Twitter to Reduce Visibility of Russian State Media Content 

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Twitter announced Monday that it will start labeling and making it harder for users to see tweets about the invasion of Ukraine that contain information from Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik.

“For years we’ve provided more context about state-affiliated media while not accepting ad $ or amplifying accounts,” Twitter said in a tweet. “With many looking for credible info due to the conflict in Ukraine, we’re now adding labels on Tweets linking to state media & reducing the content’s visibility.”


Twitter said it had seen over 45,000 tweets a day from people sharing links to Russian state media, much more than coming from state-sponsored accounts.

Twitter began to de-amplify Russian state media accounts in 2020 and had earlier banned Russian state media from advertising.

The announcement Monday will impact individuals sharing links from those entities.

The move is the latest spat between U.S. social media companies and Russia.

Twitter has been slowed down in Russia several times, most recently on Saturday, and last week, Russia said it would limit Russians’ access to some features of Facebook, saying the company was involved in censorship.

Google and Facebook have also banned Russian state media from monetizing their accounts.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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YouTube Blocks RT, Other Russian Channels From Earning Ad Dollars

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YouTube on Saturday barred Russian state-owned media outlet RT and other Russian channels from receiving money for advertisements that run with their videos, similar to a move by Facebook, after the invasion of Ukraine.

Citing “extraordinary circumstances,” YouTube said in a statement that it was “pausing a number of channels’ ability to monetize on YouTube, including several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions.” Ad placement is largely controlled by YouTube.

Videos from the affected channels also will come up less often in recommendations, YouTube spokesperson Farshad Shadloo said. He added that RT and several other channels would no longer be accessible in Ukraine due to “a government request.”

Ukraine Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted earlier on Saturday that he contacted YouTube “to block the propagandist Russian channels such as Russia 24, TASS, RIA Novosti.”

RT did not immediately respond to a request for comment. YouTube did not name the other channels it had restricted.

For years, lawmakers and some users have called on YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google, to take greater action against channels with ties to the Russian government out of concern that they spread misinformation and should not profit from that.

Russia received an estimated $7 million to $32 million over the two-year period ended December 2018 from ads across 26 YouTube channels it backed, digital researcher Omelas told Reuters at the time.

YouTube previously has said that it does not treat state-funded media channels that comply with its rules any differently than other channels when it comes to sharing ad revenue.

Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, on Friday barred Russian state media from running ads or generating revenue from ads on its services anywhere in the world.

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World’s Oldest Known Stone Structures Discovered in Jordan

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Archaeologists in Jordan’s southeast desert have discovered a 9,000-year-old ritualistic complex. It’s the earliest known large human-built structure involving Neolithic hunting communities. Experts say it points to civilization in the Middle East much earlier than originally thought.

Jordan’s antiquities ministry recently announced the discovery of huge human stone structures believed to be the oldest known to date from 9,000 years ago in its southeastern desert plateau area of Jabal Khashabiyeh. 

Jordanian archaeologist Wael Abu Aziza told reporters that “they’re the oldest huge human structures known to date.” He said Neolithic hunters living 9,000 years ago used huge stone enclosures to trap wild animals en masse. Also, one structure, thought to be a shrine, contained objects the experts believe to be related to ancient rituals. 

Commenting on the discovery, archeologist Pearce Paul Creasman of the American Center of Research in Amman said it was likely older than other similar structures, also found in Jordan, known as the Ain Ghazal statues.  

“Absolutely, no question that this is a significant find. The Ain Ghazal statues have been traditionally considered some of the oldest and the most significant of human occupation and so this could possibly be pushing that back, a little bit older,” Creasman said.  

A team of international archaeologists—including those from the United States—say the discoveries show how hunting communities in Neolithic times, predating Iraq’s sophisticated Assyrians by several thousand years and who were far less developed, displayed early signs of civilization. At the site were also found children’s toys made by these hunters who etched human faces in stone between hunting trips in the Arabian Desert.  

“This is absolutely evidence of complex activity from a date doing a level organization that we don’t see all over the place at that time and is kind of a predecessor to what we would generally think of as civilization today,” Creasman.   

Archaeologists said this major find could change perceptions of early human civilization in the Middle East.

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Are COVID-19 Restrictions Stunting Children’s Immune Systems?

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Some medical experts have expressed concern that COVID-19 preventative measures, like masking and remote schooling, are potentially weakening children’s immune systems by shielding them from the usual childhood illnesses.

“There’s a lot of reasons to believe that kids need to be exposed to things to keep their immunity complex, so that should they encounter something very dangerous, they have aspects of their immunity that might cross over and help protect them against those things,” says Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

At birth, vulnerable infants get antibodies from their mother’s breast milk, which helps protect them until they can build their own immunity. It’s no accident that babies start putting things in their mouths as soon as they gain enough dexterity to pick things up.

“They’re doing that because they’re sampling the environment and building their immunity. That’s an evolutionary trait,” Sawyer says. “They’re exposing their body to germs in a certain, level way to build their immunity. So, some people would argue that childhood illnesses, like colds and stomach bugs, build our immunity so that when more dangerous things come along, we’re prepared and we don’t get as sick from those more dangerous things.”

Even before the pandemic, epidemiological evidence suggested that children in more developed countries, where handwashing and the use of sanitizer are more prevalent, might have less-developed immune systems compared to kids in developing nations who are routinely exposed to more bacteria, viruses and allergens. This makes kids in more industrialized countries more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases, according to what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“The hygiene hypothesis is actually quite controversial because it’s thought that our exposure to microbes isn’t the only factor,” says Cody Warren, a virologist and immunologist who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder. “A lot of this could also be dictated by genetics, diet, and the environment that we live in. That also shapes our immune system… it’s a real multifactorial thing that we can’t fully account for just by wearing masks. There are other things that go into that equation.”

Warren, the father of three young children, says spending lots of time outdoors is one way to balance the negatives of isolation.

“Just exploring microbes in the environment also is benefiting [and] training our immune system,” Warren says. “Our immune systems get trained through the foods that we eat, which also have microorganisms on them. And so, despite the fact that we’ve kind of been hunkered down a little bit, I do feel that our immune systems will catch up.”

There are other things parents can do, he says, to boost their children’s immune systems during pandemic times.

“One of the most important things you can do is just to stay up to date on vaccines. That’s one of the best ways that we have to train our immune systems,” Warren says. “But also, equally important is making sure our children have a good diet and they regulate stress. It’s been well documented that both of those — having a good diet, a less stressful environment — can have a positive impact on our immune system.”

Once public health officials say masks are no longer necessary, Sawyer thinks pointing out the positives of putting our masks away could reassure hesitant parents who worry about their children getting sick.

“Maybe we should have a public conversation about the possible reasons to take that mask off, if they are in school, and get back to the normal repertoire of relatively safe childhood illnesses,” she says. “The plus side of childhood illnesses is that they can build up that hornet’s nest of immunity that could protect kids against new things that then come along.”

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Thousands Could Die From COVID in Hong Kong, Study Shows 

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Hong Kong’s fifth wave of coronavirus could see thousands of deaths, a new study said.

Slammed by the city’s fifth wave of COVID-19, Hong Kong is facing its worst health period since the pandemic began two years ago. It has forced the city’s government to implement strict measures, including compulsory tests for all Hong Kong residents.

February has seen thousands of new cases, mostly from the omicron variant. A new daily high of 10,010 infections was recorded Friday.

A study by the University of Hong Kong considered the potential outcomes from the current wave of coronavirus cases. One of the worst scenarios outlined that if the hospitals were to be overburdened, Hong Kong could see 7,000 COVID-19-related deaths by the end of June.

“The infection fatality risk may increase by 50% when the health care system becomes overburdened, in which case the cumulative number of deaths could further increase to 4,231 – 6,993,” the study said.

But it also said deaths could be half that number, about 3,200 by mid-May, if health measures remained.

‘Zero-COVID’ plan

Hong Kong had adopted a “zero-COVID” strategy, aligned with Beijing’s effort to control the pandemic across China. It had some success, with authorities quickly clamping down on rare outbreaks by contact tracing, social restrictions, mass testing and quarantine.

Fan Hung-ling, chairman of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, told the Chinese state’s Global Times that the strategy was “our country’s basic policy” and “won’t change.”

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the city’s authorities to get the fifth wave under control. Xi is due to visit Hong Kong July 1, marking the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to China from Britain.

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled new measures for the city, including a requirement that residents have proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter various premises.

On Wednesday, Lam also announced compulsory testing for all residents by March, with a goal of boosting the city’s vaccination rate to 90%.

Dr. David Owens, an honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, had hoped for a different plan of action.

“I would have preferred we would have shifted all of our energies that would effectively [be focused on] things that would save lives,” Owens told VOA. “That would be mitigation, to roll out vaccinations to the elderly and vulnerable. I have also argued we should move to rapid testing so we can break the transmission chains quickly.”

Need for home isolation

Dr. Karen Grepin, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, responded to the mass strategy campaign.

“It is likely it will happen at a time very close to the peak of the outbreak and thus it will likely identify literally hundreds of thousands of cases, including likely many who are no longer infectious. It is unlikely that we will be able to isolate even a fraction of these cases, so unless it is coupled with a comprehensive home isolation strategy, it will have little impact on transmission,” Grepin told VOA.

According to data from the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, public hospitals are averaging an occupancy rate of 89%.

One health worker at Hong Kong’s United Christian Hospital, who chose to remain anonymous, admitted she was “afraid” of the pending testing program.

“Patients were crying,” she said. “A male patient said he had not eaten for 12 hours. And another patient said he wanted to commit suicide. And I started to cry. I cannot offer any more for them.

“I am so afraid of the universal testing program. We don’t have enough manpower for that. The government is so keen on a zero-COVID strategy. To me, it is a zero-medical staff strategy. The morale is worsened every day in the frontline.”

She described her job’s current conditions as like “working in a market.”

“It was so difficult to pass through the waiting hall,” she said. “We have to shout out to search the patients.”

Patients in beds outdoors

Last week, Hong Kong’s Caritas Hospital saw dozens of patients lying in hospital beds outside in cold weather, waiting to be admitted. But occupancy is was at 102%, the Hospital Authority said.

A nurse working at the hospital, who also chose to remain anonymous, said elderly patients “have nowhere to turn.”

“Patients are not severely sick from my ward, but [have a] lack of self-care ability. The virus is widely breaking out in elderly care homes and homes for disabilities. They cannot do self-isolation, as they are from the same care center. The staff [are] probably infected. Therefore, the patients literally have nowhere to go even if they turn negative,” she told VOA.

Hong Kong residents have also spoken to VOA about pandemic fatigue, venting their frustrations at the government’s new health measures.

And some expatriates are also looking to leave the city altogether. A Facebook group aimed at helping expatriates leave Hong Kong has already gained over 3,000 members, only days after being created.

Singapore for some

British citizen Niall Trimble, a job recruitment director at Ethos BeathChapman, an executive recruitment firm in Hong Kong, has decided to move elsewhere in Asia.

“I would say the reason for leaving is the lack of flexibility compared to other places on the COVID situation,” he told VOA. “As a recruiter across technology and financial services I am already seeing a huge influx of candidates looking to move to Singapore and also clients looking to move operations to Singapore.”

Hong Kong’s economy fell into a two-year recession in 2019 and 2020. But last year the city saw growth of 6.4% as coronavirus cases remained low.

But Hong Kong has now recorded at least 84,000 cases, with 2022 alone seeing more infections than the last two years combined.

Hong Kong’s finance chief unveiled a budget of over $20 billion to cope with the outbreak, which will include an electronic spending voucher for each resident.

Hong Kong authorities are set to loosen the strategy on rapid testing and allow home isolation for positive cases, the South China Morning Post reported Friday.

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CDC: Many Healthy Americans Can Take a Break From Masks 

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Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. 

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said. 

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans reside.  

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations.  

The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive should wear masks.

Risk is generally lower 

But with protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said. 

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. … Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.” 

Since July, CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities has focused on two measures: the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.  

Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was deemed substantial or high. This week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission.  

That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s shift won’t make much practical difference for now, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California-Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — a likelihood in the fall or winter — starts threatening hospital capacity again, he said. 

“There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Noymer said. “If we have continual masking orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.” 

Color-coded information

The CDC is also offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal. 

How a county comes to be designated green, yellow or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the rate of new cases in the community. 

Mask requirements have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in March. 

State health officials are generally pleased with the new guidance and “excited with how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

“This is the way we need to go. I think this is taking us forward with a new direction going on in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we’re still focusing on safety. We’re still focusing on preventing death and illness.” 

The CDC said the new system will be useful in predicting future surges and urged communities with wastewater surveillance systems to use that data, too.

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US Drugmaker, Distributors Finalize $26B Opioid Settlement

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Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and three major distributors finalized nationwide settlements over their role in the opioid addiction crisis Friday, an announcement that clears the way for $26 billion to flow to nearly every state and local government in the U.S.

Taken together, the settlements are the largest to date among the many opioid-related cases that have been playing out across the country. They’re expected to provide a significant boost to efforts aimed at reversing the crisis in places that have been devastated by it, including many parts of rural America.

Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson announced the settlement plan last year, but the deal was contingent on getting participation from a critical mass of state and local governments.

Friday was the deadline for the companies to announce whether they felt enough governments had committed to participate in the settlement and relinquish the right to sue. The four companies notified lawyers for the governments in the case that their thresholds were met, meaning money could start flowing to communities by April.

“We’re never going to have enough money to immediately cure this problem,” said Joe Rice, one of the lead lawyers who represented local governments in the litigation that led to the settlement. “What we’re trying to do is give a lot of small communities a chance to try to change some of their problems.”

While none of the settlement money will go directly to victims of opioid addiction or their survivors, the vast majority of it is required to be used to deal with the epidemic. The need for the funding runs deep.

Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, said a portion of the settlement money should be used to provide housing to people with addictions who are homeless.

“We have clients who have a hard time staying clean to make it in a shelter,” she said. “We would like to stabilize them so we can help them recover.”

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Camden County government, said officials are thinking about using settlement money for a public education campaign to warn about the dangers of fentanyl. They also want to send more drug counselors into the streets, put additional social workers in municipal courts and pay for anti-addiction medications in the county jail.

Officials across the country are considering pumping the money into similar priorities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget calls for using $50 million of the state’s expected $86 million share this year for youth opioid education and to train treatment providers, improve data collection and distribute naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses.

In Florida’s Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, the number of beds in a county-run detoxification facility could be expanded from 50 to 70 or 75, said Danielle Wang French, a lawyer for the county.

“It’s not enough, but it’s a good start,” she said of the settlement.

With fatal overdoses continuing to rage across the U.S., largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other illicitly produced synthetic opioids, public health experts are urging governments to use the money to ensure access to drug treatment for people with addictions. They also emphasize the need to fund programs that are proven to work, collect data on their efforts and launch prevention efforts aimed at young people, all while focusing on racial equity.

“It shouldn’t be: ready, set spend,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health who is now a vice dean of public health at Johns Hopkins University. “It should be: think, strategize, spend.”

In a separate deal that also is included in the $26 billion, the four companies reached a $590 million settlement with the nation’s federally recognized Native American tribes. About $2 billion is being set aside for fees and expenses for the lawyers who have spent years working on the case.

New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has nine years to pay its $5 billion share. The distributors — Conshohocken, Pennsylvania-based AmerisourceBergen; Columbus, Ohio-based Cardinal Health; and Irving, Texas-based McKesson — agreed to pay their combined $21 billion over 18 years. To reach the maximum amounts, states have to get local governments to sign on.

The settlements go beyond money. J&J, which has stopped selling prescription opioids, agrees not to resume. The distributors agree to send data to a clearinghouse intended to help flag when prescription drugs are diverted to the black market.

The companies are not admitting wrongdoing and are continuing to defend themselves against claims that they helped cause the opioid crisis that were brought by entities that are not involved in the settlements.

In a joint statement, the distributors called the implementation of the settlement “a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States.”

The requirement that most of the money be used to address the opioid crisis contrasts with a series of public health settlements in the 1990s with tobacco companies. In those cases, states used big chunks of the settlement money to fill budget gaps and fund other priorities.

The amount sent to each state under the opioid settlement depends on a formula that takes into account the severity of the crisis and the population. County and local governments also get shares of the money. A handful of states — Alabama, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Washington and West Virginia — have not joined all or part of the settlement, mostly because they have their own deals or are preparing for trial.

In Camden, Lisa Davey, a recovery specialist for Maryville Addiction treatment Center, was at a needle exchange this week handing out naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses, and asking people if they wanted to start treatment.

Davey said she wants to see detoxification and treatment programs receive more funding to keep people in them for longer. As it is, she said, users can detox and be back out on the streets in search of drugs within days.

“They need more time to work their recovery,” she said.

A man picking up clean needles who asked to be identified only as Anthony P. said he was 46 and had struggled with addiction since he was a teenager. He said he’d like to see an effort to cut off fentanyl and related synthetic opioids that are driving overdose death rates from the drug supply.

“Fentanyl’s got to go,” he said.

Martha Chavis, president and CEO of Camden Area Health Education Center, which runs the needle exchange, said one need is offering services like hers in more places. Now, users from far-flung suburbs travel into Camden to get clean needles and kits to test their drugs for fentanyl.

The settlement with J&J and the three distributors marks a major step toward resolving the vast constellation of lawsuits in the U.S. over liability for an epidemic that has been linked to the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans over the past two decades.

Other companies, including business consultant McKinsey and drugmakers Endo, Mallinckrodt and Teva, have reached national settlements or a series of local ones. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and a group of states are in mediation through U.S. Bankruptcy Court to try to reach a nationwide settlement.

The crisis has deepened during the coronavirus pandemic, with U.S. opioid-related deaths reaching a high of more than 76,000 in the 12 months that ended in April 2021, largely because of the spread of fentanyl and other lab-made drugs. A recent report from a commission by The Lancet medical journal projected that 1.2 million Americans could die of opioid overdose between 2020 and 2029 without policy changes.

John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, said he wants to see money from the settlements go not just for treatment, recovery and support efforts but also to build systems designed to prevent this sort of epidemic from happening again.

“Some kind of national board or organization could be set up … to prevent this kind of lack of oversight from happening again — where industry is allowed to create a public health hazard,” he said.

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Drug Overdoses Are Killing More Americans Than Guns, Traffic Accidents

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Over 100-thousand people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses in the 12 months between June 2020 to May 2021, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure is more than COVID, and more than twice the number of those killed by guns and traffic accidents. Liliya Anisimova has details on this epidemic of drug use in this report narrated by Anna Rice. VOA footage by David Gogokhia.

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Thailand at ‘Crossroads’ as COVID-19 Surges Amid Tourism, Economy Rebound

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Thailand’s economy has seen growth in its recovery amid the global pandemic, but rising COVID-19 cases concern health experts.

Heavily reliant on international tourism to boost its economy, Thailand dropped its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated visitors in November, with thousands of arrivals flocking to the country since.

But along with the renewal of tourism in Thailand, new COVID-19 infections have also begun to accelerate throughout the country.

Dr. Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Thailand, has said the country is at a “crossroads” over what to do next.

“We are experiencing rising in omicron cases — a very rapid one.  The question should be how long we can expect it to slow down … it can be days or weeks or even months,” he told VOA.

“In my opinion, we are at the crossroads at the moment.  The number of cases are rising but, to many doctors, the majority of them are still considered mild when compared to the delta wave,” he added.

Data show that the omicron variant is highly transmissible, has an incubation period of about five days and causes less severe symptoms than earlier variants.

Thailand saw a new daily record high on Friday, with 24,932 cases.

Last year saw strict curfews and social restrictions enforced throughout the country for months. However, after a speedy vaccination rollout – sometimes reaching one million doses administered per day – measures were eventually relaxed toward the end of the year. 

Officials said on Monday that the economy rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021, with rising exports and the return of tourists. Year on year, Thailand saw a 1.9% increase in its economy, aided by the late wave of tourism. Nearly 500,000 people have visited since November.

With rapidly rising infection in the country, though, foreign tourists may think twice about entering, according to Stuart McDonald, founder of travel guide

“Should that be concerning for tourists? I would say yes. It is a rapidly changing situation and the Thai administration has a history of chopping and changing rules in an ad hoc, short notice, manner, and not always in a manner clearly informed by concerns for public health,” McDonald told VOA.

Thai authorities have changed entry requirements for tourists several times in recent months, including pausing its Test & Go plan in December following a rise in omicron cases.

The Thai government made further changes Wednesday to the plan, allowing fully vaccinated visitors to skip the quarantine period that is required by unvaccinated air arrivals.

As of March 1, fully vaccinated arrivals are now only required to take one PCR test instead of two when entering the country. Travelers must then wait for their results for up to 24 hours in a health-approved hotel before being allowed to travel elsewhere. Visitors must also take a self-administered rapid antigen test on the fifth day.

Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy. In 2019, tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and around 20% of Thais  were employed in tourism, according to the Bank of Thailand.

Tourism businesses had previously asked the government to relax entry restrictions.

Authorities have recently ruled out any imminent new restrictions, including lockdown, despite recently raising the country’s COVID-19 alert to Level 4, the second-highest level. Masks are still required in public, while people are encouraged to work from home, cancel nonessential travel and avoid large gatherings.

Thailand now must focus on a plan to live with the virus, according to Pravit Rojanaphruk of Thai news site Khaosad English.

“The government can ill afford to impose another semi-lockdown as it has spent a lot of money over the past two years to remedy and contain COVID-19. It is hesitant because further restrictions would adversely affect the latest Test & Go scheme for arrivals from abroad and further harm the tourism and related industries.

“Increasing vaccination is the way ahead as the government has enough vaccines now for a booster shot. Children will be a particular target group in the weeks ahead but some parents are still reluctant. It’s time to focus on normalising coexistence with COVID-19,” he told VOA.

Last month health officials began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, this age group includes 5 million children in Thailand.

But Jongkaewwattana raised his concerns still, “I’m quite worried in the increasing number of children who are infected and getting sick.  Those kids are not vaccinated and they are more likely afflicted by the Omicron infection compared to the fully vaccinated adults.”

The head of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University’s Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology, Dr Yong Poovorawan, warned that Thailand could soon see 100,000 people test positive per day.

Jongkaewwattana believes more can be done to mitigate the risks of infection.

“I believe in the use of technology to help the vaccine to slow down the spread of the virus.  I suggest the government provide test kits to people so that they can monitor their risk. The use of masks in public must be emphasized and the activities that promote virus spreading should be prohibited.”

An increase in the daily death rate could force the government into further action, he said. Thursday and Friday also saw 38 and 41 COVID-19 deaths respectively.

“The death case is now slowly rising and if the number reaches 50 or more the government may start something to bring the number down. If the number of COVID patients in the hospitals nationwide are at a certain limit, they will implement some restrictions. But I don’t see a complete lock down or curfews coming very soon.”

Thailand’s health authorities have administered approximately 122 million doses, including first, second and booster doses. The country has recorded nearly 2.8 million COVID-19 cases with nearly 23,000 deaths since the pandemic began. 

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More Than Half of US Abortions Now Done With Pills, Report Says 

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More than half of U.S. abortions are now done with pills rather than surgery, an upward trend that spiked during the pandemic with the increase in telemedicine, a report released Thursday said.  

In 2020, pills accounted for 54% of all U.S. abortions, up from roughly 44% in 2019.  

The preliminary numbers come from the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. The group, by contacting providers, collects more comprehensive abortion data than the U.S. government.  

Use of abortion pills has been rising since 2000 when the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone, the main drug used in medication abortions.  

The new increase “is not surprising, especially during COVID,” said Dr. Marji Gold, a family physician and abortion provider in New York City. She said patients seeking abortions at her clinic have long chosen the pills over the medical procedure. 

The pandemic prompted a rise in telemedicine and FDA action that allowed abortion pills to be mailed so patients could skip in-person visits to get them. Those changes could have contributed to the increase in use, said Guttmacher researcher Rachel Jones. 

The FDA made the change permanent last December, meaning millions of women can get prescriptions via online consultations and receive the pills through the mail. That move led to stepped-up efforts by abortion opponents to seek additional restrictions on medication abortions through state legislatures. 

How it works

The procedure includes mifepristone, which blocks a hormone needed for pregnancy to continue, followed one or two days later by misoprostol, a drug that causes cramping that empties the womb. The combination is approved for use within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, although some health care providers offer it in the second trimester, a practice called off-label use. 

So far this year, 16 state legislatures have proposed bans or restrictions on medication abortion, according to the Guttmacher report. 

It notes that in 32 states, medication abortions must be prescribed by physicians even though other health care providers including physician assistants can prescribe other medicines. And mailing abortion pills to patients is banned in Arizona, Arkansas and Texas, the report said. 

According to the World Health Organization, about 73 million abortions are performed each year. About 630,000 abortions were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, although information from some states is missing. Guttmacher’s last comprehensive abortion report dates to 2017; the data provided Thursday came from an update due out later this year. 

Global numbers on the rates of medication versus surgical abortions are limited. Data from England and Wales show that medication abortions have outpaced surgical abortions for about 10 years.

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US Shifting Global Pandemic Strategy as Vaccine Supply Outstrips Demand 

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With the global vaccine supply exceeding distribution capacity, the Biden administration is acknowledging a need to adjust its pandemic response strategy to address hurdles faced by lower-income countries to vaccinate their citizens.

“It is clear that supply is outstripping demand and the area of focus really needs to be that ‘shots in arms’ work,” said Hilary Marston, White House senior policy adviser for global COVID, to VOA. “That’s something that we are laser-focused on for 2022.”

Marston said that the administration has helped boost global vaccine supply through donations, expanding global manufacturing capacity and support for COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing mechanism supported by the United Nations and health organizations Gavi and CEPI.

Following supply setbacks in 2021, COVAX’s supply is no longer a limiting factor, a Gavi spokesperson told VOA. He said COVAX now has the flexibility to “focus on supporting the nuances of countries’ strategies, capacity, and demand.”

However, the pivot from boosting vaccine supply to increasing delivery capacity depends on whether the administration can secure funding from Congress, including funds for the U.S. government’s Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global VAX, a program launched in December by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Global VAX is billed as a whole-of-government effort to turn vaccines in vials into vaccinations in arms around the world. It includes bolstering cold chain supply and logistics, service delivery, vaccine confidence and demand, human resources, data and analytics, local planning, and vaccine safety and effectiveness.

Four-hundred-million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act has been put aside for this initiative, on top of the $1.3 billion for global vaccine readiness the administration has committed. Activists say this is not nearly enough, but USAID says it’s a good first step.

“The U.S. government will surge support for an initial subset of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have demonstrated the potential for rapid acceleration of vaccine uptake with intensive financial, technical, and diplomatic support,” a USAID spokesperson told VOA.

Those countries include Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Critical bottleneck

In January, COVAX had 436 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to allocate to lower-income countries, according to a document published in mid-February. Those countries, however, only asked for 100 million doses to be distributed by the end of May – the first time in 14 allocation rounds that supply has outstripped demand, the document from the COVAX Independent Allocation of Vaccines Group said.

“We’ve seen now 11 billion plus doses of vaccine being manufactured,” said Krishna Udayakumar to VOA. “We’re estimating 14- to 16- plus billion doses of vaccine being available in 2022,” added Udayakumar, who is founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center and leads a team that tracks global vaccine production and distribution.

But rather than fulfilment of vaccination targets, the oversupply highlights a weakness in global distribution capacity, which Udayakumar said is becoming “the critical bottlenecks.”

Only 12% percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to country data compiled by Our World in Data. Many countries still face massive hurdles to get those shots in arms, including gaps in cold-chain storage, and lack of funding to support distribution networks.

Global COVID funding

As the administration prepares to pivot its global pandemic response, humanitarian organizations are criticizing it for requesting insufficient funding from Congress.

“After two devastating years of this pandemic, U.S. leaders are dropping the ball on fighting COVID-19. Today we learned the Biden administration briefed Congress on the need for $5 billion in funding from Congress to fight COVID-19,” said Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, in a statement to VOA last week. “What the world needs, though, is a formal request for $17 billion.”

Hart argued the $5 billion funding would be insufficient to provide critical resources needed to deliver vaccines, tests, and life-saving treatments to low-income countries, and achieve the administration’s goal of 70% global vaccination by September – a goal that is already far below pace.

The White House said the number is not final. “I don’t have any specific numbers; we’re still in conversation with the Hill (Congress) at this point about funding and funding needs, both domestically and internationally,” press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA on Wednesday.

In a statement to VOA, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rosa DeLauro, said they are still reviewing the funding request. “I will work with my colleagues to meet these important public health needs at home and around the world,” she said.

Meanwhile, Gavi, a COVAX co-sponsor, said it has only raised $195 million out of the $5.2 billion it asked for this quarter. The Gavi spokesperson told VOA the call to donors only went out in January and typically campaigns such as this require extensive rounds of consultation.

“The reason we launched a campaign to raise US $5.2 billion in additional funding is to ensure countries are able to roll out vaccines rapidly and at scale and have the resources on hand to be able to immediately step in as and when countries’ needs change,” the spokesperson said. “We need resources available now to prevent lower income countries once again finding themselves at the back of the queue. This is the only way we will break this pandemic.”­

TRIPS waiver

Humanitarian organization Oxfam also argues that $5 billion dollars is not enough.

“We need to do much more to vaccinate the world, including investing in local manufacturing and most importantly, sharing the vaccine recipe,” Robbie Silverman, Oxfam’s senior advocacy manager told VOA.

Sharing vaccine recipes essentially means implementing a temporary TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver at the World Trade Organization to allow the generic production of current vaccines, as proposed by South Africa and India in October 2021. The proposal is supported by the Biden administration but rejected by the European Union.

Following a summit between European Union and African Union leaders last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered a compromise and said that the EU and AU will work together to deliver a solution within the next few months.

The U.S. is by far the biggest vaccine donor. The administration is sending 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Angola, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda this week, bringing the total shipped globally to 470 million doses out of 1.2 billion doses pledged.






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Hong Kong Rolls Out COVID Vaccine Passport, Paves Way For Mainland Doctors

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Hong Kong rolled out vaccine passports on Thursday requiring people aged 12 and above to have at least one COVID-19 jab, and paved the way for mainland China manpower to help bring a worsening outbreak under control.

Residents will have to show their vaccine record to access venues including supermarkets, shopping malls and restaurants, a major inconvenience in a city where malls link train stations to residences and office buildings.

Separately, city leader Carrie Lam used emergency powers granted under British colonial-era laws to exempt mainland Chinese staff and projects from any licensing or other legal requirements to operate in Hong Kong.

City authorities have asked their mainland Chinese counterparts for help to build additional isolation, treatment and testing facilities, and boost the workforce as Hong Kong’s health system is increasingly overwhelmed.

“Hong Kong’s healthcare system, manpower, anti-epidemic facilities and resources … will soon be insufficient to handle the huge number of newly confirmed cases detected every day,” the government said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong reported a record 8,674 new COVID-19 infections as the global financial hub prepares for compulsory testing of its 7.4 million people – part of its “dynamic zero COVID” strategy similar to mainland China.

Allowing mainland doctors to practice in Hong Kong has been a controversial issue in the global financial hub, which for decades had some of the toughest licensing standards as a way to preserve excellence in its public health system.

The city last year passed a law allowing overseas-trained doctors to practice without taking a local licensing exam, in a move contested by many local doctors.

Hong Kong’s medical front lines have been weakened sharply by the latest outbreak, with some 1,200 medical staff infected as of Wednesday.

Authorities also tightened restrictions from Thursday in a city that already has some of the most stringent rules in the world. Residents will have to wear masks for all outdoor  exercise and will not be allowed to remove them to eat or drink on public transport.

With bars, gyms and other businesses already closed and shopping malls deserted while many residents work from home, the government said on Tuesday schools would break early for summer and resume the new year in August.

Many in the city are growing fatigued with the situation, as most other major cities learn to live with the virus.

As the urgency grows, construction work has started on a facility on Lantau Island to build about 10,000 isolation units, while private hospitals will take in patients from public hospitals.

With the city’s testing, treatment and isolation capacity already stretched to the maximum, University of Hong Kong researchers predicted new infections could peak at 180,000 a day next month.

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Ex-Official: Space Station ‘Largely Isolated’ From Tensions

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Tensions in eastern Ukraine and heightened Western fears of a Russian invasion should not have a significant impact on the International Space Station or U.S.-Russia cooperation in space, the former head of the National Space Council told The Associated Press.

Four NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut are currently on the space station.

Scott Pace, who served as executive secretary of the space council under President Donald Trump and is now the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the space station “has been largely isolated” from political events.

“It’s possible to imagine a break with Russia that would endanger the space station, but that would be at the level of a dropping diplomatic relations,” said Pace. “That would be something that would be an utterly last resort so I don’t really see that happening unless there is a wider military confrontation.”

The space station, an international partnership of five space agencies from 15 countries, including Canada, several countries in Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States, launched in 1998 and morphed into a complex that’s almost as long as a football field, with eight miles of electrical wiring, an acre of solar panels and three high-tech labs.

It marked two decades of people continuously living and working in orbit in 2020.

The first crew — American Bill Shepherd and Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — blasted off from Kazakhstan on Oct. 31, 2000. Two days later, they swung open the space station doors, and clasped their hands in unity.

The three astronauts got along fine but tension sometimes bubbled up with the two mission controls, in Houston and outside Moscow.

Shepherd, during a NASA panel discussion with his crewmates, said he got so frustrated with the “conflicting marching orders” that he insisted they come up with a single plan.

Russia kept station crews coming and going after NASA’s Columbia disaster in 2003 and after the space shuttles retired in 2011.

In 2020, SpaceX ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA and became the first private company to launch Americans to the space station.

“It is a way of undertaking common endeavors, but that power is not infinite and terrestrial conflicts on Earth can still get in the way,” said Pace. “Space is ever more critical to our daily life and it’s something everybody should be aware of.”

Earlier this year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who chaired a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, said he was keen to discuss ways to prevent dangerous military incidents or accidents involving Russia and the Western allies, reducing space and cyber threats, as well as setting limits on missile deployments and other arms control initiatives.

There have been concerns raised in Congress about the impact that conflict over Ukraine could have on the International Space Station.

Lawmakers have specifically exempted space cooperation from previous sanctions and can be expected to make similar arguments against targeting it as the administration considers its next steps over Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Russia began evacuating its embassy in Kyiv, and Ukraine urged its citizens to leave Russia.

Russian lawmakers authorized President Vladimir Putin to use military force outside his country and President Joe Biden and European leaders responded by slapping sanctions on Russian oligarchs and banks.

Both leaders signaled that an even bigger confrontation could lie ahead.

Putin has yet to unleash the force of the 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, while Biden held back on the toughest sanctions that could cause economic turmoil for Russia but said they would go ahead if there is further aggression.

The sanctions underscored the urgency felt by Western nations to blunt the conflict.  

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US Offshore Wind Rights Auction Generates Record Bids

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The use of wind to generate electricity for the United States was thrust forward Wednesday with the largest-ever offering by the federal government of offshore development rights.

Bidding for the 197,000 hectares of the New York Bight — an area of shallow waters between the coasts of Long Island (in New York state) and the state of New Jersey — attracted record-setting prices, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“This auction today is a testament to how attractive the U.S. market is,” said Fred Zalcman, director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance.

Europe is much further along than North America in developing lease areas for offshore wind farms.

There are two small offshore wind facilities in the United States off the coasts of the states of Rhode Island and Virginia. Two more commercial-scale projects were recently approved for development.

“We’re really just at the beginning of a process here. We hope to apply the lessons learned from Europe and take advantage of the cost savings achieved in Europe,” Zalcman told VOA.

Officials say turbines erected in the set of six leases that went up for bidding Wednesday, the first auction conducted during the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, could eventually provide power for nearly 2 million residences.

Wednesday’s top bids totaled more than $1.5 billion. The largest single lease area offered — totaling nearly 51,000 hectares and located about 50 kilometers off the New Jersey coast — had attracted a record-busting $410 million, with bidding to resume Thursday morning.

The previous auction was held in 2018 during the administration of former President Donald Trump. It was considered a success, with three leases off the coast of the state of Massachusetts bringing in a collective record-breaking $405 million for rights to develop 158,000 hectares south of Martha’s Vineyard, with a potential generating capacity of more than 4.1 gigawatts, enough to supply power to about 1.5 million homes.

Trump, a Republican, repeatedly expressed, at best, skepticism toward wind as a viable renewable source to supply America’s energy needs. He derided “windmills,” saying he had been told the noise from their blades “causes cancer” and “it’s like a graveyard for birds.”

Biden, a Democrat, has veered in a different direction, embracing wind as part of his clean energy ambitions and setting a goal of 30 gigawatts of capacity in the United States by the year 2030.

In his first week in office in 2021, Biden signed an executive order to expand opportunities for the offshore wind industry, predicting, according to the White House, the projects “will create good-paying union jobs” and “spawn new supply chains that stretch into America’s heartland.”

The area included in the ongoing auction, which began with 25 qualified bidders, was cut back by about one-fourth from what was initially proposed last year due to concerns about the potential impact on commercial fishing and military interests.

State and federal officials, according to Zalcman, have been addressing concerns of other ocean users, including recreational and commercial fishers, navigators and the shipping industry, and taking into consideration visual impacts to coastal communities, and concerns of environmental groups about migratory species, such as the North Atlantic right whale.

A group of residents of the New Jersey summer colony of Long Beach last month sued BOEM over the New York Bight leasing plans, contending the massive wind farm would permanently mar their beautiful view from the beach, hurt the area’s tourism economy and harm property values.

Bob Stern, the president of Save Long Beach Island, told VOA on Wednesday that the organization “is not opposed to offshore wind energy but believes that the federal government’s process of selecting ocean areas for turbine placement is flawed.”

Stern explained that the group’s lawsuit challenges the federal government agency’s selection of “wind energy areas” for offshore wind turbines which “should have been preceded and supported by a structured regional environmental impact statement process with full disclosure of impacts and public input.”

The Sierra Club is terming the New York Bight auction a historic major stride forward for clean energy.

“This lease sale is the first to include stipulations setting out responsibilities for project developers to report on their engagement with stakeholders to minimize conflicting uses, negotiation of project labor agreements, and the development of offshore wind-related manufacturing and supply chain services,” said Allison Considine, a senior campaign representative of the national environmental organization.

A preeminent concern is ensuring that these projects are done responsibly, said Zalcman of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, of which the Sierra Club is a member.

How developers configure the wind farms will be subject to another rigorous round of environmental review before they are able to erect the huge structures.

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COVID Prompts Calls for More Investment in Africa’s Health Care Systems

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Experts are calling for increased investment in Africa’s health care infrastructure to support data collection, research and development related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent impact on African economies.

In a recent discussion on VOA’s Straight Talk Africa program titled COVID-19 in Africa: Virus, Variants and Vaccines, experts pointed out that the global health crisis exposed poor health infrastructure on the continent.

Mo Ibrahim, the billionaire founder and chair of the London-based foundation that bears his name, spoke about inequality in vaccine distribution at the height of the pandemic.

“The vaccine apartheid did not help the situation for Africa,” Ibrahim said. However, he said he remains “quite optimistic that the pandemic in a strange way will help us move forward.”

“Going forward, we need to manufacture our own vaccines,” he said. “We should not rely on the goodwill or the sensible behavior of others.”

Last Friday, the World Health Organization announced that six African nations would be the first on the continent to receive the technology necessary to produce mRNA vaccines. The countries are Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.

Health experts around the world have raised concerns over the unequal distribution of vaccines. More than 80% of the African continent’s population has yet to receive a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to WHO.

“Much of this inequity has been driven by the fact that globally, vaccine production is concentrated in a few mostly high-income countries,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a European Union-African Union summit last week.

On the panel, Ibrahim highlighted Africa’s weak and overstretched health care system while stressing the lack of adequate investments and the effects of brain drain on health care.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, more affluent countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have lured migrant doctors and nurses with measures such as higher pay, temporary licensing and eased entry, the OECD has reported.

WHO recommends at least one physician for every thousand people. Some African countries, such as Ghana and Chad, had as few as 0.1 medical doctors per thousand in 2019, according to World Bank data.

Panelist Aloysius Uche Ordu dispelled the assumption that infectious diseases always come from poor countries.

“We tend to look at Africa as the place where infectious diseases start. Well, that did not happen with COVID,” said Ordu, who directs the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “COVID started with a rich country and spread to other rich countries. In fact, Africa came into the picture later on.”

An official with the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the continent has done a laudable job of dealing with the virus.

“We have kept the numbers low. We have mobilized our political leadership from the very top all the way down to our technical teams,” said Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director of the Africa CDC. “We have mobilized the public, and Africa has largely addressed this pandemic as a group. And this is unprecedented, and I will give us a very, very good mark.”

But the dean of health sciences at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa disagrees.

Professor Sabir Madhi noted that his country’s disproportionately high COVID-19 death toll is largely due to “much more robust” contact tracing and data collation tools than other African nations.

South Africans “constitute less than 5% of the African population yet have contributed 45% of all (COVID-19-related) deaths on the African continent,” he said.

The country of nearly 60 million people has Africa’s highest number of recorded infections and deaths — a total of 3.6 million cases and nearly 99,000 deaths as of this week, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. The center has recorded more than 420 million COVID-19 cases globally and nearly 6 million deaths.

South Africa is emerging from a fourth wave of the pandemic, largely driven by the omicron variant. According to local scientists, the variant no longer leads to high hospitalization rates and deaths in the country, a huge relief for a population reeling under lockdown fatigue.

Madhi told VOA the continent has failed to learn from experiences with the 2009 swine flu, which emphasized the need for good data collection.

He added that “the impact of the pandemic on Africa will, unfortunately, be realized only after the pandemic has passed.”

US support

The United States has committed to helping the world combat the virus. President Joe Biden pledged to donate over 1.2 billion doses through COVAX, the international vaccine-sharing initiative supported by the U.N. and the health organizations Gavi and CEPI. The initiative aims to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines to developing countries.

So far, the U.S. has donated more than 450 million doses globally, with more than 120 million doses going to 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the State Department.

Ordu said it has become imperative to strengthen STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in Africa. This, he contended, would be a sure way to overcome any future health crisis.

“Because of the growing youthful population in Africa, it is important that STEM education is an area of focus, particularly for women and girls,” he said.

This report originated in VOA’s English to Africa service.

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New Wave of COVID-19, Measles Outbreak Stretch Fragile Afghan Health System

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Aid groups warned Wednesday that a spike in COVID-19 infections and an alarming measles outbreak have compounded the health emergencies in Afghanistan, stretching the impoverished, war-torn country’s fragile health care system.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement that urgent global support, including health and testing services, as well as vaccinations, was needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus that is surging across Afghanistan.

“A new wave is hitting Afghanistan hard. Testing is inadequate, and the World Health Organization reports that almost half of tested samples are coming back positive, indicating an alarming spread of the virus,” the statement added.

It said the underfunded and understaffed national health system was struggling to cope with the surge in cases. Dozens of COVID-19 health facilities have closed because they didn’t have enough medicines, essential medical supplies and funds to pay the utilities and health workers’ salaries.

The aid group said that fewer than 10 of the country’s 37 public COVID-19 health facilities remained functional, and that they were unable to keep up with demand. Only 10% of the country’s estimated population of 40 million is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Mawlawi Mutiul Haq Khales, the acting president of Afghan Red Crescent, stressed the need for increasing the number of functional health facilities so that pressure can be eased on the few functioning hospitals.

“As the number of COVID-19 infections increases from cities to remote corners of the country, the international community needs to open up the doors to support critical health care, testing and other essential services before it’s too late for the people of Afghanistan,” Khales said.

The Taliban takeover of the country in August prompted international donors to suspend foreign aid, impose financial sanctions and freeze billions of dollars in Afghan foreign cash reserves, mostly held in the United States. The restrictions triggered economic upheavals, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that stems from years of war and a persistent drought.

The U.N. World Food Program estimates nearly 23 million people, or 55% of the country’s population, suffer from severe hunger, saying around 9 million of them are a step away from famine. More than 3 million children suffer from severe malnutrition.

The IFRC noted in its statement that the measles outbreak has infected thousands and killed dozens of people in the last month in Afghanistan.

“The measles outbreak is alarming since Afghanistan is in the middle of one of the worst droughts and food crises in decades, leaving children malnourished and far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease,” said Necephor Mghendi, IFRC’s country head.

Doctors Without Borders, an international charity known by its French acronym MSF, said in a separate statement that most of its programs, including those in southern Helmand and western Herat provinces, have seen high numbers of patients. It described the malnutrition rates as concerning.

“MSF is treating a high number of patients with measles in our projects in Helmand and Herat. Our teams are concerned about how the situation will progress unless more children are vaccinated against the disease,” the charity said.

The ripple effect of long-running sanctions on the Taliban and the financial measures against the new rulers in Afghanistan are being felt nationwide, according to MSF.

“The country faces near economic and institutional collapse, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and are struggling to find work,” it said.

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US Announces Steps to Bolster Critical Mineral Supply Chain US China Materials

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The Biden administration announced on Tuesday actions taken by the federal government and private industry that it says will bolster the supply chain of rare earths and other critical minerals used in technologies from household appliances and electronics to defense systems. They say these steps will reduce the nation’s dependence on China, a major producer of these elements. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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Study: Infant Formula Makers Use Unethical Practices to Boost Sales

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Aggressive marketing practices by formula milk companies undermine women’s confidence, discouraging them from breastfeeding their babies, a World Health Organization-U.N. Children’s Fund study reports.

Some 8,500 parents and pregnant women and 300 health workers in cities across eight countries were surveyed over a three-year period. The report reveals six of the world’s leading manufacturers of baby formula products engaged in systematic and unethical marketing strategies. All are in breach of international standards on infant feeding practices. 

World Health Organization scientist and a lead author of the report, Nigel Rollins, said more than half of parents and pregnant women report being bombarded with messages about the benefits of formula milk. He told VOA industry claims are largely misleading and of dubious scientific veracity. 

“There are many, many examples of how, for example, they see scientific terms being used,” he said. “Where there are scientific claims in terms of packaging, claims that it will improve brain development, that it will improve growth, that it will improve immunity. Even during the time of COVID.” 

Rollins said there is no evidence to substantiate those assertions, but new parents may have difficulty judging the truthfulness of marketing claims. He said they want the best for their babies and are vulnerable to messages that promise solutions to day-to-day problems. 

The survey was conducted in Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Britain and Vietnam. In those countries, between 49 percent and 98 percent of women surveyed expressed a strong desire to breastfeed their babies exclusively. However, the report says misleading marketing messages reinforce the difficulties of nursing, undermining women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully. 

The WHO/UNICEF study notes global breastfeeding rates have increased very little in the past two decades. During the same period, sales of formula milk have more than doubled. 

Rollins said the health consequences for infants and babies who are not fed with mothers’ milk are serious, especially in low-income countries. 

“But, in fact, breastfeeding has a protective effect against mortality even in high-income settings,” he said. “But the impact on lifelong health — so, if you think about things like child obesity and child development and maternal health, risk of cancer — those are true for both children and mothers in every setting.” 

The report says the baby feeding industry uses promotional gifts, commissions from sales and other inducements to entice health workers in all countries to persuade new mothers to buy their products. 


The baby formula industry did not respond in advance of the report, which mentions no company by name. VOA will seek comment from the industry as soon as possible. 

The WHO, UNICEF and partners are calling on governments to adopt legislation to end exploitative marketing practices. In addition, they said these laws must be enforced to ensure that the $55 billion industry abides by the landmark 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. 


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9 Percent of Plastic Worldwide is Recycled, OECD Says

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Less than 10% of the plastic used around the world is recycled, the OECD said Tuesday, calling for “coordinated and global solutions” ahead of expected talks on an international plastics treaty. 

A new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report found that 460 million metric tons of plastics were used in 2019, the number that nearly doubled since 2000. 

The amount of plastic waste has also more than doubled during that same time to 353 million metric tons, the Paris-based OECD said. 

“After taking into account losses during recycling, only 9% of plastic waste was ultimately recycled, while 19% was incinerated and almost 50% went to sanitary landfills,” it said in its Global Plastics Outlook. 

“The remaining 22% was disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits or leaked into the environment,” the report added. 

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the use of plastics drop by 2.2% in 2020 compared with the previous year. However single-use plastics rose and overall use is “projected to pick up again” as the economy rebounds. 

Plastics contributed 3.4% of the global greenhouse emissions in 2019, 90% of it from “production and conversion from fossil fuels,” the report said.  

In the face of rampant global warming and pollution, it is “crucial that countries respond to the challenge with coordinated and global solutions,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said in the report. 

The OECD proposed a series of levers to address the issue, including developing the market for recycled plastics, which only represents 6% of the total, largely because they are more expensive. 

It added that new technologies related to decreasing the environmental footprint of plastic represented only 1.2% of all innovation concerning the product. 

While calling for “a more circular plastics lifecycle,” the OECD said that policies must also restrain overall consumption. 

It also called for “major investments in basic waste management infrastructure,” including 25 billion euros ($28 billion) a year to go toward efforts in low and middle-income countries.

Plastic treaty talks

The report comes less than a week before the U.N. Environment Assembly begins on February 28 in Nairobi, Kenya, where formal talks are expected to begin on a future international plastics treaty, the scope of which will be discussed. 

Shardul Agrawala, the head of the OECD’s environment and economy integration division, said Tuesday’s report “further accentuates the need for countries to come together to start looking towards a global agreement to address this very important problem.” 

Asked about the priorities of the treaty to be discussed in Nairobi, she said “there is an urgent waste management problem which is responsible for the bulk of the leakage to the environment.” 

“But we should not limit our focus just to the end-of-pipe solutions, there is a greater need in the long term to forge international cooperation and agreement towards alignment of standards,” she told an online press briefing Monday. 

In a survey published Tuesday by polling firm Ipsos for the World Wildlife Fund, 88% of respondents stressed the importance of an international treaty to combat plastic pollution. 

In the 28 countries surveyed, 23% of the respondents said such a treaty was “fairly important,” 31% said it was “very important” and 34% found it “essential.” 


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Storm Franklin Batters Britain and Northern Europe, Leaves 14 Dead

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Northern Britain and parts of France and Germany were battered Sunday and Monday by Franklin — the third major storm to strike the region in less than a week. The severe weather has flooded roads, knocked out power and left at least 14 people dead. 

Storm Franklin brought heavy rains and high winds that disrupted travel and prompted more than 140 flood warnings across England and Wales as of Monday.  

The storm moved through Northern Ireland and northern Britain before moving on to France, where a couple in their 70s died Sunday after their car was swept into the English Channel near a small town in Normandy.  

Franklin struck even as crews were attempting to clear fallen trees and restore power to hundreds of thousands of homes hit by storms Dudley and Eunice last week.  

Authorities in England issued more than 300 flood warnings and alerts, while insurers in Germany and the Netherlands estimated the damage from those storms to be at more than $1.7 billion. The German Aerospace Center said the storms would likely result in widespread damage to Europe’s already weakened forests. 

The AccuWeather news service reports this is the first time three such storms have struck Britain and northern Europe in less than a week since Britain’s Meteorological Office began naming storms in 2015. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 


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Britain’s PM Dropping all Remaining COVID-19 Restrictions

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As expected, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday the end of all domestic COVID-19 restrictions as of November 24, even self-isolation for those testing positive for the infection. 

Speaking before Parliament, Johnson said the nation will still encourage those who test positive or experience symptoms to stay home — at least until April 1, when the government will simply encourage people with a positive test or symptoms “to exercise personal responsibility.” On that day, the government will also stop paying for COVID-19 testing. 

Johnson announced the scrapping of the restrictions even as he wished Queen Elizabeth I well after she tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. The prime minister said the queen’s positive test is a reminder the pandemic is not over. 

Scientists, along with some opposition politicians, have warned that ending all testing and tracking will weaken the ability to track the disease and respond to any new surges of infection.  


That news comes as a Jordanian government spokesman said Prime Minister Bishr al-Khasawneh tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday while visiting Egypt. They say he has no visible symptoms. The prime minister is in Cairo leading his country’s delegation in cooperation talks with Egyptian officials. He arrived on Thursday.  

Jordan’s government spokesman said al-Khasawneh’s meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was canceled and that the prime minister will be isolated upon his return to Amman. 


Elsewhere, in Australia Monday, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrotte said, “Today we rejoined the world,” as the country opened to nonessential international travelers for the first time in nearly two years after lifting COVID-19 restrictions. 


On Sunday, Israel said it will allow unvaccinated tourists to enter the country beginning March 1. Tourists will be required to pass two PCR tests — one before departure and one upon landing in Israel.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the health and mortality of health care workers around the world. The World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization have published a guide on how to implement stronger occupational health and safety programs for health workers. 

James Campbell, director of the WHO Global Health Workforce Aliance, said, “COVID-19 has exposed the cost of this systemic lack of safeguards for the health, safety and well-being of health workers. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, about 115,500 health workers died from COVID-19.”  

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Monday that it has recorded more than 425 million global COVID-19 infections and almost 6 million COVID-19 deaths. The center said more than 10 billion vaccines have been administered. 

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. 




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Race Excluded as White House Rolls Out Climate Justice Screening Tool

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The Biden administration has released a screening tool to help identify disadvantaged communities long plagued by environmental hazards, but it won’t include race as a factor in deciding where to devote resources.

Administration officials told reporters Friday that excluding race will make projects less likely to draw legal challenges and will be easier to defend, even as they acknowledged that race has been a major factor in terms of who experiences environmental injustice.

The decision was harshly challenged by members of the environmental justice community.

“It’s a major disappointment and it’s a major flaw in trying to identify those communities that have been hit hardest by pollution,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

President Joe Biden has made combating climate change a priority of his administration and pledged in a sweeping executive order to “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America.” The order, signed his first week in office, sets a goal that the 40% of overall benefits from climate and environment investments would go to disadvantaged communities. The tool is a key component for carrying out that so-called Justice40 Initiative.

Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, said the tool will help direct federal investments in climate, clean energy and environmental improvements to communities “that have been left out and left behind for far too long.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a member of the advisory council who served on a working group that gave the Biden administration recommendations for the tool, said she agrees with the move to exclude race as an indicator.

She said that this tool is a good start that hopefully will improve with time and that it’s better than creating a tool that includes race as a factor and then gets struck down by the Supreme Court. She said, “race is a factor, but race isn’t the only factor.”

“Being marginalized in other ways is a factor,” she said.

The screening tool uses 21 factors, including air pollution, health outcomes and economic status, to identify communities that are most vulnerable to environmental and economic injustice.

But the omission of race as a factor goes against a deep body of scientific research showing that race is the greatest determinant of who experiences environmental harm, environmental justice experts pointed out.

“This was a political decision,” said Sacoby Wilson, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “This was not a scientific decision or a data-driven decision.” Wilson has studied the distribution of environmental pollutants and helped develop mapping tools like the one the Council on Environmental Quality released Friday.

This isn’t the first such tool to exist in the United States, or even in the federal government. California, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey have had tools like this for years. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a similar tool, EJ Screen. Many of those screening tools include some information about the racial makeup of communities along with environmental and health data.

The public has 60 days to use the tool and provide feedback on it. The Council on Environmental Quality also announced Friday that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are working on launching a study of existing tools. 

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Tropical Butterflies Spread as Monarchs Dwindle in East Asia

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 Sparked by global warming and other forms of climate change, tropical butterflies are starting to arrive in Hong Kong and Taiwan in greater numbers, while temperate-zone species like the monarch appear to be dwindling in the region, conservationists told RFA.

“Seven new butterfly species were discovered in Hong Kong in 2021, including swallowtails, gray butterflies, and nymphs; most of them were tropical species,” Gary Chan, project officer at Hong Kong’s Fengyuan Butterfly Reserve, told RFA.

“Breeding records were found in Hong Kong for several of these species, which indicates that these weren’t just strays arriving in Hong Kong with horticultural imports or the monsoon,” Chan said.

According to Chan, Neptis cartica and Ancema blanka were both found in Hong Kong for the first time in 2021, along with Zeltus amasa, which is usually native to Malaysia, Thailand, India, Myanmar, Borneo and other points south of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, tropical migrants are also being spotted in Taiwan, according to Hsu Yu-feng, a butterfly expert at Taiwan National Normal University.

Between 1985 and 2008, at least seven new species of tropical butterfly were found to have settled on the island, including Appias olfern peducaea, which traveled north from the Philippines to settle in the southern port city of Kaohsiung in 2000.

Even butterflies once found only in southern Taiwan are now found across the island, Hsu told RFA.

“When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I went to Kenting [on the southern coast] to see Graphium agamemnon,” Hsu recalled. “Then, I saw it for the first time on this university college campus last year, and it was breeding here.”

Southeast Asia warming faster

Troides aeacus kaguya is another example of a butterfly that once only lived in southern Taiwan, and can now be found all over the island, he said.

The changes come as temperatures in East and Southeast Asia have risen more rapidly than the global average in recent decades, Chan said.

“There are many more places where tropical butterflies and other insects can breed, so that’s why we’re seeing this northward migration, or dispersal behavior,” he said.

Hsu said the butterflies didn’t actually migrate, however; rather, their habitats are expanding due to rising temperatures.

“Once upon a time, the more northerly areas were colder, and not suitable for them to settle in, but they are suitable now, because temperatures have risen,” Hsu said.

“The north is warming at a higher rate than the south, meaning the difference in temperatures between north and south has been reduced,” he said. “That’s why southern butterflies are now living in the north.”

But the changes are forcing out butterflies that need a temperate climate to breed in, experts said.

Few monarchs now

The Siu Lang Shui conservation site in Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district once saw tens of thousands of monarch butterflies spending the winter, as recently as 2013 and 2014, Chan said.

But numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, he said.

In Taiwan, the purple variegated butterflies that once overwintered in their millions in the Maolin valley outside Kaohsiung have also been dwindling in recent years, preferring to move north to seek out colder temperatures earlier in the year.

The warming environment is also becoming more hostile to temperate tree species some butterflies call home, Hsu told RFA.

“The Taiwan-endemic butterfly Sibataniozephyrus kuafui uses the Taiwan beech as a host plant … so in contrast to the expansion of tropical butterflies, temperate species are being threatened,” he said.

The changes in East Asia come after a study published in the journal Science in 2021 found that populations of most butterfly species in western North America have declined by nearly 50% over the past 40 years.

“California is the place with the most endemic species of butterflies in western North America,” Hsu said. “California butterflies are most vulnerable to drought, because this is a Mediterranean climate zone, with dry summers and rainy winters.”

“If climate change causes droughts in winter, plants will grow poorly, and the larvae of butterflies will have nothing to eat,” he said.

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Nearly Half of US Bald Eagles Suffer Lead Poisoning

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America’s national bird is more beleaguered than previously believed, with nearly half of bald eagles tested across the U.S. showing signs of chronic lead exposure, according to a study published Thursday.

While the bald eagle population has rebounded from the brink of extinction since the U.S. banned the pesticide DDT in 1972, harmful levels of toxic lead were found in the bones of 46% of bald eagles sampled in 38 states from California to Florida, researchers reported in the journal Science.

Similar rates of lead exposure were found in golden eagles, which scientists say means the raptors likely consumed carrion or prey contaminated by lead from ammunition or fishing tackle.

The blood, bones, feathers and liver tissue of 1,210 eagles sampled from 2010 to 2018 were examined to assess chronic and acute lead exposure.

“This is the first time for any wildlife species that we’ve been able to evaluate lead exposure and population level consequences at a continental scale,” said study co-author Todd Katzner, a wildlife biologist at U.S. Geological Survey in Boise, Idaho. “It’s sort of stunning that nearly 50% of them are getting repeatedly exposed to lead.”

Lead is a neurotoxin that even in low doses impairs an eagle’s balance and stamina, reducing its ability to fly, hunt and reproduce. In high doses, lead causes seizures, breathing difficulty and death.

The study estimated that lead exposure reduced the annual population growth of bald eagles by 4% and golden eagles by 1%.

Bald eagles are one of America’s most celebrated conservation success stories, and the birds were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2007.

But scientists say that high lead levels are still a concern. Besides suppressing eagle population growth, lead exposure reduces their resilience in facing future challenges, such as climate change or infectious diseases.

“When we talk about recovery, it’s not really the end of the story — there are still threats to bald eagles,” said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

Previous studies have shown high lead exposure in specific regions, but not across the country. The blood samples from live eagles in the new study were taken from birds trapped and studied for other reasons; the bone, feather and liver samples came from eagles killed by collisions with vehicles or powerlines, or other misfortunes.

“Lead is present on the landscape and available to these birds more than we previously thought,” said co-author Vince Slabe, a research wildlife biologist at the nonprofit Conservation Science Global. “A lead fragment the size of the end of a pin is large enough to cause mortality in an eagle. ”

The researchers also found elevated levels of lead exposure in fall and winter, coinciding with hunting season in many states.

During these months, eagles scavenge on carcasses and gut piles left by hunters, which are often riddled with shards of lead shot or bullet fragments.

Slabe said the upshot of the research was not to disparage hunters. “Hunters are one of the best conservation groups in this country,” he said, noting that fees and taxes paid by hunters help fund state wildlife agencies, and that he also hunted deer and elk in Montana.

However, Slabe said he hopes the findings provide an opportunity to “talk to hunters about this issue in a clear manner” and that more hunters will voluntarily switch to non-lead ammunition such as copper bullets.

Lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting was banned in 1991, due to concerns about contamination of waterways, and wildlife authorities encouraged the use of nontoxic steel shot. However, lead ammunition is still common for upland bird hunting and big game hunting.

The amount of lead exposure varies regionally, with highest levels found in the Central Flyway, the new study found.

At the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, veterinarian and executive director Victoria Hall said that “85 to 90% of the eagles that come into our hospital have some level of lead in their blood,” and X-rays often show fragments of lead bullets in their stomachs.

Eagles with relatively low levels can be treated, she said, but those with high exposure can’t be saved.

Laura Hale, board president at nonprofit Badger Run Wildlife Rehab in Klamath County, Oregon, said she’ll never forget the first eagle she encountered with acute lead poisoning, in 2018. She had answered a resident’s call about an eagle that seemed immobile in underbrush and brought it to the clinic.

The young bald eagle was wrapped in a blanket, unable to breathe properly, let alone stand or fly.

“There is something hideous when you watch an eagle struggling to breathe because of lead poisoning – it’s really, really harsh,” she said, her voice shaking. That eagle went into convulsions, and died within 48 hours.

Lead on the landscape affects not only eagles, but also many other birds — including hawks, vultures, ravens, swans and geese, said Jennifer Cedarleaf, avian director at Alaska Raptor Center, a nonprofit wildlife rescue in Sitka, Alaska.

Because eagles are very sensitive to lead, are so well-studied and attract so much public interest, “bald eagles are like the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “They are the species that tells us: We have a bit of problem.”

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When Will the Pandemic End?

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It’s a question many have been asking for almost two years: when will the coronavirus pandemic end?

“Epidemiologically speaking, we don’t know. Perhaps in another month or two — if there’s no other variants of concern that pop up, at least here in United States,” says J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

“Socially, I think we’re kind of already at the point where the pandemic has ended. Many states are removing the vestiges of their mask mandates. We see people essentially moving on with their lives.”

As of February 16, 2022, about 78 million people in the United States have contracted COVID-19 and 923,067 of them have died. Seventy-six percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sara Sawyer, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, agrees the end might finally be in sight, in part thanks to Omicron, a COVID-19 variant that emerged in November 2021.

“It is essentially vaccinating many people who were resistant to getting vaccinated because a lot of those people got infected in this wave,” Sawyer says. “And so, that’s just going to make it really hard for viruses to spread through in these giant waves like Omicron anymore because we have so many people with resistance that they’ve acquired through previous infection or a vaccine.”

Experts predict that more than 70% of people in the United States are now either vaccinated or have recovered from a coronavirus infection, Sawyer says. She adds that an extra bonus for those who get an actual infection is that they develop much more sophisticated systems of immunity against that virus.

A pandemic is generally considered “over” when a virus becomes endemic.

“When viruses become predictable — in their patterns, in their seasonality and in the number of people that they might infect and the number of deaths that they might cause — we say that a virus has become endemic,” Sawyer says. “That means it has settled down into a long-term existence with the human population.”

And while COVID-19 might never completely go away, future variants are not expected to be as severe as past ones.

“If you were infected with one variant, and I was infected with another variant, and I ended up in the emergency room the next day, and you had just a tickle in your throat and went to your son’s baseball game, in the grocery store and to a birthday party, whose variant is going to spread better?” Sawyer says. “Your variant is going to spread better. We know from the history of viral evolution, viruses are snaking their way toward being less deadly and more transmissible. … Viruses become more transmissible when they don’t make people as sick.”

But the danger of calling the pandemic over before it’s really over remains.

“I think, socially, most people are leaning toward this pandemic being over when, epidemiologically, it’s not,” Navarro says. “There is essentially no going back. And the fear that I have today is that if we have another variant of concern that pops up, I don’t know if we’re going to get people to go back to masking, if we’re going to be able to implement any sort of structured closure orders if we need to.”

During the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, Americans got tired of being constrained and prematurely gave up on flu prevention measures. Two more waves of the flu pandemic hit the United States, resulting in more deaths.

While some parallels can be drawn between COVID-19 and the 1918 flu pandemic, looking to the past isn’t always a good barometer for when this pandemic might end because of the advanced knowledge and technology that exists today.

“We know exactly what we’re supposed to do, and this is an advantage that people of the past did not necessarily have,” says Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. “We have the vaccines. We have the public health regulations in place. We have the medical expertise, so we actually know what to do. So we’re actually at an unprecedented advantage when we compare ourselves to past societies. We can actually do the right things. Whether we do the right things, that’s another question.”

Varlik says asking when the pandemic might end is misleading, fueling false hopes rather than focusing on trying to control and mitigate the pandemic.

“It will become endemic, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot become pandemic again. So, it’s kind of like a dance … it can be pandemic or epidemic or endemic, and it can change over time,” Varlik says. “I am pretty confident that COVID will continue to be epidemic in one part of the world for the foreseeable future … and, of course, with travel and other means, it can spill over to other places, to other countries. Until it’s eliminated in the entire world, there is really no way of feeling safe from this disease.”

When epidemiologists will declare the pandemic over has a lot to do with how much disease a society is willing to accept and put up with, Navarro says. COVID-19 could become like the flu, killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, predominantly those in vulnerable medical categories.

“At some point, you just have to say to yourself, ‘You know, I live in the world. There are dangers in my world, infectious disease, car accidents.’ But you can’t let that cripple you. Those things have always been there,” biology professor Sawyer says. “I certainly would never want to send a message that this is now yet another thing that people need to worry and have anxiety about once this becomes endemic. Instead, get your vaccine, get your flu vaccine, protect yourself and then go on with your life.”

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Canadian Police Push to Restore Normality to Capital

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Canadian police on Saturday worked to restore normality to the capital after trucks and demonstrators occupied the downtown core of Ottawa for more than three weeks to protest against pandemic restrictions.

The push to clear the city began Friday and continued into the night.

Four of the main organizers have already been taken into custody and more than 100 protesters have been arrested as hundreds of officers, including some on horseback, formed lines and slowly pushed them away from their vehicles.

There were many tense moments on Friday. Some protesters were dragged from their vehicles, and others who resisted the police advance were thrown to the ground and had their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

The protesters showed “assaultive behavior,” forcing mounted police to move in “to create critical space” in the late afternoon, according to a police statement. As this happened, police said, one person threw a bicycle at a horse and was arrested for harming a police service animal.

The protesters initially wanted an end to cross-border COVID-19 vaccine mandates for truck drivers, but the blockade has gradually turned into an anti-government and anti-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demonstration.

“Our demands aren’t ridiculous. We want mandates and lockdowns dropped,” said Gord from Manitoba, a truck driver who said he cannot work anymore because of cross-border vaccine mandates. On Friday, he vowed to stay parked in front of parliament and said he was waiting to be arrested.

Trudeau on Monday invoked emergency powers to give his government wider authority to stop the protests. Legislators had been due to debate those temporary powers on Friday but the House of Commons suspended its session, citing police activity.

After the protest crowds swelled on the three previous weekend, police set up 100 road blocks around the downtown core on Friday to deny people access and prevent food and fuel from getting in. Police said they had towed 21 vehicles on Friday.

As police cleared protesters from the streets, at least a dozen tow trucks came in to remove trucks and other protest vehicles still parked downtown. 

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