Japanese Tycoon Takes Off for International Space Station

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A Japanese billionaire and his producer rocketed to space Wednesday as the first self-paying space tourists in more than a decade. 

Fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa and producer Yozo Hirano, who plans to film his mission, blasted off for the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin. 

The trio lifted off as scheduled at 12:38 p.m. (0738 GMT) aboard Soyuz MS-20 from the Russia-leaded Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan. 

Maezawa and Hirano are scheduled to spend 12 days in space. The two will be the first self-paying tourists to visit the space station since 2009. The price of the trip hasn’t been disclosed. 

“I would like to look at the Earth from space. I would like to experience the opportunity to feel weightlessness,” Maezawa said during a pre-flight news conference on Tuesday. “And I also have a personal expectation: I’m curious how the space will change me, how I will change after this space flight.” 

A company that organized the flight said Maezawa compiled a list of 100 things to do in space after asking the public for ideas. The list includes “simple things about daily life to maybe some other fun activities, to more serious questions as well,” Space Adventures President Tom Shelley said. 

“His intention is to try to share the experience of what it means to be in space with the general public,” Shelley told The Associated Press earlier this year. 

Maezawa made his fortune in retail fashion, launching Japan’s largest online fashion mall, Zozotown. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $2 billion. 

The tycoon has also booked a flyby around the moon aboard Elon Musk’s Starship that is tentatively scheduled for 2023. He’ll be joined on that trip by eight contest winners. 

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UN Chief Isolating After COVID-19 Exposure

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was exposed to the coronavirus Tuesday by a U.N. official who already had COVID-19 and is isolating for the next few days, diplomatic sources said. 

Guterres, 72, has canceled his upcoming in-person engagements, sources told AFP. 

The U.N. chief was to be the guest of honor of the U.N. Correspondents Association at its annual gala in New York City on Wednesday. On Thursday, he was to participate in a U.N. Security Council meeting on the challenges of terrorism and climate change, led by Niger President Mohamed Bazoum. 

Bazoum, whose country holds the council presidency, arrived in New York on Tuesday and is expected to stay until the end of the week, when he heads to Washington. 

The spokesperson for the secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, declined to comment immediately on Guterres’ condition. 

Dujarric indicated a few days ago that Guterres had recently received his third dose of the anti-coronavirus vaccine, after having hesitated for a long time about the advisability of receiving booster shots while millions of people throughout the world have yet to receive their first jab.

 

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America Should Prepare for More Omicron Cases, US Health Officials Say

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The omicron variant is making headlines as the world’s newest strain of coronavirus. In the United States, where nearly 200,000 new coronavirus cases were reported Tuesday by Johns Hopkins University, top public health officials warn Americans to stay vigilant even as vaccination rates rise and travelers from countries where the variant was first detected are shut out. 

Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a news briefing on Tuesday that the delta variant accounts for 99% of positive cases sequenced in the United States. She and other members of the White House’s COVID-19 response team asked the public for patience as researchers learn more about the omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa on November 24.

In the U.S., 19 states have reported omicron infections, but that number is expected to rise as Americans continue to grapple with a pandemic that has persisted since the first COVID-19 case was identified in Washington state in January 2020.

“We must act together, in this moment, to address the impact of the current cases we are seeing, which are largely delta, and to prepare ourselves for the possibility of more omicron,” Walensky said. 

The jury is still out on several key questions related to the variant’s transmissibility, severity and ability to evade immune responses, according to Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser. But early data is encouraging, he said. Preliminary evidence from South Africa, where omicron has overtaken delta as the country’s dominant variant, shows shorter hospital visits and reduced need for ventilators.

“It’s too early to be able to determine the precise severity of disease, but … it appears that with the cases that are seen, we have not seen a very severe profile of disease,” Fauci said. “In fact, it might be – and I underscore, might – be less severe.” 

Still, Fauci said many COVID-19 variants demonstrate increased transmissibility, underscoring the interconnectedness of a pandemic where hot spots often expand to engulf larger shares of the population. Omicron may be more transmissible than the delta variant, according to Fauci.

To help fight this, Jeff Zients, the administration’s COVID-19 coordinator, said the U.S. has donated more than 300 million vaccine doses to 110 countries since Biden opened America’s vaccine reserves in June. These efforts join a new program headed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand access and infrastructure in countries where vaccination rates lag. The program, called the Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, pledges $400 million to shore up poorer countries’ vaccine manufacturing and delivery capabilities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Southern African countries have been the subject of recent travel restrictions after researchers in South Africa first discovered the omicron variant. The Biden administration announced November 26 that travelers from eight African countries would be barred from the United States, and on Monday, the CDC began asking travelers passing through U.S. airports to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

“There are lots of unknowns about the transmissibility, the severity, the vaccine impact of omicron,” Zients said. “We understand that this limitation is causing difficulty for those in southern Africa, but we think a temporary limitation on a limited number of countries until we have the answers we need is a reasonable measure for a reasonable period of time.” 

Zients said the administration continues to make progress in vaccinating Americans: Last week, 12.5 million shots were administered, the highest weekly total since May. On Tuesday, 5 million children ages 5 to 11 received at least one dose – a “major milestone in our effort to keep our kids safe and our schools open,” Zients said.

Nearly 61% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University data. CDC data show climbing demand for vaccines as the omicron variant spreads and more age groups become eligible for the shot. Nearly 2.2 million vaccines were administered last Thursday, the highest single-day total in seven months. In the past week, nearly 7 million people received a booster, according to Zients.

Though research is still under way on how effective current vaccines are against the omicron variant, Walensky, Fauci and Zients encouraged Americans to stick with tried-and-true methods of limiting the spread of the coronavirus: testing, contact tracing, physical distancing and masks.

“At a time where there is much uncertainty with omicron, we find ourselves in a far better position now than we were last year,” Walensky said. “We have gained knowledge and experience from addressing other variants, such as delta, and we have far more science, tools and treatment options available.” 

 

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Preliminary Study Suggests Omicron Variant May Be Less Severe Than Other Versions

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As South Africa struggles with a new surge of COVID-19 infections due to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, a new study suggests omicron could be less severe than other forms of the virus.

The New York Times reports doctors at the Steve Biko Academic and Tshwane District Hospital Complex in Pretoria observed 42 patients who had been admitted last week with COVID-19.They found that 29 patients were breathing ordinary air, while four of 13 patients who were using supplemental oxygen were doing so for reasons unrelated to the virus.

Dr. Fareed Abdullah, the director of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis Research at the South African Medical Research Council, told the Times that the 166 coronavirus patients who were admitted to the hospital between November 14 and November 29 had an average hospital stay of 2.8 days, with fewer than 7 percent dying.

In comparison, COVID-19 patients at the hospital over the previous 18 months stayed an average of 8.5 days, with 17 percent dying.

The report also says 80 percent of the 166 patients were under 50 years old, a change from earlier waves of COVID-19 patients, who were older. It says that suggests a high vaccination rate in South Africans over age 50.

Dr. Abdullah cautioned that the study has not been peer-reviewed, and it is not known how many patients were diagnosed with the omicron variant.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases says new coronavirus infections have reached more than 16,000, up dramatically from 2,300 cases reported last Monday.

The NICD says the rapid increase in cases is “unprecedented” in the trajectory of the pandemic, now in its fourth phase in South Africa.

Ian Sanne, an infectious disease specialist who serves on South Africa’s COVID-19 presidential advisory committee, is advising hospitals to prepare for “significant surges” of patients in coming weeks and months, and to make sure they have plenty of oxygen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated France and other nations as “very high” risk for travelers to contract COVID-19.The other nations on the CDC’s “Level 4” list are Andorra, Cyprus, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Portugal and Tanzania. The nations join 78 other destinations the CDC is urging Americans to either avoid or ensure they are fully vaccinated before traveling.

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Three Vaccines Use Other Viruses to Protect Against COVID-19

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More than 5 million people worldwide have had their lives cut short by COVID-19, and the number keeps rising as many countries experience another wave of transmission. 

The best defense against this disease is a vaccine, experts say.   

Since the outbreak was first reported in 2019, the best scientists all over the world have been working on a vaccine to protect against SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The acronym stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” to distinguish it from the first SARS outbreak in 2003. 

Historically, when scientists make vaccines, they have used a live virus that is so weak it can’t reproduce, or they use a dead virus. When these weakened or inactive viruses are injected into the body, the body recognizes them as intruders, produces antibodies and fights them off.  

Polio vaccines have used both weakened live viruses as well as dead ones with enormous success. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative reports that polio cases were reduced by 99.9% between 1988, when the global effort to eliminate polio was started, and 2021. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that without the global polio vaccination program, more than 18 million people who are currently healthy would have been paralyzed by the virus. 

As of December 6, three children in the entire world have contracted the wild polio virus in 2021. 

Three of the vaccines developed against COVID-19 are vector vaccines. A vector is simply a delivery system. In this case, scientists use an adenovirus — a cold virus, for example — to deliver a fragment of the coronavirus. The fragment is a gene from a spike on the crown of the coronavirus. This trains the body to fight off any other similar infections, including COVID-19. 

The spike cannot infect someone with the coronavirus.  

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine uses a chimpanzee virus, not a human one. The Johnson & Johnson and Sputnik V vaccines use human adenoviruses. J&J uses a rare adenovirus. Sputnik V uses the same virus in its first dose. In its second dose, Sputnik V uses a common adenovirus that some people might be immune to. For this reason, many scientists are concerned that Sputnik V may not be an effective vaccine. 

Once injected, the viruses enter the cells and start to produce the spike protein, but not COVID-19. Then, the body mounts an attack.  

Dr. Andrea Cox, a professor with a specialty in immunology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says our bodies don’t just mount an immune response to the adenovirus, but they also produce an immune response to the spike protein from the coronavirus. In this way, the body learns to fight off the coronavirus if it sees it again.  

The World Health Organization has authorized use of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines but not Sputnik V. The WHO says it needs more data from the Sputnik V trials.  

Cox says the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are preferred because they have been given to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Scientists have more information about their side effects and their immune responses than Sputnik V’s simply because Sputnik has been used far less frequently and there are fewer international studies that have assessed it.  

Another issue with Sputnik V, Cox says, is “that the data are not showing the kinds of efficacy rates that we would like to see in a vaccine.”  

Some scientists expect COVID-19 to be with us for three to four years. But even with the best scientists in the world working on vaccines, they are concerned that as the virus continues to infect unvaccinated people and mutate, at some point, the vaccines we have now won’t be able to offer full protection against COVID-19. 

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Nobel Prizes Awarded in Pandemic-Curtailed Local Ceremonies

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Three 2021 Nobel Prize laureates said Monday that climate change is the biggest threat facing the world — yet they remain optimistic — as this year’s winners began receiving their awards at scaled-down local ceremonies adapted for pandemic times. 

For a second year, COVID-19 has scuttled the traditional formal banquet in Stockholm attended by winners of the prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and economics, which were announced in October. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded separately in Oslo, Norway. 

Literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah was first to get his prize in a lunchtime ceremony Monday at the Swedish ambassador’s grand Georgian residence in central London.

Ambassador Mikaela Kumlin Granit said the U.K.-based Tanzanian author had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” 

“Customarily you would receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty, the king of Sweden,” she told Gurnah at the ceremony attended by friends, family and colleagues. “However, this year you will be celebrated with a distance forced upon us because of the pandemic.” 

Gurnah, who grew up on the island of Zanzibar and arrived in England as an 18-year-old refugee in the 1960s, has drawn on his experiences for 10 novels, including “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way,” “Afterlives” and “Paradise.” He has said migration is “not just my story — it’s a phenomenon of our times.” 

Italian physics laureate Giorgio Parisi was receiving his prize at a ceremony in Rome. U.S.-based physics laureate Syukuro Manabe, chemistry laureate David W.C. MacMillan and economic sciences laureate Joshua D. Angrist will be given their medals and diplomas in Washington. 

MacMillan, German physics prize winner Klaus Hasselmann and economics prize winner Guido Imbens, who is Dutch but lives in the United States, had a joint virtual news conference Monday where they were asked what they consider the biggest problem facing humanity and what they worry about most. All three answered climate change, with Imbens calling it the world’s “overarching problem.” 

“Climate change is something which is clearly going to have a large impact on society,” MacMillan said. “But at the same time given the science, given the call to arms amongst scientists, I really feel more optimism. And I feel there’s a real moment happening with scientists moving towards trying to solve this problem.” 

“I would bet on that fact that we would solve this problem,” MacMillan said. 

Hasselmann, whose work on climate change won him the prize, said he’s more hopeful because the world’s youth and movements like Fridays for the Future “have picked up the challenge and are getting across the message to the public that we have to act and respond to the problem.”

Hasselmann said he’s more optimistic now about climate change than 20 or 30 years ago. 

Imbens said he also is disturbed that misinformation, especially about COVID-19 and vaccines, is splitting society apart. He recalled growing up in the Netherlands and nearly everyone agreed on the need for the polio vaccine. 

“And yet, here we don’t seem to have found a way of making these decisions that we can all live with,” Imbens said. “And that’s clearly made it much harder to deal with the pandemic.” 

More ceremonies will be held throughout the week in Germany and the United States. On Friday — the anniversary of the death of prize founder Albert Nobel — there will be a celebratory ceremony at Stockholm City Hall for a local audience, including King Carl XVI Gustav and senior Swedish royals. 

A Nobel Prize comes with a diploma, a gold medal and a $1.5 million (10-million krona) cash award, which is shared if there are multiple winners. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo because Nobel wanted it that way, for reasons he kept to himself. A ceremony is due to be held there Friday for the winners — journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia. 

The Norwegian news agency NTB said the festivities would be scaled down, with fewer guests and participants required to wear face masks. Norway has seen an uptick in cases of the new omicron variant, and a spokesman for the Norwegian Nobel Committee told NTB it was “in constant contact with the health authorities in Oslo.” 

 

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NASA: New Software Assesses Threats from Asteroids More Accurately

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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the U.S. space agency, NASA, says it has new software that will allow its Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) to better assess potential threats posed by asteroids that can come close to Earth. 

In a press release on Monday, NASA astronomers said they have upgraded their impact software, called Sentry, with its next generation, Sentry-II, to better evaluate near-Earth asteroid (NEA) impact probabilities. 

NASA said to date, almost 28,000 NEAs have been found by survey telescopes that continuously scan the sky, making about 3,000 new discoveries per year. But with better technology and newer, bigger telescopes scheduled to come online, that number is expected to multiply quickly, necessitating the software upgrade. 

Contrary to what some might believe, asteroids are extremely predictable celestial bodies that obey the laws of physics and follow knowable orbital paths around the sun, NASA scientists say. Sometimes, when those paths bring those objects closer to Earth’s future position in space, uncertainties in the asteroids’ path raise the possibility of a collision with Earth. 

Navigation engineer Javier Roa Vicens, who had led the development of Sentry-II while working at JPL and recently moved to SpaceX, said the first generation of Sentry was “very capable.” He said that in less than an hour, it could produce the impact probability for a newly discovered asteroid for the next 100 years, what he called “an incredible feat.” 

But JPL scientists say the Sentry-II software can rapidly calculate impact probabilities for all known NEAs, including some special cases not captured by the original Sentry. For example, its calculations consider how the sun’s heat and Earth’s own gravity affect the trajectory of asteroids. 

The scientists say that by systematically calculating impact probabilities in this new way, the impact monitoring system is more robust, enabling NASA to confidently assess all potential impacts with odds as low as a few chances in 10 million. 

Since 2002, the JPL-managed CNEOS, at its headquarters in Southern California, has calculated every known NEA orbit to improve impact hazard assessments in support of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

 

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Oysters as Ocean’s Friends

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Rick Levin is trying to keep the waters of Chesapeake Bay clean by building oyster reefs. VOA’s Zdenko Novacki visits him in Pasadena, Maryland, to learn how oysters filter water and about the benefits of oyster reefs for the environment and other marine life. 

Camera: Philip Alexiou, Zdenko Novacki  Produced by: Zdenko Novacki

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COVID-19 Disruptions Linked to Rise in Malaria Infections, Deaths

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The World Health Organization reports a significant rise in malaria cases and deaths in 2020 due to COVID-19 disruptions in malaria services.

Over the past two decades, global malaria death rates have been cut in half, saving the lives of 10.6 million people. New data gathered by the WHO show COVID-19 has stopped and even reversed the progress made in reducing deaths from this preventable, treatable disease.

The WHO’s World Malaria Report estimates 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria deaths globally have occurred in 2020.This represents an increase of 14 million cases and 69,000 deaths compared to the previous year. WHO links the increase to disruptions of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment services during the pandemic.

Director of WHO’s Global Malaria Program, Pedro Alonso, said the situation could have been far worse. The good news, he said is that the predicted doomsday scenario did not transpire. He notes gloomy projections made in March 2020 of a huge spike in malaria have not materialized.

“One worst case scenario implied a doubling of malaria deaths. So, let me reiterate this, that is not the case. We can call this a success story, even though an extra 47,000 people have died as a consequence of the disruptions,” said Alonso.

The report finds progress in the global fight against malaria remains uneven.

Between 2000 and 2020, WHO has certified 12 countries as being malaria-free. Two countries, China and El Salvador, have achieved this status in 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Since 2015, both cases and deaths have stalled in most of the world’s 93 endemic countries and territories. However, other figures show malaria cases have increased in 32 countries, most in Sub-Saharan Africa and some in South America.

Alonso said the situation remains especially precarious in Africa, where the malaria burden remains unacceptably high. He notes Africa accounts for about 96 percent of global deaths, 80 percent among children under age five.

“At the same time, the pandemic is not over, and the pace of economic recovery is uncertain. Without immediate and accelerated action key 2030 targets of the WHO Global technical strategy will be missed, and additional ground may be lost,” he said.

WHO’s strategy calls for a 90-percent reduction in malaria cases and deaths by 2030.It also presses for the elimination of malaria in at least 35 countries and for the prevention of disease resurgence in all countries that are malaria-free. 

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Scientist Behind UK Vaccine Says Next Pandemic May Be Worse

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One of the scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is warning that the next pandemic may be more contagious and more lethal unless more money is devoted to research and preparations to fight emerging viral threats.

In excerpts released before a speech Monday, Professor Sarah Gilbert says the scientific advances made in fighting deadly viruses “must not be lost” because of the cost of fighting the current pandemic.

“This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods,” Gilbert is expected to say. “The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”

Gilbert is scheduled to make the remarks Monday night when she delivers this year’s Richard Dimbleby lecture, named after the late broadcaster who was the BBC’s first war correspondent and a pioneer of television news in Britain. The annual televised lecture features addresses by influential figures in business, science and government.

Gilbert is set to call on governments to redouble their commitment to scientific research and pandemic preparedness, even after the threat of COVID-19 wanes.

“We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness,” she said. “The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.”

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Stuck Jet Stream, La Nina Causing Weird Weather

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America’s winter wonderland is starting out this season as anything but traditional. 

The calendar says December, but for much of the country, temperatures beckon for sandals. Umbrellas, if not arks, are needed in the Pacific Northwest, while snow shovels are gathering cobwebs in the Rockies. 

Meteorologists attribute the latest batch of record-shattering weather extremes to a stuck jet stream and the effects of a La Nina weather pattern from cooling waters in the equatorial Pacific.

It’s still fall astronomically, but winter starts December 1 for meteorologists. This year, no one told the weather that. 

On Thursday, 65 weather stations across the nation set record high temperature marks for December 2, including Springfield, Missouri, hitting 24 Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and Roanoke, Virginia, 22 Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit). Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Billings, Montana, broke long-time high-temperature records by 6 degrees. 

Parts of Canada and Montana have seen their highest December temperatures in recorded history. On Friday, parts of South Carolina and Georgia hit record highs. 

In Washington state, Seattle, Bellingham and Quillayute all set 90-day fall records for rainfall. Bellingham was doused by nearly 60 centimeters (nearly 24 inches) of rain. The Olympic and Cascade mountains got hit harder, with more than 127 centimeters (50 inches) in three months, according to the National Weather Service. Forks, Washington, received more rain in 90 days than Las Vegas gets in 13 years.

On top of that, there is a blizzard warning on Hawaii’s Big Island summits with up to 30.5 centimeters (12 inches) of snow expected and wind gusts of more than 161 kilometers per hour (100 miles per hour). 

Meantime, snow has gone missing in Colorado. Before this year, the latest first measurable snowfall on record in Denver was November 21, in 1934. There’s a slight possibility of snow Monday night, according to the weather service. Yet, with no snow since April 22, this is the third-longest stretch the city has gone without it.

Stationary stream

One big factor: The jet stream — the river of air that moves weather from west to east on a roller coaster-like path — has just been stuck. That means low pressure on one part of the stream is bringing rain to the Pacific Northwest, while high pressure hovering over about two-thirds of the nation produces dry and warmer weather, said Brian Hurley, a senior meteorologist at the weather service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. 

If the jet stream moves more or bends differently, rain and other extreme weather won’t be as concentrated, Hurley said.

This is a typical weather pattern with a natural La Nina weather oscillation, he said. The flip side of El Nino, a La Nina is a cooling of parts of the central Pacific Ocean that changes weather patterns across the globe. La Ninas tend to bring more rain to the Pacific Northwest and make the South drier and warmer. 

These bouts of extreme weather happen more frequently as the world warms, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground who now works at Yale Climate Connections.

In Boulder, Colorado, meteorologist Bob Henson enjoyed a rare December bike ride on Thursday.

Still, “there’s a lot of angst about the lack of snow,” he said. “It puts you in a psychic quandary. You enjoy the warm weather while keeping in mind it’s not good for Earth to be warming.” 

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Cameroon Launches Vaccination Campaign to Contain Measles Outbreak

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Cameroon has begun a measles vaccination drive on its northern border with Nigeria after several dozen children were found with the infection at a demobilization center. Cameroon says most of those infected are children of former fighters fleeing Boko Haram terrorism.

A mother comforts her 13-month-old baby in Kanuri, a language spoken in Meri, a commercial town on Cameroon’s northern border with Nigeria. The 24-year-old mother says she hopes her child’s life will be saved after inoculation against measles, as promised by vaccination agents deployed to her town.

Prosper Essomba is the Cameroon government’s chief medical officer in Meri. He is supervising a vaccination campaign launched Friday against measles.

Essomba says he first inoculated his 1-year-old son to convince people that vaccination will protect their children from a measles outbreak. He says about 100 vaccination teams have been deployed in all villages around Meri to vaccinate all children with ages from 6 months to 9 years against measles and rubella. Essomba says about 67,000 children are targeted in the weeklong free vaccination campaign.  

Essomba said vaccination teams have been sent to the Disarmament and Demobilization center in Meri. He said children of all people fleeing from Boko Haram strongholds on the border with Nigeria should be inoculated.

Yaya Ali, the highest government official in Meri says he asked the government of Cameroon to immediately organize vaccinations when more than a dozen cases of measles were detected in Meri within a week. He says the first measles case was reported in a 4-year-old child at the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Center at Meri. He says it is imperative for everyone to make sure that all children in Meri are protected by receiving the measles, mumps and rubella or MMR vaccine.    

Ali said besides vaccinating children against measles and rubella, inoculation teams verify vaccination cards to make sure parents are keeping up with the vaccination schedules of their children. Essomba said it is important to administer all missed vaccine doses as soon as it is feasible. 

Cameroon says several dozen measles infections have been reported within the past two weeks in nine other hospitals in Cameroon’s Far North region, where Meri is located. The government says many more people may be infected, since less than 30% of the population visits conventional health facilities.  

Cameroon reports that 79 of its 190 district hospitals were affected by measles epidemics in 2020, with about 1,500 confirmed measle infections. The country’s Public Health Ministry  says 74% of the confirmed cases were in people who were not vaccinated.

Health officials say when COVID-19 was reported in the central African state in March 2020 parents were afraid to take their children to hospitals for vaccinations since hospitals are also COVID-19 test and treatment centers.

Measles is a disease caused by a highly contagious virus that is spread through the air by breathing, coughing, or sneezing.

However, the World Health Organization says two injections of vaccine can prevent measles. The WHO says the vaccine is safe and effective and has been in use since the 1960s. 

Cameroon’s last major measles outbreak was reported from February 2010 to July 2011. 

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Botswana Gets WHO Award for Mother-to-Child HIV Prevention Milestone

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The World Health Organization has recognized Botswana for its efforts to prevent the transmission of HIV from expectant mothers to unborn children. Officials say no children born to HIV-positive mothers this year had the virus.

WHO awarded Botswana the ‘silver tier’ status this week; The silver tier certification is given to countries that have lowered the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate to under five percent and provided prenatal care and anti-retroviral treatment to more than 90 percent of pregnant women.

Botswana has achieved the WHO’s target of an HIV case rate of fewer than 500 per 100,000 live births.

WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti, in awarding the certificate in Gaborone on Thursday, said Botswana has demonstrated that an AIDS free generation is possible.

“I want to applaud, this is huge accomplishment by Botswana, which we know has one of the most severe HIV epidemics. This achievement demonstrates that an HIV/AIDS free generation is possible. It also marks an important step towards ending AIDS across the entire continent. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrates the remarkable progress that can be achieved when the needs of mothers living with HIV and their children, are prioritized.”

Botswana has the world’s fourth highest HIV prevalence but has made strides in fighting the virus.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi says the award recognizes the country’s progress towards an HIV-free generation.

“The award is given to Botswana and Batswana as testimony for the success of our efforts as a country in the path to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. We are excited by this development because we have been battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic for many years. The award therefore, which is the first to be awarded to an African country, demonstrates that our efforts have not been in vain,” Masisi said. Also noting that HIV rate significantly decreased from 37.4 percent in 2003 to 18.4 percent in 2019.

HIV-positive young women, like Tlotlo Moilwa, say the country is on a reassuring path.

“The reasons that drive this change is that the moment a woman is pregnant, they are also tested for HIV and if the result is positive, at that very moment, they enroll for prevention of mother-to-child transmission. This means they cannot infect the unborn baby or even during birth,” Moilwa expressed.

With the country making strides in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmissions, Moilwa says the future is much brighter for her and other HIV-positive women.

“I see a huge change for our future. If you look at the youth living with HIV at the moment, a lot of them got infected at birth. If right now babies are born HIV negative, it means that there will not be HIV positive young people in the future if we are to take care of ourselves.”

According to WHO, 15 countries globally, have been certified for eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission, but none had an epidemic as large as Botswana. 

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Fauci: About Two-Week Wait Before Omicron Threat Is Known

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White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci said Friday it should be about two weeks before scientists fully understand how transmissible and severe the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 truly is, and until then, people need to get vaccinations and booster shots. 

During a briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team, Fauci said South African researchers are leading the way but even their studies will take another week or two to get clinical data. The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa and there are more and longer-term cases to study there, he said. 

The White House response team repeated a message delivered earlier this week by President Joe Biden, that omicron is a variant of concern. Fauci presented new data showing both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are markedly boosting antibodies and stressed the need for people to get vaccinated. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said her agency is working with health departments across the United States to help them quickly conduct the genome sequencing necessary to isolate and identify the omicron variant. She said the CDC is far more effective at this process than it was earlier this year. 

Walensky stressed that while the focus is on the omicron variant, the delta variant of the virus is dominant in the U.S. and responsible for 99.9 percent of all cases in the country, especially among the unvaccinated.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters that 2.2 million vaccinations – including more than one million boosters – were administered in the U.S. on Thursday, the highest single-day total since May.

Zients said Biden has outlined areas where his administration is taking action to address the potential threat posed by the omicron variant, including vaccinations and boosters for adults, getting kids vaccinated, providing free home testing kits, strengthening travel rules and getting the rest of the world vaccinated.

To the last point, Zients said the U.S. has donated 1.2 billion doses of vaccine for global distribution, more than all other nations combined. Friday alone, he said, the U.S. shipped 11 million doses of vaccine, nine million of which were designated for Africa. 

 

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New Zealand Introduces New COVID-19 Management System

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New Zealand will adopt what is being called a “traffic light” system to curb the spread of COVID-19 and limit the use of lockdowns.

New Zealand’s planned traffic light system has red, amber and green categories, and gives more freedoms to the fully vaccinated. The biggest city, Auckland, is a red zone, mainly because of its high number of COVID-19 cases. Residents there are allowed into cafes, gyms and hairdressers, but there are limits on capacity and proof of vaccination is mandatory.

Much of the country is under the less stringent amber traffic light. The settings will be reviewed in two weeks.

Michael Baker, a public health and epidemiology professor at the University of Otago in Wellington, said the new system is designed to boost vaccination rates.

“There is a band across the central North Island of districts with relatively low vaccine coverage,” he said. “They are automatically going into the red-light classification. This system has two main purposes. One is really to limit transmission of the virus, so it means that if you are indoors, you are indoors with other vaccinated people. But the other thing it does it is sending a very strong message to the unvaccinated, a very strong nudge — you need to get vaccinated. So, I think it will be effective at doing that.”

New Zealand’s Health Ministry estimates that about 86% of the eligible population has received two vaccine doses.

New Zealand has had some of the world’s toughest pandemic controls.

The country’s international borders are expected to remain closed to most foreign nationals until well into next year.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the omicron variant is a reminder of why New Zealand needs to maintain its “careful approach” to the virus.

With 5 million people, the South Pacific country has recorded 12,000 coronavirus cases and 44 deaths since the pandemic began.

The traffic light system replaces previous coronavirus alert levels. A recent delta variant outbreak forced New Zealand government to abandon its COVID-zero strategy in favor of a strategy that prioritizes containment. The previous approach was designed to eliminate the virus in New Zealand through border closures and strict lockdowns. 

 

 

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Multiple Cases of Omicron Variant Detected In New York City

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Multiple cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota.

In addition to the conventioneer, tests showed five other people recently infected with COVID-19 had the variant, health officials said. They included a person in the city’s Long Island suburbs who had recently traveled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens, and another case possibly linked to travel.

“No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it,” said Governor Kathy Hochul.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the geographic spread of the positive tests suggested the variant was undergoing “community spread” in the city and wasn’t linked to any one event.

The news came a day after the U.S. announced its first case of the variant had been detected in California, in a person who had recently traveled to South Africa.

Officials reported another case Thursday in a Colorado woman who had recently traveled to southern Africa.

The Anime NYC 2021 convention Nov. 19-21 drew about 50,000 people, according to event organizers, and attendees were required to wear masks and show proof of having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Officials in New York said they were working to trace attendees of the convention, which was held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center as New York City prepared to host the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and braced for throngs of tourists to return after the U.S. opened up to vaccinated international travelers.

Infections were expected

Officials in the city of 8.8 million said they expected it would be only a matter of time before the new variant was reported in the city. City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi urged people who attended the event to get tested.

“We should assume there is community spread of the variant in our city,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The Minnesota man began experiencing mild symptoms Nov. 22. He had been vaccinated and received a booster shot in early November, according to health officials in his home state. He sought COVID-19 testing Nov. 24, and his symptoms have subsided, officials said.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the man had not traveled outside the U.S. recently.

“Just given the timing … it seems quite possible, perhaps the most likely, that this transmission happened at the arena convention in New York City, but that’s not definitive,” Malcolm said.

Nov. 22 was the same day the person infected in the California case returned to the U.S. from South Africa. The California traveler, who was vaccinated, developed mild symptoms and tested positive Monday.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

Omicron is classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” as scientists work to determine how it may compare with the predominant delta variant in terms of transmissibility and severity. Scientists also are studying the degree to which existing vaccines and therapies protect against omicron.

Scientists in South Africa first reported it, but the samples came from several countries in southern Africa. And health officials in the Netherlands now say it was found there prior to the South Africa detection.

‘Get vaccinated’

As comfort over air travel returns, it’s inevitable that new variants like omicron will spread from country to country and state to state, said professor Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

“We shouldn’t panic, but we should be concerned,” she said.

Hochul said the case involving the Minnesota visitor underlined the need for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or receive a booster shot if they have not already.

“There is one way to address this — New Yorkers, get vaccinated, get boosted, and get ready,” the Democrat said.

Japan’s consul general in New York, Kanji Yamanouchi, delivered the opening remarks at the convention.

A spokesperson for the consulate said Yamanouchi was vaccinated and received a booster shot about three weeks ago. He said staffers at the consulate underwent testing as a precaution.

“He had absolutely no problem in his health condition,” said the consulate’s spokesperson, Kenju Murakami, noting Thursday it had been nearly two weeks.

A website for the convention says that Anime NYC is mounted by Leftfield Media, an event company based in Shelton, Connecticut. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Peter Tatara, its founder and event director, referred questions to company spokespeople. He said he had been tested “multiple times” since the event.

New York City Council Ben Kallos, who appeared at the event with the Japanese ambassador, said a rapid antigen test taken Thursday showed he was negative for the virus.

“I can attest to the fact that my vaccine was checked and I got a wristband, and the person who tested positive for omicron was also fully vaccinated,” Kallos said, urging his “fellow anime fans” to get tested. “So it goes to show you, even when you follow all the precautions, we’re still seeing breakthrough cases.” 

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