Florida COVID hospitalizations surge, New York urges business push on vaccines

(Reuters) – New York’s governor on Monday urged businesses to turn away unvaccinated customers while Florida is grappling with a surge in hospitalized COVID patients, both sparked by rising cases of the Delta variant that could result in new restrictions on daily life.

Florida, whose governor has resisted mask or vaccine mandates, has one of the worst outbreaks in the nation and about one-quarter of the country’s hospitalized COVID patients, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The head of Florida’s hospital association said the current surge sent COVID hospitalizations skyrocketing to 10,000 from 2,000 in less than 30 days, although deaths have remained well below the previous peak.

“It is a much younger population that is being hospitalized today,” Mary Mayhew told MSNBC on Monday. At one Jacksonville hospital, the average age is 42, she said. “We have 25-year-olds in the hospital in intensive care on ventilators,” she told the cable network. “We’ve got to convince 25-year-olds, 30-year-olds, that this is now life-threatening for them.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also sounded the alarm, urging but not mandating bars, restaurants and other private businesses to require all customers be vaccinated before entering. The Democratic governor also said that vaccines could become mandatory for nursing home workers, teachers and healthcare workers if case numbers do not improve.

“Private businesses – I am asking them and suggesting to them to go to vaccine-only admission,” Cuomo told a briefing Monday. “I believe it’s in your best business interest. If I go to a bar and I want to have a drink and I want to talk to the person next to me, I want to know that that person is vaccinated.”

Cuomo also announced that all employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the trains and subways, and all the workers from his state for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the region’s bridges, airports, and tunnels, would need to be vaccinated by Labor Day on Sept. 6 or submit to weekly testing.

“If you are unvaccinated the Delta variant should be a major concern to you and you should be worried about it,” Cuomo said.

The push by Cuomo marks the latest attempt by government leaders to spur reluctant Americans to get vaccinated as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges nationwide, infecting mostly unvaccinated people.

Cuomo’s announcement comes on the heels of a decision by President Joe Biden to require millions of federal workers and contractors to show proof of vaccination or be subject to weekly or twice-weekly COVID-19 tests.

Even as cases have exploded, Governor Ron DeSantis has resisted mask mandates. Earlier this year, he and the Republican-controlled state legislature limited local officials’ ability to impose COVID-19 restrictions, and on Friday he issued an executive order barring schools from requiring face coverings when classes resume this month.

That order came days after the Broward County school board voted to require masks for students and staff. The superintendent of Miami-Dade schools had also said the district would reconsider whether to require masks in light of the surge.

Some local governments have also sought to impose public health measures despite DeSantis’ opposition. The village of Key Biscayne began requiring masks on Monday for all employees as well as any visitors to government buildings.

Both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties last week said that all adults would be required to wear masks when inside county facilities. Orange County, home to Disney World, has ordered all employees to get vaccinated, with an Aug. 31 deadline for the first dose.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Majority of COVID-19 cases at large public events were among vaccinated -U.S. CDC study

(Reuters) – A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that three-quarters of individuals who became infected with COVID-19 at public events in a Massachusetts county had been fully vaccinated.

The study, published on Friday, showed that three-quarters of those infected were fully vaccinated, suggesting the Delta variant of the virus is highly contagious.

A separate CDC internal document, first reported by the Washington Post on Friday, described the Delta variant as being as transmissible as chickenpox and cautioned it could cause severe disease.

The new study’s authors recommended that local health authorities consider requiring masks in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status or the number of coronavirus cases in the community.

The study identified 469 people with COVID-19, 74% of whom were fully vaccinated, following large public events in the state’s Barnstable County. Testing identified the Delta variant in 90% of virus specimens from 133 people.

The viral load was similar in people who were fully vaccinated and those who were unvaccinated, the CDC said.

High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus, it said.

The finding of the report “is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the CDC reversed course on guidance for mask wearing, calling for their use in areas where cases are surging as a precaution against the possible transmission of the virus by fully vaccinated people.

“The masking recommendation was updated to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones,” Walensky said in a statement.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Howard Goller)

Britain warns COVID-19 could infect half Myanmar in next two weeks

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Britain’s U.N. ambassador warned on Thursday that half of Myanmar’s 54 million people could be infected with COVID-19 in the next two weeks as Myanmar’s envoy called for U.N. monitors to ensure an effective delivery of vaccines.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the military ousted an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, with protests and fighting between the army and newly formed militias. The United States, Britain and others have imposed sanctions on the military rulers over the coup and repression of pro-democracy protests in which hundreds have been killed.

“The coup has resulted in a near total collapse of the healthcare system, and health care workers are being attacked and arrested,” British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told an informal Security Council discussion on Myanmar.

“The virus is spreading through the population, very fast indeed. By some estimates, in the next two weeks, half of the population of Myanmar could be infected with COVID,” she said.

Myanmar state media reported on Wednesday that the military ruler is looking for greater cooperation with other countries to contain the coronavirus.

Infections in the Southeast Asian country have surged since June, with 4,980 cases and 365 deaths reported on Wednesday, according to health ministry data cited in media. Medics and funeral services put the toll much higher.

“In order to have smooth and effective COVID vaccination and providing humanitarian assistance, close-monitoring by the international community is essential,” Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, who speaks for the elected civilian government, told the Security Council discussion.

“As such, we would like to request the U.N. in particular the Security Council to urgently establish a U.N.-led monitoring mechanism for effective COVID vaccination and smooth delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said.

Myanmar recently received two million more Chinese vaccines, but it was believed to have only vaccinated about 3.2% of its population, according to a Reuters tracker.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Tempers flare in U.S. Congress as COVID-19 mask mandates return

By Doina Chiacu and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Tempers flared in the U.S. Congress on Wednesday after its chief physician urged lawmakers to resume wearing masks to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, with the top Democrat labeling Republican opposition as “moronic.”

A high-ranking aide to House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped short of confirming a report based on garbled audio that Pelosi called her Republican counterpart “such a moron” because of his opposition to the new directive.

“The Speaker believes that saying a mask requirement is ‘not a decision based on science’ is moronic,” Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in a tweet.

Hammill was referring to a tweet by McCarthy in which he said, “Make no mistake – The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”

The high-level spat came as COVID-19 cases in recent days have been rising, along with deaths, across the United States.

Since early in the pandemic, mask-wearing and vaccinations have been U.S. political flashpoints, with Republicans resisting and Democrats urging compliance with medical advice.

Many Republicans have complained that such government edicts infringe on individual liberties.

Late on Tuesday, Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician for Congress, required the use of masks indoors where people are congregating. It followed a similar move by the White House after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new mask recommendations to stem the spread of the new variant.

“Mask and vaccine mandates: Bullying, Controlling, Unconstitutional, Threats to Liberty!” Republican Representative Jody Hice of Georgia tweeted on Wednesday morning.

Some 57.6% of Americans have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with the lowest rates across the heavily Republican U.S. Southeast. Four of the five U.S. states with the lowest vaccination rates have Republican governors: Mississippi, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska, according to a Reuters COVID tracker. The governor of the fifth state, Louisiana, is a Democrat.

The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, is rolling out a campaign ad in his home state of Kentucky to counter what he called “bad advice” prompting some Americans to opt not to get vaccinated.

“For the Congress, representing a collection of individuals traveling weekly from various risk areas (both high and low rates of disease transmission), all individuals should wear a well-fitted, medical-grade filtration mask … when they are in an interior space,” Dr. Monahan said in a memo late Tuesday.

The rule applies to all House of Representatives office buildings, in the hall of the House and in committee meetings, he said.

Even before the recommendation, many congressional Democrats had resumed wearing masks in the Capitol this week.

At her weekly news conference, Pelosi attempted to cool passions somewhat by refusing to comment directly on whether McCarthy’s position was “moronic.” Instead, in response to a reporter’s question, Pelosi said, “To say that wearing a mask is not based on science, I think is not wise.”

Throughout the pandemic, the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House have taken different precautions to contain COVID-19 infections in the sprawling Capitol.

Monahan’s latest directive did not require renewed mask-wearing on the Senate side of the Capitol – a decision that did not escape McCarthy.

“If she (Pelosi) knows so much about science explain to me where the science changes in the Rotunda,” McCarthy said of the massive room that separates the House and Senate.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang)

COVID still devastating in the Americas, health agency says

BRASILIA (Reuters) -COVID-19 continues to inflict a devastating toll on the Americas, with Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and Paraguay among the countries with the world’s highest weekly death rates, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

Cases have more than doubled in the United States over the past week, mainly among unvaccinated people, PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a briefing.

The more transmissible Delta variant of coronavirus has been detected in 20 of the 35 countries in the Americas already, she said.

Cuba is seeing higher COVID infection and death rates than at any other point in the pandemic there, she said, adding that more than 7,000 minors and nearly 400 pregnant women have tested positive there in the last week.

Over the last week there were over 1.26 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 29,000 deaths reported in the Americas.

Infection hotspots have been reported in Argentine provinces bordering Bolivia and Chile, and in Colombia’s Amazon region.

“As COVID continues to circulate, too many places have relaxed the public health and social measures that have proven effective against this virus,” Etienne said.

So far, only 16.6% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as countries in the regions have yet to access the vaccines needed to keep their people safe, she said.

“The good news is that vaccines work against the variants, including Delta, in terms of preventing severe disease and death. The bad news is that we do not have yet enough vaccines to stop community transmission,” Etienne said.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Isolated Myanmar calls for international help as COVID cases surge

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s military ruler is looking for greater cooperation with the international community to contain the coronavirus, state media reported on Wednesday, as the Southeast Asian country struggles with a surging wave of infections.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing called in a speech for more cooperation on prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19, including with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and “friendly countries,” the Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the military ousted an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, with regular protests and fighting between the army and newly formed militias. Various countries including the United States and Britain have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military rulers over the coup and the repression of pro-democracy protests in which hundreds have been killed.

The junta leader said vaccinations needed to be increased, through both donated doses and by developing domestic production, aided by Russia, the newspaper said, adding Myanmar would seek the release of funds from an ASEAN COVID-19 fund.

Myanmar recently received two million more Chinese vaccines, but it was believed to have only vaccinated about 3.2% of its population, according to a Reuters tracker. A drive to vaccinate some 40,000 inmates in densely packed prisons, which have seen major virus outbreaks recently, started on Wednesday, state-run MRTV reported.

The military has appeared wary of outside help in past disasters, forcing Myanmar’s people to help each other, though a previous junta did allow in aid via ASEAN after a devastating cyclone in 2008.

There have been desperate efforts by people to find oxygen in many parts of the country. The Myanmar Now news portal, citing witnesses, reported that at least eight people died in a Yangon hospital at the weekend after a piped oxygen system failed.

Reuters could not independently confirm the report and the North Okkalapa General Hospital and a health ministry spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Infections in Myanmar have surged since June, with 4,980 cases and 365 deaths reported on Wednesday, according to health ministry data cited in media. Medics and funeral services put the toll much higher.

Last week, prisoners in Yangon staged a protest over what activists said was a major COVID-19 outbreak in the colonial-era Insein jail, where many pro-democracy protesters are being held.

Vaccinations began at Insein and a prison in the capital Naypyitaw on Wednesday and would be extended to inmates countrywide, MRTV reported, citing the prisons department.

Efforts to tackle the outbreak have been further hampered by some of the worst flooding in years in eastern Myanmar.

Despite Min Aung Hlaing agreeing to an ASEAN peace plan reached in April, the military has shown little sign of following through on it and has instead reiterated its own, entirely different plan to restore order and democracy.

The military justified its coup by accusing Suu Kyi’s party of manipulating votes in a November general election to secure a landslide victory. The electoral commission at the time and outside observers rejected the complaints.

But in a further sign of the junta’s tightening grip on power, the military-appointed election commission this week officially annulled the November results, saying the vote was not in line with the constitution and electoral laws, and was not “free and fair,” MRTV reported.

(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed Davies and John Geddie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Thailand builds COVID-19 hospital in Bangkok airport amid surge in cases

By Juarawee Kittisilpa and Artorn Pookasook

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai volunteers on Wednesday turned a cargo warehouse at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport into a 1,800-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients with less severe symptoms, as the country deals with its biggest outbreak to date.

The Southeast Asian nation reported a daily record of 16,533 new cases, plus 133 new deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total accumulated cases to 543,361 and 4,397 deaths.

Workers drilled walls for toilet installations and set up beds and blankets.

“This is a level 1+ field hospital where it can receive a large number of patients, who have less severe symptoms,” Rienthong Nanna, director of Mongkutwattana Hospital, told Reuters.

“But if patients’ conditions deteriorate, they will be moved to our other field hospital called Pitak Rachan (Protect the King) Field Hospital,” he added.

Rienthong, a retired major-general and an ultra-royalist leader, said the field hospital was not up and running yet as more preparations were needed.

The number of infections will continue to climb and more field hospitals will be needed, he added.

Rienthong and volunteers held a small ceremony on the occasion of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s 69th birthday to unofficially inaugurate their third field hospital named “Tai Rom Prabaramee,” which means “under the glory of His Majesty.”

The spike in COVID-19 cases in the capital has put pressure on the city’s health system and the government has faced public criticism over a slow rollout of vaccines.

Thailand aims to inoculate 50 million people by the end of the year, but so far only 5.6% of its more than 66 million population are fully vaccinated, while 19.2% have received at least one dose.

(Reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa and Artorn Pookasook; Writing by Orathai Sriring; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Britain reports highest deaths from COVID-19 since March as Johnson urges caution

By Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain reported its highest number of deaths and people in hospital with coronavirus since March on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging caution despite a week of lower reported numbers of infection.

Britain reported 131 new deaths from COVID-19, the highest daily total since March 17, though it came after just 14 deaths were reported on Monday, suggesting the weekend might have impacted when deaths were reported.

The number of COVID-19 patients in British hospitals has also steadily risen to 5,918, also the highest since March, following a spike in cases earlier this month.

The number of new infections has fallen each day for the last seven days, though Johnson stressed the pandemic was not over.

“It is very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about (lower case numbers),” Johnson told broadcasters, noting it would take a while for the lifting of restrictions in England to feed through to the data.

“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government.”

Johnson has lifted restrictions in England and is betting he can get one of Europe’s largest economies firing again because so many people are now vaccinated, a decision which marks a new chapter in the response to the novel coronavirus.

Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said the effective end of Britain’s pandemic could be just months away as vaccines have so dramatically reduced the risk of hospitalization and death.

“We’re not completely out of the woods but the equation has fundamentally changed,” Ferguson, whose modelling of the virus’s likely spread at the outset of the pandemic in early 2020 alarmed governments across the world, told the BBC.

“I’m positive that by late September, October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic.”

ON THE WAY DOWN

Johnson lifted COVID-19 restrictions in England on July 19. New daily cases in the current wave peaked two days earlier at 54,674 and have since fallen dramatically, to 23,511 new cases on Tuesday.

The closure of schools for summer, the end of the Euro 2020 soccer championships and warmer weather are among factors epidemiologists say might have reduced social mixing indoors and therefore cases, even as England’s economy has fully reopened.

Case numbers have been falling for longer in Scotland, where the recent peak in new infections was on July 1, than in England, corresponding to an earlier elimination from the Euros.

“Both of them seem to coincide in some ways with the end of activity in the Euro 2020 tournament,” Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, told Reuters, adding that changes in testing patterns might mean that the sharpness of the drop is overstated in daily testing figures.

“(Cases) may go up again, because we’re only just going to be starting to see the effect of the complete release of restrictions associated with July 19 in England. So there may still be rises yet to come.”

Britain has one of the highest official fatality rates from COVID-19 in the world, with 129,303 deaths, but vaccinations and lockdowns have greatly slowed the rate since March.

Scotland’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch said a gradual return to usual social activity would help smooth the end of the current wave, but that the next few weeks would be unpredictable.

“On the way down is always bumpier than the exponential rise on the way up,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Alistair Smout; Additional reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Janet Lawrence, Catherine Evans, William Maclean and Mike Harrison)

Factbox: Latest on the worldwide spread of the coronavirus

(Reuters) – The EU is on course to hit a target of fully vaccinating at least 70% of its adult population by the end of summer, given that same percentage of over-18s has now already received a first dose, the European Commission said.

DEATHS AND INFECTIONS

EUROPE

* Ireland became the latest European Union member state to commit to offering COVID-19 vaccines to children aged 12-15 as it opened its strongly subscribed program to 16 and 17-year old’s.

* Greece said children aged 12-15 could be vaccinated with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna shots.

ASIA-PACIFIC

* Tokyo’s 2,848 COVID-19 infections are the highest tally that the Olympic host city has reported since the pandemic began, officials said, as media reported that authorities had asked hospitals to prepare more beds for patients, with the Delta variant driving the surge.

* India will meet its target of supplying more than half a billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to its states by the end of this month, the health ministry said, but added not all doses may be administered by then.

* Moderna has pushed back its late-July vaccine shipment schedule for South Korea to August due to supply problems that will also affect other countries awaiting its shots, South Korean health officials said.

* Australia’s Victoria state will lift a strict lockdown, while neighboring New South Wales faces an extension of restrictions after daily new cases spiked to a 16-month peak.

AMERICAS

* The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to announce revised mask guidance for fully vaccinated Americans in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.

* Argentina’s government has signed a deal with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer to acquire 20 million doses of vaccines to be delivered this year, Health Minister Carla Vizzotti told reporters.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* Saudi Arabia will impose a three-year travel ban on citizens travelling to countries on the kingdom’s ‘red list’ under efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus and its new variants, state news agency SPA said.

* Nigeria expects to take delivery of 29 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine in August, allowing it to ramp up its vaccination program just as a third wave of infections takes hold, the health minister said.

* Israel is considering giving a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to its elderly population even before FDA approval to help fend off the Delta variant.

MEDICAL DEVELOPMENTS

* Antibodies triggered by Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine decline below a key threshold from around six months after a second dose for most recipients, although a third shot could have a strong booster effect, according to a lab study.

* Russia has given the green light for clinical trials combining a shot from AstraZeneca and Britain’s Oxford University with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to go ahead.

* Moderna is in talks with U.S. regulators to expand the size of an ongoing trial testing its vaccines in children aged between five and 11.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

* World stocks fell after investors sold Chinese internet giants for a third straight day, while real U.S. bond yields hit record lows on worries about the economic outlook ahead of a Federal Reserve meeting.

* The International Monetary Fund maintained its 6% global growth forecast for 2021, upgrading its outlook for the United States and other wealthy economies but cutting estimates for a number of developing countries struggling with surging COVID-19 infections.

(Compiled by Veronica Snoj and Ramakrishnan M.; Editing by Grant McCool, Maju Samuel, Sriraj Kalluvila and Gareth Jones)

U.S. CDC recommends vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in many cases

By David Shepardson and Julie Steenhuysen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should go back to wearing masks in indoor public places in regions where the coronavirus and especially the Delta variant are spreading rapidly, U.S. authorities said on Tuesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommended all students and teachers at kindergarten through 12th grade schools wear masks regardless of vaccination status. The CDC said children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies.

The changes mark a reversal of the CDC’s announcement in May that prompted millions of vaccinated Americans to shed their face coverings.

The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections, accounting for one in every nine cases reported worldwide each day. The seven-day average for new cases has been rising sharply and stands at 57,126, still about a quarter of the pandemic peak.

“In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals wear a mask in public indoor settings to help prevent spread of Delta and protect others,” the agency said.

The CDC said that 63% of U.S. counties had high transmission rates that warranted mask wearing. The Delta variant is highly transmissible.

In May, the agency advised that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places, guidance the agency said would allow life to begin to return to normal.

Dr. David Doudy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said the CDC guidance was motivated by a change in infection patterns. “We’re seeing this doubling in the number of cases every 10 days or so,” he said.

‘A NECESSARY PRECAUTION’

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised the new CDC mask guidance in a statement, saying it was needed “to deal with the changing realities of virus transmission.”

She called it “a necessary precaution until children under 12 can receive a COVID vaccine and more Americans over 12 get vaccinated.”

The new CDC recommendations are not binding and many Americans, especially in Republican-leaning states, may choose not to follow them. At least eight states bar schools from requiring masks.

Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, a medical epidemiologist and adjunct professor at Cornell University Public Health, said resistance was likely among some people. “I think we will get blowback because I think people might view it as backtracking,” he said.

On Monday, the Biden administration confirmed it will not lift any existing international travel restrictions, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases and the expectation that they will continue to rise in the weeks ahead.

Masks became a political issue in the United States under former President Donald Trump, who resisted mandating face coverings. President Joe Biden has embraced masks and mandated them for transit hubs days after taking office.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman)