Category Archive : Europe

Russia says it’s willing to freeze nuclear arsenal to extend arms treaty with US


“Russia proposes to extend the New START Treaty by one year and is ready, together with the United States, to make a political commitment to ‘freeze’ the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties for this period,” the statement said. 

“This can be implemented strictly and exclusively if there is understanding that the ‘freezing’ of warheads will not be accompanied by any additional demands from the United States,” it said, in reference to the US’ rejection of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer last week to extend the deal for a year without any preconditions.

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: “We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control.”

“The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same,” Ortagus added in a statement.

The landmark New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, set to expire on February 5, is the last treaty between the US and Russia placing limits on the growth of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals since the US formally withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty in August 2019.

The US has previously offered Russia an option to sign a presidential memorandum that would serve as a blueprint for the next comprehensive deal and that would address points of concern for the US, including China’s nuclear potential and Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons. China refused to partake in any discussions.

In August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia respected that stance and that he refused to “persuade” China to sit down at the negotiation table. Russia has now also rejected a number of US proposals to get it to agree to a series of additional commitments in order to renew the deal.

An election-timed agreement?

US President Donald Trump has been urging his national security team to secure a nuclear deal with Russia before the November election, sources familiar with the efforts told CNN.

Trump’s arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea previously told Russian newspaper Kommersant that if Russia doesn’t agree to the deal before the election, the “entrance fee will rise,” suggesting that the US would demand additional requirements to keep the deal alive or move forward without any treaty at all.

Initially, Russia dismissed the idea to make any concessions to fit that time frame.

Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov said that Russia will not make any agreement with the US on strategic offensive arms “timed to coincide with their elections.”

“If the Americans need to report to their superiors about something they’ve allegedly reached an agreement on with the Russian Federation before their elections, then they will not get it,” he said.

Trump's need to gossip about nukes provokes anxiety
Earlier this month, Putin indicated that he would be willing to work with Former Vice President Joe Biden on extending the deal if he won the presidential election, saying that he sees strategic treaties as “one of the potential points for cooperation.”

“Candidate Biden has publicly said that he is ready to extend New START or to conclude a new treaty on the limitation of strategic offensive arms,” Putin said on October 7. “And this is already a very serious element of our possible cooperation in the future.”

On Friday, in a meeting with his advisers, Putin had proposed to extend the nuclear arms reduction treaty for a year without preconditions. 

That proposal was swiftly rejected by the US with White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien calling the offer a “non-starter.”

“President Putin’s response to extend New START without freezing nuclear warheads is a non-starter,” he said.  

He threatened a “costly” arms race if Russia did not come back to the table with a better proposal: “The United States is serious about arms control that will keep the entire world safe. We hope that Russia will reevaluate its position before a costly arms race ensues.”

The top US negotiator Billingslea suggested in a tweet later Friday that talks between the two countries were over.

“The United States made every effort. It is disappointing that the Russian Federation backtracked on an agreement covering all nuclear warheads for the first time. This would have been an historic deal, good for the U.S., Russia, and the world,” he wrote.

CNN’s Kara Fox and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.



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Human challenge studies: UK government signs contract for first clinical trials


Up to 19 volunteers at a time will take part in the tests, to be held at the Royal Free Hospital in London, which houses a Biosafety Level 3 ward. They will be run by hVIVO, a medical research company that specializes in running challenge trials, in partnership with Imperial College London.

These clinical trials will be a little different from most.

For the current Covid-19 vaccine candidates that are in Phase 3 — the final stage of testing — tens of thousands of volunteers are given an experimental vaccine and then released to live their everyday lives; researchers assume that a certain percentage of them will be exposed to the virus naturally.

In a challenge trial, by contrast, participants are deliberately dosed with virus.

Proponents of challenge trials say that they are more efficient, requiring far fewer volunteers — likely in the hundreds — because researchers know for certain that everyone will be exposed to the virus, and that they can deliver scientific data more quickly.

Critics worry about exposing people to a virus for which there is no fail-safe treatment, and say that the young, healthy volunteers are not representative of the wider population.

The trials will be held at the Royal Free hospital in London.

“We are doing everything we can to fight coronavirus, including backing our best and brightest scientists and researchers in their hunt for a safe and effective vaccine,” said Alok Sharma, the UK’s Business Secretary.

“The funding announced today for these ground-breaking but carefully controlled studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines which will ultimately help in beginning our return to normal life.”

Characterization study

As a first step, hVIVO, a subsidiary of the Irish company Open Orphan, will conduct a characterization study at the beginning of 2021. That involves deliberately exposing a small number of healthy volunteers to the coronavirus, to determine the minimum dose that leads to symptomatic infection.

“We want to find out right from the word go how the human body reacts to a dose of the virus,” Dr. Martin Johnson, Senior Medical Director at hVIVO, told CNN.

The company plans to be able to test the efficacy of up to three vaccine candidates sometime next year.

A September article in the New England Journal of Medicine argued that challenge trials could “accelerate development of later rounds of vaccine candidates,” as well as help researchers better see how the virus attacks the human body.

Several potential vaccines are already nearing the end of traditional phase 3 trials using “natural” exposure to the virus, but simply showing that as vaccine has some effectiveness in preventing the onset of Covid-19 does not mean it is the best that scientists can do.

Most people try to avoid Covid-19. But thousands are signing up to be deliberately exposed

The characterization study, and vaccine trials, will still need ethics approval from UK regulators. England’s Health Research Authority tells CNN that it has already set up an ethics committee to assess any challenge trial proposals.

Volunteers will be rigorously screened to ensure they are in good health, with no pre-existing conditions. They will need to be between the ages of 18 and 30, hVIVO says. They will be compensated for their participation, but regulators will want to ensure that the amount does not appear coercive.

Volunteers will remain in residence at the Royal Free Hospital for the duration of the trial, which could last several weeks. hVIVO has isolated a strain of the virus taken from a British Covid-19 patient, and will expose the volunteers to the virus through the nose, using a pipette.

“We are actually going to take the very smallest dose,” Dr. Johnson said. “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get the minimum number of symptoms that are safe.”

As soon as a patient has displayed symptoms of Covid-19, he said, doctors will administer the antiviral remdesivir. Scientists at hVIVO point out that unlike coronavirus patients who are admitted to the hospital, challenge trial volunteers will be treated at the first sign of infection.

However, there are no treatments shown to help patients early on in the course of the virus.

Vaccine trials

Once the characterization study is complete, hVIVO will ready itself for testing up to three vaccine candidates, as determined by the UK’s government-led Vaccine Taskforce.

Those candidates could be vaccines that are not yet in Phase 3 trials, or field-tested vaccines for which scientists want more data, Dr. Johnson said.

Challenge trials are nothing new, and have been carried out for cholera, typhoid, malaria, and even influenza. But unlike for those diseases, we do not yet have a completely effective treatment for Covid-19, should the experimental vaccine fail.

Dr. Johnson said a challenge study for coronavirus is only possible now because of the promising performance of treatments like remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone.

The World Health Organization recently found that remdesivir doesn’t appear to save Covid-19 patients’ lives, or help them recover faster, and there is no data to suggest it helps patients early in the infection. The current guidance is that dexamethasone should not be given to patients unless they are severely ill.

“The problem is, when you are doing trials out there in the in the wild, you don’t know exactly when a patient has been infected. Here, we know to the second when they’ve actually received the virus. So we can look at it and track it all the way through,” Johnson said.

Volunteers

The announcement comes just as tens of thousands of people around the world have expressed their interest in volunteering for a coronavirus human challenge study through the organization 1 Day Sooner. hVivo says it is talking to 1 Day Sooner about identifying potential volunteers.

One of the UK organizers for 1 Day Sooner, 18-year-old Alastair Fraser-Urquhart, told Phil Black earlier this month that challenge studies are “just such an instant, common sense idea.”

“The risk to me is tiny. But by taking that small risk on myself, I can potentially protect thousands of other people from having to be infected without consenting to it.”



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Houses of Parliament (Great Britain) Fast Facts



The meeting place of Great Britain’s bicameral legislature – composed of the House of Commons and the House of Lords – is also known as Westminster Palace.

Security technology, such as CCTV cameras and alarms, are used throughout the estate.

In addition to unarmed security officers, armed police officers are also on the premises.

Timeline

11th century – The original palace is built.

1604 -1605 – A group of English Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, plots to blow up Parliament to protest their treatment by the Protestants. However, the plot is uncovered and the conspirators hanged. November 5 is still celebrated in England as “Guy Fawkes Day”, when people celebrate with bonfires and fireworks and burn effigies of Fawkes.

October 16, 1834 – A fire destroys most of the building.

1840 – Construction begins on the current Houses of Parliament.

1852 – House of Commons is first used.

1870 – Construction completed.

May 11, 1941 – House of Commons chamber is destroyed in bombings during WWII. It is rebuilt by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

1950 – The reconstruction of House of Commons is complete.

1987 – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designates the building as a World Heritage site.

2000 – Portcullis House, a new Parliamentary building, is completed.

February 2001 – Portcullis House officially opens.

June 18, 2015 – An independent committee issues a report outlining the need for extensive repairs throughout the historic complex. Issues that need attention include wiring problems, loose asbestos and rats. The principal architect at the Houses of Parliament tells the BBC, “Some of the facades are actually sinking and we’re going to have to investigate that very soon.”
March 22, 2017 – Khalid Masood plows a car through crowds on Westminster Bridge in central London before attempting to storm the Houses of Parliament in what police believe was an act of Islamist-inspired terrorism. Four people, including a police officer, are killed and scores injured before he is shot and killed by police.
August 14, 2018 – Several people are injured after a car crashes into security barriers outside the Houses of Parliament during rush hour. The driver is arrested on suspicion of terrorist offenses. He is later identified as Salih Khater, a 29-year-old UK national who emigrated from Sudan.
December 11, 2018 – Police officers arrest a man inside the entrance to the grounds of the UK’s Houses of Parliament in Westminster. London’s Metropolitan Police confirm in a statement that the man was “detained and arrested by Carriage Gates inside the Palace of Westminster on suspicion of trespassing at a protected site.”

April 24, 2020 – Parliament publishes a report outlining each stage of work to be completed in the Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Programme. This follows the October 8, approval of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019.

Characteristics

Designers/Architects – Sir Charles Barry along with Augustus Welby Pugin. Barry won a competition to be the architect.

There are four floors:
– Ground floor – Offices, river front houses, meeting rooms and dining halls.
– First floor – More dining rooms, Chambers of the House of Commons and House of Lords, and libraries.
– Second floor and Third floor – Committee rooms.

One end of the palace holds a private area for the speaker and on the other end, an area for the lord chancellor.

Made of limestone with an iron roof.

Three large towers, the Elizabeth Tower (316 ft. tall, holds the bell Big Ben), Victoria Tower (323 ft.), and Central tower (300 ft.)

The main entrance is called St. Stephen’s Hall, which leads immediately to the Central Lobby, or Octagon Hall. This area is open to the public.

Parliament has taken over nearby buildings as the need arose, including the Parliament Street Buildings and the Norman Shaw North and South buildings.



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UK accuses Russian intelligence agency of hacking 2020 Olympics


The UK accused the GRU of targeting the “organisers, logistics services, and sponsors” of the games. The 2020 competition was scheduled to take place in Tokyo in July but was postponed due to the pandemic.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the GRU’s actions in the “strongest possible terms,” calling the unit “cynical and reckless,” in a statement published on Monday.

The statement also accused the Russian body of targeting the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in South Korea with cyberattacks.

“The UK is confirming for the first time today the extent of GRU targeting of the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea,” the government statement said.

“The GRU’s cyber unit attempted to disguise itself as North Korean and Chinese hackers when it targeted the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games.”

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has assessed the attacks and believes they were intended to sabotage the games, as the malware used “was designed to wipe data from and disable computers and networks.”

Olympic organizers reveal plans for scaled-down Tokyo event
The UK statement supplemented major charges announced in the US on Monday.

Six Russian military officers were charged by the US Justice Department, in what was described by officials as a hacking scheme to attack several major foreign powers and former Soviet republics.

The alleged cyberattackers are also GRU members, who stand accused of conducting cyberattacks against the 2018 Winter Games.

US government officials said the officers had hacked into software using destructive malware that blacked out thousands of computers and caused nearly $1 billion in losses.

The attacks were intended to support Russian government efforts to undermine, retaliate against, or otherwise destabilize worldwide computer networks, the US Justice Department said.

The Olympic Games are a popular target for cybercriminals.

In 2016 Russian hackers broke into a World-Anti Doping Agency database through an account created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the Summer Games in Rio. The group stole information about star American athletes like Simone Biles and Venus Williams.

In response to the widening range of threats the IOC and host countries have ramped up cybersecurity efforts in recent years.



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Plague history shows how a pandemic’s course can be shaped


Researchers from Canada’s McMaster University analyzed thousands of documents spanning 300 years — including personal wills and testaments, parish registers and the London Bills of Mortality — to search for patterns on how plague was spreading through the population.

Plague, one of the deadliest bacterial infections in human history, caused an estimated 50 million deaths in Europe during the Middle Ages when it was known as the Black Death. The disease, though rare and now treatable with antibiotics, is still around today — cases have been recorded in China and the United States as recently as this year.

There was a “striking acceleration” in plague transmission between the Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665, researchers said in findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

David Earn, a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at McMaster and lead author of the research, told CNN that while plague cases in London doubled every six weeks in the 14th century, by the 17th century, they were doubling every week and a half.

“That’s an enormous difference,” he said.

But this was not simply a case of the disease becoming more virulent — evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar told CNN that while the spread of the disease accelerated, genetic analysis to date tentatively suggests that it may have become less infectious.

“When there are shifts in the epidemiology of the disease, most of the shifts that occur can be translated to human intervention or things that go on outside of the actual genetics of the bug,” Poinar, a professor in the department of anthropology at McMaster and a co-author of the study, said.

Researchers gathered information from personal wills, parish registers and bills of mortality.

The estimated speed of the epidemics, coupled with what we know about the biology of the plague, suggested that plague did not spread primarily through human-to-human contact during these centuries, but instead, growth rates for early and late epidemics are more consistent with bubonic plague, transmitted by the bites of infected fleas, the researchers said.

Researchers believe that factors including population density, living conditions and cooler temperatures could go toward explaining the acceleration of the disease in London — and could help with our understanding of modern pandemics, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.

“A given pathogen can cause very different epidemics, whether it’s in the same place over time, or in different places,” Earn explained.

“The characteristics of the community can strongly influence the pattern of the epidemic,” he said. “And of course, the behavioral response of individuals can also influence the pattern of the epidemic,” he added.

The findings could also provide a blueprint to how the current pandemic and future pandemics could behave.

What the 1918 flu pandemic can teach us about coronavirus

“Plague never went away and it won’t ever go away, and (SARS) CoV-2 will never go away,” Poinar told CNN, explaining that the virus, like the plague, has “natural reservoirs” in the population.

“Fortunately we have a phenomenal scientific community, you know across the globe, working … more or less together right now to figure out a way to come up with antibody treatment, to come up with, hopefully, a vaccine that’s effective for longer-term immunity,” he said.

But he also cautioned that pandemics will continue to threaten humans so long as people encroach on the natural world — something scientists and environmental organizations have repeatedly warned.
“The reality is if you think that this is the only time it’s going to happen, you’re fooling yourself, because it’s happened repeated times in human history and it’s bound to happen again as we continue to encroach on lands — the same thing with climate change and environmental deconstruction — we’re bound to run into more reservoirs that spill over into humans,” he added.



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Masks made Czech Republic the envy of Europe, now they’ve blown it


There are currently more new Covid-19 cases per million people recorded in the Czech Republic than in any other major country in the world. On Friday, more than 11,100 new cases were reported in a single day, a new record. In the first 17 days of October, more people have died of the virus in the Czech Republic than during the previous eight months of the epidemic combined.

The Czech Medical Chamber and the health minister have called on Czech doctors living abroad to return home to help fight the virus. Medical students and people with medical training have also been encouraged to come forward. More than 1,000 qualified nurses who’ve left the profession have offered to come back to help.

For now, the Na Bulovce hospital has enough beds for everyone. But it’s preparing for the worst.

“We have other back-up beds prepared in other departments in case the capacity exceeds our current possibilities,” said Dr. Hana Rohacova, the head doctor at the hospital’s infection disease clinic. This weekend, the government began setting up a temporary field hospital in Prague. Czech Health Minister Dr. Roman Prymula told CNN he expects the extra beds will be needed as soon as the end of this month.

It’s a stunning development. Less than two months ago, the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis boasted his country was among the “best in Covid.”
Healthcare workers tend to Covid-19 patients at the intensive care unit at Thomayer Hospital in Prague on October 14, 2020.
While the Czech Republic is technically experiencing the second wave of the epidemic, the first one this spring looks like an insignificant blip on the radar in comparison to the current state. The Czech Republic was once one of the most successful countries in Europe at controlling the spread of the virus. Babis’ populist centrist government moved quickly to close the borders and implement a nationwide lockdown. Many other countries did the same, but what set the Czechs apart was the requirement to wear face masks by everyone, everywhere outside of the home.

Czech data scientist Petr Ludwig was among those pushing for that mask mandate back in mid-March, months before western health authorities or even the World Health Organization was recommending them.

Ludwig had just flown from New York to Prague, and says he was the only person on his flight with a face covering. When he arrived home, he dug through the scientific evidence supporting face coverings and made a YouTube video explaining why he was convinced masks were the answer. The Czech-language video attracted more than 600,000 views, in a country of only 10 million. An English version of the video has been viewed more than 5.7 million times.

Days later, Babis announced the mask mandate.

“We didn’t convince the government, we convinced public by [social media] influencers and then government followed because our government is slightly populist. So they followed the opinion of the public,” Ludwig told CNN.

Tomas Volny and his partner Barbora Duskova sew face masks in their apartment in Prague on March 17, 2020.
Medical masks were in short supply at the time, which was one of the reasons why the WHO didn’t recommend their use. Faced with the shortage, thousands of Czechs dusted off their sewing machines and became part of a wartime-like effort to make and distribute masks where they were needed. One group of volunteers created an interactive map of need which resulted in more than 600,000 masks, made mostly by individual volunteers, to be handed out around the country.
Czech nudists told to wear face masks by police

The Prime Minister was converted — he even tweeted some advice to US President Donald Trump on March 29, “Try tackling virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask, decreases the spread of the virus by 80% … God bless America!”

Most Czechs obeyed the mask rule. The measure wasn’t particularly popular with the masses, but it was wildly effective in controlling the spread of the virus. And it made the country an outlier. “Some people from the WHO, for example, told us that this is nonsense. Many other countries around Czech Republic told us that wearing masks is nonsense. But the Czech people were doing well,” said microbiologist Dr. Omar Sery, who was also one of the early advocates for face masks.
The Czech Republic’s first wave of infection peaked in late March at 408 cases in one day. The highest single-day death toll was just 18, in April. On June 30, the Czech Republic recorded no new Covid-19 deaths. That same day, an outdoor street party in Prague celebrated the end of the pandemic. Masks were not part of the dress code. Theaters reopened, indoor dining returned, people were allowed to travel abroad. Even Babis, the Prime Minister, went to Greece for a vacation.

In almost every way, the country had regained the normalcy that people in across Europe were craving. It wouldn’t last long.

“We didn’t see dead people, we didn’t see people with coronavirus in hospitals — the Czech people thought that this is nonsense and we don’t need to wear masks,” said Dr. Sery.

People dine at a communal table stretching across the Charles Bridge in Prague after coronavirus restrictions were eased on June 30, 2020.

When the government lifted the strict mask mandate over the summer, most people left theirs at home. The virus was slowly starting to make a comeback. Even the health minister conceded his country’s victory lap was premature.

“That’s true, because we had many experts — and those were not the epidemiologists and virologists — but they were arguing that, okay, the disease is there, but it’s very mild,” said Dr. Prymula, who has been on the job now for less than a month. “So they tried to push politicians just to skip out of strict countermeasures.”

In August, with case-counts rising and schools set to reopen, Rastislav Madar, a top epidemiologist and the coordinator of the government’s coronavirus restrictions advisory group, called for the government to re-instate the strict mask mandate that was in force in the spring. But when the then-Health Minister Adam Vojtech announced masks would again become compulsory in most indoor spaces, Babis said no. A day later, Vojtech walked back many of the new rules. Madar resigned a few days later.

With an early October Czech Senate election approaching, Ludwig thinks Babis’ decision was a populist political calculation.

The 'biggest protest since the fall of Communism' in Prague called for the resignation of the 'Czech Trump'

“During the first wave, [the government] was convinced that people wanted masks, so they pushed masks. Now, they are convinced that people don’t want to wear masks. So they are against [the mask mandate],” he said. “After the election, they started to push some harder rules again, but it was too late because we already had an exponential growth.”

Those measures have forced schools, restaurants and pubs to close down. Masks are required in indoor public spaces and on public transport including its outdoor stops and stations, but the same strict mask mandate that seemed so effective in the spring has not been re-instated.

“In Czech Republic, everybody hates wearing a mask, really. This is not Taiwan, this is not China where they are wearing a mask every day,” said Sery.

Prymula denies the decision was political. He says there are ongoing discussions about potentially expanding the mandate to require masks outdoors too. “But as it’s not only wearing mask, it’s an issue of other countermeasures, and particularly social contact, because some people still keep social contacts, even in private settings. This is the reason why the situation is still not under control,” he said.

Li-Lian Ahlskog Hou contributed to this report from Berlin.



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Firms urged to get ready for new EU relationship



The government campaign says “Time is running out”, but firms say many unanswered questions remain.



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EU investigates Instagram over handling of children’s data


In February 2019, data scientist David Stier analysed profiles of almost 200,000 Instagram users across the world. He estimated that for over a year, at least 60 million users under the age of 18 were given the option to easily change their profiles into business accounts.



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Right-wing nationalist Ersin Tatar wins in northern Cyprus



Ersin Tatar, who is pro-Turkey and wants Cyprus to be two separate states, was elected president.



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France teacher attack: Rallies held to support beheaded Samuel Paty


President Emmanuel Macron said

the attack bore all the hallmarks of an “Islamist terrorist attack” and the teacher had been murdered because he “taught freedom of expression”.



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