U.S. President Joe Biden signed two new executive orders intended to fight drug trafficking and criminal networks on Wednesday, allowing for new sanctions on Chinese companies trading ingredients of the opioid drug fentanyl and on criminal gangs in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.
The Biden administration is keen to show it is taking action on a worsening U.S. opioid crisis that has fueled more than 100,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths in the year to April 2021, a 28% increase from the same period a year earlier, according to Centers for Disease Control data https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm.
The U.S. Treasury said it had imposed sanctions on 25 entities and individuals under new authorities granted under one of the executive orders that allows the department to target those benefiting from trafficking proceeds, regardless of any direct links to known drug kingpins or cartels.
The sanctions on Chinese companies include Wuhan Yuancheng Gongchuang Technology Co Ltd, which the Treasury says takes internet orders for precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, as well as other firms it says are involved in the sale or transport of such chemicals.
In Brazil, Treasury imposed financial sanctions on Primeiro Comando Da Capital, or PCC, which was born in the prisons of Sao Paulo in the early 1990s and is now considered Brazil’s most powerful criminal organization, helping to flood Europe with cocaine.
The addition of PCC to the Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list follows moves in 2019 by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to quietly add suspected PCC members to a list of organizations ineligible for a U.S. visa – a tactic used against organized crime group members elsewhere.
The Treasury has also targeted a list of drug kingpins, cartels and gangs in Mexico and Colombia, some of which were previously designated under narrower sanctions authorities.
The sanctions deny designated entities access to U.S. dollar transactions and freeze any assets they may hold in the United States. But organized crime groups in recent years have been shifting to crypto assets and other methods of avoiding the U.S. financial system.
To combat drug trafficking, the Treasury previously relied on the 1999 Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act and an earlier 1995 executive order that were based on more traditional cartel structures with more easily identifiable leaders. The new structure allows the Treasury to target a broader range of individuals, such as those who knowingly receive property derived from drug trade.
“Today’s drug trade no longer relies on crops that require vast acreage, but instead on synthetic materials and precursor chemicals. Cartels operate in a more diffuse and decentralized way, hindering our ability to build comprehensive sanctions packages on drug traffickers,” one of the officials told reporters.
A second Biden executive order creates a new interagency council on transnational organized crime to improve cooperation between the departments of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury and State and the Office of National Intelligence.
It aims to improve communications between the intelligence and law enforcement communities and the private sector to identify and target criminal networks, according to an administration fact sheet.
(Reporting by David Lawder in WashingtonEditing by Heather Timmons, Matthew Lewis and Rosalba O’Brien)
Russia fines Google for not deleting banned content
A Moscow court on Monday said it had ordered Alphabet’s Google to pay 4 million roubles ($52,526) for not removing access to content banned in Russia, the latest in a string of fines for the U.S. tech giant.
Russia upped the ante late last year in its efforts to increase pressure on Big Tech, handing massive, revenue-based fines to Google and Meta Platforms for repeatedly failing to remove content Moscow deems illegal.
Google declined to comment.
The TASS news agency reported that Google had been fined for providing access to links of banned websites.
($1 = 76.1530 roubles)
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow, Editing by Louise Heavens)
The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Jan. 17 – CBC.ca
Health Canada approves Pfizer’s COVID-19 therapeutic
The good news for Canadian health practitioners and burned-out hospital staff is that Health Canada has just approved Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid for treatment in COVID-19 patients.
The downside is, as explained in Friday’s newsletter, demand far exceeds supply even in the United States, where the drug is manufactured.
The approval came Monday, weeks after positive results in a clinical trial were published in which Pfizer said the drug reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 per cent compared to a placebo in non-hospitalized high-risk adults with COVID-19. While the trial involved unvaccinated individuals, further studies have shown desired effects for vaccinated people.
Experts say an effective pill that’s easy to self-administer at home for those infected could relieve some of the pressure on the health-care system and change the trajectory of the pandemic, although it’s unlikely to be of major impact for this Omicron wave.
“This is welcome news — we have one more tool in our toolbox,” said federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. “But no drug, including Paxlovid, can replace vaccination and public health measures.”
Canada has placed an order for an initial quantity of one million treatment courses but at a Monday briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the federal government is expecting “supply at the beginning will not be great anywhere.”
Health Canada is authorizing it to treat adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk of progressing to serious disease, including hospitalization or death.
The drug is intended for use as soon as possible after diagnosis of COVID-19 and within five days of the start of symptoms. The treatment consists of two tablets of nirmatrelvir and one tablet of ritonavir taken together by mouth twice per day for five days.
Paxlovid could be useful for people who have underlying conditions that increase the risk of hospitalization and death related to the coronavirus, such as heart disease or diabetes.
Health Canada has warned, however, that the product shouldn’t be used while a patient is on any of a long list of other drugs, including common medications used to treat erectile dysfunction, high cholesterol and seasonal allergies, among others.
Pfizer is promising to churn out 120 million courses of the treatment by year’s end. That means in the absence of new, vaccine-evading coronavirus variants — a big if — next fall and winter could look a lot different in Canada in terms of the impact of COVID-19.
From The National
Hundreds of air passengers broke in-flight mask rules in 2021
The issue of passengers flouting COVID-19 rules on airplanes has been in the spotlight in recent days after passengers on a Sunwing chartered flight from Montreal to Mexico were seen partying and vaping while not wearing masks.
Between January and December 2021, Transport Canada received 1,710 reports of passengers refusing to wear masks. In the vast majority of those cases — 1,594 — passengers refused to wear masks or to resume wearing them after they had finished eating or drinking.
In seven cases, passengers were not allowed to board the plane; in 108 cases, passengers who had boarded were ordered to leave the plane.
Figures collected by Transport Canada show that 959 of those cases resulted in enforcement action, ranging from warning letters to fines.
Wesley Lesosky, head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ airline division, which represents 14,000 flight attendants with nine Canadian airlines, said staff are in the uncomfortable spot of being the “mask police” in addition to their other duties.
“We have had incidents that have escalated to a physical nature,” he said. “We have had issues of obviously being sworn at, we have had issues of being spit at. We have had issues of just disgruntled people. We have had people [who] are just ticked off with the mask policy.”
Unruly behaviour has been a frequent problem in the U.S. Last week, three people were charged in connection with an incident in September at New York’s JFK Airport, where a security guard was allegedly assaulted as a pandemic-related exchange escalated.
The wearing of a mask to mitigate COVID-19 has been politicized in the U.S., with several Republican governors overruling mask mandates imposed by local authorities in their states. Travellers from all 50 states, however, have to abide by the mask mandate imposed in the pandemic if they enter an American airport or board a plane.
According to a CNN report last week, citing Federal Aviation Administration data, there were 5,981 reports of unruly passengers logged in 2021. Of those, 4,290 — nearly 72 per cent — were for mask-related incidents.
From 1995 to when the pandemic began in 2020, the FAA averaged 182 such incidents a year, per the report.
In contrast to Canadian data, which indicate there were more incidents as 2021 progressed, the first six months of the year in the U.S. had far more reports of adverse behaviour than the second half of 2021. That could partially be explained by the fact that, in general, the U.S. has had more business activity open and fewer societal disruptions than Canada, including airline travel.
Another wrinkle in the U.S. concerns Southwest Airlines, whose CEO has been the most vocal among the big airlines in criticizing the mask mandate. Unionized flight attendants at Southwest have just filed a grievance, indicating some pilots are not masking up in accordance with the FAA guidelines.
How the flouting of COVID-19 restrictions by leaders damages credibility and trust
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have been on apology blitz after a woeful week of revelations concerning hypocritical behaviour in regards to the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
First, Johnson acknowledged public “rage” after it was learned he attended a May 2020 garden party involving dozens of Downing Street staff, held in contravention of COVID-19 restrictions that Britons were supposed to be following at the time. Then just two days later, Johnson’s office offered a separate apology to Queen Elizabeth over a pair of parties held by Downing Street staff on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021 — a time when pandemic restrictions prompted the Queen to sit alone in her grief in St. George’s Chapel the following day.
It will be up to the British people and the Conservative Party to see if Johnson can ride out the firestorm, but experts say the contradictory, rule-defying behaviour by rule-makers undermines key pandemic messaging and does little to build trust with the people paying attention to what their leaders say and do.
Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at Ontario’s University of Guelph who studies vaccine hesitancy, said such erosion of trust is a problem for people trying to lead the way out of a pandemic.
“The leadership in this pandemic, both politicians and scientists, needs a lot of public buy-in to successfully implement pandemic containment measures,” she said in an email to CBC News.
“When the leadership act as if the rules don’t apply to them, they damage public trust in the leadership — and by doing that, they undermine their own ability to lead effectively.”
Monica Schoch-Spana, who has worked in public health emergency management for more than two decades, said she fears that the repeated coverage of such stories may potentially be “reinforcing people’s lack of trust in government.”
Schoch-Spana, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said the stories about leaders who aren’t abiding by the rules are becoming fodder “for a proxy war for people in how they feel about politicians and governments more generally.”
They can also lead to distortion, as for every story about California Gov. Gavin Newsom or the Dutch king, dozens of political leaders have seemingly been modelling the correct behaviour for their constituents.
Closer to home, Canada has seen some of its own political leaders doing what they wanted, not as they urged others to do in the name of public health.
The list includes premiers going places they told others not to visit or holding gatherings that were questionable under the rules in place, as well as politicians taking verboten trips outside of Canada in the middle of the ongoing global health emergency. As recently as last month, a Liberal MP was removed from parliamentary committee duties after taking a non-essential trip outside the country.
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Snowstorm strands motorists, grounds planes in eastern U.S., Canada
A winter snowstorm creeping up the East Coast of the United States into Canada on Monday was expected to dump more than two feet (60 cm) of snow in some areas, grounding planes and stranding motorists.
More than 4,200 flights in the United States were canceled or delayed on Monday, according to FlightAware. Nearly 90,000 homes and businesses between Georgia and Maine lacked electricity, according to PowerOutage.US.
Traffic was snarled in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, as the snowstorm brought visibility to near zero, shut subway lines and left motorists stranded on local highways for hours.
Buses were at a standstill and passing pedestrians helped push cars up a street at a main commuter route in central Toronto. The region was predicted to get up to 2 feet of snow, and an extreme weather warning was in effect. Authorities asked residents to stay off the roads.
In neighboring Quebec, the weather caused traffic accidents, including pileups involving dozens of vehicles that forced authorities to close some highways, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC).
In the eastern United States, officials likewise urged residents to stay off snowy roads on the holiday honoring slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
Ashtabula, Ohio, on Lake Erie, recorded 27 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service, while parts of New York state, Pennsylvania and North Carolina received more than 20 inches.
Atlanta saw its first snow in four years, according to the NWS, and some regions in North Carolina had record snowfalls.
As the storm swept north, northern Maine and New Hampshire were still due for another 2 to 4 inches of ice and snow Monday evening, the weather service said. Blustery conditions were predicted across much of the region into Tuesday.
(Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru, Andy Sullivan in Washington, Daniel Trotta in California and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler, Heather Timmons and Paul Simao)
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