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Italian WHO official denies pulling report on pandemic response

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A top Italian official at the World Health Organisation has denied interfering in the publication of a WHO report that highlighted weaknesses in Italy’s early response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ranieri Guerra, one of the WHO’s 14 assistant director generals, said he played no role in a WHO decision to remove the report from the organisation’s website a day after it was published in May.

“The report had inconsistencies and factual mistakes but the decision to pull the report was taken by the WHO in Copenhagen with no interference from my side,” Mr Guerra told the FT. “As far as I am concerned I never participated in this process.”

Evidence that the assessment was withdrawn by the WHO, first reported by The Guardian, has sparked controversy in Italy and provoked debate over how the UN agency has managed its relations with national governments during the pandemic.

Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit hard by Covid-19, with the death toll topping 35,000 during the first wave of the outbreak. In March, as the report was being prepared, images of the horrors unfolding in the country’s hospitals shocked the world and helped shape public health responses elsewhere in Europe.

The WHO issued no public statement in May to indicate it had withdrawn the report or to explain the reasons for the decision.

Mr Guerra, who previously served as the Italian health ministry’s chief medical officer from 2014 to 2017, said he requested corrections to the mortality data in the report but that these changes had already been made prior to publication. “I had no interest in having the report pulled. This was all part of a technical discussion of the draft to make sure the report was the best it possibly could be.”

According to Mr Guerra, the Italian government also had no part in the decision to remove the report, though he added that Rome had been surprised when it was published.

“There was a miscommunication as the minister of health was not aware the report was coming out,” Mr Guerra said, adding that it was standard practice for WHO to keep member states informed of their work. “There were no negative comments from [the minister] but he was just saying if there was a report about Italy he would prefer to be informed.”

Francesco Zambon, the lead author of the WHO report, however, has denied that there were any errors in the published report, contradicting the WHO’s official position. “Never in nine months was I told that the report . . . has inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” he said this month in a written statement to the FT.

Leaked emails also show that ahead of publication Mr Guerra asked Mr Zambon to correct the report to state that Italy’s national response plan in the event of an influenza pandemic had been updated in 2016 rather than 2006 as previously stated.

Italian government officials had previously said the plan was fully updated in 2016, but it was only reviewed in 2016 and not changed.

Mr Guerra, who was partly responsible for Italy’s pandemic preparedness in 2016, told the FT that during his time at the ministry he had examined the suitability of the 2006 plan. He said it was not changed because no significant new flu strains had been identified and no changes were necessary under WHO guidance.

Following the release of the withdrawn report Mr Guerra’s decision not to revise the 2006 flu pandemic response has come under criticism from Italy’s deputy health minister. “Let’s not kid ourselves, let’s not play with words. That plan was from 2006 and it needed to be updated,” Pierpaolo Sileri said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. 

Mr Guerra defended his actions. The pandemic plan was specifically designed for flu, not pandemics in general, he said, adding that parts of that plan had still been used effectively during the first months of the Covid-19 outbreak.



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Turkey’s marine crisis: ‘death knells are ringing for Sea of Marmara’

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For a decade, marine biologist Nur Eda Topcu has fought to preserve delicate corals off the Istanbul coastline, which environmentalists say are threatened by the dumping of industrial waste, fuel and sewage.

Now she fears a new threat may hasten the end of the Sea of Marmara’s coral reefs. A gelatinous substance colloquially known as sea snot has in recent months choked aquatic life, blighted fishing and repelled swimmers.

Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage were still visible across the Marmara in late July, while the gooey foam sank below the surface settling on the rare corals. Scientists warn that the sea, whose mix of Mediterranean and Black Sea currents foster coral usually found at far deeper depths, itself is at risk.

“The death knells are ringing for the Marmara,” said Topcu after surfacing from a recent dive to clean the slime that coated normally fuchsia-hued corals off an Istanbul archipelago. “We can’t stop the mucilage. It’s smothering the gorgonians [and] infecting them with harmful bacteria.” She fears most of Marmara’s soft, red Paramuricea clavata, listed as a vulnerable species of coral, will perish this year.

Eda Eryalçın Topçu (right), Marine biologist at Istanbul University, and Serço Ekşiyan, of the Deniz Yaşamını Koruma Derneği (Marine Life Conservation Society) during a research dive in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul
Nur Eda Topcu, right, and Serco Eksiyan, of the Marine Life Conservation Centre, during a research dive © Bradley Secker/FT

A thick layer of marine mucilage known also as ‘sea snot’ covers the surface of the Marmara Sea
A thick layer of marine mucilage covers the surface of the sea © Bradley Secker/FT

Factories have nearly doubled the deluge of wastewater they discharge into Turkey’s seas in recent years, according to official statistics. The 50,000 tankers that sail through the Marmara each year illegally dump waste and fuel, according to one municipal monitor. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s industry, including an oil refinery, carmakers, chemical plants and power stations, is concentrated in the region.

Most wastewater from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is only treated to remove solids, then pumped to the bottom of the sea. “We use it as our cesspool,” said Levent Artuz, a hydrobiologist at the Marmara Environmental Monitoring Project and author of a new book A Recent History of the Polluting of the Sea of Marmara.

The situation was not helped by the fact that sea temperatures had climbed by an average two degrees Celsius in the Marmara since the start of this century as pollution trapped heat, he said. A state project that diverted the Ergene River, one of Europe’s most toxic waterways, to the Marmara last year was “the tipping point”.

“The essential problem isn’t mucilage. That’s just a link in the chain of decades of degradation,” Artuz said. “We have zero chance of recovering the Sea of Marmara as it was. What we have to do now is figure out how to prevent the Marmara from harming us.”

Sea snot and pollution can be seen in the Marmara Sea
Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage seen across the Marmara Sea in late July © Bradley Secker/FT

The borders of the Marmara Sea, which has been heavily affected by the ‘sea snot’
Scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented © Bradley Secker/FT

In recent years, marine life has died in mass mortality events, and there have been infestations of jellyfish and algal blooms such as red tides and mucilage.

But scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented. Phytoplankton is flourishing because of nutrient-rich sewage and fertiliser from agricultural runoff while overfishing has wiped out populations of small fish and crustaceans that would consume the algae.

Gone are the mackerel, tuna, swordfish and other seafood that Istanbul was known for. This year’s haul was down 90 per cent from 2020 as mucilage clogged and dragged off nets, said Erdogan Kartal, the head of Istanbul’s fishing co-operative. “Even if we could supply fish markets, customers aren’t buying out of disgust.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has vowed to crack down on polluters and “save our seas from this scourge of mucilage”. Thousands of cubic metres of the sea snot had been vacuumed up, the country’s environment minister said. In early July, he pronounced the Marmara “cleaner and bluer” than before.

Turkey is the only G20 country that has not ratified the Paris accords on climate change, and grassroots movements to protect the environment are often viewed as provocateurs by the government.

Authorities have refused to register a new Green party eager to fight climate change. Scientists also say that a planned shipping canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara could deplete oxygen in the Marmara and promote hydrogen sulphur gas that would envelop Istanbul with the stench of rotten eggs. Erdogan’s transportation minister argues that the cleaner water coming through from the Black Sea would improve the quality of the Marmara.

Along the way, there have been successes for Topcu and members of Istanbul’s Marine Life Conservation Society (MLCS). They secured protected status for the tiny outcrop of Neandros this April, stopping boats from dropping anchors or trawling for fish near its corals. They spent two summers transplanting fan-like yellow sea whips to Neandros after a nearby colony of the golden Eunicella cavolini was buried in debris from a government construction project.

“We carried them like a heart or kidney for transplant, keeping them in cold water and in the dark to prevent shock,” said Serco Eskiyan of the MLCS. It took more than 100 dives to harvest and replant 300 corals 30 metres down.

Eda Eryalçın Topçu (left), Marine biologist at Istanbul University, preparing her equipment prior to a research dive next to Tavsan Adasi
Topcu, left, prepares her research equipment before diving in the Sea of Marmara © Bradley Secker/FT

Eda Eryalçın Topçu, Marine biologist at Istanbul University, shows a photo from a research dive next to Tavsan Adasi, in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul, after repeatedly applying good bacteria to the coral, to combat the ‘sea snot’ which continues to kill the sea bed ecosystem
A photo from a dive. Sea snot continues to kill the seabed ecosystem, clogging corals © Bradley Secker/FT

But Eskiyan, who has dived the waters off the islands since the 1970s and knows the area “like the rooms in my house”, was unable to locate the transplants in July, blinded by the sea snot that reduced visibility to a metre or two. “It looks like a different planet,” said Topcu.

A generation ago, the Marmara’s rich fauna included seahorses, poisonous scorpionfish and great white sharks, now all gone, though Eskiyan still occasionally confronts a rare angular roughshark when he hunts for “ghost nets” abandoned by industrial fishing boats that choke the corals. The MLCS has collected 32,000 square metres of the meshing since 2015.

“I have faith in the sea’s ability to renew itself from the damage people do. But now I question how much longer it can fight back,” Topcu said.



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Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals

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Ransomware updates

In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers. 

Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this. 

Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.

Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks. 

Chart showing that ransomware attempts reached an unprecedented level in 2021

Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts. 

While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.

Chart showing the median size of companies targeted by ransomware (number of employees)

Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.

The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.

Chart showing that ransomware demands can often be negotiated down

To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them. 

According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.

Chart showing publically reported ransomware attacks on US healthcare, public, state or local government and schools, by month

Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.

“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.



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France delays EDF reforms after failure to agree terms with Brussels

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EDF updates

France has been forced to delay the restructuring of state-owned utility EDF after it failed to agree the terms with the EU, a setback to a major economic reform promised by President Emmanuel Macron.

“Significant progress has been made in our discussions with the European Commission, but to date we have not reached an overall agreement,” said a government official. “Therefore it is not possible to submit a draft law to parliament if the principle points of the reform have not been agreed to in advance.”

Jean-Bernard Lévy, EDF chief executive, on Thursday declined to provide a specific timetable for when the reform could be completed, but analysts said it would likely prove difficult at least until after the French presidential elections next April.

“I regret that this reform that is indispensable to EDF cannot happen now,” said Levy. “Our short term [prospects] are guaranteed, but our medium and long term are not if we want to play in the big leagues, which is what is expected of EDF.”

Dubbed Project Hercules, the planned overhaul of EDF was meant to give it the financial firepower to invest in both nuclear and renewable energy in the coming decades.

An important element would be changing the mechanism and regulated prices at which EDF sells nuclear power, which provides 70 per cent of France’s electricity. France wanted to push through higher regulated prices for nuclear power, so EDF could pay down heavy debts and absorb the high costs of maintaining its nuclear reactors.

But Brussels would have to approve such a change because of its remit to ensure free competition in the energy sector and to prevent member states from unfairly bailing out companies.

The plan would effectively split up EDF by creating a government-owned mother company, EDF Bleu, containing the nuclear assets as well as a hydroelectric subsidiary. Another subsidiary, EDF Vert, would house renewable assets, the networks and services businesses, and would be publicly listed with about a third sold to raise funds to boost EDF’s green energy investments.

Macron has argued that the changes are vital for EDF to flourish and keep up with rivals. Given that France owns almost 84 per cent of the group, the government had also hoped the reforms would lighten the state’s financial burden.

But the overhaul has been caught in wrangling with the commission. Le Monde reported that the key sticking point was how the relationship between the newly created entities would work and whether cash could freely flow between them as if the company were still fully integrated.

The French finance ministry, which has piloted the talks, and the Elysée Palace declined to comment further on the details.

EDF’s powerful labour unions had opposed the plan as a prelude to the group being broken up or privatised, and have also raised concerns that it would pave the way for nuclear energy to be marginalised.

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“We celebrate the knockout punch delivered to Hercules,” the far-left CGT union said. “The only aim of these manoeuvres is to pull off juicy financial transactions at the expense of consumers and EDF employees.”

EDF shares fell as much as 4 per cent on Thursday as the reform’s failure overshadowed strong second-quarter financial results that showed the utility rebounding as economic activity picked up despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Barclays analysts wrote in a note that investors were being too pessimistic on the outlook for the reform even if its timing was hard to predict.

“We continue to believe that ultimately there will be an agreement between the EU and France on EDF’s reorganisation.”

Additional reporting by David Keohane



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