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. 

Beatles To Get Fab Four of Biopics

NEW YORK — The Beatles are getting the big-screen biopic treatment in not just one film, but a Fab Four of movies that will give each band member their own spotlight — all of which are to be directed by Sam Mendes.

For the first time, the Beatles, long among the stingiest rights granters, are giving full life and music rights to a movie project. Sony Pictures announced Monday a deal that may dwarf all music biopics that have come before it, with the stories of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr spread out over a quartet of films.

The films, conceived by Mendes, are expected to roll out theatrically in innovative fashion, with the movies potentially coexisting or intersecting in theaters. Precise release plans will be announced at a later date. Sony is targeting 2027 for their release.

McCartney, Starr and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison have all signed off on the project through the band’s Apple Corps. Ltd. Sony Music Publishing controls the rights to the majority of Beatles songs.

“I’m honored to be telling the story of the greatest rock band of all time, and excited to challenge the notion of what constitutes a trip to the movies,” Mendes said in a statement.

Each film will be from the perspective of a Beatle.

“We intend this to be a uniquely thrilling, and epic cinematic experience: four films, told from four different perspectives which tell a single story about the most celebrated band of all time,” said producer Pippa Harris. “To have The Beatles’ and Apple Corps’ blessing to do this is an immense privilege.”

The Beatles’ most famous forays into film were in their early years. Between 1964 and 1970, they appeared in five movies, including “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and the animated “Yellow Submarine” (1968). They’ve, of course, been the subject of many documentaries, most recently Peter Jackson’s 2021 “The Beatles: Get Back.”

In 2023, the Beatles reunited with the aid of artificial intelligence in the newly released song “Now and Then.” The recording was made possible by technology used by Jackson on “Get Back,” and featured a music video made by the New Zealand director.

Attempts to dramatize the Beatles’ story have been more sporadic and less impactful. A 1979 biopic, made when Lennon was still alive, called “The Birth of the Beatles” was produced with Beatles original drummer Pete Best as an adviser. The 1994 indie drama “Backbeat” chronicled Lennon’s relationship with Stuart Sutcliffe before the Beatles were famous. “Nowhere Boy” (2009) starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a teenage Lennon.

But in the last decade, music biopics have become big business. Box-office hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,””Rocketman” and “Elvis” have sent Hollywood executives chasing the next jukebox blockbuster. Over Presidents Day weekend, “Bob Marley: One Love,” produced with the Marley estate, was the No. 1 movie in theaters. A Michael Jackson biopic is in production.

“Theatrical movie events today must be culturally seismic. Sam’s daring, large-scale idea is that and then some,” said Tom Rothman, chair and chief executive of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group.

The combination of Mendes’ team “with the music and the stories of four young men who changed the world, will rock audiences all over the globe,” Rothman said. “We are deeply grateful to all parties and look forward ourselves to breaking some rules with Sam’s uniquely artistic vision.”

Britain, US, EU, Allies Take Down Lockbit Cybercrime Gang

LONDON — Lockbit, a notorious cybercrime gang that holds its victims’ data for ransom, has been disrupted in a rare international law enforcement operation by Britain’s National Crime Agency, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Europol and a coalition of international police agencies, according to a post on the gang’s extortion website on Monday.

“This site is now under the control of the National Crime Agency of the UK, working in close cooperation with the FBI and the international law enforcement task force, ‘Operation Cronos,’” the post said.

An NCA spokesperson confirmed that the agency had disrupted the gang and said the operation was “ongoing and developing.”

A representative for Lockbit did not respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment but did post messages on an encrypted messaging app saying it had backup servers not affected by the law enforcement action.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The post named other international police organizations from France, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany.

Lockbit and its affiliates have hacked some of the world’s largest organizations in recent months. The gang makes money by stealing sensitive data and threatening to leak it if victims fail to pay an extortionate ransom. Its affiliates are like-minded criminal groups that are recruited by the group to wage attacks using Lockbit’s digital extortion tools.

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts data. Lockbit makes money by coercing its targets into paying ransom to decrypt or unlock that data with a digital key.

Lockbit was discovered in 2020 when its eponymous malicious software was found on Russian-language cybercrime forums, leading some security analysts to believe the gang is based in Russia.

The gang has not professed support for any government, however, and no government has formally attributed it to a nation-state. On its now-defunct dark web site, the group said it was “located in the Netherlands, completely apolitical and only interested in money.”

“They are the Walmart of ransomware groups, they run it like a business — that’s what makes them different,” said Jon DiMaggio, chief security strategist at Analyst1, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm. “They are arguably the biggest ransomware crew today.”

Officials in the United States, where Lockbit has hit more than 1,700 organizations in nearly every industry from financial services and food to schools, transportation and government departments, have described the group as the world’s top ransomware threat.

In November of last year, Lockbit published internal data from Boeing, one of the world’s largest defense and space contractors. In early 2023, Britain’s Royal Mail faced severe disruption after an attack by the group.

According to vx-underground, a cybersecurity research website, Lockbit said in a statement in Russian and shared on Tox, an encrypted messaging app, that the FBI hit its servers that run on the programming language PHP. The statement, which Reuters could not verify independently, added that it has backup servers without PHP that “are not touched.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, vx-underground shared screenshots showing the control panel used by Lockbit’s affiliates to launch attacks had been replaced with a message from law enforcement: “We have source code, details of the victims you have attacked, the amount of money extorted, the data stolen, chats, and much, much more,” it said.

“We may be in touch with you very soon” it added. “Have a nice day.”

Before it was taken down, Lockbit’s website displayed an ever-growing gallery of victim organizations that was updated nearly daily. Next to their names were digital clocks that showed the number of days left to the deadline given to each organization to provide ransom payment.

On Monday, Lockbit’s site displayed a similar countdown, but from the law enforcement agencies who hacked the hackers: “Return here for more information at: 11:30 GMT on Tuesday 20th Feb.” the post said.

Don Smith, vice president of Secureworks, an arm of Dell Technologies, said Lockbit was the most prolific and dominant ransomware operator in a highly competitive underground market.

“To put today’s takedown into context, based on leak site data, Lockbit had a 25% share of the ransomware market. Their nearest rival was Blackcat at around 8.5%, and after that it really starts to fragment,” Smith said.

“Lockbit dwarfed all other groups and today’s action is highly significant.”

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.

Strike Closes Eiffel Tower in Blow to Tourists Ahead of Paris Olympics

Paris — The Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, closed on Monday as staff went on strike in protest against the way the Paris monument is managed financially, disappointing the crowds below.

The strike comes as Paris prepares to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, which begin on July 26 and will feature metal from the tower in the winners’ medals.

Visitors stood outside the barriers of the tower grounds in front of a giant screen announcing the strike.

“It’s a real shame, really, because we come just for three days, and we’re not going to be able to get up,” Nelson Navarro, from Norfolk, England, said.

Vito Santos, from Canada, had planned to revisit the monument 15 years after his honeymoon and show if off to his children.

“It’s disappointing… The plan was to come here really early to get a ticket as early as possible. However, it was a surprise for us, the strike is here, so we cannot make the tour,” he said.

Unions claim Paris City Hall, which owns 99% of the company that oversees the tower, Societe d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), is underestimating the cost of maintenance and repairs to the monument planned ahead of the Olympics.

This in turn could result in lax maintenance work and put visitors at risk, they say.

This is the second time this year staff have gone on strike for the same reason.

The wrought-iron 324-meter (1,063 ft) high tower, built by Gustave Eiffel in the late 19th century, welcomes about six million visitors each year.

Berlin Film Fest Grapples With Nazi Past, Far-Right Threat

BERLIN — This week’s Berlin international film festival is wrestling on- and off-screen with the weight of the Nazi past and the menace of a resurgent far right.

The 74th Berlinale, as the event is known, has a reputation for confronting political realities head-on with high-profile movies and hot-tempered debates.

German director Julia von Heinz brought together an unlikely pair, U.S. actor Lena Dunham and Britain’s Stephen Fry, for her drama “Treasure,” about a Holocaust survivor who returns to Poland with his journalist daughter.

Inspired by a true story, the film shows their journey following the fall of the Iron Curtain, after decades of family silence about the Nazi period.

Fry plays the seemingly jovial Edek searching for a connection with his uptight daughter Ruth (Dunham).

Their travels take them to Edek’s childhood home in Lodz, where they make the chilling discovery that a family living in his old flat is still using his parents’ porcelain tea service, silverware and a green velvet sofa they abandoned when they were deported.

Fearful it is the last chance to record his memories, Ruth convinces Edek to return to Auschwitz.

‘A new perspective’

Von Heinz, speaking after a warmly received screening, said that a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of the Gaza war had spurred her to finish the film for the Berlinale.

She rejected suggestions there had been “enough” movies dealing with the Nazi period.

“There can never be enough stories to be told about this and I think we are giving it a new perspective,” she said.

Fry added: “While history may not repeat itself, as somebody once put it, (it) rhymes and there are similar feelings now as we know rising up.”

The actor, who had several relatives who were killed at Auschwitz, said it was “an extraordinary feeling” to shoot scenes outside the former death camp.

Dunham, who also lost ancestors in the Holocaust, insisted its lessons are both rooted in the Jewish experience and transcend it.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the far right, be it here or in the U.S. — there’s an incredible and shocking amount of anti-Semitic rhetoric and there’s also a shocking amount of Islamophobic rhetoric, anti-Black rhetoric, transphobic rhetoric,” she said. “The goal is to isolate people based on their identities and make them feel inhuman and that’s a universal story unfortunately.”

Resistance ‘superheroes’

“From Hilde, With Love,” starring Liv Lisa Fries of international hit series “Babylon Berlin,” also debuted at the festival over the weekend.

It tells the true story of Hilde Coppi, a member of the “Red Orchestra” anti-Nazi resistance group, who gave birth to a son in prison while awaiting her execution for “high treason” in 1942.

Director Andreas Dresen grew up in communist East Germany, a region where the far-right AfD is poised to make strong gains in key state elections later this year.

He said that in school, resistance members were often portrayed as larger-than-life “superheroes,” meaning many felt incapable of having similar courage to stand up to authority.

Fries, whose vivid portrayal impressed critics, said Coppi joined the Red Orchestra in trying to sabotage the Nazi war effort out of a basic sense of right and wrong.

“It was not only decency but also a sense of solidarity — solidarity is always worth standing up for,” she said.

Dresen stripped the movie of historical images familiar from Nazi movies such as “waving swastika flags and thumping jackboots.”

“Political terror is part of our present and unfortunately not as far away as we would like,” he said. “I really wish this film weren’t so topical.”

“From Hilde, With Love” is one of 20 films in competition for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize Saturday.

Commitment to ’empathy’

The two films premiered amid a fierce debate over whether the Berlinale should continue to invite AfD politicians to its galas.

A bombshell revelation last month — that party members attended a meeting outside Berlin at which mass deportations of foreigners and “poorly assimilated” German citizens were discussed — raised the stakes.

After initially insisting that the elected representatives should attend, the Berlinale backtracked and disinvited five AfD officials, citing its commitment to “empathy, awareness and understanding.”

The move was widely praised by the artistic community, but dissenters argued that democratic culture meant tolerating even offensive views.

Kenyan Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o, the festival’s first black jury president, was asked whether she would have attended the opening ceremony Thursday in the presence of far-right officials.

“I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question,” she replied. “I’m glad I don’t have to be in that position.”

‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Stirs Up $27.7 Million Weekend at Box Office

New York — Paramount Pictures’ Bob Marley biopic “Bob Marley: One Love” outperformed expectations to debut at No. 1 at the box office with a $27.7 million opening weekend, while Sony’s “Madame Web” flopped with one of the lowest debuts for a movie centered on a Marvel character.

Both films launched in theaters on Tuesday to rope in Valentine’s Day moviegoers. But on a weekend that was once expected to go to “Madame Web,” “One Love” emerged as the much-preferred option in theaters, despite largely poor reviews.

Instead, “One Love,” starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and produced with the involvement of the Marley estate, performed roughly on par with previous hit musical biopics like “Rocketman” and “Elvis.” Paramount is forecasting that “One Love” will gross $51 million over its first six days, including estimates for President’s Day on Monday. It added $29 million from 47 international territories.

Chris Aronson, distribution chief for Paramount, noted that pre-release projections forecast a six-day total closer to $30 million for “One Love.” But moviegoers from a wide range turned out for the first big-screen biopic of the Rastafarian legend.

“It was across all generations. It wasn’t just a movie for an older audience that grew up with Bob Marley’s music,” said Aronson. “Our highest quadrant was (age) 18 to 24. A third of the audience was under 25. That, to me, speaks volumes.”

Produced for about $70 million, “One Love,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, chronicles Marley during the making of the 1977 album “Exodus” while leading up to a pivotal concert for his native Jamaica. Among the movie’s producers are Marley’s children, Ziggy and Cedella, and his wife, Rita.

Ziggy Marley, in a statement Sunday, said: “We thank the people for embracing this film and in so doing helping to highlight the message of one love.”

Though critics dinged the film (43% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) for relying on biopic conventions, audiences gave it a much higher grade, with an “A” CinemaScore. That kind of audience response plus the strong opening should bode well for the film’s run.

“Madame Web,” however, was dead on arrival. Over six days, Sony is estimating a $15.2 million weekend and a six-day $25.8 million haul. Audiences (a “C+” CinemaScore) agreed with critics (13% “fresh”).

Such launches were once unfathomable for stand-alone superhero films. But the film, an extension of Sony’s universe of Spider-Man films, struggled to shed the bad buzz surrounding the $80 million project. In it, Dakota Johnson stars as a New York paramedic with clairvoyant powers.

“The entire superhero genre has had a really rough go of it over the past year,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “Certain things are no longer a sure bet. Except maybe now, the musical biopic has become the go-to genre. It just shows how tastes can change.”

Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs have been mostly hit and miss. Its two “Venom” films have together surpassed $1.3 billion worldwide. But 2022’s poorly received “Morbius” collected just $167.4 million globally. “Madame Web” still couldn’t come close to the $39 million domestic opening weekend for “Morbius.” In 61 overseas markets, “Madame Web” added $25.7 million.

The better news for Sony’s Spider-verse came Saturday night at the 51st Annie Awards, where “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” won best feature and collected seven prizes in total. “Across the Spider-Verse” is nominated for best animated feature at the Academy Awards — and the Annie Awards can often be a good predictor of winner.

The 2024 box office has gotten off to a sobering start for Hollywood, and the disappointing result for “Madame Web” won’t help. Moviegoing has slowed to a crawl in recent weeks, while 2023’s strikes have impacted this year’s release schedules. Even with the strong “One Love” opening, ticket sales were down 15% on the weekend compared to 2023, according to ComScore.

Expectations are high for “Dune: Part Two,” opening March 1. Until then, “Bob Marley: One Love” will be jammin’.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Bob Marley: One Love,” $27.7 million.

  2. “Madame Web,” $15.2 million.

  3. “Argylle,” $4.7 million.

  4. “Migration,” $3.8 million.

  5. “The Chosen,” Episodes 4-6, $3.4 million.

  6. “Wonka,” $3.4 million.

  7. “The Beekeeper,” $3.3 million.

  8. “Anyone But You,” $2.4 million.

  9. “Lisa Frankenstein,” $2 million.

  10. “Land of Bad,” $1.8 million.

And the Winner Is… London Rolls Out Red Carpet for BAFTA Film Awards 

London — Hollywood stars descended on London on Sunday for the annual BAFTA Film Awards, where U.S. historical drama “Oppenheimer,” one of the highest-grossing films of 2023, leads nominations for Britain’s top movie honors. 

The three-hour epic about the making of the atomic bomb during World War Two has 13 nods, including for the night’s top prize — best film — which it is the current favorite to win. 

Also leading betting odds are the film’s Irish star Cillian Murphy — who plays the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — to win the leading actor prize and Briton Christopher Nolan for best director. 

“We’re just thrilled, we’re kind of overwhelmed by it all,” Murphy told the BAFTA red carpet livestream of the film’s nominations. “It’s an amazing feeling for … everyone that worked on the movie.” 

The other contenders for best film include Emma Stone’s sex-charged gothic comedy “Poor Things”; “The Zone of Interest,” about the commandant of Auschwitz and his family living next to the death camp; Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the murders of members of the Osage Nation in the 1920s; courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall”; and “The Holdovers,” a comedy set in a boys’ boarding school. 

“Poor Things” has 11 nominations, including one for previous BAFTA and Oscar winner Stone, who is favorite to win the leading actress category. 

“We just hope that people feel like this is a unique cinema experience and it says something about the world,” writer Tony McNamara, whose “Poor Things” script is nominated for adapted screenplay, told Reuters on the ceremony’s red carpet at the Royal Festival Hall, by the River Thames in central London.  

None of the best director contenders has previously won the award and four out of the six are first-time director nominees, including the only woman on the list, Justine Triet for “Anatomy of a Fall.”  

“I’m very surprised to be the only woman,” Triet told Reuters. “Things are not coming naturally so we have to push doors open.” 

“Barbie,” the highest grossing film of 2023, has five nominations overall, including leading actress for Margot Robbie and supporting actor for Ryan Gosling. 

As well as a spate of celebrities, the guest list also includes BAFTA President Prince William, who is attending without his wife Kate, who recently underwent surgery. 

Known as the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), the ceremony will be hosted by actor David Tennant. 

Solemn Monument to Japanese American WWII Detainees Lists More Than 125,000 Names

Los Angeles — Samantha Sumiko Pinedo and her grandparents file into a dimly lit enclosure at the Japanese American National Museum and approach a massive book splayed open to reveal columns of names. Pinedo is hoping the list includes her great-grandparents, who were detained in Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. 

“For a lot of people, it feels like so long ago because it was World War II. But I grew up with my Bompa (great-grandpa), who was in the internment camps,” Pinedo says.

A docent at the museum in Los Angeles gently flips to the middle of the book — called the Ireichō — and locates Kaneo Sakatani near the center of a page. This was Pinedo’s great-grandfather, and his family can now honor him.

On Feb. 19, 1942, following the attack by Imperial Japan on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry to WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry who were considered potentially dangerous. 

From the extreme heat of the Gila River center in Arizona, to the biting winters of Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Japanese Americans were forced into hastily built barracks, with no insulation or privacy, and surrounded by barbed wire. They shared bathrooms and mess halls, and families of up to eight were squeezed into 20-by-25 foot (6-by-7.5 meter) rooms. Armed U.S. soldiers in guard towers ensured nobody tried to flee.


When the 75 holding facilities on U.S. soil closed in 1946, the government published Final Accountability Rosters listing the name, sex, date of birth and marital status of the Japanese Americans held at the 10 largest facilities. There was no clear consensus of who or how many had been detained nationwide.

Duncan Ryūken Williams, the director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, knew those rosters were incomplete and riddled with errors, so he and a team of researchers took on the mammoth task of identifying all the detainees and honoring them with a three-part monument called “Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration.”

“We wanted to repair that moment in American history by thinking of the fact that this is a group of people, Japanese Americans, that was targeted by the government. As long as you had one drop of Japanese blood in you, the government told you you didn’t belong,” Williams said.

The Irei project was inspired by stone Buddhist monuments called Ireitōs that were built by detainees at camps in Manzanar, California, and Amache, Colorado, to memorialize and console the spirits of internees who died.

The first part of the Irei monument is the Ireichō, the sacred book listing 125,284 verified names of Japanese American detainees.

“We felt like we needed to bring dignity and personhood and individuality back to all these people,” Williams said. “The best way we thought we could do that was to give them their names back.”

The second element, the Ireizō, is a website set to launch on Monday, the Day of Remembrance, which visitors can use to search for additional information about detainees. Ireihi is the final part: A collection of light installations at incarceration sites and the Japanese American National Museum.

Williams and his team spent more than three years reaching out to camp survivors and their relatives, correcting misspelled names and data errors and filling in the gaps. They analyzed records in the National Archives of detainee transfers, as well as Enemy Alien identification cards and directories created by detainees.

“We feel fairly confident that we’re at least 99% accurate with that list,” Williams said.

The team recorded every name in order of age, from the oldest person who entered the camps to the last baby born there.

Williams, who is a Buddhist priest, invited leaders from different faiths, Native American tribes and social justice groups to attend a ceremony introducing the Ireichō to the museum.

Crowds of people gathered in the Little Tokyo neighborhood to watch camp survivors and descendants of detainees file into the museum, one by one, holding wooden pillars, called sobata, bearing the names of each of the camps. At the end of the procession, the massive, weighty book of names was carried inside by multiple faith leaders. Williams read Buddhist scripture and led chants to honor the detainees.

Those sobata now line the walls of the serene enclosure where the Ireichō will remain until Dec. 1. Each bears the name — in English and Japanese — of the camp it represents. Suspended from each post is a jar containing soil from the named site.

Visitors are encouraged to look for their loved ones in the Ireichō and leave a mark under their names using a Japanese stamp called a hanko.

The first people to stamp it were some of the last surviving camp detainees.

So far, 40,000 visitors have made their mark. For Williams, that interaction is essential.

“To honor each person by placing a stamp in the book means that you are changing the monument every day,” Williams said.

Sharon Matsuura, who visited the Ireichō to commemorate her parents and husband who were incarcerated in Camp Amache, says the monument has an important role to play in raising awareness, especially for young people who may not know about this harsh chapter in America’s story.

“It was a very shameful part of history that the young men and women were good enough to fight and die for the country, but they had to live in terrible conditions and camps,” Matsuura says. “We want people to realize these things happened.”

Many survivors remain silent about what they endured, not wanting to relive it, Matsuura says.

Pinedo watches as her grandmother, Bernice Yoshi Pinedo, carefully stamps a blue dot beneath her father’s name. The family stands back in silence, taking in the moment, yellow light casting shadows from the jars of soil on the walls.

Kaneo Sakatani was only 14 when he was detained in Tule Lake, in far northern California.

“It’s sad,” Bernice says. “But I feel very proud that my parents’ names were in there.” 

Nepal Pursues Sacred Items Smuggled Abroad

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s gods and goddess are returning home.

An unknown number of sacred statues of Hindu deities were stolen and smuggled abroad in the past. Now dozens are being repatriated to the Himalayan nation, part of a growing global effort to return such items to countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

Last month, four idols and masks of Hindu gods were returned to Nepal from the United States by museums and a private collector.

Among them was a 16th century statue of Uma-Maheswora, an avatar of the gods Shiva and Parvati, that was stolen four decades ago. It was not clear who took it or how it ended up at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, which handed it over to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Devotees celebrated its return in Patan, south of the capital, Kathmandu. The stone-paved alleys were crowded with devotees offering money and flowers. Men in traditional attire played drums and cymbals and chanted prayers.

“I cannot say how extremely happy I am right now,” said Ram Maya Benjankar, a 52-year-old who said she had cried as a child after learning the statue had been stolen and waited years for its return.

The statue had simply disappeared from their neighborhood, she said.

The majority of Nepal’s 29 million people are Hindu, and every neighborhood has a temple that houses such items. They are rarely guarded, making it easy for thieves.

For Nepalese, the idols have religious significance but no monetary value. For smugglers, however, they can bring huge value abroad. For years, there was little attention given to the thefts or any effort made at recovery.

That has changed in recent years as the government, art lovers and campaigners pursue stolen heritage items. They have been successful in many cases.

A group representing the ethnic Newar community from Nepal in the U.S. heard about the reappearance of the Uma-Maheswora statue at the Brooklyn Museum and took the initiative to bring it home.

“We were very sad to see that our gods were locked in the basement. We were then determined that we need to take back the heritage,” said Bijaya Man Singh, a member of the group that carried the four idols and masks back to Nepal.

Now the temple in Patan is being prepared to reinstate the Uma-Maheswora statue. Following the welcome ceremony, it was placed on a chariot carried by devotees and taken to a museum, where it will be kept under security until its final move.

More than 20 other stolen artifacts are in the pipeline to be repatriated to Nepal in the near future, according to Jayaram Shrestha, director at the National Museum in Kathmandu. Most will return from the United States and Europe.

Shrestha has built a special room to exhibit repatriated items so the public can come and worship if they want. There are currently 62 statues on display.

“As we expect many to come soon, we are expanding the section of the museum,” Shrestha said. “I don’t want to store them in storage. They should be made available.”

It has become easier to locate stolen items as awareness grows among Nepalis at home and abroad. They can now track artifacts online when they are exhibited or put up for auction.

And more collectors and museums now believe they should be taken back to where they belong, Shrestha said.

“The Nepal government has been taking initiative to get them back with recovery campaigns and using diplomatic channels, embassies in foreign countries,” he said.

“We have made it clear that they need to be reinstated to their original place and security ensured to keep these thousands-of-years-old artifacts safe.”” said Nepal’s foreign minister, Narayan Prakash Saud.

London Fashion Week Celebrates Multiculturalism, Urban Life

LONDON — The cultural richness brought by migrations across the world, familial nostalgia and the frenetic pace of London life marked the second day of the city’s Fashion Week on Saturday as up-and-coming designers showed off their styles for the season ahead.

Some 60 designers, ranging from rising talents to renowned brands like Burberry, are exhibiting their new designs over five days, hoping to draw the interest of buyers and fashion influencers.

The 40th anniversary edition of the event is also introducing greater diversity and inclusivity in terms of body shapes, ages, and skin colors of the models, as well as in the designers’ collections.

Multiculturalism in spotlight

Sierra Leone-born designer Foday Dumbuya’s Labrum London brand closed the day with its “Journey Through Color” collection, celebrating the diversity of cultures brought by immigrants.

The winner of the 2023 Elizabeth II Award for British Design focused on texture plays, newspaper patterns or monogram patterns on more classic cuts.

There were as many tones of color — from royal blue to black, orange, brown, yellow and green — as there were “inspiring stories” from immigrants.

Some models wore suitcases as headgear, a reference to people fleeing conflict taking their belongings with them.

“People move for different reasons, and when they move, they move their culture with them. And we wanted to celebrate that tonight,” Dumbuya told AFP.

One of the models carried on his back a large frame with dozens of flags of “countries that have been involved in key migration throughout history,” including the Palestinian flag.

It was a political message and a call for tolerance, argued the creator.

“It’s just to showcase you got to support each other. Where we are does not matter. People’s life is what is important,” Dumbuya said. “Wherever you are … Palestinian, Jewish, whatever it is, that world belong to us. It’s just saying don’t just demonize these people.”

Old photographs

In her show, Dublin-born menswear designer Robyn Lynch drew inspiration from her sister’s career as a Gaelic dancer, using old photographs of high kicks, spangled costumes and passionate spectators for inspiration.

“I vividly remember spending all these weekends in sports halls at competitions seeing all the glitz and drama that happened on and off stage,” said the designer, who used Celtic knots and monograms in her designs.

Lynch’s designs featured diamante encrusted jorts (jean shorts), a long line of hoodies with elastic toggle belts and laser-etched jeans with a color palette of hickory brown, screen blue, matte black and oat milk white.

Life in the metropolis

Earlier, models paraded in London’s famous red double-decker buses in outfits inspired by traditional dance.

British designer Ricky Wesley Harriott kicked off his brand SRVC’s show with a collection named “Human Resource,” inspired by modern “professional women’s outfits.”

The designer had his models, all perched on vertiginous heels, parade on the iconic red double-decker buses of London to “celebrate life in the metropolis.”

The show featured rigid and structured jackets with pronounced shoulders, in dark colors with flashy accessories, from XXL silver hoop earrings to rings covering every finger.

Fairy tales

Designer Priya Ahluwalia, who draws inspiration from her Indian-Nigerian heritage, was cheered after her show, which featured male and female models in earthy reds, oranges and blues parading to thumping house music.

The designer used the Indian and West African fairy tales that she grew up with — like The Prince Who Wanted the Moon, The Magic Fiddle and How the Leopard Got His Spots — in her designs for the season, she told British Vogue.

“I was thinking about how stories have affected my life — why do we like the stories we like, and how do they get passed on,” she said.

Ahluwalia said the corset-like detailing in the knitwear of her designs was inspired by Netflix’s Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, which she watched while conducting research for her collection.

The designer, who launched her brand Ahluwalia in 2018, works with limited quantities of fabrics, often upcycling and using patchwork techniques to limit waste.

LFW comes at a tumultuous time for Britain’s fashion industry, amid post-Brexit trade barriers and the country’s cost-of-living crisis.

The difficult economic situation has even prompted some nascent designers to question the viability of investing in British fashion events.

Rising star Dilara Findikoglu made headlines last September after she cancelled her show days before the event for financial reasons.

The industry, which employs close to 900,000 people in the UK and contributes $26 billion to the British economy, is facing “incredibly challenging times,” LFW’s director Caroline Rush told AFP.

What to Expect at Britain’s BAFTA Film Awards on Sunday

LONDON — Prepare for Poppenheimer.

Poor Things and Oppenheimer are the leading contenders for the British Academy Film Awards, which will be handed out Sunday in front of an audience of filmmakers, movie stars and the heir to the British throne.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ gothic fantasia is up for 11 trophies, while Christopher Nolan’s atom-bomb epic has 13 nominations for the British prizes, known as BAFTAs. That’s the same number Oppenheimer has for the Oscars, where it is also the frontrunner.

The ceremony at London’s Royal Festival Hall will be a glitzy, British-accented appetizer for Hollywood’s Academy Awards, closely watched for hints about who might win at the Oscars on March 10.

Nominees including Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Rosamund Pike, Ryan Gosling and Ayo Edebiri are expected on the red carpet beside the River Thames, along with presenters such as Andrew Scott, Cate Blanchett, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba.

Guest of honor will be Prince William, in his role as president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He’ll be without his wife, Kate, who is recovering after abdominal surgery last month.

The show will be hosted, with a dash of self-deprecating humor, by Doctor Who star David Tennant.

“People keep telling me I should be terribly nervous,” Tennant said about the notoriously pitfall-plagued role of awards show host. “But it’s not like I’m up for the award. I just get to hand them out.”

Historical epic Killers of the Flower Moon and Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest have nine nominations each for the prizes, officially called the EE BAFTA Film Awards.

French courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall, boarding school comedy The Holdovers and Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro each have seven, while grief-flecked love story All of Us Strangers is nominated in six categories and class-war dramedy Saltburn in five.

Barbie, one half of 2023’s Barbenheimer box office juggernaut, also has five nominations, but missed out on nods for best picture and best director. Many see the omission of Barbie director Greta Gerwig — for both BAFTAs and Oscars — as a major snub.

Britain’s film academy introduced changes to increase the awards’ diversity in 2020, when no women were nominated as best director for the seventh year running and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white. But there is only one woman among the six best-director nominees: Justine Triet for Anatomy of a Fall. Emerald Fennell for Saltburn and Celine Song for Past Lives also failed to make the list.

The best film race pits Oppenheimer against Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon, Anatomy of a Fall and The Holdovers.

Poor Things is also on the 10-strong list for the separate category of best British film, an eclectic slate that includes class-war dramedy Saltburn, imperial epic Napoleon, south London romcom Rye Lane and chocolatier origin story Wonka, among others.

A woman of color could take the best actress BAFTA for the first time, with Fantasia Barrino for The Color Purple and Vivian Oparah for Rye Lane nominated alongside Sandra Hüller for Anatomy of a Fall, Mulligan for Maestro, Margot Robbie for Barbie and Emma Stone for Poor Things.

No British performers are nominated in the best-actor category, but Ireland is represented by Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer and Barry Keoghan for Saltburn. They’re up against Cooper for Maestro, Colman Domingo for Rustin, Paul Giamatti for The Holdovers and Teo Yoo for Past Lives.

Harrowing Ukraine war documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, produced by The Associated Press and PBS Frontline, is nominated for best documentary and best film not in the English language.

The ceremony is set to include musical performances by Ted Lasso star Hannah Waddingham and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, the latter singing her 2001 hit Murder on the Dancefloor, which shot back up the charts after featuring in Saltburn.

Samantha Morton will receive the academy’s highest honor, the BAFTA Fellowship, and film curator June Givanni, founder of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, will be honored for outstanding British contribution to cinema.

Sunday’s ceremony will be broadcast on BBC One in the U.K. from 1900GMT, and on streaming service BritBox in the U.S., Canada, Australia and South Africa.

Media Creators Worry About New AI-Video Tool by Maker of ChatGPT

paris — A new artificial intelligence tool that promises to create short videos from simple text commands has raised concerns along with questions from artists and media professionals. 

OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT and image generator DALL-E, said Thursday it was testing a text-to-video model called “Sora” that can allow users to create realistic videos with simple prompts. 

The San Francisco-based startup says Sora can “generate complex scenes with multiple characters, specific types of motion, and accurate details of the subject and background,” but admits it still has limitations, such as possibly “mixing up left and right.” 

Here are early reactions from industries that could be affected by the new generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool:   

Examples of Sora-created clips on OpenAI’s website range widely in style and subject, from seemingly real drone footage above a crowded market to an animated bunny-like creature bouncing through a forest. 

Thomas Bellenger, founder and art director of Cutback Productions, has been carefully watching the evolution of generative AI image generation.   

“There were those who felt that it was an unstoppable groundswell that was progressing at an astonishing rate, and those who just didn’t want to see it,” said Bellenger, whose France-based company has created large scale visual effects for such touring musicians as Stromae and Justice. 

He said the development of generative AI has “created a lot of debate internally” at the company and “a lot of sometimes visceral reactions.” 

Bellenger noted that Sora has yet to be released, so its capabilities have yet to be tested by the public. 

“What is certain is that no one expected such a technological leap forward in just a few weeks,” Bellenger said. “It’s unheard of.” 

He said whatever the future holds, they’ll “find ways to create differently.” 

Mixed reaction among creators

Video game creators are equally likely to be impacted by the new invention, with reaction among the sector divided between those open to embracing a new tool and those fearing it might replace them. 

French video game giant Ubisoft hailed the OpenAI announcement as a “quantum leap forward” with the potential to let players and development teams express their imaginations. 

“We’ve been exploring this potential for a long time,” a Ubisoft spokesperson told AFP. 

Alain Puget, chief of Nantes-based studio Alkemi, said he won’t replace any artists with AI tools, which “only reproduce things done by humans.” 

Nevertheless, Puget noted, this “visually impressive” tool could be used by small studios to produce more professionally rendered images. 

While video “cut scenes” that play out occasionally to advance game storylines are different from player-controlled action, Puget expects tools like Sora to eventually be able to replace “the way we do things.”   

‘A terrifying leap’

Basile Simon, a former journalist and current Stanford University researcher, thinks there has been “a terrifying leap forward in the last year” when it comes to generative AI allowing realistic-looking fabrications to be rapidly produced. 

He dreads the idea of how such tools will be abused during elections and fears the public will “no longer know what to believe”. 

Julien Pain of French TV channel France Info’s fact-checking program “Vrai ou Faux” (True or False) says he’s also worried about abuse of AI tools. 

“Until now, it was easy enough to spot fake images, for example by noticing the repetitive faces in the background,” Pain said. “What this new software does seems to be on another level.” 

While OpenAI and U.S. tech titans may promote safety tools, such as industry-wide watermarks that reveal AI-created imagery, “what about tomorrow’s competitors in China and Russia?” he posited. 

The Fred & Farid agency, which has collaborated with the Longchamp and Budweiser brands and where a studio dedicated to AI was opened in early January, anticipates that “80 percent of brand content will be generated by artificial intelligence.” 

“Creative genius” will no longer be limited by production skills thanks to generative AI tools, one enthusiast contended.   

Stephanie Laporte, chief executive and founder of the OTTA advertising and influencer agency, believes the technology will “force the industry to evolve.” 

She also anticipates ad companies with lean budgets will resort to AI tools to save money on workers. 

A possible exception, she believes, is the luxury segment, where brands are “very sensitive to authenticity” and “will probably use AI sparingly.” 

Japan’s New Flagship H3 Rocket Reaches Orbit in Key Test

TOKYO — Japan’s flagship H3 rocket reached orbit and released two small observation satellites in a key second test following a failed debut launch last year, buoying hope for the country in the global space race.

The H3 rocket blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center on time Saturday morning, two days after its originally scheduled liftoff was delayed by bad weather.

The rocket successfully reached orbit at an altitude of about 670 kilometers (about 420 miles) and released two satellites, said the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

“We feel so relieved to be able to announce the good results,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa told a news conference.

The H3’s main missions are to secure independent access to space and be competitive as international demand for satellite launches grows. “We made a big first step today toward achieving that goal,” Yamakawa said.

The launch is a boost for Japan’s space program following a recent streak of successes, including a historic precision touchdown on the moon of an unmanned spacecraft last month.

The liftoff was closely watched as a test for Japan’s space development after H3, in its debut flight last March, failed to ignite the second-stage engine. JAXA and its main contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been developing H3 as a successor to its current mainstay, H-2A, which is set to retire after two more flights.

JAXA H3 project manager Masashi Okada called the result “perfect,” saying H3 cleared all missions set for Saturday’s flight. “After a long wait, the newborn H3 finally had its first cry.”

At 57 meters (187 feet) long, the H3 is designed to carry larger payloads than H-2A at much lower costs of about 50 billion yen ($330 million).

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.