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A Former Marine Was Freed From “Wrongful Detention” in Russia, but Concerns Remain for Brittney Griner and Others




US Marine veteran Trevor Reed is on his way home after being released from Russia, where officials said he was wrongfully detained since 2019.

“Today, our prayers have been answered and Trevor is safely on his way back to the United States,” his family said in a statement.

Reed’s release came as part of a prisoner swap with Russia, with the US sending back Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced in 2011 to a 20-year prison term for importing more than $100 million of cocaine.

The surprise prisoner exchange was the result of long and difficult negotiations between the US and Russia, according to both countries. The fraught diplomacy was made all the more extraordinary because of the utter collapse of relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

President Joe Biden, who met with the Reed family last month, said in a statement on Wednesday that the negotiations to release him “required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly.”

“I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence,” Biden said. “And I was delighted to be able to share with them the good news about Trevor’s freedom.”

Reed, 30, was imprisoned for allegedly assaulting a police officer while he was drunk, but his family and US diplomats said he was innocent, describing the evidence against him at trial as “preposterous” and “absurd.” Instead, they said he was being held as a bargaining chip.

In recent weeks, Reed’s health had deteriorated and he had been hospitalized with signs of tuberculosis and a possible broken rib, according to the State Department, making his release all the more urgent.

Reed’s family said Biden’s decision to go ahead with the prisoner swap may have saved the former Marine’s life. They had previously expressed fears that Reed might suffer the same fate as Otto Warmbier, the American student held for 17 months in North Korea who went into a coma after his 2017 release and died.

The State Department has previously declined to identify exactly how many Americans have been detained in Russia, but there are at least two high-profile prisoners who remain behind bars there: Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Whelan, another former Marine, has been detained the longest, having been first arrested at the end of 2018, and accused of being an American spy. His family has denied this, but he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department official now acting as a pro bono attorney for the Wheeler family, said they had “complex feelings” about Wednesday’s news.

“They wish the family the very best, but they also view this as a missed opportunity,” Fayhee said, pointing to the different crimes the two swapped prisoners were convicted of. “It was a pretty high price to pay. If you make a comparison between the two people who’ve gone home today, to not include Paul in that is a missed opportunity.”

Fayhee called on Biden to meet with the Whelans like he did with the Reeds, and consider alternative options than prisoner exchanges in order to free him.

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The WHO Has Nearly Tripled Its Estimate of the Pandemic’s Death Toll




The problem is that 85 of the 194 countries surveyed by the WHO technical advisory group that came up with the new estimates don’t have good enough death registries for this to be a viable approach. Forty-one of those countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

For these countries, a team led by Jonathan Wakefield, a statistician at the University of Washington in Seattle, used the data from countries with complete death registries to build another statistical model able to predict total COVID deaths in any month from other measures, including temperature, the percentage of COVID tests returning positive, a rating of the stringency of social distancing and other measures to limit infection, and rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease — conditions that put people at high risk of dying from COVID.

The Indian health ministry objected strongly to this model in its response to the New York Times article. But the WHO team didn’t actually use it to estimate Indian COVID deaths. India falls into an intermediate group of countries that have reasonably good data on total deaths in some regions but not in others. So Wakefield’s team used data from 17 Indian states with adequate death registries, applied the standard excess deaths approach used for countries with complete death registries, and then extrapolated from these states to the entire country.

“We only base the predictions of how many people died in India in those two years on Indian data,” Wakefield told BuzzFeed News.

Importantly, the WHO’s estimates for Indian COVID deaths also align well with other studies, including one published in the journal Science in January by a team led by Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto in Canada. Jha’s team estimated COVID deaths from Indian government data and from a national survey of 137,000 people, conducted by a polling company that asked people whether a family member had died from COVID. “India has pretty high cellphone coverage, and they did random digit dialing,” Jha told BuzzFeed News.

Jha’s team estimated that more than 3.2 million people in India had died from COVID by July 2021, the majority of them during the devastating surge in COVID caused by the Delta coronavirus variant between April and June 2021. That came after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had relaxed COVID controls following an earlier, less severe wave. “The Indian government declared victory and said, ‘Oh India’s beat this virus,’ and complacency set in,” Jha said.

This explains the political sensitivity in India about accepting the results from studies that indicate a much higher death toll than the official count. Responding to a question from leaders of the opposition Congress party about Jha’s study in February, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare described it as “speculative” and claimed it “lacks any peer reviewed scientific data” — even though it was published in one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed scientific journals.

“It’s politics,” Jha said of the Indian government’s rejection of his study.

According to the WHO, Egypt has proportionately the largest undercount of pandemic deaths, with excess mortality running at 11.6 times the toll attributed to COVID. India, with 9.9 times more excess deaths than its official COVID death count, is in second place. Russia, meanwhile, has reported 3.5 times fewer deaths from COVID than indicated by its excess mortality.

Ariel Karlinsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, another member of the WHO technical advisory group, hopes the agency’s “stamp of approval” for excess mortality calculations will encourage nations to come up with more realistic numbers. “Putin doesn’t know who I am, but they do know who the WHO is,” he told BuzzFeed News.

But rather than moving to correct their COVID death numbers, some governments are apparently now withholding the all-cause mortality data used to calculate excess deaths. Belarus, which seems to be undercounting its COVID deaths by a factor of about 12, has stopped reporting its all-cause mortality data to the UN, Karlinsky said. “The sections on mortality just disappeared.”

Right now, the main concern is China, which is experiencing a significant wave of the Omicron coronavirus variant but is reporting suspiciously few deaths. If the wave now hitting Shanghai and other cities matches the pattern seen in Hong Kong since February, Jha fears that a million Chinese people may die.

Some countries have responded to excess mortality studies with greater accountability and transparency. After earlier excess deaths analyses suggested that Peru was underreporting its COVID deaths by a factor of 2.7, the South American nation went through its medical and death records in detail and revised its death toll in May 2021 to a figure closely matching the excess deaths analysis. It is now reporting the highest official per-capita death rate from COVID of any nation. “Peru did what I would have liked every country to do,” Karlinsky said.

The WHO’s new estimates of total excess pandemic deaths will include people who died from other causes because health systems were overwhelmed, as well as people killed by the coronavirus.

Karlinsky, who is an economist, said he started analyzing excess deaths because he wondered whether “the cure was worse than the disease” — in particular, he feared that lockdowns could cause more deaths than the coronavirus, in part through increases in suicides. But the data told a very different story.

In countries like New Zealand that had strict lockdowns but low levels of COVID, there is no excess deaths signal. There is also no evidence of a global epidemic of suicide during the pandemic — in the US, suicides actually decreased. Only in a few countries like Nicaragua, where people seem to have avoided going to the hospital because they were worried about getting infected, are there signs that deaths from other causes such as heart disease have increased, according to Karlinsky.

“Excess mortality is about equal to COVID mortality,” he added.

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Jill Biden Made a Surprise Visit to Ukraine to Meet With Their First Lady




After almost two hours in Ukraine, Biden’s motorcade returned to Slovakia.

The US first lady has been on a tour of Eastern Europe to meet with American troops and Ukrainian refugees.

Earlier on Sunday, she met with volunteers in Slovakia assisting refugees and visited another school where children were making crafts projects for Mother’s Day.

“The hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine,” Biden told the people gathered.

The classroom was full of families whose husbands and fathers have stayed behind to fight in Ukraine.

One woman told the pool reporter traveling with Biden that the first lady’s visit was encouraging.

“It means support for us,” the woman said. “We are very tired. This is emotional support for us.”

A number of American officials have visited Ukraine in recent weeks in order to show solidarity, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Also visiting the embattled country on Sunday was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met with Zelensky in Kyiv, and U2 stars Bono and the Edge, who performed inside a train station in the capital.

But Sunday also saw yet more bloodshed in Ukraine after the bombing of a school where civilians had been sheltering in the eastern village of Bilohorivka.

A regional official said as many as 60 people were feared to have died.

“We have called out the Russians very early on for committing war crimes, and this contributes to that,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said to CNN about the bombing. “We’re going to continue to work with the Ukrainian prosecutors and others to document evidence of their war crimes so that they can be held accountable. This just adds to the long list that we already have.”

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Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis Played a Starring Role in the Trooping the Colour




For the first time, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis rode in a carriage together for the annual Trooping the Colour parade, as the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations kicked off in London on Thursday.

The children rode with their mother, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton), and step-grandmother, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Their father, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, participated in the military parade on horseback.

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