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.
The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved Pfizer vaccine booster shots for some individuals who completed their first vaccinations at least six months ago.
Front-line workers – teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19 – will be able to get the boosters, in addition to people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and other people, 50-64, with underlying conditions.
Rochelle Walensky added the front-line workers to the list of those eligible for the boosters prepared by a CDC’s advisory panel.
Walensky’s move placed the CDC in agreement with the Food and Drug Administration as to who should get the Pfizer booster shots. FDA recommendations Wednesday included frontline workers.
Also included in the eligibility recommendations are people 18-49 with underlying conditions.
Some information for this report is from the Associated Press.
An Australian researcher has developed a new first-aid technique that could save shark attack victims from a fatal loss of blood in the crucial moments after the attack.
The method requires a rescuer or bystander to place his or her fist on the femoral artery, between the hip of the wounded leg and the genitals, and apply pressure using their full body weight to stop blood flow to the leg wound. It is a practice commonly used in some hospital emergency rooms for treating severe leg injuries.
The technique was developed by Dr. Nicholas Taylor, associate dean of the Australian National University Medical School and an avid surfer, and described in a paper published Friday in the Journal of Emergency Medicine Australasia.
Taylor says research has shown that compressing the femoral artery is more effective than applying pressure to a leg wound or using a makeshift tourniquet.
“You don’t need to be necessarily anywhere near the wound to make it work, and in some ways, it is less of a squeamish problem than trying to put pressure on a bleeding limb,” he said. “The trouble with a shark bite, they don’t just cause a clean cut, they cause lots of damage and trauma. They often break bones and rip muscle to pieces, and so trying to push on something to stop it bleeding is almost impossible. But pushing on the groin where there is no blood is actually an easy thing to do.”
Taylor says surfers are at a higher risk of a shark attack, and leg wounds are the most common injury. He says he would like his method to be promoted on first-aid posters at beaches around the world.
“On the International Shark Attack File, most of the shark attacks happen in the USA, followed by Australia, then South Africa and then Europe, and there’s a few islands like Reunion, which tends to get a, you know, disproportionate number of shark attacks,” he said. “Australia was unlucky to lead the world in fatalities in the last couple of years. You know, anywhere where there’s sharks, people are at potential risk, and I think this technique, if it’s well-known, could potentially be a lifesaver.”
The Australian research asserts that shark attacks “are increasing in frequency in Australasia and worldwide.”
The year 2020 was the worst for fatal shark attacks since 2013. The U.S.-based International Shark Attack File recorded 10 deaths last year. Six were in Australian waters.
The fluctuating severity of the pandemic and ever-changing public health pronouncements have left North Carolina with a patchwork of masking requirements, mirroring much of the United States. Some residents embrace the mandates, others do not.
“I personally feel like it affects my breathing,” said Mackenzie Gilley when asked about mask-wearing.
Gilley, 26, a leasing agent in a Charlotte high-rise apartment complex, said masks impede her work.
“I have a job that’s always been on the front lines in property management, where it’s very difficult to talk to people and relate to people wearing the mask all day,” Gilley told VOA.
In May of this year, as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 cases plunged, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper lifted a statewide mask mandate that had been in effect for nearly a year.
In August, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases triggered by the delta variant, the city of Charlotte reimposed a mandate that masks be worn “in any indoor public place, business, or establishment” regardless of a person’s vaccination status.
The Aug. 18 citywide mandate was followed by a similar order for surrounding Mecklenburg County, population 1.1 million, where average daily infection rates topped 500.
The trend of rising infections appears to have reversed in recent weeks, but area residents are nevertheless compelled to embrace a public health measure some find cumbersome, and many had hoped were a thing of the past.
Others applauded Charlotte for requiring masks indoors.
“Personally, I was very happy about the mask mandate,” medical student Kirthi Reddy, 23, told VOA. “I think this is a great step to try and control the virus the best we can.”
Reddy, who is aiming for placement as a medical resident, added, “COVID is something that is rapidly spreading and mutating, so I think it’s very important. If we don’t (mask up), the virus will only mutate and spread even more.”
Gilley urged a case-by-case basis for face coverings.
“I think it should be up to the (individual) business whether or not they want to enforce it,” she said. “It has just gone on for way too long.”
Health care professionals like pediatric nurse Zoe Morgan warned against apathy in preventing virus transmission.
“I think the new mask mandate since the delta variant is very necessary,” she said, adding that, even with rising vaccination rates, people shouldn’t lose diligence in protecting themselves.
“I think everyone getting vaccinated and the numbers of vaccinated (people) increasing is wonderful,” Morgan said. “However, the delta variant is just that, it’s a variant. This proves that we can still catch the virus, spread it, even if we are vaccinated.”
Morgan described how a few weeks ago, amid aggressive spread of the delta variant, her entire hospital unit suspended operations when several staffers contracted the virus, forcing her and her colleagues into quarantine. The unit resumed admitting patients this week.
Morgan believes people went about their lives with a false sense of security as the delta variant spread.
“I think this has to do with the delta variant, and people feeling reassured since everyone was getting vaccinated, the numbers were going down, and employees were admittedly less strict and … probably not as diligent as they should have been with masks,” she said.
Enforcing the mandate
Authorities in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are relying on the public to comply with mask mandates rather than strict enforcement. As of the beginning of the week, the local police department reported it had issued zero citations for failing to wear a mask since the renewed orders went into effect.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) “has worked to reach voluntary cooperation with each member of the community through education and conversations,” Public Information Officer Thomas Hildebrand told VOA, saying officers have focused on communication and outreach to the community.
“Our efforts are prompted through a complaint-driven approach,” he said. “This has been the CMPD’s approach to consistent enforcement of the mandate, and it will remain so until the mandate is rescinded.”
Some see voluntary enforcement as no enforcement.
“I think the overall mask mandate should be enforced a little more,” said Tamia Wately.
The 21-year-old works at an arcade park and said that mask-wearing is not strictly enforced in her workplace. She indicated she would welcome more coercive means to force compliance.
“It would definitely make a difference. I think many companies would start enforcing it more,” she said, adding that, to the extent she can make arcade visitors don masks, “I try to do my best.”
Morgan said business owners should do their part.
“I think everyone should just kind of be, in essence, a team player and wear their masks,” she said.
No date has been set for ending mask mandates in the Charlotte area. Local officials told VOA any decision will be made in consultation with Mecklenburg County’s health department.
Meanwhile, the city is incentivizing municipal employees to get vaccinated, offering a $250 pay bonus to those who provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 30. An additional bonus has been promised if the municipal workforce reaches a 75% inoculation rate.
As of Sept. 1, about 62% of Charlotte city employees were vaccinated.
For Mecklenburg County as a whole, about 54% of the population, or just over 600,000 people, were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 16.
The CIA removed its Vienna, Austria, station chief recently amid criticism the person did not take seriously a surge in mysterious “Havana syndrome” cases, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
Dozens of cases affecting embassy staff and Central Intelligence Agency officers and family members have been reported in Vienna recently, but the unnamed station chief expressed skepticism and showed insensitivity, the Post said, citing intelligence sources.
A CIA spokesperson declined to confirm or deny the report, but said the agency takes seriously scores of possible incidents of the mysterious ailment in U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.
The cause and source remain enigmatic, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said last week.
“Have we gotten closer? I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make the analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” he said.
The U.S. government, including the CIA and Pentagon, has ramped up staff to investigate and provide treatment for the cases.
Dubbed “Havana syndrome” because reports of the condition first showed up in the Cuban capital, the ailment is marked by bloody noses, headaches, vision problems and other symptoms that resemble concussions.
Some people experiencing it have reported hearing focused, high-pitched or sharp sounds that left them nauseated.
The incidents are little understood and have sparked theories that they were caused by a weapon that used focused microwaves, ultrasound, poison or are even a reaction to crickets.
But for several years, senior government officials dismissed the complaints, judging them to be the symptoms of people under stress or reacting with hysteria to unknown stimuli.
The administration of Joe Biden has geared up the investigation into what have been renamed anomalous health incidents, or AHI.
If the cases are caused by something like a directed energy attack, U.S. officials suspect Russia could be behind it.
The Post called Vienna, where the United States has a large embassy and intelligence collection operation, a “hotbed” of AHI incidents, with dozens of people reporting unexplained symptoms.
The issue has U.S. officials around the world jittery. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris delayed by several hours a visit to Vietnam after the U.S. Embassy there reported a possible case involving “acoustic incidents.”
And during a visit to India by CIA Director William Burns in early September, an official in his retinue reported symptoms and sought medical assistance, according to the Post.
Using a raised eyebrow or smile, people with speech or physical disabilities can now operate their Android-powered smartphones hands-free, Google said Thursday.
Two new tools put machine learning and front-facing cameras on smartphones to work detecting face and eye movements.
Users can scan their phone screen and select a task by smiling, raising eyebrows, opening their mouth, or looking to the left, right or up.
“To make Android more accessible for everyone, we’re launching new tools that make it easier to control your phone and communicate using facial gestures,” Google said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 61 million adults in the United States live with disabilities, which has pushed Google and rivals Apple and Microsoft to make products and services more accessible to them.
“Every day, people use voice commands, like ‘Hey Google,’ or their hands to navigate their phones,” the tech giant said in a blog post.
“However, that’s not always possible for people with severe motor and speech disabilities.”
The changes are the result of two new features, one is called “Camera Switches,” which lets people use their faces instead of swipes and taps to interact with smartphones.
The other is Project Activate, a new Android application which allows people to use those gestures to trigger an action, like having a phone play a recorded phrase, send a text, or make a call.
“Now it’s possible for anyone to use eye movements and facial gestures that are customized to their range of movement to navigate their phone – sans hands and voice,” Google said.
The free Activate app is available in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States at the Google Play shop.
Apple, Google and Microsoft have consistently rolled out innovations that make internet technology more accessible to people with disabilities or who find that age has made some tasks, such as reading, more difficult.
Voice-commanded digital assistants built into speakers and smartphones can enable people with sight or movement challenges to tell computers what to do.
There is software that identifies text on webpages or in images and then reads it aloud, as well as automatic generation of captions that display what is said in videos.
An “AssistiveTouch” feature that Apple built into the software powering its smart watch lets touchscreen displays be controlled by sensing movements such as finger pinches or hand clenches.
“This feature also works with VoiceOver so you can navigate Apple Watch with one hand while using a cane or leading a service animal,” Apple said in a post.
Computing colossus Microsoft describes accessibility as essential to empowering everyone with technology tools.
“To enable transformative change accessibility needs to be a priority,” Microsoft said in a post.
“We aim to build it into what we design for every team, organization, classroom, and home.”
Nearly 2½ years after the fall of the Islamic State terror group’s self-declared caliphate, there still appears to be no escape for tens of thousands of children left homeless in its wake.
Aid groups and observers say the children, some from families that flocked to join Islamic State and some from families who fled from its forces, are wasting away in displaced persons camps in northeast Syria, stalked by violence and even death.
“These children are experiencing traumatic events that no child should have to go through,” said Sonia Khush, Syria response director for Save the Children, in a statement Thursday.
“It is incomprehensible that they are condemned to this life,” Khush added. “Every day they are denied the opportunity to return to their home, denied the specialized services they so desperately need, and denied the right to live in safety and recover from their experiences is a day too many.”
In a report Thursday, the aid group described the conditions in the two main camps — al-Hol and Roj — as dire for the 40,000 children who live there.
The camps are strewn with rubbish and waste, the report said, and there is little access to sanitation or health care. Some residents complained they sometimes go days without drinking water.
Malnutrition rates are rising, and diseases are taking a toll, all contributing to the deaths of two children a week on average through the first eight months of 2021, according to the report.
Despite a crackdown by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late March and early April, violence is also widespread.
The pro-Kurdish Rojava Information Center (RIC) has recorded 86 killings at al-Hol through the end of August, including more than 30 since the start of April.
In three cases this year, the victims were children, all shot to death.
“I fear living in the camp,” one 10-year-old told Save the Children. “The people here keep fighting. I close my ears with my hands whenever I hear them fight. I don’t even let my mother go outside.”
Many of the children are already starting to lash out. Thirty-seven percent of caregivers at the al-Hol camp told Save the Children that their children “are always or usually angry.”
And there are concerns it will only get worse.
“The longer they remain in the camps, the more acute a lack of belonging can become, growing frustration, a sense of uncertainty and a risk — particularly for boys — of prolonged detention can all reinforce trauma and isolation,” the report said.
Others have also been sounding alarms.
“Fear, worry and stress is commonplace among children, adolescents and young people,” an international aid worker with access to the camps told VOA last year. “Deprived from the traditional community support they enjoyed back home, it has led to significant long-term mental health and psychosocial consequences.”
The worker further warned that “specialized targeted mental health interventions” had not been available.
VOA reached out to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which oversee security for the camps and have yet to respond to the Save the Children report. But both have repeatedly called for more help to maintain the camps and for third countries to repatriate their citizens.
“The international community must help, and the citizens of every country must return to their homeland,” Ali al-Hassan, a spokesman for the internal security forces, said earlier this year.
The process, though, has been slow.
According to Save the Children, since 2017, just under 1,200 children have been repatriated from Syria, with just 14 repatriation operations taking place so far this year.
The U.S. State Department has consistently pressured countries to take back citizens stuck in northeast Syria. The department itself repatriated 27 known Islamic State supporters from SDF custody.
Still, top U.S. military officials have repeatedly raised concerns that the combined efforts have not been enough.
“It is one of my very highest concerns,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in April.
“The long-term threat is ISIS radicalization,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “Unless we find a way to pull these children out of these camps … find a way to reintegrate them into civil society and deradicalize them, we are giving ourselves a very significant military problem 10 years down the road.”
The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stood on the verge of a major new phase as government advisers Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans — despite doubts the extra shots will do much to slow the pandemic.
Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have underlying health problems that put them at greater risk. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last Pfizer shot.
Deciding who else might get one was far tougher. While there is little evidence that younger people are in danger of waning immunity, the panel offered the option of a booster for those 18 to 49 who have chronic health problems and want one.
But the advisers refused to go further and open boosters to otherwise healthy front-line health care workers who aren’t at risk of severe illness but want to avoid even a mild infection.
“We might as well just say give it to everyone 18 and older. We have a very effective vaccine, and it’s like saying, ‘It’s not working.’ It is working,” said Dr. Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University, who helped block the broadest booster option.
Still, getting the unvaccinated their first shots remains the top priority, and the panel wrestled with whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.
All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. still are highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even amid the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, just 55% of the population.
“We can give boosters to people, but that’s not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are full because people are not vaccinated. We are declining care to people who deserve care because we are full of unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.”
Thursday’s decision represented a dramatic scaling back of the Biden administration plan, announced last month, to dispense boosters to nearly everyone to shore up their protection. Late Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration, like the CDC, signed off on Pfizer boosters for a much more targeted slice of the American population than the White House envisioned.
It falls to the CDC to set final U.S. policy on who qualifies for the extra shot. The CDC usually follows its advisers’ recommendations. A final decision from the agency was expected later Thursday.
The booster plan marks an important shift in the nation’s vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already giving a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don’t have enough for their initial doses.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky opened Thursday’s meeting by stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top goal “here in America and around the world.”
Walensky acknowledged that the data on who really needs a booster right away “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”
The CDC panel stressed its recommendations will be changed if new evidence shows more people need a booster.
The CDC advisers expressed concern over the millions more Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it’s safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.
“I just don’t understand how later this afternoon we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe illness and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,'” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.
About 26 million Americans got their last Pfizer dose at least six months ago, about half of whom are 65 or older. It’s not clear how many more would meet the CDC panel’s initial booster qualifications.
CDC data shows the vaccines still offer strong protection for all ages, but there is a slight drop among the oldest adults. And immunity against milder infection appears to be waning months after people’s initial immunization.
For most people, if you’re not in a group recommended for a booster, “it’s really because we think you’re well-protected,” said Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “This isn’t about who deserves a booster, but who needs a booster.”
Among people who stand to benefit from a booster, there are few risks, the CDC concluded. Serious side effects from the first two Pfizer doses are exceedingly rare, including heart inflammation that sometimes occurs in younger men. Data from Israel, which has given nearly 3 million people — mostly 60 and older — a third Pfizer dose, has uncovered no red flags.
The panelists also wrestled with how to even tell when a booster is needed. While an extra dose revs up numbers of virus-fighting antibodies, those naturally wane over time and no one knows how long the antibody boost from a third Pfizer dose will last — or how much protection it really adds, since the immune system also forms additional defenses after vaccination.
The U.S. has already authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by asking.
The all-amateur crew of the SpaceX Dragon capsule makes it home, but not before a string of first time-ever events. Plus, cosmonauts vote from space, and a film crew readies for a trip to the International Space Station. Buckle up, as VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on this historic Week in Space.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chad’s President Mahamat Idriss Deby and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni are set to address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
Access to COVID-19 vaccines has been one of the major topics of the annual meeting in New York and is likely to be one of the most discussed again Thursday as leaders from African nations make up a large portion of the day’s list of speakers.
While some countries such as the United States have had vaccine doses widely available to their populations for months, other countries have struggled to access COVID-19 vaccine supplies.
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 4% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Ramaphosa was among a group of leaders who participated in a virtual summit Wednesday convened by U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss boosting efforts to vaccinate people all over the world. Biden announced the United States was buying another 500 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to distribute to other countries.
“Of the around 6 billion vaccine doses administered worldwide, only 2% of these have been administered in Africa, a continent of more than 1.2 billion people,” Ramaphosa said. “This is unjust and immoral.”
Other speakers Thursday include Iraq’s President Barham Salih, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a number of world leaders to pre-record their remarks instead of traveling to New York to speak in person. About half of Thursday’s speeches were recorded in advance.
Jets of red hot lava shot into the sky on Spain’s La Palma on Thursday as a huge cloud of toxic ash drifted from the Cumbre Vieja volcano toward the mainland and jeopardized the island’s economically crucial banana crops.
Walls of lava, which turn black when exposed to the air, have advanced slowly westward since Sunday, engulfing everything in their path, including houses, schools and some banana plantations.
Farmers near the town of Todoque raced to save as much as possible of their crop, piling their trucks high with sacks of the green bananas, on which many of the islanders depend for their livelihood.
“We’re just trying to take everything we can,” said a farmer who gave his name as Roberto from the window of his pickup.
Some 15% of La Palma’s 140 million kilogram annual banana production could be at risk if farmers are unable to access plantations and tend to their crops, Sergio Caceres, manager of producer’s association Asprocan, told Reuters.
“There is the main tragedy of destroyed houses — many of those affected are banana producers or employees — but their livelihood is further down the hill,” he said. “Some farms have already been covered.”
Caceres said the farmers already were suffering losses and warned that if lava pollutes the water supply it could potentially cause problems for months to come.
The island produces around a quarter of the Canary Islands’ renowned bananas, which hold protected designation of origin status.
With more than 200 houses destroyed and thousands of evacuated people unable to return home, the Canary Islands’ regional government said it would buy two housing developments with a combined 73 properties for those made homeless. Spanish banks jointly announced they would offer vacant homes they hold across the Canaries as emergency shelter.
Property portal Idealista estimated the volcano had so far destroyed property worth about 87 million euros ($102 million). Experts had originally predicted the lava would hit the Atlantic Ocean late Monday, but its descent has slowed to a glacial pace of around 4 meters per hour and authorities say it may stop before reaching the sea.
Volcanologists have said gases from the eruption are not harmful to health. But a plume of thick cloud now extends some 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) into the air, raising concerns of visibility for flights. The airport remains open, but authorities have created two exclusion zones where only authorized aircraft can fly.
Prevailing winds are expected to propel the cloud northeast over the rest of the Canary archipelago, the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
National weather service AEMET said air quality had not been affected at surface level and ruled out acid rain falling over the mainland or the Balearic Islands and was even unlikely in the Canary islands.
Local authorities have warned people to clean food and clothes to avoid ingesting the toxic ash.