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N.Korea reports first COVID-19 death as fever spreads ‘explosively’

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© Reuters. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters, as North Korea reports its first outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 12, 2022, in this photo released by North Korea’s

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By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – At least one person confirmed to have COVID-19 has died in North Korea and hundreds of thousands have shown fever symptoms, state media said on Friday, offering hints at the potentially dire scale of country’s first confirmed outbreak of the pandemic.

The data represents an unprecedented admission of an “explosive” outbreak in a country that had reported no previous confirmed cases since the pandemic began, and could mark a grave public health, economic and political crisis for the isolated regime.

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office this week, plans to provide COVID-19 vaccines and other medical support to North Koreans, and his government would discuss details with Pyongyang, his spokeswoman said on Friday, without elaborating.

Experts said that given North Korea’s limited testing capabilities, the numbers released so far probably represent a small fraction of the infections, which could lead to thousands of deaths in one of only two countries in the world without a COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

About 187,800 people are being treated in isolation after a fever of unidentified origin has “explosively spread nationwide” since late April, the official KCNA news agency reported.

Roughly 350,000 people have shown signs of that fever, including 18,000 who newly reported such symptoms on Thursday, KCNA said. About 162,200 have been treated, but it did not specify how many had tested positive for COVID-19.

At least six people with fever symptoms have died, with one of those cases confirmed to have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, KCNA said.

Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea, said the country has been testing about 1,400 people each week, which is not nearly enough to survey 350,000 people with symptoms.

“What is more worrisome is the sheer number of symptomatic people,” he added. “Using a conservative case fatality rate of 1% and assuming the surge is due to an Omicron variant of COVID-19, North Korea can expect 3,500 deaths from this outbreak.”

‘GRAVEST EMERGENCY’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the anti-virus command centre on Thursday to check the situation and responses after declaring a “gravest state of emergency” and ordering a national lockdown, KCNA said.

State media has said the outbreak began in the capital, Pyongyang, in late April, without elaborating on potential causes. The city hosted several massive public events on April 15 and 25, including a military parade and large gatherings where most people did not wear masks.

Kim, who attended some of those events, “criticised that the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre shows that there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system we have already established,” KCNA said.

Kim said actively isolating and treating people with fevers is a top priority, while calling for scientific treatment methods and tactics, and measures to supply medication.

In another dispatch, KCNA said health authorities were trying to organise testing and treatment systems and bolster disinfection work.

The rapid spread of the virus highlights the potential for a major crisis in a country that lacks medical resources and has refused international help with vaccinations while keeping its borders shut.

Analysts said the outbreak could worsen the country’s already tough food situation this year, with the lockdown hampering its “all-out fight” against drought and the mobilisation of labour.

CALLS FOR AID

North Korea said last year it had developed its own polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment for COVID tests. But it declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX global sharing programme and China, possibly leaving the vast majority of people in a relatively young society at higher risk of infection.

North Korea has so far not publicised any new calls for help in countering the outbreak, but some observers were optimistic that the disclosure was a signal that the government would soon accept vaccines or other aid.

Yoon’s pledge for support came a day after Kwon Young-se, his nominee to be the unification minister, responsible for inter-Korean ties, said at his confirmation hearing that he would push for humanitarian assistance for the North, including COVID treatment, syringes and other medical supplies.

A unification ministry spokesman said on Friday that about 95.4 billion won ($74.1 million) from an inter-Korean cooperation fund was earmarked to facilitate exchanges in the health and medical area.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it had no plans to send vaccines to North Korea but supported international efforts to provide aid to vulnerable people there, urging Pyongyang to facilitate that work.

($1 = 1,287.0400 won)

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U.S. to allow baby formula imports amid nationwide shortage

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at CVS in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal/File Photo

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will allow baby formula imports from foreign makers that do not usually sell their products here, the Food and Drug Administration said on Monday, as it tries to ease a nationwide shortage that has left parents scrambling to feed their babies.

The temporary move could help put more formula onto U.S. shelves in a few weeks, a U.S. FDA official said during a news briefing. Foreign makers will need to meet a list of safety and nutritional standards provided by the FDA.

U.S. baby formula has been in low stock after a February recall of baby powder formula and plant closure by one of the nation’s main manufacturers, Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT). The FDA was investigating after reports that four babies who had been fed formula made there became ill from Cronobacter sakazakii infections.

The FDA and Abbott agreed on Monday on the steps needed to reopen the plant, which an FDA official said could happen in the near term. The company said it would restart the plant within two weeks after the FDA confirms it has met these requirements.

In its investigation, the FDA found bacteria contamination in environmental samples taken at the site and noted problems such as standing water and improper sanitization of footwear.

Abbott said in a statement that there is no conclusive evidence to link Abbott’s formulas to these infant illnesses. It also said the investigation found no contamination in finished product.

“We have been working to address the FDA’s observations so we can restart operations,” the company said in a statement on Monday.

The shortage of Abbott formula has been compounded by supply-chain snags and historic inflation, leaving about 40% of baby formula products out of stock nationwide, data shows.

“We know many parents and caregivers are feeling frustrated by their inability to access needed or desired infant formula and critical medical foods. Please know that we at the FDA are doing everything in our power to address these challenges as quickly as possible,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said.

He encouraged formula makers to increase their supply and the FDA said some including Gerber, part of Nestle SA (SIX:NESN), and Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc (LON:RKT) had already done so.

FDA officials said during the briefing that the agency’s ability to determine a causal link between the consumption of the product from the plant and the four cases of bacterial infections was hindered by the fact that it only had genetic sequences available on two of the infections.

Abbott has shipped to the United States millions of cans of formula from its FDA-approved Ireland facility.

The White House separately said it was continuing talks with the major formula manufacturers to identify logistical hurdles and provide any transportation support that could help them and major retailers get formula to where it is needed.

“This is principally an issue of production more than goods movement,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters at a White House briefing.

A White House official earlier said the government has offered transportation and logistics support to Abbott as well as Reckitt Benckiser, Nestle and Perrigo Co (NYSE:PRGO) Plc, in addition to top retailers such as Target Corp (NYSE:TGT), Amazon.com Inc (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) Inc.

Congress this week also plans to address infant formula rules regarding the Women, Infants and Children program, a federal assistance nutrition program administered by U.S. states, as well as emergency funding to shore up supplies.

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Ukrainian troops evacuate from Mariupol, ceding control to Russia

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© Reuters. A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict upon arrival in Novoazovsk, Ukraine May 16, 2022. REUTERS

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By Natalia Zinets

KYIV/NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday it was working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol, ceding control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.

The evacuation likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.

With the rest of Mariupol firmly in Russian hands, hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians had holed up beneath the city’s Azovstal steelworks. Civilians inside were evacuated in recent weeks, and more than 260 troops, some of them wounded, left the plant for Russian-controlled areas late on Monday.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement announcing evacuations.

“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel… Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” it added.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said 53 injured troops from the Azovstal steelworks were taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, some 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the east.

Another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said. All of the evacuees will be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she added.

It was not clear how many troops remained in Azovstal. Ukraine’s military said efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in Novoazovsk late on Monday. Some of the evacuated troops were wounded and carried out of the buses on stretchers. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.

“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

Arriving in Novoazovsk in a bus marked with Z, a symbol for Russia’s invasion, men could be seen stacked on stretchers on three levels. They stared out the windows without reacting. One man was wheeled out, his head tightly wrapped in thick bandages.

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s resistance and of Russia’s willingness to devastate Ukrainian cities that hold out.

The first evacuations late on Monday came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.

LVIV EXPLOSIONS, KHARKIV FIGHTING

Moscow calls its nearly three-month-old invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

Russia’s invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.

Areas around Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, have continued to come under Russian attack. A series of explosions struck Lviv early on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

On Monday, Ukraine’s defence ministry troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 km north of Kharkiv.

The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month yet achieving only small gains.

PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.

The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.

Soon before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”

Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.

“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said.

Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.

“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.

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U.S. Air force says it conducted successful hypersonic weapon test

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force said on Monday it had conducted a successful test of a hypersonic weapon, which flew at five times the speed of sound.

The test was conducted on Saturday off the coast of Southern California when a B-52 bomber released an Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, the Air Force said in a statement.

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