Month: March 2022

Scientists Finally Finish Decoding Entire Human Genome 

Scientists say they have finally assembled the full genetic blueprint for human life, adding the missing pieces to a puzzle nearly completed two decades ago.

An international team described the first-ever sequencing of a complete human genome – the set of instructions to build and sustain a human being – in research published Thursday in the journal Science. The previous effort, celebrated across the world, was incomplete because DNA sequencing technologies of the day weren’t able to read certain parts of it. Even after updates, it was missing about 8% of the genome.

“Some of the genes that make us uniquely human were actually in this ‘dark matter of the genome’ and they were totally missed,” said Evan Eichler, a University of Washington researcher who participated in the current effort and the original Human Genome Project. “It took 20-plus years, but we finally got it done.”

Many — including Eichler’s own students — thought it had been finished already.

“I was teaching them, and they said, ‘Wait a minute. Isn’t this like the sixth time you guys have declared victory? I said, ‘No, this time we really, really did it!” Eichler said.

Scientists said this full picture of the genome will give humanity a greater understanding of our evolution and biology while also opening the door to medical discoveries in areas like aging, neurodegenerative conditions, cancer and heart disease.

“We’re just broadening our opportunities to understand human disease,” said Karen Miga, an author of one of the six studies published Thursday.

The research caps off decades of work. The first draft of the human genome was announced in a White House ceremony in 2000 by leaders of two competing entities: an international publicly funded project led by an agency of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a private company, Maryland-based Celera Genomics.

The human genome is made up of about 3.1 billion DNA subunits, pairs of chemical bases known by the letters A, C, G and T. Genes are strings of these lettered pairs that contain instructions for making proteins, the building blocks of life. Humans have about 30,000 genes, organized in 23 groups called chromosomes that are found in the nucleus of every cell.

Before now, there were “large and persistent gaps that have been in our map, and these gaps fall in pretty important regions,” Miga said.

Miga, a genomics researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz, worked with Adam Phillippy of the National Human Genome Research Institute to organize the team of scientists to start from scratch with a new genome with the aim of sequencing all of it, including previously missing pieces. The group, named after the sections at the very ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, is known as the Telomere-to-Telomere, or T2T, consortium.

Their work adds new genetic information to the human genome, corrects previous errors and reveals long stretches of DNA known to play important roles in both evolution and disease. A version of the research was published last year before being reviewed by scientific peers.

“This is a major improvement, I would say, of the Human Genome Project,” doubling its impact, said geneticist Ting Wang of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who was not involved in the research.

Eichler said some scientists used to think unknown areas contained “junk.”

“Some of us always believed there was gold in those hills,” he said. Eichler is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’s health and science department.

Turns out that the gold Eichler believed in includes many important genes, he said, such as some integral to making a person’s brain bigger than a chimp’s, with more neurons and connections.

To find such genes, scientists needed new ways to read life’s cryptic genetic language.

Reading genes requires cutting the strands of DNA into pieces hundreds to thousands of letters long. Sequencing machines read the letters in each piece and scientists try to put the pieces in the right order. That’s especially tough in areas where letters repeat.

Scientists said some areas were illegible before improvements in gene sequencing machines that now allow them to, for example, accurately read a million letters of DNA at a time. That allows scientists to see genes with repeated areas as longer strings instead of snippets that they had to later piece together.

Researchers also had to overcome another challenge: Most cells contain genomes from both mother and father, confusing attempts to assemble the pieces correctly. T2T researchers got around this by using a cell line from one “complete hydatidiform mole,” an abnormal fertilized egg containing no fetal tissue that has two copies of the father’s DNA and none of the mother’s.

The next step? Mapping more genomes, including ones that include collections of genes from both parents. This effort did not map one of the 23 chromosomes that is found in males, called the Y chromosome, because the mole contained only an X.

Wang said he’s working with the T2T group on the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium, which is trying to generate reference, or template, genomes for 350 people representing the breadth of human diversity.

“Now we’ve gotten one genome right and we have to do many, many more,” Eichler said. “This is the beginning of something really fantastic for the field of human genetics.”

Bruce Willis, Diagnosed With Aphasia, Steps Away From Acting

Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting after a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that causes loss of the ability to understand or express speech, his family said Wednesday.

In a statement posted on Willis’ Instagram page, the 67-year-old actor’s family announced that Willis was recently diagnosed with aphasia and that it is impacting his cognitive abilities.

“As a result of this and with much consideration, Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him,” read the statement signed by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis, his ex-wife Demi Moore, and his five children, Rumer, Scout, Tallulah, Mabel and Evelyn.

“We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him,” they said. “As Bruce always says, ‘Live it up’ and together we plan to do just that.”

There are many potential causes of aphasia. It often occurs after a stroke or head injury, but can also develop gradually due to a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes degenerative damage, like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s treated primarily with speech therapy and learning non-verbal means of communication.

Willis’ family didn’t divulge what caused his aphasia. Representatives for the actor declined to comment.

The news about Willis, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, immediately spread online as fans reacted. His four-decade career has amassed more than $5 billion in box office worldwide.

Willis had been working steadily and frequently. Renowned for films like “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Sixth Sense,” Willis has in recent years churned out straight-to-video thrillers. Last year, he starred in a staggering eight films. Most came and went quietly, including titles like “Cosmic Sin,” “Out of Death” and “Deadlock.”

Most recently, Willis starred in February’s “Gasoline Alley” and “A Day to Die,” released in early March. Willis has already shot at least six more films due out in 2022 and 2023, including “Die Like Lovers,” “Corrective Measures” and “The Wrong Place.”

South Koreans Flock Overseas for ‘Revenge Travel’ as COVID Rules Ease

After spending two years being socially distanced in his home country of South Korea, Kim Hoe-jun booked a last-minute flight to Hawaii, where he had enjoyed his honeymoon six years ago, giving in to his craving for overseas travel.

“I bought the ticket just a week ago, but it was rather a no-brainer. It felt like I was making up for those two years not being able to go abroad often as I used to before COVID,” he said, before boarding the plane from Incheon International Airport on Friday.

Vaccinated and boosted, Kim and his wife are among South Koreans joining in a rush for “revenge travel” — a term that has been trending on social media as people scramble to book overseas trips that were delayed by coronavirus restrictions.

The boom started after March 21 when South Korea lifted a seven-day mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers arriving from most countries. The restriction had been eased last year but was reimposed in December as the highly infectious Omicron variant spread.

The country has largely scrapped its once-aggressive tracing and containment efforts despite a record COVID-19 wave, joining a growing list of Asian countries that have eased quarantine rules, including Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Koreans now appear more ready to travel. Polls showed people are less worried about the implications of catching the virus, and increasingly see its prevention as out of their hands.

Sales of overseas flight tickets on 11st, an e-commerce unit of SK Telecom, South Korea’s top mobile carrier, rose more than eight-fold compared with a year before between March 11, when the lifting of quarantine was announced, and March 27, the company said.

Kim Na-yeon, 27, was excited to return to Hawaii, where she used to live.

“I couldn’t dare to travel even in Korea because of COVID,” she said. “But now I feel a bit freer with the exemption, so I’ve decided to go meet old friends and do some sightseeing.”

Exploding demand

Airlines and travel agencies have reported exploding demand for routes to Hawaii, Saipan and Guam, as well as some destinations in Europe and Southeast Asia where tourists submitting a vaccination certificate or negative test result are exempted from quarantine.

Saipan and Guam, both of which have travel bubble pacts with South Korea, also offer free COVID testing and pay for quarantine expenses if a traveler tests positive. Each South Korean national visiting Saipan receives $100 in “travel bucks” to spend at businesses there.

The tour arm of online retail giant Interpark reported a 324% growth in flight bookings for Oceania between March 11-22 from the same period of 2021, a 268% increase for Southeast Asia and 262% more bookings for Europe.

On Sunday, the company sold a record 5,200 Hawaii tour packages within 70 minutes. CJ Corp’s home shopping unit said it received about 2,800 orders for a Spain and Italy trip in one hour on Sunday, totaling 15 billion won ($12.41 million), days after garnering 9 billion won ($7.4 million) from its sales of a Hawaii package.

“The surge reflects growing customer sentiment that an end of COVID travel curbs might be in the offing after the mandatory quarantine was lifted,” said Lee Jeong-pil, general manager of CJ’s home shopping unit.

Lee Tae-woo, a 36-year-old frequent traveler to Japan, said he has changed some money into yen, taking advantage of the currency’s sharp decline and hoping to jump on the revenge travel bandwagon soon.

Though Japan has yet to allow tourists back in, it has reduced the quarantine period for arrivals for business and other purposes to three days from seven this month and signaled further easing of travel curbs.

“It’s been a long wait, and I’m ready to go back as soon as they finally open up again and visit my favorite coffee roastery and enjoy the night view from Shibuya station,” Lee said, referring to Tokyo’s bustling central district.

CDC Drops COVID-19 Health Warning for Cruise Ship Travelers

Federal health officials are dropping the warning they have attached to cruising since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving it up to vacationers to decide whether they feel safe getting on a ship.

Cruise-ship operators welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, which came as many people thought about summer vacation plans.

An industry trade group said the move by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validated measures that ship owners have taken, including requiring crew members and most passengers to be vaccinated against the virus.

The CDC removed the COVID-19 “cruise ship travel health notice” that was first imposed in March 2020, after virus outbreaks on several ships around the world.

However, the agency expressed reservations about cruising.

“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on a cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” CDC spokesperson Dave Daigle said in an email.

Daigle said the CDC’s decision was based on “the current state of the pandemic and decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks.”

COVID-19 cases in the United States have been falling since mid-January, although the decline has slowed in recent weeks, and the current seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. is roughly unchanged from two weeks ago, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. States have rolled back mask mandates, putting pressure on federal officials to ease virus-related restrictions.

Outbreaks continue to be reported on cruise ships, which conduct random testing before the end of voyages.

On Sunday, a Princess Cruises ship returning from the Panama Canal had “multiple” passengers who had tested positive for the virus. Princess Cruises said all the affected passengers showed mild symptoms or none at all, and that all crew members and passengers had been vaccinated. About a dozen passengers tested positive before the same boat docked in San Francisco in January.

Operators are required to tell the CDC about virus cases on board ships. The agency has a colored-coded system to classify ships based on the percentage of passengers who test positive. The CDC said that system remains in place.

Cruise-ship operators have complained since the start of the pandemic that their industry has been singled out for a shutdown and then tighter COVID-19 restrictions than others, including airlines.

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that the CDC’s decision to remove its health warning “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field between cruise and similarly situated venues on land.”

Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a site that publishes review of trips, called the CDC decision big news.

“Symbolically it’s a notice of winds of change when it comes to cruising,” she said. “I do think it can convince some of the doubters. What the CDC says does matter to cruisers.”

Academy: Smith Refused to Leave Oscars After Slapping Rock 

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Wednesday said that Will Smith was asked to leave Sunday’s Oscar ceremony after hitting Chris Rock but refused to do so. 

The academy’s board of governors met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violations against the group’s standards of conduct. The academy said disciplinary action for Smith could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions. 

Many have focused on why Smith was allowed to remain seated in the front row at the Dolby Theatre after the incident. On Wednesday, the academy suggested that it attempted to remove the actor from the audience. 

“Things unfolded in a way we could not have anticipated,” the academy said. “While we would like to clarify that Mr. Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused, we also recognize we could have handled the situation differently.” 

A representative for the academy declined to give specifics on how it tried to remove Smith. After Smith struck Rock in response to a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, several stars including Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry spoke with Smith, 53. 

Stronger language

The academy said Smith has the opportunity to defend himself in a written response before the board meets again on April 18. The film academy earlier condemned Smith’s onstage assault of Rock, but it used stronger language Wednesday. 

“Mr. Smith’s actions at the 94th Oscars were a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness in person and on television,” the academy said. “Mr. Rock, we apologize to you for what you experienced on our stage and thank you for your resilience in that moment. We also apologize to our nominees, guests and viewers for what transpired during what should have been a celebratory event.” 

On Monday, Smith issued an apology to Rock, the academy and to viewers, saying “I was out of line and I was wrong.” 

Rock, who had yet to respond publicly to the incident, performed stand-up Wednesday night in Boston. He was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation. 

“How was your weekend?” began Rock, who then cautioned the crowd that he didn’t have a lot to say yet about the Oscars, according to audio posted by the Hollywood trade outlet Variety. “I’m still kind of processing what happened.” 

A representative for Smith didn’t immediately respond to messages Wednesday regarding the academy’s latest moves. 

Few expulsions

Only a very small number of academy members have ever been expelled, including Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby and the actor Carmine Caridi, who was kicked out for sharing awards screeners. 

Whoopi Goldberg, a member of the academy’s board of governors, said Monday on The View, “We’re not going to take that Oscar from him.” (Even Oscars won by expelled members haven’t previously been ordered to be returned.) Goldberg added that “nobody is OK with what happened.” 

Others from Sunday’s telecast also began speaking out. Co-host Wanda Sykes told Ellen DeGeneres in an interview to air April 7 that she felt physically ill after Smith slapped Rock. When he returned to his seat, Smith twice shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth.” 

“I’m still a little traumatized by it,” said Sykes in a clip released Wednesday. 

Within an hour, Smith was back on stage accepting the award for best actor for his performance in King Richard. Many in the Dolby Theatre gave him a standing ovation. 

“I was like, how gross is this? This is the wrong message. You assault somebody and you get escorted out the building and that’s it. But for them to let him continue, I thought it was gross,” Sykes said. “I wanted to be able to run out [on stage] after he won and say, ‘Uh, unfortunately, Will couldn’t be here tonight.’ ”

Towering Ice Volcanoes Identified on Surprisingly Vibrant Pluto

A batch of dome-shaped ice volcanoes that look unlike anything else known in our solar system and may still be active have been identified on Pluto using data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, showing that this remote frigid world is more dynamic than previously known.

Scientists said that these cryovolcanoes — numbering perhaps 10 or more — stand anywhere from 1 kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) to 7 kilometers (4-1/2 miles) tall. Unlike Earth volcanoes that spew gases and molten rock, this dwarf planet’s cryovolcanoes extrude large amounts of ice — apparently frozen water rather than some other frozen material — that may have the consistency of toothpaste, they said.

Features on the asteroid belt dwarf planet Ceres, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Neptune’s moon Triton also have been pegged as cryovolcanoes. But those all differ from Pluto’s, the researchers said, owing to different surface conditions such as temperature and atmospheric pressure, as well as different mixes of icy materials.

“Finding these features does indicate that Pluto is more active, or geologically alive, than we previously thought it would be,” said planetary scientist Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“The combination of these features being geologically recent, covering a vast area and most likely being made of water ice is surprising because it requires more internal heat than we thought Pluto would have at this stage of its history,” Singer added.

Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s moon and has a diameter of about 2,380 kilometers (1,400 miles), orbits about 5.8 billion kilometers (3.6 billion miles) away from the sun, roughly 40 times farther than Earth’s orbit. Its surface features plains, mountains, craters and valleys.

Images and data analyzed in the new study, obtained in 2015 by New Horizons, validated previous hypotheses about cryovolcanism on Pluto.

The study found not only extensive evidence for cryovolcanism but also that it has been long-lived, not a single episode, said Southwest Research Institute planetary scientist Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator and study co-author.

“What’s most fascinating about Pluto is that it’s so complex – as complex as the Earth or Mars despite its smaller size and high distance from the sun,” Stern said. “This was a real surprise from the New Horizons flyby, and the new result about cryovolcanism re-emphasizes this in a dramatic way.”

The researchers analyzed an area southwest of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto’s large heart-shaped basin filled with nitrogen ice. They found large domes 30-100 kilometers (18-60 miles) across, sometimes combining to form more complexly shaped structures.

An elevation called Wright Mons, one of the tallest, may have formed from several volcanic domes merging, yielding a shape unlike any Earth volcanoes. Although shaped differently, it is similar in size to Hawaii’s large volcano Mauna Loa.

Like Earth and our solar system’s other planets, Pluto formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Based on an absence of impact craters that normally would accumulate over time, it appears its cryovolcanoes are relatively recent — formed in the past few hundred million years.

“That is young on a geologic timescale. Because there are almost no impact craters, it is possible these processes are ongoing even in the present day,” Singer said.

Pluto has lots of active geology, including flowing nitrogen ice glaciers and a cycle in which nitrogen ice vaporizes during the day and condenses back to ice at night — a process constantly changing the planetary surface.

“Pluto is a geological wonderland,” Singer said. “Many areas of Pluto are completely different from each other. If you just had a few pieces of a puzzle of Pluto you would have no idea what the other areas looked like.” 

Kenya Gets Huawei-Linked Chinese Communications Cable

China has connected a high-speed, multimillion-dollar, 15,000-kilometer undersea cable to Kenya, as Beijing advances what’s been dubbed its “digital silk road,” and Africa seeks the infrastructure it badly needs for better internet connectivity.  

Chinese giant Huawei is a shareholder in the $425-million PEACE cable, which stands for “Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe.” It stretches from Asia to Africa and then into France, where it terminates. 

It reached the coastal city of Mombasa on Tuesday, with the CEO of local partner company Telekom Kenya, Mugo Kibati, saying the cable would help meet the sharp rise in demand for internet services on a continent where internet adoption has trailed the rest of the world, but which is home to a growing, young and increasingly digital population.   

“This ultra-high-capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband capacity requirements, bolster redundancy, minimize transit time of our country’s connectivity to Asia and Europe, as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,” said Kibati.  

Business development

For his part, the PEACE Cable’s COO, Sun Xiaohua, said in a statement that the new infrastructure would “bring more business development to this region.” From Kenya, the cable will later be extended further down the continent’s east coast to South Africa. 


It’s estimated that 95% of international data flows via submarine cables, and in terms of Africa, China dominates, with the most projects aimed at connecting the continent. Aside from the PEACE cable, China’s proposed 2Africa cable will become one of the biggest undersea projects in the world when it goes live in 2024. 


But China’s massive digital infrastructure investments in Africa and elsewhere have not been without controversy, and Washington has expressed deep concerns that Beijing is attempting to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage.  

Safety concerns

Some analysts are concerned the technology could be misused by authoritarian leaders on the continent, but Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said most Africans simply want better internet. 

“I think this PEACE Cable generally plays very positively in Africa. Obviously, the United States has raised … concerns around this, particularly in relation to security, but I think for lot of African countries, the security issue is actually balanced by the wider issue of a lack of connectivity,” van Staden told VOA.  

Huawei was sanctioned by the U.S. under former president Donald Trump, but the company has built about 70% of Africa’s 4G networks, and van Staden said it seems China is winning the race for digital soft power on the continent. 

“I think there’s a space there for competition, but Western actors will have to step up,” he said.  

Cherry Blossom Season Marks Beginning of Spring in US Capital

Washington celebrates 110 years of cherry blossoms in a festival not only marking the beginning of spring but also commemorating the birth of an international tourist destination and marking the ties between the United States and Japan. 

Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival draws more than 1.5 million admirers of the fluffy pink trees. Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted about 3,000 of them to the nation’s capital in 1912. His act of kindness is still celebrated more than a century later. 

“This year, more than ever, you really understand why the festival is so important,” said festival President Diana Mayhew. “We recognize that it’s more than just a festival. It’s about spring and renewal and a sense of new beginnings.”

Tourists and photographers flock to the Tidal Basin, where the trees were first planted in 1912. Later in 1965, the Japanese government gifted 3,800 trees to first lady Lady Bird Johnson, and many of which were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. 

Awaiting the cherry blossoms is a long-held Japanese tradition. The delicate blooms symbolize the beginning of spring and last about one week, reflecting the Japanese belief that they embody the fleeting nature of life and a time of renewal.

Cherry blossom season is considered at its peak when 70% of the flowers around the Tidal Basin are open, according to the National Park Service. This year, the peak arrived about 10 days early, on March 21. 

The National Cherry Blossom Festival also marks Washington’s unofficial reemergence from two years of COVID-19 restrictions, which prevented large gatherings and crowds. 

During a recent event announcing this year’s plans, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “We want D.C. to be the face of spring for the nation. Let me say, without equivocation, that D.C. is open!”

The festival includes a parade, live music, art installations, kite flying, cultural events, fireworks, a Washington Wizards basketball game, pet- and family-friendly activities, food and liquor sampling, and river cruises.

The Japanese government often exchanges about 90 old trees for new ones every year and continues to be involved in the festival.  

Biden Introduces, Urges Congress to Approve Additional Funding

U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday introduced his administration’s new website,, designed to be a clearinghouse for the latest pandemic information, as well as a means of providing access to vaccines, tests, treatments and masks on a single site.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Biden also asked Congress to approve an additional $22 billion in emergency funding to help continue the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden said the nation was entering a new moment in the pandemic. He stressed that though the pandemic no longer controlled our lives, it was not over, noting an uptick of new cases in recent weeks — as expected, he said.

Biden added that the U.S. now had the tools to protect all people.

The president said provides access to all the tools available to address COVID-19, including a list of all 90,000 vaccination sites in the United States, links to obtaining masks and tests, and where to obtain COVID-19 treatments. The site also has a search function, which can be used to find the latest information on the status of the pandemic in any region in the country.

‘Test-to-treat’ sites

The website also features a so-called “test-to-treat” locator, designed to allow access to U.S. pharmacies and community health centers where anyone can get tested for COVID-19 and, if required, receive appropriate treatment.

The White House said the administration had launched more than 2,000 such sites across the country, as well as 240 in Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense facilities to serve veterans, military personnel and their families.

The president also urged Congress to approve additional funding to fight the pandemic. He said without it, the U.S. would not be able to sustain its testing capacity beyond June, and vaccines could run out as early as September, leaving the nation vulnerable should another wave of the virus that causes COVID-19 hit.

Biden also noted that the U.S. Food and Drug administration on Tuesday approved a second COVID-19 booster — a fourth shot overall for those receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines — for all people over age 50 and people with compromised immune systems.

He urged all eligible people to get their boosters. To prove his point, following his remarks at the White House, he received his fourth vaccination as reporters watched.

WHO Reports 43 Percent Increase in Global COVID-19 Deaths, While Caseload Drops

The World Health Organization reported a 43 percent spike in deaths from COVID-19 globally last week, while the number of cases continued to fall worldwide.

In its weekly epidemiological report, the WHO said 45,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 were reported in the week ending March 27, up from 33,000 the week before. That spike follows a week in which deaths declined by 23 percent.

The agency said the increase in deaths is likely driven by changes in the definition of COVID-19 deaths in nations in the Americas such as Chile and the United States, and by retrospective adjustments reported from India in Southeast Asia.

As an example, Chile had the highest number of new deaths, reporting 11,858, a leap of 1,710 percent from the previous week. The United States saw a smaller but still significant increase of 5,367 new deaths, an increase of 8 percent.

While India saw 4,525 of new deaths; it represented an increase of 619 percent. The WHO said those deaths included numbers from Maharashtra state, which initially were not included in last week’s COVID-19 death toll.

While the number of new cases overall fell globally, three European countries — Germany, Italy and France — all saw an increase in new cases from the previous week. While Germany and Italy reported increases of two and six percent respectively, France reported 845,119 new cases – a increase of 45 percent.

The WHO has said repeatedly that COVID-19 case counts are likely a vast underestimate of the coronavirus’ prevalence. The agency also expressed concern that many countries in recent weeks announced plans to drop their comprehensive testing programs and other surveillance measures. They said doing so will cripple efforts to accurately track the spread of the virus.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

Kashmir Film Sharpens Political Divisions in India

The phenomenal box-office success of a new film set in 1990s Kashmir has sharpened political divisions in India and prompted a re-examination of a violent campaign against Hindus in the Muslim-majority region three decades ago.

“The Kashmir Files,” directed by Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri, depicts the flight of Kashmiri Hindus, known as “Pandits,” from the region in early 1990s. It is a fictional narrative about a college student who learns that his Kashmiri Hindu parents were killed by Islamist militants, not in an accident as he was told by his grandfather.

The film is being enthusiastically promoted by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda and has been accused of fomenting animus toward the nation’s 200 million Muslims as an electoral strategy.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally met with the director and producer of the film immediately after its release and expressed his appreciation.

Celebrities and political leaders also have urged people to see the film. The Union minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, tweeted, “Watch … so that this history soaked in the blood of innocents may never repeat itself #TheKashmirFiles.”

A goods and services tax that boosts the price of movie tickets has been waived in most BJP-ruled states including some of India’s most populous. In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, police have been offered a day off work to watch the film. In the national capital territory of Delhi, however, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal rejected a demand from BJP legislators to declare the film tax-free, saying, “Well, put it on YouTube, it will be free.”

Sushil Chaudhary, the founder and chairman of the digital movie theater chain Picture Time DigiPlex, told VOA he was pleased that the controversial subject had been addressed in a film.

“And the storytelling was very different compared to other Indian films. The way the director handled the film — it was quite amazing, at the same time very sensitive. This film has huge impact and reminded me of the much-celebrated ‘Schindler’s List,’” a 1993 film about a German businessman who rescued more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.

On social media, commenters have described the movie as “the most hard-hitting film” about Kashmir made to date.

BJP’s support of ‘The Kashmir Files’

The film also has detractors, many of them in the conflict-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir itself. While expressing appreciation for the movie’s dramatic qualities, these critics say it oversimplifies the complex history of the conflict, and that it offers a clichéd representation of Kashmiri Muslims.

“Hindu supremacists in India have weaponized the Kashmiri Pandit exodus” wrote Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit and novelist based in London.

“The movie dwells on Kashmiri Pandit suffering alone and makes ample use of Islamophobic tropes – all Muslims in the movie are violent, barbaric or lecherous,” she wrote.

She argued that the movie “feeds into cycles of hate and revenge. It collapses Kashmir’s history and politics into an Islamophobic morality tale that is palatable and profitable to Hindutva India.”

Ashok Swain, the head of the department of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told VOA he believes the film was made purely for political purposes by a Hindu right-wing filmmaker with support from the ruling authorities.

The purpose of the movie is not to tell the history or support the cause of displaced Kashmir pundits, Swain maintained, “but to make economic gains for the filmmaker and political gains for the ruling regime by selling Muslim hate in the country.”

Regional take

The movie also has been met with criticism by Muslim leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party, a Kashmir-based regional political bloc. PDP leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has accused the BJP of doing nothing for the Kashmiri Pandits who remained in Jammu and Kashmir.

Earlier, she said the move is “ill-intentioned” and will not contribute to healing old wounds.

Mufti also argued that while the filmmakers were mainly interested in profits, Modi and the BJP were supporting the film in order to instigate people along religious lines.

Kashmir resident Sameer Kaul told VOA that some of the gory incidents portrayed in the documentary-style film actually occurred, but that the movie falsely suggests the entire Kashmiri Muslim community played a part in the violence. In fact, he said, some Muslims opposed the violence and others were simply frightened.

Kaul said the impact of the movie will be to increase religious polarization and potential intercommunal discord. “Never before has the justification for institution of an unbiased judicial probe by central government seemed as convincing. Truth should hopefully pave the way for closure, reconciliation and desperate peace.”

A similar view has been expressed by one Kashmiri Pandit girl, Sagrika Kissu. “Not every Muslim is a terrorist/militant or a terrorist sympathizer,” she posted on social media. “We should be very sensitive when we paint all of them in one color. This movie sets in a very bitter emotion for Kashmiri Muslims as whole.”

Real-life impact

Meanwhile, the impact from the movie is being felt in real life. A hotel in Delhi recently refused to accommodate a Kashmiri man even after he provided appropriate identification and other credentials.

The hotel’s receptionist said the Delhi Police had told the hotel not to accept reservations from guests from Jammu and Kashmir. A video of the incident went viral, prompting Delhi Police to deny having issued any such order.

In an immediate reaction, the hotel chain Oyo Rooms removed the hotel from its platform.

Nevertheless, the film is doing blockbuster business despite a lack of promotion and marketing, appearing on 700 screens across India and grossing $3 million since its release on March 11. It is also being shown in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, taking in $1.38 million in its first week on international screens.

Botswana Approves Texas-Made COVID Vaccine, Manufacturing Plant

Botswana has become the first country in Africa to approve the use of the Texas-made COVID-19 vaccine Corbevax. Botswana’s president and California biotech company NantWorks made the announcement Monday as they began construction of a plant to produce COVID-vaccines and drugs to fight cancer.

CEO of biotech firm NantWorks Patrick Soon-Shiong announced on Monday that Botswana’s Medicines Regulatory Authority (BOMRA) had approved the Corbevax jab.

He made the announcement at a groundbreaking ceremony for a vaccine and cancer drug production facility, along with Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi.

“I am pleased to announce, Mr. President, with the incredibly hard work of both the Ministry of Health and BOMRA, today we announce Africa’s first approved vaccine for Africa by Botswana,” Soon-Shiong said.

Corbevax is a patent-free COVID vaccine developed by the Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in the United States. It has been used in Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia.

Soon-Shiong said the first consignment would be delivered to Botswana for distribution across Africa.

“This vaccine has been tested and shown to be active in every variant including omicron. I got a commitment this morning that Botswana, effective immediately, will have access to 100 million of these vaccines that you can distribute,” Soon-Shiong said.

The plant, which is expected to be operational by 2026, plans to produce vaccines for COVID and other diseases, as well as cancer treatment drugs.

Masisi said the plant heralds a new dawn for the production of pharmaceuticals on the continent.

“This is particularly noteworthy in the Africa region, which bears a disproportionate disease burden exacerbated limitation of resources and capabilities to address these health challenges. We are determined to dictate a new legacy associated with access to medicines, vaccines and other health technologies,” he said.

Masisi said the facility would help address vaccine inequality in Africa, where less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID – two years into the pandemic.

“Disparities in the distribution of vaccines across the world resulted in a lopsided vaccination drive that seriously hampered efforts to effectively contain the COVID-19 worldwide. This problem has been aptly defined as vaccine nationalism. It is therefore our intent, our conviction that the opening of this vaccine manufacturing facility, will go a long way in changing this narrative,” Masisi said.

Botswana’s Health Minister Edwin Dikoloti says the project would also help treat chronic diseases.

“This day marks a new level in our scientific development and advancement. It signifies a new technological breakthrough which will see us as not just a consumer but also a manufacturer of vaccines and other medication that will come out of this magnificent project,” Dikoloti said.

Botswana’s vaccine manufacturing facility will be the second in Africa being built by Soon-Shiong.

In January, the South African-born U.S. billionaire opened a similar facility in Cape Town.

FDA Authorizes Second Vaccine Booster for Those 50 and Older

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a fourth dose of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for people 50 and over.

Previously a fourth dose was only authorized for people 12 and up, who are badly immunocompromised.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control will not weigh in on how to implement the FDA’s authorization.

People wanting the fourth shot should only do so at least four months after the previous booster, the FDA said Tuesday.

The FDA’s authorization comes as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are falling after a winter surge of the omicron variant. 

However, a new subvariant, BA.2, is spreading in Europe and the U.S.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve had two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Only half of those eligible have gotten a first booster.

While the vaccines did not stop omicron from circulating widely, health officials say they did help those infected avoid serious illness or death.

The government is also considering authorizing a fourth dose for everyone in the Fall when cases could surge again.

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press.

Will Smith Apologizes to Chris Rock for Oscars Slap

Actor Will Smith apologized to comedian Chris Rock one day after slapping him across the face during Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony following a joke Rock made about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Smith’s apology Monday came after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal statement condemning his behavior for slapping Rock and announced it was initiating an investigation.

“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” Smith said Monday in a statement his publicist posted on Instagram.

“I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be,” Smith added.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was initiating an investigation into the incident. According to the Academy’s code of conduct, Smith could face consequences such as “suspension of membership or expulsion from membership.”

In recent years, violations of this code have led to the removal of members such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski, who were expelled over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Rock did not file a police report.

“LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program. The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report,” said the LAPD in an official statement to the press. “If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.

Ahead of presenting the award for best documentary, Rock directed a comment to Pinkett Smith saying: “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” apparently drawing a comparison to actress Demi Moore’s shaved hairstyle in the 1997 movie G.I. Jane.

While Pinkett Smith was shown rolling her eyes following the comment, her husband walked over to the stage and slapped Rock across the face during the live broadcast, a moment that went viral shortly after.

After taking his seat again, Smith directed profanity at the comedian, demanding he not speak of his wife.

Pinkett Smith, 50, has previously been vocal about her struggles with hair loss due to the autoimmune disease alopecia. She publicly shared her diagnosis in 2018 during a segment of her Facebook talk show series Red Table Talk.

Initially, the Academy had only issued a statement via its Twitter account after the ceremony ended.

“The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the tweet said.

Later Sunday evening, Smith was awarded an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, in the film King Richard.

During his acceptance speech, Smith appeared emotional and apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but did not directly mention Rock.

“Love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said, addressing his behavior.

“Thank you. I hope the Academy invites me back.”



VOA’s Zoya Mirza contributed to this report.   


Academy Condemns Will Smith Oscars Slap, Opens Investigation

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal statement Monday condemning Will Smith’s behavior for slapping comedian Chris Rock and announced it was initiating an investigation. 

Smith slapped Rock across the face during a live broadcast of the 94th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday after the comedian made a joke about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, poking fun at her shaved head.   

“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show,” the statement said. “We … will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.” 

According to the Academy’s code of conduct, such consequences could entail “suspension of membership or expulsion from membership.”  

In recent years, violations of this code have led to the removal of members such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski, who were expelled over allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Rock did not file a police report. 

“LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program. The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report,” said the LAPD in an official statement to the press. ”If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”  

Ahead of presenting the award for best documentary, Rock directed a comment to Pinkett Smith saying: “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” apparently drawing a comparison to actress Demi Moore’s shaved hairstyle in the 1997 movie ”G.I. Jane.”   

While Pinkett Smith was shown rolling her eyes following the comment, her husband walked over to the stage and slapped Rock across the face during the live broadcast, a moment that went viral shortly after.   

After taking his seat again, Smith directed profanity at the comedian, demanding he not speak of his wife.  

Pinkett Smith, 50, has previously been vocal about her struggles with hair loss due to the autoimmune disease alopecia. She publicly shared her diagnosis in 2018 during a segment of her Facebook talk show series Red Table Talk.  

Initially, the Academy had only issued a statement via its Twitter account after the ceremony ended.  

“The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the tweet said.  

Later Sunday evening, Smith was awarded an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, in the film ”King Richard.”  

During his acceptance speech, Smith appeared emotional and apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but did not directly mention Rock.   

“Love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said, addressing his behavior.  

“Thank you. I hope the Academy invites me back.” 

VOA’s Zoya Mirza contributed to this report.


Chris Rock Not Pressing Charges After Will Smith Oscar Slap

Comedian Chris Rock will not be pressing charges against actor Will Smith following a physical altercation at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. 

Smith slapped Rock across the face during a live broadcast of the ceremony after the comedian made a joke about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, poking fun at her shaved head.  

“LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program. The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report,” said the LAPD in an official statement to the press. “If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.” 

Ahead of presenting the award for best documentary, Rock directed a comment to Pinkett Smith saying: “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” apparently drawing a comparison to actress Demi Moore’s shaved hairstyle in the 1997 movie G.I. Jane.  

While Pinkett Smith was shown rolling her eyes following the comment, her husband walked over to the stage and slapped Rock across the face during the live broadcast, a moment that went viral shortly after.  

After taking his seat again, Smith directed profanity at the comedian, demanding him to not speak of his wife. 

Pinkett Smith, 50, has previously been vocal about her struggles with hair loss due to the autoimmune disease alopecia. She publicly shared her diagnosis in 2018 during a segment of her Facebook talk show series Red Table Talk. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a statement via its Twitter account after the ceremony ended, but did not share whether it would take further action against Smith. 

“The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the tweet said. 

“Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Award winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.” 

Later in the evening, Smith was awarded an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance as Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, in the film “King Richard.” 

During his acceptance speech, Smith appeared emotional and apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but did not directly mention Rock.  

“Love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said, addressing his behavior. 

“Thank you. I hope the Academy invites me back.” 


US Supreme Court to Decide Copyright Fight over Warhol’s Prince Paintings

In a case that could help clarify when and how artists can make use of the work of others, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide a copyright dispute between a photographer and Andy Warhol’s estate over Warhol’s 1984 paintings of rock star Prince.

The justices took up the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal of a lower court ruling that his paintings – based on a photo of Prince that photographer Lynn Goldsmith had shot for Newsweek magazine in 1981 – were not protected by the copyright law doctrine called fair use. This doctrine permits unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances.

Goldsmith sued Warhol’s estate in 2017 in Manhattan federal court over Warhol’s unlicensed paintings of Prince. Warhol, who died in 1987, often based his art on photographs. Goldsmith, who has said she did not learn about the unlicensed works until after Prince died in 2016, asked the court to block Warhol’s estate from making further use of her work and for an unspecified amount of money damages.

A judge ruled that Warhol’s works were protected against Goldsmith’s infringement claims by the fair use doctrine, finding they transformed Goldsmith’s portrayal of Prince as a “vulnerable human being” by depicting him as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.”

After Goldsmith challenged that decision, the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year found that Warhol’s paintings had not made fair use of the photo, allowing Goldsmith’s case to proceed.

The 2nd Circuit decided that a transformative work must have a “fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character,” and that Warhol’s paintings were “much closer to presenting the same work in a different form.”

The Andy Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court in December to overturn the 2nd Circuit decision, arguing that it created “a cloud of legal uncertainty” for an entire genre of art like Warhol’s.