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Biden calls US Covid-19 death toll 'heartbreaking' to mark 500,000 fatalities

An emotional President Joe Biden called the milestone of more than 500,000 US deaths from Covid-19 "heartbreaking" on Monday and urged the country to unite against the pandemic.

"I know what it's like," Biden said in a national television address, referring to his own long history of family tragedies.

"I ask all Americans to remember, remember those we lost and those they left behind," Biden said. "I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to say socially distant, to mask up, to get vaccinated."

Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, then stood outside the White House to mark a moment's silence in front of 500 candles representing the huge toll.

A Marine Corps band played "Amazing Grace."

Earlier, flags were lowered over the White House and at federal buildings across the country and at embassies around the world. The United States has the world's highest death toll.

Biden urged Americans to mourn and to remember those lost but also to show determination.

"As a nation we cannot and must not let this go on," he said.

"We must end the politics and disinformation that's divided families, communities," he said. "We have to fight this together as one people, as the United States of America."

Biden's attorney general pick vows to prosecute Capitol attackers

Federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland was nominated by US President Joe Biden to be attorney general

Washington (AFP) - US President Joe Biden's attorney general nominee pledged Saturday to depoliticize the Justice Department and to vigorously prosecute the Donald Trump supporters who attacked the US Capitol.

In testimony prepared for his confirmation hearing on Monday and Tuesday, federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland indicated he wants to remove the taint of political interference left on the department by Trump.

He said that if confirmed, he would reaffirm "policies that protect the independence of the department from partisan influence in law enforcement investigations (and) that strictly regulate communications with the White House."

He also promised to create clear guidelines for FBI investigations, amid allegations that the agency strayed deeply into politics in investigating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then Trump in 2017-2018.

In an apparent reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, Garland also said that enforcing equal justice for people of color remains an incomplete and "urgent" task, 150 years after the Justice Department was founded following the Civil War. 

Minorities still face discrimination in housing, education and the jobs market, and suffer more than others the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, Garland said in his statement.

"The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Department's Civil Rights Division, with the mission 'to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society,'" Garland said.

"That mission remains urgent because we do not yet have equal justice."

Garland also said the country faces a serious threat of extremism, as exemplified by the deadly January 6 attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol, which shut down the legislature as lawmakers met to certify Biden's election win.

The Justice Department has already charged some 230 people in that event and is investigating hundreds more, with the possibility of charging some with seditious conspiracy. 

"If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 -- a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government," Garland said.

Garland, 68, worked in the Justice Department before becoming a judge nearly 24 years ago.

Seen as a moderate liberal, in 2016 he was nominated by then Democratic president Barack Obama to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

But Republicans determined to turn the high court to the right stalled the nomination, allowing Trump in 2017 to put forth a conservative nominee. 

Garland, who must be confirmed by the evenly split Senate, is expected this time to gain enough support from Republicans for his nomination to go through.

Privacy faces risks in tech-infused post-Covid workplace

A thermal imaging camera are displayed on a screen as a person waits at the reception desk at the St Giles Hotel near Heathrow Airport in west London, in an example of technology being used to screen for Covid-19 symptoms

Washington (AFP) - People returning to work following the long pandemic will find an array of tech-infused gadgetry to improve workplace safety but which could pose risks for long-term personal and medical privacy.

Temperature checks, distance monitors, digital "passports," wellness surveys and robotic cleaning and disinfection systems are being deployed in many workplaces seeking to reopen.

Tech giants and startups are offering solutions which include computer vision detection of vital signs to wearables which can offer early indications of the onset of Covid-19 and apps that keep track of health metrics.

Salesforce and IBM have partnered on a "digital health pass" to let people share their vaccination and health status on their smartphone.

Clear, a tech startup known for airport screening, has created its own health pass which is being used by organizations such as the National Hockey League and MGM Resorts.

Fitbit, the wearable tech maker recently acquired by Google, has its own "Ready for Work" program that includes daily check-ins using data from its devices.

Fitbit is equipping some 1,000 NASA employees with wearables as part of a pilot program which requires a daily log-in using various health metrics which will be tracked by the space agency.

Microsoft and insurance giant United HealthCare have deployed a ProtectWell app which includes a daily symptom screener, and Amazon has deployed a "distance assistant" in its warehouses to help employees maintain safe distances.

And a large coalition of technology firms and health organizations are working on a digital vaccination certificate, which can be used on smartphones to show evidence of inoculation for Covid-19.

'Blurs the lines'

With these systems, employees may face screenings even as they enter a building lobby, and monitoring in elevators, hallways and throughout the workplace.

The monitoring "blurs the line between people's workplace and personal lives," said Darrell West, a Brookings Institution vice president with the think tank's Center for Technology Innovation.

"It erodes longstanding medical privacy protections for many different workers."

A report last year by the consumer activist group Public Citizen identified at least 50 apps and technologies released during the pandemic "marketed as workplace surveillance tools to combat Covid-19."

The report said some systems go so far as identifying people who may not spend enough time in front of a sink to note inadequate hand-washing.

"The invasion of privacy that workers face is alarming, especially considering that the effectiveness of these technologies in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 has not yet been established," the report said.

The group said there should be clear rules on collection and storage of data, with better disclosure to employees.

A delicate balance

Employers face a delicate balance as they try to ensure workplace safety without intruding on privacy, said Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization at Penn State University.

Briscoe said there are legitimate reasons and precedents for requiring proof of vaccination. But these sometimes conflict with medical privacy regulations which limit a company's access to employee health data.

"You don't want the employer accessing that information for work-related decisions," Briscoe said.

Biscoe said many employers are relying on third-party tech vendors to handle the monitoring, but that has its risks as well.

"Using third-party vendors will keep the data separate," he said.

"But for some companies their business model involves gathering data and using it for some monetizable purpose and that poses a risk to privacy."

The global health crisis has inspired startups around the world to seek innovative ways to limit virus transmission, with some of those products shown at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show.

Taiwan-based FaceHeart demonstrated software which can be installed in cameras for contactless measurement of vital signs to screen for shortness of breath, high fever, dehydration, elevated heart rate and other symptoms which are early indicators of Covid-19.

Drone maker Draganfly showcased camera technology which can be used to offer alerts on social distancing, and also detect changes in people's vital signs which may be early indicators of Covid-19 infection.

A programmable robot from Misty Robotics, also shown at CES, can be adapted as a health check monitor and can also be designed to disinfect frequently used surfaces like door handles, according to the company.

But there are risks in relying too much on technologies which may be unproven or inaccurate, such as trying to detect fevers with thermal cameras among moving people, said Jay Stanley, a privacy researcher and analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Employers have a legitimate interest in safeguarding workplaces and keeping employees healthy in the context of the pandemic," Stanley said.

"But what I would worry about is employers using the pandemic to pluck and store information in a systematic way beyond what is necessary to protect health."

Canada to provide Covid swab tests at US border

The US-Canadian border is due to stay closed until March 21

Montreal (AFP) - Canada will provide mandatory swab tests at over a hundred land crossings on its border with the US from Monday, Ottawa said, as concerns over the spread of new coronavirus variants grow.

"Travellers entering Canada at land borders, unless exempt, will be required to take a test using a self-swab kit," a statement from Canada's Public Health Agency said Saturday. 

"This test can be taken either at the traveller's quarantine location or at a border testing site."

The border is currently closed to all but essential travel, a policy which is due to last until 21 March after it was extended on Friday. 

Travellers entering Canada, unless exempt, must undergo two Covid-19 tests, one on their first day of arrival and one later in their 14-day quarantine period.

From Monday, air passengers arriving in Canada will have to undergo a three-day hotel quarantine at their own expense while they wait for the results of a coronavirus test.

Canadian media reported the telephone reservation system for the government-approved hotels was experiencing long delays on Saturday. 

The country's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam on Friday underlined the danger that a growing number of coronavirus variants posed to Canadians, stressing the need for continued vigilance in the face of the pandemic.

Canada on Saturday listed over 840,000 Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 21,000 deaths.

New HBO documentary paints disturbing picture of Woody Allen

A new documentary series premiering Sunday on the HBO network, "Allen v. Farrow," paints a damning picture of Oscar-winning director Woody Allen, particularly regarding his alleged sexual abuse of young adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow.

Even if the four-part series contains no major revelations, it seems certain to further sully the already battered reputation of the aging New York filmmaker.

Respected documentary directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering delve into Allen's past, using testimony and legal documents -- some not previously seen -- to dig deeper than anyone before them.

Dylan Farrow has accused Allen of sexually abusing her in August 1992, when she was only seven years old -- an allegation he has always denied.

The documentary draws a line between the alleged abuse of Dylan and Allen's relationship with the adoptive daughter of his then-partner Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, who is now his wife.

More generally, the series examines his attraction to young girls. The documentary cites court documents and testimony indicating that Allen had sexual relations with Soon-Yi while she was a minor.

Sixteen when they met, she is now 50; Allen is 35 years her senior.

On top of those disturbing elements, "Allen v. Farrow" details Allen's supposed penchant for manipulation -- in particular of the press -- as he sought to undercut the damaging accusations and discredit Mia Farrow.

The film strongly implies that he might have successfully derailed the two official investigations into the matter, neither of which resulted in charges being filed.

About complicity

More broadly, the documentary denounces the pre-#MeToo culture of male dominance, which allowed powerful men in show business and other fields to abuse their positions with impunity, sometimes with the full knowledge of others in their professional circles.

"Allen v. Farrow" will have particular resonance in France, where it will be broadcast next month on the OCS network amid a recent series of allegations of incest involving several public figures.

The film also charts the way Allan Konigsberg -- Woody Allen's real name -- continued to enjoy seemingly unshakable support from many in the cinema world even as Farrow lost out on roles and, she said, became persona non grata in Hollywood.

It was only in 2017, following the publication of an op-ed article by Dylan Farrow and with the very public support of her brother Ronan -- a journalist and early hero of the #MeToo movement -- that actors and actresses began to turn their backs on the octogenarian director, who remains isolated today.

To filmmaker Dick, the message of the documentary reaches far beyond Allen, though it bears his name. "It's really not about him," Dick told the Washington Post.

"It's more about the systemic," added Ziering. "This film is about complicity, the power of celebrity, the power of spin, how we all are viral and will believe something that's repeated enough."

"Allen v. Farrow" also examines Dylan Farrow, who opens up as never before and who, nearly 30 years later, still shows signs of deep trauma.

"There's so much misinformation... so many lies," she said. "I've been subjected to every kind of doubt, every kind of scrutiny and every kind of humiliation," while her father "was able to just run amok."

One major absence looms over the four hours of the series as it assembles its merciless indictment -- that of Allen himself, though it does include extracts from his 2020 autobiography "Apropos of Nothing," read by the director for the audiobook.

No one comes to Allen's defense, not even wife Soon-Yi or adoptive son Moses, both of whom have defended him in the past but refused to take part in the documentary.

Contacted by AFP for comment, Allen did not respond.

"I think a lot of people, when they see this — even people who right now are defending Woody Allen — I think they will either change their mind or examine things in a much different way," said Dick.

'Mars is hard': When will humans follow NASA rovers to the 'Red Planet'?

With its impeccable landing on Thursday, NASA's Perseverance became the fifth rover to reach Mars -- so when can we finally expect the long-held goal of a crewed expedition to materialize?

NASA's current Artemis program is billed as a "Moon to Mars" mission, and acting administrator Steve Jurczyk has reiterated his aspiration of "the mid-to-end of the 2030s" for American boots on the Red Planet.

But while the trip is technologically almost within grasp, experts say it's probably still decades out because of funding uncertainties.

Mars is hard

Wernher von Braun, the architect of the Apollo program, started work on a Mars mission right after the Moon landing in 1969, but the plan, like many after it, never got off the drawing board.

What makes it so hard? For a start, the sheer distance.

Astronauts bound for Mars will have to travel about 140 million miles (225 million kilometers), depending on where the two planets are relative to each other.

That means a trip that's many months long, where astronauts will face two major health risks: radiation and microgravity.

The former raises the lifetime chances of developing cancer while the latter decreases bone density and muscle mass.

If things go wrong, any problems will have to be solved on the planet itself.

'It's the details'

That said, scientists have learned plenty of lessons from astronauts' missions to the Moon and to space stations.

"We have demonstrated on Earth orbiting spacecraft the ability for astronauts to survive for a year and a half," said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer for the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The general ideas of how to execute a Mars mission are in place, but "it's the details" that are lacking, he added.

One way to reduce the radiation exposure on the journey is getting there faster, said Laura Forczyk, the founder of space consulting firm Astralytical and a planetary scientist.

This could involve using nuclear thermal propulsion which produces far more thrust than the energy produced by traditional chemical rockets.

Another could be building a spacecraft with water containers strapped to it that absorb space radiation, said McDowell.

Once there, we'll need to find ways to breathe in the 95-percent carbon dioxide atmosphere. Perseverance has an instrument on board to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, as a technical demonstration.

Other solutions involve breaking down the ice at the planet's poles into oxygen and hydrogen, which will also fuel rockets.

Radiation will also be challenging on the planet, because of its ultra thin atmosphere and lack of a protective magnetosphere, so shelters will need to be well shielded, or even underground.

Risk tolerance

The feasibility also comes down to how much risk we are willing to tolerate, said G. Scott Hubbard, NASA's first Mars program director who's now at Stanford.

During the Shuttle era, said Hubbard, "the demand was that the astronauts face no more than three percent increased risk in death."

"They have now raised that -- deep space missions are somewhere between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the mission, so NASA's taking a more aggressive or open posture," he added.

That could involve raising the permissible level of total radiation astronauts can be exposed to over their lifetimes, which NASA is also considering, said Forczyk.

Political will

The experts agreed the biggest hurdle is getting buy-in from the US president and Congress.

"If humanity as a species, specifically the American taxpayer, decides to put large amounts of money into it, we could be there by the 2030s," said McDowell.

He doesn't think that's on the cards, but said he would be surprised if it happened later than the 2040s, a conclusion shared by Forczyk.

President Joe Biden hasn't yet outlined his Mars vision, though his spokeswoman Jen Pskai said this month the Artemis program had the administration's "support."

Still, the agency is facing budget constraints and is not expected to meet its goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, which would also push back Mars.

SpaceX wildcard

Could NASA be beaten to it by SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, who is targeting a first human mission in 2026?

Musk has been developing the next-generation Starship rocket for the purpose -- though two prototypes blew up in spectacular fashion on their recent test runs.

These might look bad, but the risks SpaceX is able to take, and NASA as a government agency can't, gives it valuable data, argued Hubbard.

That could eventually give SpaceX an edge over NASA's chosen rocket, the troubled Space Launch System (SLS) which is beset by delays and cost overrun.

But not even one of the richest people in the world can foot the entire bill for Mars themselves.

Hubbard sees a public-private partnership as more likely, with SpaceX providing the transport and NASA solving the many other problems.

Facebook news blackout over media law sparks Australia backlash

Brisbane (Australia) (AFP) - Australia on Thursday slammed Facebook as "heavy-handed" and "wrong" to impose a news blackout over a law that would force it to pay for content, warning the ban showed the immense power of internet giants.

Facebook and other tech firms have pushed back hard against Australia's world-first legislation, fearing it could create a global precedent and hit their business model.

From early Thursday, Australians were unable to post links to news articles or view the Facebook pages of local and international news outlets, while users logged in overseas could not view Australian news pages.

"Facebook was wrong. Facebook's actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

He stressed that the government remained "absolutely committed" to implementing its plan, which passed the House of Representatives late Wednesday and is now before the Senate.

"What today's events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants," Frydenberg added.

"These digital giants loom very, very large in our economy and on the digital landscape."

Frydenberg's criticism came hours after he tweeted that he had a "constructive discussion" with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Several emergency services were also caught in the blackout -- with government pages alerting the public to Covid-19 outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones rendered blank, as well as the pages of domestic violence helplines and charities.

A Facebook spokesperson said official government pages "should not be impacted by today's announcement" and the company "will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted".

Some non-news sites caught up in the blackout gradually returned throughout the day.

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson described the block -- which has also impacted Indigenous community pages and even Facebook's own page -- as an "alarming and dangerous turn of events".

"Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable," she said.

Media groups and Australia's government have also raised concerns that blocking verified news sources will allow misinformation to proliferate.

'A stark choice'

Several Facebook pages that regularly promote misinformation and conspiracy theories were unaffected by the ban.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook needed to think "very carefully" about blocking the pages of organisations that employ professional journalists with editorial policies and fact-checking processes in place.

"They're effectively saying any information that is available on our site does not come from these reliable sources," he told public broadcaster ABC.

"I would imagine that on quite sober reflection, they will start to become quite troubled about what that would mean for how their platform is perceived."

Facebook said it had no choice but to implement the news block.

"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content," said Facebook's manager for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton.

"It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter."

Facebook's hardball response contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups, including one with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

News Corp was the last major private media yet to make a deal and was instrumental in pushing the conservative Australian government to tackle the tech giants.

Pressure to share revenue

Facebook's Easton said the firm has argued to Australian officials that "the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers," and generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the media organisations in the country.

"We've long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations," he said.

"Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn't take or ask for."

Australia's competition watchdog, however, has maintained that for every $100 spent on online advertising, Google captures $53, Facebook takes $28 and the rest is shared among others, depriving media outlets of revenue needed to support journalism.

The situation is mirrored in other parts of the world where tech platforms are facing increasing pressure to share revenue with news media.

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Was there ever life on Mars? NASA's Perseverance rover wants to find out

Seven months in space, a mission that was decades in the making and cost billions of dollars, all to answer the question: was there ever life on Mars?

NASA's Perseverance rover prepares for touchdown on the Red Planet Thursday to search for telltale signs of microbes that might have existed there billions of years ago, when conditions were warmer and wetter than they are today.

Over the course of several years, it will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be eventually sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.

"It's of course trying to make significant progress in answering one of the questions that has been with us for many centuries, namely: are we alone in the universe?" NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said Wednesday.

Perseverance is the largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to Mars.

About the size of an SUV, it weighs a ton, is equipped with a seven foot (two meter) long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones, and a suite of cutting-edge instruments to assist in its scientific goals.

Before it can embark on its lofty quest, it will first need to survive the dreaded "seven minutes of terror" -- the risky landing procedure that has scuppered nearly 50 percent of all missions to the planet.

Shortly after 3:30 pm Eastern Time (2030 GMT), the spacecraft will careen into the Martian atmosphere at 12,500 miles per hour (20,000 kilometers per hour), protected by its heat shield.

It will then deploy a supersonic parachute the size of a Little League field, before firing up an eight-engined jetpack to slow its descent even further, and then eventually lower the rover carefully to the ground on a set of cables.

Its target site, the Jezero Crater, is full of perilous terrain, but thanks to new instruments Perseverance is capable of landing with far greater precision than any robot sent before it.

Astrobiology dream

Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago the crater was home to a river that flowed into a lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta.

"We have very strong evidence that Mars could have supported life in its distant past," Ken Williford, the mission's deputy project scientist said Wednesday.

But if past exploration has determined the planet was once habitable, Perseverance is tasked with determining whether it was actually inhabited.

It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and its engineers have planned for it to traverse first the delta, then the ancient lake shore, and finally the edges of the crater.

Perseverance's top speed of 0.1 miles per hour is sluggish by Earth standards but faster than any of its predecessors, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition, and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.

"We astrobiologists have been dreaming about this mission for decades," said Mary Voytek, head of NASA's astrobiology program.

Despite its state-of-the-art technology, bringing samples back to Earth remains crucial because of anticipated ambiguities in the specimens it documents.

For example, fossils that arose from ancient microbes may look suspiciously similar to patterns caused by precipitation.

Flying on another world

Before getting to the main mission, NASA wants to run several eye-catching experiments.

Tucked under Perseverance's belly is a small helicopter drone that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet.

The helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, will have to achieve lift in an atmosphere that's one percent the density of Earth's, in a demonstration of concept that could revolutionize the way we explore other planets

Another experiment involves an instrument that can convert oxygen from Mars' primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, much like a plant, using the process of electrolysis to produce 10 grams of oxygen an hour.

The idea is that humans eventually won't need to carry their own oxygen, which is crucial for rocket fuel as well as for breathing.

Perseverance's two microphones will meanwhile attempt to record the Martian soundscape for the very first time, after past efforts failed.

The rover is only the fifth ever to set its wheels down on Mars. The feat was first accomplished in 1997 and all of them have been American.

That will probably soon change: China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft entered Martian orbit last week and is expected to touch down with a stationary lander and a rover in May.

Europe to meet US on Iran as nuclear deadline looms

Top diplomats from European powers and the United States will hold talks on Thursday to see how to revive the 2015 deal on Iran's nuclear drive, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran that could hinder the efforts by limiting inspections.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will host his German and British counterparts in Paris, with America's new top diplomat Antony Blinken joining via videoconference, the French foreign ministry said Wednesday.

Highlighting the tough path ahead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced "concern" that Iran was failing to meet its obligations in telephone talks with President Hassan Rouhani, her spokesman said in a statement.

Analysts say only a small window of opportunity remains to save the landmark deal, which received a near-fatal blow when former US president Donald Trump walked out of the accord in 2018.

The administration of Joe Biden has said it is prepared to rejoin the deal and start lifting sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance, a precondition disputed by Tehran.

Ahead of the talks Biden spoke overnight to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, with the two leaders discussing the "Iranian threat and regional challenges", according to a White House readout.

Adding to the tension, Iran plans to restrict some UN nuclear agency inspections if the US does not lift its sanctions -- imposed since 2018 -- by February 21, under the terms of a bill adopted by its parliament in December.

'On the cards'

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi is to travel to Tehran on Saturday for talks with the Iranian authorities to find a solution for continuing inspections in the country, the agency said.

It warned that the step threatened by Tehran would have "a serious impact on the IAEA's verification and monitoring activities in the country."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Iran should provide "full and timely cooperation" with the IAEA.

"Iran should reverse the steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies," he said, adding that Blinken saw an "important role" for the EU.

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was "unlikely" the E3/US meeting on Thursday would produce a significant political or economic gesture to prevent Iran from going ahead with the restrictions.

"This deadline has been on the cards for months, and in absence of economic relief Iran's leaders feel compelled to move ahead," she told AFP.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in Vienna in 2015, was based on Iran providing safeguards that it would not make an atomic bomb, in exchange for a gradual easing of international sanctions.

But Iran has stepped up its nuclear work in violation of the accord after US sanctions were reimposed as part of Trump's "maximum pressure" policy to weaken the Iranian regime.

The UN nuclear watchdog said last week that Iran had started producing uranium metal in a new violation of the accord, prompting the European powers to warn that Tehran was "undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy."

In her talks with Rouhani, Merkel said that "now was the time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution".

However the Iranian presidency said Rouhani in the call "criticised Europe's performance" on its JCPOA commitments after the US withdrawal.

'Only action'

While Iran's policy is ultimately determined by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian presidential elections in June add another time pressure factor.

Rouhani -- a key advocate of nuclear diplomacy with global powers -- is set to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms, and a more hardline figure is possibly in line to replace him.

"There is a short window of time to limit the damage that could ensue from Iran's next steps, for example by reducing the impact of such moves on the quality of inspections by international monitors," Geranmayeh said.

She said Washington should move in political and practical terms to show Iran that the Biden administration "is distancing itself from Trump-era maximum pressure."

Khamenei emphasised Wednesday that Iran wanted to see action from the US administration that would help its economy.

"This time, only action, action. If we see action from the opposite side, we will act too," he said.

NASA hopes to fly a helicopter on Mars -- for the very first time

More than a century after the first powered flight on Earth, NASA intends to prove it's possible to replicate the feat on another world.

Transported aboard the Mars 2020 spacecraft that arrives at the Red Planet on Thursday, the small Ingenuity helicopter will have several challenges to overcome -- the biggest being the rarefied Martian atmosphere, which is just one percent the density of Earth's.

Ultralight

It might be called a helicopter, but in appearance it's closer to mini-drones we've grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.

Weighing just four pounds (1.8 kilograms), its blades are much larger and spin about five times faster -- 2,400 revolutions per minute -- than would be required to generate the same amount of lift back on Earth.

It does however get some assistance from Mars, where the gravity is only a third of that on our home planet.

Ingenuity has four feet, a box-like body, and four carbon-fiber blades arranged in two rotors spinning in opposite directions. It comes with two cameras, computers, and navigation sensors.

It's also equipped with solar cells to recharge its batteries, much of the energy being used for staying warm on cold Martian nights, where temperatures fall to minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius).

The helicopter is hitching a ride on the belly of the Perseverance rover, which will drop it to the ground once it has landed then drive away.

90 second flights

Up to five flights of gradual difficulty are planned, over a window of one month, within the first few months of the mission.

Ingenuity will fly at altitudes of 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) and travel as far as 160 feet (50 meters) from its starting area and back.

Each flight will last up to a minute and half -- compared to the 12 seconds the Wright brothers achieved with the first powered, controlled flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

Like the Perseverance rover, Ingenuity is too far away from Earth to be operated using a joystick, and is therefore designed to fly autonomously.

Its onboard computers will work with its sensors and cameras to keep it on a path programmed by its engineers.

But the outcome of these flights will be learned only after they took place.

What's the goal?

NASA describes Ingenuity's mission as a "technology demonstration": a project that seeks to test a new capability together with the astrobiology mission of Perseverance.

If it's successful, however, it "basically opens up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars," said Bob Balaram, Ingenuity's chief engineer.

Future models could offer better vantage points not seen by current orbiters or by slow-moving rovers on the ground, allowing the helicopters to scope out terrain for land-based robots or humans.

They could even help carry light payloads from one site to another -- such as the rock and soil samples Perseverance will be collecting in the next phase of the Mars 2020 mission.

'World's oldest' mass-production brewery unearthed in Egypt

A high-production brewery believed to be more than 5,000 years old has been uncovered by a team of archaeologists at a funerary site in southern Egypt, the tourism ministry said Saturday.

The site containing several "units" consisting of about 40 earthenware pots arranged in two rows was uncovered at North Abydos, Sohag, by a joint Egyptian-American team, the ministry said in a statement on its Facebook page.

The brewery likely dates back to the era of King Narmer, it quoted the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Mostafa Waziry, as saying, adding it believed the find to "be the oldest high-production brewery in the world."

Narmer, who ruled more than 5,000 years ago, founded the First Dynasty and unified Upper and Lower Egypt.

British archaeologists first discovered the existence of the brewery at the beginning of the 20th century but its location was never precisely determined, the statement said.

The joint Egyptian-American team "was able to re-locate and uncover its contents", it said.

According to Waziry, the brewery consisted of eight large areas which were used as "units for beer production".

Each sector contained about 40 earthenware pots arranged in two rows.

A mixture of grains and water used for beer production was heated in the vats, with each basin "held in place by levers made of clay placed vertically in the form of rings".

Brew for 'royal rituals'

Archaeologist Matthew Adams of New York University, who heads the joint mission with Deborah Vischak of Princeton University, said studies have shown that beer was produced at a large scale, with about 22,400 litres made at a time.

The brewery "may have been built in this place specifically to supply the royal rituals that were taking place inside the funeral facilities of the kings of Egypt", the statement quoted him as saying.

"Evidence for the use of beer in sacrificial rites was found during excavations in these facilities," the statement said.

Evidence of beer-making in ancient Egypt is not new, and past discoveries have shed light on such production.

Fragments of pottery used by Egyptians to make beer and dating back 5,000 years were discovered on a building site in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced in 2015.

Abydos, where the latest discovery was unearthed, has yielded many treasures over the years and is famed for its temples, such as that of Seti I.

In 2000, a team of US archaeologists brought to light in Abydos the earliest known example of an ancient Egyptian solar barge, dating back to the first Pharaonic dynasty around 5,000 years ago.

Egypt has announced several major new discoveries which it hopes will spur tourism, a sector which has suffered multiple blows -- from a 2011 uprising to the coronavirus pandemic.

A mission working near Alexandria recently discovered several mummies from around 2,000 years ago bearing golden-tongued amulets -- thought to have been placed in the mouths of the dead to ensure they could speak in the afterlife.

Authorities had expected 15 million tourists to visit Egypt in 2020, compared to 13 million the previous year, but the virus has kept holidaymakers away.

McConnell admits Trump 'responsible' for insurrection -- after voting against conviction

Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell delivered a scathing rebuke of Donald Trump on Saturday despite voting to acquit the former president on an impeachment charge, saying he was responsible for the January 6 mob assault on the US Capitol.

"There's no question -- none -- that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day," McConnell said in a speech following the vote that led to Trump's acquittal.

"These criminals were carrying his banners. Hanging his flags. And screaming their loyalty to him."

He called Trump's actions leading up to the siege "a disgraceful dereliction of duty."

McConnell went further and suggested Trump could face charges now that he is out of office.

"President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen," he said. "He didn't get away with anything yet."

The Republican from Kentucky, however, said he voted to acquit Trump on a charge of inciting insurrection because, he said, it is unconstitutional to convict a president in an impeachment trial after he has left office.

In New York's Chinatown, pandemic and stigma dulls New Year cheer

New York (AFP) - A smattering of firecrackers, the odd lion dance and a lone drummer: New York's Chinatown turned the page on a year it was ravaged by the pandemic and virus stigmatization with subdued celebrations Friday.

No annual parade or large family gatherings greeted the Lunar New Year. Just relief at the passing of the Year of Rat and hope that the Year of the Ox will bring a turnaround in fortunes.

"Of course I'm happy the year has finished," says Jenny Li, as a slow trickle of shoppers stop at her gift store to buy lanterns, tubes of confetti and red envelopes synonymous with Chinese New Year.

Li has seen takings at her shop plummet to a quarter of what they were before coronavirus struck the Big Apple almost exactly a year ago.

"It was tough times. I hope for the new year that everything goes back to normal and everybody gets healthy," the 48-year-old told AFP.

The pandemic has closed thousands of businesses and restaurants across New York City, where Covid-19 has killed more than 28,000 people.

Nowhere has the pain been felt more acutely than in Chinatown, where the economic toll was compounded by misunderstandings of the virus and racism.

As Covid-19, which former president Donald Trump routinely called the "Chinese virus," spread from Wuhan around the world in early 2020, New York's bustling Chinatown turned ghost town almost overnight.

"Even before the economic impact and the crisis really hit New York City, there was a lot of xenophobia and just fear about," recalls Olympia Moy, co-founder of the non-profit Think! Chinatown.

"It just like snowballed into a really bad situation."

This week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted an article about a massive spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans across the United States.

Indoor dining

"We CANNOT allow bigotry and hate to divide us," he tweeted.

Sixteen-year-old Irina Wong echoed that sentiment as she welcomed in the New Year with her parents and younger brother after traveling from New Jersey to Chinatown.

"I hope that this coming year, whether Covid becomes better or not, we can all learn to rely on each other and I wish there would be less division throughout the country," she told AFP.

The pandemic closed several stores and left many more fighting for survival in this historic district in Lower Manhattan.

"Usually at this time of year all the restaurants are full," says restaurant manager Alex Chan, pointing to empty tables up and down the street.

George Ma, the 55-year-old owner of a gift shop says he is seeing "a little bit of improvement" with the rollout of vaccines.

There was further cause for optimism, Friday, with the new year coinciding with the partial reopening of indoor dining in New York.

Restaurants are now allowed to sit customers inside at 25 percent capacity.

"It will make a big difference," said Chan, who nevertheless doesn't expect Chinatown to really pick up until April at the earliest.

Biden begins dismantling Trump's 'Remain in Mexico' asylum policy

Washington (AFP) - Asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico while their cases are being resolved in the United States will begin to be admitted into the US as of next week, President Joe Biden's administration announced Friday.

Biden instructed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) earlier this month to take action to end the controversial "Remain in Mexico" program put in place by his predecessor Donald Trump.

It saw tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers -- mostly from Central America -- sent back over the border pending the outcome of their asylum applications, creating a humanitarian crisis in the area, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Beginning on February 19, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will begin phase one of a program to restore safe and orderly processing at the southwest border," the agency announced in a statement.

It said there are approximately 25,000 active cases still. Candidates will be tested first for the coronavirus, a senior DHS official who asked not to be identified told reporters.

At least 70,000 people were returned to Mexico under the agreement from January 2019, when the program began to be implemented, through December 2020, according to the NGO American Immigration Council.

US authorities emphasized that they are working closely with the Mexican government and with international organizations and NGOs at the border.

DHS chief Alejandro Mayorkas, who is the first Latino and the first immigrant to head the department, stressed that Washington is committed to "rebuilding a safe, orderly and humane immigration system."

"This latest action is another step in our commitment to reform immigration policies that do not align with our nation's values," Mayorkas said in a statement.

The program was part of Trump's hardline plan to fight illegal immigration, one of the hallmarks of his administration and which included efforts to build a border wall and the policy which separated children from thousands of migrant families.

After Biden took office on January 20, his administration announced that it would reverse the most controversial measures and created a task force to reunite families that remain separated, a policy his administration has termed a "national shame."

On the day Biden was inaugurated, the DHS announced the suspension of new registrations in the "Remain in Mexico" program and asked all those enrolled to stay where they are while waiting to be informed about their cases.

Washington said Friday that those waiting "should not approach the border until instructed to do so."

In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, at his press briefing, welcomed Biden's move.

Lopez Obrador said he hoped to discuss with Biden a work visa program for Mexicans and Central Americans.

"Their presence as workers in the United States" is vital to the US economy, Lopez Obrador said.

Migrants in Mexico hoping to reach the US welcomed the policy change in Washington.

"With this news our miracle is on the verge of becoming reality," said Nicol Bueso, a 19-year-old Honduran who has been living in a shelter in Ciudad Juarez on the US border for a year and a half.

"I am very happy because in all this time we have been here waiting we have had many unpleasant experiences," she said.

Jose Madrid, a 40-year-old Honduran, thanked the Biden administration.

"Life is very hard in Central America and we are grateful to the president for making that decision and helping Central America," said Madrid, who has been in Ciudad Juarez for nearly two years.

Moderna wants to pack 50% more Covid vaccine per vial

Some ten percent of Americans have so far received at least one Covid vaccine dose, with Moderna accounting for just under half the number

Washington (AFP) - US biotech firm Moderna said Friday it was seeking clearance with regulators around the world to put 50 percent more coronavirus vaccine into each of its vials as a way to quickly boost current supply levels.

The company issued a statement after The New York Times first reported the US Food and Drug Administration had already cleared it to increase levels by 40 percent.

"In order to better maximize resources as well as maximize opportunities to deliver more doses into each market faster, Moderna has proposed filling vials with up to 15 doses of vaccine versus the previous 10 doses," a spokesperson said in a statement to AFP.

The spokesperson added the company was engaging in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and authorities in other countries, and the increased level of doses wouldn't require different vials to those currently in use.

"Any resulting change would be subject to final approval from the various regulatory authorities. Implementation of any such changes would be expected to be completed in approximately a two- to three-month period," it said.

Citing sources close to the matter, the Times reported that the FDA had agreed to Moderna using 14 doses per vial, compared to the previous 10.

This would require retooling of production lines that would take less than ten weeks, or before the end of April, the newspaper said.

"It would be a great step forward," Moncef Slaoui, who was the chief scientific advisor for the federal vaccine development program under former president Donald Trump, told the Times. 

"I think it will have an impact in the short term."

Some ten percent of Americans have so far received at least one Covid vaccine dose, with Moderna accounting for just under half the number and Pfizer just over half.

The Biden administration announced Thursday it had reached a deal with both these companies to supply a total of 600 million doses of their two-shot courses by June, enough to cover 90 percent of the US population. 

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