Study Finds Seniors Enjoy Virtual Reality 

POMPANO BEACH, Florida — Retired Army Colonel Farrell Patrick taught computer science at West Point during the 1970s and then at two private universities through the 1990s, so he isn’t surprised by the progress technology has made over the decades. 

But when the 91-year-old got his first virtual reality experience recently, he was stunned. Sitting in a conference room at John Knox Village, a suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, retirement community, Patrick sat up straight as his eyes and ears experienced what it would be like to be in a Navy fighter jet flying off the Florida coast. 

“Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” he blurted before the VR program brought the jet in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. 

John Knox Village was one of 17 senior communities around the country that participated in a recently published Stanford University study that found that large majorities of 245 participants between 65 and 103 years old enjoyed virtual reality, improving both their emotions and their interactions with staff. 

The study is part of a larger effort to adapt VR so it can be beneficial to seniors’ health and emotional well-being and help lessen the impact dementia has on some of them. 

Variety of experiences

During the testing, seniors picked from seven-minute virtual experiences such as parachuting, riding in a tank, watching stage performances, playing with puppies and kittens, or visiting places like Paris or Egypt. The participants wore headsets that gave them 360-degree views and sounds, making it seem as if they had been all but dropped into the actual experience. 

“It brought back memories of my travels and … brought back memories of my experience growing up on a farm,” Terry Colli, a former public relations director at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said of his 2022 experience. Colli, 76, liked swiveling in a chair to get a panoramic view. “That was kind of amazing.” 

Anne Selby, a 79-year-old retired counselor and artist, found VR “stimulated virtually every area of my brain, all of the senses.” 

“I particularly enjoyed the ones dealing with pets because I have a cat and I’ve had pets most of my life,” she said. 

Stanford’s peer-reviewed study, working with the company Mynd Immersive, found that almost 80% of seniors reported having a more positive attitude after their VR session and almost 60% said they felt less isolated socially. The enjoyment lessened somewhat for older respondents whose sight and hearing had deteriorated. Those who found VR less enjoyable were also more likely to dislike technology in general. 

In addition, almost 75% of caregivers said residents’ moods improved after using VR. More than 80% of residents and almost 95% caregivers said talking about their VR experience enhanced their relationships with each other. 

“For the majority of our respondents, it was their first time using virtual reality. They enjoyed it. They were likely to recommend it to others, and they looked forward to doing it again,” said Ryan Moore, a Stanford doctoral candidate who helped lead the research. 

“We are proving VR to be a tool that really does help with the well-being of our elders,” said Chris Brickler, Mynd’s CEO and co-founder. The Texas-based company is one of a handful that specializes in virtual reality for seniors. “It is far different than a two-dimensional television or an iPad.” 

Residents with dementia

Separate from the study, John Knox Village uses virtual reality in its unit that houses seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. It helps spur memories that lead to conversations with caregivers. 

“It is like they come back to life when they tell their story.” said Hana Salem, the facility’s meaningful-life coordinator. She said others who don’t talk much perk up when given a VR experience putting them in nature. 

“They’ll start laughing and saying, ‘Ooh, I’m going to catch the butterflies,’ ” Salem said. Catching butterflies is also part of a game Mynd developed that helps seniors enhance their mobility and flexibility as they stand and reach for objects. 

“It’s more fun for these seniors to come in and catch butterflies and work on shoulder rehab than it is to go pick up a weight,” Brickler said. 

Brickler said his company’s systems will soon attach to Google Earth, so seniors can virtually visit neighborhoods where they lived, schools they attended and places they have visited, sparking further conversations with caregivers. 

Such virtual visits “can bring back a tremendous amount of joy, a tremendous amount of memories. And when the therapist or the other caregiver can work with that older adult and talk through things we see, we definitely see that it provides an uplift,” Brickler said. 

The company has worked on the biggest complaints seniors in the study had about VR — the headsets were too heavy, the heat they generated made their foreheads sweat, and sometimes the experience created nausea, he said. The new headsets weigh about 6 ounces (189 grams) instead of a pound (454 grams), they have a built-in fan for cooling, and the videos aren’t as jumpy. 

The findings that seniors in their 80s and 90s enjoy VR less than those in their 70s might lead to changes for them, such as requiring less neck rotation to see all of the scenery and making the visuals bigger, Moore said. 

On a recent afternoon at John Knox, a handful of seniors who live independently took turns again using virtual reality. Pete Audet experienced what it would be like to fly in a wingsuit, soaring over show-capped mountains before landing in a field. 

“Oooh, running stop!” exclaimed Audet, a 76-year-old retired information technology worker. He thinks other seniors “will really enjoy it. But they just need to learn how to use it.” 

His wife, Karen, “played” with puppies and was so entranced by her virtual walk around Paris that she didn’t hear questions being asked of her. 

“I was there. But I was here!” said Karen Audet, an 82-year-old retired elementary school teacher. 

Farrell, the retired Army computer expert, said he hopes to live to 100 because he believes the next five years will see momentous change in VR. Still a technology enthusiast, he believes the cost of systems will drop dramatically and become part of everyday living, even for seniors. 

“It is not going to be as elementary as it is now. It is going to be very realistic and very responsive,” he said. “It will probably be connected to your brain.” 

Army Doctor, Black Hawk Pilot Holds Record for Longest US Spaceflight 

pentagon — U.S. Army Colonel Frank Rubio, who holds the record for the longest U.S. spaceflight, recounted the “awesome” experience of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday during a Pentagon ceremony honoring his achievement.

“Colonel Rubio is a stellar example of someone who has made the absolute most of every opportunity,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said as she presented him with an honor known as the Army Astronaut Device. “It’s truly a privilege to have him representing the Army and the United States.”

The Army awards the astronaut device to soldiers who complete at least one mission in space. Rubio joins Colonel Anne McClain and Colonel Andrew Morgan as the only active-duty soldiers authorized to wear it.

Rubio returned to Earth late last year on a Russian spacecraft after 371 days in the International Space Station.

The doctor and Black Hawk helicopter pilot flew more than 600 hours in dangerous combat deployments in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq before joining NASA in 2017 to become an astronaut.

While becoming an astronaut is a childhood dream for many who go to space, Rubio said he fell in love with the space mission much later in life.

“It’s few things where you can say, ‘Hey, my job helps represent humanity.’ And that’s a pretty powerful thing to be a part of,” Rubio told reporters at the Pentagon.

While he now holds the record for longest spaceflight by an American, he certainly wasn’t trying to earn that title. Rubio’s six-month mission was extended to 371 days after his initial ride home sprang a leak.

His year in space led to incredible highlights, he said, from hurtling into space on top of 300 tons of rocket fuel during the launch, to spacewalks, to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

“You essentially become a meteorite, right, and you have a plasma layer a couple of inches below you, because of the heat that’s generated. All those things were awesome,” he said in response to a question from VOA.

Rubio is the son of Salvadoran immigrants, and he credits the Army for giving him the chance to reach for the stars.

“I think it is the American Dream. It really represents the fact that we have so many opportunities, and again, I really value the fact that it’s the opportunity that’s given, not the results,” he said. “And I think if you put in the hard work, if you dedicate yourself and you sacrifice, really almost anything is possible.”

Rubio told reporters on Thursday that he hopes to continue contributing to NASA’s mission on the ground and back in space. 

Second IVF Provider in Alabama Pauses Some Services After Ruling on Embryos

montgomery, alabama — A second in vitro fertilization provider in the U.S. state of Alabama is pausing parts of its care to patients after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are legally considered children. 

Alabama Fertility Services said in a statement Thursday that it has “made the impossibly difficult decision to hold new IVF treatments due to the legal risk to our clinic and our embryologists.” 

The decision comes a day after the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said in a statement that it was pausing IVF treatments so it could evaluate whether its patients or doctors could face criminal charges or punitive damages. 

“We are contacting patients that will be affected today to find solutions for them and we are working as hard as we can to alert our legislators as to the far reaching negative impact of this ruling on the women of Alabama,” Alabama Fertility said. “AFS will not close. We will continue to fight for our patients and the families of Alabama.” 

Doctors and patients have been grappling with shock and fear this week as they try to determine what they can and can’t do after the ruling by the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court that raises questions about the future of IVF. 

Alabama Fertility Services’ decision left Gabby Goidel, who was days from an expected egg retrieval, calling clinics across the South looking for a place to continue IVF care. 

“I freaked out. I started crying,” Goidel said. “I felt in an extreme limbo state,”

The Alabama ruling came down Friday, the same day Goidel began a 10-day series of injections ahead of egg retrieval, with the hopes of getting pregnant through IVF next month. She found a place in Texas that will continue her care and plans to travel there Thursday night. 

Goidel experienced three miscarriages and she and her husband turned to IVF as a way of fulfilling their dream of becoming parents. 

“It’s not pro-family in any way,” Goidel said of the Alabama ruling. 

Dr. Michael C. Allemand, a reproductive endocrinologist at Alabama Fertility, said Wednesday that IVF is often the best treatment for patients who desperately want a child, and the ruling threatens doctors’ ability to provide that care. 

“The moments that our patients are wanting to have by growing their families — Christmas mornings with grandparents, kindergarten, going in the first day of school, with little backpacks — all that stuff is what this is about. Those are the real moments that this ruling could deprive patients of,” he said. 

Justices — citing language in the Alabama Constitution that the state recognizes the “rights of the unborn child” — said three couples could sue for wrongful death when their frozen embryos were destroyed in an accident at a storage facility. 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in Friday’s majority ruling. Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that a fetus killed when a woman is pregnant is covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

While the court case centered on whether embryos were covered under the wrongful death of a minor statute, some said treating the embryo as a child — rather than property — could have broader implications and call into question many of the practices of IVF. 

New Clues Discovered About Silent Brain Changes That Precede Alzheimer’s 

WASHINGTON — Alzheimer’s quietly ravages the brain long before symptoms appear, and now scientists have new clues about the dominolike sequence of those changes — a potential window to one day intervene. 

A large study in China tracked middle-aged and older adults for 20 years, using regular brain scans, spinal taps and other tests. 

Compared to those who remained cognitively healthy, people who eventually developed the mind-robbing disease had higher levels of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein in their spinal fluid 18 years prior to diagnosis, researchers reported Wednesday. Then every few years afterward, the study detected another so-called biomarker of brewing trouble. 

Scientists don’t know exactly how Alzheimer’s forms. One early hallmark is that sticky protein called beta-amyloid, which over time builds up into brain-clogging plaques. Amyloid alone isn’t enough to damage memory — plenty of healthy people’s brains harbor a lot of plaque. An abnormal tau protein that forms neuron-killing tangles is one of several co-conspirators. 

The new research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, offers a timeline for how those abnormalities pile up. 

The study’s importance “cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Richard Mayeux, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the research. 

“Knowledge of the timing of these physiological events is critical” for testing new ways of treating and maybe eventually even preventing Alzheimer’s, he wrote in an accompanying editorial. 

The findings have no practical implications yet. 

First treatment

More than 6 million Americans, and millions more worldwide, have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. There’s no cure. But last year, a drug named Leqembi became the first to be approved, with clear evidence that it could slow the worsening of early Alzheimer’s — albeit for a few months. 

It works by clearing away some of that gunky amyloid protein. The approach also is being tested to see if it’s possible to delay Alzheimer’s onset if high-risk people are treated before symptoms appear. Still, other drugs are being developed to target tau. 

Tracking silent brain changes is key for such research. Scientists already knew that in rare, inherited forms of Alzheimer’s that strike younger people, a toxic form of amyloid starts accumulating about two decades ahead of symptoms, and at some point later, tau kicks in. 

The new findings show the order in which such biomarker changes occurred with more common old-age Alzheimer’s. 

Researchers with Beijing’s Innovation Center for Neurological Disorders compared 648 people eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and an equal number who remained healthy. The amyloid finding in future Alzheimer’s patients was the first, 18 years or 14 years prior to diagnosis depending on the test used. 

Differences in tau were detected next, followed by a marker of trouble in how neurons communicate. A few years after that, differences in brain shrinkage and cognitive test scores between the two groups became apparent, the study found. 

“The more we know about viable Alzheimer’s treatment targets and when to address them, the better and faster we will be able to develop new therapies and preventions,” said Claire Sexton, the Alzheimer’s Association’s senior director of scientific programs. She noted that blood tests are coming soon that promise to also help by making it easier to track amyloid and tau. 

Private US Spacecraft Enters Orbit around the Moon Ahead Of Landing Attempt

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private U.S. lunar lander reached the moon and eased into a low orbit Wednesday, a day before it will attempt an even greater feat — landing on the gray, dusty surface.

A smooth touchdown would put the U.S. back in business on the moon for the first time since NASA astronauts closed out the Apollo program in 1972. The company, if successful, also would become the first private outfit to ace a moon landing.

Launched last week, Intuitive Machines’ lander fired its engine on the back side of the moon while out of contact with Earth. Flight controllers at the company’s Houston headquarters had to wait until the spacecraft emerged to learn whether the lander was in orbit or hurtling aimlessly away.

Intuitive Machines confirmed its lander, nicknamed Odysseus, was circling the moon with experiments from NASA and other clients. The lander is part of a NASA program to kickstart the lunar economy; the space agency is paying $118 million to get its experiments on the moon on this mission.

On Thursday, controllers will lower the orbit from just under 60 miles (92 kilometers) to 6 miles (10 kilometers) — a crucial maneuver occurring again on the moon’s far side — before aiming for a touchdown near the moon’s south pole. It’s a dicey place to land with all the craters and cliffs, but deemed prime real estate for astronauts since the permanently shadowed craters are believed to hold frozen water.

The moon is littered with wreckage from failed landings. Some missions never even got that far. Another U.S. company — Astrobotic Technology — tried to send a lander to the moon last month, but it didn’t get there because of a fuel leak. The crippled lander came crashing back through the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific.

A rundown on the moon’s winners and losers:

First victories

The Soviet Union’s Luna 9 successfully touches down on the moon in 1966, after its predecessors crash or miss the moon altogether. The U.S. follows four months later with Surveyor 1. Both countries achieve more robotic landings, as the race heats up to land men.

Apollo rules

NASA clinches the space race with the Soviets in 1969 with a moon landing by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Twelve astronauts explore the surface over six missions, before the program ends with Apollo 17 in 1972. Still the only country to send humans to the moon, the U.S. hopes to return crews to the surface by the end of 2026 or so, a year after a lunar fly-around by astronauts.

China emerges

China, in 2013, becomes the third country to successfully land on the moon, delivering a rover named Yutu, Chinese for jade rabbit. China follows with the Yutu-2 rover in 2019, this time touching down on the moon’s unexplored far side — an impressive first. A sample return mission on the moon’s near side in 2020 yields nearly 4 pounds (1.7 kilograms) of lunar rocks and dirt. Another sample return mission should be launching soon, but this time to the far side. Seen as NASA’s biggest moon rival, China aims to put its astronauts on the moon by 2030. 

Russia stumbles 

In 2023, Russia tries for its first moon landing in nearly a half-century, but the Luna 25 spacecraft smashes into the moon. The country’s previous lander — 1976’s Luna 24 — not only landed, but returned moon rocks to Earth. 

India triumphs on take 2  

After its first lander slams into the moon in 2019, India regroups and launches Chandrayaan-3 (Hindi for moon craft) in 2023. The craft successfully touches down, making India the fourth country to score a lunar landing. The win comes just four days after Russia’s crash-landing. 

Japan lands sideways 

Japan becomes the fifth country to land successfully on the moon, with its spacecraft touching down in January. The craft lands on the wrong side, compromising its ability to generate solar power, but manages to crank out pictures and science before falling silent when the long lunar night sets in. 

Private tries 

A privately funded lander from Israel, named Beresheet, Hebrew for “in the beginning,” crashes into the moon in 2019. A Japanese entrepreneur’s company, ispace, launches a lunar lander in 2023, but it, too, wrecks. Astrobotic Technology, a Pittsburgh company, launches its lander in January, but a fuel leak prevents a landing and dooms the craft. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines plan more moon deliveries. 

Alabama Supreme Court Rules Frozen Embryos Are ‘Children’ Under State Law

Montgomery, Alabama — The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law, a ruling critics said could have sweeping implications for fertility treatments. 

The decision was issued in a pair of wrongful death cases brought by three couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility clinic. Justices, citing anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, ruled that an 1872 state law allowing parents to sue over the death of a minor child “applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.” 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in the majority ruling Friday from the all-Republican court. 

Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that fetuses killed while a woman is pregnant are covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

The ruling brought a rush of warnings about the potential impact on fertility treatments and the freezing of embryos, which had previously been considered property by the courts. 

“This ruling is stating that a fertilized egg, which is a clump of cells, is now a person. It really puts into question the practice of IVF,” Barbara Collura, CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said in an interview Tuesday. The group called the decision a “terrifying development for the 1 in 6 people impacted by infertility” who need in-vitro fertilization. 

She said it raises questions for providers and patients, including if they can freeze future embryos created during fertility treatment or if patients could ever donate or destroy unused embryos. 

The plaintiffs in the Alabama case had undergone IVF treatments that led to the creation of several embryos, some of which were implanted and resulted in healthy births. The couples had paid to keep others frozen in a storage facility at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center. A patient in 2020 wandered into the area and removed several embryos, dropping them on the floor and “killing them,” the ruling said. 

The justices ruled that wrongful death lawsuits by the couples could proceed. 

An anti-abortion group cheered the decision. “Each person, from the tiniest embryo to an elder nearing the end of his life, has incalculable value that deserves and is guaranteed legal protection,” Lila Rose, president and founder of Live Action said in a statement. 

Chief Justice Tom Parker issued a concurring opinion that quoted the Bible as he discussed the meaning of the phrase “the sanctity of unborn life” in the Alabama Constitution. 

“Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory,” Parker said. 

Justice Greg Cook, who filed the only full dissent to the majority opinion, said the 1872 law did not define “minor child” and was being stretched from the original intent to cover frozen embryos. 

“Moreover, there are other significant reasons to be concerned about the main opinion’s holding. No court — anywhere in the country — has reached the conclusion the main opinion reaches,” he wrote, adding the ruling “almost certainly ends the creation of frozen embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Alabama.” 

The Alabama Supreme Court decision partly hinged on anti-abortion language added to the Alabama Constitution in 2018, stating that it is the “public policy of this state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child.” 

Supporters at the time said it would “be a declaration of voters’ beliefs” and would have no impact unless states gain more control over abortion access. States gained control of abortion access in 2022. Critics at the time said it would have broad ramifications for civil and criminal law beyond abortion access and that it was essentially a “personhood” measure that would establish constitutional rights for fertilized eggs. 

Newly Discovered Quasar May Be Universe’s Brightest Object

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA — Astronomers have discovered what may be the brightest object in the universe, a quasar with a black hole at its heart growing so fast that it swallows the equivalent of a sun a day. 

The record-breaking quasar shines 500 trillion times brighter than our sun. The black hole powering this distant quasar is more than 17 billion times more immense than our sun, an Australian-led team reported Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy. 

While the quasar resembles a mere dot in images, scientists envision a ferocious place. 

The rotating disk around the quasar’s black hole — the luminous swirling gas and other matter from gobbled-up stars — is like a cosmic hurricane. 

“This quasar is the most violent place that we know in the universe,” lead author Christian Wolf of Australian National University said in an email. 

The European Southern Observatory spotted the object, J0529-4351, during a 1980 sky survey, but it was thought to be a star. It was not identified as a quasar — the extremely active and luminous core of a galaxy — until last year. Observations by telescopes in Australia and Chile’s Atacama Desert clinched it. 

“The exciting thing about this quasar is that it was hiding in plain sight and was misclassified as a star previously,” Yale University’s Priyamvada Natarajan, who was not involved in the study, said in an email. 

These later observations and computer modeling have determined that the quasar is gobbling up the equivalent of 370 suns a year — roughly one a day. Further analysis shows the mass of the black hole to be 17 to 19 billion times that of our sun, according to the team. More observations are needed to understand its growth rate. 

The quasar is 12 billion light-years away and has been around since the early days of the universe. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles. 

US-China Rivalry Expands to Biotech; Lawmakers Raise Alarm

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are raising alarms about what they see as America’s failure to compete with China in biotechnology, warning of the risks to U.S. national security and commercial interests. But as the two countries’ rivalry expands into the biotech industry, some say that shutting out Chinese companies would only hurt the U.S.

Biotechnology promises to revolutionize everyday life, with scientists and researchers using it to make rapid advances in medical treatment, genetic engineering in agriculture and novel biomaterials. Because of its potential, it has caught the attention of both the Chinese and U.S. governments.

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to bar “foreign adversary biotech companies of concern” from doing business with federally funded medical providers. The bills name four Chinese-owned companies.

The Chinese Embassy said those behind the bills have an “ideological bias” and seek to suppress Chinese companies “under false pretexts.” It demanded that Chinese companies be given “open, just, and non-discriminatory treatment.”

The debate over biotechnology is taking place as the Biden administration tries to stabilize the volatile U.S.-China relationship, which has been battered by a range of issues, including a trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity and militarization in the South China Sea.

Critics of the legislation warn that restrictions on Chinese companies would impede advances that could bring a greater good.

“In biotech, one cannot maintain competitiveness by walling off others,” said Abigail Coplin, an assistant professor at Vassar College who specializes in China’s biotech industry. She said she was worried that U.S. policymakers would get too obsessed with the technology’s military applications at the cost of hindering efforts to cure disease and feed the world’s population.

In a letter to senators sponsoring the bill, Rachel King, chief executive officer of the trade association Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said the legislation would “do untold damage to the drug development supply chain both for treatments currently approved and on market as well as for development pipelines decades in the making.”

But supporters say the legislation is crucial to protecting U.S. interests.

The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, a group created by the U.S. Senate to review the industry, said the bill would help secure the data of the federal government and of American citizens and it would discourage unfair competition from Chinese companies.

The commission warned that advancement in biotechnology can result not only in economic benefits but also rapid changes in military capabilities.

Much is at stake, said Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. Gallagher introduced the House version of the bill and last week led a congressional delegation to Boston to meet with biotech executives.

“It’s not just a supply chain battle or a national security battle or an economic security battle; I would submit it’s a moral and ethical battle,” Gallagher said. “Just as the sector advances at a really astronomic pace, the country who wins the race will set the ethical standards around how these technologies are used.”

He argues that the U.S. must “set the rules of the road” and if not, “we’re going to live in a less free, less moral world as a result.”

Both the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, have identified biotech as a critical national interest.

The Biden administration has put forward a “whole-of-government approach” to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing that is important for health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture and supply chain resilience.

The Chinese government has plans to develop a “national strategic technology force” in biotech, which would be tasked with making breakthroughs and helping China achieve “technological independence,” primarily from the U.S.

“Both the Chinese government and the Americans have identified biotech as an area important for investment, a sector that presents an opportunity to grow their economy,” said Tom Bollyky, the Bloomberg chair in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said any restrictive U.S. measures should be tailored to address military concerns and concerns about genomic data security.

“Naturally there’s going to be competition, but what’s challenging in biotech is that we are talking about human health,” Bollyky said.

Ray Yip, who founded the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in China, also worries that the rivalry will slow medical advancements.

The benefit of coming up with better diagnostics and therapy is beyond any individual country, Yip said, “and will not overshadow the capacity or prestige of the other country.”

What concerns Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, is Beijing’s lack of transparency and its unfair market practices. “Competition is one thing. Unfair competition is another thing,” she said.

Puglisi described BGI, a major Chinese biotech company identified in both the House and Senate bills, as “a national champion” that is subsidized and given favored treatment by the state in a system that “blurs private and public as well as civilian and military.”

“This system creates market distortions and undermines the global norms of science by using researchers and academic and commercial entities to further the goals of the state,” Puglisi said.

BGI, which has stressed its private ownership, offers genetic testing kits and a popular prenatal screening test to detect Down syndrome and other conditions. U.S. lawmakers say they are concerned such data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.

The Defense Department has listed BGI as a Chinese military company, and the Commerce Department has blacklisted it on human rights grounds, citing a risk that BGI technology might have contributed to surveillance. BGI has rejected the allegations.

In raising its concerns about BGI, the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology says the company is required to share data with the Chinese government, has partnered with the Chinese military, and has received considerable Chinese state funding and support.

State subsidies have allowed BGI to offer genomic sequencing services at a highly competitive price that is attractive to U.S. researchers, according to the commission. The genomic data, once in the hands of the Chinese government, “represents a strategic asset that has privacy, security, economic, and ethical implications,” it said.

BGI could not immediately be reached for comment.

Endangered Rhinos Return to Plateau in Central Kenya

LOISABA CONSERVANCY, Kenya — Conservationists in Kenya are celebrating as rhinos were returned to a grassy plateau that hasn’t seen them in decades.

The successful move of 21 eastern black rhinos to a new home will give them space to breed and could help increase the population of the critically endangered animals. It was Kenya’s biggest rhino relocation ever.

The rhinos were taken from three parks that are becoming overcrowded to the private Loisaba Conservancy, where herds were wiped out by poaching decades ago.

“It’s been decades since rhinos roamed here, almost 50 years ago,” said Loisaba security manager Daniel Ole Yiankere. “Their numbers were severely impacted by poaching. Now, our focus is on rejuvenating this landscape and allowing rhinos to breed, aiming to restore their population to its former splendor.”

Moving rhinos safely is a serious challenge. The 18-day exercise involved tracking the rhinos using a helicopter and then shooting them with tranquilizer darts. Then the animals — which weigh about a ton each — have to be loaded into the back of a truck for the move.

Disaster nearly struck early in the relocation effort, when a tranquilized rhino stumbled into a creek. Veterinarians and rangers held the rhino’s head above water with a rope to stop it from drowning while a tranquilizer reversal drug took effect, and the rhino was released.

Some of the rhinos were transferred from Nairobi National Park and made a 300-kilometer trip. Others came from two parks closer to Loisaba.

Rhinos are generally solitary animals and are at their happiest in large territories. As numbers in the three parks where the rhinos were moved from have increased, wildlife officials decided to relocate some in the hope that they will be happier and more likely to breed.

David Ndere, an expert on rhinos at the Kenya Wildlife Service, said their reproduction rates decrease when there are too many in a territory.

“By removing some animals, we expect that the rhino population in those areas will rise up,” Ndere said. “And then we reintroduce that founder population of at least 20 animals into new areas.”

Loisaba Conservancy said it has dedicated around 25,000 hectares to the new arrivals, which are a mix of males and females.

Kenya has had relative success in reviving its black rhino population, which dipped from around 20,000 in the 1970s to below 300 in the mid-1980s because of poaching, according to conservationists, raising fears that the animals might be wiped out completely in the country. Kenya now has around 1,000 black rhinos, the third biggest population behind South Africa and Namibia.

There are just over 6,400 wild black rhinos left in the world, all of them in Africa, according to the Save the Rhino organization.

Tom Silvester, the CEO of Loisaba Conservancy, said Kenya’s plan is to get its black rhino numbers to 2,000 over the next decade.

“Once we have 2,000 individuals, we will have established a population that will give us hope that we have brought them back from extinction,” he said.

Kenyan authorities say they have relocated more than 150 rhinos in the last decade.

An attempt to move 11 rhinos in 2018 ended in disaster when all of the animals died shortly after moving.

Ten of the rhinos died from stress, dehydration and starvation intensified by salt poisoning as they struggled to adjust to saltier water in their new home, investigations found. The other one was attacked by a lion.

Since then, new guidelines have been created for the capture and moving of rhinos in Kenya. Silvester said tests have been conducted on the water quality at Loisaba.

Kenya is also home to the last two remaining northern white rhinos on the planet. Researchers said last month they hope they might be able to save that subspecies after creating an embryo in a lab from an egg and sperm previously collected from white rhinos and transferring it into a surrogate female black rhino. The pregnancy was discovered in a postmortem after the surrogate died of an infection following a flood.

Brazil’s Health Agents Hunt Mosquitos in Dengue Epidemic Fight

RIO DE JANEIRO — The small team of state public health workers slalomed between auto parts strewn across a Rio de Janeiro junkyard, looking for standing water where mosquitoes might have laid their eggs.

They were part of nationwide efforts to curtail a surge in Brazil of the mosquito-borne illness of dengue fever during the country’s key tourist season that runs through the end of February.

Paulo Cesar Gomes, a 56-year-old entomologist, found some mosquito larvae swimming in shallow rainwater inside a car bumper.

“We call this type of location a strategic point” because of the high turnover in items converging from all over, he said. “It’s difficult not to have mosquitoes here.”

Earlier in the month, just days before Rio kicked off its world-famous Carnival festivities, the city joined several states and the country’s capital in declaring a public health epidemic over this year’s greater-than-normal number of cases of dengue.

“We had more cases in January than any other January,” Ethel Maciel, head of health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

So far this year, Brazil has recorded 512,000 cases nationwide, including both confirmed and likely cases — nearly four times more than those registered in the same period a year ago.

There have been 425 deaths under investigation for dengue so far this year, with 75 confirmed, as compared with just over 1,000 for all of 2023.

Dengue is a viral infection transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Frequent rains and high temperatures, which accelerate the hatching of mosquito eggs and the development of larvae, make the famously hot city of Rio especially susceptible to outbreaks.

Many who are infected never develop symptoms, but dengue can cause high fever, headache, body aches, nausea and a rash, according to the World Health Organization. While most get better after a week or so, some develop a severe form that requires hospitalization and can be fatal.

Health workers like Gomes, equipped with masks and plastic gloves, meticulously combed the junkyard on a hot morning, gently kicking and shaking piled up auto parts looking for any trace of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that can spread dengue.

Whenever he saw standing water Gomes grabbed a hand pipette out of his bag and looked for larvae, which he collected in a white plastic container. Captured mosquitos and larvae are kept alive and brought to a city laboratory to be tested for dengue.

At locations with positive tests, health agents spray the walls with a product that kills mosquitoes and then monitor the location for weeks.

Maciel, from the Health Ministry, said the first warning about a possible epidemic came in September.

Brazil’s leading research institute, the state-funded Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, or Fiocruz, came up with several scenarios indicating that Brazil could have as many as 4.2 million cases this year, up from 1.6 million in 2023.

Maciel said the surge is due to excessive heat and intense rain, both possible effects of climate change or El Niño, a natural, temporary and occasional warming of part of the Pacific that shifts weather patterns across the globe.

Maciel also cited the circulation of four dengue virus serotypes at the same time, one of which authorities had not seen in 15 years.

In Rio, more than 80% of mosquito breeding sites are located in residential properties, health officials say. So, efforts to combat dengue must start in homes, and raising awareness is key, said Mário Sérgio Ribeiro, a health surveillance official for Rio de Janeiro state.

State officials launched a “10 minutes that save lives” initiative to encourage residents to inspect their homes, offices and places of worship for any standing water.

Health workers and volunteers went door to door, pacing up and down the narrow streets of Rio’s Tabajara working-class neighborhood, or favela, to spread the word. They distributed leaflets and climbed on rooftops, looking for containers with rainwater.

One elderly woman, Vilza da Costa, told the AP she believes she contracted the disease.

“It started with a fever, then my body was itching all over, weakness, and a lot of pain. I was in a very bad way,” she said. “There are a lot of mosquitoes here.”

During Carnival, which ended Wednesday, health employees welcomed visitors with free repellent. A van with a giant crossed off mosquito and the words “Against Dengue Everyday” opened and closed the parades several nights, for millions of TV viewers to see.

Maciel said the effect of Carnival will not be known for another week. Even though dengue is not transmissible from person to person, increased tourism can boost the spread of the disease to locations that had not been affected.

It’s not clear if the cases have reached a peak and now “are going to start going down, or if the worst-case scenario is indeed happening,” Maciel said.

China to Show Off Airliner at Singapore Show Amid Supply Crunch

SINGAPORE — Singapore will play host to Asia’s biggest air show next week for the first time since the end of COVID border restrictions, with regional travel rebounding and the military side of the show bristling with defensive systems and nervous arms buyers.

An expected full return of civil demand in Asia is being tested by an industry-wide supply crunch and macroeconomic headwinds, however — especially in the world’s second-largest aviation market, China — while geopolitical tensions have put weapons in the spotlight.

“Supply chain issues are limiting the ability of many airlines to upgrade their fleets and service their aircraft,” said Association of Asia Pacific Airlines head Subhas Menon.

The biennial show will feature the first trip outside Chinese territory for China’s first homegrown passenger jet, COMAC’s narrow-body C919.

With the dominant two plane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, struggling to ramp up production and meet demand for new planes, and Boeing struggling with a string of crises, air show attendees will be watching how the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, positions itself as a viable alternative.

Many inside the industry caution that only four C919s are in service in China; the plane is only certified by Chinese regulators; and the C919 relies on international supply chains.

Nevertheless, China’s aviation authority has said it would promote the plane internationally this year and pursue European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification.

“We have also seen a growing trend where clients are including the C919 option in their fleet evaluation,” said Adam Cowburn of Alton Aviation Consultancy.

COMAC will be one of two commercial plane makers flying their planes alongside Airbus. Boeing will not send a commercial aircraft to the show this year.

It is the first major international industry event since last month’s blowout of a door plug on a 737 MAX 9 pushed Boeing into its second safety crisis in five years and sent images of a fuselage with a gaping hole whizzing across the globe.

Analyst Sash Tusa of U.K.-based Agency Partners said that in the past, the industry rarely discussed aviation safety in public, on the assumption that any mention would undermine confidence.

“But this omerta no longer seems to apply,” he added in a note.

Environmental impact

Singapore will invite industry delegates to discuss aviation’s environmental impact and will reveal a plan for making Singapore’s aviation sector sustainable. In November, the global aviation industry agreed to lower fuel carbon emissions 5% by 2030, toward a goal of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

“For the industry to meet its Fly Net Zero ambitions by 2050, Asia will be a key driver given that it will continue to remain the largest aviation market,” Cowburn said.

A massive ramp-up in sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, production is the current hope for meeting these targets, but it costs three to five times more than traditional jet fuel and there are concerns about how to sustainably meet demand.

“That awareness of aviation’s climate impact has been rising, and the questions about this industry’s license to operate have been increasingly raised — without there being a credible path of tackling that problem,” said Sami Jauhiainen of refiner Neste, which started refining SAF in Singapore last year.

Defense needs

Some new freighters are also in demand, delegates said. Amid spiraling tensions over Taiwan, disputes over South China Sea sovereignty and a spike in North Korean missile tests, regional defense budgets are rising. Systems from small drones to complex sub-hunting aircraft will be on display.

The war in Ukraine, which has seen extensive use of high-end air defenses, and repeated attacks on Red Sea shipping, may also spur interest in systems that can intercept missiles and drones, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms used to keep tabs on adversaries. No Russian companies are listed among the exhibitors at the air show.

Six air forces will stage flying demonstrations, including the United States and India.

China’s New Antarctic Research Station Renews Concerns About Potential Security Threats

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China’s inauguration of a new scientific research station in Antarctica last week has renewed debate about the purpose and impact of the rapid expansion of Chinese presence on the continent. 

Situated on Inexpressible Island near the Ross Sea, Qinling Station is China’s fifth scientific outpost and third research station on the continent that can operate year around. The station covers 5,244 square meters and can house up to 80 people during summer months, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

Qinling Station is near the U.S. McMurdo Station and just south of Australia and a  Center for Strategic and International Studies report published last April said its position could allow China to “collect signals intelligence from U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand” as well as gather “telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries.” 

Some analysts say while Qinling Station is built for scientific purposes, some of its capabilities may be “inherently dual-use.”

“China can potentially leverage some of those resources and capabilities for military or intelligence gathering purposes,” Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, told VOA by phone. 

He said China continues build more Antarctic research bases because it views the icy continent as part of the “strategic frontiers.” 

“Since it is an area that is further from China’s immediate periphery, Beijing wants to be on the cutting edge and be perceived as a global leader that’s on par with the U.S.,” Hart said, adding that China’s long-term goal is to have a voice in Antarctic governance by cementing a foothold there by establishing scientific research bases. 

In response to concerns about China potentially collecting intelligence on Australia and New Zealand through the station, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the base is built and operated “in full compliance with international rules and procedures.” 

“The station will contribute to humanity’s scientific understanding of the Antarctic, provide a platform for joint scientific exploration and coordination between China and other countries and help advance peace and sustainable development in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wen-bin said during the daily press conference February 7. 

Despite Beijing’s reiteration that the station abides by the rules of the Antarctic Treaty, which outlaws the military use of the continent, some experts say China’s pattern of building its research stations across Antarctica raises legitimate questions about its significant presence on the continent. 

China’s pattern of building Antarctic research bases “raises questions about whether it is committed to the principles of the Antarctic treaty and whether it plans to potentially assert a claim to Antarctica,” Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University, told VOA by phone. 

Since China has expressed the ambition to become a great polar power, Rothwell said China’s rapid expansion of research bases in Antarctica aligns with that goal.

 “Over the last decade, China has sought to be seen as a serious state actor in polar affairs,” he said. 

China is gaining “[credibility as a serious Antarctic state through its scientific research program and its engagement in the Antarctic Treaty system,” Rothwell added. 

The day that China announced the opening of Qinling Station, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the completion of the building of the research base would “provide a strong guarantee for scientists in China and around the world to continue to explore the mysteries of nature and bravely ascend the peak of science.” 

He also called for “better understanding, protection, and utilization of the polar regions to make new and greater contributions to the benefit of humanity and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity.”  

While the Qinling Station has begun operation, Hart said more elements with potential dual-use capabilities may be added in the future.

“The capacity for this station to support habitation is already up and running but there are more elements of the overall facility that will be built out in the future,” he told VOA. 

“The main one for potential dual-use applications is the antennas and other electronic equipment that can support communication with China’s satellites,” Hart said. 

In a 2022 report on China’s military and security developments, the U.S. Department of Defense said  that China’s “strategy for Antarctica includes the use of dual-use technologies, facilities, and scientific research, which are likely intended, at least in part, to improve PLA [People’s Liberation Army] capabilities.” 

The report also indicated that China’s facilities on the continent can be reference stations for its dual-use BeiDou satellite navigation network, which is Beijing’s alternative to the U.S.-controlled global positioning system.  

Hart said that while Chinese scientists are doing legitimate work in Antarctica that should not be curtailed, “it’s important to emphasize what kind of capabilities” their research stations will have and how those capabilities could be beneficial to the Chinese government and Chinese military.

“It’s important that Antarctica remains a nonmilitarized space,” he told VOA. 

Some analysts say a way to ensure Antarctica remains nonmilitarized and that the interests of Antarctic Treaty members are guaranteed is to rely on existing inspection regimes. 

There should be “a concerted effort to use the inspection regimes that are available in Antarctica to ensure that facilities are not used for military activities or contrary to the Antarctic Treaty,” Tony Press, an expert on Antarctic affairs at the University of Tasmania, told VOA in a video interview. 

Russia Developing ‘Anti-Satellite Capability,’ White House Confirms

Russia is developing an anti-satellite weapon, the White House confirmed Thursday, after a lawmaker sounded an alarm over what he described as a serious national security threat. While White House officials say it could land Moscow in violation of a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in space. They said it is not an urgent threat, and urged Americans not to panic, as lawmakers met behind closed doors to discuss the issue. Anita Powell reports from Washington.

Health Agencies Call for Stepped-up Action to Eliminate Cervical Cancer

GENEVA — Health agencies are urging governments and civil society to step up action to eliminate cervical cancer, a vaccine-preventable disease that kills a woman every two minutes, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.  

“It is the fourth-most common cancer among women worldwide. It is also one of the few types of cancer that can be prevented by a vaccine,” said Herve Verhoosel, spokesperson for Unitaid, an organization that provides affordable lifesaving health products for people in low- and middle-income countries. 

“Vaccination against human papillomavirus, the leading cause of cervical cancer, together with HPV screening and treatment, is a proven path to elimination,” Verhoosel said Tuesday in advance of the first global forum on elimination of cervical cancer. 

The forum, which takes place from March 5 to 7 in Cartagena, Colombia, is hosted by Spain, Colombia and nine leading development and health agencies. 

348,000 women died in 2020

Verhoosel said, “The forum offers a watershed moment for the world to collectively accelerate progress on a groundbreaking promise made in 2020, when nearly 200 countries signed on to the WHO’s global strategy to eliminate cervical cancer.” 

The World Health Organization, Unitaid and other aid agencies provided the statistics on case rates. The WHO estimates 348,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2020, 90% of them from low- and middle-income countries. It warns annual deaths from cervical cancer will likely reach 410,000 by 2030 “if we do not change course.” 

To put countries on the path to elimination, the WHO has set three targets: It calls for 90% of girls to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine by age 15; 70% of women to be screened with a high-performance test by age 35 and again at 45; and for 90% of women with cervical disease to receive treatment. 

The WHO says sub-Saharan Africa has the highest cervical cancer burden globally. It notes the HIV epidemic has worsened the situation because the common HPV virus is sexually transmitted. 

Prebo Barango, cross-cutting specialist on noncommunicable diseases and special initiatives at the WHO, explains that the prevalence of cervical cancer in some countries “demonstrates the inequity of access to prevention and health care as well as social and economic deprivation” in the affected communities. 

He stressed the importance of vaccinating young girls and making access to screening and early treatment for older women more widely available. 

“It is not an either-or approach,” he said. He notes, however, that “access to screening and treatment has been very, very low because most countries have no coverage for these procedures.” 

Barriers to vaccination

The WHO reports that only one in five adolescent girls has been vaccinated against HPV, despite the vaccine’s proven efficacy. Barango explained that a key constraint related to its use is that the recommended age of 14 for receiving the vaccine “falls outside of the normal vaccination age for children.” 

Besides that, he said, “During COVID-19 there was a significant drop in the uptake of these vaccines because schools were closed” and many health facilities were focused on dealing with the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization says cost effective and evidence-based tools for screening and treatment are available. Despite this, it says barriers and inequities in the hardest-hit areas remain unacceptably high. The WHO notes that fewer than 5% of women in low- and middle-income countries are ever screened for cervical cancer. 

Unitaid spokesperson Verhoosel observed that the WHO’s recommendation of a one-dose HPV vaccine instead of the previous two-dose recommendation could prove to be a game changer. 

“A one-dose HPV vaccine opens new opportunities to reach more girls worldwide and will significantly reduce costs and logistical barriers,” he said. 

The nonprofit GAVI vaccine alliance is providing millions of low-cost HPV vaccine doses to developing countries at the affordable price of around $5.00 per dose. And Unitaid says that, together with its partners, it “has secured agreements that have reduced the price of HPV tests by nearly 40%.” 

Bangkok Says Work from Home as Pollution Blankets City

Bangkok — Bangkok city employees have been told to work from home to avoid harmful air pollution, as a layer of noxious haze blanketed the Thai capital Thursday.

City authorities asked for cooperation from employers to help workers in the city of some 11 million people avoid the pollution, which is expected to last into Friday.

The air monitoring website IQAir ranked Bangkok among the 10 most polluted cities in the world Thursday morning.

Levels of the most dangerous PM2.5 particles — so tiny they can enter the bloodstream — were more than 15 times the World Health Organization’s annual guideline, according to IQAir.

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt said late Wednesday that all city employees would work from home Thursday and Friday.

“I would like to ask for cooperation from the BMA network of about 151 companies and organizations, both government offices and the private sector,” he said in a statement, adding that more than 60,000 people were affected.

BMA is an abbreviation for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Chadchart said at least 20 of Bangkok’s 50 districts were expected to have unhealthy levels of PM2.5 particles, and the problem would linger because of calm weather.

Air quality in Thailand regularly plummets in the early months of the year as smoke from farmers burning stubble in the fields adds to industrial emissions and vehicle exhaust fumes.

Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang Mai ranked among the most polluted cities in the world on a number of days last year.

A public health crisis is brewing over the problem, with at least two million people in Thailand needing medical treatment because of pollution in 2023.

The government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, which took over in August, has promised to make tackling air pollution a “national agenda,” and a draft Clean Air Act was endorsed by his Cabinet last month.

But the problem persists, and a court in Chiang Mai last month ordered the government to come up with an urgent plan to tackle air pollution within 90 days.

Scientists Create New Map of the World’s Coral Reefs

SYDNEY — Using satellite technology and sophisticated machine learning, a team led by marine experts in Australia have created new maps of the world’s coral reefs.

The scientists discovered there are more coral reefs around the world than previously documented, with Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines having the most coral reefs. 

Over 100 trillion pixels of data were examined. The result is a high-resolution map that gives fresh insight into the distribution of reefs.

The Allen Coral Atlas initiative has identified approximately 348,000 square kilometers of shallow coral reefs globally to depths of up to 30 meters, an increase from previous estimates.

Experts hope the study will allow politicians, scientists and environmentalists to better understand and manage coral reef systems.

Coral reefs face a range of threats, including climate change, overfishing and pollution.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the only living thing visible from space – is also undermined by industrialization and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

“In Australia we, kind of, had a reasonable idea of where a lot of our reefs might have been,” Mitchell Lyons from the School of the Environment at Australia’s University of Queensland told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “But for some jurisdictions across the southwest Pacific or Indonesia, Philippines, there were not very good, consistent maps of where coral reefs were.  I guess the advantage of having these consistent maps all over the globe is that we can start to report and account and, I guess, conserve.”

The maps are publicly available through the Allen Coral Atlas and Google Earth Engine.

The project receives funding from a company founded by the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and managed by Arizona State University in partnership with conservationists and the University of Queensland.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability.  It states that “coral reefs possess a quarter of all marine life and contribute to the well-being and livelihoods of a billion people worldwide.”