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What we know and don’t know about the coronavirus

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(Last Updated On: February 7, 2020)

The spread of a new coronavirus in mainland China and to 27 countries and regions beyond is alarming health experts. Here is what we know – and do not know – about the virus:

HOW DANGEROUS IS THE VIRUS?

The coronavirus family of viruses includes the common cold and more serious diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Many of those with the new virus who have died had pre-existing medical conditions or were elderly, those with weakened immune systems.

Coronavirus infections have a wide range of symptoms, including fever, cough and breathing difficulties.

Statistics from China indicate that about 2% of people infected with the new virus have died, suggesting it may be deadlier than seasonal flu but less deadly than SARS, which killed about 10% of infected individuals. The MERS outbreak in 2012 had a fatality rate of about 35%.

Scientists have labeled the new virus 2019-nCoV.

HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED AND HOW CAN IT BE PREVENTED?

The virus can be transmitted via droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes, and can also spread via contaminated surfaces such as door handles.

Experts have said it is more easily transmitted than the SARS virus. The incubation period is up to 14 days. People may be able to infect others before symptoms appear.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people frequently wash hands, cover mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and avoid close contact with those who are sick.

DO FACE MASKS HELP?

“We recommend the use of masks for people who have symptoms … because the virus transmits through droplets,” says medical expert Sylvie Briand.

But they do not guarantee protection against infection.

“For people who don’t have symptoms, the mask in fact is not useful,” Briand says.

The American Centers for Disease Control’s advice is that face masks are not required for the general public.

IS THERE ANY TREATMENT?

There is no vaccine.

Chinese scientists were able to identify the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and shared it publicly. Scientists in Australia have developed a lab-grown version of the virus, a step toward creating a vaccine.

Drugmakers around the globe expect to begin testing experimental vaccines on humans in about three months.

WHERE HAS IT SPREAD?

About 99% of the more than 20,000 cases have been reported in mainland China. Nearly 230 cases have been reported in about 27 other countries and regions, a Reuters tally based on official statements shows.

At least 490 people have died in China, most in and around the city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged late last year. One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines, both following visits to Wuhan.

Singapore confirmed four more coronavirus cases on Feb. 5 taking its tally to 28. Thailand has 25 cases.

It took the new coronavirus 48 days to infect the first1,000 people. It took SARS 130 days to infect 1,000 people. It took MERS 2.5 years to infect 1,000 people.

WHAT ARE AUTHORITIES DOING?

The Chinese government has virtually locked down the central province of Hubei, home to 60 million people, and its capital Wuhan.

China is facing mounting isolation as airlines suspend flights to its cities.

The United States and Australia have banned entry to foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China.

Many countries have evacuated their citizens from Hubei and are putting them in quarantine or isolation upon return.

The WHO has not recommended travel or trade curbs with China.

WHERE DID THE VIRUS COME FROM?

It is believed to have originated in a food market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. Health experts think it may have originated in bats and then passed to humans, possibly via another species.

Source: Reuters

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Iran’s absence in Doha was due to tensions with US: Abdullah

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah says Iran did not attend the opening ceremony of the historic peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha last month due to tensions with the United States. 

“Iran was invited…Sometimes their relations with the United States which [are] under a lot of tension at the moment, those things affect their decisions [of] participating in a conference or not,” Abdullah said in an interview with Voice of America this week. 

He said however that despite their absence from the event, Iran supported the peace process. 

Abdullah also said Tehran had “legitimate concerns” and “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan adding that Iran’s contacts with various Taliban groups could be used to advance peace efforts. 

This comes after US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, told a Washington-based research group, the United States Institute of Peace, last week that  US-Iran relations were getting in the way of Iran cooperating with Afghanistan’s peace process.

“Iran would like to keep us entangled in a conflict without winning or losing but paying a high price until there is an agreement between the US and Iran,” he said.

Iran refuted the claims but deputy foreign minister for political affairs, Abbas Araghchi, said at the time Iran questioned the US’ intentions in Afghanistan.

“We believe that the US should not be trusted and that the US presence in the region is dangerous and will cause a lot of discord in the region,” said Araghchi.

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ADB approves $110 million grant to boost power supply to Afghanistan

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Wednesday approved a $110 million grant to boost power supply and strengthen Afghanistan’s energy sector by improving its sustainability and promoting cross-border trade in energy. 

“The project will help address Afghanistan’s chronic power shortage by immediately doubling the volume of power imports and ensuring long-term cost-competitive electricity supply,” read a statement issued by ADB. 

Once complete, the project will provide improved access to customers and facilitate 500,000 new connections to households, commercial entities, and industrial customers.

“Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Afghanistan and is essential for the country’s economic growth,” said ADB Energy Specialist Nana Gurgenidze. 

“The project will help provide reliable and affordable electricity to households and businesses by strengthening the grid and increasing power import capacity by 900 megawatts, with year-round firm energy imports of 3,000 gigawatt-hours.”

Afghanistan relies on energy imports from neighboring countries to meet its domestic demand and despite significant progress since 2002, only about 34 percent of the population has access to grid-connected electricity.

According to the ADB, the project will finance the construction of 201km of a 500-kilovolt overhead transmission line from the Surkhan substation in Uzbekistan to the Khwaja-Alwan substation in Afghanistan – a key interconnection node to receive power from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. 

It will also fund the expansion of a line bay, including associated equipment, at the Khwaja-Alwan substation and the project will allow Uzbek power into the Afghan grid under a 10-year power purchase and sales agreement signed in August 2020 by the Afghanistan and Uzbekistan governments.

In addition, staff, including female engineers at the national power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), will be trained to manage cross-border power transfer and parallel operations, including emergency operation systems with CAPS, read the statement.

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Audit finds US Embassy paid $8 million for meals it didn’t need

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(Last Updated On: October 1, 2020)

An audit by the US State Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) found $8.4 million was spent on meals that were not needed at the US Embassy in Kabul last year. 

In a report released on Tuesday, the IG stated  “the number of meals estimated in the task order for option year 4 (2019) was higher than it should have been, resulting in the Department paying almost $8.4 million for meals it did not need and that were not provided.”

Poor oversight by US company DynCorp International, which has the contract to provide meals, security and other services to the US Embassy in Kabul, cost the State Department millions more than necessary, the report stated. 

The IG also stated that because of poor record keeping the US can’t recover the $8.4 million paid for the meals and also can’t be sure DynCorp followed the terms of its contract. 

The State Department has paid DynCorp about $353 million since 2015 to provide food, security, and medical and other services and as per contract stipulations, DynCorp was to provide three meals a day, seven days a week, at a rate of about $21 each to cafeterias at the US Embassy and other consular facilities, the audit said.

DynCorp receives a fixed amount to provide about 2.9 million meals each year but the actual number of meals needed has dropped over the past few years as Embassy staff levels steadily decreased. 

However, a contracting officer last year based meals on 2016 personnel figures, the IG said.

“The Department did not consider the declining number of personnel living and working at the embassy compound and outlying US Government facilities,” the report said.

In November, the State Department finally reduced the number of meals required, bringing down food costs by 29 percent. Had the change been made earlier, the Department could have saved $8.4 million in 2019, the report said.

The audit also found the State Department’s contracting officers and representatives could not tell auditors how food quality standards were monitored, and said they lost their monthly oversight checklists during a computer upgrade.

DynCorp also could not provide 27 percent of the required documents checking sanitation, quality control and proof that goods had been received.

It also failed to develop a plan to reduce costs over time, as it had said it would when it secured the contract, the audit said.

 

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