Month: February 2021

Spacewalking Astronauts Prep Station for New Solar Wings

Spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year.NASA’s Kate Rubins and Victor Glover put the first set of mounting brackets and struts together, then bolted them into place next to the station’s oldest and most degraded solar wings. But the work took longer than expected, and they barely got started on the second set before calling it quits.Rubins will finish the job during a second spacewalk later this week.The spacewalkers had to lug out hundreds of pounds of mounting brackets and struts in 2.5-meter (8-foot) duffel-style bags. The equipment was so big and awkward that it had to be taken apart like furniture, just to get through the hatch.Some of the attachment locations required extra turns of the power drill and still weren’t snug enough, as indicated by black lines. The astronauts had to use a ratchet wrench to deal with the more stubborn bolts, which slowed them down. At one point, they were two hours behind.”Whoever painted this black line painted outside the lines a little bit,” Glover said at one particularly troublesome spot.”We’ll work on our kindergarten skills over here,” Mission Control replied, urging him to move on.With more people and experiments flying on the space station, more power will be needed to keep everything running, according to NASA. The six new solar panels — to be delivered in pairs by SpaceX over the coming year or so — should boost the station’s electrical capability by as much as 30%.Rubins and Glover tackled the struts for the first two solar panels, set to launch in June. Their spacewalk ended up lasting seven hours, a bit longer than planned.”Really appreciate your hard work. I know there were a lot of challenges,” Mission Control radioed.The eight solar panels up there now are 12 to 20 years old — most of them past their design lifetime and deteriorating. Each panel is 34 meters (112 feet) long by 12 meters (39 feet) wide. Tip to tip counting the center framework, each pair stretches 73 meters (240 feet) longer than a Boeing 777’s wingspan.Boeing is supplying the new roll-up panels, about half the size of the old ones but just as powerful thanks to the latest solar cell technology. They’ll be placed at an angle above the old ones, which will continue to operate.A prototype was tested at the space station in 2017.Rubins’ helmet featured a new high-definition camera that provided stunning views, particularly those showing the vivid blue Earth 435 kilometers (270 miles) below.  “Pretty fantastic,” observed Mission Control.Sunday’s spacewalk was the third for infectious disease specialist Rubins and Navy pilot Glover — both of whom could end up flying to the moon.They’re among 18 astronauts newly assigned to NASA’s Artemis moon-landing program. The next moonwalkers will come from this group.Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris put in a congratulatory call to Glover, the first African American astronaut to live full time at the space station. NASA released the video exchange Saturday.”The history making that you are doing, we are so proud of you,” Harris said. Like other firsts, Glover replied, it won’t be the last. “We want to make sure that we can continue to do new things,” he said.Rubins will float back out Friday with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to wrap up the solar panel prep work and to vent and relocate ammonia coolant hoses.Glover and Noguchi were among four astronauts arriving via SpaceX in November. Rubins launched from Kazakhstan in October alongside two Russians. They’re all scheduled to return to Earth this spring.

FDA Approves Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Use in US

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally authorized the use of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine Saturday, clearing the way for shots to go into arms as early as Monday.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 85% effective against serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data from a study that spanned three continents. The shot kept its protection even in the countries where the South African variant is spreading.The one-and-done inoculation has been eagerly awaited by health officials who want to speed vaccinations in a race against the coronavirus and its worrisome mutations. As of Saturday evening, more than 28.5 million Americans have had COVID-19 and nearly 512,000 have died from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Biden: Don’t let upPresident Joe Biden praised the “exciting news for all Americans” in a statement Saturday evening but urged Americans not to let their “guard down now.”“I want to be clear: This fight is far from over,” he said. “I urge all Americans — keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced and keep wearing masks. As I have said many times, things are still likely to get worse again as new variants spread, and the current improvement could reverse.”An FDA advisory panel unanimously endorsed the vaccine Friday, paving the way for the agency’s authorization.Edmond Lomas III receives his COVID-19 vaccination at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit, Feb. 27, 2021.The one-dose vaccine is the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA, after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.By the end of March, Johnson & Johnson has said it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer, The Associated Press reported. Johnson & Johnson is also seeking authorization for emergency use of its vaccine in Europe and from the World Health Organization.Auckland lockdownIn New Zealand, residents of Auckland, a city of nearly 2 million people, began a seven-day lockdown Sunday, the second in the month since the more contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus emerged there.Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the lockdown Saturday because of a person who was infectious for a week but had not isolated.”It is more than likely there will be additional cases in the community,” Ardern told a press conference Sunday, although no new cases had been recorded.New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people, identified its first COVID-19 case on February 29, 2020, and since then has seen almost 2,400 cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins data. 
Japan reported 329 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, slightly down from 337 a day earlier, according to national broadcaster NHK. FILE – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks at the Hallam Conference Centre in London, Dec. 18, 2019.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress said in a study that the pandemic had provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.In Russia, the coronavirus crisis center confirmed 11,359 new coronavirus cases on Sunday and 379 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of infections in the country stands at 4,246,079 to date and the death toll at 86,122. Elsewhere, the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, has tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement comes a week before Pope Francis’ March 5-9 trip to the country. Leskovar, whose title is apostolic nuncio, said in a statement that he was experiencing only light symptoms so far. “This is not going to influence the pope’s program, which is going on as planned,” he said. 
France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. A Nice resident and her dog go for a bike ride during virus-related confinement in Nice, southern France, Feb. 27, 2021. Nice and the surrounding coastal area will be under weekend lockdowns for at least two weeks.France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions at the beginning of March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. The Czech government announced tighter restrictions beginning March 1. In Latin America, new containment measures were imposed in several Brazilian cities and states. The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28.5 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10.5 million.   

At Bicoastal Globes on Sunday, ‘Borat’ Could Triumph

When drained of glamour, what’s left of the Golden Globes?That’s one of the biggest questions heading into the 78th annual awards on Sunday night. The show, postponed two months from its usual early-January perch, will have little of what makes the Globes one of the frothiest and glitziest events of the year. Due to the pandemic, there will be no parade of stars down the red carpet outside the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. Its hosts, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, will be on different sides of the country.More than any award show, the Globes revel in being an intimate banquet of stars. When the show begins at 8 p.m. EST on NBC, with Poehler in Beverly Hills and Fey in New York’s Rainbow Room, the circumstances will test the Globes telecast like never before.Presenters will include Awkwafina, Joaquin Phoenix, Kristen Wiig, Tiffany Haddish, Margot Robbie and Angela Bassett. At least some of them will be present at one of the two locations. Pre-show coverage is still going forward on E! beginning at 4 p.m. EST and on NBC beginning at 7 p.m. EST. The telecast will be streamed on NBC’s website with a television-provider log-in, as well as on the Roku Channel, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV, Sling TV and Fubo TV.Lack of diversityBut pandemic improvising is only part of the damage control the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which puts on the Globes, finds itself dealing with this year. A pair of extensive reports by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in the week leading up to the awards renewed scrutiny on the press association and its 87 voting members.While the HFPA has long been known as an organization with members of questionable qualification — most of its members don’t write for well-known publications — and are known for being swayed by high-priced junkets, the reports again forced the HFPA to defend itself.Among the most damning details was the revelation that there are no Black voting members in the group, something that only reinforced criticism that the press association — which host Ricky Gervais last year called “very, very racist” in his opening monologue — needs overhauling. This year, none of the most acclaimed Black-led films — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Da 5 Bloods — were nominated for the Globes’ best picture award.In a statement, the HFPA said it would make “an action plan” to change. “We understand that we need to bring in Black members, as well as members from other underrepresented backgrounds,” the group said.For some, none of the revelations were surprising. Ava DuVernay tweeted in response to the Los Angeles Times article: “Reveals? As in, people are acting like this isn’t already widely known? For YEARS?”Two-time nominee Sterling K. Brown, who’s presenting Sunday, said in an Instagram post that “having a multitude of Black presenters does not absolve you of your lack of diversity.”“87 people wield a tremendous amount of power,” said Brown. “For any governing body of a current Hollywood award show to have such a lack of voting representation illustrates a level of irresponsibility that should not be ignored.”42 nominations for NetflixYet the Globes have persisted because of their popularity (the show ranks as the third most-watched award show, after the Oscars and Grammys), their profitability (NBC paid $60 million for broadcast rights in 2018) and because they serve as important marketing material for contending films and Oscar hopefuls. That may be especially true this year when the pandemic has upset the normal rhythms of buzz in a virtual awards season lacking the usual frenzy.The Globes are happening on the original date of the Academy Awards, which are instead to be held April 25.Netflix comes in with a commanding 42 nominations, including a leading six nods for David Fincher’s Mank and The Crown also topping TV nominees with six nods. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, also from Netflix, is also a heavyweight with five nominations.Chloe Zhao, the Nomadland filmmaker and Oscar frontrunner, is expected to become the first woman of Asian descent to win best director at the Globes and the first woman since Barbra Streisand won for Yentl in 1984.Chadwick Boseman, nominated for best actor for his performance in the August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, could win a posthumous Golden Globe. Boseman is widely expected to be nominated for an Oscar.And Borat Subsequent Moviefilm stands a good chance of being crowned best picture, comedy or musical. With many of the leading nominees in the drama category — among them Mank, Nomadland, The Father, Promising Young Woman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — Sacha Baron Cohen’s sequel could emerge a big winner. Cohen, who won a Globe for his performance in the first Borat film, is nominated for Borat and for his role in The Trial of the Chicago 7.Jane Fonda, a seven-time Globe winner, will receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Norman Lear will be honored for his television career and accept an award named after Carol Burnett.

Archaeologists Find Intact Ceremonial Chariot Near Pompeii 

Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site in Italy announced Saturday the discovery of an intact ceremonial chariot, one of several important discoveries made in the same area outside the park near Naples following an investigation into an illegal dig.The chariot, with its iron elements, bronze decorations and mineralized wooden remains, was found in the ruins of a settlement north of Pompeii, beyond the walls of the ancient city, parked in the portico of a stable where the remains of three horses previously were discovered.The Archaeological Park of Pompeii called the chariot “an exceptional discovery” and said “it represents a unique find — which has no parallel in Italy thus far — in an excellent state of preservation.”A detail of the decoration of a chariot that was found in Civita Giuliana, north of Pompeii. Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site near Naples announced its discovery Feb. 27, 2021.The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed Pompeii. The chariot was spared when the walls and roof of the structure it was in collapsed, and also survived looting by modern-day antiquities thieves, who had dug tunnels through to the site, grazing but not damaging the four-wheeled cart, according to park officials.The chariot was found on the grounds of what is one of the most significant ancient villas in the area around Vesuvius, with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea, on the outskirts of the ancient Roman city.Archaeologists last year found in the same area on the outskirts of Pompeii, Civita Giulian, the skeletal remains of what are believed to have been a wealthy man and his male slave, attempting to escape death.The chariot’s first iron element emerged January 7 from the blanket of volcanic material filling the two-story portico. Archaeologists believe the cart was used for festivities and parades, perhaps also to carry brides to their new homes.While chariots for daily life or the transport of agricultural products have been previously found at Pompeii, officials said the new find is the first ceremonial chariot unearthed in its entirety.The villa was discovered after police came across the illegal tunnels in 2017, officials said. Two people who live in the houses atop the site are on trial for allegedly digging more than 80 meters of tunnels at the site.  

US Judge Approves $650M Facebook Privacy Lawsuit Settlement

A federal judge on Friday approved a $650 million settlement of a privacy lawsuit against Facebook for allegedly using photo face-tagging and other biometric data without the permission of its users.U.S. District Judge James Donato approved the deal in a class-action lawsuit that was filed in Illinois in 2015. Nearly 1.6 million Facebook users in Illinois who submitted claims will be affected.Donato called it one of the largest settlements ever for a privacy violation.”It will put at least $345 into the hands of every class member interested in being compensated,” he wrote, calling it “a major win for consumers in the hotly contested area of digital privacy.”Jay Edelson, a Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit, told the Chicago Tribune that the checks could be in the mail within two months unless the ruling is appealed.“We are pleased to have reached a settlement so we can move past this matter, which is in the best interest of our community and our shareholders,” Facebook, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, said in a statement.The lawsuit accused the social media giant of violating an Illinois privacy law by failing to get consent before using facial-recognition technology to scan photos uploaded by users to create and store faces digitally.The state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act allowed consumers to sue companies that didn’t get permission before harvesting data such as faces and fingerprints.The case eventually wound up as a class-action lawsuit in California.Facebook has since changed its photo-tagging system.

Third US COVID Vaccine on Verge of Approval

The U.S. moved a step closer Friday to having another vaccine in its coronavirus arsenal, after an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration unanimously endorsed Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID vaccine.Formal authorization for the vaccine could come in the next few days. The one-dose vaccine would become the third coronavirus inoculation approved by the FDA after the two-dose vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.Members of the Congressional Black Caucus went on television Friday to encourage African Americans to receive the COVID-19 inoculations.“We’re looking at historic fear of vaccines and a fear of the health care industry,” said Rep. Barbara Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan.Black and Latino communities are being inoculated at lower rates in the U.S. than their white counterparts, public health officials say.Meanwhile, Britain’s Trades Union Congress says in a study that the pandemic has provided a “mirror to the structural racism” in Britain, with the unemployment rate for communities of color double that of their white contemporaries during the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports early Saturday more than 113 million global COVID infections with more than 2.5 million deaths.The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections with more than 28 million cases, followed by India with over 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10 million.Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has issued a report titled The New Necessary: How We Future-Proof for the Next Pandemic that calls for international cooperation in the future to identify and test for any new outbreak. The report also called on countries to work together to produce vaccines.Blair told The Guardian, “Had there been global coordination a year ago, I think we could have shaved at least three months off this virus,” in a reference to the outbreak of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

US Advisers Endorse Single-shot COVID-19 Vaccine From Johnson & Johnson

U.S. health advisers endorsed a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson on Friday, putting the nation on the cusp of adding an easier-to-use option to fight the pandemic. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to quickly follow the recommendation and make Johnson & Johnson’s shot the third vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S. Vaccinations are picking up speed, but new supplies are urgently needed to stay ahead of a mutating virus that has killed more than 500,000 Americans. After daylong discussions, the FDA panelists voted unanimously that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks for adults. If the FDA agrees, shipments of a few million doses could begin as early as Monday. More than 47 million people in the U.S., or 14% of the population, have each received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which FDA authorized in December. But the pace of vaccinations has been strained by limited supplies and delays because of winter storms.While early Johnson & Johnson supplies will be small, the company has said it can deliver 20 million doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine protects against the worst effects of COVID-19 after one shot, and it can be stored up to three months at refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to handle than the previous vaccines, which must be frozen. EffectivenessOne challenge in rolling out the new vaccine will be explaining how protective the Johnson & Johnson shot is after the astounding success of the first U.S. vaccines. The two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots were found to be about 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The numbers from Johnson & Johnson’s study are not that high, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. One dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19. After adding in moderate cases, the total effectiveness dropped to about 66%. Some experts fear that lower number could feed public perceptions that Johnson & Johnson’s shot is a “second-tier vaccine.” But the difference in protection reflects when and where Johnson & Johnson conducted its studies.Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was tested in the U.S., Latin America and South Africa at a time when more contagious mutated versions of the virus were spreading. That wasn’t the case last fall, when Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were wrapping up testing, and it’s not clear if their numbers would hold against the most worrisome of those variants. Importantly, the FDA reported this week that, just like its predecessors, the Johnson & Johnson shot offers strong protection against the worst outcomes, hospitalization and death. Studying 2nd doseWhile Johnson & Johnson is seeking FDA authorization for its single-dose version, the company is also studying whether a second dose boosts protection. Panel member Dr. Paul Offit warned that launching a two-dose version of the vaccine down the road might cause problems. “You can see where that would be confusing to people thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t get what I needed,’ ” said Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s a messaging challenge.” Johnson & Johnson representatives said they chose to begin with the single shot because the World Health Organization and other experts agreed it would be a faster, more effective tool in an emergency. Cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically since the January peak that followed the winter holidays. But public health officials warned that those gains may be stalling as more variants take root in the U.S. “We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, speaking at the White House on Friday. She noted that new COVID-19 cases have increased over the past few days. While it’s too early to tell if the trend will last, Walensky said adding a third vaccine “will help protect more people faster.” More vaccines are in the pipeline.  On Sunday, a CDC panel is expected to meet to recommend how to best prioritize use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Experts Warn Crime Gangs Capable of Selling Fake Vaccines

International crime fighting agencies say organized crime groups have all the networks and methods needed to smuggle falsified, substandard and stolen COVID-19 vaccines across Africa.  
Interpol crime intelligence analyst John-Patrick Broome said, as is the case in the rest of the continent, criminal gangs in East Africa import fake medicines from Asia, mostly China and India. The fake drugs often lack any active ingredients and many actually have harmful substances, he said.  
“Illicit medications are primarily entering the market in eastern Africa through … avoidance of regulations, there’s violence-based criminality and there’s corruption as well, and corruption which is at a number of different levels,” Broome said.  
China and India are expected to produce much of Africa’s vaccine supply.  That’s already a “big red flag,” says Nigerian journalist Ruona Meyer, whose work has exposed government officials and pharmaceutical company executives working with criminals to distribute falsified medicines in West Africa. Both countries are known as sources for faked pharmaceuticals.  Meyer says there won’t be enough vaccines, and as infection rates and deaths spike in some countries, criminals will introduce fakes into supply chains.  FILE – A chemist displays hydroxychloroquine tablets in New Delhi, India, April 9, 2020.She points out they did that easily with chloroquine, when demand for the anti-malarial drug skyrocketed last year after it was touted as a coronavirus treatment.  
“So, you had people who started producing fakes. You had people who started breaking down these routes. You had cases where these things were hijacked at ports. Again, they want to break that supply chain,” Meyer said.  
Authorities throughout West and Central Africa seized large quantities of fake and substandard chloroquine. Police in Cameroon shut down several pharmaceutical manufacturers producing fake chloroquine.  
“The infrastructure alone is mind-boggling, to be able to do all these things. Nobody does all these things if there is no demand,” she said.  
One sign of the corruption sometimes found in medicine distribution is the 2015 conviction of two Dutch former United Nations consultants for rigging a contract for life-saving drugs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A court in Britain found Guido Bakker and Siibrandus Scheffer guilty of accepting a bribe of more than $900,000 to steer a contract to a Danish pharmaceutical company.  Lawyers Marius Schneider and Nora Ho Tu Nam represent some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies when their products are faked in Africa.  
 FILE – An agent stands next to a container full of illegal and fake drugs seized by Ivorian authorities in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Nov. 6, 2018.Ho Tu Nam said criminal organizations have been waiting eagerly for immunization programs to start, and for vaccine shortages.   
“Now people are aware that the vaccine exists; people know it’s being rolled out in certain countries, and I think it’s a perfect time for those syndicates to come in and say, ‘We have the vaccine; you’re not getting it in the hospitals, you’re not getting it in your private clinics, so come to us.’” she said.  
And they have been successful in the past. Schneider says groups dealing in black market vaccines do their best to make their products look legitimate.  
“We have seen instances where NGOs … have been engaged in the distribution of these vaccines. These NGOs had as a mission to distribute real vaccines to the people. Employees on the ground in African countries were implicated in vaccine traffic,” Schneider said.  
Investigators say often such cases are settled out of court, in confidential settlements. But in one known case, employees of a multi-national pharmaceutical company were caught helping a criminal network distribute fake vaccines in Africa.  
Mark Micallef of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime says North Africa could be a major entry point for falsified and substandard vaccines.  
He said “uncontrolled” trafficking of fake medicines, such as the pain reliever tramadol, has been happening across the vast region for decades.  
“Fake vaccines — I think there’s a big danger of that in the Maghreb itself, so unregulated territories in Libya, definitely. But, also in Tunisia and maybe border areas of Egypt, less so in Algeria, perhaps, but especially in the northern Sahel,” Micallef warned.  
Criminals dealing in fake medicines exploit gaps in health services and this will be especially true of COVID-19 shots, and that, Micallef said, will make the crime very difficult to control in North Africa.  
“This form of trafficking is tapping an actual health sector need. And the fear is that in the case of the vaccines, a similar scenario might unfold where there are shortages, especially in the border areas, that are preyed upon by criminal enterprise trying to fill that gap,” he said.  

New Zealand Supporting Drone Project to Monitor Rare Dolphins

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday her government is supporting a new project using drones designed to monitor and protect the Maui dolphin, one of the world’s rarest marine mammals.  Maui dolphins are found only in a small stretch of ocean off the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and current estimates suggest there are only 63 adult members of the species left.  The new Māui Drone Project is a one-year collaboration between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), nonprofit wildlife technology organization MAUI63 and the World Wildlife Fund-New Zealand.  The project is designed to use the small, unmanned vehicles to find and track Maui dolphins, fly over them without disturbing them, and collect data on their habitat, population size and other behaviors.  Ardern told reporters the drones will allow government agencies and others to focus conservation efforts where they are needed most to protect the animals.”We have drawn basically geographical areas where we have restricted certain types of fishing, but this will help us understand where they are, their movements, where the extra protections are required,” she said. Maui dolphins are the smallest of the world’s dolphin species, measuring less than two meters long, and weighing up to 50 kilograms. Unlike other dolphins, they have distinctive round dorsal fins, and short snouts. They breed slowly, adding only one individual dolphin per year, and have relatively short lifespans, facts which may have contributed to their decline. 

One Dose of Pfizer Vaccine Reduces Transmission, Study Finds

Three new British studies show the Pfzier-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which is considered a two-dose vaccine, reduced transmission of the virus after one dose, particularly in people who had previously tested positive.
One study conducted by Britain’s University of Cambridge Hospital and published Friday suggests a single dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine can reduce by four times the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 infections. According to researchers, that indicates the vaccine could significantly reduce the risk of transmission of the virus from people who are asymptomatic, as well as protecting others from getting ill.
Lead researcher on the study, Cambridge University Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Mike Weekes, said, “This is great news – the Pfizer vaccine not only provides protection against becoming ill from SARS-CoV-2 but also helps prevent infection, reducing the potential for the virus to be passed on to others.”
The study has not been peer reviewed but researchers say they published ahead of that review because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic.
Two other studies, published late Thursday in the British medical journal The Lancet, indicate a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is enough to protect people who have had COVID-19 from getting it again.  
The studies were conducted by the University College London and Public Health England, and the Imperial College of London.
In other news regarding the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the U.S. Food and Drug administration late Thursday said the vaccine can be kept at conventional freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, rather than the ultra-cold temperatures originally required for the vaccine.
The makers of the vaccine had applied for the approval last week, after their studies concluded the vaccine was still safe and effective when stored at conventional freezer temperatures. The ruling will make the vaccine far easier and less expensive to distribute and store.

Vaccination ‘Passports’ May Open Society, but Inequity Looms

Violet light bathed the club stage as 300 people, masked and socially distanced, erupted in gentle applause. For the first time since the pandemic began, Israeli musician Aviv Geffen stepped to his electric piano and began to play for an audience seated right in front of him.“A miracle is happening here tonight,” Geffen told the crowd.Still, the reanimating experience Monday night above a shopping mall north of Tel Aviv night was not accessible to everyone. Only people displaying a “green passport” that proved they had been vaccinated or had recovered from COVID-19 could get in.The highly controlled concert offered a glimpse of a future that many are longing for after months of COVID-19 restrictions. Governments say getting vaccinated and having proper documentation will smooth the way to travel, entertainment and other social gatherings in a post-pandemic world.But it also raises the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.’Left behind’Other governments are watching Israel churn through the world’s fastest vaccination program and grapple with the ethics of using the shots as diplomatic currency and power.Inside Israel, green passports or badges obtained through an app are the coin of the realm. The country recently reached agreements with Greece and Cyprus to recognize each other’s green badges, and more such tourism-boosting accords are expected.Anyone unwilling or unable to get the jabs that confer immunity will be “left behind,” said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.“It’s really the only way forward at the moment,” Geffen said in an interview with The Associated Press.The checks at the club’s doors, which admitted only those who could prove they are fully vaccinated, allowed at least a semblance of normality.“People can’t live their lives in the new world without them,” he said. “We must take the vaccines. We must.”The vaccine is not available to everyone in the world, whether due to supply or cost. And some people don’t want it, for religious or other reasons. In Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, only about half the adult population has received the required two doses.There is new pressure from the government to encourage vaccinations. Israeli lawmakers on Wednesday passed a law allowing the Health Ministry to disclose information on people who have yet to be vaccinated. Under the policy, names can be released to the ministries of education, labor, social affairs and social services, as well as local governments, “with the purpose of allowing these bodies to encourage people to get vaccinated.”The government is appealing to the emotional longing for the company of others — in Israel’s storied outdoor markets, at concerts like Geffen’s, and elsewhere.“With the Green Pass, doors just open for you. You could go out to restaurants, work out at the gym, see a show,” read an announcement on Feb. 21, the day much of the economy reopened after a six-week shutdown.Then it raised a question at the center of the global quest to conquer the pandemic that has hobbled economies and killed nearly 2.5 million people: “How to get the pass? Go and get vaccinated right now.”Fraught ethical landscapeIt’s that simple in Israel, which has enough vaccine to inoculate everyone over 16, although the government has been criticized for sharing only tiny quantities with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he intends to send excess vaccine to some of the country’s allies. Israel’s attorney general said Thursday night the plan has been frozen while he reviews the legalities.Most countries don’t have enough vaccine, highlighting the fraught ethical landscape of who can get it and how to lift the burden of COVID-19.“The core human rights principle is equity and nondiscrimination,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.“There’s a huge moral crisis in equity globally because in high-income countries like Israel or the United States or the EU countries, we’re likely to get to herd immunity by the end of this year,” he said. “But for many low-income countries, most people won’t be vaccinated for many years. Do we really want to give priority to people who already have so many privileges?”It’s a question dogging the international community as wealthier countries begin to gain traction against the coronavirus and some of its variants.Last April, the initiative known as COVAX was formed by the WHO, with the initial goal of getting vaccines to poor countries at roughly the same time shots were being rolled out in rich countries. It has missed that target, and 80% of the 210 million doses administered worldwide have been given in only 10 countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.Ghana on Wednesday became the first of 92 countries to get vaccines for free through the initiative. COVAX announced that about 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the African nation. That’s a fraction of the 2 billion shots the WHO aims to deliver this year.As those countries begin vaccinations, wealthier nations are starting to talk about “green passport” logistics, security, privacy and policy.The British government said it is studying the possibility of issuing some kind of “COVID status certification” that could be used by employers and organizers of large events as it prepares to ease lockdown restrictions this year.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the policy could cause problems.“We can’t be discriminatory against people who, for whatever reason, can’t have the vaccine,” he said.Many countries around Europe are scrambling to develop their own vaccine certification systems to help revive summer travel, generating a risk that different systems won’t work properly across the continent’s borders.“I think there is huge potential for not working well together,” said Andrew Bud, CEO of facial biometrics company iProov, which is testing its digital vaccination passport technology within the U.K.’s National Health Service.But the technical knots around vaccine passports may be the easier ones to solve, he said.The bigger challenges “are principally ethical, social, political and legal. How to balance the fundamental rights of citizens … with the benefits to society.”  

Carter Center Targets Online Threats in Ethiopia

With internet access increasing in many emerging democracies, use of social media is changing the ways that candidates and voters interact.  It’s also changing how the non-profit U.S.-based Carter Center assesses elections. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, monitoring online disinformation and threats to prevent political violence is a new front in the center’s democracy initiatives and is a focus ahead of elections in Ethiopia.Camera: Kane Farabaugh    Producer: Kane Farabaugh

50 Million COVID-19 Vaccines Administered in US

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted an event at the White House Thursday honoring the 50 millionth coronavirus vaccination administered in the country.Four people — an elementary school counselor, a grocery store employee and two firefighter EMTs — were vaccinated against the virus at the White House Thursday afternoon to commemorate the milestone..@POTUS watching vaccination to commemorate 50 million #COVID19 shots under his watch.— Patsy Widakuswara (@pwidakuswara) February 25, 2021 “Fifty-million shots in just 37 days since I’ve become president,” Biden told reporters at the event, noting that despite extreme weather conditions, the United States is on track to surpass his promise to vaccinate 100 million people in his first 100 days in office.Almost half of Americans over the age of 65 have received at least one of two shots of the vaccine, according to the White House.50 million shots in the past 37 days — no other country has done it.There are about 55m Americans who are over 65:– Six weeks ago, only 8% had gotten a shot– Today, almost 50% have gotten at least one shotLong way to go, but what a change these past weeks!— Ronald Klain (@WHCOS) February 25, 2021But U.S. officials have warned that there is still a long road ahead. Biden urged Americans to continue wearing masks and said Thursday he cannot provide a date for when things will return to “normal.”The president’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also cautioned, “We are still at an unacceptably high baseline level,” preventing the resumption of normal society.Earlier this week, the United States confirmed that half a million people had died of COVID-19 — the highest death rate from the virus in the world. In 2020, the virus shaved a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War II, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Tech Executives Warn Full Extent of US Cyber Breach Still Unknown

U.S. lawmakers launched an investigation this week into the December 2020 SolarWinds hack that included a breach of many private and U.S. government computer systems. As VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports, tech leaders are telling lawmakers the full scope of the breach is still not known.  Camera: Adam Greenbaum  Produced by: Katherine Gypson

AG: Olympics Gymnastics Coach, Charged with Dozens of Crimes, Dies by Suicide

A former U.S. Olympics gymnastics coach with ties to disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar died by suicide Thursday after being charged with two dozen crimes, including forms of human trafficking, Michigan’s attorney general said. The announcement from Attorney General Dana Nessel came about three hours after a news conference where Nessel announced that John Geddert was charged with crimes, including sexual assault, human trafficking and running a criminal enterprise. The charges were the latest fallout from the sexual abuse scandal involving Nassar, a former Michigan State University sports doctor now in prison. Geddert was accused of turning his Michigan gym into a yearslong criminal enterprise by coercing girls to train under him and then verbally and physically abusing them. FILE – Larry Nassar sits during his sentencing hearing in Lansing, Mich., Jan. 24, 2018.He was accused of lying to investigators in 2016 when he denied ever hearing complaints about Nassar, who is serving decades in prison for sexually assaulting female athletes in a scandal that counted hundreds of victims and turned USA Gymnastics upside down. Geddert, 63, was head coach of the 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, which won a gold medal. He has long been associated with Nassar, who was the Olympic team’s doctor and also treated injured gymnasts at Twistars, Geddert’s Lansing-area gym. Geddert was accused of recruiting minors for forced labor, a reference to the gymnasts he coached, according to documents filed in an Eaton County court. A message seeking comment was left with his attorney. Nessel said the coach used “force, fraud and coercion” for financial benefit. FILE – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks during a news conference in Lansing, Mich., March 5, 2020.”The victims suffer from disordered eating,” Nessel said, “including bulimia and anorexia, suicide attempts and attempts at self-harm, excessive physical conditioning, repeatedly being forced to perform even when injured, extreme emotional abuse and physical abuse, including sexual assault.” The charges against Geddert included two counts of sexual assault against a teen in 2012. Nessel acknowledged that the case might not fit the common understanding of human trafficking. “We think of it predominantly as affecting people of color or those without means to protect themselves … but honestly, it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said. “Young, impressionable women may at times be vulnerable and open to trafficking crimes, regardless of their stature in the community or the financial well-being of their families.”  Assistant Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark said the charges against Geddert had “very little to do” with Nassar. Geddert was suspended by Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics during the Nassar scandal. He told families in 2018 that he was retiring. On his LinkedIn page, Geddert described himself as the “most decorated women’s gymnastics coach in Michigan gymnastics history.” He said his Twistars teams won 130 club championships. But Geddert was often portrayed in unflattering ways when Nassar’s victims spoke during court hearings in 2018. “What a great best friend John was to Larry for giving him an entire world where he was able to abuse so easily,” said Lindsey Lemke, now a coach at the University of Arkansas. “You two sure do have a funny meaning of friendship. You, John Geddert, also deserve to sit behind bars right next to Larry.” 

ByteDance Agrees to $92 Million Privacy Settlement with US TikTok Users

ByteDance has agreed to a $92 million class-action settlement over data privacy claims from some U.S. TikTok users, according to documents filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Illinois. ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the short video app that has more than 100 million U.S. users, agreed to the settlement after more than a year of litigation. “While we disagree with the assertions, rather than go through lengthy litigation, we’d like to focus our efforts on building a safe and joyful experience for the TikTok community,” TikTok said Thursday. The settlement still requires court approval. FILE – A man opens social media app TikTok on his cellphone, in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 21, 2020.The lawsuits claimed the TikTok app “infiltrates its users’ devices and extracts a broad array of private data including biometric data and content that defendants use to track and profile TikTok users for the purpose of, among other things, ad targeting and profit.” The settlement was reached after “an expert-led inside look at TikTok’s source code” and extensive mediation efforts, according to the motion seeking approval of the settlement. Separately, in Washington the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Justice Department are looking into allegations that TikTok failed to live up to a 2019 agreement aimed at protecting children’s privacy. 

Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine as Effective in General Use as in Trials, Israeli Researchers Say 

A new study finds the new Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is as effective in real-world use as it was during its late-stage clinical trials. In a large-scale study of 1.2 million people, researchers at Israel’s Clalit Research Institute found the two-dose vaccine reduced symptomatic cases of COVID-19 by 94% across all age groups, and reduced severe illnesses by 92%.  Researchers also found that a single shot of the vaccine was 57% effective after just two weeks.FILE – People queue to receive a vaccine against COVID-19 at a makeshift vaccination site in Petah Tikva, Israel, Jan. 28, 2021.The peer-reviewed study, published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, is the first analysis of a national COVID-19 vaccination strategy.   Late-stage clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech showed the vaccine was 95% effective in combating the novel coronavirus.   South Africa variantMeanwhile, Moderna says it has developed a new version of its two-dose vaccine targeted to combat the COVID-19 variant first identified in South Africa. The U.S.-based pharmaceutical company has sent a small amount of the new version to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for additional study.   FILE – Tiffany Husak, left, a nursing student at the Community College of Allegheny County, receives her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, during a vaccination clinic in Pittsburgh, Jan. 28, 2021.Moderna is also testing whether to add a third booster shot to its current two-dose regimen to determine whether it can create the immunity needed to fight the South African variant.   Both Pfizer and Moderna say they plan to increase their output of the vaccine within the next few months, with Pfizer doubling its output to 13 million doses per week by mid-March, with Moderna hoping to deliver 40 million doses per month by April.  European Union leaders will meet Thursday via videoconference to discuss ways to improve the slow pace of the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.  Concerns are growing among the 27-member regional bloc that the fast-spreading variants recently detected in Britain and South Africa will be resistant to the new vaccines.   Tokyo Olympic Games
In Japan, organizers for the postponed Tokyo Summer Olympic Games are placing a number of coronavirus-related restrictions on spectators coming out to witness the traditional relay of the Olympic torch.    The relay will begin March 25 in the northwestern prefecture of Fukushima, the site of the March 2011 nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.    President of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Organizing Committee Seiko Hashimoto (R) speaks with Tokyo 2020 Vice Director-General Yukihiko Nunomura (L) before the press briefing on operation and media coverage of Olympic Torch Relay in Tokyo, Feb. 25, 2021.Yukihiko Nunomura, the vice director-general of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, announced Thursday that spectators will be required to wear masks, and will not be allowed to eat or drink except for water to avoid heatstroke.  Cheering and shouting is also banned, but spectators can clap as the torch relay passes by.    Organizers say spectators will be required to preregister for a spot at each relay point to witness the torch’s arrival, but Nunomura said the relay could be stopped if too many spectators gather along the route.    The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year as the novel coronavirus outbreak evolved into a global pandemic.  However, recent public opinion polls indicate an overwhelming majority of Japanese believe the games should be postponed again or canceled, with Tokyo and other areas under a state of emergency to quell a surge of new infections.   The opening ceremony for the postponed Games will be held on July 23.   

Australia Approves Law to Make Facebook and Google Pay to Carry News Content

Australia has become the world’s first nation to make digital companies such as Facebook and Google pay domestic news outlets for their content.Parliament approved the law Thursday that would allow a government arbitrator to decide the price a digital company should pay news outlets if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.The final legislation includes a set of amendments as part of an agreement reached Tuesday between the Australian government and Facebook. The amendments include a two-month mediation period that would give social media giants and news publishers extra time to broker agreements before they are forced to abide by the government’s provisions.The agreements ended a stalemate that prompted Facebook to block all Australian news content last week, preventing them from being viewed or shared. The websites of several public agencies and emergency services were also blocked on Facebook, including pages that include up-to-date information on COVID-19 outbreaks, brushfires and other natural disasters.

Facebook Pledges $1B in News Investments Over 3 Years

Facebook on Wednesday pledged to invest at least $1 billion to support journalism over the next three years as the social media giant defended its handling of a dispute with Australia over payments to media organizations.Nick Clegg, head of global affairs, said in a statement that the company was willing to support news media while reiterating its concerns about mandated payments.”Facebook is more than willing to partner with news publishers,” Clegg said after Facebook restored news links as part of a compromise with Australian officials. “We absolutely recognize quality journalism is at the heart of how open societies function — informing and empowering citizens and holding the powerful to account.”Clegg defended the U.S. social media giant in a blog post titled “The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia.”The social media platform came under fire after it blanked out the pages of media outlets for Australian users and blocked them from sharing any news content, rather than submit to the proposed legislation.Clegg contended in his post that at the heart of the controversy was a misunderstanding about the relationship between Facebook and news publishers.’Free referrals’News groups share their stories at the social network or make them available for Facebook users to share with features such as buttons designed into websites, Clegg noted.Facebook drove some 5.1 billion such “free referrals” to Australian news publishers last year, worth an estimated 407 million Australian dollars, according to Clegg.”The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false,” Clegg said. “We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price.”Clegg said that to comply with the law as originally proposed in Australia, “Facebook would have been forced to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multinational media conglomerates under an arbitration system that deliberately misdescribes the relationship between publishers and Facebook.”He maintained that in blacking out all news in the country, “we erred on the side of overenforcement” and acknowledged that “some content was blocked inadvertently” before being restored.