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Jury Holds Pharmacies Responsible for Role in Opioid Crisis

CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said Tuesday in a verdict that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments that want to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis.

Lake and Trumbull counties blamed the three chain pharmacies for not stopping the flood of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties about $1 billion, their attorney said.

How much the pharmacies must pay in damages will be decided in the spring by a federal judge.

It was the first time pharmacy companies had completed a trial to defend themselves in a drug crisis that has killed a half-million Americans in the past two decades.

The counties were able to convince the jury that the pharmacies played an outsized role in creating a public nuisance in the way they dispensed pain medication into their communities.

“The law requires pharmacies to be diligent in dealing drugs. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties. “The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America,” Lanier said.

Attorneys for the three pharmacy chains maintained they had policies to stem the flow of pills when their pharmacists had any concerns and would notify authorities about suspicious orders from doctors. They also said it was the doctors who controlled how many pills were being prescribed for legitimate medical needs.

Spokespeople for CVSHealth and Walgreen Co. said the companies disagree with the verdict and will appeal.

“As plaintiffs’ own experts testified, many factors have contributed to the opioid abuse issue, and solving this problem will require involvement from all stakeholders in our health care system and all members of our community,” CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said in a statement.

Walgreen spokesperson Fraser Engerman said the company believes the court erred “in allowing the case to go before a jury on a flawed legal theory that is inconsistent with Ohio law.”

“As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” Engerman said in a statement. “The plaintiffs’ attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable.”

Two other chains — Rite Aid and Giant Eagle — had settled lawsuits with the two Ohio counties.

Lanier said during the trial that the pharmacies were attempting to blame everyone but themselves.

The opioid crisis has overwhelmed courts, social services agencies and law enforcement in Ohio’s blue-collar corner east of Cleveland, leaving behind heartbroken families and babies born to addicted mothers, Lanier told jurors.

Roughly 80 million prescription painkillers were dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 — equivalent to 400 for every resident.

In Lake County, about 61 million pills were distributed during that period.

The rise in physicians prescribing pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone came at a time when medical groups began recognizing that patients have the right to be treated for pain, Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, said at the opening of the trial.

The problem, he said, was that “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”

The counties said pharmacies should be the last line of defense to prevent the pills from getting into the wrong hands.

They didn’t hire enough pharmacists and technicians or train them to stop that from happening and failed to implement systems that could flag suspicious orders, Lanier said.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland was part of a broader constellation of federal opioid lawsuits — about 3,000 in all — that have been consolidated under the judge’s supervision. Other cases are moving ahead in state courts.

Kevin Roy, chief public policy officer at Shatterproof, an organization that advocates for solutions to addiction, said the verdict could lead pharmacies to follow the path of major distribution companies and some drugmakers that have reached nationwide settlements of opioid cases worth billions.

So far, no pharmacy has reached a nationwide settlement. “It’s a signal that the public, at least in select places, feels that there’s been exposure and needs to be remedied,” Roy said.

Roy noted that courts have not been consistent on whether public nuisance law applies to such cases.

“There’s been a variety of different decisions lately that should give us reason to be cautious about what this really means in the grand scheme,” he said.

It was one of five trials so far this year in the U.S. to test claims brought by governments against parts of the drug industry over the toll of prescription painkillers.

Trials against drugmakers in New York and distribution companies in Washington state are underway now. A trial of claims against distribution companies in West Virginia has wrapped up, but the judge has not yet given a verdict.

Earlier in November, a California judge ruled in favor of top drug manufacturers in a lawsuit with three counties and the city of Oakland. The judge said the governments hadn’t proved that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive marketing to increase unnecessary opioid prescriptions and create a public nuisance.

Also in November, Oklahoma’s supreme court overturned a 2019 judgment for $465 million in a suit brought by the state against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Other lawsuits have resulted in big settlements or proposed settlements before trials were completed.

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Apple Sues Israeli Spyware Company NSO Group 

Apple says it is suing Israeli NSO Group, maker of the controversial Pegasus spyware. 

Apple will be the second company to sue NSO after Facebook, now Meta, sued over similar concerns that Pegasus was targeting WhatsApp users. Meta owns WhatsApp. The case is still working its way through the courts. 

Apple says the spyware specifically targeted its users. It also wants to prevent NSO from using any Apple product or service, which would be a massive blow to the company that sells governments the ability to hack iPhones and Android phones in order to gain full access. 

Apple says it has created a software patch to protect devices from Pegasus. 

The Cupertino, California-based company says it is seeking undisclosed damages it says it incurred because of NSO. It says it would donate any award money to organizations that investigate and expose spyware.

One such company, Citizen Lab, was central in uncovering how Pegasus worked. 

“This is Apple saying: If you do this, if you weaponize our software against innocent users, researchers, dissidents, activists or journalists, Apple will give you no quarter,” Ivan Krstic, head of Apple security engineering and architecture, said in an interview Monday with the New York Times. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. put NSO along with three other software companies on a blacklist that places severe restrictions on their ability to do business in the U.S. 

It said the companies “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments” and that the spyware was used “to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.” 

NSO did not immediately comment on the lawsuit, but has previously said it takes precautions to prevent the abuse of its products. 

The pressure against NSO appears to be working, as many news outlets reported the company was at risk of defaulting on its loans. 

Some information in this report comes from Reuters. 

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Musician Jon Batiste Leads Grammy Award Nominations with 11 

Jon Batiste might be the Grammys biggest surprise: The multi-genre performer and recent Oscar winner made such an impression on voters that he scored the most nominations with 11 on Tuesday.

Batiste earned an album of the year nod for “We Are” along with record of the year with “Freedom,” a feel-good ode to the city of New Orleans. His nominations span several genres including R&B, jazz, American roots music, classical and music video.

Justin Bieber, Doja Cat and H.E.R. each came away with the second-most nominations with eight by the time the Recording Academy was done announcing its nominees for its Jan. 31 show. Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo both had seven nods.

Along with Batiste’s surprise domination, another shock was The Weeknd nabbing three nominations after the pop star claimed he would not allow his label to submit his music. Earlier this year, he angrily slammed the Grammys, calling them “corrupt” after he received zero nominations despite 2020’s biggest single, “Blinding Lights.” 

Even though The Weeknd said he would boycott future Grammys, he still became a nominee for his work on album of the year projects, including Doja Cat’s deluxe edition “Planet Her” and Kanye West’s “Donda.” His third nomination was for his appearance on West’s single “Hurricane,” which also features Lil Baby. 

“What I like is the fact that no one is thinking about what happened before, what was the controversy, what was the noise, or where was this artist making music last year,” said Harvey Mason jr., the Recording Academy’s CEO. He said voters focused on the “excellence of music” while considering nominees like Batiste and Kacey Musgraves, whose work also crosses over into different categories. 

“The voters are truly evaluating music and not getting caught up in the reputations of any other outside noise or any history of artists,” he continued. “With that in mind, I think they’re voting for things that they are acknowledging as excellence.” 

Mason said he was pleased with the new peer-driven voting system after seeing the list of nominees. He instituted the 10-3 initiative — which allows the academy’s more than 11,000 members to vote for up to 10 categories in three genres. All voters can vote for the top four awards. 

The new system replaced the anonymous nominations review committee — a group that determined the contenders for key awards. Some claimed committee members favored projects based on personal relationships and promoted projects they favored and worked on. 

Harvey knows the new voting system might not be perfect at first, but he believes the initiative will produce fair results in the long run. 

“I know we didn’t get every single one perfect,” Harvey said. “I know there will be some people that feel left out or that we missed a nomination here or there. That makes me sad because I don’t want anybody to have that feeling. But I do feel like we’re heading in the right direction. I’m pleased with the way our voters did the work.” 

For the first time, the academy expanded the number of nominees in the general field categories from eight to 10. The change impacts categories such as record, album, song of the year and best new artist. 

Harvey said the academy increased slots in the general field categories after seeing an uptick voting participation over the past year along with the acceptance of new membership invitations and a high number of more than 21,730 entries submitted for Grammy consideration. 

“We thought the timing was right,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to do what the academy does — which is to highlight music, highlight the industry and highlight excellence in a bigger way. With the change in our voting structure, we don’t have the nomination review committee. This gives our voters an opportunity to have their voice heard, but also gives them a chance to have a bigger pool to draw from when it comes time to that one winner that takes home the Grammy.” 

Other album of the year nominees include: Bieber’s “Justice (Triple Chucks Deluxe),” Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever,” West’s “Donda,” Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga’s “Love for Sale,” Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour,” Taylor Swift’s “evermore” and Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO.” 

Batiste, the bandleader of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” picked up a bid in the best score soundtrack for visual media category for his work on Pixar’s “Soul,” which won him an Oscar for best score earlier this year. Coming into Tuesday, he had three Grammy nominations but no wins yet. 

Batiste will compete for record of the year against a bevy of candidates including Bennett & Gaga’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” ABBA’s “I Still Have Faith in You,” Bieber’s “Peaches” featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon, Brandi Carlile’s “Right on Time,” Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More” with SZA, Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name),” Rodrigo’s “drivers license,” Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” and “Leave The Door Open” by Silk Sonic — the super duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. 

Jay-Z, who was nominated for three Grammys on Tuesday, now has the most nominations of all time with 83. The 23-time Grammy-winning rapper moved past Quincy Jones, who has been nominated 80 times. 

 

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Beijing Warns Against ‘Malicious Hyping’ Over Peng Shuai Situation

Amid growing speculation on the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, China’s Foreign Ministry warned against politicizing and speculating about the star’s wellbeing.

“This is not a diplomatic matter,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

“I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President (Thomas) Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicization,” Zhao added.

On Monday the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) said it is still concerned about Peng despite her appearance and the International Olympic Committee call.

“It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” a WTA spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

Peng had not been seen since earlier this month after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice premier, of forcing her to have sex several years ago. Her absence from public sight had prompted international demands for Chinese officials to account for her safety.

On Sunday, the three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion appeared standing beside a tennis court, waving and signing oversized commemorative tennis balls for children.

Later, she had a 30-minute call with Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, who said she thanked the IOC for its concern about her.

“She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC said in a statement.

“That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much,” the IOC said.

The China Open posted a note on the Weibo social media network about Peng’s appearance at the youth tournament but made no mention of her disappearance or accusation that she was assaulted.

The women’s professional tennis tour had threatened to pull events out of China unless Peng’s safety was assured.

Dave Haggerty, the International Tennis Federation president and International Olympic Committee member, said in a statement Sunday, “Our primary concern is Peng Shuai’s safety and her well-being. The videos of her this weekend appear to be a positive step, but we will continue to seek direct engagement and confirmation from Peng Shuai herself that she is safe and well.”

Peng’s disappearance and accusation against the former Chinese official is occurring as Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics starting on February 4 amid international condemnation of China’s human rights record.

Current and former players like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, took to social media to call for proof Peng was safe.

The world’s top male player, Novak Djokovic, called the situation “horrific” and questioned whether tennis tournaments should be held in China until it was resolved.

Some information in this report came from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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Burkina Faso Internet Shutdown Continues into Fourth Day

The shutdown of internet access via mobile phone networks that began Saturday dragged on for a fourth day Tuesday. The government said in a statement the shutdown is in the interest of national defense and public security and will last until around 10 p.m. tonight.

VOA talked to some Burkinabes on the streets of Ouagadougou to ask how the shutdown was affecting them and what they thought of the government’s decision.

Alexi Sawadogo, a physician, spoke outside a bank on one of the city’s busy boulevards. He said he was there to check his account balance as the shutdown meant he could no longer do so online. 

“It disconnects us from our friends who are outside the country, with whom we communicate regularly,” he says. He notes that he understands that it is because of the French convoy that was blockaded in the north, but says insecurity is not a valid reason and that the government needs to review its strategy. 

The shutdown has come in the wake of protests in recent days that have blocked a French military supply convoy that is attempting to travel from Ivory Coast to Niger. Protesters say they want an end to French military intervention in the regional war against Islamist militants. 

There have also been protests against the government’s handling of security, after a terrorist group believed to be associated with al-Qai da killed more than 50 military police in an assault on a base in northern Burkina Faso on November 14th. 

Ali Dayorgo, a university student, said the shutdown has affected his ability to work and learn the latest news.

He says he doesn’t understand why the shutdown is happening, but he hears the voice of the Burkinabe youth. “I feel the anger of the youth,” he expressed, adding that even if he doesn’t join protests against insecurity, he supports them.

A funeral for some of the victims of the attack is taking place in Ouagadougou today. 

Drabo Mahamadou is the national executive secretary of the “Save Burkina Faso Movement,” one of the protest groups that is calling for President Roch Kabore to resign. He said they have called on the population to attend Tuesday’s funeral and to attend a protest on Saturday.

He says, because the government is insensitive to pain, we are calling on the population to come out en masse on the 27th. We want [protesters] to prove that this government is not helping Burkina Faso. It is the government that is causing harm to the Burkinabé people.

A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Eloise Bertrand is a research fellow at the University of Portsmouth who focuses on Burkina Faso. She thinks the restrictions on the internet are unwise; pointing out that “this shutdown may well backfire against the government. We can see that civil society groups and stakeholders who were not really involved in protests against the French convoy are annoyed and angered by this internet shutdown.”

Reports suggest the French military convoy is now waiting in the town of Zinaire, about 30 kilometers north of the capital. Protests are also said to be taking place in the town.

With the demonstrations continuing, it remains to be seen if the government will lift the internet shutdown tonight. Further protests are scheduled for Saturday.

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NASA, ESA Delay Launch of New Space Telescope

The U.S. space agency, NASA, and its European counterpart, the European Space Agency (ESA), have delayed the long-awaited launch of the James Webb space telescope to no earlier than December 22.

In statements, both agencies say the launch is being held up for additional testing of the orbiting observatory after what appeared to be a minor incident during preparations at the launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana.  

NASA says technicians were preparing to attach the telescope to the launch vehicle adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the upper stage of the rocket that will take it into orbit. They say the sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band — which secures the Webb to the launch vehicle adapter — caused a vibration throughout the observatory.

The agency says a NASA-led review board was immediately convened to investigate and perform additional testing to ensure the incident did not damage any of the instrument’s sensitive components. The space agency said it, along with mission partners the ESA and the Canadian space agency will provide an update when the tests are complete late this week.

The Webb telescope, originally scheduled for launch December 18, is designed to replace the aging Hubble telescope. NASA says it is designed to explore every phase of cosmic history — from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies and everything in between.  

When ready, the telescope will be launched from the South American site aboard a French-made Ariane 5 rocket.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

 

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NASA to Launch Test Mission of Asteroid-Deflecting Spacecraft

A SpaceX rocket was set to blast off from California late Tuesday as NASA seeks to demonstrate a first-of-its-kind planetary defense system, designed to deflect an asteroid from a potential doomsday collision with Earth.

The DART mission will test NASA’s ability to alter an asteroid’s trajectory with kinetic force – crashing a robot spacecraft into it at high speed and nudging the space boulder just enough to keep our planet out of harm’s way.

DART’s target is a tiny fraction of the size of the cataclysmic Chicxulub asteroid that slammed into Earth about 66 million years ago, killing most of the planet’s animal species. It is not on a path that will cause it to hit Earth in the foreseeable future.

But scientists say smaller asteroids are far more common and pose a far greater theoretical threat to Earth in the near term.

NASA has hired Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to launch DART aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:20 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday (1:20 a.m. Eastern/0620 GMT Wednesday) from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

If liftoff is postponed NASA has an 84-day launch window in which to try again.

Once released into space, DART will journey 10 months to its destination, some 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth.

Its target is an asteroid “moonlet” the size of a football stadium that orbits a much larger chunk of rock – about five times bigger – in a binary asteroid system named Didymos, the Greek word for twin.

The moonlet, called Dimorphos, is one of the smallest astronomical objects to receive a permanent name. But at 525 feet (160 km) in diameter, its size is typical among the known asteroids – rubble-like remnants left over from formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

Simpler than ‘Armageddon’

Scientists chose the Didymos system because its relative proximity to Earth and dual-asteroid configuration make it ideal to observe the results of the impact.

The key to avoiding a killer asteroid is to detect it well in advance and be ready with the means of changing its course, NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson told a media briefing this month.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed toward Earth and then have to be testing this kind of capability,” he said.

The team behind DART, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, has determined that slamming a car-sized projectile into a Dimorphos-sized asteroid at 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) should do the trick.

The DART spacecraft, a cube-shaped box with two rectangular solar arrays, is due to rendezvous with the Didymos-Dimorphos pair in late September 2022.

Cameras mounted on the impactor and on a briefcase-sized mini-spacecraft released from DART about 10 days beforehand will record the collision.

Observations from ground-based telescopes and radar will then measure how much the moonlet’s orbit around Didymos changes.

The DART team is expecting to shorten the orbital track by about 10 minutes but would consider at least 73 seconds a success.

The entire cost of the DART project will run about $330 million, according to Lindley, well below that of many of NASA’s most ambitious science missions. 

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Australian Team Probes Southern Ocean in Deep-Water Earthquake Research

A mission is underway to retrieve scientific data from the rugged ocean floor in the Southern Ocean, formerly known as the Antarctic Ocean, that could explain what triggers underwater earthquakes and tsunamis.   

Some of the world’s most violent underwater earthquakes are unleashed beneath the hostile waters of the Southern Ocean, but researchers don’t know why. Sophisticated noise and motion sensors could help unlock the secrets of how Tectonic plates – or pieces of the Earth’s crust – start to collide, a process known as subduction.   

For the past year, an array of 27 seismometers positioned on the ocean floor has formed a giant telescope pointing to the planet’s core.  The instruments are now being retrieved.    

Professor Hrvoje Tkalčić, a chief scientist from the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences hopes the study will help to explain how and why earthquakes occur.    

“We cannot predict when exactly they will happen, how large they will be. But we can understand better their physical mechanism and we can also understand better the Earth’s structure in that area, and this is critical to predict the propagation of the seismic waves from the hyper-center of these earthquakes to any other point on the Earth’s surface, including a possible generation of tsunami,” Tkalčić said.      

Scientists hope the study will give them a better understanding of how earthquakes and tsunamis might affect Australia and New Zealand, which lies within the seismically active region known as the “Pacific Ring of Fire.”    

The expedition is scouring some of the world’s steepest underwater mountain ranges to depths of more than 3.5 miles in a remote area known as Macquarie Ridge, halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica. 

Researchers say the techniques could also be applied to other oceans. 

The international study is a collaboration with various Australian institutions, the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology.   

The three-week voyage began in Wellington, New Zealand on November 10. 

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