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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

12-3-21 US government shutdown averted hours before deadline
The US Congress has passed a stopgap bill to fund federal agencies until 18 February, avoiding a costly government shutdown over the festive season. In a 69-28 vote, the Senate backed the measure approved earlier by the House of Representatives. President Joe Biden is now expected to sign it into law. "I am glad that, in the end, cooler heads prevailed," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. The bill was passed hours before the funding would have stopped on Friday. This would have left unpaid millions of workers in the public sector over Christmas and New Year, and museums and parks would have been shut. A group of Republican Senators had threatened to derail the funding bill in protest over Mr Biden's push for the federally-mandated Covid vaccination for employees at large companies. But their attempt to attach an amendment preventing the enforcement of the vaccine initiative was thwarted by Democrats. The funding bill was approved by the House of Representatives earlier on Thursday in a 221-212 vote. It is the latest example of the bitter political tug-of-war around government funding that has resulted in several shutdowns in recent years. In October, President Biden signed into law a temporary measure to keep the government running through 3 December.

12-3-21 US jobs growth falls far short of expectations
US employers hired only 210,000 more workers in November, missing economists' predictions for stronger growth. Forecasters had been expecting US non-farm payrolls to increase by 550,000. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics said there had been a decline in employment in the retail sector. But on the upside, it said there had been a rise in hiring across areas such as professional and business services as well as transport and warehousing. The bureau also said construction and manufacturing had added new jobs. While job creation fell short of expectations, the unemployment rate declined to 4.2% in November, down from 4.6% in October. The overall proportion of the population that was in work or looking for work, known as the participation rate, also rose slightly. "The bottom line is it's a disappointment," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital. "The reason we have the drop in unemployment is people dropping out the workforce and that's not a good sign." But Joe Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade, said the low rate of hiring overall and the sharp fall in unemployment didn't "add up" and he expected the figures to be revised upwards. He said the sectors "that don't truly make sense" are leisure and hospitality rising by such a small amount, and retail being down, "which is very odd for this time of year", he said. Hiring in the retail sector fell by 20,000, especially in general merchandise and clothing stores, despite the start of the busy holiday shopping season and many retailers offering higher wages and other perks to attract staff. Employment in leisure and hospitality rose only 23,000 and remains nearly 8% lower than before Covid hit. In September, children returned to schooling in-person and pandemic-related unemployment benefits stopped, leading many analysts to expect strong jobs growth throughout the autumn. Figures for October were revised up to show 546,000 jobs were added that month. However, millions of Americans have not returned to work, leaving the total workforce significantly smaller than it was before the pandemic. Commonly cited reasons are difficulties with childcare and concerns around Covid infection.

12-3-21 Rights groups' warning as Trump's Remain in Mexico policy restored
US human rights groups have criticised the reinstatement of a Trump-era policy requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while claims are processed. The American Immigration Council said it was a dark day for the US and the rule of law. US President Joe Biden had suspended the policy, calling it "inhumane", but was ordered by courts to resume it. Under the policy, thousands of migrants were forced to stay in dangerous conditions on the Mexican border. But Republicans have welcomed the decision as a way to restore order in the border regions. Mexico has now agreed to accept the policy, known as Remain in Mexico, in exchange for concessions such as a shorter turnaround time for asylum decisions and a US-Mexico development programme for Central America. Mr Biden's administration has kept up one other major Trump-era border policy: Title 42, which allows for the quick expulsion of migrants on public health grounds. Former US President Donald Trump introduced the programme, then known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, to send more than 60,000 asylum applicants back to Mexico. Migrants were often left waiting in Mexico for months, where they sometimes fell prey to criminal gangs. According to charity Human Rights First, there have been more than 1,500 publicly reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture and other abuses against migrants returned to Mexico. Mr Biden suspended the programme almost immediately after taking office, as part of a campaign pledge to reverse hardline immigration policies enacted by his predecessor. In June, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas terminated the policy. But in August, a federal court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, ruled that the policy had been improperly cancelled. The Biden administration is appealing against the decision.White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the president stood by past remarks about the "unjustified human costs" of the programme.

12-3-21 Omicron: Biden tightens travel rules amid new Omicron cases
President Joe Biden has unveiled stricter Covid-19 travel rules as the US confirmed a handful of cases of the Omicron variant from coast to coast. From next week, international travellers to the US, including Americans, must take a Covid test no more than one day before travel, regardless of vaccination status. Those recently recovered may provide "proof of recovery" documents instead. Mask requirements on planes, trains and buses will be extended until mid-March. Millions of free and insurer-funded home tests will also be made available. Ten cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the US: in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York, and in Hawaii, where authorities say that person had no recent travel history. State health officials have reported only mild symptoms in these cases. The variant has now been found up to 30 countries, according to reports. It is still not clear whether Omicron, a highly mutated variant, is associated with more transmission or more risk of evading vaccines. The US is encouraging all adults to get booster vaccines, amid warnings Covid cases will rise this winter. "We're going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion," Mr Biden said at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. He repeated earlier assurances that the plan "doesn't include shutdowns or lockdowns". Over 40 million Americans have received their Covid boosters, but nearly 100 million more are eligible and have not yet had theirs, the president said. Hundreds of family vaccination clinics will be set up across the country in an attempt to increase vaccination rates among children and teenagers. Officials said private insurers would be obliged to reimburse their 150 million customers for at-home Covid tests they buy, and that 50 million tests would be distributed free to the uninsured through health centres and rural clinics. However, reimbursement for tests does not begin until January, after the holiday period which sees increased travel and indoor mixing.

12-3-21 Why has the UK been so slow to vaccinate children against covid-19?
Compared with other high-income countries, the UK has been slow to approve and roll out covid-19 vaccines to teenagers, prompting concerns over long covid and the new omicron variant. For the first few months of this year, the UK led most other nations in vaccinating as many people against covid-19 as quickly as possible. But the country has been one of the slowest to vaccinate teenagers. News of the omicron variant of the coronavirus prompted the UK to recommend that 12 to 15-year-olds can now have a second vaccine dose three months after their first, but 5 to 11-year-olds remain completely unvaccinated. What is behind the UK’s apparent reticence around vaccinating children? While the UK was a pioneer when it came to vaccinating older adults – it was the first high-income country to approve any covid-19 vaccine – when it comes to children, it is being much slower. The country’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) extended legal approval for use of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to children aged 12 and over in June, in line with many other countries. Places such as the US and Israel started vaccinating this age group in May and June, respectively. However, the UK body that decides on vaccine deployment, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), took until September to conclude that the benefits of the jab for healthy 12 to 15-year-olds “are marginally greater than the potential known harms… [but] the margin of benefit… [is] too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination”. The JCVI said the benefits of vaccination are smaller for children because they are less likely to get seriously ill from covid-19 and the jab carries the risk of the rare side effect of myocarditis, or heart inflammation. Regarding long covid, something that worries many parents, the committee said in August that estimates of symptoms lasting more than eight weeks in children ranged from less than 1 per cent to 10 per cent – with more rigorous studies “generally reporting rates at the lower end of this range”.

12-3-21 Covid-19 news: Range of vaccines show promise as booster shots
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. Three different vaccines lead to big increases in antibody levels when used as boosters. Three covid-19 vaccines given as boosters in a UK trial were safe and provoked strong immune responses, researchers have reported. The study involved 2878 adults aged 30 or over, all of whom previously had two doses of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. They were given booster vaccines 10 to 12 weeks after their second dose. The trial tested seven vaccines as boosters: AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Novavax, Janssen, Moderna, Valneva and Curevac. The researchers measured levels of antibodies and T cells in the participants’ blood. The Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines all produced strong antibody and T cell responses, regardless of which vaccine had been given for the first two doses. The results suggest that people’s immunity from covid-19 increased, although the study does not yet include data on how well people are protected against infection or disease. A greater proportion of Black and south Asian people are dying with covid-19 than white people in the UK, despite case numbers in the latter group being higher, a study has warned. The final report into covid-19 disparities, produced by the UK Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit, outlines the main risk factors in ethnic minority groups. These include occupation, particularly in the case of frontline workers, and household size, especially for those containing schoolchildren and older relatives. Living in densely populated areas with higher levels of deprivation was also a risk factor. Raghib Ali, the UK government’s independent adviser on covid-19 and ethnicity, said the higher rates of hospitalisation and death for south Asian and Black people almost certainly reflects differences in vaccination rates. There could be more than 230,000 new cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in England as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned. The figure comes from modelling work by the NHS Strategy Unit, forecasting new referrals for PTSD between 2020/21 and 2022/23. Some covid-19 patients who needed hospital care and frontline healthcare staff are thought to be particularly at risk of PTSD. Studies have found that 35 per cent of covid-19 patients put on a ventilator and 40 per cent of intensive care staff report symptoms of PTSD.

12-3-21 South Africa battles Omicron fear and vaccine myths
On the beaches north of Durban, some South Africans are already getting into the holiday mood as the first crowds start arriving for the long summer break. Towards sunset, the bars and restaurants overlooking Ballito's seafront have been filling up fast this week. But the new Omicron variant, now driving a fourth wave of infections through the country, is causing deep concern in this small holiday town in KwaZulu-Natal province - as well as frustration for businesses hit by the new wave of international travel bans. A huge annual party for school leavers, known as Rage, was cancelled in Ballito at the last minute this week. "The new variant? Yes, I'm worried," said Fana Dlamini, 43, loading a bucket with sea water for use in what he said was a religious ceremony. Danilia du Plessis, 29, walking past with her two children, agreed: "I've already had Covid. But we don't know the symptoms of this new variant. So, I'm scared." She was shocked that only a third of adults in South Africa's province of KwaZulu-Natal have so far been vaccinated. Twenty-five-year-old Sanele Shabalala is one of those who has not been jabbed. "My problem is the government. We don't believe in them, or the system," she said. Beside her on a bench, her two sisters nodded in agreement and confirmed that none of them had been vaccinated. They cited false claims of allergic reactions to the jabs that they had read about on social media. "It's so frustrating," said Ivy Kaunda, a community liaison worker with Caprisa, a leading HIV/Aids research institute that has been heavily involved in Covid-19 research too. The emergence of the Omicron variant has prompted health officials in the province to step up campaigns to persuade the public - and in particular younger people - to get vaccinated. Although vaccine supplies have, at times, been haphazard, there is currently no shortage in South Africa. Ms Kaunda and a team of health activists have been walking round Umlazi district, in the green hills south of Durban, trying to engage with local people to convince them to get vaccinated. "Social media is the problem, particularly among young men. They say they've heard that it will affect their sex drive," she said, turning away from a group of builders. One man told her that his family had already been infected and were therefore safe.

12-3-21 Fourteen arrested over spate of Los Angeles smash-and-grab raids
Fourteen people have been arrested over a series of smash-and-grab robberies at retail outlets in Los Angeles in recent weeks, police say. Nearly $340,000 (£256,000) worth of goods were stolen between 18 and 28 November. All of the suspects were released from custody pending trial. Police and city officials called for an end to a bail relaxation policy for some defendants, introduced to prevent jail overcrowding during Covid-19. Police chief Michel Moore said four robberies, six burglaries and one grand theft had been carried out, leading to $338,000 worth of goods being stolen and $40,000 of property damaged. He said one of the suspects was a juvenile and the others had either been bailed or met no-bail criteria. It usually took three to four months for suspects to be arraigned, and criminal elements were capitalising on this situation, the police chief added. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that with Covid infection levels easing it was time for more room to be found in jails and for more judges to put more people in them. "There are people who need to be behind bars," he told reporters on Thursday. we realise?" The November incidents are part of a recent spate of large-scale thefts in California and across the US involving shoplifting by flash mobs or smash-and-grab raids on display cases. Retailers fear the perpetrators face little accountability for their crimes, prompting officials to promise a crackdown on these groups.

12-2-21 When Jesus is used to steal from his flock
To his listeners, William Neil "Doc" Gallagher was known as the "Money Doctor" - a charming financial guru who advertised his services on Christian radio, broadcast all over the American conservative 'Bible Belt' that stretches across North Texas. His adverts often concluded with a familiar slogan: "See you in church Sunday." "Doctor Neil Gallagher is a premier true American, with integrity in all his pursuits," a narrator says in a corporate video posted to YouTube. "His life's passion is to help people retire safe, early and happy." The three-minute video goes on to extol the benefits of the octogenarian's "visionary style", claiming he had guided more than 1,000 people to financial independence through his firm, Gallagher Financial Group, while also publishing a book, "Jesus Christ, Money Master". In reality, Gallagher was anything but. Instead, he was a fraudster who amassed $32m (£24m) in a Ponzi scheme that mostly targeted retired victims between the ages of 62 and 91. In Ponzi schemes, earlier investors generated "returns" by taking money from later investors, who are often promised considerable profits with little risk. These schemes rely on a steady flow of new joiners giving money to those already invested in order to continue. When that doesn't happen, the scam collapses. According to court documents, Gallagher had been defrauding people through a Ponzi scheme since at least 2013. His two companies, Gallagher Financial Group, Inc. and W. Neil Gallagher, Ph.D. Agency, Inc. were ordered shut by the US Securities and Exchange Commission in March 2019. Last month, he was given three life sentences in prison by a judge in Texas' Tarrant County, in addition to a 25-year sentence he had already received in Dallas in March 2020. Gallagher promised his victims returns of between 5% to 8% of their investment annually. Instead, they received nothing, with Gallagher spending most of the funds on personal and company expenses and to make payments to earlier investors. To hide the fraud, he also provided fake account statements showing false balances.

12-2-21 Michigan school shooting: Suspect, 15, charged as an adult
The suspect in a Michigan school shooting will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder following a rampage that left four students dead and seven injured. Prosecutors on Wednesday charged Oxford High School student Ethan Crumbley, 15, as an adult. He has pleaded not guilty. Police are yet to identify a motive in the attack. The victims were named as Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Hana St Juliana, 14, and Justin Shilling, 17. Announcing the charges on Wednesday, Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said her office had "a mountain of digital evidence" to show the suspect had planned the attack "well before the incident". One such instance is a video of the suspect the night before the shooting, in which he discusses killing students. "This isn't even a close call," she said. "This was not an impulsive act." She added that it was "absolutely premeditated". Ms McDonald said the teen will face one count of terrorism, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder, and 12 counts of possession of a firearm, with further charges likely as the investigation unfolds. At a later news conference, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said charging the suspect as an adult was "the most appropriate" action. "I agree with holding this individual wholly and completely responsible for the deplorable, tragic event that occurred by his choice," he said. The suspect will be transferred from a juvenile detention centre to the local county jail, where he will be held without bond. The teenager has refused to speak with investigators on the instructions of his family. The sheriff stressed that the teenager had never been on the radar of law enforcement or the school. He also added there was no evidence the suspect had been bullied by his peers. "There is nothing that he could have faced that would warrant senseless, absolutely brutal violence on other kids," said Mr Bouchard. (Webmasters Comment: Try him, convict him, and publicly execute him so he suffers as much as his victims!)

12-2-21 Canadian MPs vote to ban LGBT 'conversion therapy'
Canada's House of Commons has voted unanimously to ban so-called LGBT conversion therapy. The legislation would make it illegal to have a child undergo the practice or have anyone unwillingly undergo it. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals proposed the measure, though its passage prompted applause on both sides of the aisle. The bill must now be approved by the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate. Conversion therapy, which purports to change individuals' sexuality or gender identity, has been widely discredited. The House passed an earlier version of the bill in June, but it failed to clear the Senate before Mr Trudeau called an election in September. In emotional scenes on the House floor on Wednesday, Liberal MPs crossed the aisle to shake hands with and even hug their Conservative counterparts, reports CBC News. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole allowed his caucus to have a free vote on the issue. But unanimous support for the bill caught the other side by surprise, according to Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan. Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, who is also a special adviser to Mr Trudeau on LGBT issues, said: "No one can consent to torture. "It's a great day for survivors, to know that no-one else is going to go through what they went through." Several Conservative MPs had expressed concern the wording of the bill could criminalise private conversations about sexuality or gender identity between children and teachers, religious leaders or mental health professionals. But Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said those objections were unfounded.

12-2-21 Israel PM: Nuclear talks must end over Iran ‘blackmail’ tactics
Israel's prime minister has urged world powers to immediately end nuclear talks with Iran, after it decided to start using advanced machines to enrich uranium at an underground plant. Naftali Bennett warned the US that Iran was "carrying out 'nuclear blackmail' as a negotiation tactic". Iran said diplomats in Vienna "won't take instruction" from Israel. They are trying to save a 2015 deal that curbed Iran's nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. It has been close to collapse since then-US President Donald Trump pulled out and reinstated sanctions three years ago. Iran responded by violating key commitments. Many of them are related to the production of enriched uranium, which is widely used as fuel for nuclear power plants but can also be used in nuclear weapons. President Joe Biden has said the US will rejoin the agreement and lift its sanctions if Iran returns to compliance. But his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, has insisted the US make the first move. Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, rejected the 2015 deal as too limited in scope and duration. Mr Bennett, who became prime minister in June, has made clear his opposition to efforts to revive it. In a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, he referred to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that said Iran had started enriching uranium up to 20% purity with 166 advanced "IR-6" centrifuges at the underground Fordo facility. "The prime minister added that Iran was carrying out 'nuclear blackmail' as a negotiation tactic and that this must be met with an immediate cessation of negotiations and by concrete steps taken by the major powers," a statement from his office said. Under the deal, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% purity that is needed for reactor fuel; to install no more than 5,000 of the oldest and least efficient IR-1 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility; and to halt enrichment altogether at Fordo.

12-2-21 Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai says the Taliban are his brothers
The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has described the Taliban as his "brothers" in an exclusive interview. The BBC's Yalda Hakim also questioned Mr Karzai on when girls and women would be able to return to education and work. He said he had had conversations about this and that the Taliban has agreed they should go back. (Webmasters Comment: They lie like all barbaric savages!)

12-2-21 Covid: South Africa new cases double in 24 hours as Omicron spreads
Health officials say the new coronavirus variant Omicron has now become dominant in South Africa and is driving a sharp increase in new infections. Some 8,500 new Covid infections were registered in the latest daily figures. That is almost double the 4,300 cases confirmed the previous day. By contrast, daily infections were averaging between 200 and 300 in mid-November, a top South African scientist told the BBC. Omicron has now been detected in at least 24 countries around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The full picture in South Africa will not become clear until "people get so sick that they need to go to hospital" which is generally "three, four weeks later," says Prof Salim Abdool Karim of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus. "But the feedback we're getting from the ground is that there's really no red flags - we're not seeing anything dramatically different, what we're seeing is what we are used to," he told the BBC's Newsday programme. South Africa was the first country to report on the highly mutated new variant. Its National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has said more than 70% of all the virus genomes it sequenced last month have been of the new variant. India, Ghana, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the latest countries to have confirmed their first cases of Omicron. Others including the UK, US and Germany have also seen people infected by the new variant. Many questions about Omicron remain to be answered, including how much protection current vaccines provide. The WHO has categorised it as a "variant of concern", and says early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. Earlier this week, countries around the world restricted travel from southern Africa as details of the spread emerged. This prompted South Africa's foreign ministry to complain that it was being punished - instead of applauded - for discovering Omicron.

12-2-21 Covid-19 news: Omicron linked to sharp rise in cases in South Africa
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. Omicron has become the dominant variant in South Africa. The omicron variant of the coronavirus is driving a sharp rise in covid-19 infections in South Africa and has rapidly become the dominant variant in the country, health officials have said. Yesterday, South Africa reported 8561 new covid-19 cases, almost double the count from the previous day. The proportion of tests with positive results jumped to 16.5 per cent on Wednesday from 10.2 per cent a day before, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said, a strong indication that the rise in cases is not simply due to increased testing. The NICD said omicron, which was first detected on 8 November, accounted for 74 per cent out of 249 virus genomes it sequenced last month. There is concern that omicron may get around immunity to some extent, but “protection against severe disease and vaccines should be less affected”, the institute’s latest surveillance report said. The UK has approved a new antibody-based drug treatment for covid-19 made by GlaxoSmithKline. The company says initial tests in the lab suggest that it works against the omicron variant. Clinical trial results found that Xevudy (sotrovimab) cuts hospital admission and death by 79 per cent in people at high risk. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has authorised the therapy for people with mild to moderate covid-19 who are at high risk of developing severe disease. The UK government has ordered around 100,000 doses of the drug. Scientists believe they may have found the trigger behind the extremely rare blood clot complications linked to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. A study suggests the reaction can be traced to the way adenoviruses, which are used by the vaccine to shuttle the coronavirus’ genetic material into cells, bind with a protein in the blood known as platelet factor 4 (PF4). Researchers think this may spark a chain reaction in the immune system which can culminate in the development of blood clots – a condition known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT).

12-1-21 Michigan school shooting: Student kills three and wounds eight
A 15-year-old has killed three fellow students and injured eight others, including a teacher, in a high school shooting in the US state of Michigan. The victims have been named as Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Hana St Juliana, 14. Officials say they do not know whether they were targeted. Police allege the suspect, a pupil at the school, used a handgun that his father had bought on Friday. Students have described hiding under desks during the attack. Some students had reportedly stayed at home on Tuesday because of safety concerns. Police received the first emergency calls from the high school in the town of Oxford, about 40 miles (65km) from Detroit, at 12:51 local time (17:51GMT). Within minutes, more than 100 calls had been placed to emergency services. Officials say the suspect surrendered five minutes after police were called when officers confronted the teenager in a school corridor. No shots were fired during the arrest, and the suspect was not injured, police said, adding that he was carrying a semi-automatic handgun that still contained seven rounds of ammunition at the time. The precise sequence of events remains unclear, but police said they believed the youth had carried the weapon into school in a backpack, and had emerged from a bathroom brandishing the gun. Three students died in the attack: two girls, Madisyn Baldwin and Hana St Juliana, and Tate Myre, who died in a local deputy's car before the officer could get him to the hospital. More than 32,000 people have signed an online petition to rename the school's stadium after Tate, who was one of Michigan's most promising young American footballers. Two of the injured were undergoing surgery on Tuesday evening, while the other six were in a stable condition with gunshot wounds. A teacher whose shoulder had a graze wound had been discharged from hospital. Oakland County Sheriff, Mike Bouchard, said that investigators were at a loss to explain what might have precipitated "an unspeakable and unforgivable" act of violence, adding that the suspect was not co-operating with authorities.

12-1-21 CNN's Chris Cuomo suspended over help to governor brother
CNN star Chris Cuomo has been suspended indefinitely over help he gave his ex-New York governor brother while he was battling sex abuse allegations. The decision came after the New York attorney general released new documents that showed the extent of his work for his older sibling, Andrew Cuomo. CNN said the documents show "a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew". Andrew Cuomo resigned in August after prosecutors said he harassed staff. Chris Cuomo's behind-the-scenes efforts to help his politician brother were widely considered a breach of journalistic ethics in the media industry. The thousands of pages release by Attorney General Letitia James on Monday show that the younger Cuomo continuously pressed the governor's staff to let him play a larger role in his brother's defence. "You need to trust me," he texted Melissa DeRosa, the governor's secretary, in March. "We are making mistakes we can't afford," he added. Last year CNN briefly suspended its rule barring Cuomo from covering his brother as New York became the global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. The host began interviewing his brother on air and praising his leadership as governor. The network had previously defended Cuomo, who joined the channel in 2013, amid the controversy surrounding his efforts to help his powerful brother. But CNN said in a statement on Tuesday: "The documents, which we were not privy to before their public release, raise serious questions. "When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother's staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly. "But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second. "However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew."

12-1-21 Tel Aviv named as world's most expensive city to live in
Tel Aviv has been named as the most expensive city in the world to live in, as soaring inflation and supply-chain problems push up prices globally. The Israeli city came top for the first time in a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), climbing from fifth place last year and pushing Paris down to joint second with Singapore. Damascus, in war-torn Syria, retained its place as the cheapest in the world. The survey compares costs in US dollars for goods and services in 173 cities. The EIU said the data it collected in August and September showed that on average prices had risen 3.5% in local currency terms - the fastest inflation rate recorded over the past five years. Transport has seen the biggest price increases, with the cost of a litre of petrol up by 21% on average in the cities studied. Tel Aviv's climb to the top of the EIU's World Cost of Living rankings mainly reflected the soaring value of Israel's currency, the shekel, against the dollar. The local prices of around 10% of goods also increased significantly, especially for groceries. The survey found Tel Aviv was the second most expensive city for alcohol and transport, fifth for personal care items, and sixth for recreation. Tel Aviv's mayor, Ron Huldai, warned in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper that rising property prices - not included in the EIU's calculations - meant the city was heading towards an "explosion". "Tel Aviv will become increasingly more expensive, just as the entire country is becoming more expensive," he said. "The fundamental problem is that in Israel there is no alternative metropolitan centre. In the United States, there is New York, Chicago, Miami and so on. In Britain, there's Greater London, Manchester and Liverpool. There you can move to another city if the cost of living is too onerous."

12-1-21 EU launches €300bn bid to challenge Chinese influence
The EU has revealed details of a €300bn (£255bn; $340bn) global investment plan, described as a "true alternative" to China's Belt and Road strategy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the Global Gateway scheme should become a trusted brand. China has funded rail, roads and ports but has been accused of leaving some countries saddled with debt. The Commission chief said countries need "trusted partners" to design projects that were sustainable. The EU is looking at how it can leverage billions of euros, drawn from member states, financial institutions and the private sector. This will largely take the form of guarantees or loans, rather than grants. Mrs von der Leyen said the EU wanted to show that a different, democratic approach could deliver on projects that focused on tackling climate change as well as global health security and sustainable development for developing countries. Projects had to be of high quality, with a high level of transparency and good governance, and had to deliver tangible results for the countries involved, she explained. One EU official told the BBC that Africa would be a major focus of the scheme. China's strategy has reached into Africa, Asia, the Indo-Pacific and the EU too. China's Cosco company owns two-thirds of the huge Greek container port at Piraeus and the China Road and Bridge Corporation has built a key bridge in Croatia. "When it comes to investment choices," said the Commission president, "the few options that exist too often come with a lot of small print which includes big consequences, be it financially, politically but also socially." Andrew Small, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told the BBC it marked "the first serious effort from the European side to put packages together and figure out financing mechanisms, so countries considering taking loans from China have an alternative option".

11-30-21 Covid booster shots are pushing protection to unexpected heights
Evidence suggests that vaccine booster programmes can take people’s covid-19 protection to unexpectedly high levels, but we don’t yet know how effective existing vaccines will be against the omicron variant. While the emergence of the omicron variant has caused concern worldwide, there is cause for some optimism: emerging evidence on vaccine booster programmes reveals that a third dose can take people’s coronavirus protection to unexpectedly high levels. It has long been predicted that the covid-19 vaccines from Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech, which were designed as two-dose regimens, may eventually require a third shot. After studies suggested that vaccine effectiveness was waning, many countries began booster programmes, including the UK, which began offering third doses in September to people who are 50 or older and certain other groups. It later widened that to those aged 40 and over. There was disappointment that boosters were needed after only six months, but the initial signs for how well third jabs are working have been no let-down. In October, a randomised trial found that people who had received a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had about 95 per cent fewer infections than people who had only had two jabs. While vaccine effectiveness tends to be lower in the wider world than in trials, real world figures have also been encouraging. In people over the age of 50, those who had a booster were about 93 per cent less likely to have a symptomatic infection than those who were unvaccinated, regardless of whether their first two jabs were AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech, according to an analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). “It’s really impressive,” says Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia, UK. The most recent results from the UKHSA suggest that, in the over 70s, for example, protection levels are now higher than they were in August, and seem to be continuing to rise.

11-30-21 Covid-19 news: All UK adults to be offered boosters to tackle omicron
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. All UK adults to be offered booster jab. Covid-19 vaccine booster doses will be offered to everyone over the age of 18 in the UK. The move follows a recommendation from the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) yesterday, and is intended to limit the impact of the omicron coronavirus variant. The minimum gap between a person’s second vaccine dose and their booster is also to be halved from six months to three months, based on recommendations made by the JCVI. The committee also recommended that children aged between 12 and 15 should be invited for a second jab. Face coverings are now mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England, as of 4am today. The restrictions were put in place following the detection of 14 cases of omicron in the UK. Face coverings haven’t been mandated by the UK government since 19 July 2021. The omicron variant is a “cause for concern, not panic”, according to US president Joe Biden. No cases of the variant have been discovered in the US so far, but Biden said it was “almost inevitable” that they would be found soon. “We’re going to fight and beat this new variant,” he told journalists at the White House on Monday. The omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, and has prompted calls for high income countries to donate more vaccine doses to lower income countries. China’s president Xi Jinping announced yesterday that the country will give one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to Africa. He said 600 million doses would be donated directly, while the other 400 million doses would be provided through joint partnerships between Chinese firms and African countries.

11-30-21 Covid: Omicron lockdown not needed for now, Biden says
US President Joe Biden has called the Omicron Covid-19 variant a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic" a day after it was detected in North America. He said he saw no need for a new lockdown "for now... if people are vaccinated and wear their masks". Cases have been found in Canada, and the US has imposed travel bans on eight southern African countries. Mr Biden added that pharmaceutical companies were making contingency plans for new jabs if they are needed. At the White House on Monday, the president said it was "almost inevitable" that Omicron, first reported by South Africa, would be found in the US eventually. "We're going to fight and beat this new variant," he said. Late last week, the US announced restrictions on travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Canada, the UK and the EU and other countries have also restricted travel from southern Africa. On Sunday, Canada said the Omicron variant had been discovered in two patients who had recently travelled to Nigeria. A third case was announced on Monday. Mr Biden said the travel ban had bought some time for the US to study the new variant. While the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed Omicron a "variant of concern", it is still not clear whether it is associated with more transmission or more risk of evading vaccines. ritics noted that Mr Biden accused former President Donald Trump of "hysterical xenophobia" after he limited travel from China in January 2020 as the coronavirus spread in the US. Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dismissed the latest flight restrictions as a "knee-jerk reaction". The state has taken steps to ban Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates in recent months. "In Florida, we will not let them lock you down," Mr DeSantis said. "We will not let them take your job. We will not let them harm your businesses. We will not let them close your schools."

11-30-21 Covid-19 news: All UK adults to be offered boosters to tackle omicron
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. All UK adults to be offered booster jab. Covid-19 vaccine booster doses will be offered to everyone over the age of 18 in the UK. The move follows a recommendation from the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) yesterday, and is intended to limit the impact of the omicron coronavirus variant. The minimum gap between a person’s second vaccine dose and their booster is also to be halved from six months to three months, based on recommendations made by the JCVI. The committee also recommended that children aged between 12 and 15 should be invited for a second jab. Face coverings are now mandatory again in shops and on public transport in England, as of 4am today. The restrictions were put in place following the detection of 14 cases of omicron in the UK. Face coverings haven’t been mandated by the UK government since 19 July 2021. The omicron variant is a “cause for concern, not panic”, according to US president Joe Biden. No cases of the variant have been discovered in the US so far, but Biden said it was “almost inevitable” that they would be found soon. “We’re going to fight and beat this new variant,” he told journalists at the White House on Monday. The omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, and has prompted calls for high income countries to donate more vaccine doses to lower income countries. China’s president Xi Jinping announced yesterday that the country will give one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines to Africa. He said 600 million doses would be donated directly, while the other 400 million doses would be provided through joint partnerships between Chinese firms and African countries.

11-30-21 Covid: Omicron variant in Netherlands earlier than thought
The new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, was present in the Netherlands earlier than previously thought, officials say. It was identified in two test samples taken in the country between 19 and 23 November, which is before the variant was first reported by South Africa. It is not clear whether those who took the tests had visited southern Africa. It was previously thought that two flights that arrived from South Africa on Sunday had brought the first cases of the variant to the Netherlands. Fourteen people on the flights to the capital, Amsterdam, tested positive for Omicron, among 61 passengers who were found to have coronavirus. However, while the two new samples reveal Omicron was in the Netherlands earlier than thought, they do not predate the cases in southern Africa. The variant was first found in a specimen collected on 9 November, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Early evidence suggests Omicron has a higher re-infection risk. But scientists say it will take about three weeks before it is known how the heavily mutated variant impacts on the effectiveness of vaccines. "In a special PCR test, the samples showed an abnormality in the spike protein," the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) which announced the earlier cases, said on Tuesday. "This raised the concern that the Omicron variant... might be involved. [Health officials] will notify the people involved and start source and contact tracing," it said. The RIVM also said that a number of different strains of Omicron were found among the passengers on board the two flights on Sunday. "This means that the people were very probably infected independently from each other, from different sources and in different locations," a spokesman said. Dutch authorities, meanwhile, are also seeking to contact and test thousands of passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The US, Canada, the UK and the EU have all restricted travel from southern Africa amid concern over the new variant. But the UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was "deeply concerned" about the isolation of southern Africa, adding that "the people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available".

11-30-21 Dozens of former Afghan forces killed or disappeared by Taliban, rights group says
More than 100 former Afghan security forces have been killed by the Taliban or have disappeared since the militants seized control, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. The rights group said an amnesty promised by Taliban's leadership had not prevented local commanders from targeting former soldiers and police. HRW accused the leadership of "condoning" the "deliberate" killings. A Taliban spokesman recently denied any revenge killings were taking place. The group seized control of Afghanistan in August as the US withdrew its last troops after 20 years of war, deposing the government of Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban assured former government staff that they would be safe under a general amnesty towards those who had worked for the police, army, or other branches of the state. But many doubted the substance of the amnesty. The Taliban have a long history of killing members of the security forces and civil society figures. The group is widely held responsible for a ruthless and bloody campaign of assassinations in the 18 months between early 2020 and their takeover of the country in August. The victims included judges, journalists and peace activists. Analysts say that campaign was designed to eliminate potential critics ahead of a return to power and instil fear in those left alive. According to the HRW report, published on Tuesday, the targeted killings have continued under the Taliban administration, with more than 100 people being killed or having disappeared across four provinces - Ghazni, Helmand, Kunduz, and Kandahar. The charity said the Taliban had directed members of surrendering security forces units to register to receive a letter guaranteeing their safety, but instead used the information to detain and execute or "disappear" individuals within days of their registration. The Taliban have also used employment records left behind by the former government to identify people for arrest and execution, HRW said.

11-29-21 US and Iran seek to break impasse at talks on reviving nuclear deal
Critical talks with Iran to prevent the collapse of a nuclear deal have resumed in Vienna after a five-month pause. Officials are discussing the possible return of the US to the 2015 accord, which limited Iran's nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. Iran has violated key commitments since then-President Donald Trump pulled out in 2018 and reinstated US sanctions. Joe Biden is willing to lift them if Iran reverses the breaches. But Iran wants the US to make the first move. Western diplomats have warned that time is running out to negotiate a solution because of the significant advances Iran has made in its uranium enrichment programme, which is a possible pathway to a nuclear bomb. Iran insists that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful. The talks between Iran and the five countries still party to what is known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK - began in the Austrian capital in April, with US representatives participating indirectly. A senior US official told the New York Times last week that an agreement on which steps needed to be taken and when by Washington and Tehran was "largely complete" before the Iranian presidential election in June. Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner and strident critic of the West, won the race to succeed Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who negotiated the JCPOA with Barack Obama's administration. Mr Raisi promised before taking office in August that he would not to let the talks drag on, but he did not agree to return to Vienna until earlier this month. The Iranian foreign ministry has said it wants an "admission of culpability" from the US; the immediate lifting of all US sanctions; and a "guarantee" that no future US president will unilaterally abandon the deal again. "To ensure any forthcoming agreement is ironclad, the West needs to pay a price for having failed to uphold its part of the bargain," Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, wrote in the Financial Times on Sunday.

11-29-21 Covid: Dutch police arrest quarantine hotel escapees
Dutch police say they have detained a couple who escaped from a Covid-quarantine hotel. The arrests were made on a plane in Amsterdam's Schiphol airport just before it departed to Spain on Sunday. The Spanish man and Portuguese woman were later handed over to the country's health service, local media reported. It comes after 13 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa last week tested positive for the new coronavirus variant. They are among 61 passengers who tested positive for Covid. It is not known whether the detained couple were among those passengers. Local media are reporting that they managed to flee a quarantine hotel in the north-western Kennemerland region, where travellers from South Africa are currently in self-isolation. The escapees could be prosecuted for violating Dutch quarantine rules, De Telegraaf newspaper says. An extended partial lockdown came into force on Sunday morning across the Netherlands, amid record Covid cases and concerns over the new variant. Bars, restaurants and shops - whose opening hours have already been restricted for several weeks - are required to close earlier than before, and there is a limit on the number of guests allowed in homes. People are also being encouraged to work from home where possible, but nurseries, schools and universities across the country remain open. Thousands of people protested after the measures were announced earlier this month. The Netherlands has had nearly 20,000 confirmed Covid-related deaths since the pandemic started. But data shows the country has recorded 1,124 deaths per million of its population, one of the lowest numbers in western Europe. Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa on Wednesday, and early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. It has been categorised by the WHO as a "variant of concern".

11-29-21 Covid-19 news: More cases of omicron found in the UK
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. Six omicron cases identified in Scotland. Six cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been identified in Scotland, it was announced today. Some of the individuals affected have no recent history of travel, and the source of their infections is not clear. Contact tracers are trying to find the origin of the virus in Scotland. All close contacts of suspected omicron cases are advised to self-isolate for ten days – regardless of vaccination status. The news follows the confirmation of three other UK cases of the variant over the weekend in Essex, Nottingham and London. The omicron variant poses a “very high” global risk of infection, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Sunday. The agency warned that “there could be future surges of covid-19, which could have severe consequences”. Member states have been urged to accelerate vaccination programmes, particularly for people who are vulnerable and those who are not yet fully vaccinated. No deaths have been linked to the variant so far. Omicron was first detected on 23 November in South Africa, and new cases have since been uncovered in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia. Japan will ban all foreign travellers entering the country from tomorrow in light of the emergence of the omicron variant. Israel has temporarily restricted the entry of tourists as of 28 November, and Morocco has implemented a two-week suspension of incoming passenger flights as of 29 November.

11-28-21 Omicron Netherlands: 13 air passengers test positive for new variant
The new coronavirus variant Omicron has been detected in 13 people who arrived in the Dutch capital Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa. They are among 61 passengers who tested positive for coronavirus. It comes as tighter restrictions come into force in the Netherlands, amid record Covid cases and concerns over the new variant. This includes early closing times for hospitality and cultural venues, and limits on home gatherings. Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) by South Africa on Wednesday, and early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. It has been categorised by the WHO as a "variant of concern". The Dutch National Institute for Public Health announced the 13 Omicron cases on Sunday, but noted that its investigation had "not yet been completed", meaning the new variant could still be found in more test samples. Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge made an "urgent request" for people who have returned from southern Africa to get tested for Covid "as soon as possible". "It is not unthinkable that there are more cases in the Netherlands," he told reporters. Cases of the heavily mutated variant have now been reported in a number of countries around the world, including several in Europe, such as the UK, Germany and Italy. The flights by Dutch national carrier KLM from Johannesburg arrived on Friday morning. The 600 passengers on board were held for several hours after arriving while they were tested for the virus. New York Times correspondent Stephanie Nolen, who was on one of the flights, tweeted that the passengers were not even brought water while they remained on the plane. Passengers travelling from South Africa to the UK via Amsterdam told the BBC that they were held on the tarmac at Schiphol airport for four hours, before eventually disembarking.

11-28-21 Covid: Swiss back government on Covid pass as cases surge
Swiss voters appear to have backed the government's measures to tackle Covid, early projections suggest. More than 60% opposed moves to remove some restrictions, including the Covid vaccination pass, Swiss media reported. Sunday's referendum came after organisers said the pass was an unnecessary restriction of freedoms. With just under two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated, the Swiss have one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe. Now, Covid-19 infections are rising exponentially, with case numbers up by 40-50% each week. From the start of the pandemic the Swiss government has performed a tricky balancing act, trying to introduce measures to control the spread of Covid while still staying true to Switzerland's system of direct democracy, in which the government has little formal power and the people have the final say. Switzerland's lockdowns were never as strict as its neighbours'. People were allowed outside for exercise whenever they wanted and the schools only closed for a few weeks. But last summer, with cases falling dramatically, Switzerland didn't have a celebratory, UK-style "freedom" day either. Instead, a Covid certificate was introduced with proof of vaccination, negative test, or immunity through having had the virus. In September it became obligatory to enter bars, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sporting events, and face-to-face university classes. But not everyone agrees. Vaccination has long been a sensitive issue here, especially in German-speaking Switzerland. A belief that natural immunity is best led to a drop in childhood measles vaccinations that sparked a surge in measles cases across Europe. Meanwhile, in the alpine communities, a historic pride in their own independence rooted, some say, in the time when the mountain villages were cut off from the world each winter, means there is resistance to the government issuing orders.

11-28-21 Covid: Israel to impose travel ban for foreigners over new variant
Israel is to ban foreigners from entering the country for 14 days and use surveillance to halt the spread of the new Covid variant, local media report. The ban is expected to come into effect at midnight on Sunday, following full cabinet approval. Israel has so far confirmed one case of the potentially more infectious Omicron variant first detected in South Africa. Many countries have since banned travel to South Africa and its neighbours. South Africa has complained that it is being punished - instead of applauded - for discovering Omicron earlier this month. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the new variant is "of concern", with early evidence suggesting a higher re-infection risk. However, the WHO has warned against countries hastily imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a "risk-based and scientific approach". The Israeli coronavirus cabinet agreed a series of new restrictions at a crisis meeting late on Saturday and are subject to final approval by the larger cabinet. In addition to the entry ban for non-Israelis, a three-day mandatory quarantine would be required for all vaccinated Israeli nationals, and a seven-day quarantine for those who have not been vaccinated. The cabinet also authorised surveillance of confirmed coronavirus patients by the Israel's Shin Bet security agency. In a statement, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said phone-tracking technology would be used. Earlier on Saturday, the Israeli authorities had put 50 African nations on the so-called "red" list. All Israeli nationals returning from those countries must quarantine in the government-approved hotels and undergo Covid tests. A ban on foreigners entering Israel from most African countries was imposed on Friday. Israel has confirmed more than 1.3 million Covid infections since the start of the pandemic, with over 8,100 deaths, according to America's Johns Hopkins university.

11-27-21 Covid: South Africa 'punished' for detecting new Omicron variant
South Africa has complained it is being punished - instead of applauded - for discovering Omicron, a concerning new variant of Covid-19. The foreign ministry made the statement as countries around the world restrict travel from southern African countries as details of the spread emerged. Early evidence suggests Omicron has a higher re-infection risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday that the new variant was being considered as "of concern". Several cases have been identified in Europe, including two in the UK and one in Belgium. Single suspected cases were also found in Germany and the Czech republic. The new variant has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. Hundreds of passengers arriving in the Netherlands from South Africa are being tested for the new variant. Some 61 people on two KLM flights tested positive for Covid-19 and have been quarantined at a hotel near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport while they have further tests, Dutch officials said. The Netherlands is currently struggling with a record-breaking surge in cases. An extended partial lockdown comes into force there on Sunday evening. The new Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November. A statement by the South African foreign ministry on Saturday strongly criticised the travel bans. "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished," it said. The bans were "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker". The statement added that the reaction had been completely different when new variants were discovered elsewhere in the world. On Friday and Saturday, a number of countries announced new measures, The WHO said the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa's provinces. "This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the UN public health body said in a statement on Friday. It said "the first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November".

11-27-21 Covid: Dozens test positive on SA-Netherlands flights
Sixty-one people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa have tested positive for Covid-19, Dutch officials say. They have been placed in isolation at a hotel near Schiphol airport. They were among some 600 passengers held for several hours after arrival while they were tested for the virus. The Dutch authorities are carrying out further testing to see if there are any cases of Omicron, named on Friday as a variant of concern by the WHO. The variant was first reported to the World Health Organization in South Africa on 24 November. In the last few hours many countries around the world have restricted travel from the southern African region. Meanwhile the Netherlands is one of several European countries struggling to contain record numbers of infections. A partial lockdown will be extended on Sunday, with all hospitality and cultural venues forced to close between 17:00 and 05:00, at least until 19 December. The flights by Dutch national carrier KLM from Johannesburg arrived at 10:30 and 11:00 local time (09:30 and 10:00 GMT) on Friday. The Dutch government had by then already restricted travel from the region because of the new variant and arranged for the passengers to be tested and isolated. Some expressed frustration about being kept on the plane without food or drink. Passengers travelling from Cape Town to Manchester via Amsterdam told the BBC that they were held on the tarmac at Schiphol airport for four hours, before eventually disembarking. New York Times correspondent Stephanie Nolen, who was on the flight, tweeted that the passengers were not even brought water while they remained on the plane. When they were eventually allowed to leave, some passengers shared photos of themselves clustered together in a room with little ventilation. On Saturday the Dutch health authority said 61 people on the flights had tested positive.

11-27-21 Covid: US joins EU in restricting flights from southern Africa over new coronavirus variant
The US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries to try to contain a new coronavirus variant spreading there. From Monday, only US citizens and residents will be allowed to travel from the region. This follows a similar flight ban imposed by the EU and the UK. Canada is also introducing travel restrictions. The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier declared the new variant to be "of concern", naming it Omicron. US officials said flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be blocked, mirroring earlier moves taken by the EU. The ban will come into effect on Monday. In a statement, President Joe Biden called the move a "precautionary measure" taken until more is known about the variant. Canada is also shutting its borders to foreign travellers who have recently been to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Foreign citizens will be banned from Canada if they have been to the seven nations in the past 14 days. The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November, and has since been identified in other countries. South Africa's health ministry has criticised the rush to impose new travel restrictions, calling them "draconian", and contrary to WHO guidance. Scientists say they still have much to learn about the virus's new mutations, and the WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as experts work to determine how transmissible it is. The WHO on Friday said preliminary evidence suggested the new variant carried a higher risk of reinfection than other variants. Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means Covid vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan, China, may not be as effective.

11-27-21 Covid: Swiss vote on ending restrictions while cases surge
Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset is in a bit of bind. With just under two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated, the Swiss have one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe. Now, Covid-19 infections are rising exponentially, with case numbers rising by 40% to 50% each week. So is the health minister planning new restrictions, like neighbouring Germany, or even making vaccination mandatory, like Austria? Not a bit of it. In fact, on Sunday, Switzerland votes on getting rid of some Covid restrictions altogether. From the start of the pandemic the Swiss government has performed a tricky balancing act, trying to introduce measures to control the spread of Covid, while still staying true to Switzerland's system of direct democracy, in which the government has little formal power and the people have the final say. Switzerland's lockdowns were never as strict as its neighbours. People were allowed outside for exercise whenever they wanted and the schools only closed for a few weeks. But last summer, with cases falling dramatically, Switzerland didn't have a celebratory, UK-style "freedom" day either. Instead, a Covid certificate was introduced with proof of vaccination, negative test, or immunity through having had the virus. In September it became obligatory to enter bars, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sporting events, and face-to-face university classes. Vaccination has long been a sensitive issue here, especially in German-speaking Switzerland. A belief that natural immunity is best led to a drop in childhood measles vaccinations that sparked a surge in measles cases across Europe. Meanwhile, in the alpine communities, a historic pride in their own independence rooted, some say, in the time when the mountain villages were cut off from the world each winter, means there is resistance to the government issuing orders.


FEMINISM

12-3-21 Ex-nurse gets 10 years in prison for raping incapacitated patient
An Arizona man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting an incapacitated woman who gave birth at a clinic where she was under his care. Ex-nurse Nathan Sutherland was accused of raping the victim, who has with severe disabilities, at the Hacienda HealthCare facility in Phoenix. He was arrested in 2018 after his DNA matched a sample from the newborn. Sutherland pleaded guilty to abuse of a vulnerable adult in September. The victim, who was 29 years old at the time of the baby's birth, had reportedly been in the care of the clinic since she was a toddler. In addition to his prison sentence, Sutherland will be placed on probation for the rest of his life and will be required to register as a sex offender after his release. In a statement quoted by US media, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said that the sentence was the maximum allowable under Sutherland's plea agreement. She added that the sentence "took into consideration numerous aggravating and mitigating factors, including the vulnerability of the victim and the position of trust by the defendant". The BBC has reached out to both the Maricopa County Attorney's office and to Sutherland's attorney for comment. Recordings of 911 calls released to the media show that, at the time the victim gave birth, the Hacienda HealthCare facility was unaware that she was pregnant. "One of the patients just had a baby, and we had no idea she was pregnant," a nurse can be heard saying on the call. "We were not prepared for this." In May 2019, the victim's family filed a lawsuit against Hacienda HealthCare. The lawsuit noted that a medical examination revealed that the woman had been "violated repeatedly" and may have been pregnant before the incident that led to Sutherland's arrest. In June, an Arizona judge approved a $15m (£11.3m) settlement agreed between the victim's family and the estate of a doctor - who died last December - who cared for her at the facility. The state of Arizona previously settled with the family for $7.5m.

12-3-21 Ghislaine Maxwell: Employee told 'not to look Jeffrey Epstein in the eye'
British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell tightly oversaw every detail in Jeffrey Epstein's Florida mansion, a former employee has alleged. At Ms Maxwell's trial, Juan Alessi said as "lady of the house", she ordered a "tremendous" number of rules, telling him not to look Epstein in the eye. He also accused her of having two underage girls driven to the home. She has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes from 1994-2004. Ms Maxwell has been in a US jail since her arrest last year, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted. The defence says she is being used as a scapegoat for Epstein's crimes, following his death in prison in 2019. During the Manhattan court hearing, prosecutors produced an instruction manual allegedly given to staff at the late financier and convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein's Palm Beach mansion. "Remember that you see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, except to answer a question directed at you," the 58-page booklet read. It ordered staff to "NEVER disclose Mr Epstein or Ms Maxwell's activities or whereabouts to anyone." A lengthy checklist to review prior to Epstein arriving at the mansion also required that a gun be placed in the drawer of a side table in his bedroom. The manual was dated after Mr Alessi's departure in 2002, but he said he remembered a previous version of it with similar content. He also recalled seeing two girls who appeared to be aged 14 or 15, including one who testified this week under the pseudonym "Jane". Mr Alessi said he first met "Jane" in 1994 when she visited the mansion with her mother, and that he once picked her up from school. He also recalled seeing her board a plane from Palm Beach with Epstein and Ms Maxwell. Earlier this week, "Jane" told jurors that she was subjected to years of sexual abuse by Epstein, from the age of 14. She alleged that Ms Maxwell was often present during the abuse and sometimes participated in the sex acts. Ms Maxwell's defence team will cross examine Mr Alessi on Friday.

12-2-21 Epstein accuser: Ghislaine Maxwell is a 'master manipulator'
The trial of Ghislaine Maxwell has begun in New York. Prosecutors say the former girlfriend of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein “preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be sexually abused." Maxwell, who's 59, faces eight charges of sex trafficking and other offences. The BBC spoke to Teresa Helm, who accused Epstein of sexually assaulting her at the age of 22, and described Maxwell as a "master manipulator".

12-2-21 Margaux Pinot: Shock over release of judoka’s partner in assault case
French athletes have expressed disbelief over the acquittal of a coach accused of domestic violence against Olympic judo champion Margaux Pinot. Ms Pinot accused her partner and judo trainer Alain Schmitt of punching and attempting to strangle her during an altercation over the weekend. The Olympic gold medallist, 27, filed a complaint against Mr Schmitt. He was arrested but denied the allegations and was acquitted in court. A judge said there was not "enough proof of guilt" for the prosecution to proceed when delivering his verdict in a preliminary hearing on Wednesday. "A court is never there to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying," the judge said. Shortly after the hearing, Ms Pinot tweeted a picture of her swollen face, marked by cuts and several bruises. In one tweet, in which she alluded to her wounds and "the blood strewn on the floor of my apartment", she asked: "What was missing? My death at the end, perhaps?" "It was probably judo that saved me," she added in the tweet. "And my thoughts are also with those women who can't say the same." Prosecutors have said they will appeal against the verdict. In court, they requested a one-year suspended prison sentence for what they described as "very serious violence". In her complaint, Ms Pinot accused Mr Schmitt of assaulting her at her home in a suburb of Paris during the night of Saturday and early hours of Sunday. She said she had escaped and taken refuge with neighbours, who called the police. Ms Pinot said she had been taken to hospital where she received treatment for several injuries, including a broken nose. But Mr Schmitt, 38, appeared in court to deny the allegations. He called them "100% false" and accused Ms Pinot of starting the fight, which he said had involved judo holds, according to French reports. French media said bruises were visible on his face as he described the incident as a fight between lovers. "I have never hit a woman in my life, it's rubbish," he told the court.

12-2-21 Peng Shuai: WTA announces immediate suspension of tournaments in China
The Women's Tennis Association has announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China amid concern for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Peng, 35, disappeared from public view for three weeks after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault. WTA chief Steve Simon said he had "serious doubts" that Peng was "free, safe and not subject to intimidation". "In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there," he said. In response, China said it "opposes the politicisation of sports". News of the WTA suspending tournaments in China has been removed from the internet in the country, although the WTA's account on Chinese social media site Weibo is still available. The WTA has repeatedly called for a full investigation into Peng's claims. There was widespread concern for Peng after she accused former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. She said she was "safe and well" during a video call with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, in November. However, the WTA said the video was "insufficient evidence" of Peng's safety. In a lengthy statement, Simon said he was "greatly concerned" about the risks players and staff could face if events were held in China in 2022. "The leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way," he said. "If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded - equality for women - would suffer an immense setback. "I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players." The suspension also includes tournaments in Hong Kong. World number one Novak Djokovic backed the WTA's "very bold and very courageous" move and said Peng's health was of the "utmost importance to the world of tennis". "I support fully the WTA's stance because we don't have enough information about Peng Shuai and her well-being," he added.

12-2-21 Ghislaine Maxwell: Defence lawyers seek to discredit key accuser
Defence lawyers for British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell have been trying to find inconsistencies in the testimony of a key accuser at her trial. The accuser, known as "Jane", says she was abused by Ms Maxwell and convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein aged 14. But on Wednesday, defence counsel Laura Menninger presented documents suggesting Jane was uncertain about Ms Maxwell's participation in the abuse. Ms Maxwell denies sex-trafficking charges. She has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes, covering a period from 1994-2004. She has been in a US jail since her arrest last year, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted. The defence claims she is being used as a scapegoat for Epstein's crimes, following his death in prison in 2019. Prosecutors argue the pair were "partners in crime" in sex abuse. They say Ms Maxwell, who also has American and French citizenship, recruited and groomed underage girls for her long-term companion Epstein to abuse. Epstein died in a New York prison cell on 10 August 2019 as he awaited trial on sex-trafficking charges in a federal case. His death was ruled to be a suicide. Jane is the first of four alleged victims to testify at the trial. Cross-examining the witness, defence lawyer Laura Menninger produced documents from law enforcement dating back to December 2019 suggesting that Jane was unclear about whether Ms Maxwell was present during the abuse, or whether she touched or kissed her. In her court appearance on Tuesday, Jane had described the alleged abuse - which went on from 1994 to 1997 - in graphic detail, saying that Ms Maxwell was present for much of it and was "very casual" about the encounters. Under cross-examination she denied changing her story and questioned the accuracy of the documents, adding that the statements she made then were never recorded. Through tears she said she had found it difficult to tell the officers involved in initial questioning "the most shameful, deepest secrets that I've been carrying around with me my whole life".

12-2-21 Supreme Court: Top US judges signal support for abortion limits
The US Supreme Court appears poised to accept a Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. In Wednesday's hearing into the case, conservative justices hinted that a majority backed upholding the law. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access. Anti-abortion activists are urging the court to "protect unborn children", but experts warn of an increase in maternal mortality if abortion is restricted. Both sides of the debate regard this case, known as Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization, as an all-or-nothing fight over abortion rights. Lawyers defending the Mississippi law have asked the court to overturn two previous landmark decisions regarding abortion. The first, 1973's Roe v Wade, gave women in the US an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and limited rights in the second trimester. In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v Casey, the court ruled that states could not place an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions before a foetus could survive outside the womb, at about 24 weeks. In the years since, the "foetal viability" standard has acted as a red line in abortion law, preventing any bans on abortion before this time. But anti-abortion campaigners hope the current ideological makeup of the court has created a new opening. The Supreme Court is the highest tribunal in the US, and rules on legal appeals involving constitutional and federal law. It has been reshaped by three appointments under former President Donald Trump, and has been called the most conservative-leaning in modern US history - with a six-to-three conservative majority. If the court strikes down Roe v Wade, or rules that the Mississippi law does not place an undue burden on women seeking abortions, at least 21 states are expected to introduce abortion restrictions, including outright bans after 15 weeks. In these states, nearly half of US women of reproductive age (18-49) - some 36 million people - could lose abortion access, according to research from Planned Parenthood, a healthcare organisation that provides abortions.

12-1-21 Roe v Wade: How a Mississippi legal challenge could upend abortion rights
Mississippi has called on the Supreme Court to overturn legalised abortion in a case that directly challenges the historic 1973 Roe v Wade ruling. If successful, America’s abortion policies could be transformed. The decision may not come until next spring. The BBC spoke to protesters and abortion supporters outside the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.

12-1-21 Alice Sebold apologises to man cleared of her rape
American author Alice Sebold has apologised for her part in the wrongful conviction of a man who was cleared last week of raping her in 1981. In her memoir Lucky, she described being raped and later telling police she had seen a black man in the street who she believed was her attacker. Anthony Broadwater was arrested and convicted, spending 16 years in prison. A statement from Mr Broadwater, released via his lawyers, said he was "relieved that she has apologised". In Ms Sebold's apology statement, she said: "I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you, and I know that no apology can change what happened to you and never will". Lucky sold more than one million copies and launched Ms Sebold's career as an author. She went on to write the novel The Lovely Bones which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film by Peter Jackson. Lucky's publisher announced on Tuesday that it would stop distributing the memoir while working with Ms Sebold to "consider how the work might be revised". The book detailed how Ms Sebold was attacked when she was an 18-year-old student at Syracuse University in New York. Months later, she reported seeing a black man in the street who she thought was her attacker, and alerted police. An officer then detained Mr Broadwater, who had reportedly been in the area at the time. After his arrest, Ms Sebold failed to pick him out in a police line-up, selecting another man. But Mr Broadwater was tried anyway and Ms Sebold identified him as her attacker in court. He was convicted based on her account and microscopic hair analysis. After he was released from prison in 1998, Mr Broadwater remained on the sex offenders register. He was exonerated on 22 November after a re-examination of the case found he had been convicted on insufficient and now-discredited forms of evidence.

12-1-21 Why US abortion laws could be changed by Supreme Court ruling
The US Supreme Court is about to hear the most important abortion case in a generation. On Wednesday it will consider a Mississippi law which asks the court to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Its final ruling, due in June next year, could cut off abortion services for tens of millions of women. A woman's right to abortion was established in 1973, following a Supreme Court ruling in a case known as Roe v Wade. The decision gave women in the US an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and limited rights in the second three months. Nearly two decades later the court made another key decision. In Planned Parenthood v Casey, the court ruled that states could not place an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions before foetal viability. In the US, this threshold for when foetuses can sustain life outside the womb has been set at about 23 or 24 weeks. A state law was passed in Mississippi in 2018 which would make most abortions illegal after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy - including those caused by rape or incest. It hasn't been enforced due to a legal challenge by Mississippi's only abortion provider, the Jackson Women's Health Organization. The US Supreme Court is now due to consider the case. Mississippi is asking for Roe v Wade to be overturned, and with it the constitutional right to an abortion in the US. If successful, states would be welcome to set their own standards for abortion - including outright bans before foetal viability. Nearly two dozen states are expected to introduce their own bans, some probably more severe than Mississippi's. In a legal brief filed this summer Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch - who will be defending the state's law - said that throwing out Roe would effectively return decision-making about abortion to the American people and their elected officials. "The matter should be returned to the States and the people," she wrote. Ms Fitch did not return a BBC request for comment. (Webmasters Comment: In the future women are to serve as breeding stock for males!)

12-1-21 Mike Pence asks Supreme Court to overturn abortion rights
Former US Vice-President Mike Pence has called on the Supreme Court to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade case that legalised abortion in the US. Mr Pence said the ruling was "a misguided decision" that harmed millions of unborn babies. If Roe v Wade is quashed, millions of women would lose access to abortions. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. A ruling is expected by next summer. The Mississippi ban includes abortions of pregnancies caused by rape or incest. The law, however, has not been enforced because of a legal challenge from the state's only abortion provider. At a news conference in Washington DC on Tuesday, Mr Pence said he hoped the Supreme Court will "make history" with a full reversal of Roe v Wade. The 1973 ruling gave women in the US an absolute right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and limited rights in the second three months. "We are asking the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Roe v Wade and restore the sanctity of human life to the centre of American law," the former vice-president said. Mr Pence also argued that the "fiat of unelected judges" is not reflective of popular opinion in the US. He believes elected, state-level officials are better placed to write abortion laws for their own jurisdictions. A nationwide ban on abortions is not on the horizon, but a ruling in Mississippi's favour would mean that US states would be able to develop their own abortion laws. Experts believe that abortions would soon become illegal in more than 20 other states. Twelve states have passed so-called trigger laws, which would automatically ban abortion if Roe was overruled. Others have either passed unconstitutional abortion bans in the years since Roe v Wade (which would be revived), or retained abortion restrictions from before Roe, which are currently unenforceable. Such a move would be "devastating" for low-income women, Katherine Franke, director of the centre for gender and sexuality law at Columbia University, told the BBC. It would increase maternal mortality and poverty, she added. (Webmasters Comment: In the future women are to serve as breeding stock for males!)

11-30-21 Australian parliament: One in three workers sexually harassed, says report
A third of employees in Australia's federal parliament have been sexually harassed, a landmark report has found. The report was commissioned after a former staffer, Brittany Higgins, said she had been raped by a colleague in a minister's office. Her story earlier this year triggered a wave of wide-ranging allegations of misconduct in Canberra. The victims were disproportionately women, said Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. The report, titled Set the Standard, found 51% of staffers had experienced some form of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault. "Such experiences leave a trail of devastation for individuals and their teams and undermine the performance of our parliament to the nation's detriments," said Ms Jenkins, the report's author. Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the findings as "appalling", adding: "I wish I found it more surprising". Mr Morrison has previously been accused of being "tone deaf" on issues disproportionately affecting women in parliament. The review, tabled in federal parliament on Tuesday, interviewed 1,723 people and 33 organisations. It found 63% of female parliamentarians had experienced sexual harassment - an even higher percentage than for political staffers. One unnamed MP told the review: "Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual. The point I make with that ... [w]as the culture allowed it, encouraged it." The report made recommendations including improving leadership and gender balances, and reducing a culture of alcohol. Ms Higgins said she urged MPs across the political divide to "implement these recommendations in full". "I want to thank the many brave people who shared their stories, which contributed to this review,'' she said.

11-30-21 Ghislaine Maxwell accused of preying on young girls for Epstein to abuse
British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell preyed on and groomed young girls for convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein to abuse, prosecutors have alleged. Ms Maxwell appeared in court in New York on Monday for the first day of her trial on sex trafficking charges. She denies the charges and her defence claims she is being used as a scapegoat for Epstein's crimes, following his death in prison in 2019. But prosecutors argue the pair were "partners in crime" in sex abuse. Ms Maxwell has been in a US jail since her arrest last year, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors say Ms Maxwell, who also has American and French citizenship, recruited and groomed underage girls for her long-term companion Epstein to abuse. "She preyed on vulnerable young girls, manipulated them, and served them up to be sexually abused," Assistant District Attorney Lara Pomerantz said in her opening statement. Epstein died in a New York prison cell on 10 August 2019 as he awaited trial on sex trafficking charges in a federal case. His death was ruled to be a suicide. Prosecutors argue Ms Maxwell was "essential" to Epstein's abuse, while the defence said Maxwell was only on trial because they cannot bring him to justice. "The charges against Ghislaine Maxwell are for things that Jeffrey Epstein did, but she is not Jeffrey Epstein," her lawyer Bobbi Sternheim argued. Ms Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of sex trafficking and other crimes. The allegations at trial cover the period 1994 to 2004. Prosecutors allege Ms Maxwell was a "right-hand" partner for Epstein, helping to groom vulnerable teenage girls as young as 14 for abuse at his luxurious residences. They described her as "the lady of the house" who "helped normalise abusive sexual conduct". Ms Maxwell's lawyers will argue her accusers might have faulty memories caused by time and contamination "by outside information, constant media reports and other influences".

11-30-21 Why France is declaring Josephine Baker a national hero
France is honouring the US-born 20th Century singer and activist Josephine Baker with a place in the Pantheon on Tuesday. She’s the first black woman to be remembered in the resting place of France’s national heroes, through her work on civil rights and for the Resistance during the Second World War.

11-29-21 Ghislaine Maxwell's sex-trafficking trial to begin in New York City
British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell is due to go on trial in New York City on sex trafficking and other charges. She is expected to challenge claims she groomed underage girls for convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein for sexual abuse. He died in prison in 2019. Ms Maxwell, 59, has been in a US jail since her arrest last year, awaiting the high-profile six-week trial. Ms Maxwell, who also has American and French citizenship, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against her. Lawyers for Ms Maxwell, as well as family members, have repeatedly complained about her conditions in jail and her legal team has made several unsuccessful applications for bail. Epstein died in a New York prison cell on 10 August 2019 as he awaited his trial on sex trafficking charges. The trial of Ms Maxwell, the daughter of late media mogul Robert Maxwell, is scheduled for 08:30 local time (13:30 GMT) on Monday. The prosecution is then expected to lay out the case and preview evidence and witnesses - but the defence is likely to question the credibility of some of the witnesses. No cameras will be allowed in the courtroom. According to a letter by Ms Maxwell's lawyer, the defence will say her accusers might have faulty memories. The letter says that leading experts in psychiatry and memory will be brought in to testify in her defence. Ms Maxwell is accused of having helped Epstein sexually abuse underage girls. US prosecutors allege she "played a critical role in the grooming and abuse" of minors. Four charges relate to the years 1994-97 when she was, according to an indictment, among Epstein's closest associates and also in an "intimate relationship" with him. Two other charges - of sex trafficking conspiracy and sex trafficking of a minor - came in an amended indictment and relate to the period 2001 and 2004. Sarah Ransome, one of Epstein's alleged victims, has told the BBC's Panorama programme that Ms Maxwell worked closely with him. She said: "Ghislaine controlled the girls. She was like the madam. She was like the nuts and bolts of the sex trafficking operation."

11-29-21 Magdalena Andersson: Sweden's first female PM returns after resignation
Sweden's first female prime minister has been reappointed to the top job after political turmoil forced her to resign within hours of taking the post last week. MPs backed Social Democratic Party leader Magdalena Andersson by a narrow margin in a new vote on Monday. She will attempt to lead a one-party government until an election in September next year. She stood down as PM last Wednesday after her coalition collapsed. Just hours earlier, Ms Andersson had been elected as Sweden's first female prime minister by a single vote in parliament. But the 54-year-old economist's plan for forming a new coalition government with the Green Party was thrown into disarray when her budget proposal failed to pass. Instead, parliament voted for a budget drawn up by a group of opposition parties, including the far-right Sweden Democrats. The Green Party said it would not accept a budget drafted by the far-right and walked away from the government, leading to its demise. By convention, the prime minister in Sweden is expected to resign if a coalition party leaves government. In Monday's vote in Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, 101 of its 349 members voted yes, 75 abstained and 173 voted no. To be appointed prime minister under Sweden's political system, a candidate only needs to avoid a majority voting against them. At a news conference after the vote, Ms Andersson said she was ready to "take Sweden forward" with a programme focused on welfare, climate change and crime. But without the support of other parties, Ms Andersson will struggle to pass legislation in parliament, where the centre-left Social Democrats hold 100 of 349 seats. A former junior swimming champion from the university city of Uppsala, Ms Andersson began her political career in 1996 as political adviser to then-Prime Minister Goran Persson. She has spent the past seven years as finance minister before becoming leader of the Social Democrats at the start of November. She replaced Stefan Lofven, who resigned as prime minister after seven years in power. Until Ms Andersson took over, Mr Lofven had remained prime minister of a caretaker government after being ousted in an unprecedented vote of no confidence in June.

11-28-21 New Zealand politician Julie Anne Genter cycles to hospital to give birth
A New Zealand MP cycled to hospital while in labour on Sunday only to give birth barely an hour later. "I genuinely wasn't planning to cycle in labour, but it did end up happening," Julie Anne Genter said on Facebook afterwards. The Green party's spokesperson for transport was not doing this for the first time - she was a minister three years ago when she took a similar trip. Ms Genter, 41, is a well-known and outspoken cycling advocate. The US-born politician said her contractions "weren't that bad" when she and her husband decided to cycle. She posted a picture of the couple in the hospital car park.

11-27-21 Peng Shuai: WTA concerned over 'censorship or coercion'
The head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) says he remains concerned about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top official of sexual assault. Steve Simon said he would not engage in further email communications because he was not convinced her earlier replies were not "influenced by others". Ms Peng disappeared from public view for three weeks after accusing the former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. The WTA has sought proof she is safe. The UN and US have also demanded information on her whereabouts along with a number of major tennis players including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic. Ms Peng, 35, who is one of China's top tennis players, had earlier this month written a 1,600-word post on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where she laid out her allegations against the 75-year-old Mr Zhang. This is the most significant case of its kind in China's slow-moving #MeToo movement. Last Sunday, Peng Shuai said she was safe and well in a video call involving International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. China has reacted angrily to the attention, particularly after the sceptical reaction to the IOC statement on the call - as well as a series of photographs and videos that appeared to show all was well with the athlete. Some have accused Mr Simon of ignoring Ms Peng's emails. On Saturday, a WTA spokesman told AFP news agency Mr Simon "remains deeply concerned that Peng is not free from censorship or coercion and decided not to re-engage via email until he was satisfied her responses were her own, and not those of her censors. "The WTA remains concerned about her ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly." Mr Simon has threatened to pull the WTA's business out of China, which would have a big effect. There are 10 WTA events scheduled to take place in the country next year including the Wuhan Open and WTA finals in Shenzhen. The Wuhan Open next year will be the first time tennis players have returned to the city since the start of the pandemic.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

12-3-21 Shell pulls out of Cambo oil field development
Oil giant Shell has pulled out of the controversial Cambo oil field development west of Shetland. The company had a 30% stake in the field, which has faced sustained criticism from environmental groups. Shell said the economic case for investment in the North Atlantic project was "not strong enough". Majority stakeholder Siccar Point Energy said it would continue talks with the UK government over the future of the field. Shell said it had carried out "comprehensive screening" before reaching a decision to "ensure the best returns for the business". A spokesperson said: "The economic case for investment in this project is not strong enough at this time, as well as having the potential for delays. "However, continued investment in oil and gas in the UK remains critical to the country's energy security. "We believe the North Sea - and Shell in it - has a critical role to play in the UK's energy mix, supporting the jobs and skills to enable a smooth transition to Britain's low-carbon future." The Cambo oil field is situated approximately 125km (75 miles) to the west of Shetland in water depths of between 1,050m (3,445ft) and 1,100m (3,609ft). It was originally licensed for exploration in 2001 and could yield hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. If approved by the Oil and Gas Authority, drilling could start as early as 2022 - and continue for 25 years. Project leader Siccar Point Energy said the development "remains critical" to the UK's economy and energy security. CEO Jonathan Roger said: "Whilst we are disappointed at Shell's change of position, we remain confident about the qualities of a project. "It will not only create over 1,000 direct jobs as well as thousands more in the supply chain, but also help ease the UK's transition to a low carbon future through responsibly produced domestic oil. "Given Shell's decision, we are now in discussions with our contractors, supply chain and wider stakeholders to review options."

12-3-21 The Southern Ocean is still swallowing large amounts of humans’ carbon dioxide emissions
Aircraft data counter ocean float studies suggesting the ocean stores less CO2 than thought. The Southern Ocean is still busily absorbing large amounts of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans’ fossil fuel burning, a study based on airborne observations of the gas suggests. The new results counter a 2018 report that had found that the ocean surrounding Antarctica might not be taking up as much of the emissions as previously thought, and in some regions may actually be adding CO2 back to the atmosphere. It’s not exactly a relief to say that the oceans, which are already becoming more acidic and storing record-breaking amounts of heat due to global warming, might be able to bear a little more of the climate change burden (SN: 4/28/17; SN: 1/13/21). But “in many ways, [the conclusion] was reassuring,” says Matthew Long, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. That’s because the Southern Ocean alone has been thought to be responsible for nearly half of the global ocean uptake of humans’ CO2 emissions each year. That means it plays an outsize role in modulating some of the immediate impacts of those emissions. However, the float-based estimates had suggested that, over the course of a year, the Southern Ocean was actually a net source of carbon dioxide rather than a sink, ultimately emitting about 0.3 billion metric tons of the gas back to the atmosphere each year. In contrast, the new findings, published in the Dec. 3 Science, suggest that from 2009 through 2018, the Southern Ocean was still a net sink, taking up a total of about 0.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. The 2018 study had used newly deployed deep-diving ocean floats, now numbering almost 200, that are part of a project called Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling, or SOCCOM. Calculations based on data collected from 2014 through 2017 by 35 of the floats suggested that parts of the ocean were actually releasing a great deal of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere during winter (SN: 6/2/19). That sparked concerns that the Southern Ocean’s role in buffering the impacts of climate change on Earth might not be so robust as once thought.

12-3-21 The drought ravaging East African wildlife and livestock
At least 26 million people are struggling for food following consecutive poor rainfall seasons in the Horn of Africa. Drought conditions in northern Kenya, much of Somalia and southern Ethiopia are predicted to persist until at least mid-2022, putting lives at risk. The situation is already so bad that wild animals are dying in their hundreds and herders are reporting losses of up to 70% of their livestock.

12-2-21 COP26: UK 'nowhere near' meeting targets agreed at Glasgow climate summit
The UK is "nowhere near" meeting emissions targets enshrined at the Glasgow climate summit, official advisers have warned. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) says that, at current rates, the UK will be contributing to a disastrous temperature rise of 2.7C by 2100. It says this could - in theory - be brought down to just under 2C. But this could only happen if ministers agree tougher policies, and if other nations slash emissions too. The government insists that it will meet all its climate change targets. Scientists say any temperature rise approaching 2C is extremely dangerous, so green groups want the UK to improve its emissions targets. But the CCC says Britain will set a better example to the world if it keeps the same targets but actually delivers them through stronger policies. It maintains that the government must nudge people towards greener lifestyles, and must tackle emissions from farming more aggressively. The committee's chief executive, Chris Stark, said: "The government is nowhere near achieving current targets. "If it sets tougher targets that will simply widen the gap between ambition and delivery. What we really need is to strengthen delivery - and show the world that it can be done." His group has produced a shortlist of ideas to support Britain's climate leadership. They include producing convincing plans to cut emissions by 78% by 2035; and drawing up agreements to radically reduce so-called "embodied emissions" from major polluters such as steel and cement. The CCC also says the UK should act to reduce embodied emissions in imported goods - the emissions created to make the stuff British residents buy. This could happen through taxes imposed on carbon-intensive goods being imported into the UK. Another proposed strategy could be based on the final agreement at COP to phase out inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.

12-2-21 2021 hurricane season was third most active
The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has now officially ended, and it's been the third most active on record. Though the last month has seen little tropical storm activity, all the pre-determined names have been exhausted for the second year in a row. There were 21 named tropical storms, including seven hurricanes, four of which were major hurricanes - where wind speeds were 111mph or greater. This puts 2021 behind 2020 and 2015 - the first and second most active years. Matthew Rosencrans, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (Noaa) Climate Prediction Center in the US, said: "Climate factors, which include La Nina, above normal sea surface temperatures earlier in the season, and above average West African Monsoon rainfall were the primary contributors for this above average hurricane season." Hurricane Ida was the most powerful and costliest storm of the year in the region. It made landfall initially in the Cayman Islands on 26 August as a tropical storm. Then it intensified in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and became a powerful Category 4 major hurricane, with wind speeds of 150mph. Ida eventually made landfall in Louisiana on 29 August, becoming the most destructive to hit the US state since Hurricane Katrina in 2015. As well as the damaging winds, Ida produced a lot of rainfall. Between 120 and 250mm fell in Louisiana, bringing widespread flash flooding. While Ida weakened soon after landfall, it travelled north-east through the US and stayed as a potent weather system with heavy rain and floods. Newark, New Jersey, had its wettest day on record - 213mm, surpassing the previous record of 171mm. While the 2021 season got off to a busy start, tropical storm and hurricane activity tailed off over the last few months. Tropical storm Wanda formed at the end of October, but before that, the last named storm was Victor, which formed and decayed in the open waters of the Atlantic at the end of September.

12-2-21 Impossible Foods in talks with UK farmers to swap livestock for trees
Exclusive: CEO of plant-based "meat" firm plans to show economic and climate change benefits of planting trees on land used for cattle and sheep production. The chief executive of Impossible Foods is in talks with UK farmers for a pilot project to swap livestock for trees to fight climate change. Pat Brown, who founded the fast-growing plant-based “meat” firm in 2011, says he wants to demonstrate the economic benefits of taking farmland out of cattle and sheep production to allow forests to grow on it and absorb carbon. He argues livestock farmers would be financially better off selling carbon offsetting permits to airlines and other polluting industries. “It’s very nascent. What I’m interested in doing is kind of like a… demonstration project to show that it is actually very financially sound to buy land from livestock farmers and manage it for biomass recovery and sell carbon offsets,” Brown tells New Scientist. The Stanford University scientist is one of a growing number of experts proposing land for meat production will need to be freed up to grow trees that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere if the world is to meets its climate goals. The UK government’s statutory climate advisers want to see a fifth of UK farmland taken out of production and used to store carbon by turning it over to tree-planting. “Almost every livestock farmer on Earth would make more money at $50 (£38) a tonne [of carbon], accumulating [plant] biomass on their land as opposed to livestock,” says Brown. The price of a tonne in the EU’s flagship CO2 trading scheme has been over €60 (£51) for the past month. On a recent trip to the UK for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Brown spoke with UK farmers about hosting a trial project. He says there was some scepticism, but he believes the wider adoption of the idea could be enthusiastic because “those farmers are making a pittance right now”.

12-2-21 New plan to pay farmers who protect winter soil
The empty brown fields of England's winter countryside could be transformed under government plans for farming. Cold naked acres will in future be clothed in vegetation as farmers are paid for sowing plants that bind the soil together. The aim is to hold precious topsoil on the land, instead of seeing it washed into rivers during heavy rainfall. But critics say it is not ambitious enough to reverse the UK's nature crisis. The changes are being introduced as part of a broad post-Brexit reform of the subsidies paid to farmers. Under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, farmers received taxpayers' cash proportional to the amount of land they owned - the richer the farmer, the bigger the subsidy. Some £1.8bn in grants was dispensed annually under that EU scheme. But now the government is demanding what it calls "public money for public goods". That means payments will only be for protecting species, planting trees and hedges, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting water courses and the soil. The UK nations all have their own farm support plans, but ministers expect the scheme in England - the Sustainable Farming Incentive - will entice 70% of farmers to smother 70% of land in wintertime with "cover crops" such as grasses, beans, brassicas and herbs. These crops won't be planted for harvesting; they are for improving the soil. It's part of a widespread realisation that soils globally have been neglected, even though they are the foundation for ecosystems and crop fertility. Many British farmers are already protecting their soils through good practice. They will now be paid for the valuable work they are doing, whereas previously they weren't rewarded with grants. The new scheme will be rolled out in phases to avoid a "Big Bang" in farming. In future, landholders will be incentivised for reducing the amount of fertiliser and pesticide they use. They'll be encouraged instead to use low-impact methods such as integrated pest management, which uses pheromones to disrupt pest mating cycles, or adopts mechanical control, such as trapping or weeding.

12-1-21 Hawaiian Soul review: An inspiring tale of environmental activism
An uplifting film tells the story of how George Jarrett Helm Jr became a leading voice in a movement for environmental and Indigenous rights in Hawaii WHAT IS the best way to carry out activism? How should we communicate bad news in ways that stir into action those who, not unreasonably, just want to get on with their lives? Hawaiian Soul, a 20-minute short film directed by Hawaiian film-maker ‘Aina Paikai, asks those questions through the dramatised experiences of one man: the Hawaiian falsetto singer and musician George Jarrett Helm Jr. Born in 1950, Helm was a guitarist and singer with a legendary vocal range. In his 20s he became a leading voice in Hawaii’s emerging Aloha ‘Aina movement, which translates as “love of the land” and spawned campaigns on environmental rights and Hawaiian sovereignty. In 1976, Helm was part of a group called Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) which campaigned to stop the US military’s use of Kaho’olawe, the smallest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, as a firing range and for bombing target practice. After an initial attempt to halt military activity failed, the group decided to land repeatedly and illegally on Kaho’olawe. In March 1977, Helm disappeared in high seas as he was attempting to reach the island on his surfboard. In the film, Helm’s gentleness, charisma and regrettably short lifetime of activism – he was 26 when he vanished – comes to a head in a scene in which he and his fellow campaigners attempt to convince a sceptical and straight-laced church congregation to support the cause. While unilaterally unimpressed at first, Helm’s singing, and a stirring call to protect their shared homeland, ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the church. It is a moment that sounds like the purest schmaltz, but thanks to the film’s skilful editing, its talented lead actor and its use of archive music, the scene proves moving enough – and is entirely convincing, despite it being a work of fiction.

12-1-21 Methane's climate impact was just one truth finally accepted at COP26
One of the positives to come out of last month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was official recognition of the central role that climate science must play both in understanding and solving the problem. That might seem an odd thing to say – surely science has always been at the heart of the negotiations? Sadly, it hasn’t. At COP24 in Poland in 2018, for example, a report on the impacts of 1.5°C of global warming – specially commissioned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the meeting – was merely “noted” in the final text. On that front, the newly agreed Glasgow Climate Pact is a major improvement. The final text explicitly acknowledges the latest IPCC report and notes its findings “with concern”. One area where the science really cut through was on methane – a powerful but short-lived greenhouse gas that has hitherto been treated as a secondary problem. Scientists have been arguing for a decade that cutting methane emissions is an obvious, simple and cheap way to significantly slow the rate of warming, but to little avail. As one leading researcher puts it, methane is a massive lever for effecting positive climate action, but nobody was seeing it. No longer. Like London buses, you wait 25 COPs for action on methane, then two breakthroughs come along at once: the Global Methane Pledge and a declaration from the US and China to collaborate on climate action. Together, these could shave a not-insignificant 0.2°C off warming by mid-century, using existing methane-busting technology and at no net cost. As we explain on Methane is much worse than CO2 – here’s what we should do about it, this is great news, not something we are used to hearing when it comes to climate change. But it isn’t unequivocally good news. Grasping the methane lever doesn’t buy us extra time to deal with the real villain of the piece, carbon dioxide. We still have to decarbonise immediately. And making pledges is no substitute for making changes. Despite the sudden swerve to methane, the Glasgow Climate Pact merely “invites” nations to “consider further actions” to reduce it. It has taken 26 COPs to put science where it truly belongs, but we still have some way to go.

12-1-21 Why the myth of 'wilderness' harms both nature and humanity
Humans have affected every aspect of life on Earth – from hunting prehistoric beasts to changing the climate – and the illusion that pristine nature still exists undermines our efforts to make a better world, says environmental writer Emma Marris. What is nature? We tend to think of it as something “out there”, far away. We watch it on TV, we read about it in glossy magazines. We imagine somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s grubby hands, unchanging except for the turn of the seasons. This is our mistake. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It also blinds us. After many years thinking and writing about nature and wilderness, I have come to see these concepts as not just unscientific, but damaging. The notion of a pristine ecosystem is a myth. Over millennia, humans have stirred up the global pot and changed the entire planet so that all organisms alive today are influenced by us. And it goes the other way, too. We humans are deeply influenced by the plants and animals we evolved with; we are part of “nature”. Changing our ideas about nature isn’t easy. It is hard for you and me; it is probably hardest for those who have spent their lives studying and protecting wilderness. But it is crucial that we do. “Wilderness” rhetoric has long been used to justify denying land rights to Indigenous people and to erase their long histories. What’s more, thinking of nature and humans as incompatible makes it impossible to revive or discover ways of working with and within nature for the common good. All species that regularly interact shape each other’s evolution. Natural selection favours organisms that thrive in their environment, and the environment is as much the living species in a place as it is non-living factors like climate. So, like all animals on Earth, our species has been affecting other species for its entire run.

12-1-21 Plastic food packaging gets a bad rap, but does it always deserve it?
Social media can be a powerful force for positive change, especially when it comes to environmental issues. A seemingly perfect example is the drive to stem the tide of single-use plastic, particularly when it comes to food packaging. Huge campaigns – including organised groups descending on supermarkets to strip and dump all packaging from their purchases and leaving it at the till in what is known as a “plastic attack” – have led to some quite dramatic changes, both in business and government. But it is possible that these sorts of well-intentioned moves, based on simple, social-media-friendly messages, can have unintended consequences. The less geeky among us might overlook the fact that fruit and veg are still living plants, constantly interacting with the world around them in complex ways, some of which degrade the product. Under supermarket strip lights, they are still photosynthesising, making new compounds, breaking down others and even emitting growth regulators into the air that affect the behaviour of neighbouring crops on the shelves around them. Understanding these incredibly sophisticated interactions and how to control them has spurred the creation of a branch of study called post-harvest technology. Over the past half century or so, this has led to a suite of ingenious inventions, including wrapping, that have dramatically extended the shelf life of crops. Waste has been slashed and nutritional quality and flavour improved. Take, for example, a study published in 2011 showing that shrink-wrapped cucumbers lost a lot less water in a typical journey from farm to fork than the unwrapped equivalent, extending shelf life by up to 60 per cent. Ditching this wrapping would therefore have a significant impact on food as, much of the time, the crop would go off before being eaten.

12-1-21 Methane is much worse than CO2 – here’s what we should do about it
Methane is an underappreciated but potent greenhouse gas. How we deal with it will have a massive impact on averting the worst consequences of climate change. After a year of weather extremes, there can no longer be any doubt that the climate is warming rapidly, and no doubt that carbon dioxide is slowly cooking the planet. But the immediate culprit is a different gas altogether: methane. A potent greenhouse gas, methane is largely responsible for the current rate of warming. It is thus a vital target in the fight to keep global temperature rises below the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5°C – as well as offering some of the easiest wins. Yet it has been neglected. “Methane for so long has been a sort of Cinderella gas,” says Euan Nisbet at Royal Holloway, University of London. With methane kept below stairs, its ugly sisters carbon dioxide and, to a lesser extent, nitrous oxide (N2O) have got all the attention. No longer. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, UK, last month, methane finally arrived at the party and won over the assembled dignitaries. World leaders lined up to declare it the belle of the ball, and more than 100 nations signed a pledge to slash its emissions by 2030. Depending on how you measure it – which is one of the problems with curbing it – 1 tonne of methane has between 28 and 120 times more warming power than 1 tonne of CO2. However, it stays in the atmosphere relatively briefly – about 12 years – before mostly being converted to CO2, which hangs around for at least a century. Yet it is present in the atmosphere in tiny quantities – lower even than CO2, which accounted for 412.5 molecules per million in 2020. Methane is measured in parts per billion, and its current concentration is about 1880 ppb, up from 722 in pre-industrial times.

12-1-21 Lakes freezing later in winter leads to less algae in the spring
A unique experiment in a Canadian lake has found that the timing of when ice forms can have a big impact on the organisms that live in it the following year. The timing of when ice forms on lakes in the winter can have big knock-on effects on life in the water the next spring and summer, according to a study that sheds light on how climate change will affect such ecosystems. As the climate warms, lake ice is forming later and thawing earlier. But there hasn’t been much research done on lakes during the winter, partly because the ice-covered period has long been considered a dormant season for freshwater organisms, so how these changes might affect lake ecosystems is unclear. “This is rather alarming given that we do not know much about under-ice lake ecology, so it is even harder to anticipate the consequences of ice loss and predict future changes,” says Marie-Pier Hébert, an aquatic scientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. To find out more, Hébert and her colleagues conducted a unique experiment to manipulate the timing of ice onset in one lake in Canada. They constructed a floating platform with several deep containers extending below it, essentially turning columns of lake water into giant test tubes. Then, once the lake froze, they broke up and melted the ice in each container twice a day at dawn and dusk, delaying the onset of winter ice cover for 8, 15 or 21 days. This delay had a profound effect on life in the water below. A later freeze meant that algae could continue photosynthesis for longer, which in turn allowed some of the tiny zooplankton that feed on the algae to fatten up more and so survive throughout the winter under the ice. Those surviving zooplankton then got a head start on eating the new batch of spring algae once the ice started to melt, leaving less food available for species that only become active once the ice is gone.

12-1-21 UK refuses to release document showing Net Zero Strategy CO2 savings
The UK government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has turned down a freedom of information request that would allow independent scrutiny of its plan for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The UK government has refused a freedom of information request to release a spreadsheet showing how much its landmark Net Zero Strategy will cut carbon emissions for individual measures, such as backing a new nuclear power station and fitting new electric car chargers. Withholding the document smacks of “secrecy and subterfuge” and prevents the public from being able to interrogate the estimated impacts of the measures, says Ed Matthew at climate change think tank E3G. The publication of the government’s Net Zero Strategy on 19 October was a key moment ahead of the COP26 climate summit, laying out in detail how the UK plans to reach its 2050 commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. Previous government blueprints for decarbonisation, such as the 2020 10-point green plan and 2017 clean growth strategy, have spelled out estimates of exactly how much individual policies will cut emissions. But the Net Zero Strategy failed to provide any such breakdown, which observers said showed a lack of transparency that hampered independent scrutiny. Government officials conceded that there was a spreadsheet containing all the figures, but said they wouldn’t release it. Now, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has refused a freedom of information request by New Scientist to publish the document. It declined the request on the grounds that it involves the disclosure of internal communications. Public interest doesn’t outweigh the need to keep such communications private, says the BEIS FOI team. “We have concluded that the net zero strategy itself contains appropriate detail at this stage for the public to engage with our decarbonisation proposals,” they wrote in a letter.

12-1-21 Victims of a historic flood in New York City reflect on the wreckage
Months after Hurricane Ida brought New York City to its knees with historic flooding that killed 13 people, victims are still reeling from the devastation. As they reflect on the storm, some wonder about the future of the city, as climate change makes extreme weather events more likely.

11-30-21 Arctic may switch from snow to rain-dominated as early as 2060
Parts of the Arctic are now predicted to be rain-dominated as early as 2060, two decades faster than previously expected. Climate change could see the Arctic switch from being dominated by snow to rain up to two decades earlier than previously thought, with major consequences that risk accelerating global warming and devastating local wildlife. Snow accounts for almost all current precipitation in the Arctic, but the region is warming faster than the rest of the world and is expected to become predominantly rainy this century. The transition has already begun: rain fell at Greenland’s highest summit this year, for the first time on record. Now, an international team has found that the switch from snowy to rainy conditions across the Arctic could happen in 2060 rather than 2080. It will occur first in autumn, the season expected to see the biggest changes. “It is all linked to the whole climate crisis, which is contributing to a much greater increase in rainfall. That has huge ramifications for all life in the Arctic and I’m not trying to be doomist,” says team member Michelle McCrystall at the University of Manitoba, Canada. Reindeer and caribou herders in the Arctic face a huge impact as rain falling on snow can cover vegetation in ice, leading to the mass starvation of the herbivores, she says. The switch to a mostly rainy Arctic would have global impacts too. It is expected to accelerate the thawing of frozen ground, releasing the greenhouse gases locked within, and speed up the already rapid loss of Arctic sea ice. Such positive feedbacks would fuel even faster climate change, the driver of the transition from snow to rain. “Generally speaking, if the warming will cause earlier onset of Arctic rainfall that would obviously be bad for all kinds of reasons,” says Richard Bintanja at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. A 2017 study he co-wrote warned of “widespread, long-lasting and possibly even irreversible consequences” from the transition.

11-30-21 Quest begins to drill Antarctica's oldest ice
Efforts are about to get under way to drill a core of ice in Antarctica that contains a record of Earth's climate stretching back 1.5 million years. A European team will set up its equipment at one of the highest locations on the White Continent, for an operation likely to take four years. The project aims to recover a near-3km-long cylinder of frozen material. Scientists hope this ice can help them explain why Earth's ice ages flipped in frequency in the deep past. "Beyond EPICA", as the project is known, is a follow-up to a similar venture at the turn of the millennium called simply EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica). The new endeavour will base itself a short distance away from the original at Little Dome C, an area located roughly 40km from the Italian-French Concordia Station, on the east Antarctic plateau. At an altitude of 3,233m above sea level and over 1,000km from the coast, Little Dome C will be an inhospitable place to work. Even in summer, temperatures won't get much above -35C. The camp where the drill team will base itself was set up in the 2019/20. This coming season will largely be about putting in the necessary drilling infrastructure. But the technicians do aim to at least start on their core quest by getting down beyond the first 100m. This should take the borehole past the lightly compacted snow layers, or firn, into the impervious ice layers that are the real interest for scientists. The deep ice in Antarctica contains tiny bubbles of air. These little gas pockets are a direct snapshot of the historic atmosphere. Scientists can read off the levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping components, such as methane. Analysing the atoms in the water-ice molecules encasing the gases also gives an indication of the temperature that persisted at the time of the snowfall that gave rise to the ice. When researchers drilled the original EPICA core, they uncovered a narrative of past climate temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide stretching back 800,000 years.

11-30-21 Fungi may be crucial to storing carbon in soil as the Earth warms
In laboratory tests, dirt home to only bacteria released more CO2 when heated than other soils. When it comes to storing carbon in the ground, fungi may be key. Soils are a massive reservoir of carbon, holding about three times as much carbon as Earth’s atmosphere. The secret behind this carbon storage are microbes, such as bacteria and some fungi, which transform dead and decaying matter into carbon-rich soil. But not all carbon compounds made by soil microbes are equal. Some can last for decades or even centuries in the soil, while others are quickly consumed by microbes and converted into carbon dioxide that’s lost to the atmosphere. Now, a study shows that fungi-rich soils grown in laboratory experiments released less carbon dioxide when heated than other soils. The result suggests that fungi are essential for making soil that sequesters carbon in the earth, microecologist Luiz Domeignoz-Horta and colleagues report November 6 in ISME Communications. Who is making soil matters, Domeignoz-Horta says. The study comes as some scientists warn that climate change threatens to release more carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere, further worsening global warming. Researchers have found that rising temperatures can lead to population booms in soil microbes, which quickly exhaust easily digestible carbon compounds. This forces the organisms to turn to older, more resilient carbon stores, converting carbon stored away long ago into carbon dioxide. With the combined threat of rising temperatures and damage to soil microbe communities from intensive farming and disappearing forests, some computer models indicate that 40 percent less carbon will stick in the soil by 2100 than previous simulations have anticipated (SN: 9/22/16). To see if scientists can coax soils to store more carbon, researchers need to understand what makes soil microbes tick. But that is no simple task. “Some say soil is the most complex matrix on the planet,” says Kirsten Hofmockel, an ecologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., who was not involved in the research.

11-30-21 A new book shows how animals are already coping with climate change
‘Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid’ offers both good news and bad news. As a conservation biologist, Thor Hanson has seen firsthand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the wild: the green macaws of Central America migrating along with their food sources, the brown bears of Alaska fattening up on early-ripening berry crops, the conifers of New England seeking refuge from vanishing habitats. And as an engaging author who has celebrated the wonders of nature in books about feathers, seeds, forests and bees (SN: 7/21/18, p. 28), he’s an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise send readers down a well of despair. Hanson does not despair in his latest book, Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid. Though he outlines the many ways that global warming is changing life on our planet, his tone is not one of hand-wringing. Instead, Hanson invites the reader into the stories of particular people, places and creatures of all sorts. He draws these tales from his own experiences and those of other scientists, combining reporting with narrative tales of species that serve as examples of broader trends in the natural world. A trip to La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, for example, has Hanson reliving the experience of tropical ecologist and climatologist Leslie Holdridge, who founded the research station in the 1950s and described, among other things, how climate creates different habitats, or life zones, as elevation increases. As Hanson sweats his way up a tropical mountainside so he can witness a shift in life zones, he notes, “I had to earn every foot of elevation gain the hard way.” I could almost feel the heat that he describes as “a steaming towel draped over my head.” His vivid descriptions bring home the reason why so many species have now been documented moving upslope to cooler climes.

11-30-21 Wood Wide Web: Scientists to map hotspots of fungal life
A science mission is set to explore one of the final frontiers of untapped knowledge on the planet - the fungal networks in the soil beneath us. Fungi form an underground network of connections with plant roots, helping to recycle nutrients and to lock up planet-warming CO2 in the soil. But little is known about this giant mesh of fungi and its role in fighting climate change. It is part of what's popularly known as the Wood Wide Web. This is an underground network of plant roots and fungi that, among other things, allows trees to share nutrients. And scientists say "underground conservation" has been long overlooked. The initiative to map and preserve the Earth's underground fungal networks is led by the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks. It is the start of an "underground climate movement" to protect "this ancient life support system" said Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at VU University in Amsterdam. Local experts, dubbed "myconauts" after mycology, the study of fungi, will collect 10,000 samples over the next 18 months to compile a global map of fungal hotspots. And machine learning will be used to build up a picture of the function of fungal networks and their role as carbon sinks - something that absorbs more carbon-containing compounds - such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - than it releases. Scientists say fungal networks are under threat due to agricultural expansion, the use of fertilisers and pesticides, deforestation and urbanisation. Current estimates put the amount of carbon dioxide taken out of the air and locked up in the soil with the help of fungal networks at five billion tonnes - although it could be more than three times higher. "If we lose this system, this is going to have really serious consequences for our ability to fight climate change," Prof Kiers told BBC News. Fungi are "the invisible ecosystem engineers and their loss is totally undocumented", she added. Soils are home to 25% of all species on Earth, yet current plans to conserve biodiversity hotspots above ground fail to protect over 50% of biodiversity below ground. The total length of the fungal network in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion kilometres: around half the width of our galaxy.

11-29-21 More work needed to create green jobs, report says
Efforts to create so-called green jobs need to intensify if the UK government is to achieve its target of two million roles by 2030, according to a report. Jobs linked to the green economy accounted for 1.2% of all advertised roles in the year to July 2021, consultancy PwC said. That equates to just 124,600 new jobs. Boosting green job creation is part of the government's "green industrial revolution" plans. In November 2020, the government announced £4bn would be spent as part of its plans to create two million green jobs by 2030. The COP 26 summit held in Glasgow a year later has put the issue into sharp focus again. But there are concerns that the green jobs transition could pose some risks, as it will have an impact on traditional jobs, especially in polluting industries. In September, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) warned up to 660,000 jobs could be at risk if the UK fails to reach its net-zero target as quickly as other nations. The simplest answer is a job that directly contributes to tackling climate change, although many think it should also cover roles that indirectly support that ambition. Growing sectors where one might find more green jobs being advertised include low-carbon farming, heating without emissions, and wind turbine maintenance. In its research, PwC said jobs that support the green economy indirectly should also be considered green. Such roles might include environmental advisers or experts in environmental or sustainability research and education. PwC's report said work was needed to ensure the move to a net-zero economy does not add to regional inequalities. It found that Wales, Northern Ireland and Yorkshire and the Humber lagged behind other parts of the UK in terms of transitioning to a greener economy. Scotland and London were the top performers, according to the research. PwC ranked areas in terms of how they performed in job creation, the benefits of green jobs, the loss of "sunset jobs", the carbon intensity of employment, and green workplaces. They hunted for online job ads that mentioned things like sustainability and environment - there had to be a number of mentions.

11-29-21 Corals may store a surprising amount of microplastics in their skeletons
It’s unclear what effect the sequestering might have on reef health. A surprising amount of plastic pollution in the ocean may wind up in a previously overlooked spot: the skeletons of living corals. Up to about 20,000 metric tons of tiny fragments called microplastics may be stored in coral skeletons worldwide every year, says ecologist Jessica Reichert of Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany. That corresponds to nearly 3 percent of the microplastics estimated to be in the shallow, tropical waters where corals thrive. Corals have been observed eating or otherwise incorporating microplastics into their bodies (SNS: 3/18/15). But scientists don’t know how much of the debris reefs take up globally. So Reichert and colleagues exposed corals in the lab to microplastics to find out where the particles are stored inside corals and estimate how much is tucked away. Corals consumed some of the trash, or grew their skeletons over particles. After 18 months, most of the debris inside corals was in their skeletons rather than tissues, the researchers report October 28 in Global Change Biology. After counting the number of trapped particles, the researchers estimate that between nearly 6 billion and 7 quadrillion microplastic particles may be permanently stored in corals worldwide annually. It’s the first time that a living microplastic “sink,” or long-term storage site, has been quantified, Reichert says. Scientists are learning how much microplastic is being introduced to the oceans. But researchers don’t know where it all ends up (SN: 6/6/19). Other known microplastic sinks, such as sea ice and seafloor sediments, need better quantification, and other sinks may not yet be known. Reefs are typically found near coasts where polluted waterways can drain to the sea, placing corals in potential microplastic hot spots.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

12-3-21 Can psychedelics meet their potential for treating mental health disorders?
Drugs that offer profound shifts in consciousness still face many hurdles. Kanu Caplash was lying on a futon in a medical center in Connecticut, wearing an eye mask and listening to music. But his mind was far away, tunneling down through layer upon layer of his experiences. As part of a study of MDMA, a psychedelic drug also known as molly or ecstasy, Caplash was on an inner journey to try to ease his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On this particular trip, Caplash, now 22, returned to the locked bathroom door of his childhood home. As a kid, he used to lock himself in to escape the yelling adults outside. But now, he was both outside the locked door, knocking, and inside, as his younger, frightened self. He started talking to his younger self. “I open the door, and my big version picks up my younger version of myself, and literally carries me out,” he says. “I carried myself out of there and drove away.” That self-rescue brought Caplash peace. “I got out of there. I’m alive. It’s all right. I’m OK.” For years, Caplash had experienced flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia from childhood trauma. He thought constantly about killing himself, he says. His experiences while on MDMA changed his perspective. “I still have the memory, but that anger and pain is not there anymore.” Caplash’s transcendent experiences, spurred by three therapy sessions on MDMA, happened in 2018 as part of a research project on PTSD. Along with a handful of other studies, that research suggests that when coupled with psychotherapy, mind-altering drugs bring some people immediate, powerful and durable relief. Those studies, and the intense media coverage they received, have helped launch psychedelic medicine into the public conversation in the United States, England and elsewhere. Academic groups devoted to studying psychedelics have sprung up at Johns Hopkins, Yale, New York University Langone Health, the University of California, San Francisco and other research institutions. Private investors have ponied up millions of dollars for research on psychedelic drugs. The state of Oregon has started the process of legalizing therapeutic psilocybin, the key chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms; lawmakers in other states and cities are considering the same move.

12-3-21 Merck’s COVID-19 pill may soon be here. How well will it work?
New data have revealed uncertainty about the drug’s efficacy and who should use it. Hopes for an easy pill that could combat COVID-19 before people land in the hospital have dimmed a bit. New data about an antiviral pill made by Merck with its partner Ridgeback Pharmaceuticals show it’s not as stellar as first believed. And the drug has drawbacks that could outweigh its potential to fight the coronavirus and keep people out of the hospital. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now weighing whether to grant emergency use authorization for the drug, called molnupiravir, after the agency’s advisory panel narrowly voted to recommend it on November 30. The drug was authorized for use in the United Kingdom on November 4. If the FDA follows suit, it could wind up being just a stopgap: Some advisers already have urged the agency to be ready to withdraw that authorization as soon as something better comes along. Finding an early treatment hasn’t been easy, so many experts initially hailed the development of molnupiravir as a potential game changer for the pandemic: A pill that could be given to people early in the infection might help keep health care systems from being overwhelmed, and spare people at high risk from the most severe complications (SN: 7/27/21). In a clinical trial, the drug showed early signs of preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19 in people at high risk of severe disease (SN: 10/1/21). In fact, the results were so promising — a 48 percent reduction in the relative risk of hospitalization or death — that the trial was stopped so that the drug might potentially reach the public earlier. But on November 26, Merck announced in a news release that when all the available data from the trial was in, the reduction in relative risk fell to 30 percent against hospitalization and death compared with a placebo. The shift stemmed from an unexplained decrease in severe disease among people in the placebo group in the last part of the trial.

12-3-21 Omicron coronavirus variant: Your questions answered
There is growing international concern about the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. How long do the symptoms last for? Any advice for people who are immunosuppressed? How many people has the new variant killed? Is Omicron more harmful to children than other variants? BBC World News’s Yalda Hakim put questions from BBC World News viewers to Dr Rupali Limaye from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Dr Peter Drobac, global health expert at the University of Oxford to find out more.

12-3-21 Ancient Egyptian elites used a thick beer porridge in their ceremonies
Centuries before the pharaohs emerged in Egypt, the local elites used a thick porridge-like beer in their ceremonies. The elite members of early Egyptian society – before the emergence of the pharaohs – probably drank beer, which they transported around in six-litre jars. Jiajing Wang at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and her colleagues analysed fragments of pottery found at Hierakonpolis, an archaeological site in southern Egypt. The fragments date back to between 3800 and 3600 BC, about 600 years before Egypt was united into one state under Narmer, the first pharaoh. The fragments were found in an area that served as both an ancient brewery and a cemetery. The researchers believe that the brewery and cemetery were used exclusively by the richest in pre-Pharaonic society. The archaeologists who first excavated the fragments assumed that they came from jars used to carry beer, but the idea hadn’t been tested until now. Wang and her colleagues used microfossil residue analysis to study the organic remains on the fragments. “We analysed starch granules, phytoliths [silica from plants], yeast cells and beer stone crystals,” says Wang. “They cannot be observed by [the naked] eye.” The researchers found beer residues in fragments from 10 six-litre jars, which they believe were used predominantly to carry the alcoholic drink. Their analysis suggests that the beer was made from wheat, barley and grass. Plant silica that they found in the residue also suggests that the beer mash was filtered to remove cereal husks. “The beer was probably like a thick porridge,” says Wang. “Very different from the IPAs we drink today.” She says it also probably had a low alcohol content. The complexity of the beer recipe suggests that the alcohol was made for elites. “But we don’t really know for sure at this stage,” says Wang. However, as similar jars were found in the nearby cemetery for upper-class people, the team speculates that the jars were used to hold beer from the brewery for use in elite rituals and ceremonies.

12-2-21 Rare mutation in Old Order Amish people linked to lower heart disease
A genetic mutation may cause lower levels of cholesterol and a blood clotting protein associated with heart disease, and the hope is to design drugs that have the same effect. A rare genetic mutation first identified in Old Order Amish people has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by around 35 per cent. The hope is that it will be possible to develop treatments that have the same impact, says May Montasser at the University of Maryland. “The effect is really strong.” In populations founded by a small number of people, such as the Old Order Amish, a group of Christian communities found primarily in the US, genetic mutations that are rare in the general population can be much more common simply by chance. Studying these groups can reveal what, if anything, these mutations do. When Montasser and her team studied 7000 Old Order Amish people, they found that a mutation in a gene called B4GALT1 was associated with lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. “That’s the bad cholesterol,” says Montasser. It was also associated with lower levels of fibrinogen, which helps blood clot. High levels of fibrinogen appear to increase the risk of heart disease. The mutation was present in 6 per cent of the people studied but is extremely rare in other populations. The researchers then looked at large databases, such as the UK Biobank, and found that this gene variant is associated with a substantially reduced risk of coronary heart disease. To confirm that the mutation is the cause of the lower LDL and fibrinogen levels, they also induced similar mutations in mice. Put together, the evidence is robust, says Montasser. So far, there is no sign of any downside to this gene variant, she says. People with the mutation appear perfectly healthy. It might turn out to be an entirely beneficial gene variant that hasn’t become common because its benefits manifest only late in life.

12-2-21 What we know and don’t know about the omicron coronavirus variant
Guesses about the new variant abound, but only time will tell if it can compete with delta. Another coronavirus variant has emerged, and with it comes a new wave of uncertainty and unanswered questions. Days after the news broke, we remain in an information vacuum, and in a prognostication whirlwind with even vaccine makers contradicting each other. Finding answers like whether vaccines can thwart new variants takes time. To quickly recap, late last week, researchers in South Africa and Botswana raised the alarm that they had detected a coronavirus variant with myriad mutations, many of which are in the part of the virus that helps it enter and infect cells. The World Health Organization quickly gave this highly mutated variant its own Greek letter — omicron — officially signifying it as a variant of concern. “Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a special session of the World Health Assembly on November 29. Omicron’s detection sparked a flurry of controversial travel bans to and from South Africa and surrounding countries, angering African leaders. Yet these quick decisions are based more on disquiet than data. Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know. The list of things we do know about omicron is short. We know South Africa has had a big spike in COVID-19 cases — going from an average of less than 300 cases per day in early November to more than 2,000 by the end of the month. Researchers are in the midst of testing what share of those infections might be due to omicron. We know the variant has turned up in other places like Israel, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Australia. On December 1, the first case in the United States popped up in California, in a vaccinated person who had recently returned from South Africa.

12-2-21 50 years ago, a 6-year-old boy became the first known rabies survivor
Excerpt from the December 4, 1971 issue of Science News. The painful and always fatal virus disease rabies may at last be licked — not with the traditional series of rabies vaccine shots that sometimes ward off the disease after a person has been bitten by a rabid animal, but by the timely use of relatively simple medical techniques.… As a result [a 6-year-old boy] is the world’s only known survivor of rabies. Though the boy was vaccinated, the shots — which have improved since the 1970s — didn’t prevent disease. Medical techniques used to treat him, including inserting a tube to help him breathe, giving seizure medication and draining fluid buildup on the brain, proved that rabies patients can survive. Yet the disease is still almost always fatal once people show symptoms. In 2004, a 15-year-old girl became the first known unvaccinated rabies survivor (SN: 1/29/05, p. 77). Doctors treated her using the M­ilwaukee Protocol. This controversial method puts patients in a coma to protect the brain while the immune system mounts defenses. But even with that treatment, most patients still die.

12-2-21 Humans have been relatively short for thousands of years
Until around 150 years ago, humans were relatively short – but our recent growth spurt may have more to do with social factors than dietary ones. For most of our history, humans have been short, a study has found. Until around 150 years ago, few people grew taller than 170 centimetres – not even the most privileged individuals, who had ready access to food. This discovery adds to growing evidence that stunting – being unusually short – isn’t a wholly reliable indicator of malnutrition. Instead of being a sign of a good diet, growing taller may instead reflect competition for dominance in some societies. Christiane Scheffler at the University of Potsdam and paediatrician Michael Hermanussen in Altenhof, both in Germany, have spent several years studying the height of people from a wide range of populations. In their latest paper, they combined an existing data set of more than 6000 prehistoric human skeletons with multiple studies of more recent historical populations from Europe and the US. They also included their own data on 1666 modern Indonesian schoolchildren. In the prehistoric populations, the maximum height for men was 165 to 170 cm, while women topped out at 160 cm. Today, by comparison, men in England have an average height of around 175 cm, while for women it is about 162 cm. The average heights of both men and women are several centimetres higher in Germany. The team found that similar patterns to the prehistoric heights held in the historical populations. Even a group of upper-class German boys from the late 1800s were all significantly shorter than modern children, so much so that over half of them would be considered stunted by modern standards. But there is significant variation between modern countries. The Indonesian schoolchildren in the study were shorter than similarly aged children from the US, despite being well-nourished.

12-2-21 Ancient footprints suggest a mysterious hominid lived alongside Lucy’s kind
The 3.66-million-year-old tracks from East Africa are unique, comparisons show. An individual from an enigmatic hominid species strode across a field of wet, volcanic ash in what is now East Africa around 3.66 million years ago, leaving behind a handful of footprints. Those five ancient impressions, largely ignored since their partial excavation at Tanzania’s Laetoli site in 1976, show hallmarks of upright walking by a hominid, a new study finds. Researchers had previously considered them hard to classify, possibly produced by a young bear that took a few steps while standing. Nearby Laetoli footprints unearthed in 1978 looked more clearly like those of hominids and have been attributed to Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis (SN: 12/16/16). But the shape and positioning of the newly identified hominid footprints differ enough from A. afarensis to qualify as marks of a separate Australopithecus species, an international team reports December 1 in Nature. “Different [hominid] species walked across this East African landscape at about the same time, each moving in different ways,” says paleoanthropologist Ellison McNutt of Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. The species identity of the Laetoli printmaker is unknown. Fossil jaws dating back more than 3 million years unearthed in East Africa may come from a species dubbed A. deyiremeda that lived near Lucy’s crowd (SN: 5/27/15). But no foot fossils were found with the jaws to compare with the Laetoli finds. The 3.4-million-year-old foot fossils from an East African hominid that had grasping toes and no arch and the unusual fossil feet of 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus aren’t a match either (SN: 3/28/12; SN: 2/24/21). So neither of those hominids could have made the five Laetoli prints, says McNutt, who started the new investigation as a Dartmouth College graduate student supervised by paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva.

12-2-21 This dinosaur had a weapon shaped like an Aztec war club on its tail
A new ankylosaur species found in Chile may be an early version of the armored creatures A newly discovered species of ankylosaur had a bizarre club on its tail unlike that of any known dinosaur. With its flat surface and sharp blades along the sides, this unique structure at the back end of Stegouros elengassen, a species of ankylosaur that lived between 72 million and 75 million years ago, strongly resembles an Aztec war club called a macuahuitl, say paleontologist Sergio Soto-Acuña and colleagues. The tail’s shape may indicate an early evolutionary split in the ankylosaur lineage, the researchers report online December 1 in Nature. Soto-Acuña, of the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, and his team identified the new species based on a nearly complete skeleton discovered in the dry Patagonian region of Chile. With its slender limbs and unusually short tail, S. elengassen already looked markedly different from other ankylosaurs in many ways. But its cranium pegged the creature as a type of early ankylosaur, the team found. Ankylosaurs were the heavily armored tanks of the dinosaur world, their bodies and heads shielded by rugged plates of bone. Different species also sported a variety of other anatomical weapons, from shin-shattering clubbed tails to spiky skulls (SN: 6/12/17; SN: 7/19/18). But S. elengassen’s strange tail is unique among these weapons. Few ankylosaur species have been dug up in the Southern Hemisphere. Those that are known, including S. elengassen, may be some of the most primitive species of the group — and may even represent a separate branch of the armored dinosaurs. That branch possibly split from other ankylosaurs, including the lineage that includes the genus Ankylosaurus, early in their evolutionary history, during the mid-Jurassic Period around 167 million years ago, the researchers suggest.

12-1-21 Fossil footprints hint at mystery hominin with unusual walking style
A set of 3.7-million-year-old footprints were initially thought to have been left by a bear walking upright, but have now been reinterpreted as the prints of an unidentified hominin that walked a little bit like a modern catwalk fashion model. Ancient footprints that were originally thought to have been made by a bear walking on two legs were actually made by an extinct human species. The discovery means there are now three known sets of hominin footprints from the same locale in Tanzania. It isn’t clear which hominin species made the prints. The authors of the new study say they don’t match the other sets of footprints at Laetoli, a site in Tanzania, so were probably made by a different species. If this is true, it would mean that two hominin species coexisted in the same region at the same time. “Not only are they not a bear, they are hominin and they are not the same hominin as those that made [the other footprints],” says Ellison McNutt at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. The footprints were discovered in 1976 by Peter Jones and Philip Leakey. Excavating at Laetoli, they found five prints in a place they dubbed site A. The tracks had been left in soft volcanic ash that subsequently hardened into rock. The pair’s colleague Mary Leakey suggested that the prints had been left by a hominin. However, later studies suggested that they were actually made by a bear walking on its hind legs. As a result, site A fell into obscurity. Meanwhile, more footprints were found at Laetoli in a location a few kilometres away, labelled site G, and these were definitely made by hominins. The trail stretches 24 metres and includes prints (one of which is pictured above) from three individuals walking together. Both sets of footprints are 3.66 million years old and are thought to have been made by Australopithecus afarensis, the species to which the famous Lucy fossil belonged.

12-1-21 New species of armoured dinosaur had a tail shaped like a fern frond
Stegouros elengassen, unearthed in Chile, had a strange flattened tail that looked like a fern frond – a feature never seen before in an ankylosaur dinosaur. A new species of ankylosaur found in Chile had a unique tail unseen in any other member of this dinosaur family. The discovery sheds light on the mysterious origins of ankylosaurs in the southern hemisphere. Ankylosaurs were quadrupedal, herbivorous dinosaurs that roamed Earth throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They were covered in bony deposits on their skin called osteoderms, which provided protection, much like a turtle’s shell. Ankylosaurs from the northern portion of what used to be the supercontinent Pangaea have been widely studied. However, those from southern Pangaea have been much harder to come by and are poorly understood. Alexander Vargas at the University of Chile in Santiago and his colleagues have reported the discovery of a new ankylosaur, whose almost-complete skeleton was found in the Río de Las Chinas valley in southern Chile. They called the new species Stegouros elengassen. The team found that the skeleton had a mix of traits from known ankylosaurs and from stegosaurs, a related group of four-legged plant-eating dinosaurs. In fact, the pelvis of S. elengassen was almost identical to that of a stegosaur, but the jawbones that carried its upper tooth row were clearly ankylosaurian. The skeleton also had a flat, weapon-like tail, with seven pairs of broad, laterally facing blades, making the tail end look like the frond of a fern. This is unlike anything seen in other ankylosaurs, which typically had large, club-shaped tails. The dinosaur also appeared to be less armoured and more slender-limbed than other ankylosaurs. “This is our first good look at a South American armoured dinosaur, and it is not like any armoured dinosaur you’ve ever seen before.” says Vargas. “It has a tail weapon that is a new category – all we knew [before] was tail spikes and tail clubs, now we have this weird frond-like thing.”

12-1-21 How to hack your stress and turn it into a positive force in your life
Too much stress hurts mind and body, but the stress response exists for good evolutionary reasons. Recognising that is the first step to turning its negative effects around. Many of us have felt more than a little stressed over the past couple of years. For me, exhibit A is my teeth. A recent trip to the dentist confirmed that months of pandemic-induced jaw-clenching, product of the usual deadline stress amplified by the demands of two young children, had left four of them broken. Crumbling teeth are small fry. Last year, the American Psychological Association found that two-thirds of people in the US reported feeling more stressed in the pandemic, and predicted “a mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come”. Increased risk of diabetes, depression and cardiovascular disease and more are all associated with high stress levels. It’s enough to make you feel stressed just thinking about it. Perhaps we just need to think about stress differently, though. That, at least, is the startling conclusion of researchers studying the mind-body connection. There are natural benefits to being stressed, they say, and if we change our “stress mindset”, we might be able to turn things around and make stress a positive influence on our lives. Fortunately, there are some simple hacks that will allow us to do this, and they bring with them the promise of better physical health, clearer thinking, increased mental toughness and greater productivity. There is no denying that too much stress can harm both body and mind. It has been linked to all six of the main causes of death in the West: cancer, heart disease, liver disease, accidents, lung disease and suicide. It can weaken the immune system, leaving us more prone to infection and reducing the effectiveness of vaccines, and can mess with our guts, triggering disease-inducing inflammation. It can hamper cognitive performance, reduce productivity and increase the risk of mental-health problems including depression, while compelling us to make unhealthy life choices such as smoking and eating foods we know we shouldn’t. Small wonder that the World Health Organization has described stress as the “epidemic of the twenty-first century”.

12-1-21 Stones smashed by horses can be mistaken for ancient human tools
Horses kick and stamp on rocks to keep their hooves in good shape, and archaeologists have now realised this can result in a collection of sharp stones that look like the work of an ancient human toolmaker Some stone tools attributed to prehistoric humans may in fact have been made by horses, according to researchers in Spain. They aren’t claiming that horses make tools deliberately, but as an accidental by-product of trimming their hooves on rocks. The discovery means that archaeologists will have to be more careful about declaring objects to be ancient human-created artefacts. Stone tools are common in the archaeological record from about 2.6 million years ago onwards, usually consisting of small heaps of sharp-edged flakes and the cores they were chipped off. Until recently, archaeologists thought they could reliably distinguish human-made flakes and cores from naturally broken stones by tell-tale fracture patterns. But now they aren’t so sure. In 2016, researchers at the University of Oxford discovered that capuchin monkeys can generate stone flakes that are indistinguishable from human ones. The monkeys aren’t deliberately making tools, but are thought to break rocks open to obtain a nutrient, possibly silicon, that they lick off the freshly exposed surface. The resulting accumulation of discarded stone flakes and source rocks can look exactly like a human tool factory. Now the “unintentional toolmaker” club has been joined by horses and their relatives, collectively called equids. According to Santiago David Domínguez-Solera and his colleagues at the University of Alcalá’s Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA) in Madrid, equid hooves grow rapidly and need to be trimmed, which the animals do by kicking and stamping on rocks. This can produce fractured pieces that also look exactly like toolmaking debris.

12-1-21 Scientists claim big advance in using DNA to store data
Scientists say they have made a dramatic step forward in efforts to store information as molecules of DNA. The magnetic hard drives we currently use to store computer data can take up lots of space and also have to be replaced as they age. Using life's preferred storage medium to back up our precious data would allow vast amounts of information to be archived in tiny molecules. The data would also last thousands of years, according to scientists. A team in Atlanta, US, has now developed a chip that they say could improve on existing forms of DNA storage by a factor of 100. "The density of features on our new chip is [approximately] 100x higher than current commercial devices," Nicholas Guise, senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), told BBC News. "So once we add all the control electronics - which is what we're doing over the next year of the program - we expect something like a 100x improvement over existing technology for DNA data storage." The technology works by growing unique strands of DNA one building block at a time. These building blocks are known as bases - four distinct chemical units that make up the DNA molecule. The bases, sometimes known as DNA letters, can then be used to encode information, in a way that's analogous to the strings of ones and zeroes (binary code) that carry data in traditional computing. There are different potential ways to store this information in DNA - for example, a zero in binary code could be represented by the bases adenine or cytosine and the one represented by guanine or thymine. Alternatively, a one and zero could be mapped to just two of the four bases. It's all part of a project between GTRI and other partners that's called SMASH (Scalable Molecular Archival Software and Hardware). It has been said that, if formatted in DNA, every movie ever made could fit inside a volume smaller than a sugar cube. Given how compact and reliable it is, it's not surprising there is now broad interest in DNA as the next medium for archiving data that needs to be kept indefinitely.

12-1-21 Ancient giant orangutans evolved smaller bodies surprisingly slowly
The now-extinct animals were still considerably larger than their modern kin. Giant orangutans that once dwelled in mainland Southeast Asian forests belonged to a single species that gradually shrank in size over nearly 2 million years, a study suggests. Today, orangutans are found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. But their ancient, super-size kin roamed forests in what’s now southern China and northern Vietnam. Fragmentary Asian fossils of uncertain age have long indicated that these massive, now-extinct orangutans shrank over time. And biological anthropologist Terry Harrison of New York University suspected — based on a small number of fossils from widely different time periods — that the apes rapidly evolved from a larger-bodied species to a different, smaller-bodied species roughly 400,000 years ago as the climate cooled. But an analysis of 600 ancient orangutan teeth unearthed in 10 caves in southern China supports a different evolutionary scenario, Harrison and colleagues report in the December Journal of Human Evolution. From around 2 million to 111,000 years ago, the shapes of the teeth remained largely the same, suggesting all were from a single orangutan species. But tooth sizes progressively declined. Using tooth measurements, Harrison, paleoanthropologist Yingqi Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues estimate that the ancient orangutans’ average body mass started out around 96 kilograms, close to double that of orangutans today. By around 111,000 years ago, the ancient apes’ average body mass was almost 80 kilograms, which still exceeded that of modern orangutans by nearly 25 kilograms. Fossils of other ancient Asian animals, including rhinos and monkeys, also show declines in body size over the same period. Cooler, drier conditions that reduced available food starting around 400,000 years ago may have spurred a trend toward smaller bodies, Harrison says.

11-30-21 Can omicron-specific vaccines arrive fast enough to make a difference?
Vaccine-makers are already adapting vaccines to fight the omicron coronavirus variant, but it will probably already have swept the world by the time these arrive. Is omicron better at evading existing vaccines than older coronavirus variants? Vaccine-makers are racing to produce omicron-specific versions, just in case. But if omicron is as transmissible as some fear, it could rapidly sweep around the world, triggering another wave of covid-19 cases before people can be protected with an updated vaccine. mRNA vaccines can be updated more quickly than other types of vaccine, and the two main manufacturers of the covid-19 mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, say they will be able to start production within the next few months. But the updated vaccines will still need to go through some tests in people before they can be rolled out more widely. This is why authorities around the world are urging people to get vaccinated now if they haven’t already, or to get a booster shot if they have been. High levels of antibodies might provide decent enough protection against the variant, even with a less-than-perfect vaccine. This is true of the delta variant: vaccine efficacy against symptomatic infections is around 15 per cent lower with delta, but booster shots can raise it to more than 90 per cent. To get an idea of how good omicron is at evading existing immunity, researchers will need to test how well antibodies taken from people who have been vaccinated or previously infected work against omicron in the lab. These neutralisation tests can be done in a matter of days, but they require live samples of omicron, which are hard to come by for now. At best, however, neutralisation tests will only give us an idea of how much more likely people are to get symptomatic infections. What we really want to know is if omicron is more transmissible and more likely to cause severe disease.

11-30-21 Here’s the chemistry behind marijuana’s skunky scent
Newly identified sulfur compounds in cannabis flowers give the plant its telltale funky odor. Scientists have finally sniffed out the molecules behind marijuana’s skunky aroma. The heady bouquet that wafts off of fresh weed is actually a cocktail of hundreds of fragrant compounds. The most prominent floral, citrusy and piney overtones come from a common class of molecules called terpenes, says analytical chemist Iain Oswald of Abstrax Tech, a private company in Tustin, Calif., that develops terpenes for cannabis products (SN: 4/30/18). But the source of that funky ganja note has been hard to pin down. Now, an analysis is the first to identify a group of sulfur compounds in cannabis that account for the skunklike scent, researchers report November 12 in ACS Omega. Oswald and colleagues had a hunch that the culprit may contain sulfur, a stinky element found in hops and skunk spray. So the team started by rating the skunk factor of flowers harvested from more than a dozen varieties of Cannabis sativa on a scale from zero to 10, with 10 being the most pungent. Next, the team created a “chemical fingerprint” of the airborne components that contributed to each cultivar’s unique scent using gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy and a sulfur chemiluminescence detector. As suspected, the researchers found small amounts of several fragrant sulfur compounds lurking in the olfactory profiles of the smelliest cultivars. The most dominant was a molecule called prenylthiol, or 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, that gives “skunked beer” its notorious flavor (SN: 11/27/05). The sulfur compounds have been found in nature, but never before in cannabis, says Amber Wise, an analytical chemist with Medicine Creek Analytics in Fife, Wash., who was not involved in the study. Oswald was surprised to find that prenylthiol and many of the other sulfurous suspects in cannabis share structural similarities with molecules found in garlic. And like these alliaceous analogs, a little goes a long way.

11-29-21 Living robots made from frog cells can replicate themselves in a dish
Swarms of tiny "xenobots" can self-replicate in the lab by pushing loose cells together – the first time this form of reproduction has been seen in multicellular organisms. Swarms of tiny living robots can self-replicate in a dish by pushing loose cells together. The xenobots – made from frog cells – are the first multicellular organisms found to reproduce in this way. Xenobots were first created last year, using cells taken from the embryo of the frog species Xenopus laevis. Under the right lab conditions, the cells formed small structures that could self-assemble, move in groups and sense their environment. Now, the researchers behind the work have found that xenobots can also self-replicate. Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont and Michael Levin at Tufts University in Massachusetts and their colleagues began by extracting rapidly dividing stem cells that are destined to become skin cells from frog embryos. When the cells are brought together in clumps, they form spheres of around 3000 cells within five days. Each clump is around half a millimetre wide and covered in minuscule hair-like structures. These act like flexible oars, propelling the xenobots forward in corkscrew paths, says Bongard. The team noticed that individual clumps of cells appeared to work together in a swarm, pushing other loose cells in the dish together. The resulting piles of cells gradually formed new xenobots. Further experiments revealed that groups of 12 xenobots placed in a dish of around 60,000 single cells appear to work together to form either one or two new generations. “One [xenobot] parent can begin a pile and then, by chance, a second parent can push more cells into that pile, and so on, generating the child,” says Bongard. Each round of replication creates slightly smaller xenobot offspring, on average. Eventually, offspring that comprise fewer than 50 cells lose their ability to swim and reproduce.

11-29-21 Canine teeth shrank in human ancestors at least 4.5 million years ago
The extra-large, dagger-like canine teeth seen in male great apes have been missing from human ancestors for at least 4.5 million years – possibly because females opted for less aggressive partners. Male hominins may have lost the extra-large canine teeth that are seen in most other male primates at least 4.5 million years ago – relatively early in our evolution. This suggests that male human ancestors became less aggressive with each other around the same time, possibly because females preferred less aggressive mates, says a researcher behind the finding. Modern-day human males have proportionately the smallest canines of all male great apes. For most other primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, males have significantly bigger canines than females. Larger canines have been linked with more fighting between males for access to females. It is unclear when in our evolutionary history male canines shrank, because fossils that are several million years old lack DNA that could be sequenced and assigned to a sex. The ancestors of humans and chimpanzees split about 7 million years ago, so the change in tooth size is thought to have happened at some point since then. Gen Suwa at the University of Tokyo in Japan and his colleagues measured the dimensions of more than 300 fossil teeth spanning 6 million years of hominin evolution. These included 24 from Ardipithecus ramidus, one of the earliest known hominins, which lived about 4.5 million years ago. The A. ramidus canines didn’t clearly fall into two distinct groups, so the team developed a statistical technique for analysing subtle variations to distinguish male and female teeth. To check its accuracy, the group tested their technique on modern samples from primate teeth for which the sex was known.

11-29-21 A single vaccine could protect against many mosquito-borne diseases
A vaccine that changes the way our body responds to mosquito bites could protect us from diseases the insects carry, and also seems to make mosquitoes lay fewer eggs.A vaccine designed to protect against all mosquito-borne diseases by changing the way our immune system responds to bites has been shown to be safe in a small human trial. The results suggest it should reduce infections by the Zika virus, and also show that mosquitoes that feed on vaccinated people lay fewer eggs. “The results are very positive,” says Olga Pleguezuelos at PepTcell, one of the companies involved in developing the vaccine with funding from the UK and US governments. The hope is that the vaccine could provide protection against all mosquito-borne diseases including Zika, West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever and malaria. It might work best when combined with other vaccines targeting these pathogens directly, Pleguezuelos says, but for some of these diseases no vaccines are currently available. When a mosquito inserts its proboscis into our skin, it secretes saliva containing a complex mix of proteins that not only stops blood clotting, but also changes our immune response in a way that makes us more likely to be infected by any diseases the mosquito carries. If you inject malaria parasites into people with a needle, it takes thousands to infect them, Pleguezuelos says. But a mosquito bite that transfers as few as five parasites can infect people. Together with researchers at the National Institutes of Health in the US, Pleguezuelos has developed a vaccine containing synthetic proteins that match parts of some of the key proteins in mosquito saliva. The aim is to change our immune response to mosquito saliva in a way that reduces infections.

11-29-21 A sailor’s story captures the impact of rising serious fungal infections
Some fungi have emerged as recent threats to human health, causing problems that are hard to diagnose and hard to treat. Tyson Bottenus once captained an 80-foot schooner called the Aquidneck. He sailed tourists off the coast of Newport, R.I., discussing the area’s history and sites. In January 2018, he had finished another season at the schooner’s helm and had recently gotten engaged to his partner of many years, Liza Burkin. To celebrate, the couple, avid cyclists who’ve ridden through New Zealand and Japan, set off for a bike tour of Costa Rica. “We were on this very, very dusty road for a long time,” Bottenus remembers of a ride to Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula. “It was a dirty, sandy, hard-packed road.” While going downhill, Bottenus crashed, badly scraping his elbow. The next morning, a doctor spent about an hour picking out little rocks and cleaning dirt from the wound before she bandaged it up. The injury kept him from swimming but otherwise didn’t disrupt the trip. About a month after returning to Rhode Island, Bottenus started having headaches. He couldn’t control his mouth properly — his speech was off, and he was drooling. Eventually his doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a lesion in his brain. “My first thought was, I must have some sort of cancer,” he says. “I’m only 31…. I’m way too young for this.” It wasn’t cancer. Nor was it any of the infections proposed as doctors searched for a diagnosis. Two brain biopsies didn’t provide enough tissue to identify the problem. In August 2018, Bottenus became very ill and was hospitalized. He couldn’t walk. His mouth muscles weren’t working. And he could no longer tie the drawstring of his pants with a square knot, a common knot sailors use to fasten two ropes together. It’s a knot Bottenus has taught others and could previously do with his eyes closed. “I’m a captain of boats, supposedly,” he remembers thinking. “I am not the person I think I am.”

11-27-21 NHS England to test Netflix-style subscriptions for antibiotics
A Netflix-style scheme to fund new antibiotics through a subscription – through which the health service pays drug companies a set annual fee, regardless of how many doses are used – will start next year in England. The approach tackles a key element of the antibiotic resistance crisis: that few new drugs are being developed, while existing ones are failing. The field is currently unprofitable for pharmaceutical firms because when new antibiotics reach the clinic, health services use them sparingly, to slow the spread of bacterial resistance. Under the new scheme, manufacturers Pfizer and the Japanese firm Shionogi will receive fixed payments from England’s National Health Service from April for two recently launched antibiotics, called Zavicefta and Fetcroja, respectively. The amount to be paid hasn’t yet been announced, but the UK government has previously said it could be as much as £10 million a year. “It doesn’t matter if we use no pills, one pill or 10,000 pills,” says Colin Garner at Antibiotic Research UK, a charity that wasn’t involved in the scheme. “[Funding] is not at all related to the number of antibiotics used.” Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, used to treat conditions such as pneumonia, sepsis and wound infections, is seen as one of the biggest threats to public health. Resistant microbes have become more common as antibiotic use has increased, raising the prospect that simple infections will become untreatable, and common operations and cancer treatments will be far riskier. For years, various schemes have been debated to try to provide an incentive for companies to do research and development in this field. The UK subscription model is the first designed explicitly to reimburse firms an amount that reflects an antibiotic’s overall value to the health service, even if it is kept as a medicine of last resort and used little.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

12-3-21 Oregon police seek clues in poisoning of eight wolves
Police in the US state of Oregon are investigating the poisoning of eight grey wolves found dead by officials earlier this year. Five wolves were discovered near Mount Harris in February, followed by another three later. Tests later confirmed that a "poisonous substance" had killed the wolves. Authorities are asking for help from public and conservation groups are offering a $26,000 (£19,600) award for information leading to conviction. In a statement, Oregon State Police said that the initial batch of five wolves - all of whom were collared members of the same pack - were found dead along with a nearby magpie on 9 February. Just over a month later, on 11 March, officials responding to a 'mortality signal' from a wolf collar discovered another dead wolf, a skunk, and a magpie. Two more wolves were found dead in April and July. Toxicology reports confirmed that all the wolves had been poisoned. The police statement said that investigators have "exhausted leads" in the case and are seeking information from the public. Brooks Fahy, the executive director of Oregon-based wildlife advocacy organisation Predator Defense, said that the poisonings were a "cowardly and despicable act". Grey wolves were once nearly wiped out across the contiguous US. The Endangered Species Act of 1974 created federal protections that saved the species from extinction and led to sustained population recovery efforts. But the animals were delisted by the Trump administration last year and management of the species has since fallen to the states. The Biden administration is reportedly considering relisting grey wolves on the Endangered Species List.

12-3-21 Gene edited sex selection may spare animal suffering
Scientists have used gene editing technology to create female-only and male-only litters of mice. Their technique could prevent the destruction of hundreds of thousands of unwanted mice used in research. The team says it could also prevent the slaughter of millions of male chickens in the UK, which are culled because they don't lay eggs. The government is considering allowing gene editing to be used by the livestock industry in England. The technique, which has been outlined in the academic journal Nature Communications, deactivates a gene involved with embryo development. The system can be programmed to kick in for either male or female embryos at a very early stage of development - of between 16 and 32 cells. The researchers believe that the technique could work on farm animals and they are in discussions to set up scientific pilot studies with the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, which is among the world leaders in gene editing of livestock. Dr Peter Ellis of Kent University told BBC News that if the results do translate from the lab to commercial use, they could have a "far reaching" impact on animal welfare. "Between four and six billion chicks in the poultry industry are killed each year worldwide. In principle, we could set up a system so that instead of having chicks having to be killed after birth when they have a nervous system and potentially capable of suffering, those eggs are laid but simply never hatch," he said. In the first instance though, the new technique could reduce the number of lab mice that are killed because either males or females are required for certain medical experiments. Dr James Turner, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, has identified 25,000 research papers published in the past five years, around 25,000 papers that required male- or female-only mice. "The numbers of mice used in each case obviously varies," he said, "but the total mouse usage would easily be in the hundreds of thousands. This work could have immediate and valuable impact in scientific laboratories."

12-2-21 Orcas are spreading further into the Arctic Ocean as sea ice melts
Orcas – also known as killer whales – used to be unusual visitors to the Arctic Ocean off Alaska, but they are becoming more common there, which might be bad news for local ecosystems. Orcas are venturing much further into the Arctic Ocean and more frequently, perhaps due to decreasing sea ice in the region caused by climate change. Their growing presence could threaten marine ecosystems in the area. Orcas (Orcinus orca) – also known as killer whales – are intelligent and versatile predators. While they can be found in the majority of our planet’s oceans, they don’t typically journey to ice-covered Arctic waters near Alaska because sea ice makes the region difficult to access and also leaves the mammals at risk of becoming trapped below the surface. But Brynn Kimber at the University of Washington and her colleagues have found more and more orcas there in recent years. To track orca populations, the researchers used underwater acoustic recordings of north-western Arctic waters. They collected data between 2012 and 2019 from four recorders that were attached to anchors dotted around the area, ranging from the northerly edge of the Chukchi Sea to the more southerly Bering Strait, just off the Alaskan coast. To estimate the size of orca populations, the researchers analysed these recordings for the prevalence of orca vocalisations, then compared the numbers with changes to ice cover in the region. They found that in the southern regions near the Bering Strait, orcas now make a regular appearance each summer. What’s more, they were arriving in these areas up to a month earlier in the summer of 2019 than they did in the summer of 2012, possibly due to earlier ice disappearance. In the northern Chukchi borderlands, they also found that orcas were present more frequently and consistently by 2019, again perhaps due to reducing ice cover. “We are seeing them more often in areas that I wouldn’t have seen them at all in the early years [of the study],” says Kimber.

12-1-21 UK gene-edited food plans must not harm animal welfare, say ethicists
Gene-edited foods may one day be sold in UK shops, but ethicists warn that using the technology in livestock may exacerbate animal welfare issues if, for example, it leads to the creation of disease-resistant animals that can be housed together more densely. Ethicists say the UK’s embrace of gene-edited food must not be used to prolong or worsen existing animal welfare problems in farming, such as using greater disease resistance as an excuse to crowd animals more densely together. The UK government recently said it plans legislation next year to allow gene-edited crops and animals in England to be treated differently to genetically modified organisms, in a first step that could eventually pave the way for such food to be sold in shops. Gene-editing is more precise than genetic modification (GM), using targeted changes in DNA sequences that could bring about environmental, welfare and nutritional benefits, such as making pigs resistant to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, a disease regularly found in the UK. Danielle Hamm at the independent Nuffield Council on Bioethics says the technology could “bring real benefits to farming”. But ethicists at the group published a report today that highlights concerns about potential applications of gene-editing in animals. The report says the technology may exacerbate animal welfare issues if, for instance, it is used to breed livestock that can resist disease more effectively and so allow for animals to be housed more densely. Another example the report gives is that gene-editing to increase food-production, such as making species mature faster, should avoid replicating welfare issues created by selective breeding, such as fast-growing chickens having leg problems.

12-1-21 Rules to create gene-edited farm animals must put welfare first - review
Regulations to allow the production of gene-edited farm animals must put welfare first, according to an independent review. The technology allows scientists to alter DNA so as to introduce specific traits, such as resistance to disease. The UK government is mulling proposals to allow the commercial development of gene-edited livestock in England. An independent analysis has called for a review of the government's proposals for regulating the technology. A report by the Nuffield Council for Bioethics warns that scrapping the current ban on the commercial development of gene-edited animals could increase livestock suffering. The council's assistant director, Peter Mills, who was the driving force behind the report, says the government's plan to scrap the current restrictions "effectively takes the brakes off the capacity for breeders to advance their breeding programmes". He said: "Farming is a business, and it is a requirement of breeders of farm animals to tread a line between what they can get out of it and (animal welfare). What we are calling for is for that line to be drawn more clearly." Gene-editing involves inserting new DNA sequences, deleting existing ones or modifying them in the genome of a living organism. It's a more precise and targeted technology than previous forms of genetic engineering and the changes are virtually indistinguishable from natural mutations. Those earlier forms of genetic engineering sometimes involved the insertion of a gene from a different organism at random into another living thing. The UK is among the world leaders in the technology. Researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh have developed pigs that are immune to one of the world's costliest animal diseases, a respiratory condition known as PRRS. They are also attempting to produce African varieties of cattle that produce more milk, while a US firm has created cows that thrive in hotter conditions.

12-1-21 Risso’s dolphins have invented rapid spin-dive technique for hunting
A species of dolphin that hunts prey living 600 metres below the surface spins its body as it dives so it can drill down through the water rapidly. Risso’s dolphins dive rapidly and efficiently to catch prey hundreds of metres deep by twisting through the water at high speeds. The round-faced dolphins exhale the air in their lungs then dive on a near-vertical trajectory, making as many as three full twists as they “drill” through the seawater in what researchers have named a spin dive. The technique quickly gets them to a dense layer of squid, fish and crustaceans with optimal use of energy and oxygen, making the dives highly profitable, says Fleur Visser at the University of Amsterdam. “They are air-breathing mammals, so it’s costly for them to dive deep,” says Visser. Visser and her colleagues had already noticed Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) turning around at the water surface before diving. Curious about what the animals were doing, they equipped seven dolphins near Portugal’s Terceira Island with biologgers that recorded data about sound, 3D movement and depth, and gathered information about a total of 226 dives ranging from 20 to 623 metres deep. For the deeper dives, the dolphins started with an intense stroke of the fins that rotated their bodies – usually towards the right – combined with a strong exhalation, presumably to reduce their buoyancy. They then turned downward at about 60 degrees and entered a high-speed, twisting descent followed by a rotating, free-gliding phase, achieving an average speed of 9 kilometres per hour and reaching an average depth of 426 metres.

12-1-21 Extinct New Zealand bird hunted like an eagle and ate like a vulture
The Haast’s eagle had a beak and talons suited for capturing live prey, but its skull was adapted for ripping out organs. For more than a century, scientists have wondered whether a huge carnivorous bird that went extinct around 600 years ago was more of a predatory eagle or a gut-raiding vulture. Now we finally have the answer: it was both. The Haast’s eagle, which lived in New Zealand, used its massive talons to hunt and capture prey like an eagle. But instead of gobbling it down whole like modern-day raptors, it ripped the animal’s belly apart and tore out its intestines – the “nicest bits”, says Anneke van Heteren at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich, Germany. “It’s still actively hunting because it’s pulling down such huge prey, but then the feeding is much more of a pulling, like the way a vulture would on an elephant carcass, rather than the way an eagle would gulp down its prey in two or three bites,” says van Heteren. The Haast’s eagle (Hieraaetus moorei) weighed up to 15 kilograms, about a third heavier than the largest living eagle, the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). Scientists have long suspected that the bird’s preferred prey was another bird, the land-roaming and now extinct moa, which could weigh up to 200 kilograms. To answer the question of whether the Haast’s eagle fed more like a vulture or a true eagle, van Heteren and her colleagues created digital 3D models of preserved specimens of its skull and talons. They then compared those to the morphology of five other species of modern eagles and vultures. With the help of computerised modelling, the researchers determined that, contrary to the conclusions of earlier scientific studies, the Haast’s beak is actually far more similar to that of other eagles than to carrion feeders. Haast’s eagles could have used their powerful bite to kill large prey such as moas. Their large talons also showed remarkable similarities to modern eagles, meaning they were well suited for capturing live prey, even animals far larger and heavier than themselves.

11-30-21 A new book shows how animals are already coping with climate change
‘Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid’ offers both good news and bad news. As a conservation biologist, Thor Hanson has seen firsthand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the wild: the green macaws of Central America migrating along with their food sources, the brown bears of Alaska fattening up on early-ripening berry crops, the conifers of New England seeking refuge from vanishing habitats. And as an engaging author who has celebrated the wonders of nature in books about feathers, seeds, forests and bees (SN: 7/21/18, p. 28), he’s an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise send readers down a well of despair. Hanson does not despair in his latest book, Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid. Though he outlines the many ways that global warming is changing life on our planet, his tone is not one of hand-wringing. Instead, Hanson invites the reader into the stories of particular people, places and creatures of all sorts. He draws these tales from his own experiences and those of other scientists, combining reporting with narrative tales of species that serve as examples of broader trends in the natural world. A trip to La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, for example, has Hanson reliving the experience of tropical ecologist and climatologist Leslie Holdridge, who founded the research station in the 1950s and described, among other things, how climate creates different habitats, or life zones, as elevation increases. As Hanson sweats his way up a tropical mountainside so he can witness a shift in life zones, he notes, “I had to earn every foot of elevation gain the hard way.” I could almost feel the heat that he describes as “a steaming towel draped over my head.” His vivid descriptions bring home the reason why so many species have now been documented moving upslope to cooler climes.

11-30-21 Wood Wide Web: Scientists to map hotspots of fungal life
A science mission is set to explore one of the final frontiers of untapped knowledge on the planet - the fungal networks in the soil beneath us. Fungi form an underground network of connections with plant roots, helping to recycle nutrients and to lock up planet-warming CO2 in the soil. But little is known about this giant mesh of fungi and its role in fighting climate change. It is part of what's popularly known as the Wood Wide Web. This is an underground network of plant roots and fungi that, among other things, allows trees to share nutrients. And scientists say "underground conservation" has been long overlooked. The initiative to map and preserve the Earth's underground fungal networks is led by the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks. It is the start of an "underground climate movement" to protect "this ancient life support system" said Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at VU University in Amsterdam. Local experts, dubbed "myconauts" after mycology, the study of fungi, will collect 10,000 samples over the next 18 months to compile a global map of fungal hotspots. And machine learning will be used to build up a picture of the function of fungal networks and their role as carbon sinks - something that absorbs more carbon-containing compounds - such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - than it releases. Scientists say fungal networks are under threat due to agricultural expansion, the use of fertilisers and pesticides, deforestation and urbanisation. Current estimates put the amount of carbon dioxide taken out of the air and locked up in the soil with the help of fungal networks at five billion tonnes - although it could be more than three times higher. "If we lose this system, this is going to have really serious consequences for our ability to fight climate change," Prof Kiers told BBC News. Fungi are "the invisible ecosystem engineers and their loss is totally undocumented", she added. Soils are home to 25% of all species on Earth, yet current plans to conserve biodiversity hotspots above ground fail to protect over 50% of biodiversity below ground. The total length of the fungal network in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion kilometres: around half the width of our galaxy.

11-29-21 Heirloom tomatoes are less genetically diverse than standard varieties
A study of traditional ‘heirloom’ tomato varieties from Europe has revealed little genetic diversity despite their enormous variety in size, shape and colour. Yellow, streaked or purple, enormous or tiny, round, plum or lobed – the colours, sizes and shapes of the tomato varieties traditionally grown in Europe vary greatly. But it turns out this diversity is only skin deep. Apart from the few genes controlling these obvious characteristics, these tomatoes are virtually identical genetically. “It’s like a desert with some oases of variety,” says Jose Blanca at Valencia Polytechnic University in Spain. “The tomatoes that you find in the supermarket nowadays, they have more diversity than the traditional [European] ones.” A handful of varieties of tomato were brought to Europe from the Americas around the 16th century, where they were grown mostly by poorer farmers in Spain and Italy. These farmers bred hundreds of varieties. “People think these are natural, but they are not,” says Blanca. “These are artificial. They are human artefacts.” The fruit became popular in the UK and North America in the 19th century, and nowadays most tomatoes grown commercially are modern varieties created by seed companies. However, seed banks and a few amateur growers around the world are trying to conserve the vintage or “heirloom” varieties. To assess the diversity of European varieties, Blanca’s team partially sequenced the genomes of more than 1000 heirloom tomatoes developed in Europe alongside another 200 or so modern varieties. The researchers found significant diversity at just 300 sites in the genome of the heirloom varieties. “There are few diverse sites, but the ones that are diverse, they are very diverse,” says Blanca. “The rest, they are all the same.” This is because the European farmers selected for mutants that had an obvious effect, he says. But because all the varieties derive from just a few plants that arrived in Europe in the 16th century, they remain very similar otherwise.