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5-24-22 Southern Baptist Convention vilified sex abuse survivors - report
Leaders of the world's largest Baptist denomination covered up sex abuse by clergy for years and vilified survivors, an internal report says. The seven-month investigation found that survivors had come forward over two decades about abusers within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But their pleas for intervention were met with "resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility" by officials. With 13 million members, SBC is the largest Protestant body in the US. The investigation - carried out for the SBC by an outside firm - was launched in the wake of 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that exposed hundreds of alleged cases of sex abuse within the church. Amid internal divisions over how to handle the scandal, thousands of delegates at the SBC's annual gathering last year voted in favour of a third-party review of the church's actions. The 288-page report issued on Sunday names a few senior leaders on the church's executive committee as having control over its response to the reports of abuse and of being "singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC". These officials reportedly "protected or even supported alleged abusers", the report says. Calls and emails from survivors or other concerned Southern Baptists would be "ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action" because of how the church functions, the report states. The document also discloses for the first time that the executive committee maintained a list of its ministers who were facing abuse allegations but - in spite of calls for a public database - kept its findings secret. It makes a series of recommendations, including creating an independent commission that would oversee reforms in the handling of sexual misconduct, and restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements and civil settlements by the accused.
5-24-22 U.S., 19 other nations sending Ukraine newer, more high-tech weapons, Pentagon says
Defense officials from 47 countries met virtually on Monday to discuss supporting Ukraine with military aid, and 20 of those countries pledged to provide Kyiv newer, more high-tech weapons or other military assistance, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a press conference. He said the U.S. is "especially grateful to Denmark" for committing to send Ukraine U.S.-made Harpoon anti-ship cruse missiles and a launcher and to the Czech Republic for "a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks, and rocket systems." "And today, several countries announced new donations of critically needed artillery systems and ammunition, including Italy, Greece, Norway, and Poland," Austin said. "The nature of the fight" in Ukraine "is really shaped by artillery in this phase, and we've seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks." The "most powerful and destructive" weapon the West has provided Ukraine so far is artillery, the U.S.-made M777 howitzer, and due largely to training bottlenecks, only about a dozen of the 90 M777s sent to Ukraine are being used on the front lines, The New York Times reports from eastern Ukraine. "They fire three miles farther than the most common artillery system used by the Russian army in the Ukraine war, the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer — and 10 miles farther if shooting a precision, GPS-guided projectile." Ukraine had fired 1,876 rounds as of Sunday, "This weapon brings us closer to victory," Col. Roman Kachur, commander of Ukraine's 55th Artillery Brigade, told the Times. "With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we get closer to victory." A dozen howitzers can only do so much, though, says Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia's military. "Artillery is very much the business of quantity," he told the Times, and "the Russians are one of the largest artillery armies you can face." More artillery and other weapons systems are on the way, Austin said. "Everyone here understands the stakes of this war, and they stretch far beyond Europe. Russia's aggression is an affront to the rules-based international order and a challenge to free people everywhere."
5-24-22 Russia is seeing 'localized successes' in eastern Ukraine, growing criticism at home of its huge losses
"Russia has increased the intensity of its operations in the Donbas as it seeks to encircle Severodonetsk, Lyschansk, and Rubizhne" in eastern Ukraine, and it has "achieved some localized successes" over "strong Ukrainian resistance," Britain's Ministry of Defense said early Tuesday. "Russia's capture of the Severodonetsk pocket would see the whole of Luhansk Oblast placed under Russian occupation," and trap the Ukrainian troops defending the strategic city. Russian forces have been making "incremental progress" in encircling Severodonetsk, and it's likely they will succeed, a Western official tells BBC News. But the Ukrainian defenders are "performing a vital function" because "they are degrading the Russian forces" and "creating time" for the remainder of Ukraine's forces in the Donbas to prepare and strengthen defenses elsewhere. The Institute for the Study of War agreed Russia is making "marginal gains to encircle" Severodonetsk, but said at home, "more Russians supportive of the Kremlin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are beginning to criticize the Kremlin openly," including military bloggers and an assembly of military veterans, and the loss of an entire battalion in a bungled river crossing especially "shocked Russian military observers and prompted them to question Russian competence." Ukraine has been suffering heavy casualties in the Donbas — President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday that 50 to 100 Ukrainians could be dying every day "defending our country and our independence" in eastern Ukraine. But "Russia has likely suffered a similar death toll to that experienced by the Soviet Union during its nine year war in Afghanistan," or about 15,000 slain troops, Britain's Defense Ministry said Sunday. "The Russian public has, in the past, proven sensitive to casualties suffered during wars of choice," and as the body count rises, "public dissatisfaction with the war and a willingness to voice it may grow." "The Russian president and military high command will continue to demand advances, but at some point in the next month or two, any capacity of the Russians to do so will be at an end," thanks to mounting losses, dropping morale, increasingly insurgency in occupied Ukraine, and Ukraine's growing arsenal of Western-supplied weapons, Australian military analyst Mick Ryan writes, "The recent Ukrainian decision to cease its defense of the Mariupol steelworks provided a small yet pyrrhic victory for the Russians. But it is unlikely that there will be more of such minor successes for the Russian Army."
5-24-22 Ukraine war: World faces 'dark hour', Biden tells Quad Summit
The world is "navigating a dark hour in our shared history" with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden told key Asian allies. The war has now become a "global issue" underscoring the importance of defending international order, he said. Japanese PM Fumio Kishida echoed his comments, saying that a similar invasion should not happen in Asia. Mr Biden is meeting the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in Tokyo in his first visit to Asia as president. The four countries known collectively as the Quad are discussing security and economic concerns including China's growing influence in the region - and differences over the Russian invasion. Mr Biden's comments come a day after he warned China that it was "flirting with danger" over Taiwan, and vowed to protect Taiwan militarily if China attacked, appearing to contradict a long-standing US policy on the issue. It was later reported that Russian and Chinese warplanes had approached Japanese airspace as part of a joint military patrol, prompting Tokyo to announce it had scrambled jets in response. Russian officials said the flight over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea was part of an annual military exercise. Mr Kishida told a news conference that planning the exercise to coincide with today's summit was "provocative." In his opening remarks at Tuesday's summit, Mr Biden said their meeting was about "democracies versus autocracies, and we have to make sure that we deliver". The Ukraine war, he said, "is going to affect all parts of the world" as Russia's blockade of Ukraine grain exports aggravates a global food crisis. Mr Biden promised the US would work with allies to lead the global response, reiterating their commitment to defend international order and sovereignty "regardless of where they were violated in the world" and remaining a "strong and enduring partner" in the Indo-Pacific region.
5-24-22 Putin weaponising Ukraine’s crops, says Polish PM
Vladimir Putin is "weaponising Ukraine's crops" as "a blackmail tool" for the rest of the world, Poland's prime minister said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Mateusz Morawiecki told the BBC it was like what "Stalin did in 1933". In a wide-ranging interview, he also warned that "only Putin" would be "happy" with a UK-EU trade war over the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. Ukraine's inability to export its grain has led to global food prices soaring. It has also raised the prospect of famines in the countries which depend on its exports. Mr Morawiecki said that this was "part of [Mr Putin's] strategy" in order to "create ripple effects in Northern Africa and huge migration waves". e said he expected an agreed EU oil embargo on Russia within days or weeks, with some carve outs for the Czechs, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. And he called for the Nordstream One gas pipeline from Russia to Germany to be shut down this year. Mr Morawiecki said that "Russia is under real pressure" from existing sanctions but this would have its impact over the medium and long term. He suggested the Russian president was relying on rising energy and food prices draining support in the West for Ukraine, and politicians needed to explain and mitigate the impact on prices. "We have to explain to the public opinion what are the consequences of the war," he said. "Putin's main tool is intimidation, fear, illusions and propaganda." On the possibility of a trade war between the UK and EU, Mr Morawiecki said it would be "lose-lose". "Only Putin and our enemies will be happy with yet another disagreement between such close partner partners as the United Kingdom and the European Union," he said. He said there was room for compromise between Brussels and London and he was trying "to calm down the situation between France and the United Kingdom as much as possible".
5-24-22 Covid-19 news: England and Wales omicron death toll similar to flu
A regular round-up of the latest coronavirus news, plus insight, features and interviews from New Scientist about the covid-19 pandemic. During the recent surge of the milder omicron variant in England and Wales, covid-19 caused a similar number of deaths as flu and pneumonia in the years before the pandemic emerged. Covid-19 caused a similar number of deaths in England and Wales over the past winter as flu and pneumonia in previous years, according to an analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In January 2022, for instance, covid-19 was the underlying cause of 4100 deaths, while flu and pneumonia caused an average of 4328 deaths every January from 2016 to 2020, before the pandemic took hold. “In the latest winter, the number of deaths with covid-19 as the underlying cause has fallen more in line with those due to flu and pneumonia in pre-coronavirus pandemic years,” says the ONS report. Flu and pneumonia deaths are generally classed together as flu often causes lung damage that leads to bacterial pneumonia. In the past two years, flu and pneumonia caused far fewer deaths than normal, probably because of lockdowns and less social mixing between lockdowns, says the ONS. Flu is less easily passed on than the coronavirus, so social distancing reduced flu transmission even while covid-19 was spreading fast. Being vaccinated against covid-19 does reduce the severity of infection in people with cancer or a past cancer diagnosis, despite their immune systems being weakened from their disease or treatments, an analysis has found. People with cancer do experience a faster waning of immunity within 3 to 6 months, however, showing how important it is for them to get booster jabs, say the researchers, who looked at a cancer registry from England. More than half of people admitted to hospital with covid-19 have probable heart inflammation, known medically as myocarditis, two months after being discharged, a study has found.
5-24-22 Coronavirus: Argentine President Fernández pays 'fine' over lockdown party
Argentine President Alberto Fernández has made a large donation as part of a deal to end an investigation into a lockdown party he and his wife hosted. The couple came under investigation after photos emerged showing them having a birthday dinner attended by about a dozen people while lockdown measures were in force. At the time, public gatherings, including funerals, were banned. The photos caused outrage and caused the president's popularity to plummet. A judge agreed to the offer by the president and First Lady Fabiola Yáñez to donate three million pesos ($25,000; £20,000) in exchange for the case against them to be dropped. Prosecutors had stipulated that the amount donated should be the equivalent of a respiratory machine and a stay in intensive care in hospital. The money will go to a vaccine research institute. The scandal dubbed "Olivosgate" in reference to the president's official residence in Buenos Aires, where the dinner took place, broke in August 2021. Photos leaked to the press showed a smiling president and his wife with about 10 guests standing around a long table celebrating the First Lady's birthday. No one is wearing masks and the remnants of the dinner, including a cake, can still be seen on the table. It soon transpired that the photo had been taken in July 2020, when mandatory lockdown measures were in full force in the capital, Buenos Aires. Under the lockdown decree which the president himself had signed, group gatherings, including church services, were banned. Residents were told to leave their homes only "for essential reasons" and to keep at least 1.5m apart. Only those whose work was deemed essential were allowed to travel to their places of work and public transport was restricted. The leaked photo triggered an investigation into whether the president and his wife had breached health protocols.
5-24-22 Legalised cannabis in Canada and US hasn’t killed illegal market
Even when cannabis is legalised, some users still prefer to stick with their usual illegal sources, which can be cheaper and easier to access. Some cannabis users continue to buy the drug from illegal sources for years after it is possible to purchase it from regulated, legal shops, because the illegal sources can be cheaper or easier to access, a survey in Canada and the US has found. The findings suggest that policy-makers who want to wipe out the cannabis black market need to make sure that new legal sources are competitively priced and widely available. Cannabis has recently become legal for recreational use in several countries including Canada, Mexico and South Africa as well as in 18 US states. Advocates of legalisation say it is less risky for users to buy cannabis from regulated shops because their cannabis products are safer than those from illegal dealers, with better dose labelling and quality-control measures, and the shops are less likely to sell to minors. But not all users choose to buy from the regulated shops. Canada, for instance, legalised cannabis in 2018, but by 2020, about half of all cannabis used in the country was still being obtained illegally. The new survey, of nearly 12,000 cannabis users in Canada and the US, found that price was the most common reason for buying illegal weed, cited by about 35 per cent of users in Canada and 27 per cent in the US. Convenience was the second commonest factor, cited by 17 to 20 per cent of respondents across both countries. The survey was carried out in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, the average price of legal cannabis in Canada was $8.04 a gram, compared with $6.45 for illegal weed, but the price gap has been narrowing since 2018 and the prices in 2021 were $6.63 and $5.52, respectively, according to a separate study.
5-24-22 UK visa for top talent excludes graduates of African universities
The High Potential Individual visa is intended to attract graduates from around the world to work in the UK, but its criteria excludes anyone who studied at a university in Africa. A new UK visa aimed at attracting the best graduates from across the world risks excluding talent from African countries, scientists and policy-makers have warned. The High Potential Individual visa, due to be launched by the UK Home Office on 30 May, is aimed at people who have graduated in the past five years from one of what are often regarded as the world’s top universities. People with a recent undergraduate degree or PhD from one of these universities will be able to move to the UK for up to three years without needing to have a job lined up beforehand. Typical UK visas for foreign researchers require a pre-existing job offer, a fellowship, certain research grants or that the individual is a notable prize-winner. The Home Office has produced a list of foreign universities it considers to be the best in the world by compiling institutions that appear in the top 50 at least twice across three specified global university league tables. The resulting list includes no universities in African nations, effectively excluding anyone who has studied in Africa from the scheme. “These ratings are based on criteria that favour universities which have been around for hundreds of years and have access to a lot of funding,” says Amina Ahmed El-Imam at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria. “As someone from Nigeria who did their PhD in Britain, it’s heartbreaking to see that there are still processes being put in place that inadvertently exclude Africans,” she says. “Does this visa mean that there are no individual graduates from African universities with high potential?”
5-24-22 Would the U.S. really defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion?
Why the U.S. policy of 'strategic ambiguity' might not be that ambiguous. President Biden has created controversy on his trip to Asia. On Sunday, he told a news conference that he would be willing to use force to defend Taiwan from an attack by China. "That's the commitment we made," Biden told reporters. Taiwan's foreign ministry thanked Biden for his public comments, while Beijing responded angrily: "No one should underestimate the strong determination, firm will, and strong ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and do not stand against the 1.4 billion Chinese people." Why did Biden's remarks create such a fuss? The two are governed as separate countries, under different regimes, but China considers Taiwan a renegade province: Chang Kai-shek and his army fled to the island after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party won control of mainland China in 1949. The two have been at odds ever since. "Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of its territory," Lindsay Maizland writes for the Council on Foreign Relations. "Beijing has vowed to eventually 'unify' Taiwan with the mainland, using force if necessary." There has occasionally been talk of peaceful reunification, particularly during the 1980s. "China put forward a formula, known as 'one country, two systems', under which Taiwan would be given significant autonomy if it accepted Chinese reunification," the BBC says in its explainer. But after Taiwan elected a president who talked about "independence" for the island, China in 2004 "passed a so-called anti-secession law, stating China's right to use 'non-peaceful means' against Taiwan if it tried to 'secede' from China." The relationship between the two remains troubled. An invasion of Taiwan "has been considered by Chinese military planners for decades," says Alex Gatopoulos at Al Jazeera, "but only under President Xi Jinping have observers worried this might be increasingly likely." In recent months "aggressive patrolling and overflights of Taiwanese airspace by aircraft from the Chinese air force have added a sense of urgency that this could very well happen in the near future." American officials don't expect that to happen soon, however. National Intelligence Director Avril Haines recently told a Senate committee that "China isn't yet prepared to successfully invade Taiwan and probably won't try it soon in the belief that the U.S. is 'distracted' by the Ukraine war," John A. Tirpak writes for Air Force Magazine. Instead U.S. officials believe 2027 "is the point at which the U.S. thinks China believes it could prevail" in an invasion. Officially, we don't know. The United States has pursued a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan — trying not to tip its hand on whether or not it would help defend the island from a Chinese invasion. American law "states that the United States will maintain the capacity to defend Taiwan but does not state whether or not the United States would actually militarily intervene," David Gitter says at The Diplomat. The idea is to preserve the status quo without starting a war: Being vague allows the U.S. "to protect its normalized relations with China … while still threatening to quash a Chinese cross-strait attack" and it also helps "prevent Taiwan's more independence-leaning leaders from assuming they had a blank check from Washington to declare de jure independence." (Webmasters Comment: The US would LOSE! The Chinese have weapons we cannot match!)
5-23-22 Pfizer says 3rd dose of its vaccine is effective in kids under 5
A three-dose regimen of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine produces a strong immune response in kids under five, the company says. Pfizer on Monday said a trial examining a third dose of its vaccine in young kids found the vaccine's efficacy to be 80.3 percent in children between six months and under five years old. Children in the trial received a third shot, a smaller dose than adults receive, two months after the second dose. There were over 1,600 participants in the trial. "These topline safety, immunogenicity and efficacy data are encouraging, and we look forward to soon completing our submissions to regulators globally with the hope of making this vaccine available to younger children as quickly as possible, subject to regulatory authorization," Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said. BioNTech founder Ugur Sahin also said the trial suggests the vaccine "provides young children with a high level of protection against the recent COVID-19 strains," and the companies plan to finish submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration this week. The FDA is expected to evaluate whether to authorize a vaccine for kids under five in June.
5-23-22 Jeff Merkley of Oregon becomes the 32nd senator to test positive for COVID
With the announcement Monday that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has tested positive for COVID-19, nearly one-third of U.S. Senators have now contracted the virus, according to Bloomberg. The vaxxed and boosted Merkley said his symptoms are "mild" and urged "all Oregonians and Americans to take advantage of available vaccines and boosters to stay safe." According to GovTrack, 31 other senators — including 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats — have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Several others quarantined after being exposed to the virus. Republican Sens. Shelly Capito (W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John Hoeven (N.D.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Ron Johnson (Wisc.), Mike Lee (Utah), Kelly Loeffler (Ga.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Rick Scott (Fla.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), and Roger Wicker (Miss.) have all had confirmed cases of COVID. Among Democrats, Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Bob Casey (Penn.), Chris Coons (Dela.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Warner (Va.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.) have tested positive for the virus or its antibodies. Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) has also tested positive for COVID. Merkley's diagnosis brings the total to 32 — which makes 16 from each party if you count King as a Democrat. However, the number of current senators who've had the virus is 31, since Loeffler is no longer a senator.
5-23-22 Russian diplomat resigns over war in Ukraine: 'So ashamed'
Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat at the United Nations office in Geneva, resigned from his post on Monday in protest of the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine. "For 20 years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on Feb. 24 of this year," Bondarev wrote in his resignation message, which was also shared on LinkedIn. "The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine and in fact against the entire Western world is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country," Bondarev continued. The statement is one of the most powerful Kremlin critiques to come from a Russian diplomat or official since the war began, The Washington Post notes. Those at the helm of the invasion just want to "remain in power forever," Bondarev added, before criticizing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who he said went from a respected individual to "a person who constantly broadcasts conflicting statements and threatens the world." "The Ministry has become my home and family," the now ex-diplomat concluded. "But I simply cannot any longer share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy. Job offers are welcome …"
5-23-22 Southern Baptist leaders covered up sexual abuse for decades, re-traumatizing victims, report finds
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention released a landmark 288-page report Sunday that outlined two decades of "resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility" toward people who came forward with allegations of sexual abuse in the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. The report was compiled by Guidepost Solutions, an independent organization contracted by the SBC's executive committee. The seven-month investigation that a few executive committee leaders and the SBC's law firm "largely controlled the EC's response to these reports of abuse," Guidepost said in its reports. "Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches." This stonewalling re-traumatized people sexually abused by pastors and other church leaders, the report found. The report singled out a handful of Southern Baptist leaders, notably August "Augie" Boto, a top member of the executive committee who kept a list of hundreds of abusers at Southern Baptist churches, including some active ministers, even while the executive committee told Southern Baptists a database of accused clergy would violate SBC policy. In one of the report's most shocking revelations, Georgia pastor Johnny Hunt is credibly accused of sexually assaulting the wife of a fellow pastor during a 2010 Florida beach vacation, just a month after he finished his two-year term as SBC president. Hunt denied assaulting the woman to investigators and on Twitter, but the investigators deemed him not credible; he resigned from the SBC's North American Mission Board on May 13. The Southern Baptists have wrestled with how to handle sexual abuse allegations in its churches for years before the Houston Chronicle documented hundreds of such cases in 2019. "The depths of wickedness and inhumanity in this report are breathtaking," said Russell Moore, a top theologian who left the SBC over its mishandling of sexual abuse. "As dark a view as I had of the SBC executive committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be." Executive committee board chairman Rolland Slade and interim CEO Willie McLaurin called the report "the beginning of a season of listening, lamenting, and learning how to address sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention," adding that "there are no shortcuts" to fixing the problem. The report will be addressed at an executive committee meeting Tuesday and the annual SBC convention next month.
5-23-22 Ukraine war: Russian assault on key Donbas city intensifies
Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are intensifying attacks on a key city as they seek to seize the Donbas region. Severodonetsk, the largest city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, has come under intense artillery and missile fire from Moscow's forces. On Sunday, local officials said Russian troops were repelled after trying to enter the city from four directions. It comes as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky urged world leaders to end all trade with Russia. Speaking via video link at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Zelensky called for "maximum sanctions" to be imposed on Moscow, saying frozen Russian funds should be used to rebuild Ukrainian cities destroyed by the war. "There has to be a precedent for punishing the aggressor," Mr Zelensky said. "If the aggressor loses everything then it definitely deprives him of any motivation to start a war." Meanwhile, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai accused Moscow of adopting a "scorched-earth approach" in its efforts to capture the city of Severodonetsk. "Every day they are trying to break the line of defence," Mr Gaidai said. "They are simply systematically destroying the city. Everywhere is being shelled constantly." The city of 100,000 people sits on a strategic position on the Donets River, with UK defence officials saying it has likely become one of Russia's "immediate tactical priorities". Mr Gaidai warned that Russian forces have destroyed all but one bridge across the Donets river and said that the city is at risk of being cut off. He also accused Russian tanks of firing on residential buildings during fighting in the city and of seeking to erase Severodonetsk "from the face of the earth". Ukraine's human right's ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, said the city risks suffering the same fate as Mariupol - being surrounded and pounded into submission. "The enemy threw all his forces to storm Severodonetsk, on the outskirts of which there are constant battles," Ms Denisova wrote on Telegram.
5-23-22 Biden vows to defend Taiwan in apparent US policy shift
US President Joe Biden has warned China is "flirting with danger" over Taiwan, and vowed to intervene militarily to protect the island if it is attacked. Speaking in Japan, he appeared to contradict long-standing US policy in the region, although the White House insisted there had been no departure. Mr Biden drew a parallel between Taiwan and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, prompting an angry rebuke from Beijing. He is on his first tour of Asia as US president, visiting regional allies. Mr Biden prefaced his remarks saying US policy toward Taiwan "has not changed". But his comments in Tokyo are the second time in recent months he has unequivocally stated the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked, in what has been seen as a change in tone. The US has previously been vague on what it would do in such a situation. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be re-unified with the mainland. Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin insisted: "Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory... there's no room for compromise or concession. "The Taiwan question and the Ukraine issue are fundamentally different. To compare those two is absurd. We once again urge the US to abide by the One China principle." The US has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but sells arms to it as part of its Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the US must provide the island with the means to defend itself. At the same time, it maintains formal ties with China and also diplomatically acknowledges China's position that there is only one Chinese government. Mr Biden was answering questions in Tokyo during a press conference with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, when a journalist asked them about the defence of Taiwan. The US president began by directly linking the China-Taiwan situation to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. If there was a rapprochement eventually between Ukraine and Russia, and sanctions were not sustained, "then what does this signal to China about the cost of attempting to take Taiwan by force?" he asked. "They are already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the manoeuvres that they are undertaking," Mr Biden said, referring to increasing reports of Chinese warplane incursions into Taiwan's self-declared air defence zone.
5-22-22 Analyst: Russian forces are 'bludgeoning their way through' Severodonetsk
The eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk is under near-constant shelling by Russia, as ground forces attempt to take over a key area in the Donbas region. Severodonetsk is in the Luhansk province, and military officials say if Russia can capture the city, they will have control of Luhansk. Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, told The Washington Post that Russian forces are "bludgeoning their way through" Severodonetsk, and "just pounding Ukrainians with artillery." Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, about 100,000 people lived in Severodonetsk. Regional police are urging civilians still in the city to leave, warning that it isn't safe to be in the area. On Saturday, Russian troops destroyed a bridge that connected Severodonetsk with the city of Lysychansk, making it harder for people to escape. "If they destroy one more bridge, then the city will be fully cut off, unfortunately," Serhiy Haidai, head of the Ukrainian military administration in Luhansk, said Sunday.
5-22-22 Ukraine rules out giving Russia land in ceasefire deal
Updates from BBC correspondents: Sarah Rainsford, Lyse Doucet and James Waterhouse in Kyiv, Laura Bicker and Hugo Bachega in Dnipro, Joe Inwood in Lviv, Caroline Davies in Odesa, and Steve Rosenberg in Moscow. The Ukrainian government says Kyiv would not agree a ceasefire deal with Moscow that involved giving away any territory. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, said making concessions would result in Moscow starting an even larger, more bloody offensive in the longer term. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has told the Ukrainian parliament that only Ukraine has the right to determine its own future during a visit to Kyiv. Russian forces have continued their attacks on the eastern Donbas region following their capture of Mariupol. They are said to have made limited advances towards Severodonetsk – where it is thought they are planning a new siege. Russia has likely deployed 'terminator' tank support vehicles to the area as part of their offensive in the Donbas, according to the UK’s Ministry of Defence.
5-21-22 Russia claims to have captured Mariupol
Russia on Saturday claimed to have taken complete control of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, potentially notching a huge victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin's ongoing offensive, The Associated Press reports. There was no immediate confirmation of the news from Ukraine. Russia's Defense Ministry said that a final 532 Ukrainian soldiers had been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant and taken to Russian-controlled territory, per The Wall Street Journal. Overall, the weeks-long attack left thousands dead. At this point, Russia's presumed capture of the city is mostly symbolic, considering Moscow was already effectively in control of the area, military analysts said, per AP. Meanwhile, Russia has "intensified an offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine," — Luhansk, specifically, Reuters reports. Russian-backed separatists already control much of the region, "but Moscow wants to seize the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory." Capturing both Luhansk and Donetsk would also allow Putin to declare victory, given the Kremlin's recent shift in objective, the Journal notes.
5-21-22 Biden plan to end US migrant expulsion policy blocked
A US judge has blocked plans by Joe Biden's administration to lift a policy allowing migrants to be swiftly expelled at the Mexico border over concerns about spreading Covid. District Judge Robert Summerhays granted an injunction to Republican state attorneys challenging the halting of checks known as Title 42. The policy, introduced by Donald Trump in 2020, was due to expire on 23 May. The US Department of Justice said it would appeal. Aimed at stopping virus spread in migrant holding facilities, Title 42 was twice extended by President Biden. More than 1.7 million people have been expelled under the policy. On Friday, Judge Summerhays in Lafayette, Louisiana, ruled that the policy would stay in place while a lawsuit by more than 20 states played out in court. He backed the states' argument that the Biden administration had failed to follow procedures requiring notification and time to gather public comment on the plans to end the policy. And the judge also said that states had made the case that they would suffer harm if the restrictions ended. The White House said it would comply with the ruling, but would also launch an appeal. "The authority to set public health policy nationally should rest with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), not with a single district court," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. Mr Biden had been under pressure from his Democratic Party to end the controversial order, with critics arguing that its public health benefits failed to outweigh harm to the rights of migrants. Title 42 allows US authorities to expel migrants seeking asylum without being given the chance to put forward their case. Children and some families are exempt. Though Mr Biden had pledged to reverse Trump-era immigration policies while in office, the CDC under his administration extended Title 42 in August 2021, and again in January, due to the spread of the Delta and Omicron variants, respectively.
5-21-22 Spain eases Covid entry rules for UK travellers
UK citizens who have not had a coronavirus jab can now travel to Spain by showing a negative PCR or antigen test on arrival. The Spanish government confirmed that non-vaccinated travellers from outside the EU can enter the country from Saturday. Fully vaccinated passengers will still need to show proof of vaccination. The UK removed all its remaining international Covid travel restrictions for entry on 18 March. This included passenger locator forms and tests for passengers who do not qualify as vaccinated. Other European countries followed suit, with Austria, Greece, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Sweden, Serbia, Slovenia and Slovakia no longer having any Covid travel restrictions for visitors. Previously, heightened restrictions meant UK travellers were only allowed to enter Spain with vaccine certification or proof of recovery from the virus. As the latest wave of that strain dissipated, countries across the world loosened their Covid travel restrictions to welcome visitors again. And on Saturday, Spanish tourism minister Reyes Maroto said the "new phase of the pandemic" meant the country was able to relax the rules by equating non-EU travellers with those of the EU and Schengen-associated countries. "This is excellent news, much awaited by the tourism sector," said Ms Maroto, adding: "Spain is becoming one of the most desired destinations in the world." From 21 May, all visitors entering Spain at air or sea borders, wherever they are travelling from, must provide one of the following three certificates, Vaccination certificate meeting the government's requirements, Certificate of recovery at least 11 days after testing positive. Spain accepts the UK's proof of Covid-19 vaccination record, either digitally, or as a printed download. PCR tests must be carried out in the 72 hours prior to departure to Spain or an antigen test in the 24 hours prior to departure. Proof of recovery certificates will be valid for 180 days from the date of the positive test. Children under the age of 12 are exempt from submitting any type of certificate.
5-21-22 Covid in North Korea: No response to US vaccine offer
President Joe Biden says North Korea has not responded to a US offer of Covid vaccines, as the country battles its first acknowledged outbreak. Nearly 2.5 million people have been sickened by "fever" in North Korea and it is under a nationwide lockdown, according to the country's state media. It is thought to be particularly vulnerable because it has little testing or vaccine supply. Mr Biden announced the offer at a press conference in South Korea. "We've offered vaccines, not only to North Korea but to China as well, and we're prepared to do that immediately," Mr Biden said in a joint appearance with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. "We've got no response," he added. The isolated regime of North Korea has previously turned down offers of vaccines from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing scheme, and from South Korea, as well as reportedly declining other offers. Instead it claimed to have successfully kept Covid out of the country by sealing its borders, although experts believe the virus has been present there for some time. State media has recommended remedies such as herbal tea, gargling salt-water and taking painkillers such as ibuprofen, while the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, has accused officials of bungling the distribution of national medicine reserves. China is also struggling to control a wave of infections from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, with tens of millions of people under some form of lockdown. At the news conference in the South Korean capital, Seoul, President Biden said he was willing to meet Mr Kim under the right circumstances. "It would depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious," Mr Biden said. His predecessor, Donald Trump, held a historic summit with Mr Kim in Singapore in 2018 and became the first US president to set foot in North Korea the following year. But two years ago, Mr Kim questioned whether there was any need to continue "holding hands" with the US.
5-21-22 Mariupol: Russia declares complete victory at Azovstal plant
Russia has declared victory in its months-long battle to conquer the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. The last fighters defending the city's Azovstal steel plant have now surrendered, Moscow officials said. For months the troops had been holed up in the huge complex, preventing Russia from establishing complete control over the city. Friday's evacuation marks the end of the most destructive siege of the war, with Mariupol now in complete ruins. The city and its steel plant are now "completely liberated" after 531 Ukrainian troops left the site, the Russian defence ministry said. "The underground facilities of the enterprise, where the militants were hiding, came under the full control of the Russian armed forces," it added in a statement. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the site's last remaining defenders had been given permission to leave. "Today the boys received a clear signal from the military command that they can get out and save their lives," he told a Ukrainian television channel earlier on Friday. For weeks the Azovstal site had been completely encircled. Russian forces blocked all humanitarian aid from entering, bombarded the site from the air and demanded its remaining defenders put down their weapons. Many of those trapped inside were civilians, including women, children and elderly people. Earlier this month they were completely evacuated following painstaking negotiations coordinated by the UN and Red Cross that lasted for weeks. But the continued refusal of the site's Ukrainian defenders to surrender meant Russia was unable to command complete control over the strategic port city. For many Ukrainians, it also turned the Azovstal defenders into national heroes who symbolised the country's stubborn resistance. The hundreds of soldiers holed up inside included marines, the National Guard (including the Azov regiment), border guards, police and territorial defence units. Camped out with diminishing food supplies and no water, they lived for weeks in underground bunkers and tunnels without seeing daylight.
5-20-22 Wells Fargo under fire after reportedly staging job interviews for 'diverse' candidates
Wells Fargo, the nation's largest mortgage lender, is under fire after staging job interviews for minority candidates, The New York Times reports. Former Wells Fargo executive Joe Bruno said he was fired after complaining about "fake interviews," which would be held with "diverse" candidates for positions that were already promised to someone else. Bruno and six other current and former employees say they were told to set up interviews for "diverse" candidates, although management had no intentions of actually hiring the individuals. "The sham interviews were instead designed to make the bank appear as if it were striving to diversify its workforce so that it wouldn't land in hot water with government regulators," the New York Post writes. A spokesperson for the bank said all employees were required to follow their hiring procedures, and "do not tolerate" the behavior described. The new report could be another blow to Wells Fargo's reputation after the bank suffered a significant hit when it was fined in 2020 for creating fraudulent accounts.
5-20-22 Group of 7 pledges almost $20B in aid for Ukraine
The Group of 7 economic powers on Friday agreed to a $19.8 billion economic aid package for Ukraine, which is continuing to defend itself against a ruthless Russian-led invasion, The New York Times reports. The group's financial backing will come in a mix of grants and loans, per the Times. The International Monetary Fund has said Ukraine needs about $5 billion per month to maintain basic government services. "We will continue to stand by Ukraine throughout this war and beyond and are prepared to do more as needed," read a statement from the G7's finance ministers, who also vowed Friday to keep markets open, monitor inflation, and tackle rising global food and energy costs. The $19.8 billion is notably meant to keep the Ukraine government functioning, and able to provide basic services for its citizens. The money is "separate from efforts to provide the country with weapons and humanitarian aid," notes The Associated Press. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate easily passed a different $40 billion Ukraine aid package; a portion of that funding is included in the G7 aid, per AP.
5-20-22 Cyber security: Global food supply chain at risk from malicious hackers
Modern "smart" farm machinery is vulnerable to malicious hackers, leaving global supply chains exposed to risk, experts are warning. It is feared hackers could exploit flaws in agricultural hardware used to plant and harvest crops. Agricultural manufacturing giant John Deere says it is now working to fix any weak spots in its software. A recent University of Cambridge report said automatic crop sprayers, drones and robotic harvesters could be hacked. The UK government and the FBI have warned that the threat of cyber-attacks is growing. John Deere said protecting customers, their machines and their data was a "top priority". Smart technology is increasingly being used to make farms more efficient and productive - for example, until now the labour-intensive harvesting of delicate food crops such as asparagus has been beyond the reach of machines. The latest generation of agricultural robots use artificial intelligence, minimising human involvement. They may help to plug a labour shortage or increase yield, but fear of the inherent security risk is growing, adding to concern over food-supply chains already threatened by the war in Ukraine and Covid. Chris Chavasse, the co-founder of Muddy Machines, which is trialling an autonomous asparagus-harvesting robot called Sprout, said: "There is a real risk that people anywhere in the world could try and take control of these machines," he said. "to get them to do whatever those people want, or just prevent them from operating." He said potentially someone could drive Sprout into a hedge or a ditch, or prevent it from working at all, so they are working with security researchers to address any vulnerabilities. Asparagus farming is unlikely to be a prime target, but Mr Chavasse believes malicious hackers could threaten "mission critical" agricultural infrastructure. Even the largest companies aren't safe from cyber gangs. Some use ransomware: malicious code that can encrypt data and lock systems.
5-20-22 Ukraine says giant Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant can't supply Russia
Ukraine has dismissed as "wishful thinking" Russia's plan to connect a giant Ukrainian nuclear power station to the Russian electricity grid. Russian troops are occupying the sprawling Zaporizhzhia plant by the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine. It is Europe's biggest nuclear plant. The Ukrainian staff are still operating it, but Russia has sent its own nuclear experts to monitor their work. Russia's deputy prime minister has vowed to sell power from it to Ukraine. Marat Khusnullin said Russia would integrate the Zaporizhzhia plant with Russia's energy system if Kyiv refused to pay for the plant's electricity. Visiting Russian-occupied southern Ukraine on Wednesday he said "if the Ukrainian energy system is ready to receive [electricity] and pay for it, then we'll work, but if not - then the plant will work for Russia". However a spokesman for Ukraine's state nuclear agency Energoatom said it would take years to link the plant to Russia. "The plant only works in Ukraine's energy grid," Leonid Oliynyk told the BBC. "The Russians can build a power line theoretically, but it will take a long time, like their Crimean bridge - several years," he said, referring to the bridge connecting Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to Russian territory. "Now the power station is working at a minimum level, but Kyiv remains in charge, all the power lines are controlled by Ukraine. The Russian statement is wishful thinking," Mr Oliynyk added. Normally the plant generates more than half of Ukraine's nuclear power and 20% of the country's total electricity supply. But now just two of its six reactors are operating. Ukrainian forces still control the city of Zaporizhzhia, on the opposite bank of the Dnieper. The nuclear power plant is in Enerhodar, a town of nearly 53,000 built in Soviet times to house the nuclear workers.
5-20-22 Ukraine war: US fully backs Sweden and Finland Nato bids, Biden says
Sweden and Finland have the "full, total and complete backing" of the US in their decision to apply for Nato membership, President Joe Biden says. Both countries submitted their applications to be part of the Western defence alliance this week, marking a major shift in European geopolitics. To join the alliance, the two nations need the support of all 30 Nato member states. But the move by the Nordic nations has been opposed by Turkey. Speaking alongside Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the White House on Thursday, Mr Biden called Sweden and Finland's applications "a watershed moment in European security". "New members joining Nato is not a threat to any nation," he said. The president added that having two new members in the "high north" would "enhance the security of our allies and deepen our security co-operation across the board". Russia has repeatedly said it sees Nato as a threat and has warned of "consequences" if the block proceeds with its expansion plans. Turkey has accused both Sweden and Finland of hosting suspected militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group it views as a terrorist organisation. However, both Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Defence Minister Ben Wallace have expressed confidence that these concerns will eventually be addressed. Mr Biden's comments came as the US Senate voted to approve a new $40bn (£32bn) bill to provide military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It is the biggest emergency aid package so far for Ukraine. The bill - which was passed by the House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support on 10 May - was expected to be passed earlier this week, but was blocked by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul over a dispute about spending oversight. But the Republican's Senate leader Mitch McConnell dismissed these concerns and told reporters that Congress had a "moral responsibility" to support "a sovereign democracy's self-defence".
5-20-22 Russia troops advancing in Luhansk as east Ukraine under fire
Updates from BBC correspondents: Sarah Rainsford, Lyse Doucet and James Waterhouse in Kyiv, Laura Bicker and Hugo Bachega in Dnipro, Joe Inwood in Lviv, Caroline Davies in Odesa, and Steve Rosenberg in Moscow. Ukraine's military says Russia's army is advancing in the areas of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, in the eastern region of Luhansk. It says Russia has intensified its bombardment of the wider Donbas area, using heavy firepower to damage defences around the city of Donetsk. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky says Russian forces have "completely destroyed" Donbas, saying: "It is hell there". Thirteen civilians have died in Russian shelling in the Luhansk region in recent days, the governor there says. Meanwhile, US senators have approved nearly $40bn (£32bn) in aid for Ukraine - the largest package of support since Russia invaded. President Joe Biden says Finland and Sweden have his "complete backing" in their bids for Nato membership. UK PM Boris Johnson has accused Russia of a "craven" blockade of Ukrainian grain exports.
5-20-22 Covid-19 news: UK set to offer autumn boosters to the most vulnerable
A regular round-up of the latest coronavirus news, plus insight, features and interviews from New Scientist about the covid-19 pandemic. The UK vaccine advisory group has recommended that over-65s, people in care homes, frontline health and social care workers, and clinically vulnerable people aged 16 to 64 be offered a booster jab this autumn. “Last year’s autumn booster vaccination programme provided excellent protection against severe covid-19, including against the omicron variant,” Wei Shen Lim at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said in a statement, adding the recommendation will allow the NHS and care homes to “start the necessary operational planning” to deliver the jabs. Across the UK, a spring booster is already available to over-75s, care home residents and people aged 12 and over with suppressed immune systems. The Scottish, English and Welsh governments have confirmed they will follow this advice, while Northern Ireland is yet to announce its plans, according to a BBC report. Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death in England in April, accounting for 6.1 per cent of all fatalities, according to the Office for National Statistics. One month earlier, covid-19 was the sixth leading cause of death. As of 19 May, North Korea had reported 2.24 million cases of “fever” since late April. Officials have not specified this is due to covid-19, however, fever is a key symptom of the infection. The country imposed a national lockdown earlier this month after reporting its first covid-19 case on 12 May. Covid-19 testing is limited and there is no official record of any of North Korea’s 25-million-strong-population being vaccinated.
5-20-22 North Korea: Fighting Covid with traditional medicine
North Korea is grappling with the spread of Covid in an unvaccinated population, without access to effective anti-viral drugs. In early 2020, the country sealed its borders to try to insulate itself from the pandemic. Its leadership has so far rejected outside medical support. We've been monitoring state media, which is recommending various traditional treatments to deal with what is referred to as "fever". For those not seriously ill, ruling-party newspaper Rodong Sinmun recommended remedies including ginger or honeysuckle tea and a willow-leaf drink. Hot drinks might soothe some Covid symptoms, such as a sore throat or cough, and help hydration when patients are losing more fluid than normal. Ginger and willow leaf may also relieve inflammation and reduce pain. But they are not a treatment for the virus itself. State media recently interviewed a couple who recommended gargling with salt water morning and night. A "thousand of tonnes of salt" had been sent to Pyongyang to make an "antiseptic solution", the state news agency reported. Some studies suggest gargling and nasal rinses with salt water combat viruses that cause the common cold. But there is little evidence they slow the spread of Covid. Mouthwash could kill the virus in the lab, a study found. But it has not convincingly been shown to help in humans. Covid is mainly caught by inhaling tiny droplets in the air via the nose as well as the mouth, so gargling attacks only one point of entry. And once the virus has entered, it replicates and spreads deep into the organs, where no amount of gargling can reach. State television has advised patients to use painkillers such as ibuprofen as well as amoxicillin and other antibiotics. Ibuprofen (and paracetamol) can bring down a temperature and ease symptoms such as headache or sore throat. But they will not clear the virus or prevent it developing. Antibiotics, meant for bacterial infections not viruses, are not recommended. And using antibiotics unnecessarily risks developing resistant bugs. Laboratory research suggests some may slow the spread of some viruses, including Covid.
5-20-22 Canada to ban China's Huawei and ZTE from its 5G networks
Canada says it will ban two of China's biggest telecoms equipment makers from working on its 5G phone networks. The restrictions against Huawei and ZTE were announced by the country's industry minister on Thursday. Francois-Philippe Champagne says the move will improve Canada's mobile internet services and "protect the safety and security of Canadians". But Huawei Canada said it was "disappointed" by the decision, which it said was "political". "This is an unfortunate political decision that has nothing to do with cyber security or any of the technologies in question," a statement said. Several nations - including the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand - have already put restrictions on the firms. The four countries, along with Canada, make up an intelligence-sharing arrangement named "Five Eyes". It evolved during the Cold War as a mechanism for monitoring the Soviet Union and sharing classified information. Canada's announcement was widely expected, as its allies had already barred Huawei and ZTE from their own high-speed networks. Speaking to reporters in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Mr Champagne said the decision came after "a full review by our security agencies and consultation with our closest allies". "Let me be very clear: We will always protect the safety and security of Canadians and will take any actions necessary to safeguard our telecommunication infrastructure," he added. "In a 5G world, at a time where we rely more and more in our daily lives [on] our network, this is the right decision." A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa told the Reuters news agency that Beijing sees the security concerns raised by Canada as a "pretext for political manipulation". The spokesperson for China also accused Canada of working with the US to suppress Chinese companies.
5-20-22 Argentina found guilty of massacre of Qom and Moqoit people
A landmark criminal trial in Argentina has found the state guilty of the massacre of more than 400 indigenous people nearly a century ago. The Qom and Moqoit communities had been protesting inhumane living and working conditions on a cotton plantation when authorities shot them dead in 1924. Until now, no responsibility had ever been officially acknowledged. A judge has now ordered historical reparations to be awarded to the communities. The Qom and Moqoit peoples in Argentina's northern Chaco region were living partly-enslaved on a plantation settled by immigrant farmers from Europe. They were underfed, paid with vouchers, taxed for the cotton they harvested and were mostly denied the freedom of movement, the Buenos Aires Times reports, citing court documents. According to survivor accounts, many children and elderly people died in the massacre, AFP reports. And those who were wounded and could not escape were killed "in the cruellest form possible with mutilations and burials in common graves," Judge Zunilda Niremperger said. A federal judge had previously ruled the mass killings a crime against humanity, but no criminal trial had ever been held because the defendants had already died. But on Thursday, after a month of hearings, a guilty verdict was delivered. "The massacre provoked grave consequences, [those people] suffered the trauma of terror and were uprooted with the loss of their language and their culture," Judge Niremperger is quoted as saying in the Buenos Aires Times. The reparations ordered by the judge include the massacre being added to Argentina's school syllabus and continuing forensic efforts to find the victims' remains. No financial reparations were sought. Reacting to the ruling, Raquel Esquivel, a descendant of the Qom community, told AFP it was high time that "indigenous voices are heard" and that "the truth be told". The BBC's South America correspondent Katy Watson said this is the first trial of its kind in Latin America, and could pave the way for more cases which recognise crimes committed against indigenous communities across the region.
5-19-22 Senate passes $40 billion Ukraine aid package
The U.S. Senate has easily passed a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. The Senate passed the package on Thursday in a 86-11 vote after it was previously approved in the House of Representatives. It now heads to President Biden's desk, and he's set to sign it. The president originally asked for $33 billion in Ukraine aid, and he recently urged Congress to pass the bill "immediately, and get it to my desk in the next few days." The legislation includes $9 billion to restock U.S. equipment being sent to the country amid its war with Russia, according to CNN. Passage of the package was delayed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who unsuccessfully pushed for it to include language creating an inspector general position that would oversee the Ukraine spending, NBC News reports. Eleven Republican senators voted against passing the bill, including Paul and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). "Help is on the way, really significant help," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) said, per the AP. "Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious."
5-18-22 CDC: With COVID-19 infections rising, a third of U.S. should consider indoor masks
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are on the rise in the United States, and about a third of the population is living in spots that are considered at higher risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The higher risk areas are primarily in the Northeastern U.S. and Midwest, and people there should consider wearing masks indoors and making sure they get their boosters, officials said. The number of COVID-19 cases has gone up in the past five weeks, with a 26 percent increase nationally in the last week, and hospitalizations were up 19 percent in the last week. This is fueled by the Omicron subvariant. During a news briefing at the White House, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters people who don't live in these higher risk places should still stay informed about case levels. "Prior increases of infections, in different waves of infection, have demonstrated that this travels across the country," she said. White House COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha told The Associated Press last week that the U.S. will run out of COVID-19 treatments in the winter unless Congress quickly approves new funding to buy more. A lack of access to vaccines and treatments would lead to "unnecessary loss of life," Jha said, adding that the U.S. is already behind other countries in getting supplies of the next-generation of COVID-19 vaccines.
5-19-22 Why do mass shootings like the Buffalo massacre keep happening?
The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web. Investigators believe the 18-year-old arrested for the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, became radicalized as a white supremacist after he got bored during the pandemic and immersed himself in online chatrooms full of memes and infographics saying the white race was being pushed aside by minorities. The suspect, Payton Gendron, allegedly posted a 180-page manifesto prior to his killing spree that refers to "Great Replacement Theory," the idea that white people are being supplanted by Jews and people of color. Police say Gendron, armed with a legally obtained AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, killed 10 people and wounded three others — almost all of them Black — in the Tops Friendly Market. He drove 200 miles from home to case the market in March, looking for a location where he could kill as many Black people as possible. The attacker livestreamed the shooting spree to Twitch, a platform popular among young gamers, but otherwise appeared to have had no contact with anyone about the attack, making him the latest in a long line of so-called lone-wolf domestic terrorists targeting racial or religious minorities. If these attackers really act alone, why do follow such a familiar script? Payton Gendron doesn't appear to be part of an organized white-supremacist group, says Juliette Kayyem at The Atlantic, but he definitely "wasn't alone." "His mission was effective because he was supported by an apparatus that provided the ideology and means for the hunt." He livestreamed his killing spree to an online community that had fed his "hate and radicalization." His racist manifesto showed that he "had his people. They were there for him." As police investigate his life and motives, they are likely to find that this "lone wolf" isn't "that special. He's just part of a pack." This guy's "repugnant views are not confined to an obscure corner of the internet," says Max Boot in The Washington Post. "They have become mainstream within the Republican Party." Tucker Carlson, among others at conservative Fox News, has flat-out said the Democratic Party wants open borders because it "is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World." Many GOP politicians have "openly espoused the 'great replacement' theory too." Ideas have consequences. Nobody's denying there's a "racist subculture" in America that is spreading hate through social media, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. But that's not the "most significant common denominator" in this country's mass shootings. Mental illness is. Gendron had spoken at his high school of "wanting to go on a shooting spree," and "fits the profile of other young men who become mass shooters at an age when mental illness often strikes." Shame on the left for trying to exploit this tragedy, and this killer's mental illness, to make a partisan smear on the right. Politicians and pundits are morally obligated to denounce "white replacement theory." But it would be nice if, for once, the left would look at the problem instead of trying to demonize Republicans when there's a mass shooting.
5-19-22 Buffalo shooting: NY probes 'bone-chilling' social media role
New York state's top prosecutor has launched an investigation into the role social media companies played in Saturday's mass shooting in Buffalo. The inquiry will look at the extent that social platforms were "used to stream, promote, or plan the event", the attorney general's office said. The state's governor has argued tech firms share some blame for the attack. Critics say the companies were too slow to remove the alleged gunman's violent posts. Announcing the investigation on Wednesday, Attorney General Letitia James said: "The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate." The suspect, who is white, allegedly posted a manifesto on Google and livestreamed the fatal shooting of 10 people at a supermarket in a predominantly black neighbourhood on Twitch, a company owned by Amazon. "The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable," Ms James said. The stream was taken down less than two minutes after the violence began, Twitch said, but was duplicated on other streaming sites despite the removal. Facebook did not remove a link to the copied video for more than 10 hours, by which time it had been shared more than 46,000 times on the platform. A copy uploaded elsewhere was viewed more than three million times before being taken down. Ms James said the investigation would also target online forums 4chan, 8chan, and Discord where the gunman reportedly posted about his plans. The inquiry was ordered by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, who also directed the New York State Police to create a unit dedicated to monitoring social media for extremist threats. She is also asking the state legislature to pass tougher gun control measures. Her Republican critics in the state assembly have condemned her for not doing more to prevent mass shootings ahead of the attack. The US Department of Justice is investigating the attack as a hate crime.
5-19-22 Prominent Russian military analyst slams Ukraine invasion on state TV, backpedals 2 days later
Viewers of Russian state TV's flagship 60 Minutes program were treated Monday to an unusual spectacle: a prominent Russian military analyst, former Col. Mikhail Khodarenok, sharply criticizing Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. "In many ways, it's a case of 'I told you so' from Mr. Khodarenok," who wrote in February that despite what the "enthusiastic hawks and hasty cuckoos" claim, "an armed conflict with Ukraine is not in Russia's national interests," BBC News reports. Khodarenok was right, then and now, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told CNN on Tuesday. "Criticism in print is one thing," BBC News notes. "But on TV — to an audience of millions — that is another level completely. The Kremlin has gone out of its way to control the informational landscape," and "it is rare to hear such realistic analysis of events on Russian TV." On Wednesday, 60 Minutes had Khodarenok on again, and he sounded very different. "When people talk about Ukraine acquiring the ability to counterattack, well it's a big exaggeration," Khodarenok said Wednesday afternoon. "And as concerns the actions of our supreme command, there is every reason to believe that the implementation of these plans will in the very near future give Ukraine an unpleasant surprise." "On Monday, many found themselves wondering whether Khodarenok had been allowed to pierce the bubble of state TV's alternative reality in order to manage expectations in the 'special military operation,'" BBC News reports. "But narratives are tightly controlled by the Kremlin, and to backpedal so soon surely suggests that the colonel has been reined back in." Khodarenok "seems to have changed his tune since yesterday," Hertling agreed, but when he talks about "how Russian artillery is hitting Ukraine's new M777 [howitzers]," Khodarenok is "full of BS," and he "should go back to stating how bad Russia is doing in this war, and not propagandizing the poor effects of Russian artillery against Ukraine." The U.S. has delivered all 90 of its promised M777 howitzers and 79 of them "are actually forward deployed with the Ukrainians, providing indirect fire capability. They're actually in combat," a senior defense official said Wednesday. "We've had no indications that the Russians have actually hit any storage of shipments coming from Western nations," the official added. "We think they are certainly trying to disrupt that flow but we have no indications that they've been successful with that and the flow continues."
5-19-22 EU reveals its plans to stop using Russian gas
The European Commission has given more details on how it plans to end Europe's dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Russia supplies 40% of the EU's natural gas and 27% of its imported oil. The EU sends the country roughly €400 billion a year in return. Now the EU plans to speed up its shift to green energy but says it must also invest in pipelines in other countries. It has been accused of helping fund the war in Ukraine through its use of Russian energy. The REPowerEU strategy was first announced in March with the stated aim of reducing Russian gas imports by two thirds in 2022. Rising energy costs have also put financial pressure on consumers and businesses in Europe now facing higher bills. The updated proposals outline not just how the EU plans to negotiate both the immediate gas crisis, but also deliver on promises to completely wean itself off Russian energy by 2030. The strategy focuses on three key topic areas. Improving energy efficiency, expanding the use of renewable energy and securing non-Russian suppliers of oil and gas. "We are taking our ambition to yet another level," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as she presented the update at a briefing in Brussels, Belgium. The REPowerEU plan is estimated to cost €210 billion (£178 billion) over the next five years. The Commission report highlights energy saving as the "cheapest, safest and cleanest" way to reduce dependence on Russian fuel. It wants to improve how buildings of insulated, as well as encourage consumers to be more aware of energy use. It also plans to speed up the transition from fossil fuel burning boilers to electric heat pumps (a device that absorbs heat from the air, ground or water around a building) Plans to reduce energy consumption in the EU have also made more ambitious, from the original plan of a 9% cut to 13% cut by 2030.
5-19-22 Global stock markets fall as growth fears rattle investors
Fears about rising prices and slowing economies have spread to UK and European stock markets following sharp falls in the US and Asia. The FTSE 100 index of leading companies sank 2.1% on Thursday while the main stock markets in France and Germany saw similar declines. On Wednesday, US shares recorded their biggest one-day drop since the early days of the Covid pandemic in 2020. Markets were spooked by gloomy forecasts from major US retailers. Countries are also grappling with steep rises in inflation - the UK's reached a 40-year high of 9% in April - and there are concerns that some economies are heading for a slowdown as interest rates are increased in an attempt to counter price rises. "A red wall of worry has built up across financial markets with investors increasingly nervous that economies are set to career into recession," said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown. The downbeat news from US retailers hit shares in UK companies reliant on consumer spending. The UK's biggest retailer, Tesco, fell 5%, while shares in consumer goods giant Unilever dropped 4.4%. However, the biggest faller on the UK market was Royal Mail, which sank more than 12% after reporting disappointing results and warning it was facing "significant headwinds" from rising costs. The FTSE 100 stood 152 points lower at 7,286, while France's Cac-40 index and Germany's Dax dropped by 1.8% and 1.6% respectively. In Asia, Japan's benchmark Nikkei index closed down 1.9%, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng dropped 2.5%. That came after the S&P 500 index in the US, which tracks shares of a wide swathe of America's biggest companies, plunged more than 4% on Wednesday and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 3.5%. The tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 4.7%. The falls added to weeks of declines on US financial markets.
5-19-22 Baby formula shortage: Experts urge parents not to make homebrews
Brandy Sloan was close to tears. The 43-year-old mother of two had reached a breaking point in her desperate search for baby formula when the fifth grocery store she rushed into contained the same as the previous four: empty shelves. "You feel so defeated because you're supposed to be able to feed your children and you can't because there's nothing there," she told the BBC. Brandy, who has a 15-month-old daughter and a recently adopted two-month-old son, is among the millions of American families struggling to feed their children amid a nationwide shortage of formula. Some are so desperate that they are attempting to make their own infant formula substitutes. Google searches for how to make formula at home have increased by 2400% in the last 30 days, according to Google Trends. Brandy is sceptical - and for good reason - but it's understandable why some parents feel compelled to ask the question. Supply chains have been strained throughout the pandemic, but an industry-wide infant formula shortage began to intensify in February when Abbott, a large manufacturer of powdered infant formulas, closed a facility and issued a voluntary recall after finding contamination. The company has since reached an agreement with US regulators to work to re-open, but cautioned it could take up to two months for products to hit the shelves. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden - who is under mounting pressure to solve the crisis - invoked the Defense Production Act, a war-time measure, to boost domestic production of baby formula. He also ordered the Pentagon to fly in shipments from overseas. A bill to alleviate the shortage was also overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives. An analysis by the retail research firm Datasembly found that 43% of formula products were unavailable nationwide in the first week of May, and soared even higher in states like Tennessee, Texas and Iowa. In San Antonio, where Brandy lives, the shortage was 57% in late April, according to Datasembly.
5-19-22 Three-week-old Biden disinformation task force 'paused'
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has "paused" a controversial task force on disinformation. Critics pilloried the Disinformation Governance Board when it launched three weeks ago, warning it would be used to censor free speech. On Wednesday, its director Nina Jankowicz resigned citing "vile personal attacks and physical threats". In a statement, Ms Jankowicz said the board's future was "uncertain". The task force has sparked a massive outcry - largely from the right, but also from civil society - ever since its creation on 27 April. DHS officials said the board was intended to coordinate and standardise its disinformation-related work, ensuring it "protects free speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy". But civil liberties and human rights groups such as Protect Democracy and the Electronic Frontier Foundation objected to a lack of clarity over the group's mission, warning last month that DHS has a "poor track record" on issues of privacy and free speech rights. Republicans, both moderate and further right, have also expressed concern that the board's work, which is taking place under a Democratic administration, could be weaponised against conservatives. Critics have derided the board as "the Ministry of Truth", from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. Ms Jankowicz, 33, whom the Biden administration touted as a well-known expert in the field, has been a particular focus of abuse and mockery online. Social media users have attacked her left-leaning politics and lampooned a song she posted on TikTok about disinformation. Drawing fire from many corners, the homeland security department's leadership was forced to repeatedly defend the board's work. In testimony before the US Senate earlier this month, DHS chief Alejandro Mayorkas assured lawmakers the group was "not the truth police", but acknowledged its roll-out had been "sub-optimal" and caused confusion.
5-19-22 Trump urges 'Dr Oz' to declare victory in cliffhanger Senate vote
Former President Donald Trump has urged celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz to declare victory in Tuesday's too-close-to-call Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary, even as votes show his lead narrowing. With over 95% of votes counted, Dr Oz leads with 31.2% of the vote, compared to 31.1% for challenger Dave McCormick. State law says a recount must be held if a candidate's margin of victory is under 0.5%. Thousands of mail-in ballots must still be counted. On Wednesday, Mr Trump took to Truth Social - his new social media platform - to cast doubt on the election and claim that Dr Oz, a surgeon best known for his appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, had won. He compared the state's counting of mail-in ballots to the 2020 election, which he continues to insist he won. "Here we go again," Mr Trump said of the primary. "In Pennsylvania, they are unable to count the mail-in ballots. It is a big mess." In another post, he urged Mr Oz, whom he has endorsed, to "declare victory". "It just makes it harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they 'just happened to find'," he wrote, providing no evidence to back up his claims. In Lancaster County, a ballot print error meant that thousands of mail-in ballots had to be reprocessed. The race between Mr Oz and Mr McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO, will determine who will run as the next Republican senator for Pennsylvania in the forthcoming mid-term elections. Midterms, which take place two years into a president's term, decide who controls the Senate and House of Representatives, the two legislative chambers that collectively make up Congress. The winner of the primary will face off against John Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination despite suffering a stroke just days ago. Pennsylvania is considered a key battleground state in the upcoming midterms. The Senate seat is currently held by a Republican, Patrick Toomey, who is retiring.
5-19-22 Covid-19 news: World as vulnerable to pandemics as pre-coronavirus
A regular round-up of the latest coronavirus news, plus insight, features and interviews from New Scientist about the covid-19 pandemic. An economic downturn and lack of reforms has left the world in no better position to fight a new pandemic than before covid-19 emerged, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The world’s pandemic preparedness is the same or worse than it was before covid-19, according to a WHO report. The report, led by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberia president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, accepted that some progress had been made, like moves to create a global health security fund inside the WHO and increased WHO funding. But progress on reforms such as international health regulations are moving too slowly, it added. “We have right now the very same tools and the same system that existed in December 2019 to respond to a pandemic threat,” Clark said at a press conference. “And those tools just weren’t good enough.” The report also suggests some measures that should be taken as soon as possible, including an independent health threats council led by heads of state, a worldwide pandemic treaty and an international agreement to improve pandemic preparedness. The WHO’s annual World Health Assembly will meet in Geneva next week to address issues raised in the report. Unvaccinated people who recover from the omicron variant may not have immunity against other covid-19 variants, such as delta, according to mouse models and a small human study. Researchers at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, US, collected blood serum from mice seven days after they were infected with different covid-19 variants. In laboratory experiments, the serum collected after overcoming omicron only protected against the omicron variant. By contrast, the serum collected after infection with delta effectively protected against the alpha, beta and delta variants, as well as offering some protection against omicron. These findings were then supported in a study of 10 unvaccinated people who had recovered from omicron. By contrast, vaccinated people who catch omicron develop some level of immunity against all covid-19 variants of concern, the researchers found in a separate experiment. North Korea has suggested people use traditional medicines, such as gargling salt water or drinking herbal tea, to reduce the fever and pain that can come with covid-19. A state news agency said the unverified treatments are “effective in prevention and cure of the malicious disease,” a claim that is not supported by scientific research.
5-18-22 CDC: With COVID-19 infections rising, a third of U.S. should consider indoor masks
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are on the rise in the United States, and about a third of the population is living in spots that are considered at higher risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The higher risk areas are primarily in the Northeastern U.S. and Midwest, and people there should consider wearing masks indoors and making sure they get their boosters, officials said. The number of COVID-19 cases has gone up in the past five weeks, with a 26 percent increase nationally in the last week, and hospitalizations were up 19 percent in the last week. This is fueled by the Omicron subvariant. During a news briefing at the White House, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters people who don't live in these higher risk places should still stay informed about case levels. "Prior increases of infections, in different waves of infection, have demonstrated that this travels across the country," she said. White House COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha told The Associated Press last week that the U.S. will run out of COVID-19 treatments in the winter unless Congress quickly approves new funding to buy more. A lack of access to vaccines and treatments would lead to "unnecessary loss of life," Jha said, adding that the U.S. is already behind other countries in getting supplies of the next-generation of COVID-19 vaccines.
5-18-22 Watchdog report blames Trump and Biden administrations for collapse of Afghan troops
A new report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, says former President Donald Trump and President Biden's decisions to withdraw U.S. forces and contractor support from Afghanistan were the "single most important factor" in the Afghan military's swift collapse in August of 2021, Politico reports. The SIGAR document, released Wednesday, is the first government report discussing how and why Afghan forces crumbled. "We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can't function. Game over," a former U.S. commander told the watchdog's office. "When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up." "There was a red light blinking on Afghanistan for years saying 'watch out,'" watchdog John Sopko told Politico. "Once the morale collapsed, that was it." While the document does serve to confirm certain previous reporting, it also sheds "new light on the intrigue and suspicion that consumed the Afghan leadership in its final days," writes The Washington Post. For example, the report reveals how former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was paranoid Afghan forces would turn against him, and thought the U.S. was working behind the scenes to remove him from power, per the Post. It also concludes that Trump's agreement with the Taliban and the subsequent decision to withdraw U.S. forces by May 2021 had a dire effect on the Afghan's military morale, Politico notes.
5-18-22 UFOs 'are real' and 'need to be investigated,' House committee chair says
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday conducted its first hearing on UFOs since 1966, CNN reports. "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena are a potential national security threat. And they need to be treated that way," said Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation. The hearings revealed that there have been 11 near misses between unknown objects and U.S. military assets but that no direct evidence has been found that would indicate "either extraterrestrial life or a major technological advancement by a foreign adversary," per CNN. In 2020, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence created the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force to "destigmatize" reporting UAPs and to "standardize the collection and reporting of UAPs across the intelligence community at the unclassified level." Witnesses said Tuesday that sightings are "frequent and continuing," with a database that tracks UAPs having grown to around 400 incidents. "Today, we know better. UAPs are unexplained, it's true. But they are real. They need to be investigated. And any threats they pose need to be mitigated," Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray told the panel.
ATHEISM and HUMANISM
5-18-22 Is the U.S. losing the hypersonic missile race?
Proponents say these new weapons are a game changer on the battlefield. The Air Force announced this week that it has successfully tested a hypersonic weapon built by Lockheed Martin — a development that comes after several years of American fretting that rival countries like Russia and China have a head start on building the advanced missiles. This wasn't the first hypersonic test by the United States: Officials announced last month that a different system was tested in mid-March. "In recent months, top Pentagon officials have been pushing to speed up development of the fast-flying weapons," Marcus Weisgerber reports at Defense One. "Former government and industry officials say old U.S. testing ranges and infrastructure are slowing development." Why are hypersonic weapons a burning issue for defense officials, and how will they change the future of armed conflict? "Essentially, all missiles are hypersonic – which means they travel at least five times the speed of sound," Brad Lendon writes at CNN. What makes the new generation of weapons different from older missiles is that they're maneuverable, able to "fly at hypersonic speed while adjusting course and altitude to fly under radar detection and around missile defenses." "The new generation of hypersonic missiles fly very fast, but not as fast as" intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads during the Cold War, adds Iain Boyd at The Conversation. "They are launched on smaller rockets that keep them within the upper reaches of the atmosphere." They're extremely difficult to defend against. "Capable of traveling at more than 15 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash, before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning," R. Jeffrey Smith wrote in a 2019 overview for the New York Times. "So far, there are no surefire defenses. Fast, effective, precise and unstoppable — these are rare but highly desired characteristics on the modern battlefield." Aircraft carriers, one of the preeminent symbols of American military might, are thought to be particularly vulnerable, which "might eventually render the floating behemoths obsolete." But hypersonic weapons might be overhyped. "Our studies indicate that hypersonic weapons may have advantages in certain scenarios, but by no means do they constitute a revolution," David Wright and Cameron Tracy wrote last year in Scientific American. The problem? Science. The speed and maneuverability of hypersonics are constrained by factors — like atmospheric drag — that affect all missiles and airplanes. The laws of physics still exist. "When missiles fly beyond Mach 5, materials melt, airflow turns turbulent, and budgets enter the stratosphere," Philip Ross writes for IEEE Spectrum. More dangerous than the weapons themselves is the arms race they might inspire. Wright and Tracy say the mania around hypersonics "has driven big increases in spending on these systems and heightened fear, distrust and the risk of conflict among the U.S., Russia, and China." Not the United States. Russia and China already "have a number of hypersonic weapons programs and have likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles—potentially armed with nuclear warheads," the Congressional Research Service reports. U.S. hypersonic weapons are still in the design stage, but they aren't being designed to carry nukes. That actually makes the challenge more difficult: "As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems."
5-18-22 Finland and Sweden formally apply to join NATO
Finland and Sweden formally applied to join NATO on Wednesday, delivering letters of intent to the Western military alliance's headquarters in Brussels. The application begins a months-long process of accession, with both Nordic countries expected to win membership in a matter of months, bringing the number of member states to 32. "We are leaving one era and beginning another," Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Monday. Sweden and Finland have been militarily non-aligned for decades or, in Sweden's case, centuries. But they are both members of the European Union and they already participate in military exercises with NATO. Still, "their official accession would fill the largest remaining gap in NATO's map of Europe, and do so in an increasingly volatile part of the continent," The Walls Street Journal reports. "With Arctic ice melting and shipping increasing near the North Pole, air and naval activity in the region has increased over recent years. The Baltic Sea — Russian vessels' shortest route to the Atlantic Ocean — would become overwhelmingly controlled by NATO allies." Andersson and Finnish President Saudi Niinisto are scheduled to discuss NATO membership and pre-accession security when President Biden hosts them at the White House on Thursday. The U.S. and most other NATO members have enthusiastically welcomed the two countries into the alliance, though Turkey has expressed reservations and laid out demands before it ratifies the addition of Sweden and Finland. Andersson and Niinisto said in a joint press conference they were surprised by Turkey's opposition and optimistic Ankara's concerns can be addressed. There was little public or political support in Sweden or Finland for joining NATO before Russia invaded Ukraine. On Tuesday, Finland's parliament approved joining the alliance 188-8. "This is an extraordinary development given where we were in February," Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, tells The Washington Post. "Russia wanted to turn back time, to go back to the Cold War, to fragment and weaken the West," but "now, in May, we are here."
5-18-22 Sweden and Finland formally submit Nato applications
Sweden and Finland have formally submitted their applications to join Nato. The alliance's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said it was "a historic moment, which we must seize", adding that the Nordic countries' membership would increase shared security. The two nations signalled their intention to apply for membership of the defence alliance in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
5-18-22 Nearly 1,000 fighters have left Mariupol steelworks - Russia
Updates from BBC correspondents: Sarah Rainsford, Lyse Doucet and James Waterhouse in Kyiv, Laura Bicker and Hugo Bachega in Dnipro, Joe Inwood and Sophie Williams in Lviv, Caroline Davies in Odesa, and Steve Rosenberg in Moscow. A Russian soldier accused of shooting dead a civilian has pleaded guilty in Ukraine's first war crimes trial. Vadim Shishimarin, 21, admitted killing the unarmed 62-year-old in the Sumy region days after Russia began its invasion. Russia's defence ministry says that 959 Ukrainian fighters from the Mariupol steelworks have been taken to Russian-controlled territory since Monday. Ukraine is calling for a prisoner swap for the evacuated defenders, but their fate is currently uncertain. Ukraine has not said how many people it believes have left the complex. Russia says the fighters will be treated according to international norms, but a senior Russian politician said "Nazi criminals" should not be exchanged. The battle for Mariupol appears to be over after a devastating siege that lasted nearly three months.
5-18-22 Russian soldier pleads guilty in first war crimes trial of Ukraine conflict
A 21-year-old Russian soldier has pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed civilian, in the first war crimes trial in Ukraine since the war started. Vadim Shishimarin admitted shooting a 62-year-old man a few days after the invasion began. He faces life in jail. The prisoner was brought into the tiny Kyiv courtroom in handcuffs, flanked by heavily armed guards. He looked nervous, and kept his head bowed. Just a couple of metres from him, the widow of the man killed was sitting. She wiped tears from her eyes as the soldier entered court, then sat with hands clasped as the prosecutor set out his case, describing the moment Kateryna's husband was shot in the head. "Do you accept your guilt?" the judge asked. "Yes," Shishimarin replied. "Totally?" "Yes," he replied quietly from behind the glass of his grey metal-and-glass cage. Prosecutors say Shishimarin was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack. He and four other soldiers stole a car, and as they travelled near Chupakhivka, they encountered the 62-year-old on a bicycle, they said. According to prosecutors, Shishimarin was ordered to kill the civilian and used a Kalashnikov assault rifle to do so. The Kremlin said earlier it was not informed about the case. Shishimarin's trial was adjourned shortly after the civilian's widow heard for the first time the Russian soldier admit to the murder. This high profile hearing will restart on Thursday in a larger courtroom. "By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility," Ukraine's chief prosecutor Iryna Venediktova tweeted. Venediktova previously said her office was readying war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers. Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians. Shishimarin's trial is being watched closely because investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
5-18-22 Dallas salon shooting investigated as hate crime
Police say a man accused of shooting three women at a salon in Dallas, Texas, harboured "delusions" about Asian people. The FBI has opened a hate crime probe into Jeremy Theron Smith, 36, who was arrested on Monday for the attack. Authorities say they believe the suspect may have been behind two other attacks on Asian businesses in the past month. Anti-Asian violence has risen sharply in recent years in the US. Dallas authorities say a man armed with a .22 rifle fired 13 shots inside the salon last Wednesday in the city's Koreatown neighbourhood. Three women - the salon owner, a stylist and a customer, all of Korean descent - were treated for gunshot wounds and discharged from hospital. Four other people who were in the salon at the time were unscathed. Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia told reporters on Tuesday that the suspect "has had panic attacks and delusions when he is around anyone of Asian descent" since he had a car accident involving an Asian male two years ago. Chief Garcia said that Mr Smith has been charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and is being held at the Dallas County jail. Federal officials have opened a hate crime investigation. Chief Garcia said that state prosecutors may add hate crime charges at a later date. "I can tell you that I know our community sees it as a hate crime," Chief Garcia said. "I see it as a hate crime, and so do our men and women." A police affidavit obtained by the Dallas Morning News says that police learned of Mr Smith's alleged anti-Asian delusions after interviewing his girlfriend. "He begins having delusions that the Asian mob is after him or attempting to harm him," she told detectives, adding that he had been "admitted to several mental health facilities" because of the delusions. He had also been fired from his job for "verbally attacking" his Asian boss. Police say they have managed to tie the suspect to two other recent shootings at Asian businesses. In all three attacks, a red minivan was seen outside the crime scene.
5-24-22 Luc Besson: Rape case dismissed for French film director
The Paris Court of Appeal has dismissed a series of rape accusations against French film director Luc Besson. The director of The Big Blue and Nikita was accused by Dutch-Belgian actress Sand Van Roy in 2018 of repeatedly raping her over two years. Prosecutors dropped the case in early 2019, citing a lack of evidence, but re-opened inquiries later that year when Ms Van Roy made new allegations. Mr Besson's lawyer said the court had confirmed his client's innocence. "About ten procedural initiatives by Ms Van Roy all ended in the same way. Luc Besson regrets these four lost years," Thierry Marembert added. Ms Van Roy's lawyer, Antoine Gitton, said the case had become a "a sordid news item" and announced his intention to appeal against the decision. The case was one of the highest-profile controversies of the #MeToo era in France, AFP news agency notes. Ms Van Roy had accused Mr Besson of raping her just hours after they met at a hotel in Paris in May 2018. But the original investigation ended when French prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to pursue a case. In December, an investigating magistrate issued a dismissal order against the case citing "the absence of any material element to support the statements" of Ms Van Roy and prosecutors asked for it to be dropped last month. At least three other women accused the 63-year-old of sexual misconduct during testimony heard in court. Mr Besson always denied these accusations. In 2019 he described the case against him as a "lie from A to Z". The director has previously described Ms Van Roy, who appeared in his films Taxi 5 and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, as a "fantasist," though he did admit to having a sexual relationship with her. Mr Besson, a director, producer and screenwriter, is also known for his films Subway, Leon and The Fifth Element.
5-21-22 Elon Musk denies sexual misconduct allegations
The world's richest man, Elon Musk, has denied claims that he groped and exposed himself to an employee at his SpaceX rocket company six years ago. A report in the Business Insider news outlet on Thursday alleged SpaceX paid the ex-flight attendant $250,000 (£200,000) to settle the claim. "Those wild accusations are utterly untrue," he wrote on Twitter. Mr Musk told Business Insider its article was a "politically motivated hit piece". The SpaceX founder suggested the piece was intended to interfere with his stalled $44bn (£35bn) acquisition of Twitter and malign the recent shift in his politics. He had used the social media site to announce he "can no longer support" the Democratic Party on Wednesday, saying he plans to vote for Republicans in future elections. Shares in his electric car company, Tesla, dropped on Friday. According to Business Insider, SpaceX paid the unnamed woman a severance agreement that was settled out of court and, as part of the deal, she was not allowed to sue the company or talk about the alleged incident. The magazine quotes an anonymous friend of the flight attendant, who it claimed had provided a signed declaration as part of the settlement process. The friend said Mr Musk had exposed himself to the former employee - a cabin crew member on contract for SpaceX's corporate jet fleet - in 2016 while receiving a massage from her aboard his private jet. He is said to have exposed his genitals to her, touched her leg without consent, and offered to buy her a gift if she would "do more" - referring to the performance of sex acts. The BBC has not been able to confirm these reports independently. In a series of tweets late on Thursday night, he alleged the friend quoted in the report was "a far left activist/actress in [Los Angeles] with a major political axe to grind" - and challenged her to verify the claims by describing his intimate body parts. Nicholas Carlson, the magazine's editor-in-chief, defended his outlet's work, writing on Twitter: "We stand by our story, which is based on documents and interviews and speaks for itself."
5-20-22 Oklahoma passes bill banning most abortions after conception
Oklahoma legislators have passed a law banning abortion after conception, which critics say is the most restrictive such measure in the US. The Republican-led bill would prohibit all abortions, except to save the life of the woman or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. It comes after a leak suggested the US Supreme Court may quash the 1973 ruling that legalised abortion nationwide. Republican-led US states are ramping up bills to limit abortion access. On the other side, US Senate Democrats last week tried to pass a bill that critics said would allow abortion through all nine months of pregnancy. It was stopped by Republicans. Opinion polls find most Americans are in favour of abortion access, though surveys also show public support for allowing the procedure drops sharply after the first trimester of pregnancy. Abortion is generally legal in US states that do not restrict it up to about 24 weeks of pregnancy, which is near the end of the second trimester. Oklahoma has recently passed several laws aimed at setting it apart as the most "pro-life" state in the US. The bill, which passed overwhelmingly on Thursday, is modelled on a Texas anti-abortion law that allows anyone to sue abortion providers. But the Oklahoma bill bans abortion even earlier than Texas, where it is not legal after six weeks. This is around the time cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo, and before many women realise they are pregnant. The Oklahoma measure defines fertilisation as the "fusion of a human spermatozoon with a human ovum". Banning abortion after conception has been a long-held goal of national anti-abortion groups. The bill still needs to be signed into law by the state's Republican governor, who has vowed to approve any anti-abortion legislation that comes to his desk. The Oklahoma measure allows exemptions in cases of rape and incest, but only if reported to the police. It does not ban contraception or morning-after pills.
5-19-22 Oklahoma Legislature passes bill prohibiting abortion after fertilization
The Oklahoma Legislature on Thursday passed a bill that bans almost all abortions from the moment of fertilization and allows individuals to sue providers and anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion. If signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who has promised to approve any anti-abortion law that comes to his desk, this would be the strictest abortion law in the United States. The bill passed the Oklahoma House 73-16, with state Rep. Jim Olsen (R) declaring that "there can be nothing higher or more critical than the defense of innocent, unborn life." Several Democratic lawmakers urged their Republican colleagues to stop passing anti-abortion laws and focus instead on getting more money to family planning services and to help lift young people out of poverty. "Legislation like this, on the surface, says that we are going to end abortion in our state," state Rep. Trish Ranson (D) said. "The manner in which it chooses to do so is punitive, it's speculative, and it draws the worst of us together." The bill makes an exception for rape and incest if the crimes have been reported to police. On the House floor, state Rep. Cyndi Munson (D) said many girls and women are too afraid to report rape or incest, and she asked the measure's sponsor, state Rep. Wendi Stearman (R), to "explain to me why you're OK with a person carrying on a pregnancy after they have been raped or there has been instances of incest? You understand what incest is, correct? You are OK with that?" Stearman responded, "I am OK with preserving the life of the child. The child was not part of that decision." Andrea Gallegos, executive administrator at the Tulsa Women's Clinic, told The New York Times this bill would make it impossible to perform abortions anywhere in Oklahoma. "These laws don't stop abortion," she said. "Women will still seek and get abortions. We're just forcing the citizens of this country to have to flee their own state to access health care. It's pretty awful." (Webmasters Comment: A great EVIL is sweeping our land!)
5-19-22 Girls see physics as for white men only, MPs told
Girls do not take physics at A-level because they think the subject is only for white boys, MPs have been told. No mention of female scientists in the national curriculum contributes to "the message society gives" to discourage girls from picking physics, leading physicist Prof Dame Athene Donald said. "If you are black or if you are a woman, you don't see yourself fitting in," she said. In 2021, 23% of physics A-level entrants were female. This is a slight increase on previous years. Prof Donald, from the University of Cambridge, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee it was "relevant" that "most of the images one sees of scientists, physicists, are white males". Teachers should try to "actively counter" messages from wider society that may discourage girls and children belonging to ethnic minorities from certain subjects, she added. "In my generation I know lots of women who said 'I would have loved to do sciences at A-level, but my school discouraged me'. I don't for one moment expect that still to be true, but there's a difference between active discouragement and no active encouragement." The panel session comes after a government adviser was criticised for saying girls avoid physics because of its "hard maths". Social mobility adviser and head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh said physics was not a subject girls "tend to fancy", adding: "I just think they don't like it." The IOP said it was alarmed by the comments, and Ms Birbalsingh later said her language had been "clunky". Prof Donald said Ofsted could help encourage girls to choose A-level physics by tracking the gender balance of subjects as part of its school inspections. "If Ofsted made gender equity an issue then every school would have to think, in primary school as well, 'what are we doing, without thinking about it are we giving boys different games to play, or different tasks?'."
5-19-22 Women awarded damages over Japan exam discrimination
A medical school in Japan has been ordered to pay compensation to 13 women for discriminating against them in entrance exams. Juntendo University in Tokyo set stricter requirements for female students because it said women had better communication skills than men and had an advantage in interviews. The judge ruled the requirements were discriminatory, local media report. It is believed to be the first ruling of its kind in Japan. It comes after a government investigation was launched in 2018 after another institution, Tokyo Medical University, was found to have tampered with the scores of female applicants from as early as 2006. The investigation found that a number of Japanese medical schools had manipulated admissions, in part to exclude female students. At the time, local media reported that this was done partly because some university administrators had said that they thought women would leave the medical profession, or work fewer hours, after getting married and having children. Juntendo University has since admitted that its actions over recent years led to dozens of women being unfairly rejected. The private institution has been ordered to pay around eight million yen ($62,000; £50,400) in compensation to the women after the judge ruled that the women had suffered emotional distress as a result of the university's "irrational and discriminatory" policies, Kyodo News quotes the judge as saying. The 13 women awarded damages had taken the university's entrance exams between 2011 and 2018 but were not accepted, Kyodo News reports. Two of the women would have passed the first entrance exam had the results not been rigged, it added.
5-19-22 Afghanistan's female TV presenters must cover their faces, say Taliban
The Taliban have ordered female Afghan TV presenters and other women on screen to cover their faces while on air. Media outlets were told of the decree on Wednesday, a religious police spokesman told BBC Pashto. The ruling comes two weeks after all women were ordered to wear a face veil in public, or risk punishment. Restrictions are being tightened on women - they are banned from travelling without a male guardian and secondary schools are shut for girls. One female Afghan journalist working for a local TV station in Kabul, who did not want to be named, said she'd been shocked to hear the latest news. "They are putting indirect pressure on us to stop us presenting on TV," she told the BBC. "How can I read the news with my mouth covered? I don't know what to do now - I must work, I am the breadwinner of my family."The new decree will take effect from 21 May, Reuters news agency reported, quoting a spokesman for the Taliban's Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. The spokesman referred to the ruling as "advice" - it is not clear what will happen to anyone who fails to comply. "Based on information received by Tolo news, the order has been issued to all media outlets in Afghanistan," the news channel reported. The decision is being widely criticised on Twitter, with many calling it another step by the Taliban to promote extremism. "The world deploys masks to protect people from Covid. The Taliban deploys masks to protect people from seeing the faces of women journalists. For the Taliban, women are a disease," one activist tweeted. The private Shamshad news channel posted a photo of its news presenter wearing a mask, and other similar images are being shared on social media. During their first stint in power in the 1990s the Taliban forced women to wear the all-encompassing burka in public. The hardline Islamist movement was driven from power by US-led troops in 2001, after which many restrictions eased. Women appearing on television showing their faces became a common sight.
5-18-22 Judge who received award from Planned Parenthood blocks Michigan's 1931 abortion ban
A Michigan Court of Claims judge ruled on Tuesday that the state's 1931 abortion ban likely violates the state constitution and granted a preliminary injunction blocking the law from taking effect, the Detroit Free Press reports. The 1931 ban is still on the books in Michigan but has been unenforceable for nearly 50 years. If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade (1973), the law would have once again prohibited all abortions except those performed to save the life of the mother. National Review notes that the judge who ruled in the case, Elizabeth L. Gleicher, donates to Planned Parenthood, received an award from Planned Parenthood, and represented Planned Parenthood in court during her time at the ACLU. Planned Parenthood is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. A pair of pro-life groups filed an amicus brief arguing that Gleicher should recuse herself from the case, but Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel did not file a recusal motion. Nessel also said she does not plan to appeal the ruling. The state supreme courts of Alaska, California, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Florida, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have all ruled that their respective state constitutions protect the right to an abortion.
5-18-22 The female body is misunderstood and this is why, says Rachel E. Gross
From non-consensual vaginal microbiome transplants to misconceptions about the G-spot, Rachel E. Gross discusses the sexism and biases that have led to our fragmented understanding of the female reproductive system. JOURNALIST Rachel E. Gross was working as the science editor at Smithsonian.com when she developed an “obnoxious” vaginal infection that set her on a mission to better understand her own body. It may have started with her genitals, but in her new book, Vagina Obscura: An anatomical voyage, Gross not only unravels many misunderstandings about the female body, but also rewrites the history of the science of gynaecology with women and LGBTQ+ researchers front and centre. She spoke to New Scientist about why this matters. Rachel E. Gross: I was doing a lot of coverage of women in the history of science. These themes kept coming up of women in scientific fields that had been left out of the conversation or blocked from attaining certain levels. And at the same time, there were all these questions about women’s bodies and bodies [of people] with a uterus and ovaries that weren’t being asked. I made the connection: the deceptively simple reason why these questions weren’t being asked was because women weren’t at the table. The darkest section of the book is about James Marion Sims and the development of the speculum. It’s well known that he was a southern slaveholder who made his advancements on the bodies of enslaved Black women. But there is a lot more to that story. I relied a lot on historians who had excavated the stories of some of those women, namely Betsy, Lucy and Anarcha. Deirdre Cooper Owens is the historian who spearheaded the argument that these women, and others, became surgical assistants who ended up knowing as much about fistulas (openings between the walls of the bladder and the vagina that can occur after a long or obstructed childbirth) as any doctor. They gained all this medical knowledge and potentially went back and used it to help their own communities. That was just such a paradigm shift for me. I was shocked to read about experiments in the 1950s that involved transplanting microbiomes of people with vaginal infections into pregnant women, and other examples in which the female body was seen as available for people to do what they want with. Do you feel optimistic that this is changing?
5-18-22 Claims that girls have a 'natural' aversion to physics are harmful
Girls are just as capable as boys in science and mathematics, but ingrained attitudes are stopping female students from engaging, says Maria Rossini. FROM Katherine Johnson, known for her pioneering work at NASA, to Nobel prizewinning physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell and epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, women have contributed hugely to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But that contribution often remains undervalued, and in the UK a false narrative persists that science is a boys’ subject and that girls lack the aptitude for study or work in STEM disciplines. These long-standing negative assumptions were displayed recently at an inquiry on diversity in STEM by the UK parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London and chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said that girls in her school have a “natural” aversion to physics and that it involves “hard maths”, which girls would “rather not do”. Contrary to Birbalsingh’s comments, evidence shows that girls are just as capable as boys: girls outperform their male peers in GCSE maths and science qualifications, taken from age 14, with 68 per cent getting grades A*-C in 2015 versus 65 per cent for boys. Yet despite this, only around 23 per cent of entrants for the A level qualification in physics, taken from age 16, are girls. There are clearly underlying reasons behind these statistics, but Birbalsingh’s comments highlight exactly the kind of harmful stereotypes that have led many young women to disengage from these subjects. Research has found that, despite being very capable, many girls lack proportionate confidence in their maths and physics abilities because they feel they aren’t “naturally” clever enough. This is partly due to a notion within popular culture of the “effortlessly clever physicist” (whereby physics is presented as something that comes naturally, rather than something to work at), as well as the view that physics is “masculine and hard”: the very same troubling narrative that Birbalsingh was espousing.
5-18-22 Afghanistan: The secret girls school defying the Taliban
Hidden away in a residential neighbourhood is one of Afghanistan's new "secret" schools - a small but powerful act of defiance against the Taliban. Around a dozen teenage girls are attending a maths class. "We know about the threats and we worry about them," the sole teacher tells us, but she adds, girls' education is worth "any risk". In all but a handful of provinces in the country, girls' secondary schools have been ordered to remain closed by the Taliban. At the school we visit, they've done an impressive job trying to replicate a real classroom, with rows of neat blue and white desks. "We do our best to do this secretly," says the female teacher, "but even if they arrest me, they beat me, it's worth it." Back in March, it seemed as if girls' schools were about to reopen. But just an hour or so after pupils began arriving, the Taliban leadership announced a sudden change in policy. For the students at the secret school, and many other teenage girls, the pain is still raw. "It's been two months now, and still schools haven't reopened," one 19-year-old in the makeshift classroom told us. "It makes me so sad," she added, covering her face with the palms of her hands to hold back the tears. But there's also a mood of defiance. Another 15-year-old student wanted to send a message to other girls in Afghanistan: "Be brave, if you are brave no-one can stop you." Primary schools for girls have reopened under the Taliban, and have in fact seen a rise in attendance following the improvement in security in rural parts of the country, but it's not clear when or if older girls will be allowed back into class. The Taliban have said the correct "Islamic environment" needs to be created first, though given schools were already segregated by gender, no-one seems sure what that means. Taliban officials have repeatedly insisted in public that girls schools will reopen, but also admit that female education is a "sensitive" issue for them. During their previous stint in power in the 1990s, all girls were prevented from going to school, ostensibly due to "security concerns".
SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT
5-24-22 Biocrusts reduce global dust emissions by 60 percent
The microbe-built crusts face threats from climate change and land-use changes. In the unceasing battle against dust, humans possess a deep arsenal of weaponry, from microfiber cloths to feather dusters to vacuum cleaners. But new research suggests that none of that technology can compare to nature’s secret weapon — biological soil crusts. These biocrusts are thin, cohesive layers of soil, glued together by dirt-dwelling organisms, that often carpet arid landscapes. Though innocuous, researchers now estimate that these rough soil skins prevent around 700 teragrams (30,000 times the mass of the Statue of Liberty) of dust from wafting into the air each year, reducing global dust emissions by a staggering 60 percent. Unless steps are taken to preserve and restore biocrusts, which are threatened by climate change and shifts in land use, the future will be much dustier, ecologist Bettina Weber and colleagues report online May 16 in Nature Geoscience. Dry-land ecosystems, such as savannas, shrublands and deserts, may appear barren, but they’re providing this important natural service that is often overlooked, says Weber, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. These findings “really call for biocrust. Biocrusts cover around 12 percent of the planet’s land surface and are most often found in arid regions. They are constructed by communities of fungi, lichens, cyanobacteria and other microorganisms that live in the topmost millimeters of soil and produce adhesive substances that clump soil particles together. In dry-land ecosystems, biocrusts play an important role in concentrating nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen and also help prevent soil erosion (SN: 4/12/22). And since most of the world’s dust comes from dry lands, biocrusts are important for keeping dust bound to the ground. Fallen dust can carry nutrients that benefit plants, but it can also reduce water and air quality, hasten glacier melting and reduce river flows. For instance in the Upper Colorado River Basin, researchers found that dust not only decreased snow’s ability to reflect sunlight, but it also shortened the duration of snow cover by weeks, reducing flows of meltwater into the Colorado River by 5 percent. That’s more water than the city of Las Vegas draws in a year, says Matthew Bowker, an ecologist from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff who wasn’t involved in the new study.
5-24-22 Farmers in England will bury burnt wood in fields to capture CO2
A large trial is underway to see how much CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere by burying a charcoal-like material in fields. Farmers in England are starting to bury a charcoal-like material in their fields to see if it could offer a new large-scale way of putting the brakes on climate change. Biochar is the carbon-rich material left over from burning wood and other biomass at high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment. Most of its use today is at the small scale, such as gardeners using it as a fertiliser. However, a team led by Colin Snape at the University of Nottingham, UK, has started burying up to 200 tonnes of biochar in fields to gauge if it could help meet the UK’s net-zero goal by removing millions of tonnes of carbond dioxide from the atmosphere. It is the biggest biochar trial yet in the UK, and one of several CO2 removal ideas in a £31.5 million research programme, including scattering rock dust on fields and planting more trees. “The key thing is that all of these greenhouse gas removal technologies, we need to test their viability. We need to figure out how big a slice of the pie biochar is. It’s about not putting all our eggs into one basket, of one magical technology that will save us,” says Genevieve Hodgins, who is managing the biochar project. Around 15 tonnes of biochar is in the ground already, and more farmers are being recruited across the Midlands region of England this spring and summer to begin widespread burials this autumn. Beyond tackling climate change, a big attraction for farmers is that research indicates biochar can improve soil health, which is in a parlous state in England. The project will measure how soil health changes over time, including the health of earthworms, as well how it affects crop yield and crop health compared with control plots. Some of the biochar will also be buried on land where tree-planting is planned, in order to see how it affects tree growth. Because the forested areas aren’t used to produce food for human consumption, far more biochar can be put in the ground there: Snape estimates about 50 to 100 tonnes per hectare compared with 10 tonnes for arable land.
5-23-22 Why is climate 'doomism' going viral – and who's fighting it?
Climate "doomers" believe the world has already lost the battle against global warming. That's wrong - and while that view is spreading online, there are others who are fighting the viral tide. As he walked down the street wearing a Jurassic Park cap, Charles McBryde raised his smartphone, stared at the camera, and hit the record button. "Ok, TikTok, I need your help." Charles is 27 and lives in California. His quirky TikTok videos about news, history, and politics have earned him more than 150,000 followers. In the video in question, recorded in October 2021, he decided it was time for a confession. "I am a climate doomer," he said. "Since about 2019, I have believed that there's little to nothing that we can do to actually reverse climate change on a global scale." Climate doomism is the idea that we are past the point of being able to do anything at all about global warming - and that mankind is highly likely to become extinct. That's wrong, scientists say, but the argument is picking up steam online. Charles admitted to feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed about global warming, but he followed up with a plea. "I'm calling on the activists and the scientists of TikTok to give me hope," he said. "Convince me that there's something out there that's worth fighting for, that in the end we can achieve victory over this, even if it's only temporary." And it wasn't long before someone answered. Alaina Wood is a sustainability scientist based in Tennessee. On TikTok she's known as thegarbagequeen. After watching Charles' video, she posted a reply, explaining in simple terms why he was wrong. Alaina makes a habit of challenging climate doomism - a mission she has embraced with a sense of urgency. "People are giving up on activism because they're like, 'I can't handle it any more... This is too much...' and 'If it really is too late, why am I even trying?'" she says. "Doomism ultimately leads to climate inaction, which is the opposite of what we want."
5-23-22 Canada storms: Nearly a million homes lose power in high winds
Nearly 900,000 homes in southern Canada were left without power on Saturday after a severe storm hit the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Seven people were killed by falling trees and a woman died when a boat capsized in the Ottawa River. Wind gusts reached 82 mph (132km/h) during the storm, according to Environment Canada. Power company Hydro One, which covers Ontario, said it would take several days to reconnect every home. Meanwhile, Hydro Quebec said 550,000 homes there lost power, with nearly 400,000 still suffering outages as of 10:00 local time (14:00 GMT) on Sunday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on Sunday evening that the federal government was preparing to step in to help those affected. "The storms that swept across Ontario and Quebec yesterday caused serious damage, claimed several lives, and left many without power," Mr Trudeau said. "We're thinking of everyone affected, and thanking the crews who are working to restore power - we stand ready to provide federal support if needed." Pictures on Canadian media showed firefighters and utility workers trying to untangle downed powerlines and poles that are lying over cars on a road in Ottawa. The town of Uxbridge, about an hour north of Toronto, has declared a state of emergency after the storm left "significant damage in its wake", a statement said. The powerful thunderstorm, which lasted more than two hours, felled many trees, disrupted traffic, damaged homes and saw emergency services inundated with calls for help. Experts said the storm, which spanned across an area of around 621 miles (1,000km), was caused by a rare phenomenon called "derecho". Derenchos are caused when a fast moving group of thunderstorms band together and mostly occur during summer months. The seven people killed by falling trees and branches were in the eastern Ontario province. Provincial Police said a 59-year-old man was killed when a tree was uprooted on a golf course in the capital, Ottawa. East of the city, local media reported that a 44-year-old man was killed in Greater Madawaska. One person died and two others were injured by an uprooted tree at a campsite about 60 miles (100km) from Toronto, and a woman in her 70s was killed while out walking in the suburb of Brampton, in the Greater Toronto area. In neighbouring province Quebec, police told local media that a 51-year-old woman drowned when a boat overturned in the Ottawa River, which runs through both provinces.
5-23-22 Australia votes for stronger climate action in 'greenslide' election
Voters chose to decisively kick out the pro-coal Coalition government in favour of candidates that support stronger action on climate change. Australia’s election on 21 May has been described as a “greenslide” after voters abandoned the long-standing pro-coal Liberal-National Coalition government in droves in favour of candidates that support stronger action on climate change. The Labor party, which promised to do more to tackle climate change, has won the most seats overall, but it is unclear whether they can form a majority on their own. Their leader, Anthony Albanese, was sworn in as prime minister today. But the big surprise was the record number of seats snatched from both major parties by the Australian Greens party and several independents who advocate more ambitious climate action. Votes are still being counted, but the Greens look set to win four out of 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 of 76 Senate seats – their best result ever. Another nine House of Representatives seats have been won by independent candidates dubbed the “teal independents” because of their shared climate focus. Depending on the exact number of seats won by Labor after counting is complete, the Greens and teal independents could hold the balance of power in parliament. Greens leader Adam Bandt called the result a “greenslide” and said that the people of Australia, where voting is compulsory, have “delivered a mandate for action on climate”. “I think it’s a resounding statement from the Australian public that they think that climate change needs to be taken much more seriously,” says Mark Howden at the Australian National University in Canberra. Australia has been notoriously slow to transition away from fossil fuels, largely due to vested interests. The country has the third-largest reserves of coal and still relies on fossil fuels to generate 91 per cent of its electricity. It also rakes in about A$100 billion a year from exporting coal.
5-22-22 Australia swears in new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese while votes are still being counted
Australian voters elected to change governments in national elections on Saturday, replacing the center-right Liberal Party with the center-left Labor Party after nine years, and they got their new government less than 48 hours later. Governor-General David Hurley swore in Labor leader Anthony Albanese as Australia's 31st prime minister on Monday, while votes are still being counted to determine if Albanese's party will have a majority in Parliament or need to cobble together a coalition government. Hurley also swore in four members of Albanese's Cabinet: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, and economy ministers Katy Gallagher and Jim Chalmers. Wong, born in Malaysia, is the first foreign-born Australian foreign minister; she will travel with Albanese to Tokyo to meet with President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the leaders of the so-called Quad nations. Marles will serve as acting prime minister while Albanese is overseas. With the votes counted so far, Labor has 72 seats, short of a majority in the 151-seat House of Representatives, while the Liberals and their coalition partners won 58 seats. Six races are too close to call, The Associated Press reports. Both major parties lost voters to the Greens, independents, and other smaller parties. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison's decision to resign before the vote count was complete allows Albanese to represent Australia at Tuesday's Quad summit, where China's expansion in the Indo-Pacific region is expected to be the main topic.
5-22-22 Anthony Albanese ousts Scott Morrison in Australian election
The Australian Labor party notched its first electoral win since 2007 on Saturday after conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded defeat to opposition leader Anthony Albanese, The Associated Press reports. Though millions of votes have yet to be counted, Morrison acted quickly so an Australian prime minister could attend a summit in Tokyo on Tuesday alongside U.S., Japanese, and Indian leaders. It's currently unclear, however, whether Albanese's center-left party would "win an outright majority or be forced to negotiate with a handful of independent and Greens candidates," notes The Washington Post. Albanese's Labor party has "promised more financial assistance and a robust social safety net," and wants to "tackle climate change with a more ambitious 43 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050," AP writes. "Tonight the Australian people have voted for change," the prime minister-elect said in his victory speech, addressing the crowd. "It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mom who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia's prime minister."
5-22-22 Australia election: Anthony Albanese signals climate policy change
Australia's new leader has vowed to take the country in a new direction, with a big shift in climate policy. Anthony Albanese, who won Saturday's election with the opposition centre-left Labor Party, said Australia could become a renewable energy superpower. He is to be sworn in as PM on Monday, but it is not clear whether his party will have a majority in parliament. Climate change was a key concern for voters, after three years of record-breaking bushfire and flood events. Outgoing PM Scott Morrison, the leader of an ousted Liberal-National coalition, thanked the "miracle of the Australian people" after conceding. Vote counting is still going on and he is still a few seats short of the 76 that Labor needs to secure a majority in the 151-member lower house of parliament. Final results may not be known for several days, as electoral officials have just started counting nearly three million postal votes. If the election results in a hung parliament, Greens and independents - who have been campaigning for radical climate change action - could wield greater influence in framing the new government's policies on the issue. Speaking to the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil shortly after his election victory, Mr Albanese, 59, said: "We have an opportunity now to end the climate wars in Australia. "Australian businesses know that good action on climate change is good for jobs and good for our economy, and I want to join the global effort." Mr Albanese, who will be heading Australia's first Labor government in almost a decade, also promised to adopt more ambitious emissions targets. However, he has so far refused calls to phase out coal use or to block the opening of new coal mines. Mr Albanese will fly to Tokyo on Monday for a summit with the leaders of Japan, India and the US, known as the Quad. As he will be representing Australia as its prime minister, he will be sworn into office before his departure.
5-22-22 Spain heatwave brings record May temperatures
Parts of Spain are experiencing their hottest May ever with temperatures of more than 40C in some places, according to the state weather agency, AEMET. The agency issued heat warnings in 10 regions for Saturday, saying it could be "one of the most intense" heatwaves in years. The city of Jaén in southern Spain recorded its highest ever May temperature of 40C on Friday. Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and more intense. Spain's unseasonably warm spring weather is a result of hot air coming from North Africa, causing temperatures to rise by up to 15C above average for this time of year. The worst-hit regions are Andalusia in the south, Extremadura in the south-west, Madrid and Castilla La Mancha in the centre and Aragon in the north-east. Spain's health ministry urged residents to drink plenty of water and to stay in cool places when possible. It also advised people to reduce physical activity. "This year it seems to have gone directly to summer, but we have to keep going," Madrid road sweeper Rocio Vazquez, 58, told Reuters news agency. Tourists were also feeling the heat. "I was expecting a little bit cooler, fresher weather," Eric Solis, 32, told Agence France-Presse during a trip to Madrid from the US. It is "not too convenient for tourists", he added. Overnight temperatures have also been unusually high, remaining above 25C in several areas on Friday night. In Jaén, the minimum temperature of 25.9C was the highest ever recorded in mainland Spain. Scientists say that heatwaves are likely to become more frequent and more intense around the world, as global temperatures rise. Their impact is also likely to be more widespread.
5-22-22 Floods in Bangladesh and India affect millions
Days of flooding and landslides in parts of Bangladesh and eastern India, have affected millions of people and left more than 50 people dead. Bangladesh's north-east region has seen some of the worst flooding for nearly two decades. The two countries are prone to flooding and experts say that climate change is increasing the likelihood of events like this around the world.
5-20-22 The global movement to give nature 'rights'
Should ecosystems, animals, and natural objects have the same rights as human beings? Adherents of the "Rights of Nature" movement believe ecosystems, animals, and natural objects should have legal rights similar or equal to those of human beings. Recently, the highest court in India's Tamil Nadu state agreed, ruling that "Mother Earth" has "all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person," and humans have a duty to protect nature so it can be enjoyed by future generations. Here's everything you need to know: It began in 1972, when Christopher D. Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California, published a law review article titled Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Stone wrote he was "quite seriously proposing that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers, and other so-called 'natural objects' in the environment — indeed to the natural environment as a whole." Otherwise, he said, "natural objects" were only valued in relation to their worth to humans, and could be destroyed. That same year, the case of Sierra Club v. Morton reached the Supreme Court. The Sierra Club wanted to block the development of a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and while the Supreme Court rejected the suit, Justice William O. Douglas wrote in his dissent that if "a ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes," and a corporation "is a 'person' for purposes of the adjudicatory processes ... So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life." Advocates believe there needs to be a new legal framework that gives nature the same rights as humans; this highest level of protection is necessary, they argue, because existing laws are not doing enough to address such issues as climate change and environmental degradation. Under the Rights of Nature doctrine, ecosystems are recognized as having the right to exist and regenerate without any human interference, as well as the right to defend themselves in court. A guardian can act on behalf of the ecosystem — usually an expert individual or group that knows how to care for and manage the ecosystem, the Columbia Climate School states. Florida environmentalist Chuck O'Neal told Inside Climate News last year that he believes rivers, mountains, and forests have rights, and this should have been included in the Constitution. "We have to find a balance between nature and commerce, and right now we're so far out of balance that the world is spinning out of control," he said. "We can create a new system, building a body of law that recognizes fundamental rights of nature. I think it's our last and best hope to save the planet." In April, the Madras High Court in India's Tamil Nadu state decided that nature should receive "all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person," with Justice S. Srimathy writing in the opinion that "the past generations have handed over the 'Mother Earth' to us in its pristine glory and we are morally bound to hand over the same Mother Earth to the next generation." The case was brought before the court by A. Periyakaruppan, a local government official who was forced to retire and lose some of his pension after he gave a deed of protected forest land to a private individual. He argued that this was done at the request of a senior official, and after the deal was made public, the deed was corrected and the land returned. He requested that his punishment be reversed, but the court, finding that he committed an act "against nature," decided to reduce it to a six months suspension.
5-20-22 Climate change means people are losing 44 hours of sleep per year
Analysis of data from sleep-tracking wristbands in 68 countries reveals that unusually hot nights are causing people to fall asleep later, rise earlier and sleep less. Eco-anxiety is already causing people to lose sleep over climate change. Now, a global study has found that a warming planet is also affecting how long people sleep, and the problem will get significantly worse this century even if humanity manages to rein in its carbon emissions. Our measurements of the impact of above-average night temperatures on sleep have previously been limited by being confined to single countries, lab studies or notoriously unreliable self-reporting of sleep. To glean a better real-world picture, Kelton Minor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, took data from sleep-tracking wristbands used by 48,000 people in 68 countries between 2015 and 2017. He and his colleagues then paired the sleep data with local weather data, revealing that unusually hot nights are causing people to fall asleep later, rise earlier and sleep less. Already, the evidence suggests that people are losing an average of 44 hours of sleep each year. By 2100, the researchers estimate people will lose 58 hours of sleep a year if emissions go unchecked. In a lower-emissions future, the figure drops to 50 hours. Minor and his team measured the level of sleep loss on unusually hot nights by comparing the data with a baseline of how much an individual sleeps normally. They also controlled for alternative possible explanations for sleep erosion, such as the weather and the season. “This is the first planetary-scale evidence that warmer-than-average temperatures erode human sleep. We show that sleep erosion occurs primarily by delaying when people fall asleep,” says Minor.
5-20-22 Kyoto's cherry blossoms are blooming earlier because of climate change
The Japanese city is famous for its cherry blossoms, which traditionally mark the start of spring, but rising temperatures are seeing them bloom early. Cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan are reaching full bloom 11 days earlier than they would be if it were not for the warming effect of the urban environment and climate change. Last year, Kyoto’s cherry blossoms bloomed by 26 March, earlier than ever before in over 1000 years of recorded history. This year the trees reached full bloom by 1 April, which is more typical. Nikolaos Christidis at the Met Office in the UK and his colleagues devised a computer model to estimate when cherry blossoms in the city would reach full bloom if not for urban warming and human-driven climate change. The researchers were aided by long-kept records of the timing of Kyoto’s cherry blossom blooming season going back 1200 years. “This information has been found in all sorts of sources like emperor’s recordings,” Christidis says. “The blooming of cherry blossoms in Kyoto has been an important event in Japan since ancient times,” he says, as it traditionally signals the start of spring. The team found that cherry blossoms were reaching full bloom five days earlier due to the increasing urbanisation of Kyoto and a further six days earlier due to climate change. Urbanisation causes temperature rises for several reasons such as by changing the way that the sun’s heat interacts with the city’s surface, says Christidis. Cherry blossoms in Japan start to bloom when the temperature of its environment consistently reaches a certain level of warmth – which is usually around March. The average temperature in Kyoto in March is about 9 to 10°C, says Christidis. But without human influence it would be closer to 5 or 6°C, he says.
5-19-22 Tree plantations with diverse species grow better than monocultures
Forests can produce more timber or store more carbon if they contain a mixture of tree species, according to an analysis of 273 studies around the world. Timber-producing tree plantations that contain at least two different tree species grow better than those with just a single species. The finding suggests that increasing species diversity in areas of reforestation can increase the amount of wood produced and carbon stored. “Foresters often prefer monoculture plantations because of lower planting and management costs. By demonstrating substantial benefits of multispecies plantations across a broad range of conditions, our study [helps to] identify planting strategies that optimise the benefits of forest plantations,” says Shaopeng Wang at Peking University in Beijing. Wang and his colleagues analysed tree growth data from 273 previous studies that covered a total of 243 species used in 255 plantations around the world. The team compared tree growth between monoculture and multispecies plantations that were grown in the same regions, for the same amount of time and with the same planting density. This revealed that trees grown alongside at least one other species were 5.4 per cent taller, 6.8 per cent wider and had around 25 per cent more above-ground mass compared with those in plots with just one species. Further analysis by the team revealed that species tended to benefit more when they were grown beside trees that had oppositely shaped leaves – either broad or needle-shaped. They also found that deciduous trees, which drop their leaves in the autumn, benefitted from being next to evergreen trees, which keep their leaves all year, and vice versa. “Our results showed that differences in leaf shape and leaf lifespan underpin stronger [co-benefits] within mixtures of tree species,” says Wang. The team suggests this is probably because trees can access resources more easily when they have different needs to neighbouring trees.
5-19-22 Australian election 2022: What will the outcome mean for the climate?
Australia’s targets for cutting carbon emissions are among the weakest in developed nations, but a new government could accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Climate change will be front of mind for many Australians when they vote in the federal election on 21 May, and the result could have global ramifications. Extreme droughts, wildfires, floods and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in recent years have been a wake-up call for Australia, which has lagged behind other countries in moving away from fossil fuels. Two-thirds of people in Australia – where voting is compulsory – now believe that more needs to be done to address climate change. “It’s a tangible reality for Australians now. It’s no longer a future, theoretical outcome,” says Cassandra Star at Flinders University in Adelaide. The Liberal-National coalition of centre-right parties has dragged its feet on climate policy since coming to power in 2013. In October 2021, prime minister Scott Morrison finally bowed to international pressure to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050. But his government still has a 2030 emissions target of just 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels, which is one of the weakest among developed nations. Morrison himself has been slow to accept the reality of climate change. As treasurer in 2017, he brought a lump of coal to parliament and announced: “This is coal. Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you.” During Australia’s worst wildfires on record in 2019, he took a holiday to Hawaii, claiming “I don’t hold a hose”. The Labor party, Australia’s opposition party, has pledged a more ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of 43 per cent if elected. However, a target of 74 per cent below 2005 levels would be needed for Australia to contribute its “fair share” to keeping global warming within 1.5 °C, according to modelling by the University of Melbourne.
5-18-22 Regenesis review: Farming is killing the planet but we can stop it
Regenesis: Feeding the world without devouring the planet. BE WARNED: George Monbiot will put you off your dinner. But that is a good thing – indeed, a vital thing. Our diets have to change. More to the point, the way we farm has to change. “Farming,” says Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper and an environmental activist, “is the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the Earth.” It is a deliberately provocative statement, of course, but it shows how the myth of the green and pleasant farm is deeply ingrained. Even after reading this comprehensive, devastating and rousing book, that statement still took me aback. But Monbiot lays out his case with statistics and backs it up with citations – the destruction, the ecocide, the suffering, the exploitation, the economic senselessness. It is undeniable. Here is a sample. Human habitations, we learn, cover 1 per cent of the world’s land surface. Crops cover 12 per cent. Areas given over to grazing farm animals account for 28 per cent of the world’s land. Only 15 per cent is protected for nature. And that 28 per cent given to grazing animals? It delivers just 1 per cent of the world’s protein. How about crops? Almost 60 per cent of the calories produced by farmers come from four crops: soya, maize, wheat and rice. Most of the world’s soya – some 86 per cent – is grown in Brazil, Argentina and the US, and three-quarters of soya, much of it grown on former rainforest or the savannah of Brazil’s Cerrado region goes to feed farm animals. Meat is murder? Meat is also destructively profligate. The first half of Regenesis, in which Monbiot sets out the facts about the planet’s teetering life-support systems, is deeply distressing. The sheer damage caused by farming – the ploughing, the fertilisers, the pesticides and herbicides, the antibiotics, the irrigation and the greenhouse gases, but most of all the extirpation of species and the horrific clearance of land – has pushed those life-support systems to breaking point. Land use, says Monbiot, is “the issue that makes the greatest difference to whether terrestrial ecosystems and Earth systems survive or perish”.
5-18-22 Climate change swells odds of record India, Pakistan heatwaves
Climate change makes record-breaking heatwaves in northwest India and Pakistan 100 times more likely, a Met Office study finds The region should now expect a heatwave that exceeds the record temperatures seen in 2010 once every three years. Without climate change, such extreme temperatures would occur only once every 312 years, the Met Office says. Forecasters say temperatures in north-west India could reach new highs in the coming days. The new analysis comes as a State of the Climate report from the World Meteorological Organisation, the UN's atmospheric science arm, warns that four key indicators of climate change set new records in 2021 - greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres described the report as "a dismal litany of humanity's failure to tackle climate disruption." The extreme pre-monsoon heatwave the region northwest India and Pakistan have suffered in recent weeks eased a little after peak temperatures reached 51C in Pakistan on Saturday. But the heat looks likely to build again towards the end of this week and into the weekend, the Met Office's Global Guidance Unit warns. It says maximum temperatures are likely to reach 50C in some spots, with continued very high overnight temperatures. "Spells of heat have always been a feature of the region's pre-monsoon climate during April and May," says Dr Nikos Christidis, who led the team responsible for today's study. "However, our study shows that climate change is driving the heat intensity of these spells making record-breaking temperatures 100 times more likely." The new study is based on the heatwave that gripped northwest India and Pakistan in April and May 2010 when the region experienced the highest combined April and May average temperature since 1900. It attempts to estimate the extent to which climate change made that and future events more likely.
5-18-22 UK expects to produce more electricity than it needs by 2030i
New offshore wind farms built as part of the UK’s Net Zero Strategy are expected to turn the country into a net exporter of electricity. The UK expects to become a net exporter of electricity in just eight years’ time as the country implements its Net Zero Strategy. The milestone would reverse decades of the country being a net power importer, using subsea cables to draw more electricity from French nuclear reactors and other European power stations than it sends in the other direction. Electricity imports into the UK hit a record level in August last year. To meet its goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the country plans to encourage a wave of offshore wind farms and solar installations this decade. These are expected to produce such an abundance of inexpensive power that from 2030 onwards, Great Britain will be a net exporter, according to scenarios being considered by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which underpin the UK’s flagship Net Zero Strategy. The scenarios do not include Northern Ireland, whose electricity sector is integrated with the Republic of Ireland. This month, a glut of gas in the UK has seen power stations burning more of it than usual, resulting in electricity flowing to continental Europe, but this is an unusual and temporary situation; whereas the change from 2030 is expected to be permanent. Officials at BEIS anticipate that by 2050, Great Britain will be exporting the equivalent of about a fifth of total electricity generation today via the subsea cables, known as interconnectors. “In the future, we’ll likely be exporting because we have spare power,” says Jess Ralton at the ECIU thinktank. “So net exports are likely to occur when it’s very windy and/or demand is low. It’s a consequence of having a large wind fleet that can meet the bulk of UK demand even when it’s not that windy and turbines aren’t operating at 100 per cent. So prices would be low, there’d be no risk to security and it’d lower emissions.”
SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS
5-24-22 Monkeypox cases are continuing to rise around the world
More than 170 confirmed cases have been recorded in North and South America, Australia, the Middle East, North Africa and across Europe. The number of reported monkeypox cases is rising rapidly in the largest known outbreak outside of Central and West Africa, where the virus is endemic. America, Australia, the Middle East, North Africa and across Europe, according to a list of reports compiled by Moritz Kraemer at the University of Oxford, John Brownstein at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts and their colleagues. These same regions also have a total of 87 suspected cases of monkeypox and 27 people hospitalised with the infection. As of 23 May, the UK had recorded 57 cases of the virus, and it appears to be one of the hardest-hit countries so far. No deaths have been reported anywhere in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the past, outbreaks outside of Africa have usually been linked with travel to endemic regions of the continent. A small 2021 outbreak in the UK occurred after someone travelled from Nigeria to Manchester. In 2003, monkeypox entered the US after exotic pets including mice and squirrels were imported from Ghana. These animals are thought to have transmitted the virus to humans. The current outbreak is unusual in that infections seem to be mostly spreading between humans with no recent travel links to affected regions of Africa, suggesting the virus is being transmitted undetected in the community. This is the first time cases with no travel history have been reported in Europe, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Monkeypox is usually mild, with most cases resolving within a few weeks without treatment. Bulletins from organisations like the WHO, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) mean countries are actively looking for the infection, which has probably caused instances to be identified that would otherwise have slipped under the radar.
5-24-22 No UK supermarket is willing to say it will stock gene-edited food
The UK government is working to change the law on gene-edited food, allowing it to be sold in the country for the first time, but major food retailers remain unenthusiastic. The UK’s biggest supermarkets have reacted coolly to the idea of selling gene-edited food, with none willing to publicly say it will stock the new products despite an upcoming law change enabling the products to be sold in the country for the first time. Tomorrow, the UK government will begin the passage of a bill to allow gene-edited products to be treated differently to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with environment minister George Eustice saying food from gene-edited crops could be in shops next year. The technology is billed as a way to improve health – such as a vitamin D-enriched tomato unveiled yesterday – and reduce environmental impacts from farming. However, when New Scientist contacted 11 of the UK’s biggest supermarkets to ask if they would stock gene-edited food after the bill becomes law, none responded to confirm it would embrace the products. Waitrose was the only one to offer a position on gene-edited food, saying in a statement: “We currently have no plans to use this technology.” Seven of the chains didn’t respond at all: Aldi, Asda, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, M&S and Ocado. The Co-Op and Sainsbury’s both declined to comment, referring New Scientist to the industry trade body, the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Tesco is understood to be reviewing the law change to see how it will affect the supermarket. Andrew Opie at the BRC initially responded to inquiries about the industry’s position on selling gene-edited food by saying there are merits to exploring the technology and it was supportive of the technology. Less than an hour later, the group issued a revised statement that suggested public support would be key to commercial uptake.
5-23-22 Biden doesn't think U.S. will need monkeypox quarantines, but 'people should be careful'
President Biden said Monday he does not believe quarantines will be needed to stop the spread of monkeypox, The Washington Post reports. As for any big outbreaks, Biden said he thinks the U.S. has enough of the smallpox vaccine to "deal with the likelihood of the problem." Belgium is now the first country to impose a quarantine on residents, requiring those infected with monkeypox to isolate for 21 days. The World Health Organization has detected the virus in at least a dozen countries in which it is not typically endemic, the Post notes. "I just don't think it rises to the level of the kind of concern that existed with COVID-19, and the smallpox vaccine works for it. But, I think people should be careful," Biden added Monday. Studies indicate the smallpox vaccine is at least 85 percent effective against monkeypox, the Post reports, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Sunday, Biden said monkeypox is a "concern in that if it were to spread, it would be consequential."
5-22-22 Florida health officials investigating 'presumptive' monkeypox case
Health officials in Florida announced Sunday they are investigating a "presumptive" monkeypox case. This is the third possible case of monkeypox, a rare virus that spreads via close contact with an infected individual, in the United States. The Florida Department of Health in Broward County said this case appears to be related to international travel. The first case was reported in a Massachusetts man who tested positive for monkeypox after visiting Canada. Worldwide, there are more than 190 confirmed or suspected cases of monkeypox in 16 countries where the disease typically isn't found, ABC News reports. Since a patient in the United Kingdom tested positive for the virus on May 7 after traveling to Nigeria, several cases have been detected around the globe. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told CNN on Thursday that "at this time, we don't want people to worry. These numbers are still small; we want them to be aware of symptoms, and if they have any concerns to reach out to their doctor." The first symptoms usually include fever, chills, exhaustion, headache, and muscle weakness, followed by swollen lymph nodes. President Biden told reporters on Sunday that the monkeypox cases are something "to be concerned about," and if the virus spreads "it would be consequential." National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the U.S. has a supply of vaccines that can be deployed to treat monkeypox.
5-22-22 Monkeypox: Israel and Switzerland confirm cases
Israel and Switzerland are the latest countries to confirm cases of monkeypox, bringing the total number of nations reporting outbreaks to 14. Both countries said they identified one infected person who had recently travelled, but Israel said it was investigating other suspected cases. More than 80 cases have been confirmed in the recent outbreak in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. Monkeypox is most common in remote parts of Central and West Africa. This outbreak has taken scientists by surprise, but monkeypox does not tend to spread easily between people and the risk to the wider public is said to be low. The illness is usually mild and most people recover in a few weeks, according to the UK's National Health Service. The World Health Organization has said another 50 suspected cases are being investigated - without naming the countries involved - and warned that more infections are likely to be confirmed. Asked about the outbreak as he finished a visit to South Korea, US President Joe Biden said that if the virus were to spread more widely it would be "consequential", adding that "it is something that everybody should be concerned about". He said the US was "working hard" on its response and what vaccines in might use. After the outbreak was first identified in the UK, the virus began to be detected across Europe - with public health agencies in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden all confirming cases. The UK Health Security Agency has identified 20 cases so far and its chief medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins told the BBC's Sunday Morning programme: "We are detecting more cases on a daily basis." She said the virus is now spreading in the community - with cases detected which have no contact with anyone who has visited West Africa, where the disease is endemic.
5-21-22 Monkeypox: 80 cases confirmed in 12 countries
More than 80 cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in at least 12 countries. The World Health Organization has said another 50 suspected cases are being investigated - without naming any countries - and warned that more cases are likely to be reported. Infections have been confirmed in nine European countries, as well as the US, Canada and Australia. Monkeypox is most common in remote parts of Central and West Africa. It is a rare viral infection which is usually mild and from which most people recover in a few weeks, according to the UK's National Health Service. The virus does not spread easily between people and the risk to the wider public is said to be very low. There is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, but a smallpox jab offers 85% protection since the two viruses are quite similar. So far, public health agencies in Europe have confirmed cases in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden. In a statement on Friday, the WHO said that the recent outbreaks "are atypical, as they are occurring in non-endemic countries". It said it was "working with the affected countries and others to expand disease surveillance to find and support people who may be affected". It is not yet clear why this unusual outbreak is happening now. One possibility is that the virus has changed in some way, although currently there is little evidence to suggest this is a new variant. Another explanation is that the virus has found itself in the right place at the right time to thrive. Monkeypox may also spread more easily than it did in the past, when the smallpox vaccine was widely used. WHO's Europe regional director Hans Kluge warned that "as we enter the summer season... with mass gatherings, festivals and parties, I am concerned that transmission could accelerate". He added that all but one of the recent cases had no relevant travel history to areas where monkeypox was endemic.
5-20-22 Monkeypox comes to America
What to know about the latest virus of concern. The first U.S. monkeypox case of the year has been detected in Massachusetts — a cause for some minor alarm because it comes on the heels of a rare worldwide outbreak of the disease. As of Thursday morning, 68 cases have reportedly been detected in England, Spain, Portugal, and Canada. "This is rare and unusual," said Dr. Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the U.K. Health Security Agency. Authorities are "rapidly investigating the source of these infections because the evidence suggests that there may be transmission of the monkeypox virus in the community, spread by close contact." Is it time to worry about another rare virus, and what's the best way to protect against it? "Monkeypox is a more benign version of the smallpox virus and can be treated with an antiviral drug developed for smallpox," Apoorva Mandavilli reports in the New York Times. "But unlike measles, COVID, or influenza, monkeypox does not typically cause large outbreaks." It's not fun to experience, though. "Monkeypox can be a nasty illness; it causes fever, body aches, enlarged lymph nodes, and eventually 'pox,' or painful, fluid-filled blisters on the face, hands, and feet," Michaeleen Doucleff writes at NPR. "One version of monkeypox is quite deadly and kills up to 10 percent of people infected." If that sounds terrifying, there's some bit of good news: "The version currently in England is milder. Its fatality rate is less than 1 percent." Some signs to watch: "Early symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, and chills," Sam Jones says in The Guardian. "A rash that can look like chickenpox or syphilis can also develop and spread from the face to other parts of the body, including the genitals. Most people recover within a few weeks."
5-20-22 First monkeypox genome from latest outbreak shows links to 2018 strain
The draft sequence of the virus responsible for the rapidly growing monkeypox outbreak shows it is most closely related to strains detected in the UK, Singapore and Israel in 2018 and 2019. The first draft genome of the virus responsible for the rapidly growing monkeypox outbreak has been released online by a team in Portugal. The DNA sequence shows it is of the mild West African type and most closely related to the monkeypox viruses detected in the UK, Singapore and Israel in 2018 and 2019. What isn’t yet clear is whether this virus has any changes that make it more transmissible in humans, which would explain why the current outbreak is so widespread and by far the largest seen outside Central and West Africa, where the virus spreads in monkeys. This could take some time to establish, given that monkeypox has a large and complex genome. At the time of writing, there were 127 confirmed and suspected cases of monkeypox in 10 countries, including the US, UK and Australia, and researchers suspect the true numbers are even higher. João Paulo Gomes and colleagues at the National Institute of Health in Portugal sequenced a sample taken from a male patient on 4 May. Teams in other countries are also sequencing viral samples from the outbreak, but Gomes’s team is the first to make a sequence public. Gustavo Palacios at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, says the draft sequence from Portugal has too many gaps to draw firm conclusions, but that he has seen a more complete sequence from a team in Belgium. “As far as I can see, it seems to be identical to the one in the UK in 2018,” says Palacios. “That is a little bit odd.” In 2018, there were three cases in the UK after someone returning from Nigeria infected two other members of their household. As more samples are sequenced, it should become clear whether, as suspected, a single variant of monkeypox is responsible for all the cases in the latest outbreak.
5-18-22 What is it that provides the healing effect of a placebo treatment?
What is it exactly that provides the healing effect of a placebo treatment? The placebo effect is as mythical as its “evil twin” the nocebo. What appears to be an effect is just the natural pattern of variation in disease or non-specific symptoms. This was illustrated in a 2001 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that there was “little evidence in general that placebos have powerful clinical effects”. The placebo response is intriguing. A placebo is a substance without any known medical effects or an interaction with a caregiver that nevertheless improves the health of the recipient. The placebo response refers to all health changes resulting from such apparently inactive treatment. When any treatment is given, the overall effect is the true effect of the intervention plus the placebo effect, which can be large. A 2021 meta-analysis of 186 clinical trials found that on average, 54 per cent of the overall treatment effect was attributable to placebo. The placebo effect results from activation of opioid, cannabinoid, and dopaminergic pathways in the body. Dopamine is a hormone associated with feelings of pleasure. A placebo also sees the release of opioids, providing an effect similar to a morphine injection. Indeed, the placebo effect can actually be counteracted by naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors in the body. There are even claims that animals experience a placebo effect. One trial reported that 86 per cent of dogs responded to an epilepsy drug, but 79 per cent seemed to respond just as well to a placebo. I don’t believe a placebo actually heals; rather it enhances a person’s own healing potential. When ill, we tend to regress to an earlier stage of emotional development, in need of a parental figure who can listen to our experience and interpret it in a way that restores to us some agency. This is the essence of a good practitioner-patient relationship. Any treatment given in this emotional context will tend to be more efficacious. Furthermore, the simple act of faith in the practitioner or the treatment can do likewise.
5-20-22 Noisy boats over the Great Barrier Reef are cutting fish lives short
The noise of motorboats over the Great Barrier Reef can stress its inhabitants, stunting the growth of young fish and leaving them less likely to live to adulthood. Some young fish that live in coral reefs exposed to motorboat sounds have stunted growth and may be half as likely to survive as fish on quieter reefs, probably because the noise pollution changes the way their parents care for them. Spiny chromis (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) are fish that fan water over their eggs, creating streams of inflowing oxygen that helps the embryos grow. But in reefs with motorboat noise, the parents fan their eggs less and seem more agitated – swimming around more and possibly exposing their hatchlings to more predator attacks – than those hearing only minor motor noises or none at all. “Any kind of unexpected noise can cause a rise in the stress response. And I think that’s what’s going on here with the parenting behaviour,” says Sophie Nedelec at the University of Exeter in the UK. She and her colleagues snorkelled every other day along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to observe and photograph wild spiny chromis nests throughout the breeding season from October 2017 to January 2018. The team tagged 59 nests, with an average of 126 eggs per nest, in six experimental sites off the coast of Lizard Island, Australia, and counted surviving offspring every four days. Three of the sites were “limited boating” zones, in which the scientists requested that motorboat drivers keep at least 100 metres away from reefs or, if necessary, get no closer than 20 metres away with no wake. The three other sites were “busy-boating” zones, in which the research team drove outboard engine aluminium motorboats – usually at full throttle – within 10 to 30 metres of the reef’s edge. The team made these passes in the boats about 180 times a day, totalling about 75 to 90 minutes, to mimic a port harbour or popular tourist or fishing areas. They found that breeding couples in the limited boating sites were twice as likely to still have living offspring by the end of the 3-month breeding season, she says.
5-20-22 The people who built Stonehenge may have eaten raw cattle organs
An analysis of fossilised faeces found near Stonehenge suggest the people who built the monument ate raw cattle organs and shared the leftovers with their dogs. The people who built Stonehenge probably ate cattle organs and shared leftovers with dogs, according to an analysis of parasites trapped in ancient faeces. Roughly 4500-year-old fossilised excrement was discovered several years ago at Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement in England thought to house the builders of Stonehenge. Previous research suggests the village held a few thousand residents travelled to the location seasonally to erect the stone pillars. Piers Mitchell at the University of Cambridge and his team analysed 19 faecal fossils, determining that some were from humans and some from dogs. They examined the faeces under a microscope where they saw the eggs of a type of parasite called a capillariid worm, which they could identify from its lemon-like shape. This led them to conclude that the sample came from someone who had eaten raw organs of an infected bovine. “We know they must have been eating internal organs such as the liver, where this parasite would normally live, and they were also feeding it to their dogs, because the dogs had the same kind of parasite,” says Mitchell. The villagers probably ingested the eggs after not cooking a cow very thoroughly. The thought of eating cattle organs might not sound appetizing today, but Michell says, “there’s no reason to think that they would have thought steaks are nice and internal organs aren’t.” One excrement sample from a dog contained eggs from a freshwater fish tapeworm, which Mitchell says is an especially intriguing find because fish were not a common dietary staple at the settlement. He suspects the raw fish was transported from a far-away village for a feast at Stonehenge then consumed by the dog.
5-20-22 Why some scientists want serious research into UFOs
That doesn’t necessarily mean studying aliens. The U.S. defense and intelligence communities are taking unidentified flying objects, officially known as unidentified aerial phenomena, seriously. And some researchers think the scientific community should too. On May 17, the U.S. Congress held its first public hearing about these objects in decades (SN: 6/26/71). Two Pentagon officials described efforts to catalog and analyze sightings, many by military personnel such as pilots, of the unexplained phenomena because of their potential threat to national security. Scott Bray, the deputy director of naval intelligence, shared new details on a database of images and videos that now includes about 400 reports of sightings of unidentified phenomena from 2004 to 2021. While officials were able to attribute some of the sightings to artifacts of certain sensors or other mundane explanations, there were others the officials “can’t explain,” Bray said. Bray stressed that nothing in the database or studied by a task force set up to investigate the sightings “would suggest it’s anything nonterrestrial in origin.” Both Bray and Ronald Moultrie, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, identified “insufficient data” as a barrier to understanding what the unidentified phenomena are. “That’s one of the challenges we have,” Moultrie said. That’s something that other scientists can help with, say astrobiologists Jacob Haqq Misra and Ravi Kopparapu. Science News spoke with Haqq Misra, of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, and Kopparapu, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to learn more about how and why. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. “What are they” is the billion-dollar question. We don’t know what they are, and that’s what makes them interesting. Unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, is the term that the military has been using. It’s a little different from the term UFO in the sense that a phenomenon could be something that’s not necessarily a physical solid object. So UAP is maybe a more all-encompassing term.
5-20-22 Monkeypox cases investigated in Europe, US, Canada and Australia
Cases of monkeypox are being investigated in several European countries as well as the US, Canada and Australia, according to health authorities and local media reports. The new cases were reported in Belgium, France, Australia and Germany. This follows infections confirmed in Italy, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, the US, Canada and the UK - where the first European case was reported. Monkeypox is most common in remote parts of Central and West Africa. Instances of the disease outside of the region are often linked to travel to the area. Monkeypox is a rare viral infection which is usually mild and from which most people recover in a few weeks, according to the UK's National Health Service. The virus does not spread easily between people and the risk to the wider public is said to be very low. The first case of the disease in the UK was reported on 7 May. The patient had recently travelled to Nigeria, where they are believed to have caught the virus before travelling to England, the UK Health Security Agency said. There are now 20 confirmed cases in the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Friday. There is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, but a smallpox jab offers 85% protection since the two viruses are quite similar. Authorities in the UK said they had bought stocks of the vaccine and started offering it to those with "higher levels of exposure" to monkeypox. Spanish health authorities have also reportedly purchased thousands of smallpox jabs to deal with the outbreak, according to Spanish newspaper El País. Australia's first case was detected in a man who fell ill after travelling to the UK, the Victorian Department of Health said. In North America, health authorities in the US state of Massachusetts confirmed that a man has been infected after recently travelling to Canada. He was in "good condition" and "poses no risk to the public", officials said.
5-19-22 Could monkeypox become a pandemic? Here's everything you need to know
Dozens of confirmed and suspected cases have been reported worldwide to date, some with no obvious origin, which means the virus could be spreading undetected. There is growing concern about an outbreak of monkeypox, with dozens of confirmed cases and more emerging by the day. Here is what we know so far: Monkeypox is a disease caused by a virus that, as the name suggests, usually spreads among monkeys in Central and West Africa, but occasionally jumps to people, causing small outbreaks. It was first spotted in monkeys in labs in 1958. The first human case was identified in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970. At time of publication, 109 monkeypox cases are either confirmed or suspected worldwide, according to a list of reports being compiled by Moritz Kraemer at the University of Oxford, John Brownstein at Boston Children’s Hospital and their colleagues. The UK has nine confirmed cases, mostly in London. Portugal has 14 confirmed and 20 suspected cases, while Spain has seven confirmed and 24 suspected cases. Italy has two suspected cases, while Belgium has two suspected cases and one confirmed. France and Sweden have one confirmed case each. The US has one confirmed and one suspected case. Canada has one confirmed and 21 suspected cases. Australia has one confirmed and one suspected case. Kraemer and Brownstein think these cases could be the tip of the iceberg. “It’s probably more widespread than we are currently detecting,” says Kraemer. The first person confirmed to be infected in the UK had travelled to Nigeria. They developed a rash on 5 May and were hospitalised on 6 May, but have fully recovered. Two of the other UK cases are linked to this first one, but the latest four cases in the UK have no known links to previous cases, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
5-19-22 Why is it taking so long to get covid vaccines for children under 5?/span>
Few countries currently have covid vaccines available for very young children. With US approvals likely in the next month, here is what you need to know about the vaccines – including why they are still important for kids already exposed to covid. Covid-19 vaccines for children under 5 may be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) next month and become available in the US soon after. The first covid-19 vaccines for people aged 16 and older were approved by authorities in the UK and US in early December 2020, and within days, shots were going into arms. This all took place less than a year after the virus was identified – the fastest vaccine development in history. FDA approvals for younger age groups then came in five-month increments: first for 12 to 15-year-olds in May 2021 and then for 5 to 11-year-olds in late October of the same year. In other countries, there were similar roll-outs. Yet more than two years into the pandemic, most children under 5 are still waiting for their chance at a jab, leaving many parents frustrated by what feels like a delay. Only seven countries – Argentina, Bahrain, China, Chile, Cuba, Hong Kong and Venezuela – have approved a vaccine for younger children, mostly those 3 years or older. Cuba and Venezuela are the only countries where children as young as 2 can currently get vaccinated. That may soon change. On 28 April, Moderna requested an emergency use authorisation (EUA) with the FDA for its covid-19 vaccine for children under 6. The next day, the company filed a request for authorisation with European Union authorities and says similar requests are now under way with other international authorities. In February, Pfizer/BioNTech paused an EUA request for its covid-19 vaccine in children under 5 after preliminary data revealed a two-dose regimen was less effective. It plans to submit data for a three-dose regimen by late May or early June, according to a company spokesperson. The FDA plans to convene in June to review data for both vaccines, and if all goes well, one or more could become available that month, Pete Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, told The Washington Post. Similar approvals would probably follow elsewhere in the world.
5-19-22 Extinction: Why scientists are freezing threatened species in 'biobanks'
"He's gone," murmurs Chester Zoo vet Gabby Drake - holding a stethoscope to the feathered chest of a 28-year-old, bright red tropical parrot. The bird is a chattering lory - an elderly resident at Chester Zoo, and a species listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable to extinction. It is sad to see this striking, characterful bird having to be put to sleep. His small, clawed feet are gnarled with arthritis now too severe to treat. It is not the end though for the unique genetic code contained in his cells. A few small pieces of his body will join samples taken from 100 species. They will be frozen - stored indefinitely - in the UK's largest biobank of living tissue, Nature's Safe. In vials of a nutrient-rich, cell-friendly antifreeze, the samples are kept at -196C, at which point all the natural chemical processes in cells stop - they are suspended in animation. The idea is that, at some point in the future - in decades, perhaps even centuries, they could be resurrected. This is a frozen backstop in case of extinction. Conservationists say we're now losing species faster than ever. Amid a biodiversity crisis that, the UN estimates, threatens one million species of plants and animals with extinction, some scientists are now working out what to put in the freezer for the future. "It's not going to stop extinction, but it'll certainly help," says Tullis Matson, founder of Nature's Safe. Tullis is a tall, friendly and outspoken enthusiast for his charity's mission - preserving living tissue from wild animals. "This is where life begins again," he beams, showing me an image of a vial of cheetah skin cells under the microscope. The monitor is teeming with densely packed skin cells - a body's building blocks. The black dot in the middle of each spiky, connected cell is a nucleus containing a unique set of genetic instructions that made, in this case, a now deceased cheetah.
5-19-22 Monkeypox cases investigated in Europe, US and Canada
Cases of suspected and confirmed Monkeypox are being investigated in a number of European countries, the US, Canada and the UK, according to health authorities and local media reports. The most recent confirmed cases were reported in Italy and Sweden. It follows the confirmation of cases in the US, Spain and Portugal on Wednesday, as well as the investigation of 13 suspected cases in Canada. Monkeypox is most common in remote parts of Central and West Africa. Cases of the disease outside of the region are often linked to travel to the area. Monkeypox is a rare viral infection which is usually mild and from which most people recover in a few weeks, according to the UK's National Health Service. The virus does not spread easily between people and the risk to the wider public is said to be very low. The first case of the disease in the UK was reported on 7 May. The patient had recently travelled to Nigeria, where they are believed to have caught the virus before travelling to England, the UK Health Security Agency said. There are now nine confirmed cases in the UK. The source of these infections has not yet been confirmed but cases seem to have been "locally acquired", the World Health Organization (WHO) says. In Europe, one confirmed case was reported in Sweden on Thursday, as well as one in Italy. Swedish authorities said they were not sure how the individual had contracted the virus, but local media report that the individual in Italy had recently returned from the Canary Islands. Five confirmed cases were also reported in Portugal on Wednesday, as well as seven in Spain. Though no vaccine has been approved for Monkeypox in Europe, Spanish health authorities have reportedly purchased thousands of smallpox vaccines to deal with the outbreak, according to Spanish newspaper El País. Monkeypox is a member of the same family of viruses as smallpox.
5-19-22 Unexplained hepatitis cases in kids offer more questions than answers
The instances are still rare and parents shouldn’t panic. As health officials continue their investigation of unexplained cases of liver inflammation in children, what is known is still outpaced by what isn’t. At least 500 cases of hepatitis from an unknown cause have been reported in children in roughly 30 countries, according to health agencies in Europe and the United States. As of May 18, 180 cases are under review in 36 U.S. states and territories. Many of the children have recovered. But some cases have been severe, with more than two dozen of the kids needing liver transplants. At least a dozen children have died, including five in the United States. The illnesses have mainly been seen in children under age 5. So far, health agencies have ruled out common causes of hepatitis, while reporting that some of the children have tested positive for adenovirus. That pathogen — which infects basically everyone, usually without serious issues — is not known as a primary cause of liver damage. For some children who are positive, officials have identified the particular adenovirus: type 41. But there are several reasons why pinning an adenovirus as the sole hepatitis culprit doesn’t fully add up, researchers say. Nor is it clear whether the recent cases indicate an uptick in hepatitis illnesses, or just more attention. Though the cases seem to have popped up out of nowhere, “we’ve seen similar rare severe liver disease like this in children,” says Anna Peters, a pediatric transplant hepatologist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Most of all, it’s important for parents to remember that the cases described so far “are a rare phenomenon,” Peters says. “Parents shouldn’t panic.” Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can interfere with the organ’s many functions, including filtering blood and regulating clotting. Three hepatitis viruses, called hepatitis A, B and C, are common causes of the illness in the United States. Hepatitis A is spread when infected fecal material reaches the mouth. Children can get B and C when it’s transmitted from a pregnant person to an infant. There are vaccines available for A and B but not C. An excessive dose of acetaminophen can also cause hepatitis in children.
5-18-22 Tracking sleep disruptions could improve nerve pain treatments
After sustaining nerve injuries, mice wake up more often during non-REM sleep – a sign that sleep disruption could help identify nerve pain and the best treatments for it. Pain from nerve injury causes distinct changes in mice’s sleep patterns that aren’t seen with other types of pain. The finding suggests that sleep disturbances could be used to measure and diagnose such neuropathic pain. Quantifying pain is notoriously difficult. Most methods are subjective, such as asking patients to rate their discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10. In animals, the task is even trickier, further complicating pain research and the development of new treatments. One solution may be looking at sleep disturbances – a common complaint for people with chronic pain. Alban Latremoliere at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and his colleagues tracked the sleep patterns of about 50 mice one week before and at least seven weeks after permanent sciatic nerve injury in their legs. The team monitored the mice’s brain activity using electrodes, noting when they entered the different phases of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. Brain activity is higher during REM sleep, as it is when we dream. Non-REM sleep includes three stages: falling asleep, light sleep and deep sleep. After nerve damage, the mice had a greater number of non-REM sleep episodes, but they didn’t last as long – indicating the mice woke up more frequently during this type of sleep. The awakenings were very brief, averaging 2 to 6 seconds. The sleep fragmentation was also consistent over time, with mice still exhibiting non-REM sleep disruptions up to six months after injury. Their REM sleep was unchanged. Mice with other types of pain, such as inflammatory or post-operative pain, didn’t experience the same disruption in non-REM sleep, suggesting it is characteristic of neuropathic pain.
5-18-22 Covid-19 rebound seen in some people after taking Pfizer drug Paxlovid
Pfizer’s Paxlovid can prevent severe covid-19 in vulnerable people when taken as a five-day course at home, but the medicine may not eradicate the virus in everyone. One of the most effective medicines against severe covid-19 may not eradicate the virus in everyone. Several countries – including the US, UK, Canada, Israel and France – may prescribe a five-day course of the Pfizer drug Paxlovid, which can be taken at home, to people who are particularly vulnerable to covid-19’s complications. In the trial that led to its approval, Paxlovid cut the risk of a covid-19-related hospitalisation or death by 88 per cent. But emerging reports now suggest that a small number of people experience a resurgence of symptoms after finishing the five-day course. Paxlovid consists of a drug called nirmatrelvir, which stops the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicating, and a drug called ritonavir, which slows the breakdown of nirmatrelvir in the liver. In the UK, Paxlovid is given to highly vulnerable people, such as those with cancer and weak immune systems. In the US, the eligibility criteria are broader, including anyone who is 65 or older or with conditions such as obesity or diabetes. In the past few weeks, some people are reported to have experienced viral “rebound” after coming off Paxlovid. This may be because SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t been eradicated from the body within the five days, so when some people stop taking Paxlovid, the amount of virus in their bodies increases again. No deaths from this rebound have been reported, but doctors are warning that people experiencing it may be infectious. Most of the drugs authorised to treat covid-19 have been used in those who develop a serious lung infection and need hospital treatment. By the end of 2021, a few medicines were available to help ward off severe illness and are given early in covid-19’s disease course.
5-18-22 Covid-19 vaccines may ward off long covid even if given post-infection
Researchers compared the rate of long covid among people who were vaccinated after catching covid-19 with those who developed long covid before being vaccinated. Getting vaccinated against covid-19 after being infected with the coronavirus may lower your risk of long covid. Daniel Ayoubkhani at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and his colleagues looked at more than 28,000 people living in the UK, aged 18 to 69. All the participants tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine. However, some became infected before the jabs began to be rolled out at the end of 2020. The participants, who are part of the wider ONS covid-19 infection survey, received follow-ups each month between February and September 2021, and by the end of this period they had all been infected and vaccinated. About 24 per cent of the participants said they had experienced long covid to some extent over the seven-month follow-up stage. The researchers compared the rate of long covid among the participants who were vaccinated post-infection to that in the same group of people before they were vaccinated. Results suggest that receiving a single vaccine dose after catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus reduces the risk of continuing long covid symptoms by 13 per cent. The risk fell by a further 9 per cent if the participants received a second vaccine dose by the end of the follow-up period. “We know that long covid symptoms relapse and remit and they come and go,” says Ayoubkhani. “So that’s a strength of this study that we were able to look at long-term trends.” The work suggests vaccines can actively reduce the risk of experiencing persistent long covid, he says. The researchers speculate that covid-19 vaccines may attack any residual SARS-CoV-2 viral presence in the body. “It could be due to this idea of resetting the immune system,” says Ayoubkhani. “Covid may cause the immune system to dysregulate and so the vaccine may reset it.”
5-16-22 How serious is monkeypox and what are the symptoms?
Since 7 May, the UK Health Security Agency has announced three cases of monkeypox, two of which required hospital care. Monkeypox is caused by a virus that is a relative of smallpox. As the name suggests, it was first identified in monkeys, and is mainly confined to West and Central Africa. On 7 May, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced that someone had contracted monkeypox after recently travelling to Nigeria. The individual developed a rash on 29 April and returned to the UK on 4 May, when they were hospitalised. Two days later, a laboratory test confirmed that the individual had the monkeypox virus. Contact tracing began on 11 May, with no contacts reporting monkeypox symptoms to date. One week later, the UKHSA announced that two other people, not related to the case announced on 7 May, had been diagnosed with the monkeypox virus. These individuals live together, with one requiring hospital care and the other isolating. Monkeypox was first reported in the UK in 2018. Seven cases have since been identified, all related to travelling to or from Nigeria. Monkeypox is usually mild, with most people recovering without treatment within 14 to 21 days. Initial symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. A chickenpox-like rash can develop, often beginning on the face, before spreading, particularly to the hands and feet. The rash goes through several stages, developing into papules and fluid-filled pustules, before eventually forming a scab that falls off. Monkeypox is usually mild, however, it has a reported death rate of between 1 per cent and 10 per cent, with children being most likely to die. Monkeypox can be caught from infected wild animals in parts of West and Central Africa. This may occur if you are bitten or if you touch the animal’s blood, fluids, spots, blisters or scabs. Monkeypox may also be transmitted by eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal.
5-18-22 COVID-19 has killed a million Americans. Our minds can’t comprehend that number
Because we can’t grasp such big numbers, we struggle to feel the magnitude of crises. One million deaths. That is now roughly the toll of COVID-19 in the United States. And that official milestone is almost certainly an undercount. The World Health Organization’s data suggest that this country hit a million deaths early in the year. Whatever the precise dates and numbers, the crisis is enormous. The disease has taken the lives of more than 6 million people worldwide. Yet our minds cannot grasp such large numbers. Instead, as we go further out on a mental number line, our intuitive understanding of quantities, or number sense, gets fuzzier. Numbers simply start to feel big. Consequently, people’s emotions do not grow stronger as crises escalate. “The more who die, the less we care,” psychologists Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll wrote in 2014. But even as our brains struggle to grasp big numbers, the modern world is awash in such figures. Demographic information, funding for infrastructure and schools, taxes and national deficits are all calculated in the millions, billions and even trillions. So, too, are the human and financial losses from global crises, including the pandemic, war, famines and climate change. We clearly have a need to conceptualize big numbers. Unfortunately, the slow drumbeat of evolution means our brains have yet to catch up with the times. Numbers start to feel big surprisingly fast, says educational neuroscientist Lindsey Hasak of Stanford University. “The brain seems to consider anything larger than five a large number.” Other scientists peg that value at four. Regardless of the precise pivot from small to big, researchers agree that humans, along with fish, birds, nonhuman primates and other species, do remarkably well at identifying really, really small quantities. That’s because there’s no counting involved. Instead, we and other species quickly recognize these minute quantities through a process called “subitizing” — that is, we look and we immediately see how many.
5-18-22 A Denisovan girl’s fossil tooth may have been unearthed in Laos
A molar adds to suspicions that the mysterious hominids inhabited Southeast Asia's forests. A molar tooth from Southeast Asia probably belonged to a member of a cryptic group of Stone Age hominids called Denisovans, researchers say. If so, this relatively large tooth joins only a handful of fossils from Denisovans, who are known from ancient DNA pegging them as close Neandertal relatives. Analyses of the tooth’s internal structure and protein makeup indicate that the molar came from a girl in the Homo genus. She died between the ages of 3½ and 8½, paleoanthropologist Fabrice Demeter of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues say. A Denisovan molar that dates to at least 160,000 years ago was previously found on the Tibetan Plateau (SN: 12/16/19). The newly discovered tooth strongly resembles that other molar, indicating that the new find is probably Denisovan too, the team reports May 17 in Nature Communications. Before the Tibetan Plateau tooth, all known fossils from the mysterious hominids had been found in Siberia. Estimated ages of sediment and fossil animal bones in Tam Ngu Hao 2, or Cobra Cave, in Laos place the tooth found there between 164,000 and 131,000 years old. It’s possible that the Cobra Cave tooth represents a Neandertal or someone with Denisovan and Neandertal ancestry (SN: 8/22/18), Demeter says. His group hopes to extract DNA from the fossil, which could clarify its evolutionary status. It now appears that at least five Homo species, including Denisovans, inhabited Southeast Asia between roughly 150,000 and 40,000 years ago, Demeter says. Others include Homo sapiens, Homo erectus (SN: 12/18/19), Homo luzonensis (SN: 4/10/19) and Homo floresiensis (SN: 3/30/16), also known as hobbits, he contends. Still, some researchers regard Denisovans as one of several closely related, ancient Homo populations rather than a distinct species (SN: 6/25/21). Whatever evolutionary ID Denisovans actually held, the Cobra Cave tooth adds to suspicions that the hominids inhabited Southeast Asia’s tropical forests as well as Central Asia’s cold mountain ranges and Siberia.
ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY
5-24-22 Ancient Romans may have triggered decline of the world’s rarest seals
Populations of Mediterranean monk seals began shrinking when seafaring civilisations expanded around the Mediterranean basin. The rarest seal species in the world started its population decline millennia ago, possibly due to the rise of ancient human civilisations. Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) are exceptionally endangered. Once widespread throughout the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and warmer North Atlantic coastlines, there are currently only a few hundred left in disjointed populations. Previous research has shown that these groups have low genetic variation, leaving them susceptible to disease and other threats. But it wasn’t clear precisely how these seals became so vulnerable. Jordi Salmona at the Paul Sabatier University in France and his colleagues sought to answer this by delving into the animals’ genetics. The team collected DNA from samples of the skin, hair, faeces and bones of 383 monk seals, both from current and extinct populations. After analysing the DNA, they used models to infer the timing of past drops in the number of seals and their genetic diversity. Surprisingly, the team didn’t see signs of population declines during major climatic disruptions 20,000 years ago, which dropped the sea level in the Mediterranean by more than 120 metres. Nor did they see much impact on genetic diversity from a mass die-off of seals at Cabo Blanco on the northwestern coast of Africa in the 1990s. More than two-thirds of a group of 350 seals perished at Cabo Blanco, the only place in the world where the animals still form a true colony. Instead, many monk seal populations shrank to a tenth of their original size or less between 800 BC and AD 600 – a period that saw the rise of civilisations and widespread seafaring in the Mediterranean basin. The researchers suspect that hunting of seals by people for meat and oil could have baked diminished genetic diversity into the future of the animals. The team points to the Roman Empire’s large-scale exploitation of wildlife during this period, already known to have precipitated localised extinctions of other species.
5-24-22 ‘Wandering’ salamanders glide like skydivers from the world’s tallest trees
The amphibians control their descents without the use of any webbed limbs. In one of the tallest trees on Earth, a tan, mottled salamander ventures out on a fern growing high up on the trunk. Reaching the edge, the amphibian leaps, like a skydiver exiting a plane. The salamander’s confidence, it seems, is well-earned. The bold amphibians can expertly control their descent, gliding while maintaining a skydiver’s spread-out posture, researchers report May 23 in Current Biology. Wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans) are native to a strip of forest in far northwestern California. They routinely climb into the canopies of coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). There — as high as 88 meters up — the amphibians inhabit mats of ferns that grow in a suspended, miniature ecosystem. Unlike many salamanders that typically spend their days in streams or bogs, some of these wanderers may spend their whole lives in the trees. Integrative biologist Christian Brown was studying these canopy crawlers as a graduate student at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in Arcata, when he noticed they would jump from a hand or branch when perturbed. Now at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Brown and his colleagues wondered if the salamanders’ arboreal ways and proclivity to leap were related, and if the small creatures could orient themselves during a fall. Brown and his team captured five each of A. vagrans, a slightly less arboreal species (A. lugubris), and two ground-dwelling salamanders (A. flavipunctatus and Ensatina eschscholtzii). The researchers then put each salamander in a vertical wind tunnel to simulate falling from a tree, filming the animals’ movements with a high-speed camera. In all of 45 trials, the wandering salamanders showed tight control, using their outstretched limbs and tail to maintain a stable position in the air and continually adjusting as they sailed. All these salamanders slowed their descents’ speed, what the researchers call parachuting, using their appendages at some point, and many would change course and move horizontally, or glide.
5-24-22 Gene-edited tomatoes could soon be sold in England
Tomatoes that boost the body's vitamin D could be among the first gene-edited crops allowed on sale in England. Researchers in Norwich created the plants by turning off a specific molecule in their genetic code. A bill will be introduced on Wednesday to allow commercial growing of gene-edited crops in England. The technique is currently not used for food production in the UK because of rules set by the EU but Brexit has enabled the UK to set its own rules. One in six people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D, which is vital to strong bones and muscles and helps reduce risk of cancer. Prof Cathie Martin, who led the research at the John Innes Centre, said that the development, published in Nature Plants, could be hugely beneficial. "With humans, half an hour in the sunshine every day is enough to make enough vitamin D. But a lot of people don't have that time outside and that's why they need supplements. The tomatoes themselves could provide another source of vitamin D in their diet." If government legislation gets through Parliament successfully, the vitamin-boosting fruits could be among the first gene-edited crops allowed on supermarket shelves in England. Gene editing is a relatively recent technology. It involves switching genes on and off by snipping out a small section of the plant's DNA. The older technique of genetic modification involves putting genes in, sometimes from a completely different species. EU restrictions mean both methods have been effectively banned in Europe for a quarter century. Both methods are used in other countries, to produce food. But the EU set stringent regulations on GM crops 25 years ago because of safety concerns and public opposition to the technology. Gene-edited crops are covered by the same regulations. The UK currently follows European Union regulations on both technologies.
5-24-22 'Democratic' jackdaws use noise to make decisions
Jackdaws use a "democratic" process to decide when to leave their roosts en masse, scientists have discovered. Thousands of jackdaws can suddenly take to the morning skies in winter, creating a whirling black cloud of creatures. Researchers have now found that the birds call out when they want to leave. Then when the noise reaches a critical level, it signals the roost is ready to depart, and the birds fly away. It's a rare insight into how animals make group decisions, Alex Thornton, professor of cognitive evolution at University of Exeter, told BBC News. "When a bird calls, it's casting a vote or signalling it wants to leave," Prof Thornton explains. The collective decision to depart then rests on two things. The first is noise volume and the second is the crescendo or how rapidly the noise levels increase. Once the birds reach consensus, the roost of thousands launches from the tree within five seconds on average, forming one of the famous winter UK spectacles. When the noise levels rise more rapidly, the roost leaves earlier, the researchers say. In Norfolk roosts of 40,000 jackdaws have been observed leaving trees en masse. Jackdaws want to leave the trees together because it protects them against predators or is useful for "information-sharing", Prof Thornton suggests. "If you're flying off altogether, you might notice that another individual is particularly well-fed or you can tell from their calls that they've eaten. You might realise that's a bird worth following to find a good place for a meal," Prof Thornton explains. To observe the birds' behaviour, scientists attached audio recorders to trees where jackdaws roost in Cornwall over two winters. Led by Masters student Alex Dibnah, the researchers analysed the sounds and compared the noise to times at which the birds left the trees. To test their findings, the scientists played back the recordings at jackdaws and observed that the roosts responded to the sounds, departing six minutes earlier on average.
5-23-22 Flocks of jackdaws 'democratically' decide when to take flight at once
Hundreds of jackdaws roosting in trees coordinate when to take off together by squawking until the noise is loud enough to signal a consensus. A crescendo of squawks from hundreds of roosting jackdaws may help the flock reach a “democratic consensus” about when to take off all at once. “They all leave together, which is a really striking sight. The sky just suddenly fills with black birds. It’s like a black snowstorm,” says Alex Thornton at the University of Exeter, UK. Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), a close relative of crows, roost overnight in huge numbers and then split up into smaller groups during the day to feed in different areas. Thornton and his colleagues recorded hundreds of hours of video of six jackdaw roosts in Cornwall, UK, over a period of several months. They quantified the intensity of the birds’ calls before, during and after they took flight, then compared it with the footage of their departures. The researchers found that the calls grew in intensity before take-off, and decided to test whether there was a causal link. By playing back recordings of these intense calls, they found they were able to hasten the birds’ departure by several minutes, while recordings of other noises had no effect. Thornton says this is evidence that the birds are effectively casting their vote to signify they are ready to leave, and that when these calls reach a certain threshold, it is taken as a sign for the entire group to depart en masse. “At first you just get a few calls, then more and more birds join in and it builds and it builds, and the steeper that increase, the earlier they leave,” he says. They also found that the final intensity of the calls just before taking flight correlated with how cohesive the departure was. Most of the time, the birds took off as one early in the morning, with hundreds getting into the air within around 4 seconds of each other. On rare occasions when the intensity of calling didn’t build up enough, the jackdaws seemed to fail to reach a consensus, and instead took off in “dribs and drabs”, says Thornton.
5-23-22 Gene-edited tomato offers new plant-based source of vitamin D
Scientists used CRISPR technology to make a tiny edit in a gene to stop tomato plants producing an enzyme that converts a vitamin D precursor into cholesterol. Biologists have created gene-edited tomatoes that offer a new plant-based source of vitamin D, as the UK government prepares to change the law to allow such “precision-bred” food to be sold in supermarkets. Eating two of the tomatoes a day would address typical deficiencies in vitamin D, which about a billion people globally don’t get enough of, particularly in sun-starved northern latitudes. The engineered fruit also offers a new vegan alternative to typical vitamin D supplements. However, despite the UK government set to introduce a bill on 25 May to treat gene-edited food differently to genetically modified organisms, the tomatoes face a series of technical and economic hurdles before they can become widely available. They were made by editing a gene called Sl7-DR2 to stop the plant producing an enzyme that converts provitamin D3, a precursor to vitamin D, into cholesterol. “We altered a very small fragment of a part of this gene,” says Jie Li at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, who led the research. “Comparing with the non-edited tomato plants, we didn’t see any effect on growth, development or yield in our edited plant. It just looked like a normal tomato fruit.” Cathie Martin, also at the John Innes Centre, says that because of the gene’s structure, it would have been “very difficult” to use traditional plant breeding to arrive at a natural mutation that knocked out the enzyme. Traditional techniques would have taken 10 years to achieve the same result that took 1.5 years using a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, she says. Vegans may see the tomatoes as a new way to get more vitamin D. Lichen-sourced vitamin D3 supplements are the only existing vegan option and are more expensive than the vast majority of vitamin D3 supplements, which are sourced from lanolin in sheep wool.
5-23-22 Watch salamanders 'skydive' in a miniature wind tunnel
Tree-dwelling salamanders control their fall as they float down from trees by stretching out their limbs like human skydivers do. Salamanders that live in the world’s tallest trees use an outstretched skydiving posture to slow their descent when they jump or fall to the ground. These wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans) seek out moisture in the canopy of California redwoods and thrive in damp fern platforms 60 metres off the ground. “The fern mats are a refuge up there that allow them to survive, but it’s a harsh world,” says Christian Brown at the University of South Florida. “There are obstacles and dangers, including possibly falling out of the tree.” While working with the salamanders in a lab, Brown noticed the amphibians willingly leapt from his hand with their limbs splayed. “After they jumped, we realised that they assumed this parachuting posture,” he says. “They seemed to have control, but, in real time, it’s impossible to tell.” So, Brown and his colleagues designed an experiment that would let them watch the action in slow motion. After ruling out the possibility of dropping the salamanders from treetops or buildings, they had an ingenious idea: plopping the amphibians in a vertical wind tunnel. The machine, which resembles a miniature indoor skydiving facility, allowed the researchers to record the nuances of the salamander’s motion for a few seconds on camera. “We dropped them in the wind tunnel and everybody was kind of floored initially,” says Brown. By stretching out their legs, the salamanders slowed their vertical speed by up to 10 per cent, and they used their tails as rudders to glide horizontally. “We were a bit shocked by just how adept they are at controlling their aerial behaviours.” To see if this ability was limited to wandering salamanders, the team also put three other species through the same trial: arboreal salamanders (Aneides lugubris), speckled black salamanders (Aneides flavipunctatus) and ensatina salamanders (Ensatina eschscholtzii). Arboreal and speckled black salamanders are known to climb trees, while ensatina salamanders live on the ground. Some of the other tree-dwelling species adopted a splayed posture on occasion, but the wandering salamander, which lives furthest from the forest floor, assumed the skydiving position every time.
5-23-22 Living with a dog during childhood may reduce risk of Crohn’s disease
Researchers tracked more than 4000 people at risk of developing Crohn’s disease and found that those who lived with a dog between the ages of 5 and 15 were 40 per cent less likely to develop the disease. People with a family history of Crohn’s disease who grow up with a dog seem less likely to develop the condition. Crohn’s is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). About 1.3 per cent of US adults have IBD, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of the condition is increasing in the US and other Western countries for unknown reasons. One potential explanation is the so-called hygiene hypothesis. “The hygiene hypothesis is related to the fact that in the Western world, there are less exposures to microbes. A potential effect of this lack of microbial exposure is an increased risk of chronic disease later in life,” says Williams Turpin at the University of Toronto. To look into this further, Turpin and his colleagues analysed data from 4289 participants of the Crohn’s Colitis Canada GEM Project. Since 2008, the project has followed more than 5000 people who have first-degree relatives with Crohn’s disease, a risk factor for developing the condition. Researchers have collected information every six months on participants’ physical health and lifestyle. Turpin’s team found that those who lived with a dog between the ages of 5 and 15 were 40 per cent less likely to develop Crohn’s than those who didn’t. The researchers then examined faecal and urine samples from all participants and found that those who grew up with a dog had a slightly more diverse microbiome and greater amounts of a bacteria called Adlercreutzia. The bacteria might be one mechanism by which owning a dog protects people against developing IBD, says Turpin, who presented the research at the Digestive Disease Week Conference on 23 May in San Diego, California. Previous research has found that people who develop another form of IBD known as ulcerative colitis have less Adlercreutzia in their gut. And, the bacteria is commonly found in dogs’ microbiomes.
5-23-22 Global food crisis is leaving millions hungry, but there are solutions
A storm of events is pushing food prices higher, exacerbating the hunger and malnutrition already experienced by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are going hungry as food prices continue to rise as a result of everything from the coronavirus pandemic to India’s extreme heatwave to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Without meaningful action to make food more affordable, we may see starvation and political upheaval. “The war in Ukraine, on top of all the other global crises, threatens tens of millions of people with food insecurity, malnutrition, mass hunger & famine. There is enough food in our world for everyone, but we must act together, urgently & with solidarity,” tweeted António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, on 19 May. Food prices had already reached an all-time high before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Globally, nearly 300 million people – another record high – weren’t getting enough food, and, of those, 50 million were “knocking on famine’s door”, said the head of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, at a UN Security Council meeting on 19 May. Now things are set to get even worse. The hardest-hit nations include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, but even in wealthier countries, people on low incomes are being affected by rising prices, with food banks in the US and UK reporting soaring demand. Not all who can afford enough calories to live can stretch to a balanced diet, says Matin Qaim at the University of Bonn in Germany. That means people don’t get enough key micronutrients, such as iron, which can lead to health issues, such as a lack of red blood cells. In children, such deficiencies can have detrimental effects that last a lifetime, says Qaim. In 2020, a fifth of under 5s – 150 million of them – were estimated to be affected by such “stunting”. This situation may have become worse even before the latest price spike: a study published last week found that the cost of nutritious food rose more in countries with higher numbers of covid-19 cases.
5-23-22 These are the first plants grown in moon dirt
The small garden shows the promise and potential challenges of farming on the moon. That’s one small stem for a plant, one giant leap for plant science. In a tiny, lab-grown garden, the first seeds ever sown in lunar dirt have sprouted. This small crop, planted in samples returned by Apollo missions, offers hope that astronauts could someday grow their own food on the moon. But plants potted in lunar dirt grew more slowly and were scrawnier than others grown in volcanic material from Earth, researchers report May 12 in Communications Biology. That finding suggests that farming on the moon would take a lot more than a green thumb. “Ah! It’s so cool!” says University of Wisconsin–Madison astrobotanist Richard Barker of the experiment. “Ever since these samples came back, there’s been botanists that wanted to know what would happen if you grew plants in them,” says Barker, who wasn’t involved in the study. “But everyone knows those precious samples … are priceless, and so you can understand why [NASA was] reluctant to release them.” Now, NASA’s upcoming plans to send astronauts back to the moon as part of its Artemis program have offered a new incentive to examine that precious dirt and explore how lunar resources could support long-term missions (SN: 7/15/19). The dirt, or regolith, that covers the moon is basically a gardener’s worst nightmare. This fine powder of razor-sharp bits is full of metallic iron, rather than the oxidized kind that is palatable to plants (SN: 9/15/20). It’s also full of tiny glass shards forged by space rocks pelting the moon. What it is not full of is nitrogen, phosphorus or much else plants need to grow. So, even though scientists have gotten pretty good at coaxing plants to grow in fake moon dust made of earthly materials, no one knew whether newborn plants could put down their delicate roots in the real stuff.
5-22-22 Future foods: What you could be eating by 2050
Scientists have drawn up a list of little-known plants that could be on the menu by 2050. In the future, you could be breakfasting on false banana or snacking on pandanus tree fruit. The Ukraine war has highlighted the dangers of relying on a few globally-traded crops. With 90% of calories coming from just 15 crops, experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London are hunting for ingredients to future-proof our diets. Climate change is increasing the risk of severe 'food shocks' where crops fail and prices of staples rise rapidly around the world. Diversifying the food we eat is one of the solutions to alleviating hunger, addressing biodiversity loss, and helping to adapt to climate change, says Kew researcher, Dr Sam Pirinon. "We know that there are thousands of edible plant species across the world that are consumed by different populations and this is where we can find some of the solutions for these global challenges of the future," he says. Of more than 7,000 edible plants worldwide, only 417 are widely grown and used for food. The pandanus (Pandanus tectorius) is a small tree that grows in coastal areas from the Pacific Islands to the Philippines. The leaves are used to flavour sweet and savoury dishes across much of Southeast Asia, while the pineapple-like fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. The tree can tolerate challenging conditions, including drought, strong winds and salt spray, says research fellow at Kew, Dr Marybel Soto Gomez. "It is a climate resilient and nutritious food that is also delicious," she says. "It would be great to diversify our food portfolio to include food that is culturally appropriate, nutritious, and can be grown in challenging conditions all around the world." If the pandanus can be used sustainably, without depleting resources for local people, we should be growing it more widely, she says.
5-22-22 Governments should subsidise food and energy, says IMF boss
Governments need to subsidise the cost of food and energy for the poorest members of society, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has told the BBC. People around the world are struggling with the rising cost of living. Kristalina Georgieva said support needs to be provided "in a very targeted manner, preferably by providing subsidies directly to people". Many governments are providing some help but critics argue it's not enough. When it comes to the cost of living crisis, Ms Georgieva said: "There are two priorities, one the very poor people, segments of society that are now struggling with high food and energy prices". The second, she added, is to support those businesses that have been "most damaged" by the war in Ukraine. The IMF's role is to work with governments to stabilise the global economy and enhance prosperity. However, that's proving challenging because food prices have hit record highs this year, whilst oil and gas prices have also risen sharply. This is largely because of the twin shocks of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Between them Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of crops and hydrocarbons. The importance of these commodities to the global economy has led the annualised inflation rate to reach its highest point in decades in many countries: 9% in the UK, 8.3% in the US and 7.4% in the Eurozone. Central banks are lifting interest rates to try and slow the increase in prices, which has led some influential figures such as Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein to warn of the risk of recession. Ms Georgieva is concerned about the impact those higher borrowing costs will have on governments who have to repay huge debts they took on to get through the pandemic. She said governments needed to be "very careful" about how much money they spent and what they spent it on.
5-21-22 Female mice release banana-scented urine when pregnant to deter males
Pregnant and lactating female mice release a banana-smelling chemical in their urine that is thought to stress out males so they don’t commit infanticide. Female mice that are heavily pregnant or have recently given birth produce a banana-smelling chemical in their urine that stresses out males, possibly to stop them from killing their pups. Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University in Montreal and his colleagues discovered this behaviour by accident. “We were doing experiments with pregnant female mice and noticed that male mice that were being used for other experiments in the same room were acting a bit crazy,” he says. To explore further, they tested the stress levels of male mice when they were placed in a cage near that of another male mouse or a female that was either not pregnant, newly pregnant, heavily pregnant, had recently given birth and was lactating, or had given birth in the past and was no longer lactating. The male mice showed reduced pain sensitivity and elevated corticosteroid levels – which are both signs of stress – when they were caged near female mice that were heavily pregnant or lactating, but not when they were near the other mice. The researchers discovered that this was because heavily pregnant and lactating females produced a chemical in their urine called amyl acetate, which smells of bananas. This wafted into the males’ nearby cages and made them stressed when they sniffed it. Just exposing the males to this chemical alone made them stressed, even when there were no pregnant or lactating females around. Females probably release this chemical when they are about to have pups or have just had them to let males know, “if you come any closer, I’ll beat the crap out of you”, says Mogil. This is because male mice try to kill pups that have been fathered by other males, he says.
5-20-22 Bottlenose dolphins can identify friends by tasting their urine
We already knew that bottlenose dolphins recognise each other through their signature whistles, but now it seems the taste of their urine also plays a role. Bottlenose dolphins can recognise familiar individuals just by tasting their urine, similar to how the smell of a friend’s perfume can be part of our mental representation of them. Jason Bruck at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas and his colleagues found that bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) spent about three times longer sampling water that contained urine collected from familiar dolphins compared with unfamiliar ones, suggesting they recognised their friends’ unique urine tastes. This sampling involved “opening their mouths and running their tongues through the water where we poured the urine in front of them”, says Bruck. Bottlenose dolphins are also known to identify each other through signature whistles that they invent early in life. The latest finding indicates they can recognise each other in more than one way – either through taste or sound. Interestingly, the dolphins were found to investigate areas for longer when they could taste a friend’s urine and simultaneously hear their whistle played through a speaker, compared with when the whistle of another known individual was played. It suggests they have concepts of individual friends in their minds that connect their unique taste and sound, says Bruck. This is similar to how we have mental representations of our friends that integrate multiple elements like the smell of their perfume and the sound of their voice. “While that might sound easy to do for a human, animals don’t always do that,” says Bruck. Being able to identify other dolphins through urine is useful because it hangs around, he says. “If the urine cue can persist, then another dolphin would be able to detect that and determine if a past ally or enemy is in the area,” says Bruck. Another advantage is being able to detect potential mates, he says. Dolphins commonly inspect each other’s genitals, including during courtship, which may provide an opportunity to sample each other’s urine, says Bruck.
5-20-22 These dolphins may turn to corals for skin care
. On her deep-sea dives, wildlife biologist Angela Ziltener of the University of Zurich often noticed Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphins doing something intriguing. The dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) would line up to take turns brushing their bodies against corals or sea sponges lining the seafloor. After more than a decade as an “adopted” member of the pod — a status that let Ziltener get up close without disturbing the animals — she and her team may have figured out why the animals behave this way: The dolphins may use corals and sea sponges as their own private pharmacies. The invertebrates make antibacterial compounds — as well as others with antioxidant or hormonal properties — that are probably released into the waters of the Northern Red Sea when dolphins make contact, Ziltener and colleagues report May 19 in iScience. So the rubbing could help dolphins maintain healthy skin. Ziltener captured video showing members of the pod using corals as if they were a bath brush, swimming through to rub various parts of their bodies. Oftentimes it’s a peaceful social gathering. “It’s not like they’re fighting each other for the turn,” Ziltener says. “No, they wait and then they go through.” Other times, an individual dolphin will arrive at a patch of coral on its own. But the dolphins won’t buff their bodies against just any corals, Ziltener says. They’re picky, primarily rubbing up against gorgonian corals (Rumphella aggregata) and leather corals (Sarcophyton sp.), as well as a kind of sea sponge (Ircinia sp.). Ziltener and colleagues analyzed one-centimeter slices taken from wild corals and sponges. The team identified 17 compounds overall, including 10 with antibacterial or antimicrobial activity. It’s possible that as the dolphins swim through the corals, the compounds help protect the animals from skin irritations or infections, says coauthor Gertrud Morlock, an analytical chemist at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany.
5-20-22 Caribou gut parasites indirectly create a greener tundra
Infected herbivores eat less, allowing plants to flourish. Gut parasites in large plant eaters like caribou thrive out of sight and somewhat out of mind. But these tiny tummy tenants can have big impacts on the landscape that their hosts travel through. Digestive tract parasites in caribou can reduce the amount that their hosts eat, allowing for more plant growth in the tundra where the animals live, researchers report in the May 17 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The finding reveals that even nonlethal infections can have reverberating effects through ecosystems. Interactions between species have long been known to ripple through ecosystems, indirectly impacting other parts of the food web. When predators eat herbivores, for example, a reduction in plant-eating mouths leads to changes in the plant community. This is how sea otters, for example, can encourage kelp growth by feeding on herbivorous urchins (SN: 3/29/21). “Anytime you have a change in species interactions that changes what the animals are doing on the landscape, it can influence their impact on the ecosystem,” says Amanda Koltz, an ecologist at Washington University in St. Louis. When parasites and pathogens kill their hosts, it can have a similar effect to predators on ecosystems. A prime example is the rinderpest virus, which in the late 19th century devastated populations of ruminants — buffalo, antelope, cattle — in sub-Saharan Africa. Once wildebeest populations in East Africa were spared further infection following the vaccination of cattle and the eradication of the virus, their exploding numbers trimmed the grass back in the Serengeti and led to other landscape changes. But unlike rinderpest, most infections aren’t lethal. Nonlethal parasite infections are pervasive in ruminants — plant eaters that play key roles in shaping vegetation on land. Koltz and her team wondered if changes to a ruminant’s overall health or behavior from a chronic parasitic infection could also induce changes in the surrounding plant community.
5-19-22 The urban beekeeping boom is hurting wild pollinator species
The recent global trend for urban apiary amounts to "bee-washing" that detracts from efforts to reverse the decline in wild pollinators, argues Graham Lawton. DURING one of the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 – it must have been the first, as we were spending a lot of time sunbathing in the garden – one of my neighbours started keeping bees. He would emerge from his back door wearing the full get-up and fumigate the hive before examining the interior for honey. We live in London, so barely knew him, and he never offered us a jar of honey, but it was an entertaining spectacle that gave us some cheer on those dreary days. I didn’t know it then, but my neighbour was part of a global trend. London, along with Berlin, New York, Paris, Zurich and many other cities, has seen a huge rise in urban beekeeping in recent years. I was all for it: we live in a gritty part of town where any sort of rewilding is welcome. My wife and I discussed taking up beekeeping too, or at least making our little garden more bee-friendly with a few bee hotels or more flowers. We didn’t do any of these things, and I am relieved that we didn’t. Because, although urban beekeeping feels like it must be making a positive contribution to nature conservation by helping to reverse the pollinator decline, the truth is rather different. Far from helping, it can actually do harm. To understand why, it is important to recognise that the domesticated bees we keep in hives – the European or western honeybee (Apis mellifera) – isn’t remotely endangered and doesn’t need saving. What do need saving are the hundreds of other species – many of them bees, but also butterflies, hoverflies, moths, beetles, bats and birds – that also provide vital pollination services. Many of these wild pollinators are in a worrying decline across the world. However, their city-dwelling populations are surprisingly healthy. Bee species richness has been found to be higher in urban areas than in surrounding farmland, and bumblebees also thrive better in cities. This is largely due to the fact that cities contain a wide variety of bee-friendly habitats with relatively low use of pesticides and copious blooms of wild and garden flowers: parks, gardens, allotments, cemeteries, railway verges, campuses and more.
5-18-22 How the massive dogs bred to protect livestock could save wolves too
Livestock guardian dogs traditionally used to protect herd animals from predators are now also being hailed as a way to conserve the animals they are trained to scare off. WOLVES were once common in Portugal. As in other parts of Europe, they have been persecuted almost out of existence, with their range reduced by 80 per cent and numbers down to just 300 or so. Even now, when it is illegal to kill wolves, farmers still poison or shoot them to protect livestock. Biologist Silvia Ribeiro is on a mission to change that. To help farmers coexist peacefully with wolves, she uses an ally from the past: livestock guardian dogs. For millennia, these dogs worked alongside shepherds to protect herds against wolves and bears that roamed in many regions of Europe and Asia. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, when such predators were largely exterminated, most guardian dogs lost their jobs and the breeds nearly went extinct. In the past 25 years, Ribeiro brought back four of them, placing 675 pups with herds of goats, sheep and cattle. The aim isn’t simply to protect livestock, but to conserve wolves too. Ribeiro’s work is part of a much bigger trend. Around the world, as the rewilding movement grows and predators return to or expand their ranges, guardian dogs are enjoying an unexpected revival. They are even being put to new uses, such as guarding penguins and marsupials in Australia. To increase the success of this venture, Ribeiro and other scientists are rediscovering what it takes to make a good guardian dog. But they also want to know whether they really can change how farmers perceive predators, reducing livestock deaths and averting revenge killings – and whether using them is a viable strategy to conserve threatened and endangered species.
5-18-22 Young wasps routinely eat their own siblings in the nest
Isodontia harmandi wasps make nests and leave food for their young in bamboo canes. When that food runs out, the larvae turn to cannibalism. Some wasp larvae take sibling rivalry to a new level by routinely cannibalising their nestmates. Most wasp and bee larvae grow in individual brood cells within a hive. But solitary wasps like Isodontia harmandi are different. Females tuck fertilised eggs and food for their young into tunnel-like chambers such as bamboo cane – so that up to a dozen larvae may share a single cell. Bunking in such tight quarters creates fierce competition for food, and new research shows the larvae frequently turn on each other to guarantee a meal. Before this study, “there were some anecdotal observations on cannibalism of this species”, says author Tomoji Endo at Kobe College in Japan. But “there was little evidence”, he says. To see if and how these wasps were feasting on their family, Endo and his colleague Yui Imasaki placed bamboo cane in various locations throughout central Japan between 2010 and 2015. They waited for the females to lay their eggs inside, then brought the nests into their lab and watched the larvae develop. In 30 of the 39 broods, young wasps opted to eat each other. The cannibalism continued in 23 of the nests after the cocoon phase began. “We were of course shocked that wasp larvae routinely cannibalise their nest mates,” says Endo. “We were also impressed that there were no obvious aggressive interactions between cannibal and victim.” The larvae seemed to accept their fate without a fight. Endo and Imasaki found that cannibalism was more likely to occur in brood cells with lots of larvae, and less likely to happen when foods provided by their mother like nectars, plants and smaller insects were abundant. The researchers hypothesise that female wasps produce more offspring to ensure a side buffet is always available to their larvae. That way, some of their babies can avoid starvation should traditional food supplies run low.