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How Brazil gambled on unproven drugs to fight Covid-19

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By Jose Brito and Shasta Darlington
Updated 9:31 PM ET, Sun February 14, 2021

Sao Paulo (CNN) — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has long been a champion of drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to cure Covid-19, despite multiple studies that show that they are not effective. Now, documents show that his government spent emergency funds on the medicines and continued to produce and distribute them at unprecedented rates throughout 2020 while rejecting at least one offer to purchase a vaccine already in the final stage of trials because the terms were “abusive.”

After repeatedly promoting the potential for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to both prevent and mitigate the effects of Covid-19, Bolsonaro himself tested positive last July. “If I had taken hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure, I would still be working,” he said, even though the drug, most commonly used against malaria, had not actually been proven effective against the coronavirus and the World Health Organization (WHO) had discontinued a major trial with hydroxychloroquine.
While in quarantine he posted a video on social media showing him taking what he said was his third dose of hydroxychloroquine.
“I’m feeling really good. I was feeling so-so on Sunday, bad on Monday. Today Tuesday, I’m feeling much better than Saturday, so without a doubt,” he said as he held up a pill and then swallowed it. “It’s working.”
    Just last week, Bolsonaro ​again admitted that he could be proven wrong and that the drug might not have any impact on the coronavirus, but added “at least I didn’t kill anyone. Now, if by chance, it proves to be effective down the road, those of you who criticized, part of the media, you will be held accountable.”
    According to exclusive documents obtained by CNN affiliate CNN Brasil, Bolsonaro was not only talking up the drugs last year, his government was actively using emergency funds designated to combat the Covid-19 pandemic to purchase and distribute them even after they had been shown to be ineffective.
    In May, ​Brazil’s Healthy Ministry officially recommended chloroquine for early treatment of Covid-19, and in June extended the recommendation for children and pregnant women, the same day that the ​US Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and despite mounting evidence that it was not effective at preventing ​or curing Covid-19.
    Two days later​, on June 17, the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases published an open letter saying it was “urgent and necessary” to halt the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of Covid-19. The Health Ministry, however, did not change its recommendations over the following months and doctors reported being pressured to prescribe them. ​
    In September, the Health Ministry’s strategic medicines office confirmed to CNN Brasil that it was in the process of acquiring more chloroquine with resources earmarked for combatting Covid-19 because its stockpile had fallen to 375,500 doses. It did not specify how much it was ordering or how much it would cost.
    “In 2020 the malaria program has seen an increase in the number of cases in Brazil, and as has been announced daily, the number of cases of Covid-19 in Brazil is still high,” the department said in a written response. “Therefore it is expected that the demand from states and municipalities for this medicine will remain high in the second half of 2020.”
    They did not specify what part was used for its malaria program and what part for combatting Covid-19, but according to figures obtained by CNN Brasil, a total of 3.23 million pills were produced by the Brazilian army’s pharmaceutical unit in 2020. That compares with 265,000 pills produced in 2017 and none produced in 2018 or 2019.
    And according to the Health Ministry’s own figures, the number of cases of malaria was 60,713 in the first six months of 2020, 16 percent lower than the first half of 2019.
    Documents obtained by CNN Brasil using Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act show that between the months of April and August, the Health Ministry’s office for the coordination of strategic medicines requested 1.5 million pills of chloroquine be distributed to state health departments by the Army’s pharmaceutical lab.
    According to the documents, the distribution was aimed at “combatting the Covid-19 pandemic” and the pills were distributed based on the number of suspected cases in each state.
    The distributions continued in the second half of the year, even after the FDA had revoked its emergency use authorization and several studies had concluded that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were not effective in the treatment of Covid-19. The Army told CNN Brasil that between September 2020 and January 2021, 420,000 doses were distributed.
    One contract seen by CNN Brasil shows that in September, the army spent $144,000 on raw materials needed to produce chloroquine, paying 167 percent over market value — a purchase that was flagged as suspicious by the Federal General Accounting Office. ​In a statement to CNN, the army said ​that prices had risen because of fluctuations in the exchange rate and an increase in demand internationally.
    In the same month, Brazil received a letter from the Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla urging the country to sign a contract to buy 70 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine ​and offering to meet with the government. Pfizer was already in late stage trials with its vaccine at this time. CNN Brasil first reported on the existence of the letter last month. It was sent to Bolsonaro and several cabinet ministers on Sept. 12, when the death toll in Brazil was already the second-highest in the world at 131,000 and the number of confirmed cases was 4.3 million.
    But negotiations with Pfizer sputtered and did not end in an agreement. News of the letter sparked anger when it emerged last month as the government scrambled to roll out a vaccine program.
    Brazil’s Health Ministry responded to CNN Brasil saying the terms of the offer, which included an agreement not to hold Pfizer responsible for negative side effects, were “abusive.” The ministry said it was also concerned about the small number of doses being offered in the first lot: 500,000, but added that negotiations were still ongoing.
    Pfizer declined to comment.
    When Brazil finally launched its national vaccination program on January 18 after repeated delays, it started with just six million doses for a population of more than 210 million.
    Bolsonaro’s government had bet on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as the centerpiece of its program. But due to delays, they eventually turned to CoronaVac, the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac and tested in Brazil in a partnership with the governor of Sao Paulo state, who also happens to be Bolsonaro’s political nemesis.
    So far, 2.2 percent of the population has received a first dose ​of the two-dose regimen required by both the CoronaVac and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines.
    But even as authorities started to roll out vaccines in January, the government continued to promote chloroquine as a treatment on its apps and in the protocol which had not been updated since it was posted last May and where it was ​characterized as a key component of ‘early treatment.’
    When asked why the ministry was still recommending the drug, Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello told journalists last month ​that he had never recommended a specific drug. “We defend, encourage and orient sick people to immediately go to their health clinic, to a doctor, and the doctor will make a clinical diagnosis of the patient. What medicines the doctor prescribes, that is a private domain with the patient.”
      Bolsonaro appointed Pazuello, an army general, when his second health minister quit after declining to issue federal guidelines for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in the treatment of Covid-19.
      “I was elected to make decisions and the decision about chloroquine goes through me,” Bolsonaro declared last May. The following day, Nelson Teich resigned. His replacement, Pazuello, issued the guidelines.

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      Nigeria crashed aircraft was on rescue mission for kidnapped schoolchildren

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      By Nimi Princewill, CNN
      Updated 10:13 AM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

      Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) — Nigeria’s airforce has said its plane, which crashed shortly after take-off from Abuja airport on Sunday morning — killing everyone on board — was on a mission to rescue the schoolchildren kidnapped last week.

      A spokesman told CNN the aircraft was on surveillance operations in Niger State as part of efforts to rescue at least 42 schoolchildren and staff members taken by gunmen from the Government Science School Kagara last Wednesday. One student died during the attack.
      Air Vice-Marshal Ibikunle Daramola told CNN on Monday afternoon that the air force had donated the military plane to a joint task force coordinating the rescue operation in Kagara.
      “The rescue effort is being coordinated by a multi-agency team… the crashed aircraft was part of the air force’s contribution to the rescue mission,” he added.
        Daramola told CNN that the airforce would continue to support the rescue operation.
          He added that all families of the personnel have been informed, and an investigation launched.
          The ongoing rescue efforts followed a directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the armed forces and police to ensure all captives are rescued.

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          Protests in Haiti as political standoff continues

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          By Caitlin Hu and Etant Dupain, CNN
          Updated 7:44 PM ET, Sun February 21, 2021

          (CNN) — Large crowds of Haitians took to the streets again on Sunday, as a standoff between President Jovenel Moise and the country’s opposition movement stretched into its third week.

          “Those of us fighting, who want another Haiti, a Haiti pearl of the Antilles, say no to the dictatorship,” one protester told Reuters in capital city Port-au-Prince, where Haitian opposition and civil society groups had called the demonstration. Another criticized the United States and international organizations for supporting the President.
          At the heart of protests is a dispute over the President’s term limit: Moise has served only four years of the usual five, and says his term ends in 2022 — a stance backed by the United States, United Nations and Organization of American States.
          Protesters, however, say he should have stepped down February 7, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.
            “We want the international community (to) understand that the Haiti people won’t back down on their demands. Jovenel Moise must leave the national palace for a peaceful transition that can lead us to the elections,” opposition leader André Michel told CNN on Sunday.
            This month’s protests also reflect years of increasing bitterness in Haiti over the country’s economic pain and violent crime. Killings and a wave of hundreds of kidnappings in particular have driven public outrage, according to a recent United Nations report, which recorded a monthly average of 84 demonstrations in the second half of 2020.
            Moise has blamed his administration’s poor record in dealing with such fundamental issues on the country’s system of governance, and on complications and lack of clarity in the constitution itself. “Since the beginning of my term, the country has never known stability,” he acknowledged in a February 12 tweet.
            With an eye toward empowering the office of the president for the future, he has vowed to hold a referendum on changes to the constitution in April. This will be his legacy project, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told CNN.
            However, critics are skeptical of the legitimacy of any constitutional changes made in the current political climate and without institutional checks and balances in place. General elections are expected to follow in the fall.
              In a speech last Sunday, amid celebrations for Carnival, which he celebrated with large crowds of supporters and revelers, Moise expressed his determination to see the country through another year.
              “Haiti is for me, for my kids, for the people here dancing. The people who don’t want me to do the people’s work will stop, or I will make them stop. I was elected to do a job, and I will do it,” he said.

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              Oil spill leads Israel to close beaches as it faces ‘severe ecological disaster’

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              By Sharif Paget
              Updated 1:41 PM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

              (CNN) — Israeli authorities are trying to locate the source of a suspected oil spill that has been described as one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit the country, threatening wildlife, forcing beaches to close and prompting a mass cleanup.

              Blobs of sticky tar started washing up on the country’s Mediterranean shores last week. Images posted on official government accounts showed sea birds and turtles covered in tar and sticky oil.
              “The enormous amounts of tar emitted in recent days to the shores of Israel from south to north caused one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel,” the country’s Nature and Parks Authority said Sunday.
              The extent of the pollution is so bad, Israel’s Ministry of Interior issued an advisory Sunday urging people to stay away from the country’s beaches.
                A massive cleanup is underway but the Nature and Parks Authority said it would take a long time to make the marine area safe again. It has established a registration and information center for volunteers who wish to help.
                “I was very impressed by the exemplary voluntarism of the citizens who came to clean up the beaches. We must maintain our beaches, our country and the environment,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office.
                “I have just spoken with the Egyptian Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister who has come to us, and we proposed that every ship that you see here be powered by natural gas instead of polluting fuel, as happened here,” he continued.
                Gamliel said it was their “moral obligation to the public is to locate those responsible for the event,” according to the statement.
                  “We have the possibility of suing the insurance company of the ship that is responsible for the pollution and we will do everything to locate it,” she said.
                  In a separate statement posted to her Twitter account, Gamliel said, “We are making every effort to find those responsible for the disaster, and we will bring to the government’s approval tomorrow a proposal for resolutions to rehabilitate the environment.”

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                  Seven dead in Nigerian military plane crash

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                  Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) Seven people were killed when a Nigerian military plane crashed on approach to Abuja airport on Sunday, a spokesman for Nigeria’s Air Force said.

                  “All 7 personnel on board died in the crash,” Air Vice Marshal Ibikunle Daramola said on Twitter.
                  He added that the Chief of the Air Staff has ordered an immediate investigation into the incident.
                  “A military aircraft King Air 350 has just crashed short of our Abuja runway after reporting engine failure enroute [to] Minna. It appears to be fatal,” said the country’s aviation minister, Hadi Sirika, confirming the incident in a statement.
                   

                  AIRCRAFT ACCIDENT

                  This is to confirm that a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Beechcraft KingAir B350i aircraft crashed while returning to the Abuja Airport after reporting engine failure enroute Minna. First responders are at the scene. Sadly, all 7 personnel on board died in the crash

                  — Air Vice Marshal Ibikunle Daramola (@KunleDaramola3) February 21, 2021

                   
                  In a follow-up communication Sunday afternoon, a spokesman at the Ministry of Aviation, James Odaudu, said the “aircraft reported engine failure at time 10:39 and crashed landed on the final approach path of Abuja Runway 22 at time 10:48UTC.”
                  Odaudu said fire fighters have been deployed to the scene to put out a raging blaze that had engulfed the airplane.
                  An aviation worker who asked not to be named — citing lack of official clearance to talk to the press — told CNN that he witnessed the crash.
                  “The crash occurred not very far from the runway. The pilot had tried returning to the runway after taking off,” he said.
                  The worker said the pilot swerved the plane to its crash site which is in a desolate area. He said the aircraft narrowly avoided warehouses and makeshift settlements around the Nnamdi Azikwe International airport.

                   

                   
                   
                   
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                  Why Britain’s anti-immigration politicians are opening the doors to thousands of Hong Kongers

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                  By Tara John, CNN
                  Updated 7:29 PM ET, Sat February 20, 2021

                  (CNN) — Eighteen months ago, Malcolm was at the vanguard of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

                  Full of bravado and often clad in black, the 21-year-old oversaw a group of 60 combative front-liners who embraced confrontational tactics against the police while demanding greater democracy in the former British colony.
                  Today, he is applying for asylum in the United Kingdom, and separated from his family in Hong Kong where he feels he can longer visit. Malcom believes if he returns to the Chinese city he could be arrested under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last June, which scaled up penalties against dissent to include punishments as severe as life imprisonment.
                  Since then, nearly 100 activists have been arrested under the new law. When Hong Kong police apprehended a protester friend of Malcolm’s in October, he booked a red-eye flight to London. Malcolm asked CNN not to use his real name, for fear that his family — who remain in Hong Kong — could face repercussions.
                    The British government has called the security law a clear violation of the “one country, two systems” policy meant to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing until 2047. In its wake, the UK has opened a six-year pathway to British citizenship for holders of British National (Overseas) passports (BN(O)), a special visa category created for Hong Kong nationals before the 1997 transfer of power.
                    Sze has settled into London life: She already has strong opinions on the snail’s pace of London buses and is counting the days to when lockdown ends and she can go shopping on Oxford Street.
                    While it can be hard to find the authentic Cantonese cuisine she grew up eating in Hong Kong, Sze marvels at how much cheaper food is at British supermarkets.
                    “The food quality is better, the price is cheaper and the rent is cheaper,” she told CNN.
                    Sze cannot get a job until her BN(O) visa is approved, but she is optimistic that the UK’s coronavirus-induced economic slump will not get in the way of her finding work. “I am open to any [job] option — it really depends on how much savings I have,” she said.
                      But her biggest concern is the fate of fellow dissidents going through the asylum process, and whether her compatriots who move to the UK will give up the fight for independence back home.
                      “Hong Kongers should never give up, no matter if they’ve left Hong Kong or not,” she said.

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