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US President Biden says he is confident he can meet Russia’s Putin soon
7 May 2021, 9:06 PM

US President Joe Biden said on Friday he expected to be able to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin soon and the White House said ongoing differences between the United States and Russia would not need to be resolved in advance of a summit.

Biden told reporters at the White House he wanted to meet Putin despite Russia’s build up of military forces near Ukraine.

“It does not impact my desire to have a one-on-one meeting and you’ll notice he had more troops before. He’s withdrawn troops,” he said.

Asked about meeting Putin in June, he said: “I’m confident we’ll be able to do it. We don’t have any specific time or place. That’s being worked on.”

The United States has said it supports Ukraine amid what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week called Moscow’s “reckless” troop build-up.

Biden and his advisers would like to add a summit with Putin in a third country while the US president is in Europe in mid-June for a Group of Seven meeting in Britain and talks with NATO allies in Brussels.

But negotiations with the Russians on staging the summit are continuing, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“We’re working through the question of some logistics – place, location, time, agenda, all the specifics – that was always going to happen at a staff level. It’s really up to them what they want to achieve,” she said.

The United States has a number of grievances with Russia, including its treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. But Psaki said these grievances do not need to be resolved in advance of a Biden-Putin summit.

“Obviously, human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, values are all issues the president, Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken, National Security Adviser (Jake) Sullivan raised with their counterparts. But the invitation to have a discussion and have a meeting was not offered with the prerequisite that every issue is resolved in advance. We expect we will still continue to have disagreements,” she said.

Tears and singing as abducted Nigerian students return to parents
7 May 2021, 7:03 PM

Nearly two months after their abduction by armed gunmen, more than two dozen students in northwest Nigeria’s Kaduna state were reunited with jubilant family members on Friday amid tears and celebratory singing.

Thirty-nine students were taken from a forestry college at gunpoint on March 11. Ten were later released, and parents said this week that two had escaped.

The remaining 27 told reporters they were held in a forest, periodically beaten with sticks and guns, and allowed to contact their families only to beg for ransom. Female students said they tore their clothing to use as sanitary pads.

“The kind of torture, and all the insults, I will never forget in my life,” 33-year-old Fatima Ibrahim told journalists. Ibrahim, who was two months pregnant when they were taken, lost her baby during the captivity.

Other students hugged relatives and cried tears of joy upon the reunion.

The students said they ate just once per day. The kidnappers released them to police on Wednesday, but they were kept for medical checks until Friday afternoon. Upon their release, some were visibly weak and limping.

A leader of the parent group told Reuters a ransom had been paid but declined to say by whom or the amount. The office of Governor Nasir El-Rufai, who has refused to negotiate with armed kidnappers, did not mention any ransom in its statements on the abduction and did not respond to questions about payment.

Some 700 people have been taken from schools in northwest Nigeria since December as observers say kidnapping for ransom is becoming a cottage industry in the restive region. President Muhammadu Buhari has called on authorities and families not to pay. Many desperate families will do whatever it takes to secure the safe release of their relatives.

Kidnappers have killed five students from Greenfield University, also in Kaduna, and have threatened to kill more if ransoms are not paid.

WHO gives emergency approval to Sinopharm, first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine
7 May 2021, 6:24 PM

The World Health Organisation approved a COVID-19 vaccine from China’s state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm for emergency use on Friday, a boost to Beijing’s push for a big role in inoculating the world.

The vaccine, one of two main Chinese coronavirus vaccines that collectively have already been given to hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere, is the first developed by a non-Western country to win WHO backing. It is also the first time the WHO has given emergency use approval to a Chinese vaccine for any infectious disease.

A WHO emergency listing is a signal to national regulators that a product is safe and effective. It also allows it to be included in COVAX, a global programme to provide vaccines mainly for poor countries, which has hit supply problems.

“This expands the list of COVID-19 vaccines that COVAX can buy, and gives countries confidence to expedite their own regulatory approval, and to import and administer a vaccine,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing.

The WHO had already given emergency approval to COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and, last week, Moderna.

The decision to approve Sinopharm’s vaccine was taken by WHO’s technical advisory group, which began meeting on April 26 to review the latest clinical data as well as Sinopharm’s manufacturing practices.

A separate group of WHO experts, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), voiced concern this week over data provided by Sinopharm on the risk of serious side-effects in some patients, but was confident in the vaccine’s ability to prevent disease, according to a document reviewed by Reuters.

Tedros said that, following the approval, SAGE had recommended that adults over 18 receive two doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.

SAGE found an efficacy of 78.1% after two doses in multi-country Phase III clinical trials, according to the document. The vaccine’s developer, Beijing Biological Products Institute, a unit of Sinopharm subsidiary China National Biotec Group, had announced an efficacy of 79.34%.

The WHO has said it could reach a decision on China’s other main COVID-19 vaccine, made by Sinovac Biotech, as soon as next week. The technical experts reviewed it on Wednesday.

China has deployed around 65 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine and more than 200 million doses of the Sinovac shot. Both have been exported to many countries, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Africa, many of which have had difficulty securing supplies of vaccines developed in the West.

Shami, Jadeja return to India’s test squad for England tour
7 May 2021, 3:52 PM

India seam bowler Mohammed Shami and spin all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja returned to the squad on Friday for next month’s World Test Championship (WTC) final against New Zealand in Southampton and the subsequent five-match series against England.

Both players sustained injuries during the tour of Australia and missed the home series against England earlier this year.

All-rounder Hanuma Vihari is also back from injury to join the Virat Kohli-led squad, who will play New Zealand in the final of the inaugural WTC at Southampton from June 18-22.

India will take on Joe Root’s England in a five-test series beginning at Nottingham on August 4.

Left-arm unorthodox spinner Kuldeep Yadav and all-rounder Hardik Pandya were dropped from the squad, which includes batsman KL Rahul and second wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha subject to clearing fitness tests.

Rahul has had surgery for appendicitis, while Saha tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

Rishabh Pant remains India’s preferred wicketkeeper.

India have also named opener Abhimanyu Easwaran and seam bowlers Prasidh Krishna, Avesh Khan and Arzan Nagwaswalla as standby players.

India’s squad: Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (Captain), Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wicketkeeper), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Washington Sundar, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Umesh Yadav, KL Rahul (subject to fitness), Wriddhiman Saha (subject to fitness).

US job growth far below expectations in April amid labour shortages
7 May 2021, 3:06 PM

US employers hired far fewer workers than expected in April, likely frustrated by labour shortages, leaving them scrambling to met booming demand as the economy reopens amid rapidly improving public health and massive financial help from the government.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266 000 jobs last month after rising by 770 000 in March, the Labour Department said in its closely watched employment report on Friday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls advancing by 978 000 jobs.

The jobs report, the first since the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package was approved in March, will probably do little to change expectations that the economy entered the second quarter with strong momentum and was on track for its best performance this year in almost four decades.

Twelve months ago, the economy purged a record 20.679 million jobs as it reeled from mandatory closures of nonessential businesses to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

New claims for unemployment benefits have dropped below 500 000 for the first-time since the pandemic started.

Americans over the age of 16 are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, leading states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to lift most of their coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses.

But the resulting burst in demand, which contributed to the economy’s 6.4% annualized growth pace in the first quarter, the second-fastest since the third quarter of 2003, has triggered shortages of labor and raw materials.

From manufacturing to restaurants, employers are scrambling for workers. A range of factors, including parents still at home caring for children, coronavirus-related retirements and generous unemployment checks, are blamed for the labour shortages.

The moderate pace of hiring could last at least until September when the enhanced unemployment benefits run out.

The labor market remains supported by very accommodative fiscal and monetary policy. President Joe Biden plans to spend another $4 trillion on education and childcare, middle- and low-income families, infrastructure and jobs.

The Federal Reserve has signaled it intends to leave its benchmark interest rate near zero and continue to pump money into the economy through bond purchases for a while.

The unemployment rate rose to 6.1% in April from 6.0% in March. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Millions of Americans remain out of work and many have permanently lost jobs because of the pandemic.

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