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WHO Recommends Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine for 5-11-Year-olds

A World Health Organization ((WHO)) advisory panel Friday recommended extending the use of a smaller dose of the Pfizer – BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 5 to 11.

The recommendation follows a meeting this week by the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts ((SAGE)) on immunization to evaluate the company’s vaccine. The WHO had previously recommended the vaccine for use in people ages 12 years and older.

During a virtual briefing Friday, SAGE Chairman Alejandro Cravioto told reporters the committee said the 5-11 age group should be a low priority for vaccination except for those children with underlying medical conditions who are in the high priority group.

The recommended dosage for the younger population is 10 micrograms instead of 30 micrograms.

Cravioto said the panel is also recommending that booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine should be administered to adults 4 to 6 months after receiving an original series of shots. He said older adults along with health and other front-line workers should be prioritized for the boosters.

U.S. and European health and drug regulators approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for young children and for boosters late last year.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters. 


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White House Says COVID-19 Tests Being Shipped 

The White House says some of the at-home, free COVID-19 tests it is offering to Americans have begun shipping via the U.S. Postal Service. 

During a Friday press briefing, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said shipping started Thursday. 

He said demand has been high and added that there had already been millions of orders through the government website that was launched earlier this week. 

He would not provide specific numbers when asked, saying the White House was waiting on data. 

Americans are allowed to order four of the tests per household.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for a lack of tests during the omicron surge. 

During the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days. 

She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections. 

“In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline,” she said. “The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and (we) may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Louie Anderson, Comic, Emmy Winner for ‘Baskets,’ Dies at 68

Louie Anderson, whose four-decade career as a comedian and actor included his unlikely, Emmy-winning performance as mom to twin adult sons in the TV series “Baskets,” died Friday. He was 68.

Anderson died at a hospital in Las Vegas of complications from cancer, said Glenn Schwartz, his longtime publicist. Anderson had a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Schwartz said previously.

“‘Baskets’ was such a phenomenal ‘second act’ for Louie Anderson. I wish he’d gotten a third,” Michael McKean said on Twitter. George Wallace wrote: “You’ll be missed, Louie. What an awesome friend. One in a million.” Gilbert Gottfried posted a photo of himself, Anderson and Bob Saget, who died Jan. 9, with the caption: “Both good friends that will be missed.”

“You were as gracious and kind as you were funny. Rest well!! Keep ’em laughing in Heaven,” Viola Davis said on Twitter.

The portly, round-faced Anderson used his girth and a checkered childhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as fodder for his early stand-up routines.

In a 1987 interview with The Associated Press, Anderson compared himself to another comedian who mined his childhood for comedy.

“Bill Cosby and I had similar goals,” Anderson told AP. “I wanted parents to be able to bring their children and children to be able to bring their parents to my concerts. I feel a family that can laugh about family problems is better off. The difference between Cosby and myself is that he sees it from an adult perspective and I tell it from a child’s viewpoint.”

He had a life-long battle with weight, but said in 1987 that he’d put a stop to using his size as stage material.

“I’ve always been big,” he said. “But I don’t do fat jokes anymore.”

In later years, his life as one of 11 children in a family headed by a troubled father and devoted mother was a deeper source of reflection and inspiration for Anderson, both in his screen work and in his best-selling books.

His latest book, 2018’s “Hey Mom,” was a tribute in letters to the lessons he learned from her and how-to tips on facing life’s challenges. He also gave the late Ora Zella Anderson a shout-out for the “Baskets” role.

“I just started writing with one letter, saying, ‘Hey Mom, I’m playing you on TV. I hope you see it. I hope you’re a part of it…” Anderson told AP that year.

He won the best supporting actor Emmy in 2016 for his portrayal of Christine Baskets, mother to twins played by Zach Galifianakis, in FX’s “Baskets.” Anderson, who received three consecutive Emmy nods for the role, played it with restraint and with specific touches he credits to his mom.

“Nuance is what I go for, tiny rather than bigger things. Mom did things with her eyes or her grimace or her disappointed lips — or her passive-aggressiveness,” he told the AP in 2015, laughing. “Rolling eyes were big in our family.”

Anderson, born March 24, 1953, was the 10th of 11 children for Ora and William Anderson. His father played trumpet with musical great Hoagy Carmichael and, Anderson has said, was an alcoholic.

After his father’s death, Anderson learned of how difficult his childhood had been and forgave him, he told People magazine in 2018.

Louie Anderson’s early jobs included counseling troubled children. He changed course after winning a 1981 Midwest comedy competition, where he was spotted by veteran comic Henny Youngman, who hosted contest, according to Schwartz.

Anderson worked as a writer for Youngman and then gained onstage experience while crisscrossing the United States. His big break came in 1984 when Johnny Carson, known for showcasing promising comedians on “The Tonight Show,” brought him on to perform.

He was a familiar face elsewhere on TV, including as host of a revival of the game show “Family Feud” from 1999 to 2002, and on comedy specials and in frequent late-night talk show appearances.

Anderson voiced an animated version of himself as a kid in “Life With Louie.” He created the Humanitas Prize-winning cartoon series, which first aired in prime time in late 1994 before moving to Saturday morning for its 1995-98 run. Anderson won two Daytime Emmy Awards for the role.

He made guest appearances in several TV series, including “Scrubs” and “Touched by an Angel,” and was on the big screen in 1988′s “Coming to America” and in last year’s sequel to the Eddie Murphy comedy.

In a magazine interview, Anderson recounted getting the role after he spotted Murphy, who he knew from working in comedy clubs, at a Los Angeles restaurant. Anderson said hello, then made a costly decision that paid off.

″Take Eddie Murphy’s check and put it on my credit card, but don’t tell him until after I leave,″ Anderson recalled telling a waiter. He ended up with a $600 charge, but Murphy called to thank him and offered to write a part for him in “Coming to America,” Anderson said.

His books included “Dear Dad – Letters From An Adult Child, ” a collection of letters from Anderson to his late father; “Good-bye Jumbo… Hello Cruel World,” a self-help book, and “The F Word, How To Survive Your Family.”

His survivors include sisters Lisa and Shanna Anderson.

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Norway to Host Talks with Taliban on Afghan Aid and Human Rights

Norway said Friday that Taliban delegates, Afghan civil society representatives and officials from “a number of allied countries” will gather in Oslo next week for three days of talks on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and human rights.

Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi will lead the Taliban team at the dialogue starting Sunday, his office in Kabul said.

“They are scheduled to hold meetings and discussions on various issues with American diplomats, European Union delegates, and a number of Afghan personalities,” said Bilal Karimi, a Taliban spokesman.

Officials from Britain, France, Germany and Italy are reportedly among the participants. 

The Norwegian Foreign Ministry quoted Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt as stressing the meetings Oslo is hosting will “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

However, she emphasized the need for engaging with the “de facto authorities” in Afghanistan in order to help the civilian population there.

“We are extremely concerned about the grave situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said. “We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster.”

“We will be clear about our expectations of the Taliban, particularly as regards girls’ education and human rights, such as women’s right to participate in society,” Norway’s foreign minister stressed. 

The Taliban military regained power in Afghanistan last August as the Western-backed government collapsed and all remaining U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country later that month after 20 years.

The change in power immediately halted international assistance for aid-dependent Afghanistan and the United States blocked the Taliban’s access to roughly $9.5 billion in foreign assets — largely held in the U.S. Federal Reserve — in addition to imposing financial sanctions on Kabul.  

International donors have urged the Taliban to form an inclusive government and respect the rights of women as a condition for the release of more aid, which the group has not done.

The punitive actions have plunged the fragile Afghan economy into an unprecedented crisis, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis in the country. The United Nations says it needs $5 billion this year to bring urgent relief to an estimated 24 million people experiencing acute food insecurity, with 9 million of them threatened with famine. 

“Humanitarian assistance, while essential, is not enough. We must prevent a collapse in basic services such as health and education. We must support the livelihoods of families and communities,” Huitfeldt said. 

The International Labor Organization reported this week that 500,000 jobs have been lost in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, saying the number could go to as high as 900,000 by the middle of this year because of the economic upheaval. 

Critics say despite pledging not to re-introduce harsh Islamic polices of their previous regime in Kabul, the Taliban rulers are cracking down on human rights, particularly those of women. 

Most female government employees have been prevented from returning to their jobs and most secondary schools for girls remained shuttered across Afghanistan. 

Taliban officials maintain they recognize women’s rights to education and work within Sharia or Islamic law but they need funds to pay salaries to teachers and organize a safe environment for female students. The Taliban have pledged to allow all girls to return to schools in March, when the new education year begins in Afghanistan.

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TotalEnergies to Leave Myanmar Over Human Rights Abuses

French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over “worsening” human rights abuses committed since the country’s military took power in a February 2021 coup.

“The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar… has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country,” the company said.

Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period.

The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon’s electricity supply, according to Total.

International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar’s military junta since last year’s coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country.

Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges. 


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Taliban Rebuke Biden for Questioning Afghan Unity, Governance

The Taliban Friday sharply criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for declaring Afghanistan “not susceptible to unity,” and questioning the competence of the Islamist group’s ability to govern, asserting the humanitarian and economic crisis in their country had been precipitated by the U.S. sanctions.

Speaking to reporters during his Wednesday news conference at the White House, Biden said he makes “no apologies” for his August withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity,” he said.  

Biden argued that Washington was spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan for 20 years and nobody thought U.S. involvement would ever be able to unite Afghanistan.

“Not divided, but only ‘united’ nations cause the fall of invaders and great empires,” the Taliban foreign ministry responded Friday.

“Discord is an external phenomenon instigated by foreign invaders for their survival, however, Afghans defeated them with their shared Islamic beliefs, homeland & celebrated history, & are now taking strong leaps towards becoming an equal nation,” the statement read.  

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations, told VOA he concurs with Biden’s view of Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires. However, the rest of the assertions made by the U.S. president are distant from the ground reality, he said.

“Afghanistan has always been and is united. Afghans across the country speak with one voice when it comes to supporting national interests and national unity,” Shaheen argued.  

Biden expressed regret, however, for changes that have taken place in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover five months ago.

“Now, do I feel badly [about] what’s happening as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do,” the U.S. president said on Wednesday.

Michael Kugelman, the deputy Asia program director at the Wilson Center, described Biden’s comments about Afghanistan as “both defensive and defiant, and clearly meant to emphasize that withdrawal was the right decision despite how bad conditions have become in Afghanistan since the completion of the pullout.”   

“What was striking is that the reasons he gave for the withdrawal were different from those – a need to focus on higher priority issues, the achievement of U.S. goals – that he cited when he first announced his decision to depart [Afghanistan],” Kugelman said.

Shaheen said the current economic crisis and other upheavals facing Afghanistan stem not from the Taliban’s governance but from the financial sanctions the United States and other foreign entities have imposed, including the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank’s assets.

The international withdrawal led to the immediate suspension of the nonhumanitarian funding that made up more than 75% of the deposed Western-backed Afghan government’s national budget.

“The sanctions are hurting ordinary Afghans not our government. Today, if they release our more than $9.6 billion assets, if they lift the sanctions on our banking system to allow our traders to use routine financial channels for imports and exports, and money starts flowing the way it happens in America, it will pave the way for our economic recovery,” Shaheen said.

“If those sanctions are removed and the crisis still persists, it will certainly be our incompetence and inability to govern,” he added.

Since returning to power, the Taliban have reinstated social restrictions on women, barring most female government employees from returning to work, requiring women to wear hijabs and undertake long road trips only with a male relative. While secondary schoolboys were allowed to resume classes in September, most girls’ schools across Afghanistan remained shuttered.

Shaheen defended the Taliban government, saying it has brought peace and stability to the country in a short period and with limited resources.

The economic challenges have deepened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which is blamed on years of conflicts and natural disasters. The United Nations estimates more than 24 million Afghans, or 55% of the country’s population, face acute food shortages, with 9 million people one step away from famine.

Former Afghan diplomat Omar Samad viewed Biden’s assessment of Afghanistan as flawed because of his misreading of the ground situation and competing U.S. domestic and foreign policy agendas.

“The reality is that the U.S. is still responsible for the unfolding humanitarian disaster and needs to do its part to prevent chaos and instability by pushing for a new political arrangement and lifting of sanctions,” Samad, a senior fellow at Washington’s Atlantic Counci, said.

The U.N.  and the United States have pledged to organize, together with partners, the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who aid workers say are threatened with starvation.  

“We see assignment of blame between President Biden and Taliban. Clearly that is rhetorical talk for the political needs of each side,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official.

“But in all honesty, the people of Afghanistan didn’t have a say in these political games; why would they have to pay the heavy price of crippling sanctions on their livelihoods,” asked Farhadi.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Foreign governments have pledged to send urgent relief aid to Afghans but at the same time they want to make sure it does not end up with the Taliban rulers.

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Biden-Kishida Talks to Touch on North Korea, China

President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began their first formal talks on Friday as they face fresh concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s growing military assertiveness.

The virtual meeting comes after North Korea earlier this week suggested it might resume nuclear and long-range missile testing that has been paused for more than three years.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Thursday presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party at which officials set policy goals for “immediately bolstering” military capabilities to counter what were described as the Americans’ “hostile moves,” according to the Korean Central News Agency.

Both the U.S. and Japan also are concerned about China’s increasing aggression toward Taiwan. China claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. In recent months, it has stepped up military exercises near the island, frequently sending warplanes near Taiwan’s airspace.

Japan remains concerned about China intentions in the South China Sea, where it has stepped up its military presence in recent years, and the East China Sea, where there is a long-running dispute about a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

White House officials said the two leaders were also expected to discuss ongoing efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic and the brewing crisis in eastern Europe, where Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Biden earlier this week said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to order a further invasion of Ukrainian territory but he did not think Putin wanted an all-out war.

Japanese officials said Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of the World War II, is eager to discuss a “world without nuclear weapons” during the summit.

Biden and top aides have sought to rally the support of NATO partners and other allies to respond with harsh sanctions against Russia if it moves forward with military action.

On Thursday, in preparation for the leaders’ call, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart, Takeo Akiba, held their own call to discuss North Korea, China and “the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack” on Ukraine, according to the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also held virtual talks earlier this month with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, where China’s military maneuvering and North Korea’s nuclear program were discussed.

Friday’s virtual meeting is the first substantial exchange between the leaders since Kishida took office in October. The leaders had a brief conversation on the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow in November. Biden was the first leader to call Kishida, on the morning of his first full day in office.

Biden, who has sought to put greater focus on the Indo-Pacific amid China’s rise as a world power, had built a warm relationship with Japan’s last prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and is hoping to build a similar rapport with Kishida.

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Кулеба про переговори в Женеві: Лавров працює за методичкою Кремля

Голова МЗС України вкотре наголосив, що Україна не планує жодних наступальних операцій «ані на Донбасі, ані на території Росії, ані будь-де»

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