Biden tells migrants to stay put. Central Americans hear a different message

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TÉCNICA, GUATEMALA (Reuters) – Maritza Hernández arrived at this remote Guatemalan village exhausted, with two young kids in tow and more than a thousand miles left to travel. She was motivated by a simple – if not entirely accurate – story.

“I heard news they are letting children in,” said Hernández, explaining she planned to cross the U.S. border in Texas and seek asylum.

The number of immigrant families apprehended by U.S. agents along the southern border nearly tripled in February from a month earlier to about 19,000 people. Hunger and poverty are spurring their flight. So is disinformation that has rocketed across social media and by word of mouth that the U.S. border is now wide open.

Reuters interviewed nearly two dozen migrants and more than a dozen people identifying themselves as smugglers, and examined hundreds of posts in closed Facebook groups where these “coyotes” advertise their services. The review revealed pervasive myths about immigration policy changes under U.S. President Joe Biden.

“There’s 100 days of free passage across the border,” a Guatemalan smuggler told Reuters.

The truth is much more complex.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to enforce a policy, implemented by former President Donald Trump one year ago, of returning most southern-border crossers to Mexico. About 70,000 people, or 72% of such migrants – mostly single adults – were rapidly deported in February alone, according to CBP data. Some of those people were likely repeat crossers as the recidivism rate has climbed in the past year, according to U.S. officials.

“Don’t come over,” Biden said in a March 16 interview with ABC News when asked to articulate his message to hopefuls. “Don’t leave your town or city or community.”

Still, it’s true that more migrants – mainly children and families – have been allowed to enter the United States in the early days of his administration than in the final days of Trump’s. In February, more than half of the family members caught with children at the border were not expelled. Many have been released from CBP custody into the United States as they await asylum hearings.

Their success has supercharged migrant and smuggler communication channels, with many now urging travelers to head north before the door slams shut, said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.

“Smugglers can definitely exaggerate things and make up information, but they can’t completely sell what doesn’t exist,” Seele said.

Biden aide Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s southern border coordinator, said the administration is now more aggressively discouraging migration.

Since January, the State Department has placed more than 28,000 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and six indigenous languages on 133 stations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and it has worked with Facebook and Instagram to create advertisements to dissuade migrants, according to the department and the White House.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Trump’s anti-immigration message was loud and clear. Yet on his watch in February 2019, U.S. border agents encountered more than 40,000 people traveling in family groups, about twice as many as the Biden administration saw last month, according to CBP figures.

SMUGGLER TRADE THRIVING

The business of moving migrants is booming in the hamlet of La Técnica, deep in a Guatemalan rainforest, where Hernández and her two children stopped to rest.

In early March, Reuters witnessed motorized canoes whisking hundreds of U.S.-bound migrants across the Usumacinta River to the area’s unguarded border with Mexico.

Carlos, a smuggler who gave only his first name, chatted by phone with a colleague in the Mayan language Q’eqchi’ about an impending arrival. This transportation crossroads is also an information hub where news – both true and fake – spreads rapidly.

“Supposedly the president is letting children in,” Carlos said of Biden.

Carlos had it partly right. Biden, in a shift from the previous administration, said he would not turn away “unaccompanied minors” – kids crossing the border without parents or legal guardians. These children can now enter the United States to pursue asylum claims, in accordance with U.S. law.

The new administration has done the same for some migrant families along a limited, 230-mile stretch of the border between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. That shift came in early February after Tamaulipas refused to continue allowing U.S. border officials to expel back into the state Central American families with children under the age of six. Biden has said his team is working to convince Mexico to take more of those families back.

Much of this nuance has been lost in Central America, a region desperate for an escape valve. Migrants are being driven by gang violence and poverty that has been exacerbated by job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The situation is particularly dire in Honduras, where hurricanes Eta and Iota last November destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Nearly a third of the country’s population is now beset by a worsening hunger crisis, according to a government report published in February.

Hernández, who hails from the Honduran coastal state of Colón, said the storms wiped out the family’s chickens and inundated the farm fields where her husband worked. In February, she defied her spouse and set off for Texas with her two children, encouraged by news of other families successfully crossing the border.

The U.S. government radio spots warn migrants against such a journey. In an ad currently broadcast in Honduras, a man named “Jorge” advises “Rosita” that she could be “assaulted, kidnapped, abandoned or infected with coronavirus” – and would likely be detained or deported if she reached the United States.

But other U.S.-based sources are fueling the myth of an open border. Texas-based citizen journalist Luis Rodriguez, who was born in Honduras, has posted several videos for his 400,000 Facebook followers encouraging migrant families to capitalize.

“How long will this last? Well, no one knows,” he said in a March 7 video.

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

Some high-profile Republicans, too, are sending the message via prominent news outlets that crossing is easy. In a March 21 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said “the border right now is wide open.”

Cotton repeated the exaggeration when contacted by Reuters.

SOME LUCKY, OTHERS NOT

Back in La Técnica, migrant Enrique Gallean shouted a warning to families gathered on the dock as he stepped off one of the rare boats bearing migrants back into Guatemala.

“They’re not letting children in!” he said.

Clutching his 8-year-old son’s hand, the Honduran native told Reuters he had recently crossed the U.S. border near Roma, Texas, and surrendered himself to CBP in the hopes of being allowed to pursue asylum. Instead, Gallean said, they were rapidly expelled to Mexico.

It was much the same for Hector Ruiz. A resident of El Salvador, he and his wife and three young children passed through La Técnica in early March with high hopes. He said he paid $20,000 to smugglers to get his spouse and kids to the Texas border to claim asylum. Ruiz, who had a previous deportation order, didn’t intend to cross, but he accompanied his family much of the way to ensure their safety.

Just over a week later, Ruiz told Reuters his wife and children had been expelled to Mexico.

“We went because we heard the news that there were 100 days of free passage!” Ruiz exclaimed by telephone. “Now we’re screwed.”

Hernández and her two children were luckier. She said that on March 19 her family turned themselves in to CBP in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, only to be released two days later to start the journey to Maryland, where her mother resides.

“We’re free!” she told Reuters by phone.

The news organization could not determine why the three were admitted while other families were not. CBP said it could not comment on the case due to security and privacy reasons.

Hernández’s WhatsApp profile now features a photo of her, the children and their grandmother beaming with happiness following their reunion. That portrait of success travels with each message she sends to friends and family back in Honduras.

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Immune response may be linked to AstraZeneca vaccine clot issue; death risk rising among young adults in Brazil

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) -The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Immune response may explain rare clots after AstraZeneca vaccine

Researchers may have found an explanation for the rare but serious blood clots reported among some people who received AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. They believe the phenomenon is similar to one that rarely occurs with a blood thinning drug called heparin, called heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT). In HIT, the drug triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that activate platelets, which cause blood to clot. Drugs other than heparin can cause clotting disorders that strongly resemble HIT, and researchers suspect that in rare cases, the AstraZeneca vaccine may be another such trigger. Four previously healthy individuals who got the AstraZeneca shot and developed life-threatening clots had the same kind of antibodies that activate platelets and initiate clotting in HIT, the researchers reported on Monday in a paper posted on Research Square ahead of peer review. Twenty individuals who received the vaccine but did not develop clots did not have these antibodies. An editorial comment posted with the study noted that drug-induced thrombocytopenia is treatable if identified promptly. Millions of people have received the vaccine without issues and European regulators and the World Health Organization say the benefits of the AstraZeneca shot outweigh its risks.

COVID-19 death risk rising for young adults in Brazil

Southern Brazil is seeing a sudden rise in COVID-19 deaths among young and middle-aged adults after the identification there of a concerning virus variant known as P.1, researchers said. They analyzed data from Parana – the largest state in southern Brazil – on 553,518 cases diagnosed from September 2020 through March 17, 2021. In all age groups, the proportion of patients who died either held steady or declined between September and January. Starting in February, however, fatality rates rose for almost all groups over age 20, according to a report posted on Friday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. From January to February, these rates tripled among patients aged 20 to 29, from 0.04% to 0.13%, and doubled among those aged 30 to 39, 40 to 49, and 50 to 59. “Individuals between 20 and 29 years of age whose diagnosis was made in February 2021 had an over 3-fold higher risk of death compared to those diagnosed in January 2021,” the researchers said. “Taken together, these preliminary findings suggest significant increases in case fatality rates in young and middle-aged adults after identification of a novel SARS-CoV-2 strain circulating in Brazil, and this should raise public health alarms.”

Pfizer, Moderna vaccines limit asymptomatic infections

Vaccines from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE and from Moderna Inc dramatically reduced the risk of infection by the new coronavirus within weeks after the first of two shots, according to data from a study of nearly 4,000 U.S. healthcare personnel and first responders in six states. Previous trials by the companies evaluated the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing illness from COVID-19, but would have missed infections that did not cause symptoms. In the new study, conducted from mid-December to mid-March, nearly 75% of participants had received at least one dose of vaccine, and everyone had weekly coronavirus testing for 13 consecutive weeks in order to pick up asymptomatic infections. According to a report published on Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of infection fell by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots and by 90% by two weeks after the second shot. “The authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines provided early, substantial real-world protection against infection for our nation’s healthcare personnel, first responders, and other frontline essential workers,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

Pandemic has cut parents’ access to hospitalized children

Pediatricians have long endorsed the idea that babies and children in hospitals should not be separated from their families – a practice that in many facilities was restricted or discontinued to limit COVID-19 infections, according to new research. From mid-May through early July, researchers collected survey responses from 96 pediatric care units in 22 countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. The results – mostly from intensive care units for newborns – showed that before the pandemic, 87% of units welcomed families and 92% encouraged skin-to-skin care, according to a report published in Journal of Perinatology. After the onset of the pandemic, more than 83% of the hospital units restricted family presence, with additional restrictions placed on parental participation in their infant’s care, said study coauthor Ita Litmanovitz of Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Israel. Hospitals’ decisions to limit family access did not depend on their previous rules, the availability of single-family rooms, or the virus infection rate in the hospital’s geographical area. “Restrictions during the pandemic increased separation between the infant and family,” the researchers found. These restrictions, Litmanovitz added, “go against psychological and neuroscientific evidence in support of unrestricted parental presence and ability to care for their hospitalized infants.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

‘No noises, only birds’: silent strike shuts Myanmar as prisoners freed

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s junta freed hundreds of demonstrators on Wednesday arrested during its months-long crackdown on protests, while businesses in Yangon were shut and streets deserted in response to a call by anti-coup activists for a silent strike.

Several buses full of prisoners drove out of Yangon’s Insein jail in the morning, said witnesses, who included lawyers for some inmates. There was no immediate word from authorities on how many prisoners were freed. A spokesman for the military did not answer calls.

“All the released are the ones arrested due to the protests, as well as night arrests or those who were out to buy something,” said a member of a legal advisory group who said he saw around 15 buses leaving.

In the biggest city Yangon, a call by pro-democracy activists for a silent strike turned the streets eerily quiet.

“No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day,” Nobel Aung, an illustrator and activist, told Reuters.

“The usual meat and vegetables vendors on the street didn’t show up,” said a resident of the city’s Mayangone district. “No car noises, only birds.”

A teacher in the Kyauktada district said the roads were deserted: “There aren’t many people in the streets, only water delivery men.”

Activists have called for a “big protest” on Thursday.

“The strongest storm comes after the silence,” Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the protest leaders, said in a post on Facebook.

AP JOURNALIST FREED

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 2,000 people have been arrested in the military crackdown on the protests against the Feb. 1 coup.

Among those freed on Wednesday, was Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month, AP reported, quoting him as saying the judge had dropped the charges because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

Wednesday’s strike came a day after staff at a funeral service in Mandalay told Reuters that a seven-year-old girl had died of bullet wounds in the city – the youngest of about 275 people killed in the bloody crackdown, according to the AAPP.

Soldiers shot at her father but hit the girl who was sitting on his lap inside their home, her sister told the Myanmar Now media outlet. Two men were also killed in the district, it said.

The military had no immediate comment on the incident.

The Myanmar office of the United Nations children’s agency said “the continuing use of force against children, including the use of live ammunition, by security forces is taking a devastating toll on children in Myanmar.”

Since the crisis started at least 23 children have been killed and at least 11 others seriously injured, UNICEF said.

The junta has faced international condemnation for staging the coup that halted Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy and for its lethal suppression of the protests that followed.

Opponents of military rule have regularly called for strikes and parts of the economy have been paralyzed by a civil disobedience campaign, including among civil servants.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup and faces charges that her lawyer says have been cooked up to discredit her.

The ousted leader was due to appear for another court hearing via video conferencing on Wednesday, but the head of her legal team Khin Maung Zaw said it had been postponed until April 1, marking the second successive delay due to internet issues.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)

A family business: how and why smugglers are bringing more children to the U.S. border

By Laura Gottesdiener

LA TECNICA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Honduran mother Alicia Cruz handed herself and her son in to border agents in Texas, then watched as unaccompanied children were separated for release from the group of migrants before adults and families, including hers, were expelled into Mexico.

That’s when she contracted a smuggler to ferry Jeffrey, 17, across the border again – alone.

“Leaving my son destroyed me,” Cruz said this month, speaking from the Guatemalan-Mexican border as she headed south towards Honduras. She said her son was with relatives in Texas. “The last thing he said was ‘let me go to study, work so I can help you’.”

Almost 10,000 under-18s from Central America crossed illegally from Mexico into the United States without their parents in February, nearly double the previous month’s figures, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data.

The spike comes after U.S. President Joe Biden’s government, citing humanitarian reasons, said in early February it would not rapidly expel unaccompanied minors, a policy shift from the previous administration.

More than any other group of migrants, these children pose a political, logistical and moral challenge for Biden, testing the administration’s ability to safely process and house new arrivals fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Reuters spoke to over a dozen self-identified smugglers in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to gain insight into how and why so many unaccompanied minors are moving through the region and crossing the border alone. All requested anonymity or nicknames in order to freely discuss the illegal industry.

The story of how the children reach the United States is varied. Some, like Jeffrey, come as far as the border with their parents; others cross with friends or relatives who are not their legal guardians.

A third group, including children as young as two years old, make the perilous journey through some of Mexico’s most lawless, cartel-controlled territory in the care only of human smugglers.

CBP did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the cases detailed by the smugglers and Cruz. Reuters was not able to independently verify the events they described.

More than half the smugglers consulted said they had transported unaccompanied minors in recent weeks, moving them by bus, car, boat and even by plane, which one well-connected smuggler called his network’s “faster new method” to bring children up from Central America.

The trips cost thousands of dollars per child and are often financed by parents or relatives already in the United States.

Three smugglers told Reuters they have been encouraging parents to send their children alone as a result of the shift in U.S. policy.

“It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” said Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.”

A White House spokesperson said last month that Biden’s approach was to deal with immigration “comprehensively, fairly and humanely” and not to expel unaccompanied children who arrive at U.S. borders.

A FAMILY BUSINESS

Many children that the U.S. government classifies as “unaccompanied” actually travel with other family members – cousins, uncles, or older siblings.

But some smugglers said their networks have also been organizing children-only trips in recent weeks.

Vazquez, a Mexican smuggler who said he specializes in unaccompanied children, said the youngest child he has transported in recent weeks was a 2-year-old toddler who traveled without any other family members. On his most recent trip, he transported a group of 17 children between the ages of 5 and 9 from southern Mexico across the border into Texas.

Of those 17 children, the majority of their parents were already living in the United States, and none of them were accompanied by other family members, he said.

After moving the children across Mexico by bus, he kept them in his own home near the U.S. border, where his wife and older daughter helped care for them until it was time for him to cross them into Texas and turn them over to U.S. border agents.

“It’s a family business,” he said.

Vazquez said the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.

Smugglers offer cheaper trips for families and unaccompanied children who plan to surrender themselves to U.S. border agents and ask for asylum, compared to those who seek to enter the United States undetected.

“We deliver children to immigration (agents) and immigration (agents) are responsible for delivering them to their family members in the United States,” said Daniel.

Guatemalans make up the largest group of unaccompanied minors, CBP data shows. A second smuggler in Guatemala said that pre-existing relationships between families and smugglers in small towns often make parents more willing to send their kids alone.

“They send their kids with someone they know, who has already transported other family members,” he said.

He estimated about 100 children were leaving the city of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, without their parents each week in March, which he said was well above ‘normal’ levels.

DIRECT BY PLANE

In 2019, smugglers sped up trips to the U.S. border by transporting unaccompanied minors from Central America on express buses.

But Roberto, a smuggler who said he is linked to a powerful cartel in Ciudad Juarez, said his network is now flying minors directly from Central America to the U.S. border by plane.

He was one of three smugglers who told Reuters they are moving children, including unaccompanied minors, on private or commercial flights between Guatemala and Mexico, or between Mexican cities.

Internal Mexican government assessments reviewed by Reuters also state that smugglers have been flying migrants directly to the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, or even into Houston, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona.

Mexican immigration agents detained 95 people, including eight unaccompanied minors, for traveling without proper documentation after they arrived on two domestic commercial flights into the northern city of Monterrey on Friday. The majority were Hondurans, while there were also a handful of people from El Salvador, Cuba and Guatemala, according to Mexican immigration authorities.

CBP, the Mexican foreign ministry, and Mexico’s immigration agency did not immediately respond to request for comment about smuggling via commercial flights.

Despite the growing demand, some smugglers told Reuters that they try to steer clear of transporting children.

“It’s a risk,” said a Salvadoran smuggler who goes by the nickname El Barrenga. “Maybe the child’s been stolen, for example. It’s safer if they’re with their parents.”

Even Vazquez, the smuggler who specializes in children, admitted that minors bring their own challenges.

“If an adult causes problems, you can ditch them, easily,” he said. “But you can’t abandon a child for having a temper tantrum.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in La Técnica, Guatemala, and Monterrey, Mexico; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. backs distance of three feet between students, which may help schools open

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Friday updated its COVID-19 mitigation guidance to narrow the acceptable distance between students who are wearing masks to at least three feet from at least six feet, potentially easing the path for schools that have struggled to reopen under previous recommendations.

The new recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a boost to the Biden administration’s goal of reopening in-person learning for millions of public school students without sparking outbreaks of the virus.

Many schools continue to teach students remotely more than a year after the novel coronavirus prompted widespread closures across the United States.

The new guidance applies to students from kindergarten through high school and in areas with low, moderate, and substantial community transmission of COVID-19. Middle and high school students in communities with high levels of COVID-19 should stay six feet apart unless their school day contact can be limited to a single small group of students and staff.

Students should continue to maintain six feet of distance when interacting with teachers and other school staff and when eating, the CDC said.

The CDC has been under pressure to relax its guidance to schools and Director Rochelle Walensky said this week that the agency was looking at data in part from a recent study in Massachusetts which suggested tighter spacing had not impacted COVID-19 transmission.

Many schools do not have the space in classrooms to maintain six feet between students, and outside of the United States public health agency recommendations for social distancing start at about three feet and range to more than six.

The guidance urged schools to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing of students and said such regular use of screening tests offers added protection for schools that require fewer than six feet of separation.

School districts should expand screenings for students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, and consider universal screening prior to athletic events.

The agency continues to recommend quarantines for anyone who has been within six feet of someone sick with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

The White House said Wednesday said it would allocate $10 billion to states to support COVID-19 screening testing for teachers, staff and students to assist schools resume in-person instruction.

The CDC said students are required to wear masks on school buses and any other forms of public transit they use to get to school. The agency issued an order in February requiring travelers to wear masks when using public transit.

The Biden administration has urged states to vaccinate teachers and childcare workers, with the goal of getting all of them inoculated by the end of March.

Moderna begins study of COVID-19 vaccine in kids

(Reuters) – Moderna Inc has begun dosing patients in a mid-to-late stage study of its COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA-1273, in children aged six months to less than 12 years, the company said on Tuesday.

The study will assess the safety and effectiveness of two doses of mRNA-1273 given 28 days apart and intends to enroll about 6,750 children in the United States and Canada.

The vaccine has already been authorized for emergency use in Americans who are aged 18 and older.

In a separate study which began in December, Moderna is also testing mRNA-1273 in adolescents between 12 and 18 years old.

The latest study is being conducted in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

Children lose parents as thousands flee after Equatorial Guinea blast

By Aaron Ross

(Reuters) – Hospitals have run out of morgue space and are piling bodies into refrigerated shipping containers. Radio and television stations are flooded with calls trying to locate the parents of unaccompanied children. Thousands have fled for the countryside.

Three days after a series of explosions levelled much of Equatorial Guinea’s largest city Bata, killing at least 105 people and injuring more than 600 others, its residents are still coming to grips with the full scale of the tragedy.

Drone footage aired on state television showed block after block of public housing in the coastal city either completely destroyed or close to it, the remnants of their roofs and walls strewn across the neighborhood’s dirt roads.

“There are many children without parents,” said a teacher in Bata, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the authorities in the tightly-controlled central African country. “In the long (term) what do we do with those children?”

The reclusive government blamed the explosions on fires set by farmers living near the military base and the negligent handling of dynamite stocks by the military unit guarding them.

It has decreed three days of national mourning from Wednesday, declared Bata a catastrophe zone, unblocked 10 billion ($18.19 million) CFA francs for the response and appealed for international aid.

Firefighters continued to comb the rubble on Wednesday for bodies as onlookers wept, state television showed. The authorities appealed for donations of blood and basic goods.

A five-year old girl was pulled on Wednesday from the rubble of a house in the military camp where the blast occurred, Equato-Guinean media AhoraEG said.

Officials have been forced to turn to refrigerated containers to store bodies, said the teacher and Alfredo Okenve, a human rights activist who lives in exile in Europe.

Okenve said his information indicated the number of deaths was between 150 and 200, significantly higher than the government’s official toll of 105.

The government’s information ministry did not immediately respond to written questions.

TRAUMATISED

Bata residents are traumatized from the explosions, which lasted for hours on Sunday, and fearful of additional blasts.

The first explosion “was so big that all of us and the people around us were shouting: ‘This is a bomb, this is a bomb!'” said the teacher.

“People were crying, shouting, running, trying to stay somewhere, but it was panic. We started to see police cars and firemen and people bleeding. It was awful.”

The health ministry said in a tweet that it was deploying psychiatrists and psychologists.

The United Nations said on Wednesday that the World Health Organization and children’s agency UNICEF had mobilized teams to control infection and provide logistical support. Spain has sent a first batch of emergency aid.

The former Spanish colony has been run by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, since 1979.

It is the Central African country’s worst tragedy in recent memory, and while the government, charitable organizations and private citizens have kept everyone fed and sheltered for now, most of Equatorial Guinea’s 1.4 million people live in poverty.

The country is also suffering a double economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic and a drop in the price of crude oil, which provides about three-fourths of state revenue.

State media has provided wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster, including the appeals over the lost children, a rarity in a country that human rights activists consider one of Africa’s most repressive and where bad news is often suppressed.

Okenve said the scale of the tragedy had left the government with no choice.

“If there is information coming out, it is because it is impossible to control,” he said.

($1 = 549.9000 Central African CFA franc BEAC)

(Reporting by Aaron Ross in DAKAR; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

North Korea enslaving political prisoners to fund weapons program: South Korea rights group

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has been enslaving political prisoners, including children, in coal production to boost exports and earn foreign currency as part of a system directly linked to its nuclear and missile programs, a South Korea-based human rights group said on Thursday.

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) released a study analyzing an intricate connection between North Korea’s exploitation of its citizens, the production of goods for export, and its weapons programs.

The report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea: Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power,” said Pyongyang had been operating a “pyramid fraud-like” scheme to force those held in prison camps to produce quotas of coal and other goods for export.

Its findings offered a deeper look into how the camps contribute to North Korea’s shady coal trade network, after the United Nations banned its commodity exports to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and after human rights agencies reported on gross rights violations within the camps.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Geneva to a request for comment.

North Korea violated United Nations sanctions to earn nearly $200 million in 2017 from banned commodity exports, according to a confidential report by independent U.N. monitors released in early 2018.

The NKHR report cited interviews with former prisoners who escaped to the South and other defectors with knowledge about the dealings, along with other sources such as satellite images, and data from the South Korean and U.S. governments.

The United Nations estimates up to 200,000 people are held in a vast network of gulags run by Stasi-like secret police, many of which are located near mining sites. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report said the prisoners are facing torture, rape, forced labor, starvation and other inhumane treatment.

Last December, the United States imposed new sanctions, blacklisting six companies, including several based in China, and four ships accused of illicit exports of North Korean coal.

“Quotas of products for export are met through the enslaved labor of men, women and children in detention camps owned and operated by secret police,” the NKHR report said.

Camp 18, for example, is in the central mining county of Bukchang. Former prisoners interviewed by the NKHR reported at least 8 million tonnes of coal was produced there in 2016.

The secret police, formally known as the Ministry of State Security, handle shipments of goods exported by Bureau 39, a covert secret fund for leader Kim Jong Un’s family, with links to the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the report added.

Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general at the NKHR, said the investigation was intended to highlight the key role of the “state-sponsored system of slavery” in shoring up Kim’s political and financial power and its nuclear programs, just as U.S. President Joe Biden reviews his North Korea policy.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kim Coghill)

UK variant not causing worse illness in children; COVID-19 breath test shows promise

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

UK variant not causing worse illness in children

The coronavirus variant first identified in the UK does not cause more severe disease in children than variants circulating earlier in 2020, new data suggest. Doctors at King’s College Hospital in London compared 20 children hospitalized for COVID-19 during the pandemic’s first wave and 60 hospitalized during the second wave, when most infections were caused by the new variant. While more children were hospitalized in the second wave, “this might be due to the higher prevalence of SARS-CoV-2” at the time, study leader Dr. Atul Gupta said. The number of adult patients also increased in the second wave, he noted. Hospitalized children in both waves had similar ages, rates of underlying medical conditions, socioeconomic status and other risk factors, the researchers reported in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. In both periods, few needed oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation. Those were actually needed less often in the second wave, Gupta said. “We have found no evidence of more severe disease having occurred in children and young people during the second wave,” he concluded, “suggesting that infection with the B.1.1.7 variant does not result in an appreciably different clinical course” in this age group.

COVID-19 breath test shows promise in study

A commercially available electronic “nose” manufactured by Dutch company Breathomix can tell when a person does not have COVID-19 and would be a useful screening tool, researchers have found. They studied more than 4,500 individuals who came to coronavirus test facilities in The Netherlands between August and December 2020. First, using breath samples from a small subset of those individuals, they taught the “eNose” what a breath profile of a COVID-19 patient looks like, “comparable with how your nose can distinguish the smell of coffee from the smell of tea,” said study leader Dr. Geert Groeneveld of Leiden University Medical Center. Later, the device was able to reliably rule out infection – with or without symptoms – in 70% to 75% of all individuals tested, with results available within seconds. In cases in which the eNose cannot reliably rule out the virus, patients can undergo traditional throat-swabbing tests. The study results, posted on Tuesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review, “demonstrate that in a scenario where eNose is used as a screening test, this can reduce the number of throat and nasopharyngeal swabs,” Groeneveld said, “which in turn can reduce the burden on individuals, economy and healthcare.”

Protective antibodies detectable in dried blood spots

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a laboratory test for measuring neutralizing antibodies against the coronavirus that requires only a single drop of blood, collected and dried on filter paper. “Blood samples can be self-collected at home, and sent to the lab in the mail,” said Thomas McDade, whose team described the technique in a report posted on Tuesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. Currently, to determine if someone has the neutralizing antibodies that protect against the virus that causes COVID-19, blood must be drawn at a clinic or doctor’s office and sent for analysis. The Northwestern test “produces results that are comparable to results from venous blood, and the protocol can be implemented in a short amount of time with widely available laboratory infrastructure,” McDade said. “This method allows for large-scale testing of neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19, which may be useful for evaluating the effectiveness of vaccines and the level of protective immunity in the general population.” The researchers have not yet used their test to look for neutralizing antibodies against emerging variants. “We can modify the test for specific variants as needed,” McDade said.

Zinc, vitamin C show no benefit in randomized trial

In adults with COVID-19 who were not sick enough to be hospitalized, high doses of zinc or vitamin C, or both, failed to improve their symptoms or speed their recovery, researchers reported on Friday in JAMA Network Open. They randomly assigned 214 patients to 10 days of treatment with either a high dose of zinc, vitamin C, both, or neither. Everyone also received standard supportive treatments from their healthcare providers. There was no significant difference between the groups in the number of days required to reach a 50% reduction in symptoms like fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. There was also no difference in the number of days until patients no longer had severe symptoms, in need for other prescribed medications, or in rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Zinc and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) supplements “cannot be recommended” to ease the course of COVID-19 in outpatients, the researchers concluded. “Most consumers of ascorbic acid and zinc are taking significantly lower doses of these supplements, so demonstrating that even high-dose ascorbic acid and zinc had no benefit suggests clear lack of efficacy,” they said.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Some lingering COVID-19 issues seen in children; patients’ antibodies attack multiple virus targets

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Long lasting COVID-19 effects seen in children

“Long COVID” – a term that refers to effects of the virus that linger for weeks or months – may be a problem for children, too, a small study suggests. Doctors at a large Italian hospital tracked 129 children and teens with COVID-19 who were otherwise generally healthy. At an average of about five months after their diagnosis, only about 42% had completely recovered. Roughly one in three youngsters still had one or two symptoms and more than one in five had three or more, according to a report posted on Tuesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. The most common persistent problems were insomnia (reported by 18.6%), respiratory symptoms including pain and chest tightness (14.7%), nasal congestion (12.4%), fatigue (10.8%), muscle pain (10.1%), joint pain (6.9%), and concentration difficulties (10.1%). Although these issues were more common in children who had been obviously sick, they also developed in infected youths with few or no symptoms initially. There is increasing evidence that restrictive measures aimed at curbing the pandemic are significantly impacting children’s mental health, the researchers acknowledge. Still, their findings suggest, the potential long-term effects COVID-19 can have on children should be considered when developing measures to reduce the impact of the pandemic on their overall health.

Patients’ antibodies target virus from many angles

Most antibody treatments and vaccines targeting the coronavirus focus on stimulating an immune response against the spike protein it uses to break into cells. Targeting other sites on the virus as well may be a better approach, researchers say. Their study of COVID-19 survivors whose immune systems had generated strong responses to the virus showed that more than half of those antibodies targeted components of the virus other than the spike protein. The most common non-spike targets of the antibodies were the closed capsule in which the virus stores its genetic instructions and specific segments of those instructions, such as stretches of its RNA code. This suggests that non-spike related antibodies may play a significant role in clearing the virus, the research team said in a paper posted on Thursday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. In terms of natural immunity, it also suggests that when faced with new spike protein variants, the immune system will have other sites on the virus that it can still remember and attack. A spokesperson for the researchers said their company, Immunome Inc, is developing a cocktail of antibodies that target multiple sites on the virus.

COVID-19 may affect kidney filtering

COVID-19 impairs the kidneys’ ability to filter waste and toxic substances in some patients, a new report suggests. Kidney filters do not usually allow much protein into the urine. Researchers who studied 103 COVID-19 patients found that about 24% of them had high levels of the protein albumin in their urine, and 21% had high levels of the protein cystatin c in their urine. About 25% of the patients had a noninfectious piece of the coronavirus in their urine, but none of the samples contained infectious virus. That suggests the virus particles researchers did see were “a direct result of a filtration abnormality rather than a viral infection of the kidney,” according to a report posted on Sunday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. None of the patients had signs of kidney dysfunction, other than the filtration issues. “At this stage, we do not know whether or not these abnormalities are a sign of long-term consequences,” said coauthor Choukri Ben Mamoun of the Yale School of Medicine. “It is for this reason that we report these findings and emphasize the need for long-term examination of the consequences of this infection.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Bill Berkrot)