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New WHO Panel to Speed Up Pandemic Response, Address Shortcomings

The World Health Organization’s governing board agreed on Monday to form a new committee to help speed up its response to health emergencies like COVID-19. 

The U.N. Health Agency faced criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the pace of its response to early cases that may have delayed detection and helped the virus to spread. Some disease experts say that governments and WHO must avoid repeating such early missteps with other outbreaks like monkeypox. Read full story. 

The resolution, passed unanimously at the 34-member Executive Board’s annual meeting, will form a new Standing Committee on Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response to help address some of the perceived shortcomings.   

Formal WHO meetings are sometimes spaced months apart, and under the new initiative, the new body would meet immediately after the director-general declares a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — a decision that triggers calls for extra funding, public health measures and a series of recommendations aimed at controlling disease spread. 

“This was probably one of the weakest points during the last pandemic that member states or governing bodies didn’t have the opportunity to have immediate consultations after this PHEIC of the last pandemic was declared,” Austria’s Clemens Martin Auer, who proposed the resolution, told the Executive Board.   

He added that the new committee would also conduct oversight of WHO’s health emergencies program in ordinary times to ensure it is fit to respond. 

“I think the standing committee will be an indispensable part of the new global architecture on health emergency,” he added.  

The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan were among the co-sponsors of the initiative. 

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36 Years Later, ‘Top Gun’ Again Tops North America Box Office

Much-anticipated action film “Top Gun: Maverick” was expected to have a big opening and it did not disappoint, taking in an estimated $151 million in North America for the four-day Memorial Day weekend, industry watcher Exhibitor Relations reported. 

Viewers had to wait 36 years to see the sequel to the original “Top Gun,” but critics say the Paramount/Skydance production was worth the wait, with some calling it superior to the original film. 

“The source material remains strong, the execution is excellent, and Tom Cruise makes it work impeccably well,” said analyst David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research. 

The film — whose release had been delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic — notched $124 million for the first three days of the holiday weekend and took in the same amount overseas, despite not playing in China or Russia. It was Cruise’s first opening to top $100 million. 

He again plays cocky (if grayer) navy test pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, now a captain, as he trains to bomb a rogue nation’s uranium enrichment facility. A strong supporting cast includes Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller and Jon Hamm; original “Top Gun” veteran Val (Iceman) Kilmer appears briefly. 

Slipping a notch to second place was “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which in its fourth weekend took in $16.4 million for the Friday-through-Sunday period and $21.1 million for the full four days. 

The Disney film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, had opened to a year’s best $187 million. 

In third spot was 20th Century’s new “Bob’s Burgers Movie.” The animated film, based on a popular television show, earned $12.6 million for three days and $15 million for four. 

Focus Features’ “Downton Abbey: A New Era” took fourth place, with $5.9 million for three days and $7.5 million for four. Based on the hugely popular British series, it again stars Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery. 

And in fifth was Universal’s family-friendly animation “The Bad Guys,” at $4.6 million for three days and $6.1 million for four. 

Rounding out the top 10 were: 

“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” ($2.5 million for three days; $3.1 million for four) 

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” ($2.5 million; $3.1 million) 

“The Lost City” ($1.8 million; $2.3 million) 

“Men” ($1.2 million; $1.5 million) 

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” ($905,000; $1.1 million) 

 

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Ghanaian Lawmaker Abolishes Medical Exam Fees for Sex Victims

In Ghana, sexual assault victims must show medical reports to prove they have been assaulted before a rape suspect can be prosecuted. These medical examinations come at a relatively high cost, and are not covered by the national health insurance, and so can deter a victim from pressing charges. Now, a lawmaker is seeking to abolish the health exam requirement so that more women are able to pursue justice. Senanu Tord reports from Battor, Ghana.

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WHO: Monkeypox Won’t Turn into Pandemic, But Many Unknowns

The World Health Organization’s top monkeypox expert said she doesn’t expect the hundreds of cases reported to date to turn into another pandemic, but acknowledged there are still many unknowns about the disease, including how exactly it’s spreading and whether the suspension of mass smallpox immunization decades ago may somehow be speeding its transmission.

In a public session on Monday, WHO’s Dr. Rosamund Lewis said it was critical to emphasize that the vast majority of cases being seen in dozens of countries globally are in gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men, so that scientists can further study the issue and for populations at risk to take precautions.

“It’s very important to describe this because it appears to be an increase in a mode of transmission that may have been under-recognized in the past,” said Lewis, WHO’s technical lead on monkeypox.

Still, she warned that anyone is at potential risk of the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation. Other experts have pointed out that it may be accidental that the disease was first picked up in gay and bisexual men, saying it could quickly spill over into other groups if it is not curbed. To date, WHO said 23 countries that haven’t previously had monkeypox have reported more than 250 cases.

Lewis said it’s unknown whether monkeypox is being transmitted by sex or just the close contact between people engaging in sexual activity and described the threat to the general population as “low.”

“It is not yet known whether this virus is exploiting a new mode of transmission, but what is clear is that it continues to exploit its well-known mode of transmission, which is close, physical contact,” Lewis said. Monkeypox is known to spread when there is close physical contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets.

She also warned that among the current cases, there is a higher proportion of people with fewer lesions that are more concentrated in the genital region and sometimes nearly impossible to see.

“You may have these lesions for two to four weeks (and) they may not be visible to others, but you may still be infectious,” she said.

Last week, a top adviser to WHO said the outbreak in Europe, U.S., Israel, Australia and beyond was likely linked to sex at two recent raves in Spain and Belgium. That marks a significant departure from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are mainly infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, and epidemics haven’t spilled across borders.

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body. No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak. 

WHO’s Lewis also said that while previous cases of monkeypox in central and western Africa have been relatively contained, it was not clear if people could spread monkeypox without symptoms or if the disease might be airborne, like measles or COVID-19.

Monkeypox is related to smallpox, but has milder symptoms. After smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, countries suspended their mass immunization programs, a move that some experts believe may be helping monkeypox spread, since there is now little widespread immunity to related diseases; smallpox vaccines are also protective against monkeypox.

Lewis said it would be “unfortunate” if monkeypox were able to “exploit the immunity gap” left by smallpox 40 years ago, saying that there was still a window of opportunity to close down the outbreak so that monkeypox would not become entrenched in new regions.

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Eurovision Winners Auction Trophy for Army

Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, which won the Eurovision this year, has auctioned its trophy for a $900,000 donation to a foundation that helps the Ukrainian army.

The trophy — a large crystal microphone with the song contest’s logo — was put up for auction on Facebook.

The bidding ended Saturday night and was won by WhiteBIT, a Ukrainian bitcoin company. 

“You guys are amazing!” Kalush Orchestra wrote on Facebook late Sunday announcing the winner.

“Special thanks to the WhiteBIT team who bought the trophy for $900,000 and are now the rightful owners.”

The band said that funds raised in auction, which could be entered using cryptocurrencies, will be donated to the Prytula Foundation, which helps the Ukrainian army.

The group Kalush Orchestra won the European contest on May 14 with its song “Stefania” mixing hip-hop and traditional music.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 24, was excluded from the competition.

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Popular Punjabi Rapper Sidhu Moose Wala Shot Dead at 28 

Indian police are investigating the murder of a popular Punjabi rapper who blended hip-hop, rap and folk music, a day after he was fatally shot, officials said Monday. 

Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, also known around the world by his stage name Sidhu Moose Wala, was killed Sunday evening while driving his car in Mansa, a district in northern India’s Punjab state. Moose Wala, 28, was rushed to the hospital where he was declared dead.  

Punjab state’s top police official VK Bhawra said the initial investigation has revealed the killing to be an inter-gang rivalry. 

A day before the attack, the Punjab government had pulled security cover for over 400 individuals, including Moose Wala, in a bid to clamp down on VIP culture, local media reports said. 

Moose Wala started off as a songwriter before a hit song in 2017 catapulted his singing career, making him well known among the Indian and Punjabi diaspora in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. 

Most of his singles have an English title even though the songs were mainly sung in Punjabi. His glossy music videos were most famous for his rap lyrics and often focused on macho culture. His debut album in 2018 made it to Canada’s Billboard Albums chart.     

Moose Wala was a controversial figure, in part due to his lyrical style. In 2020, police charged him under India’s Arms Act for allegedly promoting gun culture in one of his songs. 

His latest track, “The Last Ride,” was released earlier this month. 

The rapper joined India’s Congress Party last year and unsuccessfully ran in the state’s assembly elections. 

Punjab’s chief minister Bhagwant Mann said, “no culprit will be spared” and that he was deeply shocked and saddened by the murder. 

Rahul Gandhi, a senior Congress leader, took to Twitter to express his condolences over the killing.     

“Deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of promising Congress leader and talented artist,” he said.   

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2021 Another Record Year for Meth Seizures in Southeast Asia

Methamphetamine seizures across East and Southeast Asia hit yet another record high in 2021, proof of the “staggering” scale and reach the region’s drug gangs have gained after a decade of steady growth that looks set to continue, the United Nations says in a new report.

In Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Development and Challenges, issued Monday in Bangkok, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says seizures of meth tablets topped 1 billion for the first time last year. While crystal meth, or ice, seizures dipped slightly to 79 metric tons, it says, total meth seizures by weight were a record 171.5 metric tons in 2021, nearly eight times the total seizures a decade ago.

Combined with stable or falling street and wholesale prices across the region, the UNODC says the spiraling drug hauls are evidence of soaring production more than stepped-up law enforcement.

“It is fair to say the region is struggling badly to address meth, and frankly to deal with other synthetic drugs as well,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA.

“There needs to be a radical policy shift and rebalancing if the region wants to get to a point of managing the meth problem or making some headway,” he added.

Border battle

With fewer and fewer busts of meth labs across the region, the UNODC says production continues to concentrate in the notorious Golden Triangle, a rugged and remote domain of warlords, drug gangs and gunrunners where the corners of eastern Myanmar, western Laos and northern Thailand meet.

Within that triangle, it says meth production is concentrating further still in eastern Myanmar, where militias backed by the country’s brutal military and rebel armies set against it vie for territory — and a cut of the drug trade.

Most of the meth made there continues to pour into northern Thailand, from where it cascades across the rest of the country, Southeast Asia and as far away as Australia and Japan.

However, beefed-up security by Thai police along the country’s northern border has been pushing a growing share of the traffic through Laos instead. From there, drug gangs can bypass the north of Thailand and push their product into the country across its less-guarded border in the northeast Isaan region, most of which tracks the Mekong River.

 

Of all the ice and meth tablets interdicted in Thailand’s top 10 provinces for seizures last year, northeast provinces accounted for 49% and 39%, respectively.

 

Lt. Gen. Pornchai Charoenwong, an assistant to the Thai police force’s narcotics suppression division, confirmed the trend.

 

“We can point to a couple of factors,” he told VOA. “First is the increased suppression by the government, police and the military in the northern region. With that increased suppression, we’ve seen a change in trafficking routes from the northern part of Thailand to the Isaan region along the Mekong River.”

 

He said COVID-driven border controls have played a part as well.

 

To help Thai authorities plug the gaps, the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Office has donated some $670,000 worth of equipment to local police in the northeast this year.

 

Mark Snyder, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting head of mission in Thailand, said that represents an increase in U.S. crime-fighting aid to that part of the country, reflecting its growing role in the region’s drug trade.

 

“Thai law enforcement has been doing a lot of work on the northern border,” he said, and “when you have increased law enforcement presence in one area, the criminal organizations will adapt to that.”

 

He declined to say what the equipment consists of. Pornchai said the U.S. donations typically include vehicles, communications gear and drones.

 

From Thailand, much of the meth flows south to, and through, Malaysia, which the UNODC report highlights as an increasingly important springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond for Golden Triangle drug gangs.

 

Laos, Thailand and Malaysia all saw record seizures of meth tablets in 2021.

 

Growth potential

 

The UNODC says the trade is also getting harder to stop, for a few reasons.

 

Most producers “brand” their packages with distinct codes that help the gangs keep track of them down the line. Variations on “999” and “Y1” are the most common, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Last year, though, the share of meth seized from a host of smaller producers using other codes shot up from 2.8% to 13%.

 

Douglas said the “unprecedented” surge in smaller producers, who buy meth powder from larger groups but press the tablets themselves, is likely adding to the overall rise in supply. He said more producers also means more trafficking networks, which means more players for the authorities to try and uncover, infiltrate and stop.

 

Blocking the flow of the chemicals the larger groups use to make their meth is getting tougher too, the U.N. agency says.

 

Seizures of the most common meth precursors, burdened by import and export controls that force drug gangs to get their hands on much of what they need on the black market, have crashed across Southeast Asia in recent years. The UNODC suspects that means the groups have switched to making those precursors themselves from other chemicals, or pre-precursors, that are not controlled.

 

The new report says authorities in the region seized a number of these other chemicals last year and into 2022 either at or on the way to suspected lab sites.

 

Douglas said pre-precursors “make an already complex situation more difficult.”

 

The U.N. and others are working with local authorities to highlight the problem and help them share intelligence on where and when those chemicals are moving, he added, while talks at the global level on controlling their shipment are also underway.

 

The report also notes the spread of meth from Myanmar westward into northern India, Middle Eastern drug gangs now using Malaysia as a steppingstone for amphetamine shipments, and illicit ketamine producers setting up shop in Cambodia.

 

Douglas said Southeast Asia’s drug gangs “have all the ingredients in place that they need to continue to grow,” and will do so unless local authorities themselves adapt.

 

“The scale and reach of the methamphetamine and synthetic drug trade in East and Southeast Asia is staggering,” he said, “and yet it can continue to expand if the region does not change approach and address the root causes that have allowed it to get to this point, including governance in the Golden Triangle and market demand.”

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