NASA Awards US Companies Contracts for Human Moon Landing

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The U.S. space agency NASA has awarded contracts to three American companies to develop spacecraft to land humans on the moon by 2024. In a remote news conference Thursday, NASA announced it had selected Blue Origin, the space exploration company owned by Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, and owner and founder of Amazon; Dynetics, a subsidiary of research company Leidos that is based in the city of Huntsville, Alabama; and SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, and owned by businessman Elon Musk. NASA says the companies will compete to design and develop systems for the agency’s Artemis program, which has the goal of landing men and women on the surface of the moon for the first time since the 1970s. The project would also develop systems by 2028 that could be used for people to explore the solar system. NASA’s statement says the three commercial partners will refine their moon lander concepts through February 2021. The agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions, and from those missions, NASA will select the final lunar lander. The Washington Post reports both NASA and the White House must still convince Congress to fund the program, which is projected to cost $35 billion through 2024. 

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UN Urges World Community to Prevent Child Hunger During Coronavirus Pandemic

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Two United Nations agencies called on the global community Wednesday to prevent hunger and malnutrition among the 370 million children who are not receiving school meals due to the closure of schools worldwide in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.The U.N. said school meals are particularly vital for girls, especially those in poor countries, whose struggling parents often send them to school to get meals, allowing them to avoid domestic responsibilities or early marriage.”For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day,” said David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP). “Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty. We must act now to prevent the health pandemic from becoming a hunger catastrophe.”The U.N. said children in impoverished countries also are missing out on health and nutrition services at school, such as vitamin supplements and vaccinations.FILE – School canteen workers prepare meals to be distributed to people as part of an emergency plan by the Lisbon city hall to mitigate the social impact of the coronavirus epidemic at the Loios school in Lisbon, April 14, 2020.”School is so much more than a place of learning. For many children it is a lifeline to safety, health services and nutrition,” said United Nations Children’s Fund Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Unless we act now, by scaling up lifesaving services for the most vulnerable children, the devastating fallout caused by COVID-19 will be felt for decades to come.”The U.N.’s secretary-general recently issued a report indicating hundreds of millions of children are not getting meals at schools due to closures, prompting the WFP and UNICEF to collaborate with national governments to support them during the coronavirus crisis.The WFP and governments are currently providing children in 68 countries with alternatives to school meals, such as cash transfers, take-home rations and vouchers.The WFP and UNICEF said they also will soon begin helping governments in the coming months to resume meal, nutrition and health programs when schools reopen.Additionally, the agencies said they are using internet technology displayed via an online map to track children who are not getting school meals. UNICEF and the WFP said they are asking for $600 million to initially concentrate on 30 “low-income or fragile” countries.The agencies said their work is “closely aligned” with the UNESCO-led Global Education Coalition, a worldwide initiative to help guarantee that children are able to keep learning despite the COVID-19 crisis.
 

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UN: New Polio Outbreak in Niger After Vaccination Suspended

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The World Health Organization says Niger has been struck by a new outbreak of polio, following the suspension of immunization activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.N. health agency reported that two children were infected by the highly infectious, water-borne disease and that one was paralyzed. The outbreak was sparked by a mutated virus that originated in the vaccine and was not connected to a previous polio epidemic Niger stopped last year, WHO said, in a statement last week.  
“The poliovirus will inevitably continue to circulate and may paralyze more children as no high-quality immunization campaigns can be conducted in a timely manner,” said Pascal Mkanda, WHO’s coordinator of polio eradication in Africa.  
In rare cases, the live virus in oral polio vaccine can evolve into a form capable of igniting new outbreaks among non-immunized children; stopping the epidemic requires more targeted vaccination.  
Earlier this month, WHO and partners announced they were forced to halt all polio vaccination activities until at least June 1, acknowledging the decision would inevitably result in more children being paralyzed.  
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been 33,500 cases and 1,469 deaths as of Tuesday, but experts suspect the real numbers are far higher due to lack of testing and poor surveillance.
Eradicating polio requires more than 90% of children being immunized, typically in mass campaigns involving millions of health workers that would break social distancing guidelines needed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
Across Africa, 14 other countries are struggling to contain their polio epidemics, which have also been caused by a rare mutation of the virus in the oral vaccine. Health officials had initially aimed to wipe out polio by 2000, but that deadline has been pushed back and missed repeatedly.

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Orphaned, Abused, Exploited: The Coronavirus Threat to Children  

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Children could be the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that the disease affects mostly older people, according to human rights groups.  It is estimated that 1.5 billion children worldwide are missing school. The outbreak is having myriad other impacts on young people, with hundreds of thousands orphaned by the disease that the coronavirus causes.  “More and more children are going to be left without parents,” said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch. “We’ve seen from the Ebola crisis, for example, the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, that when children are orphaned, they become much more vulnerable to sex trafficking, to child labor and other forms of exploitation.” A recent report from the International Labor Organization warned that 200 million people could lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic.  “As parents lose their employment, especially in developing countries, we often see more and more children pushed into child labor to try and help families just meet their basic needs,” Becker said. “And correspondingly, there’s also a trend towards early and child marriage, with girls feeling the pressure to marry to get out of the house and relieve the pressure on their parents.”  The most vulnerable are feeling the effects first. Many charities report that children living on the streets are struggling to find food and shelter amid the outbreak.  In rich countries, poorer children are missing out on school lunches, which is often their one big meal of the day. “It’s a bit tough right now, considering we don’t really have work to get food,” said 17-year-old student Raylyn Riviera, who was among dozens of people lining up for free food outside a New York high school this week. “So, we have to make do with what we have.” Elsewhere, with Russia in lockdown, activists there report a big spike in domestic violence. Becker said it is a pattern repeated in many countries. “As parents become anxious about their health, about their finances, about their jobs, and as tensions rise as people are together 24/7, the risk of violence really escalates,” she said. There are also concerns that children are missing out on vital immunization programs as health systems prioritize coronavirus patients. Human Rights Watch is urging governments to put children at the center of their coronavirus response policies, with greater efforts to expand access to education and provide economic assistance to vulnerable families. 

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Large Asteroid to Fly by Earth Wednesday

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An asteroid just over two kilometers wide will pass close to earth Wednesday. But scientists with the U.S. space agency, NASA, say the object poses no threat to the planet.The asteroid is known as 1998 OR2, named for the year it was first discovered. It will safely pass at a distance of 6.3 million kilometers from Earth — about 16 times the distance between the Earth and the moon.NASA scientists say by astronomical standards, that distance still classifies the asteroid as a “near-earth” object and worth watching. The space agency considers objects that pass within 48 million kilometers of our planet a “near-earth” object. NASA maintains a planetary defense coordination office that keeps track of such objects and plots their courses through space. In an interview posted on the space agency’s website, NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies manager Paul Chodas say they believe they have found and tracked about 90% of the near-earth objects that are at least a kilometer wide and could pose a threat to earth.Chodas says none they have found pose a significant threat to earth. But NASA’s Planetary Defense officer, Lindley Johnson, says any object impacting Earth large enough to do significant damage is extremely rare — but inevitable.Should such an object be identified, the scientists say there are a variety of plans to protect early, depending on the lead time.Those plans range from sending a spacecraft to nudge the object onto a course safely away from Earth, or, if there was much less time, using nuclear weapons to break up or destroy the object.
 

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China Slams India’s Decision to Stop Using ‘Faulty’ Chinese Rapid Test Kits

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A decision by India to suspend the use of Chinese rapid testing kits for COVID-19 on the grounds that they are faulty has been slammed by the Chinese embassy in New Delhi as “unfair and irresponsible.”    The Indian government medical research agency that is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak has said it planned to return the test kits to the two Chinese firms from where they were procured and asked health authorities across the country to stop using them due to “wide variations” in their performance.    India had procured half a million antibody test kits earlier this month in a bid to ramp up testing amid concerns that its fight to slow the pandemic is being hampered by extremely low levels of testing. They are meant to detect antibodies in people who may have had the infection and were to serve as surveillance tools in hotspots.  
The kits, which deliver a result in about 30 minutes, were tested by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) after health authorities in some states complained that they had an extremely low accuracy rate. They said the kits had been used on patients whom they already knew were positive for COVID-19, but the tests had shown a “negative” result for antibodies. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.   “The results have shown wide variation in their sensitivity,” the ICMR said on Monday.    In a statement, Chinese Embassy spokesperson Ji Rong, speaking in New Delhi, said, “It is unfair and irresponsible for certain individuals to label Chinese products as ‘faulty’ and look at issues with pre-emptive prejudice.”    China was trying to help India fight the coronavirus with concrete action and it made sure the quality of its medical exports was a priority with manufacturers, according to the statement.     China said the test kits were qualified medical products which had strict requirements for their use, storage and transportation. “Any operation which is not carried out by professionals in accordance with the product specifications will lead to the testing accuracy variations,” according to Ji.    She said Beijing will continue to support India’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.     China has become the largest manufacturer and exporter of medical equipment and protective gear as the pandemic wreaks havoc across the world. China has also faced a slew of complaints from several countries about faulty face masks and protective gear sold by its companies.    The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India currently stands at 29,451 and 939 people have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking cases worldwide. 
 

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UK Mourns Front-Line Workers Who Have Died from Coronavirus

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The U.K. held a minute’s silence Tuesday for all front-line workers who have died from the coronavirus, as official figures showed a new weekly high in the total number of deaths in England and Wales.
As clocks struck 11 a.m., senior political leaders, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, joined hospital and nursing home staff in observing the silence. London’s subway and bus networks came to a halt as workers honored colleagues, and Westminster Abbey paid tribute to “the sacrifice of health and care workers who have lost their lives in the service of others.”
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said 82 workers in the National Health Service and 16 social care staff had died so far. Other workers, including a number of bus drivers in London, have also died after testing positive for COVID-19.  
The minute’s silence had been campaigned for by the Unison union, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal of College of Nursing.
Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said it was “important to pay tribute” and urged all front-line workers be “afforded the greatest protection.” The government has been criticized for not having sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment.
“An even greater task now remains — to stop more joining the tragic number of those who have died,” she said.  
Johnson, who returned to work on Monday after recovering from COVID-19, tweeted that the country “will not forget you.”
Johnson has said he won’t risk a second peak in the virus by relaxing the lockdown restrictions too soon. The country, he said, was at the point of “maximum risk” even though it was coming out of the “first phase of this conflict.”  
Ministers have been reluctant to talk about easing the restrictions, which are due to last until May 7, and the government has set five tests before contemplating such a move, including “a sustained and consistent” fall in the daily death rate and clear evidence that the rate of infection has decreased.
Though England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales moved into lockdown together, some divergences are emerging. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government was recommending the use of face coverings in limited circumstances, such as when using public transport or buying food. The U.K. government hasn’t made such a recommendation.  
The Office for National Statistics also said Tuesday that 22,351 people in England and Wales died in the week ending April 17, the highest since comparable records began in 1993. The total was more than double the rolling five-year average.
In its analysis of death certificates, which take longer to compile than deaths recorded in hospitals, the statistics agency said the coronavirus was mentioned as one of the causes of death in 8,758 cases, nearly 40% of the total.
It also said that 4,316 deaths involving COVID-19 had been registered up to April 17 outside of hospitals with 3,096 in care homes. The equivalent figure for hospital deaths over the period is 14,796.  
The daily figures presented by the government only show the number of people dying in U.K. hospitals, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. As of Monday, 21,092 people had died in U.K. hospitals. 

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Smartphone App Warns If You’ve Been Exposed to COVID-19

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Communities in the United States and around the world are talking about when and how to ease lockdown measures as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. This disease and how it spreads presents some unique challenges. People without symptoms can infect others, and for some, it can be deadly. What if a smartphone app could let you know if you have been exposed? Michelle Quinn reports.

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YouTube Expands Fact-Check Feature to US Video Searches During COVID-19 Pandemic

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YouTube, the video service of Alphabet Inc’s Google, said on Tuesday it would start showing text and links from third-party fact checkers to U.S. viewers, part of efforts to curb misinformation on the site during the COVID-19 pandemic. The information panels, launched in Brazil and India last year, will highlight third-party, fact-checked articles above search results for specific topics such as “covid and ibuprofen.” Social media sites including Facebook are under pressure to combat misinformation relating to the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, from false cures to conspiracy theories. YouTube said in a blog post that more than a dozen U.S. publishers are participating in its fact-checking network.
 

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Smartphone App Warns If You’ve Been Exposed to Coronavirus

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The smartphone in your pocket may soon let you know if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.As communities around the world consider the first steps toward reopening, there is fear that once people begin moving, the virus will spread. But COVID-19 presents unique challenges to stop its spread. Some who are infected never had symptoms; those who do fall ill can spread the disease for a day or two before experiencing a cough or body chills, some of the common COVID-19 symptoms.Apple, Google and others are working on a plan to use smartphones to inform those who have crossed paths with an infected person. They call it “exposure notification.” A digital tool for health authoritiesNext month, Apple, the maker of the iPhone, and Google, whose Android operating system powers the majority of smartphones in the world, will release software tools that will allow devices to exchange information via Bluetooth. Public health authorities and their partners will build apps that they will use to notify people if they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.But will it work? There are many hurdles ahead. Many people will need to download the app for it to work properly, and many may want to be reassured that their privacy won’t be compromised, their data won’t be hacked. And there are many technical challenges. For example, if the app reduces the phone’s ability to function.“This is complicated because it’s untested speculative technology,” said Harper Reed, an entrepreneur and former chief technology officer for the Obama campaign. “If it doesn’t work, we can put people in danger. But if it does work, early notification of exposure can dramatically help our communities limit and survive COVID-19.”WATCH: Here’s how contact tracing works Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline. Embed” />CopyWhere does the data live?Around the world, there’s a debate about technology and policy. Should government health authorities collect data or should the data live on smartphones? Apple, Google and some groups in the U.S. insist the data should live on phones — to protect people’s privacy but also to make the data less of a target for hackers.Some governments are working on apps that use global positioning system (GPS) data. The Apple and Google technology does not. If the app is private and secure, people are more likely to use it, said Henry de Valence with the TCN Coalition, a coalition of app developers and others working on the technology and policies underlying exposure notification.“People want to be able to help out and contain the spread of disease,” he said. “And so if you give them an option that poses no risk to them, but allows them to help themselves and others, people are just going to opt into that without having to be required to.”There are many unknowns still about how an exposure notification app will work and whether it will see widespread adoption. But there’s hope that technology may play a role in slowing down the virus’s spread.

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