‘New monster’: Philippines detects COVID-19 variant

Passengers queue at a counter in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on January 14, 2021. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
1 / 2
Passengers queue at a counter in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on January 14, 2021. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
People wearing hazmat suits for protection against COVID-19 walk inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on January 14, 2021. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
2 / 2
People wearing hazmat suits for protection against COVID-19 walk inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on January 14, 2021. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
Short Url
Updated 15 January 2021

‘New monster’: Philippines detects COVID-19 variant

People wearing hazmat suits for protection against COVID-19 walk inside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on January 14, 2021. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
  • Duterte warns about more contagious variant found in man who returned from Dubai

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte has warned Filipinos about a “new monster” after health authorities said the so-called UK variant of coronavirus had been detected in the country.

A few hours before the president’s address, the Department of Health and the Philippine Genome Center (PGC) confirmed that the more contagious variant was found in a 29-year-old real estate agent from Quezon City who returned to the country from a business trip to Dubai on Jan. 7.

“There’s a new monster again, and I pray to God really that this won’t be more dangerous, more toxic than the original COVID,” Duterte said in a televised meeting with Philippine health authorities.

During the meeting, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said the Filipino man who had contracted the new variant went to Dubai on Dec. 27 with his girlfriend, where both tested negative.

When they returned, they were tested at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the man’s results returned positive. His girlfriend’s swab test result was negative.

Duque said the patient was immediately referred to an isolation facility in Quezon City, where a chest X-ray confirmed he also had pneumonia.

To prevent the spread of the new variant, Duterte requested that everyone with whom the man came in contact be located “for their own good.” He added: “It’s important to find out who were the people they had close contact with ... so there will be contact tracing.”

Those who might have been exposed are health workers at the isolation facility where the man was brought after arrival, and those who transported him there.

In light of the development, Duque told reporters on Thursday that the Department of Health will recommend that the UAE be put on the list of countries from which arrival is restricted.

The Philippines had earlier shut its borders to foreigners arriving from more than 30 countries, in a bid to keep the variant at bay. The UAE was not on the list because it had not reported the presence of the variant.

“Now we have evidence to tell them, ‘You have the UK variant now’,” Duque said. “We notified them already.”

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the UAE travel restriction follows a recommendation by Philippine experts for authorities to “buy time to analyze this case, determine other individuals affected by this variant, and prepare our healthcare system in case we see an increase in the number of cases.”

Beijing offering COVID-19 booster shots ahead of Olympics

Beijing offering COVID-19 booster shots ahead of Olympics
Updated 10 sec ago

Beijing offering COVID-19 booster shots ahead of Olympics

Beijing offering COVID-19 booster shots ahead of Olympics
  • The booster has been rolling out in cities across the vast nation since late September
  • The pandemic is believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019
BEIJING: China’s capital Beijing has begun offering booster shots against COVID-19, four months before the city and surrounding regions are to host the Winter Olympics.
Anyone 18 or older who have received two-dose Chinese vaccines and belong to at-risk groups, including those participating, organizing or working on games facilities, would be eligible for the additional shot, state media reported Friday.
The booster has been rolling out in cities across the vast nation since late September, but Beijing authorities have been extra cautious in who receives the extra jab.
The games are set to begin on Feb. 4 with only residents of China allowed in the stands. Indoor events with sliding, skiing and jumping will be held in the suburb of Yanqing and the neighboring city of Zhangjiakou.
China has been largely successful in preventing local transmission through strict requirements on mask wearing, quarantining and contact tracing. Cases continue to pop up however, with 28 new ones reported Friday, including one in the Beijing suburb of Fengtai.
The pandemic is believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, leading to a total lockdown that affected more than 50 million people.
China has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak and stymying investigations into the coronavirus’ origins, although it said earlier this week that it would cooperate with a renewed investigation by the World Health Organization while “firmly opposing any forms of political manipulation.”
WHO on Wednesday released a proposed list of 25 experts to advise it on next steps in the search for the virus’ origins after its earlier efforts were attacked for going easy on China.

4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting
Updated 22 October 2021

4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting

TACOMA, Washington: Four people were killed in a shooting in Tacoma on Thursday afternoon, police said.
The Tacoma Police Department said on Twitter at about 5:30 p.m. that two females and one male had died at the scene and that a male was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries.
At about 6:30 p.m., police said on Twitter that the person taken to a hospital had died from his injuries. The victims appeared to be adults, police told The News Tribune.
Police said the shooting happened on the 4200 block of Everett Street, near the city’s Eastside neighborhood.
Police spokeswoman Wendy Haddow told the newspaper that the shootings happened in an alley behind a residence and that at least one victim was found in the street in front of the residence.
Police called it an active scene and asked people to stay away from the area. Detectives and crime scene technicians were at the scene.
No further information was immediately available.


Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
Updated 22 October 2021

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
  • At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said
  • At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history

MANZINI, Eswatini: Africa’s last absolute monarchy Eswatini on Thursday banned protests as regional mediators landed in the kingdom amid rumbling pro-democracy demonstrations.
A demonstrator died in hospital on Thursday from gunshot wounds suffered the day before when security forces opened fire on a protest, according to unions.
At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said.
Railways workers led new protests on Thursday in the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland.
“Due to the spate of violent cases during protests, I have stopped all city and town municipals from issuing permits to hold protests,” Public Works Minister Prince Simelane told a news conference.
Internet access was limited, with Facebook completely shut off for a second day.
“Images that are coming from Eswatini are very disturbing indeed, and we can see that the political temperature is very hot,” Jeff Radebe, head of the mediators sent to the country by the 16-nation Southern African Development Community, told South Africa’s public broadcaster.
The Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union said in a statement that nurses and other workers who had converged on a public park in Mbabane, “were met with unprecedented show of force by the police and the army.”
“They were brutally dispersed and scattered all over the capital. As they were running, they were shot with live ammunition.”
The 30 injured were among more than 80 reported hurt on Wednesday in pro-democracy protests that have flared nationwide.
Radebe said the kingdom’s “issues are very complex,” and the team was “going there with an open mind, ensuring that we hear all views, so that at the end of the day the people of Eswatini... come up with a lasting solution.”
The latest flare-up in demonstrations has run for more than two weeks, spearheaded by students, civil servants and transport workers.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch, who enjoys flaunting his wealth and showering his 15 wives with lavish gifts.
Yet he rules over one of the poorest countries in the world, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and a quarter of adults have HIV.

In a statement, the Communist Party of Swaziland said the situation at the largest government hospital in Mbabane on Wednesday resembled a “war zone.”
Hospital floors were “drenched in blood,” said the party, adding that police “invaded the hospital, shooting even nurses as they attended to the injured, worsening the situation.”
The nurse’s union said security forces kept shooting at nurses into the evening, even as they were traveling to work night shifts at hospitals.
“Clearly these blood-thirsty imbeciles, brood of vipers are hell-bent to kill nurses and the nation in defense of an ailing government,” the union said, calling on members not to treat any injured soldiers or police.
Five high-school students arrested during protests were arraigned on terrorism charges on Thursday for their role in the democracy push. Prosecutors accused them of burning down a police post.
At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history.
 


Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked
Updated 22 October 2021

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

BALTIMORE, Maryland: US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and had a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own territory.
“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense.
Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,“
“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.
Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.


Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
Updated 22 October 2021

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
  • Law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers
  • One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture

The ransomware group REvil was itself hacked and forced offline this week by a multi-country operation, according to three private sector cyber experts working with the United States and one former official.
Former partners and associates of the Russian-led criminal gang were responsible for a May cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline that led to widespread gas shortages on the US East Coast. REvil's direct victims include top meatpacker JBS. The crime group's "Happy Blog” website, which had been used to leak victim data and extort companies, is no longer available.
Officials said the Colonial attack used encryption software called DarkSide, which was developed by REvil associates.
VMWare head of cybersecurity strategy Tom Kellermann said law enforcement and intelligence personnel stopped the group from victimizing additional companies.
"The FBI, in conjunction with Cyber Command, the Secret Service and like-minded countries, have truly engaged in significant disruptive actions against these groups,” said Kellermann, an adviser to the US Secret Service on cybercrime investigations. “REvil was top of the list.”
A leadership figure known as "0_neday," who had helped restart the group's operations after an earlier shutdown, said REvil's servers had been hacked by an unnamed party.
"The server was compromised, and they were looking for me," 0_neday wrote on a cybercrime forum last weekend and first spotted by security firm Recorded Future. "Good luck, everyone; I'm off."
US government attempts to stop REvil, one of the worst of dozens of ransomware gangs that work with hackers to penetrate and paralyze companies around the world, accelerated after the group compromised US software management company Kaseya in July. 
That breach opened access to hundreds of Kaseya's customers all at once, leading to numerous emergency cyber incident response calls.

Decryption key
Following the attack on Kaseya, the FBI obtained a universal decryption key that allowed those infected via Kaseya to recover their files without paying a ransom.
But law enforcement officials initially withheld the key for weeks as it quietly pursued REvil's staff, the FBI later acknowledged. 
According to three people familiar with the matter, law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers.
After websites that the hacker group used to conduct business went offline in July, the main spokesman for the group, who calls himself "Unknown," vanished from the internet.
When gang member 0_neday and others restored those websites from a backup last month, he unknowingly restarted some internal systems that were already controlled by law enforcement.
“The REvil ransomware gang restored the infrastructure from the backups under the assumption that they had not been compromised,” said Oleg Skulkin, deputy head of the forensics lab at the Russian-led security company Group-IB. “Ironically, the gang's own favorite tactic of compromising the backups was turned against them.”
Reliable backups are one of the most important defenses against ransomware attacks, but they must be kept unconnected from the main networks or they too can be encrypted by extortionists such as REvil.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on the operation specifically.
"Broadly speaking, we are undertaking a whole of government ransomware effort, including disruption of ransomware infrastructure and actors, working with the private sector to modernize our defenses, and building an international coalition to hold countries who harbor ransom actors accountable," the person said.
The FBI declined to comment.
One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture. A former US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation is still active.
The success stems from a determination by US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco that ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure should be treated as a national security issue akin to terrorism, Kellermann said.
In June, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General John Carlin told Reuters the Justice Department was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority.
Such actions gave the Justice Department and other agencies a legal basis to get help from US intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, Kellermann said.
"Before, you couldn't hack into these forums, and the military didn't want to have anything to do with it. Since then, the gloves have come off."