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Russia’s vaccine rollout: 4 takeaways from the controversial development


(MOSCOW) -- In the global race for a coronavirus vaccine, Russia declared it just claimed the gold medal. But some Western scientists worry it's far too early to know if they’re seeing only fool’s gold.

President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Russia had registered the world’s first vaccine, with plans in place for mass injections by October, despite reportedly scant testing.

The announcement was swiftly and roundly dismissed in the West, where experts decried the rollout as reckless and accused Moscow of prioritizing political expediency over responsible science.

In his effort to return Russia to the glory days of Soviet science, experts warned that Putin’s hasty announcement could, should the gamble fail, carry devastating implications not only within Russian borders but for wider global health.

Here are four key takeaways:

Limited testing, skirting international safety standards

Fewer than 100 people have reportedly been injected with Russia’s vaccine candidate – mostly soldiers and, according to Putin, one of his daughters – a figure far below internationally recognized standards for determining whether a vaccine is safe and effective.

As such, critics immediately took issue with Putin’s assurance Tuesday that their Moscow’s vaccine has “passed all necessary testing.”

“I think in the United States we would demand a much bigger trial to be confident that the vaccine was safe in the sense that it didn’t have an uncommon side effect and at least effective to some extent in the short term,” Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.”

Multiple vaccine candidates being developed in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, for example, are already in a Phase 3 trial with plans to test at least 30,000 volunteers – and include the use of placebos to help determine if the vaccines truly perform well. Several of these vaccines have already been tested in dozens, or even hundreds, of volunteers in prior Phase 1 and 2 studies.

Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist with Harvard and the Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said Americans should feel relief that a vaccine with as little vetting as Russia’s would never pass muster in the U.S.

“We rely on a rigorous framework for testing the safety of vaccines in this country,” Brownstein said. “Rushing the process as was done in Russia would not fly given our essential approval process. We need large Phase 3 efficacy trials to examine true efficacy and uncover rare but potentially harmful side effects.”

Cold War throwback to Soviet ‘glory days’

If anyone doubted that Russia’s vaccine push involved some geopolitical motives, look no further than its name. Dubbed “Sputnik V,” the vaccine’s namesake is an explicit reference to the Soviet Union’s Space Race triumph -- Sputnik being the name of the first satellite launched into orbit in 1957, more than a decade before the U.S. put a man on the moon.

Moscow’s rapid rollout and invocation of the famous satellite make clear that national pride is at the core of its controversial breakthrough – “a throwback to the glory days of the Soviet Union,” according to Dr. Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. While the vaccine may be about health, the high-profile and speedy rollout has other aims.

“Today, for Russia, this vaccine candidate has become the new Space Race, so to speak,” Nouri said.

Nouri said Putin’s vaccine announcement “puts politics ahead of science and medicine” as part of an effort to return Russia to its status as a world superpower.

“It’s clear that whichever country produces the first workable vaccine is going to help them with respect to soft power on the global stage,” Nouri said.

He pointed to efforts by the United States to develop and distribute the smallpox vaccine in the 1950s and, more recently, the Ebola outbreak, as examples of how leadership in curing disease can prove beneficial in global standing, in addition to the tangible benefits of curing the disease.

“Contributing aid in crises around the world helps our image and helps our soft power, and it’s good for America,” Nouri said. “The intent of Russia in this case is the same.”

Will Russia’s move ‘goad’ U.S. into speeding up vaccine rollout?

At least one expert, former U.S. Food and Drug Administrator Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is questioning Russia’s broader motives.

“Russia was reported to be behind disinformation campaigns to sow doubts in U.S. about our COVID vaccines; and today’s news that they ‘approved’ a vaccine on the equivalent of Phase 1 data may be another effort to stoke doubts or goad U.S. into forcing early action on our vaccines,” Gottlieb tweeted Tuesday morning.

Experts have long been wary of President Donald Trump’s inclination toward politicizing science, and several said they are watching closely for his reaction to the Russian announcement.

Some said they fear the rigor in the American search for a vaccine could be marred by political pressure from the top, although U.S. scientists working on the various vaccines say they feel confident in the process.

Responding to Putin’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Service Alex Azar dismissed any competitive sentiment and reiterated the federal government’s commitment not to roll out an untested product.

“The point is not to be first with the vaccine,” Azar said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “The point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world.”

Brownstein did not suspect that Putin’s announcement will alter the vaccine process in the U.S. But he said he anticipates that American officials will be closely observing what happens in Russia.

“We can always learn something from how other countries are deploying the vaccine and identify any pitfalls,” Brownstein said.

A potential blow to vaccine confidence

Perhaps the most pervasive concern among American researchers about Putin’s vaccine rollout is what will happen if the Russian product fails. Aside from the potential for scores of Russians to become ill, a faulty product could rattle the American public’s confidence in vaccine safety, which is already in a troublingly fragile state, several experts said.

“If Russia puts out a vaccine that generates some level of adverse events or complications, that risks undermining public confidence in vaccines here in the United States,” Brownstein said. “That would be a massive disaster.”

Recent polling indicates that a troubling amount of Americans are already skeptical of vaccines. In June, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released found that 27% of adults are unlikely to get a prospective coronavirus vaccine if one is developed. Last year, the World Health Organization cited “vaccine hesitancy” as one of its top 10 threats to global health.

Some experts fear even a minor snag in Russia could be detrimental for efforts to tame the virus.

“Stories of an unsafe or ineffective vaccine in one place in the world can impact individuals in another place in the world,” Nouri said. “So if things don’t go well, this is not something that necessarily is going to be confined to Russia.”

“We can’t cut corners here,” Brownstein concluded. “It’s not right for public health, but it will also undermine our ability to control this pandemic.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Putin anoints coronavirus vaccine. International scientists aren't so sure.

simon2579/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- President Vladimir Putin said Russia has become the first nation to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, effectively triumphing in what some around the globe have compared to the Space Race.

But while Putin said the vaccine, named Sputnik V after the world's first satellite, has "passed all necessary tests," many experts have said the drug hasn't yet been subjected to rigorous tests to prove it's effective -- or, more crucially, safe -- for large-scale use. Although potentially promising, the vaccine appears to be at the same stage, or even behind, others under development.

Russia's health ministry approved the vaccine just two months after trials began, and the ministry said it plans to start administering dosages to front-line workers such as medical staff and teachers by the end of this month. Mass voluntary vaccinations, according to the ministry, could begin by October.

Putin told officials at a televised meeting that he believed the vaccine "forms strong immunity" and was confident in it because it had been administered to his adult daughter.

"I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and, I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks," Putin added.

But the drug is far from passing tests that would allow it to be recognized internationally.

While the most advanced vaccine efforts now are moving to test tens of thousands of volunteers in final-phase clinical trials, aka Phase III trials, the vaccine approved by Russia has so far been tested on fewer than 100 people.

Russian authorities said they plan to begin a final Phase III trial with "thousands" of volunteers, but some scientists have expressed fear Russia is putting national prestige ahead of safety.

The Moscow-based Association of Clinical Trials Organizations, a trade body representing the world's top drugmakers in Russia, this week appealed to the health ministry to postpone approval until the final trial had been successfully completed.

"It hasn't even completed tests with the participation of even a hundred people, not to mention the several thousands of participants accepted in Phase III," the letter said, requesting the ministry postpone approval until the drug passed "all stages of clinical development."

"It is during this phase," the letter continued, "that the main evidence of a vaccine's efficacy is collected, as well as information on adverse reactions that could appear in certain groups of patients: people with weakened immunity, people with concomitant diseases and so forth."

Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund, which is overseeing the vaccine development, told ABC News on Monday he believed the drug's approval was a "great step for humanity forward."

By the end of the year, he added, Russia could produce 200 million doses -- 500 million within 12 months -- and he's already received requests from abroad to produce it.

The vaccine, developed by Moscow's state Gamaleya Research Institute, is based on a similar principle to a promising vaccine from Oxford University and AstroZeneca that's in Phase III. Scientists have genetically modified another type of virus, called an adenovirus, to give it the tell-tale spike proteins of the coronavirus. In theory, it will produce an immune response from the body that also can target the real virus.

The new Russian vaccine is based on two previous vaccines developed by the institute for Ebola as well as that for another coronavirus that causes Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.

Between June and July, the vaccine passed early Phase I/II clinical trials, designed to prove efficacy and detect serious side effects, involving about 70 volunteers. After that, a Phase III trial with tens of thousands of volunteers normally would be required for approval.

U.S. scientists and experts in Russia had already questioned the size of Russia's planned Phase III trial, which is said to include only 1,600 to 2,000 individuals. By comparison, those developing the Oxford vaccine are seeking to test on 50,000 volunteers, while Pfizer is recruiting 30,000.

"I think in the United States, we would demand a much bigger trial to be confident that the vaccine was safe," Dr. Paul Offit, a co-inventor of a vaccine against the rotavirus and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Russia has yet to publish data from earlier trials and there have been no peer reviews. Dmitriev said data would be published in August.

All leading vaccine projects are being conducted at unprecedented speeds, condensing testing processes that normally take years into just months. In the United States, Operation Warp Speed gave federal permission to drugmakers to begin mass producing potential vaccines as trials were ongoing. The hope is to have a ready supply on hand when one or more are approved.

Given the speed with which Russia rushed through its vaccine, it's unlikely regulators in Western nations will accept the drug without additional research backing it.

Dmitriev said the first groups given the vaccine will be carefully monitored for side effects and that he and his family had already received vaccinations. He said he had a slight temperature for a few days, while others who've taken it reported brief and mild flu-like sympotoms. After a second booster shot, Dmitriev said he developed double the antibodies seen in the typical novel coronavirus patient and that he retained them two months later.

Dmitriev defended the decision to approve Sputnik V before completing trials by saying that the ministry has more confidence in its safety because it's based on the previously approved Ebola vaccine.

But that Ebola vaccine has been approved only for emergency use in Russia and not endorsed by the World Health Organization, and many scientists are skeptical of the relevance of a previous vaccine's trial results on a current one.

Dmitriev asked other nations to keep an open mind and "basically think about the actual technology and not about the political biases around that technology. We are not forcing this vaccine on the U.S. or any other country."

ACTO, the pharmaceutical trade body, said that however understandable a rush is to create a vaccine, it's unfair for ordinary Russians to assume so much of the risk.

"Accelerated registration doesn't make Russia a leader in this race," the group wrote in its letter, "it just subjects to unneeded risk the final consumers of the vaccine -- the citizens of Russian Federation."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Intense clashes in Belarus on second day of protests following contested presidential election


(NEW YORK) -- There were intense clashes in Belarus' capital Minsk on Monday night as security forces sought to violently disperse thousands of protesters who gathered for the second day in a row to demand that the country's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, step down following a contested election.

Large crowds of protesters filled several parts of central Minsk, as police and heavily armed interior ministry troops indiscriminately attacked them, throwing stun grenades and reportedly firing rubber bullets. Authorities said at least one protester was killed.

The protests appeared to be swelling and demonstrators became increasingly emboldened, with police struggling to disperse them. On some streets, video appeared to show demonstrators using garbage dumpsters to build barricades and firing fireworks at the police officers.

Clashes were also reported in a number of other cities across Belarus, where protests broke out. Opposition social messenger channels urged people to gather on the streets and stand their ground against the police.

A nationwide strike has also been called for Tuesday.

The protests began Sunday night after official results from a presidential election gave Lukashenko 80% of the votes and his main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, just 10%, amid suspicions of widespread vote rigging.

Tikhanovskaya, 37, a former teacher and stay-at-home mother, has become the head of the swelling protest movement and in the weeks before the election attracted the largest political demonstrations in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko, 65, often known as "Europe's last dictator," has been in power for 26 years. The current protests are seen by many as an unprecedented challenge to his rule.

Tikhanovskaya accused Lukashenko of massive falsification in the election and demanded he hand over power peacefully to her so that new elections can be held.

Several thousand opposition supporters gathered peacefully in Minsk on Sunday night after the election, but were immediately violently attacked by riot police who used water cannons and stun grenades and detained and beat people seemingly at random. Several demonstrators were injured, at least one severely.

Lukashenko has dismissed Tikhanovskaya's demand that he step down and on Monday even justified the crackdown, deriding the protesters as "sheep" controlled by European countries.

"I warned there won't be a Maidan, no matter who wanted it," Lukashenko said earlier on Monday, according to Belarus' state news agency, referring to Ukraine's popular revolution in 2014 that toppled an autocratic president. "And so it has to be quietened down, to be calmed down. The response will be adequate. We will not allow them to blow up the country."

Protesters returned Monday evening, after organizers advised them to buy helmets and goggles in anticipation of more police violence. Initially, small crowds in different groups moved towards the city center, where they were quickly attacked by police. But as the night wore on, the crowds grew in size, with thousands of people blocking roads and police officers seeming to struggle to contain them. Videos show that hundreds of cars stopped and honked in support. Meanwhile, explosions from stun grenades and fireworks were heard consistently throughout the night.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said that one demonstrator was killed after an "improvised explosive device" went off in his hand while riot police were dismantling a barricade. It was not possible to verify the police's version of events.

The internet in Belarus has been partly shut down for two days, with many messenger apps not working properly. Belarus' government also refused to give journalists from most foreign news organizations permission to enter the country.

European countries on Monday expressed concern about the election and the crackdown on demonstrators. The president of the European Union, Charles Michel, tweeted for the government to respect "basic human rights" and the right to assemble.

United States officials also criticized the election, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issuing a statement on Monday before the protests, saying the vote had not been "free and fair," and condemning "intimidation tactics" by the authorities.

Lukashenko recently sought to improve relations with Western countries as a counterweight to a more overbearing Russia, with which Belarus is already significantly integrated. The U.S. last year restored diplomatic relations with Belarus after a decade-long pause, caused by another crackdown by Lukashenko after an election in 2010.

Pompeo did not announce any U.S. action -- amid calls from some in the European Union for sanctions on Belarus -- nor did he offer suggestions for a path forward, such as calling for Lukashenko to hold new elections.

China, and Belarus' key ally, Russia, quickly recognized Lukashenko's re-election. Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's leader, Xi Jinping, congratulated the Belarus president.

Tikhanovskaya said Sunday she would not join Monday's protests to "avoid provocations." Her team said authorities would surely use her presence at the protests as a pretext to jail her for allegedly inciting riots.

She has called for authorities to engage in negotiations with her for Lukashenko to leave power, and has promised to pursue legal options to challenge the election results. Her team has claimed that counts in polling stations in Minsk show that, in reality, she received five to six times more votes than Lukashenko. They also said the record number of early votes -- 40% of votes -- suggest widespread falsification.

At a press conference Monday morning, Tikhanovskaya called on anyone who believed their vote had been stolen "not to keep silent."

"The government [isn't] listening to us, it has completely broken with the people, but I should repeat that we are for peaceful transitions and the government ought to think about now how to hand over power through peaceful means, because at the moment they only have one way: violence against their own people," Tikhanovskaya said, according to the local Belarus' news outlet Tut.by.

Besides her appearance at the press conference and her brief appearance to file a complaint at her polling station on Monday, she has not been seen in public. For much of Sunday she was in hiding, worried that authorities would arrest her.

Tikhanovskaya has become an unexpected leader of the opposition. She reluctantly became a candidate after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed and prevented from running against Lukashenko. But she has become a rallying figure for the opposition in her own right, joining with two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolsenikova, to channel a wave of dissatisfaction with Lukashenko.

Discontent with Lukashenko has been fueled by a poor economy and weariness with his long rule and allegations of corruption. But it has also been boosted by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which Lukashenko has dismissed as a "hysteria." For months, the controversial leader has refused to impose significant quarantine measures despite rising cases and pleas from the World Health Organization.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Major Indian food delivery company announces 'period leave'


(DELHI) -- In a move garnering international headlines, a major Indian food delivery startup announced over the weekend that it is offering "period leave" for workers when they are menstruating.

Zomato, a Delhi-based food delivery service with more than 5,000 employees, announced the new policy via a letter to employees on Saturday from CEO and founder Deepinder Goyal.

"At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance. Starting today, all women (including transgender people) at Zomato can avail up to 10 days of period leaves in a year," Goyal wrote in the letter that was shared publicly on the company's blog.

"There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave. You should feel free to tell people on internal groups, or emails that you are on your period leave for the day," he added, and said if anyone faces any harassment or comments from coworkers about taking period leave they can report it to a hotline email.

Goyal said the women can take off up to one period leave day for each menstrual cycle, giving women "10 extra leaves compared to men."

Goyal asked that female employees not abuse these days off and only use them for their intended purpose.

Meanwhile, Goyal told men that the topic "shouldn't be uncomfortable for us."

"This is a part of life, and while we don’t fully understand what women go through, we need to trust them when they say they need to rest this out," he wrote. "I know that menstrual cramps are very painful for a lot of women -- and we have to support them through it if we want to build a truly collaborative culture at Zomato."

Zomato confirmed to ABC News on Monday that the period leave is paid.

Pain during menstruation is very common and severe enough to interfere with daily activities in up to 20% of women, according to a 2012 study from the American Family Physician.

Menstruation remains a largely taboo topic in India. Some 71% adolescent girls in India remain unaware of menstruation until their first period, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.

It wasn't until 2018 that a ban was lifted to allow women of menstruating age to enter the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala. And when the first women did after the ban was lifted, violent protests erupted, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Menstrual leave policies currently exist in China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia, according to The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, a 2020 open access handbook on menstruation from researchers in the field of gender studies.

In a small survey published in the Health Care for Women International medical journal in 2019, some of the same researchers who compiled the handbook found that 23% of the 600 American participants believed there would only be positive effects for women in the workplace with the institution of menstrual leave. Some 49.3% of participants in the survey, however, thought a policy would have only negative effects -- ranging from perpetuating sexist attitudes, increasing discrimination and division between genders at work and negatively impacting the gender wage gap.

The researchers noted that the language used in menstrual leave policies, in order for them to be effective, must normalize discussion of menstruation and not perpetuate "patriarchal misconceptions about menstruation."

Finally, they say that in order for period leave policies to be fully beneficial, attitudes and stigma surrounding menstruation must change.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Lebanon government resigns in wake of Beirut blast and mass protests

3dmitry/iStockBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- The Lebanese government has resigned in the aftermath of the massive explosion in Beirut and mass anti-government protests, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced on Monday.

"I declare today the resignation of this government," Diab said in a press conference. "May God protect Lebanon."

He said his cabinet had the interest of the Lebanese people at heart, but that they faced "huge corruption."

Diab will head to the presidential palace to hand in his resignation. President Michel Aoun will remain in his post.

Protesters over the weekend widely criticized the government, calling for regime change and accusing the government of negligent handling of the over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate left in a warehouse for six years at the capital's port. The explosion has killed at least 160 people and injured thousands of others. Further protests continued on the streets as Diab addressed the nation.

The massive blast leveled much of Beirut's port, one of the country's key economic hubs, and caused widespread devastation across the city.

The exact cause of the explosion is still unknown, but is believed to have been caused by a fire at the warehouse storing the ammonium nitrate, which can be explosive when exposed to high levels of energy. At least 300,000 have been left homeless by the blast, 80,000 of whom are children, according to UNICEF.

The mass resignation follows a weekend of violent protests in the Lebanese capital. Riot police and the parliamentary police used tear gas against protesters, some of whom tried to break through a barrier to reach the parliament building on Saturday. Local media also accused the police of using live ammunition in some instances.

The international community has pledged millions of dollars to Beirut's relief effort. However, years of alleged corruption and mismanagement has seen world leaders, including President Macron of France, indicate that the funds will go directly to the Lebanese people, rather than to the government.

Eric Verdeil, a researcher at the Political Institute in Paris and specialist of Lebanon, told ABC News that "corruption is embedded in the Lebanese political system," in an interview last week. The country is in a position of severe financial difficulty, becoming the first Middle Eastern country to enter hyperinflation last month, making even basic goods unaffordable for many Lebanese.

Negotiations between Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund over a potential bailout have reached a stalemate in recent months, with political reform a pre-condition for any financial aid for the stricken country.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Report of Duchess Kate in tears over 'difficult' bride Meghan not true, author claims

Karwai Tang/Getty ImagesBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(LONDON) -- The relationship between Princes William and Harry, who were once close, supposedly began to sour when Harry started dating his now-wife Meghan, according to Finding Freedom. The new book claims to shed light on what caused Harry and Meghan to step back as working members of the royal family.

William, who at that point had only met Meghan, an American actress, a handful of times, reportedly told Harry, "Don't feel you need to rush this . . . take as much time as you need to get to know this girl," while the pair were dating, according to the book.

William's reported comment is said by the book's authors, Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, to have had a chilling effect between the brothers, the only children of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

While much of the attention around Harry and Meghan's split from the royal family has focused on the reportedly tense relationship between Meghan and Prince William's wife, Duchess Kate, the focus should be more on growing pains between William and Harry, according to Scobie.

"I felt it important to really dive into this in the book because we had seen Meghan and Kate really blamed for almost driving a wedge between [Princes William and Harry]," Scobie, an ABC News royal contributor, told Good Morning America. "They're both men in their 30s, and [it was] Harry not wanting to play that role of sort of the younger, more subservient brother anymore."

Scobie said it is true that Meghan, a California-born former actress, and Kate, a U.K. native who met William while studying at St. Andrews in Scotland, have "very little in common." Sources told him that Meghan felt she didn't get all the support she needed from Kate as a newcomer to the royal family.

He shot down, though, a widely-reported story that Kate was left in tears over a conflict with Meghan in the days leading up to her high-profile 2018 wedding to Harry.

"When I spoke to the people who were actually there and involved, the first thing they all said, 'Well, there were no tears,'" said Scobie. "[The story] couldn't be further from the truth."

The relations between the two couples, the Sussexes and the Cambridges, were however so strained the Cambridges snubbed the Sussexes at their final engagement as working members of the royal family, according to "Finding Freedom."

"While Harry and Meghan both greeted William and Kate with smiles, the Cambridges showed little response," Durand and Scobie wrote about this year's Commonwealth Day service in March at Westminster Abbey.

Friends of William and Kate are striking back at claims that Kate did not welcome Meghan into the family. Sources close to the couple told the Daily Mail on Sunday that the Cambridges had "rolled out the red carpet" for Meghan.

"It's really sad because they grew up together, side-by-side supporting each other through the most difficult of times," ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy said of the divide between William and Harry, who supported each other through the death of their mom more than 20 years ago.

Scobie noted that Meghan did face apparent struggles to settle into the monarchy upon her marriage to Harry. She entered into Britain's royal family not only as an American but also a biracial woman who was also a divorcee.

"In terms of ticking those boxes that may ruffle feathers within an ancient institution such as the monarchy, she ticked them all," he said. "Race absolutely played a role."

Scobie predicted that history will remember Harry and Meghan as a "couple that were perhaps failed by the institution of the monarchy.

"Where there was this chance to have a woman of color, an American woman of color in the House of Windsor, representing the monarchy just as much as her husband, that was a chance for the royal family to have diversity, inclusivity and representation in a way that no other moment in their lives could've brought," he said. "And for them to not have harnessed that is something that I'm sure historians will be looking at for years to come."

Buckingham Palace is not commenting on Finding Freedom, which goes on sale on Tuesday, Aug. 11th.

The Sussexes appear to be trying to distance themselves from the book, of which there has been speculation about how closely they were involved.

A spokesperson for the couple told ABC News in a statement, “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex were not interviewed and did not contribute to ‘Finding Freedom.' This book is based on the authors’ own experiences as members of the royal press corps and their own independent reporting.”

Scobie also told GMA that Harry and Meghan were not involved in the book.

"I know there's a lot of speculation about the couple having sort of given secret interviews for the book and having weighed in," he said. "But it really couldn't be further from the truth."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Belarus opposition rejects election results amid calls for more protests


(NEW YORK) -- Belarus’ main opposition candidate has rejected the official result of the presidential election that handed a landslide victory to the country’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday, hours after security forces violently crackdown on protests who had challenged the result.

There were chaotic scenes in Belarus’ capital, Minsk, Sunday night, as hundreds of riot police and interior ministry troops used armored vehicles, stun grenades and rubber bullets against thousands of demonstrators protesting the election.

Dozens of protesters were injured, at least one seriously, while authorities said around 3,000 people were detained.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the key opposition challenger to Lukashenko, told a press conference Monday morning that the vote had seen massive fabrication and that she was the winner of the election.

“We don’t recognize the results of the election. We have seen the real ballot results. We call on those who believe that their vote has been stolen not to keep silent,” Tikhanovskaya said.

She called on authorities now to hold negotiations for the peaceful transfer of power and her campaign said they would seek to use all legal means to have the result reassessed.

“The government aren't listening to us, it has completely broken with the people, but I should repeat that we are for peaceful transitions and the government ought to think about now how to handover power through peaceful means, because at the moment they only have one way -- violence against their own people,” Tikhanovskaya said according to the local Belarus’ news outlet, Tut.by.

Tikhanovskaya stopped short of calling explicitly for more protests, but other opposition social media channels urged people to join a new demonstration on Monday evening in Minsk.

In the posts, people were urged to buy helmets and other protective gear from building supplies stores, as well as first aid equipment, in anticipation of fresh violence from the police.

The posts also called for a national strike to begin on Tuesday with the demand that fresh elections be held without Lukashenko.

Belarus’ central elections commission on Monday said preliminary results showed Lukashenko received a huge 80.24% of the vote, with Tikhanovskaya receiving just 9%.

Tikhanovskaya has become the head of a swelling protest movement in Belarus that, before the election, attracted the biggest political demonstrations in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The protests has meant the election this year is seen as the biggest challenge Lukashenko-- often referred to as "Europe's Last Dictator"-- has faced in his 26 year-rule.

Tikhanovskaya’s supporters, as well as most outside observers, believe the election saw widespread ballot rigging.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign has claimed ballots checked at polling stations in Minsk show her winning in reality by five to six times against Lukashenko. They also pointed to a record number of early votes -- 40% of voters -- as suggesting there had been massive falsification.

Lukashenko on Monday immediately dismissed the idea of any negotiations with the opposition and was unapologetic about the crackdown on demonstrators.

“I warned there won’t be a Maidan, no matter who wanted it,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarus' state news agency, referring to Ukraine’s popular revolution in 2014 that toppled an autocratic president. “And so it has to be quietened down, to be calmed down. The response will be adequate. We will not allow them to blow up the country.”

Lukashenko accused demonstrators of deliberately provoking police and accused several European countries of directing the opposition. He said the election on Sunday had meant to be a “holiday”.

“You understand, it’s a holiday. And somebody wanted to spoil this holiday. We saw them -- they showed themselves ever brighter this night. From Poland, Britain, the Czech Republic, there were calls, directing our, forgive me, our sheep,” Lukashenko said.

The European Union expressed concerns about the situation in Belarus. The European Council’s president, Charles Michel, wrote on Twitter calling on Belarus’ authorities to respect freedom of assembly and “basic human rights”. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called for an emergency EU summit to be held on the situation.

Lukashenko’s re-election was quickly recognized by China and by Belarus’ key ally, Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first to send a message to Lukashenko congratulating him on his victory. Relations between the Kremlin and Lukashenko have been strained recently, as the Belarusian leader has turned more towards Western countries as a counter balance to a more overbearing Russia.

Lukashenko had improved relations with Europe and in particular the United States after being a pariah for years following another crackdown after a presidential election in 2010. The U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Belarus last year and an American ambassador was due to arrive soon in Minsk for the first time in a decade.

The new crackdown and allegations of a stolen election could now pose a challenge to that rapprochement.
Some analysts had thought the Kremlin might remain distant from Lukashenko during any political crisis, frustrated by his recent refusal to accept greater integration with Russia.

Putin’s swift congratulations, however, suggested Moscow has no interest in seeing him pushed from power by protests, although Putin’s message also emphasized the Russian president's hope that Lukashenko would now facilitate greater integration in “all spheres” between the two countries.

Lukashenko cracked down harshly on opposition protests following an election in 2010, jailing key opponents and violently dispersing street protests. Observers though have said the scale of popular dissent this year is significantly larger than then.

Tikhanovskaya, who spent election day an undisclosed location over fears she might be arrested, has stopped short of calling for fresh demonstrations yet and it was unclear whether she would join those planned on Monday.

The internet in Belarus, which was partly shutdown on Sunday, was still greatly slowed down on Monday making communications difficult.

Another of her allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, on Sunday left to Moscow where her husband, another opposition leader, Valery Tsepkalo, was already in self-exile with their children. She has said she would return to Belarus.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

'Dark new phase’ in Hong Kong as pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is arrested


(HONG KONG) -- Once seen as the bastion of free press and speech in Asia, Hong Kong now appears to be changing day by day.

Police detained the city's most prominent media tycoon and Beijing critic, Jimmy Lai, under the new national security law on Monday morning.

Hundreds of police officers also stormed the newsroom of his pro-democracy media outlet, Apple Daily, rummaging through documents on journalists' desks as Lai was led through the office with handcuffs.

Lai's arrest, for suspected collusion with foreign forces, is the highest-profile use of the sweeping new legislation, imposed by Beijing on June 30 following last year’s protests.

It is not clear what specific action led to the 72-year-old’s arrest.

The law punishes anything Beijing deems subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with sentences of up to life in jail.

Apple Daily said Lai's son was detained along with executives at the paper.

Hong Kong police confirmed that at least nine people, aged 23 to 72, were arrested on suspicion of breaching the new law.

The raid was live streamed on Apple Daily’s official Facebook page.

A journalist who works at Apple Daily spoke to ABC News on condition of anonymity.

He was expected to start work later in the day but received a message from his supervisor in the morning not to come into the office.

“I was prepared for this day to come but I didn’t expect it to come so quick and in the way that it did. The police were gravely intruding on journalists’ privacy and the confidentiality of their news materials,” said the local Hong Kong resident.

He describes feeling “sad, angry and scared” over the ordeal.

Pro-democracy and press advocacy groups were quick to condemn Monday’s events, with the Hong Kong Journalist Association warning journalists in the city to prepare for further crack downs on reporters.

Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club said it signaled “a dark new phase in the erosion of the city’s global reputation.”

Amnesty International called it “a disturbing demonstration of how the Hong Kong authorities intend to use the new national security law to threaten press freedom.”

The security law has been widely condemned by Western governments which accuse Beijing of breaking its promise of allowing the territory semi-autonomy under the "One Country, Two Systems" framework.

Monday’s newsroom raid comes as reports emerge of a new unit within the Hong Kong Immigration Department that is now vetting foreign journalist work visas.

Later in the day it emerged that local freelance journalist, Wilson Li, was among those arrested.

Li, whose clients include UK’s ITN, used to be a member of student activist group Scholarism.

Washington and Beijing have been engaged in a tit-for-tat spat over journalists as part of a wider cold war between the world’s two largest economies.

Also on Monday, Beijing rolled out expected retaliatory sanctions on 11 U.S. officials, including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Last week the U.S. announced sanctions on Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other Hong Kong and Beijing officials.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-run Global Times, said the arrest of Lai proves that the Hong Kong authorities won’t be intimidated by the U.S. sanctions.

Hu tweeted that Washington’s punitive measures “are pushing HK civil servants further to Beijing…In the future, the sanctions will also push the hearts and minds of entire HK society to the Chinese mainland, promoting China’s unity."

The timing of Monday’s raid and new round of sanctions is also raising eyebrows.

On Sunday, U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar began his visit to Taiwan, something likely to irk Beijing, which considers the autonomous island a renegade province.

Veteran democrat Albert Ho told ABC News said he believes “the unprecedented scale” of Monday's police raid is “a retaliation, to show to the U.S. government about the anger arising from the imposition of sanctions.”

Ho was charged along with Lai and more than 20 others last Friday for attending an event to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4.

Lai and Ho are part of what Chinese state-media have dubbed the "gang of four", accusing them of instigating unrest, along with Democratic Party founder Martin Lee and former chief secretary Anson Chan.

Ho said that he has long conceived the possibility that “this long arm may extend to me.”

Ho, who runs a law firm in the city, said, “I won’t allow myself to be scared and intimidated. I will stand firm that I have done nothing wrong against my country. I’ve only advocated for my country to democratize and that one party dictatorship should be reformed into a democratic system.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Protests break out across Belarus following contested election

yorkfoto/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Security forces in Belarus Sunday moved to violently crush protests that broke out against the results of an election that showed an overwhelming victory for the country's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Hundreds of heavily armored riot police and interior ministry troops used water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse throngs of demonstrators gathered in the capital of Minsk shortly after exit polls were announced on Sunday evening.

Videos posted to social media by journalists showed lines of police, carrying metal shields, advancing on peaceful crowds in the city center and lobbing stun grenades.

Demonstrators were pushed back by armored cars and water canons, as police sealed off some streets. Dozens of people were reported arrested. Photos from the scene showed bloodied protesters, and in one video a police truck appeared to drive over a demonstrator.

The protests began shortly after a state exit poll showed Lukashenko winning the national election with 79.7% of the vote, with just 6.8% going to his main opposition rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has been leading a groundswell movement to remove him.

Sunday's vote was preceded by weeks of opposition rallies that have been the largest political protests in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union, and were seen as an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko who has already been in power for 26 years and is often nicknamed "Europe's Last Dictator".

Police confronted protesters in a number of cities across Belarus and there were reports of clashes in some, including Gomel and Vitebsk. In some smaller cities, police were reported not to have engaged protesters.

On Sunday, internet access in Belarus was partly shut down for most of the day, and by evening many social media platforms and messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Viber, were not working. The websites of some of Belarus' largest independent media outlets were also unreachable. Belarus' government had declined to give journalists from most foreign news organizations permission to work in the country ahead of the vote.

Tikhanovskaya, whom the opposition has unified behind, called on police to stop using violence against protesters.

"I'd like to ask the police and troops to remember that they are part of the people. I ask my voters to prevent provocations," she said in an appeal through the news outlet tut.by. "I know that Belarusians tomorrow will already wake up in a new country, and I hope that tomorrow there will only be good news. Please stop the violence."

A former teacher until a few months ago, Tikhanovskaya was a stay-at-home mother but became a candidate after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed and barred from running. She joined with two other women, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, to focus an unprecedented wave of dissatisfaction against Lukashenko.

Tikhanovskaya was moved to an undisclosed location in Belarus on the eve of the vote, amid fears police were moving to arrest her. She emerged to vote at a polling station on Sunday but went back into hiding afterward.

Her ally Tsepkalo left Belarus on Sunday for Moscow, where her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, another opposition leader barred from running, is already in self-exile with their children.

Tikhanovskaya's supporters denounced the landslide result for Lukashenko as fabricated, and said their own exit polls showed a majority of Belarusians had voted for Tikhanovskaya.

On Sunday, her campaign claimed that she had won a large majority at polling stations in Minsk.

None of the previous five elections under Lukashenko have been deemed free and fair by international observers, and few observers had expected the government would announce anything other than a substantial win for the former collective farm manager this time around.

Opposition observers pointed to the record number of early votes -- an unprecedented 40% according to Belarus' central elections commission -- as a sign of widespread ballot stuffing.

Before the result was announced, Lukashenko said he did not expect foreign countries to recognize it. Ahead of the election, he had threatened to use force against demonstrators, denouncing the opposition as backed by foreign powers and accusing them of seeking to foment a revolution.

At a polling station earlier in the day where he cast his vote, Lukashenko dismissed Tikhanovskaya and the rest of the opposition as "not worth enough to carry out any repression against them," he said.

Ahead of the vote, European countries including France, Germany and Poland called on Belarus' government to respect Belarusians' right to free elections.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Beijing warns of consequences if Trump bans US deals with TikTok and WeChat

Anatoliy Sizov/iStockBy BRITT CLENNETT and KARSON YIU, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Ties between the world’s two superpowers are on increasingly delicate ground, following President Donald Trump’s move to prohibit US residents from doing business with the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok and messaging app WeChat.

The executive orders, announced Thursday and effective in 45 days, comes after the Trump administration made it clear it wanted to clamp down on “untrusted” Chinese apps.

Much of the focus has been on the move against TikTok, but it is the potential ban on WeChat that could have the greater impact and greater potential fallout for the citizens of both countries.

While TikTok was built for an international market that is walled off from China, WeChat is part and parcel to how daily life in China operates. This is central to why this latest move carries so much weight and lays the foundation for another major escalation between Washington and Beijing.

China hasn’t taken the move lightly, warning that the United States would have to “bear the consequences” of its own “bitter fruit.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “The U.S. is using national security as an excuse and using state power to oppress non-American businesses. That’s just a hegemonic practice.”

TikTok, owned by ByteDance, says it was “shocked” by the ban, which “sets a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets.” The company added that it would "pursue all remedies available," giving rise to speculation that it may take legal action.

Lately, Trump has been pushing for TikTok to be sold to an American company.

The WeChat ban comes as even more of a surprise than the one facing TikTok.

The billion-user app is an important avenue of communication for business and family links between the US and China. In fact, it’s hard to overstate how essential WeChat is for doing business in China. American firms operating there, including McDonalds, KFC and Walmart, all rely on WeChat monetary transactions.

The potential negatives can be severe. For example, if Apple is banned from having Tencent, which owns WeChat, in its App store, Chinese consumers who rely on WeChat to conduct their daily lives would have no reason to stick with an iPhone.

An informal poll posted on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, on Friday asked users if in the event of a WeChat ban on the iPhone, whether they would uninstall the app or switch phones. The overwhelming response was to ditch the iPhone.

The iPhone’s popularity China is already ceding to Huawei.

Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Dean said a White House official told him late Thursday that the ban will not extend to Tencent, one of the world’s biggest internet firms.

Tencent is also a leading gaming company, owning a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, which is behind the wildly popular game Fortnite.

Tencent shares took a tumble of more than 5 percent off the back of the news.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

US sanctions Hong Kong leader, police commissioner, others for crackdown


(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. has sanctioned Hong Kong's chief executive, its police commissioner, mainland China's top official for the territory and other senior leaders for "undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly," the U.S. Treasury announced Friday.

Like the administration's other sanctions, these are mainly symbolic, as the 11 officials designated Friday have few U.S. assets to sanction. But the move seems designed to provoke Beijing again amid a cycle of retaliation and climbing tensions between the two countries.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has escalated pressure on China by moving to ban social media apps TikTok and WeChat, announcing a high-level delegation and new arms sales to Taiwan, ending Hong Kong's special economic status and sanctioning a powerful paramilitary group and senior officials in Xinjiang, the western province where the Chinese government has conducted a mass surveillance and detention campaign against Muslim ethnic minorities.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is the most well-known name on the list Friday. As Beijing's hand-picked leader, Lam has overseen a crackdown on democratic protesters and the implementation of a new national security law imposed by China's National People's Congress.

Lam has said she would "just laugh it off" if the U.S. sanctioned her, telling reporters last month, "I do not have any assets in the United States nor do I long for moving to the United States."

Regardless of their limited economic impact, the sanctions are likely to incense the Chinese government -- especially those on Xia Baolong and Zhang Xiaoming, the director and deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office in Beijing, and Luo Huining, the head of China's liaison office to Hong Kong who is a close ally of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

President Donald Trump signed into law last month the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which authorized these sanctions for any officials involved in implementing China's national security law for Hong Kong.

The Treasury Department also said some officials, like Police Commissioner Chris Tang and former commissioner Stephen Lo, are being sanctioned for the crackdown on protesters in 2019, who marched in the millions against a similar national security law proposed by Hong Kong's government.

After protests seemed to defeat that bill, which allowed for extradition from the territory to mainland China, the Chinese government imposed a more sweeping version on June 30, criminalizing subversion, secession, terrorism and "collusion with foreign or external forces" -- broad categories that include any anti-government protests and even apply to foreigners outside the territory.

China has defended the controversial law as critical for halting any foreign interference in Hong Kong, while the U.S. sees it as a violation of the treaty China signed with the United Kingdom to take control of the territory but grant it a degree of autonomy for 50 years.

Citing the new law's implementation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in May that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous from mainland China and did not warrant special treatment under U.S. law, including trade, tax and export control exemptions.

"The Chinese Communist Party has made clear that Hong Kong will never again enjoy the high degree of autonomy that Beijing itself promised to the Hong Kong people and the United Kingdom for 50 years. President Trump has made clear that the United States will therefore treat Hong Kong as 'one country, one system' and take action against individuals who have crushed the Hong Kong people's freedoms," Pompeo said in a statement Friday.

With Beijing's tighter control and without U.S. special status, analysts have declared the "death of Hong Kong."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Air India plane crashes on landing with almost 200 onboard

FILE photo - Kristian1108/iStockBy SAMARA LYNN, ABC News

(CALICUT, India) -- An Air India Express aircraft flying from Dubai, UAE, crashed at its destination of Calicut, India, with at least 191 people onboard. The extent of casualties was not immediately known.

The Air India passenger jet appears to have skidded on landing and is now in several pieces. It was raining at the time of the crash, and the plane did not catch fire, according to reports.

NDVT, an India television station, is showing images of the plane apparently overshooting the runway. Officials are reporting on NDTV that all passengers have been evacuated and taken to the hospital, some with severe injuries.

An Air India Express spokesperson confirmed that the passengers had been taken to the hospital. According to the company, 174 passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and four cabin crew members were on board at the time.

"As per the initial reports rescue operations are on and passengers are being taken to hospital for medical care," the company said in a statement. "We will soon share the update in this regard."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Prince Harry says social media is creating a 'crisis of hate' and worries about the damage to children

Chinnapong/iStockBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Prince Harry delivered strong words for social media companies and those that advertise on them in a new op-ed in which he calls for the social media world to reform.

"We’ve always believed that individuals and communities thrive when the frameworks around them are built from compassion, trust, and wellbeing," Harry wrote in Fast Company, referring to himself and his wife Meghan. "Sadly, this belief is at odds with much of what is being experienced by people on social media."

"We have an opportunity to do better and remake the digital world," Harry wrote in the technology magazine. "This remodeling must include industry leaders from all areas drawing a line in the sand against unacceptable online practices."

Harry revealed in the op-ed that last month he and Meghan started calling business leaders, marketing officers and heads of major corporations to ask them to reconsider their roles in funding social media platforms that he says have "contributed to, stoked, and created the conditions for a crisis of hate, a crisis of health, and a crisis of truth.”

Harry said he and Meghan believe the "architecture of our online community" needs to be remodeled, putting "compassion," "truth" and "inclusiveness" ahead of "hate," "misinformation" and "injustice and fearmongering."

"This remodeling must include industry leaders from all areas drawing a line in the sand against unacceptable online practices as well as being active participants in the process of establishing new standards for our online world," he wrote. "Companies that purchase online ads must also recognise that our digital world has an impact on the physical world -- on our collective health, on our democracies, on the ways we think and interact with each other, on how we process and trust information."

Harry and Meghan and their 15-month-old son Archie are currently living in Los Angeles, having moved there earlier this year from the U.K. when they stepped back as senior members of the royal family.

Harry described the concerns he has as a dad on the effects a toxic social media world can have on children, and noted that when it comes to reform, "We do not have the luxury of time."

"If we are susceptible to the coercive forces in digital spaces, then we have to ask ourselves -- what does this mean for our children?," he wrote. "As a father, this is especially concerning to me."

"We all need a better online experience," he wrote. "We’ve spoken with leaders across the racial justice movement, experts in humane tech, and advocates of mental health. And the collective opinion is abundantly clear: We do not have the luxury of time."

Harry and Meghan have been working on the issue of reforming social media for some time, having visited Stanford University earlier this year for a discussion on the topic, ABC News understands.

Making social media platforms a safer, less divisive environment will be a major new focus of the couple’s work and will be a key part of their charity, Archewell, which will be aimed at creating compassionate, empathetic and strong communities, both offline and online.

Harry and Meghan reached nearly 11 million followers on their Sussex Royal Instagram in less than a year. The couple stopped using the account at the end of March, when it was decided they would not use their Sussex Royal brand in their new roles as non-working royals.

Harry described his and Meghan's work so far on social media reform as just the "beginning of a movement."

"The internet has enabled us to be joined together. We are now plugged into a vast nervous system that, yes, reflects our good, but too often also magnifies and fuels our bad," he wrote. "We can -- and must -- encourage these platforms to redesign themselves in a more responsible and compassionate way. The world will feel it, and we will all benefit from it."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Beirut in crisis after deadly explosion. Here's what's being done to help.


(BEIRUT, Lebanon) -- In the wake of the massive explosion in Beirut that killed at least 135 and injured around 5,000, officials in the country have been calling for help from the international community to recover from the tragedy, which could also leave some 300,000 homeless, officials said.

Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud called the Aug. 4 explosion "a national catastrophe" in a tearful interview early Thursday, pleading for assistance. He said the country will need to rely heavily on donations and foreign aid to rebuild. French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to offer support as the country reels from the explosion and at least 100 remain missing.

The exact cause of the blast remains unknown, although authorities said that more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, an industrial compound, was being stored in the warehouse that was the scene of the blast. Footage from the scene appears to show a cloud of smoke forming before the blast, then a fire, before the massive explosion that carried a mushroom cloud well over the city.

"I have never seen this amount of destruction on this scale. This is a national catastrophe. This is a disaster for Lebanon. We don't know how we will recover. We don't know," Abboud told Sky News. "We could barely survive before and now we have this. We have to be strong."

He urged residents to hold themselves together and "be brave" as crowds took to the streets with brooms, garbage bins and other tools to help rid the city of the tons of glass, shrapnel and debris left behind by the blast.

The explosion leveled homes and buildings and was captured on gut-wrenching video. Humanitarian officials said the incident could have a crippling effect on the city's already struggling economy, citing the ongoing financial crisis, political tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic there.

"The country’s weak health system and current political crisis have left families with no means to protect themselves against a pandemic," a spokesperson for Save the Children said, pleading for the public to help with donations. "With hospitals completely overwhelmed, our teams stand ready to support relief efforts wherever possible. Your urgent support is needed today."

Hospitals were already struggling to keep with demand due to the virus, but now they're battling with a sudden influx of patients from the blast on top of that, humanitarian officials said.

Lebanon is also home to the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the world with refugees now accounting for about 30% of the country's population, according to Mercy Corps, which is now taking up donations for aid.

More than a dozen Lebanese charities have begun receiving donations to help with disaster relief as well. Volunteers with the Lebanese Red Cross were on the scene helping with victims Thursday along with the Lebanese Food Bank, which are both taking donations.

One of the fastest ways to help is to donate to international organizations with existing infrastructures in Lebanon, like Humanity & Inclusion, UNICEF and Save the Children, as rescue workers continue to search for survivors.

Humanity & Inclusion, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban landmines, said it has been doing humanitarian work in Lebanon since 1992. Most recently, it was providing aid to Syrian refugees, especially the elderly and those with disabilities and/or serious illnesses.

"Our 100-person team in Lebanon, including physical therapists, psycho-social, and livelihood experts, are leading this critical response. Post-surgical physical therapy, in particular, will be a vital component of our actions," Humanity & Inclusion said in a statement on its website. "Your gift, whatever the amount, can help provide desperately-needed care."

Similarly, UNICEF's Lebanon arm said it's been working to mobilize youth to help clean up those neighborhoods with the most damage. The organization is also working with authorities on the ground to respond to the needs of health and other front-line workers. The organization said some staff members had lost loved ones in the explosion.

"Yesterday’s catastrophe in Beirut adds to what has already been a terrible crisis for the people of Lebanon compounded by an economic collapse and a surge in COVID-19 cases," UNICEF said in a statement. "Our hearts are with children and families who have been impacted, especially those who lost their loved ones. We wish a speedy recovery to the injured."

The potential humanitarian implications of the explosion are still unclear, but Beriut's governor, Abboud, said that as many as 300,000 people could be left “without homes,” according to local media reports. He estimated that it could cost the country between $3 billion and $5 billion, noting that engineers had yet to conduct an official assessment.

Countries around the world have also pledged support, with France, Germany, Canada, Bangladesh, Israel, Russia, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran offering humanitarian aid, rescue teams, supplies and other resources.

Officials with the World Heath Organization said the organization delivered 20 tons of supplies since the explosion.

Separately, the U.S. government said it plans to send three large military transport plane shipments of food, water and medical supplies, according to the Department of Defense.

America is also sending support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which said it would "continue to monitor the impact of the explosion in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy and USAID’s Mission in Beirut, Lebanese authorities, and our humanitarian partners on the ground." That includes support for local university hospitals.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Beirut explosion: A look at ammonium nitrate


(PARIS and LONDON) -- An explosion at a warehouse stocked with 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port changed the face of a city almost instantly.

The exact cause of the Beirut blast is still under investigation, but the catastrophic effects of ammonium nitrate were there for all to see: A massive explosion causing shock waves throughout the city and a mushroom cloud of smoke billowing high into the sky.

So far, at least 137 are confirmed dead, including one American, and over 5.000 were injured in the blast, according to the Lebanese authorities.

But, according to experts, ammonium nitrate is not itself classified as dangerous, and requires a lot of energy to ignite.

"[Ammonium nitrate] is a great fertilizer for growing plants, but it's also wonderful as an explosive," Jimmy Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, told ABC News. "200 factories make ammonium nitrate around the world… They are mining all over."

Ammonium nitrate was involved in the 1947 Texas City disaster, one of the largest industrial explosions in history.

But the chemical has a more nefarious use -- as an explosive. The chemical compound was used to make explosives for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people 25 years ago. The fertilizer and fuel bomb used then contained just over two tons of ammonium nitrate to carry out the deadliest domestic terror attack on U.S. soil. The warehouse in Beirut is believed to have carried more than 1,000 times that amount.

Yet, Oxley, who carried out research into the chemical compound, said that while the ammonium nitrate has been used as an explosive, the compound cannot be solely responsible for the explosion.

"The product itself is not classified as dangerous," said Gilles Choquet, president of AIS service, a training organization in risk prevention in explosive environments. "It is the storage of this product that could generate risks, with the rise in temperatures, which will be all the greater when there is so much product."

Port officials have been placed on house arrest pending the results of the investigation on the suspected gross negligence of leaving the over 2,500 tons in the port's warehouse for six years, Lebanon President Michel Aoun announced.

The ammonium nitrate appears to have been confiscated from a commercial cargo ship abandoned in Beirut in 2013, allegedly with a Russian owner, and then confiscated by the Lebanese authorities a year later; it's origins linked to former Soviet republic, Georgia.

"I'm not surprised it's coming from Georgia or Russia," Oxley said. "Cheap natural gas [is] there, and natural gas is one of the precursors for making ammonium nitrate."

The chemical, however, requires a lot of energy to become explosive, and is not, in itself, highly combustible.

"What is certain is that when this product is on its own, it cannot explode," Choquet said. At the moment, it is "hard to say the exact cause for the explosion," he said, and the authorities may never find one.

The earliest recorded accident involving ammonium nitrate occurred in Oppau in Germany in 1921.

"The man was blasting it with dynamite," said Oxley about the Oppau explosion. "He got away with that several times. One day he decided to do a bunch of dynamite at once, 600 people died and he was one of them. He put a shock into the ammonium nitrate ... in [Beirut's] situation, if there was a pre-shock into the ammonium nitrate, that would explain what was going on."

According to Oxley, this pre-shock could have been the fireworks; speculated as the cause early on.

"If they got on fire and started a large conflagration, it could come from that," Oxley said. "Ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel will just sit there and look at you ... [to become explosive] it has to have a large input of energy, either from a large fire or a shock wave."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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