Taiwan Pilots, Cabin Crews Bemoan Stringent COVID Restrictions 

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The flight crews at one of Taiwan’s main airline carriers have voiced frustration about continued COVID-19 policies that require them to adhere to some of the strictest quarantine and testing requirements in the world. 

The policies remain in place even as other parts of the world loosen pandemic restrictions and adapt to a “new normal.” 

Upon arrival at destinations overseas, pilots and cabin crews from China Airlines must be taken directly to their hotel rooms and provided with room key cards that work only once — when they leave and embark on their next flights. 

 

One pilot for China Airlines, who wished to remain anonymous, told VOA he was “frustrated” with the current conditions. 

 

“It’s really affected [me]. Whenever I went to work, I felt so frustrated … it means I can’t go home for a period of time, and [I’m] also very tired, because I need to continuously [go] back and forth to Taipei and the U.S. or Europe. So, I have to adjust myself, try to sleep more and be more positive. [Being] stuck in a tiny room for long is really uncomfortable, but I still have to get used to it,” he said. 

 

The first officer has worked for the airline for nearly eight years, and he flies both long- and short-haul trips each month. He said the restrictions were worse in the beginning of the pandemic, as pilots were forced to wear goggles, gloves and face masks while on duty, as well as facing quarantine for seven days. And because of the quick turnaround of a pilot flying both domestically and internationally, the pilot described how he was in a constant loop of being quarantined. 

 

“There [was] a period of time we couldn’t quarantine at home, only in the hotel, so I’ve been 22 days and [still can’t] go home,” he said.

Today, the rules for vaccinated flight crews have since been relaxed slightly, removing the necessity of home quarantine in Taiwan. But when pilots and crews go abroad, they are still restricted from leaving their hotel rooms.

“At out stations, we still can’t go out. We only [can] stay in the room, until our pickup time for the next flight. It’s really unhealthy, [I] watch TV, read and sleep all day. I’ll do some workouts, too, and order Uber Eats, but that’s it,” the pilot added, referring to the food delivery service provided by Uber. 

 

Rule change

A local pilots union in Taiwan is now seeking the loosening of some restrictions. 

 

The Pilots Union Taoyuan, which represents nearly half of all pilots working for Taiwan’s airlines, has called the measures “outdated” and is requesting that the Taiwan government ease the strict controls. 

 

The head of the union, Lee Hsin-yen, referred to an in-house survey that found most of the member pilots who have had the coronavirus caught it in Taiwan, the news website Focus Taiwan reported.

VOA has requested a comment from the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Taiwan but has not yet received a reply.

Cabin crews 

 

Cabin crews also have vented their discontent about the rules and said following the restrictions is like being in prison. 

 

A woman calling herself Shirley, who didn’t want to be identified, is a cabin crew member at China Airlines and said she has worked there for nearly seven years. 

 

“The rules are: We are not allowed to leave our room; crews got one-time-use key card, or [the] hotel monitors us via [closed-circuit television] to make sure there’s no crew [leaving] their room. And we’re also not allow to have any contact with locals,” she told VOA.

She said that in pre-pandemic times, cabin crew members would often go shopping, have coffee or enjoy the summertime when overseas. 

 

“That’s how crew members [would] release their stress,” she said. 

 

Today, with the prolonged restrictions, she said, the flight crews in Taiwan are being treated unfairly in comparison to those  in the rest of the world. 

 

“In the beginning of the COVID, all these rules seemed to make sense. Nowadays, more and more countries open their borders. It feels like we [are] behind bars when we are in another country, because we can’t go anywhere. When we have [a] layover flight, the only place we can go is on the plane and hotel room. And it seems like the lockdown is endless,” she said. 

 

Taiwan tourism 

 

As the rest of the world is returning to pre-pandemic travel norms, Taiwan is currently closed to overseas tourists. Only residents and business travelers can enter Taiwan, but they must quarantine for three nights, followed by four days in self-health control. This means they are prohibited from visiting public venues or meeting groups of people.  

It is an example of how concerns about the infection still linger in East Asia, with parts of the region slow to reopen travel to the world. The trend seems to be gradually changing, as Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan have all opened their respective borders recently for visitors, each with specific measures in place. 

 

Gary Bowerman, an Asia travel analyst, told VOA that Taiwan’s cautious approach is soon going to affect its goals to boost tourism. 

 

“Taiwan is talking about a phased reopening beginning with tour groups from Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea. This is a cautious strategy, which some Southeast Asian countries tried initially. As Southeast Asian countries discovered over the past year, it is only when full border reopenings are activated, and pre-flight and on-arrival testing and restrictions are removed, that travelers gain the confidence to visit in larger numbers,” he said. 

 

With a population of more than 23 million, despite keeping infections low at the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan is now reporting upward of 25,000 domestic cases daily. Vaccination numbers are high, with 85% of the population inoculated, according to the website Our World in Data.

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UN Weather Agency Predicts Rare ‘Triple-dip’ La Nina in 2022

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The U.N. weather agency is predicting that the phenomenon known as La Nina is poised to last through the end of this year, a mysterious “triple dip” — the first this century — caused by three straight years of its effect on climate patterns like drought and flooding worldwide.

The World Meteorological Organization on Wednesday said La Nina conditions, which involve a large-scale cooling of ocean surface temperatures, have strengthened in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific with an increase in trade winds in recent weeks.

The agency’s top official was quick to caution that the “triple dip” doesn’t mean global warming is easing.

“It is exceptional to have three consecutive years with a La Nina event. Its cooling influence is temporarily slowing the rise in global temperatures, but it will not halt or reverse the long-term warming trend,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said.

La Nina is a natural and cyclical cooling of parts of the equatorial Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide, as opposed to warming caused by the better-known El Nino — an opposite phenomenon. La Nina often leads to more Atlantic hurricanes, less rain and more wildfires in the western United States, and agricultural losses in the central U.S.

Studies have shown La Nina is more expensive to the United States than the El Nino.

Together El Nino, La Nina and the neutral condition are called ENSO, which stands for El Nino Southern Oscillation, and they have one of the largest natural effects on climate, at times augmenting and other times dampening the big effects of human-caused climate change from the burning of coal, oil and gas, scientists say.

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Half of the World’s Health Care Facilities are Unhygienic and Infection Incubators

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A World Health Organization-UNICEF global study of health care facilities finds half lack basic hygiene services, putting around 3.85 billion people at risk of infection and death.

The study is based on data from 40 countries representing 35% of the world’s population. It presents an alarming picture of health facilities that lack water and soap for handwashing, have dirty toilets, and are unable to manage health care waste.

It says the lack of safe water, sanitation, and basic hygiene services, known as WASH, in health care facilities can lead to many preventable deaths. Rick Johnston is WHO lead WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for WASH. He says sepsis, a major cause of mortality globally, could be prevented by improving WASH services in health care.

“It causes about 11 million avoidable deaths each year. And we know that in health care settings, sepsis mortality is linked to poor quality of care, including inadequate WASH… Still today, 670,000 neo-natal deaths occur due to sepsis. So, there is a huge burden that could be improved right there,” he said.

Data show the situation tends to be better in hospitals than in smaller health care facilities. The WHO reports the 46 least developed countries lag most behind in hygiene services, with only 32% of health care facilities providing WASH services.

Johnston says sub-Saharan Africa is the geographic region with the lowest coverage of basic services, about a third lower than globally.

“I mentioned hand hygiene services at 51% globally. It is only 38% in sub-Saharan Africa… Water services 78% globally, only 52% in sub-Saharan Africa… In sub-Saharan Africa, only 13% of health care facilities met the requirement for a basic health care service. So, lots of work to be done in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

The WHO estimates the cost of achieving universal basic WASH services in the 46 least developed countries at less than $10 billion between now and 2030. While that sounds like a lot, WHO officials say it comes to just under $1 per person per year. Officials say that is a fraction of what currently is being spent on health care services in those countries.

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Excitement Builds for Moon Missions Ahead of NASA’s Artemis Launch

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NASA’s space shuttle program brought Brenda Mulberry and her husband from Tampa to Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1980s. Since then, Mulberry has operated “Space Shirts,” a space-themed clothing shop not far from Kennedy Space Center.

She said business slowed significantly when shuttle launches ended in 2011.

But this year is different.

“Excitement is over the moon,” said Mulberry, in between helping customers pay for armfuls of souvenirs.

People now flock to Mulberry’s store to get anything they can related to NASA’s new Artemis mission.

“On a normal day we might see 60 to 70 people in a day in our store,” she told VOA. “We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds an hour. It’s a zoo.”

Artemis — NASA’s ambitious program to return to the moon — has generated renewed interest in space exploration ahead of the launch of the first unmanned test flight of the SLS, or Space Launch System, rocket and the Orion capsule, which will eventually carry astronauts back to the moon more than 50 years after the last Apollo mission visited the lunar surface.

Monday’s first launch date was scrubbed, disappointing throngs of tourists, but added to the anticipation for when the program’s first liftoff occurs. NASA will try again on Saturday.

“I call it the Artemis generation. Apollo had a twin sister — Artemis — and this is our generation,” said Branelle Rodriguez, an integration manager for NASA’s Orion capsule that will house astronauts traveling to the moon and back. “I think it’s a fantastic thing for us to experience, for people to go explore and create a presence on the moon.”

NASA astronaut Stan Love said the Artemis program will feature crews that pave the way for the first woman and person of color to stand on the lunar surface.

“We are going to broaden our demographics, so it won’t just be white guys on the moon,” Love told VOA during a recent interview at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s goals for the Artemis program include crewed missions to the moon for decades to come.

And that’s just the beginning.

“We’re going to establish a permanent [lunar] base, but I think long term, we want to go to Mars. NASA has said this is a steppingstone to Mars eventually,” said Doug Hurley, a retired NASA astronaut who now works on Artemis for Northrop Grumman, a government contractor.

NASA projects the budget for Artemis will reach $93 billion by 2025. While critics have pointed out the program is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, Hurley says patience and expenditure will be rewarded.

“It takes time to build these complicated machines, but it’s worth it. I mean, when you look at NASA’s budget — one-half of 1% of the federal budget — and SLS is a small part of NASA’s budget. So, to me, it’s all perspective,” Hurley said.

Mulberry said criticism of the program is hard to find on Florida’s Space Coast. She credits Artemis with creating jobs and boosting tourism in a part of the state that suffered when the space shuttle program ended.

“I think everybody in the area underestimated the power this was going to have,” Mulberry told VOA.

Even though it’s an unmanned test flight, when Artemis 1 takes off on a planned six-week mission, it will provide valuable data for NASA and show how new systems function in space.

The first crewed mission back to the moon — to orbit but not to land — is Artemis 2, currently scheduled for 2024, with Artemis 3 scheduled to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

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WHO Director in Asia Accused of Racism, Abuse Put on Leave

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The World Health Organization’s top director in the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, has been indefinitely removed from his post, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Associated Press.

Kasai’s removal comes months after an AP investigation revealed that dozens of staffers accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that undermined the U.N. agency’s efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told staff in the Western Pacific in an email on Friday that Kasai was “on leave” without elaborating further. Tedros said Deputy Director-General, Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, would be arriving Tuesday in Manila, WHO’s regional headquarters, to “ensure business continuity.” Two senior WHO officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Kasai had been put on extended administrative leave after internal investigators substantiated some of the misconduct complaints.

In a statement, WHO said it was unknown how long Kasai would be away. The U.N. health agency said the investigation into him was continuing and that it was believed to be the first time a regional director had been relieved of their duties. Kasai did not respond to requests for comment but previously denied he used racist language or acted unprofessionally.

In January, the AP reported that more than 30 unidentified staffers sent a confidential complaint to senior WHO leadership and members of the organization’s Executive Board, alleging that Kasai had created a “toxic atmosphere” in WHO’s offices across the Western Pacific. Documents and recordings showed Kasai made racist remarks to his staff and blamed the rise of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socioeconomics level.” Several WHO staffers working under Kasai said he improperly shared sensitive coronavirus vaccine information to help Japan, his home country, score political points with its donations.

Days after the AP report, WHO chief Tedros announced that an internal probe into Kasai had begun. Several months later, however, WHO staffers alleged that Kasai was manipulating the investigation. In a letter sent to the U.N. agency’s top governing body in April, the Executive Board, the staffers wrote that Kasai had ordered senior managers to destroy any incriminating documents and instructed IT staff “to monitor emails of all the staff members.”

Kasai is a Japanese doctor who began his career in his country’s public health system before moving to WHO, where he has worked for more than 15 years.

The removal of a regional director at WHO, even temporarily, is “unprecedented,” according to Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University. “There have been a lot of bad regional directors at WHO, but I’ve never heard of action like this,” Gostin said.

Any withdrawal of support from Japan for Kasai could hasten his dismissal. A Japanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said they hoped WHO had conducted a fair investigation.

Kasai’s removal stands in stark contrast to WHO’s past reluctance to discipline perpetrators of unethical and sometimes illegal behavior, including during the sex abuse uncovered during the Ebola outbreak in Congo from 2018-2020. More than 80 outbreak responders under WHO’s direction sexually abused vulnerable women; an AP investigation found senior WHO management was informed of multiple exploitation claims in 2019 but refused to act and even promoted one of the managers involved. No senior WHO staffers linked to the abuse have been fired. 

“WHO’s reputation was shattered by those allegations,” Gostin said, calling the lack of accountability in Congo “truly outrageous.” He welcomed the disciplinary action taken against Kasai and called for WHO to release its investigation in some form.

Gostin and other public health academics said that if WHO’s Executive Board determines that Kasai violated his contract by engaging in the racist and abusive conduct alleged, his contract could be terminated.

WHO’s own staff association urged Tedros to take action against Kasai at a meeting in June, saying that failing to do so “would be a tragic mistake,” according to a memo from the private briefing.

“If swift action is not taken … the results may be regarded as questionable at best, fixed and farcical at worst,” the staffers warned Tedros. “If (Kasai’s) wrongdoing is proven, the assumption will be that many other items were swept aside to save face.”

Before Kasai was put on leave, WHO’s Western Pacific office had planned a town hall this week to address “workplace culture,” including concerns about racism and abusive conduct. In an email to staff on Saturday, Dr. Angela Pratt, a director in Kasai’s office, announced that the meeting had been postponed. 

 

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Astronaut Details NASA’s Ambitious Artemis Program

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VOA’s Kane Farabaugh spoke with NASA Astronaut Victor Glover ahead of Monday’s scheduled Artemis launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. While the launch was postponed, NASA’s quest to return to the moon and eventually send humans to Mars remains a priority for the U.S. space agency. A former military aviator, Glover has taken part in a SpaceX mission, spent time aboard the International Space Station, completed 168 days in orbit and participated in four spacewalks. He is a candidate for future Artemis missions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: “So Victor, tell me what it’s like to sort of be here right now in this moment?”

NASA ASTRONAUT VICTOR GLOVER: “It’s unreal. I mean it sounds a little cliche but to be at the place where the Apollo missions launched from all those shuttle launches happened from, and I actually launched from that next door neighbor launch pad right there just under two years ago. But it’s still surreal to be here. This is one of my favorite places on the planet, and that’s just any day of the week, but when there’s a big rocket like SLS or Orion sitting over there, it’s just the buzz here, the energy. It’s really special. And my favorite part about this is the excitement of all the NASA employees who have worked hard for years to make this happen.”

VOA: “What is that excitement like? What is it [excitement level] at right now? I mean, you weren’t born when Apollo was happening so I’m sure there’s really nothing to equate this to, is there?”

GLOVER: “Well, I mean you know, growing up and appreciating Apollo and having that being a motivational force in your life, it’s really neat to, like, stand on the precipice of maybe the next thing like that happening knowing it. We call things moonshots when humans do great things, right? And so our generation doesn’t have that, so we look back at Apollo for that inspiration. So now our generation is going to have its own moon shots. And so that’s, I think, a part of it for all of us. And I love the fact that it’s connected. The legacy of Apollo and Apollo–Soyuz and the shuttle and ISS and our partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing. People say this is a marathon not a sprint. I say it’s actually a relay race. And so those programs have all informed what we’re doing now. They’ve handed us the stick, and now it’s time for us to run our best leg. And so this is going to open the door for us to send humans to the moon. And I mean I just, it’s hard to imagine anything more exciting for people all over the world.”

VOA: “But this mission is also not just charting new paths in space, it’s also sort of crossing historic barriers in gender, race, ethnicity, culture. Can you talk about that a bit?”

GLOVER: “Well of course you know you heard the line it originally was we’re going to send the first woman and the next man to the moon. And then it became you know we’re going to send the first woman and the first person of color to the moon. And I’ll say here’s what I think about that. Our office is diverse enough, we represent America. And because of that, we make our bosses’ jobs actually challenging, we make his job hard because he’s got to pick some of us and I think all of us are ready trained and capable of making this mission a success, but then I think the fact that our leadership recognizes the past and how maybe it wasn’t equitable, that we can do something about that now in the astronaut office that we have today looks like America. So it’s easy to do. But the fact that our leadership recognizes that they have a role in it as well to make sure that it happens and to support and encourage the continued dialogue about that I think is really important. So it is encouraging, and I think all people should feel supported by this effort.”

VOA: “Victor, when you sit back and you think about this, does the reality that you may be someone who charts some kind of historic milestone for humanity, is it something that seeps into your mind often while you’re going through training or while you’re talking to the media? Or while you’re doing this or does it have a special place in your mind to prepare for this?”

GLOVER: “You know, there was a lot of talk about that from my mission to ISS and I didn’t focus on that. I kept my head down and just did the work. And so but again, I do think it’s important you know, there are little kids out there that look up to us and say I want to do that. But more important is that inspiration drives decisions, right? It drives behavior. And so some little kid’s going, ‘I want to be like that and I’m going to study this and I’m going to eat my vegetables and I’m going to be a good person.’ And that to me is valuable. No matter what those kids look like, people keep asking me, is it meaningful to you that little Black kids look up to you and say they want to be like you? You know what? Let’s be honest, I represent America. I’m a naval officer and I work for NASA. I represent America and little white kids, little Mexican kids, little Hispanic kids, and little Iranian kids follow what we’re doing because this is maybe one of the most recognizable symbols in the universe. And I think that that’s really important and I take that very seriously.”

VOA: “What is the most challenging part of the job ahead for you?”

GLOVER: “The most challenging part of this job for me is the time away from my family. But you know what? I’m a member of a group that is serving the people, right? This is the people’s stuff. That rocket was built by the American people, literally. … [W]hat we do is meaningful to America and to humanity at large and so I think it’s important for us to explore space, to explore the cosmos for all people, especially now when we can do it by all people.”

VOA: “Is there anything you can do mentally to prepare for a mission to the moon? I mean, nobody in the program right now has ever been there before. There isn’t like relative experience you can go to unless you’re talking to an Apollo astronaut to help prepare you for what it’s going to be like to reach the surface of the moon. How do you get ready and how do you do this because it’s not been done in 50 years?”

GLOVER: “There’s going to be a great training program. We’ve got a great team of people that are thinking about how to train astronauts for this mission. One of the primary things all astronauts have to do though is integrate all of that and then take it into space and know how space is different than what you do on the ground. There’s going to always be that no matter where you go lower earth orbit or beyond, on the moon or on to Mars. But I think personally, I’m a little bit more of a philosophical astronaut I would say and I think it’s important for us also to recognize when you go do something like this, to not just know there are unknowns but to embrace it. You are not prepared, you’re not as prepared as you can be if you don’t expect something to catch you off guard. And so knowing that it’s going to happen, you’re going to be able to process those emotions faster and instead of going, ‘Oh my God is this really happening?’ You’re going to go, ‘Yeah God, thanks for the preparation’ and you’re going to do the next right thing. And so knowing that you’re going to a place not many human beings have been, I think is an important part of preparing for something like flying Artemis II or Artemis III to the moon.”

VOA: “Do you think the general public is invested, educated and excited about this mission as they might have been for Apollo?”

GLOVER: “[H]opefully the public is following that closely to know this is not a walk in the park. There’s a lot about this mission that could go wrong, and that’s going to help us to send people back to the moon. And so I think part of that falls on us to do that advocacy.”

VOA: “You’ll be on this stage on Monday for Artemis I broadcasting for NASA to talk about the mission from an astronaut perspective. But when this rocket goes up, Orion is on its way to the moon and nobody’s here on the stage anymore. What are you watching for as that mission progresses?”

GLOVER: “Oh, everything. How the team works together. That’s a big one. We have not flown a mission like this in complexity, in distance, and also the international component of it in a very long time, in some aspects ever. The International Space Station is very international, but having your astronauts only four or six hours away from the planet is very different than multiple day journey to the moon or back. And so how they work together and how they communicate and how they decide and act to handle problems is something that I’m going to be paying close attention to. If everything goes perfectly on this, actually that to me would not be the best case. I want us to have some challenges that we work together and overcome so that we know we can do that, but then come back. And when that heat shield hits the atmosphere going Mach 32, twenty-five thousand miles [40,000 km] an hour or seven miles [11 km] a second, we’re going to learn all that we need to know. And if we can keep the structure and the avionics and the crew inside safe, then I think we’re well on our way a couple of years from now having a crew going to the moon as well.”

VOA: “You’re a military aviator…”

GLOVER: “Yes, sir.”

VOA: “This will be automated. This is going to be more automated than any other spacecraft in history. You know, in Apollo, they had switches and knobs. Here, people on the ground will be controlling a lot of the flight maneuvers in the path of the spacecraft. As somebody who has that background, how do you feel about that automation?”

GLOVER: “[T]there are regimes of flight where we can have full manual control and there are regimes of flight where we would have a blended, some sharing between manual inputs and automation. And so there’s a scale, a range of sharing of that responsibility. And I think that that’s the state of the practice, right? The state of the art is maybe one day going to be, who knows, it’s controlled by thoughts and folks on the ground but that’s the state of the practice. And so, software has gotten much better. Hardware has gotten a whole lot better, our manufacturing capability, and so I think that’s progress. And yes, as somebody who likes to have a stick and throttle, you know, I want to go up there and do aileron rolls in the thing, but the maneuvers it’s going to do are so complicated that for me to have manual control throughout the entire regime of flight actually adds risk that that we aren’t necessarily trying to buy off on. So we want manual control where it really matters, things like docking, things like landing on the surface, and enduring entry to make sure that we have the ability to steer to a safe location to get us back down to Earth safe.”

VOA: “How do you gauge mission success for Artemis I as you’re watching this mission unfold over the next six weeks?”

GLOVER: “Yeah, it’s been a long road getting here and we have overcome some significant challenges. … It is no small thing that we still have a moon capable rocket and spacecraft through some of the changes that we’ve had in the last decade. And so the fact that we’ve overcome those things makes me the most confident in this group of people. Human hands put that together. Human hands and minds and hearts and ears and eyes are going to be watching it and working it as it goes on this 42-day journey. And so I’m confident in that team and we’ll see how the hardware and software hold up. It’s an unknown, we haven’t done this before. This will be the first time a lot of this hardware is flying, but you noticed there are some legacy out there. If you can see it in the distance, that orange tank is very similar to the shuttle main fuel tanks and those boosters are very similar to shuttle solid rocket boosters. And so there’s some heritage in our space flight hardware. But this is the first time it’s been integrated into this stack-up. And so we’re going to learn, we’re going to learn. But I have full confidence in that team.”

VOA: “Knowing where you’re at now, knowing what you might have the opportunity to do, what would you say to 12-year-old Victor Glover?”

GLOVER: “Oh wow. Oh boy. That’s a great question. Twelve-year-old Victor Glover didn’t even know if college was a reality, you know, and just, no one in my family had graduated from college, and so there’s a lot to this iceberg, and I’ll save you the long story and I’ll just answer your question. What I would say to 12-year-old me is, ‘It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK. You’re going to be OK, but it’s going to be OK because you’re going to work so hard.’ And so, that’s what I would say to myself. You know, this will take care of itself. Getting to this point and the amazingness of this, the awe of it all, it will take care of itself. You know, I wouldn’t spoil the surprise.”

VOA: “Victor, man or people have not landed on the moon in our lifetime. That’s about to change. Do you think we will get to Mars in our lifetime?”

GLOVER: “Oh, I think we will get to Mars in our lifetime. I said it a little while ago. This is a relay race. The journey to Mars has been 25 years away since we went to the moon back in the Apollo program. This is the first leg of the race to Mars. And so it’s been 25 years ahead of us because we haven’t started the race. When this is successful, we will have finished the first leg of that race, and we’ll be that much closer. I think it will happen in our lifetime. I think I may be too old to be on that crew, but to all those kids out there, be your best self. Listen to your mom and dad, say please and thank you and eat your vegetables and exercise, because those young kids are going to be the people that have a chance to put feet on Mars.”

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Musk Cites Whistleblower as New Reason to Exit Twitter Deal

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Elon Musk and Twitter lobbed salvos at each other Tuesday in the latest round of legal filings over the billionaire Tesla CEO’s efforts to rescind his offer to buy the social media platform. 

Musk filed more paperwork to terminate his agreement to buy Twitter, this time based on information in a whistleblower complaint filed by Twitter’s former head of security. Twitter fired back by saying his attempt to back out of the deal is “invalid and wrongful.” 

In an SEC filing, Musk said his legal team notified Twitter of “additional bases” for ending the deal on top of the ones given in the original termination notice issued in July. 

In a letter to Twitter Inc., which was included in the filing, Musk’s advisers cited the whistleblower report by former executive Peiter Zatko — also known by his hacker handle “Mudge.” 

Zatko, who served as Twitter’s head of security until he was fired early this year, alleged in his complaint to U.S. officials that the company misled regulators about its poor cybersecurity defenses and its negligence in attempting to root out fake accounts that spread disinformation. 

The letter, addressed to Twitter’s Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde, said Zatko’s allegations provide extra reasons to end the deal if the July termination notice “is determined to be invalid for any reason.” 

Billionaire Musk has spent months alleging that the company he agreed to acquire undercounted its fake and spam accounts, which means he doesn’t have to go through with the $44 billion deal. Musk’s decision to back out of the transaction sets the stage for a high-stakes legal battle in October. 

In a separate SEC filing, Twitter responded to what it called Musk’s latest “purported termination,” saying it’s “based solely on statements made by a third party that, as Twitter has previously stated, are riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and lack important context.” 

The company vowed to go through with the sale at the price agreed with Musk. 

 

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Elon Musk Subpoenas Twitter Whistleblower Ahead of Trial

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Elon Musk’s legal team is demanding to hear from Twitter’s whistleblowing former security chief, who could help bolster Musk’s case for backing out of a $44 billion deal to buy the social media company. 

Former Twitter executive Peiter Zatko — also known by his hacker handle “Mudge” — received a subpoena Saturday from Musk’s team, according to Zatko’s lawyer and court records. 

The billionaire Tesla CEO has spent months alleging that the company he agreed to acquire undercounted its fake and spam accounts — and that he shouldn’t have to consummate the deal as a result. 

Zatko’s whistleblower complaint to U.S. officials alleging Twitter misled regulators about its privacy and security protections — and its ability to detect and root out fake accounts — might play into Musk’s hands in an upcoming trial scheduled for Oct. 17 in Delaware. 

Zatko served as Twitter’s head of security until he was fired early this year. 

 

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US Government to Provide $11 Million for Production of Monkeypox Vaccine

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The U.S. government said on Monday it would provide about $11 million to support the packaging of Bavarian Nordic’s BAVA.CO Jynneos monkeypox vaccine at a U.S.-based manufacturer’s facility.

The Danish company, which is the maker of the only approved monkeypox vaccine, had earlier this month signed up Michigan-based Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing to package the two-dose shot.

The production is expected to begin later this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said, adding that the funding will help the manufacturer recruit more staff and buy additional equipment.

Globally, the number of confirmed monkeypox cases have crossed 47,600 with over 17,000 cases reported in the United States so far.

The Jynneos vaccine is in short supply and U.S. regulators have authorized a method of administration that allows providers to get five doses instead of one from a single vial to expand access.

The United States initially ordered 3 million doses and in July sought another 2.5 million doses. Bavarian Nordic said the additional doses would be packaged at the U.S. facility.

The delivery of the total 5.5 million doses is spread across this year and the next.

More than 207,000 doses of Jynneos vaccine have been given in the country as of Aug. 23, but very few people have received the second shot needed for full protection, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last week.

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NASA Set to Test Rocket, Capsule for Sending Astronauts to Moon 

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The U.S. space agency NASA says it is ready to launch its most powerful rocket ever along with a new crew capsule Monday in a test of systems it will use to send humans back to the moon. 

The Space Launch System rocket is set to propel the Orion capsule without any people on board for this flight. Orion is due to go around the moon and return to Earth, with the entire journey taking about six weeks. 

If successful, NASA plans to fly astronauts around the moon in 2024 and potentially put them on the lunar surface as early as 2025. 

NASA said there was an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions for Monday’s launch. If weather does interfere, another attempt would happen Friday. 

The launch is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to have humans walk on the moon for the first time since 1972, including the first woman and person of color to do so. 

NASA is also planning a moon base as part of Artemis, and says it will use what it learns to inform efforts to send the first astronauts to Mars. 

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

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NASA Moon Rocket on Track for Launch Despite Lightning Hits 

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NASA’s new moon rocket remained on track to blast off on a crucial test flight Monday, despite a series of lightning strikes at the launch pad.

The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA. It’s poised to send an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit, a half-century after NASA’s Apollo program, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon.

Astronauts could return to the moon in a few years, if this six-week test flight goes well. NASA officials caution, however, that the risks are high and the flight could be cut short.

In lieu of astronauts, three test dummies are strapped into the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the biggest hazards to humans in deep space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.

Officials said Sunday that neither the rocket nor capsule suffered any damage during Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment also was unaffected. Five lightning strikes were confirmed, hitting the 600-foot (183-meter) towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The strikes weren’t strong enough to warrant major retesting.

“Clearly, the system worked as designed,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior test director.

More storms were expected. Although forecasters gave 80 percent odds of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions were expected to deteriorate during the two-hour launch window.

On the technical side, Spaulding said the team did its best over the past several months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. A pair of countdown tests earlier this year prompted repairs to leaking valves and other faulty equipment; engineers won’t know if all the fixes are good until just a few hours before the planned liftoff.

After so many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was thrilled to finally be so close to the inaugural flight of the Artemis moon-exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

“We’re within 24 hours of launch right now, which is pretty amazing for where we’ve been on this journey,” Spaulding told reporters.

The follow-on Artemis flight, as early as 2024, would see four astronauts flying around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s unexplored south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are believed to hold ice that could be used by future crews.

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NASA Tests New Moon Rocket, 50 Years After Apollo

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Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s new moon rocket makes its debut next week in a high-stakes test flight before astronauts get on top.

The 98-meter (322-foot) rocket will attempt to send an empty crew capsule into a far-flung lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famed Apollo moonshots.

If all goes well, astronauts could strap in as soon as 2024 for a lap around the moon, with NASA aiming to land two people on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.

Liftoff is set for Monday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The six-week test flight is risky and could be cut short if something fails, NASA officials warn.

“We’re going to stress it and test it. We’re going make it do things that we would never do with a crew on it in order to try to make it as safe as possible,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The retired founder of George Washington University’s space policy institute said a lot is riding on this trial run. Spiraling costs and long gaps between missions will make for a tough comeback if things go south, he noted.

“It is supposed to be the first step in a sustained program of human exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond,” said John Logsdon. “Will the United States have the will to push forward in the face of a major malfunction?”

The price tag for this single mission: more than $4 billion. Add everything up since the program’s inception a decade ago until a 2025 lunar landing, and there’s even more sticker shock: $93 billion.

Here’s a rundown of the first flight of the Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

Rocket power

The new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rockets that hurled 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. But it’s mightier, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, but a less clunky name is under discussion, according to Nelson. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of strap-on boosters refashioned from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters will peel away after two minutes, just like the shuttle boosters did, but won’t be fished from the Atlantic for reuse. The core stage will keep firing before separating and crashing into the Pacific in pieces. Two hours after liftoff, an upper stage will send the capsule, Orion, racing toward the moon.

Moonship

NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the night sky’s brightest. At 3 meters (11 feet) tall, it’s roomier than Apollo’s capsule, seating four astronauts instead of three. For this test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit will occupy the commander’s seat, rigged with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material simulating human tissue — heads and female torsos, but no limbs — will measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. One torso is testing a protective vest from Israel. Unlike the rocket, Orion has launched before, making two laps around Earth in 2014. This time, the European Space Agency’s service module will be attached for propulsion and solar power via four wings.

Flight plan

Orion’s flight is supposed to last six weeks from its Florida liftoff to Pacific splashdown, twice as long as astronaut trips in order to tax the systems. It will take nearly a week to reach the moon, 386,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) away. After whipping closely around the moon, the capsule will enter a distant orbit with a far point of 61,000 kilometers (38,000 miles). That will put Orion 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at mission’s end, as Orion hits the atmosphere at 40,000 kph (25,000 mph) on its way to a splashdown in the Pacific. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand reentry temperatures of  2,750 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit). But the advanced design anticipates the faster, hotter returns by future Mars crews.

Hitchhikers

Besides three test dummies, the flight has a slew of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-size satellites will pop off once Orion is hurtling toward the moon. The problem is these so-called CubeSats were installed in the rocket a year ago, and the batteries for half of them couldn’t be recharged as the launch kept getting delayed. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these mini satellites. The radiation-measuring CubeSats should be OK. Also, in the clear: a solar sail demo targeting an asteroid. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion will carry a few slivers of moon rocks collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago. Aldrin isn’t attending the launch, according to NASA, but three of his former colleagues will be there: Apollo 7’s Walter Cunningham, Apollo 10’s Tom Stafford and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt, the next-to-last man to walk on the moon.

Apollo vs. Artemis

More than 50 years later, Apollo still stands as NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, NASA took just eight years to go from launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. By contrast, Artemis already has dragged on for more than a decade, despite building on the short-lived moon exploration program Constellation. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972, staying no longer than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will be drawing from a diverse astronaut pool currently numbering 42 and is extending the time crews will spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids for sending people to Mars. NASA’s Nelson, promises to announce the first Artemis moon crews once Orion is back on Earth.

What’s next

There’s a lot more to be done before astronauts step on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA aims to send another four up, with two of them touching down at the lunar south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-looking Starship would link up with Orion at the moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the ride home. So far, Starship has only soared 10 kilometers (six miles). Musk wants to launch Starship around Earth on SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster before attempting a moon landing without a crew. One hitch: Starship will need a fill-up at an Earth-orbiting fuel depot, before heading to the moon.

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WHO Cites Unprecedented Attacks on Ukraine’s Health Care Facilities

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Citing unparalleled attacks on health care facilities, the World Health Organization said this week it is working to reconstruct Ukraine’s health system. The system has suffered extensive damage since Russia invaded the country six months ago.

Over the past six months, the U.N. health agency says it has verified 173 attacks on medical facilities, which have resulted in nearly 100 deaths and 134 injuries.

WHO Ukraine representative Jarno Habicht told reporters this week that deaths and injuries continue to rise and will continue to do so until Russia ends the war.

“While these attacks are not only the violation of international law, they also are a barrier for many who need care as we are going through the war,” he said. “So, it is not only the supplies and others that we need to support, we need to ensure also that the services are available. But also, the health care workers are under immediate risk as we go through these times.”

The United Nations says the war has killed more than 5,500 civilians and injured nearly 8,000, including almost 1,000 children. UNICEF says about five children on average are killed or injured every day. The children’s agency says this is due to the indiscriminate use of weapons, often in heavily populated areas.

Speaking via videolink from an air raid shelter in Dnipro, in central Ukraine, Habicht said many people are on the move and many are suffering and need care.

He said the WHO is accelerating efforts to reach out and provide humanitarian assistance to millions of people across the country.  At the same time, he said the WHO is working on rebuilding Ukraine’s shattered health system in coordination with national and local authorities.

“Reconstruction of the health system has to be part of the recovery of the whole country across all the sectors,” he said. “And that is why we are currently concentrating both on the humanitarian response, as well looking to the recovery as we have seen in the health sector and other sectors.” 

To date, the WHO has delivered more than 1,300 metric tons of medical supplies in Ukraine, including medicines for diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and other noncommunicable diseases.

Habicht said support also is being provided for mental health, trauma, and emergencies. He also said COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to Ukraine in recent weeks in light of the increasing mortality rate from the virus across the country.

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Legal Marijuana Makes Few Waves in Canada

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Canada’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana in October 2018 was greeted by advocates and critics with predictions of dramatic benefits or dire consequences. Almost four years later, questions about the impact of the move elicit mainly shrugs.

“Maybe I am the wrong demographic, but I have not noticed any serious problems arising from legalization,” said one senior veteran of the Canadian legal system, who declined to be identified because of his role in administering the law.

“I think it probably has reduced policing costs and court time arising from simple possession offences (as opposed to trafficking),” the legal veteran added in an email to VOA. “No evidence of lawyers or bankers or Bay Street types going wild. Maybe alcohol is still the drug of choice.

“You do get the occasional whiff of weed walking down Bay Street,” Toronto’s financial industry core, the legal practitioner added, “and there has been an unbelievable (and maybe unsustainable) proliferation of marijuana stores.”

Anecdotal evidence of that sort is the best measure so far of legalization’s impact in just the second country to legalize recreational use of the drug, given a dearth of hard data on the effect on traffic accidents, drug overdoses, mental health outcomes or petty crime.

“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been concrete data I’ve seen that allows someone to comment on all of those goals and how Canada is doing in regards to them,” said Jonathan Wilson, chief executive officer of Crystal Cure Inc., a craft producer of cannabis in the eastern province of New Brunswick.

The 2018 legislation legalizing marijuana called for a thorough assessment of the impact after three years, but the government still has not begun that process, a source of frustration for some in the legal marijuana industry who are seeking reforms that would give them a boost against their illicit competitors.

In fact, the illicit trade has proven surprisingly durable despite the ready availability of legal marijuana at government-licensed outlets. One reason for that may be user complaints about the taste and quality of the legally approved products.

Jon Cappetta, vice president of content with U.S.-based High Times Magazine, said in an interview that the Canadian industry has a reputation for low-quality mass-produced marijuana, which he dismissed as “Walmart weed.”

“That’s not to say there’s not great product up there,” Cappetta said. “But it’s mainly on the traditional market, not the legal one.”

Wilson said it was not until the end of last year that legal marijuana sales surpassed illicit sales, according to estimates by the Ontario Cannabis Store, the only legal online retailer of recreational marijuana in Canada’s most populous province.

“We don’t know exactly how this is measured, but regardless of the lack of empirical data on this, it is very apparent in many parts of the country that the illicit market is very much alive and well.”

That has cut into early projections for a big boost to the economy through direct and indirect taxes, though the benefits are not insignificant.

According to a report prepared by the Deloitte consultancy firm and reported by MJBiz Daily in February, the industry had contributed $34.2 billion through the end of 2021 to a national GDP that totaled almost $2 trillion last year.

On the other hand, fears of an epidemic of underage marijuana use have also not borne out. “Regarding prevalence, there appears to have been no marked increase in cannabis use by youth in Canada yet,” reported the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2021.

The report went on to say, “In the lead up to legalization, professional associations including the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and the Canadian Pediatric Society suggested that legalization posed a threat to public health, advocated for the legal age for cannabis use to be set at a minimum age of 21 or 25, or that Canada should not legalize at all because it would place youth at greater risk of harm. With such categorical fears now shown to be largely unfounded, this should provide the basis to move forward on more nuanced grounds.”

The Canadian Medical Association, for its part, continues to advise caution. “Today, we continue to advocate for a public health approach to cannabis with three primary aims: prevent problematic drug use; make assessment, counseling and treatment services more available; and improve safety for those who use through harm reduction programs and awareness,” it says on its website.

The limited data that exists provides a mixed picture of the impact on road safety. The federal agency Public Safety Canada reported last year that “while police-reported data tends to indicate a significant decline in overall trends in impaired driving incidents over the past ten years, the proportion of [drug-impaired driving] incidents reported by police has significantly increased from about 2% of the total in 2009, to approximately 9% in 2020.”

On the other hand, the report said, its survey data “tends to indicate that public education and awareness campaigns … appear to have effectively changed Canadians’ perceptions around driving after cannabis use, with an increasing number of respondents agreeing that cannabis use impairs driving abilities. Furthermore, the proportion of Canadians reporting driving after cannabis use has continued to decline in 2020.”

One of the more challenging issues for the nation’s police forces has been whether to permit their own officers to indulge while off duty. Many forces, including the storied Royal Canadian Mounted Police, banned its use altogether while others, particularly in liberal-leaning cities like Vancouver, authorized its off-duty use as long as the officers showed up to work fit for duty.

John Orr is president of the police association in Calgary, Alberta, where officers in February won the right to use cannabis while off duty. Such use “is not unheard of and in Vancouver, it’s been my understanding there’s been no issues at all,” Orr told the Calgary Herald newspaper at the time.

The same article quoted Andrea Urquhart, the executive director of human resources with the Calgary Police Service, saying, “There’s no evidence this particular change would be detrimental to our fundamental goal to serve and protect.”

Jo-Ann Roberts, a former interim leader of the Green Party of Canada, sees what data is available as a vindication of the party’s early advocacy for legalization.

“We believed it would not result in the lawlessness many predicted. In fact, we believed it would reduce policing costs, take pressure off the courts and reduce the influence of organized crime,” she told VOA. “I think provinces and producers are still working out the details of delivering the product, but overall the transition from illegal to legal has gone smoothly.”

Brennan Sisk, the former cannabis coordinator for an NGO based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, argued that legalization has opened the door to peer-reviewed research on the health impact of marijuana and the development of industrial uses.

But, he said, the government has not embraced cannabis as a legal part of everyday culture and continues to approach it “strictly from a harm reduction mechanism.”

“I think Canada has developed a good set of best practices and is ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying practical and productive changes to restrictions,” Sisk said.

“Those working in the Canadian system are well positioned to advise new jurisdictions on how to roll out a legal plan while benefiting from an economic development perspective.”

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UN Session on High Seas Biodiversity Ends Without Agreement

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U.N. member states ended two weeks of negotiations Friday without a treaty to protect biodiversity in the high seas, an agreement that would have addressed growing environmental and economic challenges.

After 15 years, including four prior formal sessions, negotiators have yet to reach a legally binding text to address the multitude of issues facing international waters — a zone that encompasses almost half the planet.

“Although we did make excellent progress, we still do need a little bit more time to progress towards the finish line,” said conference chair Rena Lee.

It will now be up to the U.N. General Assembly to resume the fifth session at a date still to be determined.

Many had hoped the session, which began on Aug. 15 at the United Nations headquarters in New York, would be the last and yield a final text on “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction,” or BBNJ for short.

“While it’s disappointing that the treaty wasn’t finalized during the past two weeks of negotiations, we remain encouraged by the progress that was made,” said Liz Karan with the NGO Pew Charitable Trusts, calling for a new session by the end of the year.

One of the most sensitive issues in the text revolved around the sharing of possible profits from the development of genetic resources in international waters, where pharmaceutical, chemical and cosmetic companies hope to find miracle drugs, products or cures.

Such costly research at sea is largely the prerogative of rich nations, but developing countries do not want to be left out of potential windfall profits drawn from marine resources that belong to no one.

‘Missed opportunity’

Similar issues of equity arise in other international negotiations, such as on climate change, in which developing nations that feel outsized harm from global warming have tried in vain to get wealthier countries to help pay to offset those impacts.

The high seas begin at the border of a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — which by international law reaches no more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its coast — and are under no state’s jurisdiction.

Some 60% of the world’s oceans fall under this category.

And while healthy marine ecosystems are crucial to the future of humanity, particularly to limit global warming, only 1% of international waters are protected.

One of the key pillars of an eventual BBNJ treaty is to allow the creation of marine protected areas, which many nations hope will cover 30% of the Earth’s ocean by 2030.

“Without establishing protections in this vast area, we will not be able to meet our ambitious and necessary 30 by 30 goal,” U.S. State Department official Maxine Burkett said at an earlier press conference.

But delegations still disagree on the process for creating these protected areas, as well as on how to implement a requirement for environmental impact assessments before new activity on the high seas.

“What a missed opportunity…” tweeted Klaudija Cremers, a researcher at the IDDRI think tank, which, like multiple other NGOs, has a seat with observer status at the negotiations.

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Few in US Receive Full Monkeypox Vaccine Regimen

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The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday that very few people in the United States have received a full series of monkeypox vaccinations.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the large majority of Americans who received a first dose of the vaccine have yet to get their second dose, despite being eligible.

She told a White House briefing Friday that nearly 97% of the inoculations administered so far have been first doses.

Walensky said that while the vaccine was initially hard to get, supplies have now increased.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed for the vaccine to be injected in smaller doses to help stretch supplies.

The Biden administration says it has shipped enough vaccines to jurisdictions around the United States for at least 1.6 million doses.

CDC data show that about 10% of monkeypox vaccine doses have been given to Black people despite the fact that they account for one-third of U.S. cases.

The rate was compiled from 17 U.S. states and two cities.

Walensky said the CDC has taken measures to make the vaccine more accessible to Blacks and other minorities. She said vaccines and educational materials will be available at two upcoming events — Atlanta’s Black Pride festival and New Orleans’ Southern Decadence.

Walensky said the agency is starting to roll out such pilot projects and that “they are working.”

Most cases of monkeypox in the United States have occurred in gay men, but health officials have stressed that anyone can catch the virus.

More than 16,000 people have been infected with the virus in the United States, more than in any other country.

Walensky noted that the spread of the virus is falling in several major U.S. cities.

“We’re watching this with cautious optimism, and really hopeful that many of our harm-reduction messages and our vaccines are getting out there and working,” she said.

Across the United States, cases of monkeypox are still increasing. However, officials say the pace of the outbreak appears to be slowing.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization said global cases of monkeypox dropped 21% in the past week.

The WHO said cases appeared to be slowing in Europe but warned that infections in the Americas were on “a continuing steep rise.”

“In Latin America in particular, insufficient awareness or public health measures are combining with a lack of access to vaccines to fan the flames of the outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press briefing.

Monkeypox has been endemic in parts of Africa for decades, but since May, cases have been reported around the world.

The virus is typically spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person’s lesions. It can also be spread through contact with an infected person’s clothing or sheets.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Experts Worry Digital Footprints Will Incriminate US Patients Seeking Abortions

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of protections for abortion rights has intensified scrutiny of the personal data that technology firms collect. Apple, Facebook and Google typically comply with legal requests for user data. For women who live in states where most abortions are now illegal, their smartphones and devices could be used against them. Tina Trinh reports.
Videographer: Saqib Ul Islam, Greg Flakus Video editor: Tina Trinh

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California Phasing Out Gas Vehicles in Climate Change Fight 

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California set itself on a path Thursday to end the era of gas-powered cars, with air regulators adopting the world’s most stringent rules for transitioning to zero-emission vehicles.

The move by the California Air Resources Board to have all new cars, pickup trucks and SUVs be electric or hydrogen by 2035 is likely to reshape the U.S. auto market, which gets 10% of its sales from the nation’s most populous state.

But such a radical transformation in what people drive will also require at least 15 times more vehicle chargers statewide, a more robust energy grid and vehicles that people of all income levels can afford.

“It’s going to be very hard getting to 100%,” said Daniel Sperling, a board member and founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis. “You can’t just wave your wand, you can’t just adopt a regulation — people actually have to buy them and use them.”

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom told state regulators two years ago to adopt a ban on gas-powered cars by 2035, one piece of California’s aggressive suite of policies designed to reduce pollution and fight climate change. If the policy works as designed, California would cut emissions from vehicles in half by 2040.

More to come

Other states are expected to follow, further accelerating the production of zero-emissions vehicles.

Washington state and Massachusetts already have said they will follow California’s lead and many more are likely to — New York and Pennsylvania are among 17 states that have adopted some or all of California’s tailpipe emission standards that are stricter than federal rules. The European Parliament in June backed a plan to effectively prohibit the sale of gas and diesel cars in the 27-nation European Union by 2035, and Canada has mandated the sale of zero-emission cars by the same year.

California’s policy doesn’t ban cars that run on gas — after 2035 people can keep their existing cars or buy used ones, and 20% of sales can be plug-in hybrids that run on batteries and gas. Though hydrogen is a fuel option under the new regulations, cars that run on fuel cells have made up less than 1% of car sales in recent years.

The switch from gas will drastically reduce emissions and air pollutants. Transportation is the single largest source of emissions in the state, accounting for about 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The air board is working on different regulations for motorcycles and larger trucks.

California envisions powering most of the economy with electricity, not fossil fuels, by 2045. A plan released by the air board earlier this year predicts electricity demand will shoot up by 68%. Today, the state has about 80,000 public chargers. The California Energy Commission predicted that needs to jump to 1.2 million by 2030.

The commission says car charging will account for about 4% of energy by 2030 when use is highest, typically during hot summer evenings. That’s when California sometimes struggles to provide enough energy because the amount of solar power diminishes as the sun goes down. In August 2020, hundreds of thousands of people briefly lost power because of high demand that outstripped supply.

That hasn’t happened since, and to ensure it doesn’t going forward, Newsom, a Democrat, is pushing to keep open the state’s last-remaining nuclear plant beyond its planned closure in 2025. Also, the state may turn to diesel generators or natural gas plants as a backup when the electrical grid is strained.

More than 1 million people drive electric cars in California today. Their charging habits vary, but most people charge their cars in the evening or overnight, said Ram Rajagopal, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who has studied car charging habits and energy grid needs.

If people’s charging habits stay the same, once 30% to 40% of cars are electric, the state would need to add more energy capacity overnight to meet demand, he said. The regulations adopted Thursday require 35% of vehicle sales to be electric by 2026, up from 16% now.

But if more people charged their cars during the day, that problem would be avoided, he said. Changing to daytime charging is “the biggest bang for the buck you’re going to get,” he said.

Both the state and federal government are spending billions to build more chargers along public roadways, at apartment complexes and elsewhere to give people more charging options.

The oil industry believes California is going too far. It’s the seventh-largest oil-producing state and shouldn’t wrap its entire transportation strategy around a vehicle market powered by electricity, said Tanya DeRivi, vice president for climate policy with the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group.

“Californians should be able to choose a vehicle technology, including electric vehicles, that best fits their needs based on availability, affordability and personal necessity,” she said.

Some difficulties seen

Many car companies, like Kia, Ford and General Motors, are already on the path to making more electric cars available for sale, but some have warned that factors outside their control like supply chain and materials issues make Californians’ goals challenging.

“Automakers could have significant difficulties meeting this target, given elements outside of the control of the industry,” Kia Corp.’s Laurie Holmes told the air board before its vote.

As the requirements ramp up over time, automakers could be fined up to $20,000 per vehicle sold that falls short of the goal, though they’ll have time to comply if they miss the target in a given year.

The new rules approved by the air board say that the vehicles need to be able to travel 150 miles (241 kilometers) on one charge. Federal and state rebates are also available to people who buy electric cars, and the new rules have incentives for car companies to sell electric cars at a discount to low-income buyers.

But some representatives of business groups and rural areas said they fear electric cars will be too expensive or inconvenient.

“These regulations are a big step backwards for working families and small businesses,” said Gema Gonzalez Macias of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

Air board members said they are committed to keeping a close eye on equity provisions in the rules to make sure all California residents have access.

“We will not set Californians up to fail, we will not set up the other states who want to follow this regulation to fail,” said Tania Pacheco-Warner, a member of the board and co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University-Fresno.

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For First Time, Facebook, Twitter Take Down Pro-US Influence Operation

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This summer, for the first time, Facebook and Twitter removed a network of fake user accounts promoting pro-Western policy positions to foreign audiences and critical of Russia, China and Iran, according to a new report.

The accounts, which violated the companies’ terms of service, “used deceptive tactics to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia” and were likely a series of covert campaigns spanning five years, according to the report from Stanford University and Graphika, a social media analytics firm.

Twitter and Facebook, which shared their data about the accounts with the researchers, haven’t publicly identified what entities or organizations were behind the campaigns, the researchers said. Twitter identified the U.S. and Britain as the campaigns’ “presumptive countries of origin,” and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, identified the U.S. as the country of origin, according to the report.

In recent years, internet firms have shut down online influence operations stemming from authoritarian regimes in China, Russia and Iran. The discovery of a U.S.-based online influence operation using many of the same techniques, such as fake people and fake followers to push a narrative, raises questions about who is behind the effort, its goals and whether the operation is effective.

When asked Thursday by VOA whether the U.S. military had created the fake accounts, Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said officials would need to look at the data provided by Facebook or Twitter. He said that the U.S. military does conduct “military information support operations around the world.”

“Obviously, I’m not going to talk about ongoing operations or particular tactics, techniques and procedures, other than to say that we operate within prescribed policies,” he said.

Linking to media, other sites

The researchers noted that the fake social media accounts often posted links to sham media sites as well as “sources linked to the U.S. military,” such as websites in Central Asia that name U.S. Central Command as their sponsor.

In addition, these inauthentic accounts linked to articles from Voice of America, the federally funded international broadcaster, and its sister organization, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the report said. Sham media sites copied stories from BBC Russia, VOA and other sources.

Several suspended social media accounts were linked to sham media accounts operating in Persian, such as Dariche News, which claimed to be an independent media outlet and had some original content. But, the report added, “many of their articles were explicit reposts from U.S.-funded Persian-language media, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Farda and VOA Farsi.”

USAGM responds

On Thursday, the United States Agency for Global Media, the agency that oversees VOA and RFE/RL, said it didn’t have knowledge of these accounts.

“USAGM maintains only its own official social media accounts and websites, using the highest standards to ensure that official accounts are fact-based, accessible and verifiable,” said Lesley Jackson, a spokesperson, in an email.

USAGM doesn’t work with other U.S. government agencies or other groups to promote news content through fake social media accounts, Jackson confirmed. 

“With its mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy, USAGM will always promote the free flow of credible information to those in need and stand against misinformation, disinformation and censorship,” Jackson said.

Tactics

The online influence campaigns’ tactics were similar to those of other such campaigns and included doctoring photos to create fake accounts and using hashtags and petitions to attempt to build support.

One set of accounts in Central Asia focused on Russia’s military activities in the Middle East and Africa, but shifted in February to the war in Ukraine, “presenting the conflict as a threat to people in Central Asia,” the report said.

The accounts linked to a petition, whose authorship was unclear, “calling for the Kazakh government to ban Russian TV channels,” the report said.

The researchers said that the tactics of the inauthentic accounts didn’t really work to generate engagement. Most of the posts and tweets received only a handful of likes or retweets. A majority of the accounts had fewer than 1,000 followers.

Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. 

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Boeing Eyes February for Space Capsule’s First Crewed Flight

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The first crewed flight of Boeing’s space capsule Starliner is scheduled for February 2023, the company and NASA announced Thursday, as the United States seeks to secure a second way for its astronauts to reach the International Space Station.

Since 2020, American astronauts have traveled to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s vessels, but the U.S. space agency wants to widen its options.

After a series of hiccups in its space program that led to serious delays, including a 2019 flight that did not reach the ISS, Boeing finally managed to send the gumdrop-shaped capsule to the station in May — without a crew.

This time, the aerospace giant will send up the Starliner with humans aboard to earn NASA’s green light to begin regular missions at an expected pace of one per year.

“Currently, we’re targeting a launch date as early as February of 2023,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters.

“We’re in good shape to execute these plans to be ready for that flight in February,” added Mark Nappi, Starliner program manager at Boeing.

The test flight — aptly named CFT, or Crew Flight Test — will carry U.S. astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams.

They are expected to be docked for eight days at the ISS, where they will conduct a series of experiments, said ISS program manager Joel Montalbano.

“Our agency goal is to get two U.S. commercial providers up and running as soon as we can.”

Boeing had hoped to conduct this test flight before the end of the year, but a few glitches experienced in the uncrewed May flight led to necessary adjustments to the vessel.

An issue was detected in the propulsion system: two thrusters responsible for placing Starliner in a stable orbit failed, though officials insisted there was plenty of redundancy built into the system to overcome the problem.

Boeing’s teams later determined that “debris-related conditions” were to blame, Nappi said, adding that the origin of said debris was still unknown.

Some filters were removed to fix a pressure problem, and flight software was updated to avoid a data overload.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts in 2014, shortly after the end of the space shuttle program, during a time when the United States was left reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets for rides to the ISS.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX filled the void first, providing space “taxi” service since a successful test mission for its Dragon capsule in 2020.

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WHO Says Global Monkeypox Cases Down 20%

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday the number of new monkeypox cases fell 20% globally last week, but new cases increased in the Americas and said there is still “intense transmission” of the disease.

At a news briefing at agency headquarters in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there are signs the monkeypox outbreak is slowing in Europe, which he credited to a combination of effective public health measures, changes in behavior and vaccination.

But the WHO chief said the opposite is true in the Americas, particularly in Latin America, where insufficient awareness or public health measures are combining with a lack of access to vaccines to “fan the flames of the monkeypox outbreak.”

Tedros said in the early stages of the monkeypox outbreak, most reported cases were in Europe, with a smaller proportion in the Americas. He said, “That has now reversed, with less than 40% of reported cases in Europe and 60% in the Americas.”

The WHO chief said Danish drug maker Bavarian Nordic signed an agreement Wednesday with WHO affiliate the Pan-American Health Organization to support access to its vaccine in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Tedros also noted that this week, globally, the world crossed another tragic milestone, with 1 million reported COVID-19 deaths in 2022.

He said, “We can’t say we are learning to live with COVID-19 when 1 million people have died with COVID-19 this year alone, when we have all the tools necessary to prevent these deaths.”

The WHO director-general, once again, asked “all governments to strengthen their efforts to vaccinate all health workers, older people and others at the highest risk, on the way to 70% vaccine coverage for the whole population.”

Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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North Korea Sees Suspected COVID-19 Cases After Victory Claim

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North Korea on Thursday said it found four new fever cases in its border region with China that may have been caused by coronavirus infections, two weeks after leader Kim Jong Un declared a widely disputed victory over COVID-19.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said health workers were conducting genetic tests on the samples taken from four people in Ryanggang province who exhibited fevers to confirm whether they were caused by the “malignant epidemic.” The North often uses that term, along with “malignant virus,” to describe COVID-19 and the coronavirus.

Authorities immediately locked down the areas where the fever cases emerged and plan to maintain tight restrictions and quarantines until health workers determine the cause of the illness.

KCNA said health authorities were giving extra attention to the cases because none of the four patients had a history of coronavirus infections.

The country’s emergency anti-virus headquarters dispatched “talented epidemiological, virology and test experts to the area” and is taking steps to “trace all persons … connected with the suspect cases, and persons going to and from the relevant area and keep them under strict medical observation,” KCNA said.

North Korea said there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in any part of the country since Aug. 10 when Kim declared victory over the virus, just three months after the country acknowledged an outbreak.

Even as he ordered preventive measures eased, Kim called for vigilance and the maintaining of tight border controls to prevent the virus from reentering the country. Ryanggang province is one of the border areas where North Korean officials for years struggled to clamp down smuggling activities with China.

An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul isn’t ruling out the possibility that the virus could reemerge in the North.

“North Korea may additionally report on the situation, including whether the fevers were confirmed as COVID-19, and we would need to wait for that before making judgments,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity during a background briefing.

While Kim claimed that the country’s success against the virus would be recognized as a global health miracle, experts believe the North has manipulated disclosures on its outbreak to help him maintain absolute control. The victory statement signals Kim’s aim to move to other priorities, including a possible nuclear test, experts say.

After admitting to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, North Korea reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” across its mostly unvaccinated population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It claimed just 74 people have died, which experts see as an abnormally small number considering the country’s lack of public health tools.

Kim’s declaration of victory over COVID-19 during a national meeting in Pyongyang was followed by a combative speech from his powerful sister, who said Kim had suffered a fever himself while steering the anti-virus campaign and laid dubious blame against South Korea while vowing deadly retaliation.

North Korea claims that its initial infections were caused by anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other items carried across the border by balloons launched by South Korean activists, a claim the South has described as “ridiculous” and unscientific.

Outside experts believe it’s more likely that the virus spread when the North briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in its capital, Pyongyang, in April.

There are concerns that the threats by Kim’s sister portend a provocation, possibly a nuclear or missile test or even border skirmishes.

Some experts say the North may try to stir up tensions as South Korea and the United States hold their biggest combined military training in years to counter the growing North Korean nuclear threat. The Ulchi Freedom Shield exercise, which involves aircraft, tanks and warships, continues in South Korea through Sept. 1.

Diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang to defuse the nuclear standoff has stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging crippling U.S.-led sanctions against the North for the North’s denuclearization steps.

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