across the Western world. The country has so far resisted going into lockdown, unlike the rest of Europe, even during the peak of its second wave over Christmas.
In doing so, Sweden has become a lightning rod for those in favor and against stricter social distancing measures. For some, its significantly higher COVID death rate compared to its neighbors is proof that lockdowns are essential to combat the spread, while for others, the comparative openness of Swedish society proves that a “balanced” approach to the pandemic is possible.
Now, a year into the pandemic, and with a vaccine rollout likely in the near future, their strategy continues to attract international attention. ABC News looked at the pitfalls and merits of their approach in May last year, and a year later, the evidence shows that now, as much as ever, their unique approach offers invaluable lessons to the international community for living in the long term with COVID-19.
The soft-touch approach
Denmark, Norway and Finland, with a combined population of around 16.75 million, have recorded 4,331 deaths attributed to coronavirus as of Thursday (259 per million). All three enforced lockdowns early on in the pandemic. Sweden, by contrast, has registered 12,798 deaths, and possesses a population 10.2 million, meaning it has a far higher death rate than its immediate neighbors (1,255 per million), according to Johns Hopkins University data.
For critics of the light touch approach, such as Stefan Hanson, a Swedish infectious diseases expert, such a high death rate is evidence of the failure of an overall strategy.
"The basic problem is there are no clear plans,” he told ABC News. “From the start, there never as have been. Normally when you run a public health project, you have some aims and strategies, you have some goals and you follow up, you have a monitoring system to see how things are going. But in the case of Sweden there has been nothing like that."
"It's all about having a low transmission. And Sweden hasn't put that forward as a very important thing,” he added.
In April 2020, Hanson was co-signatory to a letter from several top Swedish scientists criticizing the approach to the pandemic, which they said would cause “many unnecessary deaths.”
Yet even throughout Europe’s "second wave," which saw Stockholm’s intensive care units almost run out of beds over the Christmas period, the country has resisted the temptation to lock down, being the only country in Europe to do so. December saw a very rare intervention from King Carl XVI Gustaf, who said the country had “failed” in its approach. The strategy, pioneered by Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has been heavily criticized, not just at home, but abroad as well. False optimism that the capital, Stockholm, would reach "herd immunity" by fall has compounded that criticism.
Herd immunity occurs when there are enough people who have either been vaccinated or exposed to the virus that it can no longer spread in the population. Critics say that doing so by exposure to the virus creates unnecessary risk.
Yet as with so much of the data relating to COVID-19, proponents of the policy say that reading the data is a matter of perspective.
Sweden may be faring comparably better in terms of excess deaths -- those greater than the usual number of deaths expected in a certain time period. Experts say excess deaths can indicate whether policies intended to combat the pandemic have unintended consequences, such as delaying treatment for other ailments and is an important measure of the overall efficacy of policy.
While still performing worse than other Nordic countries on data from Eurostat, the official European Union statistics agency, and the University of Oxford, shows that Sweden recorded 7.9% excess deaths last year compared to the years 2016-19, according to the independent health news site Dagens Medicin.
That means that the country had the 23rd lowest annual excess deaths out of 30 European countries -- lower than the U.K. (15.1%), France (10.4%) and Spain (18.9%). Sweden also has a lower number of coronavirus deaths per million than those countries, all of which have gone under strict lockdowns during the pandemic. Pointing to the recent excess mortality studies, Nils Karlson, an economist and political scientist who jointly wrote an op-ed last year in Foreign Affairs entitled “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s,” is more optimistic.
“There was some recent figures showing that if you count excess mortality, Sweden is one of the best countries in Europe,” he told ABC News. “And one of the reason is, of course, that we didn't get the flu, just the ordinary flu, because we wash our hands. We have social distancing. We didn't have as many car accidents. You know, all kinds of other stuff that that affects us didn't happen this year.”
The resistance to lockdown, he said, is based on the idea that they are “unsustainable,” he said, and Sweden’s strategy takes into account not just economic factors, but all aspects of public life. While he acknowledges the COVID death toll was too high, he said: “You have to keep society open not only for economic reasons, but also for critical public functions to to function, like hospitals, schools and so on. Schools are still open for younger kids... Otherwise, it's remote learning. But I think it has worked fairly well.”
The care home crisis
One area where there has been consensus, however, is the crisis in the Swedish old age care sector, where the crisis has taken a terrible toll.
Care home residents have made up around half of the country’s total death toll, with a further quarter of the deaths being seen amongst over 70s who receive care at home.
“The big thing was that the whole pandemic we know that old people, like in old age care, were the people who were really the people who were mostly going to die and the people who mostly went to hospitals,” Ingmar Skoog, a Swedish psychiatrist who specializes in studying old age, told ABC News. “Despite that, they didn't take in any expert in old age.”
The Swedish government introduced more protective equipment and testing, as did other countries and restricted care home visits.
A government-appointed commission concluded in December that high rates of infection in the general population, as well as a fragmented administration which made it difficult to produce consistent policy, contributed to the crisis.
“We have found that elderly care was unprepared and ill-equipped when the pandemic struck and that this was founded in structural shortcomings that were known long before the outbreak of the virus,” the report said.
While it is “obvious” that higher rates of infection make it more likely for the virus to sweep through old age care homes, Skoog said, part of the problem has been a fundamental misunderstanding of the sheer number of person-to-person contacts those in care go through every single day.
“They meet a lot of people very intimately because, they get help with the clothing, maybe food, dressing, hygiene, going to the toilet and so on,” according to Skoog. “And people are very, very close. And that means that they meet a lot of younger people… I think one of the first things that really should have been done, was to talk with experts in the field and say, what should we do?”
But deaths at nursing facilities even plagued countries that implemented lockdowns and took measures to protect nursing home residents.
A report from the European Center for Disease Control in November found that long term care residents made up 45% of the total coronavirus deaths in France and 42.5% in Belgium -- countries that both locked down and restricted care home visits.
According to the New York Times, 34% of deaths and 5% of U.S. cases have been reported amongst nursing homes. In 10 U.S. states, the proportion of residents and staffers to have died makes up more than half of all their deaths.
“I think in general, the idea in Sweden to try to balance the risk of the virus and the risk of closing everything down because there are health problems with that, I think on a basic [level] that's very good,” he said. “But I think it's a lot of ignorance regarding aging.”
Broadly speaking, Sweden has closed its international borders, including those to neighboring Norway, and allowed internal society to stay open. While there are limits on the maximum amount of people in a social gathering, these come in the form of “recommendations” rather than strict laws enforceable by fines. The use of masks on public transport, for instance, was only formally recommended in December.
Overall the strategy, designed in part to be a holistic approach that factored in the pandemic-induced changes across society, has remained intact, according to Karlson.
“I think the public discussion, the official discussion, has largely argued that that we have changed the strategy, that we have implemented more restrictions and so on,” he said. “I'm not really sure that's true. I mean, it's a shift for sure. Now we have recommendations to wear masks, for example. There are stricter restrictions on public order and things like that. But we don't have lockdowns. It's basically recommendations.”
The politicization of Sweden’s approach in American politics, where prominent Republicans have often pointed to their lax approach to masks and lockdowns, was another point of contention.
“I think it worries a lot of people, you know, in Sweden because we love the welfare state and all that,” he said. “You know, right wing groups in the U.S. starting to favor the Swedish strategy and that created some turmoil in Sweden.”
While the country has not come close to reaching “herd immunity” -- which the health journal The Lancet described as their “de facto” policy in staying open -- the lower excess mortality, psychological burden and economic performance mean that the policy could yet survive yet another wave of coronavirus infections, which have risen in recent weeks.
Stockholm, for instance is around 15% immunity, but new variants have made the task more difficult.
The political consensus that saw the country get behind their novel COVID strategy last summer has broken down, Karlson said, and opposition parties now have called for lockdowns like those seen in other countries.
“We've tried in different ways, you know, depending on our culture and our history to adjust, you know, to minimize the consequences of this terrible disease,” Karlson said. “But I think Sweden has done all right. I mean, it's not as bad as it looks when you look at the death rates, which are too high, of course.”
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
MivPiv/iStockBy AICHA EL HAMMAR CASTANO and MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News
(RIO DE JANEIRO) -- It's been days since Alejandra heard from her son.
The 42-year-old mother has been one of many gathered outside a large prison in Guayaquil, a port city on Ecuador's southern coast, where dozens of inmates were killed Tuesday in a riot.
"I cannot stop thinking my son is dead," said Alejandra, who asked ABC News not to use her last name or her son's name for fear of retaliation.
Alejandra said her 26-year-old son was being held in pre-trial detention for a petty crime and that he has a court appearance scheduled for next year. She said she received a telephone call from him on Tuesday, when the violence erupted. He told her, "I am afraid to die."
Clashes broke out at the Guayaquil prison and three others across Ecuador between rival drug gangs trying "to seize the criminal leadership of the detention centers," according to Gen. Edmundo Moncayo, head of Ecuador's prison system, known by its Spanish-language acronym SNAI.
Moncayo told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that the violence was precipitated by a break in leadership of a prominent local gang called Los Choneros, whose leader was assassinated in December at a shopping mall in the port city of Manta on Ecuador's central coast.
Fernando Carrion, a research professor at FLACSO Ecuador, a postgraduate institution in Quito, told ABC News that revenge was expected but not to this level. He said Los Choneros is linked to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and that, although Ecuador does not produce drugs, criminal gangs use the South American country to transport drugs and launder money.
"We have never seen such a cruel mutiny," Carrion told ABC News. "It absolutely has never happened before in the history of Ecuador, and this is only the beginning. I believe it was an earthquake and now we will have the aftershocks."
Moncayo told reporters that a search for weapons was carried out at the Guayaquil prison on Monday, after officials were tipped off by Ecuador's national police force that inmates had two firearms smuggled to them by a guard and were planning to kill Los Choneros leaders. That search sparked a series of coordinated, simultaneous mutinies at four prisons in three different provinces the following morning, and it wasn't until the afternoon that authorities regained control, according to Moncayo.
Carrion told ABC News that the deadly riots prove what little power Ecuadorian authorities actually wield inside prisons ever since the country's principal intelligence agency, known by its Spanish-language acronym SENAIN, was shut down in 2018.
"For criminal groups, reaching this level of efficiency and planning is truly showing the problems of prison systems and lack of institutionalization," he said.
Videos recorded by inmates and shared on social media showed beheaded and mutilated corpses in the aftermath of the bloodbath.
"These attacks were not only a tragedy, but criminal groups were sending clear messages to other groups," Carrion told ABC News. "We are talking about bodies dismembered -- this is a way to communicate."
The number of dead has continued to rise in the days since. As of Friday, the death toll from the riots was 81, while 20 others remained injured, according to the National Police of Ecuador. Authorities have yet to release the names of those killed or wounded.
"As soon as I heard the news, I went straight to the prison," Alejandra told ABC News. "When I arrived, many women were already there on their knees, crying, praying."
Alejandra, who lives in Guayaquil and makes a lower-middle-class wage working in an office, said she was forced to go back to work Friday after spending two days outside the prison with other families of inmates.
"I am constantly thinking of my son," she said. "I would like to be with other mothers in front of the jail."
Alejandra is among those calling on authorities to identify the dead and wounded so they can know whether their loved ones survived the attacks.
"This is not too much to ask," she said. "They don't want to tell us anything."
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
KeithBinns/iStockBy JON HAWORTH, ABC News
(LONDON) -- Iran's Alpine ski coach, Samira Zargari, couldn't join her team for the world championships in Italy last week.
The reason? Her husband barred her from leaving the country.
The reaction on social media was swift, and many Iranians vented their fury by demanding the government change the law to give women back their right to travel internationally, along with other rights stripped away after they're married.
Based on domestic family law in the Islamic Republic, women give up the right to leave the country, pursue education or even choose where to live and work upon signing a marriage document. The only exception is if a woman's husband relinquishes those rights, which rarely happens.
The only rights married women retain are limited custody of children and the right to divorce.
Zargari's case, however, went viral and different hashtags about women's rights began popping up on social media, including the "right to leave the country" and "no to discrimination against women."
When asked to comment on Zargari's case, the International Ski federation provided ABC News with a statement but did not mention Zargari by name.
"FIS sympathizes with any team member who is not able to travel to our World Championships," the statement read. "However, FIS is also not in a position to dispute the laws of any given nation."
Zahra Abdi, an Iranian poet, wrote on Twitter: "It is impossible for a society to move towards the future when the hands and feet of half the people are tied up. This is well understood by the developed countries and it is why they fight discriminatory laws against women. Wherever there is a sign of development, this struggle is taken more seriously."
An online campaign asking to revise regulations on women leaving the country was signed by almost 50,000 people in less than a week.
"The basis of the family law in Iran is that the husband has all the rights," an Iranian lawyer, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, told ABC News. "Any woman who wants any of the rights back has to swim against the river and prove it at the court."
Despite the outcry, the Iranian government hasn't budged.
Responding to the social media campaign, Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for Women and Family Affairs, tweeted that in an emergency, women can ask the court to revise a husband's decision but this can only happen after a judge is convinced the travel is "necessary," and, even then, the woman would only be allowed to leave "on bail."
The Iranian lawyer said that a bill addressing the travel issue is making its way through government, but it first has to be passed by the parliament, and the language, as it currently stands, is very "vague" when addressing how exactly judges would deem travel necessary. The lack of clarity also may delay any movement on the bill.
"Basically," the lawyer told ABC News, "the 'necessity' mentioned in the bill is based on the need for medical treatment out of the country, attending scientific conferences and, more recently, attending sport events like international championships."
In one of the first reactions to the issue, Zargari wrote in a story on her Instagram page that her husband was born in the United States and was not raised in Iran, seeming to imply that discriminatory laws remain in place regardless of a person's citizenship.
However, when she later told the Iranian Students News Agency in an interview that government officials should "at least remove this law for women champions and those who are active in the international fields," a huge backlash was sparked, this time against Zargari. Many who supported her on social media during her ordeal began to criticize her for not standing up for all women -- not just those who work internationally.
"Unfortunately, Ms. Zargari has said that she hopes the law that needs husbands' permission for leaving the country is removed for women who work in the international fields. The right thing to say would be that this law is cruel and humiliating and medieval, and no woman needs her husband's 'permission' to travel," journalist Yosra Bakhakh tweeted.
Explaining how such social media campaigns can help return these rights to women, the Iranian lawyer referred to the ambiguities of the law that could result in minimal reforms.
"For example, it is up to the common sense in the court what 'necessity' means for a woman's demand to leave the country. In the past, traveling abroad to attend sport events would not be a case of necessity. But, thanks to all activism through the years, it has become so. It matters that people would not stop asking for more," she said.
It is clear, however, that women's rights activists are paying an enormous price to achieve equality.
Just last week, Najmeh Vahedi, a sociologist, and Hoda Amid, a lawyer, who held workshops to tell women how to preserve their rights upon marriage, were sentenced to seven and eight years imprisonment, respectively.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
200mm/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(NEW YORK) -- It's not your standard diplomatic transport.
A group of Russian diplomats and their families were obliged to use a hand-powered railway trolley to get home to Russia from North Korea because of travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
A video published by Russia's foreign ministry Thursday shows the diplomats pushing the handcar, stacked with their suitcases, along a railway track through the barren landscape near North Korea's northern border.
The ministry said the group had been working in its embassy in Pyongyang and was forced to improvise because travel connections between the two countries had been cut off for more than a year.
“Since the borders have been closed for already more than a year and passenger communication is suspended, it was necessary to get home by a long and hard path,” the ministry said in a social media post, accompanying it with a hashtag in Russian: "No man left behind."
The group of eight embassy staff and members of their families, including children, first took a 32-hour train ride and then a bus to reach the border area, the ministry said, where the handcar was readied and mounted on to the tracks. The diplomats pushed the handcar for over a mile to get it across the border.
In the video, the group smiles and cheers as it crosses a bridge onto the Russian side of the border at Khasan, where the foreign ministry said the group was met by its representatives who were waiting with a bus. The group was then driven another 160 miles to the Vladivostok airport.
The Russian ministry said one of the diplomats, Vladislav Sorokin, was an embassy secretary.
North Korea closed its borders to international travel in January of last year. The country has insisted that it has no cases of COVID-19, a claim doubted by many experts.
Many countries have struggled to repatriate their citizens as well as their diplomats during the pandemic, as international air travel shut down and countries closed their borders. The U.S. State Department last April said it had evacuated 6,000 diplomatic staff from around the world as the pandemic spread, an unprecedented number.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
narvikk/iStockBy CONOR FINNEGAN and LUCIEN BRUGGEMAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) -- The Office of Director of National Intelligence on Friday released its highly anticipated report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi Friday, making public the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved an operation to capture or kill him.
The brutal killing has roiled the United States' longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia, and President Joe Biden has vowed to recalibrate the relationship after his predecessor Donald Trump shielded the kingdom from U.S. pressure.
"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the report said.
Prince Mohammed is heir to the Saudi throne and the country's de facto ruler, meaning the now public U.S. assessment of his involvement will strain relations between the U.S. and its key Middle East partner and a major global oil provider.
The Saudi government has denied that the crown prince, sometimes known by his initials MBS, was involved, instead blaming a rogue team of government agents.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. permanent resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct. 2018, murdered, and dismembered.
U.S. lawmakers were briefed on a classified version of this report in 2018, leading Republicans and Democrats to urge former President Donald Trump to punish MBS for the murder. But Trump and his top advisers cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence finding, saying there was no "smoking gun" and the U.S.-Saudi relationship was too important.
The now declassified report says the intelligence community's assessment was based on the crown prince's "control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [his] protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi."
Iyad El-Baghdadi is keenly aware of those measures. The activist and writer, who was friends with Khashoggi, lives in exile in Norway, where local authorities have warned him he is under threat from Saudi agents.
"Simply naming and shaming MBS -- that itself goes a long way. Telling the truth about who MBS is and what he did and what his role was in the murder is going to make it very difficult for him to be integrated as a normal member of the international community," El-Baghdadi told ABC News Friday.
The Biden administration is expected to announce other steps to hold the Saudi government accountable for Khashoggi's murder, although it's unclear what form that will take.
The report details the 15-member team that arrived in Istanbul from Saudi Arabia, including members of MBS's inner circle and personal protective detail. It names 21 officials it says U.S. intelligence has "high confidence" were involved.
All 21 officials were banned from receiving U.S. visas by the Trump administration, and 17 of them faced financial sanctions. But Trump stopped short of implicating the crown prince, even though the report said it is "highly unlikely" they "would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization."
The group includes Saud al Qahtani, a top adviser to MBS who was removed from his role after Khashoggi's murder was confirmed by the Saudi government.
Eleven Saudi officials were tried for the murder, three were sentenced to prison, and five were sentenced to death -- although their sentences were later commuted to jail time after Khashoggi's faily made a formal statement of forgiveness.
Their trial was largely criticized for its lack of transparency, with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard calling it the "antithesis of justice" and a "mockery" -- charges the Saudi government rejected.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty ImagesBy MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News
(LONDON) -- As rich countries race to inoculate their populations against COVID-19, poorer nations have fallen behind in the biggest vaccination campaign in history.
But a global vaccine-sharing scheme aims to ensure rapid and equitable access to vaccines for all countries regardless of income. Although there are a number of obstacles, the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) initiative may be the best bet on worldwide immunization against the novel coronavirus.
What is COVAX?
COVAX is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a framework for global collaboration that was set up in response to a call from G20 leaders in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was subsequently launched by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April 2020. The ACT Accelerator is made up of three pillars: Diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, according to the WHO.
COVAX is the vaccines' pillar and is co-managed by three partner agencies: Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO. It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
"The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the nexus between equity and global health security," Anuradha Gupta, deputy CEO of Gavi, said in a video statement on Feb. 23. "It has also highlighted the vital importance of global solidarity that is epitomized by COVAX."
COVAX acts as a platform that will support the research, development and manufacturing of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates and will negotiate the pricing. By joining COVAX, all participating countries and economies -- regardless of their ability to pay -- will have access to a portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, once they are developed and proven to be both safe and effective, according to GAVI.
The portfolio of vaccine candidates -- the largest in the world -- is managed by CEPI's research and development experts.
"The best chance of success is to hedge risk by creating a diverse portfolio of vaccine candidates, based on a range of vaccine technologies," CEPI says on its website. "The breadth of our portfolio will increase our chances of developing multiple successful vaccines, which is crucial if we are to meet global demand and protect vulnerable populations."
What is the goal?
The initial goal is to procure and fairly distribute 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines across almost 200 countries and economies by the end of 2021 through a mechanism, the COVAX Facility, created by Gavi. That should be enough to protect high-risk and vulnerable people as well as front-line health care workers, according to Gavi.
Most importantly, COVAX also aims to ensure that 92 middle- and lower-income countries that cannot fully afford to pay for COVID-19 vaccines themselves get equal access to them, just as higher-income, self-financing countries do and at the same time.
Vaccine research and development is critical to achieving this goal, with an estimated $2.1 billion needed to move three COVID-19 vaccine candidates to licensure, according to CEPI. COVAX has already made bilateral agreements with various vaccine makers, including U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
In late December, the WHO issued an emergency use listing for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. In mid-February, the WHO issued emergency use listings for two versions of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by England's University of Oxford and British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca -- one made in India and the other in South Korea. The WHO is on track to approve other vaccine candidates for emergency use in the coming months.
According to an interim distribution forecast published in early February, COVAX plans to distribute an initial batch of 336 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by mid-2021. It also aims to start shipping 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the first quarter of the year.
"We're on track to meet our targets. We have countries signed up; we have doses secured; and we have raised billions of dollars in funding," Aurelia Nguyen, managing director of the COVAX Facility, said in a video statement on Feb. 24. "Nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and so every day has brought new challenges -- both seen and unforeseen -- but we are now delivering on our promise to people across the world, and vaccines are on their way."
How does it work?
Countries and economies of all income levels can participate in the COVAX Facility, either in a self-financing capacity or through a separate financing instrument called the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC). The AMC is funded mainly through government aid, as well as contributions from the private sector and philanthropy, and it supports access to COVID-19 vaccines for 92 middle- and lower-income countries, according to Gavi.
Self-financing participants will be guaranteed sufficient doses of COVID-19 vaccines to protect a certain proportion of their population, depending how much they buy into the scheme. Additionally, richer countries and economies will pay a premium to subsidize poorer ones.
Meanwhile, funded participants will receive enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate up to 20% of their population in the longer term, subject to funding availability.
Since the United States officially rejoined the WHO, President Joe Biden has pledged $4 billion in contributions to COVAX.
Allocation of vaccine doses will be spread across participants based on the amount that's available. These allotments will grow as availability increases, according to Gavi.
The COVAX Facility has access to vaccine doses through deals that Gavi strikes with vaccine manufacturers on behalf of the program. Meanwhile, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is leading the vaccine procurement and delivery efforts on behalf of COVAX.
UNICEF has already begun delivering initial shipments of COVID-19 vaccine doses. This week, the West African nations of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire became the first and second recipients, respectively, to receive doses from the COVAX Facility -- a historic step in the global endeavor.
"It's about a million doses total to begin with and that will just begin accelerating now," Michael Nyenhuis, president and CEO of UNICEF USA, told ABC News in a recent interview. "We've done all of the pre-work necessary in many, many of these countries to make sure that the supply chains are ready, that the health systems are ready, that the refrigeration is ready where it's needed for the vaccines, that the vaccinators, the people actually administer the vaccine in communities, are ready."
Why do we need it?
The global pandemic has already claimed the lives of millions of people and has disrupted the lives of billions more. In addition to reducing further loss of life and helping to get the virus under control, the WHO estimates that the introduction of a vaccine will prevent the loss of $375 billion to the global economy every month.
Global equitable access to a vaccine is the only way to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic, according to the WHO.
"Developing a vaccine against COVID-19 is the most pressing challenge of our time -- and nobody wins the race until everyone wins," the WHO says on its website.
Without a global initiative like COVAX, there is a very real risk that the majority of people in the world will go unprotected against COVID-19, allowing the virus and its impact to continue unabated, according to Gavi.
"With a disease that spreads as fast as COVID-19, vaccines will only be effective if everyone is protected," Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said in a video statement on Feb. 24.
COVAX was created to maximize the chances of successfully developing COVID-19 vaccines and to produce them in the quantities needed to end the pandemic, all while ensuring that income level does not become a barrier to accessing them.
"It's an all-hands-on-deck effort to do something that's never been done before, the largest global vaccine campaign ever and the largest single thing that UNICEF has ever done," Nyenhuis said. "This is nothing less than a historic effort to end the global pandemic. The only way that we're going to end this is if enough people are vaccinated all around the world to put a stop to it."
What are the challenges?
A global effort to vaccinate the world's population won't be without its challenges.
"There are three things that really need to come together well in order for this to happen," Nyenhuis noted. "One is the production of the vaccine."
COVID-19 vaccines need to continue being developed and manufactured and production needs to ramp up. Vaccine makers also must monitor new variants of the virus to see if any changes need to be made to their vaccines, Nyenhuis said.
"The second piece is supply chain and logistics," he continued. "How do you get all those vaccines from manufacturing out to everybody who needs them? We've seen here in the U.S. what a challenge that has been and it's an even greater challenge when you're talking about countries with less sophisticated infrastructure."
UNICEF, however, has an advantage in this part of the puzzle. The agency is the main procurement partner of Gavi and is the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses of life-saving vaccines every year for routine immunization and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries. UNICEF will use the same supply chains and expertise to coordinate the procurement and supply of COVID-19 vaccines for the COVAX Facility, according to Nyenhuis.
"The third piece is vaccine confidence or, to put the other way, hesitancy," he said. "How do you combat hesitancy at the community level for people? How do you build confidence so that people actually take the vaccine?"
In the past, vaccine hesitancy has been a challenge in some parts of the world when trying to stamp out other virus outbreaks. Trust and confidence in vaccines need to be built at the community level so that people will actually choose to get inoculated when doses become available, Nyenhuis said.
"So you really need all three of these pieces. You need the production side, you need the supply chain side and you need the community-level confidence," he added. "And there are challenges in all three pieces of that. That's why this is such a Herculean task and such an important effort."
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.
iStock/Pornpak KhunatornBy MICHAEL DOBUSKI, ABC News
(NEW YORK) -- Australia's Parliament approved the final amendements to a new law Thursday requiring tech companies to pay news organizations for their content. That means companies like Facebook and Google will have to shell out in order to have Austrailian news outlets post articles on their platforms. The move caps a tumultuous few days for social media companies in the country.
Facebook had halted the sharing of all news content for Australians on February 18. News organizations couldn't post to their official pages, Australian residents couldn't share links to news articles, and even non-Australians were restricted from posting stories from the country's news outlets. This week, after last-minute amendments to the law passed, Facebook began restoring the wiped content.
"It was deliberately destructive, and very much achieved its goal," says Protocol Editor-In-Chief David Pierce. The far-reaching ban on news content came after a year of debate around a piece of legislation called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.
Part of the law would have forced the tech companies to pay news publishers in the country to appear on the platforms. If the companies refused, they'd be forced into arbitration- a process that would've given the Australian government final say in how much a tech company would have to pay a news publisher in order to host content.
"The Australian government wanted to pass legislation that they hoped would reset the balance between publishers and big tech companies," says Pierce.
Google and Facebook have been pushing back against the law since its introduction, with the former threatening to pull its search function from the country, and the latter taking the drastic step of removing news content from the platform once the legislation appeared likely to pass.
Certain Australian government organizations got caught up in the ban as well. Services like fire and rescue pages, a weather forecaster, and even one of Facebook's own pages were wiped from the platform temporarily. Pierce says the collateral damage was no accident.
"This is sort of a deliberate move on Facebook's part, more as a bargaining tactic than anything... Like, 'we can remove news- and look how bad it is.'"
News publishers in the country quickly saw how much of their audience came from just Facebook. Traffic to Australian news outlets was down about 13% according to analytics firm Chartbeat. A report last year from market research firm Roy Morgan found 38% of Australians consider social media their main source of news; nearly eight million people. So, with pressure building from all sides, Australian Parliament made some changes to the legislation. Now, tech companies will be allowed a longer period to work out a deal with news publishers, with arbitration being used only as a last resort. In addition, tech companies will have more leeway over which news organizations they do business with.
"It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook," Campbell Brown, Facebook VP of Global News Partnerships, said in a statement.
"The Australian government caved, basically," says Pierce.
By midweek Facebook had begun restoring news content. The company says it's already cut a deal with publisher Seven West Media, and is working on doing the same with another organization called Nine Entertainment. Google, meanwhile, has announced a deal with News Corp, which owns and operates a variety of newspapers and TV channels in the country.
Though it appears the social media landscape is returning to some form of normalcy in Australia, the incident did catch the attention of some other countries. Pierce says the international attention is a big part of the reason Facebook acted in such a dramatic way.
"I think if this had gone through and it had actually brought Facebook and Google to heel to some extent, I think you would've seen a lot of other countries pick this up," says Pierce. "So that's why, for Facebook, it was important to come out and say, essentially, 'we are more powerful than you.'"
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U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Indra BeaufortBy LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) -- Two U.S. Navy ships deployed to the Middle East are experiencing coronavirus outbreaks and have arrived in Bahrain to isolate infected crew members, the Navy said in a statement Friday morning.
The amphibious transport ship USS San Diego has gone into port in Bahrain after 12 service members tested positive for the virus, the Navy's Fifth Fleet said.
The cruiser USS Philippine Sea was at sea when it was discovered that several sailors aboard had also been exposed to the virus and were considered to be "persons under investigation."
The cruiser has since arrived in Bahrain, where those sailors tested positive for COVID-19, a Fifth Fleet spokesperson told ABC News Friday.
"Sailors with positive cases and close contacts have been isolated on the ship, and the ship remains in a restricted COVID bubble at the pier," said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich.
"U.S. 5th Fleet took immediate actions to identify, isolate, test and treat affected Sailors and Marines aboard two ships," the Navy said in its initial statement.
"Medical health professionals are conducting a thorough contact investigation to determine the source of COVID-19 aboard the ships and whether any other personnel may have been exposed," it added.
The sailors aboard the USS San Diego have been isolated aboard the ship, and the ship itself is "in a restricted COVID bubble."
The recent exposures aboard the two ships at sea come a week after three sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the virus while it was deployed to the Pacific Ocean.
A previous large-scale coronavirus outbreak aboard that ship in 2020 ultimately infected a quarter of the 5,000 sailors on board. As a result, the Navy imposed strict mitigation procedures for ship crews at sea and two-week quarantines for those preparing to deploy.
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