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Venezuelans Find Ways to Cope with Inflation and Hunger

Francibel Contreras brings her three malnourished children to a soup kitchen in the dangerous hillside Caracas slum of Petare where they scoop in spoonfuls of rice and scrambled eggs in what could be their only meal of the day.

 

Part of the tragedy of daily life in socialist Venezuela can be glimpsed in this small volunteer soup kitchen in the heart of one of Latin America’s biggest slums, which helps dozens of children as well as unemployed mothers who can no longer feed them.

 

Some Venezuelans manage to endure the nation’s economic meltdown by clinging to the shrinking number of well-paid jobs or by receiving some of the hundreds of millions of dollars sent home by friends and relatives abroad — a quantity that has swollen in recent years as millions of Venezuelans have fled.

 

But a growing percentage of people across the country, especially in slums like Petare, are struggling to cope.

 

Contreras’s husband, Jorge Flores, used to have a small stand at a local market selling things like bananas and yucca, eggs and lunchmeat — trying to scrape out a profit in a place where hyperinflation often made his wholesale costs double from day to day. Then he was robbed at gunpoint by a local gang. And his brother crashed the motorcycle he used to supply his stand.

So Flores abandoned the market stall and looked for other work. He does some plumbing jobs and the family has turned its living room into a barbershop, sheltered beneath a corrugated metal roof held down by loose bricks and planks. It’s decorated with origami-like stars that the family has made out Venezuela’s colorful but rapidly depreciating bolivar bills.

 

“Our currency is worthless,” Contreras said. “These days, I prefer trading a bag of flour for a manicure or a haircut.”

 

The scarcity of milk, medicine and other basics — along with routine violence —  has eroded support for socialist President Nicolas Maduro even in poor neighborhoods like Petare that once were his strongholds. Maduro says there’s an opposition-led plot to oust him from power and says U.S. economic sanctions and local opposition sabotage are responsible for the meltdown.

 

Various local polls show he retains support from roughly a fifth of the population, many of them ideological stalwarts, government-connected insiders or poor voters dependent on government handouts, including the so-called CLAP boxes of oil, flour, rice, pasta, canned tuna and other goods that arrive several times a year.

 

Contreras’ family of four gets those boxes, but it’s not enough to get by on for long. For months, they’ve been relying on the soup kitchen launched by opposition politicians as the main source of protein for their children. On a recent day, her 7-year-old son Jorbeicker played a pickup soccer game in the hilly, dusty streets in front of her home, while her husband practiced styling his mother’s hair.

 

“I’m barely getting by,” Flores said, scissors in hand.

 

The four-day power outage that brought most of Venezuela to a halt this month added to Flores’ misery. He wasn’t able to use the electric clippers needed to give customers the sort of trims they demand.

 

“It hit us in a big way,” he said. “You absolutely need the clippers.”

The couple estimates the power outage cost the family the equivalent of $11 in missed haircuts — a significant sum in a country where the minimum wage amounts to $6 a month, even if most people supplement that figure by working side jobs and pooling resources with friends and neighbors.

Contreras and Flores charge 2,500 bolivars — about 70 U.S. cents — for a trim. A government-subsidized kilogram of flour can cost almost three times that, and Contreras says that lines for the rationed goods can be endless and she sometimes comes back empty-handed. She also said she feels unsafe in the lines. Dozens of people have been killed in gang crossfires over the years, and some have been crushed to death when lines of shoppers turned into stampedes of desperate looters.

 

Next-door neighbor Dugleidi Salcedo sent her 4-year-old daughter to live with an aunt in the city of Maracay, two hours away, because she could no longer feed her. “My boys cry,” the single mother of four said. “But they resist more than her when I tell them that there’s no food.”

After walking back from the soup kitchen, she opened the rusty door to her home of scraped, mint-colored walls. Inside, her 11-year-old son Daniel, who was born partially paralyzed and with developmental disabilities, lay on a stained couch while flies flew over his twisted, uncovered legs.

 

When she took the lid off a plastic container to show her last bag of flour, a cockroach crawled out, making her jump back and scream.

 

“This is so tough,” she said. “I don’t have a job. I don’t have any money.”

 

Salcedo used to sell baked goods and juices to neighbors from the window of her kitchen. Then, her fridge broke down and she couldn’t find the money to fix it.

 

These days, she relies on the kindness of neighbors, or asks a friend who owns a small food shop for credit while she waits for loans from family members in other parts of Venezuela.

 

“This country has never been as bad,” the 28-year-old said. “Just buying some rice or flour is something so hard, so expensive, and often, they don’t even have any.”

 

A few days later, thieves broke into the soup kitchen and stole food. Then, a fire broke out in the slum, burning 17 homes to the ground. It was caused by candles that were apparently being used for light after a power outage — an almost everyday occurrence in many parts of Venezuela. Opposition lawmaker Manuela Bolivar, whose Nodriza Project runs the soup kitchen, said that when firefighters arrived, they lacked water and had to put out the blaze with dirt.

 

“It’s a social earthquake,” Bolivar said. “They lose their homes. They’re left in the open air. The soup kitchen was robbed. It’s so many adversities: It’s the infections, the lack of water and food.”

At an outdoor market a short distance from Petare in the middle-class district of Los Dos Caminos, Carmen Gimenez shopped for carrots and other vegetables for a stew. When her 14-year-old daughter Camila asked if they could take some other products, she told her that they would have to stick to the basics.

 

Although she has a job at a bank, she still struggles to make ends meet.

 

“It doesn’t matter where you live. The need is the same,” said Gimenez, 43.

 

“The poor, the rich, and the middle class — we’re all suffering somehow because the government has leveled us all downwards,” she adds with anger. “How did they dominate us? Through the stomach.”

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In End of 20th Century Fox, a New Era Dawns for Hollywood

The Fox Studio backlot, first built in 1926 on a Culver City ranch in Los Angeles, was enormous. Before much of it was sold off in the 1960s, it was four times the size of its current, and still huge, 53 acres.

 

Shirley Temple’s bungalow still sits on the lot, as does the piano where John Williams composed, among other things, the score to “Star Wars.” A waiter in the commissary might tell you where Marilyn Monroe once regularly sat.

 

When the Walt Disney Co.’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox is completed at 12:02 a.m. Wednesday, the storied lot — the birthplace of CinemaScope, “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic” — will no longer house one of the six major studios. It will become the headquarters for Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Corp., (he is keeping Fox News and Fox Broadcasting) and Fox’s film operations, now a Disney label, will stay on for now as renters under a seven-year lease agreement.

 

The history of Hollywood is littered with changes of studio ownership; even Fox Film Corporation founder William Fox, amid the Depression, lost control of the studio that still bears his name. But the demise of 20th Century Fox as a standalone studio is an epochal event in Hollywood, one that casts long shadows over a movie industry grappling with new digital competitors from Silicon Valley and facing the possibility of further contraction. After more than eight decades of supremacy, the Big Six are down one.

 

“It’s a sad day for students of film history and I think it’s potentially a sad day for audiences too,” said Tom Rothman, former chairman of Fox and the current chief of Sony Pictures. “There will just be less diversity in the marketplace.”

 

Disney’s acquisition has endless repercussions but it’s predicated largely on positioning Disney — already the market-leader in Hollywood — for the future. Disney, girding for battle with Netflix, Apple and Amazon, needs more content for its coming streaming platform, Disney+, and it wants control of its content across platforms.

“The pace of disruption has only hastened,” Disney chief Robert A. Iger said when the deal was first announced. “This will allow us to greatly accelerate our director-to-consumer strategy.”

 

The Magic Kingdom will add 20th Century Fox alongside labels like Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm. But film production at Fox, which has in recent years released 12-17 films a year, is expected to wane. Due to duplication with Disney staff, layoffs will be in the thousands.

 

Disney will also take over FX, NatGeo and a controlling stake in Hulu, which has more than 20 million customers. It will gain control of some of the largest franchises in movies, including “Avatar,” “Alien” and “The Planet of the Apes.” Fox’s television studios also net Disney the likes of “Modern Family,” “This Is Us” and “The Simpsons.” Homer, meet Mickey.

 

Some parts of Fox, like the John Landgraf-led FX and Fox Searchlight, the specialty label overseen by Stephen Gilula and Nancy Utley, are expected to be kept largely intact. Searchlight, the regular Oscar contender behind films such as “12 Years a Slave,” “The Shape of Water” and “The Favourite,” could yield Disney something it’s never had before: a best picture winner at the Academy Awards.

 

Nowhere is the culture clash between the companies more apparent than in “Deadpool,” Fox’s gleefully profane R-rated superhero. While Spider-Man still resides with Sony, Disney now adds Deadpool, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to its bench of Marvel characters. How they will all fit with Disney’s PG-13 mission remains to be seen, though Iger last month suggested in a conference call with investors that there may be room for an R-rated Marvel brand as long as audiences know what’s coming.

 

The question of how or if Disney will inherit Fox’s edginess matters because Fox has long built itself on big bets and technological gambits. It was the first studio built for sound. It was nearly bankrupted by the big-budget Elizabeth Taylor epic “Cleopatra.” It backed Cameron’s seemingly-ill-fated “Titanic,” as well as Ang Lee’s “The Life of Pi” and the Oscar-winning hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

 

“We were a studio of risk and innovation,” says Rothman, who also founded Fox Searchlight. “It was a very daring place, creatively. That’s what the movies should be.”

 

But will the more button-down Disney have the stomach for such movies? “Deadpool” creator Robert Liefeld, for example, has said Fox’s plans for an X-Force movie have been tabled, a “victim of the merger.”

 

Some were surprised regulators gave the deal relatively quick approval. The Department of Justice approved the acquisition in about six months, about four times less than the time it took investigating AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. The New York Times editorial page suggested the deal benefited from President Trump’s relationship with Murdoch.

 

“Disney will have probably north of 40 percent market share in the U.S. That’s one area where a deal does suggest that the market influence is going to be outsized,” says Tuna Amobi, a media and entertainment analyst with investment firm CFRA. “Having one studio control that much is unprecedented. And it could increase from there given the pipeline that we see.”

Disney is about to have more influence on the movies Americans and the rest of the world see than any company ever has. Last year, it had 26 percent of the U.S. market with just 10 movies which together grossed more than $3 billion domestically and $7.3 billion worldwide. Fox usually counts for about 12 percent of market share.

 

Fewer studios could potentially mean fewer movies. That’s a concern for both consumers and theater owners, many of whom already rely heavily on Disney blockbusters to sell tickets and popcorn.

 

“Certainly, consolidation poses a challenge in some respects to the supply of movies,” says John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Organization of Theater Owners. “The fewer suppliers you have, the chances are we’re going to get fewer movies from those suppliers.”

 

But Fithian believes other companies are stepping into the breach, and he holds out hope that Netflix might eventually embrace more robust theatrical release. More importantly, Fox was bought by a company in Disney that is, as Fithian said, “the biggest supporter of the theatrical window.”

 

Still, Disney has been willing to throw its weight around. Ahead of the release of “The Last Jedi,” the studio insisted on more onerous terms from some theater owners, including a higher percentage of ticket sales.

 

More experimentation in distribution is coming. Later this year, WarnerMedia, whose Warner Bros. is regularly second in market share to Disney, will launch its own streaming platform. Apple is ramping up movie production. Amazon Studios is promising bigger, more attention-getting projects.

 

Ahead of a blizzard of new streaming options, Fox — and a giant piece of film history — will fade into an ever-expanding Disney world. Film historian Michael Troyan, author of “20th Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment,” has studied enough of Hollywood’s past to know that relentless change is an innate part of the business.

 

“It’s sad when any historical empire like that comes to end,” says Michael Troyan. “You can record in other places but when you’re on a lot like Fox, you feel the gravitas, you feel the history.”

 

Rothman says he will pause for a “wistful moment” Wednesday, but he believes consolidation doesn’t mean obsolescence.

 

“I don’t think it remotely arguers the end of the glories of the film business overall,” says Rothman. “I believe there remains eternal appetite for original, vibrant, creative theatrical storytelling.”

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Boeing Reshuffles Top Engineers Amid 737 MAX Crisis

Boeing, facing its biggest crisis in years following deadly crashes of its flagship 737 MAX aircraft, has brought in a new vice president of engineering while dedicating another top executive to the aircraft investigations, a company email showed on Tuesday.

The management reshuffle comes as Europe and Canada said they would seek their own guarantees over the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX, further complicating plans to get the aircraft flying worldwide after they were grounded in the wake of crashes that killed more than 300 people.

John Hamilton, formerly both vice president and chief engineer in Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes division, will focus solely on the role of chief engineer, the unit’s Chief Executive Officer Kevin McAllister told employees on Tuesday in an email seen by Reuters.

“This will allow him to fully dedicate his attention to the ongoing accident investigations,” McAllister said, adding that the staffing changes were needed as “we prioritize and bring on additional resources for the ongoing accident investigations.”

Lynne Hopper – who previously led Test & Evaluation in Boeing’s Engineering, Test & Technology group – has been named vice president of Engineering, McAllister said.

A Boeing spokesman declined to comment but confirmed the authenticity of the email.

The shakeup showed how the world’s largest plane maker was freeing up engineering resources as it faces scrutiny during crash investigations while also maintaining production of its money-spinning 737 single-aisle aircrafts.

Previously, Hamilton served as the vice president of engineering for Boeing Commercial Airplanes from April 2016 through March 2019, according to a biography on Boeing’s website.

From July 2013 through March 2016, Hamilton served as the vice president of Safety, Security and Compliance and oversaw the Commercial Airplanes Organization Designation Authorization – a program that takes on specific safety certification duties on behalf of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Lawmakers and safety experts are questioning how thoroughly regulators vetted the MAX model and how well pilots were trained on new features.

For now, global regulators have grounded the existing fleet of more than 300 MAX aircraft, and deliveries of nearly 5,000 more – worth well over $500 billion – are on hold.

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Science & Health
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NASA’s Plan to Scoop Up Dirt from Asteroid Hits Snag

NASA’s plan to scoop up dirt and gravel from an asteroid has hit a snag, but scientists say they can overcome it.

The asteroid Bennu was thought to have wide, open areas suitable for the task. But a recently arrived spacecraft revealed the asteroid is covered with boulders and there don’t seem to be any big, flat spots that could be used to grab samples. 

In a paper released Tuesday by the journal Nature, scientists say they plan to take a closer look at a few smaller areas that might work. They said sampling from those spots poses “a substantial challenge.”  

“But I am confident this team is up to that substantial challenge,” the project’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

The spacecraft, called Osiris-Rex, is scheduled to descend close to the surface in the summer of 2020. It will extend a robot arm to pick up the sample, which will be returned to Earth in 2023. The spacecraft began orbiting Bennu at the end of last year, after spending two years chasing down the space rock.

When the mission was planned, scientists were aiming to take dirt and gravel from an area measuring at least 55 yards (50 meters) in diameter that was free of boulders or steep slopes, which would pose a hazard.

“It is a more rugged surface than we predicted,” said Lauretta, of the University of Arizona in Tucson and one of the paper’s authors. But he said he believed a sample could still be collected.

NASA project manager Rich Burns said a spot will be chosen this summer and the setback won’t delay the sampling.

Patrick Taylor, who studies asteroids at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston but didn’t participate in the spacecraft mission, noted in a telephone interview that the spacecraft was evidently maneuvering more accurately and precisely than had been expected. 

“That gives me confidence they will be able to attempt a sample acquisition,” he said.

Bennu is 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) from Earth. It’s estimated to be just over 1,600 feet (500 meters) across and is the smallest celestial body ever orbited by a spacecraft.

A Japanese spacecraft, Hayabusa2, touched down on another asteroid in February, also on a mission to collect material. Japan managed to return some tiny particles in 2010 from its first asteroid mission.

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Trump to Meet with Caribbean Leaders on Friday at His Florida Resort

U.S. President Donald Trump will meet at his Florida resort on Friday with the leaders of the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Saint Lucia to discuss Chinese “predatory economic practices” and the Venezuela situation, the White House said in a statement on Tuesday.

Trump and the Caribbean leaders will also discuss security cooperation and the potential opportunities for energy investment, the White House said.

“The President looks forward to working with countries in the region to strengthen our security cooperation and counter China’s predatory economic practices,” the White House statement said.

Washington has warned countries in the region about accepting Chinese investment. In October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Mexico City that “when China comes calling it’s not always to the good of your citizens.”

“When they show up with deals that seem to be too good to be true it’s often the case that they, in fact, are,” Pompeo said.

On Venezuela, the United States has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president.

Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, saying President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election was not legitimate. Most Western countries have backed Guaido as head of state.

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Mexico, Brazil Reach Light-vehicle Free Trade Agreement

Mexico’s government said on Tuesday it had reached an agreement with Brazil on the free trade of light vehicles, subject to a 40 percent regional content requirement, paving the way for more open commerce between Latin America’s two biggest economies.

The agreement takes effect on Tuesday and the content requirement would be subject to current formulas for calculation, the economy ministry said in a statement. The statement did not provide details on the formula.

Mexico has been seeking to diversify trading partners since U.S. President Donald Trump warned of the possible death of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that has underpinned Mexico’s foreign trade for a quarter-century.

The economy ministry said Mexico racked up a trade surplus in the auto sector with Brazil worth $868 million last year, three times the total recorded in 2017.

Brazil’s auto industry is protected by subsidies and import taxes. Antonio Megale, president of automotive sector trade group Anfavea, told newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo he would have preferred to delay the free trade agreement by three years.

Announcing new investments in Brazil on Tuesday, Carlos Zarlenga, General Motors’ top executive for South America, said the Brazilian industry was competitive and benefited from its scale, but noted that taxes were so high that 50 percent of the automaker’s revenue in the country was spent on taxes.

In addition to the Brazil agreement, Mexico has renewed auto trade quotas with Argentina for the next three years, after which there will be free trade, the ministry said.

In the first year the auto trade quota between Mexico and Argentina would increase by 10 percent, followed by a five percent increase in the second year, then another five percent in the third and final year.

Since 2012, Mexico’s fast-growing auto sector has had to contend with curbs in trade with Brazil and Argentina, whose governments have sought to protect local manufacturing.

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Goodbye Console? Google Launches Game-streaming Platform

Google on Tuesday unveiled a video-game streaming platform called Stadia, positioning itself to take on the traditional video-game business.

The platform will store a game-playing session in the cloud and lets players jump across devices operating on Google’s Chrome browser and Chrome OS, such as Pixel phones and Chromebooks.

Google didn’t say how much its new service will cost, whether it will offer subscriptions or other options, or what games will be available at launch — all key elements to the success of a new video-game platform. It said only that Stadia will be available in late 2019. 

Google made the announcement at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Some industry watchers were expecting a streaming console, but Google’s platform centers squarely on the company’s cloud infrastructure.

“The new generation of gaming is not a box,” said Google Vice President Phil Harrison. “The data center is your platform.”

Much like movies and music, the traditional video-game industry has been shifting from physical hardware and games to digital downloads and streaming. 

Video-game streaming typically requires a strong connection and more computing power than simply streaming video, since there is real-time interaction between player and game. Google says it is leveraging its data centers to power the system.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google said playing video games will be as simple as pressing a “Play Now” button, with nothing to download or install. An optional dedicated Stadia controller will be available. The WiFi-enabled controller has a button that lets players launch a microphone and use Google Assistant to ask questions about the games being played. Another button lets users share gameplay directly to Google’s video streaming service, YouTube.

Harrison said he expects all gaming will eventually take place outside consoles, in cloud-powered streaming platforms similar to what Google announced. But not right away.

“It won’t replace traditional games devices overnight,” he said in an interview after the announcement. “And we wouldn’t be here if not for the existing traditional platforms.”

CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler said Google’s approach that ties YouTube sharing and video-game playing is unique.

“It is not necessarily at this point the easiest thing for people to livestream their games and now you can do it with the push of a button,” he said. “What they’ve done with Stadia is to connect and unify both the gaming platform and the streaming platform which obviously is new.”

The company said Stadia will be available in late 2019 in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and parts of Europe. Google showed demos of “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” and “Doom Eternal.” More information about games and pricing is due this summer.

The U.S. video game industry raked in revenue of $43.4 billion in 2018, up 18 percent from 2017, according to research firm NPD Group.

BTIG Managing Director Brandon Ross said Stadia will be a positive for game publishers “assuming that it works and works at scale, which is a big assumption.”

That’s because the platform could bring in players not willing to spend the money upfront for a gaming PC or a console.

“What they’re presenting is a feasible way to play video games in the cloud, and utilizing the cloud so you can play anytime, anyplace and anywhere,” he said. “There’s no friction, including the friction of upfront hardware costs.”

Ross added that Google’s platform could set up a distribution battle between Microsoft, which owns the Xbox, Sony, which owns the PlayStation, Google and perhaps Amazon, which reportedly is working on its own video-game service, as they race to lock down distribution of the most in-demand games.

To that end, Google launched Stadia Games and Entertainment which will develop Stadia-exclusive games.

“The differentiator for any of the distributors on a console or in the cloud is going to be available content,” he said. 

Harrison said Google will rely on outside publishers and game developers to provide many of the games available on the platform. But having its own inside studio will also allow the company to fully test and make use of new features.

“We can be the advance party, so to speak, and we can be testing out the latest technology,” he said. “Once we’ve proven it we can help bring that up to speed on the platform even more quickly with our third-party partners.”

Harrison acknowledged Google faces stiff competition from longtime rivals Microsoft, Sony and others. Google has been working on Stadia for more than four years, he said, and has been working with game developers through Android and Play Store for longer.

The others have more than a decade of experience. But Google believes it brings something new.

“We are not a historical console or PC platform,” he said. “We are built specifically for this new generation.”

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WHO Panel Calls for Registry of All Human Gene-Editing Research

It would be irresponsible for any scientist to conduct human gene-editing studies in people, and a central registry of research plans should be set up to ensure transparency, World Health Organization experts said Tuesday.

After its first two-day meeting in Geneva, the WHO panel of gene-editing experts — which was established in December after a Chinese scientist said he had edited the genes of twin babies — said it had agreed on a framework for setting future standards.

It said a central registry of all human genome-editing research was needed “in order to create an open and transparent database of ongoing work,” and asked the WHO to start setting up such a registry immediately.

“The committee will develop essential tools and guidance for all those working on this new technology to ensure maximum benefit and minimal risk to human health,” Soumya Swamanathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said in a statement.

A Chinese scientist last year claimed to have edited the genes of twin baby girls.

News of the births prompted global condemnation, in part because it raised the ethical specter of so-called “designer babies” — in which embryos can be genetically modified to produce children with desirable traits.

Top scientists and ethicists from seven countries called last week for a global moratorium on gene editing of human eggs, sperm or embryos that would result in such genetically-altered babies — saying this “could have permanent and possibly harmful effects on the species.”

The WHO panel’s statement said any human gene-editing work should be done for research only, should not be done in human clinical trials, and should be conducted transparently.

“It is irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.”

The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed the panel’s initial plans. “Gene editing holds incredible promise for health, but it also poses some risks, both ethically and medically,” he said in a statement.

The committee said it aims over the next two years to produce “a comprehensive governance framework” for national, local and international authorities to ensure human genome-editing science progresses within agreed ethical boundaries.

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