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File Photo: US President George W. Bush speaks about the Middle East from the Rose Garden of the White House as US Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) stands at his side April 4, 2002

Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who rose to become the first Black U.S. secretary of state and top military officer but whose reputation was tainted in 2003 when he touted spurious intelligence to the United Nations to make the case for war with Iraq despite deep misgivings, died on Monday at the age of 84.

Despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, his family said, he died due to complication from the disease.

Powell was one of America’s foremost Black figures for decades. He was named to senior posts by three Republican presidents and reached the top of the U.S. military as it was regaining its vigor after the trauma of the Vietnam War.

Powell, who was wounded in Vietnam, served as U.S. national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989. As a four-star Army general, he was chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 Gulf War in which U.S.-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from neighboring Kuwait.

Powell, a moderate Republican and a pragmatist, considered a bid to become the first Black president in 1996 but his wife Alma’s worries about his safety helped him decide otherwise. In 2008, he broke with his party to endorse Democrat Barack Obama, who became the first Black person elected to the White House.

Powell will forever be associated with his controversial presentation on Feb. 5, 2003, to the U.N. Security Council, making President George W. Bush’s case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constituted an imminent danger to the world because of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

He admitted later that the presentation was rife with inaccuracies and twisted intelligence provided by others in the Bush administration and represented “a blot” that will “always be a part of my record”.

Bush had picked Powell, the top U.S. military officer during his father’s presidency, as secretary of state in 2001.

Powell endured four stormy years as the top U.S. diplomat, often outmaneuvered by Vice President Dick Cheney – with whom he had served closely under the first President Bush – and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

With U.S. troops already fighting a war in Afghanistan launched after Afghan-based al Qaeda leaders plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, hawks within the Bush administration began to advocate war with Iraq.

Powell argued within the administration to let diplomacy run its course on Iraq. He held grave reservations about a war, as well as the veracity of intelligence about Iraqi weapons, and the Pentagon’s insistence on a relatively small invasion force.

‘YOU BREAK IT, YOU OWN IT’

Powell privately warned Bush about the monumental difficulties of invading and occupying Iraq, invoking the so-called Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.”

Nevertheless, Powell – the most respected member of the Bush cabinet globally – agreed to publicly sell the case for war in order to gather international support.

In the Security Council chamber, he displayed photographs and diagrams purporting to detail Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as translations from U.S. intelligence intercepts.

At one point, Powell brandished a small vial containing a teaspoon of simulated anthrax, warning that Iraq had not accounted for “tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons” of the deadly pathogen.

The invasion came six weeks later but no such weapons were found, undermining American credibility for years. U.S. forces fought in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, with nearly 4,500 American troops killed and 32,000 wounded.

Powell told the author of a 2006 book that he spent five days ahead of the U.N. presentation “trimming the garbage” that Cheney’s staff had provided as evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs and alleged links to al Qaeda.

“There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me,” Powell told interviewer Barbara Walters in 2005.

At the time, Powell remained the loyal soldier – a reluctant warrior who did not threaten to quit in protest or voice his concerns to the world.

“Well, loyalty is a trait that I value, and yes, I am loyal,” Powell said in the 2005 interview. “And there are some who say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have supported it, you should have resigned.’ But I’m glad that Saddam Hussein is gone.”

Powell announced his resignation in “mutual agreement” with Bush after the president’s November 2004 re-election. Bush called Powell “one of the great public servants of our time”.

POWELL DOCTRINE

One of his chief military accomplishments was his development of the “Powell Doctrine” on the use of U.S. force, which arose out of the ambiguous objectives and erratic troop build-up of the Vietnam War era.

The doctrine states: war should be a last resort; force, when used, should be overwhelming; there must be strong public support for it and a clear exit strategy.

Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937, and raised in the South Bronx neighborhood, the son of a shipping clerk and a seamstress from Jamaica who arrived in America in 1920 aboard a “banana boat” – a United Fruit Company steamer.

Powell‘s own ticket to success was the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), a program for university students that engaged his energies when he was, by his own admission, an otherwise uninspired student at the City College of New York.

He was commissioned a U.S. Army second lieutenant in 1958.

He served 35 years in the Army, including two combat tours in Vietnam and postings in West Germany and South Korea. In Vietnam, he was wounded by a “Punji stick” booby trap near Vietnam’s border with Laos and injured in a helicopter crash.

He earned a White House fellowship while in the Army during Richard Nixon’s presidency and won the respect of officials who later would serve in senior posts under Reagan. He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993.

Powell became a celebrity during the 1991 Gulf War with crisp televised briefings, at one point saying of Iraq’s army: “First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”

As the top U.S. military officer, he opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but reversed his view in 2010 after Obama became the first president to endorse gay marriage.

After deciding not to run for president in 1996, Powell gave a speech at that year’s Republican convention endorsing Bob Dole against Democrat Bill Clinton, who was president during Powell‘s final months as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There were scattered boos from conservative delegates in San Diego when Powell said he supported abortion rights and affirmative action to help minorities.

Powell, who became increasingly isolated in his party amid its shift to the right, said he remained a Republican despite endorsing Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Powell married his wife Alma in 1962. They had three children, including Michael Powell, who served as U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman under George W. Bush.

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File Photo: People ride on a motorcycle near a burning barricade as Haitians mount a nationwide strike to protest a growing wave of kidnappings, days after the abduction of a group of missionaries, in Port-au-Prince, in Haiti October 18, 2021

A Haitian gang that kidnapped a group of American and Canadian missionaries is asking for $17 million to release them, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing a Haitian official.

Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said the FBI and Haitian police are in contact with the kidnappers and seeking the release of the missionaries abducted over the weekend outside the capital Port-au-Prince by a gang called 400 Mawozo, the Journal reported.

Negotiations could take weeks, Quitel told the Journal.

The group of 16 Americans and 1 Canadian includes six women and five children. They were abducted in an area called Croix-des-Bouquets, about 8 miles (13 km) outside the capital, which is dominated by the 400 Mawozo gang.

Five priests and two nuns, including two French citizens, were abducted in April in Croix-des-Bouquets and were released later that month.

Quitel told the Journal that a ransom was paid for the release of two of those priests.

Kidnappings have become more brazen and commonplace in Haiti amid a growing political and economic crisis, with at least 628 incidents in the first nine months of 2021 alone, according to a report by the Haitian nonprofit Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, or CARDH.

Haitians on Monday mounted a nationwide strike to protest gang crime and kidnappings, which have been on the rise for years and have worsened since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

Shops were open again on Tuesday in Port-au-Prince and public transportation had starting circulating again. Transport sector leaders had pushed for the strike, in part because transport workers are frequent targets of gang kidnappings.

The FBI said in a statement on Monday that it is part of a U.S. government effort to get the Americans involved to safety.

Kidnappings in Haiti rarely involved foreigners.

The victims are usually middle-class Haitians who cannot afford bodyguards but can nonetheless put together a ransom by borrowing money from family or selling property.

The growing crisis in Haiti has also become a major issue for the United States. A wave of thousands of Haitian migrants arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last month, but many were deported to their home country shortly after.

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File Photo: A US carrier in the Taiwan strait earlier in the year

The Chinese military on Sunday condemned the United States and Canada for each sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait last week, saying they were threatening peace and stability in the region.

China claims democratically-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, and has mounted repeated air force missions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the past year, provoking anger in Taipei.

China sent around 150 aircraft into the zone over a four-day period beginning on Oct. 1 in a further heightening of tension between Beijing and Taipei that has sparked concern internationally.

The U.S. military said the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey sailed through the narrow waterway that separates Taiwan from its giant neighbour China along with the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg on Thursday and Friday.

“Dewey’s and Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it added.

China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command said its forces monitored the ships and “stood guard” throughout their passage.

“The United States and Canada colluded to provoke and stir up trouble… seriously jeopardising peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” it said.

“Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. Theatre forces always maintain a high level of alert and resolutely counter all threats and provocations.”

U.S. Navy ships have been transiting the strait roughly monthly, to the anger of Beijing, which has accused Washington of stoking regional tensions. U.S. allies occasionally also send ships through the strait, including Britain last month.

While tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen, there has been no shooting and Chinese aircraft have not entered Taiwanese air space, concentrating their activity in the southwestern part of the ADIZ.

While including Taiwanese territorial air space, the ADIZ encompasses a broader area that Taiwan monitors and patrols that acts to give it more time to respond to any threats.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday that three Chinese aircraft – two J-16 fighters and an anti-submarine aircraft – flew into the ADIZ again.

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that the United States had proposed the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey in return for its investment in the F-35 programme, from which Ankara was removed after purchasing missile defence systems from Russia.

Reuters reported earlier this month that Turkey made a request to the United States to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes.

Speaking to reporters before departing for a trip to West Africa, Erdogan said Turkey wants a return for its investment in the F-35 programme and that talks on the issue are ongoing.

“There is the payment of $1.4 billion we have made for the F-35s and the U.S. had such a proposal in return for these payments,” Erdogan said.

“And regarding this, we said let’s take whatever steps are needed to be taken to meet the defence needs of our country,” he said, adding that the new F-16 jets would help develop its fleet.

Ankara had ordered more than 100 F-35 jets, made by Lockheed Martin Corp, but the U.S. removed Turkey from the programme in 2019 after it acquired Russian S-400 missile defence systems.

The decades-old partnership between the NATO allies has gone through unprecedented tumult in the past five years over disagreements on Syria policy, Ankara’s closer ties with Moscow, its naval ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, U.S. charges against a state-owned Turkish bank and erosion of rights and freedoms in Turkey.

Ankara’s purchase of the S-400s has also triggered U.S. sanctions. In December 2020, Washington blacklisted Turkey’s Defence Industry Directorate, its chief, Ismail Demir, and three other employees.

Since then the U.S. has repeatedly warned Turkey against buying further Russian weaponry. But Erdogan has indicated Ankara still intends to buy a second batch of S-400s from Russia, a move that could deepen the rift with Washington.

The request for the jets will likely have a difficult time getting approval from the U.S. Congress, where sentiment towards Turkey has soured deeply over recent years.

There is bipartisan support in U.S. Congress to push the Biden administration to put further pressure on Ankara, primarily over its purchase of Russian weapons and its human rights track record.

Ankara has said it hopes for better ties under U.S. President Joe Biden.

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A file photo shows the capsule with Nasa's Lucy spacecraft

Nasa launched a first-of-its kind mission on Saturday to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two large clusters of space rocks that scientists believe are remnants of primordial material that formed the solar system’s outer planets.

The space probe, dubbed Lucy and packed inside a special cargo capsule, lifted off on schedule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:34 a.m. EDT (0934 GMT), Nasa said. It was carried aloft by an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (UAL), a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Lucy’s mission is a 12-year expedition to study a record number of asteroids. It will be the first to explore the Trojans, thousands of rocky objects orbiting the sun in two swarms – one ahead of the path of giant gas planet Jupiter and one behind it.

The largest known Trojan asteroids, named for the warriors of Greek mythology, are believed to measure as much as 225 kilometers (140 miles) in diameter.

Scientists hope Lucy’s close-up fly-by of seven Trojans will yield new clues to how the solar system’s planets came to be formed some 4.5 billion years ago and what shaped their present configuration.

Believed to be rich in carbon compounds, the asteroids may even provide new insights into the origin of organic materials and life on Earth, Nasa said.

“The Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our solar system, effectively the fossils of planet formation,” principal mission investigator Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was quoted by Nasa as saying.

No other single science mission has been designed to visit as many different objects independently orbiting the sun in the history of space exploration, Nasa said.

As well as the Trojans, Lucy will do a fly-by of an asteroid in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, called DonaldJohanson in honor of the lead discoverer of the fossilized human ancestor known as Lucy, from which the Nasa mission takes its name. The Lucy fossil, unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, was in turn named for the Beatles hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Lucy the asteroid probe will make spaceflight history in another way. Following a route that circles back to Earth three times for gravitational assists, it will be the first spacecraft ever to return to Earth’s vicinity from the outer solar system, according to Nasa.

The probe will use rocket thrusters to maneuver in space and two rounded solar arrays, each the width of a school bus, to recharge batteries that will power the instruments contained in the much smaller central body of the spacecraft.

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A United Airlines passenger jet takes off with New York City as a backdrop, at Newark Liberty International Airport

The White House on Friday will lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for fully vaccinated international visitors starting Nov. 8, ending historic restrictions that had barred much of the world from entering the United States for as long as 21 months.

The unprecedented travel restrictions kept millions of visitors out of the United States from China, Canada, Mexico, India, Brazil, much of Europe and elsewhere; shrunk U.S. tourism; and hurt border community economies. They prevented many loved ones and foreign workers from reuniting with families.

“Oh how I’ve missed Christmas in NY,” Alexandros Koronakis, an executive with AT&T Inc in Brussels, wrote on Twitter.

U.S. allies had heavily lobbied the Biden administration to lift the rules. Many praised Friday’s announcement, including Sweden’s ambassador to the United States Karin Olofsdotter, who called it “very welcoming news.”

White House spokesman Kevin Munoz confirmed the Nov. 8 date on Twitter, adding the policy “is guided by public health, stringent, and consistent.”

Restrictions on non-U.S. citizens were first imposed on air travelers from China in January 2020 by then-President Donald Trump and then extended to dozens of other countries, without any clear metrics for how and when to lift them.

Curbs on non-essential travelers at land borders with Mexico and Canada have been in place since March 2020 to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reuters first reported Friday’s announcement of the Nov. 8 starting date earlier in the day.

U.S. airline, hotel and cruise industry stocks rose on the news, including American Airlines, up 2.8%; Marriott International Inc, up 3.7%; and Carnival Corp, up 0.9%.

U.S. international air passenger traffic was down 43% in August and overall passenger air traffic was down 21% over pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. Transportation Department said Friday.

Airlines have seen an increase in international ticket sales in recent weeks after the White House announced plans to lift the restrictions, Nick Calio, chief executive of the Airlines for America industry trade group, said in a statement.

Calio said the “full reopening of international travel is also critical to reviving economies around the globe, reinvigorating communities and supporting millions of jobs in the U.S. and abroad.”

The United States had lagged many other countries in lifting such restrictions.

In January, Trump issued an order to lift travel restrictions on people in Europe and Brazil. But the order was reversed by President Joe Biden before it took effect.

The Biden administration, which repeatedly has said it does endorse so-called “vaccine passports,” grappled for months over whether to mandate vaccinations as a condition of lifting country-specific restrictions, officials told Reuters.

On Tuesday, the White House announced it would lift restrictions at its land borders and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico for fully vaccinated foreign nationals in early November. They are similar but not identical to requirements announced last month for international air travelers.

Unvaccinated visitors will still be barred from entering the United States from Canada or Mexico at land borders.

Canada on Aug. 9 began allowing fully vaccinated U.S. visitors for non-essential travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Reuters last week the United States will accept the use by international visitors of COVID-19 vaccines authorized by U.S. regulators or the World Health Organization.

The White House, which held a meeting late Thursday to finalize the Nov. 8 date, faces some remaining questions, including how and what exemptions the Biden administration will grant to the vaccine requirements. Children under 18, for example, are largely expected to be exempt from the requirements, an official said.

U.S. Travel Association Chief Executive Roger Dow said declines in international visits since the pandemic started resulted in more than $250 billion in lost income.

Dow said in a statement that the Nov. 8 date “is critically important for planning – for airlines, for travel-supported businesses, and for millions of travelers worldwide who will now advance plans to visit the United States once again.”

The White House announced on Sept. 20 that the United States would lift restrictions on air travelers from 33 countries in early November. It did not specify the date at the time.

Starting Nov. 8, the United States will admit fully vaccinated foreign air travelers from the 26 so-called Schengen countries in Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, as well as Britain, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil. The unprecedented U.S. restrictions have barred non-U.S. citizens who were in those countries within the past 14 days.

The United States has allowed foreign air travelers from more than 150 countries throughout the pandemic, a policy that critics said made little sense because some countries with high infection rates were not on the restricted list, while some on the list had the pandemic more under control.

The White House said last month it would apply vaccine requirements to foreign nationals traveling from all other countries.

Non-U.S. air travelers will need to show proof of vaccination before boarding a flight, and will need to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Foreign visitors crossing a land border will not need to show proof of a recent negative test.

The new rules do not require foreign visitors or Americans entering the country to go into quarantine.

Americans traveling overseas must still show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test, and unvaccinated Americans will face stricter testing requirements. They will also be subject to restrictions in countries they plan to visit, which may include quarantines.

The CDC plans to issue new rules soon on contact tracing for international air travelers.

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"Star Trek" actor William Shatner is driven to the launch pad of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket before mission NS-18 for a suborbital flight

Actor William Shatner soared aboard a Blue Origin rocketship on a suborbital trip and landed in the Texas desert on Wednesday to become at age 90 the oldest person ever in space as U.S. billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos’s company carried out its second tourist flight.

Shatner was one of four passengers to journey to the edge of space aboard the white fully autonomous 60-foot-tall (18.3 meters-tall) New Shepard spacecraft, which took off from Blue Origin’s launch site about 20 miles (32 km) outside the rural west Texas town of Van Horn.

The four astronauts experienced about three to four minutes of weightlessness and travelled above the internationally recognized boundary of space known as the Karman Line, about 62 miles (100 km) above Earth. The crew capsule returned to the Texas desert under parachutes, raising a cloud of dust.

The four astronauts, all wearing blue flight suits with the company’s name in white letters on one sleeve, climbed into the crew capsule atop the spacecraft before the launch and strapped in after ascending a set of stairs accompanied by Bezos. Each rang a bell before entering the capsule, with Bezos then closing the hatch. Before that, they rode a vehicle with Bezos at the wheel to the launch pad.

Winds were light and skies were clear for the launch, which was conducted after two delays totalling roughly 45 minutes.

Joining Shatner – who embodied the promise of space travel in the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” and seven subsequent films – in the all-civilian crew were former NASA engineer Chris Boshuizen, clinical research entrepreneur Glen de Vries and Blue Origin vice president and engineer Audrey Powers.

It marked the second space tourism flight for Blue Origin, billionaire U.S. businessman Jeff Bezos’s company founded two decades ago.

Blue Origin’s rocket New Shepard blasts off carrying Star Trek actor William Shatner, 90,

The flight represents another important day for the nascent space tourism industry that, according to UBS, could reach an annual value of $3 billion in a decade. The flight, previously scheduled for Tuesday, was pushed back a day for wind-related reasons.

Blue Origin had a successful debut space tourism flight on July 20, with Bezos and three others aboard, flying to the edge of space and back on a trip lasting 10 minutes and 10 seconds. On that flight, pioneering female aviator Wally Funk at age 82 became the oldest person to reach space. The previous record was set in 1998 when pioneering astronaut John Glenn returned to space as a 77-year-old U.S. senator.

Bezos, the Amazon.com Inc founder and current executive chairman, formed Blue Origin two decades ago.

Shatner, who turned 90 in March, has been acting since the 1950s and remains busy with entertainment projects and fan conventions. He is best known for starring as Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise on the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” and seven subsequent films about fictional adventures in outer space.

As an actor, Shatner was synonymous with space voyages. During the opening credits of each episode of the series, he called space “the final frontier” and promised “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

“Beam me up,” Shatner’s character would tell the Enterprise’s chief engineer Scotty, played by James Doohan, in a memorable catchphrase when he needed to be transported to the starship.

Shatner said there is both irony and symmetry to his space trip, having played a space explorer for decades and now actually becoming one.

“Having played the role of Captain Kirk … assigns me the knowledge that a futuristic astronaut would have, but I’ve always been consumed with curiosity,” Shatner said in a Blue Origin video.

Shatner’s participation in the flight has helped generate publicity for Blue Origin as it competes against two billionaire-backed rivals – Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc – to attract customers willing to pay large sums to experience spaceflight.

Branson inaugurated his space tourism service on July 11, riding along on a suborbital flight with six others aboard his company’s VSS Unity rocket plane. SpaceX, which has launched numerous astronauts and cargo payloads to the International Space Station for NASA, debuted its space tourism business by flying the first all-civilian crew to reach Earth’s orbit in a three-day mission ending Sept. 18.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration two weeks ago said it will review safety concerns raised by former and current Blue Origin employees who have accused the company of prioritizing speed and cost savings over quality control and adequate staffing.

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Migrants from Central America walk at the Paso del Norte international border bridge to request for asylum in the US

The United States will lift restrictions at its land borders with Canada and Mexico for fully vaccinated foreign nationals in early November, ending historic curbs on non-essential travelers in place since March 2020 to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement the administration next month “will begin allowing travelers from Mexico and Canada who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to enter the United States for non-essential purposes, including to visit friends and family or for tourism, via land and ferry border crossings.”

The new rules are similar but not identical to planned requirements announced last month for international air travelers, U.S. officials said in a call earlier with reporters.

Lawmakers from U.S border states praised the move to lift the unprecedented restrictions which harmed the economies of local communities and has prevented visits to friends and families for 19 months.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, members of our shared cross-border community have felt the pain and economic hardship of the land border closures. That pain is about to end,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

Unvaccinated visitors will still be barred from entering the United States from Canada or Mexico at land borders.

The officials from President Joe Biden’s administration emphasized that the White House would not lift the “Title 42” order put in place by former President Donald Trump’s administration that has essentially cut off access to asylum for hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to enter from Mexico.

The precise date in early November when the restrictions will be lifted on both land and air travel will be announced “very soon,” one of the officials said.

Homeland Security said the administration was creating “consistent, stringent protocols for all foreign nationals traveling to the United States – whether by air, land, or ferry.”

Canada on Aug. 9 began allowing fully vaccinated U.S. visitors for non-essential travel.

‘GREAT RELIEF’

Once the U.S. curbs are lifted, non-essential foreign visitors crossing U.S. land borders, such as tourists, will be able to visit if they are vaccinated. In early January, the United States will require essential visitors, like truck drivers or healthcare workers, to be vaccinated to cross land borders, the officials said.

U.S. lawmakers have been pushing the White House to lift restrictions that have barred non-essential travel by Canadians across the northern U.S. border since March 2020, and many border communities have been hit hard by the closure. Mexico has also pressed the Biden administration to ease restrictions.

Senator Maria Cantwell said the announcement “will provide great relief to those waiting to see friends and loved ones from Canada.”

The White House announced on Sept. 20 that the United States in early November would lift travel restrictions on air travelers from 33 countries including China, India, Brazil and most of Europe who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It also said it would extend the vaccine requirements to foreign air travelers from all other countries.

Foreign visitors crossing into the United States by land or ferry will need to be vaccinated but will not necessarily need to show proof of vaccination unless they are referred by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for secondary inspections.

By contrast, all non-U.S. air travelers will need to show proof of vaccination before boarding a flight, and will need to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Foreign visitors crossing a land border will not need to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the United States would accept https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-will-accept-who-approved-covid-19-vaccines-international-visitors-2021-10-08 the use by international visitors of COVID-19 vaccines authorized by U.S. regulators or the World Health Organization.

One question unanswered is whether the United States will accept vaccines from visitors who received doses of two different COVID-19 vaccines.

The U.S. land border restrictions have not barred U.S. citizens from returning home.

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File photo: Empty supermarket shelves in Texas last year EPA-EFE/LARRY W. SMITH

White House officials, scrambling to relieve global supply bottlenecks choking U.S. ports, highways and railways, warn that Americans may face higher prices and some empty shelves this Christmas season.

The supply crisis, driven in part by the global COVID-19 pandemic, not only threatens to dampen U.S. spending at a critical time, it also poses a political risk for President Joe Biden.

The White House has been trying to tackle inflation-inducing supply bottlenecks of everything from meat to semiconductors, and formed a task force in June that meets weekly and named a “bottleneck” czar to push private-sector companies to ease snarls.

Biden himself plans to meet with top executives from retail giants Wal-Mart Inc and Home Depot Inc and with unions and other stakeholders on Wednesday to discuss efforts to relieve transportation bottlenecks before delivering a speech on the topic.

Supply chain woes are weighing on retail and transportation companies, which recently issued a series of downbeat earnings outlooks. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve last month predicted a 2021 inflation rate of 4.2%, well above its 2% target.

American consumers, unused to empty store shelves, may need to be flexible and patient, White House officials said.

“There will be things that people can’t get,” a senior White House official told Reuters, when asked about holiday shopping.

“At the same time, a lot of these goods are hopefully substitutable by other things. … I don’t think there’s any real reason to be panicked, but we all feel the frustration and there’s a certain need for patience to help get through a relatively short period of time.”

Inflation is eating into wages. Labor Department data shows that Americans made 0.9% less per hour on average in August than they did one year prior.

The White House argues inflation is a sign that their decision to provide historic support to small businesses and households, through $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief funding, worked.

U.S. consumer demand stayed strong, outpacing global rivals, and the Biden administration expects the overall economy to grow at 7.1%, as inflation reaches its highest levels since the 1980s.

“We recognize that it has pinched families who are trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy as we move into the later stages of the pandemic,” said a second senior White House official.

BOTTLENECK CZAR

In August, the White House tapped John Porcari, a veteran transportation official who served in the Obama administration as a new “envoy” to the nation’s ports, but he’s known as the bottleneck czar.

Porcari told Reuters the administration has worked to make sure various parts of the supply chain, such as ports and intermodal facilities, where freight is transferred from one form of transport to another, are in steady communication.

Now it is focused on getting ports and other transportation hubs to operate on a 24-hour schedule, taking advantage of off-peak hours to move more goods in the pipeline. California ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles have agreed to extended hours, and there are more to follow, he said in an interview Monday.

“We need to make better use of that off-peak capacity and that really is the current focus,” Porcari said.

The administration is also seeking to restore inactive rail yards for extra container capacity and create “pop-up” rail yards to increase capacity.

“It’s important to remember that the goods movement system is a private sector-driven system,” he said. “There’s problems in every single part of that system. And, they tend to compound each other.

“While the pandemic was an enormously disruptive force, I think it also laid bare what was an underlying reality, which was the system was strained before the pandemic.”

A NEW WAR ON CHRISTMAS

Republican strategists are seizing on possible Christmas shortages to bash Biden’s policies as inflationary, and thwart his attempt to push a multitrillion-dollar spending package through Congress in coming weeks.

A recent opinion piece by Steve Cortes, a onetime adviser to former President Donald Trump, dubbed the upcoming holiday season “Biden’s Blue Christmas,” continuing in a long tradition of conservatives criticizing Democrats over celebrations around the Christian holiday.

Trump, considered the front-runner Republican candidate for president in 2024, blasted it out in a mass email through his political action committee, Save America.

Seth Weathers, a Republican strategist who ran Trump’s Georgia campaign in 2016, said they see a local impact. “People here in Georgia are paying twice as much for items than they paid a year ago, and they are blaming Biden. He’s in charge.”

A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Biden is losing the public’s trust on the economy, with only 29% of public thinking the U.S. economy is in “good” or “excellent” condition, compared with 35% in April.

“President Biden could use a holiday season win,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy said. “A slowdown of holiday season deliveries and the financial strain that comes with it would be coal in the stocking for the administration at the close of the first year in office.”

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File photo EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

Rebuffing the Texas governor, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said on Tuesday they would comply with U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order to require that their employees be vaccinated for COVID-19 by a Dec. 8 deadline.

The two Texas-based carriers said the federal mandate superseded an order by Republican Governor Greg Abbott barring vaccine mandates by any entity, including private employers.

Southwest said it “would be expected to comply with the President’s Order to remain compliant as a federal contractor.” American said while it was reviewing Abbott’s executive order, “this does not change anything” for the company.

Both carriers have asked U.S.-based employees to submit proof of vaccination by Nov. 24.

Biden issued his mandate last month as his administration struggled to control the pandemic, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans. It covers all federal contractors.

While supporters of vaccine mandates see them as necessary to pull the country out of the nearly two-year-old pandemic, critics are calling them unconstitutional and authoritarian.

Six employees of United Airlines, which became the first U.S. carrier in August to require vaccinations for all domestic employees, have filed a class action in federal court in Texas claiming that workers who sought exemptions from the vaccine mandate were subjected to intrusive inquiries about their medical conditions or religious beliefs, including a requirement that they obtain letters from pastors.

The court, which is due to hear the case on Wednesday, issued an order on Tuesday restraining the airline until Oct. 26 from placing on unpaid leave any employee who receives religious or medical exemptions from the company for COVID-19 vaccinations.

The court also temporarily restrained United from denying any late requests for religious or medical accommodations.

In his executive order, Abbott said the Biden administration was “bullying” many private entities into imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, causing workforce disruptions.

In its response, the White House said on Tuesday that Abbott’s order was out of step with businesses in the state. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the governor’s decision was motivated by politics, not science.

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A man wears an anti-vaccine button

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that New York state cannot impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on healthcare workers without allowing their employers to consider religious exemption requests.

U.S. District Judge David Hurd in Albany, New York, ruled that the state’s workplace vaccination requirement conflicted with healthcare workers’ federally protected right to seek religious accommodations from their employers.

The ruling provides a test case as vaccine mandate opponents gear up to fight plans by President Joe Biden’s administration to extend COVID-19 inoculation requirements to tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans.

Vaccines have become highly politicized in the United States, where only 66% of Americans are vaccinated, well short of the initial goals of the Biden administration.

Seventeen healthcare workers opposed to the mandate sued, saying the requirement violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution and a federal civil rights law requiring employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.

Hurd agreed, saying the state’s order “clearly” conflicted with their right to seek religious accommodations.

“The court rightly recognized that yesterday’s ‘front line heroes’ in dealing with COVID cannot suddenly be treated as disease-carrying villains and kicked to the curb by the command of a state health bureaucracy,” said Christopher Ferrara, a lawyer for the workers at the conservative Thomas More Society.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, vowed in a statement to fight the decision, saying her “responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that.”

At least 24 states have imposed vaccine requirements on workers, usually in healthcare.

New York’s Department of Health on Aug. 26 ordered healthcare professionals to be vaccinated by Sept. 27 and the order did not allow for the customary religious exemptions.

Hurd issued a temporary restraining order on Sept. 14 in favor of the workers while he considered whether to issue a preliminary injunction.

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A growing number of El Salvadorans have experimented with bitcoin since the country became the first to adopt it as legal tender last month, with a couple of million dollars sent daily by migrants using the cryptocurrency.

But only a fraction of the Central American nation’s businesses have taken a bitcoin payment and technical problems have plagued the government’s cryptocurrency app, frustrating even committed users of the technology.

Construction worker Adalberto Galvez, 32, said he had lost $220 when trying to withdraw cash from the Chivo digital wallet.

Like Galvez, dozens of Salvadorans told Reuters they had at least one problem with Chivo, named after the local word for “good”, and few had used it on a daily basis.

“It took my money but gave me nothing,” said Galvez, who had already been using bitcoin successfully for months with another application at an experimental small-scale bitcoin economy project dubbed Bitcoin Beach in the coastal town of El Zonte.

Galvez said the funds had been taken from his Bitcoin Beach wallet but he was never able to withdraw the cash via Chivo. He said he had not heard back after he filed complaints.

Others have also reported irregularities with transactions and attempts of stolen identity. President Nayib Bukele has blamed high demand for the issues Galvez and others have faced.

A spokesperson for the president’s office and Chivo could not be reached for comment.

By some measures adoption in the poor country, where one fifth of families depends on remittances, has been rapid.

Bukele has said three million people have downloaded Chivo, some 500,000 more than initially targeted and roughly half the country’s population. In September he said the wallet had 2.1 million active users.

One month since launch, 12 per cent of consumers have used the cryptocurrency, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development reported.

“Since yesterday, Salvadorans are inserting more cash (to buy #bitcoin) than what they are withdrawing from the @chivowallet ATMs,” Bukele tweeted on Wednesday. “This is very surprising so early in the game.”

But the foundation, which polled 233 companies across different sectors, found that the overall use was still low, with 93 per cent of companies reporting no bitcoin payments.

“We’re still not sure what benefits the government expected,” said Leonor Selva of the National Association of Private Enterprises, one of several business groups that remains skeptical about the rollout.

MIGRANT MONEY

The Bukele government hopes that 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States will eventually send remittances through Chivo.

So far, 30 bitcoin ATMs to send remittances have been installed in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles and Bukele says around $2 million is being sent via Chivo daily.

Juan Moz, a construction worker who has lived in the United States since 2005, recently chose Chivo to send remittances home to his family – a decision he said saves him up to $18 when compared to traditional money transfer services.

“I’m definitely going to keep using it,” he said in a phone interview from San Francisco.

However, most of El Salvador’s $6 billion dollars annual remittances – about a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product – still comes via money transfers, with many wary of the cryptocurrency’s volatility.

Last month, El Salvador bought 700 bitcoins. Prices initially dropped sharply after the Sept. 7 adoption but surged in late September to reach about $54,000 per coin this week.

Several people told Reuters they had downloaded the wallet and received a $30 bonus that the government offered at the outset of the program.

The handout was big enough that it benefited some small business owners like Alexander Diaz, whose restaurant serving chicken wings saw a spike in business.

“Most of the people who had that bonus wanted to test how it could be spent, so several clients made payments to us with bitcoin,” Diaz said, adding that some 20 per cent of his customers now use the cryptocurrency.

“Chivo has benefited small entrepreneurs because it makes the payment method easier for customers,” Diaz said.

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A US federal appeals court has temporarily reinstated Texas's near total ban on abortions.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to a request from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that an injunction imposed against the law be lifted.

On Wednesday, a lower court had temporarily blocked the bill for the "offensive deprivation" of the constitutional right to an abortion.

The restrictive law bans all abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy.

The bill, which came came into effect on 1 September, makes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.

It also lets ordinary citizens enforce the ban, rewarding them at least $10,000 if they successfully sue anyone who helped provide an abortion after foetal cardiac activity is detected. Critics of the law have said this provision enables people to act as anti-abortion bounty hunters.

On Wednesday District Judge Robert Pitman granted a request by the Biden administration to prevent enforcement of the law while its legality was being challenged. He held that women had been "unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution".

However Texas officials immediately appealed against the ruling, which the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit court has agreed to set aside. It ordered the justice department to respond to its ruling by Tuesday.

In a statement following the latest ruling, Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, called on the Supreme Court to "step in and stop this madness".

"Patients are being thrown back into a state of chaos and fear, and this cruel law is falling hardest on those who already face discriminatory obstacles in health care, especially Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour, undocumented immigrants, young people, those struggling to make ends meet, and those in rural areas," she said.

"The courts have an obligation to block laws that violate fundamental rights."

Meanwhile, Attorney General Ken Paxton said the court's decision was "great news" and added that he would "continue to fight to keep Texas free from federal overreach".

The dispute over the law could ultimately end up before the US Supreme Court, which in September declined to hear an emergency case filed in a last-minute bid to prevent the ban passing into law.

Several clinics in Texas had resumed providing abortions to patients who were beyond the six week limit following Wednesday's order.

They may now face some legal risk, as the law includes a provision that says clinics and doctors may still be liable for abortions carried out while an emergency injunction is in place, legal experts say.

However, it is unclear whether such a provision can be enforced, with Judge Pittman saying in his ruling that it is "of questionable legality".

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U.S. President Joe Biden

The United States and China have agreed in principle for their presidents to hold a virtual meeting before year’s end, a senior U.S. administration official said on Wednesday, after high-level talks meant to improve communication between the two big powers.

The closed-door meeting at an airport hotel in the Swiss city of Zurich between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, was their first face-to-face encounter since an unusually public and acrid airing of grievances in Alaska in March.

Both sides had described the meeting as a follow-on from President Joe Biden’s early September call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, prior to which the world’s top two economies appeared to have been locked in a stalemate.

The White House said Sullivan raised concerns about contentious issues such as Chinese actions in the South China Sea, as well as on human rights and Beijing’s stances on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

At the end of the day, however, both Beijing and Washington said the talks, which lasted six hours, were constructive and candid. The U.S. side said the tone was very different from Alaska.

“We do have out of today’s conversation an agreement in principle to hold a virtual bilateral (summit) meeting before the end of the year,” the U.S. official told reporters.

Asked for further details, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We’re still working through what that would look like, when and of course the final details we don’t quite have them yet.”

TAIWAN TENSIONS

Biden’s call with Xi in September ended a nearly seven-month gap in direct communication between the leaders, and the two discussed the need to ensure that their competition does not veer into conflict.

Biden said on Tuesday that he spoke to Xi about Taiwan and they agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement”, as tensions ratchet up between Taipei and Beijing.

Taiwan has reported 148 Chinese air force planes in the southern and southwestern part of its air defence zone over a four-day period beginning on Friday, the same day China marked a patriotic holiday, National Day.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, which had sought clarification from the United States about Biden’s comments, said on Wednesday Washington reassured them that its approach to Taiwan had not changed, and that its commitment to the democratically governed island claimed by Beijing was “rock solid”.

‘MODEL FOR FUTURE ENCOUNTERS’

Early speculation was that Biden and Xi might meet in person at the G20 summit in Italy in October, but Xi has not left China since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.

“Today’s conversation, broadly speaking, was a more meaningful and substantive engagement than we’ve had to date below the leader level,” the U.S. official said, adding that Washington hoped it would be a “model for future encounters”.

The official said it should not be seen as a thaw in relations, however.

“What we are trying to achieve is a steady state between the United States and China where we are able to compete intensely but to manage that competition responsibly,” the official said.

Yang said China opposes using “competition” to define Sino-U.S. relations, Chinese state media reported.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Yang told Sullivan that confrontation would damage both countries and the world.

“The two sides agreed to take action … to strengthen strategic communication, properly manage differences, avoid conflict and confrontation,” a ministry statement said.

TRADE TALKS

The White House said Sullivan will also visit Brussels for meetings with NATO and European Union officials, as well as Paris, and will brief the Europeans on his meeting with Yang.

With trade tensions also at the top of the U.S.-China agenda, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, in Paris for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meetings, has said she hopes to hold discussions soon with Chinese counterparts.

On Monday, Tai unveiled the results of a months-long “top-to-bottom” review of China trade policy, pledging to hold “frank” talks with Beijing about its failure to keep promises made in former President Donald Trump’s trade deal and end harmful industrial policies.

The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by China’s official People’s Daily, said China has succeeded in changing the U.S. attitude towards Beijing.

It pointed to U.S. willingness to restart trade talks as one example of a less confrontational stance, and last month’s release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, three years after she was detained in Canada at Washington’s request, as another.

“China’s fundamental strategy of not making principled concessions and insisting on doing its own thing is taking effect,” the Global Times said in a commentary on the Yang-Sullivan talks on Thursday.

“The U.S. side always says it wants to speak ‘from a position of strength,’ but its strength is far from sufficient to achieve its ambitions to contain China’s development.”

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Austin, Texas, U.S. October 2, 2021. Picture taken October 2, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A federal judge temporarily blocked a near-total ban on abortion in Texas, the toughest such law in the United States, following a challenge from President Joe Biden’s administration after the U.S. Supreme Court let it proceed.

The action by US District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin prevents the state from enforcing the Republican-backed law, which prohibits women from obtaining an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, while litigation over its legality continues.

The case is part of a fierce legal battle over abortion access in the United States, with numerous states pursuing restrictions.

“This Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right,” Pitman said in the ruling.

The ink was barely dry on Pitman’s order before Texas notified the court it intends to appeal the ruling to the conservative-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, setting the stage for the next phase of the legal battle.

“Tonight’s ruling is an important step forward toward restoring the constitutional rights of women across the state of Texas,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in statement late Wednesday. “The fight has only just begun, both in Texas and in many states across this country where women’s rights are currently under attack,” she added.

Biden’s Justice Department sued Texas  and sought a temporary injunction against the law, arguing during an Oct. 1 hearing that the measure violates the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 1  let the law take effect in a 5-4 vote powered by conservative justices.

At six weeks of pregnancy, many women do not yet know they are pregnant. The law makes no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. It also lets ordinary citizens enforce the ban, rewarding them at least $10,000 if they successfully sue anyone who helped provide an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Critics of the law have said this provision enables people to act as anti-abortion bounty hunters.

The Justice Department argued that the law impedes women from exercising their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy that was recognized in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The department also argued that the law improperly interferes with the operations of the federal government to provide abortion-related services.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland lauded the ruling as a “victory for women in Texas.”

Planned Parenthood said the preliminary injunction means lawsuits filed under the law cannot be accepted by Texas courts.

“The relief granted by the court today is overdue, and we are grateful that the Department of Justice moved quickly to seek it,” Planned Parenthood CEO Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement.

Whole Woman’s Health, which has four clinics in Texas, said it was making plans to resume abortions up to 18 weeks “as soon as possible.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, has defended the legality of the state’s abortion law, with this office saying in a statement: “The most precious freedom is life itself.”

Pitman heard about three hours of arguments https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-administration-urge-halt-strict-texas-abortion-law-2021-10-01 on the Justice Department’s request. Justice Department attorney Brian Netter called the law an “unprecedented scheme of vigilante justice” that must be struck down.

Will Thompson, an attorney in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, countered the department’s arguments, saying there were plenty of opportunities for people in Texas to challenge the law on their own. He said the department’s arguments were filled with “hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric.”

U.S. conservatives have long sought to have Roe v. Wade overturned. The Supreme Court on Dec. 1 hears arguments in a separate case involving a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has asked the high court to overturn the 1973 precedent.

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Tourists walk over sand strewn with sargassum at Ballenas Beach in Cancun, Mexico

As the sun rises in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, home to the white sandy beaches of Cancun and Tulum, Rear Admiral Alejandro Lopez Zenteno readies his sailors for another day of dragging rafts of brown seaweed to shore and out of view of cocktail-sipping tourists.

Zenteno heads the operation for the Mexican Navy, which coordinates with the state and local governments to protect an area visitor trade that was valued at more than $15 billion annually before the coronavirus pandemic hit, according to Quintana Roo’s tourism secretariat.

When it washes ashore, the plant – known as sargassum – turns black and emits a sewage-like stench so powerful it has been known to make travellers ill. It attracts insects and turns the area’s famed turquoise snorkelling waters a sickly brown.

And it just keeps coming. Since 2011, seaweed here and across the Caribbean has exploded for reasons scientists suspect is related to climate change but don’t yet fully understand.

In Quintana Roo alone, Mexico’s Navy since March has removed more than 37,000 tons of sargassum — more than the weight of three Eiffel Towers — from beaches and surrounding waters.

A Mexican Marine observes a crane with a load of sargassum during an operation to remove the algae from the sea, in Cancun

“We don’t expect this to end anytime soon,” Zenteno said onboard a seaweed-clearing ship known as a “sargacero,” one of 12 deployed by the Navy.

Entrepreneurs across the region, meanwhile, are searching for ways to monetize the muck. They’re experimenting with seaweed-based products including animal feed, fuel, construction material – even signature cocktails.

“Sargassum is seen as a nuisance,” said Srinivasa Popuri, an environmental scientist in Barbados with the University of the West Indies. He views the Caribbean as “blessed” with a resource that grows naturally and requires no land or other inputs to flourish.

Popuri is working on extracting substances from seaweed that could have applications for the pharmaceutical, medical and food industries.

Whether such efforts prove viable remains to be seen. Commercialising seaweed can be challenging given the expense of collecting it.

Still, creativity is blossoming along with the seaweed.

SARGASSUM SOLUTIONS

One of the biggest potential uses lies in demand for so-called alginates, a biomaterial extracted from brown seaweed, which is a common ingredient in food thickeners, wound care and waterproofing agents for its gel-like properties.

The global market in 2020 was worth almost $610 million, a figure that’s expected to grow to $755 million by 2027, according to consulting firm Global Market Insights.

A man poses for a photo at a house built with bricks made from sargassum

Omar Vazquez, meanwhile, is building houses.

Vazquez, a nursery owner in the seaside town of Puerto Morelos near Cancun, for several years had used sargassum as a fertilizer. In 2018, he came up with the idea of turning it into a construction material. He said the resulting sargassum “bricks,” baked in the sun, allow him to build a house 60% cheaper than if he were to use traditional cement blocks.

Now dubbed “Señor Sargazo” by his neighbors, Vazquez said he has built and donated 10 such houses to local families in need. He hopes to turn his now-patented “Sargablock” material into a for-profit franchise.

“Everyone was complaining that sargassum was stinky, sargassum is a problem. What I did was find a solution for it,” said Vazquez, 45, showing Reuters around “Casa Angelita,” the first house he built with seaweed and which he named for his mother.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Cancun found a tastier use for sargassum. For a time, it served up a cocktail made with tequila, vinegar, sugar, rosemary and a syrup derived from sanitised seaweed.

Some businesses are nervous about relying on a resource with variable supply: There’s no way to know how much might grow in a year.

Others are concerned that large-scale harvests for business initiatives might lead to sea turtles and other endangered creatures being scooped up indiscriminately.

Still other efforts are waiting on scientific testing for safety. In Jamaica, entrepreneur Daveian Morrison is building a processing plant to scale up his experiments, including turning seaweed into charcoal for people to burn in lieu of firewood. He said his recipe for animal feed made from the protein-rich plant proved a hit at a local goat farm, but it needs more testing to ensure the seaweed doesn’t contain dangerous levels of arsenic or other harmful substances.

In Barbados, a University of the West Indies research team is distilling sargassum along with waste from a rum distillery to make methane, which can be turned into compressed natural gas to power transportation across the island.

“There is this beautiful coincidence that the ocean is producing all this biomass,” said Legena Henry, a renewable-energy lecturer at the university. She said she’ll soon be converting her own car to run on the fuel, with the hopes of a wider rollout next June.

SEAWEED EXPLOSION

Sargassum is most famously found in the Sargasso Sea in the north Atlantic, where the seaweed has been documented for hundreds of years. How it traveled south to the tropical Atlantic is unclear.

Some scientists have theorised that the intense 2010 hurricane season may have carried a bit of it to the central western Atlantic, planting the seeds for a new sargassum belt that now stretches nearly 9,000 kilometers.

That seaweed explosion “might just reflect the system going over some tipping point,” said biologist Joseph Montoya at Georgia Tech University. “We don’t know.”

Also unclear is why the Caribbean sargassum blooms have grown to such monstrous masses. Scientists say climate change, water pollution, Amazon deforestation and dust blowing in from the Sahara Desert are all likely factors.

New research published in May in the journal Nature Communications points to another suspect: Major rivers – including notably the Amazon – are pumping more human sewage and agricultural runoff into the ocean, where the nutrients are likely fertilising the sargassum.

The University of South Florida has been tracking sargassum since 2011 and it recorded a significant uptick in 2015. In May, a record 18 million metric tons were detected by satellite in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean. That’s up nearly 6% from the previous May record set in 2018, and up more than 800% from levels seen a decade ago, according to Chuanmin Hu, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida.

Mexico’s coastline is especially vulnerable, thanks to an ocean current swirling in the western Caribbean Sea that pulls sargassum towards the nation’s beaches. A July 21 map by the Sargassum Monitoring Network of Quintana Roo, a non-governmental organisation, showed that 28 of the state’s 80 beaches were experiencing an “excessive” amount of sargassum, the most severe grade.

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AstraZeneca (AZN.L) has requested emergency use authorisation from US regulators for its new treatment to prevent COVID-19 for people who respond poorly to vaccines because of a weakened immune system.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker said it included data in its filing with the Food and Drug Administration from a late-stage trial that showed the drug reduced the risk of people developing any COVID-19 symptoms by 77 per cent.

The antibody therapy called AZD7442 could protect people who do not have a strong enough immune response to COVID-19 vaccines or to supplement a vaccination course for those, such as military personnel, who need to booster their protection further, AstraZeneca has said.

While vaccines rely on an intact immune system to develop targeted antibodies and infection-fighting cells, AZD7442 contains lab-made antibodies designed to linger in the body for months to contain the virus in case of an infection.

A US authorisation for AZD7442 – based on two antibodies discovered by Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the United States – could be a major win for AstraZeneca, whose widely used COVID-19 vaccine has yet to be approved by US authorities.

Talks regarding supply agreements for AZD7442 are ongoing with the United States and other governments, AstraZeneca said.

COVID-19 therapies based on the same class of monoclonal antibodies are being developed by rivals Regeneron (REGN.O), Eli Lilly (LLY.N) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) with partner Vir (VIR.O), competing for a role in COVID-19 treatment and prevention. But Astra’s filing has cemented its lead in prevention.

That contrasts with delays in Astra’s quest for approval for its COVID-19 vaccine Vaxzevria in the United States, where the vast majority of those willing to get immunised have received shots from the Pfizer-BioNTech (PFE.N)(22UAy.DE) alliance, Moderna (MRNA.O) or Johnson & Johnson .

Astra said in July it expected to seek US approval for the vaccine in the second half of this year.

Trial results on the AZD7442 therapy, first published in August, were taken three months after injection but the company hopes it can tout the shot as a year-long shield as trial investigators will follow up with participants as far out as 15 months.

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Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen

Facebook took another pounding in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and a senator called on federal regulators to investigate accusations by a whistleblower that the company pushed for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety.

In an opening statement to a Senate Commerce subcommittee, chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said that Facebook knew that its products were addictive, like cigarettes. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jawdropping moment of truth,” he said.

He called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the social media company.

“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said, adding that Zuckerberg instead was going sailing.

In an era when bipartisanship is rare on Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed on the need for big changes at Facebook.

The top Republican on the subcommittee, Marsha Blackburn, said that Facebook turned a blind eye to children below age 13 on its sites. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users.”

Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in an email ahead of the hearing that the company sees protecting its community as more important than maximizing profits and said it was not accurate that leaked internal research demonstrated that Instagram was “toxic” for teenage girls.

Frances Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team, said the company keeps its algorithms and operations a secret.

“The core of the issue is that no one can understand Facebook’s destructive choices better than Facebook, because only Facebook gets to look under the hood,” she said in written testimony prepared for the hearing.

“A critical starting point for effective regulation is transparency,” she said in testimony to be delivered to the subcommittee. “On this foundation, we can build sensible rules and standards to address consumer harms, illegal content, data protection, anticompetitive practices, algorithmic systems and more.”

Haugen revealed she was the one who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s harm to teenage girls.

The Journal’s stories showed the company contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm; failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy; and was aware that Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.

Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent its site from being used by people planning violence.

Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.

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National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan holds a press briefing

U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser will hold talks with China’s top diplomat in Switzerland on Tuesday and Wednesday, the South China Morning Post said, at a time of rising tension over several issues including Taiwan.

“They aim to rebuild communication channels and implement consensus reached between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden,” the newspaper reported on Tuesday, citing an official familiar with the arrangements for the meeting between Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi.

Both the White House and the Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Ties between China and the United States deteriorated sharply under former U.S. President Donald Trump, and the Biden administration has maintained pressure on China on a range of issues from Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region to the origins of COVID-19.

China has also been angered by increased U.S. support for Taiwan, believing the United States is colluding with forces there seeking the island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing.

“Our commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

“We have been clear privately and publicly about our concern about the PRC’s (People’s Repubic of China) pressure and coercion toward Taiwan, and we will continue to watch the situation very closely,” she said.

Trade tensions are also at the top of the U.S.-China agenda, with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai traveling to Paris Monday to participate in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meetings later this week.

On Monday, the USTR unveiled the results of a months-long “top-to-bottom” review of China trade policy, pledging to hold “frank” talks with Beijing about its failure to keep promises made in Trump’s trade deal and end harmful industrial policies.

The Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in a commentary China was willing to build mutually beneficial trade with the United States but would not make concessions on principle and was not afraid of a drawn-out contest.

“The China-U.S. trade war has lasted for more than three-and-a-half years. Instead of being weakened, China’s economy has taken a step forward in comparison with the scale of the U.S.,” it said.

The meetings this week will be yet another round of in-person talks between officials from the two powers since Biden took office, with little in the way of concrete progress in the earlier sessions.

In late July, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat, held face-to-face meetings with Xie Feng, a Chinese vice foreign minister, in the Chinese port city of Tianjin.

No specific outcomes were agreed and the prospect of a meeting between Biden and Xi was not discussed, senior U.S. administration officials said at the time.

In March, during high-level talks in Alaska, Chinese officials including Yang Jiechi railed against the state of U.S. democracy, while U.S. officials accused the Chinese delegation of grandstanding.

REUTERS