A newly launched satellite gives researchers near-real-time clues about climate conditions on Earth. Plus, a look at this week’s spaceflight history, and a slightly more affordable way to experience weightlessness. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space.
A company in suburban Washington, D.C., is using cutting-edge technology to create lifelike video avatars to drop into music and training videos, games and other immersive environments. It’s an entry point to the so-called metaverse, as VOA’s Arzouma Kompaoré discovered while touring Avatar Dimension’s new studio.
COVID-19 infections have hit a new record in the Australian state of Victoria. Authorities blame rule-breakers for the latest surge in cases.
More than 1,400 new daily locally acquired cases of COVID-19 were reported in Victoria Thursday. Five more people have died.
The numbers have soared despite some of Australia’s strictest stay-at-home orders. Melbourne, the Victorian state capital, has become the third-most locked-down city in the world according to the city’s mayor. Residents have endured more than 235 days of lockdown since the pandemic began. Household visits are banned.
Victorian authorities have said illegal gatherings and house parties over a public holiday long weekend the last weekend in September were behind the sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the state. Officials also said many people had ignored lockdown directives to be with friends and family to watch the Australian Rules Football grand final on television, one of the country’s most popular sporting events.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said when rules are broken, infections increase.
“They go up faster, of course, if people do not follow the rules,” he said. “They go up faster if people are out visiting each other in their homes. That is not a sense of blame. If people continue to visit each other in their homes, they will bring the virus with them, they will spread the virus. Many of these cases were completely avoidable.”
A recently discovered delta variant cluster is causing concern in Queensland state, while 941 new infections and six deaths were reported Thursday in neighboring New South Wales.
Millions of Australians remain in lockdown in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and other parts of eastern Australia.
Despite a surge in cases, authorities are pressing ahead with plans to ease lockdowns as vaccination rates increase.
In New South Wales, lockdown restrictions will end for fully immunized residents when rates hit 70%. They currently stand at 64%.
Federal authorities have said Australia’s international borders, which have been closed to most foreign nationals since March 2020, should reopen by Christmas.
A total of 102,700 coronavirus cases have been detected in Australia since the pandemic began, 1,278 people have died.
In the shadows of Washington’s government office buildings, Gary Hayes searches for another dose of heroin, chasing a high that will last only a few hours before he wants more.
“It’s hard to stop using when you are living on the streets and there’s no treatment help,” Hayes told VOA. The 28-year-old Black man, who lives in a homeless tent encampment in the nation’s capital, has struggled with substance abuse disorder for a decade.
“I overdosed twice in the last year, but I know several people who died,” Hayes said, reflecting on the deadly opioid epidemic playing out during another health tragedy, the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics released in July. U.S. health officials attribute the rise in deaths to powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Overdose deaths: Black vs. white
In the District of Columbia, more than 400 people died from opioid overdoses last year, and most were African American. The medical examiner’s office reported that fentanyl or fentanyl analogs were present in many cases.
“In some communities, we’ve seen deaths among African Americans eclipse the death rates among whites over the past several years,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “Many people who have died from the opioid epidemic or otherwise developed addiction are African American or other people of color living in urban areas.”
Opioid overdose deaths among African Americans have been on the rise since 2013, according to a study published in the journal Addiction. Simultaneously, opioid use among white Americans leveled off for the first time since the 1990s, when doctors began overprescribing the opioid painkiller that sparked the health crisis.
“Historically, the opioid epidemic has at times been painted as an epidemic of rural white working-class families, but opioids don’t discriminate,” Alexander told VOA. “The addiction that one develops looks just the same, regardless of the color of your skin.”
According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 lives in the U.S. were lost to overdoses involving opioids, both prescription and illicit types. The epidemic has impacted many communities, and U.S. health officials believe the crisis has worsened since the pandemic started.
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest data show a sharp rise in overdoses during the pandemic.
“It’s gone from being called the opioid crisis to the overdose crisis,” said harm reduction activist Britt Carpenter, director of the Philly Unknown Project, a group that advocates for the homeless. He says the pandemic has reversed progress made in reducing opioid addiction in recent years.
Carpenter walks the streets of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, trying to help the homeless people he sees using opioids. “It’s been a younger demographic of users from the suburbs in their 20s, coming into the city to live on the streets and use drugs,” Carpenter told VOA. “In the last 18 months, some of the neighborhood streets have become overwhelmingly filled again with people.”
In August, Philadelphia city workers and police cleared out two large homeless encampments in Kensington, where, according to officials, hundreds of people had been living and several drug overdoses had been reported. “The outreach and recovery world have their hands full now,” Carpenter said.
In Philadelphia County, illicit fentanyl was present in more than 80% of drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In September, the DEA issued a public safety alert warning Americans of an alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“Drug traffickers, both here and abroad, are increasingly using counterfeit pills to package and distribute the poison that illicit fentanyl is,” said Thomas Hodnett, acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s Philadelphia Division. Law enforcement officials say most of the counterfeit pills coming into the United States are produced in Mexico and China.
U.S. health officials believe the pandemic lockdowns and the availability of potent drugs last year dramatically increased overdoses and addiction rates.
“I know a lot of people who had made progress in their recovery, then relapsed,” Arman Maddela, a recovering addict, told Reuters. Maddala, who lives in San Diego, California, lost his sobriety and began using heroin and fentanyl last year. “Being alone and isolated in your living space without any reason to leave the house is enough for someone struggling with addiction to relapse and dig themselves into a hole,” he said.
Harm reduction advocate Carpenter agrees. “One trait of addiction is isolation. The pandemic lockdowns made it hard for people to attend support group meetings in person or visit their therapists.”
With the easing of many pandemic restrictions this year, more drug counseling programs reopened in-person services. At the same time, U.S. medical researchers are working to develop new treatments for opioid addiction with further hopes of reducing fatal drug overdoses.
Clinical trials are under way for the first vaccine to be tested in the U.S. for opioid abuse disorder. The vaccine would create antibodies that prevent opioids such as oxycodone from reaching the brain and later impairing a person’s breathing. The serum could be given in combination with other opioid-based medications used to treat addiction.
“A vaccine that lasts for several months could help many more people beat their addiction and potentially protect them from an overdose death if a patient relapses,” said Sandra Comer, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, where the research is being conducted.
With billions of dollars being spent on the coronavirus pandemic, some health care specialists are calling on the government to allocate more money for comprehensive addiction prevention and treatment programs.
“We need to be sure these treatments are available and that individuals with addiction have unfettered access because it can reduce the risk of dying by as much as 50%,” said Alexander. “We know this can be done because there are millions of Americans living healthy successful lives in recovery today.”
YouTube will ban any video that claims vaccines are ineffective or dangerous, including those that question vaccines for measles and chickenpox, the company announced Wednesday.
“Specifically, content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects, claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease, or contains misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines will be removed,” the Google-owned company said in a blog post announcing the new enforcement measures.
The company said “vaccines in particular have been a source of fierce debate over the years, despite consistent guidance from health authorities about their effectiveness.”
“Today, we’re expanding our medical misinformation policies on YouTube with new guidelines on currently administered vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by local health authorities and the WHO.”
The company said it “will continue to allow content about vaccine policies, new vaccine trials and historical vaccine successes or failures.”
YouTube’s COVID-19 vaccine policy has met with some backlash for being overly aggressive.
On Tuesday, the company removed Russian state-backed broadcaster RT’s German-language channels, saying they violated the company’s COVID-19 policy.
On Wednesday, Russia threatened to block YouTube, calling the channel removals “unprecedented information aggression.”
YouTube said it has removed over 130,000 videos over the past year for violating its COVID-19 policies.
Some information in this report comes from Reuters.
The U.S National Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday is expected to announce the extinction of 23 species, including the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, an elusive bird long-sought after by bird watchers throughout the southeast United States.
The New York Times reports the list of extinctions includes 11 birds, eight freshwater mussels, two fish, a bat and a plant. Many of them were likely extinct, or almost so, by the time the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973.
The measure is intended to provide special protection for rare species on the brink of extinction.
U.S. officials have determined no amount of conservation would have been able to save these particular species.
Fish and Wildlife Species Classification Specialist Bridget Fahey told the Times, “Each of these 23 species represents a permanent loss to our nation’s natural heritage and to global biodiversity. And it’s a sobering reminder that extinction is a consequence of human-caused environmental change.”
Wildlife experts cite loss of habitat, usually due to human activities, as the top driver of extinction of species. Farming, logging, mining and damming take habitat from animals, while pollution and poaching drive down numbers as well.
U.S. government scientists do not declare extinctions casually. It often takes decades of fruitless searching. About half of the species in this group were already considered extinct by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of animals and plants.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tend to move more slowly, in part because it is working through a backlog, but also to exhaust all efforts to follow up reports of sightings.
In the case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, there have been numerous unconfirmed reports of both sightings of the large, colorful red, white and black bird with a large beak and head feathers, and of hearing its distinctive call in the woods.
The U.S. broadcaster National Public Radio reports the IUCN is not putting the bird on its extinction list because they believe it may still exist in parts of Cuba.
Some information in this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters news organizations.
A bunch of new technologies are popping up that could help bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050, and all need investment. Governments worldwide are having to decide which one suits their geography and how much they can spend on a given technology. More with VOA’s Mariama Diallo.
Produced by: Kimberlyn Weeks
Weeks before a high-profile climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, Danish officials are talking up an ambitious program to develop the world’s largest offshore wind energy complex, with the potential to provide enough green energy to power not just Denmark, but some of its neighbors as well.
The complex, to sit on and around an artificial North Sea island about 80 km off Denmark’s coast, would span an area up to the size of 64 soccer fields and support thermal storage facilities, HVDC converters, a heliport, and a research and visitor center.
Energy Island Envisioned by Denmark
“You can have hundreds of wind turbines around this island,” said Dan Jorgensen, Denmark’s climate and energy minister, during a visit to Washington this month. His government calculates that the energy island could yield up to 10 gigawatts of electricity — enough for 10 million households.
“Since we’re only 5.8 million people in Denmark, that’s far more electricity than we’ll need for ourselves, so we want to find other countries to be part of this,” Jorgensen said, adding that Denmark is in talks with other European countries.
The 10-gigawatt estimate is at the high end of what might finally be built. Current planning allows for a range of from three to 10 gigawatts, according to Jorgensen. But even at the low end, the energy island would dwarf the largest existing offshore wind farm — Britain’s Walney Extension Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea that has a capacity to generate 0.66 gigawatts and provide power to 600,000 homes.
The world’s largest wind farm of any kind is a 10-gigawatt complex completed this summer and based in the northwestern Gansu province of China. The next largest of any kind is a 1.6-gigawatt wind farm in Jaisalmer, India.
“It’s the biggest infrastructure investment in the history of my country, but we foresee it will be a good business model,” Jorgensen told VOA.
“There will be some initial costs there, but we’re willing to bear them because this will also mean that we will get the project itself, but also the development know-how, the skills, and the expertise that we want.”
The project is remarkable not just for its size but also for its innovative approach to some of the most difficult obstacles to weaning the world off fossil fuels. These include finding an effective way to store energy generated from wind turbines, and a way to transform the electricity into fuels to power transportation systems.
Denmark’s plan is to transform the electricity into hydrogen, which can be used directly as an energy source or turned into fuels for use “in ships, planes and trucks,” as Jorgensen put it.
“This sounds a bit like science fiction, but actually it’s just science; we know how to do it,” he said.
While talks between the Danish government, industry, scientists and potential investors are still in the early stage, one decision has already been made, Jorgensen said.
“We want at least 50.1% of the island to be publicly owned,” he said, calling the island “critical infrastructure because it’ll be such a huge part of our energy supply.” He added that the actual wind turbines will be owned by investors.
“So far we have seen interest from Danish companies and investment funds; we’ve also seen interest from the governments of several European countries. We expect, of course, this will also mean interest from companies from other countries, definitely European, but probably also others.”
Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a Danish economist based in Brussels, says the ambitious plan is plausible in light of Denmark’s track record in developing green energy.
“There are already many days in which Denmark gets all its electrical power from wind energy, so rapid electrification is coming as are further rapid expansions of offshore wind farms,” he told VOA in an exchange of emails.
He said he has “no doubt” that Denmark will achieve full decarbonization by 2050, “probably even considerably before” that date, thanks to broad public support, especially from the young.
According to the Danish embassy in Washington, more than 50% of Denmark’s electrical grid is already powered by wind and solar energy, and the government projects that renewables will meet 100% of the nation’s electricity needs by 2028.
According to the Pakistani government, over 45,000 angioplasty operations are conducted in Pakistan each year; an operation in which a small mesh tube is inserted into a blocked artery to allow blood to flow through it. Up until recently Pakistan had to import these medical devices, but now they’re being manufactured in country. VOA’s Asim Ali Rana files this report narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.
Camera: Wajid Hussain Shah Produced by: Asim Ali Rana
Arlington County, which is across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is now the first county in Virginia to collect food scraps from single-family households. The aim is to reduce household waste ending up in landfills, as Liliya Anisimova tells us in this story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera – David Gogokhia.
Facebook is putting its Instagram Kids project on hold amid growing concerns about potential harmful effects on young people, including anxiety and depression.
The idea is to provide youngsters with the Instagram social media experience but with no ads, more parental control and age-appropriate content.
U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups have urged Facebook to scrap the plan entirely for safety concerns.
“Today is a watershed moment for the growing tech accountability movement and a great day for anyone who believes that children’s wellbeing should come before Big Tech’s profits,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, an advocacy group focused on children.
“We commend Facebook for listening to the many voices who have loudly and consistently told them that Instagram Youth will result in significant harms to children.”
Golin vowed to continue fighting against Instagram Kids “until they permanently pull the plug.”
While Instagram Kids would require parental permission to join, the company said it was putting the idea on pause to “continue to build opt-in parental supervision tools for teens,” the company said in a blog post.
“We’ll continue our work to allow parents to oversee their children’s accounts by expanding these tools to teen accounts (aged 13 and over) on Instagram.”
The company said the reality is that kids are online and that a product like Instagram Kids would be “better for parents.”
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported internal Facebook documents showed the company knows Instagram can have harmful effects on teens, particularly girls. According to the Journal, Facebook has done little to address the issue.
Facebook called the report inaccurate.
(Some information in this report comes from Reuters.)
The Biden administration is stepping up its work to figure about what to do about the thawing Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.
The White House said Friday it is reactivating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which coordinates domestic regulations and works with other Arctic nations. It also is adding six new members to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, including two Indigenous Alaskans.
The steering committee had been moribund for the past four years, not meeting at a high level, said David Balton, appointed to direct it. He said “it will step up and do more in the Arctic.”
The revamped committee will try to figure out what “needs to be done to get a better handle on addressing the changes in the Arctic,” Balton said.
University of Colorado scientist Twila Moon, who is not involved with the committee or commission, praised the developments. She said that because the Arctic is changing so quickly, “serious issues like national security, stability of buildings and roads, food availability, and much more must be considered and acted on promptly,” Moon said. “The U.S. cannot afford to sit back on Arctic issues.”
Balton, in an interview, said the Arctic is “opening up in a number of ways. Most of this is bad news.”
“But there’s also increased tourism and increased shipping, potentially other industries coming up into the Arctic that need regulation,” he said. “And right now the nations and the peoples of the Arctic are scrambling to keep up with this change.”
The new efforts emphasize working with Indigenous people.
“It’s really important to achieve these goals, so it has to be done in partnership with people who live in the area,” said committee deputy director Raychelle Alauq Daniel, a climate policy analyst and Yup’ik who grew up in Tuntuliak, Alaska.
Superpower tensions are likely to increase in the region as it becomes more ice-free in parts of the year, allowing not just more shipping but the temptation for going after resources such as oil, Balton said.
People who live in the Lower 48 states should still care about what happens in the polar region, Balton said.
“The Arctic is kind of a bellwether for what happens to the planet as a whole. The fate of places like Miami are tied very closely to the fate of Greenland ice sheet,” Balton said. “If you live in Topeka, Kansas, or if you live in California, if you live in Nigeria, your life is going to be affected. … The Arctic matters on all sorts of levels.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday that around 60 million Americans are eligible for a booster shot against the coronavirus.
His announcement came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a third Pfizer shot for those 65 and older, frontline workers and adults with underlying medical conditions.
Biden urged eligible Americans to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, and he said he would get his own shot as soon as possible.
In comments from the White House Friday, Biden said, “Like your first and second shot, the booster shot is free and easily accessible.”
The CDC approved the boosters for Americans 65 or older; frontline workers such as teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19; and those ages 50 to 64 with underlying conditions.
The booster shot will be available for those who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least six months ago. The White House said Friday 20 million Americans are eligible for the shot immediately, while a total of 60 million Pfizer-shot recipients will be eligible for boosters once they reach the six-month mark.
The European Union’s drug watchdog said Thursday it plans to decide in early October whether to approve a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those over age 16.
Elsewhere, Norway’s government said Friday it would end all remaining coronavirus restrictions on Saturday.
“It is 561 days since we introduced the toughest measures in Norway in peacetime. … Now the time has come to return to a normal daily life,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a news conference.
In Australia, health officials announced Friday that more than half the population had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
A wave of coronavirus infections has led to lockdowns in Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the capital, Canberra.
Health officials in South Korea said Friday the country set a record for daily cases with 2,434 in the past 24 hours, surpassing a record set last month.
Officials said that although cases were spiking, the mortality rate and the number of severe cases remain relatively low. They attributed that in large part to a vaccination campaign that prioritized older people and those who were at high risk for disease.
In Singapore, the health ministry announced it was tightening restrictions to fight a wave of coronavirus infections. The new policies include limiting social gatherings to two people, down from five.
The ministry also reported 1,650 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.
Earlier this week, Singapore said 92% of the population had been fully vaccinated. Officials said about 98% of the confirmed coronavirus cases in the past four weeks were in people who had mild or no symptoms.
Russia reported 828 deaths from COVID-19 in past 24 hours on Friday, the country’s highest daily number of the pandemic. The toll breaks the record set a day earlier.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly, “It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1% has gone to low-income countries,”
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.
“The hoarding and inequitable distribution with the resultant uneven vaccination patterns across the globe is not acceptable,” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in a prerecorded message to the assembly on Thursday.
“Vaccine nationalism is self-defeating and contrary to the mantra that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe.’ Whether in the global North or South, rich or poor, old or young, all people of the world deserve access to vaccines.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
A top executive of Chinese communications giant Huawei Technologies has resolved criminal charges against her as part of a deal with the U.S. Justice Department that could pave the way for her to return to China.
The deal with Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, was disclosed in federal court in Brooklyn on Friday. It calls for the Justice Department to dismiss the case next December, or four years after her arrest, if she complies with certain conditions.
The deal, known as a deferred prosecution agreement, resolves a yearslong legal and geopolitical tussle that involved not only the U.S. and China but also Canada, where Meng has remained since her arrest there in December 2018. Meng appeared via videoconference at Friday’s hearing.
The deal was reached as President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have sought to minimize signs of public tension, even as the world’s two dominant economies are at odds on issues as diverse as cybersecurity, climate change, human rights, and trade and tariffs.
A spokesperson for Huawei declined to comment, and a spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Charges unsealed in 2019
Under then-President Donald Trump, the Justice Department unsealed criminal charges in 2019, just before a crucial two-day round of trade talks between the U.S. and China, that accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets. The charges also alleged that Meng had committed fraud by misleading banks about the company’s business dealings in Iran.
The indictment accuses Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company called Skycom to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Meng fought the Justice Department’s extradition request, and her lawyers called the case against her flawed. Last month, a Canadian judge didn’t rule on whether Meng should be extradited to the U.S. after a Canadian Justice Department lawyer wrapped up his case saying there was enough evidence to show she was dishonest and deserved to stand trial in the U.S.
Huawei is the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies, and some analysts say Chinese companies have flouted international rules and norms amid allegations of technology theft. The company represents China’s progress in becoming a technological power and has been a subject of U.S. security and law enforcement concerns.
It has repeatedly denied the U.S. government’s allegations and the security concerns about its products.