The World Today for July 17, 2020

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 3,576,430 (+2.20%)
  2. Brazil: 2,012,151 (+2.31%)
  3. India: 1,003,832 (+3.61%)
  4. Russia: 751,612 (0.00%)**
  5. Peru: 341,586 (+1.14%)
  6. South Africa: 324,221 (+4.23%)
  7. Mexico: 324,041 (+2.02%)
  8. Chile: 323,698 (+0.78%)
  9. UK: 294,116 (+0.22%)
  10. Iran: 267,061 (+0.94%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country



A Victory of Ashes

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on power appears to be breaking. The question is more a matter of when he goes, say analysts, and whether his downfall also cracks the country into little pieces.

A brutal tyrant, Assad has defeated but not extinguished the rebels who have fought against him for nine years in the Syrian Civil War. These days, Syrian and Russian warplanes bombard schools, hospitals and markets in rebel-held territory in Idlib province in the country’s northwest, trying to finish the resistance off, Reuters reported. The United Nations considers the attacks as war crimes.

But even as he quells one cohort of enemies, others arise, wrote Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, in Politico. The Druze, a minority sect, have risen against him. Protesters are proliferating. The corruption and economic stagnation that ignited the civil war in 2011 have worsened, not improved, in the wake of the Syrian army and Russians attempting to crush the rebellion.

As the BBC explained, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and new American sanctions that punish any foreigner doing business in Syria have further worsened the economy. The new sanctions even targeted Asma al-Assad, the president’s British-Syrian wife, labeling her and her husband as war profiteers.

In Foreign Policy magazine, Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies Fellow Jonathan Spyer argued that the US sanctions were the culmination of an American policy to reduce Assad’s victory in the civil war to ashes. Russia’s support for Assad is the only force holding up the regime in Damascus, Spyer added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to withdraw troops that give him leverage in negotiations with Turkey and Iran, which have also occupied parts of Syria or installed militias in the country, Al Jazeera reported. Israel has also launched attacks in Syria to deter Iranian-backed terrorists from Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

But Putin and the mullahs of Iran are growing frustrated with Assad, too, as Syria becomes an economic basketball. They don’t want to be saddled with problems he can’t solve. Turkey has come under fire for seizing territory in northern Syria, too, reported Euractiv.

Assad evidently feels pressured. He fired his prime minister a month before parliamentary elections on July 19, the Associated Press reported. The move appeared designed to make it seem as if Assad was doing something to fix the problems of ordinary Syrians.

That’s because the elections are Assad’s best way to reward and install his supporters in government, wrote Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi Arabia-based newspaper.

It will be interesting to see whether some of those supporters decide it’s time for him to go.



Attacking a Cure

The United States, Canada and Britain warned Thursday that Russian hackers are targeting organizations involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine, CNN reported.

The British National Cyber Security Centre said the APT29 hacker group – also known as “the Dukes” or “Cozy Bear” – is behind the attacks. APT29, linked to Russian intelligence, is also believed to be involved in the Democratic National Committee’s internal systems hack in the runup to the 2016 US elections.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it is “completely unacceptable” that Russian intelligence services target organizations working to develop a vaccine.

Russia, meanwhile, denied any involvement in the matter.

US, Britain and Canada have previously issued warnings over state-sponsored cyberattacks against organizations involved in the coronavirus response.

In April, CNN reported that US government agencies and health institutions were hit by a wave of cyberattacks from nation-states and criminal groups.


Stop Sign

The European Union’s Court of Justice ruled Thursday that an agreement that allows companies to transfer data to the United States is invalid, a verdict that could upend operations for thousands of companies involved in transatlantic business transactions, the Associated Press reported.

Judges said the Privacy Shield agreement between the US and the EU on data transfers is invalid due to concerns that the US can demand access to consumer data for national security reasons.

The ruling could require regulators to investigate all new data transfers to make sure they comply with the EU’s stringent data privacy laws.

The decision is likely to especially affect tech companies like Facebook, which could prompt EU regulators to block transfers of European data to the US company’s headquarters in California. Companies like Facebook keep the data of its users in the US, something privacy regulators in Europe have long railed against.

Washington expressed disappointment at the ruling and argued that it could negatively affect the $7.1 trillion transatlantic economic relationship.

Analysts say the decision creates a lot of legal uncertainty for companies on both sides of the Atlantic.


The Fall

Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned earlier this week over accusations of conflicts of interests amid a deepening political crisis in the North African nation, the National reported.

The former prime minister is accused of involvement in businesses that secured government contracts worth $15 million. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Analyst Sharan Grewal said he needed to step down because it was unlikely that Fakhfakh would have survived as prime minister since President Kais Saied’s government has been “championing anti-corruption agendas.”

In February, Saied assigned Fakhfakh to form a broad coalition government after rival party, Ennahda, failed to form a government – despite securing a plurality in last year’s legislative elections.

The president now has one week to appoint a new prime minister, who will then have a month to form a cabinet commanding a majority across the fractious parliament.

If that fails, new elections will be held within 90 days.


Risky Inheritance

Early modern humans interbred with other extinct human species such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans thousands of years ago, and it’s not uncommon to find Neanderthal genes in modern Homo sapiens these days.

Even so, a new study found that this ancient DNA increases the chances of developing severe coronavirus symptoms, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Researcher Hugo Zeberg and his team studied the genetic profiles of nearly 3,200 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Their preliminary results showed that individuals having this peculiar DNA variant were 70 percent more likely to develop a severe form of the disease.

“Researchers had already observed that this specific DNA variant is associated with developing a more acute form of the disease but nobody had realized that this sequence is close to the one in the Neanderthal genome,” Zeberg said.

He explained that almost six percent of Europe’s population and half of all South Asians carry the Neanderthal gene variant.

The authors emphasized that the results are a simple observation and that further study is needed to determine how and why this variant is connected to the virus.

Researcher Hila May, who was not involved in the study, said the findings could help researchers understand the risk factors of the disease, and also learn more about why the Neanderthals died out.

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