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Canada among nations calling for further, transparent COVID-19 origin probe after WHO report release

Canada, the United States and 12 other countries expressed concerns Tuesday that the released World Health Organization (WHO) report on the origins of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was delayed and lacked access to complete data, according to a joint statement.

The statement was also signed by the governments of Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

“Together, we support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement read. “In this regard, we join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent, science-based, and independent process for international evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origin in the future.”

The statement praises the mission of WHO and called for “further studies of animals to find the means of introduction into humans, and urge momentum for expert-driven phase 2 studies.”

The WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan, China, in January and February released its final report to the public.


World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen in 2020, called a report on the origins of the novel coronavirus a beginning, but he admitted to member states on Tuesday that the team of experts had some difficulty accessing raw data while in China. (Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters)

WHO report called ‘important beginning’

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement the report was “a very important beginning.”

“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again,” Tedros said in his statement. “No single research trip can provide all the answers.”

The joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, a finding that became widely known Monday after a draft of the report was obtained by news organizations. The theory was among four that was discussed in detail in the report.

The conclusion that knowledge around virus origins remains incomplete likely means that tensions over how the pandemic started — and whether China has helped or hinder efforts to find out, as the United States has alleged — will continue.

While not mentioning China specifically, Tedros told member states he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”


Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is shown on Feb. 10 in Wuhan, Hubei province in China. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The leader of the four-week WHO mission to China, Peter Ben Embarek, said on Tuesday he was not pressed to remove anything from its final report, though he did admit there was some difficulty in accessing raw data

It is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, Embarek said, potentially leading to the disease spreading abroad earlier than has been documented.

Lab leak considered least likely possibility

The report acknowledges that there is literature suggesting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease, may have been circulating earlier as indicated by sewage testing in Spain and Italy. But officials at Tuesday’s news conference said the methodology of those studies need more scrutiny.

Dominic Dwyer, a WHO mission expert, said there was “no obvious evidence” that any Wuhan-area labs were involved in the outbreak.

Some members of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration have promoted a lab leak theory, though they have not provided specific evidence to support their supposition.

READ | WHO report on origins of SARS-CoV-2:

Three laboratories in Wuhan working with coronaviruses had “well-managed,” high-quality biosafety levels, and there had been no reports of compatible respiratory illness among staff during the preceding months, the report said.

Nor had they tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in subsequent blood screening for antibodies, the report said.

The report also discusses evidence — supporting or conflicting — for two other possibilities.

Direct spread from bats to humans was considered as possible, while potential spread through “cold-chain” food products was considered possible but not likely.

White House urges more action from WHO

The White House on Tuesday urged WHO to take additional steps to determine the origins of COVID-19 in its own comment.

“There’s a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international and independent experts. They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time, and that’s a step the WHO could take,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

WATCH \ WHO last month says it believes lab leak theory unlikely:

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a World Health Organization expert who is part of the team investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus, says it is ‘extremely unlikely’ the virus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. 0:36

Earlier Tuesday, more than 20 heads of government and global agencies in a commentary published Tuesday called for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations in the wake of COVID-19.

But there were few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more co-operatively.

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Qualcomm May Release a Nintendo Switch Clone Running Android

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Qualcomm makes the chips that power some of the most popular mobile devices in the world, but it’s barely dipped its toe in direct-to-consumer products. That’s about the change, according to a new report from Android Police. It seems Qualcomm is branching out into gaming with a Nintendo Switch clone. The Android-powered device will have removable JoyCon-style controllers, 5G connectivity, and multiple app stores at launch, including one from Epic Games. Say hello to your new Fortnite machine… in about a year. 

The unnamed source tells AP that Qualcomm wants to use its gaming machine to demonstrate all the capabilities of the Snapdragon SoC. Sure, those chips are in millions of phones, but OEMs rarely take full advantage of what the hardware can do. The handheld will feature a slightly thicker form factor than your average phone, giving it more thermal headroom and a cooling fan. That should reduce slowdowns from throttling, even during intense gaming sessions. There will also be a 6,000 mAh battery and a 6.65-inch 1080p display. Qualcomm often makes demo hardware to show to OEMs, but the report claims this device is being designed for consumers and will be sold direct by Qualcomm. That’s not completely without precedent — the company sold its Toq smartwatch with Mirasol display technology back in 2013 and 2014.

Qualcomm is reportedly working with a “premium supplier” to design the controllers, but you won’t always use them attached to the console. Again, like the Switch, the Qualcomm handheld will support a video-out docked mode. However, it’s unclear if this will be via the USB-C port or a secondary HDMI port. Naturally, the console will also have a Qualcomm 5G modem, currently expected to be the aging X55. 

The console will run Android 12 at launch, which is currently on the docket for early 2022. It will have Google Play certification, giving you access to all the standard Android apps and games, but there will also be an Epic Game Store client. That means Fortnite is most certainly on the menu, as will many other titles. Epic has been trying to break into mobile game distribution, so it’s probably going to come out swinging with exclusive titles. 

We don’t know what ARM chip the device will use, but it’s probably going to be whatever Qualcomm’s latest and greatest is in early 2022 — the successor to the current Snapdragon 888. The company is targeting a $ 300 price tag, making it substantially cheaper than a modern smartphone. Naturally, Qualcomm has refused to comment.

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Canadian researchers to release recommendations for treating youth eating disorders online

Sarah White sets a timer to remind herself to eat. She sets it six times a day so that she eats three meals and three snacks.

White says she’s always been a “picky eater.” But when she started working from home, her routine was interrupted and her already difficult relationship with food became dangerous. It ultimately led to an eating disorder diagnosis during the pandemic. 

“I had all of the time in the world to eat, but I was finding I wasn’t eating nearly as much as I should have been,” White, 33, said during a physically distanced interview at her Halifax apartment. “It started to feel a lot more serious than it had in the past.”

There’s been an alarming spike in the number of people seeking help for eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre says the volume of inquiries to its help line and online chat service has been up 100 per cent during the pandemic.

“There’s been literature coming out across the world really suggesting that the numbers are skyrocketing and we’re trying to understand why that is,” said Dr. Jennifer Couturier, principal investigator for the Canadian Consensus Panel for Eating Disorders. 

Pandemic research effort

In May, the panel, which consists of clinicians, policymakers, parents and youth, received a $ 50,000 federal grant to determine how best to treat eating disorders during a pandemic, particularly in children and young adults under 25. Couturier says she feels this age group hasn’t received a lot of attention when it comes to research generally. 

The operating grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research is part of a larger government program to fund mental health research related to COVID-19. 

The panel’s recommendations, which are about to be published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, are intended to help doctors determine what kinds of treatments they should and should not be delivering virtually.

WATCH |  Sarah White explains on her eating disorder:

Sarah White, 33, was recently diagnosed with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She discusses the role the COVID-19 pandemic played in her illness. 0:56

The guidelines say that while virtual care can be suitable in some circumstances when treating eating disorders, it cannot wholly replace in-person visits, and that special care must be taken to ensure patients have enough privacy to express themselves during online sessions. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Couturier’s clinic was closed. She was not able to see patients in person at all until services slowly opened up for more urgent cases. 

It’s part of what made her realize new guidelines for online treatment were necessary. 

In-person visits still necessary

Couturier, who is also the co-director of the eating disorders program at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., says in-person visits are still necessary in some cases.

“It’s not just talking, therapy, that’s important with eating disorders,” she said. “There’s also checking weights and checking vital signs, which can’t be done virtually.”

But she says some established treatments — such as family-based treatment, which gives parents an active role, and cognitive behavioural therapy — can be conducted virtually with some adjustments.

“We often start off the session saying, ‘Are you in a private space? Are you feeling comfortable?’ Couturier said.


Dr. Jennifer Couturier, principal investigator for the Canadian Consensus Panel for Eating Disorders, says there are benefits to virtual care, but some care must still be provided in-person. (Submitted by Jennifer Couturier)

She noted it’s also important for doctors to ensure no one barges into the room on their end while they’re with patients, especially if they’re working from home.  

Couturier says virtual care can improve access because it eliminates geographic inequities, but it can also create barriers for those who don’t have access to a computer and the Internet. She says her team’s guidelines encourage physicians and hospitals to be mindful of both. 

They’ll also recommend hospitals don’t, “just broadly say, ‘OK, eating disorders can be treated totally virtually,'” as was the case in the early days of the pandemic. 

Benefits to virtual care

Shaleen Jones, executive director of Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, agrees virtual care can increase access for people, particularly patients who live in rural areas. 

Her organization, which provides support, not medical care, planned to help 250 people over the past year. It ended up helping about 1,000 people through online peer support programs. 

Eating disorders thrive in isolation and secrecy– Shaleen Jones, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia

Jones says 85 per cent of the people her organization has helped are from Nova Scotia, with the remainder joining virtual sessions via Zoom from other Canadian provinces, particularly, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

“Across Canada, we’ve really seen a number of folks who are reaching out for support for an eating disorder, just really going through the roof,” she said. “Eating disorders really thrive in isolation and secrecy.” 

Liberating diagnosis

White attended a peer support group offered by Eating Disorders Nova Scotia in the early days of the pandemic. She now works for the organization, a role to which she brings valuable real-life experience.

In September, she was diagnosed with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), an eating disorder that involves selective eating. It’s similar to anorexia in that it involves limiting the amount of food consumed, but different in that it does not involve distress about body shape. 

She says it was the diagnosis she didn’t know she needed because it helped explain what she had been experiencing most of her life.  

“It was kind of liberating,” she said. “It makes sense. It wasn’t just me trying to be difficult or me being a picky eater. It’s a legitimate mental illness.” 

White lives in Nova Scotia, where COVID-19 rates have remained relatively low. She was able to meet her physicians and get a diagnosis in person.

Couturier says she expects virtual care to remain a part of her practice going forward.

“There are so many benefits to it that I think these guidelines will still be quite relevant and applicable even when the pandemic has passed,” Couturier said. 

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Kidnappers release hundreds of schoolgirls in latest Nigeria abduction

Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted last week from a boarding school in the northwestern Zamfara state have been released, the state’s governor said Tuesday.

Zamfara state governor Bello Matawalle announced that 279 girls have been freed.

Gunmen abducted the girls from the Government Girls Junior Secondary School in Jangebe town on Friday, in the latest in a series of mass kidnappings of students in the West African nation.

An Associated Press reporter saw hundreds of girls dressed in light blue hijabs and barefoot sitting at the state Government House office in Gusau.

After the meeting, the girls were escorted outside by officials and taken away in vans. They appeared calm and ranged in ages from 10 and up.

“Alhamdulillah! (God be praised!) It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students of GGSS Jangebe from captivity. This follows the scaling of several hurdles laid against our efforts. I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe,” Matawalle said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday.


At the time of the attack, one resident told AP that the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the mass abduction at the school.

One of the girls recounted the night of their abduction to the AP.

“We were sleeping at night when suddenly we started hearing gunshots. They were shooting endlessly. We got out of our beds and people said we should run, that they are thieves,” she said. “Everybody fled and there were just two of us left in the room.”

‘I was really afraid of being shot’

The attackers held guns to the girls’ heads, she said.

“I was really afraid of being shot,” she said, adding that they asked for directions to the staff quarters and the principal. “We said we don’t know who she is. They said the principal is our father and they will teach us a lesson.”

Police and the military had since been carrying out joint operations to rescue the girls, whose abduction caused international outrage.

President Muhammadu Buhari expressed “overwhelming joy” over the release of the girls.

“I join the families and people of Zamfara State in welcoming and celebrating the release of these traumatized female students,” he said in a statement. “Being held in captivity is an agonizing experience not only for the victims, but also their families and all of us.”


An official embraces a girl who was kidnapped from a boarding school in Nigeria as she heads for a medical check-up after her release Tuesday. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

The president called for greater vigilance to prevent bandits from carrying out such attacks.

He urged police and military to pursue the kidnappers, and warned that policies of making payments to bandits will backfire.

“Ransom payments will continue to prosper kidnapping,” he said.

The terms of the female students’ release were not made immediately clear.

Police and the military had since been carrying out joint operations to rescue the girls, whose abduction caused international outrage.

String of school kidnappings

Nigeria has seen several such attacks and kidnappings in recent years. On Saturday, 24 students, six staff and eight relatives were released after being abducted on February 17 from the Government Science College Kagara in Niger state. In December, more than 300 schoolboys from a secondary school in Kankara, in northwestern Nigeria, were taken and later released. The government has said no ransom was paid for the students’ release.

The most notorious kidnapping was in April 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram from the secondary school in Chibok in Borno state. More than 100 of those girls are still missing. Boko Haram is opposed to western education and its fighters often target schools.


A team of security experts tour the JSS Jangebe school, a day after hundreds of school girls were abducted. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Other organized armed groups, locally called bandits, often abduct students for money. The government says large groups of armed men in Zamfara state are known to kidnap for money and to press for the release of their members held in jail.

Experts say if the kidnappings continue to go unpunished, they may continue.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said last week the government would not “succumb to blackmail by bandits and criminals who target innocent school students in expectation of huge ransom payments.” He called on state governments to review their policy of making payments, in money or vehicles, to bandits, saying such a policy has the potential to backfire.

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Texas freeze led to release of tonnes of air pollutants as refineries shut

The largest U.S. oil refiners released tonnes of air pollutants into the skies over Texas this past week, according to figures provided to the state, as one environmental crisis triggered another.

Refiners and petrochemical plants along the U.S. Gulf Coast scrambled to shut production as an arctic air mass spread into a region unused to frigid temperatures.

The extreme cold, which killed at least two dozen people in Texas and knocked out power to more than 4 million at its peak, also hit natural gas and electric generation, cutting supplies needed to run the plants.

Shutdowns led to the refineries flaring, or burning and releasing gases, to prevent damage to their processing units. That flaring darkened the skies in eastern Texas with smoke visible for kilometres.

“These emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team.

She said U.S. regulators must change policies that allow “these massive emissions to occur with impunity.”

Top polluters

The five largest refiners emitted nearly 152 tonnes (337,000 pounds) of pollutants, including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to preliminary data supplied to the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ).

Valero Energy said in a filing with the TCEQ that it released 35 tonnes (78,000 pounds) over 24 hours beginning Feb. 15 from its Port Arthur refinery, citing the frigid cold and interruptions in utility services.

The 53 tonnes (118,100 pounds) of emissions from Motiva’s Port Arthur, Texas, refinery between Feb. 15 and Feb. 18 were more than three times the excess emissions that it declared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the whole of 2019.

Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery released 6.4 tonnes (14,255 pounds) over less than five hours on Feb. 15, equivalent to about 10 per cent of its total releases above permitted levels in 2019.

WATCH | Biden declares major disaster in Texas after winter storm:

U.S. President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Texas after a devastating winter storm left more than 13 million people struggling to access basic necessities such as clean water. 3:11

Exxon Mobil said its Baytown Olefins Plant emitted nearly one ton of benzene and 68,000 tons of carbon monoxide, citing in its disclosure the halting of “multiple process units and safe utilization of the flare system.”

Exxon blamed the shutdown of two Texas refineries on the freezing weather and loss of natural gas supplies. A spokesman said its petrochemical plants in Texas and Louisiana have supplied 560 megawatts to local communities, helping power about 300,000 homes.

Valero did not have an immediate comment. Motiva and Marathon did not respond to requests for comment.

Final figures on pollution releases are due to be submitted to the state in two weeks.

‘No safe amount’

The flaring continued through the week as refiners kept plants out of service.

“We had six or seven flares going at one time,” Hilton Kelly, who lives in Port Arthur, home to refineries operated by Motiva, Valero and Total SE, said on Friday. “It’s still happening now.”

Sharon Wilson, a researcher at advocacy group Earthworks, said the releases are alarming, in part because “there is no safe amount of benzene for human exposure.”

State data showing oil and gas producers were flaring methane this week “is just making things worse, and it could have been prevented” by winterizing facilities, she said.

Texas oil and gas companies filed 174 notices of pollution releases above permitted levels between Feb. 11 and Feb. 18, four times the number the prior week, according to TCEQ data.

Total pollution at Houston-area facilities during the cold snap totalled approximately 318 tonnes (703,000 pounds), about 3 per cent of the total pollution over permitted amounts for all of 2019 and almost 10 per cent of 2018’s releases, according to TCEQ data analyzed by advocacy group Environment Texas.

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Thousands rally in Russia to demand Alexei Navalny’s release

Thousands of people took to the streets Sunday across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the wave of nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin. Hundreds were detained by police.

The authorities mounted a massive effort to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands of people rallied across the country the previous weekend in the largest and most widespread show of discontent the country has seen in years.

Police so far have detained over 260 participants in protests held in many cities across Russia’s 11 time zones, according to the OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests.

In Moscow, introduced unprecedented security measures in the city centre, closing several subway stations near the Kremlin, cutting bus traffic and ordering restaurants and stores to stay closed.

The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is the best-known critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.


Police detain another participant of Sunday’s rally in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Navalny’s team called for Sunday’s protest to be held on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, home to the main headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which Navalny claims was responsible for his poisoning.

As part of a multipronged effort by the authorities to block the protests, courts have jailed Navalny’s associates and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put under two-month house arrest Friday on charges of alleged violations of coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.

Prosecutors also demanded that social platforms block the calls for joining the protests on the internet.

The Interior Ministry has issued stern warnings to the public not to join the protests, saying participants could be charged with taking part in mass riots, which carries a prison sentence of up to eight years. Those engaging in violence against police could face up to 15 years.

Nearly 4,000 people were reportedly detained at demonstrations on Jan. 23 calling for Navalny’s release took place in more than 100 Russian cities, and some were given fines and jail terms. About 20 were accused of assaulting police and faced criminal charges.

Just after Navalny’s arrest, his team released a two-hour video on his YouTube channel about an opulent Black Sea residence purportedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, helping fuel discontent and inspiring a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet.

Putin has said that neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property, and on Saturday, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime Putin confidant and his occasional judo sparring partner, claimed he owned the property.

Navalny fell into a coma on Aug. 20 while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Novichok nerve agent. Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that he was poisoned.

WATCH | Putin touts stability amid protests over Nalvany’s arrest:

Russian authorities are bracing for another round of protests amid outrage over the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Despite that, President Vladimir Putin made a rare appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying it was business as usual in Russia. 2:06

When he returned to Russia in January, Navalny was jailed for 30 days after Russia’s prison service alleged he had violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as political revenge.

On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected his appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his 3½-year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.

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‘Good riddance,’ China says to German envoy making U.N. pitch to release 2 Michaels

Germany’s U.N. envoy, during his last scheduled U.N. Security Council meeting, appealed to China to free two detained Canadians for Christmas, prompting China’s deputy U.N. envoy to respond: “Out of the bottom of my heart: Good riddance.”

Germany finishes a two-year term on the 15-member council at the end of this month and Ambassador Christoph Heusgen plans to retire after more than 40 years as a diplomat.

“Let me end my tenure on the Security Council by appealing to my Chinese colleagues to ask Beijing for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Christmas is the right moment for such a gesture,” Heusgen told the council session, whose official agenda topic was Iran.

Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who was working as an adviser for the International Crisis Group think tank, and businessman Spavor were detained by Beijing in 2018 shortly after Canadian police picked up Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant.

China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Geng Shuang, accused Heusgen of abusing the Security Council to launch “malicious” attacks on other members “in an attempt to poison the working atmosphere.”

Parting advice to Russia on Navalny

“I wish to say something out of the bottom of my heart: Good riddance, Ambassador Heusgen,” Geng said. “I am hoping that the council in your absence in the year 2021 will be in a better position to fulfill the responsibilities…for maintaining international peace and security.”

Heusgen also used the Security Council meeting to advise Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, to read certain articles about Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who said he had tricked a Russian secret agent into disclosing details of a botched plot to kill him. Russia’s FSB security service dismissed the recording as a fake.

Polyanskiy replied: “It seems he’s developed a certain dependency on the council, there’s never a meeting without criticism of Russia even if that’s not suitable for the subject matter. I hope that after Jan. 1 that Christoph’s symptoms will improve.” 

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Georgia to release report on recount results in U.S. presidential election

Georgia election officials expect to release a report Thursday on a hand tally of the presidential race, and they have repeatedly said they expect it to affirm Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow lead over Republican President Donald Trump.

The hand tally of about 5 million votes stemmed from an audit required by a new state law and wasn’t in response to any suspected problems with the state’s results or an official recount request. The state has until Friday to certify results that have been certified and submitted by the counties.

The counties were supposed to finish the hand count by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. Gabriel Sterling, who oversaw the implementation of the state’s new voting system, said he expected the secretary of state’s office to put out a report on the results by midday Thursday.

Once the state certifies the election results, the losing campaign has two business days to request a recount if the margin remains within 0.5 per cent. That recount would be done using scanners that read and tally the votes and would be paid for by the counties, Sterling said.

It was up to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to select the race to be audited, and he said the presidential race made the most sense because of its significance and the tight margin separating the candidates. Because of that small margin, Raffensperger said a full hand recount was necessary.


Observers watch during a Cobb County hand recount of Presidential votes on Sunday. Election officials in Georgia have said they expect the recount report to affirm Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow lead over Republican President Donald Trump. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal & Constitution/The Associated Press)

Going into the hand tally, Biden led Trump by a margin of about 14,000 votes. Previously uncounted ballots discovered in four counties during the hand count will reduce that margin to about 12,800, Sterling said.

Other counties found slight differences in results as they did their hand counts, and state election officials had consistently said that was to be expected.

The Associated Press has not declared a winner in Georgia, where Biden led Trump by about 0.3 percentage points. There is no mandatory recount law in Georgia, but state law provides that option to a trailing candidate if the margin is less than 0.5 percentage points. It is AP’s practice not to call a race that is — or is likely to become — subject to a recount.

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Think-tank urges China to release Canadian employee Michael Kovrig

The president of the International Crisis Group used a high-level U.N. Security Council meeting attended by China’s foreign minister Tuesday to appeal for the release of the think-tank ‘s northeast Asia expert, Michael Kovrig, who has been held by Beijing for nearly two years as part of a diplomatic dispute with Canada.

Robert Malley told the council at the end of his briefing on security in the Persian Gulf that the Crisis Group strives to be “an impartial conflict resolution organization” and its staff tries to understand the perspectives of all parties.

“That’s what our colleague Michael Kovrig was doing in his work on China’s foreign policy,” Malley said.

He said it wasn’t the time or place to discuss Kovrig’s case, “but I cannot conclude without appealing to the Chinese authorities, if they are listening, to understand the mission he was pursuing, end his almost two-year detention, allow him at long last to be reunited with his loved ones and continue his work toward a more peaceful world.”

Diplomats speak up

The participants at the virtual council meeting were shown on the screen, and when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi heard China mentioned he looked up and paid attention. But he made no mention of Kovrig in his speech to the council.

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen did, echoing Malley’s appeal “to liberate Michael Kovrig.”

“He is not only a member of the International Crisis Group, but a former colleague of ours, a former diplomat,” Heusgen said.

Britain’s acting ambassador, Jonathan Allen, echoed Heusgen, saying Kovrig’s case “causes us deep concern.”

On Oct. 10, China granted consular access to Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, both Canadians, for the first time since January.

The following day, the Canadian government expressed serious concern at their “arbitrary detention” and called for their immediate release.

China’s Foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, denied on Oct. 12 that the two Canadians had been arbitrarily detained in response to Canada’s arrest of an executive of Chinese technology giant Huawei. He said Kovrig and Spavor were “suspected of engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.”

Despite its disavowals of any connection, Beijing has repeatedly tied the detentions to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder. The U.S. is seeking her extradition on fraud charges and the case is before Canadian courts.

“What Canada did in the case of Meng Wanzhou was arbitrary detention,” Zhao said.

Bilateral ties have suffered as China has upped its demands that Canada release Meng, who was detained during a stopover in Vancouver in December 2018 and is currently living in one of her mansions in that city while fighting extradition. Kovrig and Spavor were detained days later.

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Medical experts led by SickKids release new back-to-school recommendations

SickKids has released new proposed guidelines for reopening schools in Ontario come September, including recommendations like staggered lunch times, no large assemblies, and mandatory masks for older students. 

The document, which was released Wednesday in collaboration with doctors from across the province, builds on COVID-19 recommendations the organization first released last month. It suggests various health and safety protocols for schools that take a student’s age and developmental considerations into account. 

CBC News has learned Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce will unveil the province’s plans for the upcoming school year on Thursday. 

The group says it is recommending the use of masks for high school students, with consideration for middle school students, whenever physical distancing can’t be maintained. Around 61 per cent of the authors agreed masks shouldn’t be required for elementary school kids. 

“[Mask wearing] probably will diminish the infectivity of some individuals with COVID, however there are also a number of potential harms,” said Dr. Jeffrey Pernica of McMaster Children’s Hospital, saying that masks could distract and interfere with learning, especially for those with articulation problems, neurological issues, or kids who are learning a second language. 

He also said that masks would have to be worn correctly in order to be effective, adding that it could be “impractical” for teachers to enforce.


The doctors aren’t recommending that elementary school children wear masks, saying that they could be a distraction and interfere with learning. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Most of the doctors also agreed that if community transmission is low, masking should not be mandatory for students returning to class. 

“The lower the level of COVID in the community … the less benefit there is with masking — but the harms remain the same,” Pernica said. “This is why our recommendations are what they are right now.”

Pernica also added that if the levels change, so will the recommendations. 

Premier Doug Ford addressed the masking recommendations in his news conference on Wednesday, saying he could “never argue against medical professionals.”

“I know [Education Minister Stephen Lecce] is going to be rolling out his plan this week,” said Ford, adding that Lecce has been taking advice from hospitals throughout the province, including SickKids and the University Health Network. 

“They’re the experts when it comes to health and I highly recommend that we follow the health experts as we’ve been doing from day one.”

Ford also acknowledged he was “nervous” sending kids back to school, and called it “concerning” that two million kids would be returning to class, along with around 140,000 teachers. 

He stressed the importance of getting the plans right.

“What’s even more concerning is if one of the kids has COVID and they bring it home to their parents or their grandparents,” he said.

“It’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’ll get through it. We’ll work together.”

Dr. Sean Ari Bitnun, a physician at SickKids, further emphasized that one single measure wasn’t going to mitigate things — success relies on the package. 

“If we’re not focusing on any of the other recommendations, we are bound for disaster,” he said. “It really is the bundle effect that is going to create a safe environment for teachers and students.”

When it comes to physical distancing, the document says its role “should be discussed with students of all ages,” but added it would not be practical to enforce for kids in elementary school, especially during play times. 

Instead, the report says “cohorting” — where kids would avoid mixing with other classes and grades — could be used as a strategy.

Since this would be difficult for high school students, the need for physical distancing would have to emphasized in older kids, the report says.

“Two metres is optimal, but the transmission at one metre is not significantly different,” said Dr. Charles Hui of CHEO. 

Other recommendations include: 

  • Implementing strict screening for students and employees who are symptomatic or have been exposed to the virus.
  • Teaching kids how to clean their hands properly with developmentally and age-appropriate material.
  • Arranging classroom furniture to leave space between students. 
  • Having smaller class sizes. 
  • Cancelling choir practices, performances, and band because of the high risk of transmission from wind instruments. 
  • Continuing sports and physical education classes, but cleaning sports equipment and delaying team and close contact sports. 
  • Implementing a regular cleaning schedule. 

The doctors said that it would be up to each school to figure out how to implement changes when it came to aspects like running school libraries or preventing masses of students from rushing out into the hallways at the end of the school day.

Dr. Bitnun also called for local public health units to closely collaborate with schools, saying that “there will undoubtedly be positive cases with the children and for teachers.”

‘Putting out fires as they come up’

The document stresses that opening schools safely — and keeping them open — will be directly impacted by how the virus is spreading in the community.

The recommendations reflect a mark of less than 200 new confirmed cases a day, and experts say that “may evolve” as the epidemiology of COVID-19 changes and new evidence emerges. 


The school boards have until Aug. 4 to submit their reopening plans to the provincial government. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The doctors said they haven’t identified a specific level of community spread that, if breached, would means schools would have to close.

“A specific number in isolation doesn’t really have value,” said Dr. Bitnun. “My view, and I think this is shared by the others, is maybe the most important thing is to have a robust system of testing and contact tracing … in other words, we should focus on, to paraphrase, putting out fires as they come up rather than shutting down everything based on a specific number.”

Staying home could impact already vulnerable students

Back in June, experts said data showed children weren’t “super-spreaders” of the virus like they originally thought they would be, and added that there was evidence the virus presented less severely in kids. 

The experts quoted in the document continue to push for full-time instruction, saying that remote learning would be “insufficient to meet the needs” of youth.

“Thinking about developmental impact and mental health impact has to be in the same equation as the potential harm of COVID,” said Dr. Sloane Freeman, lead pediatrician for the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative at St. Michael’s Hospital. 

Going back to part time, they said, would affect working parents and caregivers, and mean bringing more people into the loop, like babysitters or grandparents. 

Not going back, doctors say, could impact already vulnerable students the most. 

“Medically complex children or children with severe underlying medical or behavioural illness, I think those families are disproportionately affected by what is going on in terms of isolation and trying to manage at home,” said Dr. Jeremy Friedman, a pediatrician at SickKids. “I think that those families, more than any others probably, will not be able to withstand the sort of time period we’re talking about for [when] this pandemic has moved into a more stable phase.”

“The sad irony is that I think that the children who are perhaps the most fragile and most at risk, those children, those families are the ones that probably need to have the normality and the routine,” he said.

School boards have until Aug. 4 to submit plans

Ontario school boards have until Aug. 4 to submit their reopening plans to the provincial government for approval. 

The Toronto Catholic District School Board has already submitted its plans, which include running full classes. 

The group involved in SickKids’ report includes officials, physicians and infectious disease specialists from SickKids, Unity Health, McMaster Children’s Hospital, The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Kingston Health Sciences Centre and London Health Sciences Centre. 

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