Controversial French Doctor Sparks Hope, Criticism for Coronavirus Research

Fellow scientists question his findings, but an unlikely mix of supporters — from French yellow vest protesters to U.S. President Donald Trump — are cheering their promise.Last month, French immunology specialist Didier Raoult had no Twitter account. Now, he has more than a quarter-million followers, and counting.   The 68-year-old French physician has emerged as one of France’s most publicized and polarizing figures of these coronavirus times, since claiming his research shows an anti-malarial drug can help fight COVID-19.   Outside the Marseille university hospital where he works, a long line of sick and frightened people waits to be tested each day for COVID-19.   The sick may receive a much-hyped experimental treatment — a mix of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and antibiotic azithromycin that have starred in a pair of quick, small-scale studies that Raoult conducted, and were published this month. Together, the studies show the “efficacy” of the anti-malarial drug in fighting the virus, Raoult and his research team claim, and the synergetic effects of adding the antibiotic.  “He’s a visionary,” Renaud Muselier, head of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region and a friend of Raoult, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “That’s what makes his strength today.”   But critics say Raoult’s team did not follow rigorous procedures, had no control group, and drew their results based on too few people, among other failings.   “The methodology is fragile, the results are forced, one doesn’t give people hope based on approximate trials,” Gilles Pialoux, infectious diseases head of Paris-based Tenon Hospital, told BFMTV.     A few years ago, Raoult grew his white-blond hair long — adding a mustache and beard —just to annoy the establishment, he is reported as saying. No stranger to controversy Raoult, who heads the infectious diseases department of La Timone Hospital in Marseille, is no stranger to controversy — or applause. Born in Dakar, Senegal, he dropped out of high school in his junior year and spent a couple of years in the French merchant marines before heading to medical school. A few years ago, he grew his white-blond hair long — adding a mustache and beard —just to annoy the establishment, he is reported as saying.  His award-winning research includes discovering giant viruses and new bacteria. He has published prodigiously, although his massive output has sparked skepticism about its rigor.   Raoult has also questioned climate change. In January, he initially dismissed the first coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan as overblown.   And while he has been added to the government coronavirus team of health experts, he has reportedly distanced himself from it, failing to attend recent meetings. “I don’t care what others think of me,” he told La Provence newspaper. “I’m not an outsider. I’m the one who is the most advanced.”   After Raoult’s first coronavirus findings were published mid-March in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, Trump tweeted that the two-drug combination he tested could become “the biggest game changers” in medical history.  France and the United States have since authorized limited, emergency use of hydroxychloroquine and related compound chloroquine in treating the most serious COVID-19 cases. On Monday, the French food safety agency warned of potentially dangerous side effects.   But the public has dismissed such strictures. Pharmacies report a rush for Plaquenil, the brand name of hydroxychloroquine, which has worried lupus and other patients who have long depended on it.   Local hero  New and larger experimental studies are now under way in Europe and the United States to see if Raoult’s findings, among others, can be replicated on a bigger scale.   In the meantime, he has vaulted to near rock star status. His wide spectrum of supporters includes controversial French comedian Dieudonne, far-right adherents, ex-soccer champion Eric Cantona and several prominent politicians, some of whom took Raoult’s experimental treatment after contracting COVID-19.   “Bravo to @raoult didier and his team,” tweeted Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi. “I’m proud to have fought beside him.”   But a raft of medical experts is less enthusiastic, questioning the credibility of Raoult’s studies, the first of which involved just 20 patients.   “No, ‘not huge’ I’m afraid,” tweeted Francois Balloux of University College in London, in response to the results of Raoult’s second study involving 80 patients.   Released Friday, the study claimed that most of the patients treated with the combination drug had favorable outcomes.   But Balloux noted that those who had tested presented mild symptoms of coronavirus and likely would have recovered anyway.

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Greece Blocks Iranian From Plotting to Arm Asylum Seekers

In Greece, the case of an Iranian migrant now jailed on charges of inciting an insurrection is highlighting the Greek government’s rising concerns about a flare-up of clashes involving migrants along Greece’s border with Turkey. Greek authorities say the Iranian man — a self-described anarchist — was urging groups in Greece to arm asylum seekers trying to enter Europe from Turkey. The man, if convicted, faces a stiff sentence of up to ten years in prison.Greek counter-terrorism forces say they arrested the 23-year-old Iranian national in central Athens after he posted a call for an armed insurrection on a website that is often visited by homegrown extremists and urban guerrilla groupings.Authorities say the unidentified man describes himself as a migrant anarchist and they say he has not denied the criminal charges set against him — among the stiffest slapped on a migrant in recent years.
 
Greek intelligence officials say Greece granted the man political asylum three years ago and that he has since then established a militant profile, linking up with a far-left extremist group in Greece.
 
Left-wing groups in Greece have long supported asylum seekers, advocating their safe passage — and their right to stay in Europe. But in his online calling, the Iranian went a step further, urging anarchists to help arm migrants, take to the streets and renew clashes with authorities in northern Greece to help tens of thousands trapped in Turkey stream in to Europe.
 
Authorities in Athens say they have not established links between that plot and Turkey.
 
But the Iranian’s arrest here and the severity of the charges laid against him underscore Greece’s desperate bid to stamp out any potential flare up of migrant clashes along the country’s borders with Turkey.
 
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flung open the borders to migrants heading for Europe in late February after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in an air raid in Syria. FILE – Migrants walk in Edirne at the Turkish-Greek border, March 9, 2020.Turkey last week said it moved 5,800 migrants away from the border crossing at Edirne province where they had been massing, citing concerns over the threat of coronavirus.  The move was interpreted by some in Greece as a reversal by Ankara. But Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told an independent broadcaster the move did not represent a policy change.
 
“Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, the Turkish government will not block migrants from returning to the border,” he said. Although Greek authorities have not established a link between the Iranian migrant and the Turkish government, they worry about how Ankara may use the nearly four million Syrian refugees now inside Greece.
Ioannis Mazis, an international relations analyst in Athens, said Greece has already seen Turkey using tens of thousands of migrants as pawns in the recent border clashes. He said the Turkish government has even admitted that it has orchestrated much of the border violence. So, threats of further clashes should not be underestimated, Mazis added.
 
By some accounts, as many 150,000 migrants and refugee tried to push into Europe last month. Greece says it succeeded in fending off more than 50,000, while many others managed to sneak in.  
 
  

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South Sudan Activists Hope to Unify Divided Nation

Thirty-one-year-old Junior Dau sits in the parlor of his home in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, gazing at photos of his slain cousin. The cousin was killed as a soldier fighting in the civil war that broke out in 2013.”He got shot in the chest and in the leg in an ambush,” Dau told VOA. “[His death] hit me so much because one thing I know is he was more than a brother to me and he managed to help me through my studies.”Junior Dau, 31, looks at photos of his cousin, who was killed in South Sudan’s civil war, in Juba, South Sudan. (Chika Oduah/VOA)Losing a breadwinner made life difficult for Dau’s family. Three of his siblings also died and his mother was tortured when rebel fighters dunked her into a water tank.”My mom was put in the water; she fainted four times and that is one thing that has made her not come back to South Sudan. She hates it so much,” Dau said. His mother now lives in Kenya as a refugee; he hasn’t seen her since 2016.After losing so many family members to the conflict, Dau said he was left with smoldering resentment and bitterness toward other ethnic communities in South Sudan. “I had in mind, I want to get a gun so I can get revenge,” he said.Can South Sudan’s people reconcile?The people of South Sudan have endured decades of war, first in the fight to win independence from Sudan, and then in a brutal conflict that began in late 2013. An estimated 400,000 people died in the civil war, which officially ended with a 2018 peace agreement.The intense fighting has left deep scars on the nation, with ethnic communities pitted against one another.In February, rival politicians President Salva Kiir and former deputy Riek Machar formed a transitional unity government after more than a year of negotiation and delay.Dr. James Okuk, a professor of political science at the University of Juba, said he is cautiously optimistic about the recent formation of the unity government.”It is a start, but the task is overwhelming. We hope they will be up to the task, particularly reconciliation, which really requires a lot of time, requires a lot of effort,” he said.”The political leaders have created these grievances by making the civilians to take sides in these political quarrels, and taking sides has created these enmities among communities and with peace coming back, I think it’s time to mend those broken relations.”Members of the South Sudanese government’s National Dialogue Committee meet to discuss how to implement peace-building policies, in Juba, South Sudan. (Chika Oduah/VOA)The government recently set up a National Dialogue Committee in an effort to mend broken relations. Francis Deng, South Sudan’s first ambassador to the United Nations and a scholar on conflict management, is putting his expertise to use as a member of the committee.He said tackling complex issues such as how to administer justice for war-related atrocities will not be easy.”One line of reasoning is let’s forgive and forget. That’s one line of reasoning. The other line of reasoning is that too much harm has been done, people have been victimized, massacres have taken place. Crimes have taken place. Here you come to another point of view. The African perspective generally is to try to reconcile, maybe compensate and not talk in terms of punishment,” Deng said.The government is now promoting what Deng describes as the African approach toward reconciliation. On the streets of Juba, several peace campaign billboards display phrases such as, “It’s time to forgive.”Peace-building programsOther government-backed and private initiatives are in place to help move toward peace-building.At the University of Juba, students meet under a large tree on campus every week to learn about how to give psychosocial support to those dealing with bitterness. The class is organized by Vivean Peter, a 33-year-old woman who had her own pain to work through after a rival ethnic group gunned down her husband.Now, Peter finds hope and healing in training therapists. She takes a particular interest in helping counsel youth who can easily join militia forces to exact revenge.”They are the most vulnerable demographic, needing psychological support,” she explained.Another program called Power to Forgive, set up by the South Sudanese Council of Churches, offers a telephone hotline service. People from across the country who are coping with anger and war-related trauma call in to speak with a trained counselor.A popular clergyman known in the community simply as Pastor Emmanuel said, ”That is the role the Church plays, to reconcile back to God and to reconcile people with themselves and with others.”Lupai Samuel Stephen, director of an organization called I Am Peace Initiative, sits with his team to organize the upcoming Peace Camp program in Juba, South Sudan. (Chika Oduah/VOA)In another part of Juba, young activists are organizing an event called Peace Camp. It offers a safe space for young people to talk about the pain of the war.The organizer, Lupai Samuel Stephen, was displaced by the war and grew up in Uganda. He said the Peace Camp is more relevant now than ever.”The Peace Camp brings people together to be able to create relationships on a personal level, so you get to meet someone from a certain community that you always looked at as an enemy,” he said. ”We know there are a lot of cultural influences in this conflict based on tribalism, hate speech and negative stereotypes, and we believe the best way we can break all these stereotypes is when we actually bring people together to talk about it and that becomes a basis for other people to learn from the other’s perspective.”Junior Dau participated in a Peace Camp and said it helped him to let go of his hatred. He’s now a Peace Camp ambassador.Even though many of his friends and relatives have died, Dau said he enjoys spending time with the ones who have survived. 
  

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South Sudan Activists Hope to Unify A Divided Nation

After years of civil war, Sudan’s new transitional unity government is urging citizens to work towards reconciliation and forgiving perpetrators of violence. But will these measures work in a deeply divided nation? Chika Oduah reports from the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

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US Unveils Venezuelan Transitional Government Plan

The United States says it is willing to lift sanctions against Venezuela in exchange for the formation of a transitional government comprised of allies of President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.
 
The plan calls on Maduro and Guaido to hand over power to a five-member council until presidential and parliamentary elections can be held within the next year.
 
Pompeo called on Maduro and Guaido to form a transitional government which would be tasked with scheduling elections within six to 12 months.
 
Pompeo said the U.S. would welcome efforts by Guaido to seek office in future elections, but maintained the U.S. position that Maduro must go.FILE – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, March 12, 2020.The U.S. and more than 50 countries recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader.
 
“We’ve made clear all along that Nicolas Maduro will never again govern Venezuela,” Pompeo said at a Washington news conference Tuesday.
 
Pompeo said the U.S. continues to support Guaido and added, “When we put together this pathway to democracy, we worked closely with him.”
 
The U.S.’ top diplomat said sanctions “will remain in effect, and increase, until the Maduro regime accepts a genuine political transition.”  
 
The oil-rich country’s economy, already weakened by a U.S. economic pressure campaign, has been dealt subsequent blows by the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices. The coronavirus has also crippled the country’s health care system.Opposition leader Juan Guaido waves to supporters during a rally at Bolivar Plaza, in Chacao, Venezuela, Feb. 11, 2020. The U.S. proposal also addresses for the first time the lifting of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector and Maduro officials.
 
Officials facing accusations of human rights abuses and drug trafficking are not eligible for sanctions relief. But members of Maduro’s socialist government who have been blacklisted would benefit.
 
A transitional government is unlikely to be supported by Maduro and many of his allies unless he is guaranteed protections from the U.S. justice system.
 
“It’s a little hard to see how this is going to be convincing to the major players in the government,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “They seem to think the military is going to step in, but that seems extremely unlikely.”
 
The plan would also need the approval of Cuba, Russia or China — Maduro’s major political and economic supporters.  
 
The U.S. campaign against the South American country was spearheaded by economic and diplomatic pressure to break the military’s support for Maduro.
 
Last week, however, the U.S. indicted Maduro, the head of the supreme court, the defense minister and other key allies on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
 
A high-ranking U.S. administration official who spoke anonymously with reporters on Monday said the U.S. is willing to negotiate with Maduro the terms of his exit, even with respect to the indictments against him.
 
On Saturday, Guaido called for the establishment of a “national emergency government.”VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report from the State Department.
 

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Royals No More: Harry and Meghan Start Uncertain New Chapter

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan officially make the transition Tuesday from senior members of Britain’s royal family to — well, it’s unclear. International celebrities, charity patrons, global influencers?
The royal schism that the couple triggered in January by announcing that they would step down from official duties, give up public funding, seek financial independence and swap the U.K. for North America becomes official on March 31.
The move has been made more complicated and poignant by the global coronavirus pandemic, which finds the couple and their 10-month-old son Archie in California, far from Harry’s father Prince Charles — who is recovering after testing positive for COVID-19 — and Harry’s 93-year-old grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
“As we can all feel, the world at this moment seems extraordinarily fragile,” the couple said in a final post Monday on their now-mothballed SussexRoyal Instagram account.
“What’s most important right now is the health and well-being of everyone across the globe and finding solutions for the many issues that have presented themselves as a result of this pandemic,” they added. “As we all find the part we are to play in this global shift and changing of habits, we are focusing this new chapter to understand how we can best contribute.”  
It is less than two years since ex-soldier Harry, who is sixth in line to the British throne, married American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle in a lavish ceremony watched by millions around the world.  
Soon the couple began to bristle at intense scrutiny by the British media — which they said tipped into harassment. They decided to break free, in what Harry called a “leap of faith” as he sought a more peaceful life, without the journalists who have filmed, photographed and written about him since the day he was born.  
Harry has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the media, which he blames for the death of his mother, Princess Diana. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while being pursued by paparazzi.
Harry’s unhappiness increased after he began dating Markle, then the star of TV legal drama “Suits.” In 2016 he accused the media of harassing his then-girlfriend, and criticized “racial undertones” in some coverage of the biracial Markle.
It’s clear that Meghan’s upbeat Californian style — embodied in the glossy images and life-affirming messages of the couple’s Instagram account — rankled with sections of Britain’s tabloid press, which is both insatiable for royal content and fiercely judgmental of the family members.  
The couple — who are keeping their titles, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but will no longer be called Their Royal Highnesses — had hoped to keep using the Sussex Royal brand in their new life. But last month they announced they wouldn’t seek to trademark the term because of U.K. rules governing use of the word “royal.”
The couple plans to launch a non-profit organization for their charitable activities in areas including youth empowerment, mental health, conservation, gender equality and education. Harry will also continue to oversee the Invictus Games, the Olympics-style competition he founded for wounded troops.
Meghan has been announced as the narrator of “Elephant,” a Disney nature documentary.
But for now, the couple’s office said they want the world to focus “on the global response to COVID-19.”  
“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend the next few months focusing on their family and continuing to do what they can, safely and privately, to support and work with their pre-existing charitable commitments while developing their future non-profit organisation,” the couple’s office said in a statement.
The newly independent Harry and Meghan will also need to earn money to help pay for a multi-million dollar security bill.
As senior royals, they have had bodyguards funded by British taxpayers. Since late last year, Harry and Meghan have since been based on Canada’s Vancouver Island, where security was provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadian authorities warned last month that would end once the couple ceased to be working royals.
The duke and duchess recently moved to the Los Angeles area, where Meghan grew up and where her mother still lives. The news led President Donald Trump to tweet on Sunday: “the U.S. will not pay for their security protection. They must pay!”
Harry and Meghan’s office said they had “no plans to ask the U.S. government for security resources. Privately funded security arrangements have been made.”  
Some royal historians warned that Harry and Meghan could struggle to find a fulfilling role. Comparisons have been drawn to King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 to marry divorced American Wallis Simpson. The couple lived the rest of their lives in luxurious but lonely self-imposed exile from Britain.
Royal historian Penny Junor said U.K.-based royals were helping boost the nation’s morale during the coronavirus pandemic. The queen has issued a message to the nation, while Harry’s brother Prince William and his children joined in a public round of applause for health care workers.
“All of this is absolutely what the family is about, and those members of the royal family that are on a limb now are pretty irrelevant,” Junor said.
 

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