North Korea Reports More Fevers as Kim Claims Virus Progress

North Korea said Saturday it found nearly 220,000 more people with feverish symptoms even as leader Kim Jong Un claimed progress in slowing a largely undiagnosed spread of COVID-19 across an unvaccinated population of 26 million.

The outbreak has caused concern about serious tragedies in the poor, isolated country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and a high tolerance for civilian suffering. Experts say North Korea is almost certainly downplaying the true scale of the viral spread, including a strangely small death toll, to soften the political blow on Kim as he navigates the toughest moment in his decade of rule.

Around 219,030 North Koreans with fevers were identified in the 24 hours through 6 p.m. Friday, the fifth straight daily increase of around 200,000, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency, which attributed the information to the government’s anti-virus headquarters.

North Korea said more than 2.4 million people have fallen ill and 66 people have died since an unidentified fever began quickly spreading in late April, although the country has only been able to identify a handful of those cases as COVID-19 due to a lack of testing supplies. After maintaining a dubious claim for 2 1/2 years that it had perfectly blocked the virus from entering its territory, the North admitted to omicron infections last week.

Amid a paucity of public health tools, the North has mobilized more than a million health workers to find people with fevers and isolate them at quarantine facilities. Kim also imposed strict restrictions on travel between cities and towns and mobilized thousands of troops to help with the transport of medicine to pharmacies in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, which has been the center of the outbreak.

During a ruling party Politburo meeting on Saturday, Kim insisted the country was starting to bring the outbreak under control and called for tightened vigilance to maintain the “affirmative trend” in the anti-virus campaign, KCNA said. But Kim also seemed to hint at relaxing his pandemic response to ease his economic woes, instructing officials to actively modify the country’s preventive measures based on the changing virus situation and to come up with various plans to revitalize the national economy.

KCNA said Politburo members debated ways for “more effectively engineering and executing” the government’s anti-virus policy in accordance with how the spread of the virus was being “stably controlled and abated,” but the report did not specify what was discussed.

Even while imposing what state media described as “maximum” preventive measures, Kim has stressed that his economic goals still should be met, and state media have described large groups of workers continuing to gather at farms, mining facilities, power stations and construction sites.

Experts say Kim can’t afford to bring the country to a standstill that would unleash further shock on a fragile economy, strained by decades of mismanagement, crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear weapons ambitions and pandemic border closures.

State media have portrayed an urgent push for agricultural campaigns aimed at protecting crops amid an ongoing drought, a worrisome development in a country that has long suffered from food insecurity, and for completing large-scale housing and other construction projects Kim sees as crucial to his rule.

The virus hasn’t stopped Kim from holding and attending important public events for his leadership. State media showed him weeping during Saturday’s state funeral for top North Korean military official Hyon Chol Hae, who is believed to have been involved in grooming Kim as a future leader during the rule of his father, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea’s optimistic description of its pandemic response starkly contrasts with outside concerns about dire consequences, including deaths that may reach tens of thousands. The worries have grown as the country apparently tries to manage the crisis in isolation while ignoring help from South Korea and the United States. South Korea’s government has said it couldn’t confirm reports that North Korea had flown aircraft to bring back emergency supplies from ally China this week.

The North in recent years has shunned millions of vaccine doses offered by the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program, possibly because of international monitoring requirements attached to those shots. The WHO and UNICEF have said North Korea so far has been unresponsive to their requests for virus data or proposals for help, and some experts say the North may be willing to accept a certain level of fatalities to gain immunity through infection.

It’s possible at least some of North Korea’s fever caseload are from non-COVID-19 illnesses such as water-borne diseases, which according to South Korean intelligence officials have become a growing problem for the North in recent years amid shortages in medical supplies.

But experts say the explosive pace of spread and North Korea’s lack of a testing regime to detect large numbers of virus carriers in early stages of infection suggest the country’s COVID-19 crisis is likely worse than what its fever numbers represent. They say the country’s real virus fatalities would be significantly larger than the official numbers and that deaths will further surge in coming weeks considering the intervals between infections and deaths.

North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak came amid a provocative run of weapons tests, including the country’s first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, as Kim pushes a brinkmanship aimed at pressuring the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

The challenges posed by a decaying economy and the COVID-19 outbreak are unlikely to slow his pressure campaign. U.S. and South Korean officials have said there’s a possibility the North conducts another ballistic missile test or nuclear explosive test during or around President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan this week.

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled for more than three years over disagreements over how to relax crippling U.S.-led sanctions in exchange for disarmament steps by the North.

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US Senate Race too Close to Call; Recount Likely

Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat is too close to Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat is too close to call and is likely headed for a statewide recount to decide the winner of the contest between heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick.

A recount would mean that the outcome of the race might not be known until June 8, the deadline for counties to report their results to the state.

Oz, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, led McCormick by 1,079 votes, or 0.08 percentage points, out of 1,340,248 ballots counted as of 5 p.m. Friday. The race is close enough to trigger Pennsylvania’s automatic recount law, with the separation between the candidates inside the law’s 0.5% margin. The Associated Press will not declare a winner in the race until the likely recount is complete.

Both campaigns have hired Washington-based lawyers to lead their recount efforts, and both have hired Philadelphia-based campaign strategists who helped lead the operation to observe vote-counting on Election Day for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2020.

The two campaigns had dozens of lawyers and volunteers fanned out around the presidential battleground state as election workers and election boards toiled through the remaining ballots.

The big field of Republican candidates and their super PACs reported spending more than $70 million during the primary campaign. The winner will face Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in November’s midterm elections in what Democrats see as their best opportunity to pick up a seat in the closely divided Senate.

Fetterman won the Democratic nomination while in the hospital recovering from a stroke four days before the election. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, is retiring after serving two terms.

Trump’s clout is again on the line, as he looked for a third straight win in Republican Senate primaries after “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance prevailed in Ohio earlier this month and U.S. Rep. Ted Budd easily scored a victory in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Oz’s campaign manager declined to comment Friday evening. McCormick’s campaign said it has no plans to decline a recount.

As of yet, neither campaign has gone to court, and both candidates have expressed confidence in victory.

 

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Musk Visits Brazil’s Bolsonaro to Discuss Amazon Rainforest Plans 

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk met with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday to discuss connectivity and other projects in the Amazon rainforest. 

The meeting, held in a luxurious resort in Sao Paulo state, was organized by Communications Minister Fabio Faria, who has said he is seeking partnerships with the world’s richest man to bring or improve internet in schools and health facilities in rural areas using technology developed by SpaceX and Starlink, and also to preserve the rainforest. 

“Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon,” Musk tweeted Friday morning. 

Illegal activities in the vast Amazon rainforest are monitored by several institutions, such as the national space agency, federal police and environmental regulator Ibama. 

But deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has surged under Bolsonaro, reaching its highest annual rate in more than a decade, according to official data from the national space agency. Bolsonaro’s critics say he is largely to blame, having emboldened loggers and land grabbers with his fervent support for development of the region. 

During the event, Bolsonaro said the region was “really important” to Brazil. 

“We count on Elon Musk so that the Amazon is known by everyone in Brazil and in the world, to show the exuberance of this region, how we are preserving it, and how much harm those who spread lies about this region are doing to us,” he said. 

Bolsonaro and Musk appeared in a video transmitted live on the president’s Facebook account, standing together on a stage and answering questions from a group of students. 

“A lot can be done to improve quality of life through technology,” Musk told the crowd. 

Although none of the students asked about Musk’s prospective purchase of Twitter, Bolsonaro said that it represented a “breath of hope.” 

“Freedom is the cement for the future,” he said, calling the billionaire a “legend of freedom.” 

Musk has offered to buy Twitter for $44 billion, but said this week the deal can’t go forward until the company provides information about how many accounts on the platform are spam or bots. 

Like Musk, Bolsonaro has sought to position himself as a champion of free speech and has opposed the deplatforming of individuals including his ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump. 

The meeting with Bolsonaro occurs just five months before the far-right leader will seek a second term in a hotly anticipated election.

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African Scientists Baffled by Monkeypox Cases in Europe, US 

Scientists who have monitored numerous outbreaks of monkeypox in Africa say they are baffled by the disease’s recent spread in Europe and North America. 

Cases of the smallpox-related disease have previously been seen only among people with links to central and West Africa. But in the past week, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, U.S., Sweden and Canada all reported infections, mostly in young men who hadn’t previously traveled to Africa. 

France, Germany, Belgium and Australia confirmed their first cases Friday. 

“I’m stunned by this. Every day I wake up and there are more countries infected,” said Oyewale Tomori, a virologist who formerly headed the Nigerian Academy of Science and who sits on several World Health Organization advisory boards. 

“This is not the kind of spread we’ve seen in West Africa, so there may be something new happening in the West,” he said. 

To date, no one has died in the outbreak. Monkeypox typically causes fever, chills, a rash and lesions on the face, hands or genitals. WHO estimates the disease is fatal for up to 1 in 10 people, but smallpox vaccines are protective, and some antiviral drugs are being developed. 

British health officials are exploring whether the disease is being sexually transmitted. Health officials have asked doctors and nurses to be on alert for potential cases but said the risk to the general population is low. The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all suspected cases be isolated and that high-risk contacts be offered smallpox vaccine. 

Nigeria reports about 3,000 monkeypox cases a year, WHO said. Outbreaks are usually in rural areas, when people have close contact with infected rats and squirrels, Tomori said. He said many cases are likely missed. 

Dr. Ifedayo Adetifa, head of the country’s Center for Disease Control, said none of the Nigerian contacts of the British patients have developed symptoms and that investigations were ongoing. 

WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, described the outbreak as “atypical,” saying the appearance of the disease in so many countries across the continent suggested that “transmission has been ongoing for some time.” He said most of the European cases are mild. 

On Friday, Britain’s Health Security Agency reported 11 new monkeypox cases, saying that “a notable proportion” of the most recent infections in the U.K. and Europe have been in young men with no history of travel to Africa who had sex with men. Authorities in Spain and Portugal said their cases were the same. 

Experts have stressed they do not know if the disease is being spread through sex or other close contact related to sex. 

Nigeria hasn’t seen sexual transmission, Tomori said, but he noted that viruses that hadn’t initially been known to transmit via sex, like Ebola, were later proven to do so after bigger epidemics showed different patterns of spread. 

The same could be true of monkeypox, Tomori said. 

In Germany, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said the government was confident the outbreak could be contained. He said the virus was being sequenced to see if there were any genetic changes that might have made it more infectious. 

Rolf Gustafson, an infectious diseases professor, told Swedish broadcaster SVT that it was “very difficult” to imagine the situation might worsen. 

“We will certainly find some further cases in Sweden, but I do not think there will be an epidemic in any way,” Gustafson said. “There is nothing to suggest that at present.” 

Scientists said that while it’s possible the outbreak’s first patient caught the disease while in Africa, what’s happening now is exceptional. 

“We’ve never seen anything like what’s happening in Europe,” said Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases. “We haven’t seen anything to say that the transmission patterns of monkeypox have been changing in Africa. So, if something different is happening in Europe, then Europe needs to investigate that.” 

Happi also pointed out that the suspension of smallpox vaccination campaigns after the disease was eradicated in 1980 might inadvertently be helping monkeypox spread. Smallpox vaccines also protect against monkeypox, but mass immunization was stopped decades ago. 

“Aside from people in west and Central Africa who may have some immunity to monkeypox from past exposure, not having any smallpox vaccination means nobody has any kind of immunity to monkeypox,” Happi said. 

Shabir Mahdi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said a detailed investigation of the outbreak in Europe, including determining who the first patients were, was now critical. 

“We need to really understand how this first started and why the virus is now gaining traction,” he said. “In Africa, there have been very controlled and infrequent outbreaks of monkeypox. If that’s now changing, we really need to understand why.” 

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Scanning the Corpse’s Face: Ukrainians Using Facial Recognition Technology to Identify Russian Soldiers

The Ukrainian government is using facial recognition software to identify Russian soldiers captured and dead. VOA’s Julie Taboh spoke with one software company CEO and an official with the Ukrainian national police about how the technology is contributing to the war effort

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In Paris, Green Forum Traces More Durable Footprint for the Planet

People suffering from eco-anxiety — the fear of environmental catastrophe — may get a boost from a green forum in Paris this week. Gathering hundreds of eco-entrepreneurs, companies and activists, ChangeNOW aims to trace a sustainable blueprint for the future.

From food to fashion, technology to transport, a raft of green solutions for our resource-sucking society is parked through Saturday inside a massive events venue — made of sustainable materials — in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

“It’s 35 days to reach Madagascar from Marseille. Going through the Suez Canal. And we are using the wind. It helps us to save up to 60 percent energy,” says Louise Chopinet who heads a Brittany-based shipping startup called Windcoop. Its wind-powered sailing vessels carry about 14,000 tons of cargo per trip. For now, that means spices from Madagascar farmers. With the shipping industry challenged to become carbon neutral by 2050, sailing is taking off.

“It’s really a growing interest now. Everyone is getting into sails and wind,” she noted.

Berlin-based Noa Climate also works in Africa. It sells systems that recycle organic waste into energy in places far from power grids. Noa’s Janine Gadke says the company works with financial partners so poor communities can buy products on credit.

“In Kenya, we have a project in an orphanage, they have a system on location … they can get electricity and everything. And they feed the system with kitchen waste,” Gadke expressed.

ChangeNOW is considered one of the biggest global green events of the year. This 5th edition includes CEOs and celebrity activists, like British primatologist Jane Goodall.

Being Paris, representatives of a greening fashion industry are also here, like luxury group LVMH. Also companies pitching natural textiles like silk, cotton, hemp and mohair.

“We can feel a boom in terms of demand,” says Eva Pujol who works for British textile nonprofit The Sustainable Angle; adding that “more and more people are coming and we have brands asking more and more about sustainable material … I think the pressure mostly comes from customers to buy better.”

The forum offers a bicycle parking lot, recyclable waste containers, and a stand cooking up veggie burgers. Those who couldn’t find climate-friendly transport to get here can make a contribution to offset their carbon emissions.

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