Supplies for coronavirus field hospital held up at U.S.-Mexico border

By Julia Love and Mica Rosenberg

(Reuters) – Red tape and rules on exporting medical gear have delayed work on a field hospital for migrants in an asylum camp near Mexico’s border with Texas, undercutting efforts to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, according to organizers of the project.

Migrants are seen waiting at clinic of Global Response Management at a migrant encampment where more than 2,000 people live while seeking asylum in the U.S., while the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Matamoros, Mexico April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Mexican authorities approved construction of the 20-bed field hospital on April 2. But since then, a trailer laden with supplies for the project has been parked in Brownsville, Texas, less than a block from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Global Response Management, the nonprofit sprearheading the project, said the trailer contains an X-ray machine, cots, heart monitors, medical tents, generators and other equipment. Its staff fear time is running out to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.

“If we are trying to set up the hospital in the middle of the epidemic, it’s too late,” Andrea Leiner, director of strategic planning for the organization, told Reuters on Tuesday.

“We are in a situation where containment and quarantine are not possible, so we need to be aggressive on prevention.”

There are no confirmed cases yet in the camp on the banks of the Rio Grande that houses about 2,000 migrants, mostly Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. The camp also holds Cubans, Venezuelans and Mexican asylum seekers along with other nationalities.

But testing has been limited. Health experts say the migrants are exceedingly vulnerable, their immune systems worn down after months living in closely packed tents.

Due to a U.S. order banning the export of key protective medical gear, the nonprofit had to remove equipment such as gloves, surgical masks and N95 masks from the trailer in Brownsville. It is now trying to source what it can from Mexico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have said they are trying to prevent brokers and intermediaries from diverting critical medical resources overseas.

In a rule issued on Friday, FEMA said it would consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including humanitarian considerations, when determining whether to detain shipments of medical gear.

Global Response said U.S. authorities cleared its remaining supplies on Sunday, but it is now awaiting a letter from the Matamoros mayor’s office certifying the equipment will only be brought into the country for six months, so the shipment can be approved by Mexican customs.

Mexico’s customs agency, the Matamoros mayor’s office and the National Migration Institute (INM) did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the trailer, Global Response has collected hundreds of cloth masks sewn by volunteers for the camp, but it has only been able to bring them in three at a time, the quantity deemed for “personal use” and thus not subject to import duties in Mexico.

The group has accumulated 3,500 rapid tests for the coronavirus to use in the camp, said executive director Helen Perry.

Many in the camp are awaiting U.S. hearings under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy. All hearings under the program have been suspended until May 1.

In Matamoros, which has a population of about half a million people, the five public hospitals have 25 ventilators and 11 intensive care beds between them, according to figures provided to Reuters by the state government last month.

A Mexican government plan to relocate the migrants to a stadium was abandoned, Global Response’s Leiner said.

The nonprofit and INM are now working to fence off the camp and conduct temperature checks as people enter, she said.

(Reporting by Julia Love in Mexico City and Mica Rosenberg in New York, additional reporting by Verónica G. Cárdenas and Daniel Becerril in Matamoros,; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Tom Brown)

Russian plane takes off for U.S. with coronavirus help onboard: state TV

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian military transport plane took off from an airfield outside Moscow early on Wednesday and headed for the United States with a load of medical equipment and masks to help Washington fight coronavirus, Russian state TV reported.

President Vladimir Putin offered Russian help in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two leaders discussed how best to respond to the virus.

The flight, which was organised by the Russian Defence Ministry, is likely to be unpopular with some critics of Trump who have urged him to keep his distance from Putin and who argue that Moscow uses such aid as a geopolitical and propaganda tool to advance its influence, something the Kremlin denies.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday night. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to 187,000 and nearly 3,900 people have already died there from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

In Russia, where some doctors have questioned the accuracy of official data, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337 cases with 17 deaths.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to election interference, something Russia denies.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.

Peskov, who complained about difficulties expediting the aid to the United States thrown up by some U.S. officials, was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception … there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance”.

Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. could face 200,000 coronavirus deaths, millions of cases, Fauci warns

By Doina Chiacu and Tom Polansek

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government’s top infectious diseases expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans and other major cities pleaded for more medical supplies.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview with CNN that the pandemic could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths in the United States.

Since 2010, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1918-19 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-preparedness.htm.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 2,400 on Sunday, after deaths on Saturday more than doubled from the level two days prior. The United States has now recorded more than 137,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the most of any country in the world.

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html for a GRAPHIC on U.S. coronavirus cases

Jason Brown, who was laid off from his job in digital media due to the pandemic, said Fauci’s estimate was scary.

“I feel like it’s just growing, growing, growing,” said Brown, who is 27 and lives in Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of the outbreak. “There’s no vaccine. It seems like a lot of people don’t take it seriously in the U.S. so it makes me believe that this would become more drastic and drastic.”

Erika Andrade, a teacher who lives in Trumbull, Connecticut, said she was already expecting widespread deaths from the virus before Fauci’s estimate on Sunday.

“I wasn’t surprised that he said the numbers were coming. They were lower than what I actually expected,” said Andrade, 49. “I’m worried for my mother. I’m worried for the people I love.”

In New York, the usually bustling city was quiet except for the sound of ambulance sirens.

“It feels very apocalyptic,” said Quentin Hill, 27, of New York City, who works for a Jewish nonprofit. “It almost feels like we’re in wartime.”

New York state reported nearly 60,000 cases and a total of 965 deaths on Sunday, up 237 in the past 24 hours with one person dying in the state every six minutes. The number of patients hospitalized is slowing, doubling every six days instead of every four, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

Stephanie Garrido, 36, a tech worker from Manhattan, said she has not left her home in 15 days, receiving her groceries by delivery. Too many New Yorkers have underestimated the aggressiveness of the virus as many people continue to socialize and congregate, Garrido said.

“Those people are in denial or just don’t think it will affect them. It’s extremely inconsiderate,” Garrido said. “People need to consider that this will be much longer term.”

The governors of at least 21 states, representing more than half the U.S. population of 330 million, have told residents to stay home and closed non-essential businesses.

Maryland arrested a man who repeatedly violated the ban on large gatherings by hosting a bonfire party with 60 guests, Governor Larry Hogan said on Sunday.

One bright spot on Sunday was Florida reporting about 200 more cases but no new deaths, with its toll staying at 56.

President Donald Trump has talked about reopening the country by Easter Sunday, April 12, despite many states such as New York ordering residents to stay home past that date. On Saturday, he seemed to play down those expectations, saying only “We’ll see what happens.”

Tests to track the disease’s progress also remain in short supply, despite repeated White House promises that they would be widely available.

Trump, who is due to hold a news conference at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), bragged on Twitter about the millions of Americans tuning in to watch the daily briefings.

VENTILATOR SHORTAGE

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose state has become one the fastest growing areas for the virus, especially in the county that includes Detroit, called the rapid spread “gut-wrenching.”

“We have nurses wearing the same mask from the beginning of their shift until the end, masks that are supposed to for one patient at one point in your shift. We need some assistance and we’re going to need thousands of ventilators,” Whitmer told CNN.

New York City will need hundreds more ventilators in a few days and more masks, gowns and other supplies by April 5, Mayor Bill de Blasio said to CNN.

New Orleans will run out of ventilators around April 4, John Bel Edwards told CBS.

Ventilators are breathing machines needed by many of those suffering from the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment and many hospitals fear they will not have enough.

Dr. Arabia Mollette, an emergency medicine physician at Brookdale and St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, say she now works in a “medical warzone.”

“We’re trying to keep our heads above water without drowning,” Mollette said. “We are scared. We’re trying to fight for everyone else’s life, but we also fight for our lives as well.”

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html for a GRAPHIC tracking the spread of the global coronavirus

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Doina Chiacu and Chris Sanders in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York, Tom Polansek in Chicago and Dan Trotta; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

White House-led airlift of urgently needed medical supplies arrives in New York

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard-hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.

The airlift is a product of a team led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, which formed “Project Airbridge,” a partnership between large U.S. healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc, and the federal government.

Representatives of those companies were to attend a White House meeting later on Sunday with President Donald Trump to discuss the effort, the official said.

The goal is to expedite the arrival of critical medical supplies purchased by the companies over the next 30 days, using planes instead of ships to reduce the shipping time.

“At President Trump’s direction we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure that massive amounts of masks, gear and other PPE will be brought to the United States immediately to better equip our health care workers on the front lines and to better serve the American people,” Kushner said in a statement.

Trump, accused of initially playing down the threat from the virus, has been searching for supplies to fill the mounting need for equipment to protect healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers across the country are clamoring for equipment to protect themselves from infection as they deal with the flood of virus victims.

The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.

FEMA will distribute most of the supplies to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the rest going to nursing homes in the area and other high-risk areas across the country.

The flight from Shanghai, China, was the first of about 20 flights to arrive between now and early April, the official said. Additional flights will carry similar gear from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the official said.

“It will be allocated based on need,” the White House official said.

Involved in the effort are the FEMA transportation task force as well as officials at both the U.S. embassy in China as well as the State Department’s East-Asia Pacific team, the official said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

3M taps regional suppliers to meet soaring demand for masks

By Karl Plume

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (Reuters) – Diversified manufacturer 3M Co has avoided major supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak by sourcing materials for its protective face masks from regional suppliers instead of far-flung locations, a company official told Reuters.

More than 3,200 people have died from the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has reached more than 80 nations. It has spurred buying sprees on medical supplies like face masks, even as world health officials have warned that citizens generally do not need to buy such supplies, and that stockpiling by the public can put healthcare workers, who do need them, at risk.

3M has ramped up testing and production of single-use N95 respirator masks, designed to filter 95% of airborne particles, along with more robust respiratory protective gear amid the coronavirus outbreak.

So far, the company has not seen disruptions in production, Nikki McCullough, global lead for occupational health and safety at 3M, told Reuters at its global testing lab outside of Minneapolis,

“If we start to see disruptions, we’ll certainly work to alert our customers. At this point in time, we are able to manufacture and we are continuing at capacity for respirators,” she said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the coronavirus response team in the United States, said on Sunday that the U.S. government is seeking 35 million additional masks per month from 3M. Pence will visit the 3M facility on Thursday.

3M produces all of the components of the filters in its N95 respirator masks in house but sources other materials from regional suppliers, including the straps and metal nose clips that hold the masks in pace, McCullough said.

“Since we have this regional manufacturing model, many of our items are coming regionally. And we’re working with our supply partners very closely to monitor the situation,” McCullough told Reuters.

The company is not currently under contract to produce the masks and is preparing to respond to the government’s request, 3M spokeswoman Jennifer Ehrlich said.

Demand for masks like the ones produced by 3M has outpaced supply as the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China, has spread. The outbreak has riled markets and disrupted global supply chains, largely in export-dependent China.

“The demand is outstripping capacity right now, and we’re working 24/7 to ramp up and be able to meet as much of that demand as we can,” CEO Michael Roman told investors at an industry conference last month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services intends to buy 500 million N95 respirators over the next 18 months for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), the nation’s supply of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

(Reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Talks with rebels in no-man’s land as Russia eyes post-war role in Syria

A man is seen near rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels under siege near Damascus have resorted to talks with the government’s ally Russia, sometimes meeting in no-man’s land, as they seek to hang on to their enclave.

The meetings on eastern Ghouta – the only major rebel bastion around the capital – underline Moscow’s deepening role in trying to shape Syria’s future after the conflict, which broke out in 2011.

The rebels have won almost nothing from the negotiations so far, but they say they have little choice.

They believe the Russians, whose air force all but won the war for the government, will have the final say on Syria’s fate.

The two main rebel forces in the suburbs signed ceasefires with Russia in the summer, but fighting has carried on. Both said they have been talking to Russian officials regularly for several months.

“It’s better to negotiate with the one calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime,” said Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman insurgents. “So the factions are forced to sit down with them. This is the reality.”

The Russian defense and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the talks. Moscow says the reconciliation center at its air base in Syria routinely holds peace talks with armed factions across the country.

The Syrian government’s minister for national reconciliation has said the state intends to get all militants out of eastern Ghouta and restore its full control.

But the insurgents want their enemies to observe the truce, which they say includes lifting the siege, opening crossings, and letting dying patients out. It would also involve evacuating the few hundred fighters of al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

Both factions accuse Moscow of not honoring the deals, or turning a blind eye to Syrian army violations.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants.

“We send them documentation of how the aircraft drops missiles on residential areas,” said Hamza Birqdar, a military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebels.

“Either there is silence … or baseless excuses,” he said. “They say government authorities denied bombing. Then these planes flying over the Ghouta, who do they belong to?”

(Graphic: Syria areas of control http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTrjp1)

TRUCE PROCESS

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. Monitors and opposition activists blame Russian bombing for thousands of civilian deaths and much of the destruction – allegations Moscow denies.

After turning the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has seized the reins of international diplomacy in the past year. It has sought to build a political process outside of failed U.N. peace talks in Geneva.

Other countries including the United States, meanwhile, have wound down support for the array of mostly Sunni rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first sent warplanes to help Assad in 2015, is pushing for a congress of national dialogue between Syria’s many combatants.

With the map of Syria’s conflict redrawn, Russia wants to convert military gains into a settlement that stabilizes the shattered nation and secures its interests in the region.

To this end, Moscow has been negotiating behind the scenes with armed factions across Syria.

“We communicate exclusively with them,” said Birqdar. “Because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions … except under Russian orders.”

With official and secret talks, Russia has built ties to local groups partly to gain influence on the ground, said Yury Barmin, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the foreign ministry.

“There’s one goal. Their inclusion in the truce process,” he said. “All this is done with the aim of populating these Russian processes, ones led by Russia, with such opposition groups.”

NO MAN’S LAND

Since 2013, Syrian government forces and their allies have blockaded eastern Ghouta, a densely populated pocket of satellite towns and farms.

The military has suppressed opposition enclaves across western Syria, with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. Nearly seven years into the war, Assad has repeatedly vowed to take back every inch of Syria.

The Ghouta remains the only big rebel enclave near the heavily fortified capital.

“Our communications with the Russian side are through (their) official in Damascus in charge of this file, by phone and in meetings,” said Yasser Delwan, a local Jaish al-Islam political official.

They meet Russian forces in no-man’s land, the abandoned farmland between rebel and government territory, at the edge of the nearby Wafideen camp.

“We talk about the deal we signed … implementing it from paper into something practical,” he said.

Both rebel forces said Russia instigated the talks. They said Russian officials sometimes blame Iran-backed forces for breaking the truce or use jihadists as a pretext for attacks against the Ghouta.

Failaq al-Rahman only negotiates with Russian officials outside Syria, said Olwan, their spokesman.

“In reality, Russia has never been honest in its support of the political track,” he said. “But with the failure of the international community … the factions were forced to negotiate with the enemy.”

DE-ESCALATION DEALS

Eastern Ghouta falls under ceasefire plans for rebel territory that Russia has brokered across Syria in the past year, with help from Turkey and Iran.

When the insurgents signed the “de-escalation” deal with Russia last summer, residents and aid workers hoped food would flow into the suburbs, home to around 400,000 people. But they say it has brought no relief.

Despite lulls in air strikes, the siege got harsher. In some frontline districts, fierce battles rage on. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled, especially after the shutdown of smuggling tunnels.

A Syrian official in Damascus said the army has only retaliated to militants in the suburbs shelling districts of the capital. “As for the Russian allies, every action takes place on Syrian land in full and total coordination with the Syrian government,” the official said. “They have a big role.”

The Ghouta’s rebel factions, which have long been at odds, say they have no direct contacts with Assad’s government.

“In its communications, Russia has always tried to present itself as the solution,” Olwan said. “We don’t see them as mediators. We see them as the final commander in the regime’s ranks.”

The Damascus government mostly does not play a role in the talks, said Barmin, the Russia analyst. “Damascus is presented with a fait accompli and must either accept it or not.”

(Additional reporting by Moscow bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood and Anna Willard)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Medical supplies, U.N. aid workers reach Yemen after blockade eased

Medical supplies, U.N. aid workers reach Yemen after blockade eased

GENEVA/SANAA (Reuters) – Humanitarian aid workers and medical supplies began to arrive in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Saturday, U.N. officials said, after the easing of a nearly three-week-old military blockade that caused an international outcry.

International aid groups have welcomed the decision to let aid in, but said aid flights are not enough to avert a humanitarian crisis. About 7 million people face famine in Yemen and their survival depends on international assistance.

“First plane landed in Sanaa this morning with humanitarian aid workers,” WFP’s regional spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told Reuters in an email, while officials at Sanaa airport said two other U.N. flights had arrived on Saturday.

The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) said one flight carried “over 15 tonnes” of vaccines that will cover some 600,000 children against diphtheria, tetanus and other diseases.

“The needs are huge and there is much more to do for

#YemenChildren,” the world body said on its Twitter account.

Airport director Khaled Al Shayef said that apart from the vaccinations shipment a flight carrying eight employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross had also landed.

“Sanaa airport was closed from Nov. 6 until today, more than 18 days and this closure caused an obstruction to the presence of aid workers,” Shayef told Reuters television in Sanaa.

“There are more than 500 employees trapped either inside or outside being denied travel as well as 40 flights that were denied arrival at Sanaa airport,” he added.

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the armed Houthi movement in Yemen said on Wednesday it would allow aid in through the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Salif, as well as U.N. flights to Sanaa, but there has been no confirmation of any aid deliveries yet.

FAMINE

A spokesman for the U.S.-backed coalition said in a statement issued on Friday that 82 permits have been issued for international aid missions since Nov. 4, both for the Sanaa airport and Hodeidah, the country’s main port where some 80 percent of food supplies enter.

“That includes issuing clearance for a ship today (Rena), carrying 5,500 Metric Tons of food supplies, to the port of Hodeidah,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki Al Maliki said in a statement issued in a status update published by the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Officials at the port said on Saturday that no ships have arrived yet and they were not expecting any to dock soon.

The coalition closed air, land and sea access in a move it said was to stop the flow of arms to the Houthis, who control much of northern Yemen, from Iran.

The action came after Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired toward Riyadh. Iran has denied supplying weapons.

The blockade drew wide international concern, including from the United States and the United Nations secretary-general.

Sources in Washington said that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had asked Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen before the kingdom decided to do so.

The heads of three U.N. agencies had earlier urged the Saudi-led military coalition to lift the blockade, warning that “untold thousands” would die if it stayed in place.

The coalition has asked the United Nations to send a team to discuss ways of bolstering its UNVIM programme which was agreed in 2015 to allow commercial ships to enter Hodeidah.

The coalition joined the Yemen war in March 2015, after the Houthis forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government to flee their temporary headquarters in the southern port city of Aden into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Yemen was has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than two million, caused a cholera epidemic that had affected nearly one million people, and drove Yemen to the verge of famine.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Alexander Smith)

Yemen set to run out of fuel and vaccine in a month: UNICEF

A boy is being treated at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen November 4, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen’s stocks of fuel and vaccines will run out in a month unless a Saudi-led military coalition allows aid into the blockaded port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport, UNICEF’s representative in the country said on Friday.

Meritxell Relano, speaking by phone to reporters in Geneva, said fuel prices had risen 60 percent and there were urgent concerns about a diphtheria outbreak, as well as food shortages because of the port closure.

“The situation that was already catastrophic is just getting worse,” she said. “The impact of this is unimaginable in terms of health and diseases.”

After two years of civil war, Yemen has 7 million people on the brink of famine and has had 900,000 suspected cholera cases in the past six months.

The number of new cases has fallen consistently for the past eight weeks, according to data from the World Health Organization.

But progress against cholera, which has killed 2,196 people, could be reversed by the blockade, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“If the closure is not stopped in the coming days, we may see that the progress is stopped,” Chaib said. “We can see even more cases and more deaths as a result of not being able to get access to people.”

The closure of Hodeidah port prevented a ship setting sail from Djibouti with 250 tonnes of WHO medical supplies on Wednesday. Trauma kits in particular are running short.

“If the hostilities continue and the ports remain closed, we will not be able to perform life-saving surgeries or provide basic healthcare,” Chaib said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche)

 

UPS backed Rwandan blood deliveries show drones’ promise

A Zipline delivery drone releases its payload midair during a flight demonstration at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay

By Nick Carey

(Reuters) – International delivery company UPS is backing a start-up using drones in Rwanda to transport life-saving blood supplies and vaccines, underlining the wide potential for the unmanned aircraft and helping bring package delivery by drone to U.S. consumers a step closer.

U.S. companies are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs but hurdles range from smoothing communication between the autonomous robots and airplanes in America’s crowded airspace to ensuring battery safety and longevity.

As far back as 2013, online retailer Amazon said it was testing delivery using drones and Alphabet Inc’s Google has promised such a service by 2017. Leading retailer Walmart is also testing drones.

But UPS, Walmart, legal experts and consultants say overcoming U.S. regulatory hurdles and concerns over drone safety will require vast amounts of data from real-time use — with testing in the near-term limited to remote areas of the United States or in other countries.

UPS will provide a grant of $800,000 plus logistical support through the UPS Foundation to a partnership including Gavi, a group providing vaccines to poor countries, and robotics company Zipline International Inc for drone flights in Rwanda starting in August. The drones will deliver blood and vaccines to half the transfusion centers in the country of 11 million people, making deliveries 20 times faster than by land.

“Tens of thousands of hours of flight logged in an environment where it’s much easier” to operate will help make package delivery a reality in the United States, Zipline chief executive Keller Rinaudo told reporters at a presentation late last week.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has adopted a step-by-step approach to drones, will soon release finalized rules for small drone use that will most likely limit their use to within the “visual line-of-sight” of an operator or observer.

“If you’re looking for an economically-efficient way to deliver packages, you’d be better off using a bicycle,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington specializing in robotics.

“NIGHTMARE SCENARIO”

The hurdles to using drones to deliver packages to consumers include technology, communication, insurance and privacy.

Questions remain about battery life and safety, especially after lithium-ion battery problems resulted in a fire on board a parked Boeing 787 in Boston in 2013.

Safe communication between drones and with airplanes in America’s busy airspace is years away. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been working on a drone traffic management system and will pass its research to the FAA in 2019 for further testing.

In the push for autonomous cars and trucks, companies like Google and Daimler have turned to individual states such as Nevada, which has issued licenses for testing on its roads. But the FAA controls all U.S. airspace, so permits on a state-by-state basis will not suffice for drone testing.

“You really do have to make sure the FAA is in the boat and we are really focused on that piece of it more than anything,” said Mark Wallace, UPS’ senior vice president for global engineering. As part of its strategy, UPS has invested in Boston-based drone manufacturer CyPhy Works Inc.

UPS will focus on projects like Rwanda and testing drones in remote U.S. areas in the near-term, he added.

Walmart said last year it plans to test drones for package delivery.

The retailer is “more likely to start with short hops” in rural areas, spokesman Dan Toporek said. “It has to happen a step at a time, which will teach us, and will provide insights to the FAA and the public on ‘this is how it could work.'”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Google referred Reuters to previous statements that the company hopes to operate a delivery service by 2017.

Data from companies like No. 2 U.S. railroad BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc, could also prove valuable, said Logan Campbell, chief executive of drone consulting firm Aerotas. BNSF has an exemption from the FAA to operate drones out of the line of sight along its rail network.

Campbell said while drone manufacturers would like to see the FAA move faster, the “nightmare scenario” would be if a drone crashed into a manned aircraft.

“We have to get this right,” he said. “If we move too fast and there’s an accident, it could ruin the entire industry.”

(Additional reporting by Deborah Todd in San Francisco; editing by Stuart Grudgings.)