Trump receives Morocco’s highest award for Middle East work: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday received Morocco’s highest award for his work in advancing a normalization deal between Israel and Morocco, a senior administration official told Reuters.

In a private Oval Office ceremony, Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, who is Morocco’s ambassador to the United States, gave Trump the Order of Muhammad, an award given only to heads of state. It was a gift from Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz received other awards for their work on the Israel-Morocco deal, which was reached in December.

The United States in the last five months helped broker deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The agreements are aimed at normalizing relations and opening economic ties.

Trump, who leaves office on Wednesday, has drawn some criticism over the Morocco agreement because to seal the deal, he agreed that the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Western Sahara has been the site of a decades-old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

The Kushner team had been working on reaching more agreements between Israel and the Arab world. But time has run out and no more are expected before Trump’s departure.

Media were not allowed to witness the award ceremony.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Guatemala detains hundreds of migrants at border as U.S.-bound caravan grows

By Gustavo Palencia and Sofia Menchu

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – The Guatemalan military has detained hundreds of migrants at its border as thousands of Hondurans, including many families with young children, continued to walk north on Friday as part of a caravan hoping to reach the United States.

The Guatemalan military detained 600 migrants at the border crossing point in Corinto and transferred them to immigration authorities on Friday, according to military spokesman Ruben Tellez. Separately, Guatemalan authorities returned 102 Honduran migrants back to Honduras on Thursday, after the first groups in the caravan set off from San Pedro Sula.

The Red Cross estimates that up to 4,000 people could join the caravan, as Honduras reels from violence and an economy shattered by hurricanes and coronavirus lockdowns.

“We’re suffering from hunger,” Oscar Garcia told Reuters as he made his way toward the Guatemala border. The banana plantation worker said his home was destroyed in November’s hurricanes, and that he’s fleeing north hoping to earn enough to send money back to support his mother and his young daughter.

“It’s impossible to live in Honduras, there’s no work, there’s nothing,” he added.

The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

While Biden has promised a more humane approach to migration, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico are coordinating their own security and public health measures aimed at curtailing irregular migration across the region.

That will likely be a relief for Biden, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about the prospect of growing numbers of migrants seeking to enter the United States in the early days of his administration.

On Thursday, Guatemala cited the pandemic in order to declare emergency powers in seven border provinces migrants frequently transit through en route to Mexico. The measures limit public demonstrations and allow authorities to disperse any public meeting, group or demonstration by force.

On Friday, Mexico also deployed soldiers and riot police to its border with Guatemala.

Central America is reeling from a growing hunger crisis in the devastating fallout of the hurricanes, as well as violence and the lockdown measures that disrupted the job market.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey and Jose Torres in Tapachula; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Steve Orlofsky)

31.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines distributed, 12.3 million administered: U.S. CDC

(Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had administered 12,279,180 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the country as of Friday morning and distributed 31,161,075 doses.

The tally of vaccine doses are for both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines as of 6:00 a.m. ET on Friday, the agency said.

According to the tally posted on Jan. 14, the agency had administered 11,148,991 doses of the vaccines, and distributed 30,628,175 doses.

The agency said 10,595,866 people had received 1 or more doses while 1,610,524 people have got the second dose as of Friday.

A total of 1,384,963 vaccine doses have been administered in long-term care facilities, the agency said.

(Reporting by Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru)

Global COVID-19 death toll tops 2 million

By Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B

(Reuters) – The worldwide coronavirus death toll surpassed 2 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, as nations around the world are trying to procure multiple vaccines and detect new COVID-19 variants.

It took nine months for the world to record the first 1 million deaths from the novel coronavirus but only three months to go from 1 million to 2 million deaths, illustrating an accelerating rate of fatalities.

So far in 2021, deaths have averaged over 11,900 per day or one life lost every eight seconds, according to a Reuters tally.

“Our world has reached a heart-wrenching milestone ,” United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said in a video statement.

“Behind this staggering number are names and faces: the smile now only a memory, the seat forever empty at the dinner table, the room that echoes with the silence of a loved one,” he said, calling for more global coordination and funding for the vaccination effort.

By April 1, the global death toll could approach 2.9 million, according to a forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Given how fast the virus is spreading due to more infectious variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the worst could be ahead.

“We are going into a second year of this. It could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during a Wednesday event.

The United States has the highest total number of deaths at over 386,000 and accounts for one in every four deaths reported worldwide each day. The next worst-affected countries are Brazil, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Combined, the five countries contribute to almost 50% of all COVID-19 deaths in the world but represent only 27% of the global population.

Europe, the worst-affected region in the world, has reported over 615,000 deaths so far and accounts for nearly 31% of all COVID-related deaths globally.

In India, which recently surpassed 151,000 deaths, vaccinations are set to begin on Saturday in an effort that authorities hope will see 300 million high-risk people inoculated over the next six to eight months.

(Reportintg by Shaina Ahluwalia and Kavya B in Bengalaru; Additional reporting by Chaithra J in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Some U.S. nursing home residents face delays for COVID-19 vaccines despite extreme risk

By Lisa Baertlein and Deena Beasley

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A former Arkansas health official is sounding alarms about the pace of coronavirus vaccines being administered to residents of long-term care facilities under a U.S. plan that puts major pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens in charge of many of the shots.

Fewer than 10% of doses allocated to those Arkansas seniors have been administered, according to the state health department. The two pharmacies are working with about 40% of the state’s facilities. Some of those were told that they were scheduled for February or March, said Dr. Joe Thompson, former Arkansas surgeon general and chief executive of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement

“This is not acceptable,” said Thompson. “We’re seeing a failure in deployment by CVS and Walgreens.”

Federal health officials in recent days have urged broadening vaccine eligibility to tens of millions of Americans to speed the national inoculation program rollout. Meanwhile, seniors at some long-term care facilities – who account for about 1% of the U.S. population but 40% of COVID-19 deaths and were supposed to be at the front of the line – continue to wait.

State and local officials and long-term care operators in states including Florida, California, Arizona, Indiana and Pennsylvania told Reuters they have turned to alternative providers for vaccinations for their residents or staff because the pharmacy chains were scheduling shots weeks out.

Some 75,000 long-term care facilities signed up to receive vaccines from CVS Health Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Pharmacy Partnership Program.

“I think they face serious bandwidth issues in terms of scheduling,” said David Grabowski, a Harvard Medical School professor and healthcare policy expert. “I find it very distressing that we haven’t been doing this more rapidly. This is really a matter of life or death.”

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in a statement on Thursday said the two pharmacy chains assured him that all long-term care residents assigned to them would be vaccinated by the end of this month.

Many states prioritized homes with patients requiring medical care, which contributed to delays at other long-term care facilities.

CVS said it plans to finish all shots at assigned facilities within nine to 12 weeks of the first dose. That means states like California, Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, which were among the last to activate the second-phase of facility vaccinations, may not be finished until April.

“State decisions on which facilities are activated when have a significant impact on timing,” CVS spokesman T.J. Crawford said, noting that the company has administered 1 million shots and is on track with its federal agreement.

Others hurdles included confirming vaccine availability, the winter holidays, vaccine hesitancy and fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, the companies said.

That resulted in “a little bit slower start than what we were hoping for. Now that we’ve gotten past the first of the year, you’re seeing a quick and rapid acceleration,” said Rick Gates, Walgreens’ senior vice president of pharmacy and healthcare. The company has done more than 500,000 shots and expects to be done by March.

‘OVERWHELMED BY THE SHEER VOLUME’

Meanwhile, central Florida’s Seminole County is deploying mobile clinics to some assisted living facilities.

“We went because they either have not been contacted by the private providers or they had concerns because of some type of issue,” said county emergency manager Alan Harris.

“CVS and Walgreens, I think, are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of long-term care facilities in Florida,” Harris said.

The state of Florida has hired health services firm CDR Maguire to take over vaccinations at about 1,900 assisted living facilities that CVS or Walgreens had scheduled on or after Jan. 24.

Los Angeles County opted out of the CVS-Walgreens partnership and is asking facilities that can to pick up and administer vaccine themselves. In Northern California’s Contra Costa County, nonprofit Choice in Aging joined John Muir Health and Kaiser Permanente in pitching in to help.

Choice in Aging is targeting facilities with six or fewer beds in historically underserved communities. “This is a population that is never prioritized,” said Choice in Aging CEO Debbie Toth.

The CDC on Thursday said 26% of the 4.7 million vaccine doses allocated for long-term care sites had been administered, lagging even the woeful 36% of the 30.6 million available nationwide.

West Virginia, which opted out of CDC Pharmacy Partnership, did extensive planning and tapped its existing network of long-term care pharmacies to quickly vaccinate nursing home residents in an all-hands-on-deck effort, said Dr. Michael Wasserman, former president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine.

“Community pharmacies absolutely should be involved,” said American Pharmacists Association CEO Scott Knoer. “I wish they would have been from the get-go.”

(Reporting By Lisa Baertlein and Deena Beasley; additional reporting by Carl O’Donnell in New York; Editing by Peter Henderson, Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. announces new sanctions on six linked to Hong Kong mass arrests

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced sanctions on Friday against six Hong Kong or Chinese officials it blamed for implementing a new security law in Hong Kong, following the mass arrests of pro-democracy activists this month.

Hong Kong police arrested 53 people on Jan. 5 in dawn raids on democracy activists in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.

The six people targeted for new sanctions include Frederic Choi, director of the national security division of the Hong Kong police, and Sun Qingye, a deputy to Zheng Yanxiong, who was appointed in July to head a new national security office in Hong Kong. Also named were pro-Beijing legislator Tam Yiu-chung and You Quan of China’s United Front Work Department.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo warned last week of fresh sanctions in response to the arrests of pro-democracy activists. That warning came a day after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Congress in a bid to overturn his November election defeat, prompting China’s state media to accuse U.S. politicians of “double standards.”

It was the latest in a series of last minute steps taken by Pompeo on foreign policy, several targeting China in what analysts see as a bid driven by Pompeo to lock in a tough approach to Beijing.

Trump has pursued hardline policies toward China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus.

His administration has already imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions involving the pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses, and last July declared an end to the territory’s privileged economic status under U.S. law.

The Trump administration took another swipe at China and its biggest companies on Thursday, imposing sanctions on officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea and imposing an investment ban on nine more firms.

Last Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and counterparts in Taiwan, a move that greatly angered Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

More transmissible UK coronavirus variant found in 10 U.S. states, CDC says

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus first discovered in Britain has been detected in 10 U.S. states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday, warning that it could become the dominant circulating variant in the United States by March.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is believed to be twice as transmissible as the current version of the virus circulating in the United States.

Its rapid spread will increase the burden on health resources at a time when infections are surging, further sapping strained healthcare resources and increasing the need for better adherence to mitigation strategies, such as social-distancing and mask-wearing, the CDC said in its weekly report on death and disease.

It also increases the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to achieve protective herd immunity to control the pandemic, the CDC said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Paul Simao)

Fed’s Kashkari sees pandemic hampering activity through all of 2021

(Reuters) – Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari on Friday said he believes the pandemic will weigh on Americans through all of 2021, and emphasized the need for a speedier vaccine rollout as well as continued fiscal support.

“It’s a long time until we can get to the other side of that,” he said in a virtual town hall held by the Minnesota Hospital Association, citing new virus variants and the slow rollout of vaccines as making him more cautious over the outlook.

Americans will still need to wear masks and keep social distance through the end of the year, he forecast, delaying the return to normal economic function.

“It’s clear that the pandemic has a way to go and that many many people and many many businesses and hospitals need support until we can get this pandemic behind us, and get back to what we all know is normal, and hopefully strong growth from there,” Kashkari said. “The more that we are able to get the vaccine out faster, the shorter this pandemic will end up being.”

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Scottish court upholds Libyan Lockerbie bomber’s conviction

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – A Scottish court rejected on Friday an appeal to overturn the conviction of a now-deceased Libyan man found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing which killed 270 people.

Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, an intelligence officer who died in 2012, was jailed for life in 2001 for the murder of 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents of the Scottish town in the deadliest militant attack in British history.

In March, an independent Scottish review ruled that his family could launch a third appeal due to a possible miscarriage of justice. But on Friday, five judges at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Scotland rejected that.

“The bombing of Pan Am 103 is, to this day, the deadliest terrorist attack on UK soil and the largest homicide case Scotland’s prosecutors have ever encountered in terms of scale and of complexity,” said Lord Advocate James Wolffe, Scotland’s chief legal officer.

“The evidence gathered by Scottish, U.S. and international law enforcement agencies has again been tested in the Appeal Court and the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi stands.”

Megrahi’s son Ali said the family were heartbroken and planned to appeal to the UK Supreme Court, their lawyer Aamer Anwar said. “He maintained his father’s innocence and is determined to fulfil the promise he made to clear his name and that of Libya,” Anwar said.

Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie in December 1988 en route from London to New York, carrying mostly Americans on their way home for Christmas.

After years of wrangling and sanctions against Libya, Megrahi and a second man Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima went on trial before Scottish judges at a special court in the Netherlands.

Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum 27 years, while Fahima was found not guilty.

RELEASED

Megrahi, who denied involvement in the attack, died in Libya in 2012 after being released three years earlier by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds due to prostate cancer.

Former leader Muammar Gaddafi accepted Libya’s responsibility for the bombing in 2003 and paid compensation to families, but did not admit personally ordering it.

However, Megrahi’s family and some relatives of the Scottish victims have always doubted his guilt and Libya’s responsibility, and say the truth has yet to come out.

At hearings in November, the family’s lawyers argued his conviction had rested on flawed evidence, saying prosecutors had failed to prove a link between clothing in the suitcase carrying the bomb and Megrahi.

Last month, the United States unsealed criminal charges against a third alleged conspirator Abu Agila Mohammad Masud Kheir Al-Marimi, a former senior Libyan intelligence official currently in Libyan custody.

The Justice Department accuses Masud of carrying the bomb from Libya to Malta in a suitcase and setting its timer.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by William James and Andrew Cawthorne)

Britain tightens borders to keep out new COVID-19 strains

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is tightening border controls to prevent new strains of COVID-19 coming into the country, suspending all the ‘travel corridor’ arrangements that had meant arrivals from some countries did not need to quarantine.

The change comes into force at 0400 GMT on Monday and means all passengers must have a recent negative coronavirus test and transfer immediately into isolation upon arrival. The isolation period lasts for 10 days, unless the passenger tests negative after five days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement during a news conference when he praised the country’s vaccination program, but he also warned: “What we don’t want to see is all that hard work undone by the arrival of a new variant that is vaccine busting.”

On Thursday, Britain banned arrivals from South America, Portugal and some other countries over fears about a strain of the virus detected in Brazil.

Britain has already felt the effects of mutations in the virus first hand. A strain first discovered in England has proved to be more transmissible and a major factor behind a spike in cases across the country.

(Reporting by Sarah Young, Writing by William James, editing by Elizabeth Piper)