Brazil fines Facebook $11.6m over WhatsApp standoff

RIO DE JANEIRO: A judge in Brazil on Wednesday slapped an $11.6 million fine on the local Facebook branch over the company's refusal to surrender data from its WhatsApp messenger program to a police investigation.

The order came from a judge in the northern state of Amazonas, saying Facebook was failing to meet its legal obligations. Facebook Brasil has "shown tremendous disregard for Brazilian institutions," prosecutors added. WhatsApp has been owned by social media giant Facebook since February 2015. The long-running dispute pits Brazilian authorities' insistence that they need access to communications between criminal suspects against Facebook's argument that it is protecting privacy and freedom of communication. Specifics of the police investigation were not disclosed. Facebook did not immediately respond to an email seeing comment on the fine.–AFP

Earlier this month, Brazilian authorities temporarily blocked WhatsApp across the country for the third time in less than a year. The repeated shutdowns have angered users reliant on the free app. Fees for texting and calls are high in Brazil and WhatsApp's group chat and image-sharing functions have become embedded in everyday social interaction.

Last week, Brazilian authorities arrested 12 people after intercepting WhatsApp and Telegram messages suggesting they were plotting a terror strike on the Olympics which open August 5 in Rio de Janeiro.

The Justice Ministry has not said how that communication was obtained.

WhatsApp is estimated to be used by 100 million Brazilians, making Brazil the second biggest user country after South Africa, according to data cited by the court.



Indian state to hunt for life-saving mythical plant

NEW DELHI: A northern Indian state will soon begin a multi-million dollar search in the Himalayas for a mythical plant believed to hold life-saving properties, a local minister said Thursday.

Uttarakhand will spend 250 million rupees ($37 million) of state money hunting the herb Sanjeevani Booti, which is credited in the ancient Hindu text Ramayana with restoring life to the brother of a god.

While many wild plants with medicinal properties grow in the Himalayas, there is scant evidence that the plant ever existed, with sages and modern researchers failing for centuries to find it. "We have to try and it will never go to waste. If we are determined we will certainly find it," Surendra Singh Negi, the state's minister for alternative medicine, told AFP.

The minister said the search will focus on the Dronagiri range of Himalayas near the Chinese border, one mountain of which is mentioned in the epic Ramayana as being the site where the magical herb grows.

"We have set an initial budget of 250 million rupees ($37 million) for the project," Negi said.

Scientists will start work in August, the minister said, adding that the central government has refused to fund the project.

Ancient texts say the plant has life-restoring properties, grows in the high mountains of the Himalayas and glows in the dark.

According to Ramayana, the monkey god Hanuman was tasked by the god Rama with fetching the herb after a healer said it would cure his dying brother Laxman.

But Hanuman failed to identity the plant, instead uprooting the entire mountain and carrying it thousands of miles to treat the mortally injured prince during a war with demons in what is now Sri Lanka.

India's 5,000-year-old medicine system Ayurveda uses herbs to cure ailments and has seen a revival under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.



Scientists find Zika antibodies in step toward vaccine

WASHINGTON: US researchers have identified antibodies in lab mice that may be able to prevent infection with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, in what they described Wednesday as a "significant step" toward a vaccine.

The team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published their findings in the journal Cell.

The research shows how these six antibodies interact with the virus, and that they are specific enough to Zika virus -- and not other viruses -- that they could be used in diagnostic tests, the researchers said. "Importantly, some of our antibodies are able to neutralize African, Asian and American strains of Zika virus to about the same degree," said co-senior author Daved Fremont, professor of pathology and immunology.

However, further research on vaccinating mice is not likely to be helpful, since mice obtain their mothers' antibodies mostly after birth.–AFP

In pregnant women, the mother's protective antibodies cross directly from the placenta to the fetus.

Finding a way to vaccinate pregnant women is key because Zika can cause birth defects.

Unlike most people, pregnant women cannot receive vaccines made from live, weakened viruses because pregnancy suppresses a woman's immune system and the small amount of virus could make the expectant mother ill.

The antibodies will have to be adapted and vaccine trials will likely need to be done in primates before they can be tested in people.

There is no vaccine on the market to prevent Zika, a virus that first emerged in 1947 in Uganda but in recent years has exploded across Central and South America and the Caribbean region.

Experts say the race to craft a vaccine is likely to take years.




WWF urges closure of all tiger farms

GENEVA: The World Wildlife Fund on Thursday called on Asian states to close their tiger farms to boost efforts against the black-market trade in animal parts.

The conservation group said there remained 200 tiger farms in Asia, mostly in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

The tiger population in farms is about 8,000, more than the estimated 3,900 living in the wild, WWF said in a statement ahead of the July 29 International Day of the Tiger.

Many tiger farms have been implicated in the hugely lucrative but illegal trafficking market.  The so-called "Temple of Tigers" in western Thailand was closed in May after Thai wildlife officials discovered dozens of dead cubs inside a freezer. The universal closure of such farms was crucial, WWF said, because "their existence undermines efforts of countries to protect cats living in the wild and creates demand for products made of tiger parts." WWF drew a clear distinction between such farms -- which are only known to exist in Asia -- and zoos that strive to create acceptable conditions for tigers to live in a controlled area. –AFP

A hastily-organised blanket closure of all tiger farms would however be disastrous for the animals, WWF said.

Tigers living in farm-like captivity have become habituated to human presence and cannot simply be released in the wild, the group said.

It said a tiger resettlement plan needed to be in place before the farms were closed.

At a conference in St. Petersburg in 2010, 13 Asian countries agreed to double the number of tigers living in the wild on the continent by 2022, which is China's next Year of the Tiger.