US Regulator Approves Pfizer’s RSV Vaccine for Adults 60 and Older

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday approved Pfizer Inc.’s respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine for older adults, making it the second shot against the common respiratory disease that can be fatal for seniors.

The approval comes less than a month after the FDA approved a similar shot by rival GSK PLC. Pfizer’s vaccine was approved for people aged 60 and older, the company said, the same age group as GSK’s shot.

In a late-stage study, Pfizer’s vaccine, to be sold under the brand name Abrysvo, was 67% effective among those aged 60 and older with two or more symptoms of RSV, and 85.7% effective against severe illness defined by three or more symptoms.

Pfizer and GSK have said they expect a multibillion-dollar market for RSV vaccines.

Vaccine available in third quarter

The company expects to make the vaccine available during the third quarter, ahead of the next RSV season, once the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signs off on its use.

The CDC’s advisory committee is expected to meet in June to discuss the vaccines, including who should receive them and how often.

Pfizer did not disclose a price for the vaccine. It said the price would be value-based to support routine vaccination for the recommended age group for the shots.

If the vaccine is recommended by the CDC for routine use, it will be widely available at no out-of-pocket cost for most older Americans covered by the government Medicare health plan, the company said.

RSV usually causes mild cold-like symptoms but also can lead to serious illness and hospitalization. It is estimated to be responsible for 14,000 deaths in adults aged 65 and older in the United States annually, according to government data.

Seeking OK for pregnant women

Pfizer also is seeking FDA approval for its RSV vaccine to prevent the disease in infants by inoculating pregnant women. It could become the first RSV vaccine available to protect babies, who are among those at greatest risk for severe illness.

The shot received backing by the agency’s panel of outside experts earlier this month for use in pregnant women.

The company has said it is ready to launch its RSV vaccine for both older adults and pregnant women in the United States and Europe this year.

Moderna Inc. has said it expects to seek approval for its RSV vaccine this quarter for those aged 60 and older.

Sanofi and partner AstraZeneca PLC in November gained European marketing authorization for their antibody treatment nirsevimab for preventing RSV in newborns and infants. It is currently under FDA review.

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In Canada, Each Cigar and Cigarette to Bear Cancer Warning

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Canada will soon require that health warnings be printed on individual cigarettes and cigars in a further crackdown on smoking, the country’s addictions minister announced Wednesday.

The messaging, to be phased in starting August 1, will include lines such as “Poison in every puff,” “Tobacco smoke harms children” and “Cigarettes cause cancer.”

Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said tobacco use continues to kill 48,000 Canadians each year. The new labeling rule is a world first, she said, although Britain has flirted with a similar regulation.

“This bold step will make health warning messages virtually unavoidable and, together with updated graphic images displayed on the package, will provide a real and startling reminder of the health consequences of smoking,” Bennett said.

The Canadian government noted that some young people, who are particularly susceptible to the risk of tobacco dependence, start smoking after being given a single cigarette rather than a pack labeled with health warnings.

In 2000, Canada became the first country to order graphic warnings on packs of cigarettes — including grisly pictorials of diseased hearts and lungs — to raise awareness of the health hazards associated with tobacco use.

Smoking has been trending down over the past two decades.

Ottawa aims to further reduce the number of smokers in the country to 5% of the population, or about 2 million people, by 2035, from about 13% currently.

According to government data, almost half of the country’s health care costs are linked to substance use.

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Scientists Expand Search for Signs of Intelligent Alien Life

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Scientists have expanded the search for technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations by monitoring a star-dense region toward the core of our galaxy for a type of signal that could be produced by potential intelligent aliens that until now has been ignored. 

Efforts to detect alien technological signatures previously have focused on a narrowband radio signal type concentrated in a limited frequency range or on single unusual transmissions. The new initiative, scientists said Wednesday, focuses on a different signal type that perhaps could enable advanced civilizations to communicate across the vast distances of interstellar space. 

These wideband pulsating signals for which the scientists are monitoring feature repetitive patterns – a series of pulses repeating every 11 to 100 seconds and spread across a few kilohertz, similar to pulses used in radar transmission. The search involves a frequency range covering a bit less than a tenth the width of an average FM radio station. 

“The signals searched in our work would belong to the category of deliberate ‘we are here’ type beacons from alien worlds,” said Akshay Suresh, a Cornell University graduate student in astronomy and lead author of a scientific paper published in The Astronomical Journal describing the new effort. 

“Aliens may possibly use such beacons for galaxy-wide communications, for which the core of the Milky Way is ideally placed. One may imagine aliens using such transmissions at the speed of light to communicate key events, such as preparations for interstellar migration before the explosive death of a massive star,” Suresh added. 

The effort, called the Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals (BLIPSS), is a collaboration between Cornell, the SETI Institute research organization and Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative to search for advanced extraterrestrial life. 

Diverse exploration called crucial

“In the realm of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, we embark on a journey to detect signals from technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations,” said astronomer and study co-author Vishal Gajjar of the SETI Institute and University of California at Berkeley. 

“However, the nature of these signals remains a mystery, leaving us uncertain about their specific characteristics. Hence, it becomes crucial to explore a diverse array of signals that are unlikely to occur naturally in the cosmic environment,” Gajjar added. 

Using a ground-based radio telescope in West Virginia, BLIPSS has focused upon a sliver of the sky less than 1/200th of the area covered by the moon, stretching toward the center of the Milky Way roughly 27,000 light-years away. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, 9.5 trillion kilometers. 

This area contains about 8 million stars, Suresh said. If extraterrestrial life forms exist, they presumably would populate rocky planets orbiting in what is called the habitable zone, or Goldilocks zone, around a star – not too hot and not too cold. 

The scientists in the various monitoring efforts passively scan for signals of alien beings and do not actively send their own signals advertising our presence on Earth. 

“In my opinion, transmission of ‘we are here’ type beacons comes with the danger of potentially inviting aliens with unknown intentions to the Earth,” Suresh said. 

Prudent approach

Deliberate transmissions to potential aliens from Earth should be considered only if by global consensus humankind deems it safe and appropriate, Gajjar said. 

“In my personal opinion, as a relatively young species in the grand cosmic scale, it would be prudent for us to focus on listening and investigating before embarking on deliberate transmissions,” Gajjar said. “Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that sending signals on behalf of the entire Earth raises political and ethical considerations. Presently, it would not be appropriate for a single country or entity to make decisions on behalf of the entire planet.” 

No aliens have yet been detected in the monitoring efforts. 

“Thus far, we have not come across any definitive evidence. However, it’s important to note that our exploration has been limited to a relatively small parameter space,” Gajjar said.

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Earth Is ‘Really Quite Sick Now’ and in Danger Zone in Nearly all Ecological Ways, Study Says

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Earth has pushed past seven out of eight scientifically established safety limits and into “the danger zone,” not just for an overheating planet that’s losing its natural areas, but for the well-being of people living on it, according to a new study.

The study looks not just at guardrails for the planetary ecosystem but for the first time it includes measures of “justice,” which is mostly about preventing harm for countries, ethnicities and genders.

The study by the international scientist group Earth Commission published Wednesday in the journal Nature looks at climate, air pollution, phosphorus and nitrogen contamination of water from fertilizer overuse, groundwater supplies, fresh surface water, the unbuilt natural environment and the overall natural and human-built environment. Only air pollution wasn’t quite at the danger point globally.

Air pollution is dangerous at local and regional levels, while climate was beyond the harmful levels for humans in groups but not quite past the safety guideline for the planet as a system, the study from the Swedish group said.

The study found “hot spots” of problem areas throughout Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa and much of Brazil, Mexico, China and some of the U.S. West — much of it from climate change. About two-thirds of Earth don’t meet the criteria for freshwater safety, scientists said as an example.

“We are in a danger zone for most of the Earth system boundaries,” said study co-author Kristie Ebi, a professor of climate and public health at the University of Washington.

If planet Earth just got an annual checkup, similar to a person’s physical, “our doctor would say that the Earth is really quite sick right now, and it is sick in terms of many different areas or systems, and this sickness is also affecting the people living on Earth,” Earth Commission co-chair Joyeeta Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, said at a press conference.

It’s not a terminal diagnosis. The planet can recover if it changes, including its use of coal, oil and natural gas and the way it treats the land and water, the scientists said.

But “we are moving in the wrong direction on basically all of these,” said study lead Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

“This is a compelling and provocative paper — scientifically sound in methodology and important for identifying the dimensions in which the planet is nearing the edge of boundaries that would launch us into irreversible states,” Indy Burke, dean of the Yale School of the Environment, said in an email. She wasn’t part of the study.

The team of about 40 scientists created quantifiable boundaries for each environmental category, both for what’s safe for the planet and for the point at which it becomes harmful for groups of people, which the researchers termed a justice issue.

Rockstrom said he thinks of those points as setting up “a safety fence,” outside of which the risks become higher, but not necessarily fatal.

Rockstrom and other scientists have attempted in the past this type of holistic measuring of Earth’s various interlocking ecosystems. The big difference in this attempt is that scientists also looked at local and regional levels, and they added the element of justice.

The justice part includes fairness between young and old generations, different nations and even different species. Frequently, it applies to conditions that harm people more than the planet.

An example of that is climate change.

The report uses the same boundary of 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times that international leaders agreed upon in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The world has so far warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), so it hasn’t crossed that safety fence, Rockstrom and Gupta said, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t being hurt.

“What we are trying to show through our paper is that event at 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) there is a huge amount of damage taking place,” Gupta said, pointing to tens of millions of people exposed to extreme hot temperatures.

The planetary safety guardrail of 1.5 degrees hasn’t been breached, but the “just” boundary where people are hurt of 1 degree has been.

“Sustainability and justice are inseparable,” said Stanford environmental studies chief Chris Field, who wasn’t part of the research. He said he would want even more stringent boundaries. “Unsafe conditions do not need to cover a large fraction of Earth’s area to be unacceptable, especially if the unsafe conditions are concentrated in and near poor and vulnerable communities.”

Another outside expert, Dr. Lynn Goldman, an environmental health professor and dean of The George Washington University’s public health school, said the study was “kind of bold,” but she wasn’t optimistic that it would result in much action.

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Key US Official Calls for Tech Companies to ‘Do Something’ About AI

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The director of the leading U.S. cybersecurity agency has a message for scientists and top technology company officials who are warning that artificial intelligence could lead to the end of humankind: Take action.

“If you actually think that these capabilities can lead to extinction of humanity, well, let’s come together and do something about it,” the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Jen Easterly told an audience Wednesday.

“While we’re trying to put a regulatory framework in place, think about self-regulation,” she told an Axios News Shapers event in Washington. “Think about what you can do to slow this down.”

The comments by the CISA director come just a day after more than 350 researchers and technology executives issued a one-sentence warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, or AI.

“Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” they said in a post on the website for the Center for AI Safety.

 

Those signing onto the warning included the co-founder and CEO of OpenAI, the company behind Chat GPT, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, the CEO of Google’s AI research lab and Geoffrey Hinton, sometimes called “the godfather of artificial intelligence.”

Hinton, notably, quit his job at Google earlier in May to focus on warning others of the dangers of AI.

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U.S. government officials, like CISA’s Easterly, have likewise been warning about the dangers posed by AI.

“AI will be the most powerful capability of our time,” Easterly told students at Vanderbilt University during a speech earlier this month.

“I believe it will also be the most powerful weapon of our time,” she added. “While one person will use this technology to plan a dinner party, another will use the capability to plan a cyberattack or a terrorist attack.”

Easterly has previously called for “smart regulation” of AI technology and products, warning that tech companies, as with other technologies, are too focused on getting AI products to market quickly and not paying enough attention to safety.

Earlier in May she said that CISA has held discussions with tech companies about a way forward for AI.

In April, CISA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, launched its own initiative to take on the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

“We must address the many ways in which artificial intelligence will drastically alter the threat landscape and augment the arsenal of tools we possess to succeed in the face of these threats,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at the time.

 

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Operation to Empty Decaying Oil Tanker Set to Begin in Yemen, UN Says

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Operations to salvage 1.1 million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker moored off Yemen’s coast will soon begin after a technical support ship arrived on site on Tuesday, the United Nations said.

U.N. officials have been warning for years that the Red Sea and Yemen’s coastline was at risk as the Safer tanker could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

The Ndeavor tanker, with a technical team from Boskalis/SMIT, is in place at the Safer tanker off the coast of Yemen’s Ras Isa, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen David Gressley said on Twitter from on board the Ndeavor.

The war in Yemen caused suspension of maintenance operations on the Safer in 2015. The U.N. has warned its structural integrity has significantly deteriorated and it is at risk of exploding.

The U.N. launched a fundraising drive, even starting a crowdfunding campaign, to raise the $129 million needed to remove the oil from the Safer and transfer it to a replacement tanker, the Nautica, which set sail from China in early April.

The salvage operation cannot be paid for by the sale of the oil because it is not clear who owns it, the U.N. has said.

“Work at sea will start very soon. Additional funding is still important to finish the process,” the U.N said on its Yemen Twitter account.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015 aiming to restore the government.

Peace initiatives have seen increased momentum since Riyadh and Tehran in March agreed to restore diplomatic ties severed in 2016.

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Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Starts 11-year Sentence for Blood-Testing Hoax

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Disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is in custody at a Texas prison where she could spend the next 11 years for overseeing a blood-testing hoax that became a parable about greed and hubris in Silicon Valley, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Holmes, 39, on Tuesday entered a federal women’s prison camp located in Bryan, Texas — where the federal judge who sentenced Holmes in November recommended she be incarcerated. The minimum-security facility is about 152 kilometers (about 94 miles) northwest of Houston, where Holmes grew up aspiring to become a technology visionary along the lines of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

As she begins her sentence, Holmes is leaving behind two young children — a son born in July 2021 a few weeks before the start of her trial and a 3-month old daughter who was conceived after a jury convicted her on four felony counts of fraud and conspiracy in January 2022.

Holmes has been free on bail since then, most recently living in the San Diego, California, area with the children’s father, William “Billy” Evans. The couple met in 2017 around the same time Holmes was under investigation for the collapse of Theranos, a startup she founded after dropping out of Stanford University when she was just 19.

Build up to startup

While she was building up Theranos, Holmes grew closer to Ramesh, “Sunny” Balwani, who would become her romantic partner as well as an investor and fellow executive in the Palo Alto, California, company.

Together, Holmes and Balwani promised Theranos would revolutionize health care with a technology that could quickly scan for diseases and other problems with a few drops of blood taken with a finger prick.

The hype surrounding that purported breakthrough helped Theranos raise nearly $1 billion from enthralled investors, assemble an influential board of directors that include former Presidential cabinet members George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and James Mattis and turned Holmes into a Silicon Valley sensation with a fortune valued at $4.5 billion on paper in 2014.

But it all blew up after serious dangerous flaws in Theranos’ technology were exposed in a series of explosive articles in The Wall Street Journal that Holmes and Balwani tried to thwart. Holmes and Balwani, who had been secretly living together while running Theranos, broke up after the revelations in the Journal and the company collapsed. In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department charged both with a litany of white-collar crimes in a case aimed at putting a stop to the Silicon Valley practice of overselling the capabilities of a still-developing technology — a technique that became known as “fake it ’til you make it.”

Holmes admitted making mistakes at Theranos, but steadfastly denied committing crimes during seven often-fascinating days of testimony on the witness stand during her trial. At one point, she told the jury about being sexually and emotionally abused by Balwani while he controlled her in ways that she said clouded her thinking. Balwani’s attorney steadfastly denied Holmes allegations, which was one of the key reasons they were tried separately.

Balwani, 57, was convicted on 12 felony counts of fraud and conspiracy in a trial that began two months after Holmes’ ended. He is serving a nearly 13-year sentence in a Southern California prison.

Maintaining she was treated unfairly during the trial, Holmes sought to remain free while she appeals her conviction. But that bid was rejected by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, who presided over her trial, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving her no other avenue left to follow but the one that will take her to prison nearly 20 years after she founded Theranos.

Attorneys representing Holmes did not immediately respond when contacted by The Associated Press for statement on Tuesday.

650 women on 37 acres

Federal Prison Camp Bryan, a minimum-security prison camp encompasses about 37 acres of land and houses about 650 women — including “Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” star Jennifer Shah, who was sentenced earlier this year to 6 1/2 years in prison for defrauding thousands of people in a yearslong telemarketing scam.

Most federal prison camps don’t even have fences and house those the Bureau of Prisons considers to be the lowest security risk. The prison camps also often have minimal staffing and many of the incarcerated people work at prison jobs.

According to a 2016 FPC Bryan inmate handbook, those in the Texas facility who are eligible to work can earn between 12 cents and $1.15 per hour in their job assignments, which include food service roles and factory employment operated by Federal Prison Industries.

Federal prison camps were originally designed with low security to make operations easier and allow inmates tasked with performing work at the prison, such as landscaping and maintenance, to avoid repeatedly checking in and out of a main prison facility. But the lax security opened a gateway for contraband, such as drugs, cellphones and weapons. The limited security also led to a number of escapes from prison camps.

In November, a man incarcerated at another federal prison camp in Arizona pulled out a smuggled gun in a visitation area and tried to shoot his wife in the head. The gun jammed and no one was injured. But the incident exposed major security flaws at the facility and the agency’s director ordered a review of security at all federal prison camps around the U.S.

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Cholera Catastrophe Looming at Kenya Refugee Camp, Aid Group Warns

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Health care providers in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp say an ongoing cholera outbreak is becoming a looming catastrophe. Doctors Without Borders has described the six-month-long cholera outbreak as the worst yet, amid an influx of new refugees from Somalia.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, popularly known as Doctors Without Borders, told a news conference Tuesday that a cholera outbreak the Dadaab camp is approaching epidemic proportions and that urgent attention in the areas of water and sanitation is needed. Dr. Nitya Udayraj is the medical coordinator. 

“The humanitarian conditions there are already at its limit. An outbreak like cholera, like measles, is literally the last stroke that will bring it to the breaking point,” said Dr. Nitya Udayraj, MSF’s medical coordinator. “Which is why today we want to bring focus that the humanitarian situation is already precarious. … We would like to bring attention that after six months, the outbreak is still continuing. It is not normal.”

The cholera outbreak hit East Africa’s largest refugee camp last November. At least five people have died since then. The Dadaab complex in Kenya’s northeastern region is home to over 300,000 refugees, most from neighboring Somalia.

Their numbers have exceeded capacity due to the extended drought in Somalia. At least 67,000 more refugees arrived in the camp last year, according to national data, putting pressure on already limited resources. Doctors Without Borders’ country director Hassan Maiyaki said sanitary conditions are dire.

“Today, according to humanitarian organizations working in the camps, almost half of the camp population has no access to functional latrines, leading to open defecation in and around the camp, which raises the risk of disease outbreaks.”

Kenya’s Ministry of Health conducted cholera vaccinations at the camp, but the doctors say curbing the outbreak remains elusive without sanitation and hygiene intervention.

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China’s Shenzhou-16 Mission Takes Off Bound for Space Station

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China sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, putting a civilian scientist into space for the first time as Beijing pursues plans to send a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.   

The world’s second-largest economy has invested billions of dollars in its military-run space program in a push to catch up with the United States and Russia.   

The Shenzhou-16 crew took off atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 9:31 am (0131 GMT), AFP journalists and state TV showed.   

Leading the mission is commander Jing Haipeng on his fourth extra-terrestrial trip, as well as engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese civilian in space.   

The Tiangong is the crown jewel of China’s space program, which has also seen it land robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon and made it the third country to put humans in orbit.   

The mission is the first to the Tiangong space station since it entered its “application and development” stage, Beijing said.   

Once in orbit, the Shenzhou-16 will dock at the space station’s Tianhe core module, before the crew meet three colleagues from the previous manned Shenzhou-15 flight, who have been at the space station for six months and will return to Earth in the coming days.   

The mission will “carry out large-scale, in-orbit experiments… in the study of novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity, and the origin of life,” CMSA spokesperson Lin Xiqiang told reporters on Monday.   

The space station was resupplied with drinking water, clothing, food and propellant this month in preparation for Shenzhou-16’s arrival.   

One expert told AFP that Tuesday’s flight represented “a regular crew rotation flight as one crew hands over to another”, but even that was significant.   

“Accumulating depth of experience in human spaceflight operations is important and doesn’t involve new spectacular milestones all the time,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.   

‘Heavenly palace’    

Plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping.   

China is planning to build a lunar base, and CMSA spokesman Lin reaffirmed on Monday Beijing’s plan to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2030.   

“The overall goal is to achieve China’s first manned landing on the Moon by 2030 and carry out lunar scientific exploration and related technological experiments,” he said.   

The final module of the T-shaped Tiangong — which means “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the core structure last year.   

The station carries several pieces of cutting-edge scientific equipment, state news agency Xinhua reported, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.   

The Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometers above the planet for at least 10 years.   

It is constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts.   

China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country — pushing Beijing to develop the Tiangong.   

China’s space agency reiterated on Monday it is actively seeking international cooperation in the project.   

China “is looking forward to and welcomes the participation of foreign astronauts in the country’s space station flight missions”, Lin said.   

Beijing plans to send two manned space missions to the space station every year, according to the CMSA.   

The next will be Shenzhou-17, which is expected to be launched in October. 

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IAEA Team in Japan for Final Review Before Planned Discharge of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Water

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An International Atomic Energy Agency team arrived in Tokyo on Monday for a final review before Japan begins releasing massive amounts of treated radioactive water into the sea from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, a plan that has been strongly opposed by local fishing communities and neighboring countries. 

The team, which includes experts from 11 countries, will meet with officials from the government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, and visit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant during their five-day visit, the economy and industry ministry said. 

Japan announced plans in April 2021 to gradually release the wastewater following further treatment and dilution to what it says are safe levels. The release is expected to begin within a few months after safety checks by Japanese nuclear regulators of the newly constructed water discharge facility and a final report by IAEA expected in late June. 

The plan has faced fierce protests from local fishing communities concerned about safety and reputational damage. Nearby countries, including South Korea, China and Pacific Island nations, have also raised safety concerns. 

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA’s Jessica Stone

Japan sought IAEA’s assistance in ensuring the release meets international safety standards and to gain the understanding of other countries. 

Japanese officials say the water will be treated to legally releasable levels and further diluted with large amounts of seawater. It will be gradually released into the ocean over decades through an undersea tunnel, making it harmless to people and marine life, they say. 

Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to radionuclides is unknown and the release should be delayed. 

Japan’s government has stepped up campaigns in Japanese media and at food fairs to promote the safety of seafood from Fukushima, while providing regular briefings to foreign governments including South Korea and members of the Pacific Islands Forum. 

A massive March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and releasing large amounts of radiation. Water used to cool the reactor cores accumulated in about 1,000 tanks at the plant which will reach their capacity in early 2024. 

Japanese officials say the water stored in the tanks needs to be removed to prevent accidental leaks in case of another disaster and to make room for the plant’s decommissioning. 

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UAE Unveils Groundbreaking Mission to Asteroid Belt

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The United Arab Emirates unveiled plans Monday to send a spaceship to explore the solar system’s main asteroid belt, the latest space project by the oil-rich nation after it launched the successful Hope spacecraft to Mars in 2020. 

Dubbed the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, the project aims to develop a spacecraft in the coming years and then launch it in 2028 to study various asteroids. 

“This mission is a follow up and a follow on the Mars mission, where it was the first mission to Mars from the region,” said Mohsen Al Awadhi, program director of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt. “We’re creating the same thing with this mission. That is, the first mission ever to explore these seven asteroids in specific and the first of its kind when it’s looked at from the grand tour aspect.” 

The UAE became the first Arab country and the second country ever to successfully enter Mars’ orbit on its first try when its Hope probe reached the red planet in February 2021. The craft’s goals include providing the first complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers and helping answer key questions about the planet’s climate and composition. 

If successful, the newly announced spacecraft will soar at speeds reaching 33,000 kilometers (20,500 miles) per hour on a seven-year journey to explore six asteroids. It will culminate in the deployment of a landing craft onto a seventh, rare “red” asteroid that scientists say may hold insight into the building blocks of life on Earth. 

Organic compounds like water are crucial constituents of life and have been found on some asteroids, potentially delivered through collisions with other organic-rich bodies or via the creation of complex organic molecules in space. Investigating the origins of these compounds, along with the possible presence of water on red asteroids, could shed light on the origin of Earth’s water, thereby offering valuable insights into the genesis of life on our planet. 

The endeavor is a significant milestone for the burgeoning UAE Space Agency, established in 2014, as it follows up on its success in sending the Amal, or “Hope,” probe to Mars. The new journey would span a distance over ten times greater than the Mars mission. 

The explorer is named MBR after Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as the vice president and prime minister of the hereditarily ruled UAE. It will first make its way toward Venus, where the planet’s gravitational pull will slingshot it back past the Earth and then Mars. 

The craft will eventually reach the asteroid belt, flying as close as 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the celestial boulders and covering a total distance of 5 billion kilometers (around 3 billion miles). 

In October 2034, the craft is expected to make its final thrust to the seventh and last asteroid, named Justitia, before deploying a lander over a year later. Justitia, believed to be one of only two known red asteroids, is thought to potentially have a surface laden with organic substances. 

“It’s one of the two reddest objects in the asteroid belt, and scientists don’t really understand why it’s so red,” said Hoor AlMaazmi, a space science researcher at the UAE space agency. “There are theories about it being originally from the Kuiper Belt and where there’s much more red objects there. So that’s one thing that we can study because it has the potential for it to be water rich as well.” 

The MBR Explorer will deploy a landing craft to study the surface of Justitia that will be fully developed by private UAE start-up companies. It may lay the groundwork for possible future resource extraction from asteroids to eventually support extended human missions in space — and maybe even the UAE’s ambitious goal of building a colony on Mars by 2117. 

“We have identified different key areas that we want startups in the private sector to be part of, and we will engage with them through that,” said Al Awadhi. 

“We understand that the knowledge we have in the UAE is, you know, still being built. We will provide these startups with the knowledge they need.” 

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China Says Will Land Astronauts on Moon Before 2030, Expand Space Station

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China’s burgeoning space program plans to place astronauts on the moon before 2030 and expand the country’s orbiting space station, officials said Monday.

Monday’s announcement comes against the backdrop of a rivalry with the U.S. for reaching new milestones in outer space, reflecting their competition for influence on global events.

That has conjured up memories of the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, although American spending, supply chains and capabilities are believed to give it a significant edge over China, at least for the present.

The U.S. aims to put astronauts back on the lunar surface by the end of 2025 as part of a renewed commitment to crewed missions, aided by private sector players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.

The deputy director of China’s space agency confirmed the twin objectives at a news conference but gave no specific dates.

The agency also introduced three astronauts who will head to the country’s space station in a launch scheduled for Tuesday morning. They’ll replace a crew that’s been on the orbiting station for six months.

China is first preparing for a “short stay on the lunar surface and human-robotic joint exploration,” Deputy Director of the Chinese Manned Space Agency Lin Xiqiang told reporters at the rare briefing by the military-run program.

“We have a complete near-Earth human space station and human round-trip transportation system,” complemented by a process for selecting, training and supporting new astronauts, he said. A schedule of two crewed missions a year is “sufficient for carrying out our objectives,” Lin said.

The Tiangong space station was said to have been finished in November when the third section was added.

A fourth module will be launched “at an appropriate time to advance support for scientific experiments and provide the crew with improved working and living conditions,” Lin said.

The trio being launched aboard the Shenzhou 16 craft will overlap briefly with the three astronauts who have lived on the station for the previous six months conducting experiments and assembling equipment inside and outside the vehicle.

The fresh crew includes a civilian for the first time. All previous crew members have been in the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the country’s ruling Communist Party.

Gui Haichao, a professor at Beijing’s top aerospace research institute, will join mission commander Jing Haipeng and spacecraft engineer Zhu Yangzhu as the payload expert.

Speaking to media at the launch site outside the northwestern city of Jiuquan, Jing said the mission marked “a new stage of application and development,” in China’s space program.

“We firmly believe that the spring of China’s space science has arrived, and we have the determination, confidence, and ability to resolutely complete the mission,” said Jing, a major general who has made three previous space flights.

China’s first manned space mission in 2003 made it the third country after the USSR and the U.S. to put a person into space.

China built its own space station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs’ intimate ties to the PLA.

Space is increasingly seen as a new area of competition between China and the United States — the world’s two largest economies and rivals for diplomatic and military influence — one a highly centralized, one-party state, the other a democracy where the partisan divide largely evaporates over the issues of relations with China and space exploration.

The astronauts NASA sends to the moon by the end of 2025 will aim for the south pole where permanently shadowed craters are believed to be packed with frozen water.

Plans for permanent crewed bases on the moon are also being considered by both countries, raising questions about rights and interests on the lunar surface. U.S. law tightly restricts cooperation between the two countries’ space programs and while China says it welcomes foreign collaborations, those have thus far been limited to scientific research.

Speaking Monday afternoon in Jiuquan, the technology director of the Chinese crewed space flight agency, Li Yingliang, said China hoped for more international collaboration, including with the U.S.

“Our country’s consistent stance is that as long as the goal is to utilize space for peaceful purposes, we are willing to cooperate and communicate with any country or aerospace organization,” Li said.

“Personally, I regret that the U.S. Congress has relevant motions banning cooperation in aerospace between the U.S. and China. I very much regret that personally,” he said.

In addition to their lunar programs, the U.S. and China have also landed rovers on Mars and Beijing plans to follow the U.S. in landing a spacecraft on an asteroid.

Other countries and organizations ranging from the India and the United Arab Emirates to Israel and the European Union are also planning lunar missions.

The U.S. sent six crewed missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972, three of which involved the use of a drivable lunar rover that China says it is now developing with tenders in the private sector.

While America currently operates more spaceports and has a far wider network of international and commercial partners than China, the Chinese program has proceeded in a steady and cautious manner reflecting the county’s vast increase in economic power and global influence since the 1980s.

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Mpox Is Down, But US Cities Could Be at Risk for Summertime Outbreaks

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The mpox health emergency has ended, but U.S. health officials are aiming to prevent a repeat of last year’s outbreaks.

Mpox infections exploded early in the summer of 2022 in the wake of Pride gatherings. More than 30,000 U.S. cases were reported last year, most of them spread during sexual contact between gay and bisexual men. About 40 people died.

With Pride events planned across the country in the coming weeks, health officials and event organizers say they are optimistic that this year infections will be fewer and less severe. A bigger supply of vaccine, more people with immunity and readier access to a drug to treat mpox are among the reasons.

But they also worry that people may think of mpox as last year’s problem.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who is advising the White House on its mpox response. “But we are beating the drum.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert to U.S. doctors to watch for new cases. On Thursday, the agency published a modeling study that estimated the likelihood of mpox resurgence in 50 counties that have been the focus of a government campaign to control sexually transmitted diseases.

The study concluded that 10 of the counties had a 50% chance or higher of mpox outbreaks this year. The calculation was based largely on how many people were considered at high risk for infection and what fraction of them had some immunity through vaccination or previous infection.

At the top of the list are Jacksonville, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cincinnati — cities where 10% or fewer of the people at highest risk were estimated to have immunity. Another 25 counties have low or medium immunity levels that put them at a higher risk for outbreaks.

The study had a range of limitations, including that scientists don’t know how long immunity from vaccination or prior infections lasts.

So why do the study? To warn people, said Dr. Chris Braden, who heads the CDC’s mpox response.

“This is something that is important for jurisdictions to promote prevention of mpox, and for the population to take note — and take care of themselves. That’s why we’re doing this,” he said.

Officials are trying to bring a sense of urgency to a health threat that was seen as a burgeoning crisis last summer but faded away by the end of the year.

Formerly known as monkeypox, mpox is caused by a virus in the same family as the one that causes smallpox. It is endemic in parts of Africa, where people have been infected through bites from rodents or small animals but was not known to spread easily among people.

Cases began emerging in Europe and the U.S. about a year ago, mostly among men who have sex with men, and escalated in dozens of countries in June and July. The infections were rarely fatal, but many people suffered painful skin lesions for weeks.

Countries scrambled to find a vaccine or other countermeasures. In late July, the World Health Organization declared a health emergency. The U.S. followed with its own in early August.

But then cases began to fall, from an average of nearly 500 a day in August to fewer than 10 by late December. Experts attributed the decline to several factors, including government measures to overcome a vaccine shortage and efforts in the gay and bisexual community to spread warnings and limit sexual encounters.

The U.S. emergency ended in late January, and the WHO ended its declaration earlier this month.

Indeed, there is a lower sense of urgency about mpox than last year, said Dan Dimant, a spokesman for NYC Pride. The organization anticipates fewer messages about the threat at its events next month, though plans could change if the situation worsens.

There were long lines to get shots during the height of the crisis last year, but demand faded as cases declined. The government estimates that 1.7 million people — mostly men who have sex with men — are at high risk for mpox infection, but only about 400,000 have gotten the recommended two doses of the vaccine.

“We’re definitely not where we need to be,” Daskalakis said, during an interview last week at an STD conference in New Orleans.

Some see possible storm clouds on the horizon.

Cases emerged this year in some European countries and South Korea. On Thursday, U.K. officials said an uptick in mpox cases in London in the last month showed that the virus was not going away.

Nearly 30 people, many of them fully vaccinated, were infected in a recent Chicago outbreak. (As with COVID-19 and flu shot, vaccinated people can still get mpox, but they likely will have milder symptoms, officials say.)

Dr. Joseph Cherabie, associate medical director of the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic, said people from the area travel to Chicago for events, so outbreaks there can have ripple effects elsewhere.

“We are several weeks behind Chicago. Chicago is usually our bellwether,” Cherabie said.

Chicago health officials are taking steps to prevent further spread at an “International Mr. Leather” gathering this weekend.

Event organizers are prominently advising attendees to get vaccinated. Chicago health officials put together social media messages, including one depicting three candles and a leather paddle that reads: “Before you play with leather or wax get yourself the mpox vax.”

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UK Health Minister Says Will Not Negotiate on Pay With Nurses’ Union

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Britain’s health minister, Steve Barclay, said on Sunday that the government would not negotiate on pay with the nurses’ union, as the threat of further strikes looms.

The government’s offer, which includes a one-off payment equivalent to 2% of salaries in the 2022/23 financial year and a 5% pay raise for 2023/24, was rejected by the members of the Royal College of Nursing in April.

When asked by Sky News whether the government would resume talks with the union, Barclay said, “Not on the amount of pay.”

The union is already balloting its 300,000 members on further strike action over the next six months.

The union did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for a comment on Barclay’s remarks on Sunday. It has said that the government must pay National Health Service staff “fairly.”

The relationship between the union, which has staged multiple strikes that have disrupted patient care, and the government became strained in late April when the health department limited the length of a strike after legal action against the RCN.

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Poachers Pluck South Africa’s ‘Succulent’ Plants for Chinese Market

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South African customs officials recently became suspicious when they noticed that shipments of “Made in China” children’s toys were being sent, oddly, back to China.

On closer inspection, the packages did not contain toys at all but were filled with poached contraband.

Chinese criminal syndicates, often the very same ones that already have established smuggling routes in South Africa for illegal abalone or rhinoceros horns, have now moved on to trafficking in elephant’s foot.

But elephant’s foot is not what you think.

It is a type of succulent — unique plants with fleshy parts that retain water and grow in arid areas like South Africa’s vast Karoo — and its greyish wrinkled bulb bears a startling resemblance to a pachyderm’s pad.

It’s just one kind of succulent that’s being pulled out of the wilderness at what scientists say are alarming rates, and many of the rare plants — some of which are up to 100 years old and may only be found on a single rocky outcrop — are now nearing extinction.

Social media craze

The Succulent Karoo biome is a globally recognized biodiversity area that stretches all the way from Namibia right down into South Africa’s Western Cape province.

“We have incredibly special plants that occur nowhere else in the world, and it is part of South Africa’s heritage,” said Ismail Ebrahim, a scientist with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

He said some species, particularly succulents like conophytums, are now “on the brink of extinction.”

Some 1.5 million South African succulents have been removed from the wild over the past three years, according to SANBI.

While succulents were always beloved by amateur botanists and collectors, they’ve gained a broader fan base since the pandemic, experts told VOA on a recent trip to the Little Karoo organized by WWF South Africa, which is coordinating efforts to combat the illegal trade.

With people in lockdown, isolated and unable to go out into nature, a trend for houseplants started on social media, with influencers — or “plantfluencers” — calling themselves plant moms and dads and extolling the virtues of ornamental houseplants.

“I would see the appeal of having something in my house because … they’re very unique,” said Emily Norma Kudze, senior scientific coordinator for the illegal succulent trade with SANBI. “Ornamental value is now becoming a thing. I think just because of how they grow has brought in the trendiness of having them in your homes.”

The number of plants confiscated by South African law enforcement has increased by more than 200 percent since 2018, with over 242,000 succulents seized last year alone, according to CapeNature, a government organization that looks after wilderness areas in the Western Cape.

The South African government has developed a national action plan to try and address the growing trade.

Smuggling syndicates

Paul Gildenhuys, a CapeNature enforcement specialist, has been involved with cracking down on smuggling syndicates.

The collecting and export of succulents without a permit is prohibited under South African law and those caught poaching them can face a fine or prison time, Gildenhuys said. The poaching of endangered flora carries the highest penalty, a 400,000 rand fine or 10 years jail.

More than 90 arrests were made last year according to CapeNature. Thanks to informants, the majority of people are caught in vehicles on the highway while transporting the plants.

But prosecutions often lead to relatively small fines and suspended sentences and those caught are usually on the lower rungs of the trafficking groups — locals working for international syndicates who go and dig up the plants.

Still, with high levels of unemployment and poverty in the area, succulent poaching can be an attractive option for South Africans despite the low amounts of money they make.

“The succulent Karoo is a very vast, very arid landscape and there are very limited economic opportunities,” said WWF-SA’s Katherine Forsythe. “[In] the illegal trade unfortunately, all of the benefit is going overseas, while people on the ground in South Africa aren’t receiving any benefit.”

The poached plants are sent to an address in China or Hong Kong — sometimes through Johannesburg’s busy O.R. Tambo Airport, but often simply through the mail or by courier, said Gildenhuys.

Officials VOA spoke to did not want to give exact monetary figures, to avoid encouraging the trade in succulents, but said the profits to be made by foreign-run smuggling syndicates were significant.

Carl Brown, another CapeNature enforcement officer, said while there’s some illegal trade of South African succulents to the U.S. and E.U., China dominates.

Of the almost 400,000 plants seized in the Western Cape between 2019 and 2022, 98.7% of all plants were destined for the Chinese market, according to CapeNature.

“Hundreds of thousands of succulents are going to China weekly,” he told VOA.

Brown said he thinks the demand in China is partially due to the growing urban middle class in the world’s second-largest economy.

“Now you have the average Chinese citizen with disposable income looking for things that they can decorate their house with, and if you’re living in a high-rise building, you only have a certain amount of space,” he said, adding that sometimes a houseplant is the only bit of green in a person’s home.

Chinese efforts to stop trade

Brown said buyers might not even be aware their plant was illegally pulled out of the ground in South Africa — and admitted the issue does not get people as worked up as something such as rhino poaching.

But he stressed that the trade is having devastating effects.

“A plant the size of my hand that’s being smuggled to China could be 150 years old, and that’s one of the plants that’s setting seeds to replace itself in the ecosystem that’s now been removed,” he said.

There are various pages on the internet that offer succulent plants for sale, such as eBay and Etsy, and Chinese social media, according to CapeNature.

Scientific books on succulent types have also been translated into Mandarin recently, so people know what they are looking for.

Asked by VOA what the country is doing to try to end the poaching, the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria replied by email saying South Africa and China have been cooperating on combating such crimes.

“Over the years, the law enforcement departments of the two countries have always maintained close cooperation in cracking down on crimes such as smuggling ivory, rhinoceros horns and rare plants. Our smooth cooperation has produced fruitful results, especially in intelligence sharing, evidence exchange and arresting suspects,” the embassy said.

Additionally, the embassy said, Chinese diplomatic missions in South Africa have repeatedly reminded Chinese citizens and tourists in South Africa to avoid picking wild plants at will.

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Stephen Hawking’s Last Collaborator on Physicist’s Final Theory

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When Thomas Hertog was first summoned to Stephen Hawking’s office in the late 1990s, there was an instant connection between the young Belgian researcher and the legendary British theoretical physicist.

“Something clicked between us,” Hertog said.

That connection would continue even as Hawking’s debilitating disease ALS robbed him of his last ways to communicate, allowing the pair to complete a new theory that aims to turn how science looks at the universe on its head.

The theory, which would be Hawking’s last before his death in 2018, has been laid out in full for the first time in Hertog’s book “On the Origin of Time,” published in the UK last month.

In an interview with AFP, the cosmologist spoke about their 20-year collaboration, how they communicated via facial expression, and why Hawking ultimately decided his landmark book “A Brief of History of Time” was written from the wrong perspective.

The ‘designed’ universe

During their first meeting at Cambridge University in 1998, Hawking wasted no time in bringing up the problem bothering him.

“The universe we observe appears designed,” Hawking told Hertog, communicating via a clicker connected to a speech machine.

Hertog explained that “the laws of physics — the rules on which the universe runs — turn out to be just perfect for the universe to be habitable, for life to be possible.”

This remarkable string of good luck stretches from the delicate balance that makes it possible for atoms to form molecules necessary for chemistry to the expansion of the universe itself, which allows for vast cosmic structures such as galaxies.

One “trendy” answer to this problem has been the multiverse, an idea that has recently become popular in the movie industry, Hertog said.

This theory explains away the seemingly designed nature of the universe by making it just one of countless others — most of which are “crap, lifeless, sterile,” the 47-year-old added.

But Hawking realized the “great mire of paradoxes the multiverse was leading us into,” arguing there must be a better explanation, Hertog said.

Outsider’s perspective

A few years into their collaboration, “it began to sink in” that they were missing something fundamental, Hertog said.

The multiverse and even “A Brief History of Time” were “attempts to describe the creation and evolution of our universe from what Stephen would call a ‘God’s eye perspective’,” Hertog said.

But because “we are within the universe” and not outside looking in, our theories cannot be decoupled from our perspective, he added.

“That was why (Hawking) said that ‘A Brief History of Time’ is written from the wrong perspective.”

For the next 15 years, the pair used the oddities of quantum theory to develop a new theory of physics and cosmology from an “observer’s perspective.”

But by 2008, Hawking had lost the ability to use his clicker, becoming increasingly isolated from the world.

“I thought it was over,” Hertog said.

Then the pair developed a “somewhat magical” level of non-verbal communication that allowed them to continue working, he said.

Positioned in front of Hawking, Hertog would ask questions and look into the physicist’s eyes.

“He had a very wide range of facial expressions, ranging from extreme disagreement to extreme excitement,” he said.

“It’s impossible to disentangle” which parts of the final theory came from himself or Hawking, Hertog said, adding that many of the ideas had been developed between the pair over the years.

‘One grand evolutionary process’

Their theory is focused on what happened in the first moments after the Big Bang.

Rather than an explosion that followed a pre-existing set of rules, they propose that the laws of physics evolved along with the universe.

This means that if you turn back the clock far enough, “the laws of physics themselves begin to simplify and disappear,” Hertog said.

“Ultimately, even the dimension of time evaporates.”

Under this theory, the laws of physics and time itself evolved in a way that resembles biological evolution — the title of Hertog’s book is a reference to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

“What we’re essentially saying is that (biology and physics) are two levels of one grand evolutionary process,” Hertog said.

He acknowledged that it is difficult to prove this theory because the first years of the universe remain “hidden in the mist of the Big Bang.”

One way to lift this veil could be by studying gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space time, while another could be via quantum holograms constructed on quantum computers, he said.

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US Commerce Secretary: US ‘Won’t Tolerate’ China’s Ban on Micron Chips

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The United States “won’t tolerate” China’s effective ban on purchases of Micron Technology MU.O memory chips and is working closely with allies to address such “economic coercion,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Saturday.

Raimondo told a news conference after a meeting of trade ministers in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework talks that the U.S. “firmly opposes” China’s actions against Micron.

These “target a single U.S. company without any basis in fact, and we see it as plain and simple economic coercion and we won’t tolerate it, nor do we think it will be successful.”

China’s cyberspace regulator said May 21 that Micron, the biggest U.S. memory chip maker, had failed its network security review and that it would block operators of key infrastructure from buying from the company, prompting it to predict a revenue reduction.

The move came a day after leaders of the G7 industrial democracies agreed to new initiatives to push back against economic coercion by China — a decision noted by Raimondo.

“As we said at the G7 and as we have said consistently, we are closely engaging with partners addressing this specific challenge and all challenges related to China’s non-market practices.”

Raimondo also raised the Micron issue in a meeting Thursday with China’s Commerce Minister, Wang Wentao.

She also said the IPEF agreement on supply chains and other pillars of the talks would be consistent with U.S. investments in the $52 billion CHIPS Act to foster semiconductor production in the United States.

“The investments in the CHIPS Act are to strengthen and bolster our domestic production of semiconductors. Having said that, we welcome participation from companies that are in IPEF countries, you know, so we expect that companies from Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc, will participate in the CHIPS Act funding,” Raimondo said.

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France Confirms Bird Flu Vaccination After Favorable Tests

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France confirmed its aim to launch a vaccination program against bird flu in the autumn after results from a series of tests on the vaccination of ducks showed “satisfactory effectiveness,” the farm ministry said. 

A severe strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, has ravaged poultry production around the world, leading to the culling of over 200 million birds in the past 18 months. 

France has been the worst hit country in the European Union and is facing a strong resurgence of outbreaks since early this month in the southwestern part of the country, mainly among ducks. 

It had already launched a pre-order of 80 million vaccines last month, which needed to be confirmed based on final tests carried out by French health safety agency ANSES. 

“These favorable results provided sufficient guarantees to launch a vaccination campaign as early as autumn 2023,” the farm ministry wrote on its website. 

Governments, often shy to use vaccination due to the trade restrictions it can entail, have increasingly considered adopting them to stem the spread of the virus and avoid interhuman transmission. 

The results of the tests demonstrated a good control of virus transmission in vaccinated mule ducks, a differentiation between infected and vaccinated animals, known as the DIVA principle, and a reduction in virus excretion by vaccinated birds, the test conclusions said. 

France has mandated two companies, France’s Ceva Animal Health and Germany’s Boehringher Ingelheim, to develop bird flu vaccines for ducks. 

Several other EU countries have been carrying out tests, including the Netherlands on laying hens and Italy on turkeys. 

First results in the Netherlands showed the vaccines tested were efficient. 

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China, South Korea Agree to Strengthen Talks on Chip Industry

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China and South Korea have agreed to strengthen dialog and cooperation on semiconductor industry supply chains, amid broader global concerns over chip supplies, sanctions and national security, China’s commerce minister said.

Wang Wentao met with South Korean Trade Minister Ahn Duk-geun on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Detroit, which ended Friday. 

They exchanged views on maintaining the stability of the industrial supply chain and strengthening cooperation in bilateral, regional and multilateral fields, according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on Saturday.

Wang also said that China is willing to work with South Korea to deepen trade ties and investment cooperation.

However, a South Korean statement on the same meeting did not mention chips, instead saying the country’s trade minister had asked China to stabilize the supply of key raw materials — and asked for a predictable business environment for South Korean companies in China.

“The South Korean side expressed that communication is needed between working-level officials over all industries,” not just for semiconductors, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The source declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

South Korea is in the crosshairs of a tit-for-tat row between the United States and China over semiconductors.

China’s cyberspace regulator said last week that Micron had failed its network security review and that it would block operators of key infrastructure from buying from the company.

The U.S. has pushed for countries to limit China’s access to advanced chips, citing a host of reasons including national security.

About 40% South Korea’s chip exports go to China, according to trade ministry data, while U.S. technology and equipment are necessary for South Korean chipmakers Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.

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Farmer-Turned-Policeman Serves as Mexico’s Eyes, Ears at Popocatepetl Volcano

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When the Popocatepetl volcano reawakened in 1994, Mexican scientists needed people in the area who could be their eyes and ears. State police helped them find one, Nefi de Aquino, a farmer then in his 40s who lived beside the volcano. From that moment on, his life changed.

He became a police officer himself, but with a very specific job: watching Popocatepetl and reporting everything that he saw to authorities and researchers at diverse institutions.

For nearly three decades, de Aquino says he has been “taking care of” the volcano affectionately known as “El Popo.” And for the past 23 of those years, he has been sending scientists daily photographs.

Collaboration between researchers and local residents — usually people of limited means — is crucial to Mexico’s volcano monitoring. Hundreds of villagers collaborate in different ways. Often local residents are the only witnesses to key events. Sometimes scientists install recording devices on their land, or have them collect ash samples.

One evening this week, the thin 70-year-old policeman with a hoarse voice stopped his patrol truck near the cemetery overlooking his home town, one of the area’s best vantage points. At his feet lay the town of Santiago Xalitzintla. Directly in front at a distance of 14 miles (23 kilometers) sat Popocatepetl, puffing smoke, the rim of its crater aglow.

Because it appeared calm, de Aquino didn’t stay long. Over the previous week, he had been busy sending digital volcano photographs to a slew of researchers at universities and government agencies as the mountain’s activity increased and authorities raised the alert level. Once again, the world’s eyes were on the 17,797-foot Popocatepetl, including those of the 25 million people living within 60 miles of its crater.

On Friday, officials said the volcano’s activity had decreased somewhat although they maintained the same alert level.

A farmer who was a meat packer for three years in Utah in his late 20s when he illegally emigrated to the United States, de Aquino’s life took a radical turn one day in 1994 when someone in his home town told him police were looking for him.

At first he was afraid to go to the police, but eventually did. The interview was brief.

“‘Do you know how to read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Write?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you drive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have a license?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Heck, this one will work.'”

Officers told de Aquino that the government was looking for people to monitor the volcano and that he, then 41, had certain advantages. He appeared serious, he had finished high school, and during his short stay in the United States he had learned how to take photographs.

‘Immersed in the volcano’

At first, de Aquino was given a volunteer civil defense role, and he took some courses at National Center for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED where he was “immersed in the volcano.” But he wasn’t thrilled with doing the work without pay. So authorities offered to send him to the police academy.

Although de Aquino became an officer with some normal police duties, he was an odd cop. He almost always worked alone, patrolling remote mountain roads, taking photos of the volcano.

The ways that local people who help monitor the volcano are compensated are seldom straightforward, because they are not on the payrolls of universities or other research institutions, despite “becoming our eyes close to the volcano,” said Carlos Valdes, a researcher at the UNAM’s Geophysics Institute and former head of CENAPRED.

As an example, Valdes said that the key person when the seismic monitoring system was installed on Popocatepetl was a mountain climber who lived in the town of Amecameca. The man, since deceased, knew the safest routes to climb and how to avoid putting instruments in locations that were sacred to locals.

The way to compensate the man, was “to buy tires for his jeep, repair the vehicle, get him coats,” because it was otherwise difficult to pay him.

Paulino Alonso, a technician at CENAPRED who does fieldwork at Popocatepetl, said collaboration with locals also has given researchers a better understanding of how locals perceive risks.

“A machine is never going to speak to the human perception of danger,” Alonso said.

Three photos a day

In 2000, when Popocatepetl grew more active, authorities declared a red alert and thousands of people were evacuated. De Aquino’s monitoring work intensified.

“They gave me cameras, a patrol car and binoculars and every day I had to send three photos: one in the morning, one at midday and one at night,” the policeman said.

De Aquino continues working to this day, filling his adobe-walled home with thousands of photographs. He lives alone on a modest ranch on the volcano’s slopes, where he has some fruit trees growing beside a stream, and raises corn and a few animals.

De Aquino helps keep locals informed about the volcano and assists during evacuations. Once, his house became an impromptu shelter for soldiers, police and government officials, he said.

De Aquino has gotten to go along on overflights of the crater, the first time terrified. “You see the whole base, how it lights up, how it puts out smoke … it felt strange,” he said.

He has continued in his job despite being past retirement age.

“What I have learned from (Popocatepetl) is that while it’s calm, it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “But when it gets mad, it goes crazy.”

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US Revokes License of Drug Distributor Over Opioid Crisis Failures

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stripped one of the nation’s largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers Friday after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis.

The action against Morris & Dickson Co., which threatens to put the company out of business, came two days after an Associated Press investigation found the DEA allowed the company to keep shipping drugs for nearly four years after a judge recommended the harshest penalty for its “cavalier disregard” of rules aimed at preventing opioid abuse.

The DEA acknowledged the time it took to issue its final decision was “longer than typical for the agency” but blamed Morris & Dickson in part for holding up the process by seeking delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lengthy pursuit of a settlement that the agency said it had considered. The order becomes effective in 90 days, allowing more time to negotiate a settlement.

12,000 unusually large orders

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the 68-page order that Morris & Dickson failed to accept full responsibility for its past actions, which included shipping 12,000 unusually large orders of opioids to pharmacies and hospitals between 2014 and 2018. During this time, the company filed just three suspicious order reports with the DEA.

Milgram specifically cited testimony of then-company president Paul Dickson Sr. in 2019 that Morris & Dickson’s compliance program was “dang good,” and he didn’t think a “single person has gotten hurt by [their] drugs.”

“Those statements from the president of a family-owned and -operated company so strongly miss the point of the requirements of a DEA registrant,” she wrote. “Its acceptance of responsibility did not prove that it or its principals understand the full extent of their wrongdoing … and the potential harm it caused.”

Roots go back to 1840

Shreveport, Louisiana-based Morris & Dickson traces its roots to 1840, when its namesake founder arrived from Wales and placed an ad in a local newspaper selling medicines. It has since become the nation’s fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, with $4 billion a year in revenue and nearly 600 employees serving pharmacies and hospitals in 29 states.

In a statement, the company said it has invested millions of dollars over the past few years to revamp its compliance systems and appeared to hold out hope for a settlement.

“Morris & Dickson is grateful to the DEA administrator for delaying the effective date of the order to allow time to settle these old issues,” it said. “We remain confident we can achieve an outcome that safeguards the supply chain for all of our health care partners and the communities they serve. … Business will continue as usual and orders will continue to go out on time.”

Morris & Dickson’s much larger competitors, a trio of pharmaceutical distributors known as the Big Three, have already agreed to pay the federal government more than $1 billion in fines and penalties to settle similar violations. Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson also agreed to pay $21 billion over 18 years to resolve claims as part of a nationwide settlement.

While Morris & Dickson wasn’t the only drug distributor whom the DEA accused of fueling the opioid crisis, it was unique in its willingness to challenge those accusations in the DEA’s administrative court.

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Elon Musk’s Brain Implant Company Says It Has Approval to Begin Human Trials

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Elon Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink says it’s gotten permission from U.S. regulators to begin testing its device in people.

The company made the announcement on Twitter Thursday evening but has provided no details about a potential study, which was not listed on the U.S. government database of clinical trials.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the agency granted the approval, but press officer Carly Kempler said in an email that the FDA “acknowledges and understands” that Musk’s company made the announcement.

Neuralink is one of many groups working on linking the nervous system to computers. The aim is to put into humans a neural-chip implant designed to decode and stimulate brain activity.

Earlier this week, for example, researchers in Switzerland published research in the journal Nature describing an implant that restores communication between the brain and spinal cord to help a man with paralysis to stand and walk naturally. There are more than 30 brain or spine computer interface trials underway, according to clinicaltrials.gov.

Musk – who also owns Twitter and is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX – said last December that his team was in the process of asking regulators to allow them to test the Neuralink device.

The device is about the size of a large coin and is designed to be implanted in the skull, with ultra-thin wires going directly into the brain. Musk has said the first two applications in people would attempt to restore vision and try to help people with little or no ability to operate their muscles rapidly. He also said he envisions that signals from the brain could be bridged to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord for someone with a broken neck.

After Musk made a presentation late last year about the device, Rajesh Rao, co-director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington, said he didn’t think Neuralink was ahead of other teams in terms of brain-computer interface achievements but was “quite ahead” in terms of the hardware in the devices.

It’s unclear how well this device or similar interfaces will ultimately work, or how safe they might be. Neuralink’s interface is considered an “investigational device” at this point, and clinical trials are designed to collect data on safety and effectiveness.

In its tweet this week, Neuralink said that it’s not yet recruiting participants for the study and will provide more information soon.

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Regulators Take Aim at AI to Protect Consumers, Workers

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As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI.

Already, automated systems and algorithms help determine credit ratings, loan terms, bank account fees, and other aspects of our financial lives. AI also affects hiring, housing and working conditions.

Ben Winters, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said a joint statement on enforcement released by federal agencies last month was a positive first step.

“There’s this narrative that AI is entirely unregulated, which is not really true,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Just because you use AI to make a decision, that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from responsibility regarding the impacts of that decision. This is our opinion on this. We’re watching.’”

In the past year, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau said it has fined banks over mismanaged automated systems that resulted in wrongful home foreclosures, car repossessions and lost benefit payments, after the institutions relied on new technology and faulty algorithms.

There will be no “AI exemptions” to consumer protection, regulators say, pointing to these enforcement actions as examples.

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra said the agency has “already started some work to continue to muscle up internally when it comes to bringing on board data scientists, technologists and others to make sure we can confront these challenges” and that the agency is continuing to identify potentially illegal activity.

Representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Justice, as well as the CFPB, all say they’re directing resources and staff to take aim at new tech and identify negative ways it could affect consumers’ lives.

“One of the things we’re trying to make crystal clear is that if companies don’t even understand how their AI is making decisions, they can’t really use it,” Chopra said. “In other cases, we’re looking at how our fair lending laws are being adhered to when it comes to the use of all of this data.”

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act, for example, financial providers have a legal obligation to explain any adverse credit decision. Those regulations likewise apply to decisions made about housing and employment. Where AI make decisions in ways that are too opaque to explain, regulators say the algorithms shouldn’t be used.

“I think there was a sense that, ‘Oh, let’s just give it to the robots and there will be no more discrimination,’” Chopra said. “I think the learning is that that actually isn’t true at all. In some ways the bias is built into the data.”

EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said there will be enforcement against AI hiring technology that screens out job applicants with disabilities, for example, as well as so-called “bossware” that illegally surveils workers.

Burrows also described ways that algorithms might dictate how and when employees can work in ways that would violate existing law.

“If you need a break because you have a disability or perhaps you’re pregnant, you need a break,” she said. “The algorithm doesn’t necessarily take into account that accommodation. Those are things that we are looking closely at. … I want to be clear that while we recognize that the technology is evolving, the underlying message here is the laws still apply and we do have tools to enforce.”

OpenAI’s top lawyer, at a conference this month, suggested an industry-led approach to regulation.

“I think it first starts with trying to get to some kind of standards,” Jason Kwon, OpenAI’s general counsel, told a tech summit in Washington hosted by software industry group BSA. “Those could start with industry standards and some sort of coalescing around that. And decisions about whether or not to make those compulsory, and also then what’s the process for updating them, those things are probably fertile ground for more conversation.”

Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, said government intervention “will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful” AI systems, suggesting the formation of a U.S. or global agency to license and regulate the technology.

While there’s no immediate sign that Congress will craft sweeping new AI rules as European lawmakers are doing, societal concerns brought Altman and other tech CEOs to the White House this month to answer hard questions about the implications of these tools.

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Investment in Solar Will Eclipse Oil in 2023, IEA Finds

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Global investment in clean energy production in 2023 will be significantly larger than investment in fossil fuel-based energy generation, and for the first time, more money will be invested in solar energy than in the oil sector, according to a report issued by the International Energy Agency on Thursday.

The report, World Energy Investment 2023, finds that globally, $2.8 trillion will be invested in energy in 2023, including production, transmission and storage. Of that amount, $1.7 trillion will be invested in clean technology, which the IEA defines as “renewables, electric vehicles, nuclear power, grids, storage, low-emissions fuels, efficiency improvements and heat pumps.”

The estimate for clean energy for 2023 reflects a 24% increase over that for 2021 in a sector expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future, as governments worldwide attempt to meet the internationally agreed-on target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Achieving that goal would allow the world to avoid some of the worst effects of global warming.

‘Moving fast’

While the report shows that the road to a zero-carbon future is long, it also offers the possibility that key interim goals, including total investment targets for 2030, remain achievable.

“Clean energy is moving fast — faster than many people realize,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement accompanying the report. “This is clear in the investment trends, where clean technologies are pulling away from fossil fuels. For every dollar invested in fossil fuels, about 1.7 dollars are now going into clean energy. Five years ago, this ratio was 1-to-1. One shining example is investment in solar, which is set to overtake the amount of investment going into oil production for the first time.”

The report estimates that in 2023, total global investment in solar power technology will be $382 billion, compared with $371 billion invested in oil production. In 2013, the amount invested in oil production was $636 billion, five times larger than the $127 billion invested in solar.

No pandemic slowdown

Nat Bullard, an energy analyst and a senior contributor to BloombergNEF, which provides strategic research on the transition to a low-carbon economy, told VOA that the IEA report was clarifying after a period of complexity in the energy markets.

“We have had, in succession and overlapping, a pandemic, a supply chain crunch, inflation and a very, very large war all going on at once,” he said. “They’ve made long-term trends hard to see because you’ve had a lot of near-term variability.

“What the report highlights, and the IEA has generally been very clear, is that if you look on an evidence basis, during COVID we did not actually see any deceleration in interest in energy transition,” he said. “In the years after that, supply chain disruptions, high prices for hydrocarbons and big conflicts have actually encouraged investment.”

Not evenly distributed

China is far and away the largest single investor in clean energy, plunging $184 billion into the selector in 2022. Taken as a whole, the European Union invested $154 billion in clean energy in 2022.

The U.S. trailed both, with $97 billion invested last year. However, the amount spent by the U.S. in 2023 will likely be significantly larger thanks to passage of legislation last year containing funding for clean energy generation.

Rounding out the top five, Japan invested $28 billion in clean energy; India, $19 billion.

While rising investment in renewable power is good news in the climate-change fight, the IEA points out that it is heavily tilted toward large developed economies, with poorer countries and the Global South, in particular, seeing relatively little investment.

The entire continent of Africa, for example, saw just $10 billion in clean energy investment in 2022.

Electric vehicles and batteries

Two of the fastest-growing segments of the clean energy investment space are electric vehicles (EVs) and batteries that store power generated by clean energy technologies.

In 2023, the IEA estimates that $129 billion will be invested in electric vehicle technology, more than nine times the $14 billion invested just five years earlier. Battery storage will be the target of $37 billion in investment this year, over seven times the $5 billion invested in the sector in 2018.

In both segments, China is leading the way. In 2022, the entire world’s production capacity for lithium-ion batteries, the type most commonly used in EVs, stood at 1.57 terawatt hours. China accounted for 76% of that capacity. By 2030, according to the IEA, that capacity will have ballooned to 6.79 TWh, but China’s dominance will continue, accounting for 68% of the total.

Fossil fuels still growing

While renewables may be attracting more investment dollars than fossil fuels in 2023, the IEA reported that consumption of fossil fuels will continue to rise this year.

Meeting the net-zero goal in 2050 requires a slowing of investment in fossil fuels technology, according to the IEA. According to the report, more than $1 trillion will be invested in fossil fuels in 2023. To meet the agency’s benchmark for progress, that figure would have to be reduced by more than half by 2030.

Conversely, to remain on track, investment in clean energy must continue to grow. The agency estimates that to meet the benchmark for 2030, annual investment will have to grow from $1.7 trillion this year to $4.6 trillion in 2030.

To reach that goal, clean energy spending would have to grow by about 15% every year between now and 2030, somewhat higher than the 11.4% annual growth the sector has experienced over the past three years.

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US Supreme Court Limits Federal Government’s Ability to Police Pollution Into Wetlands

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The Supreme Court on Thursday sharply limited the federal government’s authority to police water pollution into certain wetlands, the second decision in as many years in which a conservative majority narrowed the reach of environmental regulations.

The outcome could threaten efforts to control flooding on the Mississippi River and protect the Chesapeake Bay, among many projects, wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh, breaking with the other five conservatives.

The justices boosted property rights over concerns about clean water in a ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who sought to build a house near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle. Chantell and Michael Sackett objected when federal officials identified a soggy portion of the property as a wetlands that required them to get a permit before filling it with rocks and soil.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that wetlands can only be regulated under the Clean Water Act if they have a “continuous surface connection” to larger, regulated bodies of water. There is no such connection on the Sacketts’ property.

The court jettisoned the 17-year-old opinion by their former colleague, Anthony Kennedy, allowing regulation of what can be discharged into wetlands that could affect the health of the larger waterways.

Kennedy’s opinion covering wetlands that have a “significant nexus” to larger bodies of water had been the standard for evaluating whether permits were required for discharges under the 1972 landmark environmental law.

Opponents had objected that the standard was vague and unworkable.

Environmental advocates said the new standard would strip protections from millions of acres of wetlands across the country.

Reacting to the decision, Manish Bapna, the chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called on Congress to amend the Clean Water Act to restore wetlands protections and on states to strengthen their own laws.

“The Supreme Court ripped the heart out of the law we depend on to protect American waters and wetlands. The majority chose to protect polluters at the expense of healthy wetlands and waterways. This decision will cause incalculable harm. Communities across the country will pay the price,” Bapna said in a statement.

The outcome almost certainly will affect ongoing court battles over new wetlands regulations that the Biden administration put in place in December. Two federal judges have temporarily blocked those rules from being enforced in 26 states.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the Clean Water Act has been responsible for “transformational progress” in cleaning up the nation’s waterways.

“I am disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision that erodes longstanding clean water protections,” he said in a statement.

Damien Schiff, who represented the Sacketts at the Supreme Court, said the decision appropriately narrowed the reach of the law.

“Courts now have a clear measuring stick for fairness and consistency by federal regulators. Today’s ruling is a profound win for property rights and the constitutional separation of powers,” Schiff said in a statement issued by the property rights-focused Pacific Legal Foundation.

In Thursday’s ruling, all nine justices agreed that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property are not covered by the act.

But only five justices joined in the opinion that imposed a new test for evaluating when wetlands are covered by the Clean Water Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and Alito would have adopted the narrower standard in 2006, in the last big wetlands case at the Supreme Court. They were joined Thursday by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justices charged that their colleagues had rewritten that law.

Kavanaugh wrote that the court’s “new and overly narrow test may leave long-regulated and long-accepted-to-be regulable wetlands suddenly beyond the scope of the agencies’ regulatory authority.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority’s rewriting of the act was “an effort to cabin the anti-pollution actions Congress thought appropriate.” Kagan referenced last year’s decision limiting the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

In both cases, she noted, the court had appointed “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.” Kagan was joined in what she wrote by her liberal colleagues Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The Sacketts paid $23,000 for a 0.63-acre lot near Priest Lake in 2005 and started building a three-bedroom home two years later.

They had filled part of the property, described in an appellate ruling as a “soggy residential lot,” with rocks and soil in preparation for construction, when officials with the Environmental Protection Agency showed up and ordered a halt in the work.

They also won an earlier round in their legal fight at the Supreme Court.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the EPA’s determination in 2021, finding that part of the property, 300 feet from the lake and 30 feet from an unnamed waterway that flows into the lake, was wetlands.

The Sacketts’ own consultant had similarly advised them years ago that their property contained wetlands.

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