German authorities have seized 10.2 metric tonnes (11.2 tons) of water pipe tobacco they say was being smuggled into Berlin from the Mideast to avoid import taxes, officials said Thursday.
The overnight operation carried out by police and customs officials Tuesday came as the culmination of an investigation that began during the summer of a German-Iraqi network that distributed illegal tobacco to hookah bars Europe-wide, German officials said.
Authorities allege that three suspects between the ages of 27 and 35 operated three legal shops and also the illegal smuggling operation. Some 200,000 euros ($237,000) in import duties should have been paid on the tobacco seized, authorities said.
The 35-year-old accused of being the ringleader is an alleged member of a known Berlin crime family. Neither the names of the suspects nor the family were released.
Authorities did not say where in the Middle East the tobacco came from.
After nearly two years and a pair of deadly crashes, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has cleared Boeing’s 737 Max for flight.
The nation’s air safety agency announced the move early Wednesday, saying it was done after a “comprehensive and methodical” 20-month review process, reports AP.
Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. That happened less than five months after another Max flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea. A total of 346 passengers and crew members on both planes were killed.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson signed an order Wednesday rescinding the grounding. U.S. airlines will be able to fly the Max once Boeing updates critical software and computers on each plane and pilots receive training in flight simulators.
The FAA says the order was made in cooperation with air safety regulators worldwide.
The move follows exhaustive congressional hearings on the crashes that led to criticism of the FAA for lax oversight and Boeing for rushing to implement a new software system that put profits over safety and ultimately led to the firing of its CEO.
Investigators focused on anti-stall software that Boeing had devised to counter the plane’s tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines. That software pushed the nose down repeatedly on both planes that crashed, overcoming the pilots’ struggles to regain control. In each case, a single faulty sensor triggered the nose-down pitch.
The new software now requires inputs from two sensors in order to activate the software. Boeing says the software also does not override the pilot’s controls like it did in the past.
The company changed the software so it doesn’t repeatedly point the nose of the plane down to counteract possible aerodynamic stalling. Boeing also must install new display systems for pilots and change the way wires are routed to a tail stabilizer bar.
On CNBC Wednesday, Dickson said the design and pilot training changes required by the FAA “makes it impossible for the airplanes to have the same kind of accident that unfortunately killed 346 people.”
Boeing shares rose 3.5% to $217.38 in early trading Wednesday. That’s about half of the all-time high of $440.62 reached on March 1, 2019, just days before the Ethiopian crash, but well above the $95 trough in March, when the pandemic caused massive disruptions to travel and the global economy.
“These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun said in a statement.
The aircraft maker's redemption comes in the middle of a pandemic that has scared away passengers and decimated the aviation industry, limiting the company's ability to make a comeback. Air travel in the U.S. alone is down about 65% from a year ago.
Boeing sales of new planes have plunged because of the Max crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Orders for more than 1,000 Max jets have been canceled or removed from Boeing’s backlog this year. Each plane has a sticker price of $99 million to $135 million, although airlines routinely pay less.
John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said people typically avoid airplanes for a few months after there are problems. But the Max case is unusual, and were it not for the novel coronavirus, Hansman said he would feel safe flying on a Max.
“This whole thing has had more scrutiny than any airplane in the world,” he said. “It’s probably the safest airplane to be on.”
American is the only U.S. airline to put the Max back in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning Dec. 29. United expects to start using the plane early next year, while Southwest said its Max jets won't fly before the second quarter of 2021.
Some consumer groups urged airlines to fully disclose when Max flights are planned. That's usually on an airline's website, although passengers have to know where to click. Advocates are concerned about airlines using the Max in a last-minute switch.
Nearly 400 Max jets were in service worldwide when they were grounded, and Boeing has built and stored about 450 more since then. All have to undergo maintenance before they can fly.
Pilots must also undergo simulator training, which was not required when the aircraft was introduced. Hansman said training for qualified 737 pilots shouldn’t take long because Boeing has fixed software problems.
Relatives of people who died in the crashes aren't convinced the Max is safe. They accused Boeing of hiding critical design features from the FAA.
“The flying public should avoid the Max,” said Michael Stumo, whose 24-year-old daughter died in the second crash. “Change your flight. This is still a more dangerous aircraft than other modern planes.”
Boeing's reputation has taken a beating since the crashes. Its then-CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, initially suggested that the foreign pilots were to blame. However, congressional investigators discovered an FAA analysis — conducted after the first Max crash — that predicted there would be 15 more crashes during the plane’s life span if the flight-control software were not fixed.
After an 18-month investigation, the House Transportation Committee heaped blame on Boeing, which was under pressure to develop the Max to compete with a plane from European rival Airbus, and the FAA, which certified the Max and was the last agency in the world to ground it after the crashes. The investigators said Boeing suffered from a “culture of concealment,” and pressured engineers to rush the plane to the market.
Boeing was repeatedly wrong about how quickly it could fix the plane. When those predictions continued to be wrong, and Boeing was perceived as putting undue pressure on the FAA, Muilenburg was fired in December 2019.
Dickson — a former Air Force and Delta Air Lines pilot — flew the plane personally before it was cleared.
Europe’s aviation regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said it will take public comment on plans to clear the Max for flight and expects to finalize a plan by early next year. Some EU states will have to lift their own grounding notices as well. Regulators in Canada and China are still doing their own reviews.
Relatives say it's too soon, and they and their lawyers say Boeing and the FAA are withholding documents. Anton Sahadi, who lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, and lost two brothers in the Lion Air crash, said it's too early for the Max to fly again.
“The cases from the incidents are not 100% finished yet," he said. "I think all the victims’ family in Indonesia and Ethiopia will feel the same, so regretful, why it can fly again because we are still in the recovery process for our problems because of the incidents.”
Naoise Ryan, an Irish citizen whose husband died in the Ethiopian crash, said the Max is “the same airplane that crashed not once but twice because safety was not a priority for this company.”
European governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged Thursday to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds for a global effort aimed at ensuring eventual vaccines against the coronavirus are quickly available to poor countries — though it remains unclear how that might actually happen.
The money will go to vaccine development and distribution efforts coordinated by a World Health Organization program called ACT-Accelerator. That includes Covax, an ambitious but troubled global project to buy and deliver virus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.
None of the experimental COVID-19 vaccines being tested has finished the advanced testing needed to prove their safety and efficacy, but several might have data to present in the coming weeks.
“If people in low- and middle-income countries miss out on vaccines,...the virus will continue to spread, and the economic recovery will continue to be delayed,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday at the Paris Peace Forum, where the pledges were announced.
France and the European Union’s executive commission each promised 100 million euros (about $118 million) for the WHO vaccine efforts. Spain promised 50 million euros (about $59 million), and the Gates Foundation promised $70 million (about 59.3 million euros).
Germany and other European governments have already pledged similar funds. The new financing is in addition to the funds that countries previously contributed to Covax.
Criticizing rich countries that he said are ordering many more vaccines than they have people, Tedros said, “This is a moment for saying ‘no’ to vaccine nationalism and ‘yes’ to all our shared humanity.”
Britain, for example, has ordered 350 million vaccine doses for its population of about 67 million, although some vaccines require two doses. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised that U.K. residents will be “at the front of the pack” for vaccine delivery.
The vast majority of the world’s expected COVID-19 vaccine supplies through 2021 have already been reserved by rich countries. It’s therefore very unlikely that the developing world will get any significant amounts next year unless vaccine manufacturers can significantly ramp up capacity or intellectual property issues are addressed.
WHO has avoided pushing drug companies to surrender their intellectual property rights on vaccines, arguing that such rights are not the main barrier to increasing the global supply. But many critics say WHO and its partners have been too unwilling to challenge the pharmaceutical industry.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU is also funding efforts to ramp up manufacturing capacity to meet the huge global demand for a coronavirus vaccine.
The governments chipping in funds Thursday have already signed multiple bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure their own supplies.
Europe and the United States have seen a dramatic resurgence in reported virus infections in recent weeks. Many European countries are back under various levels of lockdowns and with their hospitals under heavy strain.
“We do care, of course for European citizens, but also for the rest of the world,” von der Leyen said at Thursday’s meeting. “The logic is that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
WHO chief Tedros said that the U.N. health agency is seeking $28.5 billion overall for COVID-fighting efforts, including $4.5 billion in emergency funds for the rest of this year.
The money committed Thursday does not go to any specific vaccine. Pfizer appears to have the most advanced candidate at the moment, based on preliminary data it released this week, but it does not have a deal so far with Covax.
Meanwhile, the United States, China and Russia have said they do not intend to join Covax, which is facing potential shortages of money, cargo planes and refrigeration.
Also read: Global Covid-19 deaths near 1.3 million
Some 32,961 new cases were registered on a daily basis, which brought the country's total to 1,028,424 -- comprising active infections, recoveries, and fatalities -- since the pandemic officially broke out here in late February, reports Xinhua.
Of all the new daily cases, some 23,248 were new active infections, and the total figure of actively infected people in the country thus rose to 613,358.
The vast majority, or 580,833, are currently isolated at home because they are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms. Another 29,444 patients are hospitalized, and 3,081 are in intensive care -- 10 more than Tuesday.
The Health Ministry's data also showed that recoveries grew by 9,090 on a daily basis to total 372,113, while 623 fresh fatalities pushed the country's death toll to 42,953.
In order to slow down the second wave of the pandemic, Italy's government sealed off five more regions that showed a middle risk of contagion, with people's movements strictly limited and some non-essential business closed starting on Wednesday.
Adding to these were the "red-zone" regions and provinces (five in total, including northern.
Read Also: Global Covid-19 cases surpass 52 million
In Italy lines of ambulances park outside hospitals awaiting beds, and in France the government coronavirus tracking app prominently displays the intensive care capacity taken up by COVID-19 patients: 92.5% and rising. In the ICU in Barcelona, there is no end in sight for the doctors and nurses who endured this once already.
Intensive care is the last line of defense for severely ill coronavirus patients and Europe is running out — of beds and the doctors and nurses to staff them, reports AP.
In country after country, the intensive care burden of COVID-19 patients is nearing and sometimes surpassing levels seen at last spring's peak. Health officials, many advocating a return to stricter lockdowns, warn that adding beds will do no good because there aren't enough doctors and nurses trained to staff them.
In France, more than 7,000 health care workers have undergone training since last spring in intensive care techniques. Nursing students, interns, paramedics, all have been drafted, according to Health Minister Olivier Veran.
“If the mobilization is well and truly there, it is not infinite,” he said last week, when the ICU units were filled to 85% capacity. “It is not enough.”
Within days, it had jumped another 7 percentage points and he warned it would continue to tick upward. And, unlike in the first wave last spring, the virus is now everywhere in France, making transfers from one region to another by high-speed train less practical. One hospital in the southern city of Marseille recently wheeled in refrigerated rental trucks ahead of a feared rise in ICU deaths there.
In Italy, Filippo Anelli, the head of the national doctors' association, said at the current infection rate, there soon won't be enough physicians to go around. Recently in Naples, nurses started checking on people as they sat in cars outside emergency rooms, waiting for space to free up. Italy has a total of 11,000 ICU beds, but only enough anesthesiologists for 5,000 patients, Anelli said. As of Monday, 2,849 ICU beds were filled nationwide — up 100 from just the day before.
For the average coronavirus patient with serious symptoms, it takes seven to 10 days to go from infection to hospitalization. Those admitted often need to stay for weeks, even as more patients arrive. The math is inexorable as long as infection rates rise.
Patients from France, Belgium and the Netherlands are being evacuated to German intensive care units, but German doctors say they are watching the number of free beds dwindle quickly.
Dr. Uwe Janssens, who heads Germany’s Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, said some urban areas are reaching precarious levels.
“When a city of millions only has 80, 90 beds left then that can be a critical mass, because you don’t just have COVID-19, there are also traffic accidents, heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms and so forth,” he said.
In the past two weeks alone the number of coronavirus patients treated in ICUs in Germany has almost tripled, from 943 to 2,546. Still Janssens acknowledged that the situation in Germany is better than that of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain.
Germany has about 34.5 ICU beds per 100,000 inhabitants, not including the emergency reserve. Italy has 10, while France has 16, he said.
“But a bed, a ventilator and a monitor doesn’t mean the patient can be cared for. When it comes to nurses and specialist staff, Germany is far behind,” he said. “We have a lot of beds but we don’t have enough staff for them.”
Spain has the same limitations, but endured coronavirus deaths already on a scale Germany has yet to see.
“On the one hand, the health workers are tired; on the other hand, the number of people that are working on the front line is limited," said Dr. Robert Guerri, head of the infectious diseases department and coordinator of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona.
His coronavirus unit filled up in October, then the critical care unit filled up. Even with the rate of infection easing slightly, he doesn't know when any of those beds will be free.
In neighboring Portugal, Fernando Maltez has 40 years of experience preparing contingency plans for health threats as one of the country's leading infectious disease experts. This one is different.
In the seven months from early March through the end of September, Portugal officially counted more than 75,500 cases of COVID-19. In the month of October alone, it counted almost 66,000.
In all, 433 coronavirus patients were in Portuguese ICUs when the country imposed a curfew on Monday. During the worst week last spring, the ICUs had 271 coronavirus patients. The number hospitalized has risen sevenfold since Sept. 1 and is still climbing.
“There’s no end in sight,” Maltez said at the infectious disease ward he oversees at Lisbon’s Curry Cabral Hospital, where 20 ICU beds set aside for coronavirus patients are now all occupied. “No health service in the world ... can withstand a deluge of cases that just keeps coming.”