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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

9-26-20 Switzerland gets ready to vote on ending free movement with EU
Swiss voters will decide on Sunday whether to abandon their free movement of people agreement with the EU. The push to scrap the freedom of movement deal comes from the right-wing Swiss People's Party. Supporters say the move will allow Switzerland to control its borders and select only the immigrants it wants. Opponents argue it will plunge a healthy economy into recession, and deprive hundreds of thousands of Swiss citizens of their freedom to live and work across Europe. The justice minister says that would create a situation "worse than Brexit". Switzerland decided long ago not to join the EU, but it does want access to Europe's free-trade area, and it wants to co-operate with Brussels in areas like transport, the environment, and research and education. The price for this is to sign up to the EU's major policy "pillars" including free movement, and Schengen open borders. The EU has consistently told the Swiss there will be no cherry-picking: leaving free movement would mean leaving those lucrative trade arrangements too. The proposal comes from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), and is a successor to a referendum held in 2014 (also from the People's Party) to introduce quotas on immigrants from the EU. That passed by a whisker (50.33% said yes, 49.67% said no), obliging the Swiss government to find a deal Brussels would accept. In the end a compromise was agreed: Swiss employers had to prioritise workers permanently resident in Switzerland, in job sectors where unemployment is already high. The SVP dismissed the deal as so weak as to be virtually meaningless, and are now back with a second demand to get out of free movement altogether. Thomas Aeschi of the SVP believes abandoning free movement will bring all sorts of advantages, from "being able to select the highest qualified immigrants" to "less land speculation, lower house prices, and lower rents". (Webmaster's comment: The hatred of immigrants comes in many disguises!)

9-26-20 Amy Coney Barrett 'to be picked by Trump for Supreme Court'
US President Donald Trump will reportedly nominate Amy Coney Barrett, a favourite of social conservatives, to be the new Supreme Court justice. The president's decision - to be revealed at the White House on Saturday - has been confirmed to the BBC's US partner CBS News and other US media. She would replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last Friday. The nomination will touch off a bitter Senate fight to get her confirmed as November's presidential election looms. CBS - citing several sources involved in or familiar with the selection process - reported that the president had settled on Judge Barrett. But when asked about his choice on Friday evening, Mr Trump refused to give anything away: "You'll find out tomorrow. Look, they're all great. It could be any of one them." If Judge Barrett is confirmed, conservative-leaning justices will hold a 6-3 majority on America's highest court for the foreseeable future. The 48-year-old would be the third justice appointed by this Republican president, after Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. The Supreme Court's nine justices serve lifetime appointments, and their rulings can shape public policy on everything from gun and voting rights to abortion and campaign finance long after the presidents who appoint them leave office. In recent years, the court has expanded gay marriage to all 50 states, allowed for Mr Trump's travel ban on mainly Muslim countries to be put in place, and delayed a US plan to cut carbon emissions. She is described as a devout Catholic who, according to a 2013 magazine article, said that "life begins at conception". This makes her a favourite among religious conservatives keen to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion nationwide. Her links to a particularly conservative Christian faith group, People of Praise, have been much discussed in the US press. LGBT groups have pointed out that the group's network of schools have guidelines stating a belief that sexual relations should only happen between heterosexual married couples. One such group, Human Rights Campaign, has voiced strong opposition to Judge Barrett's confirmation, declaring her an "absolute threat to LGBTQ rights".

9-25-20 Republicans are desperately trying to change the subject
Amy Coney Barrett may or may not be President Trump's nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, but that hasn't stopped Republicans and conservative media outlets from cooking up a fake controversy about her potential nomination in the meantime. Barrett, a circuit judge on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, is a devout Catholic and active in the Christian group People of Praise, a prayer organization that grew out of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement and which some have questioned due to its opacity and possible influence over its members. Although she has never ruled on a case directly concerning abortion rights, religious conservatives believe that Barrett would be a reliable vote to overturn Roe v. Wade when an abortion case comes before the high court. Given that, conservative media and Republican politicians have spent the last week stirring up the false story that "the left" is waging an all-out anti-Catholic attack on Barrett, a deliberate move to distract from the real story — that Republicans outrageously plan to ramrod a Supreme Court nominee through the Senate just weeks before the election. That story should be front page news everywhere. Not only is it a hypocritical about-face on the Republicans' so-called "McConnell rule" of 2016, it is the plainest example of the GOP's absolute corruption of our democratic processes and the norms that safeguard them. Instead, Fox News has, not surprisingly, put the Barrett story into overdrive, with regular segments on Democrats' supposed anti-Catholic assaults on the judge. But even normally cooler conservative heads, like S.E. Cupp, have helped hype the hysteria. In her column for the New York Daily News, Cupp called the "anti-Catholic attacks" on Barrett "gross" and "shameful." Her evidence? One tweet from Reuters and three from individuals who hold no political office and whom most Americans have never heard of. In her piece, Cupp linked to an article from the Christian Broadcasting Network that brashly claimed the "anti-Catholic attacks" against Barrett "are already flowing." But the CBN article couldn't provide one example of that actually happening this past week. No one has shown any substantive proof that a coordinated and sustained campaign of religious bigotry against Barrett is underway. Conservatives' concocted crisis is mostly smoke and little fire. That doesn't matter to the target audience, of course, who thrive on outrage rather than evidence. And the manufactured Barrett brouhaha isn't really even about the Supreme Court itself, since whoever Trump nominates will have enough Republican votes to confirm them. Instead, it's about the symbolic meaning of the Supreme Court to Trump's base of religious conservatives and how stoking cultural resentments has become the go-to electoral strategy of the right. It's also a cynical response to an electoral reality. Among white Catholics, Trump's lead has collapsed to a slim five points, according to a recent poll — a huge decline from his 23-point advantage with this group in 2016. Facing a Catholic opponent in Joe Biden, Trump needs to do everything he can to maintain his edge with Catholic voters, but his fantasies that a Biden presidency would usher in a godless, secular dystopia surely seem preposterous to anyone not already inclined toward the president. Last weekend, Trump bellowed to a North Carolina crowd that "there will be no God" should Biden win, a comment not so much anti-Catholic against the churchgoing Biden as it was just straight up blasphemous.

9-25-20 Coronavirus: Two million deaths 'very likely' even with vaccine, WHO warns
The global coronavirus death toll could hit two million before an effective vaccine is widely used, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned. Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies head, said the figure could be higher without concerted international action. Almost one million people have died with Covid-19 worldwide since the disease first emerged in China late last year. Virus infections continue to rise, with 32 million cases confirmed globally. The start of a second surge of coronavirus infections has been seen in many countries in the northern hemisphere as winter approaches. So far, the US, India and Brazil have confirmed the most cases, recording more than 15 million between them. But in recent days, there has been a resurgence of infections across Europe, prompting warnings of national lockdowns similar to those imposed at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. "Overall within that very large region, we are seeing worrying increases of the disease," Dr Ryan said of the marked spike in cases in Europe. He urged Europeans to ask themselves whether they had done enough to avoid the need for lockdowns - and whether alternatives, such as testing and tracing, quarantines and social distancing, had been implemented. "Lockdowns are almost a last resort - and to think that we're back in last-resort territory in September, that's a pretty sobering thought," Dr Ryan told reporters at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva. Asked whether two million fatalities worldwide was possible before a vaccine became available, Dr Ryan said: "It's not impossible." He added that fatality rates were dropping as treatments for the disease improve. But better treatments and even effective vaccines might not be enough on their own to prevent deaths surpassing two million, he said. "Are we prepared to do what it takes to avoid that number?" Dr Ryan asked, calling on governments to do everything to control Covid-19. "Unless we do it all, the number you speak about is not only imaginable, but unfortunately and sadly, very likely."

9-25-20 Covid-19 news: Infection rate in England rises to one in 500 people
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Infection rate within communities in England and Wales continues to rise. One in 500 people in England had the coronavirus in the week ending 19 September, up from one in 900 people the previous week, according to the latest results from a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics. “It’s a worrying increase and is occurring across all age groups, particularly in the North of England and London,” said Simon Clarke at the University of Reading in a statement. “While it’s true that there are many more tests conducted nowadays, this is clear evidence of an accelerating spread of the virus,” said Clarke. “We can expect to see an increasing burden placed on our hospitals and a consequent increase in deaths.” Independent SAGE – an independent group of scientists publishing advice for the UK government – says Sweden’s success in tackling the coronavirus pandemic has been overstated. In a report published today, the group dismissed the idea of “herd immunity” as a strategy for dealing with the UK’s epidemic in the absence of a vaccine and said it is “irresponsible and unethical to try”. Spain’s government has recommended imposing a new partial lockdown on the entire city of Madrid due to rising cases. The capital accounts for more than a third of the country’s hospital admissions, according to local authorities. Under the new restrictions, people would be banned from travelling outside of the city but would still be allowed to leave their homes to go to work and school. The Netherlands recorded its highest daily increase in cases since the start of the pandemic, with 2777 new cases confirmed today. The country’s previous record for daily new cases was set just yesterday, when 2544 cases were recorded.

9-25-20 US election: McConnell promises an 'orderly' transition of power
US Republican leaders say there will be an "orderly" transfer of power should Donald Trump lose November's election. President Trump cast doubt on the transition on Wednesday, questioning the probity of the vote with so many ballots likely to be cast by mail. But Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said there would be a peaceful handover in January as there had been every four years since 1792. Democratic senators label Mr Trump a grave threat to American democracy. The president currently trails his challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, in national opinion polls with 40 days to go until the election. Many more Americans than usual will be casting their votes by post this year, due to the pandemic, and Mr Trump has been questioning the security of this mail-in ballot system. If Mr Trump were to refuse to accept the result of the election, it would take the country into uncharted territory. Mr Biden has suggested that should this happen, the military could remove Mr Trump from the White House. However, Mr Trump's spokeswoman said the president would abide by the results of a free and fair election. "The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th," Mr McConnell tweeted on Thursday. "There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792." Other Republican lawmakers, including vocal Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, have similarly promised a safe and fair election. "I can assure you it will be peaceful," Mr Graham told Fox News, but suggested a decision could go to the nation's top court. "If Republicans lose we will accept the result. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of Joe Biden, I will accept that result." Senator Mitt Romney offered a more critical response on Wednesday, saying "any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable". (Webmaster's comment: Trump will not accept the election results. He will claim fraud and call on his supporters to come to Washington with their guns to keep him in power!)

9-25-20 A Brazilian city devastated by COVID-19 may have reached herd immunity
Blood donations suggest that up to half of Manaus was infected at the epidemic’s peak. The Brazilian city of Manaus was hit hard by COVID-19. At the peak of its epidemic in late spring, the city of over 2 million people had 4.5 times as many deaths as expected for that time of year. Hospitals and cemeteries struggled to keep up, and mass graves were dug to bury the dead. But then, cases and deaths steadily declined, despite a relaxing of social distancing measures. That trajectory has prompted some researchers to suggest that Manaus has reached herd immunity. In a report posted September 21 at medRxiv.org that has yet to be peer reviewed, researchers suggest that herd immunity developed in the city after 44 to 52 percent of the population was infected at the epidemic’s peak, and that slowed subsequent spread of the virus. “These are the highest [infection] levels I’ve seen,” says Elitza Theel, a clinical microbiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who wasn’t involved in the study. That high infection rate may very well have impacted the trajectory of the epidemic. “That is how herd immunity works,” she says. “But it comes at a high cost … their death rate was very high.” Herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to an infectious disease, either through infection or a vaccine, causing an epidemic to slow down as the pathogen is starved of susceptible hosts (SN: 3/24/20). Scientists are still working out what the herd immunity threshold would be for COVID-19; most estimates are around 40 to 60 percent of a population. The precise threshold likely varies from region to region, but virtually all of the globe remains well below this threshold, experts say. Most of the United States remains in the single digits, though around 20 percent of the population in parts of New York City may have already contracted the virus.

9-25-20 Breonna Taylor: Family lawyer slams 'devilish' grand jury outcome
A lawyer for Breonna Taylor's family has called the grand jury proceedings a "sham" that has shown racial inequalities in the US justice system. Ms Taylor, a black hospital worker, was shot six times and killed aged 26 when police raided her home on 13 March. On Wednesday, a grand jury in Kentucky returned a minor felony charge against one of three officers, for shots that hit a neighbouring apartment. Two officers have been shot amid protests sparked by the decision. The individual indicted in the Taylor case is Brett Hankison, who was fired from the force in June. He faces three counts of "wanton endangerment in the first degree". Under Kentucky law, wanton endangerment applies to an act of "extreme indifference to the value of human life". It is the lowest-level felony and carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison per count. Ms Taylor's family had called for the arrest of all three officers, but the grand jury - a panel drawn from members of the public to determine whether there is enough evidence to pursue a prosecution - has declined to do so. Attorney Ben Crump said in a tweet: "The grand jury proceedings were a SHAM. The 'wanton endangerment' charge is an example of America's 2 justice systems - protecting white neighbours & ignoring the death of a black woman." "We've been saying 'Say Her Name' for six months... and #BreonnaTaylor's name was NEVER mentioned in yesterday's indictment," he later added. In an op-ed for the Washington Post titled "Our devilish, racist system made it impossible to get justice for Breonna Taylor", Mr Crump rejected the notion that "every time justice is denied to a Black person in the United States, it seems the devil is in the details". Most police shootings go unnoticed by the public, he continued, adding: "We wouldn't know Breonna's name if her death hadn't happened in a season of police killings when America was getting quickly woke to it. "But now that the world knows Bre's name, we won't stop saying it until it becomes a kind of incantation to bind the devil in our divided justice system."

9-25-20 Breonna Taylor: Why it's hard to charge US police over shootings
Three officers were involved in the police raid that ended with Breonna Taylor shot dead in her home in Kentucky. Only one of them has been charged, but not in relation to her death. Why are so few police officers charged after fatal shootings in the US? Brett Hankison faces three counts of "wanton endangerment" for firing into an adjacent apartment, putting Ms Taylor's neighbours at risk. The other two officers involved were not charged - despite one of them firing the fatal shot - because Ms Taylor's boyfriend fired first, later saying he thought they were intruders. It's a decision that has sparked some bewilderment and prompted hundreds to take to the streets of Louisville and elsewhere. But it's not the first time a fatal shooting by a police officer has made headlines but not made it to trial. The ones that do are a tiny fraction. In 2020 so far there have been 10 officers charged, according to Dr Phil Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former police officer, who has been collecting data on police prosecutions since 2005. The year with the most officers charged was 2015, when 18 law enforcement members faced murder or manslaughter charges. The Washington Post estimates police shoot and kill about 1,000 people each year in the US. Most of those incidents do not rise to the level of controversy or scrutiny seen in Ms Taylor's case, and may have occurred when the officers were themselves fired upon. But getting a charge or conviction for those tragedies that involve excessive use of police force is rare. These are the factors that explain why. Although the language of laws that dictate what police may do vary from state to state, the most common standard officers have to abide by is that their use of force be "objectively reasonable". That means the officer had a reasonable belief in the moment that he or she, or a bystander, were about to be harmed. That standard has come under increased scrutiny for giving police too much leeway, particularly the flexibility of the word "reasonable" - it could be enough that an officer believed they were in danger at the time, even if hindsight showed they were not. "In these cases, historically, the police have owned the narratives. Bystander accounts are discounted, oftentimes," says Dr Stinson."Written reports are sometimes factually inconsistent with the video evidence."

9-25-20 FBI probes police killing of boy on family's drive
The FBI is to investigate the fatal police shooting of a teenage boy as he reversed a vehicle out his family's garage in the US state of Kansas. A police officer fired 13 shots, killing John Albers, 17, on 20 January 2018 in a Kansas City suburb. Police had been called to check on the boy, who had ADHD, after his online posts prompted fears for his safety. A month after the shooting the county prosecutor announced the officer, Clayton Jenison, would not be charged. The FBI's Kansas City, Missouri, field office is working with the US Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and US attorney's office in Kansas on the inquiry. FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said in a statement on Thursday that they would "collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough and impartial manner". Police dashcam video shows John reversing the family's van slowly out of the garage and down the driveway as officers arrive at the property in the city of Overland Park. An officer shouts: "Stop!" The vehicle continues to back out and Officer Jenison, standing from the side, fires two shots. The van reverses wildly in a sharp circle back towards the officer, before slowing almost to a stop. The officer steps aside and fires 11 more shots. The vehicle rolls forward and comes to a halt in a neighbour's front garden across the road. A month after the shooting, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe announced that his investigation had found the shooting was justified because the officer was determined to have feared for his life. Officer Jenison resigned weeks after the shooting and received a severance payment of $70,000 (£55,000). The boy's mother, Sheila Albers, sued Overland Park for violating her son's constitutional rights, and the city last year settled the wrongful death lawsuit for $2.3m.

9-24-20 Covid-19 news: Test and trace app goes live across England and Wales
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. NHS Covid-19 app goes live in England and Wales but testing and tracing still limited. The official test and trace app for England and Wales went live today, with more than one million downloads so far. The app uses Bluetooth technology built into smartphones to detect people nearby and alert users if any of those people later test positive for the virus. The government is urging everyone over the age of 16 to download and use the app. The number of new coronavirus cases in England also went up, but less sharply than the previous week, with 19,278 people testing positive for the virus between 10 and 16 September, compared to 18,371 the week before. This small weekly increase may reflect “oddities in the reporting testing system, rather than a sudden plateau in viral cases,” said James Naismith at the University of Oxford in a statement. The number of people in the UK diagnosed with common conditions – including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mental health conditions – was about 50 per cent lower than would normally have been expected between March and May this year, a study has found. The study, published in The Lancet Public Health analysed electronic health records from 47 general practices in Salford, UK, between January 2010 and May this year. The UK went into lockdown on 23 March. United Airlines in the US is expected to become the first airline to offer rapid coronavirus testing to some of its passengers. The firm plans to conduct a trial of the programme on flights from San Francisco to Hawaii starting on 15 October, using 15-minute rapid tests supplied by US biotechnology company Abbott.

9-24-20 US election: Trump won't commit to peaceful transfer of power
US President Donald Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses November's election. "Well, we'll have to see what happens," the president told a news conference at the White House. "You know that." Mr Trump also said he believed the election result could end up in the US Supreme Court, as he again cast doubt on postal voting. More states are encouraging mail-in voting, citing the need to keep Americans safe from coronavirus. Every losing presidential candidate in modern times has conceded. If Mr Trump were to refuse to accept the result of the election, it would take the US into uncharted territory and it is not clear how it would play out. However President Trump's opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, has previously said that in this scenario he believes the military would be deployed to remove Mr Trump from the White House. Mr Trump was asked by a reporter on Wednesday evening if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power "win, lose or draw" to Mr Biden. The president currently trails his challenger in national opinion polls with 41 days to go until the election. "I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots," Mr Trump, a Republican, said. "And the ballots are a disaster." When the journalist countered that "people are rioting", Mr Trump interjected: "Get rid of the ballots, and you'll have a very - you'll have a very peaceful - there won't be a transfer, frankly, there'll be a continuation." Back in 2016, Mr Trump also refused to commit to accepting the election results in his contest against the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, which she characterised as an attack on democracy. He was eventually declared the winner, although he lost the popular vote by three million, an outcome he still questioned. Mitt Romney, a Republican senator who is a rarity in his party because he occasionally criticises the president, tweeted on Wednesday: "Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power; without that, there is Belarus. "Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable." (Webmaster's comment: If Trump loses and refuses to concede he should be arrested, tried, and convicted of treason!)

9-24-20 This is what an American coup looks like
How Trump can (and cannot) steal the election. resident Trump's campaign is reportedly in discussion with state and national Republicans to "bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority." At least that's the report from a terrifying article written by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic. While this scenario is somewhat far-fetched, we should be clear that what Gellman describes here is tantamount to a coup, a complete break with the constitutional order that would unquestionably precipitate large-scale unrest and potentially the crackup of the United States. Could it actually happen? Trump has been clumsily telegraphing this plot for months — not generally the smartest way to overthrow a government, which is best done in secret. It would unfold like this: The election result is closer than expected, and the ultimate winner remains unknown on election night, with millions of mail-in ballots to be counted in the decisive swing states. Trump declares victory when the (incomplete) election night count favors him, and then launches legal maneuvering to force states to stop counting mail-in ballots, papered over with some feeble pretext about the fraud the president himself keeps encouraging his own supporters to commit. Thanks to post-2010 gerrymandering, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature in nearly every contested state, and the president would presumably direct them to pass laws certifying Trump's slate of electors, even if updated counts show Democratic candidate Joe Biden ahead. Et voila, a second Trump term. Mail balloting procedures are fully legal in all states that use them, so asking Republican legislatures either to stop the counting of ballots cast under agreed-upon procedures, or to certify a totally different winner than the people chose, is nothing short of extra-judicial election theft. It should not ultimately be a legal question. And in a healthy democracy, these efforts would not come before the courts at all nor should they be casually floated by a sitting president as the plan. Any attempt to do so is no different than having Biden and his vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, abducted and dropped out of a helicopter. A slightly better ending for the two of them, I suppose, but the functional outcome for the rest of us would be identical: an election stolen brazenly by unapologetic authoritarians who would no longer have any check whatsoever on their rule. But the invidious plot that Republicans are hatching in plain sight has multiple legal problems. The first and most obvious is that state legislatures play no clear post-election role in certifying slates of electors from the states. While state electoral laws and procedures are written by legislatures, they cannot simply change the law without the cooperation of the governor. The critical swing states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin have Democratic governors who would not sign any such legislation, and many key battlegrounds also have Democratic secretaries of state. It is that chief election officer, a Democrat in all four states above plus Arizona, who administers the election and prepares the paperwork for the governor to send to Congress. (Webmaster's comment: After he loses the election Trump will call on his supporters with guns to come to Washington and defend keeping him in power! Goodby to Democracy!)

9-24-20 Breonna Taylor: Two officers shot during Louisville protests
Two policemen have been shot amid protests in the US over a decision not to charge any officers over the killing of Breonna Taylor. Ms Taylor, 26, a black hospital worker, was shot six times as three officers raided her home on 13 March. A grand jury in the city of Louisville returned only one minor charge against one of the officers, for shots which hit a neighbouring apartment. The attorney general said the two other officers' actions had been justified. One had been hit by a shot fired by Ms Taylor's boyfriend, who later told police he thought it was an ex-boyfriend of Ms Taylor who had broken into the apartment. A judge had granted a warrant to search Ms Taylor's home because investigators suspected her ex-boyfriend, a convicted drug dealer, was using the address to receive packages. Ms Taylor had no criminal record. Cases of killings of unarmed black people by police have fuelled anger across the US and beyond, spurred especially by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May. The two police shot on Wednesday do not have life-threatening injuries and a suspect has been arrested. A state of emergency has been declared and the National Guard has been deployed. A three-day curfew from 21:00 to 06:30 (01:00-10:30 GMT) has been introduced, though crowds were still gathered after it came into effect. Dozens of protesters were arrested in Louisville overnight, with officers saying the total number of arrests may reach 100. At a news conference on Wednesday night, Louisville Interim Police Chief Robert Schroeder refused to comment on whether suspected gunman, Larynzo Johnson, had been participating in protests. "I am very concerned about the safety of our officers," said Chief Schroeder. (Webmaster's comment: But shows no concern for the safety of black citizens!) He said one injured officer has undergone surgery and they are both expected to recover. The officers have not been named. Mr Johnson, 26, is charged with wanton endangerment and assaulting a police officer.

9-24-20 Dutch celebs face backlash over Covid rebellion
Influencers, rappers and a world-renowned DJ have been heavily criticised in the Netherlands after publicly announcing they were abandoning efforts to combat Covid-19. Their campaign came as the numbers in Dutch intensive care units hit 100 for the first time since June and infection rates rose 60% on last week. The Netherlands is among several European nations seeing a second wave. The young stars used the hashtag #ik doe niet meer mee - "I'm out". But as the backlash has grown, a number of them appear to have changed their minds. The young celebrities were recruited or attracted by a group called "Virus Truth" that promotes the conspiracy theory that the risks posed by the virus have been exaggerated and used by governments to violate people's freedoms and fundamental rights. In a video posted on Instagram, singer and model Famke Louise tossed her ponytail and pouted at the camera while telling her million followers: "Only together can we get the government back under control, I am no longer taking part, free the people." However, the young rapper struggled to defend her position on popular chat show Jinek, explaining in exasperation, "I don't mind the 1.5m (5ft) society," she said referring to social distancing rules. "It's about the principle that we live in a society where people need their freedom, in which people just want to have fun." She also expressed frustration about the impact that measures to curb the spread of the virus were having on the entertainment industry. Dutch dance hit-maker Hardwell and rapper Bizzey, who has 400,000 Instagram followers, were among other celebrities who shared the hashtag. Famke Louise's TV appearance has been mocked on social media with people sharing memes of doctors standing over patients with the words, "I'm out". Then, on Wednesday night, the young YouTube star-turned-rapper removed her video from Instagram and posted a lengthy apology in its place, saying it was "not my best day".

9-24-20 Coronavirus: Israel tightens second lockdown to avoid 'abyss'
Israel is set to tighten its second nationwide coronavirus lockdown, with the prime minister warning that the country is at "the edge of the abyss". The new measures, which parliament must approve, would see more workplaces close and movement restricted further. Synagogues would only be able to open for small groups next week for Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, and the size of protests would be limited. The move came after the daily number of new Covid-19 cases exceeded 8,000. That is one of the world's highest rates of infection relative to population size. Since the start of the pandemic, 1,335 people with the coronavirus have died in Israel and more than 206,000 cases have been diagnosed. Israel's government was praised in the spring for taking early action that contained the spread of Covid-19 and resulted in a very low death rate compared to other countries. But it has come in for widespread criticism for losing control since the first lockdown was eased in May. The virus quickly returned and last Friday, as new cases reached daily highs of more than 5,000, Israel became the first developed country to return to a nationwide lockdown. Schools were closed and people were told they had to stay within 1km (0.6 miles) of their homes, except for commuting to work, doing essential shopping, exercising outdoors, and attending religious services and protests. Synagogues were allowed to stay open but social distancing rules limited the number of worshippers who were allowed inside during the Jewish New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah. Ministers decided to impose harsher restrictions on Thursday after the infection rate continued to rise and health centres reportedly came under increasing strain. "The morbidity rate in Israel is rising, the number of critical patients is rising, unfortunately so is the number of deaths," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "In the past two days, we heard from the experts that if we don't take immediate and difficult steps, we will reach the edge of the abyss. In order to save the lives of Israeli citizens, we are required to impose of full lockdown for two weeks."

9-24-20 Heroes in Harm's Way: Covid-19 show sparks sexism debate in China
A highly anticipated drama about Covid-19 has come under fierce criticism for downplaying the role of women during China's epidemic fight. "Heroes in Harm's Way" premiered on China's flagship TV channel, CCTV-1, on 17 September. It aired during primetime, and promised to be the first TV drama "based on real life stories" about front-line workers in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the site of the first coronavirus outbreak. The title of the show implied that it was going to highlight the major contributions women had made in China's epidemic fight. Women account for the majority of China's front-line workers. However, the show's pilot, released with much fanfare and publicity, was panned on China's IMDB-like website, Douban. Film critics noted that it scored an embarrassing 2.4 out of 10, and it received many critical comments, mainly about its depiction of women, before they were suddenly suspended on the site. The name of the show was seemingly chosen because, as China Daily noted in April, female medical staff are often hailed as "Heroes in Harm's Way". However, in Chinese, the name of the show translates more literally as "Beauties who go against the tide". It was presumably always going to be quite controversial, given that the phrase insinuates that women in front-line medical roles have taken rare, rather than common paths. Viewers have taken particular offence to the fact that many of the female characters play a hindering or subservient role compared with their male counterparts. The national Global Times newspaper notes that in the drama, "one of the most controversial scenes" shows a divorced female driver being discouraged by her peers to sign up to transport supplies to the frontline, because her family are waiting to spend Chinese New Year with her. Social media users on the popular Sina Weibo microblog felt that this was a derogatory depiction of women, and made women look like they were reluctant contributors "dragging their feet, [who] had to seek the consent of their husbands if they wanted to go to the front line", rather than the main contributors.

9-23-20 How the UK can get its catastrophic coronavirus testing under control
THIS month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an ambition to increase the country’s capacity for coronavirus testing to several million tests a day. Billed as Operation Moonshot, the idea was received with widespread incredulity. The UK is currently failing to meet demand for coronavirus testing, with roughly half a million daily requests outstripping supply by up to fourfold. Yet there are also reports of new technologies in development that could make testing faster and cheaper. If the UK had the capacity to test not just those with symptoms of covid-19, but to regularly test symptomless people too, it could be a game changer in the ability to control the disease. From the beginning of the pandemic, many countries have struggled to provide enough coronavirus tests for all those who need them. A lack of tests is disruptive because anyone with symptoms that resemble those of covid-19 has to stay at home and isolate, and must also be treated as infectious within hospitals. Insufficient tests also make it impossible to accurately track how the epidemic is progressing in a region, whether cases are rising or falling. “Without testing, which is our eyes and ears, we don’t understand where this is going,” says Stephen Griffin at the University of Leeds in the UK. The UK faced this problem initially in its first wave of covid-19, when even hospitals were going short of tests. To expand capacity, five large facilities known as Lighthouse Labs were set up to process polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, a well-established technique. In this case, the tests are used to compare samples from a nose or throat swab to the genes of the new coronavirus. The labs are dotted around the UK and, for a few months, capacity seemed largely sufficient.

9-23-20 President Trump booed at Supreme Court as he pays respects to Ruth Bader Ginsburg
US President Donald Trump has been greeted with boos and chants of "Vote him out" by the crowd outside the Supreme Court. He visited the court Thursday morning to pay his respects to the late justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump is keen to confirm Ginsburg's replacement before the 3 November presidential election - much to the anger of Democrats.

9-23-20 When did the coronavirus really reach the US and Europe?
WHEN did the coronavirus first reach Europe and the US? No cases were reported outside China until January 2020, but a study published on 10 September claims that cases in the US began to rise by 22 December. Many people there and in Europe suspect they had coronavirus around this time. Yet overall, the evidence suggests there were few cases outside China this early on. Covid-19 was first recognised as a new disease in Wuhan, China, over the course of December. On 13 January, the first case outside China was reported in Thailand. On 21 January, the US reported its first case and on 24 January, France reported three, the first in Europe. This, at least, is what was known at the time. But it can take up to two weeks for covid-19 symptoms to appear and many infected people don’t have symptoms at all. In addition, when countries did start testing, many initially limited it to people who had come from China recently. If the virus had already begun spreading, any early local cases would have been missed. “It is certain there were many cases we did not see,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers at the University of Texas at Austin. But how many and how soon? One team says it found viral RNA in sewage in Barcelona, Spain, as early as March 2019, but others have dismissed this. “It is highly likely to be contamination,” says Kristian Andersen at the Scripps Research Institute in California. The 10 September study is based on the number of people going to a group of hospitals and clinics in the Los Angeles area with a cough, but just because people had symptoms resembling covid-19 doesn’t mean they had it. “It’s extremely unlikely,” says Dominik Mertz at McMaster University in Canada. “I think we can be pretty sure it was something else.” In fact, it is very unlikely that anyone was infected by the virus before November. Several teams tracing its evolution by looking at changes in RNA of samples of the virus sequenced so far have all concluded that the pandemic strain emerged around November.

9-23-20 Covid-19 news: Volunteers to be infected with virus to test vaccines
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Volunteers will be deliberately infected with the coronavirus in first challenge trials. Healthy volunteers will be deliberately infected with the coronavirus to test the effectiveness of experimental coronavirus vaccines in London next year, in the world’s first human challenge trials for coronavirus. About 2000 people in the UK have volunteered to be given one of a number of experimental vaccines and then receive a dose of the coronavirus under controlled conditions. The volunteers have joined the trial, which is due to begin in January, through advocacy group 1Day Sooner. Earlier this year the group organised an open letter signed by prominent researchers including Nobel laureates, urging the US government to immediately prepare for human challenge trials. The researchers behind the trials, which are being funded by the UK government, told the Financial Times that the trials would play an important role in helping to identify the most promising vaccine candidates likely to move into clinical testing in early 2021. The UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson has urged people in England to follow new rules announced yesterday aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, warning that the government could introduce further restrictions if people fail to adhere. “If people don’t follow the rules we have set out, then we must reserve the right to go further,” Johnson said during a televised address. However, some have questioned the logic behind the new rules. “Closing down restaurants and pubs earlier will do little to stave the spread for as long as multiple different households can interchangeably meet up,” David Strain at the University of Exeter said in a statement. Germany’s contact tracing app, the Corona-Warn-App, has been used to transmit 1.2 million coronavirus test results from laboratories to users during its first 100 days, according to officials. The app has been downloaded more than 18 million times since it was first launched in June and more than 90 per cent of laboratories in the country are now connected to it.

9-23-20 Covid: US death toll passes 200,000
The US coronavirus death toll has passed 200,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University (JHU). More than 6.8 million people are known to have been infected in the US, more than in any other country. The milestone comes amid an increase in cases in a number of states, including North Dakota and Utah. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the new death toll was a "horrible thing" and claimed China "should have stopped" the virus. He also defended his record, claiming that had the US not taken action, "you could have two million, 2.5 or three million" dead. JHU reported the new death toll of 200,005 on Tuesday. The university has been collecting US and global coronavirus data since the outbreak began late last year in China. The first case in the US was confirmed in January. President Trump's administration has been repeatedly criticised over its handling of the outbreak. "Due to Donald Trump's lies and incompetence in the past six months, [we] have seen one of the greatest losses of American life in history," Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said on Monday. "With this crisis, a real crisis, a crisis that required serious presidential leadership, he just wasn't up to it. He froze. He failed to act. He panicked. And America has paid the worst price of any nation in the world." But on the same day, Mr Trump said he and his administration had done "a phenomenal job" and gave himself an "A+" for his handling of the pandemic. He said the US was "rounding the corner on the pandemic, with or without a vaccine". North Dakota has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. Officials say there were more than 3,200 active cases in the state as of Monday, while 87 people are in hospital. The state ranks first in the country for the number of cases per capita in the past two weeks, according to data cited by the Associated Press news agency. Cases are also rising in states including Utah, Texas and South Dakota. On Tuesday, Wisconsin extended a public health emergency order for the third time since 30 July.

9-23-20 ICE whistleblower: Mexico investigating US immigrant 'sterilisations'
Mexico is investigating claims that six Mexican women were sterilised while in a US migrant detention centre, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Tuesday. A whistleblower last week alleged that hysterectomies were being performed on immigrants in the US without their proper consent. US immigration officials said they are taking the allegations seriously.Mexico called such operations "unacceptable". "We are already in contact with six (Mexican women) who could potentially have been subjected to this type of procedure," Mr Ebrard told a press conference on Tuesday. "If confirmed, it's a major issue and measures must be taken," he continued. On Monday Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his government could take legal action against the US if the allegations were confirmed, Mexican newspaper El Universal reports. More than 150 members of the US Congress, including top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, have called for an investigation into the detention centre. But the detention centre and ICE have disputeed the allegations. Last week ICE told the BBC that "anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate scepticism they deserve". Women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were allegedly forced to undergo the procedures at the private Irwin County Detention Centre in Georgia. The whistleblower, a nurse identified as Dawn Wooten who worked at the centre, expressed concerns about the high number of hysterectomies - an operation involving the removal of all or part of the uterus - performed on Spanish-speaking women there. Human rights groups in the US filed a complaint against the Irwin County Detention Centre on 14 September based on Ms Wooten's allegations. It said Ms Wooten and other nurses were alarmed by the "rate at which the hysterectomies have occurred". Ms Wooten alleged that one doctor removed the wrong ovary from a young detainee and that "everybody he sees has a hysterectomy". "We've questioned among ourselves like, goodness he's taking everybody's stuff out…That's his speciality, he's the uterus collector," she said in the complaint. One detainee likened the centre to "an experimental concentration camp", adding: "It was like they're experimenting with our bodies."

9-23-20 Covid: US funeral directors reflect on 200,000 death toll
As the US Covid-19 death toll passes 200,000, owners and directors of funeral homes across the country reflect on how the loss of life has affected the families and communities that they serve.

9-23-20 Coronavirus: Whitty and Vallance faced 'herd immunity' backlash, emails show
As the UK introduces fresh restrictions on social contact to curb the spread of coronavirus, controversy continues to rage about whether the government had initially considered trying a very different approach. At the start of the pandemic, the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, spoke about "herd immunity" - the idea that once enough of a population had been exposed to the virus, they would build up natural immunity to it. Sir Patrick and the government have both insisted this was never official policy. The government also denies there was any delay in locking down the country, as some critics have suggested. Emails obtained by the BBC reveal the alarm among the government's top scientific advisers at the reaction to Sir Patrick's words. In one email from March, Sir Patrick asks for help to "calm down" academics who have expressed anger at his repeated references to herd immunity and the delays in announcing a lockdown. The material, obtained by the BBC via a Freedom of Information Act request, consists of every email sent by Sir Patrick and chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, from the start of February to the start of June, containing the words "herd immunity". There is no reference in any email until after 13 March, when Sir Patrick discussed herd immunity in a number of media interviews. "Our aim," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that morning, is to "try and reduce the peak - not suppress it completely, also because most people get a mild illness, to build up some degree of herd immunity whilst protecting the most vulnerable". To many, his words appeared an unequivocal endorsement of herd immunity. They also appeared to explain the government's reluctance to order the kind of lockdowns and social distancing measures that were already in place in many other countries, despite cases increasing and worrying scenes in hospitals in Italy.

9-23-20 Ischgl: Austria sued over Tyrol ski resort's Covid-19 outbreak
An Austrian consumer rights group has filed four civil lawsuits against the country's government over Covid-19 outbreaks at ski resorts in the western Tyrol region earlier this year. The group also said it hoped to bring at least one class action lawsuit next year on behalf of thousands of people. One resort, Ischgl, was linked to cases in 45 countries after skiers brought home the virus with them. Authorities have said they acted based on what was known at the time. The first case at Ischgl ski village was reported on 7 March, but Austria's public health agency has since said it believes there were cases at the resort as early as 5 February. The Consumer Protection Association (VSV), a private organisation in Austria, said the four civil cases were being brought on behalf of individuals and were all related to Ischgl ski village. They are seeking damages of up to €100,000 (£92,000; $117,000). The VSV described the four civil suits as test cases, and said that more than 6,000 people from different countries had signed up for potential class action suits next year. Most of those who have signed up are from Germany, but the group includes people from Austria, the UK and the US. The VSV has also written to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz urging him to agree to a settlement. The authorities maintain that they responded appropriately to the outbreaks in Tyrol according to the information that was available at the time. However, the VSV alleges that the local and national governments knew of the threat of mass coronavirus infection in the popular ski resorts and responded too slowly. Alexander Klauser, a lawyer representing some of those who caught the virus at Tyrolian resorts, told a press conference on Wednesday that the authorities were aware of infections as early as February. "On 25 February, the authorities closed down a hotel in Innsbruck because one of the employees had tested positive, so that means the authorities reacted immediately when this case in Innsbruck - the capital of the province of Tyrol - became known. "But they did not react [to later cases], although there is evidence that the Austrian authorities were informed about cases in Ischgl and other ski resorts as early as 3, 4 and 5 March." He added: "A group of tourists from Iceland tested positive, and the Icelandic government reported the cases to the Austrian government as early as 5 March."

9-23-20 Coronavirus: Health chief hails Africa's fight against Covid-19
The head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control has praised African states for managing to curb the spread of coronavirus. Africa has seen about 1.4 million cases, and 34,000 deaths since March. These figures are far lower than those in Europe, Asia or the Americas, with reported cases continuing to decline. Early interventions played a crucial role in curbing the virus' spread, John Nkengasong told the BBC's Newsday programme. The continent of more than one billion people accounts for just under 5% of cases globally and 3.6% of deaths. Dr Nkengasong described as "false" suggestions that cases and deaths in Africa were significantly under-reported. "We may not have been picking up all the cases, just like in other parts of the world... but we are not seeing people around the continent falling dead on the streets or mass burials going on," Dr Nkengasong said. All African states introduced a series of measures to tackle the virus as soon as the first cases were reported in March. Many, including South Africa, introduced nationwide lockdowns, but others such as Ethiopia opted for less strict measures. Dr Nkengasong, however, attributed the low number to a "joint continental effort", which focused on "scaling up testing and following up contact tracing and very importantly masking", or the wearing of face masks. "In many countries, including Ethiopia where I live, if you go to the streets of Addis Ababa you will see there is almost 100% masking," he added. Africa's relatively young population also contributed to the low number of cases, Dr Nkengasong said. Furthermore, the emphasis on community-driven initiatives, and experience in contact-tracing from fighting diseases like Ebola, had helped countries to tackle the virus, he said. "This virus is in the community, and without a strong community response and strong community engagement there is no chance we can fight it," Dr Nkengasong added.

9-23-20 Europe migration: EU plans mandatory pact to 'rebuild trust'
The European Union has called for a compulsory system across the bloc to manage migration, after years of division over how to respond to a big influx of migrants and refugees. The German-backed pact would require all 27 EU countries to take part. Member states would either agree to take in asylum seekers or take charge of sending back those refused asylum. European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen called it a "European solution... to restore citizens' confidence". The recent fires that destroyed the Moria camp in Greece, housing more than 12,500 migrants and refugees, was "a stark reminder we need to find sustainable solutions," she added. Ever since the influx of over a million migrants and refugees in 2015, mainly via Italy and Greece, the EU's 27 states have been divided over how to respond, and the new pact has already attracted criticism. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cast doubt on the idea of distributing asylum seekers across Europe. "It won't work like this," he told the AFP news agency. but a number of Central and Eastern European nations have been openly resistant to the idea of taking in a quota of migrants. The new pact, which has been pushed most strongly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, proposes a "fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity between member states while providing certainty for individual applicants". There would be: 1. New compulsory pre-entry screening involving health, identity and security checks. 2. A faster asylum border process involving decisions within 12 weeks and swift returns for failed applicants. The EU's 27 countries would have "flexible options" for how to take part, so countries such as Hungary and Poland that have refused to take in arrivals in the past would be asked to help in different ways. 1. Taking in recent arrivals. 2. "Sponsoring" returns - ensuring on behalf of other states that people refused asylum are sent back. 3. Providing immediate operational support. 4. Each state would be legally required to contribute their "fair share" - based half on GDP, and half on population size.

9-23-20 Breonna Taylor: Kentucky city on edge ahead of prosecutor decision
Louisville, Kentucky, is under a state of emergency as prosecutors are expected to announce if police officers who killed a black woman in her home during a drug raid will be charged. Mayor Greg Fischer said he had declared the measure "due to the potential for civil unrest". Breonna Taylor, 26, a hospital emergency room technician, was shot multiple times on 13 March. Her name has become a rallying cry for anti-police brutality protesters. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron is expected to announce any day whether his office will bring charges. Mayor Fischer's emergency declaration on Tuesday noted that protests have been held for over 100 consecutive days in Louisville. The city leader, a Democrat, is authorising police to close traffic on certain streets where protests have been prevalent. The mayor said he did not know what the attorney general would say. He added: "Our goal is ensuring space and opportunity for potential protesters to gather and express their First Amendment rights after the announcement. "At the same time, we are preparing for any eventuality to keep everyone safe." Barricades are being erected around the city centre to reduce access to the area and the federal courthouse will be closed. The police department has cancelled leave requests. Officers will be required to work 12-hour shifts, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, citing an internal memo. Interim police chief Robert Schroeder told reporters on Tuesday that an announcement in the case was expected this week. "In the community, we have all heard the rumours," Chief Schroeder said. "We all know something is coming. We don't know what it is." Governor Andy Beshear has said he is ready to deploy National Guard units in the event of violent protests. Shortly after midnight on Friday 13 March, she was in bed with her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, watching a film when they heard a banging on the door. Plainclothes Louisville police officers were carrying out a narcotics raid, and they used a battering ram to enter the property. A judge had granted a warrant to search Ms Taylor's home because investigators suspected a convicted drug dealer - her ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover - was using the address to receive packages. She had no criminal record. Mr Walker, a licensed gun owner, later told police he thought the late-night intruder was Glover, according to the New York Times. Mr Walker fired one round with his pistol, hitting one of the officers in the thigh. The officers returned fire, discharging more than 20 rounds. Ms Taylor, who had also got out of bed amid the commotion, died on the hallway floor. Her death certificate records five bullet wounds.

9-22-20 Covid-19 news: New restrictions in England could last six months
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. New restrictions for England could last six months, UK prime minister says. People in England will be asked to work from home where possible and pubs, bars and restaurants will be required to close at 10 pm each night, under a series of new restrictions announced by UK prime minister Boris Johnson today, which come into force on Thursday. Under the new rules, which Johnson today told MPs could stay in place for six months, pubs, bars and restaurants will be restricted to table service only and face masks will be compulsory for hospitality staff and non-seated customers, as well as for retail workers and taxi drivers. In Scotland, a ban on meeting people in houses will be extended from Glasgow and its surroundings to the entire country, and bars, pubs and restaurants will have to close at 10 pm. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has backtracked on advice it posted last week regarding airborne transmission of the coronavirus. The advice suggested the virus spreads through tiny droplets that can linger in the air. The World Health Organization acknowledges that there is some evidence that airborne transmission can occur in crowded spaces with inadequate ventilation but says the main route of coronavirus transmission is through larger droplets from coughs and sneezes, which can land on surfaces and get onto people’s hands. The CDC retracted its guidance yesterday, with a spokesperson telling CNN that a “draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error.” More than 200,000 people in the US have now died from covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, the highest number for any nation. The country has recorded more than 6.8 million cases of the coronavirus.

9-22-20 India about to overtake the US with highest covid-19 caseload globally
India is on track to overtake the US as the country with the highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide. With more than 5.56 million recorded cases, India set a new record with 97,859 daily cases on 16 September. It took just 11 days for the total number of cases so far to rise from 4 to 5 million, and it is likely to be just a matter of weeks before the country passes the US, which has some 6.85 million cases. Given India’s population of about 1.38 billion, however, the number of cases is comparatively low. On 22 September, for instance, the seven-day average of daily confirmed cases in the US was 131 per million people, compared with 65 per million in India. Deaths, too, currently totalling about 89,000 in India, are much lower than in the US, which is nearing 200,000. Cases have soared since India eased a strict national lockdown in May, and some are worried that the spread of the virus into rural areas will increase case counts and fatalities. Two-thirds of the population lives in rural regions, which have only about a third of the country’s hospital beds. “We will have to gear up our services to delay the spread of the virus to rural areas,” says K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “That’s going to be absolutely critical.” Even states like Kerala, which won global praise for its handling of the virus in the initial months of the pandemic, are now seeing a rise in case numbers. Much of the surge is ascribed to migrant workers returning to their home states since restrictions eased. “That’s when it became difficult to control,” says Reddy. On 14 September, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan said that 1 million tests are being conducted daily. “You do need some testing, but it cannot be the only public health strategy,” says Reddy. “We will also have to boost heathcare systems and improve connections with local communities.”

9-22-20 US science news biased against people with names of non-British origin
News coverage in the US of scientific work is biased against researchers whose names aren’t of British origin. Hao Peng at the University of Michigan and his colleagues analysed more than 230,000 news stories from 288 US outlets, which reported on around 100,000 different research papers across all scientific fields. The team looked at whether the first authors of papers were mentioned in news coverage. Very often, these are junior researchers who have contributed most significantly to the work. Peng and his colleagues found that first authors who had names that weren’t of British origin were significantly less likely to be mentioned or quoted than first authors with names that were. On average, the probability of featuring in a news article was up to 6.4 per cent less for researchers with names of non-British origin. The greatest decreases were for people with names of Asian or African origin compared with those whose names were of European origin. The greatest disparity was seen in general news outlets, such as certain newspapers, where researchers with names of African and Chinese origin were 10 per cent less likely to be mentioned. To perform the analysis, the team used Altmetric, a database that aggregates media and online coverage of scientific papers. “Most people who work in journalism have personal anecdotes that support these findings,” says Marcus Ryder at Birmingham City University, UK. “There is no doubt that the media confers legitimacy and authority to deciding who the voices we should be listening to are.” When examining possible factors contributing to the bias, the team found that geographical location was a major component, but that this alone didn’t account for the disparity. Authors with names not of British origin based outside the US were even less likely to be mentioned, potentially because of perceived difficulties in interviewing them due to time-zone or language-fluency issues, according to the study.

9-22-20 Ginsburg Supreme Court: Trump to name nominee by week's end
US President Donald Trump has said he will name his nominee for Supreme Court justice by the end of the week, and urged the Republican-controlled Senate to confirm his choice before the presidential election. The plan has launched a high-stakes battle ahead of the 3 November vote. Mr Trump wants to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal stalwart who died on Friday aged 87, with a conservative. He appears to have secured enough support in the Senate. This would cement a right-leaning majority on the US's highest court, where justices serve for life or until they choose to retire. The ideological balance of the nine-member court is crucial to its rulings on the most important issues in US law, with decisions made in recent years on immigration, carbon emissions and gay marriage. Democrats have criticised Mr Trump's plan, with presidential candidate Joe Biden dubbing it an "abuse of power". Meanwhile, Ms Ginsburg is set to become the first woman in history to lie in state in the US Capitol building later this week. Following her death from cancer, people around the country have been paying tribute to the prominent feminist, who served on the court for 27 years. On Monday, Mr Trump said he was "constitutionally obligated" to nominate someone for the Supreme Court. "We're looking at five incredible jurists... women that are extraordinary in every way. I mean, honestly, it could be any one of them, and we're going to be announcing it on Friday or Saturday," he told supporters at a rally in Ohio. The president earlier had a private meeting at the White House with potential nominee Amy Coney Barrett, an appeals court judge who is backed by anti-abortion conservatives. Once the president names a nominee, it is the Senate's job to vote on whether to confirm them. The Judiciary Committee will review the pick first, and then vote to send the nominee to the floor for a full vote. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to hold a confirmation vote before the election in November. Democrats have accused him of hypocrisy. Following the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, Mr McConnell refused to hold a vote to confirm a nominee put forward by then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

9-21-20 Covid-19 news: New restrictions in the UK as alert level raised to 4
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. New localised lockdown restrictions to come into force in parts of the UK tomorrow. Amid warnings from scientists that the UK’s epidemic is doubling every seven days, which could lead to 50,000 cases a day by mid-October, the UK has imposed new restrictions to try and limit the spread of coronavirus. The country’s chief medical officers also advised that the coronavirus alert level be raised from 3 to 4. According to the government’s 5-tier alert system, an alert level of 4 indicates that transmission is high or rising exponentially and warrants increased social distancing measures. The UK is currently recording around 3000 cases per day, compared to around 5000 a day at the peak of the epidemic in spring. Coronavirus restrictions will be lifted across New Zealand today, with the exception of Auckland, where some restrictions will remain in place. “Our actions collectively have managed to get the virus under control,” the country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern told a press conference today. There are currently 62 active cases of the virus in New Zealand, 33 of which are connected to a cluster in Auckland. Rules in Auckland will be eased further on Wednesday, with a limit on gatherings to be increased from 10 to 100 people. Strict new lockdown measures came into force in Spain’s capital Madrid today. At the weekend, thousands of people in the city’s southern district of Vallecas took to the streets to protest against the new restrictions. Under the new rules people won’t be allowed to leave the areas where they live except to go to work or for emergency medical treatment. India’s Taj Mahal reopened today for the first time since it was closed due to the pandemic in March. Visitors will be required to adhere to strict physical distancing rules and the number of visitors will be limited to 5000 per day – a quarter of the usual rate.

9-21-20 UK coronavirus epidemic is doubling every seven days warn scientists
The UK faces a “very difficult problem” of rising covid-19 deaths and cases if it does not change course, chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty has warned. The epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days in the UK, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told a televised briefing today. “There’s no doubt we are in a situation where the numbers are increasing,” he said, referring to several sets of data, including an Office for National Statistics study which suggests around 6000 people a day are currently being infected. If growth continues unchecked, he said one scenario is that we could see 50,000 cases a day by mid-October, leading to 200-plus deaths a day by mid-November. Less than 8 per cent of people have likely been infected so far, Whitty said, meaning most people are still vulnerable. Localised outbreaks are growing, and the arrival of autumn is likely to make covid-19 worse, Whitty said. “We have in a bad sense, literally turned a corner.” Controlling the virus’s spread should be seen as a “six-month problem”, he added. The account from two of the UK’s top scientific advisers on the epidemic comes a day before prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce new restrictions. Their exact nature is still being debated within government, but is expected to stop short of a full national lockdown. Whitty directly addressed the political balancing act the government faces on public health and economic concerns. “Ministers making decisions, and all of society, we have to walk this very difficult balance. If we do too little, this virus will go out of control and we will get significant numbers of increase, both indirect and direct deaths. “But if we go too far the other way, we can cause damage to the economy, which can feed through to unemployment, deprivation, poverty, which can have long-term health effects,” he said.j

9-21-20 The Supreme Court's looming ObamaCare ruling
The life-or-death consequences of a conservative majority could soon become very real. The Supreme Court's decisions have real consequences for how we live our day-to-day lives as citizens of the United States. They influence everything from whether we can get married to the the people we love, where we go to school and who sits next to us in class, how we practice our religion, whether we can vote, and the dynamics between employers and employees. The court doesn't get the answers to all these questions right, but its rulings are not airy, theoretical, or ephemeral. They're real, and they reverberate. So it is natural that the fight over replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will dominate American political life over the coming weeks, perhaps even months. Conservatives already have a majority on the court, but letting President Trump pick Ginsburg's successor would cement a Republican-led supermajority that could dominate the country's jurisprudence for decades to come. Democrats cannot hide from that fact. And they shouldn't, especially in an election year. Not everybody agrees. On Sunday, The Atlantic's Anne Applebaum begged Democrats not to make a big deal of the Supreme Court opening as they campaign this fall, lest they ignite a culture war. "Democrats should not spend the weeks between now and November talking solely about judges, Mitch McConnell, and the Supreme Court," Applebaum wrote. She added: "Fixating on the court organizes the electorate along two fronts of a culture war, and forces people to make stark ideological choices. Instead of focusing voters on the president's failure to control COVID-19 or the consequent economic collapse, the culture war makes voters think only of their deepest tribal identities." Better, she said, to talk about health care — that's how Democrats won the House of Representatives in 2018, after all. Applebaum is right about one thing: Democrats shouldn't focus solely on the court during the campaign. They should work to ensure voters have Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic front-and-center in their minds when they cast ballots. But Democrats can also draw attention to the Supreme Court fight precisely by making the case to voters that the court's decisions can and will affect their lives, health, and well-being. The most obvious way they can do that is to focus not just on the fight over Ginsburg's seat, but to point out a here-and-now consequence of losing it: The court on November 10 will take up a case challenging the Affordable Care Act. Conservatives, backed by the Trump administration, are making the case that since the law's individual mandate provision was neutered by the GOP's 2017 tax cut, the entire law should be scrapped. As many as 25 million Americans could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the law — and the entire health-care system could be upended. The fallout could also affect Americans who still have insurance. Young adults might lose the ability to get coverage under their parents' plans. Insurers might reimpose costs for preventative health services. And people with pre-existing conditions could lose their coverage altogether. "Unfortunately, the fate of the health-care system now hangs in the balance," lawyers for the American Medical Association wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief for the case, adding that striking down ACA during the COVID-19 pandemic "would be a self-inflicted wound that could take decades to heal." It isn't an exaggeration to say, then, that the court's decision in the case could have life-or-death consequences for many Americans. And there is reason to believe that the politics of this issue work for Democrats. Gallup polling shows that most Americans like the Affordable Care Act, including most self-described independents.

9-21-20 White House names three 'anarchist US cities' to lose funds
The Trump administration has named three cities that are slated to lose federal funding after the White House accused them of tolerating crime. New York City, Portland and Seattle are on the list of "anarchist cities" that Trump officials say have failed to stem crime linked to a summer of protests. It follows a memo from Mr Trump earlier this month, threatening the move. The mayors of the cities have threatened to sue, calling Mr Trump's move a political stunt. A statement from the Justice Department laid out recent crime rates in the cities and how their police responded. "We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance," Attorney General William Barr said in the statement. He also called on Portland, Seattle and New York City to "reverse course and become serious about performing the basic function of government and start protecting their own citizens". All three cities have seen major protests since the death of unarmed black man George Floyd in May. It remains unclear what federal funding may be cut from the cities. The violent crimes have generally declined in US cities since the 1990s, but have risen steeply in the past year in several cities including Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. (Webmaster's comment: Political blackmail to hurt people in cities protesting for equal rights for blacks!)

9-21-20 Jogging when you're black - the calculations you have to make
The pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia prompted many African American men to come forward with stories of discrimination they face while jogging. In a recent incident, police wrongly arrested runner Mathias Ometu in Texas, even though he did not fit the description of a suspect. A law enforcement expert and the founder of a running club analyse footage of the incident and explain what it means (Webmaster's comment: Many police are deliberately trained to presecute blacks!)

9-20-20 Ruth Bader Ginsburg death: Trump to nominate woman to fill Supreme Court seat
US President Donald Trump has said he will next week nominate a woman to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, escalating a political row over her successor. Ginsburg, 87, died on Friday, just weeks before the presidential election. Mr Trump's Democratic rival, Joe Biden, insists the decision on her replacement should wait until after the vote. The ideological balance of the nine-member court is crucial to its rulings on the most important issues in US law. But President Trump has vowed to swear in Ginsburg's successor "without delay", a move that has infuriated Democrats, who fear Republicans will vote to lock in a decades-long conservative majority on the country's highest court. "I will be putting forth a nominee next week. It will be a woman," Mr Trump said at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina on Saturday. "I think it should be a woman because I actually like women much more than men." Some supporters chanted "Fill that seat!" as Mr Trump spoke, urging him to take the rare opportunity to nominate a third justice during one presidential term to a lifetime appointment on the court. Earlier, Mr Trump praised two female judges who serve on federal courts of appeals as possible choices. Both judges - Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa - are conservatives who would tip the balance of the Supreme Court in favour of Republicans. Democrats have vigorously opposed any nomination before November's election, arguing that Senate Republicans blocked Democratic President Barack Obama's choice for the US top court in 2016. At the time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell justified the move on grounds that it was an election year. But on Friday Senator McConnell said he intended to act on any nomination Mr Trump made and bring it to a vote in the Senate before election day. Ginsburg, a liberal icon and feminist standard-bearer, died of metastatic pancreatic cancer at her home in Washington DC, surrounded by her family. She was only the second-ever woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Supporters gathered outside the court on Friday night to pay tribute to the woman who had become affectionately known as "The Notorious RBG".

9-20-20 WeChat: Judge blocks US attempts to ban downloads of Chinese app
A judge has blocked a US government attempt to ban the Chinese messaging and payments app, WeChat. US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said the ban raised serious questions related to the constitution's first amendment, guaranteeing free speech. The Department of Commerce had announced a bar on WeChat appearing in US app stores from Sunday, effectively shutting it down. The Trump administration has alleged it threatens national security. It says it could pass user data to the Chinese government. Both WeChat and China have strongly denied the claim. Tencent, the conglomerate that owns WeChat, had previously described the US ban as "unfortunate". The ruling comes just after TikTok, which was also named in the Department of Commerce order, reached a deal with US firms Oracle and Walmart to hopefully allow them to keep operating. The Justice Department asked for the order not to be blocked after a group of WeChat users filed a lawsuit challenging it. The department argued it would "frustrate and displace the president's determination of how best to address threats to national security". However Judge Beeler, sitting in San Francisco, noted that "while the general evidence about the threat to national security related to China (regarding technology and mobile technology) is considerable, the specific evidence about WeChat is modest".(Webmaster's comment: There is no threat! China is way ahead of us in technolgy.) The US Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement that the decision to block the app was taken "to combat China's malicious collection of American citizens' personal data". The department said WeChat collected "vast swathes of data from users, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories". (Webmaster's comment: The same as done by American companies!) Friday's statement from the commerce department said the governing Chinese Communist Party "has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US". Tencent, which owns WeChat, has said that messages on its app are private. (Webmaster's comment: What bothers our Government is that it can not crack into the messages of the users!)

9-20-20 Australia coronavirus cases 'set to be lowest in months'
Australia looks set to record its lowest daily coronavirus increase for three months, with just 18 new cases reported so far. The state of Victoria - the epicentre of the country's Covid-19 outbreak - recorded 14 new infections to Sunday morning, down from 21 the day before. New South Wales and Queensland reported two cases each. The remaining states are yet to report their figures, but rarely record any new cases. Figures were last this low on 23 June. Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews said the numbers were "cause for great optimism". His state, which has accounted for 75% of Australia's 26,900 cases and 90% of its 849 deaths, has been under lockdown since early July. Melbourne, the capital, has been under tighter restrictions than other areas, including a curfew and stay-at-home orders. Anti-lockdown protests in the city have become a regular sight. On Sunday, demonstrators gathered in the central business district, according to local media. Saturday's protest, in a park, saw protesters being dispersed by police on horseback. However, Mr Andrews has defended the state's strict lockdown, pointing to rising cases in Europe. "It's heartbreaking to see all of those communities have given - all the sacrifice they've made - and now they've got cases running perhaps more wildly than their first wave," he told reporters. "Some of these nations as well, I see a bit of commentary around the place about how... death rates in second waves are lower. That's not what the data's saying. That's not what the data in Europe is saying. You've got to see it off." Melbourne has started to ease its restrictions, saying it will lift the curfew and exercise limits on 26 October if there are fewer than five new cases per day.


FEMINISM

9-26-20 Social media censorship in Egypt targets women on TikTok
The government cites conservative values as the reason for policing music and dancing clips on the trendy video-sharing platform. Looking at Haneen Hossam's TikTok account, one might wonder why her content landed the Egyptian social media user in jail. In one post, she explains for her followers the Greek mythological story of Venus and Adonis, which is also a Shakespeare poem. Mawada al-Adham does similarly anodyne things that are familiar to anyone who observes such social influencers, like giving away iPhones and driving a fancy car. They are just two of the nine women arrested in Egypt this year for what they posted on TikTok. Mostly, their videos are full of dancing to Arabic songs, usually a genre of electro-pop, Egyptian sha'abi folk music called mahraganat, or festival tunes. The clips feature a typically TikTok style — with feet planted, hands gesticulating and eyebrows emoting. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has put TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, in its sights with another escalation against Beijing. The U.S. Commerce Department announced in September that TikTok, and another Chinese-owned app, WeChat, would be blocked from U.S. app stores. In Egypt, the arrests are about dictating morality rather than any kind of geopolitical struggle or international tech rivalry. But what exactly the government finds legally objectionable about these women's online content is ambiguous. "They themselves would have never imagined that they would go to jail and be sentenced for what they were doing because what they're doing is basically what everyone else does on social media," said Salma El Hosseiny of the International Service for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in Geneva. "Singing and dancing as if you would at an Egyptian wedding, for example." Hosseiny said that these women were likely targeted because they're from middle- or working-class backgrounds and dance to a style of music shunned by the bourgeoisie for scandalous lyrics that touch on taboo topics. "You have social media influencers who come from elite backgrounds, or upper-middle class, or rich classes in Egypt, who would post the same type of content. These women are working-class women," she added. "They have stepped out of what is permitted for them." They were charged under a cybercrime law passed in 2018, as well as existing laws in the Egyptian Penal Code that have been employed against women in the past. Yasmin Omar, a researcher at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said the cybercrime law is vague when it comes to defining what's legal and what isn't. "It was written using very broad terms that could be very widely interpreted and criminalizing a lot of acts that are originally considered as personal freedom," she said. "Looking at it, you would see that anything you might post on social media, anything that you may use [on] the internet could be criminalized under this very wide umbrella." Egypt's cybercrime law is part of a larger effort by the government to increase surveillance of online activities. As TikTok became much more popular during the pandemic, prosecutors started looking there too, Omar said. "When I write anything on my social media accounts, I know that it could be seen by an official whose job it is to watch the internet and media platforms," said Omar, who added that that surveillance often leads to widespread repression. "The state is simply arresting whoever says anything that criticizes its policy, its laws, its practices ... even if it's just joking. It's not even allowed."

9-26-20 Philippines Troll Patrol: The woman taking on trolls on their own turf
The Philippines is playing a key role in the wave of disinformation sweeping the world. So-called troll farms are being used to create multiple fake social media accounts that post political propaganda and attack critics. But a group of people calling themselves the Troll Patrol are trying to use their own tactics against them, as the BBC's Howard Johnson reports. In 2016, Gina - not her real name - and others, watched with alarm as a group of Catholic schoolgirls in the Philippines came under attack from online trolls. The girls had been filmed and photographed standing on a street in the capital Manila in their uniforms, chanting: "Marcos is no hero! Marcos is no hero!" They were angry that former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos had just been buried in a nearby hero's cemetery with military honours. In the 21 years he ruled, billions of dollars of public money went missing while thousands were arrested and tortured for opposing his regime. But his family have remained both politically influential and popular and are closely aligned to the current President Rodrigo Duterte. Within hours of the photos being posted on the school's Facebook page, and then widely reshared, comments began to appear defending the Marcos legacy and attacking the girls' actions. Some of them were from genuine accounts, but many were from pro-government trolls using fake accounts. "If Marcos is no hero, I would say most of you are no virgins and that's the trend of young girls nowadays," said one. There were also rape threats. "We're talking about kids here. Nobody was doing anything about it," says Gina. "We realised that we should beat them at their own game." Gina and a group of equally-concerned individuals, who would go on to be known as the "Troll Patrol", took action. Much like the trolls, the group began creating fake Facebook accounts - Facebook doesn't require photo ID proof of identity - so they could defend the girls without risking personal attacks themselves. They created scores of accounts whose posts were designed to counter the narrative of the online pro-government bullies through logic and reasoning. Night-after-night the group would log into Facebook scanning for threatening posts or abusive behaviour and begin posting their counter-comments.

9-25-20 The German medical students who want to learn about abortion
Abortion has been available throughout Germany since the 1970s but the number of doctors carrying out the procedure is now in decline. Jessica Bateman meets students and young doctors who want to fill the gap. The woman at the family planning clinic looked at Teresa Bauer and her friend sternly. "And what are you studying?" she asked the friend, who had just found out she was pregnant, and wanted an abortion. "Cultural studies," she replied. "Ahhh, so you're living a colourful lifestyle?" came the woman's retort. Bauer sat still, hiding her rage. Stressed-out by the discovery of her accidental pregnancy, Bauer's friend had asked her to book the appointments needed to arrange an abortion. It wasn't just a case of calling her friend's GP to arrange a time for her to request a termination. First she needed to arrange a counselling appointment, which is designed to "protect unborn life", as German law puts it, and discourage a woman from going ahead with the procedure. Some of the clinics providing the service are run by churches - Bauer took care to avoid them, fearing that they would be judgemental. Then she needed to hunt down a doctor who could prescribe pills for an early medical abortion. It became legal last year for doctors to publicise the fact that they provide abortions but they cannot indicate what kinds of service they provide, so Bauer had to call medical practices one by one. "Berlin is a liberal city, so I thought it would be easier than it was," she says. "Even when we went to get the pill, the doctor's assistant kept asking, 'Are you really sure?' Seeing what my friend had to go through, and how she was treated, made me so angry that I decided to do something about it." Bauer was a third-year medical student at the time, so a few days later she emailed Medical Students for Choice Berlin, run by students at her university, telling them she wanted to start volunteering. She now works with them, campaigning for improved training on abortion for medical students, and raising awareness of the obstacles that people seeking an abortion may face.

9-24-20 France street harassment: Strasbourg woman attacked 'for wearing skirt'
French police have opened an investigation after a woman in Strasbourg said she was attacked in broad daylight for wearing a skirt. The student, identified only as Elisabeth, 22, said she was punched in the face "by three individuals who complained about me wearing a skirt". The government has denounced the "very serious" incident as unacceptable. About 1,800 fines have been handed out since a law against street harassment was passed in 2018. In an interview with France Bleu Alsace radio, Elisabeth said she was walking home when one of the three men said: "Look at that whore in a skirt." Two of the three men then held her while the third hit her in the face, leaving her with a black eye, she told the station. The men then fled. She said more than a dozen people witnessed the incident, but no-one intervened. On Wednesday, junior interior minister Marlene Schiappa - who is in charge of citizenship and was previously in charge of equality issues - visited the eastern city to discuss the safety of women in public. She told France Bleu Alsace that "the skirt is not responsible for the attack and the woman even less". "A woman is never hit because she wears a skirt. A woman is hit because there are people who are misogynistic, sexist, violent, and who free themselves from any law and any rule of civility by striking them. "When you're a student and you have to think about the outfit you have to wear and the message it sends, it's an overwhelming mental load," Ms Schiappa said. She also urged people to call the police if they witnessed any kind of street harassment incidents against women in a public space. On Thursday, France Bleu Alsace reported that two women had been attacked in another eastern city, Mulhouse, on Wednesday, after a man told one of them her skirt was "too short".

9-24-20 Wells Fargo's Charles Scharf apologises over race comments
The head of US bank Wells Fargo has apologised for remarks that attributed the lack of diversity in the bank's top ranks to a shortage of qualified minority candidates. The comments, made in a June call with employees and reiterated in a memo, had drawn widespread criticism after being reported on Tuesday. Bank chief Charles Scharf said he had made an "insensitive comment reflecting my own unconscious bias". "I apologise," he said. The apology, in a message to employees shared by the bank, followed an earlier statement, in which Mr Scharf said was "sorry" his comments had been misinterpreted. "There are many talented diverse individuals working at Wells Fargo and throughout the financial services industry and I never meant to imply otherwise," Mr Scharf said in Wednesday's message. "Across the industry, we have not done enough to improve diversity, especially at senior leadership levels." Mr Scharf's comments come as the corporate world faces scrutiny for its handling of diversity issues. Wells Fargo's own record on race has also been in the spotlight, as the firm has paid millions to settle investigations into discriminatory lending and hiring. In June, the bank announced diversity initiatives, following global protests over police brutality and racism. In the memo announcing the plans, which was reported by Reuters, Mr Scharf said: "While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from." The comment drew criticism from politicians such as liberal New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as business leaders. "Perhaps it's the CEO of Wells Fargo who lacks the talent to recruit Black workers," Ms Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet.

9-22-20 Nasa outlines plan for first woman on Moon by 2024
The US space agency (Nasa) has formally outlined its $28bn (£22bn) plan to return to the Moon by 2024. As part of a programme called Artemis, Nasa will send a man and a woman to the lunar surface in the first landing with humans since 1972. But the agency's timeline is contingent on Congress releasing $3.2bn for building a landing system. Astronauts will travel in an Apollo-like capsule called Orion that will launch on a powerful rocket called SLS. Speaking on Monday afternoon (US time), Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: "The $28bn represents the costs associated for the next four years in the Artemis programme to land on the Moon. SLS funding, Orion funding, the human landing system and of course the spacesuits - all of those things that are part of the Artemis programme are included." But he explained: "The budget request that we have before the House and the Senate right now includes $3.2bn for 2021 for the human landing system. It is critically important that we get that $3.2bn." The US House of Representatives has already passed a Bill allocating $600m towards the lunar lander. But Nasa will need more funds to develop the vehicle in full. Mr Bridenstine added: "I want to be clear, we are exceptionally grateful to the House of Representatives that, in a bipartisan way, they have determined that funding a human landing system is important - that's what that $600m represents. It is also true that we are asking for the full $3.2bn." In July 2019, Mr Bridenstine told CNN that the first woman astronaut to walk on the Moon in 2024 would be someone "who has been proven, somebody who has flown, somebody who has been on the International Space Station already". He also said it would be someone already in the astronaut corps. At the time of this interview, there were 12 active woman astronauts. They have since been joined by five other female Nasa astronauts who graduated from training earlier this year. But it remains unclear whether they can fulfil the criteria in time to fly on the first landing mission in 2024.

9-21-20 India: Baby dies after man 'cuts pregnant wife's belly'
Police in India say a pregnant woman whose belly was allegedly cut open with a sickle by her husband has given birth to a stillborn boy. The woman's family has alleged that the man attacked her because he wanted to check the baby's gender. They say the couple have five daughters and the man has been putting pressure on his wife to deliver a son. The man, who has been arrested, has denied intentionally hurting his wife, saying instead that it was an accident. The incident took place in Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state in the north of the country. Police officials told the BBC that the injured wife was in a stable condition in a hospital in the capital, Delhi, and that her husband had been arrested. The wife's sister told local media the couple used to regularly quarrel about having a son. According to her brother, the woman was taken to Delhi on Sunday on the advice of doctors as her condition was extremely critical. The husband said he did not attack his wife intentionally. He told local media he threw the sickle at her, but had no idea it would injure her so severely. "I have five daughters, one of my sons is dead. I know that children are the gift of God. Now whatever is to happen, will happen." The police investigation is ongoing. The desire among Indian parents to have sons instead of daughters has created a skewed gender ratio. Some 46 million girls went missing from India in the past 50 years, according to a June report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Annually, as many as 460,000 girls are killed through abortion after gender-based sex selection and excess female mortality due to deliberate neglect of girls after birth. A 2018 Indian government report said the desire for sons had created 21 million "unwanted" girls. The finance ministry report found that many couples kept on having children until they had a boy.

9-20-20 Danny Masterson: That ’70s Show star denies rape charges, his lawyer says
Actor Danny Masterson, best known for his role in the hit series That '70s Show, has appeared in court accused of raping three women in the early 2000s. He is charged with raping the women, who were all in their 20s, between 2001 and 2003. Mr Masterson, 44, denies the charges and has argued he was being persecuted for his high-profile membership of the Church of Scientology. If convicted, the actor could face up to 45 years in prison. Free on $3.3m (£2.5m) bail since his arrest in mid-June, Mr Masterson made his first court appearance over the allegations in Los Angeles on Friday. While the actor did not enter a plea, his lawyer, Tom Mesereau, mounted a vigorous defence of his client, dismissing the charges against him as politically motivated. The lawyer accused Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey of filing the charges for political gain ahead of a bid to retain her post in a November election. "There have been repeated attempts to politicise this case," said Mr Mesereau, who also defended Michael Jackson against sexual misconduct allegations in a previous case. "He is absolutely not guilty and we're going to prove it." Ms Lacey is yet to comment, but Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller dismissed Mr Mesereau allegations as "false" and "pure speculation, with no basis in fact". Friday's court hearing was attended by all three of Mr Masterson's accusers, while about 20 of the actor's supporters stood outside the courtroom, unable to enter due to coronavirus regulations. The allegations against Mr Masterson first came to light in 2017, when the #MeToo movement that inspired women to go public with misconduct allegations was gathering momentum. Mr Masterson was removed from The Ranch - the Netflix comedy in which he starred - over the allegations.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

9-25-20 Gavin Newsom's weak-sauce electric cars plan
Why banning gas-powered vehicles is a lot more show than substance. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced a climate plan for cars: He would ban the sale of new gas-powered cars starting in 2035. Since California is the largest state in the country, its regulations often end up dictating national policy, and in theory this could lead to solely-electric car sales in 15 years. Still, Newsom will likely need a waiver from the federal government to do this, and it seems unlikely he will get one from Trump or any other Republican. This rule is better than nothing, but it's weak and unimaginative. Not only will it accomplish little or nothing in terms of getting rid of gas-powered cars, the goal itself is not even very good. Rather than replacing the energy source behind California's car-centered sprawl, the state should be remaking itself to be more dense and less dependent on cars. America needs e-bikes and public transit a lot more than it needs electric SUVs. To start with, in terms of policy mechanics, 2035 is simply too late to actually accelerate the deployment of electric cars by much. All the big automakers are already planning on roughly this timetable, for two main reasons. First, electric vehicle tech is advancing very quickly, and is objectively superior to internal combustion in every way except energy storage (where its disadvantage is fading fast). Second, much of the rest of the world has already adopted rules that are at least as aggressive as California's. China is aiming to have 25 percent of new vehicles be electric within five years. Europe is in roughly the same place — Denmark would hit California's goal by 2030, while Norway is aiming for 100 percent electric sales for passenger cars and light vans by 2025. As climate activists continue to press their case and clockwork climate disasters get worse and worse, it is very likely that these goals will be stiffened up. Newsom is going along with the crowd, not setting a new benchmark. More importantly, as I have argued before, electric cars are the least promising form of electric vehicle. They emit less greenhouse gas and pollution, to be sure, but they still require vast amounts of energy and raw materials to produce, and still present all the same hazards to drivers, occupants, pedestrians, and cyclists as normal cars. Despite considerable safety regulations, tens of thousands of people die and hundreds of thousands are injured every year thanks to America's addiction to the automobile. What's more, the classic American model of car-centered development is terrible for the climate. It means lower density, less energy-efficient housing and makes public transit more difficult. California ought to be looking to move away from cars by any means necessary — with rules and subsidies favoring density, e-bikes, and public transit. New spending will be difficult during the pandemic, but Newsom has shown little interest in the biggest problem facing construction of new public transit: cost bloat. Instead of trying to root out the infestation of incompetent consulting that ballooned the price of California's high-speed rail project, he just canceled most of it. (Even the cost of the rump line is exploding.)

9-25-20 Global warming driving California wildfire trends - study
Climate change is driving the scale and impact of recent wildfires that have raged in California, say scientists. Their analysis finds an "unequivocal and pervasive" role for global heating in boosting the conditions for fire. California now has greater exposure to fire risks than before humans started altering the climate, the authors say. Land management issues, touted by President Donald Trump as a key cause, can't by themselves explain the recent infernos. The worst wildfires in 18 years have raged across California since August. They have been responsible for more than 30 deaths and driven thousands of people from their homes. The cause of the fires have become a political football, with California Governor Gavin Newsom blaming climate change for the conflagrations. President Trump, on the other hand, has dismissed this argument, instead pointing to land management practices as the key driver. Now, a review of scientific research into the reasons for these fires suggests rising temperatures are playing a major role. Earlier this year, the same research team published a review of the origins of Australia's dramatic fires that raged in the 2019-2020 season. That study showed that climate change was behind an increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather - defined as periods of time with a higher risk of fire due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and high winds. The new review covers more than 100 studies published since 2013, and shows that extreme fires occur when natural variability in the climate is superimposed on increasingly warm and dry background conditions resulting from global warming. "In terms of the trends we're seeing, in terms of the extent of wildfires, and which have increased eight to ten-fold in the past four decades, that trend is driven by climate change," said Dr Matthew Jones from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, who led the review.

9-24-20 Global warming may lead to practically irreversible Antarctic melting
A study outlines a series of temperature-related tipping points for the continent’s ice sheets. How is melting a continent-sized ice sheet like stirring milk into coffee? Both are, for all practical purposes, irreversible. In a new study published in the Sept. 24 Nature, researchers outline a series of temperature-related tipping points for the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Once each tipping point is reached, changes to the ice sheet and subsequent melting can’t be truly reversed, even if temperatures drop back down to current levels, the scientists say. The full mass of ice sitting on top of Antarctica holds enough water to create about 58 meters of sea level rise. Although the ice sheet won’t fully collapse tomorrow or even in the next century, Antarctic ice loss is accelerating (SN: 6/13/18). So scientists are keen to understand the processes by which such a collapse might occur. “What we’re really interested in is the long-term stability” of the ice, says Ricarda Winkelmann, a climate scientist at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. In the new study, Winkelmann and her colleagues simulated how future temperature increases can lead to changes across Antarctica in the interplay between ice, oceans, atmosphere and land. In addition to direct melting due to warming, numerous processes linked to climate change can speed up overall melting, called positive feedbacks, or slow it down, known as negative feedbacks. For example, as the tops of the ice sheets slowly melt down to lower elevations, the air around them becomes progressively warmer, speeding up melting. Warming temperatures also soften the ice itself, so that it slides more quickly toward the sea. And ocean waters that have absorbed heat from the atmosphere can transfer that heat to the vulnerable underbellies of Antarctic glaciers jutting into the sea, eating away at the buttresses of ice that keep the glaciers from sliding into the sea (SN: 9/11/20). The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is particularly vulnerable to such ocean interactions — but warm waters are also threatening sections of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, such as Totten Glacier (SN: 11/1/17).

9-23-20 Safe, extra long-life nuclear batteries could soon be a reality
An upgrade on the tech that powers spacecraft across the cosmos could soon be used to create incredibly long-lasting batteries back on Earth. THE VOYAGER probes blasted off in 1977, beginning what would prove to be the longest journeys ever taken by objects from Earth. The two spacecraft have now left the solar system and Voyager 2 is sending back measurements of interstellar space. As achievements go, it ranks among humanity’s most profound. But a crucial aspect of that success is seldom celebrated: those probes sure do have good batteries. In the day-to-day grind of life, batteries never seem to last long enough. We must juice up our phones every day, laptops seem to constantly thirst for their power cables, electric cars only go so far before they fizzle out. It is enough to make you want a new type of power supply. We may be edging closer to exactly that. The Voyager probes employ a weak nuclear power source that, being radioactive, is considered dangerous to use on Earth. But there is a closely related form of energy that packs even more of a punch and could work safely in your average car. It is a long shot. The last time this outlandish technology was seriously considered, 20 years ago, it ended in a broiling controversy. However, now the US Army has it firmly in its sights and has conducted an experiment that might just give it a new lease of life. Most of the ways we store energy involve chemistry. When we burn petrol in a car engine, we are releasing energy stored in chemical bonds. Similarly, lithium-based batteries in devices like mobile phones work by allowing charged ions to flow. But there is greater power to be had if we look beyond chemistry, inside the atom itself. Each atom consists of a nucleus made of particles called protons and neutrons orbited by a cloud of electrons. These protons and neutrons are usually melded together in the extreme temperature and pressure inside a star, and if you delve into an atom’s nucleus in the right way, you can extract some of that awesome power. The main way we do that is nuclear fission, in which a nucleus releases neutrons that can then split more atoms, causing a chain reaction that releases huge amounts of energy. That is the way the world’s 440-odd nuclear energy plants work. There is also nuclear fusion, which is potentially much more powerful, but relies on smooshing together nuclei in a controlled fashion that we haven’t yet mastered.

9-23-20 In a war on climate change, America can have solar panels and butter
During a war, it is commonly assumed that the citizenry must sacrifice so the troops can have the equipment they need. "We can't have both guns and butter," as the saying goes. However, in the case of the biggest and most expensive war mobilization in history — the Second World War — Americans actually did have both. A new paper from J.W. Mason and Andrew Bossie at the Roosevelt Institute shows that military production shot up from 1941-44, but almost none of this came at the expense of civilian consumption. Moreover, the massive surge of war spending gave jobs to virtually every single person who wanted one, and this ultra-tight labor market dramatically reduced income inequality — which particularly benefited people at the bottom of the social ladder, like poorer African-Americans. This matters not only as a piece of interesting economic history, but as a demonstration of what might be accomplished with an all-out assault on climate change. A Green New Deal would mean a similarly huge surge of spending to replace all the greenhouse gas-emitting systems with zero-carbon ones. Like just before the war, the U.S. today is far below its potential output. America could launch an all-out assault on climate change and still have a rising standard of living for most of its population. The following chart shows the basic story. During the war, American GDP exploded by 80 percent — the fastest rate of growth in history. Almost all of that came on top of civilian consumption, which declined slightly from 1940-41, but increased thereafter. Now, the economy of 1940 was somewhat unusual. It had only partly recovered from the Great Depression, thanks largely to Franklin Roosevelt foolishly turning to austerity in 1937. That meant there was a lot of economic slack, particularly in the form of mass unemployment, which could be taken up easily once war mobilization started. If the economy were at full strength, this analogy to wartime spending might not be so applicable. But the U.S. also has a great deal of economic slack today. As Mason calculated in a 2017 paper (an analysis I extended earlier this year), even before the coronavirus pandemic economic output was something like 15 percent below the pre-2008 growth trend, because there was not enough stimulus after the financial crisis. Today, of course, the economy is in a deep hole because of the pandemic, and will require another massive stimulus if it is to get back to full strength if and when a vaccine arrives. For years after the Great Recession had stopped getting worse, many elites assumed that lackluster growth was as good as could be done. Even liberals fretted about a so-called "skills gap," or lack of innovation, or other "structural" problems. But the lesson from the war is that if the economy is mired in a low-growth, low-demand sandpit, a tsunami of spending can shock it back to life. From 1940 to 1945, war-related employment increased by about 13 million — about five million from the unemployed population (which vanished), and a further eight million from increased labor force participation, particularly of women, and the final million drawn from agriculture.

9-24-20 Amid wildfires, U.S. farmworkers labor with few protections
Notoriously weak labor regulations have kept farmworkers, many of them immigrants, breathing smoke from nearby wildfires as they work all along the West Coast. Many are afraid to speak up. The smoky air was so thick in southern Oregon recently, it was like a dense fog. People up and down the West Coast stayed inside their homes as wildfires burned, spewing massive plumes of smoke and toxic ash.In hard-hit parts of Washington, Oregon, and California, the only people outside were those who had to be. That included farmworkers, tending to everything from almond orchards to cattle and vineyards. Even during the smokiest days of September, Maricela, 48, continued working her typical eight-hour shifts at a vineyard in southern Oregon. The air burned her eyes and throat, she said. Her hands worked quickly to protect the tiny grapes that would eventually become Merlot wine. But nothing would protect her from the smoke. Maricela, who migrated to Oregon from Mexico nearly a decade ago, makes $12 per hour and wires as much as she can back to Mexico to feed her children. She said she could not afford to miss work. Though Maricela normally gets along with her boss, she said she was angry that no economic safety net existed, either from her employer or government officials, to keep her from working in toxic air. She asked The World not to use her last name because she feared that speaking out could cost her job. "It's dangerous to work in this air, but the bills don't wait," Maricela said, who nearly lost her home as a fire swept through her own neighborhood. "And if I don't work, I don't get anything. My boss said he was sorry but the grapes needed picking." That reality — along with notoriously weak labor regulations — has kept farmworkers breathing smoke as they work all along the West Coast. Nearly 80 large fires have torn through Western states in recent weeks, burning more than 3.8 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that people remain indoors or limit physical exertion outside while smoke blankets the air, enforcement of its guidance and rules is lacking. In California alone, OSHA counts on about 200 field enforcement officers to inspect around 200,000 workplaces in California right now that are potentially impacted by wildfire smoke, said Doug Parker, who leads California's division of OSHA, or Cal/OSHA. And because many farmworkers are undocumented, or noncitizens, or are in the U.S. on temporary visas that are tied to their jobs, they may fear retaliation if they report unhealthy work conditions. Parker said he wishes he had stronger regulatory and enforcement tools to protect farmworkers: "A lot of advocates sought a more protective standard. And this current structure is just what the result of the regulatory process was. I think it was a balancing of interests." Those interests can include farm owners and agricultural associations, which represent the economic powerhouses of the American West. Farmworkers are particularly sensitive to smoke inhalation, said Estella Cisneros, a legal director with California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents farmworkers in legal fights related to workplace health and safety.

9-24-20 Coronavirus: Climate action cannot be another Covid victim - PM
Boris Johnson is to call on world leaders to commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and secure the planet for the next generation. The prime minister will tell a meeting hosted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that climate action "cannot be another victim of coronavirus". He will urge leaders to "look ahead to how we will rebuild" after the pandemic and how to "build back better". Mr Johnson is expected to speak to leaders via video link. His speech at Thursday's UN Climate Action Roundtable is part of the preparations for a global climate conference the UK is hosting in partnership with Italy in Glasgow in November next year. The UN conference, known as COP26, is the most important round of climate talks since 2015, when the landmark Paris Agreement was secured, committing all countries to work to limit further rises in temperature. Mr Johnson will also announce that the UK is to co-host an event with the UN on 12 December to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris agreement. The aim is that world leaders will use the December event to announce ambitious new targets for carbon reduction as part of the prelude to the Glasgow conference. As part of the Paris Agreement all countries set their own targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Every five years they are supposed to announce new, more ambitious carbon reductions and set targets for when they will be able to reach what is known as "net zero emissions" - when greenhouse gas emissions are avoided completely or offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. Getting nations to agree to deeper carbon cuts is essential if the Glasgow conference is to achieve the UN's aim of putting the world on track to keep global temperature rises below 2C. "Look ahead to how we will rebuild, and how we can seize the opportunity to build back better," the prime minister will say. "Let us be the leaders who secure the very health of the planet for our children, grandchildren and generations to come."

9-24-20 Sir David Attenborough joins Instagram to warn 'the world is in trouble'
Sir David Attenborough has signed up to Instagram for the first time to help spread his environmental message. "I am making this move... because, as we all know, the world is in trouble," he said in his first video message on the social media platform. "Continents are on fire. Glaciers are melting. Coral reefs are dying... The list goes on and on," he continued. Within an hour of his first post, the veteran broadcaster had already gained more than 200,000 followers. "Saving our planet is now a communications challenge," he said. Tennis player Sir Andy Murray and body coach Joe Wicks were among those to post welcome messages. Sir David said he would use the platform to share videos explaining "what the problems are and how we can deal with them". Concluding his message, the 94-year-old invited viewers to "join me - or as we used to say in those early days of radio, stay tuned." Frequent collaborators Jonnie Hughes and Colin Butfield will help manage the account and its various technical aspects. "Social media isn't David's usual habitat," they wrote in a message accompanying the naturalist's introductory video. Sir David's Instagram debut precedes the release of latest book and Netflix documentary, both titled A Life On Our Planet. The film sees him reflect on his career and the decline of the planet's environment and biodiversity he has observed first-hand. By 12:00 BST on Thursday, Britain's favourite natural world specialist had notched up more than 470,000 followers. It remains to be seen, though, if he will better the impressive debut Jennifer Aniston made on the platform last October. The actress attracted almost five million followers in 12 hours after posting a selfie with her fellow Friends cast members. Earlier this year Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was named the celebrity thought to be able to charge more than any one else for a sponsored Instagram post.

9-23-20 Device can harvest wind energy from the breeze made when you walk
A small device can harvest energy from the breeze generated as you walk and could potentially be used to power your gadgets. The apparatus, developed by Ya Yang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and his colleagues, takes advantage of the triboelectric effect. This occurs when certain materials become electrically charged as they rub together. The researchers used an 8-centimetre-long tube containing two thin films, each made up of a layer of plastic on top of a layer of silver that acts as an electrode. The two films flutter in response to even a slight breeze – a wind speed as low as 1.6 metres per second. As they brush against each other they generate an electric current, which is then transmitted through the silver electrodes to drive a tiny generator in the device. In one test, Yang and his team put the device on a volunteer’s arm and found that the airflow generated by the person swinging their arm as they walked was enough to generate power. The wind speed required for most wind turbines to generate power is 3 metres per second, says Zhenzhong Zeng at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. “Any wind with speed lower than that is wasted,” says Zeng. This device would let us make use of lighter breezes, which have the potential to power small electronic devices, he says. The device can produce 2.5 milliwatts of power, enough for 100 tiny LED lights, a thermometer or a pressure sensor. It has a wind-to-energy conversion efficiency of 3.23 per cent, which is much lower than the average wind turbine, but higher than previously reported for wind scavenging devices, say the team. “Such wind energy harvesters can be used to power wireless sensors deployed in open space where breezes are available,” says Dibin Zhu at the University of Exeter, UK. Another application could be to power wireless sensors put inside heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts for air quality monitoring, he says.

9-23-20 China's 2060 carbon neutral pledge is a big deal but is it big enough?
China surprised the world yesterday when president Xi Jinping told the United Nations general assembly that the country would “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. Until now, 2020 has been an underwhelming year for action on climate change, with a major UN climate summit postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and only 13 countries putting forward a stronger carbon pledge, as required by 2015’s Paris agreement. China’s new promise of long-term climate ambition is a shining bright spot, and significant for two big reasons. First is sheer size. China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide 14 years ago, and now emits more than 10 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, meaning it accounts for about 28 per cent of global emissions. That’s more than the US and India combined, or almost twice the emissions of the European Union. Crucially, while emissions in the EU and the US are already falling, in China they are still growing. The second reason is geopolitics. The US has been largely absent from international climate negotiations for the past four years of the Donald Trump administration, emboldening other countries that are regressive on climate change. Now, China is cementing its climate leadership role and sending a signal to other governments, businesses and investors. Declaring a long-term climate goal before the US is a big deal. It shows China sees political and economic gain in leading the industries of the future, from battery manufacturing for electric vehicles, to making solar panels and wind turbines. Xi’s move also makes Trump’s attack on the same day – that China is responsible for “rampant pollution” – ring hollow. There was other notable news in Xi’s speech. One was to “aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030”, a modest tweak on its previous plans for a peak “around 2030”. That is good news but not a big ramping up of ambition: analysis last year suggested the country was already on track to peak before 2030, as its economy shifts from industry to services.

9-23-20 Climate change: China aims for 'carbon neutrality by 2060'
China will aim to hit peak emissions before 2030 and for carbon neutrality by 2060, President Xi Jinping has announced. Mr Xi outlined the steps when speaking via videolink to the UN General Assembly in New York. The announcement is being seen as a significant step in the fight against climate change. China is the world's biggest source of carbon dioxide, responsible for around 28% of global emissions. With global climate negotiations stalled and this year's conference of the parties (COP26) postponed until 2021, there had been little expectation of progress on the issue at the UN General Assembly. However China's president surprised the UN gathering by making a bold statement about his country's plans for tackling emissions. He called on all countries to achieve a green recovery for the world economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the official translation, Mr Xi went on to say: "We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060." Until now China has said it would peak its emissions by 2030 at the latest, but it has avoided committing to a long-term goal. Emissions from China continued to rise in 2018 and 2019 even as much of the world began to shift away from fossil fuels. While the Covid-19 crisis this spring saw the country's emissions plunge by 25%, by June they had bounced back again as coal-fired plants, cement and other heavy industries went back to work. Observers believe that in making this statement at this time, the Chinese leader is taking advantage of US reluctance to address the climate question. "Xi Jinping's climate pledge at the UN, minutes after President Donald Trump's speech, is clearly a bold and well calculated move," said Li Shuo, an expert on Chinese climate policy from Greenpeace Asia. "It demonstrates Xi's consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes." Back in 2014 Mr Xi and then US-President Barack Obama came to a surprise agreement on climate change, which became a key building block of the Paris agreement signed in December 2015.

9-23-20 Siberia climate change: Behind the scenes reporting from Yakutia
The BBC Moscow Team - correspondent Steve Rosenberg, producer Will Vernon and cameraman Matthew Goddard - recently travelled to the remote Yakutia region of Siberia. Their mission: to report on the alarming effects of climate change. Along the way, they encountered bogs, impassable roads, bloodthirsty mosquitoes and the challenges of camping in a Siberian forest. Here's a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their adventure.

9-23-20 Young bats accept reality of climate change before older generations
Young male bats are the first of their species to adjust to the realities of a warming world, with older generations being slower to adapt. The noctule bat (Nyctalus noctula), a common European species, traditionally migrates more than 1500 kilometres between its northern summer roosts and its southern winter hibernation grounds. Now that is changing one generation at a time, says Kseniia Kravchenko at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany. “Due to climate change, we have areas suitable for bats all year round, without the need to migrate for hibernation,” says Kravchenko. The bats have a short lifespan, averaging three years, and a high reproductive rate, leading to rapid generation turnover. That means they are able to quickly shift to shorter migration distances from one generation to the next, she says, which might indicate they will cope better with global warming than other species of bats. Colonisation of new, more northern winter hibernation areas begins with “pioneering” young males, says Kravchenko. After these young males establish new winter colonies, young females and eventually older adults join them in staying closer year-round to their northern summer homes, rather than hibernating further south. Kravchenko and her team studied nearly 3400 noctule bats in a newly colonised winter roost in Ukraine. They identified the bats’ summer locations from their fur using hydrogen isotopes, which originate in the animals’ food and water. Having followed their journeys over 12 years, the researchers determined that young males settled first in the new winter colonies further north, and that other bats joined them later. This is good news and bad news, says Kravchenko. “This bat species seems capable of adjusting rapidly to the high pace of climate change, which is good,” she says, suggesting that this shift can help ensure its survival. “But what about the other species of bats that have longer generation times and don’t migrate? Global warming might be more difficult for them to cope with.”

9-22-20 Arctic sea-ice shrinks to near record low extent
This summer's Arctic sea-ice shrank to its second lowest ever extent in the era of satellite observation. The floes withdrew to just under 3.74 million sq km (1.44 million sq miles) last week, preliminary data indicates. The only time this minimum has been beaten in the 42-year spacecraft record was 2012 when the pack ice was reduced to 3.41 million sq km. Shorter autumn days and encroaching cold mean the floes are now starting to regrow. It's normal for Arctic sea-ice to expand through the winter each year and then melt back again in the summer, but the September minima, accounting for some variability, are getting deeper and deeper as the polar north warms. The downward trend since satellites started routinely monitoring the floes is about 13% per decade, averaged across the month. Computer models project the summer sea-ice will regularly be below one million sq km later this century. That's bad news for the climate. Extensive sea-ice helps cool the Arctic and the rest of the planet. In its absence, more sunlight will be absorbed by the darker surface waters of the ocean, which will promote further warming and further loss of ice. "The way I look at it now is that we're always going to have low sea-ice; it's never going to go back to the way it was in the 1980s or 1990s," said Prof Julienne Stroeve from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London (UCL), UK. "But whether or not we get a new record low from one year to the next - that really depends a lot on whatever happens in the summer weather patterns," she told BBC News. Twenty-twelve was notable for some late storms that helped break up diffuse ice going into its September low. Twenty-twenty didn't have that, but there were some very warm conditions, especially on the Siberian side of the ocean, that drove much of the early season melting.

9-21-20 Air pollution in China may have caused millions of deaths since 2000
Air pollution in China and Taiwan is estimated to have resulted in the premature deaths of 30.8 million adults since 2000. Yang Liu at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues used satellite imagery to quantify the amount of air pollution over mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan between 2000 and 2016. The team used imagery taken by NASA satellites to estimate the concentrations of PM2.5 – particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. One measurement the satellite takes is the amount of sunlight that has been scattered or absorbed by particles in the air. Combining these readings with PM2.5 measurements from ground monitoring stations, as well as information including meteorological conditions and road networks, the researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm that was able to predict cumulative PM2.5 exposure over a 17-year period. To estimate the total mortality linked to air pollution, they then used historical data from a study of 116,821 adults in 15 Chinese provinces, which quantified the link between long-term PM2.5 exposure and non-accidental death. The team found a roughly linear relationship between PM2.5 exposure and mortality, up to a certain point. “The people who live in the most polluted regions get disproportionally harmed,” says Liu. The highest per-capita deaths due to air pollution were in the north-eastern provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shandong and Tianjin. To date, most air pollution monitoring has been done from stations on the ground. In China, these are concentrated in urban areas, which doesn’t account for some 600 million people who live in rural areas. In addition, measurements before 2013 are scarce. The advantage of using satellite imagery to determine PM2.5 levels is that it is more comprehensive and also provides an estimate of historical air pollution, says Liu.

9-21-20 Airbus looks to the future with hydrogen planes
Aerospace giant Airbus has unveiled plans for what it hailed as the first commercial zero-emission aircraft. The company said its hydrogen-fuelled passenger planes could be in service by 2035. Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury said the three ZEROe concept designs marked "a historic moment for the commercial aviation sector". The use of hydrogen had "the potential to significantly reduce aviation's climate impact", he added. The concept of emissions-free aviation relies heavily on finding ways to produce large quantities of hydrogen from renewable or low-carbon sources. Most large-scale production at the moment relies on fossil fuels, particularly methane, and is not considered to be low-carbon. Analysts point out that it is not the first time that hydrogen has been touted as the saviour of modern air travel. Its use in aviation goes back to the days of airships in the early 20th Century, but the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 brought that era to an end. More recently, from 2000 to 2002, Airbus was involved in the EU-funded Cryoplane project, which studied the feasibility of a liquid hydrogen-fuelled aircraft. After that, the idea fell out of favour again - until now. Unveiling its latest blueprints, Airbus said its turbofan design could carry up to 200 passengers more than 2,000 miles, while a turboprop concept would have a 50% lower capacity and range. A third, "blended-wing body" aircraft was the most eye-catching of the three designs. All three planes would be powered by gas-turbine engines modified to burn liquid hydrogen, and through hydrogen fuel cells to create electrical power. However, Airbus admitted that for the idea to work, airports would have to invest large sums of money in refuelling infrastructure. "The transition to hydrogen, as the primary power source for these concept planes, will require decisive action from the entire aviation ecosystem," said Mr Faury.

9-21-20 Climate Week: World split on urgency of tackling rising temperatures, poll suggests
There's growing concern among citizens all over the world about climate change, according to a new global poll. But respondents had very different attitudes to the level of urgency required to tackle the problem. Big majorities in poorer countries strongly agreed with tackling climate change with the same vigour as Covid-19. However in richer nations, the support for rapid action was far more muted. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales has warned the climate crisis will "dwarf" the impact of coronavirus. The poll, carried out by Globescan, provides fresh evidence that people the world over remain very concerned about climate change, despite the pandemic and subsequent economic impact. Across the 27 countries surveyed, around 90% of people saw climate change as a very serious or somewhat serious problem. This finding has strengthened over the past few years. There have been big increases in this sense of urgency among people polled in Canada, France, India, Kenya, Nigeria and the US. In the US this number of people perceiving the issue as serious or very serious has increased from just over 60% in 2014, to 81% in June this year when the poll was carried out - that's despite President Trump's well known scepticism on the issue. In the same time period, serious concerns over climate change in India have risen from 70% to 93% of those polled. According to Eric Whan, from pollsters Globescan, the covid crisis has increased people's sense of the threat from rising temperatures. "This is a year of vulnerability and exacerbation of inequality and those most susceptible to disruption feel the greatest level of seriousness," he told BBC News. But when people were asked if their governments should tackle the issue with the same urgency as they've tackled the coronavirus pandemic, major differences between rich and poor started to appear. Japan, Sweden, Australia, the US and UK all have less than 45% of respondents strongly agreeing with urgent action.

9-21-20 Satellite achieves sharp-eyed view of methane
There is a powerful new satellite in the sky to monitor emissions of methane (CH4), one of the key gases driving human-induced climate change. Known as Iris, the spacecraft can map plumes of CH4 in the atmosphere down to a resolution of just 25m. This makes it possible to identify individual sources, such as specific oil and gas facilities. Iris was launched by the Montreal, Canada-based GHGSat company on 2 September. It's the pathfinder in what the firm hopes will be a 10-spacecraft constellation by the end of 2022. The image at the top of this page is Iris's "first light" - its first attempt to sense a significant emission of methane. The observation was made over Turkmenistan, in a region where large plumes from oil and gas infrastructure have been noted before. The detection, overlaid on a standard aerial image, shows the concentration of methane in the air in excess of normal background levels. "Let me tell you there was a big hurrah from the team when the data came down because we could see the spectroscopy was there, the resolution was there - everything was as it should be," recalled GHGSat CEO Stéphane Germain. "We still need to work on the calibration, which will then allow us to verify the detection threshold and the final performance of the satellite. But as a first-light image - by any standard it's phenomenal," he told BBC News. Methane's global warming potential is 30 times that of carbon dioxide, so it's imperative any unnecessary releases are constrained or curtailed. Human-produced sources are many and varied, including not only oil and gas facilities, but agriculture, landfills, coal mines and hydro-electric dams. Already, GHGSat is working with operators, regulators and other interested parties to characterise these emissions using a prototype satellite called Claire that it launched in 2016. The presence in orbit of Iris provides an additional stream of data for the company that it now intends to interpret at a brand new British analytics hub, to be set up in Edinburgh and London in the coming weeks.

9-20-20 How the oil industry made us doubt climate change
As climate change becomes a focus of the US election, energy companies stand accused of trying to downplay their contribution to global warming. In June, Minnesota's Attorney General sued ExxonMobil, among others, for launching a "campaign of deception" which deliberately tried to undermine the science supporting global warming. So what's behind these claims? And what links them to how the tobacco industry tried to dismiss the harms of smoking decades earlier? To understand what's happening today, we need to go back nearly 40 years. Marty Hoffert leaned closer to his computer screen. He couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. It was 1981, and he was working in an area of science considered niche. "We were just a group of geeks with some great computers," he says now, recalling that moment. But his findings were alarming. "I created a model that showed the Earth would be warming very significantly. And the warming would introduce climatic changes that would be unprecedented in human history. That blew my mind." Marty Hoffert was one of the first scientists to create a model which predicted the effects of man-made climate change. And he did so while working for Exxon, one of the world's largest oil companies, which would later merge with another, Mobil. At the time Exxon was spending millions of dollars on ground-breaking research. It wanted to lead the charge as scientists grappled with the emerging understanding that the warming planet could cause the climate to change in ways that could make life pretty difficult for humans. Hoffert shared his predictions with his managers, showing them what might happen if we continued burning fossil fuels in our cars, trucks and planes. But he noticed a clash between Exxon's own findings, and public statements made by company bosses, such as the then chief executive Lee Raymond, who said that "currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate". "They were saying things that were contradicting their own world-class research groups," said Hoffert. Angry, he left Exxon, and went on to become a leading academic in the field. "What they did was immoral. They spread doubt about the dangers of climate change when their own researchers were confirming how serious a threat it was."


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

9-26-20 Defects in early immune responses underlie some severe COVID-19 cases
Genetic flaws and rogue immune responses can cause life-threatening disease, studies find. COVID-19 kills some people and leaves others relatively unscathed. But why? Age and underlying health conditions are risk factors, but scientists are trying to tease out other differences, including in people’s genes or immune systems, that may play a role. Two new studies show that flaws in the body’s early response to viral infection, one caused by genetic defects and one by traitorous immune responses, are behind some severe COVID-19 cases. In one study, published online September 24 in Science, researchers identified certain genetic defects in some people with severe COVID-19 that make the body produce fewer interferons, proteins that are part of the immune system’s early warning system. In other people with severe disease, however, the body’s own immune responses disable interferons, a second study published online in Science the same day finds. These defects mean that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, can infect cells without raising red flags, evading the usual onslaught of defenses brought on by interferons and leading to more severe disease, the researchers say. The results add to growing evidence that strong early immune responses to COVID-19 are crucial to protect people from becoming severely ill (SN: 9/23/20). The findings may eventually lead to treatments that can better help those people who do get very sick, says Brianne Barker, an immunologist at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who was not involved in either study. But “it’s really clear here that we can look at our severe patients and see that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of treatment for them,” Barker says. For instance, while people with the genetic defects might benefit from receiving additional interferon early during an infection to boost their levels, those whose immune systems are going to mount a defense against the proteins would not.

9-26-20 Tiny, magnetically controlled robots coax nerve cells to grow connections
New research could point to additional treatments for people with nerve injuries. Tiny robots can operate as nerve cell connectors, bridging gaps between two distinct groups of cells. These microscopic patches may lead to more sophisticated ways to grow networks of nerve cells in the laboratory, and perhaps even illuminate ways to repair severed nerve cells in people, researchers report September 25 in Science Advances. Engineers Eunhee Kim and Hongsoo Choi, both of the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, and colleagues first built rectangular robots that were 300 micrometers long. Slender horizontal grooves, about the width of nerve cells’ tendrils that exchange messages with other cells, lined the top. These microrobots were fertile ground for rat nerve cells, the researchers found. As the cells grew, their message-sending axons and message-receiving dendrites neatly followed the robots’ lined grooves. Once laden with about 100 nerve cells, a microrobot’s objective was to nestle between two separate islands of nerve cells, grown on glass plates, and bridge the gap. Rotating magnetic fields sent the microrobot tumbling pell-mell toward its target. When the microrobot drew close, researchers used a steadier magnetic field to align the bot between the two clusters of cells. The nerve cells on the microrobot then grew out toward the clusters, while the cells in the clusters grew onto the bot. These new connections allowed neural signals to flow from one cluster of nerve cells to another, electrodes revealed. Creating these neural bridges might help researchers design better replicas of complex nerve cell networks in the brain. Similar systems could also lead to new ways of studying nerve cell growth, experiments that could ultimately point to therapies for people with nerve injuries (SN: 8/11/16). Such precision building could also be useful in computing, allowing scientists to design and build biological computers with nerve cells.

9-25-20 Magnetic microbots can hook up brain cells to make a neural network
Tiny robots that can transport individual neurons and connect them to form active neural circuits could help us study brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. The robots, which were developed by Hongsoo Choi at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea and his colleagues, are 300 micrometres long and 95 micrometre wide. They are made from a polymer coated with nickel and titanium and their movement can be controlled with external magnetic fields. Each robot has a number of 5 micrometre-wide grooves that run along its length – similar to the width of a neuron’s axon and its dendrites, the projections that enable the cells to connect to each other. The grooves act as templates to guide the growth of the neurons. The team tested the robots using brain cells from rats, specifically neurons from the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. The group created a 500 by 500 micrometre grid of two adjacent clusters of neurons on a glass surface, and used magnetic radiation to make the robot deliver a single neuron into the gap to between the two clusters so it could connect them. The microrobot could reach its target position within 10 seconds and connect the two neural clusters within 1 minute. The team believes the microrobots could be used to study the biological characteristics of neurons and neural networks, as well as to investigate brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. It opens the possibility for neural networks that can be dynamically adjusted and enlarged, says Choi. For the moment, the microrobots have only been tested in a lab environment rather than in living tissues. The amount of magnetic radiation required to guide the robots is harmless – less than 100 milliTesla, compared with figures in the vicinity of 3 Tesla for MRI scans – but to be biocompatible, the robots would need to be constructed from different materials, says Choi.

9-25-20 Rapid evolution due to extreme climate events could lead to extinction
Evolution normally helps organisms positively adapt to changing circumstances, but climate change may turn that on its head. A model of how some species could rapidly evolve in response to increasingly extreme events, such as storms, has found that mutations could actually drive some small, vulnerable populations to extinction. This is because traits that help animals or plants that survive extreme events can be a disadvantage in normal situations. “By the next generation, the environment has already gone back to normal,” says Kelsey Lyberger at the University of California, Davis. “You never get to benefit from the change.” Many animals are already evolving in response to long-term global warming. For instance, owls in Finland are getting browner as snow cover declines and plants in California are flowering earlier as it gets drier. This process should help many populations adapt, but not all will be able to evolve fast enough. Climate change is expected to become a major cause of extinction along with habitat loss and over-exploitation. It is also clear that extreme events fuelled by global warming, such as more extensive wildfires, can drive vulnerable populations to extinction. For instance, in 2019, the category 5 Hurricane Dorian may have killed the last few individuals of a bird called the Bahama nuthatch. Such extreme events can also produce rapid evolution. Lizards on the Caribbean island of Dominica evolved a superstrong grip after category 5 Hurricane Maria in 2017 – likely because only lizards that managed to cling onto branches survived. But it is possible that these lizards have to consume more food to maintain this extra strength, making them a bit less likely to survive in normal conditions. Such observations inspired Lyberger and her colleagues to create a mathematical model that allows the effects of environmental changes of different duration to be compared. The results suggest that brief changes, such as storms, can reduce the fitness of survivors in normal conditions to such an extent that their numbers decline rather than recovering. The risk is greatest for small populations confined to a small area, such as an island.

9-24-20 A mother mouse’s gut microbes help wire her pup’s brain
Research in mice links mom’s gut microbes to her baby’s sensory connections. New findings in mice suggest yet another role for gut microbes, even before birth. The microbes residing in a female mouse’s gut help shape the wiring of her offspring’s brain, researchers report September 23 in Nature. While mouse and human development are worlds apart, the study hints at how a mother’s microbiome may have long-term consequences for her offspring. Scientists have previously found links between a mouse mother’s microbiome and her young’s brain and behavior, but many of those studies worked with animals that were stressed (SN: 7/9/18) or sick. Instead, Helen Vuong, a neurobiologist at UCLA, and her colleagues looked at what a mother’s microbial mix normally does for her pups’ brains. The new results point to the influence of specific microbes and the small molecules they produce, called metabolites. “Metabolites from the microbiome of the mother can influence the developing brain of the fetus,” says Cathryn Nagler, an immunologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved with the study. The metabolites do this by reaching a developing pup’s brain where they affect the growth of axons, she says. Axons are the threadlike signal-transmitters of nerve cells. Vuong and her team looked at the brains of fetuses from pregnant mice — some with their usual gut bugs, some raised without microbes and others ridded of their gut bacteria with antibiotics. When a mother’s microbes were missing, fetuses had shorter and fewer axons extending from the brain’s “relay station” to the cortex, Vuong says. These connections are important for processing sensory information. Those brain differences appear to have consequences for mice later in life. As adults, mice born to microbe-deficient mothers were less sensitive to touch than mice from mothers with a typical microbiome. For instance, in one of several sensory tests, mice from microbe-deficient mothers took longer to notice a small piece of tape stuck to one of their paws. But when microbe-lacking females were given Clostridia bacteria, their offspring’s brain and behavior developed normally. Clostridia are common gut microbes in humans and in mice, Nagler says, and their absence has been linked to some noncommunicable conditions, such as food allergies (SN: 8/26/14).

9-24-20 Life on Earth may have begun in hostile hot springs
Understanding how complex molecules formed on our planet could guide the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. At Bumpass Hell in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, the ground is literally boiling, and the aroma of rotten eggs fills the air. Gas bubbles rise through puddles of mud, producing goopy popping sounds. Jets of scorching-hot steam blast from vents in the earth. The fearsome site was named for the cowboy Kendall Bumpass, who in 1865 got too close and stepped through the thin crust. Boiling, acidic water burned his leg so badly that it had to be amputated. Some scientists contend that life on our planet arose in such seemingly inhospitable conditions. Long before creatures roamed the Earth, hot springs like Bumpass Hell may have promoted chemical reactions that linked together simple molecules in a first step toward complexity. Other scientists, however, place the starting point for Earth’s life underwater, at the deep hydrothermal vents where heated, mineral-rich water billows from cracks in the ocean floor. As researchers study and debate where and how life on Earth first ignited, their findings offer an important bonus. Understanding the origins of life on this planet could offer hints about where to search for life elsewhere, says Natalie Batalha, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It has very significant implications for the future of space exploration.” Chemist Wenonah Vercoutere agrees. “The rules of physics are the same throughout the whole universe,” says Vercoutere, of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “So what is there to say that the rules of biology do not also carry through and are in place and active in the whole universe?” At its biochemical core, the recipe for life relies on only a few ingredients: chemical elements, water or other media where chemical reactions can occur and an energy source to power those reactions. On Earth, all of those ingredients exist at terrestrial hot springs, home to some hardy creatures. Great Boiling Spring in Nevada, for example, is a scalding 77° Celsius, yet microbes manage to eke out an existence in water near the spring’s clay banks, researchers reported in 2016 in Nature Communications. Such conditions may reflect what it was like on early Earth, so these life-forms are most likely “related to some of the organisms that were originally on this planet,” says Jennifer Pett-Ridge, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

9-23-20 How a 6-year-old had half his brain removed and recovered in 3 months
David Eagleman's book Livewired explores neuroplasticity, the brain's superpower, which lets it reshape after extreme surgery and adapt to losing a sense. IMAGINE if your 6-year-old son needed surgery to remove a staggering half of his brain. That was what faced Matthew, a boy with a rare condition triggering many epileptic seizures a day and that could only be treated with this drastic surgery. When he woke up afterwards, he was incontinent and couldn’t walk or speak. Yet with daily physical and language therapy, Matthew regained these abilities. In three months, he was almost back to normal, minus the seizures. Now an adult, brain scans show half of Matthew’s skull as a black void, yet the only visible effects are his slight limp and a little clumsiness in his right hand. How could someone lose half of their brain and recover almost all of their functioning in three months? For neuroscientist David Eagleman at Stanford University in California, this demonstrates one of the brain’s most remarkable qualities: neuroplasticity, or the ability to remake itself in response to changing circumstances. In Livewired, Eagleman explains why this ability is so fundamental to who we are that James Watson and Francis Crick’s claim to have discovered the “secret of life” with their work on DNA is only half of the story. The rest of what makes you who you are is “every bit of experience you have with the world: the textures and tastes, the caresses and car accidents, the languages and love stories… all of which sculpt the vast, microscopic tapestry of your brain cells and their connections,” he writes. In extreme cases, this brain resculpting is visible at the anatomical level through post-mortems or scans. Professional musicians develop a small bulge on a ridge of their motor cortex – a part of the brain that controls movement – revealing the effects of thousands of hours moving their fingers in complex choreographies. It is reminiscent of the way a large bicep may reflect the hours spent at the gym./p>

9-23-20 The theory of evolution is a vibrant, living entity still in its prime
THE theory of evolution is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human intellect. Some might argue that it is the greatest, although quantum theory or relativity would have their supporters too. But in the biological sciences, it stands unrivalled. It is no less than the grand unified theory of life. It is also a theory in the truest sense of the word: an interlocking and consistent system of empirical observations and testable hypotheses that has never failed scrutiny. Nothing has even been discovered that falsifies any part of it, despite strenuous efforts by detractors. It all stacks up. Yet we should resist the temptation to think that evolution is carved in tablets of stone. The radical but irresistible ideas put forward by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 remain the core of the theory, yet it has constantly accommodated new knowledge. This happened most conspicuously about a century ago, when the new science of genetics was melded with natural selection to create what became known as the “modern synthesis”. Today, we are arguably in the midst of another upgrade. Over the past 30 years, discoveries in developmental biology, epigenetics and elsewhere have needed to be brought under the wing of evolution. As our special report on Evolution is evolving: 13 ways we must rethink the theory of nature shows, they largely have been. Only hindsight will be able to judge whether what emerges is Evolution 3.0, or merely Modern Synthesis 1.1. If nothing else, the flurry of activity is proof that evolution – and hence biological science – is a vibrant, living-and-breathing entity still in its prime. Evolution has also achieved something that is arguably more important: it has seen off its culture warrior detractors. A decade ago, it was on the front line of the war on science, under attack from creationism and its pseudoscientific alter ego, intelligent design. Those voices have now largely fallen silent, worn down by the patient drumbeat of reason. Sadly, that remains an isolated victory in the wider anti-science culture war. But it shows that victories aren’t impossible. Evolution won because it is true. Eventually, truth will out.

9-23-20 Blood test could reveal if you will experience the placebo effect
The proteins in your blood could reveal whether or not you will experience the placebo effect. People who show a placebo response appear to have certain blood proteins – some of which are linked to inflammation, which could explain the healing powers of the placebo effect. A sugar pill or sham treatment can often make people feel better, but the reasons why have long been a mystery. Research over the past 20 years has focused on how specific brain regions might play a role and how genes could influence the response. Karin Meissner at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany and her colleagues looked for clues in blood instead, as it is much easier to access and study. The team induced nausea in 100 volunteers by asking them to sit in a small booth with moving black and white lines on two separate days. On the second day, 10 of the volunteers were given transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), in which a pressure point on the wrist was stimulated with electrodes placed on the skin. Sixty volunteers were given a sham TENS treatment that provided little or no electrical stimulation. The remaining 30 volunteers had no treatment at all. All the volunteers gave a blood sample before and after the nausea-inducing experience, and each person was asked to rate their level of nausea. People who had a 50 per cent reduction in their nausea on the second day, after receiving a sham treatment, were considered to have shown the placebo effect. From the samples, the researchers analysed differences in blood proteins before and after the nausea-producing experience, and whether these changed after a placebo treatment. They found 74 proteins that seem to be linked to the placebo effect. The levels of these proteins could predict who was likely to respond to a placebo, the team says.

9-23-20 When things look bleak, thinking in terms of ‘hope horizons’ can help
With wildfires raging, the outlook looks bleak from San Francisco. Thinking about the future in terms of “hope horizons” can help, writes Annalee Newitz. OUTSIDE my window, the skies are brown and the sun is a deep reddish-orange. Unfortunately, that isn’t because I’ve moved off-world to a beautiful alien planet orbiting a red dwarf star. This is simply what “outside” looks like in San Francisco when vast swathes of the western US are on fire. Even the light itself is alarming. Its Mordor-esque gloom makes everything seem like it is the wrong colour. (For a striking image of California’s Bidwell Bar Bridge against the backdrop of the state’s wildfires, (see “Wildfire nightmare captured in harrowing image of California burning“.) It has been a bad year for California. After years of drought, we started getting record high temperatures that were coupled with fierce winds. Back in 2018, our doddering old power lines, mismanaged and neglected, sparked a deadly fire that was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime Armageddon. It turns out that was merely a beta test. This year, the southern California desert reached 54.4°C. If verified, this is the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth. Then a rare lightning storm zapped the coast. The resulting wildfires have already burned more land than they did in all of 2018 – and the fire season has only just started. All this devastation comes on top of the coronavirus pandemic, which means that people fleeing the heat and fires can’t huddle in shelters together without risking a superspreader event. So, the future here is looking a little uncertain. At times like this, I find myself contemplating something I call a hope horizon, or how many years it might take before everything becomes alright again. My definition is deliberately open-ended. It raises questions like “What is ‘alright’?” and “What do you mean by ‘everything’?”

9-23-20 Spinosaurus dinosaur was 'enormous river-monster', researchers say
Palaeontologists believe they have settled a debate surrounding the largest ever carnivorous dinosaur. The researchers at the University of Portsmouth say their discovery of 1,200 dinosaur teeth "proves beyond reasonable doubt" that Spinosaurus was an "enormous river-monster". Its dental remains accounted for 45% of those found in a prehistoric river, they said. The findings have been published in the Cretaceous Research journal. Spinosaurus fossils were found in large numbers at the site of an ancient river bed in Morocco, which flowed through the Sahara Desert 100 million years ago. The scientists said their discovery meant the 15-metre (49ft) long, six-tonne dinosaur was not a land-based predator but a largely aquatic one. This backs up the latest findings made by researchers in April, following the analysis of a Spinosaurus tail. David Martill, professor of palaeobiology at the university, said: "We know of no other location where such a mass of dinosaur teeth has been found in bone-bearing rock. "The enhanced abundance of Spinosaurus teeth, relative to other dinosaurs, is a reflection of their aquatic lifestyle. "An animal living much of its life in water is much more likely to contribute teeth to the river deposit than those dinosaurs that perhaps only visited the river for drinking and feeding along its banks." Spinosaurus aegyptiacus remains were first discovered about 100 years ago in Egypt. They were moved to a museum in Munich but destroyed during World War Two. Since then only fragments of Spinosaurus bones have been found, including a giant fossil in 2014. Spinosaurus has enjoyed wider popular notoriety since 2001, when it bested a Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park III.

9-23-20 Evolution is evolving: 13 ways we must rethink the theory of nature
Do species really exist? Are genes destiny? Do only the fittest survive? Can we shape or stop evolution? New insights into nature are providing surprising answers, and a glorious new picture of life’s complexity. IN 1990, an international group of scientists embarked on one of the most ambitious research projects ever undertaken. They would sequence the entire human genome, determining the order of the 3.3 billion base pairs that code for the genes that make the proteins that each of us are built from. There was huge excitement at the prospect of decoding the “blueprint” of humanity. Given the complexity of our species, our genome was expected to contain at least 100,000 genes. What makes us human would finally be laid bare. It didn’t quite work out like that. The Human Genome Project was a resounding success, publishing its results in 2003, two years ahead of target. However, it revealed that humans only have around 22,000 genes, which is about the same number as other mammals. Meanwhile, the blueprint itself turned out to be encrypted in ways we are still trying to crack. The same thing is true of us that is true of every species: our DNA can be expressed in myriad different ways depending on which combination of sequences is activated. It is this, not the number of genes in the genome, that creates the complexity of life. The more we learn about genetics, the clearer it becomes that “genetic determinism” – the idea that genes and genes alone fix our destiny – is a myth. A given set of genes has the potential to produce a variety of observable characteristics, known as phenotypes, depending on the environment. An Arctic fox changes its coat colour with the seasons. The presence of predators causes water flea Daphnia longicephala to grow a protective helmet and spines. Even a change in social environment can prompt a shift. In the European paper wasp (Polistes dominula), for example, when the queen dies, the oldest worker transforms herself into a new queen. But she isn’t the only one to respond. Seirian Sumner at University College London and her colleagues found that the death of a colony’s queen results in temporary changes in the expression of genes in all workers, as though they are jostling genetically for succession. This flexibility is key to the survival of the colony and the species, says Sumner.

9-23-20 Some frogs have evolved eyes that are far too big for their bodies
Certain frogs have some of the biggest eyes of all vertebrates, relative to their body size, which is a significant evolutionary investment that has puzzled zoologists. Now, researchers have found that the eye size of these animals seems to scale depending on their environment. Eyesight is costly in biological terms because it requires a lot of energy to function, which explains why animals living in dark environments like caves often evolve to have smaller eyes. That means big-eyed frogs clearly need the ability to see contrasts, details, colours and rapid changes in order to thrive in their environment, says Kate Thomas at the Natural History Museum in London. “It’s not that they see any better than we do,” she says. “But compared to us, they’re investing a lot more of their total energy budget on vision.” Thomas and her fellow researchers measured the body length, total eye size and cornea size in thousands of fresh and conserved specimens representing 220 species and all 55 families of frogs worldwide. Their results showed that frogs’ active hours and how they reproduce affect eye size moderately, but the greatest factor linked to eye size is habitat. “Tree frogs have the biggest eyes, and they need to climb and jump and make quick decisions while jumping,” Thomas says. Their bright colours might also be a critical form of sexual signalling that other tree frogs need to be able to see. By contrast, Budgett’s frogs, which usually live in stagnant, murky waters and rely more on other senses for their survival, have very small eyes. This still leaves the question of what frogs are giving up in order to have large eyes, says Thomas. If they balance out their energy budget by reducing other senses, such as hearing, researchers have yet to identify which ones. Frogs generally hear very well, she says.

9-23-20 Early immune responses may be why younger people get less sick from COVID-19
The immune response of people over age 24 revs up more later in a coronavirus infection. One of the lingering questions of the pandemic is why COVID-19 symptoms tend to be milder in children and young adults than in older people. A new study suggests that the immune systems of people younger than 24 deal the coronavirus a strong first punch. Those early immune defenses, which set off alarm bells for the body to go on the attack no matter what the invader, may be weaker in older adults. Having more muted frontline defenses could allow an infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, get a foothold, resulting in worse symptoms for older people, researchers report September 21 in Science Translational Medicine. The results add to evidence that boosting early immune responses to the virus with a vaccine or drugs like interferons — which are based on proteins the body produces to stimulate immune cells — could help protect people (SN: 8/6/20). Researchers have had some ideas why younger people generally get less sick. It’s possible that compared with adults and older kids, younger children have lower amounts of the ACE2 protein in their upper respiratory tracts. That’s a protein that the virus uses to break into cells (SN: 8/4/20). Another explanation could have been that young people have less virus in their bodies, which could mean milder symptoms, although studies have shown that viral load is similar across people no matter their age. Or differences in the immune system, which tends to become less robust with age, could play a role. In the new study, pediatric infectious diseases physician and virologist Betsy Herold and colleagues divided 125 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City into five categories. People younger than 24 were split into three groups: those with symptoms who did not need a ventilator, those that did need ventilation and a third group that included kids who developed a coronavirus-related inflammatory syndrome that mainly affects children younger than 5 (SN:6/3/20). Adult patients older than 24 fell into two groups: people who needed a ventilator or died and those who recovered.

9-23-20 Antibodies made in the lab show some promise for treating COVID-19
New results hint that the proteins can reduce hospitalizations or need for ventilation. Amid the rush to test and develop potential treatments for COVID-19, lab-made antibodies are showing hints of success. In news releases, two companies announced preliminary results, though shared only limited data, that suggest the experimental drugs may help patients both early and late in infection. One clinical trial of monoclonal antibodies — human-made versions of immune system defenders produced by the body — suggests that the drugs can help keep people hospitalized with COVID-19 from needing a ventilator or from dying. And a second trial appears to show that the drugs can bring down levels of the coronavirus in recently infected people, and help reduce the chances that a person would need hospitalization. Antibodies are part of the body’s natural defense against infectious pathogens. The proteins typically attach to parts of bacteria or viruses to fight off infection. In the lab, scientists can engineer versions of antibodies to recognize specific targets in order to hinder the virus’ replication or prevent the body’s immune system from overreacting to the virus (SN: 2/21/20). A monoclonal antibody drug called tocilizumab is one of the latter types; it blocks a part of the immune response that can cause inflammation, a protein known as IL-6. By curbing inflammation, the drug could help people whose immune systems have become overactive through a process called a cytokine storm, which can cause severe COVID-19 symptoms (SN: 8/6/20). In a Phase III clinical trial of 389 people hospitalized with COVID-19, those who received tocilizumab were 44 percent less likely to need a ventilator or die compared with people who got a placebo, San Francisco–based biotechnology company Genentech announced September 17 in a news release. Of those who received the drug, 12.2 percent of people needed a ventilator or died, compared with 19.3 percent of patients who received a placebo. Still, when the researchers looked at death alone, the drug did not result in a statistically significant difference in mortality between the groups.

9-23-20 Doctor's diary: How can we deal with the long covid-19 symptoms?
THE first confirmed case of covid-19 in Brighton was around 1 February. I know this because I had been to a friend’s 50th birthday party that night. Having left early, I didn’t know anything was wrong until I received a cryptic text from the host, something about us meeting up “when this is all over”. I disregarded it. I later discovered that somebody at the party had been in contact with this first confirmed case, so several guests had to self-isolate. Many were doctors. It soon became clear that letting “hot” patients – those with a potential covid-19 infection – see their general practitioner (GP) might take many surgeries out of action, and money was made available for new solutions. That is how my organisation was tasked with setting up a “hot-hub” for the area. The challenge was: how can you see patients who aren’t sick enough to go to an accident and emergency department but who might have covid-19, yet make it as safe as possible for healthcare workers? What if someone has covid-19 symptoms, for instance, and is OK, but also has appendicitis? Our idea was to keep a patient in their car. You could recline them in the passenger seat and carry out a basic examination. So we decided to set up the hot-hub in a car park, inside a huge drive-in marquee. We paid scrupulous attention to infection control and conversations took place on the phone before and after the physical assessment, to minimise face-to-face contact. All the practices in the area were signed up, covering about 350,000 people. When we started, it felt as though every person we spoke to had covid-19. We didn’t have access to testing, but would advise patients on the basis of the phone call and physical examination. I became adept at recognising the “covid cough” over the phone.

9-22-20 Covid-19: Asymptomatic people may be more infectious than we thought
People who have the coronavirus without symptoms appear to have similar levels of the virus in their noses and throats to people with mild symptoms, a study has found. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are as likely to spread covid-19 as those who are sick. After much speculation early in the pandemic, a growing body of evidence suggests people can pass on the coronavirus even if they don’t have any symptoms. But it still isn’t clear how much virus these individuals carry in their upper airways and how infectious they might be. In particular it isn’t clear whether they are as contagious as those with symptoms. Sung-Han Kim at the University of Ulsan College of Medicine in South Korea and his colleagues took nose and throat swabs from 39 people with asymptomatic coronavirus infections as well as from 144 people with covid-19 who had mild symptoms. All the individuals had first tested positive for the virus an average of 13 days earlier. The researchers found that 64 per cent of the covid-19 patients and 54 per cent of those who were asymptomatic still had coronavirus-positive nose and throat swabs. They also discovered that levels of viral RNA were almost identical between these two groups. This was unexpected, says Kim, because for other viruses, such as influenza, the amount of virus an infected person harbours – known as the viral load – usually increases with the severity of symptoms. The detection of similar levels of viral RNA in mildly symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals suggests the coronavirus may be “unique”, he says. The study supports the idea that asymptomatic individuals have the potential to spread the virus regardless of symptoms, says Kim. “Normally with a virus infection, the symptoms give a way for the virus to exit your body and spread,” says Lucy Thorne at University College London, who wasn’t involved in the study. “But it seems from this and other studies that it’s still possible to spread [the coronavirus] when you don’t have symptoms,” she says. “I think the really strong public health message has to be that everyone has to take precautions even if they don’t have symptoms.”

9-22-20 People in Cape Verde evolved better malaria resistance in 550 years
Yes, we are still evolving. And one of the strongest examples of recent evolution in people has been found on the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic, where a gene variant conferring a form of malaria resistance has become more common. Portuguese voyagers settled the uninhabited islands in 1462, bringing slaves from Africa with them. Most of the archipelago’s half a million inhabitants are descended from these peoples. Most people of West African origin have a variant in a gene called DARC that protects against malaria. This gene codes for a receptor that malaria parasites exploit to get inside cells; the variant reduces receptor levels. Amy Goldberg at Duke University in North Carolina and her colleagues analysed data on gene variants in 564 Cape Verdeans collected by another team. They found that around half the people on the outer islands have the protective DARC variant. However, on the more densely populated main island of Santiago, where there have been many malaria outbreaks over the centuries, about 80 per cent of people have the variant. Here, the protective variant is more common than other variants of West African origin, showing there has been strong selection for it. The local population’s resistance to malaria has long been noticed, the researchers point out. After visiting the islands in 1721, Captain George Roberts reported that, during the rainy season, a disease in Santiago is “dangerous to strangers”. The strength of selection for a particular gene variant – how fast a beneficial gene variant spreads per generation – can be calculated, and is called the selection coefficient. “We estimate the selection coefficient is approximately 0.08, one of the highest inferred in humans,” the researchers write.

9-21-20 Children’s allergic reactions to nuts spike at Halloween and Easter
On Easter and Halloween each year, severe allergic reactions to nuts spike in children, according to an analysis of data from emergency rooms across Canada. “I’m not so surprised,” says Moshe Ben-Shoshan at McGill University in Canada, who led the study. As a paediatric allergist who regularly works in the emergency room, Ben-Shoshan says he had already noticed that cases of severe allergic reactions among children tended to go up at certain times of the year. “I remember these cases of children coming in during Halloween after eating [nut] contaminated chocolate,” he says. He and his colleagues used records of emergency room visits to analyse the incidences of nut-induced anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction – in children across four Canadian provinces, including Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia. The researchers looked at 1390 cases of anaphylaxis between 2011 and 2020 and found that the majority of cases occured in children under 11 years old, and rates of peanut-triggered anaphylaxis were 85 per cent higher than average on Halloween and 60 per cent higher than average during Easter. They saw a similar trend when they looked at anaphylaxis caused by other nuts. The team didn’t find a significant increase in nut-induced allergic reactions during other holidays such as Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year and Eid al-Adha. “Halloween and Easter involve social gatherings with other children in the presence of a lot of candy. These holidays may include interactions with other adults who may not be aware of the child’s food allergies,” says Tina Sindher at Stanford University in the US, who was not involved in the study. She adds that “a lot of ‘fun-size’ candy may not be labelled appropriately or may contain different ingredients.”

9-21-20 A tiny crustacean fossil contains roughly 100-million-year-old giant sperm
An ostracod encased in amber preserves what may be the oldest known fossilized sperm. Ostracods look like nothing more than seeds with legs. But some species of these tiny crustaceans have an outsize claim to fame: giant sperm. In the most extreme case, it can stretch 1.18 centimeters, over three times the length of an adult. A newfound collection of ostracods preserved in amber reveals that megasperm dates back to at least about 100 million years ago during the time of the dinosaurs, researchers report online September 16 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. A tangle of sperm found inside a female is among the oldest, if not the oldest, fossilized sperm ever found. A single piece of amber from Myanmar held 39 ostracods, including many from a newly discovered species, Myanmarcypris hui. Using micro-CT scans, Dave Horne, a micropaleontologist at Queen Mary University of London, and colleagues peered inside a few of the tiny shelled animals. “We knew from looking at the piece of amber with an ordinary light microscope that there were antennae and legs sticking out of the shell, so we were hopeful of finding internal organs,” Horne says. If delicate parts like legs and antennae are preserved, it’s likely that other soft parts are too, he says. “But what we saw … exceeded expectations.” The layout of internal sex organs resembled that of their modern-day counterparts. And inside a M. hui female, the team found preserved giant sperm packing her seminal receptacles. Ostracods aren’t the only animal with giant sperm (SN: 7/23/12). Some fruit flies, for example, also rely on megasperm (SN: 5/25/16). In ostracods, giant sperm possibly resulted from “competition between sperms of two or more males trying to fertilize the eggs of the same female,” Horne says. “This must be a highly successful reproductive strategy to have lasted for a hundred million years.” Ostracod sperm must make a long, winding journey from the female’s vagina to her eggs, adds study coauthor Renate Matzke-Karasz, a geobiologist at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich. Spirals in the canal to the eggs make the distance longer than the entire length of the female. Shorter sperm might not be able to make the journey, Matzke-Karasz says.

9-20-20 The COVID 'long-haulers'
Even after supposedly recovering, thousands of Americans are suffering persistent and even disabling symptoms. Even after supposedly recovering, thousands of Americans are suffering persistent and even disabling symptoms. Here's everything you need to know:

  1. What is "long-haul" COVID? It's a persistent and wide-ranging set of symptoms that follow a coronavirus infection. Nearly 100 kinds of lingering symptoms and physical damage have been catalogued, including scarred lungs, chronic heart damage, severe headaches, kidney failure, bulging veins, hand tremors, debilitating fatigue, fever, nausea, stomach problems, hair loss, sensitivity to light and sound, blurry vision, loss of taste and smell, short-term memory loss, and a brain fog so dense it can be difficult to write even a simple email.
  2. What is causing these symptoms? Research indicates that the coronavirus is far more than a classic respiratory illness and can attack organs throughout the body. The virus binds itself to cells using a protein on the surface of the cells called ACE2. These ACE2 receptors are found inside blood vessels; on olfactory bulbs that provide a sense of smell; on kidneys; in the gastrointestinal tract; and, according to new research, in the brain.
  3. Are long-haulers generally old? Unlike the majority of people whom COVID kills, many long-haulers are relatively young: Putrino's survey of 1,400 patients found they are mostly female and have an average age of 44. Some were previously quite healthy and fit.
  4. How many long-haulers are there? Probably millions worldwide. A study in Italy found that 87 percent of COVID patients who were hospitalized still had symptoms two months after their release.
  5. Are all cases equal? No, there is a wide variation in severity. In milder cases, a handful of symptoms inexplicably come and go for months. In more severe cases, like Chimére Smith's, it becomes impossible to work. Smith, 38, a middle-school English teacher in Baltimore, has had COVID symptoms since March, including severe stomach problems and headaches, and has been to the emergency room a dozen times.
  6. Sick, but never diagnosed: Many COVID long-haulers complain that they were denied tests early on in the pandemic because of shortages in diagnostic swabs and restrictions placed on who was eligible for scarce tests. Boston resident Lauren Nichols, 32, got sick in March but was denied a test by her doctor, who said at her age she was in no danger. She finally tested positive, and has suffered a debilitating array of symptoms consistent with those experienced by other long-haulers, including nausea, brain fog, insomnia, and shortness of breath.

9-20-20 Coronavirus: WHO sets rules for testing African herbal remedies
The World Health Organization (WHO) has agreed rules for the testing of African herbal remedies to fight Covid-19. Sound science would be the sole basis for safe and effective traditional therapies to be adopted, it said. Any traditional remedies that are judged effective could be fast-tracked for large-scale manufacturing. Madagascar's leader has been promoting an untested product he says can cure the disease despite the WHO warning against using untested remedies. The WHO said the new rules were aimed at helping and empowering scientists in Africa to conduct proper clinical trials. The move comes as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide passes 30 million, with reported global deaths standing at more than 957,000. In Africa there have been more than 1.3 million cases and than 33,000 reported deaths. Around 140 potential vaccines for Covid-19 are being developed around the world, with dozens already being tested on people in clinical trials. Alongside these efforts, the green light has now been given for phrase three clinical trials using African traditional medicines. A panel of experts, set up by the WHO, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Union Commission for Social Affairs, has agreed on the protocols. Phase three trials usually test the safety and efficacy of a drug on larger groups of participants. "The adoption of the technical documents will ensure that universally acceptable clinical evidence of the efficacy of herbal medicines for the treatment of Covid-19 is generated without compromising the safety of participants," said Prof Motlalepula Gilbert Matsabisa, the panel's chairman. "The onset of Covid-19, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, has highlighted the need for strengthened health systems and accelerated research and development programmes, including on traditional medicines," the WHO's Dr Prosper Tumusiime said in the statement.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

9-26-20 Trapped under ice, light-loving algae grow in the dark Arctic winter
Scientists have long thought that phytoplankton remain largely dormant during the polar night. Each winter, Baffin Bay freezes over as polar darkness descends over the top of the world. Come spring, phytoplankton will bloom in these cold waters between Greenland and Canada, bolstering a bustling ecosystem of beluga whales and narwhals (SN: 4/8/20). But scientists have long assumed that the photosynthetic algae remain largely dormant in winter, blocked off from light by thick sea ice and snow. New research challenges that assumption, however, finding that phytoplankton under the bay’s ice start growing as early as February, when the sun barely blips above the Arctic’s horizon. Achim Randelhoff, an oceanographer at Université Laval in Quebec City, and colleagues deployed autonomous submersible floats in Baffin Bay that can measure photosynthetic activity and algae concentrations underwater. In February, when light was barely detectable under about 1.5 meters of snow-covered ice, Arctic phytoplankton begin growing and multiplying, the researchers report September 25 in Science Advances. The study suggests that springtime blooms are the culmination of an extended period of growth that starts in winter, not a singular burst of activity as was thought. “Arctic phytoplankton are superefficient at using every little photon they can find,” Randelhoff says, but he was surprised that they could grow with such little light. As the months progressed and the sun rose higher, the team found that algal growth accelerated, reaching its peak growth rate for the year in April and May, despite the microorganisms still being covered by ice. How these photosynthetic algae can make do with such little light remains opaque. “So much of winter in the Arctic is still a black box,” Randelhoff says. “This is the kind of study that raises more questions than answers.”

9-25-20 Tiny algae can photosynthesise and grow in the dark beneath Arctic ice
Marine phytoplankton can grow under thick sea ice in near darkness, converting what little light exists into energy, though it is still unclear how these microscopic algae have adapted to grow in these extreme conditions. It was previously thought that phytoplankton could not grow in the Arctic until the sea ice began to melt, but Achim Randelhoff at Laval University in Canada and his colleagues found that the microscopic marine algae are able to photosynthesise and grow even in winter, with growth peaking in April and May. Over two years, the team deployed four autonomous floats in Baffin Bay in the Arctic, which is covered with thick sea ice for seven months a year – throughout Arctic winter and lasting into July. The floats are 2.25-metre rod-like robotic devices equipped with sensors to measure temperature, water salinity and the reflection of light off various particles, called backscattering. They travel underwater and can detect and avoid ice. By measuring the amount of chlorophyll – a green pigment essential for photosynthesis – in the water, and the amount of particle backscattering, the team measured fluctuations in the amount of phytoplankton during winter. They found that phytoplankton grew slowly in near darkness, and the rate at which it accumulated peaked more than two months before the Arctic sea ice began to retreat, when Baffin Bay was completely covered with thick ice. Based on the floats’ measurements of the amount of light at a given depth and area, and previous research on how phytoplankton behave given different levels of light, the researchers found that a small amount of photosynthesis was occurring, beginning from February when sunlight returned to Baffin Bay. The reason why marine phytoplankton in the Arctic have adapted to grow under the extreme conditions is not yet clear. “This very small growth could support survival of phytoplankton during winter,” says Randelhoff.

9-24-20 Coronavirus lockdown changed how birds sing in San Francisco
If you thought birdsong sounded different during lockdown, it turns out you were probably right. The uniquely quiet circumstances of the covid-19 restrictions in San Francisco saw birds respond by lowering their pitch, singing sexier songs and making their songs clearer. We know some birds react to human noise, particularly the low-frequency city sounds of car engines and air conditioning units, by singing more loudly and shifting to a higher frequency. “What we didn’t know was if you take sound out, what exactly happens – does it drop by the same amount? They did sing more softly. But they sang so much more softly than we thought they would,” says Elizabeth Derryberry at the University of Tennessee. She and her team compared audio recordings of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) made in San Francisco and surrounding rural areas in both April to June 2015 and 2016, and also compared them with new recordings from April to May this year. They found background noise in urban areas dramatically down, about 7 decibels lower than usual. Without the low drone of cars and other human sounds, birds returned to singing at lower frequencies. This improved their vocal performance, doubling the distance they could be heard by a human or bird. They also became more appealing to potential mates, as birds find higher frequencies less attractive. “Their songs are sounding like they did 30 years ago,” says Derryberry. The result of the lockdown quiet could be higher quality mates, greater reproductive success, better genetic fitness and, ultimately, a more stable population, she adds. There is no reason to think the findings don’t apply to birds elsewhere, as Derryberry notes that some species such as blackbirds and great tits have previously shown even greater flexibility in response to human noise. “It’s a two-sided tale of how our noisy cities are making life harder for animals that communicate by sound, but also a more optimistic reminder of the resilience and flexibility of nature,” says Joseph Tobias at Imperial College London.

9-24-20 How lockdown birds sang to a different tune
As many said at the time, bird song did sound different during lockdown, according to a scientific study. By analysing the calls of sparrows recorded over decades, scientists confirmed a change in the birds' vocal repertoire when the city fell quiet. The birds upped the quality of their songs, as they called to defend their territory and entice a mate. And while it might have seemed to human ears that bird song got louder, the sparrows actually sang more quietly. These sweeter, softer songs carried further given the lack of background noise. Dr Elizabeth Derryberry of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, US, has studied for years how noise pollution affects bird song. "People were right that birds did sound different during the shutdown and they filled the soundscape that we basically abandoned," she told BBC News. "As we moved out of the soundscape, the birds moved in and I think this tells us something about just how big an effect we have on birdsong and on communication, especially in cities." Thanks to a long-running study of the songs of white-crowned sparrows living in and around the San Francisco Bay area, scientists were able to compare effects before and during lockdown. What they found came as a bit of a surprise. Most of the time, it's male sparrows that sing, and during the silence the birds improved their vocal performance and sang lower-amplitude "sexier" songs to defend their territory and woo a female. "When noise levels dropped during the shutdown, their songs actually sounded sexier to other birds in the population," said Dr Derryberry. It shows how quickly nature can recover from the effects of human noise pollution, she added. "This study shows that when you reduce noise pollution there's almost an immediate effect on wildlife behaviour and that's really exciting because so many things that we do to try to help the environment take a long time to improve."

9-24-20 New species of tiny ‘fairy shrimp’ found in the world’s hottest desert
Tiny freshwater shrimp live in the world’s hottest desert – and their eggs can lay dormant for years when water is scarce. In 2006, satellite measurements recorded ground temperatures in the Lut desert reaching 70.7°C – a world record. Since then, the desert’s surface has surpassed 80°C. The intense heat and relative dearth of knowledge about the region’s flora and fauna spurred scientists to make a series of expeditions to the Lut to survey biodiversity there. Hossein Rajaei at the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart in Germany was on one of these excursions in early 2017. As he was cooling off in a temporary pool left behind by a recent, rare deluge, he spotted something unusual. “I noticed some small things moving in the water,” he says. He grabbed a net and scooped up a swarm of freshwater crustaceans, each smaller than a pinky nail and with a battery of feathery legs. “It was very, very exciting,” says Rajaei. Martin Schwentner at the Natural History Museum of Vienna in Austria helped him identify the crustaceans as a type of “fairy shrimp”. These animals live in temporary water sources in the world’s arid places and survive on algae. Between floods, their eggs can survive in the soil in a form of stasis. “These eggs can stay dormant in the sediment for decades, maybe longer,” says Schwentner. They found that this was a previously undescribed species and named it Phallocryptus fahimii. “There doesn’t seem to be any permanent water or groundwater in this region of Iran, which begs the question: where have these [fairy shrimp] come from, evolutionarily?” says Michelle Guzik at the University of Adelaide in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the research. For Rajaei and Schwentner, the next step is determining if the new crustacean is widespread or if it is endemic to the Lut and thus needs special protection.

9-24-20 A beaked whale’s nearly four-hour-long dive sets a new record
The previous record, set in 2014 by the same whale species, was around two hours. To break the record for longest dive by a marine mammal, take a deep breath and jump in the water. Then don’t breathe in again for almost four hours. Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are master divers (SN: 08/21/18). The creatures not only hold the record for deepest plunge by a marine mammal — measuring nearly 3,000 meters — but also for the longest dives. In 2014, scientists documented one dive that lasted just over two hours at 137.5 minutes, setting a record. Another Cuvier’s beaked whale has now shattered that record, going 222 minutes, or three hours and 42 minutes, without coming up for air, researchers report September 23 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. To last so long underwater, the mammals may rely on large stores of oxygen and a slow metabolism. Once oxygen runs out, the animals may have the ability to tolerate lactic acid building up in their muscles from anaerobic respiration — a method of generating energy that doesn’t rely on oxygen. “These guys blow our expectations,” says Nicola Quick, an animal behaviorist at Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C. Calculations based on a seal’s oxygen stores and diving time limits hinted that the whales should last only about half an hour before running out of oxygen. Seals can exceed their limit about 5 percent of the time, so Quick’s team analyzed 3,680 dives by 23 whales. While most dives lasted around an hour, 5 percent exceeded about 78 minutes, suggesting it takes more than twice as long as thought for the whales to switch to anaerobic respiration. The researchers expected to find that the whales spend more time at the surface recovering after long dives, but the team did not see a clear pattern. “We know very little about [the whales] at all,” Quick says, “which is interesting and frustrating at once.”

9-23-20 The longest whale dive ever recorded clocks in at almost 4 hours
A Cuvier’s beaked whale has made the longest dive by any mammal ever recorded, lasting 3 hours and 42 minutes. That smashes the previous record of 2 hours and 43 minutes. The record has stunned biologists. “This is quite a bit longer,” says Nicola Quick at Duke University in North Carolina, who was part of the team that revealed the dive. “It’s pretty amazing.” The record for humans holding their breath underwater is 24 minutes, and this involves floating motionless. By contrast, whales are highly active during dives. “They are hunting down there, and moving and echolocating,” says Quick. Very little is known about the 23 species of beaked whale, as they spend much of their time underwater. To find out more about their behaviour and how they are affected by human noises, biologists have been using satellite tags to record dive duration and depth. In 2006, these revealed that beaked whales dive deeper and stay under longer than any other mammal. They routinely reach depths of 1000 metres or more, and hold their breath for around an hour. Since then, the records have kept falling. The latest record-breaking dive was made in September 2017. The same individual made another dive lasting 2 hours and 53 minutes. Why it stayed under so long isn’t clear – perhaps it found many squid to suck up, says Quick. The record-setting dive wasn’t particularly deep, she says. The record for the deepest dive remains 2992 metres. Whales have many adaptations for diving, including the ability to store oxygen in their muscles and blood. However, relatively small animals like Cuvier’s beaked whales, which weigh around 2.5 tonnes, shouldn’t be able to store as much oxygen as larger whales such as sperm whales, which can weigh nearly 60 tonnes.

9-23-20 Pilot whales Tasmania: Almost 400 die in Australia's worst stranding
About 380 whales have died in what is suspected to be Australia's largest stranding on record, officials say. Since Monday, hundreds of long-finned pilot whales have been found beached on Tasmania's west coast. Rescuers had managed to save 50 by late on Wednesday, and they were trying to help the remaining estimated 30 whales. Tasmanian government officials said the rescue effort would continue "as long as there are live animals". "While they're still alive and in water, there's still hope for them - but as time goes on they do become more fatigued," said Nic Deka, regional manager for Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service. He added the focus would now also shift to removing the hundreds of carcasses scattered along the coast. A clean-up plan is still being worked out - in the past carcasses have been buried on the shore or dragged out to open sea. It is not fully understood why the whales became stranded. The species is known to be prone to getting beached. The stranding, one of the largest ever recorded globally, eclipses a previous national record of 320 set in Western Australia in 1996. The whales largely washed up on sand spits in the waters around an area called Macquarie Heads. The first rescuers on Monday counted about 270 whales, but a helicopter on Tuesday spotted another 200 whales nearby. Officials said the second group may have washed in with the tide, but was believed to be part of the same pod. More than 80% of Australian whale strandings take place in Tasmania and experts say Macquarie Heads is a known hotspot. Tasmania's previous biggest stranding was in 1935 with 294 pilot whales. Its last mass stranding was in 2009 and involved about 200 pilot whales.

9-23-20 Some frogs have evolved eyes that are far too big for their bodies
Certain frogs have some of the biggest eyes of all vertebrates, relative to their body size, which is a significant evolutionary investment that has puzzled zoologists. Now, researchers have found that the eye size of these animals seems to scale depending on their environment. Eyesight is costly in biological terms because it requires a lot of energy to function, which explains why animals living in dark environments like caves often evolve to have smaller eyes. That means big-eyed frogs clearly need the ability to see contrasts, details, colours and rapid changes in order to thrive in their environment, says Kate Thomas at the Natural History Museum in London. “It’s not that they see any better than we do,” she says. “But compared to us, they’re investing a lot more of their total energy budget on vision.” Thomas and her fellow researchers measured the body length, total eye size and cornea size in thousands of fresh and conserved specimens representing 220 species and all 55 families of frogs worldwide. Their results showed that frogs’ active hours and how they reproduce affect eye size moderately, but the greatest factor linked to eye size is habitat. “Tree frogs have the biggest eyes, and they need to climb and jump and make quick decisions while jumping,” Thomas says. Their bright colours might also be a critical form of sexual signalling that other tree frogs need to be able to see. By contrast, Budgett’s frogs, which usually live in stagnant, murky waters and rely more on other senses for their survival, have very small eyes. This still leaves the question of what frogs are giving up in order to have large eyes, says Thomas. If they balance out their energy budget by reducing other senses, such as hearing, researchers have yet to identify which ones. Frogs generally hear very well, she says.

9-23-20 Young bats accept reality of climate change before older generations
Young male bats are the first of their species to adjust to the realities of a warming world, with older generations being slower to adapt. The noctule bat (Nyctalus noctula), a common European species, traditionally migrates more than 1500 kilometres between its northern summer roosts and its southern winter hibernation grounds. Now that is changing one generation at a time, says Kseniia Kravchenko at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany. “Due to climate change, we have areas suitable for bats all year round, without the need to migrate for hibernation,” says Kravchenko. The bats have a short lifespan, averaging three years, and a high reproductive rate, leading to rapid generation turnover. That means they are able to quickly shift to shorter migration distances from one generation to the next, she says, which might indicate they will cope better with global warming than other species of bats. Colonisation of new, more northern winter hibernation areas begins with “pioneering” young males, says Kravchenko. After these young males establish new winter colonies, young females and eventually older adults join them in staying closer year-round to their northern summer homes, rather than hibernating further south. Kravchenko and her team studied nearly 3400 noctule bats in a newly colonised winter roost in Ukraine. They identified the bats’ summer locations from their fur using hydrogen isotopes, which originate in the animals’ food and water. Having followed their journeys over 12 years, the researchers determined that young males settled first in the new winter colonies further north, and that other bats joined them later. This is good news and bad news, says Kravchenko. “This bat species seems capable of adjusting rapidly to the high pace of climate change, which is good,” she says, suggesting that this shift can help ensure its survival. “But what about the other species of bats that have longer generation times and don’t migrate? Global warming might be more difficult for them to cope with.”

9-22-20 Birds that 'speak' with a flap of their wings have regional dialects
As male fork-tailed flycatchers zip around, their wings can produce a high-pitched trilling. New research shows these whistles have dialects and may be used for communication. Fork-tailed flycatchers (Tyrannus savana) have two subspecies: one that migrates annually between northern and southern parts of South America and another that resides year-round in the north of the continent. Valentina Gómez-Bahamón at the Field Museum in Illinois and her colleagues studied the two populations. They collected and analysed audio and video recordings of the migratory birds in flight. The researchers found that curious notches on the tips of the flight feathers – long, rigid feathers that help produce lift and thrust – on the wings of males made a chirping noise when they flapped quickly. The males produced these wing sounds during aerial fights with other males, as well as in dawn displays, suggesting that they may be used to communicate with mates. The team also found that the notched feathers differed in shape between the populations. “Feathers of migrants are thinner in different parts of the feather and longer than feathers of sedentary birds,” says Gómez-Bahamón. This may be the result of differing evolutionary pressures on flight. A longer, thinner wing shape is better suited for long-distance migration, for example. The team found that subtle variation in wing sounds matched up with the two flycatcher subspecies, with migratory birds making higher-pitched noises. It is possible that evolution of the physical shape of the wing and feathers has spawned wing noise dialects as a side effect. If the noises are used to communicate with mates, Gómez-Bahamón says she wonders whether the different dialects might interfere with interbreeding, helping to split the species in two. Going forward, she wants to verify that the feather dialects are truly widespread in fork-tailed flycatchers and that the birds actually fancy their own fluttering.

9-22-20 Wild maple trees 'in serious need of conservation'
One in five maple species is threatened in the wild, according to the first full assessment of extinction risks. Known for the vivid colour of their autumn leaves, the trees are popular in parks and gardens. But in their natural habitats, they face a myriad of threats, including unsustainable logging, climate change, deforestation and forest fires. Botanists are calling for urgent action to protect rare maple trees. And they say seeds should be stored as an insurance policy against extinction. The assessment of all 158 species of maple is part of an effort to map the conservation status of all tree species by the end of 2020. It was carried out by the group, Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Conservation manager Dan Crowley told BBC News: "Maples are some of our most familiar trees, particularly in autumn when they give us those wonderful displays of yellow, orange, red and purple colours. "And whilst they are common in some of our open spaces, spaces where they are highly valued, several species are also highly threatened in the wild." The scientists say action is needed to ensure there is active conservation in protected forests where maples grow. And as a back-up, rare seeds should be collected and stored in botanic gardens. What we see in gardens and parks is just a small selection of the vast number found in the wild. And many of the specimens seen in urban spaces are grown from a small number of seeds collected by early plant hunters, with only limited genetic diversity. Currently, 14 species of maple tree, including four that are critically endangered, are missing from arboretums and botanical gardens. Dan Crowley added: "We're highly responsible for the threats that some of these species face including urban development, agriculture and timber harvesting and we have the capabilities to conserve the species in the wild and also in our living collections, and we should act to do."

9-21-20 Botswana: Mystery elephant deaths caused by cyanobacteria
Toxins made by microscopic algae in water caused the previously unexplained deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana, wildlife officials say. Botswana is home to a third of Africa's declining elephant population. The alarm was raised when elephant carcasses were spotted in the country's Okavango Delta between May and June. Officials say a total of 330 elephants are now known to have died from ingesting cyanobacteria. Poaching has been ruled out as a cause of death. The toxic bacteria can occur naturally in standing water and sometimes grow into large blooms known as blue-green algae. The findings follow months of tests in specialist laboratories in South Africa, Canada, Zimbabwe and the US. Many of the dead elephants were found near watering holes, but until now the wildlife authorities had doubted that the bacteria were to blame because the blooms appear on the edges of ponds and elephants tend to drink from the middle. "Our latest tests have detected cyanobacterial neurotoxins to be the cause of deaths. These are bacteria found in water," the Department of Wildlife and National Parks' Principal Veterinary Officer Mmadi Reuben told a press conference on Monday. The deaths "stopped towards the end of June 2020, coinciding with the drying of [water] pans", AFP quotes him as saying. Reports in June noted that tusks had not been removed. Poaching has been ruled out as cause of death, as has anthrax poisoning, according to senior wildlife department official Cyril Taolo. But questions still remain about the deaths, Mr Reuben told reporters. "We have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating." Hundreds of carcasses were spotted with the help of aerial surveys earlier this year. Dr Niall McCann, of the UK-based charity National Park Rescue, previously told the BBC that local conservationists first alerted the government in early May, after they undertook a flight over the delta. "They spotted 169 in a three-hour flight," he said. "To be able to see and count that many in a three-hour flight was extraordinary.

9-21-20 Hundreds of whales stranded off the coast of Tasmania
At least 25 whales are thought to have already died as conservationists begin a huge rescue operation at Macquarie Heads off the coast of Tasmania.The mission is due to begin early on Tuesday morning to release approximately 270 whales which have become stuck on two sand banks and a beach. This unusual event is not unprecedented in this region as a similar number of whales were stranded nearby around a decade ago.