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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

4-16-21 Indianapolis mass shooting: Eight dead at FedEx facility
Eight people have been killed and seven injured in a shooting in the US city of Indianapolis, police say. Witnesses heard several gunshots at a FedEx facility and one said he had seen a man firing an automatic weapon. The gunman, thought to have been acting alone, is believed to have killed himself, police say, adding that there is no ongoing threat to the public. Police say several of the injured are in hospital. Flights from the nearby airport are not affected. "As officers arrived, they came into contact with an active shooting incident," city police spokeswoman Genae Cook said, adding that it had taken place at around 23:00 local time (03:00 GMT). "After a preliminary search of the grounds, inside and out, we have located eight people at the scene with injuries consistent to gunshot wounds. Those eight were pronounced deceased here at the scene. Ms Cook said four of the injured had been transported to hospital, one in a critical condition. Many others were treated at the scene or themselves sought treatment in hospital. She said the motive for the killing was unclear. Ms Cook paid tribute to the officers involved. "It is very heart-breaking and, you know, in the Indianapolis Metro Police Department, the officers responded,... they went in and they did their job," she said. "And a lot of them are trying to face this because this is a sight that no-one should ever have to see." A FedEx statement said the company was aware of the shooting and co-operating with the authorities. "Safety is our top priority, and our thoughts are with all those who are affected," it said. Local media quoted FedEx worker Jeremiah Miller as saying he had seen the gunman firing. "I saw a man with a sub-machine gun of some sort, an automatic rifle, and he was firing in the open. I immediately ducked down and got scared," he said. The Gun Violence Archive puts the number of gun violence deaths from all causes at 12,395 so far this year in the US, of which 147 were in mass shootings. Last year saw a total of 43.549 deaths, and 610 in mass shootings.

4-16-21 Adam Toledo: Chicago police release video of officer shooting boy
Chicago police have released graphic footage of an officer shooting dead a 13-year-old boy in a dark alley. Bodycam video shows the policeman shouting "drop it" before shooting Adam Toledo once in the chest on 29 March. The boy does not appear to be holding a weapon in the split second he is shot, but police video shows a handgun near the spot where he falls. Small protests were held on Thursday evening around Chicago, hours after the city's mayor appealed for calm. The video's release follows the fatal police shooting on 11 April of Daunte Wright by an officer in a Minneapolis suburb. That shooting has sparked violent protests as the city awaits the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused in the death of George Floyd. The clip shows the officer jumping out of his squad car and chasing the Latino boy on foot down a dark alley as another suspect disappears from view. The policeman shouts: "Police! Stop! Stop right [expletive] now! Hands! Hands! Show me your [expletive] hands!" The boy turns and raises his hands. The officer shouts "Drop it" and fires his weapon - 19 seconds after exiting his squad car. Separate CCTV footage appears to show the teenager throwing something through a gap in the fence as the officer runs up to him. Bodycam video shows officers shining a light on a handgun behind the wooden fence after the shooting. The policeman calls for an ambulance while urging the fallen boy to "stay awake". Other officers arrive at the scene in the Little Village neighbourhood on the city's west side and CPR is performed. According to prosecutors, the teenager was with a 21-year-old man, Ruben Roman, who had just fired a gun at a passing car. The gunfire drew police to the area, resulting in the deadly confrontation. Mr Roman appeared in court on Saturday charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, reckless discharge of a firearm and child endangerment, according to local media reports. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability released the bodycam footage on Thursday along with CCTV video, arrest reports and audio recordings of the shots fired in the area that alerted police.

4-16-21 How George Floyd's death changed a small Iowa town
George Floyd's death, and the trial of Derek Chauvin, has shone a light on racial issues in small towns. Yet coming to terms with racism is tough, even for the well-meaning. Guy Nave, an academic with a Yale PhD, moved to Decorah nearly two decades ago. The Iowa town seemed idyllic. It had stone buildings, a train depot and Victorian homes that looked like gingerbread houses. Then, shortly after starting his job at a local college, he locked himself out of his house. He was rattling a patio door when police showed up. The officer had gotten a call, and was told "someone who didn't look like they belonged in the neighbourhood was walking around the house", Nave recalls. That person was a black man - that person was Nave. There were other incidents. He was pulled over a dozen times for minor violations during his first year living in the town. He focused on work and tried to ignore those incidents. Then, in May 2020, George Floyd died while in police custody and townspeople organised a Black Lives Matter march, the first of its kind. The town was waking up. Small towns are slow to change. A point of pride here is that glaciers missed Decorah, located in north-eastern Iowa, some 12,000 years ago, leaving it with rolling hills - a topography that dates back eons. It had been stuck in time culturally, too. Until recently, racism was rarely discussed. Floyd's death affected people here deeply, however, and sparked a movement. "It changed Decorah, in a way where they cannot close off from what is happening all around," says Maria Leitz, an educator. But not everyone reacted in the same way. "People were really sad about it," says Leitz. "But I was really mad about it." As the trial of Derek Chauvin - the former police officer accused in Floyd's death - unfolds, she pays attention, and watches some of the testimony. "I do hear snippets," she says. But she has tried to limit how much she sees: "It's just so emotional." With the trial underway, and as more protests take place in Minneapolis, people here are fighting racism with new energy.

4-16-21 China's economy grows 18.3% in post-Covid comeback
China's economy grew a record 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same quarter last year. It's the biggest jump in gross domestic product (GDP) since China started keeping quarterly records in 1992. However, Friday's figures are below expectations, with a Reuters poll of economists predicting 19% growth. They are also heavily skewed, and less indicative of strong growth, as they are compared to last year's huge economic contraction. In the first quarter of 2020, China's economy shrank 6.8% due to nationwide lockdowns at the peak of its Covid-19 outbreak. "The national economy made a good start," said China's National Bureau of Statistics, which released the first quarter data. But it added: "We must be aware that the Covid-19 epidemic is still spreading globally and the international landscape is complicated with high uncertainties and instabilities." Other key figures released by China's statistics department also point to a continuing rebound, but are also unusually strong because they are compared against extremely weak numbers from last year. Industrial output for March rose 14.1% over a year ago, while retail sales grew 34.2%. "Promisingly, the monthly indicators suggest that industrial production, consumption and investment all gained pace in March on a sequential basis, following the weakness in the first two months," said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at research and consultancy firm Oxford Economics. However, some analysts predicted a number of sectors will slow as government fiscal and monetary support is reduced. Yue Su, the Economist Intelligence Unit's principal economist for China, while the latest figures show that the country's economic recovery is broad-based, some production and export activity could have been "front-loaded" into the first quarter, suggesting slower growth ahead. "Trade performance and domestic industrial activities for the rest of year might not be able to maintain such strong momentum, due to lack of measures to stimulate domestic economy," she said.

4-16-21 US imposes sanctions on Russia over cyber-attacks
The US has announced sanctions against Russia in response to what it says are cyber-attacks and other hostile acts. The measures, which target dozens of Russian entities and officials, aim to deter "Russia's harmful foreign activities", the White House said. The statement says Russian intelligence was behind last year's massive "SolarWinds" hack, and accuses Moscow of interference in the 2020 election. Russia denies all the allegations and says it will respond in kind. The sanctions announced on Thursday are detailed in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden. They come at a tense time for relations between the two countries. Last month the US targeted seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Russia says it was not involved. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Mr Biden vowed to defend US national interests "firmly", while proposing a meeting with Mr Putin to find areas where the two countries could work together. On Thursday, Mr Biden described his decision to impose sanctions on Russia as "proportionate". "I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so," Mr Biden told reporters. "The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia." He added that the way forwards is through "thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process". A statement from the White House said the new sanctions show the US "will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia" if it continues its "destabilising international action". It reaffirms the administration's view that the Russian government is behind cyber-attacks and has been trying to "undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections" in the US and allied nations.

4-16-21 TB Joshua: YouTube blocks Nigerian preacher over gay cure claim
YouTube has suspended the account of influential Nigerian TV evangelist TB Joshua over allegations of hate speech. A rights body filed a complaint after reviewing at least seven videos showing the preacher conducting prayers to "cure" gay people. Facebook has also removed at least one of the offending posts showing a woman being slapped while TB Joshua says he is casting out a "demonic spirit". The preacher said he was appealing against YouTube's decision. His YouTube account had 1.8 million subscribers. TB Joshua is one of Africa's most influential evangelists, with top politicians from across the continent among his followers. UK-based openDemocracy filed a complaint after reviewing seven videos posted on TB Joshua Ministries' YouTube channel between 2016 and 2020, which show the preacher conducting prayers to "cure" gay people. A YouTube spokesperson told openDemocracy that the channel had been closed because its policy "prohibits content which alleges that someone is mentally ill, diseased, or inferior because of their membership in a protected group including sexual orientation". A post on TB Joshua Ministries Facebook account said: "We have had a long and fruitful relationship with YouTube and believe this decision was made in haste." The video is an update of a prayer session of a woman called Okoye, first broadcast in 2018. In it TB Joshua slaps and pushes Okoye and an unnamed woman at least 16 times and tells Okoye: "There is a spirit disturbing you. She has transplanted herself into you. It is the spirit of woman," openDemocracy reports. The video which was viewed more than 1.5 million before the YouTube channel was taken down, later shows her testifying before the congregation that "the spirit of woman" had been destroying her life but she had been healed after the preacher's prayers. She declares that she had stopped having "affection" to women and "now I have affections for men".

4-16-21 Vaccines and risk
The human brain tends to make us fear the wrong threats. The human brain has two systems for assessing risk, and one isn't very reliable. The neocortex, which developed relatively late in human evolution, can make rational, risk-reward assessments based on evidence, data, and logic. The amygdala, a more primitive region we share with other mammals, reacts instantly to perceived threats with fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response. Strong emotions often overrule logic, so our brains are biased to overreact to exotic risks like terrorism, plane crashes, and tarantulas, while downplaying the much greater likelihood we'll die of the flu, a car crash, heart disease — or COVID. For the past year, the pandemic has made us all subjects in a massive experiment on human risk assessment. We haven't done very well. Too many Americans decided that going about their usual activities without a mask or social distancing didn't feel as risky as the experts were saying ... and as a result, they caught and spread an invisible contagion. More than 560,000 have died. Now our brains are assessing the risk of getting vaccinated vs. going unprotected against COVID. That task was complicated this week with the discovery that six women out of the 7 million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed blood clots — a rate of 0.00008 percent. By way of perspective, an unvaccinated American's risk of dying of COVID is 1 in 1,666, and the risk COVID will cause severe illness and lasting, "long haul" symptoms is far greater. But the "pause" in J&J vaccinations, while ethical and responsible, will undoubtedly harden the resistance of the 30 percent who say they will not take any vaccine. That would be a terrible outcome — for them and for the rest of us. The pandemic won't truly subside until vaccinations give the coronavirus vanishingly few new people to infect. Those whose amygdalae are wrongly telling them vaccines are riskier than COVID may well determine when, and if, life returns to normal.

4-16-21 Chile sees Covid surge despite vaccination success
Chile's Health Minister Enrique Paris has been striking a gloomy note at his daily Covid news conferences in recent days. The number of daily cases reached a new record high on 9 April, going over 9,000 for the first time since the pandemic began and considerably higher than the previous peak of just under 7,000 cases in mid-June. "It's worrying," he said last Friday. "We're going through a critical moment of the pandemic… I urge you to take care of yourselves, of your loved ones, of your families." Intensive care units are again overwhelmed, the country has for a second time closed its borders to everyone who is not a resident and most of its 18 million inhabitants are back in lockdown. "It feels like we're going backwards," says Santiago resident Sofía Pinto. "We need to download special permits online to be allowed out just twice a week for essential things like food shopping or doctor's visits." The frustration and confusion many Chileans are feeling over the renewed lockdown is due partly to the fact that just two months ago, President Sebastián Piñera was boasting about Chile having one of the fastest vaccination rollouts in the world. Critics have accused the Piñera government of getting caught up in triumphalism over the vaccine rollout and of having loosened coronavirus restrictions too fast. Like governments across the world, ministers here faced difficult choices. Chile's borders had been closed - bar for a few exceptions - from March to November 2020. But after a strict lockdown had driven the rolling seven-day average down to 1,300 cases in November, the decision was taken to reopen them, including to international tourists. Chileans were also given special holiday permits to travel more freely around the country during the southern hemisphere summer holidays after some experts argued it was important for people's mental health. Restaurants, shops, and holiday resorts were opened up to kickstart the faltering economy.

4-15-21 Covid-19 news: Doubts about Olympics as cases surge in Japan
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. As Japan battles fourth wave of infections, official says cancelling the Olympics is still an option. An official from Japan’s ruling party has said that cancelling the Olympics, scheduled to take place in Tokyo at the end of July, remains an option and will depend on the coronavirus situation. “If it seems impossible [to host the Olympics] anymore, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, told broadcaster TBS. He added: “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?” Government and organising officials have previously said the postponed event would go ahead, but without international spectators. The number of positive coronavirus tests in England fell by 34 per cent in the week up to 7 April, according to the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace. 19,196 people tested positive for the virus, continuing a downward trend in positive tests observed since the week up to 6 January, NHS Test and Trace said in its report. Mass testing for the B.1.351 coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, is being carried out in six London boroughs as well as in parts of Smethwick in the West Midlands in England, after a new case was detected there. More than 200,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in India on 15 April, the highest daily case rate in the country since the pandemic began. Some hospitals, including those in the state of Maharashtra, have reported shortages of beds and oxygen supplies. India’s second wave of infections appears to be driven mainly by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant.

4-15-21 Afghanistan: Biden calls for end to 'America's longest war'
The US will continue to support Afghanistan after withdrawing all US troops, but not "militarily," President Joe Biden has pledged. "It is time to end America's longest war," he said in a speech from the White House room where US airstrikes there were first declared in 2001. The pull-out is to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, officials say. At least 2,500 US troops are part of the 9,600-strong Nato Afghan mission. The number of US troops on the ground in Afghanistan fluctuates, and US media report the current total is closer to 3,500. US and Nato officials have said the Taliban, a hardline Islamist movement, have so far failed to live up to commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan. In Kabul, Afghan officials say they will continue peace talks in preparation for the withdrawal. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had spoken on the phone with Mr Biden on Wednesday, and that the country "respects the US decision and we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition". He added that Afghanistan's defence forces "are fully capable of defending its people and country". "We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result," said Mr Biden, the fourth president to oversee the war. "While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue," he continued, adding: "We will continue to support the government of Afghanistan." Mr Biden also pledged to continue providing assistance to Afghan defence and security forces - including 300,000 personnel, who he says "continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghan people, at great cost". He also paid his respects to the victims of the 11 September 2001 attack which triggered the US invasion of Afghanistan. "We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," he said. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021." (Webmaster's comment: Just like in Vietnam we cannot win if the people don't want us!)

4-15-21 Afghanistan: 'We have won the war, America has lost', say Taliban
Driving to Taliban-controlled territory doesn't take long. Around 30 minutes from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, passing large craters left by roadside bombs, we meet our host: Haji Hekmat, the Taliban's shadow mayor in Balkh district. Perfumed and in a black turban, he's a veteran member of the group, having first joined the militants in the 1990s when they ruled over the majority of the country. The Taliban have arranged a display of force for us. Lined up on either side of the street are heavily armed men, one carrying a rocket propelled grenade launcher, another an M4 assault rifle captured from US forces. Balkh was once one of the more stable parts of the country; now it's become one of the most violent. Baryalai, a local military commander with a ferocious reputation, points down the road, "the government forces are just there by the main market, but they can't leave their bases. This territory belongs to the mujahideen". It's a similar picture across much of Afghanistan: the government controls the cities and bigger towns, but the Taliban are encircling them, with a presence in large parts of the countryside. The militants assert their authority through sporadic checkpoints along key roads. As Taliban members stop and question passing cars, Aamir Sahib Ajmal, the local head of the Taliban's intelligence service, tells us they're searching for people linked to the government. "We will arrest them, and take them prisoner," he says. "Then we hand them over to our courts and they decide what will happen next." The Taliban believe victory is theirs. Sitting over a cup of green tea, Haji Hekmat proclaims, "we have won the war and America has lost". The decision by US President Joe Biden to delay the withdrawal of remaining US forces to September, meaning they will remain in the country past the 1 May deadline agreed last year, has sparked a sharp reaction from the Taliban's political leadership. Nonetheless, momentum seems to be with the militants. "We are ready for anything," says Haji Hekmat. "We are totally prepared for peace, and we are fully prepared for jihad." Sitting next to him, a military commander adds: "Jihad is an act of worship. Worship is something that, however much of it you do, you don't get tired."

4-15-21 US imposes sanctions on Russia over cyber-attacks
The US has announced sanctions against Russia in response to what it says are cyber-attacks and other hostile acts. The measures are aimed at deterring "Russia's harmful foreign activities", the White House said on Thursday. The sanctions, detailed in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden, target dozens of Russian entities, officials and diplomats. The US accuses Russia of malicious cyber-activity and interference in presidential elections. The Russian government has denied the allegations and called any new sanctions "illegal". The measures come at a tense time for relations between the two countries. Last month the US targeted seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Russia says it had no part in the poisoning. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Mr Biden vowed to defend US national interests "firmly", while proposing a meeting with Mr Putin to find areas where the two countries could work together. According to Thursday's White House statement, the new sanctions show the US "will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia" if it continues its "destabilizing international action". It reaffirms the administration's view that the Russian government is behind the cyber-attacks and has been trying to "undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections" in the US and its allies. The sanctions target 32 entities and officials accused of trying to influence the 2020 US presidential election "and other acts of disinformation". Ten diplomats, including alleged spies, are being expelled from the US. The executive order also bars US financial institutions from purchasing rouble-denominated bonds from June. Last year, cyber-security researchers identified a hack in a piece of software called SolarWinds - which gave cyber-criminals access to 18,000 government and private computer networks.

4-15-21 Daunte Wright shooting: US ex-officer Kim Potter charged over killing
A US former police officer who shot dead a black motorist in Minnesota has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, prosecutors say. Kim Potter was arrested and later released on $100,000 (£72,000) bail. Police say Mrs Potter shot Daunte Wright accidentally, having mistakenly drawn her gun instead of her Taser. Responding to the charges, the Wright family's lawyer Ben Crump said the killing was an "intentional, deliberate, and unlawful use of force". Both Mrs Potter and local police chief Tim Gannon have resigned. The killing has sparked clashes between police and protesters in Brooklyn Center - a suburb of Minneapolis - and late on Wednesday, several hundred demonstrators again defied a curfew to gather outside police headquarters. As on previous nights, protesters threw bottles and other projectiles at police who responded with stun grenades and pepper spray. Minneapolis is already on edge amid the trial of a white ex-police officer accused of murdering African-American George Floyd. Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said Mrs Potter was taken into custody on Wednesday morning. She was booked into Hennepin County Jail on probable cause second-degree manslaughter before bail was posted. In Minnesota state law, a person can be found guilty of second-degree manslaughter if they can be proven to have shown culpable negligence whereby they create an unreasonable risk and "consciously take chances of causing death or great bodily harm" to someone else. Mrs Potter is due to make her first court appearance on Thursday. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 (£14,500) fine. Prosecutors must show that Mrs Potter was "culpably negligent" and took an "unreasonable risk" in her actions, Reuters reported. At a news conference, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott called for people to protest peacefully. "With the news of the decision to charge the former Brooklyn Center police officer with manslaughter comes a prolonged period of continued grieving, hurt and understandable anger," he said.

4-15-21 Texas students disciplined over 'slave trade game'
A group of school students in Texas have been disciplined for setting up a "Slave Trade" messaging group that assigned prices to their black peers. Messages shared on the Snapchat app at a school in Aledo said one student was worth a dollar and another "100 bucks", the New York Times reported. The school district conducted an inquiry and found "racial harassment and cyber bullying" had occurred. But some parents accused authorities of failing to respond appropriately. School students at the Daniel Ninth Grade Campus in Aledo had posted messages on a group Snapchat that was reportedly labelled with terms such as "farm" and "auction". Ninth graders are typically 14 or 15. One message said the price set for one student "would be better if his hair wasn't so bad", according to the New York Times, which said it had seen screenshots of exchanges. The Aledo independent school district, situated about 32km (20 miles) west of Fort Worth, condemned the students' behaviour in a statement on Monday, saying that its investigation had been conducted in co-operation with the police. "We made a formal determination that racial harassment and cyber bullying had occurred and assigned disciplinary consequences," the statement said, without providing details about the number of students involved or the action taken. "This incident has caused tremendous pain for the victims, their families, and other students of colour and their families, and for that we are deeply saddened," it added. The principal of the Daniel Ninth Grade Campus of the Aledo Independent School District, Carolyn Ansley, said the investigation had found that "racially charged language" had been used in violation of the district's code of conduct. However, some parents have since criticised the district's response. "Calling it cyber bullying rather than calling it racism... that is the piece that really gets under my skin," parent Mark Grubbs said, NBC News in Dallas reports. "It makes me sick from the standpoint - 'Who do they think they are? What gives them the right to think they can do that to someone else?'" Mr Grubbs added.

4-13-21 Covid-19 news: One vaccine dose produces strong response in over-80s
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 single dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine produced strong immune responses among over-80s in a preliminary study. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccines produced a strong immune response after a single dose in people aged over 80 in a preliminary study. It showed that 93 per cent of people had produced coronavirus-specific antibodies after receiving the Pfizer vaccine and 87 per cent of people after receiving the AstraZeneca jab. This was the first study to compare the performance of the two vaccines. Those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine showed a greater T-cell response, which forms another important arm of the body’s immune response to viruses. Just 12 per cent of people who had the Pfizer vaccine developed T-cells against the coronavirus spike protein compared with 31 per cent of those who had received the AstraZeneca jab. Overall immune responses were much higher in people who had previously had covid-19, compared with those who hadn’t. The study was carried out by Helen Parry at the University of Birmingham, UK, and her colleagues who analysed immune responses in a group of 165 volunteers aged 80 and over, each of whom had received a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine five to six weeks earlier. The US, the European Union and South Africa are pausing rollouts of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine, following a small number of reports of rare blood clots in people who had received it. In the US, six cases of rare blood clots had been reported among 6.8 million people who had received the vaccine as of 13 April. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it is working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration and other international regulators to investigate all the cases reported and it expects to issue a recommendation next week. “While its review is ongoing, EMA remains of the view that the benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects,” it said in a statement on 14 April. Denmark has become the first country to completely stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine, after the EMA concluded on 7 April that unusual blood clotting events should be listed as very rare side effects of the vaccine. However, the country’s health agency has not ruled out the possibility of resuming use of the vaccine in future if another wave of infections hits. Several European countries suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in March over blood clot concerns, but many have since resumed use of the vaccine for certain age groups.

4-14-21 Derek Chauvin trial: Use of force 'justified' says defence expert
A police officer was "justified" in pinning George Floyd to the ground before his death, says a use-of-force expert called by the defence team. Barry Brodd told the trial in Minnesota that Derek Chauvin - who denies murder - acted with "objective reasonableness" during the arrest last May. Video of Mr Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Mr Floyd led to worldwide protests against racism and policing. Tensions are running high over a recent police shooting of a black man. That happened on Sunday in a Minnesota suburb only 10 miles (16 km) away from the court where Mr Chauvin's trial is taking place. On Tuesday, the court heard testimony from witnesses called by Mr Chauvin's defence team. Former police officer Mr Brodd told the court that "the imminent threat" posed by Floyd was a major factor in his detention. "I felt that Derek Chauvin was justified and acting with objective reasonableness following Minneapolis police department policy and current standards of law enforcement in his interaction with George Floyd," he said. "From a police officer's standpoint, you don't have to wait for it to happen. You just have to have a reasonable fear that somebody is going to strike you, stab you, shoot you." Mr Brodd added: "It's easy to sit in an office and judge an officer's conduct. It's more of a challenge to put yourself in the officer's shoes, to try to make an evaluation through what they are feeling, what they're sensing, the fear they have, and then make a determination." Defence lawyer Eric Nelson asked Mr Brodd: "Was this a deadly use of force?" "No, it was not," Mr Brodd replied. He said that the crowd surrounding George Floyd during his arrest "posed an unknown threat" and drew Mr Chauvin's attention away from Floyd. Cross-examining Mr Brodd, the prosecution maintained that the dangers of positional asphyxia - not being able to breathe in a certain position - were well known. (Webmaster's comment: The police want the right to kill blacks for any reason! This killing would never have happened if the victim had been white man!)

4-14-21 Daunte Wright shooting: Police resignations fail to ease unrest over death
The resignations of a police chief and of an officer who shot dead a black motorist in Minnesota have failed to end unrest over Sunday's killing. Chief Tim Gannon and Officer Kim Potter have quit the Brooklyn Center force. Mrs Potter said she shot Daunte Wright accidentally, having mistakenly drawn her gun instead of her Taser, a stance backed by Mr Gannon. Despite the resignations fresh clashes between police and protesters erupted for a third night. Mr Wright's mother has been speaking about her last phone call to her son. In tears, she told reporters she could never have imagined he would be killed. The death happened in a suburb of Minneapolis, a city already on edge amid the trial of a white ex-police officer accused of murdering African American George Floyd. On Tuesday night bottles and other projectiles were thrown at the Brooklyn Center police headquarters and officers responded by firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. More than 60 people were arrested, Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matt Langer told reporters. Another demonstration broke out in Portland, Oregon, on Tuesday night, with about 100 protesters marching on the Portland Police Association Building. Flames were seen coming out of the side of the police building about an hour later. The Portland Police Bureau declared the gathering a riot. Portland was the centre of mass demonstrations last year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Speaking to reporters earlier, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said he had appointed 19-year veteran Tony Gruenig to take over for Tim Gannon. On Monday, Mr Gannon had said the shooting of Mr Wright appeared to be an "accidental discharge" after Mrs Potter mistook her service pistol for a stun gun. "I appreciate the officer stepping down," the mayor said, adding that he hoped her leaving would "bring some calm to the community".

4-14-21 Daunte Wright shooting: How can you mistake a gun for a Taser?
The killing of Daunte Wright, a young black man, in a suburb of Minneapolis in the US, was because an officer mistook her gun for a Taser, according to police. So how is it possible to mix up the two weapons? asers fire small dart-like electrodes that can deliver a high-voltage shock to disable temporarily a suspect and allow officers to deal with violent, or potentially violent, people at a distance. They are used by police forces around the world. Almost all American police departments now issue their officers with Tasers, according to one assessment. The US-based Axon company, which developed the Taser used by the Brooklyn Center police department involved in this incident, was quoted as saying their weapons were designed to be distinguishable from handguns. It had "implemented numerous features and training recommendations to reduce the possibility of these incidents occurring" - including making them look and feel different from a firearm. Distinctive Taser features include that they: are often produced in bright colours, weigh significantly less than police guns, typically have different grips, have no trigger safety mechanism, as most guns do. Police officers are typically trained to keep guns in a holster on their dominant side to avoid confusing it with their Taser, which is kept on the belt on the other side of the body. The Brooklyn Center police manual says that officers must position Tasers "in a reaction-side holster on the side opposite the duty weapon". "So if you're right-handed you carry your firearm on your right side and [you] carry your Taser on your left," Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters after the shooting of Mr Wright. He added: "This appears to me... that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr Wright." The video of the incident that was circulated by police shows the officer shouting out "Taser, Taser, Taser" before shooting, and then appearing to realise she had used a handgun instead. The officer has been named as Kim Potter, who had worked for Brooklyn Center Police for 26 years. She has now resigned. (Webmaster's comment: No person could exer mistake the two weapons. She wanted to kill him!)

4-14-21 Haridwar: Hundreds test positive for Covid at Kumbh Mela
Hundreds of devotees, including nine top saints, have tested positive for Covid-19 in India's Haridwar city where huge crowds have gathered to participate in the Kumbh Mela festival. More than three million Hindu devotees bathed in the Ganges river on Tuesday to mark one of the most auspicious days of the two-month-long festival. Millions are expected to repeat the ritual on Wednesday. India reported 184,372 new cases on Tuesday - its highest-daily spike yet. Many have criticised the government for allowing the festival to go ahead amid a raging pandemic. Officials said that nearly 900,000 people had taken a dip in the holy river by afternoon on Wednesday, which is considered to be the most auspicious day of the entire festival. Hindus believe that the Ganges river is holy, and taking a dip in the water will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. Police officials say they are struggling to impose safety norms due to huge crowds on the banks of the river in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Officials leading the festival's Covid-19 testing cell told the BBC that out of more than 20,000 samples collected in the area on Tuesday, 110 returned positive results. On Monday, 184 devotees had tested positive. They have been isolated while others have been moved to hospitals in Haridwar city. Dr Arjun Sengar, the health officer at the Kumbh Mela, said nine top religious leaders had also tested positive. Narendra Giri, the president of a consortium of 14 Hindu groups, also tested positive. He has been admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which is a leading public hospital, in Haridwar. Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, has also tested positive. He visited Haridwar on Sunday and met some top saints, including Mr Giri. Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has also tested positive although he did not visit the festival.

4-14-21 Johnson & Johnson vaccine paused over rare blood clots
The US, South Africa and European Union will temporarily stop the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Covid jab, after reports of rare blood clotting. Six cases were detected in more than 6.8 million doses of the vaccine, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said. Johnson & Johnson has paused its EU rollout, which started this week. It follows similar cases after doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which prompted curbs to its use. The FDA said it was recommending the temporary pause "out of an abundance of caution". It confirmed that one patient died from blood clotting complications, and another is in a critical condition. All six cases were in women aged between 18 and 48, with symptoms appearing six to 13 days after vaccination. Following the advice, all federal sites in the US have stopped using the vaccine until further investigations into its safety are completed. State and private contractors are expected to follow suit. The US has by far the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 - more than 31 million - with more than 562,000 deaths, another world high. Johnson & Johnson is a US health care company, but the vaccine was developed mainly by a pharmaceutical branch in Belgium with laboratories in the Netherlands, and is also known as Janssen. Unlike some of the other jabs, it is given as a single shot and can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to distribute in hotter climates or more remote areas. While many countries have pre-ordered millions of doses, it has only been approved in a few nations. It was cleared for use in the US on 27 February, but the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been used more widely. The J&J vaccine has been administered to nearly seven million people in the US, which is around 3% of the total immunisations given so far. Dr Anthony Fauci, the country's top Covid adviser, said it was too early to comment on whether it could have its authorisation revoked.

4-14-21 AstraZeneca vaccine: Denmark ceases rollout completely
Denmark has ceased giving the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine amid concerns about rare cases of blood clots, the first European country to do so fully. The move is expected to delay the country's vaccination programme by several weeks. Drug watchdog the European Medicines Agency last week announced a possible link with clots but said the risk of dying of Covid-19 was much greater. Several European countries had previously briefly suspended the jab. Most have now resumed vaccinations with AstraZeneca, but often with limits to older age groups. On Tuesday, the US, Canada and the European Union paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for similar reasons over clotting. South Africa has also paused its use, despite the Johnson & Johnson being its preferred vaccine because of its effectiveness against the South African variant. For both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, the blood clot side effects are extremely rare. The EU's vaccine roll-out has been criticised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for being too slow, and there are concerns this latest delay could throw it into further turmoil. Both vaccines work by a similar method, known as adenoviral vectors. Danish officials said that all 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be withdrawn until further notice. In a statement, the Danish Health Authority said studies had shown a higher than expected frequency of blood clots following doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Director General Soren Brostrom said it had been a "difficult decision" but Denmark had other vaccines available and the epidemic there was currently under control. "The upcoming target groups for vaccination are less likely to become severely ill from Covid-19," he said. "We must weigh this against the fact that we now have a known risk of severe adverse effects from vaccination with AstraZeneca, even if the risk in absolute terms is slight." However, the authority said it could not rule out using it again at another time.

4-14-21 U.S. pauses J&J vaccine rollout after 6 people of 6.8 million get rare blood clots
AstraZeneca's vaccine has also been linked to the rare clots in Europe and the U.K. Federal health officials in the United States are pressing pause on administering Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine following rare reports of blood clots in people who received the shot. U.S. officials are recommending that, for now, states halt the shots, too. Out of more than 6.8 million people vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s jab in the United States, six developed severe blood clots in the sinuses that drain blood from the brain, officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said April 13 in a news release. That condition, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis or CVST, is coupled with low levels of platelets in the blood after vaccination. How long the pause will last largely depends on the outcome of an expert review of the cases, but could be a matter of days, Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting commissioner, said in an April 13 call with news reporters. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet April 14 to discuss the cases and potentially update its recommendations for use. The U.S. action comes less than a week after the European Medicines Agency announced that its experts had found a link between a COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford and conditions like CVST (SN:4/7/21). In the European Union and the United Kingdom, most of the rare blood clots have occurred in vaccinated women younger than 60 years old. But the risk factors remain unclear, according to the EMA. Health officials there have recommended that CVST and other unusual clots be listed as a rare side effect of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. In the United States, all six CVST cases were in women younger than 50 and appeared six to 13 days after vaccination. One person died and another is in critical condition. “These events appear to be extremely rare,” Woodcock said. She noted that like with AstraZeneca’s shot, there are too few cases with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to come to any conclusions about who is at highest risk of developing the clots. Johnson & Johnson has delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe, the pharmaceutical company said April 13 in a news release.

4-13-21 Covid-19 news: US authorities call for Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause
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. There have been six reports of rare blood clots among more than 6.8 million people in the US who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine US health authorities, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine on 13 April as a precautionary measure, following reports of rare blood clots in six people who had received the vaccine. More than 6.8 million doses of the single-shot vaccine had been administered across the US as of 13 April. Among these, there were six reports of a rare blood clotting condition called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), which affects blood vessels in the brain, all of which were among women aged 18 to 48. A special meeting of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will review the reports on 14 April, the FDA and CDC said in a joint statement. “Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” the statement said. In a statement on 13 April, Johnson & Johnson said that it has decided to “proactively delay the rollout” of its vaccine in Europe. On 9 April, the European Union’s medicines regulator announced it was reviewing four reported cases of rare blood clots in people who had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal association between the vaccine and the condition. An earlier review by the European Medicines Agency concluded on 7 April that unusual blood clotting events should be listed as very rare side effects of the Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine. Several countries, including the UK, have limited use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine among younger age groups. Mass coronavirus testing has been deployed in parts of south London, predominantly in the boroughs of Wandsworth and Lambeth, where 44 confirmed cases and 30 probable cases of the B.1.351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa have been detected. On 12 April, the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care said all identified cases are self-isolating or have completed their isolation, and their contacts have been traced and asked to self-isolate. People aged 11 and over who live, work or travel through the affected areas are being urged to get tested. In the UK, all adults over the age of 50, clinically vulnerable adults and health and social care workers have now been offered a first dose of a covid-19 vaccine, ahead of the government’s target of offering a dose to everyone in its top nine priority groups for vaccination by 15 April. People over the age of 45 in England are now being invited to book vaccine appointments, although the NHS booking website initially crashed moments after it was opened. UK vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi tweeted shortly afterwards that the problem had been fixed.

4-13-21 How good are the coronavirus vaccines at blocking transmission?
To halt covid-19 in its tracks, we need vaccines that stop the virus spreading as well as preventing people becoming seriously ill. Until now it was unclear how effective the vaccines are at doing this, but with vaccine roll-outs well under way, we are starting to get some answers. The good news is that mRNA vaccines like Pfizer/BioNTech appear to be around 90 per cent effective at blocking transmission. The bad news is that as there are no plans to vaccinate children under 16 anytime soon, and a relatively high proportion of adults globally who say they will refuse vaccination, this might not be enough to raise herd immunity above the threshold needed to halt transmission. Vaccines can block transmission either by preventing people becoming infected or by stopping them passing the virus on even if they are infected. To grasp why blocking transmission is so important, imagine a vaccine that stops disease but not transmission. In that case, the virus would just keep spreading and reach people who haven’t been vaccinated, or for whom the vaccine hasn’t been effective, leading to many more deaths. Vaccinating care home workers wouldn’t stop them infecting care home residents, for instance. And initiatives like vaccine passports wouldn’t stop people from picking up the virus overseas and bringing it home – including new variants. “Transmission blocking matters enormously,” says Marm Kilpatrick at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It is very hard to measure transmission blocking directly. According to a 29 March report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the closest we have got to doing this was a study in Scotland looking at infections in household members of 150,000 healthcare workers. This study found that household members were 30 per cent less likely to become infected when the healthcare worker had received a single dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. However, because household members may have been infected by people other than the healthcare worker, and the people in the study hadn’t received their second dose, this study probably significantly underestimates transmission blocking.

4-13-21 India sees record surges in cases due to coronavirus variants
Coronavirus cases are surging in many countries, with the highest number of new cases now being reported in Asia. India alone reported 161,736 new cases on 12 April. In the Indian city of Surat, parts of gas furnaces used for cremations melted after being used non-stop. Meanwhile, millions have been gathering for festivals across the country. The surge appears to be driven mainly by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant from the UK, which is causing around 40 per cent of cases in Asia, according to pathogen-tracking project Nextstrain. Another 16 per cent of cases are due to the B.1.351 variant that evolved in South Africa. India’s daily case numbers are currently the highest in the world. Only the US has ever reported more daily cases, peaking at around 250,000 in January. However, India has a larger population. It is reporting around 100 cases per million people per day, which is lower than the rate declared by many other countries, including the US, Germany and Canada. Then again, India may be detecting a much lower proportion of cases than Western countries. It has reported around 13 million cases in total, but antibody surveys and modelling suggest the actual figure could be more than 450 million, says Gautam Menon at Ashoka University in Sonepat. Experts had been puzzled by India’s lack of a second wave. The reason why it is happening now isn’t entirely clear. Many first-wave restrictions have been relaxed and people may not be adhering as closely to those that remain. However, Menon says his models suggest this alone can’t explain the rapid rise in cases. He thinks new, more transmissible variants are mainly to blame. Another idea is that immunity acquired during the first wave is waning. All three factors could be involved. “I don’t think cases will peak for at least another two or three weeks,” says Menon. He is also worried that numbers are rising across the entire country at once. “This may reflect the importance of reinfections,” he says. “Should that be the case, we may be in for an extended period in which cases will rise or stay at the same level.”

4-13-21 Daunte Wright shooting: Dozens arrested in fresh unrest in Minnesota
About 40 people were arrested just north of Minneapolis in a second night of unrest over the police shooting of a black man. Protesters in the city of Brooklyn Center defied a curfew and threw objects at police, who responded with flash grenades and tear gas. Police said Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and died after an officer mistook her gun for a Taser during a traffic stop. The shooting came as the high-profile George Floyd murder trial continues. In a courtroom just a few miles away, ex-police officer Derek Chauvin is charged with murdering the African American man in May last year. Derek Chauvin's defence team on Monday asked for jury members to be sequestered - separated from other people - as they might be swayed by the latest events. The judge denied the request. The officer who shot Mr Wright was named on Monday as Kim Potter, 48, who has worked for Brooklyn Center Police for 26 years. Mr Wright was pulled over on Sunday for a traffic violation, but there was a struggle when he tried to get back into his car. After drawing her gun, apparently by mistake, the officer said: "Holy shit, I just shot him." The curfew went into force at 19:00 (midnight GMT) across four counties with a huge law enforcement deployment. In a press briefing after midnight local time, Minnesota State Patrol colonel Matt Langer said officers had reached out to organisers to try to keep protests peaceful but "unfortunately... the organisers weren't able to influence the desires of the crowd". Col Langer said officers had been "shelled pretty significantly with objects" including fireworks. He said protesters had pushed against the fence of the Brooklyn Center police headquarters and a decision had been made to push back the crowd. There were "sporadic" incidents of looting in the area and in other parts of Minneapolis and neighbouring St Paul. In response to the unrest, US President Joe Biden said peaceful protest was "understandable" but added: "I want to make it clear again: there is absolutely no justification, none, for looting." Shortly before midnight, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliot said he had spoken to Daunte Wright's father and would "do everything to ensure justice is served". (Webmaster's comment: If you are a black man and the police stop you you could end up dead for no resaon!)

4-13-21 Covid-19: US agencies call for pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccine
US health authorities are calling for a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, after reports of extremely rare blood clotting cases. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said six cases in 6.8 million doses had been reported and it was acting "out of an abundance of caution". Johnson & Johnson said it was also delaying vaccine rollout in Europe. The US move follows similar rare cases in the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has prompted some curbs in its use. The US has by far the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 - more than 31 million - with more than 562,000 deaths, another world high. The picture for the virus in the US is complicated, though, with some areas in the north seeing surges in infections, the south less, and with the figures not always reflecting inoculation numbers. The Johnson & Johnson jab was approved in the US on 27 February and its use has been more limited so far than that of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna doses. Nevertheless, the government had hoped for hundreds of thousands of vaccinations of the jab every week as it is single-shot and its storage at common refrigerator temperatures makes it easier to distribute. In a joint statement, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they were "reviewing data involving six reported US cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot in individuals after receiving the J&J vaccine". It said the clotting was called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). The statement said that this type of blood clot needed a different treatment than usual. The common treatment - an anticoagulant drug called heparin - "may be dangerous", it said. Pending a further review, the FDA and CDC recommended "a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution". This was to "ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events".

4-13-21 Covid: Younger Brazilians fall ill as cases explode
Concern is growing in Brazil about the rising number of young people who are critically ill in hospital with Covid-19. Research suggests more than half of patients being treated in intensive care last month were under 40. The BBC's Mark Lowen visited Latin America's largest cemetery, a makeshift hospital and a vaccine hub to find out why the handling of the pandemic in Brazil has become a public health disaster.

4-12-21 Covid-19 news: Cases in India hit record high as Kumbh Mela begins
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. As millions gather to celebrate Kumbh Mela, India’s coronavirus cases surge, overtaking Brazil in total number of infections. India reported a record increase of 168,912 new coronavirus cases on 12 April, bringing the country’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to about 13.53 million. India’s tally is now the second-highest in the world, narrowly overtaking Brazil, but remaining below the 31.2 million cases reported so far in the US. A preliminary study in Israel has suggested that the B.1.351 coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa may be able to evade protection provided by the Pfizer/BioNTech covid-19 vaccine to some extent. It found a disproportionately higher rate of the variant among a small number of people who developed covid-19 after being fully vaccinated compared with a group of unvaccinated people who developed the disease. However, the study only included a small number of people infected with the variant due to its low prevalence in Israel. The study, released online as a preprint, didn’t measure overall vaccine effectiveness as only people who had already tested positive for covid-19 were included. Covid-19 vaccines are to be rolled out to people over the age of 40 in England this week, Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, announced. More than 32.1 million people across the UK have received a first dose of a covid-19 vaccine so far, and more than 7.4 million have received two doses. The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care said the government is on course to meet its target of offering a jab to people over the age of 50 by 15 April and to all adults by the end of July. An update to the NHS Covid-19 app, England and Wales’ contact tracing app, has been blocked for breaking the terms of an agreement made with Apple and Google regarding the collection of user’s location data.

4-12-21 Minneapolis: Daunte Wright killing by police near city sparks unrest
Tear gas has been fired and a curfew imposed amid angry protests after police fatally shot a black man in a traffic stop in the US city of Brooklyn Center, just north of Minneapolis. The man has been identified by relatives as 20-year-old Daunte Wright. Brooklyn Center's mayor issued a curfew that lasted until 06:00 (11:00 GMT), telling people to "be safe, go home". Tensions in Minneapolis are high as the trial of a former officer accused of killing George Floyd takes place. A courtroom just 10 miles (16km) from the latest unrest will resume proceedings on Monday with the prosecution expected to begin wrapping up its case. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said he was "closely monitoring the situation" and praying for Mr Wright's family. Hundreds of protesters chanting Daunte Wright's name gathered late on Sunday outside the police headquarters in Brooklyn Center. Tensions rose as police donned riot gear, and two police vehicles were pelted with stones and jumped on, Reuters news agency reported. Protesters wrote with chalk on pavements and lit candles, but police later ordered the protesters to disperse, with footage showing tear gas and stun grenades being fired by officers. Local media reported some looting taking place in a number of areas and Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott announced on Twitter he was issuing a curfew until 06:00. In an early-morning video post on the death of Daunte Wright, Mayor Elliott said "our hearts are with his family" and pledged "we are going to make sure that everything is done in our power to ensure justice". Members of the Minnesota National Guard, already deployed for the murder trial of Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd, were sent to Brooklyn Center. Some remained on the streets after the curfew ended. Brooklyn Center has closed all school buildings, programmes and activities for Monday, local media report. The mayor has scheduled a press briefing for 11:00 (16:00 GMT). (Webmaster's comment: The police murder of blacks continues in Minneapolis!)

4-12-21 Police officer who pepper-sprayed US Army soldier fired
A police officer in Virginia has been fired after pointing a gun at, and pepper spraying, a black US army lieutenant during a traffic stop. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario is wearing his uniform in bodycam footage of the incident, filmed in December. "I'm honestly afraid to get out," he tells two police officers. "Yeah, you should be," an officer says. Police said he was stopped for failing to display number plates but temporary plates are visible in the video. Lt Nazario filed a lawsuit against the two officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, this week. In a statement, officials in the town of Windsor in Virginia said the incident had resulted in "disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present". "Since that time, Officer Gutierrez was also terminated from his employment," it added. "The Town has also requested an investigation of this event by the Virginia State Police, and joins with elected officials who have called for a full and complete review of the actions of these officers." On Sunday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said the incident was "disturbing" and had "angered" him. During the incident the soldier, who was handcuffed while his car was searched, asked why force was being used against him. He was told by a police officer: "Because you're not co-operating." He was later released without charge. Earlier this week Lt Nazario filed a lawsuit at the US District Court of Norfolk, Virginia, against the two Windsor Police Department officers. According to the lawsuit, Lt Nazario was pepper sprayed and knocked to the ground by the officers. Bodycam footage shows the officers pointing their guns at the lieutenant. The suit alleges violations to his constitutional rights, and includes assault, illegal search and illegal detention.

4-12-21 More transgender people are hiding their identity at work in the U.K. Why?
A recent survey by a U.K. recruitment company indicates that over two-thirds of transgender people nationwide continue to conceal their identity at work, and the numbers are increasing. Ashleigh Talbot, a transgender woman, used to hide her identity when she worked at a customer support center in Manchester, England. Almost 80 percent of her colleagues were male, and the culture was very "laddish," she said. "All of the work parties were just, 'Let's go and get smashed on Stella [beer],' kind of thing," she said. "And I witnessed lots of homophobia toward another one of my colleagues. Talbot says she sensed that if she came out as a transgender woman in that environment, it wouldn't go down well. Instead, she handed in her notice and left the company. That was in 2012. Talbot, who now works as a transgender activist, says that wasn't the last time she felt discriminated against at work because of her gender identity. And, she's not alone. A recent survey by U.K. recruitment company Totaljobs indicates that over two-thirds of transgender people nationwide continue to conceal their identity at work — and the numbers are increasing. By contrast, five years ago, the figure was 50 percent. Some draw a connection to a larger political debate. The rights of the transgender community have been a regular topic in British media in the last few years after the government announced a planned review of the Gender Recognition Act in 2018. The law governs how transgender people can have their gender identity legally recognized. The transgender community argued that the current law is demeaning and invasive. But much of the debate around the bill descended into a row about the rights of transgender women to access women-only spaces. The issue is hardly exclusive to Britain but the groups advocating most vocally in favor of women-only spaces that exclude transgender women are different from those who do so in the U.S. for example, Talbot says. "It's exactly the same rhetoric. You know, 'Trans people are a threat, a danger to kids, etc.' But on one side of the Atlantic, you've got hardcore, evangelical Republican Christians saying exactly the same thing as the people on the other side of the pond who are calling themselves 'progressive feminists.'" Many of those progressive feminists hold influential positions in respected British newspapers, Talbot says. The Guardian newspaper, a center-left broadsheet, found itself embroiled in the issue after one of its columnists, Suzanne Moore, wrote an opinion piece advocating for single-sex spaces. Over the following days, 338 members of The Guardian's staff wrote a letter to the paper's editor about the newspaper's "pattern of publishing transphobic content," which they said cemented its "reputation as a publication hostile to trans rights and trans employees." Moore has since left the publication. Talbot says the frequency with which British newspapers have published articles about transgender rights is unsettling — and adds that the majority of opinion pieces are hostile to the community. "For a period, every single Sunday, there was something in one of the big newspapers that was just overtly transphobic or misleading. It's astonishingly often, given that the trans community is such a small percentage of the population." Reform of the Gender Recognition Act was eventually shelved by the British government last year but debates about women-only spaces have continued. Dr. Sophie Lewis, visiting scholar at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women at the University of Pennsylvania, says the political climate of the last four years with Brexit in Britain and former President Donald Trump in the U.S. has made things even more challenging for transgender people. (Webmaster's comment: ALL HOMOPHOBES ARE SICK!)

4-12-21 Yuri Gagarin: Sixty years since the first man went into space
Sixty years ago, a man went into space for the very first time. For the USSR, Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit of the Earth was a huge achievement and propaganda coup. There will be celebrations across Russia to mark the anniversary. Our Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg reports on the day a new Russian hero was born, and meets the little girl who witnessed it. (Webmaster's comment: The USSR built the first space station, first space walks, first woman in space. So much for the great America!)

4-11-21 How health insurance is faring under COVID
Millions of Americans lost employer-sponsored coverage when COVID-19 disrupted their jobs. Can America come up with a better system? About 158 million Americans, including workers and their dependents, obtained health insurance through an employer in 2019. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, sending the nation's unemployment rate to a historic high of 14.8 percent in April 2020. The rate remains elevated — 6.0 percent as of March — compared with pre-pandemic levels. So what happened to health coverage for all these people? Millions lost their insurance when jobs went away, but exactly how many is still far from clear, with estimates ranging from a low of 3.1 million Americans losing employer-sponsored insurance during 2020, to as many of 27 million. This would be in addition to the more than 35 million people who had no insurance at all in late 2019. COVID-19's true effects on America's uninsured rate will not be known until the government's official insurance survey is completed later this year. There are reasons for the lack of clarity. Some who lost jobs early in the pandemic have returned to work, and some may have enrolled in Medicaid or purchased insurance through the health-care marketplaces. Other people lost jobs and job-related insurance benefits later on during the pandemic. And though coverage may be available for many, "they have to go out and find it when a lot of other things in their lives are pretty complicated," says economist Sherry Glied, dean of New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "This has been one of those moments that has exposed the complexity of our health insurance system and the demands we put on people to manage that." Glied, who examined how the Affordable Care Act increased disease screenings and other aspects of preventive care in a 2018 article she coauthored in the Annual Review of Public Health, spoke with Knowable Magazine about whether America's health insurance system is serving the country well during the pandemic. The health insurance system in the United States is very complicated, but the easiest part of it is that people 65 and over all get their health insurance through Medicare. Most people under 65 get insurance through employers, either through their own job or the job of a family member, because spouses and kids can be covered under an employed person's job. Another chunk of people who are low-income get health insurance through the Medicaid program, which is paid for in part by the federal government and in part by the states. Then there's a small group of people who buy insurance on their own as individuals. Today, most of them are getting their coverage through the Obamacare marketplaces that were set up through the Affordable Care Act. Then there is still a group of people who are uninsured. In 2019, about 10 percent were uninsured, according to the main survey from which we learn about health insurance. We won't know how that changed in 2020 until those survey results are published later this year. You can see from my description of the whole system that there is a lot of potential for people to fall between the cracks, and COVID has increased the number of people who are in those spaces. One reason that we have seen disproportionate COVID morbidity and mortality among low-income people is because of the high level of preexisting conditions — diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and so forth — among that population. And that is partly because of a long history of people not having continuous health insurance and not having access to appropriate care. We have always known that, of course. And COVID didn't cause those preexisting conditions. But COVID has really brought to light the high level of those conditions that already existed.

4-11-21 Italian American groups fight to keep Columbus Day in Philadelphia
Italian American groups have filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia after the city's mayor replaced the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous People's Day. Officially observed since 1937, it commemorates Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas in 1492. The federal suit alleges the switch is among several "continued, unrelenting, and intentionally discriminatory acts" against those of Italian descent. The city's mayor has dismissed the suit as a "political ploy". Columbus' complicated legacy has led to calls to cancel the holiday. On the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, in 1992, the city of Berkeley, California declared the day an "Indigenous People's Day", to mark the European colonisation of North America and its impact on Native American people and their cultures. Fourteen US states and the District of Columbia, as well as over 130 cities, have since followed suit and now celebrate 12 October as a day to honour Native American heritage. The 36-page lawsuit filed on Tuesday in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania accuses Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney of acting "unilaterally" when he chose to rename the holiday this January. A lawyer for the plaintiffs told CBS News Philadelphia it was meant to be "a power check" on the mayor's office. In their complaint, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organisations, the 1492 Society, and an Italian American member of the Philadelphia City Council state: "While both groups' ethnicity deserves recognition, Mayor Kenney may not take action that discriminates against Italian Americans to exalt another ethnic group in its place." The suit calls for voiding the name change, but it also makes several unexpected claims. One assertion, made without evidence, states there is rising persecution of Italian Americans "at levels not seen since the 1920s", a time when the US set quotas on the inflow of Italian immigrants. (Webmaster's comment: Columbus was a monster! He would crucify indians 13 at a time for not giving him enough gold! Visit http://www.siouxfallsfreethinkers.com/the-truth-about-columbus.html)

4-11-21 US army officer sues police over violent traffic stop
A black US army lieutenant has filed a lawsuit against two policemen who pointed their guns and pepper-sprayed him during a traffic stop. Army Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario is still in his uniform during the bodycam footage, taken in December in Virginia. "I'm honestly afraid to get out," he tells the two police officers. "Yeah you should be," an officer says. A police report says his car was stopped for failing to display tags but a temporary dealer plate is visible. During the incident, the soldier, who was handcuffed while his car was searched, asked why force was being used against him and was told by a police officer: "Because you're not co-operating." He was later released without charge. The suit, filed at the US District Court of Norfolk, Virginia, against the two Windsor Police Department officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, alleges violations to his constitutional rights, and includes assault, illegal search and illegal detention. There was no immediate response from the Windsor Police Department when approached by US broadcaster CBS. The lawsuit comes at a time of increased scrutiny over alleged police brutality towards minorities and racial justice. Ex-police officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for the murder of George Floyd. The footage of Mr Chauvin, who is white, with his knee on African-American Mr Floyd's neck during an arrest sparked global protests against racism. Lt Nazario, who is Black and Latino, was in uniform and driving with a temporary paper licence plate on his back window on 5 December, when he was told to pull over in the town of Windsor. He then stopped at a petrol station and kept his hands outside the window, while asking the policemen why he was being stopped. Attorney Jonathan Arthur, who is representing Lt Nazario in the lawsuit, said that the army officer knew it was vital he kept his hands on show. "To unbuckle his seatbelt, to do anything, any misstep - he was afraid that they were going to kill him," Mr Arthur told CBS.

4-11-21 US soldier faces guns and pepper spray in traffic stop
A black US army lieutenant has filed a lawsuit against two police officers who pointed their guns at him and pepper-sprayed his face during a traffic stop. Lt Caron Nazario was pulled over while wearing his uniform in December in Windsor, Virginia. A police report says his car was stopped for not displaying a licence plate, but a temporary one is visible.

4-11-21 Covid-19: India vaccination crosses 100 million doses
India says it has become the "fastest country in the world" to administer more than 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, amid a deadly second wave of infections. It achieved the feat in 85 days, whereas the US took 89 days and China 102 days, the health ministry said. But the country reported a record daily increase of over 150,000 cases - and more than 800 new deaths - on Sunday. And there are reports the vast vaccination drive itself is struggling. This week, half a dozen states reported a shortage of doses even as the federal government insisted that it had 40 million doses in stock and that the "allegations" of vaccine scarcity were "utterly baseless". The inoculation drive aims to cover 250 million people by July, but experts say the pace needs to pick up further to meet the target. Everyone aged over 45 is now eligible for jabs at vaccination centres and hospitals. Most doses have so far been given to frontline workers and the over-60s. Since the pandemic began, India has confirmed more than 12 million cases and over 167,000 deaths. It has the third-highest number of Covid-19 infections in the world after the United States and Brazil. The country's drugs regulator has given the green light to two vaccines - one developed by AstraZeneca with Oxford University (Covishield) and one by Indian firm Bharat Biotech (Covaxin). Several other candidates are at different stages of trials. India launched its vaccination drive on 16 January, but it was limited to healthcare workers and frontline staff - a sanitation worker became the first Indian to receive the vaccine. From 1 March, the eligibility criteria was expanded to include people over 60 and those aged between 45 and 59 with other illnesses. The third phase, which began on 1 April, includes everyone above the age of 45.

4-10-21 Derek Chauvin trial: Police restraint killed George Floyd, expert says
George Floyd died because of how police restrained him, a medical expert at the trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis has said. Forensic pathologist Dr Lindsey Thomas said "the activities of the law enforcement officers resulted in Mr Floyd's death" from lack of oxygen. Mr Chauvin, 45, was filmed kneeling on Mr Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes during his arrest last May. The ex-officer is on trial for murder and has denied the charges against him. The footage of Mr Chauvin, who is white, with his knee on African-American Mr Floyd's neck sparked global protests against racism. Prosecutors are trying to prove Mr Chauvin's use of force resulted in Mr Floyd's death, while Mr Chauvin's defence are seeking to show he was following his training and that drugs and heart disease may have caused Mr Floyd's death. On Friday, the prosecution also called medical examiner Dr Andrew Michael Baker, who performed the post-mortem examination of Mr Floyd. He said Mr Floyd's death was due to his interaction with law enforcement, but said his drug use and underlying heart disease also played a role. The official autopsy of George Floyd makes no mention of asphyxia, but Dr Thomas - a veteran forensic pathologist who has performed well over 5,000 autopsies in multiple US states - said she believed it was the primary manner by which he died. Dr Thomas reviewed Mr Floyd's autopsy, medical reports and other materials on behalf of the prosecution. She also trained Dr Andrew Baker, the chief medical examiner who issued Mr Floyd's official death certificate. "This is not a sudden cardiac death," she said. "It's a death where both the heart and lungs stopped working." She said Mr Floyd was unable to get oxygen into his lungs with three police officers on top of him because he was handcuffed, in a prone position and had a knee on his neck. "What that means is the activities of the law enforcement officers resulted in Mr Floyd's death." She said she could confidently rule out other possible causes of death, including a drug overdose, a fatal heart attack and lung disease.


FEMINISM

4-14-21 STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large
Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented while it varies widely by field for women. Efforts to promote equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math have a long way to go, a new report suggests. Over the last year, widespread protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people have sparked calls for racial justice in STEM. Social media movements such as #BlackinSTEM have drawn attention to discrimination faced by Black students and professionals, and the Strike for Black Lives challenged the scientific community to build a more just, antiracist research environment (SN: 12/16/20). An analysis released in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how wide the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in STEM representation are. “This has been an ongoing conversation in the science community” for decades, says Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Because the most recent data come from 2019, Pew’s snapshot of STEM cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity and inclusion may have moved the needle. But here are four big takeaways from existing STEM representation data: From 2017 to 2019, Black professionals made up only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States — lower than their 11 percent share of the overall U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even larger for Hispanic professionals, who made up only 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they made up 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. White and Asian professionals, meanwhile, remain overrepresented in STEM. Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, skew particularly white. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds do not necessarily boast more supportive environments, notes Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., not involved in the research.

4-9-21 Sexual health: 'I can't tell my mum I'm having sex'
When Singapore resident Nadia* visited a local clinic to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI) three years ago, she left the doctor's office feeling ashamed. The elderly woman doctor there had talked down to her and dumped a stack of pamphlets on her "as if I was stupid", the 24-year-old student recalled. "I felt judged the entire time too - as if it was my fault if I got an infection because I shouldn't have been having sex with my boyfriend in the first place," she said. But now, the country's internet-savvy are being offered alternative options, thanks to a bunch of telehealth start-ups which have popped up in the city-state in the last year - all with a focus on sexual health. They are allowing people "shame-free" access to sexual health products and advice - something which young people like Nadia say they need, given their attitudes to sex differ markedly to traditionally accepted views. Nadia says she used Ferne Health - a company that offers STI tests from the privacy of your own home. After consulting a doctor via video call on the website, she was mailed a vaginal swab kit in discreet packaging which allowed her to self-collect samples. A courier picked them up the next day, and she received her results within the week. "Nothing was written on the box so even the courier didn't know what was inside, which was great," said Nadia, who shares a flat with her parents and two siblings. It is common for young adults to live at home with their parents before marriage - due to both high property prices as well as cultural or religious attitudes. "My family is very traditional - I'm Singaporean and I'm also Malay Muslim, so there are certain things expected of you. I can't tell my mum I'm having sex," she said. While at-home STI tests may be common across Europe and the US, the concept is relatively new in Singapore. But while both experts and users agree that such services are long overdue, clinical sexologist Martha Lee has said there needs to be some considerations when signing up for them.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

4-16-21 Whitest paint ever reflects 98 per cent of light and could cool homes
An extremely white paint that reflects 98.1 per cent of sunlight can cool itself by radiating heat into deep space. It could help keep buildings cool, potentially replacing energy-intensive air conditioners. Xiulin Ruan at Purdue University in Indiana and his colleagues previously developed an ultra-reflective paint using calcium carbonate particles that reflected 95.5 per cent of sunlight. They have now improved on that by using barium sulphate particles in a paint that reflects 98.1 per cent of sunlight. This new ultra-white paint absorbs less than half the amount of energy from the sun as the previous paint. Standard commercial white paint absorbs between 10 and 20 per cent of sunlight energy. The amount of sunlight absorbed by the new paint is lower than the amount of energy it radiates through our atmosphere and into deep space, so the material actually becomes cooler than its surroundings. The team plans to carry out experiments with painted tubes carrying water and hopes to create an electricity-free refrigeration effect. The team hopes that the paint can lower global carbon emissions as houses coated in the paint would need less air conditioning. If the paint is used on a 930 square metre roof, the cooling effect could be as high as 10 kilowatts, which the team says is more powerful than a standard air conditioner. Ruan says there is a double-pronged positive effect because the paint sends energy away from our planet. “We send the heat to space, we’re not leaving the heat on Earth,” he says. “Traditional air conditioners leave the heat on Earth’s surface, it’s just moved from the inside of your house to the outside.” The team calculated that if 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent of Earth’s surface was covered in this paint, for instance by coating roofs with it, the total effect would reverse global heating to date.

4-16-21 Carbon Mapper satellite network to find super-emitters
A constellation of satellites will be flown this decade to try to pinpoint significant releases of climate-changing gases, in particular carbon dioxide and methane. The initiative is being led by an American non-profit organisation called Carbon Mapper. It will use technology developed by the US space agency over the past decade. The satellites - 20 or so - will be built and flown by San Francisco's Planet company. Planet operates today the largest fleet of Earth-observing spacecraft. There are already quite a few satellites in the sky that monitor greenhouse gases, but the capability is far from perfect. Most of these spacecraft can sense the likes of methane over very large areas but have poor resolution at the local level, at the scale, say, of a leaking pipeline. And those systems that can capture this detail will lack the wide-area coverage and the timely return to a particular location. The Carbon Mapper project wants to fix this either-or-situation by flying multiple high-resolution (30m) sensors that can deliver a daily view, or better. They will look for super-emitters - the actors responsible for large releases of greenhouse gases. These would include oil and gas infrastructure, or perhaps poorly managed landfills and large dairy factory facilities. Often these emitters want to know they have a problem but just don't have the data to take action. "What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," explained Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper's CEO and a research scientist at the University of Arizona. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck," he told BBC News. The aim is to put the satellite data in the hands of everyone, and with the necessary tools also to be able to understand and use that information.

4-16-21 Meteorologists can predict strength of Asian monsoon a year in advance
A climate model can now reliably predict the strength of the Asian summer monsoon – and tropical cyclone activity associated with it – more than one year ahead of time, which could enable government agencies to make preparations for damaging weather events. Yuhei Takaya at the Japan Meteorological Agency and his colleagues have developed a climate prediction system that takes into account both historical and up-to-date meteorological measurements to simulate atmospheric changes and temperatures on land and in the ocean. The key to its long-range forecasting is the ability to predict when an El Niño-Southern Oscillation will occur. “When an El Niño occurs, the Indian Ocean warms during the fall to winter and this persists in the next summer,” says Takaya. The resulting warm conditions in the Indian Ocean have a significant effect on the Asian summer monsoon, he says. The team’s model was tested using oceanic and climate data gathered between 1980 and 2016. Given meteorological data for a particular year, the model predicts what will happen the following summer, including the sea surface temperature, regional rainfall and a weather pattern known as the western North Pacific monsoon. “In summer, we have droughts or floods associated with this variability,” says Takaya. The climate model predicted the strength of the monsoon a year ahead, measuring how linear the correlation is between real and predicted weather patterns with a value of 0.5, where a score of 1 indicates a perfect correlation. It was more accurate at predicting temperatures over South-East Asia than predicting monsoon strength, with a score of 0.75. Existing climate models used by meteorological centres are usually able to predict weather patterns six months in advance, says Takaya.

4-15-21 Alaskan forests may store more carbon after being burned by wildfire
As the boreal forests of Alaska recover from wildfires, they may shift from containing mostly coniferous trees to a deciduous-coniferous mix – and this change could ultimately offset some of the carbon emitted during the fires. Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and intense in certain parts of the world, such as the boreal forests of the Arctic. These forests typically act as carbon sinks, but if fires burn deep into their soil, they could begin to release more carbon into the atmosphere than they store through new wood growth, accelerating the effects of climate change. Michelle Mack at Northern Arizona University and her team assessed the Alaskan boreal forest, which is experiencing more frequent fires, to see how the blazes are affecting forest recovery and carbon storage. Around 2.7 million hectares of land was burned there in 2004 – the area’s worst wildfire season on record – due to extreme temperatures and frequent lightning strikes. The team monitored 75 sites across this forest for 15 years after this fire year. Before 2004, records showed that the forest contained mainly black spruce trees, a conifer species. In 2017, this spruce was the principal species at 28 per cent of sites, while 72 per cent were dominated by deciduous trees, like aspen and birch, or had a mix of deciduous and conifer. “The fire burned more deeply at these sites, exposing the deeper, nutrient-rich layer of soil,” says Mack. Fast-growing deciduous seeds dispersed from further afield could develop rapidly in this soil layer, which might be why so many sites changed composition, she says. Because deciduous trees take in more carbon dioxide than conifers to grow their denser wood, the team estimated that sites shifting towards deciduous species could ultimately store around five times as much carbon as those where spruce remained. This means that if deciduous trees replace conifers following a fire in a boreal forest, the new mix of tree species could more than compensate for the carbon released during the wildfire, providing a negative feedback to climate change.

4-15-21 Heat overrides genes to make bearded dragon embryos change sex
Some lizards that begin developing as males will actually hatch as females if the egg is particularly warm – and now we know why. The heat triggers genes that override chromosomal sex determination. In the 1960s, French scientists discovered that reptiles in Senegal would hatch as females when temperatures rose much above about 30°C. Since then, researchers have noted that the sex of many reptiles and some fish actually depends entirely on the temperature during their development. In a few animals, like the central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) of Australia, sex determination depends on both genetics and temperature. Males have two identical sex chromosomes – ZZ – and females have two different sex chromosomes – ZW. But male embryos will develop as females if the egg is warm enough. This means females may develop in one of two ways, but the mechanisms behind this phenomenon have eluded scientists for more than half a century. To explore the mystery, Sarah Whiteley at the University of Canberra in Australia and her colleagues ran genetic sequencing on unhatched bearded dragons incubated either at 28°C – cool enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as males – or at 36°C – warm enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as females. For the eggs at 36°C, the researchers found that ZW female embryos had “dramatically” different active genes during the major stages of sex development, compared with ZZ females, demonstrating there are two distinct sets of genes that can make a central bearded dragon female. In the ZZ females, the genes that “wanted” to code for male development were forcibly switched off, and those for female development were switched on. “The sex chromosomes in the dragon are… more recently developed – on an evolutionary timescale – compared to [human] sex chromosomes,” Whiteley says. “So sex reversal might be a relic of temperature sensitivity [alone].”

4-15-21 Just 3 per cent of the land on Earth is still ecologically intact
Most of Earth’s terrestrial habitats have lost their ecological integrity, including areas previously categorised as being intact. Ecological integrity encompasses three measures of intactness. Habitat intactness is a measure of the extent to which people have made changes to the land, faunal intactness is a measure of the number of animal species lost from a habitat, and functional intactness measures whether there are enough animals of individual species to effectively play their part in a functioning ecosystem. “We only find about 2 to 3 per cent of the Earth[’s land] is where you could be considered as having the same fauna and flora that you had 500 years ago, in pre-industrial times, before major human impacts had occurred,” says Andrew Plumptre, head of the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat and an employee at BirdLife International in the UK. Plumptre and his colleagues combined data on human impacts and loss of animal species from various global databases to map the ecological integrity of different regions. Only 11 per cent of ecologically intact sites lie within environmentally protected areas. However, many other of the intact sites, including parts of the Sahara, Amazon and northern Canada, are within territories managed by indigenous communities, which have played a role in maintaining ecological integrity. “Conservation of intact ecosystems is critical for the maintenance of biodiversity on Earth, and in turn for the services that these ecosystems provide to humans,” says Kimberly Komatsu at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. The team determined that by reintroducing between one and five different species to sites that aren’t completely degraded, ecological integrity could be restored across about 20 per cent of Earth’s land.

4-15-21 Only 3 percent of Earth’s land hasn’t been marred by humans
Human activity has had a far-ranging impact on the numbers and abundance of other species. The Serengeti looks largely like it did hundreds of years ago. Lions, hyenas and other top predators still stalk herds of wildebeests over a million strong, preventing them from eating too much vegetation. This diversity of trees and grasses support scores of other species, from vivid green-orange Fischer’s lovebirds to dung beetles. In turn, such species carry seeds or pollen across the plains, enabling plant reproduction. Humans are there too, but in relatively low densities. Overall, it’s a prime example of what biologists call an ecologically intact ecosystem: a bustling tangle of complex relationships that together sustain a rich diversity of life, undiminished by us. Such places are vanishingly rare. The vast majority of land on Earth — a staggering 97 percent — no longer qualifies as ecologically intact, according to a sweeping survey of Earth’s ecosystems. Over the last 500 years, too many species have been lost, or their numbers reduced, researchers report April 15 in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. Of the few fully intact ecosystems, only about 11 percent fall within existing protected areas, the researchers found. Much of this pristine habitat exists in northern latitudes, in Canada’s boreal forests or Greenland’s tundra, which aren’t bursting with biodiversity. But chunks of the species-rich rainforests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia also remain intact. “These are the best of the best, the last places on Earth that haven’t lost a single species that we know of,” says Oscar Venter, a conservation scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George who wasn’t involved in the study. Identifying such places is crucial, he says, especially for regions under threat of development that require protection, like the Amazon rainforest.

4-15-21 China 'can save $1.6 trillion by scrapping coal', report says
China can save up to $1.6 trillion (£1.2 trillion) over 20 years by switching from coal power to renewables, a report says. The authors say China must close 588 coal-fired power plants in a decade to meet climate pledges - but they insist the move will save cash. That's because renewables are now so much cheaper than coal. It mirrors the situation in the US, where coal tumbled from being the cheapest major fuel to the most expensive. China is currently running 1,058 coal plants – more than half the world’s capacity. The authors of the report from the climate think tank, TransitionZero, say to meet its stated goal of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2060, China must take radical action now. China has announced it’s building five new nuclear stations to supply clean power – and President Xi has announced he will join a French-German climate summit on Friday. It's also the world leader in wind turbines and solar panels. But over the past year the country has strayed in a high-carbon direction, with regional governors building new power stations to stimulate economic growth. The report warns that China’s 14th Five-year Plan risks creating “stranded assets” – that’s coal plants which get built but not used. It’s based on satellite technology and machine learning, which are being used for the first time to determine exactly how much CO2 China’s power sector is emitting. Western diplomats have been suspicious about the nation’s data, which is published on a provincial basis every month. The UK and the US, by comparison, publish CO2 data at plant level every day. Accurate numbers are essential as countries attempt to fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions. Matt Gray, one of the report’s authors, told BBC News: “There has to be credible data on emissions so nations can trust each other in climate negotiations. “Independent of climate considerations, our analysis finds China could save money, reduce stranded assets and improve its international reputation by replacing coal plants with zero-carbon alternatives,” he said. Former US vice-president Al Gore, one of the sponsors of the research, said: “The economic opportunity presented by a transition from coal to clean energy shows that climate action and economic growth go hand in hand.”

4-15-21 Torres Strait 8: Australian Islanders in landmark climate fight
A group of indigenous islanders from Australia’s Torres Strait has launched a world-first legal battle in a bid to protect their homes. They argue Australia has breached their rights to culture and life by failing to adequately address climate change. The low-lying islands, located on the northern tip of Australia, have seen rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding in recent years. It’s the first time a claim of this kind has been taken to the UN Human Rights Committee.

4-14-21 Earthquakes in Taiwan are linked to seasonal changes in water levels
Earthquakes in Taiwan may be linked to seasonal variations in the water cycle, driven by the Asian monsoon. Taiwan has both a high frequency of damaging earthquakes and a wide variation in the amount of precipitation and water stored in the ground, as a result of the heavy rains and typhoons that buffet the island between May and September. Ya-Ju Hsu at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and her colleagues analysed earthquake data in eastern and western Taiwan and found a correlation between seismic activity and fluctuations in the water cycle. Hsu had initially noticed that many earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater seemed to occur during Taiwan’s dry season between about February and April. She and her colleagues analysed seismic data collected between 2002 and 2018, as well as groundwater measurements from 40 monitoring stations and data on how the Earth’s crust changes in response to seasonal water loading. They found that seismic activity in western Taiwan was highest in the dry season and lowest between July and September, at the end of the monsoon season. “In the dry season, we see more earthquakes because the water load has been removed,” says Hsu. The researchers found that this decreased groundwater resulted in a peak in the rebounding of Earth’s crust even when under low amounts of stress. Eastern Taiwan had a more complex pattern of seismic activity. There, deeper earthquakes tended to occur more frequently from December to February. Shallow earthquakes in this part of Taiwan were also linked to the variations in groundwater level and crust changes, but there was greater variability in their timing. The researchers also looked at records of 63 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater between 1604 and 2018, and found similar trends in the seasonal variation in seismic activity.

4-14-21 COP26: Delaying key climate meeting preferable to 'messing it up'
A former UN climate chief says that delaying the critical Glasgow meeting this year would be preferable to risking a failed conference. There have been doubts over the wisdom of having thousands of delegates attending the event - known as COP26 - while concerns linger over Covid-19. The UK says that a physical meeting is still the preferred option. But Yvo de Boer, who ran UN climate talks until 2010, says that delay is preferable to "messing it up". COP26, or the 26th Conference of the Parties, is the key forum for countries all over the world to tackle climate change. The meeting in Glasgow was due to take place late last year but was postponed because of the pandemic. The UK, which is presiding over the meeting, hopes that around 200 world leaders will turn up in Scotland later this year to try and agree a number of key steps forward on dealing with rising temperatures. But with new waves of the virus sweeping many countries, and vaccine rollouts happening at varying speeds, there are worries that the Glasgow meeting may again be in jeopardy. There have been suggestions that Glasgow should become what's termed a "hybrid" COP, with many of the side events taking place online and with slimmed down teams of negotiators taking part in person. "There will be the key elements that have to be in-person and then a lot else that would be virtual, and I think there's that's probably the most likely scenario from my perspective," said Helen Mountford from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a long-time observer of UN negotiations. Not everyone is in favour of this form of meeting. "I think a hybrid whereby you have the high-level ministerial segment in person and the rest virtual that might work," said Yvo de Boer, who ran the UN talks at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009. "But can you cover all the ground that needs to be covered in a virtual meeting, given the fact that generally the process relies very heavily on bilateral meetings and backroom deals? "My overall senses that delay is better than messing it up, overplaying your hand and having a failed meeting."

4-14-21 US envoy John Kerry woos China over climate
US envoy John Kerry is heading to Shanghai to woo China in advance of a climate summit President Joe Biden is hosting next week. After a major diplomatic row at the UN, both sides hope to co-operate over plans to drastically cut emissions. The US wants China to cease building coal-fired power stations and to stop financing coal ventures abroad. China wants the US to give more cash to developing countries to obtain clean technology and adapt to climate change. It also wants Washington to announce deep cuts in emissions. Speaking to CNN, Mr Kerry said China's co-operation was "absolutely critical" to battle the climate crisis. "Yes, we have big disagreements with China on some key issues, absolutely. But climate has to stand alone." He is hoping to salvage the superpower relationship to allow progress at President Biden’s virtual summit on 22 and 23 April. Scientists warn that without an agreement between the world’s great polluters there’s little chance of averting dangerous climate change. Bernice Lee, a China expert at the UK think tank Chatham House, said: “This is good news. At least they’re talking in the run-up to the summit. There will be big issues for both sides to resolve. But they must be resolved." Neither party has formally declared its climate masterplan to the UN, and each is struggling to coax more concessions from the other. The US was absent from climate negotiations during President Donald Trump’s term of office and it is now being urged to cut emissions to between 57%-63% below 2005 levels this decade. President Biden is expected to declare the formal US offer before, or at, next week’s summit. China, meanwhile, has pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (that means cutting out all carbon emissions from fossil fuels but still allowing farm emissions of methane – another planet-heating gas). It will be pressed to explain the policies that will achieve those targets.

4-14-21 Limiting fossil fuel use isn’t enough – we must stop extraction too
FOSSIL fuels aren’t mentioned in the world’s landmark deal for tackling catastrophic climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement commits leaders to holding warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or “well below” 2°C at the worst – but nowhere does it say how much oil, gas or coal must be left in the ground. This is convenient for world leaders, who are happy to talk about curbing fossil fuel demand, but desperate to continue business as usual when it comes to extraction – a disconnect that risks serious consequences for the planet’s thermostat. Political aversion doesn’t change the facts. Staying under 2°C warming means huge chunks of fossil fuel reserves – the known amount that can be extracted in a profitable way – must remain unused. A 2015 study estimated that four-fifths of coal, half of gas and a third of oil reserves globally must be left in the ground. Despite such warnings, six years on from Paris and with the pivotal COP26 climate summit looming in November, governments are still struggling to reduce fossil fuel extraction. Take the UK. It has an internationally respected record on policies to curb demand, including an ambitious 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales announced last November. But just a few months later, on 24 March, the UK government backed future permits to extract oil and gas in the North Sea, disappointing campaigners who had called for a ban. Ministers have previously justified continued extraction on the grounds the country still needs fossil fuels and, if it doesn’t produce them, another nation will. Nonetheless, in a sop to climate concerns, the UK government’s recent green light was coupled with carbon emissions targets for industry (see “Tiny tweaks are not enough“) and a pledge that new drilling would only be approved if it meets an as-yet-undefined “climate compatibility checkpoint”. Even so, a week later the UK government’s chief climate adviser, Chris Stark, branded the emissions targets unambitious.

4-14-21 UK woodlands 'at crisis point' amid wildlife decline
A review of the state of Britain's native woods and trees has found only 7% are in a good condition. While woodland cover is slowly increasing, the wildlife within it is decreasing, says the Woodland Trust. If threats to woodland aren't tackled, the UK's ability to tackle climate and nature crises will be "severely damaged", the charity warns. The Woodland Trust is among a number of groups calling for legally binding targets for the recovery of nature. "The warning signs in this report are loud and clear," says Abi Bunker, director of conservation and external affairs at the Woodland Trust. "If we don't tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK's ability to address the climate and nature crises." Woodland now covers 13% of UK land, up from 12% in 1998. About half is made up of native tree species, such as oak, beech and ash, including centuries-old ancient woodlands. The remaining half comprises non-native trees such as conifers grown commercially for timber. Despite the small increase in the amount of woodland cover over the past few decades, the trend for wildlife is one of steep decline, said the Woodland Trust. "Wildlife is going down - woodland birds, woodland butterflies, woodland plants are all going in the wrong direction for woodlands as a whole," Chris Reid, lead author of the report, told BBC News. "This is down to factors such as pollution, invasive species, deer browsing and fragmentation - woods chopped up into small parcels. All of these need to be tackled." The report, State of the UK's Woods and Trees 2021, found that ancient woodlands lock up proportionally more carbon than other types of tree cover. Estimates suggest that ancient and long-established woodlands hold 36% of all woodland carbon (77 million tonnes). "They're really important in terms of their ability to tackle climate change whilst providing that real specialist and irreplaceable habitat for declining wildlife," says Hazel Jackson of the Woodland Trust. Ancient woodlands continue to be lost and damaged by house building, new road and railways, the report says. It calls for a better balance to be restored by removing non-native trees and invasive plants such as rhododendrons.

4-13-21 World's wealthiest 'at heart of climate problem'
The world’s wealthy must radically change their lifestyles to tackle climate change, a report says. It says the world's wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%, according to the UN. The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called “polluter elite” - contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015. The authors want to deter SUV drivers and frequent fliers – and persuade the wealthy to insulate their homes well. The report urges the UK government to reverse its decision to scrap air passenger duty on UK return flights. And it wants ministers to re-instate the Green Homes Grant scheme they also scrapped recently. The document has come from the UK-based Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change. It’s a panel of 31 individuals who study people’s behaviour relating to the environment. They were tasked to find the most effective way of scaling up action to tackle carbon emissions. Their critics say the best way to cut emissions faster is through technological improvements - not through measures that would prove unpopular. But the lead author of the report, Prof Peter Newell, from Sussex University, told BBC News: “We are totally in favour of technology improvements and more efficient products - but it’s clear that more drastic action is needed because emissions keep going up. “We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions. “These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they’re well insulated or not. “They’re also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to.” Prof Newell said that to tackle climate change, everyone needs to feel part of a collective effort – so that means the rich consuming less to set an example to poorer people.

4-13-21 Wildfires launch microbes into the air. How big of a health risk is that?
Now that they know bacteria and fungi can survive in wildfire smoke, a small group of researchers is trying to figure out the implications. As climate change brings more wildfires to the western United States, a rare fungal infection has also been on the rise. Valley fever is up more than sixfold in Arizona and California from 1998 to 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Valley fever causes coughs, fevers and chest pain and can be deadly. The culprit fungi, members of the genus Coccidioides, thrive in soils in California and the desert Southwest. Firefighters are especially vulnerable to the disease. Wildfires appear to stir up and send the soil-loving fungi into the air, where they can enter people’s lungs. If the fires are helping these disease-causing fungi to get around, could they be sending other microorganisms aloft as well? Leda Kobziar, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow, decided in 2015 to see if she could find out if and how microorganisms like bacteria and fungi are transported by wildfire smoke — and what that might mean for human and ecological health. By 2018, Kobziar had launched a new research field she named “pyroaerobiology.” First, she asked if microorganisms can even survive the searing heat of a wildfire. The answer, she found, is yes. But how far bacteria and fungi can travel on the wind and in what numbers are two of the many big unknowns. With a recent push to spark new collaborations and investigations, Kobziar hopes that scientists will start to understand how important smoke transport of microbes may be.

4-13-21 Climate Check
From destructive tornadoes to record high temperatures, the start of northern hemisphere spring has brought extreme weather around the globe. Meanwhile carbon dioxide levels are continuing to rise, despite temporary cuts in emissions due to the pandemic.

4-12-21 The immense untapped potential of offshore wind
President Biden is on the right track, but he needs to aim higher. resident Biden is proposing a big build-out of offshore wind power. The White House released a plan calling for 30 gigawatts of new wind capacity by 2030, starting with a big project between Long Island and New Jersey. The idea is to create jobs, expand U.S. steel and wind turbine production, and eventually put America on course for 100 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2050. This step is long overdue — the U.S. is far behind many European countries and China in offshore wind capacity. In fact, if anything Biden's plan is not nearly aggressive enough. There is simply no way around the need for a truly massive expansion of offshore wind power. A bit of background: America does have quite a lot of wind capacity installed already. Thanks to steady reductions in the cost of the resulting power, states across the country have been throwing up wind turbines by the thousands. Last year saw the biggest amount of wind power capacity added in American history, at 14.2 gigawatts (making for a total of 118 gigawatts). Utility-scale wind farms produced 338 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2020, or about 8 percent of the utility-scale total (up from less than 1 percent in 1990). Iowa gets fully 58 percent of its electricity from wind, while Kansas gets 43 percent. But almost all of those turbines are on land. The U.S. has just two small offshore wind farms, with a piddling 42 megawatts of capacity put together (or about 0.04 percent of the total), though several more are being planned. This must change. Offshore is an ideal location for wind turbines, for two reasons. First, land is scarce, particularly in and around cities where power is most needed. As the White House plan points out, the proposed New York Bight wind energy area will be quite close to the New York City metro area, the biggest concentration of people in the country. Second, wind tends to blow harder and more steadily offshore (and more so the further one gets from land), which counteracts the biggest weakness of wind — that it doesn't produce in calm conditions. The land of the Eastern Seaboard is relatively calm, but just offshore wind speeds increase dramatically. Several European countries have taken advantage of these facts to harvest huge amounts of power from ocean breezes. The U.K. now gets about a quarter of its power from wind, and about 43 percent of that from offshore (making it the biggest offshore wind producer in the world). Germany also gets about a quarter of its power from wind, of which about 20 percent comes from offshore. Denmark gets about half of its power from wind, of which about 27 percent comes from offshore. (Denmark is also planning to build a wind island in the North Sea that will eventually have 10 megawatts of turbines, or almost six times its current offshore capacity.) In 2016, the Department of Energy estimated the "technical resource potential" of offshore wind — the maximum possible power we might generate assuming that turbines can't be built where wind is weak, or in deep waters in the Great Lakes, or where the ocean seabed is more than 1,000 feet deep — and calculated 2,000 gigawatts of potential capacity, for 7,200 terawatt-hours of actual electricity produced. That's nearly twice as much power as the entire country produced in 2020. Of course, it would be impractical to actually hit that maximum. But I see no reason not to shoot for, say, 10 percent of that figure over the next couple decades, instead of Biden's modest 30 gigawatt goal. Indeed, that is barely more than the 24 gigawatts of projects that are already in the planning stage. In particular, the Pacific coastline from southern Oregon to northern California, and the big continental shelf between Boston and Nova Scotia, are absolutely perfect for some huge offshore farms. (Logically we ought to collaborate with Canada on the latter area since the shelf extends into its territorial waters.) That would give us 200 gigawatts of new wind, replacing perhaps 15-20 percent of the current carbon power supply.

4-12-21 How researchers can keep birds safe as U.S. wind farms expand
Citizen science data should help guide where wind turbines are built, scientists argue. Wind energy is surging in the United States. In 2020, turbines generated about 8 percent of the country’s electricity — roughly 50 times the share of wind-generated electricity in 2000 —according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While the growth is a positive step toward curbing climate change, scientists say, it could be bad news for birds. An estimated 140,000 to 500,000 birds die each year due to turbine collisions. Bird deaths could soar to 1.4 million per year if the U.S. Department of Energy achieves its goal of expanding wind energy to 20 percent of the country’s electricity demand by 2030. To prevent avoidable deaths, some scientists are advocating for the use of citizen science and bird migration data when deciding where to construct wind farms. The wind energy industry could use such information to get a more comprehensive picture than traditional surveys provide and minimize harm to birds and other wildlife (SN: 9/30/14). Citizen science is already proving that it can fill vital information gaps. From 2007 to 2018, more than 180,000 birders uploaded observations about bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) to the eBird database. Using that treasure trove of data, conservation scientist Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez and colleagues estimated where in the United States the birds would be most abundant throughout the year — and face the highest risk of colliding with wind turbines. Unlike traditional survey data, which cover limited time periods or locations, the citizen science data span the entire United States and reflect the entire year, the team reports March 14 in the Journal of Applied Ecology. “What we’re able to do is really harness strength that only citizen science has,” says Ruiz-Gutierrez, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended using the team’s bald eagle maps to identify low-risk collision areas that are suitable for building wind turbines.

4-12-21 Why India and Nepal's forest fires are worrying scientists
The lush-green mountains in the background usually make the famous Nainital lake in Uttarakhand state of northern India more picturesque. But for several weeks now haze from forest fires has hidden the mountains, and the lake's beauty has visibly shrunk. "You can smell the haze from this side of the lake where I live," said Shekhar Pathak, an expert on the history of forests in the region. "Not just the pine trees that are highly prone to fires, even the oak forests are burning and that means the situation is quite serious." Locals in areas worst-affected by forest fires told the BBC they don't sleep at night these days. "We wake up in the middle of the night and check around the forests to make sure the fires are not approaching us," said Kedar Avani of Banaa village in Pithoragarh district, the eastern-most Himalayan district in the state. "Fires have eaten up our haystacks and grass stored for our livestock, and now we fear our houses will be gutted too." Mr Avani said that the fires were so strong that the heat could be felt even at a distance of 20 metres. "There is no way we can put them out," he said. Scientists say the forest fires in some parts of northern India and neighbouring Nepal have been the strongest in the past 15 years. The European Union's Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) said that Uttarakhand's forest fires emitted nearly 0.2 mega tonnes of carbon in the past one month, a record since 2003. Based on the analysis of satellite pictures, it estimated Nepal emitted nearly 18 mega tonnes of carbon in the same period, the highest since 2016 when it emitted 27 mega tonnes of carbon. "This shows the intensity with which the fires are burning in the region and it is quite worrying," said Mark Parrington, senior scientist at CAMS. Nearly 20 people have been reportedly killed by the fires in Uttarakhand and Nepal. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests are believed to have been razed although official figures are yet to be published.

4-10-21 A trek under Thwaites Glacier’s ice shelf reveals specific risks of warm water
Temperature, salinity and other data show the chemistry and path of warm water eroding the ice. The under-ice trek of an autonomous underwater vehicle is giving scientists their first direct evidence for how and where warm ocean waters are threatening the stability of Antarctica’s vulnerable Thwaites Glacier. These new data will ultimately help scientists more accurately project the fate of the glacier — how quickly it is melting and retreating inland, and how far it might be from complete collapse, the team reports April 9 in Science Advances. “We know there’s a sick patient out there, and it’s not able to tell us where it hurts,” says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine who was not involved in the new study. “So this is the first diagnosis.” Scientists have eyed the Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier with mounting concern for two decades. Satellite images reveal it has been retreating at an alarming rate of somewhere between 0.6 to 0.8 kilometers per year on average since 2001, prompting some to dub it the “doomsday glacier.” But estimates of how quickly the glacier is retreating, based on computer simulations, vary widely from place to place on the glacier, Rignot and other researchers reported in Science Advances in 2019. Such uncertainty is the biggest difficulty when it comes to future projections of sea level rise (SN: 1/7/20). The primary culprit for the rapid retreat of Thwaites and other Antarctic glaciers is known: Relatively warm ocean waters sneak beneath the floating ice shelves, the fringes of the glaciers that jut out into the ocean (SN: 9/9/20). This water eats away at the ice shelves’ underpinnings, points where the ice is anchored to the seafloor that buttress the rest of the glacier against sliding into the sea.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

4-16-21 Human cells grown in monkey embryos spark ethical debate
Monkey embryos containing human cells have been made in a laboratory, a study has confirmed. The research, by a US-Chinese team, has sparked fresh debate into the ethics of such experiments. The scientists injected human stem cells - cells that have the ability to develop into many different body tissues - into macaque embryos. The developing embryos were studied for up to 20 days. Other so-called mixed-species embryos, or chimeras, have been produced in the past, with human cells implanted into sheep and pig embryos. The scientists were led by Prof Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute in the US, who, in 2017, helped make the first human-pig hybrid. Their work could pave the way in addressing the severe shortage in transplantable organs as well as help understand more about early human development, disease progression and ageing, he said. "These chimeric approaches could be really very useful for advancing biomedical research not just at the very earliest stage of life, but also the latest stage of life." He maintained that the study, published in the journal Cell, had met the current ethical and legal guidelines. "Ultimately, we conduct these studies to understand and improve human health," he said. Some scientists have, however, raised concerns about the experiment, arguing that while the embryos in this case were destroyed at 20 days, others could try to take the work further. They are calling for public debate over the implications of creating part human/part nonhuman chimeras. Commenting on the research, Dr Anna Smajdor, lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics at the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School, said it posed "significant ethical and legal challenges". She added: "The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because 'we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans'. But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question."

4-16-21 Facebook says its AI could help find drug combinations to treat cancer
Facebook claims that its new artificial intelligence can predict the way drugs interact with each other inside cells quicker than existing methods, enabling speedier discovery of new drug combinations to treat illnesses like cancer, but some researchers say it may not translate into results that will be useful in humans. The system, developed by Facebook AI Research and the Helmholtz Centre in Munich, Germany, is claimed to be the first easy-to-use AI model able to estimate how different drugs will work in the body. It could speed up our ability to uncover new treatments for diseases like cancer. “Drug research often takes half a decade to develop a compound,” says Fabian Theis at the Helmholtz Centre, one of the authors of the work. The model works by measuring how individual cells change in response to treatment from a particular set of drugs and recording those responses. Such an approach could theoretically help tackle cancer tumours, which vary from person to person and react differently to the same treatment, says Eytan Ruppin at the US National Cancer Institute. The AI factors in variables including the type of drug, what it is used in combination with, the dosage level, the time it is taken and the type of cell it targets. It can then use that information to predict the effect of drug combinations it hasn’t yet seen. The research team behind it says humans can’t make these kinds of predictions: if they were given a pool of 100 different drugs, and asked to choose five to be given in three different doses – not uncommon in cancer treatment – there could be 19 billion possible drug regimes. The team tested the AI’s predictions against known combinations of drugs and found it was able to accurately forecast cell responses with over 90 per cent accuracy, says Theis. Unsurprisingly, the more drugs put into the model that the AI has seen before, the better its results.

4-16-21 The alphabet may have been invented 500 years earlier than we thought
The early history of the alphabet may require rewriting. Four clay artefacts found at an ancient site in Syria are incised with what is potentially the earliest alphabetic writing ever found. The discovery suggests that the alphabet emerged 500 years earlier than we thought, and undermines leading ideas about how it was invented. A popular idea is that the alphabet first appeared in Egypt about 3800 years ago, when 20 or so Egyptian hieroglyphs were repurposed as the first alphabet’s letters. The script was then used to write down words in one or more of the ancient languages spoken in south-west Asia at the time. But a discovery at the roughly 4300-year-old site of Umm el-Marra in Syria challenges this narrative. During excavations there in 2004, Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and his colleagues found four lumps of clay each the size and shape of a human finger. The clay fingers are each inscribed with between one and five symbols, and Schwartz has spent the past 17 years trying to understand them. “When I first saw them, I thought: this looks like writing,” says Schwartz, but it was clearly unlike the cuneiform writing typical of the time and place. After considering and rejecting other possibilities – that, for instance, the symbols were from the script used by the Indus Civilisation – Schwartz now argues that the symbols may be early alphabetic letters. He thinks versions of the letters A, L, O and K are present, although it isn’t clear what words the letters might spell out. The discovery has perplexed some researchers of the early alphabet. If the clay fingers are as old as claimed, they would “blow our current theories about the invention of the alphabet clear out of the water”, says Aaron Koller at Yeshiva University, New York.

4-16-21 Neandertal DNA from cave mud shows two waves of migration across Eurasia
Genetic material left behind in sediments could yield troves of data. Neandertal DNA recovered from cave mud reveals that these ancient humans spread across Eurasia in two different waves. Analysis of genetic material from three caves in two countries suggests an early wave of Neandertals about 135,000 years ago may have been replaced by genetically and potentially anatomically distinct successors 30,000 years later, researchers report April 15 in Science. The timing of this later wave suggests potential links to climate and environmental shifts. By extracting genetic material from mud, “we can get human DNA from people who lived in a cave without having to find their remains, and we can learn interesting things about those people from that DNA,” says Benjamin Vernot, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. A few years ago, scientists showed that it’s possible to extract prehistoric human DNA from dirt, which contains genetic material left behind by our ancestors from skin flakes, hair or dried excrement or bodily fluids such as sweat or blood. Genetic analysis of ancient sediments could therefore yield valuable insights on human evolution, given that ancient human fossils with enough DNA suitable for analysis are exceedingly rare (SN: 6/26/19). Until now, the ancient human DNA analyzed from sediments came from mitochondria — the organelles that act as energy factories in our cells — not the chromosomes in cell nuclei, which contain the actual genetic instructions for building and regulating the body. Although chromosomes hold far more information, retrieving samples of this nuclear DNA from caves proved challenging because of its relative scarcity. A human cell often possesses thousands of copies of its mitochondrial genome for every one set of chromosomes, and the vast majority of any DNA found in ancient dirt belongs to other animals and to microbes.

4-15-21 Switching beef for chicken could reduce water footprint of US diets
Simple changes to US diets may help to save water. Five billion people globally could be facing water scarcity by 2050 if we don’t learn to use it more wisely in the face of more severe droughts connected to climate change. But a study focusing on US consumers shows they can help through dietary choices. To examine how our food choices impact water resources, Martin Heller at the University of Michigan and his colleagues studied the diets of 16,800 people in the US. They calculated each person’s impact on water scarcity based on the types of foods they consumed, the irrigation water used in the production of these foods and the water scarcity in the regions where they were farmed. The researchers found that, for the average US diet, beef consumption contributed most to water scarcity. Other foods that tended to require intense water use included almonds, cashews, walnuts, avocado, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. Foods that typically had lower impacts on water resources included chicken, peanuts, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and fresh peas. The findings hint at ways people in industrialised societies could modify their diets to save water, say the researchers. For example, they calculate that swapping 100 grams of beef for chicken could cut the impact on water scarcity of the average US diet by up to 16 per cent, while replacing 100 grams of asparagus with Brussels sprouts could lower it by up to 45 per cent. The important caveat is that the impact of food production on water supplies “can vary dramatically by geographic location”, says Heller. Tomatoes grown in some parts of drought-prone California, for example, require a lot irrigation compared with those grown in Louisiana, where it rains a lot.

4-15-21 Around 2.5 billion Tyrannosaurus rex ever walked the Earth
A total of 2.5 billion Tyrannosaurus rex probably existed during the lifespan of the species, researchers have calculated – suggesting that very few survived as fossils. Charles Marshall at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues used body mass and population density to estimate how many T. rex once lived. Larger animals tend to have a larger individual range, because they need more food to support their body mass than smaller animals, meaning body mass is inversely correlated with population density – a rule known as Damuth’s law. Previous analysis of T. rex fossils shows that the average body mass of an adult was about 5200 kilograms. The team also used climate models and the locations of T. rex remains to estimate that the total geographic range of the species was about 2.3 million square kilometres across North America. Using these figures and data from living species, the team estimated that there was around one T. rex for every 100 square kilometres in North America. “This would mean there was about 20,000 adult T. rex at any given time,” says Marshall. Previous research shows T. rex lived into its late 20s and, using this figure, the team estimates that 2.5 billion T. rex spanning 127,000 generations graced our planet between 69 and 66 million years ago, the lifespan of the species. Estimates of population size for long-extinct animals are rare because there are so few fossils. This estimate for adult T. rex suggests a very low fossil incidence rate – it would mean only one in 80 million T. rex survived as fossilised remains. “This question has been in my head for years,” says Marshall. “I would ask the question every time I held a fossil in my hand.” Marshall and his colleagues acknowledge that their estimates could vary because there are some uncertainties in the data – there could have been anywhere from 140 million to 42 billion individuals over the time period they existed. There are animals with similar body masses that have very different population densities. “For example, spotted hyenas have the same body mass as jaguars, but are about 50 times more densely populated,” says Marshall.

4-15-21 The P.1 coronavirus variant is twice as transmissible as earlier strains
The variant first found in Brazil can evade some immunity from previous infections. The P.1 coronavirus variant first identified in Brazil may be twice as transmissible as earlier strains and may evade up to nearly half of immune defenses built during previous infections, a new study suggests. According to data collected in Manaus, Brazil, P.1 probably arose in mid-November 2020 in the city, researchers report April 14 in Science. The variant quickly rose to prominence there and spread to the rest of Brazil and at least 37 other countries, including the United States. Earlier examinations of the variant’s genetic makeup have shown that P.1 contains many differences from earlier strains, including 10 amino acid changes in the spike protein, which helps the virus infect cells. Three of those spike protein changes are of concern because they are the same mutations that allow other worrisome variants to bind more tightly to human proteins or to evade antibodies (SN: 2/5/21). Simulations of P.1’s properties suggest that the variant is 1.7 to 2.4 times more transmissible than the previous SARS-CoV-2 strain. It is not clear whether that increase in transmissibility is because people produce more of the virus or have longer infections. Some studies have hinted that people who previously had COVID-19 can get infected with P.1. The new study suggests that people who had earlier infections have about 54 percent to 79 percent of the protection against P.1 as they do against other local strains. That partial immunity may leave people vulnerable to reinfection with the variant. Whether the virus makes people sicker or is more deadly than other strains is not clear. The researchers estimate that coronavirus infections were 1.2 to 1.9 times more likely to result in death after P.1 emerged than before. But Manaus’ health care system has been under strain, so the increase in deaths may be due to overburdened hospitals.

4-15-21 Why are so many babies dying of Covid-19 in Brazil?
More than a year into the pandemic, deaths in Brazil are now at their peak. But despite the overwhelming evidence that Covid-19 rarely kills young children, in Brazil 1,300 babies have died from the virus. One doctor refused to test Jessika Ricarte's one-year-old son for Covid, saying his symptoms did not fit the profile of the virus. Two months later he died of complications from the disease. DAfter two years of trying, and failed fertility treatments, teacher Jessika Ricarte had all but given up on having a family. Then she fell pregnant with Lucas. "His name comes from luminous. And he was a light in our life. He showed that happiness was much more than we imagined," she says. She first suspected something was wrong when Lucas, always a good eater, lost his appetite. At first Jessika wondered if he was teething. Lucas's godmother, a nurse, suggested that he might just have a sore throat. But after he developed a fever, then fatigue and slightly laboured breathing, Jessika took him to hospital, and asked for him to be tested for Covid. "The doctor put on the oximeter. Lucas's levels were 86%. Now I know that is not normal," says Jessika. But he was not feverish, so the doctor said: "My dear, don't worry. There's no need for a Covid test. It's probably just a minor sore throat." He told Jessika that Covid-19 was rare in children, gave her some antibiotics and sent her home. Despite her misgivings, there was no option to have Lucas tested privately at the time. Jessika says that some of his symptoms dissipated at the end of his 10-day antibiotics course, but the tiredness remained - as did her concerns about coronavirus. "I sent several videos to his godmother, my parents, my mother-in-law, and everyone said that I was exaggerating, that I should stop watching the news, that it was making me paranoid. But I knew that my son was not himself, that he was not breathing normally."

4-14-21 How to keep your brain healthy: The 7 things you should do every day
Keeping your brain in good shape will not only stave off mental decline, but can also improve your relationships and boost your well-being – and it's never too late to make a difference. ONE sultry afternoon in 1862 in Luxor in Egypt, Edwin Smith was haggling with an antiquities dealer for an unknown papyrus. Though he suspected its importance, Smith couldn’t know it would turn out to be not just the earliest known medical text, at over 4000 years old, but the first ever documented mention of the brain. And what did it say about the most complex entity in the known universe? That it was “cranial offal”, to be unceremoniously trashed during embalming. We have learned rather a lot about the brain since then. Even so, it is only in the past 25 years that learning how best to look after the stuff upstairs has become a major priority for researchers. It is easy to be resigned to the idea that as we get older, our brains wind down, memories decline and reactions slow. But a wealth of new research shows that it is never too late to improve our brain health – a concept that goes way beyond the absence of disease. A long view of how, across some 2 million years, evolution has shaped the function of our brains is revealing new and unexpected ways to keep them healthy for longer. In 2018, an international group of specialists forming the Global Council on Brain Health identified a surprisingly simple test to assess whether your brain is in good shape: whether you function well in daily life. This may even sound overly simplistic, but the group, for which I am a special adviser, found that the brain requires three vital functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, or our ability to think and reason; social cognition, which enables us to interact successfully with others; and emotion regulation, through which we generate our sense of well-being. 1. Go with your gut 2. Watch what you eat 3. Get moving 4. Keep in touch 5. Learn a new skill 6. Stay in rhythm 7. Do what makes you happy 8. Chew it over 9. Sex on the brain

4-14-21 We have overlooked a crucial cause of the world's nutrition crisis
Attempts to tackle undernutition in children around the world often overlook an important part of the puzzle, says Priti Parikh. THE world’s children are in the midst of a nutrition crisis. At least one in three children under 5 globally experiences some form of undernutrition. Not only can this result in them being underweight for their age, it can also lead to stunted growth and affect brain development. But tackling this problem isn’t simply about food and healthy diets. There is an often overlooked piece of the puzzle that is needed to make a difference: sanitation. Figures from the World Health Organization show that around 45 per cent of deaths among children under 5 are linked to undernutrition, with most of these occurring in low and middle-income countries. The pandemic has worsened nutrition crises. Around 55 million children were considered underweight for their height before covid-19 struck, but since then 7 million more have been added to this category. Current global food stocks are higher than previous years, so a food shortage alone is unlikely to be driving this. A few years ago, Robert Chambers and Gregor von Medeazza at the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reviewed 250 papers on links between gaps in water and sanitation services and nutrition, chronic diarrhoea and disease to help understand the picture. They found that undernutrition is higher when families lack sanitation facilities in their own homes – an issue that isn’t limited to low-income households – and concluded that sanitation and hygiene are overlooked in nutrition studies. This also matches a pattern I have seen first hand. My colleagues and I studied nine villages in Rajasthan state in India where half of children under 5 have stunted growth for their age. We observed existing water and sanitation facilities, interviewed families and held group discussions on nutrition and living conditions.

4-14-21 Exploring 'Aquaterra', the drowned continent walked by our ancestors
A continent's worth of land inhabited by ancient people has been submerged by rising seas over the past 20,000 years. Now we're discovering its secrets. BEAUTIFUL corals, graceful sea turtles and 4-metre-long tiger sharks. It is easy to see why tourists flock to the Dampier Archipelago in north-west Australia to dive among the thrilling – if occasionally intimidating – marine life. But these seas contain something that isn’t advertised by tour guides. When Chelsea Wiseman and her colleagues went diving here in 2019, they found stone tools on the seabed. The artefacts were last touched by human hands at least 7000 years ago, before the sea rose, the land drowned and the sharks moved in. “We were ecstatic, just blown away, to find the tools,” says Wiseman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And with good reason. During the early millennia of human evolution, sea levels were mostly much lower than they are today, with huge areas of what is now submerged coastal shelf inhabited by our ancient relatives. What they were up to in these Stone Age coastal areas has long been a mystery because studying these underwater sites is so hard. With the archaeology of our coastal waters largely unexplored, we are missing a huge piece of human history. Now, however, that is changing. Underwater archaeology like that carried out by Wiseman and her team is already showing us how people lived and thrived along Stone Age coasts. It even suggests that, as the seas rose, people took action to hold them back, in a poignant foreshadowing of today. And as the coasts were a crucial route for Stone Age travellers, studying them is changing our understanding of how and when humans began spreading around the world. Underwater archaeology began in the 19th century. For decades, it mostly involved investigating shipwrecks, and we tended to learn about ancient maritime life. For instance, we found that civilisations that existed around the edges of the Mediterranean Sea 3500 years ago often shipped metals in the right ratios to be smelted into strong alloys like bronze. This focus on wrecks was understandable, says Jonathan Benjamin at Flinders University, who led the work at the Dampier Archipelago as part of a project called the Deep History of Sea Country. Shipwrecks are often easy to find. “I call them the castles of the sea,” he says.

4-14-21 How a return to offices after covid-19 lockdown affects mental health
A RETURN to the workplace can’t come soon enough for some people. Others, however, may be experiencing post-lockdown anxiety, triggered in part by thoughts of sharing indoor space, socialising with other people or commuting on crowded buses or trains. The covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on mental health. A study of more than 53,000 people in the UK that tracked mental health before the pandemic and into the first lockdown showed an immediate increase in mental distress in people aged 16 and older (The Lancet, doi.org/gg5ngp). Despite a slight improvement in anxiety levels over the past year, they are significantly worse than they were before the pandemic, according to the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). The effect is stronger for people in a lower socio-economic bracket. Medical insurance company Bupa tells New Scientist it has seen twice as many calls to its mental health direct access service as it did two years ago. New stressors arrive as lockdowns end. Anxiety UK polled 900 people and found that of those who were feeling anxious about the lifting of restrictions, 46 per cent cited pressure to socialise as their biggest concern, while 23 per cent were worried about public transport and 20 per cent were anxious about returning to work. About 23 per cent felt that they would be pressured to go back to the office sooner than they would like. But it wouldn’t necessarily be best for our mental health if we continued to work from home, says Peter Smith at the University of Toronto, Canada. Smith and his colleagues studied people working in different environments in Canada in 2020. They found that anxiety and depression were lower for those working remotely than for people still working on site or who had lost their jobs. However, when workplaces had adequate infection control schemes, on-site workers had the lowest prevalence of anxiety (Annals of Work Exposures and Health, doi.org/f58k).

4-14-21 5 steps to make offices as coronavirus-proof as possible
MANY more people in the UK are returning to their workplaces as coronavirus lockdowns ease. Some US companies are also attempting a return: Google is allowing workers to return on a voluntary basis, for instance. More will do so in coming months. Returning safely will involve a mix of strict measures and tailored arrangements to make employees feel safe and happy. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem,” says Michael Tildesley at the University of Warwick, UK. From 12 April, many premises in England were allowed to reopen, including all shops, hairdressers and libraries. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has argued that most people will return to their workplaces full-time and that there won’t be a permanent shift towards working from home. With more than 11,000 covid-19 cases in the UK in the past week, there are risks associated with going back to the workplace. It may not cause many additional deaths – because almost half of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, including the majority of those who are most vulnerable – but it will raise the number of cases. That increase has two consequences. First, 1 in 10 infected people seem to develop long covid, which can include exhaustion and concentration problems. Second, more cases means more opportunities for the virus to mutate to become more dangerous. The risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19, needs to be reduced as much as possible in the workplace, says Lisa Lee at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The key to this is to follow an established risk management strategy called the Hierarchy of Controls, says Catherine Noakes at the University of Leeds, UK. This involves doing the most effective things first, and only using less effective strategies as a fallback.

4-14-21 STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large
Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented while it varies widely by field for women. Efforts to promote equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math have a long way to go, a new report suggests. Over the last year, widespread protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people have sparked calls for racial justice in STEM. Social media movements such as #BlackinSTEM have drawn attention to discrimination faced by Black students and professionals, and the Strike for Black Lives challenged the scientific community to build a more just, antiracist research environment (SN: 12/16/20). An analysis released in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how wide the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in STEM representation are. “This has been an ongoing conversation in the science community” for decades, says Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Because the most recent data come from 2019, Pew’s snapshot of STEM cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity and inclusion may have moved the needle. But here are four big takeaways from existing STEM representation data: From 2017 to 2019, Black professionals made up only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States — lower than their 11 percent share of the overall U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even larger for Hispanic professionals, who made up only 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they made up 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. White and Asian professionals, meanwhile, remain overrepresented in STEM. Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, skew particularly white. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds do not necessarily boast more supportive environments, notes Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., not involved in the research.

4-14-21 Surprisingly, humans recognize joyful screams faster than fearful screams
It’s a twist to a long-held idea that our brains are wired to quickly detect threats first. Screams of joy appear to be easier for our brains to comprehend than screams of fear, a new study suggests. The results add a surprising new layer to scientists’ long-held notion that our brains are wired to quickly recognize and respond to fearful screams as a survival mechanism (SN: 7/16/15). The study looked at different scream types and how listeners perceive them. For example, the team asked participants to imagine “you are being attacked by an armed stranger in a dark alley” and scream in fear and to imagine “your favorite team wins the World Cup” and scream in joy. Each of the 12 participants produced seven different types of screams: six emotional screams (pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness, and joy) and one neutral scream where the volunteer just loudly yelled the ‘a’ vowel. Separate sets of study participants were then tasked with classifying and distinguishing between the different scream types. In one task, 33 volunteers were asked to listen to screams and given three seconds to categorize them into one of the seven different screams. In another task, 35 different volunteers were presented with two screams, one at a time, and were asked to categorize the screams as quickly as possible while still trying to make an accurate decision about what type of scream it was, either alarming screams of pain, anger or fear or non-alarming screams of pleasure, sadness or joy. It took longer for participants to complete the task when it involved fear and other alarming screams, and those screams were not as easily recognizable as non-alarming screams like joy, the researchers report online April 13 in PLOS Biology. In another experiment, 30 different volunteers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while listening to the screams. Less-alarming screams elicited more activity in the auditory and frontal brain regions than more-alarming screams, the team found, though why we respond that way isn’t yet clear.

4-14-21 A coronavirus epidemic may have hit East Asia about 25,000 years ago
Descendants of the outbreak may have inherited some DNA that affects their response to COVID-19. An ancient coronavirus, or a closely related pathogen, triggered an epidemic among ancestors of present-day East Asians roughly 25,000 years ago, a new study indicates. Analysis of DNA from more than 2,000 people shows that genetic changes in response to that persistent epidemic accumulated over the next 20,000 years or so, David Enard, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, reported April 8 at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The finding raises the possibility that some East Asians today have inherited biological adaptations to coronaviruses or closely related viruses. The discovery opens the way to exploring how genes linked to ancient viral epidemics may contribute to modern disease outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Genes with ancient viral histories might also provide clues to researchers searching for better antiviral drugs, although that remains to be demonstrated. Enard’s group consulted a publicly available DNA database of 2,504 individuals from 26 ethnic populations on five continents, including Chinese Dai, Vietnamese Kinh and African Yoruba people. The team first focused on 420 proteins known to interact with coronaviruses, including 332 that interact with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These interactions could range from boosting immune responses to making it easier for a virus to hijack a cell. Substantially increased production of all 420 proteins, a sign of past exposures to coronavirus-like epidemics, appeared only in East Asians. Enard’s group traced the viral responses of 42 of those proteins back to roughly 25,000 years ago. An analysis of the genes known to orchestrate production of those proteins determined that specific variants became more common around 25,000 years ago before leveling off in frequency by around 5,000 years ago. That pattern is consistent with an initially vigorous genetic response to a virus that waned over time, either as East Asians adapted to the virus or as the virus lost its ability to cause disease, Enard said. Twenty-one of the 42 gene variants act either to enhance or deter the effects of a wide array of viruses, not just coronaviruses, suggesting that an unknown virus that happened to exploit similar proteins as coronaviruses could have instigated the ancient epidemic, Enard said.

4-14-21 ‘First Steps’ shows how bipedalism led humans down a strange evolutionary path
A new book argues that upright walking had profound effects on human anatomy and behavior. No other animal moves the way we do. That’s awfully strange. Even among other two-legged species, none amble about with a straight back and a gait that, technically, is just a form of controlled falling. Our bipedalism doesn’t just set us apart, paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva posits; it’s what makes us human. There’s no shortage of books that propose this or that feature — tool use or self-awareness, for example — as the very definition of humankind. But much of our supposed uniqueness doesn’t stand up to this tradition. In First Steps, DeSilva takes a slightly different approach. Our way of walking, he argues, set off an array of consequences that inform our peculiar evolutionary history. DeSilva starts his tour through the annals of bipedalism with other upright organisms. Tyrannosaurus and ancient crocodile relatives are trotted out to show how they moved on two legs, thanks to long, counterbalancing tails (SN: 6/12/20). DeSilva stumbles a little here, like arguing that “bipedalism was not a successful locomotion for many dinosaur lineages.” An entire group — the theropods — walked on two legs and still do in their avian guises. But the comparison with dinosaurs is still worthwhile. With no tail, the way we walk is even stranger. “Let’s face it,” DeSilva writes, “humans are weird.” Each following chapter gets more surefooted as DeSilva guides readers through what we’ve come to know about how our ancestors came to be bipedal. This is breezy popular science at its best, interweaving anecdotes from the field and lab with scientific findings and the occasional pop culture reference. DeSilva gets extra credit for naming oft-overlooked experts who made key discoveries.

4-14-21 ‘Monkeydactyl’ may be the oldest known creature with opposable thumbs
The winged reptile’s dexterity may have helped it climb trees during the age of dinosaurs. Future Jurassic Park films could feature one weird new beast in the menagerie: a pterosaur nicknamed Monkeydactyl for its opposable thumbs. This flying reptile from the Jurassic Period may be the earliest known animal that could touch the insides of its thumbs to the insides of its other fingers, researchers report online April 12 in Current Biology. Such dexterity probably allowed Monkeydactyl to climb trees about 160 million years ago, perhaps to feed on insects and other prey that nonclimbing pterosaurs did not, the researchers say (SN: 12/21/18). The latter half of the creature’s official name, Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, comes from the words “opposite” and “thumb” in ancient Greek. Monkeydactyl’s fossilized remains, unearthed in northeastern China in 2019, are embedded in rock. So the team used micro-CT scanning to create a 3-D rendering of the fossil. “With this detail, we’re able to look at the fossil from any angle, and make sure that the bones are in their right [original] place,” says study coauthor Rodrigo Pêgas, a paleontologist at the Federal University of ABC in São Bernardo, Brazil. Those scans helped confirm that the skeleton had a well-preserved opposable thumb on each hand. “Almost all of the modern animals that have opposable thumbs use them to climb trees,” Pêgas says, including primates and some tree frogs. That evidence, along with the apparent flexibility of Monkeydactyl’s joints, suggests this species was well suited to clambering through tree branches.

4-13-21 What causes the rare blood clots linked with some covid-19 vaccines?
Use of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine has been suspended in the US after six people experienced blood clots, out of 6.8 million who received the vaccine in the country. The cases seem to be similar to the rare blood clots seen in recipients of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has caused some countries to restrict its use. The blood clot syndrome involves an unusual type of clot, often one that forms in the brain – called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis or CVST – coupled with low levels of platelets, small particles in the blood that stick together to make clots. It has been seen mainly in people under about 60, and more often in women than men. But the sex difference may be because more women have been vaccinated, as they comprise more healthcare workers and care home staff. In an analysis of 79 UK cases seen after the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, they occurred at the same rate in men and women, says Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the UK’s Commission on Human Medicines. The overall rate was four cases per million people who have received the vaccine in the UK. It is unknown why younger people seem more at risk, but the age distribution is partly why some countries have said this vaccine should only be given to those above a certain age. The other reason is that older people are more at risk from covid-19 itself, so the benefit of the vaccine should outweigh the risk. The six cases of CVST newly reported in recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, one of which was fatal, were all in women aged between 18 and 48. Johnson & Johnson announced today it would delay the European roll-out of its product. “We have been working closely with medical experts and health authorities, and we strongly support the open communication of this information to healthcare professionals and the public,” the firm said in a statement.

4-10-21 Basic income trial is testing how money affects child development
Growing up in poverty can have long-term negative consequences for children. Now, a study offering unconditional cash to a group of mothers on low-incomes in the US is beginning to discover the precise role of parental income in child development. It is the first randomised trial to look at whether a basic income might affect the way a child’s brain develops in this critical period. Studies of children born into families with low income have found they tend to have more behavioural problems and are behind their peers when they start school. We know that the first few years of a child’s life are the most influential for their development, and brain development is particularly rapid in early childhood and therefore more likely to be influenced by the environment. However, it isn’t clear whether income directly causes these outcomes, or whether they are a result of other factors associated with growing up in poverty. To find out, Kimberly Noble at Columbia University and her colleagues approached women on low incomes who had just given birth at four sites in the US, and asked them if they would take part in a study following their child’s development. Around 1000 women accepted and were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group, consisting of 40 per cent of the women, received an unconditional monthly cash gift which added up to $333 per month, and the other group received $20 per month. Both groups will receive the money for the first 40 months of their child’s life. The first babies in the study were born in May 2018, and the team have been following up every year. Preliminary findings from the first year were presented this week at the virtual Society for Research in Child Development Conference. “To date, the dots are not connected in a careful scientific way,” one of the study authors Katherine Magnuson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the conference. “We still don’t know whether the types of early experiences that poverty creates for children will directly impact their early development and specifically their brain development in any meaningful way.”

4-10-21 Animals with weird neurons may rewrite the story of brain evolution
Marine animals called comb jellies have nervous systems unlike those of any other known animal. Their neurons are oddly shaped and use chemicals not found in those of other animals. “These neurons are quite unique,” says Pawel Burkhardt at the University of Bergen in Norway. The comb jellies’ peculiar neurons may be an adaptation for their lifestyle and the way their bodies work. They also add to the ongoing debate among evolutionary biologists about how the first animal brains evolved. In particular, there is controversy over whether brains evolved once in very early animals, or several times in different groups. Comb jellies, or ctenophores, are one of the oldest animal groups – and the oldest group to have a nervous system. Though they look a bit like jellyfish, they have a distinct evolutionary history. Their name comes from the “combs” that run along the outsides of their bodies. Each comb is a row of tiny tentacles, which propel the comb jelly through the water. Comb jellies don’t have a large central brain. Instead they have a thin net of neurons. “What was elusive so far was what is going on with the nervous system,” says Burkhardt. Neurons in other animals produce characteristic chemicals, in particular, small proteins called neuropeptides. But nobody had identified neuropeptides in comb jelly neurons. Burkhardt’s team studied a comb jelly called Mnemiopsis leidyi, whose genome had already been sequenced. The researchers used a machine-learning tool to predict 129 possible neuropeptides from the genome. They then grew M. leidyi in the lab, and identified 16 of these neuropeptides in their neurons. They were unlike those seen in any other animal. “They took a big risk in taking this approach and I think it paid off,” says Leslie Babonis of Cornell University in New York.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

4-15-21 Heat overrides genes to make bearded dragon embryos change sex
Some lizards that begin developing as males will actually hatch as females if the egg is particularly warm – and now we know why. The heat triggers genes that override chromosomal sex determination. In the 1960s, French scientists discovered that reptiles in Senegal would hatch as females when temperatures rose much above about 30°C. Since then, researchers have noted that the sex of many reptiles and some fish actually depends entirely on the temperature during their development. In a few animals, like the central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) of Australia, sex determination depends on both genetics and temperature. Males have two identical sex chromosomes – ZZ – and females have two different sex chromosomes – ZW. But male embryos will develop as females if the egg is warm enough. This means females may develop in one of two ways, but the mechanisms behind this phenomenon have eluded scientists for more than half a century. To explore the mystery, Sarah Whiteley at the University of Canberra in Australia and her colleagues ran genetic sequencing on unhatched bearded dragons incubated either at 28°C – cool enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as males – or at 36°C – warm enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as females. For the eggs at 36°C, the researchers found that ZW female embryos had “dramatically” different active genes during the major stages of sex development, compared with ZZ females, demonstrating there are two distinct sets of genes that can make a central bearded dragon female. In the ZZ females, the genes that “wanted” to code for male development were forcibly switched off, and those for female development were switched on. “The sex chromosomes in the dragon are… more recently developed – on an evolutionary timescale – compared to [human] sex chromosomes,” Whiteley says. “So sex reversal might be a relic of temperature sensitivity [alone].”

4-14-21 Wasps with no social life may find it harder to recognise others
Paper wasps that live alone don’t see as much development of a part of their brain that seems to be important for facial recognition. The discovery shows how vital the social environment can be to brain development, even in biologically simple animals like insects. Northern paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) usually live in groups of around a dozen, though these sometimes comprise up to 100 individuals. Group members all share umbrella-shaped nests, often built beneath roof hangings. The wasps can live their entire adult lives alone, but they rarely do. Within their social groups, these insects recognise that all nest-mates share the same odour – but they also learn to identify individual group members by the unique colour patterns on their faces. “These wasps use facial recognition to basically know who’s who and maintain hierarchies, similar to what we see in many primate systems,” says Christopher Jernigan at Cornell University, New York. “It’s really incredible.” To understand how the paper wasps are able to recognise the unique colour patterns on other individuals’ faces, Jernigan and his colleagues gathered several cocoon-filled nests from the natural environment and placed them in clear plastic containers in their laboratory. As soon as the new adults chewed their way out of their silk cocoons – and could see for the first time – the researchers isolated some in a separate container, while leaving others in their nests to lead a social life. They provided all of the wasps with plenty of coloured paper, which stimulates their brains. When the wasps were between 58 and 71 days old, the researchers analysed their brains under a microscope, comparing them with each other and with the brains of newly hatched wasps. They found that, even though the wasps’ bodies didn’t grow after emerging from their cocoons, their brains had increased by about 13 per cent in size during those first two months of adulthood.

4-13-21 Discarded COVID-19 PPE such as masks can be deadly to wildlife
Animals around the world are eating or getting entangled in single-use masks and gloves. A Magellanic penguin in Brazil ingested a face mask. A hedgehog in England got itself entangled in a glove. An octopus off the coast of France was found seeking refuge under a mask. Wildlife and ecosystems around the world are suffering from the impact of discarded single-use COVID-19 protective gear, researchers warn March 22 in Animal Biology. Latex gloves and polypropylene masks which protect people from the coronavirus are exacerbating the plastic pollution problem when not disposed of properly and are causing wildlife deaths (SN:11/20/20). The study is the first global documentation of the impacts of COVID-19 litter on wildlife via entanglement, entrapment and ingestion (SN:12/15/20). In August 2020, volunteers cleaning canals in Leiden, Netherlands, chanced upon a perch — a type of freshwater fish — trapped inside a finger of a latex glove. The ensnared fish was the first recorded wildlife casualty caused by COVID-19 litter in the Netherlands. The find shocked two Leiden-based biologists — Auke-Florian Hiemstra and Liselotte Rambonnet — who wanted to know more about the extent of COVID-19 litter’s impact on wildlife. They embarked on an extensive search, online and in newspapers, to collate examples. They found 28 such instances from all around the world, pointing to a larger, global problem. The earliest reported victim was from April 2020: an American robin in Canada, which appears to have died after getting entangled in a face mask. Pets are at risk, too: In Philadelphia, a domestic cat ingested a glove, and a pet dog in Boston that had consumed a face mask. “Animals with plastic in their stomach could starve to death,” says Rambonnet, of Leiden University.

4-13-21 Saving the kelp forest that stars in My Octopus Teacher
The Bafta-winning Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher focuses on a film-maker who befriends an octopus. But the unsung star of the show is actually the kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town that he dives in – one of the world’s richest ecosystems. The makers of the documentary are part of a campaign to preserve the underwater forest. BBC Africa Correspondent Andrew Harding went to meet them.

4-12-21 Corals’ hidden genetic diversity corresponds to distinct lifestyles
Understanding how corals behave could be key to preserving ocean biodiversity, experts say. Stony corals that build reefs have been hiding their diversity in plain sight. A genetic analysis of the most widespread reef coral in the Indo-Pacific revealed that rather than being a single species (Pachyseris speciosa), it was actually four distinct species of coral, researchers report April 2 in Current Biology. Coral reefs are the condominiums of ocean biodiversity, supporting more species per square meter than any other marine habitat. Understanding which coral species foster that biodiversity and how those corals behave is vital to taking care of them, especially as a warming climate threatens overall ocean biodiversity (SN: 5/6/20). “Just knowing what’s there is critical to tracking what we are losing,” says Rebecca Vega-Thurber, a marine microbiologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was not involved in the new study. The results suggest other corals thought to be a single species may actually be much more diverse than researchers realized. Using a combination of scuba gear and remotely operated vehicles, marine biologist Pim Bongaerts of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and colleagues sampled more than 1,400 P. speciosa corals from the ocean surface down to 80 meters. In the lab, the sampleslooked identical, and their internal structures were indistinguishable in scanning electron microscope images. Yet, their genomes — their full genetic instruction books — revealed the corals had diverged millions of years ago. That made sense for one of the species in the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, which was geographically separated from the others. But the other three newly identified species lived together on the same reefs in the waters off South Asia. If the corals were living together, why didn’t one overtake the other two, the team wondered.

4-12-21 The frequencies of a vibrating spider web have been made into music
Spiders are mostly blind, but their webs are sensitive to disturbances, which they detect with their legs. Now, scientists have created an audio-visual virtual reality take on this that converts a web’s vibrations to sounds we can hear, giving us an idea of what it might feel like to be a spider. “The spider web can be viewed as an extension of the body of the spider, in that it lives within it, but also uses it as a sensor,” says Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who presented the work at a virtual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “When you go into the virtual reality world and you dive inside the web, being able to hear what’s going on allows you to understand what you see.” Because of differences in the length and tension of each strand of a spider’s web, they emit a different frequency when disturbed and can even be used to send out signals or communicate with other spiders when the web’s owner taps on the strands. Buehler’s team used laser imaging to create a 3D map of webs made by tropical tent-web spiders (Cyrtophora citricola). They identified each thread’s vibrating frequency through its size and elasticity, then converted those frequencies into ones that can be heard by humans. By piecing the visual and auditory layers together, users connect the sounds to the threads they see, mimicking a spider surveying its world, he says. The team made some artistic decisions, such as using a synthesiser with a harp-like sound. Threads that are closer to the listener or connected to many others sound louder than others. For Buehler, who has spent hours listening to the noises the virtual webs make, they no longer just sound dissonant, but begin to have identifiable structure. “We believe we have an accurate reflection of what the spider would ‘see’,” he says.

4-11-21 Saving green turtles... by cooling their eggs
The future of Australia's green turtles is under threat by climate change - but not how you might think. Warmer sand temperatures are leading to way more females being hatched than males. Ade Adepitan travels to breeding spot Heron Island, in the Great Barrier Reef, to find out how conservationists are helping to save the reptiles.

4-10-21 Female monkeys call to males when they see a predator approaching
When faced with a predator, female putty-nosed monkeys will call males to help protect them from the threat. Putty-nosed monkeys (Cercopithecus nictitans) live in the forests of West Africa in groups of one male with multiple females and their offspring. The male will tend to roam further from the group and leave females to forage for themselves, but the females and lone male will alert each other when predators are nearby. Communication in this species differs based on sex. Females produce a single “chirp” to alert others when any form of predator is nearby, while the lone males will use different calls based on the type of predator spotted: “pyow” calls for those on the ground, like leopards, and “hack” calls for predatory eagles. Claudia Stephan at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Republic of the Congo, wanted to see how female and male putty-nosed monkeys differ in their response to these calls during a predatory event when the male is roaming relatively far from the group. With her colleague Frederic Gnepa Mehon, also at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Stephan located 19 different groups of monkeys in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. For each group, the two researchers and their colleagues waited until the lone male was around 20 metres from the group. One volunteer, covered in a leopard print fabric to mimic a predator, then approached either the lone male or the group of females. If the “leopard” approached the lone male, he responded by making a “kek” call. Stephan says this call hadn’t been recorded during research on male putty-nosed monkeys in other regions, so could be a local dialect. But Stephan points out that earlier studies into alarm calls involved stationary leopard models, rather than a moving leopard model. “It could also be that moving danger on the ground elicit ‘kek’ calls, and any danger on the ground is ‘pyow’ calls,” she says.