World

Thousands flee fires amid Greece's worst heat wave in decades

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(ATHENS) — Firefighters are working to extinguish dozens of fires across Greece, where over 100 wildfires have started in the past day.

In the town of Evia, 90 miles from Athens, the Greek coast guard and private-owned boats are evacuating people from the beach where residents and tourists fled the flames. According to the Athens News Agency, 90 people have been transported to safety so far.

Greece is facing what has been described as its worst heat wave in more than three decades.

Greece's Civil Protection Chief Nikos Hardalias said 118 wildfires broke out over the past 24 hours in the country. An EU disaster response group said firefighters and water-dropping planes were being sent to Greece, as well as Italy, Albania and North Macedonia, where fires have also broken out.

"Following the situation with great concern," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. "European solidarity is at work to fight these terrible fires."

More than 500 firefighters, 150 vehicles, five aircraft and nine water-dropping helicopters have been mobilized, as well as several groups of volunteers.

Thousands were evacuated in several suburbs north of Athens, including in the town of Varympompi, where several properties were burnt to the ground. Firefighters sprayed water on burned cars and metal structures to prevent another fire from starting.

"A lot of people were scared," Alex, a volunteer firefighter, told ABC News. "We saw houses after houses burnt, there's a lot of damage."

The Hellenic Army is assisting with foot patrols and airborne firefighting assets.

An initial calculation by the National Observatory of Athens indicates that between Aug. 1 and Aug. 4, around 14,826 acres were burned in Greece's wildfires. That's more than 50% of the area burned in entire fire seasons of previous years: 25,639 acres burned during the 2020 fire season in Greece, and 23,240 acres burned in 2019.

Athens saw temperatures climb as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday and nearly 108 on Wednesday.

"It's hell ... unbelievable," said Varympompi resident Vasilis Michelas, who lost his vintage car workshop in the fires. "Thirty-five years ... it's all gone."

Authorities reported no serious injuries. An assessment of the damage caused so far is yet to be completed, but the national grid operator has warned that the capital's power supply could be "endangered" after part of the transmission system shut down.

Now, the danger is that the blaze could reach archeological sites in the western Peloponnese. Greek authorities ordered evacuations in the nearby villages, according to Reuters.

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Climate change can cause plant pathogens to infect crops at higher rates, scientists say

(New York) — The availability of food and how crops will fare as a result of climate change has long been of interest to environmental researchers, but scientists are now finding other threats to food supplies that can severely impact global food security.

Climate change may pose an increased risk for crops to become infected with pests and pathogens, leaving the yields inedible and risking quantities of the world's food supply, according to a study published Thursday in Nature Climate Change.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in England studied models for the production of four major commodity crops -- maize, wheat, soybean and rice -- as well as eight temperate and tropical crops, to predict how the crops would respond to future climate scenarios.

The researchers found that, overall, the yield of the crops will increase at high latitudes, such as North America and parts of Europe and Asia. However, the findings also suggest that risk of infection from 80 fungal and oomycete, or fungal-like, pathogens will increase at high latitudes as temperatures increase, according to the paper.

As global temperatures warm, pest outbreaks are common, and pathogens can more easily attack crops, scientists said. Temperature is a "major determinant" of disease risk, and global distribution of plant pathogens have already shifted with the current warming, according to the study.

Climate change will not only affect the number of pathogens able to infect crops, but the composition of how the pathogens are assembled as well, the scientists said.

The higher temperatures also pose the possibility of major shifts in species composition within pathogen communities in some regions, such as the United States, Europe and China.

Food scarcity is a "continuous concern" as global populations expand, the amount of arable land decreases and the threat of climate change increases.

The researchers concluded that plant pathogens represent a "major threat" to crop production and food security, which reinforces the need for "careful crop management."

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Duchess Meghan marks 40th birthday by launching mentorship initiative

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(CALIFORNIA) -- For her 40th birthday, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, launched a mentorship initiative for women re-entering the workforce after losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The campaign -- from the duchess' nonprofit foundation, Archewell, which she founded with husband Prince Harry -- is named 40x40 and is meant to encourage people around the world to give 40 minutes of their time to support women going back to work.

"In reflecting on my 40th birthday and the many things I am grateful for, I'm struck that time is among our greatest and most essential gifts: Time with our loved ones, time doing the things we love, time spent learning, laughing, growing, and the sacred time we have on this earth," Meghan wrote. "Amongst the most valuable gifts of time is also time spent in service to others knowing that it can contribute to incredible change."

"To that last point, and with my 40th lap around the sun in mind, it made me wonder: What would happen if we all committed 40 minutes to helping someone else or to mentoring someone in need?" she continued. "And then what would happen if we asked our friends to do the same?"

The duchess went on to note that "tens of millions of women around the world have left the workforce" due to COVID-19, "including over 2 million in the U.S." She also noted that "the latest research shows that fewer women than men will regain work" as society rebounds from the pandemic.

"I believe mentorship is one way to help women regain confidence and rebuild their economic strength," Meghan added.

"The time that you donate can contribute to a global wave of service and set in motion meaningful impact in our own communities, and across the world," she concluded.

Meghan asked 40 activists, athletes, artists and world leaders to join her in donating 40 minutes of mentorship. Among those who have agreed to participating include Adele, Amanda Gorman, Amanda Nguyen, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, Gloria Steinem, José Andrés, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and Stella McCartney.

For more information on 40x40, including how you can get involved, visit the Archewell site.

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Why COVID-19 cases in UK have dropped even after lifting restrictions

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(LONDON) -- The British government recorded a drop in COVID-19 cases for the fifth day in a row Tuesday. Daily deaths rose slightly to 138, but for almost a week had been under 100.

It’s a far cry from public warnings earlier in summer, when the country's newly minted Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned the nation of the possibility of 100,000 daily cases.

Despite those warnings, the government lifted all remaining restrictions on social distancing and mandated mask-wearing in England on July 19. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "Freedom Day” was criticized as an irresponsible move in the midst of a third wave driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. "A murderous policy," said Dr. Gabriel Scally, a leading public health expert at the University of Bristol. "Epidemiological stupidity," a World Health Organization official said.

But then, cases dropped by around 40%, and deaths and hospitalizations have stayed low, despite the ending of all restrictions -- and the world has been baffled as to why.

Many are pointing to the high vaccination rate in the U.K. More than 72% of all adults have received their full dose of vaccination, and the Office for National Statistics recently announced it estimated that 92% of the population in England has antibodies, either through vaccination or through previous infection of COVID-19.

Some experts, such as King's College London professor of genetic epidemiology Tim Spector, have called foul on the data. Spector suggested in an interview with Sky News that the sudden drop in cases -- "unheard of in pandemics" -- was likely due to a lack of young people getting tested and asymptomatic cases not being counted in the official reported figures.

But that's just not true, said John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee that advises the British government on COVID-19 policy.

Edmunds told ABC News that several key circumstances appear to explain the sudden drop in cases.

End of Euro 2020 championships

A surge largely triggered by a return to normal, non-pandemic behavior during the Euro 2020 soccer championships has now mostly dissipated.

"The Euros was a glimpse of what would happen if we started to go back to much more normal behavior and went back to the pubs to watch football and so on," Edmunds said. "Suddenly cases surge.”

But since the tournament is over, Brits aren’t going to the pubs and nightclubs as much, according to Edmunds' behavioral surveys.

"People’s behavior at the moment is nowhere near normal behavior," he said, even though there are no more restrictions in place.

The 'pingdemic'

Shortly after the Euros, in mid-July, the British government’s contact tracing app also became embroiled in a situation that became known as the "pingdemic."

Hundreds of thousands of people across the U.K. were suddenly ordered to self-isolate at home, after being notified by the app that they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

Businesses were faced with staffing shortages, and there were chaotic scenes at Heathrow Airport in London when suddenly hundreds of security staff were told to go home and isolate.

School vacations

Another key factor is the closure of schools during summer vacations. During the school year, schoolchildren and teachers are regularly tested, but they aren't tested while on summer vacation. The break seems to account not just for a dip in daily tests but also in the virus spreading between children, parents and teachers, Edmunds said.

"School closure has been very important, and we’ve seen the effect of it throughout the pandemic, with schools opening and closing," he said. "But it’s so important now because we’ve concentrated so much infection into the younger age groups because they are not vaccinated."

The government has opened vaccination eligibility to young people within three months of turning 18. Health advisers say there is little benefit to vaccinating children because so few become seriously ill or die from the virus. There is currently no vaccine authorized for use in children younger than 12 years old, though some children deemed to be of particular risk to COVID-19 are allowed to be vaccinated under current rules.

It is the return of schools and businesses that worries Edmunds.

"My fear has always been September when schools open again, and I think at that point, businesses, companies, organizations will start to assess employees to come back in to the office," he said. "I hope they don’t, but if they do I think we will see another surge in cases in the autumn."

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One year after Beirut blast, Lebanon suffering economic and political crises

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(NEW YORK) -- One year after the blast that destroyed the port of Beirut and a large part of the city, the families of the dead are still looking for answers.

In the aftermath of the huge blast at a warehouse in the port of Beirut, where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer which can also used as an explosive, had been left there for years, the authorities promised the results of an investigation within days. Instead, not only has the investigation barely advanced, the area around the port blast has barely been repaired, serving as a metaphor for the Lebanese capital’s recent woes.

At least 218 people were killed in what has been described as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, causing billions of dollars in damage. A report by Human Rights Watch published on Aug. 3 has pointed the finger at some government officials, saying some "foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring."

The caretaker government issued a statement saying the report was "faulty" and "deviates from the truth."

The country’s problems run far deeper than rebuilding the city, once nicknamed the "Paris of the Middle East." According to the World Bank, Lebanon is in the midst of an economic crisis that ranks in the top 10, and possible the top three, experienced in any single country since the mid-1800s.

Last year Lebanon entered hyperinflation -- and each week the Lebanese pound depreciates in value, leaving goods unaffordable for the once affluent middle class, which has now, according to experts, ceased to exist.

According to the World Bank data, overall poverty in Lebanon was estimated at 27% in 2011, before the Syrian Civil War. Now, however, more than half the population is living below the poverty line, according to UNICEF. Over the past two years alone, the level of extreme poverty has risen threefold, according to the U.N. -- and the price of food and drink has risen by 670%. That has left 1.5 million people in need of humanitarian and financial aid.

“For over a year, Lebanese authorities countered an assailment of compounded crises -- namely, the country’s largest peace-time economic and financial crisis, COVID-19 and the Port of Beirut explosion -- with deliberately inadequate policy responses,” according to the World Bank’s latest report in April 2021. “The inadequacy is less due to knowledge gaps and quality advice and more the result of a combination of (i) a lack of political consensus over effective policy initiatives; and (ii) political consensus in defense of a bankrupt economic system.”

The World Bank describes the collapse as a “deliberate depression,” and on the streets of Beirut Lebanese cannot hide their disdain for the ruling classes.

"This explosion was a disaster for all people," Raghda Tawfik El-Ashry, 57, a clothes seller, told ABC News. "I was here when it happened, and I saw what nobody had seen. All my goods were damaged because the fire and the ashes fell on them. Where was the state?"

"They are all a bunch of criminals and it's all about nepotism," she said. "I won't remain silent."

The government, according to Maya Yahya, director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, a think tank, has created “no policy” since the Beirut blast. In the aftermath of the 1975-1990 Civil War, a political settlement was reached that has allowed sectarian groups and political actors to all be represented in government, “which basically took away oversight,” Yahya said.

“The militia heads [were allowed] to simply move into government positions,” she said. “They treated the state and its institutions as a war booty. They turned to state institutions into extensions of their own fiefdoms.”

That legacy has plagued the country to this day, she said, while political assassinations, beginning with the killing of Rafic Hariri in 2005, have become a regular feature of political life, she said.

“The message is quite clear. If you raise your voice too much, the threat of physical violence is an instrument we're always ready to use,” she said.

Most families rely on backup fuel generators, medicine is increasingly scarce and long queues at gas stations are now a fact of daily life in the country.

Elie Jabbour, 24, a recent graduate with a civil engineering degree, told ABC News that of his class of 100, only two had gone on to find meaningful work, and around half at left the country. Each day comes a period, he said, there are hours without electricity, which has become a daily routine.

“We are fully relying on these generators, which are very toxic for the environment,” he told ABC News. “And they are they cannot stand this 24-hour supply of electricity. And this is affecting us since we are living in a [pandemic-induced] lockdown, kind of a lockdown. So our life is highly dependent on the Internet. And in the time where there's no electricity, there's no Internet, and there's in this time, we cannot do anything.”

“[The Lebanese people] have lost hope,” he added. “They are trying to fight with whatever is remaining, they are losing money by the day and there's no middle class anymore.”

Many young, educated Lebanese are now fleeing the country in search of “dignity,” Rani, a 25-year-old resident of Beirut, told ABC News. He is planning to join abroad.

“The situation right now in Lebanon is beyond horrendous,” he said. “We have multiple crises. We have the crisis of the pandemic, an economic crisis, an ethical crisis, a cultural crisis. Education is going down. Finding food -- basic necessities -- being able to supply yourself with basic necessities is growing more and more difficult.”

The decline has been rapid, although according to independent Lebanese economist Roy Badaro, can be attributed to decades of mismanagement from the political class. Particularly consequential was the pegging of the value of the Lebanese pound to the U.S. dollar, Badaro said, which hid the country’s structural imbalances and fiscal deficit.

“The demand is very high because of the crazy prices of the necessities,” Soha Zaiter, Head of the Lebanese Food Bank, told ABC News. “A lot of people lost their jobs in the crisis so they don't have any income; on the other hand, for people that still have their jobs, the value of the salary is very low in comparison to the prices. People are in need of everything, literally everything. From the smallest things to the most important items, like milk, diapers, oil, rice.”

According to independent Lebanese economist Roy Badaro, Lebanon requires new leadership -- a single unitary government that can navigate the competing interests of various groups, in order to pave the way out of the crisis.

“You have the Shia/Sunni problem. You have the Ottoman/Arab problem. You have the East and West issue. You have the Europeans and the U.S. All these interactions. I think that Lebanon suffers from that,” he told ABC News. “We need to be rowing in the same direction. At the moment we are in a boat where each oar is rowing in a different direction."

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Biden to announce 110 million vaccine doses shared worldwide as NGOs call for more

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(WASHINGTON) — Even as the delta variant is causing higher COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations across the United States, President Joe Biden will discuss his push to help get people around the world vaccinated in remarks Tuesday, highlighting that the U.S. has already shipped 110 million doses abroad.

The push to share vaccines globally is an effort to halt the rise of any future variants of the virus, which global health experts warn could potentially compromise vaccine immunity.

Biden will announce that the first of 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses the administration ordered for global distribution will begin shipping at the end of August. Of those doses, 200 million are expected to ship in 2021, with the remaining 300 million to follow in 2022.

Biden announced the 500 million-dose commitment at the G-7 summit in the United Kingdom in June, as part of an effort to drum up additional contributions from allies.

"We're gonna help lead the world out of this pandemic, working alongside our global partners," Biden said in remarks ahead of the summit. He added that the U.S. had a "responsibility" and a "humanitarian obligation to save as many lives as we can."

Biden will also tout a vaccine-sharing milestone Tuesday: that the U.S. has already shipped more than 110 million doses to more than 60 countries around the world, mostly through COVAX, the World Health Organization's vaccine-sharing initiative. The U.S. has shared more doses than every other country combined, according to U.N. data.

In April, Biden first committed to sharing 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which were purchased by the U.S. but never received FDA emergency use authorization. Biden also pledged in May to share another 20 million doses of the three available vaccines in the U.S., totaling a pledge of 80 million doses. Tuesday's remarks will highlight the fact that U.S. contributions worldwide have already outpaced that 80 million-dose pledge.

Still, global public health experts warn that wealthier nations need to step up their efforts, noting that the longer it takes for poorer countries to become vaccinated, the longer the pandemic will persist worldwide.

Various non-governmental agencies, including the Center for Strategic International Studies, the Duke University Global Health Institute and the Center for Global Development penned an open letter to the Biden administration Tuesday, calling on the U.S. to ramp up its efforts.

"The US and G7 allies have taken important but modest steps to close the global vaccine gap, including by accelerating large-scale production and delivery of high-quality vaccines, increasing financial support to COVAX, and committing to share roughly 900 million doses over the next year (including 580 million from the US). But these actions fall far short of the true scale and urgency required," the letter says.

"Getting 110 million doses out is really helpful, but in the scale that we need to find a way to get 10 billion plus doses out, it's not even in the order of magnitude to make a difference," said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. "The U.S. has done more than any other country so far, but that's more an indictment of the whole response, as opposed to the U.S. standing out in any positive way."

Udayakumar warned that while the focus continues to be on worldwide vaccine supply, distribution challenges will soon come to the fore.

"We have under-invested on the ground in ensuring vaccines can turn into vaccinations. My biggest concern is we're going to see vaccines sitting in freezers around the world." he said.

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US to offer refugee status to Afghans at risk because of American ties amid growing Taliban threat

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(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration is expanding the group of Afghans who could be granted refugee status and flee to the United States to escape the growing threat of the Taliban across Afghanistan, the State Department announced Monday.

The militant group is increasingly gaining control of districts across the country, as the war-torn country teeters dangerously towards collapse into all-out civil war.

But while President Joe Biden has committed to helping Afghans who helped the U.S. military and diplomatic mission in the country for the last 20 years, the new policy will apply only to Afghans who have left the country and will take at least over a year for their cases to be processed, according to senior State Department officials -- even as the risk to these Afghans is urgent.

The Biden administration has launched relocation flights for thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters, guides, and other contractors and applied for Special Immigrant Visas - some 20,000 applicants in total, according to a State Department spokesperson, although only a fraction of them will be evacuated by the U.S.

For interpreters and other contractors who did not meet the required two years of service for a Special Immigrant Visa, the State Department will now allow them to apply for refugee status instead. They're also expanding the pool of potential refugees to any Afghan who worked for a U.S.-based media outlet, for a U.S. government-funded program, or for a U.S. government-supported project.

After 20 years of humanitarian development across the country, that's a wide category of Afghans, along with their eligible family members. Senior State Department officials declined to provide an estimate, but said it was likely in the tens of thousands in total.

The administration has been under pressure, especially from Republican and Democrat lawmakers and U.S. veterans' groups, to do more to help Afghans who worked with or for the U.S. during two decades of war and development - and who therefore may be at greater risk of retaliatory attacks by the Taliban.

While the militant group's political leaders have said Afghans will not be harmed, the last year has seen a string of high-profile assassinations against journalists, women's rights activists, minority leaders, and military and police chiefs. At least 300 interpreters have been killed by Taliban fighters since 2014, according to the advocacy group No One Left Behind.

"The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan. However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States," the State Department said in a statement.

But the refugee resettlement process takes several months, if not years, including intensive security vetting, and the process will require Afghan applicants to leave the country, according to senior State Department officials - something that many cannot afford, cannot risk, or cannot manage.

"This program is meant to expand the aperture of people who have an opportunity to be resettled in the United States beyond the SIVs. It is our attempt to try to offer an option to people," said a senior State Department official.

The State Department has said it will evacuate nearly 5,000 of those "SIV's," or Special Immigrant Visa applicants, along with their eligible family members like spouses and children.

Some 750 and their dependents - 2,500 in total - who have been granted approval by the U.S. embassy in Kabul and cleared security vetting will be moved to Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia. The first of them arrived last Friday, with a second flight with 200 more arriving early Monday and now at Ft. Lee, according to a U.S. official.

In addition, 4,000 applicants who have been approved by the embassy, but are awaiting security clearances, will be moved to safe third countries. Along with their family members, the group could total approximately 20,000, and diplomatic discussions on where to house them all as they wait months for their applications to be processed remain underway with several countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Kazakhstan, according to U.S. officials.

But a senior State Department official said the administration does not plan to relocate any of the Afghans who now qualify for refugee status under this new designation, known as Priority 2, or P2. Instead, their employer will open a case with the embassy in Kabul, and once the U.S. government confirms it is ready to begin processing their case, they must find their own way to a third country and declare themselves a refugee.

"At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them, but we will continue to examine all the options to protect those who have served with or for us, and we will review the situation on the ground, and our planning will continue to evolve," said the senior official.

Once outside of Afghanistan, it could take at least 12 to 14 months for their case to be adjudicated, per the senior official.

As the new designations could lead to thousands of Afghans fleeing the country and seeking refugee status, a second senior official said the U.S. government has had conversations with some of Afghanistan's neighbors, like Pakistan, about preparing for refugee flows and keeping their borders open to refugees.

ABC News's Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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WATCH: Israel begins administering third COVID-19 boosters to vulnerable citizens

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(NEW YORK) -- Israel is now the first in the world to give a third booster COVID-19 vaccine shot to those over 60 and other vulnerable people as cases rise.

The U.K. expected to roll out boosters next month.

Watch the full report from ABC's Good Morning America:

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Mom speaks out about giving birth to 9 babies

(CASABLANCA, Morocco) -- "I feel very happy to carry my child," 26 year-old Halima Cissé told ABC News, while holding newborn Muhammad, one of the nine babies to beat the world record for most babies born at one birth.

Cissé, already a mother to a little girl, gave birth to nine children on May 5. "All the children are doing well," said Dr. El Alaoui, head of the clinic.

The four boys, named Muhammad, Bah, El Hadj and Oumar and five girls -- Adama, Hawa, Fatouma, Oumou and Kadidia, are being taken care of at the clinic Ain Borja in Casablanca, Morocco.

Cissé, a 26 year-old student and Abdelkader Arby, a 35 year-old adjudant in the Malian army, say they have always wanted children. " Everybody wants children … but if they had told me that I, Abdelkader Arby, would one day be the father of nine, I would not have believed it," he told ABC News.

The parents say the extraordinary birth is a "gift from God," and said the "responsibility is heavy,"

After a consultation with an OB-GYN revealed that Cissé, was carrying seven fetuses, authorities organized her transfer from Bamako, Mali, to the clinic Ain Borja in Morocco where she would received specialized care.

The clinic prepared for the unusual birth of seven , before discovering during the operation two others.

"A lot of things were going through my mind, fear for myself, fear for my kids, how it was going to unfold," Cissé told ABC News.

El Alaoui, head of the clinic Ain Borja, told ABC News that they tried to postpone the birth as long as they could to keep the babies’ chances high.

Cissé, who nearly lost her life due to blood loss and had to be operated on after the delivery, spent a month at the clinic on her back before the birth. She describes the difficult nights when she couldn’t sleep on the side until the day of birth, at 30 weeks pregnant.

"We thought, if we manage to save four, five children it’s already not bad," said El Alaoui.

The birth of nine children is an extremely rare phenomenon. Only two others were recorded so far, in Australia in 1971 and in Malaysia in 1999. But Cissé’s is the the first example of nonuplets born alive.

Soumia Arkoubi, head nurse at the clinic, said "they take care of [the nonuplets] like it’s our own children" and that "it will be hard to see them go."

With diapers changed every three hours at the clinic, the nine bundles of joy go through nearly 75 diapers a day and 100 bottles of milk.

American Nadya Suleman, nicknamed "Octomom," holds the current Guiness world record after giving birth to eight children following an IVF treatment.

However, according to the parents and the medical staff at Ain Borja, Cissé’s children were conceived naturally.

The children were all born prematurely, the smallest weighing only one pound at birth.

They will have to stay in the neonatal care at the clinic for at least another month before they can hope to meet their big sister in Mali.

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Data suggests Russia's COVID-19 death toll is far higher than reported

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(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) -- At the start of June, St. Petersburg’s local administration stopped publishing information about how many COVID-19 patients had been hospitalized in the Russian city.

The sudden disappearance of the previously daily reported figures happened to coincide with the opening of one the city‘s most prestigious annual events, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

The forum, a gathering of Russia’s elite and a showcase for its biggest companies, has become a flagship event under President Vladimir Putin. Over five days, 13,000 people were expected to attend the event, where Putin told the audience that life was "gradually returning to its normal routine” after the pandemic.

But the forum was opening just as St. Petersburg was seeing a terrifying surge in COVID-19 cases, as a third wave fueled in part by the delta variant bore down on the country. The last bulletin before the numbers vanished had shown St. Petersburg hospitalizing 500 people a day -- a record number and one that meant the city would run out of hospital beds within days.

Journalists and critics of the government quickly started asking if the disappearance of the COVID-19 statistics was connected to holding the forum. St. Petersburg’s administration refused to comment and the latest figures weren't published again until nearly three weeks later. They were no longer updated daily, either.

"They need to create the impression that everything is OK," said Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition lawmaker from St. Petersburg's city assembly, who also opposed holding the forum. "They don't care about people's lives and health."

Throughout the pandemic, Russian authorities have been accused of massaging statistics to hide the real scale of the country’s COVID-19 impact. The Kremlin has repeatedly suggested that although it has been difficult, Russia has fared better than most other countries, even as it has neglected to impose tough lockdown measures.

But publicly available mortality statistics, as well as other data, show an ever growing, yawning gap between Russia’s official COVID-19 figures and what are likely the far larger real numbers. The data suggest the true death toll may already be over a half-million people. Far from doing better than most, the data suggests that, in reality, Russia has suffered one of the deadliest COVID-19 epidemics in the world.

The toll is growing even steeper now as Russia endures a deadly third wave that has remained largely unchecked amid few restrictions and poor vaccination uptake -- the latter caused in part by some of the highest levels of vaccine scepticism in the world.

Russia’s official COVID-19 death toll, published by the government’s coronavirus task force, currently stands at around 155,000. In total numbers, that still places Russia fourth in the world, behind only Brazil, India and the United States. But, given the size of the country’s 144 million population and the number of cases it has had, that number appears puzzlingly low.

There is a consensus among experts internationally that the best method to assess the true toll of the pandemic in Russia is by counting so-called "excess deaths." That is, comparing the total number of deaths from any cause in a country during the pandemic periods with the total number of deaths in an average year.

Almost every country hit by the pandemic has seen a steep increase in total deaths compared to the average. Although some of those extra deaths can be attributed to other causes, such as disruption to health systems, most experts believe the vast majority are COVID-19 deaths.

Russia’s official death toll doesn’t take into account excess deaths, but its national statistics service, Rosstat, has quietly continued to release total mortality data for each month, publishing it in spreadsheets on its website. That has allowed independent demographers and journalists to calculate excess deaths for Russia during the pandemic.

The mortality data so far released by Rosstat shows that in 2020, Russia suffered 340,000 more deaths than in 2019. For the first five months of 2021, there were 133,000 more excess deaths.

That means Russia has sustained at least 473,000 more deaths during the pandemic than usual, already three times higher than its officially reported toll. That does not yet include June and July, the deadliest months of the current third wave.

“I think that by the end of September, the overall excess mortality will be at least 700,000 people,” said Alexey Raksha, an independent demographer who previously worked at Rosstat. "It is a huge number."

By proportion of the population, the current figures give Russia the highest death toll of any major country in the world and place it in the top five of any country in the world, behind only Peru, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia, according to a ranking by The Economist tracking excess deaths globally.

“In November and December of last year, the number of deaths have been record. The biggest in history, in post-war history in Russia,” said Raksha.

Raksha was fired from his job as a demographer at Rosstat last year after he publicly pointed out the discrepancies in the official COVID-19 statistics. He has accused Russian authorities of crudely manipulating the numbers, which he says is visible in the unnatural anomalies in the data released by the country's coronavirus task force.

He points to line graphs showing monthly deaths for Moscow, where steep curves indicating increasing deaths at certain times suddenly flatline and hold steady for several days.

“It’s in contradiction with all statistical, epidemiological, demographical law,” Raksha said. “It’s just impossible.”

He said the sudden plateaus are nicknamed the "Soybanin’s Shelf," referring to Moscow’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. He said they were the result of city officials simply putting a limit on the number of deaths that could be published that day.

“At some point, Sobyanin just ordered not to show more than 75 deaths daily in Moscow. That’s it,” Raksha said.

Russian health officials have previously said they take a more conservative approach to assessing COVID-19 deaths. But that does not explain the vast difference and, at times, officials have acknowledged the real death toll is substantially higher.

In December, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, who oversees the COVID-19 response, acknowledged that around 81% of all excess deaths in Russia were caused by COVID-19. The federal statistics service in June also published an estimate suggesting there had been over 270,000 COVID-19 deaths.

But Russia’s primary official death toll, which is most often used internationally and in state media, has not been updated to match those statements.

A recent investigation by three independent Russian investigative news sites also found evidence that internal government records show it is also concealing the scale of COVID-19 cases in the country by as much as five times.

The sites, Meduza, Kholod and Mediazona, reported that an oversight by Russia’s health ministry in issuing certificates confirming recent COVID-19 patients had inadvertently revealed the ministry has a database containing 29 million recorded COVID-19 cases. The official public count currently only shows six million.

The government has denied the reports, but issued conflicting responses, saying the database was not accurate and that it also contained vaccination numbers.

Critics have said the efforts to make Russia’s bout with the pandemic appear less deadly are making it worse by discouraging people from taking the virus seriously, which they say also hampers its push to vaccinate. Although Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has been found to be effective, authorities are struggling to persuade Russians to get it.

With few restrictions in place and still less than 20% of the population fully vaccinated, doctors in the city told ABC News they feared a fourth wave in the autumn was already inevitable.

"Doctors will answer for it, not the government," said a paramedic in St. Petersburg, who requested anonymity over concerns she could face retaliation.

In St. Petersburg last week, Alexander Yablokov, a 68-year-old soccer manager, said he did not believe the official death toll after he spent three weeks in a COVID-19 hospital. While there, he said he was in a small ward where all but one of seven patients with him died within a week. He said he had pulled his blanket over his head whenever he heard the sound of a gurney coming down the corridor, knowing another of his neighbors had passed.

“I thought I had found myself in a morgue. Not a hospital but a morgue,” he said

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Sarah Ferguson speaks out on Duchess Meghan and why she would marry Prince Andrew 'all over again'

Maggie Rulli and Taylor Behrendt-Rhodes, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, has spent most of her adult life in the public spotlight, first as the wife of Prince Andrew and then as a favorite target of the British tabloid media.

Several decades later, another new royal bride, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, became the target of the tabloid media when she wed Ferguson's nephew, Prince Harry, in 2018.

"I believe that everybody has a right to their own voice and there should be no judgment on race, creed, color or any other denomination," Ferguson told Good Morning America about the press' treatment of Meghan, who joined Harry in stepping down from their senior royal roles last year and moving to California.

"I personally would never be able to judge another, so I just am not like that," she said. "I wish Harry and Meghan so much happiness and I know that [the late Princess] Diana would be so proud of her sons and their wives."

Ferguson -- whose latest chapter in life is as author of a new novel, Her Heart for a Compass -- was a close friend of Princess Diana's, her sister-in-law in Britain's royal family. Though the two were pitted against each other in the British press, she calls Diana her best friend.

Diana, the mother of Princes William and Harry, died in 1997 after a car crash in Paris, but Ferguson said she keeps her friend's memory alive to this day.

"She's in my heart," Ferguson said of the late princess, whom she calls her "laughing friend."

"I always say it doesn't matter whether you get the love back or you don't get love back or she's here or she's not here, you can love anyway and keep the kindness," she said

"I loved Diana and I will always love her even if she isn’t here in person. It’s a really lovely thing to have," she said.

Ferguson, now 61 and a grandmother of one with another on the way, said she also imagines what life would be like now with Diana, whose two sons have five children between them.

"If she was here, we'd be racing to the bouncy castle with our grandchildren," said Ferguson. "The funny thing is we’d be with our grandchildren running in the egg and spoon race. She was always a better, faster runner than me."

Finding her voice through writing

Ferguson drew on her own journey in the spotlight to write her first novel, which is set in the Victorian era and is based on her distant relative, Lady Margaret.

"Lady Margaret is an extremely wonderful, strong, very resilient redhead who fights for her heart ... against extraordinary confines of what is seen as noble and duty," she said. "I think I couldn't write that and I couldn't explain it if I hadn't had a hint of fighting my own journey through my own compass of my own heart."

"She didn't have a voice," Ferguson added. "So it's about literacy, empowerment, empowerment of a woman's voice that has been shut away."

Ferguson said she is just now learning in her own life to speak up and not be a self-described "people pleaser," saying, "I don't believe I've really spoken out until now, properly."

In the novel, Margaret is portrayed as having a complicated but honest relationship with her mother, a relationship Ferguson said she never got to have with her own mom.

"When she left me, I was so young," said Ferguson. "And then my sister went to Australia, so I became the head of the house around 13, 14 years old, and I think that that's possibly why I still have the rebel in me."

Ferguson spoke with GMA while doing one of her favorite activities, horseback riding, which she said she relied on as a child for stability in her life.

"My ponies really helped me so much when my mother went to live in Argentina because they were my friends," she said, describing them as "consistent" and "steadfast." "They don't go anywhere and they didn't answer back. They are just so special."

Taking life 'one step at a time'

Though she had a complicated time as a member of Britain's royal family, Ferguson remains an ardent supporter of the monarchy.

"I am a number one fan of the monarchy," she said. "And I stand very strongly for the extraordinary steadfastness of the queen."

She also speaks fondly of Prince Andrew, whom she married in 1986 and divorced a decade later, though the two remain very close.

"He is a great man and [our wedding day] was the best day of my life," she said. "I would do it all over again because he was a very good-looking sailor, but I fell in love with him and I think love conquers all."

Andrew, who shares two daughters with Ferguson, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, has faced intense scrutiny over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison in 2019.

Andrew, the third child of Queen Elizabeth, spoke out in a 2019 BBC interview and categorically denied allegations he had sex on multiple occasions with an American teenager who's claimed she was trafficked to the prince at the direction of Epstein. Shortly after the interview, Andrew announced that he would step back from public duties, "for the foreseeable future" amid heavy criticism.

When asked how she has found resilience in the face of personal drama and tabloid scandal, Ferguson said she has learned to "take one step at a time."

"You just look at it. What do I need to learn from this? How do I feel? [You] apologize profusely to yourself, to others, mostly to yourself for letting yourself down, perhaps, and you move forward and you get on and you take one step at a time," she said. "I have destroyed myself many times, but the most important thing is to get up and get going."

Ferguson also gives credit to the American public for helping her regain her footing after she and Andrew divorced. She credits Americans with welcoming her and supporting her through different ventures, including working with WW, formerly Weight Watchers.

"That's why I want to say thanks to the American people, because they have given me a life," she said. "And they've given me a chance to be able to have a platform to talk and to be able to say, 'Be yourself.'"

Speaking of her ability to continually evolve both personally and professionally, Ferguson added, "I'm 61. I'm just starting my life. "

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


First Afghan interpreters to arrive in US as Blinken fails to reach deal in Kuwait

Flickr/U.S. Department of State

(WASHINGTON) -- The first Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and diplomatic missions are being evacuated and will arrive in the U.S. late Thursday night or early Friday morning, according to a source familiar with the plans.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that they would arrive "very, very soon," speaking during a press conference in Kuwait. He confirmed that the U.S. and Kuwait have had diplomatic discussions about hosting another group of Afghans, including during the day's meetings, but he did not announce an agreement to do so.

These arrivals are the first after President Joe Biden's pledged to support Afghan interpreters, guides and other contractors who served alongside U.S. troops and diplomats -- many of whom now face threats from the Taliban as the militant group gains strength amid the U.S. military withdrawal.

Biden ordered all remaining American forces out of the country by the 20th anniversary this fall of the Sept. 11th attacks, which first brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda's operations in the country and topple the Taliban government that gave them sanctuary.

Afghans who worked for the U.S. mission and now face threats for that work are eligible for a special immigrant visa program for them and their families. There are approximately 20,000 Afghans who have applied, plus their family members, according to a State Department spokesperson -- although it's unclear how many of them the administration plans to evacuate.

So far, the administration has announced that some 750 Afghans who have already been approved and cleared security vetting will be brought to the U.S., along with their family members -- 2,500 in total. They will be housed and provided temporary services at Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia, for seven to 10 days as they undergo medical exams and finish their application processing.

A second group of some 4,000 Afghan applicants, plus their family members, will also be housed overseas, possibly including at U.S. military installations, according to senior State Department officials. A U.S. official told ABC News the administration has had conversations with Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and several Central Asian countries -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

But during his visit to Kuwait, Blinken did not announce a new agreement with the U.S. ally to house Afghans there, where there are several U.S. military installations.

Blinken confirmed for the first time that the U.S. and Kuwait are discussing the mission, including in his meetings Thursday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it seemed they were unable to reach an agreement.

"We're talking to a number of countries about the possibility of temporarily relocating" Afghans, Blinken told reporters. "That's one of the issues that came up in our conversations today, but we are very much focused on making good on our obligations."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Earth Overshoot Day marks date planet has used up resources for the year

richcarey/iStock

(NEW YORK) — With 155 days left in 2021, humans have already surpassed what global resources can sustain in a single year, according to international sustainability organization Global Footprint Network.

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when demand for Earth’s ecological resources exceeds what the planet can regenerate. This year, the date is July 29.

The Global Footprint Network, which calculates the date each year, said humans currently use 74% more than what the planet can remake.

Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and founder of Global Footprint Network, told ABC News Radio to think of the resource deficit like a bank account.

“How long can you use 70% more than Earth can renew?” Wackernagel asked. ”You can use more than your interest payment for some time, but it reduces the asset base. And what we see as a consequence, for example, is the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere or deforestation.”

The Global Footprint Network found that the total global ecological footprint increased by 6.6% compared to 2020, based on data from the International Energy Agency and the Global Carbon Project.

Last year, the global forest biocapacity -- the natural resources in forests -- decreased by 0.5%, mainly due to a large spike in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Forests are a key to slowing climate change because they can store carbon for long periods of time.

“Last year, we had the lockdown. The lockdown changed behaviors instantaneously, quite radically, but just changed behaviors for that time,” Wackernagel said. “It didn't change the system. So we're back to where we were before in terms of resource demand.”

The Global Footprint Network estimated carbon emissions in 2021 will be 4.8% higher than 2020, but it will still be below 2019 levels, when the overshoot date was July 26.

According to the organization, the world has been overshooting the planet's resources since the 1970s, when Earth Overshoot Day was late in December.

The date has since moved up five months, but the rate at which the date has moved up the calendar has decreased. In the 1970s, the day was moving up three days a year, now it moves less than one day a year on average over the past five years.

These are worldwide numbers, though -- if the rest of the world consumed resources the way the United States does, according to the organization, the overshoot day would have been March 14.

Wackernagel told ABC News overshoot will end someday.

“It's a question whether we do it by design or disaster,” Wackernagel said. “All of the global downturns are associated with disaster rather than design, like oil crises, financial crises, pandemic. They have pushed us down, and eventually, it will push us down if we don't do it ourselves. We can choose a comfortable path, or we will be hit by crises.”

There are ways to push Earth Overshoot Day back.

According to an analysis by the Global Footprint Network and Schneider Electric, retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient and decarbonizing electricity could move the day back 21 days. If everyone in the world decreased their meat consumption by 50%, the date could be pushed back 17 days.

“If we moved Earth Overshoot Day out six days every year continuously, we'd be down to less than one planet before 2050,” Wackernagel said. “But given the huge climate debt, we may have to move faster.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Blinken warns of 'deeply, deeply troubling' reports of atrocities in Afghanistan amid US withdrawal

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Wednesday during a joint press conference in India that the situation in Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction -- noting the Taliban is "making advances" and calling reports that the group has committed atrocities "deeply, deeply troubling."

They "certainly do not speak well of the Taliban's intentions for the country as a whole," he told ABC News.

Blinken made a quick visit to New Delhi, where he and senior Indian officials focused on deepening U.S.-Indian cooperation on key challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, China, and climate change. But with the security situation in nearby Afghanistan deteriorating quickly, their meetings also focused on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban's swift efforts to control more territory.

As he and other Biden officials have argued, however, he said that the international community would make a "pariah state" of an Afghan government that "does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people."

"The Taliban says that it seeks international recognition, that it wants international support for Afghanistan," and that it wants sanctions and travel bans on its leaders lifted, he added, saying there's "only one path" to achieving those aims, "and that's at the negotiating table."

But it doesn't seem that the Taliban -- which now control nearly half of the country's districts since launching their offensive in May, according to the Pentagon -- agrees.

The group's leadership has also denied responsibility for the atrocities Blinken mentioned, including extrajudicial killings, forced displacements and attacking civilian infrastructure -- a sign that their promises remain empty and they do believe they can take power by force or that they don't have full control of their fractured forces across the country.

President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops before the 20th anniversary, this fall, of the Sept. 11th attacks that brought American forces to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida's operations there and topple the Taliban government that gave them sanctuary.

In the weeks since then, the Taliban have won control of dozens of districts by force or through surrenders, as they dawdle at negotiations with the Afghan government meant to secure a ceasefire and decide on the country's future government.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed with Blinken that, despite the deadlock in those talks, they were the only solution to Afghanistan's fighting. But he declined to say how concerned India's government is now about the deteriorating security situation, instead calling it "natural" and "inevitable" that "there will be consequences" to the U.S. military withdrawal.

"What is done is done. It is a policy taken, and I think in diplomacy, you deal with what you have," he told ABC News - agreeing with Blinken that negotiations are the only solution.

But he subtly took issue with Pakistan, India's neighbor and long-time adversary, adding that "not everyone who agrees ... does what they say they will do." Without a direct mention, he called its support for the Taliban a "reality of the last 20 years."

A senior State Department official said after the day's meetings that the two sides made no specific asks of one another, but committed to deepening cooperation and information-sharing on the situation.

"It's a chance for us to talk about, sort of, the way forward and really where we can find points of leverage to try to bring the Taliban along and get toward a negotiated settlement," they said.

The two foreign ministers were chummy after their day of meetings -- cracking jokes and praising U.S.-Indian cooperation. Jaishankar said the two powers had "entered a new era," with cooperation on COVID-19, defense, trade and investment, climate change, and regional issues.

In particular, Blinken said the two countries "will be leaders in bringing the pandemic to an end," as India ramps up vaccine production and exports, and the U.S. launches the first of the 500 million doses next month that Biden promised during the G-7 summit.

The Biden administration had hoped to share three million of those doses with India, but they remain held up by Indian bureaucracy, which must first approve their import, according to the senior State Department official, who added they hoped for "some movement soon."

While the increasing U.S.-India partnership has irked the Chinese government, which has accused both countries of trying to "contain" it, Jaishankar shot back Wednesday -- saying, "People need to get over the idea that somehow other countries doing things is directed at them."

"For groups of countries to work together is not strange. It's the history of international relations," he added, earning a laugh from Blinken.

But much of this visit has been focused on China -- including Blinken's meeting Wednesday morning with the Dalai Lama's representative, Central Tibetan Administration Representative Ngodup Dongchung. It's the first high-level engagement from the Biden administration with the Tibetan leader and his team -- one that is sure to anger Chinese officials who have long opposed U.S. support for the spiritual figure.

The senior State Department official tried to downplay the meeting, saying they met "very briefly" so that Dongchung could present Blinken with a scarf as a "gesture of good will and friendship."

Blinken also tried to send a message with another meeting Wednesday morning, starting his day before the cameras with a group of Indian civil society leaders. Before the press, he talked about how both countries' democracies "are works in progress. ... Sometimes that process is painful, sometimes it's ugly, but the strength of democracy is to embrace it."

That process in India has been particularly ugly in recent years. Earlier this year, Freedom House, the U.S. think tank, rated India as "partly free" for the first time in its annual global survey, as the government of Narendra Modi has been accused of curtailing minorities' rights, especially Muslims; attacking political opponents and the free press; and restricting human rights groups and NGOs.

With his morning meetings, Blinken tried to send a message about that, talking up the importance of "a vibrant civil society" and talking openly about American democracy's struggles and faults -- including the events of Jan. 6.

But during their presser, Blinken was more conciliatory than critical of Modi and Jaishankar's administration, saying Americans "admire" India's "steadfast commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights, fundamental freedoms."

"As friends, we talk about these issues. We talk about the challenges that we're both facing in renewing and strengthening our democracies, and I think humbly, we can learn from each other," he added, clearly highlighting the common ground, rather than risk alienating this critical new partner.

Jaishankar had a sharper edge in response to the question -- telling the reporter who asked that Modi's changes are an effort to "really right wrongs when they have been done" -- the kind of 'don't question' attitude that critics say is at the heart of Modi's democratic back-sliding.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tokyo reports record number of COVID-19 cases as Olympic games continue

hocus-focus/iStock

(TOKYO) -- Tokyo reported a record number of 3,177 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday as the Olympic games remain underway.

It's the second day in a row in which Japan's capital reported record-breaking cases. On Tuesday, the city reported 2,484 COVID-19 cases, which exceeded its previous record of 2,520 cases set on Jan. 7, 2021, according to Kyodo News.

Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease (NIID) has estimated that the highly contagious delta variant is responsible for nearly 80% of infections in Tokyo.

Patients who make up the new cases mainly involve people ranging in age from their 20s to 40s, according to the NIID, which reported an increase in hospitalization in people under the age of 50.

As of Wednesday, at least 27% of the country has had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to a government report at the beginning of the month. Tokyo remains under its fourth coronavirus state of emergency.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee reported that nearly 80 people accredited to the games had tested positive for the virus, including more than two dozen athletes.

Although Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged people during a press conference Tuesday to avoid non-essential travel, he said there is no reason to consider suspending the Games at this time, saying, “Please watch the Olympic Games on TV at home."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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