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ATHEISM and HUMANISM
4-5-20 Coronavirus: Trump predicts ‘a lot of death’ as cases pass 300,000
US President Donald Trump has warned Americans to prepare for the "toughest week" of the coronavirus pandemic yet, predicting a surge in deaths. At his daily briefing, Mr Trump said "there will be death" in a grim assessment of the days ahead. He sought to reassure the worst-hit states, promising medical supplies and military personnel to combat the virus. But in contrast to his warning, Mr Trump suggested easing social-distancing guidelines for Easter. "We have to open our country again," Mr Trump told a news conference at the White House on Saturday. "We don't want to be doing this for months and months and months." (Webmaster's comment: Trump is playing politics with our lives!) Mr Trump's calls to relax restrictions came on the day confirmed coronavirus infections in the US surpassed 300,000, the highest number in the world. As of Saturday, there were almost 8,500 deaths from Covid-19 in the US, with most in New York state. New York state recorded 630 more deaths, another daily record that takes its toll to 3,565. The state now has almost as many cases - more than 113,000 - as the whole of Italy, one of the countries worst-hit by coronavirus. President Trump gave a candid assessment of what lies ahead for the US in the coming weeks. "This will be probably the toughest week between this week and next week, and there will be a lot of death, unfortunately, but a lot less death than if this wasn't done," Mr Trump said. To support states, Mr Trump said his administration would be deploying a "tremendous amount of military, thousands of soldiers, medical workers, professionals". The military personnel will "soon" be advised of their assignments, he said, adding that "1,000 military personnel" were being deployed to New York City. Mr Trump also addressed his use of the Defence Production Act, a Korean-War-era law that gives him powers to control the production and supply of US-made medical products. He said he was "very disappointed" with 3M, a US company that makes face masks, saying it "should be taking care of our country" instead of selling to others. But he rejected accusations that the US had committed an act of "modern piracy" by redirecting 200,000 Germany-bound masks for its own use.
4-5-20 The race for a coronavirus vaccine
Researchers are working frantically on a shot that would immunize people against Covid-19. Why does it take so long? Here's everything you need to know:
- Is a vaccine close? Despite the global competition to develop a coronavirus vaccine, experts agree one won't be available for at least 12 to 18 months. The race kicked off Jan. 10, when Chinese scientists published the complete 30,000-letter genetic code of SARS-CoV-2, (Webmaster's comment: The Chinese in the lead again!) the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
- What's the holdup? Before injecting a vaccine into millions of people, scientists need to conduct tests to prove that it actually protects against a specific pathogen and doesn't have serious side effects. Under normal circumstances, a vaccine can take a decade to get FDA approval.
- How is a vaccine created? There are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses, but new technology is accelerating the process; three hours after China published the COVID-19 genome, Inovio Pharmaceuticals in San Diego used a computer algorithm to produce a vaccine blueprint.
- How long will testing take? Clinical trials usually occur in three phases. First, about 50 healthy human volunteers are paid $1,100 each to be injected with a candidate vaccine, and then monitored to see if they produce antibodies without unintended side effects. If that's successful, a few hundred people get the vaccine, and their immune response and side effects are carefully studied. In phase three, several thousand people are tested: Half get the vaccine, half get a placebo; if vaccinated subjects don't get sick or get sick at much lower rates, the vaccine is ready for FDA approval.
- What are the top contenders? Some of the most promising vaccines build on proven science. Janssen, the Belgian pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is developing a vaccine modeled on the successful vaccine for Ebola. Inovio, the San Diego–based company, and Maryland-based Novavax are modeling vaccines on candidates in advanced trials for MERS, a coronavirus disease similar to COVID-19. In China, 1,000 scientists are working on a vaccine and launching more than 200 clinical trials to test everything from anti-flu drugs to ancient Chinese herbal medicine. (Webmaster's comment: My money is on them finding a vaccine first!)
- What's a realistic timeline? There are dozens of vaccines in the pipeline, but COVID-19 cases are expected to peak in the U.S. months before any of them is approved. Scientists raced to find vaccines for SARS, in the early 2000s, and MERS, in 2012, only to shelve their work when those outbreaks were contained.
- Promising treatments: A treatment that lessens the impact of COVID-19 is expected to come before a vaccine, but doctors on the front lines warn against high hopes. "We have no idea what works or does not at this point," says Andre Kalil, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Kalil is leading U.S. clinical trials for one of the most promising treatments, the antiviral drug remdesivir, which was developed for Ebola.
4-5-20 Coronavirus: Scientists brand 5G claims 'complete rubbish'
Conspiracy theories claiming 5G technology helps transmit coronavirus have been condemned by the scientific community. Videos have been shared on social media showing mobile phone masts on fire in Birmingham and Merseyside - along with the claims. The posts have been shared on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram - including by verified accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers. But scientists say the idea of a connection between Covid-19 and 5G is "complete rubbish" and biologically impossible. The conspiracy theories have been branded "the worst kind of fake news" by NHS England Medical Director Stephen Powis. Many of those sharing the post are pushing a conspiracy theory falsely claiming that 5G - which is used in mobile phone networks and relies on signals carried by radio waves - is somehow responsible for coronavirus. These theories appear to have first emerged via Facebook posts in late January, around the same time the first cases were recorded in the US. They appear to fall broadly in to two camps: One claims 5G can suppress the immune system, thus making people more susceptible to catching the virus. The other suggests the virus can somehow be transmitted through the use of 5G technology. Both these notions are "complete rubbish," says Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading. "The idea that 5G lowers your immune system doesn't stand up to scrutiny," Dr Clarke says. "Your immune system can be dipped by all sorts of thing - by being tired one day, or not having a good diet. Those fluctuations aren't huge but can make you more susceptible to catching viruses." While very strong radio waves can cause heating, 5G is nowhere near strong enough to heat people up enough to have any meaningful effect. "Radio waves can disrupt your physiology as they heat you up, meaning your immune system can't function. But [the energy levels from] 5G radio waves are tiny and they are nowhere near strong enough to affect the immune system. There have been lots of studies on this."
4-4-20 Coronavirus: Trump to defy 'voluntary' advice for Americans to wear masks
US President Donald Trump has said he will not wear a face mask despite new medical guidance advising Americans to do so. He could not see himself greeting "presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens" in the Oval Office while wearing one, he said. He stressed that the guidance released on Friday was "voluntary". "You do not have to do it," he said. "I don't think I'm going to be doing it." The guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government's public health advisory agency, came as the US reported more than 1,100 deaths in a single day - the highest total for a 24-hour period anywhere in the world. The US has so far confirmed 278,458 cases of Covid-19 and more than 7,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. New York state remains the worst affected area, with nearly 3,000 deaths, and state governor Andrew Cuomo has appealed for help from other parts of the country. Until now, US health authorities had said that only the sick, or those caring for patients of coronavirus, should wear masks, but newer studies suggest that covering up one's face is important to prevent inadvertent transmission. "From recent studies we know that the transmission from individuals without symptoms is playing a more significant role in the spread of the virus than previously understood," Mr Trump said on Friday. However, he told reporters after announcing the CDC's new guidance: "I just don't want to do it myself." "Sitting in the Oval Office... I somehow don't see it for myself." Americans are now advised to use clean cloth or fabric to cover their faces whilst in public. Officials have stressed that medical masks remain in short supply, and should be left for healthcare workers. The guidance comes as the number of cases globally climbs past one million.
4-4-20 Coronavirus: US accused of ‘piracy’ over mask ‘confiscation’
The US has been accused of redirecting 200,000 Germany-bound masks for its own use, in a move condemned as "modern piracy". The local government in Berlin said the shipment of US-made masks was "confiscated" in Bangkok. The FFP2 masks, which were ordered by Berlin's police force, did not reach their destination, it said. Andreas Geisel, Berlin's interior minister, said the masks were presumably diverted to the US. The US company that makes the masks, 3M, has been prohibited from exporting its medical products to other countries under a Korean-War-era law invoked by President Donald Trump. On Friday, Mr Trump said he was using the Defence Production Act to demand that US firms provide more medical supplies to meet domestic demand. "We need these items immediately for domestic use. We have to have them," Mr Trump said at the daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the White House. He said US authorities had taken custody of nearly 200,000 N95 respirators, 130,000 surgical masks and 600,000 gloves. He did not say where they were taken into US hands. Mr Geisel said the diversion of masks from Berlin amounted to an "act of modern piracy", urging the Trump administration to adhere to international trading rules. "This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners," the minister said. "Even in times of global crisis, there should be no wild-west methods." Mr Geisel's comments echo the sentiments of other European officials, who have complained about the buying and diversion practices of the US. In France, for example, regional leaders say they are struggling to secure medical supplies as American buyers outbid them. The president of the Île-de-France region, Valérie Pécresse, compared the scramble for masks to a "treasure hunt". "I found a stock of masks that was available and Americans - I'm not talking about the American government - but Americans, outbid us," Ms Pécresse said. "They offered three times the price and they proposed to pay up-front." As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, demand for crucial medical supplies, such as masks and respirators, has surged worldwide.
4-4-20 Coronavirus: New York forced to redistribute ventilators
Ventilators will be taken from certain New York hospitals and redistributed to the worst-hit parts of the state under an order to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. New York saw its highest single-day increase in deaths, up by 562 to 2,935 - nearly half of all virus-related US deaths recorded yesterday. The White House may advise those in virus hotspots to wear face coverings in public to help stem the spread. The US now has 245,658 Covid-19 cases. A shortage of several hundred ventilators in New York City, the epicentre of the outbreak in the US, prompted Mr Cuomo to say that he will order the machines be taken from various parts of the state and give them to harder-hit areas. Amid a deepening crisis, top health official Dr Anthony Fauci has said he believes all states should issue stay-at-home orders. "I don't understand why that's not happening," Dr Fauci told CNN on Thursday. "If you look at what's going on in this country, I just don't understand why we're not doing that." "You've got to put your foot on the accelerator to bring that number down," he added, referring to infection and death rates. The comments from Dr Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared to contradict those of President Trump, who has consistently dismissed the notion of a nationwide lockdown. "It's awfully tough to say, 'close it down.' We have to have a little bit of flexibility," Mr Trump said on Wednesday. New York state remains the epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak with at least 102,863 positive cases. The more than 500 person spike in deaths state-wide over the past day is more than half of that reported in a single day in both Spain and Italy, the countries with greatest fatalities. New York City is the worst-hit area of the state, with 1,562 deaths, Johns Hopkins University reports.Mr Cuomo warned on Friday that people would die unnecessarily because of a lack of equipment in the areas most devastated by the outbreak.
4-4-20 Michael Atkinson: Trump fires intelligence chief involved in impeachment
US President Donald Trump has fired a senior official who first alerted Congress to a whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment trial. Mr Trump said he no longer had confidence in Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Democrats said the president was settling scores during a national emergency caused by the coronavirus. They also accused him of trying to undermine the intelligence community. Last year, Mr Atkinson informed Congress of the complaint that President Trump had allegedly abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to open an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. In letters to Congress, Mr Atkinson described the complaint as "urgent" and "credible". The Democratic-majority House of Representatives voted to impeach the president, but a trial in the Republican-led Senate later acquitted him of all charges. On Friday, Mr Trump notified Congress that Mr Atkinson would be removed from his post within 30 days. Sources told the Associated Press the official had been placed on administrative leave and would not serve out his 30 days. "It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general," Mr Trump wrote. "This is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general." He said he would name a successor "at a later date". Officials quoted by Reuters said Thomas Monheim, a career intelligence professional, would serve as acting inspector general in the meantime. Democrats reacted angrily to the move. "In the midst of a national emergency, it is unconscionable that the president is once again attempting to undermine the integrity of the intelligence community by firing yet another intelligence official simply for doing his job," said Senator Mark Warner, the most senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
4-3-20 Coronavirus: US 'wants 3M to end mask exports to Canada and Latin America'
A major US mask manufacturer, 3M, says the government has asked it to stop exporting US-made N95 respirator masks to Canada and Latin America. The request had "significant humanitarian implications", it warned, and could prompt other countries to act in kind. On Thursday, the US invoked the Korean War-era Defence Production Act to demand that 3M provide more masks. Canada's prime minister said stopping 3M's exports would be a "mistake". President Donald Trump said he had used the Defence Production Act to "hit 3M hard", without providing additional details. The law dates back to 1950 and allows a president to force companies to make products for national defence. In a statement on Friday, 3M said the government had invoked the act "to require 3M to prioritise orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) for our N95 respirators", and had also requested that 3M import more respirators made in its overseas factories into the US. It said it supported both moves. However, 3M added that the government also requested that it stop exporting respirators made in the US to Canada and Latin America. "There are significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators," it said. 3M added that such a move "would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same", which would lead to the overall number of respirators being made available to the US decreasing. The company says it manufactures about 100 million N95 masks per month - about a third are made in the US, and the rest produced overseas. The Trump administration has not provided details on its communications with 3M. On Thursday night, Mr Trump tweeted: "We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their masks... Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!" Meanwhile, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said on Thursday: "We've had issues making sure that all of the production that 3M does around the world, enough of it is coming back here."
4-3-20 COVID-19 Effects at Workplaces Accelerate
Thursday's record unemployment figures from the U.S. Department of Labor revealed the harsh reality that roughly 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last two weeks of March. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging U.S. businesses, Gallup's latest data show that U.S. workers are increasingly seeing the effects at their workplaces. In polling conducted March 30-April 2, U.S. workers are more likely to report that their employers have frozen hiring (40%) and cut hours or shifts (33%) than that they have cut jobs (13%). Between March 24 and April 2, workers' reports of hiring freezes at their places of employment rose seven percentage points, and those seeing cuts to hours increased six points. Nearly four in five workers say the coronavirus is having a negative effect on their workplace, including 24% who say it is very and 53% somewhat negative. Fourteen percent say it is not having any effect and 9% say it is having a somewhat or very positive effect.
4-3-20 Coronavirus latest: US hospitals come under increasing strain
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus cases and deaths have begun to plateau in some European countries, including Italy and Spain, although cases and deaths continue to accelerate in the UK and the US. More people in the UK have died with coronavirus than in China, according to today’s figures from Johns Hopkins University. In the US hospitals across the country are coming under increasing strain. In Louisiana, the death toll is mounting and there are concerns that the state could run out of hospital beds. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered the National Guard to seize and redistribute any ventilators and personal protective equipment from facilities in the state. Florida has issued a stay-at-home order – over the past week cases in the state have been growing by hundreds daily. There have now been more than one million confirmed coronavirus cases diagnosed across the globe, though the true number of cases will be much higher. More than 55,000 people have died from covid-19. UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, has pledged to have 100,000 people in England tested per day by the end of the month, following criticism of the UK’s coronavirus testing strategy. Last month, Boris Johnson promised to move up to 25,000 tests a day with a goal of 250,000, but the UK is still only carrying out around 10,000 coronavirus tests per day. The new testing target for England includes the introduction of antibody tests, to check whether people have already had the virus, in addition to the existing swab tests, which determine whether a person is currently infected. Antibody tests are still being validated and the government says they won’t roll them out if they aren’t effective. Following widespread debate over whether people should wear masks in public spaces, a new study has found that surgical face masks could prevent people with symptoms from spreading seasonal human coronaviruses and influenza viruses. It is not yet clear whether these findings could be extended to more severe coronaviruses, such as the covid-19 virus, as the study did not include any participants with covid-19, SARS or MERS.
4-3-20 Coronavirus: US Navy removes Captain Brett Crozier who raised alarm
The commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt has been removed after saying the US Navy was not doing enough to halt a coronavirus outbreak on board the aircraft carrier. In a letter, Capt Brett Crozier had urged his superiors to act to prevent US troops dying outside of wartime. But acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the commander "exercised extremely poor judgement". At least 100 people aboard the vessel have been infected, reports say. On Thursday, Mr Modly told reporters that Capt Crozier was being fired for allegedly leaking the letter to the media. He said the letter "created the impression the Navy was not responding to his questions". "It creates the perception the Navy is not on the job; the government is not on the job. That's just not true." Uninfected members of the ship's more than 4,000 crew are now being quarantined in Guam after the governor of the US island territory in the western Pacific Ocean said they could stay as long as they had no interactions with locals. Until now, the sailors had been restricted to the naval base’s pier. He had warned the Pentagon that the outbreak aboard his ship was “accelerating” because crew members were living in confined spaces. "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die," stated the four-page letter, dated 30 March. Capt Crozier had called for "decisive action", saying uninfected sailors had to be removed from the ship and isolated. The letter was later published by the San Francisco Chronicle. In a statement, Democratic leaders of the House Armed Services Committee said: "While Captain Crozier clearly went outside the chain of command, his dismissal at this critical moment... is a destabilising move that will likely put our service members at greater risk and jeopardise our fleet's readiness." "Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt."
4-3-20 Donald Trump is playing with revolutionary fire
The American military is suffering from the novel coronavirus pandemic. At time of writing over 1,600 Department of Defense staff have tested positive, including a major outbreak on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, where over 100 sailors out of a crew of over 4,000 have been infected. The lack of proper quarantine facilities onboard prompted the ship's Captain Brett Crozier to plead for help in a letter to his superiors which was later obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle. "Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors," he wrote. The Roosevelt was eventually docked in Guam and evacuated. But Crozier has now been relieved of his command. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Crozier showed "extremely poor judgment" in creating a "firestorm." Translation: He embarrassed President Trump, who has installed toadies like Modly in a number of senior military leadership positions. As Crozier departed the Roosevelt, the remaining crew sent him off to wild cheers. "One of the greatest captains you ever had … the man for the people," said one sailor. Such a sight ought to freeze the blood of any American politician. Historically, treating the armed forces with gratuitous contempt runs a serious risk of mutinies or revolution. He surely does not know it, but Trump is playing with fire. In his history of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote that the state's grip on the armed forces was one deciding factor in any potential revolution. "Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory." The ground for revolt in 1917 was only laid because disgruntled soldiers disgusted by Tsar Nicholas II's appalling performance in the First World War turned against the regime. That followed an example set in the quasi-revolution of 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin famously mutinied after their captain murdered a sailor for complaining about being fed rancid meat.
4-3-20 Coronavirus will play out very differently in world's poorest nations
The new coronavirus may prove disastrous for the world’s poorest people, including those living in slums and refugee camps. Cases were slower to appear in developing economies, but almost nowhere has escaped the pandemic. Pakistan has been the worst hit country in south Asia, with 2291 cases and troops deployed across cities to enforce a national lockdown. Elsewhere, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has reported 16 cases. In Africa, most cases have been in relatively affluent South Africa and Egypt, but other countries are seeing rises too. Burkina Faso now has more than 250 cases, Senegal 190 and Ghana 195. Across the continent, there are now more than 7000 cases. The impact of the virus in many developing economies is likely to be very different to rich ones such as the UK, says Azra Ghani at Imperial College London. Demographics are one big difference. The world’s poorest typically live in households containing more people, with all generations living together in daily contact, in contrast to countries like the UK where older people are effectively already socially distanced from younger ones. As a result, infections are likely to be spread more evenly across all age groups. “That in a sense makes everybody more at risk,” says Ghani. However, as covid-19 seems to hit older people hardest and developing economies have much younger populations, death rates may be lower, she says. “We’d expect more infections in low-income settings but there’d be less severe cases.” Most of the data we have on the virus is coming from countries like China, Italy and the US. That means we simply don’t know how much the mitigating effect of a younger population in developing economies will be offset by populations being more malnourished and already coping with other diseases, such as malaria, HIV and TB, says Ghani. In Africa, testing rates are rising and are now in the tens of thousands, says Kevin Marsh at the African Academy of Sciences, up from around 400 three weeks ago. But he says data is generally scarce.
4-3-20 The looming collapse of private health insurance
The unemployment surge caused by coronavirus is an existential threat to the American system of health coverage. he week ending on March 21 had the greatest explosion of new unemployment claims in American history, with 3.3 million people filing for benefits — surpassing the previous weekly record by a factor of nearly five. Now we have data for the week ending March 28, which more than doubled the prior week's record. Given struggling state enrollment programs and other factors, the real damage was surely worse than that. Well over 10 million people have lost their jobs in just two weeks, and a lot more will soon. A Federal Reserve economist estimated America could be seeing over 30 percent unemployment in a few months — more than the nadir of the Great Depression. Thanks to America's uniquely boneheaded insistence on tying health insurance to employment, a great many of these people also suddenly find themselves without health coverage — one of several ways the novel coronavirus pandemic is hammering the insurance system. But the problem will also affect more than those who have lost their jobs. If Congress doesn't do something very big — like throwing every American onto the military's Tricare program — the system is in very real danger of collapsing altogether. Before the crisis hit, about half of Americans got their insurance through their job. Now, maybe a third of those people will lose their coverage. It turns out, contrary to the argument from moderate Democrats that the current system allows people to keep their insurance if they like it, in fact people have no such choice. Even during normal times, millions of people lose their employer-based coverage every month. Now perhaps 50 million people are about to learn all at the same time how little choice they actually have. Now, there are a couple fallback systems for unemployed folks — namely, COBRA, the ObamaCare exchanges, and Medicaid. But all have serious problems. COBRA (named after a 1986 law) allows you to continue the same employer-based coverage as before, but because your employer is no longer chipping in, it typically costs 3-4 times as much in premiums as before. Most people are unlikely to be able to swallow such an enormous expense just after they lost their job.
4-3-20 Coronavirus halts a decade of US jobs growth
A decade of jobs growth in the US came to an abrupt halt in March as employers shed 701,000 jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak. The unemployment rate rose to 4.4% in the biggest one-month jump since 1975, according to new data from the US Department of Labor. The leisure and hospitality industries accounted for more than half the cuts. The losses - greater than expected - are believed to now be worse since the data was collected early in the month. Since then, cases of coronavirus have jumped to more than 245,000 and a majority of states have put lockdown measures in place, forcing most businesses to close. State filings show about 10 million people have registered for unemployment benefits in the last two weeks - record figures that far eclipse previous highs. "It's clear that the pandemic is already having a more significant impact on the labour market than most had expected even a week ago," said Andrew Hunter, senior US economist at Capital Economics. The US had logged job gains every month since September 2010, amid a slow but steady recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. The 3.5% unemployment rate in February was hovering near historic lows. The country is now facing the possibility of its largest contraction on record, said Beth Ann Bovino, chief economist at S&P Global. About 1.8 million people told the Labor Department that they were on "temporary layoff" last month - more than double the number in February. The agency warned that the true figures were likely even higher, since some firms may have misclassified the status of their staff. While restaurants and bars - which were among the earliest hit by coronavirus lockdowns - accounted for the majority of losses last month, the cuts started to affect other industries, including retail, construction and other services, like laundry and childcare. Even the healthcare sector lost jobs as dentists and physicians shut their doors. The number of people forced to work part-time surged and the rate of participation in the workforce - those working or looking for work - dropped to 62.7%. About a quarter of small businesses are two months or less away from permanent closure, according to a survey by the Chamber of Commerce.
4-3-20 South Africa's ruthlessly efficient fight against coronavirus
One week into South Africa's nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and it is tempting - dangerously tempting - to breathe a sigh of relief. One week into South Africa's nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and it is tempting - dangerously tempting - to breathe a sigh of relief. South Africa seems to have acted faster, more efficiently, and more ruthlessly than many other countries around the world. Heading the fight here against Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa has emerged as a formidable leader - composed, compassionate, but seized by the urgency of the moment and wasting no time in imposing tough restrictive steps and galvanising crucial support from the private sector. And one rung below the president, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has likewise garnered near universal praise for his no-nonsense, energetic performance, and his sober, deeply knowledgeable, daily briefings. Of course, there have been mistakes, and worse. The police and army have, at times, acted with thuggish abandon in their attempts to enforce the three-week-long lockdown, humiliating, beating, and even shooting civilians on the streets of the commercial capital, Johannesburg, and elsewhere. There has been confusion about some of the regulations, clumsy messaging and U-turns from some of the country's less impressive ministers. Above all, there has been the struggle to impose social distancing and effective hygiene in South Africa's poorest, most crowded neighbourhoods, where many fear the virus could yet wreak havoc. But overall, as South Africans mark their first week under one of the strictest lockdowns introduced anywhere in the world - no jogging outside, no sales of alcohol or cigarettes, no dog-walking, no leaving home except for essential trips and prison or heavy fines for law-breaking - there is an argument to be made that a government so often attacked as corrupt and inefficient, and a private sector so often seen as aloof and greedy, are rising to meet what is widely anticipated to be the greatest challenge this young democracy has ever seen. It is fitting that the man now loudly warning the nation against any hint of complacency - indeed about the profound dangers of such complacency - is the health minister himself.
4-3-20 How Trump's attitude toward coronavirus has shifted
President Trump's attitude towards coronavirus has shifted. He has changed his views on social distancing, willingness to compare Covid-19 to the flu, and message around when the pandemic will end.
4-3-20 Coronavirus: Europe's care homes struggle as deaths rise
As nursing and care homes across Europe battle to stop the spread of Covid-19 among the elderly, France has revealed 884 residents have succumbed to the virus since the epidemic began. Alarming cases have emerged in the Spanish capital Madrid, with reports of dozens of deaths in two nursing homes. Residents were taken to hospital in the Italian city of Naples after a care home outbreak claimed several lives. Cases have also been reported in 100 care homes around the Swedish capital. Although authorities in the Stockholm region have not given figures, public broadcaster SVT says more than 400 people have been infected and about 50 have died. For some time, French health officials have made clear the number of cases and fatalities they report every evening does not include nursing and care homes. Late on Thursday, a top health official revealed that at least 884 people in such homes had died since the start of the pandemic, on top of the 4,503 fatalities across France. Even that figure was incomplete, said Jérôme Salomon, as not all homes had passed on details. The area worst affected is the Grand Est region near the German border, where two-thirds of care homes have been caught up in the pandemic. Regional health agency ARS says 570 elderly residents have died in the Grand Est. While it is unclear how many deaths were caused by coronavirus or if it is was a contributing factor, one care home director in the Bas Rhin area told French TV that he would normally see 10 deaths a year, and he had seen five in March alone. In Spain, where 10,905 people have died in the pandemic, the Madrid region has been worst affected with 4,483 deaths. The president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, estimates that 3,000 people died in care homes in March and says that figure is 2,000 higher than normal. Care homes have seen appalling outbreaks leading to a collapse in staffing. Last month the military was called in to help at retirement homes and found elderly patients abandoned and, in some cases, dead in their beds. In two facilities alone there are reports of almost 90 deaths linked to the crisis.
4-3-20 Coronavirus: US set to recommend wearing of masks
The White House is expected to advise Americans in coronavirus hotspots to wear cloth masks or scarves in public to help stop the virus spread. President Donald Trump said such an advisory would not be mandatory. Residents of New York, the epicentre of the US outbreak, have already been urged to cover their faces in public. Top health official Dr Anthony Fauci has said he believed all states should issue stay-at-home orders, as the US death toll passed 6,000. "I don't understand why that's not happening," Dr Fauci told CNN late on Thursday. "If you look at what's going on in this country, I just don't understand why we're not doing that." "You've got to put your foot on the accelerator to bring that number down," he added, referring to infection and death rates. The comments from Dr Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared to contradict those of Mr Trump, who has consistently dismissed the notion of a nationwide lockdown. "It's awfully tough to say, 'close it down.' We have to have a little bit of flexibility," Mr Trump said on Wednesday. New York City is the worst-hit area, with 1,562 deaths in the pandemic, Johns Hopkins University reports. Both the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are reassessing their guidance on face masks, as experts race to find ways to fight the highly contagious virus. Covid-19 is carried in airborne droplets from people coughing or sneezing, but there is some dispute over how far people should distance themselves from each other, and whether masks are useful when used by the public. The WHO advises that ordinary face masks are only effective if combined with careful hand-washing and social-distancing, and so far it does not recommend them generally for healthy people. However, more and more health experts now say there are benefits. They argue that the public use of masks can primarily help by preventing asymptomatic patients - people who have been infected with Covid-19 but are not aware, and not displaying any symptoms - from unknowingly spreading the virus to others. Masks may also help lower the risk of individuals catching the virus through the droplets from another person's sneeze or a cough - and people can be taught how put masks on and take them off correctly, they argue.
4-2-20 Coronavirus: The young doctors being asked to play god
When the tannoy blasts out a "Team 700" alert at Elmhurst hospital in Queens in New York City it is because a "crash" team is needed immediately. Someone is going into cardiac arrest. In normal times that would happen maybe once a week. Yesterday, during the course of one 12-hour shift, there was a Team 700 announcement nine times. Not one of the patients survived, according to the young doctor I spoke to. She is one of the residents in emergency medicine, and nothing in her training could have prepared her for the harrowing scenes she is witnessing on a daily basis at the epicentre of the epicentre of this outbreak. The hospital, which has a capacity of 282 beds, is now housing over 500 patients, according to the latest email sent round by the hospital administrators. And though it has not been declared as such, it is the first Covid-19 hospital in the country. Yes, the ER still functions - but all other patients who were admitted have been moved out. Only those who are gasping for breath are given beds. In the initial stages of the outbreak, it was the worried well who would be turning up in this poor neighbourhood, Elmhurst. Now everyone is sick. Really sick. Half of the patients are undocumented, and don't speak English - they work in restaurants and are hotel chambermaids. They are not "plugged in". The calls for social distancing have passed them by. And this medic, in her early 30s, tells me the stress is intense. Nearly everyone who arrives at the ER needs to be intubated and put on a ventilator. That would normally be a job done in the Intensive Care Unit. But they are overloaded. These people need "pressors" - meds that will keep blood pressure up. And that is a job normally done by specialist nurses. But there aren't the nurses to do it. So people who are untrained are having to do it. "How can I not worry when there are patients not getting the care that they need?" And she says it is not just the old who are falling prey to this. "There are patients in their 30s and 40s with no pre-existing conditions. Equally, we had a 90-year old man the other day who was brought to the ER after he had fallen at home. He had a broken leg - but he also tested positive for coronavirus - even though he was exhibiting no symptoms." It is a confounding virus, is Covid-19.
4-2-20 Coronavirus: China wildlife trade ban could become law within months
China’s ban on eating and trading wildlife due to the coronavirus crisis could become law within the next three months, according to conservationists – and unlike past efforts, it may end up being permanent. The country’s ruling body declared in late February that it was forbidden to eat wildlife, after evidence pointed to a wet market in Wuhan as the possible point where covid-19 spilled over from animals to humans – though that origin has now been questioned. In the past, similar bans around the world have faded away after an epidemic has blown over. However, Aili Kang at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says conversations with partners in China lead her to believe the country will introduce legislation within a few months. That is crucial and would mark a big difference to wildlife trade bans after the 2003 SARS epidemic, when there was no change in legislation. “If it’s not into the law it won’t be permanent. If it is into the law, it will be further force for enforcement and provide a legal foundation for government to further educate people and alert people to change their behaviour,” she says. A law would mean the ban would likely stay in place for at least a decade, she adds, rather than be dropped under pressure. Kang says there is evidence authorities are taking the issue seriously, with 10 Chinese provinces conducting operations on captive breeding farms, restaurants and markets since the ban was announced. Even if China’s ban does last and is enforced, one concern is the problem simply gets moved to other countries. “If one country like China bans you have the risk of leakage of the trade to neighbouring countries. It has to be a ban not just a ban by a single country but a ban regionally and ultimately worldwide,” says Russ Mittermeier at WCS. German environment minister Svenja Schulze said it will be important to understand the links between environmental damage and the coronavirus. “Science tells us that the destruction of ecosystems makes disease outbreaks including pandemics more likely. This indicates that the destruction of nature is the underlying crisis behind the coronavirus crisis,” she said in a statement.
4-2-20 ‘Deep concern’ over coronavirus emergency powers
A group of 13 EU member states have said they are “deeply concerned” about the use of emergency measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. It was legitimate to use “extraordinary measures”, they said, but some powers could threaten “democracy and fundamental rights”. Earlier this week Hungary’s parliament granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping new powers. Other states are considering similar measures. Europe has been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 30,000 fatalities. Spain has seen 10,000 deaths and Italy more than 13,000, and the numbers are rising across the continent, with daily records reported in France and the UK. Governments across the continent have imposed severe restrictions on movement in a bid to contain the spread. But there are fears some leaders and parties are using the pandemic as an excuse to tighten control over their countries. The statement was issued on Wednesday by Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok posted a link to the statement on Twitter. “The rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights must remain strong principles of our societies, also in times of coronavirus,” he wrote. The statement was issued on Wednesday by Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok posted a link to the statement on Twitter. “The rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights must remain strong principles of our societies, also in times of coronavirus,” he wrote. Though no one country is specifically mentioned, it comes just two days after Hungary’s parliament gave the government powers to rule by decree. The law has no time limit. (Webmaster's comment: Authoritarian leaders will take this opportunity to grant themselves dictatorial powers just like Hitler did!)
4-2-20 Coronavirus: US jobless claims hit 6.6 million as virus spreads
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits has hit a record high for the second week in a row as the economic toll tied to the coronavirus intensifies. More than 6.6 million people filed jobless claims in the week ended 28 March, the Department of Labor said. That is nearly double the week earlier, which was also a new record. The deepening economic crisis comes as the number of cases in the US soars to more than 216,000. With the death toll rising to more than 5,000, the White House recently said it would retain restrictions on activity to try to curb the outbreak. Analysts at Bank of America warned that the US could see "the deepest recession on record" amid forecasts that the unemployment rate could hit more than 15%. The outlook is a stark reversal for the world's biggest economy where the unemployment rate had been hovering around 3.5%. However, more than 80% of Americans are now under some form of lockdown, which has forced the closure of most businesses. This is the highest number of new unemployment claims in US history. But what is so terrifying is not just the magnitude but also the speed with which American firms have shed workers. Roughly 10 million Americans lost their jobs in just the last two weeks. To put that in context, 9 million jobs were lost in the 2008 financial crisis. There were several reasons for this week's historic increase. More states ordered non-essential businesses to close to contain the virus. According to economists, a fifth of the US workforce is now in some form of lockdown. And a government relief package signed last week expanded unemployment benefits to help more people, such as the self-employed and independent contractors. Some fear the true number could be even higher since many people couldn't even get through to file a claim. Given these are weekly figures, this data is the closest we have to real-time information showing just how catastrophic the pandemic is for the American economy. And it points to a bruising couple of months ahead.
4-2-20 Coronavirus: US death toll exceeds 5,000
The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the US has gone above 5,000, while confirmed cases worldwide are close to reaching one million. There were 884 deaths in the US in 24 hours, a new record, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has tracked virus figures globally. The latest victims include a six-week-old baby. More than 216,000 are now infected, the world's highest figure. Reserves of protective equipment and medical supplies are almost exhausted. This has left the federal government and individual US states competing for safety gear, while the unprecedented demand has led to profiteering, officials in the Department for Homeland Security were quoted by the Washington Post as saying. The Trump administration says it can acquire adequate supplies, and has $16bn (£13bn) available to do so. State and local officials have complained about insufficient protective equipment such as masks and gowns as well as ventilators, needed to help keep patients breathing. Meanwhile, US Vice-President Mike Pence warned the US appeared to be on a similar trajectory as Italy where the death toll has exceeded 13,000 - the worst in the world. The number of confirmed infections across the US rose by more than 25,000 in one day. The worst-hit place is New York City, where nearly 47,500 people have tested positive and more than 1,300 have died. Officials say as many as 240,000 people could die in the US from Covid-19 - the disease caused by the virus - even with the mitigation measures in place. In Connecticut, a six-week-old baby has died from coronavirus, believed to be America's youngest victim of the virus so far. Queens, New York City's second-most populous borough, has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths. The area is home to a large population of low-income workers employed by the service sector who live in close proximity, and social-distancing guidelines are hard to enforce. "While we are practising as a city, social distancing, you may have multiple families living in a very small apartment. And so it's easy to understand why there's a lot of transmission of Covid occurring," said Dr Mitchell Katz, head of New York City Health + Hospitals. The city needed 2.1 million surgical masks, 100,000 surgical gowns and 400 ventilators, among other items, by Sunday, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has warned that April would be worse than March as the outbreak gathered pace. He said the goal was to triple the number of hospital beds, to 65,000.
4-2-20 How coronavirus control measures could affect its global death toll
Experts analyzed contact patterns and disease severity to estimate COVID-19’s potential reach. When the U.S. White House coronavirus task force announced that social distancing needed to continue through April, it cited a stark death toll: As many as 240,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 even with efforts to mitigate its spread. As horrific as those numbers are, it could be a lot worse. In the first global assessment of the impact of the coronavirus, researchers at Imperial College London estimate that if governments weren’t taking any actions, the coronavirus would infect an estimated 7 billion people in 2020, nearly 90 percent of people on Earth. Roughly 40 million would die and no health-care system anywhere would be able to keep up. Already, countries are curbing that worst-case scenario, racing to implement strategies to drastically reduce the rapid growth of new cases (SN: 3/13/20). Even so, the virus could hit various countries differently, depending on their demographics and income levels, the new study suggests. And delays to put such strategies in place may put millions of lives at risk. By analyzing disease severity and how people interact, the team projected how the growing pandemic might affect 202 countries. The global look builds on the team’s previous work that calculated the virus’s impact on the United States and the United Kingdom (SN: 3/24/20). Slowing the virus’ spread will save millions of lives worldwide, the team reports March 26 in a research update released through Imperial College London. But differences among high income and low income countries could mean the pandemic might follow a different pattern, and take a different toll, in these areas. “This is a very complex problem and [members of the Imperial College team] have captured a lot of that complexity,” says Julie Swann, a systems engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “This is continued evidence that interventions are necessary to slow the disease spread and reduce deaths in the population.”
4-1-20 Coronavirus latest: New York hospitals and morgues overwhelmed
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. A doctor in New York City has described the situation in hospitals as “apocalyptic, complete chaos.” They said, “We just aren’t able to offer people a proper standard of care – like sitting and talking to them about their treatment – and it’s getting worse day by day.” Some of the morgues in the city are already filled to capacity. A record 6.6 million US citizens applied for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting thehuge impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy. The job losses have mostly affected people who work in retail, restaurants, travel, hotels and leisure industries. The previous weekly unemployment record was set a week earlier, at 3.3 million. State services across the US have been overwhelmed with the large numbers of people filing for benefits. The Indian government has launched a coronavirus tracker app that alerts people if they have crossed paths with someone infected with the virus. The app, called Aarogya Setu or “bridge to health”, uses the smartphone’s location data and Bluetooth to check where infected people are and to alert users in their vicinity. Similar technology has been used in China. The US coast guard is directing cruise ships registered in the Bahamas to seek aid there first, even if they are owned by Miami based companies. All ships with more than 50 people on board have been advised that they may be sequestered indefinitely. Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has announced that parents will be offered free childcare. The government has pledged A$1.6 billion to ensure childcare centres remain open, provided they do not charge parents. A preliminary study has suggested that countries with mandatory TB vaccination have fewer coronavirus deaths, but more research is needed to confirm the link. The TB vaccine is being tested to see if it protects people against covid-19.
4-1-20 Trump is incapable of taking the coronavirus outbreak seriously
President Trump is finally starting to take the novel coronavirus pandemic seriously, America's top political reporters inform us. At a grim briefing Monday evening, he showed projections estimating between 100,000-240,000 deaths, and said "We're going to go through a very tough two weeks." "Trump sounding different today. Scale of death appears to have changed his tone, at least," says Eric Lipton of The New York Times. He is "coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept," writes his colleague Peter Baker. "This is an absolutely new message and new tone from Trump," says Politico's Jake Sherman. I have only one question: Have these people been locked in a bunker for the past three years? Donald Trump has not magically discovered an ability to care about other people, nor has he found some hitherto unused reserves of competence. To begin with, Trump has still not taken the kind of sweeping action that would put force behind this new "serious" pose. He has not demanded recalcitrant Republican governors implement lockdowns to keep the virus from spreading — especially in Florida, where the outbreak is spreading fast and its elderly population is at extreme risk. He has refused to re-open ObamaCare enrollment so millions of uninsured Americans can try to get health insurance. He has not used Defense Production Act powers to take control of the medical supply chain and stop the ongoing bidding war over protective gear and ventilators. As a result, states are wasting scarce cash trying to secure supplies for their doctors and nurses, and millions of N95 masks are still being exported to other countries. He has not demanded Congress set up remote voting measures so they can pass more vitally-needed legislation. In other words, Trump is continuing to botch the coronavirus response just as he has from the start. He frittered away a critical six weeks insisting that nothing bad would happen, and blaming Democrats and the media for exaggerating bad news. On Tuesday, Jim Tankersly reported at the Times (where the non-political outbreak coverage has generally been excellent) that back in September White House economists published a study warning "a pandemic disease could kill a half million Americans and devastate the economy." Trump ignored it even as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
4-1-20 Coronavirus: Things the US has got wrong - and got right
It has been more than two months since the first case of coronavirus was diagnosed in the US. Since then, the outbreak has spread across the nation, with more than 217,000 cases and over 5,000 deaths. The US is now the global epicentre of the pandemic, surpassing the number of reported cases in China, where the virus began, and Italy, the hardest-hit European nation. Although public health officials report that the peak of the outbreak in the US is still weeks, perhaps months, away, shortcomings in the US response - as well as some strengths - have already become apparent. Here's a look at some of them. Masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators. Doctors and hospitals across the country, but particularly in areas hardest hit by the pandemic, are scrambling for items essential to help those stricken by the virus and protect medical professionals. The lack of adequate supplies has forced healthcare workers to reuse existing sanitary garb or create their own makeshift gear. A shortage of ventilators has state officials worried they will soon be forced into performing medical triage, deciding on the fly who receives the life-sustaining support - and who doesn't. On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo complained that states, along with the federal government, were competing for equipment, driving up prices for everyone. "It's like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator," he said. It didn't have to be this way, says Jeffrey Levi, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. The US government failed to adequately maintain the stockpile of supplies necessary to deal with a pandemic like this - and then moved too slowly when the nature of the current crisis became apparent. "We lost many weeks in terms of ramping up the production capacity around personal protection equipment and never fully utilizing government authority to make sure that production took place," he says. According to Professor Levi, ramping up testing at an early date - as done in nations like South Korea and Singapore - is the key to controlling a viral outbreak like Covid-19. The inability of the US government to do so was the critical failure from which subsequent complications have cascaded. "All of pandemic response is dependent on situational awareness - knowing what is going on and where it is happening," he says.
4-1-20 Coronavirus latest: US estimates between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Deaths in Italy plateau, while deaths in US, UK and Spain continue to accelerate. More than 12,000 people in Italy have died with covid-19 so far, but the number of new cases of coronavirus in Italy has fallen for several days in a row, and the number of new deaths each day is plateauing. The lockdown measures that have been in place in Italy since 9 March will continue until at least the middle of April, according to health minister Roberto Speranza. New cases and deaths continue to accelerate in Spain, the UK and the US. Yesterday US president Donald Trump said that between 100,000 and 240,000 people will die in the US from the outbreak. The president has been strongly criticised for downplaying the expected impact of the crisis over the last two months. Governments around the world are considering whether to recommend that everyone wears face masks in their daily lives. Taiwan has made these mandatory on trains and buses, and Austria plans to make masks compulsory for supermarket shoppers. The US Coronavirus Task Force is considering suggesting that everyone wears face masks, as is Germany. In the UK, there is continuing concern over the low levels of coronavirus testing. The government has blamed a global shortage of the required chemicals, but the UK Chemicals Industry Association have said there is no shortage. A leaked government briefing note seems to disagree with World Health Organization advice about testing. Amid uncertainty about the pandemic, Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims planning to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to delay booking their trips. Data security and privacy concerns have been raised about Zoom, the videoconferencing app now being used by millions of people as more countries are under lockdown. Elon Musk announced yesterday that Tesla has purchased FDA-approved ventilators, which he said the firm would give them to hospitals worldwide for free, within Tesla delivery regions. Timelapse footage has captured the conversion of London’s ExCeL exhibition centre into one of the NHS Nightingale field hospitals built to cope with the expected surge of covid-19 patients.
4-1-20 Estimates of the predicted coronavirus death toll have little meaning
With all the unknowns about covid-19, any numbers you hear about death tolls or how long restrictions will last should be taken not just with a pinch of salt but with a sack of it. YOU will probably have read that there are going to be X thousand deaths from coronavirus in the country you live in. You may also have read that there are going to be an order of magnitude more or fewer deaths. You would be right to be unsure which is correct. It could be any of them, or none. President Donald Trump has been talking about a possible 100,000 to 200,000 coronavirus deaths in the US if his administration “does well” at tackling the virus. In the UK, there has been talk of 20,000 deaths if measures work and 250,000 without restrictions. There has been no shortage of other estimates put forward by people with little experience of epidemiology, some of which come in very low indeed. These calculations, approximations and guesstimates from expert modelling studies and back-of-the-envelope blogging build a confusing picture, not least because they suggest that it is possible to assign a numerical value to covid-19’s future death toll at this point. We are living through a situation with few certainties. If someone calculates that 1 per cent of the global population is set to die in this pandemic, say, this could be wrong for at least six reasons. First, we can’t yet be sure of the covid-19 fatality rate, or to what extent this will be affected by local shortages of ventilators. Second, we don’t know what proportion of the world population is likely to catch the infection, with some estimates varying between about 60 and 80 per cent. Third, we don’t know to what extent national restrictions, which vary wildly across the globe, will prevent or delay infections and deaths. Added to this, we can’t know yet whether we can slow the pandemic long enough to develop drugs and vaccines that can dramatically cut the number of covid-19 deaths. And finally, we don’t even know what kind of immunity – if any – is conferred by this virus, and whether it is possible to develop severe symptoms from a repeat infection. With all of these unknowns, the numbers you are hearing about death tolls, or how long restrictions will be in place, or how many people will need intensive care, should be taken not just with a pinch of salt but with a sack of it.
4-1-20 Coronavirus treatment: What drugs could work and when can we get them?
To fight the new coronavirus, researchers are investigating more than 60 drugs, including remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine and brand new ones. Here’s a breakdown of progress so far. EYES tight with worry above white surgical masks, more than 300 people slowly boarded the waiting 747 cargo planes at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. It was 17 February, and after weeks in quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess anchored off the coast of Japan, they were heading home to the US. Fourteen had tested positive for covid-19. On arrival, one of the 14 was given an experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir, as part of a global clinical trial. By the time this article went to press, hundreds of covid-19 patients around the world had taken the drug as part of ongoing trials. Remdesivir was first developed in the mid-2010s to fight Ebola. Although it was found to be ineffective against that virus, it showed promise in early trials against coronaviruses such as the one that causes SARS. That’s why many hope it will work against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The demand is already so high that its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, recently had to stop providing access for people outside of trials seeking the drug under compassionate-use schemes for untested medicines. But we still don’t know if remdesivir, or any other drug, works against the new coronavirus. And while 80 per cent of people who catch covid-19 don’t require hospital treatment, those who do get admitted desperately need effective drugs, which may still be several months away. The good news is, we know where to look, and which strategies are most likely to work. At least 60 different compounds are now being investigated, including existing drugs and therapies being designed from scratch, and in record time. To figure out how to help people fight off covid-19, we first need to understand how it causes harm. Since the covid-19 virus grabbed the world’s attention in late December, doctors and researchers have been able to pin down quite a lot about what it does to our bodies. When the coronavirus infects someone, it enters their cells, hijacks their protein-making machinery and begins making copies of itself. These viruses enter neighbouring cells, and the cycle repeats itself. This viral invasion doesn’t go unnoticed. Dying cells display fragments of the virus to alert the immune system that a pathogen is present.
4-1-20 WHO 'deeply concerned by coronavirus 'rapid escalation'
The head of the World Health Organisation says he is "deeply concerned" by the "rapid escalation" of the coronavirus pandemic. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Covid-19 had spread to almost every country, and the global death toll would reach 50,000 in the next few days.
4-1-20 Coronavirus' profound threat to democracy
The health of the state is endangered. "War is the health of the state." That's Raldolphe Bourne's famous and succinct expression for how state power grows during conflict and resists being scaled back once peace is restored. But it's a worry that's highly relevant to our battle against COVID-19 as well. For while the health of the citizenry appears today to depend on the very health of the state that Bourne feared, we must think now about the consequences of ceding liberty if we want to ensure these temporary measures don't become permanent. First, it's important to remember that many, if not most, of the ways in which states expand their power during wartime actually have very legitimate purposes related to war-fighting. In the economic sphere, the nation's industrial might needs to be retooled to serve military needs, making everything from boots to battleships, on a schedule that maximizes the chance of victory rather than either profits or the wellbeing of the civilian population. That population may have to suffer under strict rationing regimes and will likely be forbidden from striking, both profound intrusions on economic freedom. In the social sphere, there may be curfews and restrictions on mobility driven by civil defense needs, and limits on freedom of the press both to prevent leaks and to promote high morale. And, of course, conscription is itself a profound infringement on individual liberty. Every one of these measures has been subject to corruption and abuse in past conflicts. And yet, it's very hard to imagine winning a major war of any meaningful duration without them. The battle with the coronavirus presents the state with an awesome set of new powers and responsibilities fully comparable to those of wartime mobilization. Shelter-in-place orders have put government officials in the position to destroy whole industries by fiat, and the efforts to cushion the consequences have quickly entrenched government in the operation of much of the economy. They also make political protest extremely difficult — indeed, they make it extremely difficult even to conduct normal politics, like running a campaign. The best prospect for reopening the economy on a reasonable schedule, meanwhile, may well require the implementation of a regime of testing and tracking — potentially including monitoring individuals' temperatures and registering their immunity status — that poses obvious and profound challenges to the very idea of privacy. In high-trust societies with capable states like South Korea or Denmark, measures like these may win support across the political spectrum. As a consequence, social solidarity can both support their implementation without excessive coercion and can act as a check on state abuse of these new powers, either during the crisis or after it has passed. While the war against the virus may be beyond politics, any attempt to use the virus to suspend politics as such would likely incur a fierce and swift backlash.
4-1-20 Viktor Orbán's American apologists
The right's love affair with Hungary's nationalistic authoritarianism blows up in its face. Life in liberal democracies can sometimes be a drag. That's especially so when one's vision of the rightly ordered society consistently falls short at the ballot box, faces opposition from the courts, and comes in for constant abuse by the leading lights of the dominant culture. For those who find themselves on the losing side of political and cultural disputes, there are, broadly speaking, two options: Keep playing the liberal game in the hope of a better outcome down the line — or sign up for a more radical political program aimed at toppling the prevailing order and replacing it with one in which the dissenters might be given a greater share of ruling power. This is a choice that conservative intellectuals have confronted in recent years, with right-wing anti-liberal movements on the rise at home and across the liberal-democratic world tempting them with the promise of new and expanded horizons. None of these ascendant nationalists and populists has managed to generate more support from American conservatives than Hungary's Viktor Orbán. While those on the center-left and center-right have warned that Orbán and his Fidesz Party were playing with anti-Semitic fire in their unhinged attacks on Jewish financier George Soros, taking direct aim at civil liberties by shutting down opposition news outlets and a prominent university in the capital city of Budapest, and making repeated gestures toward favoring single-party rule, many conservatives swooned — far more than most of them have for President Trump. Bestselling author Patrick Deneen has spoken of Orbán's Hungary serving as a model for conservatives in the West and even sat down for a photo op in a book-lined office with the statesman himself. Prominent blogger Rod Dreher has written numerous posts plugging Orbán's anti-liberal political project and passionately defended him against the supposedly malicious smears of Western critics. Author Christopher Caldwell has penned a highly literate essay explaining that Orbán should be considered the "future of Europe." And in the most astonishing example of all, journalist Sohrab Ahmari allowed Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to use the pages of the New York Post as a megaphone for spreading Fidesz Party propaganda directly to American readers. I know and respect all of these authors. I count some of them as longstanding friends. I'm therefore eager to know what they think of the alarming (but also completely unsurprising) events of recent days — days during which the Hungarian legislature, which Orbán's party controls with a strong majority, approved an open-ended extension of the previously declared COVID-19-related state of emergency, suspending parliament and elections, giving Orbán the power to rule by decree, and pronouncing that the spreading of "fake news" would be punished by up to five years in prison.
4-1-20 Coronavirus: Trump changes tack on coronavirus crisis
There was no sugar-coating it this time. No optimistic talk of miracle cures or Easter-time business re-openings. There was just the cold, hard reality of the facts on the ground. "I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead," a grave-faced Donald Trump said in his Tuesday afternoon press conference. "This is going to be a very, very painful two weeks." How painful? When the president was asked how many Americans are currently projected to die from the virus given even the current mitigation efforts, he said it was better if his medical experts responded. The number of deaths, based on current projections, is between 100,000 and 200,000. On 15 April, for instance, 2,214 Americans are expected to die. "No-one is denying that we're going through a very, very difficult time," said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "That's what it is." The president tried to frame this news as best he could, noting that the projections for US casualties if the government had done nothing were in the millions. "A lot of people were saying think of it as the flu, but it's not the flu," he said. "It's vicious." Of course, it was just a week ago the president himself was making exactly such comparisons, noting that the early fatality numbers were much less than those from the flu or even automobile accidents. "We lose thousands of people a year to the flu," he said then. "We never turn the country off." Now, however, the seriousness of the situation has hit home. He spoke of checking in on a friend who was in the hospital with the virus - "a little older, and he's heavy, but he's tough person" - only to find out he was now in a coma. "I spoke to some of my friends, and they can't believe what they're seeing," he said. Mr Trump's change of attitude also extended to some of his recent political feuds. Just days after attacking Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, mocking her name and calling her incompetent on Twitter, the president said he had a "really great conversation" with her and detailed the support the federal government was providing her state. Last Friday, he had suggested that if state leaders were not "appreciative" of him, he wouldn't talk to them.
4-1-20 Coronavirus: The US governor who saw it coming early
As the coronavirus outbreak barrels throughout the US, states have scrambled to get ahead of its spread, often after weeks of inaction. But one governor imposed sweeping measures days before a single case had been reported in his state. At the podium for Tuesday's daily coronavirus press briefing, Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine provides the latest on the virus's march through his state - 2,199 cases, 55 deaths, 585 hospitalisations. His announcements are peppered with "thank yous" and mild "just-a-reminders", encouraging continued social distancing. He holds printed notes, shuffling the papers occasionally, staring down at them frequently. He doesn't speak in platitudes, but in detail, taking time to dictate every letter and character in the state's coronavirus web address. It's a stark contrast from his New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo, whose own daily briefings have become a staple of the US coronavirus news cycle. But while the lesser known Mr DeWine, 73, may lack the media attention of Mr Cuomo, he is drawing praise for his early moves against the virus, at a time when much of the US was still playing catch up. On 5 March, after resistance from organisers, Mr DeWine got a court order to shut down much of the Arnold Sports Festival - an annual event featuring 20,000 athletes from 80 countries, around 60,000 spectators each day, and an expected $53m for Columbus, the state's largest city. The state had yet to report a single case. "This is a balancing test," the first-term governor said at the time, in response to criticism. Over the next three weeks, Mr DeWine moved to bar spectators from major sporting events - days before US professional leagues decided to cancel their seasons. He was first in the nation to declare a state-wide school shutdown. He invoked an emergency public health order to postpone Ohio's presidential primary the night before it was scheduled on 17 March.
4-1-20 Coronavirus is making American workers say enough is enough
Many of those still on the job are facing perilous conditions. And they're getting increasingly loud about it. The coronavirus has upended the U.S. economy. But one thing it doesn't appear to have changed is employers' drive to squeeze every ounce of effort out of their workers that they can for minimal cost — even when the costs include the things we need to do to keep everyone safe and whole during a global pandemic. While shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders have closed down huge swaths of American economic activity, crucial jobs and businesses — the ones that deliver groceries and supplies, that handle garbage and public transit — remain open, and in many cases are as busy as ever. And in the last week or so, the workers in these jobs have gotten increasingly loud about insufficient safety standards and insufficient compensation. Everyone from Instacart and Amazon to General Electric and the City of Detroit has faced protests, strikes, and work stoppages. Instacart — the platform app that delivers groceries right to your door — is a good example of what makes this particular moment unusual. The company is on track to hire as many as 300,000 more shoppers and delivery people to help deal with the increased demand from the coronavirus shutdown. But a lot of the people Instacart already employs feel it isn't doing enough to keep them or their customers safe, nor is it paying them enough for the extra burden of putting themselves at risk to get others the food they need. On Friday, the grassroots outfit Gig Workers Collective, announced a series of demands — hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, an extra $5 per order and default tip increases as hazard pay, and paid leave for workers with a pre-existing condition or other risk factor — and said Instacart workers would go on strike Monday to make those demands heard. "Instacart's corporate employees are provided with health insurance, life insurance, and paid time off and [are] also eligible for sick pay and paid family leave," Vanessa Bain, an Instacart gig worker in Menlo Park, California, and a lead organizer of the strike, told Vice. "By contrast its [gig workers], who are putting their lives on the line to maintain daily operations are afforded none of these protections."
4-1-20 Coronavirus: Greatest test since World War Two, says UN chief
The current coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge for the world since World War Two, UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned. He said it could bring a recession "that probably has no parallel in the recent past". His warning comes amid dire predictions about the possible economic impact of measures imposed to fight the virus. The number of confirmed cases around the world is now nearing 860,000, with more than 42,000 deaths. The death toll in the US is now more than 4,000 - higher than the declared number of fatalities in China, where the outbreak began late last year. Johns Hopkins University said 865 people had died in the past 24 hours in the US and in all more than 189,000 people in the country had been infected. About three out of four Americans are now, or about to be, under some form of lockdown, as more US states tighten measures to fight the coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease. Meanwhile, Spain, second only to Italy in the number of recorded fatalities, has seen 849 deaths in the last 24 hours - the highest number it has had in a single day. In the UK, a total of 1,789 people have died - a rise of 381, officials say. Among the victims was a 13-year-old boy, King's College Hospital Trust in London said. Speaking at the UN headquarters in New York at the launch of a report on the potential socioeconomic impact of the outbreak, Mr Guterres said: "The new coronavirus disease is attacking societies at their core, claiming lives and people's livelihoods". Countries around the world have imposed a series of measures, including restricting people's movements and closing most businesses, to curb the spread of the virus. The UN report estimates that up to 25 million jobs could be lost around the world as the result of the outbreak. It also projects an up to 40% "downward pressure" on global foreign direct investment flows. "Covid-19 is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations," he said, calling for "an immediate co-ordinated health response to suppress transmission and end the pandemic".
3-31-20 New York City’s coronavirus outbreak is already overwhelming hospitals
In the US, the focus of the coronavirus outbreak last week shifted from the West Coast to New York City. As of 30 March, the city of 8.6 million people had 38,087 confirmed cases, which account for more than a quarter of cases in the US, and 914 people had died of covid-19. In one 24-hour period last week, 2000 people were hospitalised in the city. Most of the positive covid-19 test results have been clustered in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. At a press conference on 25 March, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said these are “numbers I can barely even comprehend… number[s] that would have been unimaginable just a couple of weeks ago”. In Queens, hospitals and emergency rooms have been flooded with critically ill covid-19 patients struggling to breathe. “It’s inconceivable. Everything we know about medicine is out the window,” says Lisa Epstein, a nurse at New York-Presbyterian Queens, who is working in the hospital’s emergency room. Waiting areas have been repurposed to treat people with covid-19. Beds, chairs, wheelchairs and stretchers fill every available space. “It’s like a war zone, only there’s no blood,” says Epstein, who has been a nurse for 40 years. New York governor Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference on 24 March that the city has 53,000 hospital beds and may need as many as 140,000. The Javits Center, a convention hall in Manhattan, has been converted into a temporary field hospital with nearly 3000 beds. The disaster unfolding in New York City is the culmination of errors made in the US response to the outbreak. Mistakes with the initial test kits designed and distributed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sparked a weak testing effort that has yet to be fully remedied.
3-31-20 Coronavirus: LA county gun shops to reopen as 'essential' business
Los Angeles County is reopening gun shops to the public after a federal memo listed them as "essential" businesses. (Webmaster's comment: INSANE!) Sheriff Alex Villanueva closed shops last week, but reversed course on Monday, following the guidance. The LA county closures had prompted a lawsuit from gun rights groups. The change comes amid a national dispute over whether gun access is critical amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The federal guidance issued on 28 March classified munitions makers and sellers as "essential critical infrastructure workers". Mr Villanueva said that though the memo was non-binding, it has national scope and he would therefore open shops closed last week. Previously, Mr Villanueva had told gun shops to close in the nation's most populous county, as long queues due to panic-buying posed health risks. California's Governor Gavin Newsom, who issued a state-wide stay at home order to combat the spread of Covid-19 earlier this month, has said each of the state's counties may determine whether firearm stores, like groceries and pharmacies, were essential businesses permitted to remain open. The state has seen over 130 deaths due to the novel coronavirus. The US currently has over 164,000 confirmed cases. An order was issued closing gun stop to the public, but dealers could continue to do business with police, security companies and some residents who had not yet collected their previously purchased firearms. The National Rifle Association - one of the most powerful gun lobby groups in the US - and other pro-gun groups filed a federal lawsuit against California officials on Friday over store closures. The mandatory closures violated the US Constitution's Second Amendment right to bear arms, the suit said. Gun control groups have argued keeping these shops open is not safe in a pandemic. Across the nation, Covid-19 has caused a rise in firearm sales, including from many first-time buyers, local media report. States have taken different approaches to gun access amid the Covid-19 crisis. The Texas attorney general has deemed gun shops essential businesses protected by the Second Amendment, but New Jersey has restricted business to appointment-only sales during limited hours. Pennsylvania residents may also continue to buy firearms as long as they abide by social distancing guidelines. (Webmaster's comment: The right to kill those you don't like shall not be infringed!)
3-31-20 Trump on coronavirus: Heated response to 'snarky, nasty question'
Donald Trump has launched a scathing attack on a CNN journalist who reminded the US president "of the way you downplayed this (coronavirus) crisis over the last couple of months." When the journalist read Mr Trump previous comments he had made on the pandemic, the president said: "I don't want panic in the country. I could cause panic, much better than even you, I could make you look like a minor league player."
3-31-20 Coronavirus: US death rates v China, Italy and South Korea
The US has seen its cases spike dramatically in recent days and these graphs show what could be in store.
3-31-20 Coronavirus: Three out of four Americans under some form of lockdown
About three out of four Americans are now, or about to be, under some form of lockdown, as more states tighten measures to fight the coronavirus. Maryland, Virginia, Arizona and Tennessee became the latest states to order citizens to stay at home, meaning 32 of 50 states have taken such steps. Meanwhile governors are quarrelling with President Donald Trump about the availability of testing kits. The US has more than 163,000 confirmed virus cases and over 3,000 deaths. It surpassed Italy last week as the country with the highest number of people suffering from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. New York City is the worst-hit place in America, with 914 confirmed fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some 245 million people are already under orders to stay at home, or facing such orders which come into effect later on Tuesday. Almost two-thirds of states have issued directives for their citizens to stay put, while the remaining states have localised orders in effect. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, who has been reluctant to impose a state-wide order, said he would instruct people in four counties in the south - where more than half the state's cases of the virus exist - to stay at home. He said this would last until at least the middle of May. In general, the "lockdowns" allow people to only go out to get essential supplies and medicines, or limited forms of exercise. The economic consequences have been profound, with millions of people having lost their jobs. According to an estimate of the Federal Reserve, the US central bank, 47 million people could be out of work in the coming months, with the US still weeks away from the peak of infections. According to CBS News, President Trump and state governors held a conference call on Monday in which Mr Trump suggested there was no longer a lack of kits to test people for Covid-19. In an audio recording obtained by the US network, Mr Trump says he has not "heard about testing in weeks. "We've tested more now than any nation in the world. We've got these great tests and we're coming out with a faster one this week... I haven't heard about testing being a problem," he says. However, Montana Governor Steve Bullock is heard to say his state does not have adequate numbers of kits. "Literally, we are one day away, if we don't get test kits from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], that we wouldn't be able to do testing in Montana," he says
3-31-20 Coronavirus: World leaders' posts deleted over fake news
Facebook and Twitter have deleted posts from world leaders for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Facebook deleted a video from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that claimed hydroxychloroquine was totally effective in treating the virus. He has repeatedly downplayed the virus and encouraged Brazilians to ignore medical advice on social distancing. It follows Twitter’s deletion of a homemade treatment tweeted by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Both social networks rarely interfere with messages from world leaders, even when they are verifiably untrue. Twitter, for example, says it will “will err on the side of leaving the content up” when world leaders break the rules, citing the public interest. But all major social networks are under pressure to combat misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Twitter has updated its guidance on combating medical misinformation that goes against international public health guidance. And Facebook has similarly committed to removing information that could cause physical harm. President Bolsonaro’s posts showed him talking to people in the streets of Taguatinga. Facebook said it had removed the video from both that site and Instagram, which it also owns. The posts violated its community standards for causing harm, it told BBC News. Follow-up statements issued to Buzzfeed and The Verge clarified the claim about hydroxychloroquine was the main reason for its deletion. The World Health Organization says while some drug cocktails may have an impact, there is no proven drug treatment. And hydroxychloroquine and a related compound, chloroquine, are unproven, experimental treatments. But despite the lack of clinical trials, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now approved both compounds, listed as anti-malarial drugs, for “emergency use” in Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital. The potential for possible treatment outweighed the known risk, the FDA said.
3-31-20 Coronavirus: Amazon workers strike over virus protection
Pressure is building on Amazon and other delivery firms to improve protection for workers worried about getting infected with coronavirus. Some workers at US food delivery firm Instacart and US and Italian workers at Amazon have walked out, complaining of inadequate protection. US senators have also written to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to express concerns. The companies have said they are taking extra precautions, amid booming demand for delivery services due to the virus. "We are going to great lengths to keep the buildings extremely clean and help employees practice important precautions such as social distancing and other measures", an Amazon spokesman said in a statement. "Those who don't want to work are welcome to use paid and unpaid time off options and we support them in doing so". Amazon said it had adjusted its practices, including increased cleaning of its facilities and introducing staggered shift and break times. In Italy, the company said it had reduced deliveries since 22 March. However, union leaders say workers need access to better protection. "Several employees working at the site use face masks for days instead of having new ones each day," one union representative told Reuters. A group of workers at Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, plan to walk out on Tuesday, citing similar problems. The company told NBC it has "taken extensive measures to keep people safe." Last year, the company faced criticism for cutting healthcare benefits for 1,900 part-time employees. Earlier this month, Mr Bezos - who is one of the world's richest people with an estimated $115.6bn fortune - addressed the worries in an open letter to staff, thanking them for their work. The company, which is looking to hire 100,000 more warehouse workers in the US to help address the surge in orders, has also said it would boost pay for warehouse staff around the world, including by $2 per hour in the US and by £2 per hour in the UK, where staff have been told to work overtime. However, US lawmakers have questioned Amazon over reports of shortages of protective and cleaning supplies, as well as its sick leave policies. The firm earlier faced strikes by workers in France and Italy and has been hit by legal complaints over the issues in Spain, according to a global alliance of unions coordinated by UNI Global Union.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: 'Nurses prepare for the worst but not this'
Facing supply shortages and the fear that this could just be the beginning, a nurse working in a New York City emergency room, with 12 years' experience, tells the BBC what it's like on the front lines of America's coronavirus outbreak. We've seen an influx of patients that are coming in with the typical Covid symptom - fever, cough, sometimes sore throat, lung pain, chest pain. Other people are coming in with gastro-intestinal symptoms which are nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, which have been identified as possibly an early symptom of Covid. We're also noticing that our patients are coming in with red eyes, their eyes are red around the rim. You can look at these patients that are coming in that turn out to be Covid positive and you can see the sickness in their face, in their eyes. Our emergency room is completely Covid. And we're short staffed, so it puts an even bigger strain on our emergency-care system. The short answer to that no, we don't. As of the last day that I worked, we were running out of pumps. When a patient has an IV hooked-up, there is a machine that's sitting next to you that calculates the medication, making sure it is being given to you at the right time and the right amount. We are running out of those pumps. We're giving patients medications to sedate them and we don't even have the correct equipment to monitor them. We are being rationed PPE - which is our personal protective equipment. We're getting one N-95 mask and we're having to reuse it for five shifts. Before this pandemic, you were never to reuse this equipment. It was one time use and it was thrown out. It was discarded. Now we are being told to use it for our shift, put it in a paper bag and save it for next shift. After five shifts, we turn it in and we'll get a new one. We're running out of basic supplies because all of our patients are requiring so much.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: Lockdown 'must become the social norm'
To persuade the majority to continue to comply with the lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, it must become the only "socially acceptable norm", a King's College London study suggests. "Social pressure from others" had an important role to play, lead researcher Dr Rebecca Webster told BBC News. But this was not a reason for public shaming of others on social media. And ensuring people had enough food, medical supplies and money to pay the bills was even more important. "That's what we're seeing the government doing at the moment - working with supermarkets to make sure people aren't going without and with NHS volunteers to make sure medicines are delivered," Dr Webster said. The study, published online in the journal Public Health, is based on 14 analyses of how different groups of people adhered to quarantine rules during disease outbreaks, including Ebola, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), swine flu and mumps. The researchers found "up-to-date, clear information was the key to getting people to adhere to the guidelines". "If instructions or language are unclear, then people tend to make up their own rules," Dr Webster said. "We need positive stories about the benefits of what we're being asked to do. "It reinforces that this is the new normal - that everyone needs to get behind it in order for it to work. "We'll have to wait to see the real impacts on infection rates but those positive social messages come from some of the community spirit we're seeing in videos people are posting - singing from balconies and other displays of this community spirit. "We all need to step up and do our bit, and I think the general public is doing quite a good job of that already. "There will always be some people who don't follow the rules. We just have to do our best."
3-30-20 Coronavirus latest: Interventions 'saved 59,000 lives' in 11 countries
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Government interventions across 11 European countries have already saved 59,000 lives, according to a new report from scientists at Imperial College London which includes Neil Ferguson, whose modelling has informed the UK’s coronavirus strategy. The researchers modelled the impact of social distancing, school closures, lockdowns and the banning of large gatherings in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. A new breathing aid to help keep covid-19 patients out of intensive care will soon undergo clinical trials in several London hospitals. The device can deliver oxygen to the lungs without the need for a ventilator. It was designed and built in under a week as part of a collaboration between engineers and doctors at University College London and Mercedes Formula One. The new device has already been approved by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and, if trials are successful, up to 1000 could be produced per day. US president Donald Trump has said restrictions in the country will be extended until at least 30 April. This follows a warning from the US government’s leading infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, over the weekend that the coronavirus could kill as many as 200,000 people in the US. It could be six months before life in the UK returns to “normal”, according to the UK’s deputy chief medical officer. UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that 20,000 former UK National Health Service (NHS) staff have returned to work to help in the fight against the virus. Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet flight attendants are being offered work at the new NHS Nightingale Hospital in east London. EasyJet’s entire fleet of aircrafts has been grounded due to the pandemic.
3-30-20 Machine translates brainwaves into sentences
Scientists have taken a step forward in their ability to decode what a person is saying just by looking at their brainwaves when they speak. They trained algorithms to transfer the brain patterns into sentences in real-time and with word error rates as low as 3%. Previously, these so-called "brain-machine interfaces" have had limited success in decoding neural activity. The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The earlier efforts in this area were only able decode fragments of spoken words or a small percentage of the words contained in particular phrases. Machine learning specialist Dr Joseph Makin from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), US, and colleagues tried to improve the accuracy. Four volunteers read sentences aloud while electrodes recorded their brain activity. The brain activity was fed into a computing system, which created a representation of regularly occurring features in that data. These patterns are likely to be related to repeated features of speech such as vowels, consonants or commands to parts of the mouth. Another part of the system decoded this representation word-by-word to form sentences. However, the authors freely admit the study's caveats. For example, the speech to be decoded was limited to 30-50 sentences. "Although we should like the decoder to learn and exploit the regularities of the language, it remains to show how many data would be required to expand from our tiny languages to a more general form of English," the researchers wrote in their Nature Neuroscience paper. But they add that the decoder is not simply classifying sentences based on their structure. They know this because its performance was improved by adding sentences to the training set that were not used in the tests themselves. The scientists say this proves that the machine interface is identifying single words, not just sentences. In principle, this means it could be possible to decode sentences never encountered in a training set. When the computer system was trained on brain activity and speech from one person before training on another volunteer, decoding results improved, suggesting that the technique may be transferable across people.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: Trump extends US guidelines beyond Easter
President Donald Trump has said federal coronavirus guidelines such as social distancing will be extended across the US until at least 30 April. He had previously suggested that they could be relaxed as early as Easter, which falls in mid-April. "The highest point of the death rate is likely to hit in two weeks," Mr Trump said. He appeared to be referring to peak infection rates that experts fear could overwhelm hospitals. White House medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci had earlier warned that the virus could kill up to 200,000 Americans. Dr Fauci said that it was "entirely conceivable" that millions of Americans could eventually be infected. The US now has more than 140,000 confirmed cases. As of Sunday evening, 2,493 deaths had been recorded in the country in relation to Covid-19, according to figures collated by Johns Hopkins University. The US last week became the country with the most reported cases, ahead of Italy and China. Speaking during the latest Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House on Sunday, the president said that measures such as social distancing were "the way you win", adding that the US "will be well on our way to recovery" by June. Suggesting that the "peak" of death rates in the US was likely to hit in two weeks, Mr Trump said that "nothing would be worse than declaring victory before victory is won - that would be the greatest loss of all". Analysts suggest that when Mr Trump referred to a peak in the "death rate", he probably meant the total number of recorded infections. He said the decision to extend social distancing was made after he heard that "2.2 million people could have died if we didn't go through with all of this", adding that if the death toll could be restricted to less than 100,000 "we all together have done a very good job".
3-30-20 As the pandemic rages, the president brags
Trump's obsession with his own ratings knows no limits. oes President Trump think he is still the star of a reality TV show? The COVID-19 death toll in America continues to mount. As of Sunday, the number stood at more than 2,400 — but the president took little note. Instead, he was preoccupied with a different set of numbers: TV ratings. In a series of tweets, Trump purported to quote The New York Times about the huge audiences tuning into his daily pandemic press briefings. The tweets were very misleading. The New York Times did report that Trump's briefings are a ratings hit — but it also warned that journalists and public health experts considered this a "dangerous thing" because of the constant stream of "ill informed, misleading, or downright wrong" comments spewing from the president's mouth. Not exactly an affirmation. But Trump's tweets were also, as James Fallows of The Atlantic noted Sunday, a demonstration of "complete amorality." While doctors and nurses across the country battle the pandemic to the point of exhaustion, while thousands of families grieve for lost loved ones, and while tens of thousands more struggle through illness, the president of the United States is looking into a mirror, asking it to assure him that he is the fairest of them all. Shameful. Even Trump's usual defenders seemed astonished at his misplaced ratings obsession. "Why bother to tweet about this, of all things?" Fox News' Brit Hume tweeted. We know the answer to that question. The president is endlessly narcissistic, a man who craves the limelight above all else. We have known this since the 1980s, when he rose to fame stamping his name on every building, casino, and business that would have it. We knew it when he parlayed his first divorce into a creepy pizza commercial. We knew it when he went on Howard Stern's show to talk — even more creepily — about his daughter's looks. Donald Trump is one of those guys who believes there is no such thing as bad publicity. For decades, this trait was simply clownish. But he is president now, and he hasn't changed, even in the face of a pandemic ravaging his hometown.
3-30-20 Trump's message to blue states battling coronavirus: Drop dead
Heading into 2020, it seemed like those online election prediction maps would be the most exciting thing to watch over the coming year. But now, a different map may tell us much more about what the future holds. While the coronavirus spreads across the nation with no regards to state borders, the nation's governors are taking wildly different approaches to tackling the disease, resulting in a patchwork national map that undermines our ability to stop COVID-19 effectively. Coupled with the disastrous leadership of a president more interested in retaliating against his perceived enemies than employing his powers for good, the fractured response to coronavirus reveals how much has to be healed in our nation's system. It also sets in motion an inevitable showdown between Trump and those state leaders who are taking coronavirus seriously, a divide that is only going to get worse given Trump's toxic tendency to blame others for his own shortcomings. Trump's sickness was startlingly evident in his interview with Fox News' Bill Hemmer last Tuesday. Asked about his administration's coordination with the states, a basic function of the federal government and a critical one in a crisis moment, Trump's response displayed his typically transactional view of how things get done under his watch. "It's a two-way street," Trump childishly whined, "They have to treat us well, also. They can't say, 'Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.'" That's been Trump's approach to working with others, especially those in need, from the start, a twisted outgrowth of the manipulation tactics he's used throughout his personal and professional life. As president, his self-interest and demands for personal loyalty always guide his decision making. At the depressingly dysfunctional level, that has meant a revolving door of White House staffers and administration appointees, including Jeff Sessions, who didn't satisfy Trump's insatiable ego enough to stay. At the lawbreaking level, it has meant his bald quid pro quo demand that Ukraine investigate a political rival in order to receive congressionally-mandated foreign aid and putting extreme restrictions on federal aid to Puerto Rico, seemingly in retaliation for how government officials there had criticized his handling of Hurricane Maria. But where Trump's pay-to-play expectations of Ukraine, despite the Senate's judgments, were unconstitutional, his praise-to-play demands of state governors while the health of the nation hangs in the balance are nothing short of unconscionable. Trump's refusal to take federal action against the virus may be the most disastrous decision of his presidency. His petty privileging of red states and his punishing of blue states may be the most deadly, with consequences for all Americans no matter their politics.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: Field hospitals treating patients around world
Coronavirus cases globally have now reached more than 735,000, with at least 34,000 deaths. To cope with pressure that threatens to overwhelm health systems, countries are building field hospitals that can treat thousands of patients. Armed forces and even laid-off airline workers are being drafted in for construction and to support medics and patients. Conference venues, stadiums, and fairgrounds are some of the sites used. In London, UK the ExCel conference venue has been turned in a hospital with beds for 500 patients, increasing eventually to 4000. New York City is the epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak as the country now leads the world in the number of confirmed cases. A field hospital in Central Park, as well as a temporary morgue outside a major hospital, are under construction. Doctors in Europe's hardest-hit country Italy have described "war-like" conditions in their hospitals as they try to treat patients. In Crema, Lombardy, the army have set up tents, and 52 doctors flown in from Cuba will assist medics. Iran has struggled to contain its outbreak, with more than 2,640 deaths from the virus. A hospital set up by the military in capital city Tehran can take 2,000 patients. Brazil has more than 4,250 cases of the virus, with 136 fatalities. Clubs have offered former World Cup venues for use by the health system. Football stadium and concert venue Pacaembu Stadium in Sao Paulo has been turned in a temporary hospital with room for 200 beds. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones are among artists who have performed at Sao Paulo's Pacaembu Stadium. Construction of a field hospital in Rafah, Gaza Strip began in mid-March. The United Nations warns that poverty and a debilitated health system in the Palestinian territories would make an outbreak of the coronavirus disastrous. Spain has reported soaring death tolls for a number of days, with a total of 7,340 fatalities from Covid-19. Madrid is particularly hard-hit, where some patients are being treated by doctors in an exhibition centre. In Florida, US one county fairground will be host to 250 hospital beds, and another site is under construction at Fort Lauderdale airport. The Miami-Dade fair was cancelled in March when mass gatherings in the US were banned. The US navy hospital ship the Comfort is expected to dock in New York City on Monday to aid with the outbreak there. The ship, which can hold around 1,000 beds, left from Norfolk naval base, Virginia on Saturday.
4-5-20 Somali outrage at rape of girls aged three and four
The government in Somalia has condemned the abduction and rape of two girls aged just three and four. The doctor in charge of the hospital where they are being treated says they need major surgery. An official said several arrests had been made following the attack which happened on Wednesday. The parents say that the two cousins were walking home from school in Afgoye, close to the capital, Mogadishu. They were seized by men who took them away and sexually assaulted them. Their parents desperately searched the neighbourhood and found them alone the following day. BBC World Service Africa editor Will Ross says the fact that the girls are aged just three and four has added to the shock in Somalia where reports of rape have increased in recent years. It is thought that such horrific crimes have long been taking place but people are now more aware of the need to publicise the incidents in order to bring about change, he says.
SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT
4-2-20 Brazil: Amazon land defender Zezico Guajajara shot dead
A member of a protected tribe in the Amazon has been killed by gunmen, authorities in the Brazilian state of Maranhao say. The body of Zezico Guajajara, of the Guajajara tribe, was found near his village on Tuesday. He had been shot. The former teacher was a supporter of Guardians of the Forest, a group formed to combat logging gangs in the area. The killing - the fifth in six months - increases concerns about violence against Amazon forest protectors. Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro has drawn intense domestic and international criticism for failing to protect the Guardians' territory in the eastern Amazon region. He has often stated support for farmers and loggers working in the area, while criticising environmental campaigners and slashing the budget of Brazil's environmental agency. The Guajajaras are one of Brazil's largest indigenous groups with some 20,000 people. In 2012, they started the Guardians of the Forest to protect the Arariboia Indigenous Territory. It is not clear who killed Zezico Guajajara on Tuesday. Authorities say they are investigating. In a statement issued on Wednesday, indigenous leader Olimpio Guajajara described him as "another fellow warrior - a man who defended life". "We are mourning his death. We're protecting the forest for all humanity, but powerful forces are out to kill us." The Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB) urged a thorough investigation. The latest murder "is evidence of the worsening violence and vulnerability of the indigenous people, especially the leaders that fight to defend their territories against invaders," the group said in a statement. Sarah Shenker, who works for Survival International, a non-governmental organisation advocating for indigenous communities, accused loggers of targeting activists "one by one". The group renewed its criticism of President Bolsonaro. "The Guardians have been mercilessly targeted by powerful logging mafias illegally exploiting the valuable hardwoods in the Arariboia indigenous territory, home to both the Guajajara indigenous people and uncontacted members of the Awa tribe," it said in a statement.
4-2-20 Coronavirus: Oil prices rise on hopes of a price war truce
Global oil prices have surged after Donald Trump said he expected Saudi Arabia and Russia to end a feud that has driven oil prices to 18-year lows. The US president tweeted "I expect & hope" the two countries would agree to cut supply by 10 million barrels "and maybe substantially more". His comment came as Saudi Arabia called for an emergency meeting of oil producers. The Russian energy minister also said his country may re-start talks. A deal to cut production in response to the drop in demand from coronavirus shutdowns collapsed last month. Since then, the cost of crude has fallen to lows not seen for almost two decades as Russia and Saudi Arabia slashed prices and ramped up production in a fight for market share. The stand-off has led US oil to its worst quarter on record. Prices fell by two thirds in the first three months of the year, rocking the energy sector. The damage has prompted American officials to try to broker a new deal. Prices jumped more than 30% on hopes of an agreement. The international benchmark, Brent crude, hit $32.78 a barrel at one point and the price of US oil, known as West Texas Intermediate (WTI), reached $26.93. That put the Brent crude price on track for its biggest one-day gain on record. Speaking earlier about the dispute at a White House news conference, Mr Trump said: "It's very bad for Russia, it's very bad for Saudi Arabia. I mean, it's very bad for both. I think they're going to make a deal". Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak addressed the White House discussions in an interview with the Echo Moskvy radio station on Thursday. "We agreed to stay in constant contact, to work out joint measures, which would facilitate stabilisation on the market in nearest future," he said. The American oil industry, which Mr Trump described as having been "ravaged", has just seen the first stock market-traded casualty of the collapse in oil prices.
4-2-20 Delaying the COP26 climate talks could have a silver lining
In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, most people agree it was the right decision last night to postpone the COP26 climate summit until 2021. But what will the delay mean for the biggest moment in climate change negotiations since the historic 2015 Paris agreement? The nearly 200 countries who support the Paris deal were due to meet in Glasgow to upgrade their plans to curb carbon emissions. Existing blueprints leave the world on track for a catastrophic warming of more than 3°C, a recipe for fires, floods and food insecurity. At Paris, the world agreed to hold warming to 1.5°C, or 2°C at worst. A measly six countries, representing less than 3 per cent of global emissions, have declared new plans so far. That includes Japan, which this week disappointed the world with a plan that was condemned for falling “woefully short”, because it has the same headline target as the last one. Diplomacy in the run-up to Glasgow is meant to elicit more ambitious plans, chief among them new pledges from China and the European Union, the world’s top and third biggest emitter, respectively. Such diplomacy was proving impossible with the pandemic’s lockdown measures, which is one of the reasons the meeting was cancelled. But as many environmental groups pointed out yesterday, there’s no reason countries cannot still submit those roadmaps, regardless of the physical summit’s delay. The EU has already said the postponement will not slow its work. Glasgow also needs to tie up the loose ends from Paris, including crucial matters such as the small print of carbon trading between countries – something last year’s meeting in Madrid abjectly failed to do. So, on the face of it, postponing COP26 is bad news for the much more radical action needed to put the world’s economies on course for the Paris deal’s goals. There is little solace in the fact the coronavirus pandemic will significantly cut global emissions this year, perhaps more than 2 per cent, rather than the increase that had been expected. Such a dip would do little to alter the longer term trajectory.
4-1-20 Our approach to covid-19 can also help tackle climate change
We can't lose sight of the climate emergency when dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, say Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac WE HAVE known for some time that 2020 was going to be a milestone year for the climate change crisis, requiring a radical reversal of the current trajectory in global greenhouse gas emissions. But what we didn’t know was that we would also face a global health crisis this year. The decisions we make now to tackle this imminent threat will affect us for generations to come, including our ability to halt global warming. There is no established link between covid-19 and climate change. However, the way we are altering the planet will make the spread of some diseases more likely. Mosquito-transmitted diseases, such as dengue and malaria, will become more widespread as climate change makes larger areas warm enough for these insects to thrive. Diseases that originate in animals, like Ebola or covid-19, could become more likely too. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new and emerging diseases infecting humans originate in animals. Encroachment on their habitats increases the risk of such disease. The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy and its consequences will be felt for a long time. Yet though global health conditions will eventually return to a form of normal, our environment will never do so. Our climate has irreversibly changed: the average global temperature has already risen by 1°C. Our urgent task is to ensure we don’t exceed 1.5°C of warming and so avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As the covid-19 pandemic is painfully showing, our challenges are increasingly global in nature and require systemic solutions. To control the coronavirus, governments have needed to mandate social distancing, ground aeroplanes and close borders. For climate change, they need to back clean technologies and end subsidies to polluting industries.
4-1-20 Coronavirus forces postponement of COP26 meeting in Glasgow
A key climate summit in Glasgow will be delayed until next year due to disruption caused by the coronavirus. The announcement was made in a joint statement from the UK and UN after a "virtual" meeting of officials. Dozens of world leaders were due to attend the COP26 gathering that was set to run in Glasgow from November 9 this year. It is expected that the conference will now take place by the middle of next year. As the virus has spread around the world, there has been a growing expectation in recent weeks that the COP26 talks would be delayed. Around 30,000 delegates, journalists and environmental campaigners were due in Scotland for the meeting. However the changing priorities that coronavirus has forced on governments can be clearly seen in Glasgow's Scottish Events Campus (SEC) which was due to host the talks. It is now set to become a temporary hospital to house patients affected by Covid-19. The decision to move COP26 was taken by UN officials, including UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa and UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who is president-designate of the meeting. "The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting Covid-19," Mr Sharma said in a statement. "That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26." "We will continue working tirelessly with our partners to deliver the ambition needed to tackle the climate crisis and I look forward to agreeing a new date for the conference." Five years on from the landmark Paris agreement, all nations were due to put new improved climate action plans on the table at the Glasgow meeting. Environmental groups said the decision was understandable. "Postponing COP26 is the right thing to do - public health and safety must come first now," said Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the Paris agreement and CEO of European Climate Foundation. "This crisis has shown that international cooperation and solidarity are essential to protect global well-being and peace. COP26 next year should become a centre piece of revitalized global cooperation."
4-1-20 Oceans can be successfully restored by 2050, say scientists
Despite being treated as humanity's rubbish dump for decades, the oceans of the world are proving remarkably resilient, says a new scientific review. Building on that resilience could lead to a full recovery within three decades, the researchers argue. Climate change, and the challenges of scaling up existing conservation efforts, are the big hurdles, they say. The researchers caution that the window for action is now very narrow. The oceans have been exploited by humans for centuries, but the negative impacts of our involvement have only become clear over the last 50 years or so. Fish and other marine species have been hunted almost to extinction, while oil spills and other forms of pollution have poisoned the seas. Over the last few decades, the growing influence of climate change has bleached corals, and seen the ocean's acidity increase. This was documented in last year's special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This new review recognises the scale of the problems but also points to the remarkable resilience of the seas. Humpback whale numbers have rebounded since the ban on commercial whaling. The proportion of marine species assessed as threatened with global extinction by the IUCN has dropped from 18% in 2000 to 11.4% in 2019. "Our study documents the recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems following past conservation interventions. It provides specific, evidence-based recommendations to scale proven solutions globally," said lead author Carlos Duarte, who is professor of marine science at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. "We know what we ought to do to rebuild marine life, and we have evidence that this goal can be achieved within three decades. Indeed, this requires that we accelerate our efforts, and spread them to areas where efforts are currently modest." The researchers identified nine components that are key to rebuilding the oceans: salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna and the deep ocean. The scientists recommend a range of actions that are required including protecting species, harvesting wisely and restoring habitats.
4-1-20 Climate change: Warming clips the nightingale's wings
Rising temperatures may be having a profound physical impact on one of the world's favourite songbirds. Researchers in Spain found that over a 20-year period, nightingales had evolved smaller wingspans. The scientists say this is linked to a changing climate in the region which has seen the early onset of spring and increased drought. They are concerned that this could affect the bird's ability to migrate in winter. Famed for its ability to sing, the nightingale has a very rich repertoire as it is able to produce over 1,000 different sounds, compared to just 340 by skylarks. Although common in many parts of Europe and Asia, the bird is mainly seen and heard in southern England. Numbers here have declined markedly over the last half century, down 90%, with multiple factors to blame including deer eating their preferred nesting sites, but also because of a changing climate. The nightingale spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, with the small, brown creature clocking up huge distances during migration. Wing size is critical to this endeavour. Now,, researchers say that ability to migrate may be impeded by climate change. Scientists in Spain have studied 20 years of data on wing shape in two populations of the birds. They found that the average wing length of the nightingales relative to their body size has decreased. They believe this is related to changes in temperatures seen in the Mediterranean region. "Our results show that spring is delayed and the intensity of the summer drought is higher, which means a shorter optimal breeding period for the birds," said Dr Carolina Remacha, from Madrid's Complutense University, who led the study. "We find the unique possibility that shorter wings are being favoured." The researchers believe that birds like the nightingale normally adapt to the demands of migration by having longer wings, having a larger clutch size but a shorter lifespan. However, the changing temperatures are interfering with this and provoking a response from the birds. Faced with a shorter breeding season, the researchers believe the most successful birds are having smaller families with smaller wings.
4-1-20 Microrobots made from pollen help remove toxic mercury from wastewater
Tiny robots made using pollen could one day be used to clean contaminated water. Waste water from some factories contains mercury, a metal that can cause illness if consumed. There are techniques to remove mercury in water treatment plants, but they are time consuming and expensive. Martin Pumera at the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, in the Czech Republic, and his colleagues are working on a low-cost alternative. Some pollen grains have a natural tendency to adsorb mercury, so Pumera and his team are experimenting to find ways to turn the grains into tiny mercury-removing robots. “Pollen is highly stable and we can have it in kilogram quantities very cheaply,” says Pumera. The researchers used pollen from a range of plants, including dandelion, pine, lotus, sunflower, poppy, camellia, lycopodium and cattail. They first cleaned and purified pollen, then attached particles of platinum to just one side of each pollen grain. They added the modified pollen to water contaminated with 0.2 per cent mercury by mass. They also added hydrogen peroxide to the water, which reacts with the platinum to form a chemical motor that helps the microrobots travel faster. After two hours in solution, every type of pollen had adsorbed at least 80 per cent of the mercury. Grains from a lotus flower had the highest velocity in the water – about 78 centimetres per hour – while cattail adsorbed the most mercury – around 90 per cent. “We are now working on enzymatically powered microrobots,” says Pumera.
3-31-20 Covid-19 has caused a drop in emissions – but it’s not a climate fix
People in Chinese cities usually plagued by harmful air pollution are breathing far cleaner air. Boat-free canals in Venice, Italy, are clear enough to see fish. And for the quarter of the global population now living under a coronavirus lockdown, a lack of cars and planes has made the world quieter and birdsong more apparent. While there are signs of easing pressure on the environment, no credible environmentalists say the response forced by the pandemic is a solution for the challenges the world faces on climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. “The crucial thing to observe is this is happening in an unplanned, chaotic way that’s hurting people’s lives. You’d never advocate for such a thing in climate policy,” says Sam Fankhauser at the London School of Economics. One clear impact has been on air quality. Satellite observations by Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) found that China saw a 30 per cent drop in February in two key air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2?) and particulate matter. In Italy, they fell by 40 to 50 per cent in March. “There is no precedent to something like this,” says Vincent-Henri Peuch at CAMS. He thinks the closest historical parallels for such dramatic drops are the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, when China took drastic steps to fight pollution, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when industries in the former East Germany installed cleaner technology. It is too early to detect pollution falls linked to the pandemic in other parts of the world, says Peuch. That is because changes in the weather mean pollution levels vary naturally from day to day and year to year. Another complicating factor is that more people may have taken to cars due to limits on public transport ahead of lockdowns, potentially pushing up pollution for a time, says Peuch. There may be negatives for air quality efforts too. London, which has the UK’s worst NO2 pollution, has temporarily suspended its Ultra Low Emission Zone to help key workers move around. The scheme’s revenues are usually reinvested into clean air efforts.
3-30-20 Coronavirus: Oil price collapses to lowest level for 18 years
The price of oil has sunk to levels not seen since 2002 as demand for crude collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic. Brent crude fell to $22.58 a barrel at one point on Monday, its lowest level since November 2002. Meanwhile the price of US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell below $20 a barrel and close to an 18-year low. Oil prices have fallen by more than half during the past month as companies cut back or close production. In addition to the drop in demand, a price war broke out earlier this month between Saudi Arabia and Russia. This began when Saudi Arabia failed to convince Russia to back production cuts that had been agreed with the other members of the Opec oil producers' group. The decision came as refineries around the world are processing less crude oil. Demand for transport has been hammered by grounded airlines and fewer cars on the roads as countries bring in tougher measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak. However, an analyst said a collapse in demand from the measures taken to counter the spread of coronavirus was now the main factor. "Oil prices failed to keep pace, with growing (coronavirus) lock-down measures and reports that this could drive global demand down 20%, potentially pushing the world to run out of storage capacity," said Morgan Stanley analyst Devin McDermott, citing a forecast by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Shale oil producers in the US have been particularly hard hit by the slump in prices since early March. There are growing calls for the US to suspend royalty payment fees from drillers and to buy more oil to fill the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or have states such as Texas restrict production, Mr McDermott said. The US is now the world's top oil producer. "Since the 1930s, states have had the authority to limit oil and gas production in order to support oil prices," Mr McDermott said. "Though this practice is not widely used today, both federal and state regulators still have the ability to place restrictions on production levels."
3-30-20 Greta: We must fight the climate crisis and pandemic simultaneously
The world needs to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and climate change simultaneously, and guard against people who try to use the current crisis to delay action on cutting carbon emissions, Greta Thunberg has urged. The Swedish climate activist, who revealed last week that she and her father are likely to have had covid-19, said the response to the outbreak revealed societal shortcomings, as well as our ability to change in the face of a crisis, but had also proved that we are able to act fast. “If one virus can wipe out the entire economy in a matter of weeks and shut down societies, then that is a proof that our societies are not very resilient. It also shows that once we are in an emergency, we can act and we can change our behaviour quickly,” she said in a conversation on New Scientist‘s Big Interview podcast. Thunberg said: “People will try to use this emergency as an excuse not to act on the climate crisis, and that we have to be very careful for.” She said she understood the emergency the world was facing now, but it wasn’t an excuse to shelve action on emissions. “People don’t want to hear about the climate crisis [now]. I completely understand that, but we have to make sure that it’s not forgotten. We need to treat both of these crises at the same time, because the climate crisis will not go away,” she said. The campaigner and the Fridays for Future movement, which she kick-started with her first school strike in 2018, have made their weekly protests virtual during the pandemic. Students have been good at staying off the streets, said Thunberg, and although young people tend to have milder symptoms of the disease, “we still stand in solidarity with those in risk groups and I think that is a very beautiful thing.” Thunberg has had mild symptoms of covid-19, with some tiredness and a cough, but said that the more intense ones that her father experienced fit with the symptoms of the illness exactly. Neither have been tested, as Sweden is only testing the most severe cases.
3-30-20 These women endured a winter in the high Arctic for citizen science
The two are spending nine months on Svalbard to collect data for climate scientists Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are taking citizen science to the extreme. In August, the two women moved into a tiny hunting cabin on the high-Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The hut, dubbed Bamsebu, is the only shelter for 140 kilometers. Polar bears prowl the area. It’s not unusual for the winter chill to reach around –30° Celsius. The conditions are so harsh that few polar scientists themselves collect field data from the area during winter. That’s where Fålun Strøm and Sorby come in — gathering observations about wildlife and the environment that could help scientists’ understand how rapid warming is changing Arctic ecosystems (SN: 12/11/19). Both Fålun Strøm and Sorby were inspired to support climate research with this nine-month Arctic sojourn after seeing how climate change was affecting polar regions. For example, Fålun Strøm, who has lived for 23 years in Svalbard, has watched the land get greener while glaciers have retreated and average temperatures risen. Both women, who call themselves the Bamsebu team, have experience treading frozen grounds. Sorby, who has worked more than two decades as a historian and guide in Antarctica, has skied the Greenland ice cap and across Antarctica to the South Pole. Meanwhile, Fålun Strøm, who has spent more than a year total in trappers’ huts across the Arctic, is versed in dogsledding and big-game hunting. “It’s as if all of my years in Svalbard have prepared me for this overwintering,” Fålun Strøm says. But even for her, the Bamsebu experience is rough. There is no running water, so the women thaw chunks of ice hacked from a block outside their hut. They chop wood to keep the oven ablaze for cooking and heating the cabin. Venturing outside requires layers of clothing and a gun to guard against polar bears.
SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS
4-4-20 How immune responses weaken with age
As cases and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic rise, one trend remains consistent: The virus is deadliest for older adults. Eight in 10 Covid-19 deaths in the United States have been among adults 65 or older, according to a mid-March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Older adults, of course, are more likely to have existing medical conditions and weakened respiratory systems — two major risk factors for becoming severely ill from infection by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. But scientists believe that another factor in the observed heightened risk is likely the general decline in the immune system that's seen with age. In medicine, it has long been known that older immune systems struggle to fight off infections. The ebbing of resistance to infectious disease with age is particularly clear when looking at studies of vaccines. During 2018–19, for example, the seasonal flu vaccine was effective for roughly three of every five children 17 and younger, according to the CDC. The same vaccine was effective for only about one of every four adults 50 and older. Scientists have rushed to start trials for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. But even when they succeed in developing an effective one, University of Pennsylvania immunologist Michael Cancro worries that any coronavirus vaccine may be less effective for older adults — just as current vaccines are for other diseases. "I doubt it'll be worse, I don't think it will be any better," says Cancro, who wrote about age-associated changes in the immune system in the most recent Annual Review of Immunology. Scientists are working hard to understand how age changes the immune system so that they can better protect seniors against current and future infectious diseases. It's a timely goal. By 2030, there will be more adults over 60 than children under 10, according to the United Nations. In addition to the current threat of Covid-19, influenza poses a serious risk to this age group: Nearly three of four people who died of flu during the 2018–19 season were 65 or older, according to the CDC.
4-4-20 Can plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients treat the sick?
Clinical trials will test if antibodies against the coronavirus prevent infection, aid survival. Since March 28, at least 11 patients critically ill with COVID-19 at hospitals in New York City and Houston became the first in the United States to receive a promising experimental treatment. But the therapy, newly authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, wasn’t concocted in a pharmaceutical laboratory. It came from the blood of other patients, those who have recovered from the coronavirus infection. The treatment is convalescent plasma, the liquid component of blood taken from someone who has survived an infection, in this case COVID-19. With the United States now leading the world in confirmed cases of the disease — and no proven treatments yet — researchers here are racing to set up clinical trials to test how effective convalescent plasma is against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. If the treatment is beneficial, that could lead to FDA approval for wider use. A vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is at best more than year away (SN: 2/21/20). In trying to manage COVID-19 over the next several months, the question is, “what kind of treatments could we administer that could truncate this pandemic?” says pathologist John Roback of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who does research on transfusion medicine. The top candidates are drugs already approved to treat diseases such as malaria that might be repurposed for COVID-19 (SN: 3/10/20) and convalescent plasma, he says. To fight a virus, the immune system develops antibodies, proteins that bind to parts of the virus and impede the infection. When a person makes antibodies in response to an infection or upon getting a vaccine, it’s called active immunity. The initial ramp up to antibody production can take about a week or two, but once that has occurred, the immune system will be able to quickly respond to the next exposure to the virus. For some viruses and vaccines, active immunity can last decades or even lifelong.
4-4-20 The noble lie about masks and coronavirus should never have been told
Just tell the complicated truth about coronavirus. hose of you of a certain age will doubtless remember a time when it was universally acknowledged that wearing masks would not protect you or anyone else from the coronavirus pandemic. By "certain age" here I mean all living Americans born on or before April 1, 2020, which according to my notes is when it became possible to express a contrary position in polite society. This was always nonsense. The White House is now suggesting that all of us should wear masks whenever we leave our houses. We are even stealing vast stockpiles of them from the Germans, who have been wearing them in public for around a month on the rather more numerous occasions when their leaders exempt them from house arrest. People who can't get proper masks (apparently the kind people wear when they spray for bugs) are being encouraged to make their own. If nothing else, this has given tedious DIY addicts something else to be self satisfied about. No one cares how quaint and interesting you think the piece of cloth meant to protect you from a disease is, okay? Whether the journalists and other apparent experts who enthusiastically spread this apparent lie about masks knew it was false is very much an open question. Some of us found it odd that the same people were also saying that masks should be reserved for use by medical professionals. If masks don't do anything, why do doctors and nurses need them? Are they an ornamental part of a dress uniform? The mind reels. Regardless of the personal honesty of those involved in it, this propaganda campaign should never have been conducted in the first place. It is one thing to debate what should be empirical questions, such as the efficacy of wearing protective equipment in an attempt to forestall the spread of viral infections; it is another for people to bang on about whatever the latest current corona wisdom is with the same tedious certainty that not long ago made us a nation of Logan Act scholars and experts on the non-existent criminal law implications of the emoluments clause. These manias do roughly as much for public health as those kids — there was at least one in every first-grade class — who relentlessly ssshh everyone else in line do to improve schoolyard behavior.
4-3-20 Experimental diabetes device works by killing gut cells with hot water
A bizarre diabetes treatment seems to destroy cells lining the gut to change people’s hormonal response to food. The technique involves putting a tube down someone’s throat and into the first part of their small intestine, called the duodenum, while they are sedated. Known as Revita, the procedure uses water heated to 75°C to kill the outermost layer of cells. People with type 2 diabetes, which is linked with being overweight, often have overgrowth of the cells lining the duodenum. This may result from years of unhealthy eating, says Harith Rajagopalan at Fractyl, the firm behind the procedure. When we eat, cells in the duodenum make a hormone called gastric inhibitory polypeptide (GIP), which triggers several other hormones that control how we metabolise nutrients. GIP production is enhanced in people with diabetes. Killing some of the excess gut cells should make the person’s hormonal response to food more like that of someone without diabetes, he says. To date, about 300 people in the UK, three other European countries and Brazil have had the intervention. Of these, 34 people have been studied for two years, and their levels of HbA1c, a marker of long-term blood glucose levels, fell from 8.5 to 7.5 per cent. Despite this improvement, the people would still be classed as having diabetes. In a randomised 70-person trial, where half the participants had a sham version of the treatment, those who got the real thing had improvements in glucose control and markers of liver health after three months. The figures were due to be presented at the Endo 2020 conference in San Francisco last week, which was cancelled. The procedure tends to result in a small weight loss of about 3 kilograms, but it won’t be marketed as a treatment for obesity. “It’s a metabolic reset rather than a weight loss procedure,” says Rajagopalan. If people continue eating an unhealthy diet afterwards, their gut cells may overgrow again but that is likely to take several years, he says. “This procedure could be repeated in time if necessary.”
4-3-20 Why we still don't know what the death rate is for covid-19
What are your chances of dying if you get infected by the coronavirus? Despite data pouring in from many countries, there’s still a wide range of estimates, from as few as 1 in 1000 to as many 1 in 30. What is clear is that there is no one answer: the risk depends on your age, your sex, your health and the care you receive if you become severely ill. In other words, death rates will vary from place to place and over the course of the pandemic. In the UK, as of 2 April, 2921 people had died out of 33,718 confirmed cases – a crude case fatality rate of around 9 per cent. For Italy, the figure is nearly 12 per cent and for Germany just 1 per cent. These figures do not tell us what we really want to know: how many of those infected will die as a result, which is known as the infection fatality rate. Crude case fatality rates are so-called because they do not take into account the fact that some of those who have tested positive will go on to die. Early in March, for instance, South Korea had a crude case fatality rate of just 0.6 per cent. That has risen to 1.7 per cent. Among resolved cases – those who have died or recovered – the case fatality rate is 2.9 per cent. The differences between countries are also partly to do with how many elderly people have been infected, says Melinda Mills at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science in the UK. In South Korea and Germany, it was mostly younger people infected at first. Based on what’s happening in Italy, Mills and colleagues calculate that if 10 per cent of people were infected, there would be 302,530 deaths in Italy in with its ageing population of 61 million – but just 142,058 deaths in Nigeria with its much younger population of 191 million. The big question is how many infected people with mild or no symptoms are being missed. If lots are, the infection fatality rate will be much lower than the case fatality rate. We know the UK is testing only severely ill people and missing lots of mild cases, but South Korea and Germany have been testing more widely.
4-3-20 Just breathing or talking may be enough to spread COVID-19 after all
Experts had said that the virus spreads only through large droplets from a cough or sneeze. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may spread through the air in tiny particles that infected people exhale during normal breathing and speech. Until now, experts have said that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t spread through the air in that way, but rather through relatively large droplets released when people cough or sneeze. Those droplets can contaminate surfaces or objects and infect people who touch the surface and then touch their faces. Large droplets are still a means of infection, but researchers now say that tiny airborne particles may also carry infectious virus. “Currently available research supports the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could be spread via bioaerosols generated directly by patients’ exhalation,” researchers from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine wrote in an April 1 report to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. If the coronavirus is airborne, that could help explain why it is so contagious, and can spread before people have symptoms (SN: 3/13/20). As of April 2, more than 1 million people worldwide are confirmed to have COVID-19, with nearly a quarter of those cases in the United States, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. More than 50,000 people have died worldwide, including more than 5,600 people in the United States. Wearing surgical masks can cut down on the amount of virus that infected people spread, the expert panel says, citing an unpublished study from the University of Hong Kong. The letter does not address whether wearing a mask will protect the person wearing the mask from catching the illness (SN: 3/27/20). How much virus a person must breathe in to get infected isn’t known.
4-3-20 Southern Africa may have hosted a hominid transition 2 million years ago
Cave excavation yields braincases from both Homo erectus and Paranthropus robustus. Members of three different hominid lines clustered at the bottom of Africa around 2 million years ago, signaling an evolutionary swing propelled by the spread of a highly successful, humanlike species, new fossil discoveries suggest. It’s unclear, though, if the three ancient populations inhabited the region at precisely the same time. Excavations at Drimolen, a set of caves in South Africa, uncovered two fossil braincases, one from Homo erectus and the other from Paranthropus robustus, say paleoanthropologist Andy Herries of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues. Both finds date to between 2.04 million and 1.95 million years ago, the scientists report in the April 3 Science. The H. erectus fossil comes from a child who displayed a long, low braincase typical of adults from that species. The P. robustus braincase is that of an adult. Researchers previously determined that two Australopithecus species, A. africanus and A. sediba (SN: 7/25/13), inhabited nearby parts of South Africa approximately 2 million years ago. Taken together, these discoveries indicate that a major transition in hominid evolution occurred in southern Africa between around 2.1 million and 1.9 million years ago, Herries’ team says. During that stretch, climate and habitat fluctuations drove Australopithecus species to extinction. H. erectus and P. robustus weathered those ecological challenges, possibly outcompeting Australopithecus for limited resources, the researchers speculate. It’s unclear whether members of the three hominid lines ever encountered each other during that transition period. “These spectacular discoveries confirm what some of us have expected for some time, that three genera of [hominids] coexisted in southern Africa,” says paleoanthropologist Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University in College Station, who was not involved in the research.
4-2-20 Diet and exercise will keep your brain young – depending on your genes
Will a regular exercise routine and a healthy diet keep your brain young? It depends on your genes. People who have certain forms of genes that play a key role in brain ageing seem to respond better to healthy lifestyle interventions. These make it “more likely that exercise or adhering to a Mediterranean diet will have a greater impact on your cognitive ageing,” says Sandrine Thuret at King’s College London. Cognitive ageing is thought to rely on neural stem cells in the brain’s hippocampus which continue to produce new neurons throughout life, and are thought to play an important role in forming new memories. Research in rodents suggests that as we get older, these cells make fewer and fewer neurons – and this seems to be linked to lower cognitive skills in later life. To better understand this link, and how it might impact human brain ageing, Thuret and her colleagues studied 19 genes that are known to be linked to ageing in neural stem cells. “We know from animal studies that these genes are altered during ageing,” says Thuret. The team analysed how these genes changed in their expression in human neural stem cells as the cells age. A set of lab experiments revealed that nine of these genes appear to change depending on whether the cells are young or old, suggesting they are involved in ageing. To find out if the genes play a role in cognitive ageing, Thuret’s team then looked for variations in these genes in people. The group collaborated with other scientists studying pairs of adult twins. Each twin kept a food diary, and had their physical activity monitored using a wrist-worn fitness tracker. They also underwent cognitive tests, which scored their memory and ability to learn. Thuret and her colleagues also looked for variations in the nine genes they had already singled out. The team found two genes that seem to be linked to a person’s cognitive performance, depending on which form of the gene a person has. The effect of one of these genes, SIRT1, which is already heavily investigated in ageing research, seems to depend on the level of exercise a person takes. Another gene, GRB10, also plays a role – but it depends on whether or not the person follows a Mediterranean diet, says Thuret.
4-2-20 Three human-like species lived side-by-side in ancient Africa
Two million years ago, three different human-like species were living side-by-side in South Africa, a study shows. The findings underline a growing understanding that the present-day situation, where one human species dominates the globe, may be unusual compared with the evolutionary past. The new evidence comes from efforts to date bones uncovered at a cave complex near Johannesburg. The research has been published in the journal Science. The new work also revealed the earliest known example of Homo erectus, a species thought to be a direct ancestor of modern humans (Homo sapiens). The three groups of hominins (human-like creatures) belonged to Australopithecus (the group made famous by the "Lucy" fossil from Ethiopia), Paranthropus and Homo - better known as humans. Andy Herries, from LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues evaluated remains found at the Drimolen Cave Complex using three different scientific dating techniques: electron spin resonance, palaeomagnetism and uranium-lead dating. "We collated all of the dates from each of these techniques and together they showed that we had a very precise age. We now know that the Drimolen Main Quarry and all of the fossils in it are dated from 2.04 to 1.95 million years ago," said co-author Stephanie Baker, from the University of Johannesburg. The Drimolen complex has produced multiple ancient fossils over the years, including those of ancient hominins. But a few years ago, researchers uncovered two new skullcaps. One of these belonged to the relatively primitive species Paranthropus robustus. The other was more modern in appearance and was identified as Homo erectus. They named the H. erectus skullcap DNH 134. Homo erectus is one of our direct human ancestors and may have been the first early human species to migrate out of Africa into the rest of the world. Not only is this the earliest example of the species anywhere in the world, but it's the only specimen known from South Africa.
4-2-20 How large a gathering is too large during the coronavirus pandemic?
The math of social networks can create a roadmap to a group size that still curbs spread. A question has perplexed public officials trying to curb the COVID-19 pandemic: How large of a group of people is too large? As the spread of the coronavirus has gathered speed, U.S. officials urged limits on large gatherings, constantly scrambling to reduce the definition of “large.” First, meetings of more than 1,000 were discouraged, then 250, 100, 50 and 10. As many states institute orders to stay at home, all nonessential gatherings are being banned. But no scientific rationale has been cited for any particular number. Getting the right answer is crucial. Too large and you don’t control the epidemic. Too small, and people’s lives and livelihoods may be upended, for insufficient social benefit. “I am not aware of any quantitative modeling informing those decisions,” says Lydia Bourouiba, a physicist and epidemiologist at MIT. “They weren’t based on events.” Now, a new study is providing one roadmap for coming up with an answer. There is no gathering size that can eliminate all risk. But there is a threshold between curbing the epidemic and having it spread like wildfire, and that number is most likely not zero, the researchers conclude. The finding could have implications not only for slowing the pandemic, but also for figuring out how to eventually return to normal life without causing a new surge in cases (SN: 3/24/20). In the study, posted online March 12 at arXiv.org, five epidemic modelers showed mathematically how an epidemic can be controlled without banning all get-togethers. Their model includes a version of the “friendship paradox,” which says that your friends in a social network on average have more friends than you. When an epidemic strikes such a network, large gatherings are especially bad because they attract people who have more contacts than average — and hence are more likely to already be infected.
4-2-20 Coronavirus: Expert panel to assess face mask use by public
Should more of us wear face masks to help slow the spread of coronavirus? This question is to be assessed by a panel of advisers to the World Health Organization (WHO). The group will weigh up research on whether the virus can be projected further than previously thought; a study in the US suggests coughs can reach 6m and sneezes up to 8m. The panel's chair, Prof David Heymann, told BBC News that the new research may lead to a shift in advice about masks. The former director at the WHO explained: "The WHO is opening up its discussion again looking at the new evidence to see whether or not there should be a change in the way it's recommending masks should be used." The WHO recommends keeping a distance of at least 1m from anyone coughing or sneezing to avoid the risk of infection. It says people who are sick and show symptoms should wear masks. It emphasises that masks are only effective if combined with frequent hand-washing and used and disposed of properly. The UK, along with other countries including the US, advises that social distancing should mean staying at least 2m apart. This advice is based on evidence showing that viruses can only be transmitted while carried within drops of liquid. The understanding is that most of those drops will either evaporate or fall to the ground near to the person who released them. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, used high-speed cameras and other sensors to assess precisely what happens after a cough or sneeze. They found that an exhalation generates a small fast-moving cloud of gas that can contain droplets of liquid of varying sizes - and that the smallest of these can be carried in the cloud over long distances. The study - conducted in laboratory conditions - found that coughs can project liquid up to 6m away and that sneezes, which involve much higher speeds, can reach up to 8m away. The scientist who led the study, Prof Lydia Bourouiba of MIT, told me that she is concerned about the current concept of "safe distances". "What we exhale, cough or sneeze is a gas cloud that has high momentum that can go far, traps the drops of all sizes in it and carries them through the room," she said. "So having this false idea of safety at one to two metres, that somehow drops will just fall to the ground at that distance is not based on what we have quantified, measured and visualised directly."
4-2-20 Hunt for George Clooney's face explains how stress affects decisions
Stress can lead to poor decision making, and people hunting for George Clooney’s face could help us understand why. Thackery Brown at Stanford University and his colleagues asked 38 people, with an average age of 23, to navigate looping paths around 12 different virtual towns in a simulated environment. Each town had just a few streets and took about a minute to navigate. The researchers also placed the face of a celebrity – George Clooney, for example – at one point along the route. The team then asked the participants to navigate the simulation while lying inside an fMRI machine. This time, participants began in an unfamiliar location in the virtual town and had to navigate the streets to find the celebrity face as fast as possible. In order to test the effects of stress, 20 of the participants also wore a device on their ankle that gave them mild electric shocks at random intervals. The team also monitored the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in all 38 people. Before doing so, they were each given a few seconds to mentally plan their route. Each town was designed so that a previously unused shortcut was the most effective way to reach the celebrity. The towns were small enough that people should have been able to work this out but those wearing the ankle device took the shortcut less often: 31 per cent of the time versus 47 per cent of the time for those without. They were also more stressed, with elevated cortisol levels, and were 20 per cent slower to reach the celebrity. The researchers also used a machine learning algorithm to decode the fMRI data of each participant, training it to identify when a person was looking at a particular face or landmark in the virtual town. They then used the AI to try to work out what the participants were thinking about when planning their route. Non-stressed participants were more likely to imagine all of the landmarks present along the route that they went on to take, while stressed participants appeared to focus on just the landmarks closest to their starting point. This links into how stress affects us in the real-world, says Brown. “When something is really stressing out, we stop making plans and just worry about the thing in front of us,” he says. “Looking at the neural mechanisms of stress on memory may contribute to how we prepare for stressful events,” says Neil Burgess at University College London. “Or how we deal with conditions like PTSD.”
4-2-20 This 300,000-year-old skull may be from an African ‘ghost’ population
The Broken Hill fossil’s age suggests the hominid lived at the same time as Homo sapiens. A mysterious but well-preserved hominid skull found nearly a century ago comes from a population that lived in Africa around 300,000 years ago, as the earliest Homo sapiens were evolving, a new study finds. This discovery indicates that a separate Homo population, perhaps a species some researchers call H. heidelbergensis (SN: 6/22/19), inhabited Africa at the same time as both H. sapiens and a recently discovered population dubbed H. naledi (SN: 6/10/17), say geochronologist Rainer Grün and his colleagues. African H. heidelbergensis could have been a recently reported “ghost population” (SN: 3/14/20) that interbred with ancient H. sapiens and passed a small amount of DNA to present-day West Africans, the researchers suggest April 1 in Nature. “We can now identify at least three distinct and contemporary [Homo] lineages in Africa about 300,000 years ago, but we don’t yet know whether our ancestry was largely or entirely contained within the H. sapiens part of that variation,” says paleoanthropologist and study coauthor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. Researchers have puzzled over the age of the Broken Hill skull since its 1921 discovery in south-central Africa. Metal ore mining at what was then Northern Rhodesia’s Broken Hill mine revealed deposits bearing the skull and two associated leg fossils. The site, located in what’s now known as Zambia, has been named Kabwe. Previous age estimates for the fossils, based on clues such rodent fossils and stone tools found at the site, have ranged widely from around 500,000 to 125,000 years old. Because quarrying destroyed the site, sediment that may have yielded fossils can’t be dated. Instead, Grün, of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, and his team dated small samples of bone and teeth from the Broken Hill skull using measures of the radioactive decay of uranium and the accumulation of natural radioactivity from sediment and cosmic rays. Based on these techniques, the team estimates the skull’s age at between 324,000 and 276,000 years old.
4-2-20 Lucy’s species heralded the rise of long childhoods in hominids
Prolonged brain growth was already a feature for hominids before Homo genus members appeared. Lucy’s kind had small, chimplike brains that, nevertheless, grew at a slow, humanlike pace. This discovery, reported April 1 in Science Advances, shows for the first time that prolonged brain growth in hominid youngsters wasn’t a by-product of having unusually large brains. An influential idea over the last 20 years has held that extended brain development after birth originated in the Homo genus around 2.5 million years ago, so that mothers — whose pelvic bones and birth canal had narrowed to enable efficient upright walking — could safely deliver babies. But Australopithecus afarensis, an East African hominid species best known for Lucy’s partial skeleton, also had slow-developing brains that reached only about one-third the volume of present-day human brains, say paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues. And A. afarensis is roughly 3 million to 4 million years old, meaning slow brain growth after birth developed before members of the Homo genus appeared, perhaps as early as 2.8 million years ago (SN: 3/4/15). Too few A. afarensis infants have been studied to calculate the age at which this species attained adult-sized brains, Gunz cautions. The brains of human infants today reach adult sizes by close to age 5, versus an age of around 2 or 3 for both chimps and gorillas. In the new study, Gunz and colleagues estimated brain volumes for six A. afarensis adults and two children, estimated to have been about 2 years and 5 months old. The kids had brains that were smaller than adult A. afarensis brain sizes in a proportion similar to human children’s brains at the same age relative to adult humans. The new data suggest that, for Lucy’s species, “infant brain size [relative to that of an average adult] may have been proportionally even smaller than in human infants,” says biological anthropologist Zachary Cofran of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who did not participate in the new study. If so, that pattern would strongly point to an extended period of brain growth for A. afarensis.
4-2-20 Roughly 90 million years ago, a rainforest grew near the South Pole
High atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and an ice-free Antarctica may explain how. Once upon a time, there was a swampy rainforest near the bottom of the world. Buried sediment extracted from the seafloor off West Antarctica contains ancient pollen, fossilized roots and other chemical evidence of a diverse forest that flourished millions of years ago, less than a thousand kilometers from the South Pole. The sediment offers the southernmost glimpse yet into just how warm Earth was during the mid-Cretaceous Period, between 92 million and 83 million years ago. By analyzing traces of vegetation in the sediment, researchers reconstructed climate conditions at the site. Average annual temperatures in the forest were about 13° Celsius, with summertime temperatures reaching as high as 20° or 25° C, the team reports in the April 2 Nature. The mid-Cretaceous is known to have been one of the warmest periods on Earth in the last 140 million years, based on analyses of fossils and sediment collected from the seafloor closer to the equator. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are thought to have been at least 1,000 parts per million. (Today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels average around 407 ppm, the highest in the last 800,000 years.) But for a forest to thrive so far south, even more potent greenhouse conditions must have existed than previously thought, with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels between 1,120 and 1,680 ppm, says marine geologist Johann Klages. “It shows us the extreme potency of carbon dioxide — what carbon dioxide can really do,” says Klages, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. “Even without light for four months, [Antarctica] could still have a temperate climate.” The team retrieved the 30-meter-long core from within the Amundsen Sea Embayment, where today fast-melting Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers drain into the sea (SN: 1/7/20). Even before analyzing the core, Klages says, the researchers knew it was special: The bottom three meters of sediment, corresponding in time to the mid-Cretaceous Period, showed traces of roots.
4-1-20 How to get the health benefits of nature when you’re stuck inside
Going out into the natural world is good for your health and mind, and you can still get some of the same benefits even when stuck inside, says Graham Lawton. LAST week, during what already feels like the halcyon days of Before Lockdown, a wonderful package came through my letterbox. It contained the Great Trees of London Map, which lists the UK capital’s 50 most interesting trees. Did you know there is a giant redwood towering over New Cross Gate tube station? Or a yew in Totteridge that has been there since before the Norman Conquest? I was planning to visit them all. That will now have to wait. I have written before about London’s green spaces and its status as a national city park. One of the pleasures of living here is the wealth of urban nature on our doorsteps. I miss it. This isn’t just the frustration of enforced confinement because of the coronavirus. A ton of research tells us that contact with nature has significant health benefits. Luckily, there are a few simple tricks you can use to get some of the benefits of nature while sticking to the rules about social isolation. Here is why it is so important. Last year, a study found that spending just 2 hours a week in green spaces boosts physical and mental well-being by about the same amount as getting enough exercise. There are other positives to be had. People who take time to connect with nature are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviour and care about the natural world. Many small studies have found this link, and now a very big one has confirmed it. The study recruited more than 24,000 adults in England and asked how much contact they had with nature. The researchers also asked about pro-environmental behaviours including recycling, buying eco-friendly products, walking or cycling and belonging to green groups. They found that the more often people visited nature for recreation, the greater their pro-environmental behaviour and appreciation of the natural world.
4-1-20 Diets do help you lose weight - but the benefits usually don't last
Atkins, Paleo or Zone – whichever diet you follow, you will only lose a bit of weight, and improvements to your blood pressure and cholesterol will disappear within a year. That is according to a comparison of randomised clinical trials assessing the effects of 14 popular branded diets. “We chose the categories of diets that are most widely advertised and that are in the public mind,” says Gordon Guyatt at McMaster University in Canada, who led the research. Guyatt and his colleagues found 121 trials of such diets, together including nearly 22,000 volunteers who were either overweight or obese, and had an average age of 49. Each trial compared the results of adults who were on the diet with others who ate as they usually did. The team looked for evidence of the diets’ effect on weight loss and markers of cardiovascular health, including blood pressure and cholesterol. All of the diets resulted in some weight loss. Six months after starting a diet, volunteers were, on average, about 4 kilograms lighter. There were also improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol at this point: levels of harmful LDL cholesterol were lower, while there was more of the beneficial HDL form. The team noted some small differences in the effects of the diets. The Mediterranean diet appeared to have the biggest impact on cholesterol, for example, and low-fat diets also improved cholesterol to a greater degree than other diets. The Atkins diet seemed to result in the most weight loss at six months. But 12 months into a diet, the effects had mostly disappeared. By this point, the volunteers had gained back most of their lost weight, and the benefits relating to blood pressure and cholesterol had vanished. “People can lose appreciable amounts of weight in the short term, and weight loss is associated with a decrease in risk factors,” says Guyatt. “However, with time, people tend to gain the weight back, and in 12 months there’s no benefit in terms of blood pressure and cholesterol.” Volunteers may have struggled to maintain their diets, says Guyatt. “The fact that they lost weight early and much of it was regained suggests that adherence to the diet was much better in the first six months,” he says.
4-1-20 Human evolution: The astounding new story of the origin of our species.
Forget the simple out-of-Africa idea of how humans evolved. A huge array of fossils and genome studies has completely rewritten the story of how we came into being. JEBEL IRHOUD, Morocco, 1961. In a barium mine in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, a miner makes a ghoulish discovery: a near-complete human skull embedded in the sediment. Archaeologists called in to investigate find that the skull is old, but not that old. It is filed away and largely forgotten. Hinxton, UK, 2019. Robert Foley, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge, is giving the opening address at a three-day conference on human evolution. “What I’m pretty sure of is that, by the end of the first day, something like 20 per cent of what I say will be wrong,” he says to the hall. “By the end of the second day, something like 50 per cent will be wrong, and at the end of the conference, I’m hoping that something I said at the beginning still holds true.” Until recently, the story of our origins was thought to be settled: Homo sapiens evolved in eastern Africa about 150,000 years ago, became capable of modern behaviour some 60,000 years ago and then swept out of Africa to colonise the world, completely replacing any archaic humans they encountered. But new fossils, tools and analyses of ancient and modern genomes are tearing apart that neat tale. The Jebel Irhoud skull has turned out to be a key to a new, slowly emerging paradigm. With the dust yet fully to settle, the question now is how many, if any, of our old assumptions still hold. “Should we be thinking of a completely different model?” asks Foley. “Abandoning out-of-Africa?” Strap in, it’s going to be quite a ride. The out-of-Africa paradigm to which Foley refers has become so entrenched that it is easy to forget how new it is. For decades before its emergence, human origins research was dominated by the early characters in the story: Homo erectus, for example, including “Peking Man”, unearthed in 1929; or Australopithecus afarensis, the famous “Lucy” discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. There was some debate about where modern humans appeared, and ideas were floating around of a recent African origin, but the fossil record seemed to support a model called multiregionalism. This argued that archaic humans were distributed across Africa and Eurasia at least a million years ago and evolved in parallel into modern humans.
4-1-20 Europe’s cave bears may have died out because of their large sinuses
The huge cave bears that once roamed Europe may have gone extinct because their large sinuses made it difficult to adapt their diet during a severe cold snap. Cave bears (Ursus spelaeus), which weighed up to 1000 kilograms and had a plant-based diet, went extinct 24,000 years ago when temperatures plummeted during the last glacial maximum. Scientists have speculated that the bears died out because the colder climate depleted food availability or they were driven to extinction by prehistoric humans. But one mystery is why closely related brown bears (Ursus arctos) managed to survive the same conditions. Alejandro Pérez-Ramos at the University of Malaga in Spain and his colleagues took CT scans of the skulls of four extinct cave bears and eight living bear species, including brown bears, and used them to create computer simulations of the bears’ different chewing styles. They found that cave bears had large sinuses that shaped their skulls in such a way that they could only chew with their back teeth. The researchers argue that this may explain why cave bears went extinct when the climate cooled and plant food ran low, because they couldn’t switch to eating meat, which normally requires the use of the front teeth. Compared to cave bears, brown bears had smaller sinuses and greater skull flexibility for chewing with their front or back teeth. This may be why they survived: they could eat plants or meat, says Pérez-Ramos. So why did cave bears evolve large sinuses in the first place? They may have helped the bears hibernate for longer, which would have carried advantages as winters started to stretch out during the last glacial period, says Pérez-Ramos. Sinuses are hollow cavities inside the head that act as reservoirs for gases like nitric oxide and hydrogen sulphide, which activate hibernation in some bears by lowering their heart rate and body temperature. However, being constrained to a plant-based diet meant the bears probably couldn’t fatten themselves up enough to survive the increasingly long and extreme winters, and may have starved to death as they hibernated, says Pérez-Ramos. In other words, the development of large sinuses may have been a “fatal trade-off”, he says.
4-1-20 The hunt for patient zero: Where did the coronavirus outbreak start?
Growing evidence suggests the covid-19 outbreak may not have started at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market in December after all. Finding its origins may help us stop it happening again. AS THE world fights to tackle the covid-19 pandemic, a mystery remains: how and when did the virus cross over into humans? Doubt has been cast on the idea that it happened in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, in December, and now researchers are trying to identify the real source of the infection. The hope is that this knowledge could help prevent future pandemics of other new coronaviruses. According to a study of the first 41 people hospitalised with covid-19 published in January (The Lancet, doi.org/ggjfnn), the first case of covid-19 was a man who showed symptoms on 1 December 2019. Unlike the majority of early cases, he had no links to the Huanan Seafood Market. Since then, no one has been able to confirm where he caught the virus, or if he was even the first person to contract it. Another January analysis, of the first 425 covid-19 cases, conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and China’s National Health Commission, placed the first confirmed case a week later, on 8 December. But subsequent evidence hints that the outbreak probably began before December. Viral genome analyses suggest that the virus jumped from animals to humans in November (The Lancet, doi.org/ggp6gz), but it could have happened as early as late September (Journal of Medical Virology, doi.org/ggjvv8). This is consistent with the South China Morning Post report on Chinese government documents that suggested the earliest case of covid-19 may have been a 55-year-old person from Hubei province who seems to have contracted the virus on 17 November. The first cases to be flagged, in December, were reported by Wuhan doctors using a surveillance protocol designed to pick up pneumonias with unknown causes. The system was set up after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, to detect new viruses.
4-1-20 Coronavirus: Are loss of smell and taste key symptoms?
A loss of smell or taste may be a sign that you have coronavirus, according to UK researchers. A team at King's College London looked at responses from more than 400,000 people reporting suspected Covid-19 symptoms to an app. But loss of smell and taste are also signs of other respiratory infections, such as the common cold. And experts say fever and cough remain the most important symptoms of the virus to look out for and act upon. If you or someone you live with has a new continuous cough or high temperature, the advice is stay at home to stop the risk of spreading coronavirus to others. The King's College researchers wanted to gather information on possible coronavirus symptoms to help experts better understand and fight the disease. Of those reporting one or more symptoms of coronavirus to the Covid Symptom Tracker app: 1. 53% said they had fatigue or tiredness. 2. 29% persistent cough. 3. 28% shortness of breath. 4. 18% loss of sense of smell or taste. 5. 10.5% suffered from fever. Of these 400,000 people, 1,702 said they had been tested for Covid-19, with 579 receiving a positive result and 1,123 a negative one. Among the ones who had coronavirus infection confirmed by a positive test, three-fifths (59%) reported loss of smell or taste. Should loss of smell and taste be added to the key symptoms to watch out for? Experts say there's not enough evidence yet. Public Health England and the World Health Organization have not added them to the list. ENT UK, the body that represents Ear, Nose and Throat doctors, says it is not surprising that some patients with coronavirus might report these as symptoms, but they are not specific to Covid-19. They advocate including them as possible coronavirus symptoms. The King's researchers say loss of smell and taste might be useful extra symptoms to watch for, perhaps not on their own but alongside other important ones like cough and fever. Lead researcher Prof Tim Spector said: "When combined with other symptoms, people with loss of smell and taste appear to be three times more likely to have contracted Covid-19 according to our data, and should therefore self-isolate for seven days to reduce the spread of the disease."
4-1-20 Will the spread of covid-19 be affected by changing seasons?
In the northern hemisphere, as winter ends, cases of seasonal flu dwindle. Could the same happen with covid-19? Flu surges in winter for three reasons. First, the virus is more stable in cold, dry conditions with low levels of ultraviolet light. Second, people spend more time together indoors, which facilitates viral spread. Third, our immune systems may be weakened due to the mild vitamin D deficiency a lack of sunlight can cause. In theory, these factors could also cause the covid-19 virus to dampen down in spring. But we don’t know if this will happen, and the evidence so far is conflicting. In the first study to look at the effect of weather on covid-19, posted online in February, researchers at Harvard University looked at the effects of temperature and humidity on the virus’s transmission in China, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, based on weather reports and data on covid-19 incidence between 23 January and 10 February. They found no significant difference in transmission rates between cold and dry provinces of China and tropical ones, as well as Singapore, concluding that higher temperature and humidity “will not necessarily lead to declines in case counts”. However, another study appeared the next day, which analysed data from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus emerged. Alarmingly, it found that the virus seems to spread better in summery weather, with an optimum temperature of 19°C, humidity of 75 per cent and less than 30 millimetres of monthly rain. Even more worryingly, the researchers found that cold air destroys the virus. They recommended that, as the weather warms, containment measures should be ramped up. Since then, at least eleven similar studies have been posted online. Most have found the opposite. For example, one analysis looked at all 80,981 cases of covid-19 across mainland China between 20 January and 29 February. It found that the optimum temperature for virus transmission is 10°C, and that lower or higher temperatures suppress it. It found no link at all to humidity.
4-1-20 We may now know what our common ancestor with Neanderthals looked like
Two studies of ancient humans have shed new light on the last common ancestor we share with Neanderthals. An extinct species that was once in the frame now looks unlikely to be the one. Another now seems more plausible, but it may only be related to the ancestor. “My guess is we haven’t found the common ancestor yet,” says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. However, the new findings clarify what the common ancestor may have looked like. Stringer’s team studied a skull called Kabwe 1, which was discovered in 1921 by miners at Broken Hill in what is now Zambia. “It was the first important [hominin] fossil found in Africa,” says Stringer. It probably belonged to a young male and had a primitive-looking face with “huge brow ridges over the eyes”. Many anthropologists place Kabwe 1 in Homo heidelbergensis, which ranged across Africa and Europe. It has long been a candidate for the common ancestor of three later groups: modern humans (Homo sapiens), the Neanderthals of Europe and west Asia, and the Denisovans of east Asia. However, until now the Kabwe skull’s age has been a mystery. The normal approach is to date the surrounding sediments, says Rainer Gru¨n of Griffith University in Australia. But the skull was found by accident and the site quarried, so researchers have no sediments to test. “The only thing we could do is to analyse the skull itself,” says Gru¨n. This is only now possible. Older methods would have required drilling into the skull, causing “unacceptable” damage. Instead, the team used lasers to remove fragments a quarter of a millimetre thick. Analyses of these fragments indicate Kabwe 1 is about 299,000 years old. “It’s pretty incredible that the new techniques they’re coming up with allow us to go back and directly date the fossils themselves,” says Shara Bailey of New York University.
4-1-20 Tiny bird-like dinosaur discovered in amber might actually be a lizardK
A fossilised skull trapped in amber that was recently identified as belonging to a tiny bird-like dinosaur might actually belong to a lizard. Last month, palaeontologists analysed an ancient skull that had been preserved in amber and concluded that it probably came from a tiny, humming bird-like dinosaur that lived 99 million years ago. Now, a different group of researchers have reanalysed the fossil and believe that it actually came from a lizard. Jing Lu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues asked for copies of the CT scans from the original study, and reanalysed the data. They argue that certain features of the skull, particularly the structure of the teeth and the shape of the eye socket, are much more consistent with lizard rather than bird or dinosaur anatomy. Whereas dinosaurs characteristically have teeth that develop in tooth sockets, the teeth of this creature, named Oculudentavis khaungraae by the team that first analysed its skull, are fused together – a feature much more typical of lizards, according to Lu and colleagues. The authors of the original paper that described the fossil had attributed this to the miniaturisation of the animal, which has a skull measuring a mere 1.4 centimetres across. But Lu’s group argues that there is no evidence to suggest that miniaturisation would lead to these morphological changes. The structure of the bone behind the eye sockets of O. khaungraae is also consistent with eyes of a typical lizard shape, Lu and colleagues told New Scientist. Labelling the species as bird-like makes its small body size and other features appear extraordinary, they say, but when you consider the possibility it is a lizard, these anatomical features are much less remarkable. “You have to build the scientific story and significance carefully on a correct taxonomic identification,” the researchers told New Scientist. “We will be very excited to see what Oculudentavis khaungraae actually is, because this is still a very bizarre lizard and its position in the lizard family tree is uncertain.”
4-1-20 'Dinosaurs walked through Antarctic rainforests'
Scientists drilling off the coast of West Antarctica have found the fossil remains of forests that grew in the region 90 million years ago - in the time of the dinosaurs. Their analysis of the material indicates the continent back then would have been as warm as parts of Europe are today but that global sea levels would have been over 100m higher than at present. The research, led from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Germany, is published in the journal Nature. It's emerged from an expedition in 2017 to recover marine sediments in Pine Island Bay. AWI and its partners, including the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), used a novel cassette drill-mechanism called MeBo to extract core material some 30m under the seafloor. When the team examined the sediments in the lab, it found traces of ancient soils and pollen and even tree roots. The interpretation is that this sector of West Antarctica, in the geological period known as the Cretaceous, featured temperate rainforest and swamp conditions - the kind of vegetation you will find on New Zealand's South Island today. "We have a really nice X-ray movie through the sediment core," said AWI's Prof Karsten Gohl, who spearheaded the expedition on Germany's Research Vessel Polarstern. "It's like we've drilled into a modern swamp environment and you're seeing the living root system, small plant particles and pollen - but this is all persevered from 90 million years ago. It's amazing." Modelling work suggests average annual temperatures in this Cretaceous environment would have been in the mid-teens Celsius; summer averages would have been in the 20s. But the vegetation must have been pretty special because, being so far south, it would have had to endure three to four months of polar darkness. The Nature paper's first author is AWI's Dr Johann Klages. "Probably these plants, they had a much more effective way of shutting down for a much longer amount of time and then come back successfully," he speculated. "That was quite an interesting adaptation, which is not present right now on the planet, but which can evolve," he told BBC News.
3-31-20 Rock peeling off continents may have triggered biggest mass extinction
The largest known mass extinction may have been triggered by events deep inside Earth. Hundreds of millions of years ago, when the continents collided to form a single supercontinent, huge amounts of material may have detached from their undersides, causing hot molten rock to rise up and trigger enormous volcanic eruptions. There is strong evidence that massive volcanic eruptions were responsible for the Permian extinction 252 million years ago, which wiped out at least 80 per cent of species. These eruptions heated up the climate and caused the oceans to stagnate. But we don’t know what caused them. One possibility is that deep inside the planet, in the semi-molten mantle, a plume of unusually hot magma rose up and broke through the crust. Such plumes are thought to exist in the modern day: one under the Atlantic Ocean is believed to have created Iceland. However, according to Chen Zhang at the China University of Petroleum in Beijing and his colleagues, it isn’t clear whether a plume could release enough carbon dioxide to cause the climate changes that would have caused a mass extinction. Instead, they have proposed another possibility. The team studied crystals called zircons from rocks taken from the Central Asian Orogenic Belt – a region that now stretches from the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The rocks are from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. By studying their chemical make-up, the team could tell how hot the magma the rocks formed from was, which points to the source of the eruption. There were two periods when volcanoes erupted unusually hot magma, the team found. One was about 252 million years ago, the time of the Permian extinction. The other was about 443 million years ago: when the Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction occurred.
3-31-20 Blood test shows promise for detecting the deadliest cancers early
A blood test developed and checked using blood samples from 4000 people can accurately detect more than 50 cancer types, often before any symptoms appear. It was most accurate at identifying 12 especially dangerous types, including pancreatic cancers that are usually diagnosed only at a very late stage. Many groups around the world are trying to develop blood tests for cancer, often referred to as “liquid biopsies”. Michael Seiden at US Oncology, a company involved in cancer care, and his team explored several ways of testing for cancer based on sequencing the DNA that dying cells release into the bloodstream. The team found that looking at methylation patterns at around a million sites was the most promising. Methyl groups are chemical tags added to inactive genes by cells, and cancer cells have abnormal methylation patterns. Next, the team trained a machine learning system on blood samples from 1500 people with untreated cancer and 1500 with no cancer diagnoses. They then used the system to analyse 650 blood samples from people with cancer and 610 without. The machine learning system had a specificity of 99.3 per cent, meaning 0.7 per cent of people were wrongly identified as having cancer when they did not. “Specificity is extremely important because you don’t want to raise false alarm in people who are well,” says Seiden. The true positive rate – the proportion of cancers detected – varied depending on how advanced the cancers were. For the 12 most deadly cancers, the true positive rate was 39 per cent in stage I, 69 per cent in stage II, 83 per cent in stage III and 92 per cent in stage IV. For all types, the corresponding rates were 18 per cent, 43 per cent, 81 per cent and 93 per cent. The test is now being trialled in a larger group of people.
3-31-20 Thomas Becket: Alpine ice sheds light on medieval murder
Ancient air pollution, trapped in ice, reveals new details about life and death in 12th Century Britain. In a study, scientists have found traces of lead, transported on the winds from British mines that operated in the late 1100s. Air pollution from lead in this time period was as bad as during the industrial revolution centuries later. The pollution also sheds light on a notorious murder of the medieval era; the killing of Thomas Becket. The assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170 in his cathedral was a gruesome event that made headlines all over Europe. The King, Henry II, and Becket were once very close - Becket had been Henry's chancellor before he was made Archbishop. Henry believed the appointment would allow the crown to gain control over the rich, powerful and relatively independent church. Becket, though, had other plans. Henry's growing irritation with his Archbishop led the King to reportedly utter the infamous phrase: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Unfortunately for Becket, a group of knights loyal to the King decided to make Henry's wish come true. Becket was beheaded in a brutal attack at Canterbury cathedral on 29 December 1170. Now scientists have found physical evidence of the impact of the dispute between Henry and Becket in a 72-metre-long ice core, retrieved from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps. In the same way that trees detail their growth in annual rings, so glaciers compact a record of the chemical composition of the air, trapped in bubbles in the yearly build-up of ice. Analysing the 800 year-old ice using a highly sensitive laser, the scientists were able to see a huge surge in lead in the air and dust captured in the 12th century. Atmospheric modelling showed that the element was carried by winds from the north west, across the UK, where lead mining and smelting was booming in the late 1100s.
3-30-20 Soya protein can help make lab-grown beef with the texture of meat
Lab-grown “beef” is being made by culturing cow muscle cells within a spongy scaffold of soya bean protein. Prototypes of this cultured meat have passed initial taste tests, says developer Shulamit Levenberg at Aleph Farms in Ashdod, Israel. The idea behind cultured beef is that it could be as tasty as real meat without any animals having to be killed. It may also be better for the environment, although this isn’t clear. Cultured meat development has taken off in the past few years, with about 50 companies now attempting to perfect a recipe. A few have got to the stage of creating prototype samples for tasting, but nothing is yet on offer in shops or restaurants. Aside from the high cost of growing biological tissue in a dish, one problem is that meat doesn’t just consist of muscle cells. In animal flesh, these cells sit within a supporting scaffold of extracellular protein, which has to be mimicked to give the product a similar texture to real beef. “You want to recreate the tissue as it is in the animal,” says Elliot Swartz at the Good Food Institute in Washington DC. At the moment, cultured meat uses a scaffold that is often derived from beef gelatin, a collagen protein obtained by boiling carcasses from slaughterhouses. This is a problem if vegetarians are your target market. Now Aleph Farms may have found an alternative: textured soya protein, which is a by-product of soya-bean oil manufacture and is already used in many vegetarian substitutes for meat. The team grew cow muscle and blood vessel cells on a spongy scaffold of soya protein, then baked or fried small morsels of the fake meat. Three volunteers who tasted the cultured meat said it replicated “the sensation and texture of a meat bite”, the researchers said.
ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY
4-4-20 10 years to save 'world’s most threatened sea turtle'
The largest turtle in the ocean, the leatherback gets its name from its tough, rubbery skin. Migrating long distances a year, the turtle can cross the Pacific Ocean. But with threats like getting tangled in fishing gear, the future for one distinct population looks "dire," say conservation groups. At the current rate of decline, the critically endangered Eastern Pacific leatherback turtle will vanish within 60 years. We have just 10 years left to put measures in place to save it, says a group of conservation scientists and organisations including Fauna & Flora International (FFI). "We have it within our power to protect these animals and enable them to thrive, but all those who have a hand in shaping their future need to work together to do so," said Alison Gunn, programme manager for the Americas and the Caribbean at FFI. Leatherback turtles are found across the world. While considered a single species, populations found in different oceans are reproductively distinct. The Pacific leatherbacks are most at risk of extinction, with both Eastern Pacific and Western Pacific leatherbacks continuing to decline. Key nesting habitats in the Eastern Pacific are in Mexico and Costa Rica, with some isolated nesting in Panama and Nicaragua. Over the last three generations, there has been a greater than 90% decline in the female nesting population. "If this particular population goes they're completely irreplaceable, because they're unique to this particular part of the oceans," said Alison Gunn. "There's a lot of conservation action happening right now. We need to increase the collaboration that's already happening in order to ensure that this population is not lost." If conservation efforts are targeted and scaled up at high-priority sites, and projects are quickly implemented and maintained, the Eastern Pacific leatherback population can eventually stabilise and increase, according to a population model.
4-3-20 Conifer is top tree in urban sound absorption test
Scientists say trees have a role to play in combating noise pollution in urban environments and have identified the best species for the job. The larch was found to be the most effective tree when it comes to absorbing noise with its bark. The conifer was the most effective out of 13 tree species in a laboratory-based sound absorption test. The researchers say the findings can help urban planners use trees for noise control. The results have been published in the Applied Acoustics journal. The study assessed 76 samples from 13 tree species that displayed a variety of different bark characteristics. Co-author Jian Kang, from University College London (UCL), said: "Beside emphasising the effects of vision and shade, urban greening should be considered as well to achieve noise reduction during propagation." He told BBC News: "Using plants as a potential 'silencer' of urban noise could combine environmental protection and landscape business." The samples were selected by using a range of criteria, including bark thickness, tree age and trunk diameter. Disks of the trunks were collected from recently felled trees. "The main goal was to have a sufficient variety of species, including broadleaved and coniferous," Prof Kang observed. In the laboratory tests, the team tested species that were often found in urban areas, such as cherry, pine, beech, willow, poplar and alder trees. The team found that the sample of larch was the most effective species, while conifers acted more effectively when it came to absorbing sound than broadleaved trees. "The influence factors on noise reduction by tree bark are bark thickness, tree age, and bark roughness," explained Prof Kang. "Tree age and bark roughness seemed [to be] the parameters with the most predictive powers." He said that the small changes in the sound absorption characteristics of the bark could influence the effectiveness of dense tree belts.
4-3-20 Mice’s facial expressions can reveal a wide range of emotions
A machine learning approach reveals subtle ear, nose and whisker movements. Although it’s tricky for us humans to see, mouse feelings are written all over their furry little faces. With machine learning tools, researchers reliably spotted mice’s expressions of joy, fear, pain and other basic emotions. The results, published in the April 3 Science, provide a field guide for scientists seeking to understand how emotions such as joy, regret and empathy work in animals other than humans (SN: 11/10/16; SN: 6/9/14; SN: 12/8/11). Using machine learning to reveal mice’s expressions is “an extraordinarily exciting direction,” says Kay Tye, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. The findings “lay the foundation for what I expect will be a game changer for neuroscience research on emotional states.” Neuroscientist Nadine Gogolla of the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany, and colleagues gave mice experiences designed to elicit distinct emotions. Sugar water evoked pleasure, a shock to the tail triggered pain, bitter quinine water created disgust, an injection of lithium chloride evoked a nauseated malaise, and a place where shocks previously had been delivered sparked fear. For each setup, high-speed video cameras captured subtle movements in the mice’s ears, noses, whiskers and other parts of the face. Observers can generally see that something is happening on the mouse’s face, Gogolla says. But translating those subtle clues into emotions is really hard, “especially for an untrained human being,” she says. Machine learning techniques handle the job beautifully, the researchers found. The methods were able to spot subtle face movements that came with good or bad experiences. For instance, on the face of a mouse drinking sweet water — and presumably happy about it — the ears move forward and fold at the back toward the body, and the nose moves down toward the mouth. A mouse tasting bitter quinine sends its ears straight back, and the nose curls slightly backward, too.
4-2-20 Orangutans and other great apes under threat from covid-19 pandemic
Endangered great apes are at greater risk because of the threat of the new coronavirus, according to researchers who say there is a “difficult battle” ahead to protect the animals from possible infection. Gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are known to be susceptible to human respiratory illnesses, sometimes becoming much more ill from them than people do. For example, a virus called metapneumovirus typically causes an infection with cold-like symptoms in humans, but has led to more severe outcomes in chimpanzees, including the deaths of young chimps. “Just as we don’t really know how far this [coronavirus] will go in terms of its impact on human populations, it’s the same for the apes,” says Thomas Gillespie at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “The most susceptible are those that have overlap with us, and the most habituated apes are the most at risk in that regard.” Although there haven’t yet been any confirmed cases of the covid-19 virus in any other great apes, chimpanzees have similar cell biology to humans, which might make them susceptible to the virus. In the Ivory Coast in 2016, a human coronavirus called OC43 was transmitted from humans to wild chimpanzees. Researchers are calling for governments to take precautionary measures to protect great apes, especially populations that come into regular contact with people. Gillespie and 25 other researchers from around the world co-signed an open letter published in Nature on 24 March. They called for great ape tourism to be suspended and field research curtailed to reduce the risk of covid-19 transmission from humans. With the exception of in Tanzania, almost all such activities have since been suspended. The threat of covid-19 to these animals cannot be underestimated, says Gillespie, because the coronavirus is so infectious, it can persist outside the body – and the effect of the virus on apes is still unknown. “I think it’s going to be a very difficult battle to keep it out of ape populations,” he says.
4-1-20 A cat appears to have caught the coronavirus, but it’s complicated
There is no evidence that cats can transmit the virus to people. A cat in Belgium seems to have become infected with the coronavirus and may have had COVID-19, the disease that the virus causes. While the case — the first reported in cats — suggests that the animals can catch the virus, there is no evidence that felines play a role in spreading the coronavirus, and it’s still unclear how susceptible they are to the disease. “This is an isolated case, so it is not the rule,” microbiologist Emmanuel André of KU Leuven said March 27 at a news conference held by Belgium’s public health institute. The cat probably picked up the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, from its owner, who fell ill with COVID-19 after traveling to northern Italy. About a week later, the cat started to show signs of illness: respiratory issues, nausea and diarrhea. In lab tests, feces and vomit samples showed high levels of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material. But that positive result comes with caveats. The samples were collected and sent to the lab by the owner, and a veterinarian has yet to examine the cat. The cat recovered after nine days, and once it’s released from quarantine, researchers will run a blood test for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, which would provide more concrete proof of an infection. Those results are expected in about a week. Even if the cat tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, it might be hard to definitively prove that the virus made the cat sick — lots of other pathogens cause respiratory and stomach issues in cats. “What makes us actually believe that this cat was infected is that there was quite a lot of virus detected in the feces and vomit in multiple tests over several days,” says Jane Sykes, a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis. It’s not that surprising that cats could pick up SARS-CoV-2. The virus zeroes in on a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme II, or ACE2, to hack into cells. Cats and humans have versions of this protein that are nearly identical in spots where the virus binds. The virus that causes SARS targets cells using the same break-in method (SN: 2/3/20), and it has been shown to infect cats and ferrets in a lab setting, though cats did not develop signs of disease.
4-1-20 Male bottlenose dolphins synchronise their calls to attract females
Synchronised swimming is a signature trait of bottlenose dolphins. Now, it turns out that male dolphins coordinate not only their movements but their vocalisations, too. This may mean they are working together to attract females. Stephanie King at the University of Bristol, UK, and her colleagues studied seven groups of male bottlenose dolphins living in Shark Bay in Western Australia between 2016 and 2018. They recorded calls from 59 individual dolphins that males make to draw females towards them and away from rivals. These clicking noises are called “pops”, and the males make about six to 12 per second. Due to strong competition between groups, these male dolphins usually work together to attract females. Males from Shark Bay form particularly large alliances of up to 14 individuals that can last for decades, with members playing different roles within the group. “[There is] this nested level of alliances within alliances and that is unique to Shark Bay,” says King. The researchers towed underwater microphones through the bay to listen in on the dolphins. They found that the animals synchronised their pops, matching each other’s tempo and starting and ending their series of pops at the same time. Due to the complexity of their multi-level alliances, Shark Bay dolphins are an ideal population to look at coordination, says King. She thinks this acoustic coordination could apply to other populations of dolphins too, such as those in Florida that are allied in pairs. Though it isn’t yet clear whether harmonising their pops results in more reproductive success, it may be important to male dolphins for maintaining social bonds and reducing stress, possibly by the release of oxytocin, says King. The oxytocin interpretation is still speculative, says Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester, UK. It’s surprising how regular some of the dolphins’ synchrony is, she says, and documenting these vocalisations is “likely to open up a raft of possibilities” for patterns associated with hunting and play.
3-31-20 Sharks are easier to catch in cooler waters, and we have no idea why
Fishing vessels are more likely to catch apex predators, including sharks, and tuna in cool ocean regions, even though the warm equatorial areas are where marine life is most biodiverse. The finding means biologists need to rethink why the tropics are an ecological hotspot. More species live near the equator than in temperate or polar regions. For a century, we have suspected that predation helps explain this. The idea is that competition through predation drives evolution among prey species, which in turn encourages evolution among predators. If more predation occurred in the tropical seas for some reason, they could be why they have become more diverse over time than the cooler seas nearer the poles. If this idea is correct, then predators should be most active near the equator, and so this is where fishing vessels should catch the most of them. But they don’t, according to research led by Marius Roesti at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Roesti and his colleagues collated data from different fishing commissions around the world. Every commercial fishing vessel must report the number of fish that it catches in the open ocean, and what species those fish belong to. Using data gathered between 1960 and 2014, the researchers looked at the number of hooks set in a given place in the ocean at a given time and the number of predatory fish that were caught. In total, the data consisted of more than 900 million caught fish. Even after making allowances for the fact that fishing vessels are spread unevenly across the oceans, Roesti and his colleagues found that predatory fish were most likely to be caught in the mid-latitudes of the ocean, roughly between 30 and 60 degrees north and south of the equator, rather than the warmer tropics. The finding suggests it is here that the predators are most active and interact most with prey species.
3-31-20 Parasitic worm populations are skyrocketing in some fish species used in sushi
Researchers aren’t sure if the Anisakis worm increase signals environmental recovery or decline. “Waiter, there’s a worm in my sushi.” Diners may be more likely to utter those words today than in decades past, as the abundance of parasitic Anisakis worms infecting fishes around the globe is now 283 times what it was in the 1970s, researchers report March 19 in Global Change Biology. Worms of the genus Anisakis, also called whale worms, can cause vomiting and diarrhea in people who ingest them. Fortunately, freezing fillets kills the parasites, and farmed fish are rarely infected with them. Sushi chefs and other fish suppliers can spot and remove the worms, which can reach up to 2 centimeters in length. But the rise in worm numbers might spell bad news for some marine animals. Researchers analyzed hundreds of global scientific studies published since 1967 to assess the number of worms — both Anisakis and a related genus called Pseudoterranova — per individual fish. Overall, the data included more than 55,000 specimens of 215 fish species. In 1978, the first year for which the researchers had sufficient data for both worm groups, scientists reported finding less than one whale worm on average per 100 fish. By 2015, they were finding more than one Anisakis worm on average per individual fish. The trend held true across fish species and geographic regions, and regardless of the methods used to quantify worms, which ranged from simple dissection to dissolving fish tissues with acid. However, there was no global increase in reports of Pseudoterranova, also known as seal worms. That increase in Anisakis could be a problem for the wrigglers’ diverse hosts: The worms’ eggs can be taken up by krill, which are eaten by cephalopods like squid, which are ingested by fishes. All of these are gobbled up by whales and dolphins.
3-30-20 Peacock spiders show more of their colours
OK, a lot of people don't like arachnids. But c'mon, these little guys are simply stunning. Seven new peacock spiders have been described in the journal Zootaxa. And just like their cousins in the Maratus genus, they all live in Australia and they all feature those amazing iridescent colours that the males will flaunt during courtship. The man behind the descriptions is Museums Victoria's Joseph Schubert, a 22-year-old peacock spider specialist. He's now written up 12 of the 85 known species in this group. He often gets sent specimens to identify, but also conducts fieldwork. The names of the new species are Maratus azureus, Maratus constellatus, Maratus laurenae, Maratus noggerup, Maratus suae, Maratus volpei, and Maratus inaquosus. Most are from Western Australia. "My favourite species would have to be Maratus constellatus," he said. "I ventured all the way to Kalbarri to find this species which is about a seven-hour drive north of Perth. The patterns on the abdomen to me just look so much like Starry Night by van Gogh, hence the name constellatus which means starry in Latin. "A few of the spiders in this paper were named after the people who had discovered them. A lot of the species are actually discovered by citizen scientists who'd documented the locality data and taken photos of the spiders and sent images to me. Considering how many peacock spider species have been discovered in the past few years, I certainly think that there are more out there to be found." Peacock spiders are generally very small, about the size of a grain of rice. It's the males that sport the ostentatious colouring; females have a more mottled look made up of browns, blacks and beiges. Males will wave their abdomens and legs during a courtship dance. Some even have flaps that can be extended like a fan - hence the association with peacock birds. There has been a flurry of new species discoveries in recent years, and given their popularity it's likely many more previously unrecognised species will be identified in the future as people go looking for them.