Sioux Falls Free Thinkers

"Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent!"

For all those with Open Minds!

An Open Mind by Megan Godtland

2020 Free Thinkers Stats

2020 All Website Stats

Latest News Articles from the
Sioux Falls Free Thinkers Five Websites
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source

Your only Sioux Falls source for really important news!


ATHEISM and HUMANISM

1-23-21 Covid: Biden signs executive orders on food aid and worker protections
US President Joe Biden has issued two more executive orders as he continues to roll back his predecessor's agenda. He signed one order on boosting food assistance and another on raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, said the action would "provide a critical lifeline" to millions of families. It comes a day after the new US president signed a raft of orders to boost the fight against coronavirus. This included expanding testing and accelerating vaccine distribution. Mr Biden said it would take months to defeat the pandemic but America would "get through this" if people stood together. The Trump administration was widely accused of failing to get to grips with the pandemic. The US has recorded the highest coronavirus death toll of any country in the world, with more than 410,000 fatalities, according to data collated by Johns Hopkins University. It has recorded more than 24.6 million cases. Mr Biden signed the two executive orders on Friday. The first increases food aid for children who rely on school meals as a main source for nutrition, but are unable to access them because of remote learning. It also creates a guarantee that workers can access unemployment benefits if they refuse a job on the grounds that it could jeopardise their health. The second is aimed at expanding protections for federal workers, by restoring collective bargaining rights and promoting a $15 (£11) hourly minimum wage. Mr Deese said the orders were "not a substitute" for a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that Mr Biden wants Congress to pass, but an essential lifeline for people who need immediate assistance. "The American people cannot afford to wait," he told reporters. "So many are hanging by a thread. They need help, and we're committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

1-23-21 National Guard: President Biden apologises over troops sleeping in car park
US President Joe Biden has apologised after some members of the National Guard stationed at the Capitol were pictured sleeping in a car park. More than 25,000 troops were deployed to Washington DC for his inauguration after violence earlier this month. Images spread on Thursday showing them forced to rest in a nearby parking garage after lawmakers returned. The conditions sparked anger among politicians, and some state governors recalled troops over the controversy. Mr Biden called the chief of the National Guard Bureau on Friday to apologise and ask what could be done, according to US media reports. First Lady Jill Biden also visited some of the troops to thank them personally, bringing biscuits from the White House as a gift. "I just wanted to come today to say thank you to all of you for keeping me and my family safe," she said. The photographs showing hundreds of troops in a parking garage went viral on Thursday and sparked outrage, including from members of Congress. Many voiced concerns about the conditions, with guardsmen exposed to car fumes and without proper access to facilities like toilets after having been on alert for days. Images of the cramped conditions also sparked fears about the spread of coronavirus. A US official, speaking anonymously to Reuters news agency, said on Friday that between 100 and 200 of those deployed had tested positive for Covid-19. The figure - which would represent a small proportion of the more than 25,000 deployed, has not been publicly confirmed. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat and the new Senate majority leader, said that the move was "an outrage" and pledged it "will never happen again". Ron DeSantis, Florida's governor, was among those who said he had ordered guards from his state to return home following the controversy.

1-23-21 Trump impeachment: Senate trial delayed until next month
The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump will begin next month under an agreement reached between Senate Democrats and Republicans. House of Representatives Democrats will send the charge of "inciting insurrection" to the Senate on Monday. But arguments will not begin until the week of 8 February, allowing Mr Trump's lawyers two weeks to build a defence. Democrats accuse the ex-president of instigating the deadly 6 January riot at the US Capitol. The House last week paved the way for the Senate proceedings by charging Mr Trump with inciting the violence, which left five people dead. His second impeachment trial will begin almost exactly a year after the Senate acquitted him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. That case related to accusations he pressured Ukraine to help smear Joe Biden and his son. Mr Trump's term ended on Wednesday and he left Washington, snubbing his successor Joe Biden's inauguration. His speech to a rally ahead of the Capitol riot are at the heart of the case against him. The then-president told protesters near the White House to "peacefully and patriotically" make their voices heard as they prepared to march towards the US Capitol building, which houses the US Congress. He also told them to "fight like hell". Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said on Friday that the House would deliver the impeachment article - or charge - on Monday. "The Senate will conduct a trial of the impeachment of Donald Trump. It will be a full trial. It will be a fair trial," Mr Schumer said, speaking on the floor of the Senate. House Democrats say the article will be passed to the upper chamber of Congress at 19:00 local time on Monday. Democratic impeachment managers, lawmakers from the House who will act as prosecutors during the Senate trial, will be sworn in on Tuesday.

1-23-21 What next for Trump - and Trumpism? (What next for Hitler and Fascism?)
Donald Trump boarded Air Force One for the last time on Wednesday with a wave. As Frank Sinatra's My Way blared over the loudspeakers at Joint Base Andrews, the soon-to-be-ex-president took off for his new home in Florida. Although he had just finished promising a small gathering of supporters that he would be back "in some form", the future for Trump - and the political movement he rode to victory in 2016 - is murky. Just two months ago, he seemed poised to be a powerful force in American politics even after his November defeat. He was still beloved by Republicans, feared and respected by the party's politicians and viewed positively by nearly half of Americans, according to public opinion surveys. Then Trump spent two months trafficking in unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud, feuded with party officials in battleground states, unsuccessfully campaigned for two Republican incumbent senators in Georgia's run-off elections and instigated a crowd of supporters that would turn into a mob that attacked the US Capitol. He's been impeached (again) by a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives and could, if convicted in the Senate, be permanently banned from running for public office. Over his five-year career in politics, Trump has wriggled free from political predicaments that would sink most others. He has been declared dead more times than Freddy Krueger. Yet he always seemed unsinkable; a submarine in a world of rowing boats. Stripped of his presidential powers and silenced by social media, he faces daunting challenges, both legal and financial. Can he still plot a successful political comeback? Will a Mar-a-Lago exile be his Elba or St Helena? And who might the tens of millions of Americans who supported him turn to instead? In the days following the US Capitol riot, Trump's overall public approval rating precipitously dropped to the mid-30s - some of the lowest of his entire presidency. At first blush, the numbers would indicate that his future political prospects have been mortally wounded.

1-23-21 Wuhan marks its anniversary with triumph and denial
Wuhan has long since recovered from the world's first outbreak of Covid-19. It is now being remembered not as a disaster but as a victory, and with an insistence that the virus came from somewhere - anywhere - but here. From the moment a new, pandemic coronavirus emerged in the same city as a laboratory dedicated to the study of new coronaviruses with pandemic potential, Prof Shi Zhengli has found herself the focus of one of the biggest scientific controversies of our time. For much of the past year she has met the suggestion that Sars-Cov-2 might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology with angry denial. Now though, she has offered her own thoughts on how the initial outbreak may have begun in the city. In an article in this month's edition of Science Magazine she referred to a number of studies that, she said, suggest the virus existed outside of China before Wuhan's first known case in December 2019. "Given the finding of Sars-Cov-2 on the surface of imported food packages, contact with contaminated uncooked food could be an important source of Sars-Cov-2 transmission," she wrote. From one of the world's leading experts on coronaviruses, even the discussion of such a possibility seems unusual. Could a spiralling outbreak of infection that almost destroyed Wuhan's health system, sparked the world's first Covid lockdown and spawned a global catastrophe really have arrived on imported food without any signs of similarly devastating outbreaks elsewhere? But with the virus vanquished, the idea that it is a foreign import is repeated with almost unanimity across this city of 11 million people. "It came here from other countries," one woman running a hotpot stall in a busy street tells me. "China is a victim." "Where did it come from?" the next-door fishmonger repeats my question aloud, and then answers: "It came from America."

1-23-21 Back inside the Wuhan market where Covid-19 was first traced
In the early days of Covid-19, it was traced to a so-called "wet market" in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, and it was suggested that this was where it made the leap from animals to humans, although experts now believe it may simply have been amplified there.

1-23-21 Coronavirus: EU vaccine woes mount as new delays emerge
A second coronavirus vaccine manufacturer has warned of supply issues to the European Union, compounding frustration in the bloc. AstraZeneca said a production problem meant the number of initial doses available would be lower than expected. The fresh blow comes after some nations' inoculation programmes were slowed due to a cut in deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The EU Health Commissioner expressed "deep dissatisfaction" at the news. Officials have not confirmed publicly how big the shortfall will be, but an unnamed EU official told Reuters news agency that deliveries would be reduced to 31m - a cut of 60% - in the first quarter of this year. The drug firm had been set to deliver about 80 million doses to the 27 nations by March, according to the official who spoke to Reuters. The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University, has not yet been approved by the EU's drug regulator but is expected to get the green light at the end of this month, paving the way for jabs to be given. A spokesman for AstraZeneca said on Friday that "initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated" without giving further details. His written statement blamed the discrepancy on "reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain" and said the firm was continuing to ramp up production volumes. News of the delay comes amid criticism and frustration across the region about the speed of vaccination roll-outs. Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US are all well ahead of EU nations in terms of doses given per capita so far. The European Commission has co-ordinated orders for all member states, with vaccines then distributed based on their population size. Vaccines are increasingly seen by experts as the only way out of the Covid-19 crisis, with many European nations struggling to cope with a deadly surge of the virus over the winter period.

1-22-21 Covid-19 news: UK variant may be 30 per cent more deadly
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. New variant of coronavirus in the UK may be deadlier than the original virus. Preliminary evidence indicates the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus first identified in the UK may additionally be more deadly, UK prime minister Boris Johnson told a press briefing on Friday. The government was briefed by researchers in the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, who are assessing the data on the variant, which appears to be about 30 per cent more deadly. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and at Imperial College London who analysed data on the new variant concluded it is between 29 and 36 per cent more lethal, whereas researchers at the University of Exeter put the figure at 91 per cent. The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the evidence on lethality “is not yet strong”, adding: “but it is obviously a concern”. People in England attending house parties of more than 15 people will receive £800 fines starting next week. Home secretary Priti Patel told a Downing street press conference that there remained a “small minority that refuse to do the right thing”. But some scientists, including members of the Independent SAGE group, are calling for the government to tighten restrictions in England, arguing that the main problem is that the existing rules are too permissive, rather than people not abiding by them. “The problem is not that people are flexing the rules but that the rules are too flexible,” Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews told an Independent SAGE briefing. When people do break the rules – for example, by not staying home when they have symptoms – it is often because they have little choice, added Susan Michie at University College London. “People are going out because they haven’t got enough income in order to stay home,” she said at the briefing. A coronavirus information-sharing platform for pharmaceutical companies organised by the World Health Organization hasn’t attracted any contributions since it was launched in May 2020, the Guardian reported.

1-22-21 Covid: Biden to sign executive orders on food aid and worker protections
US President Joe Biden is set to take executive action to help people struggling with the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic. Two orders will increase food aid and expand protections for federal workers. Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, said the orders would "provide a critical lifeline" to millions of families. It comes a day after the new US president signed a raft of orders to boost the fight against coronavirus. This included expanding testing and accelerating vaccine distribution. Mr Biden said it would take months to defeat the pandemic but America would "get through this" if people stood together. The Trump administration was widely accused of failing to get to grips with the pandemic. The US has recorded the highest coronavirus death toll of any country in the world, with more than 410,000 fatalities, according to data collated by Johns Hopkins University. It has recorded more than 24.6 million cases. Mr Biden plans to sign the two executive orders on Friday. The first increases food aid for children who rely on school meals as a main source for nutrition, but are unable to access them because of remote learning. It also creates a guarantee that workers can access unemployment benefits if they refuse a job on the grounds that it could jeopardise their health. The second is aimed at expanding protections for federal workers, by restoring collective bargaining rights and promoting a $15 (£11) hourly minimum wage. Mr Deese said the orders were "not a substitute" for a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that Mr Biden wants Congress to path, but an essential lifeline for people who need immediate assistance. The American people cannot afford to wait," he told reporters. "So many are hanging by a thread. They need help, and we're committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

1-22-21 Wuhan lockdown: A year of China's fight against the Covid pandemic
A year ago on 23 January 2020 the world saw its first coronavirus lockdown come into force in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic is believed to have started. At the time, the wider world was shocked by the harsh restrictions and rigid enforcement. From late January until June, the city was effectively sealed off from the rest of the country. But even though it came at a significant cost, it proved to be a highly successful method of tackling the virus. One year on, China is often held up as one of the virus success stories - not least by Beijing itself. So how exactly did China get from lockdown to here - and how has Beijing controlled its own story? Authorities were slow to react to initial reports of a mystery illness circulating at a wet market in Wuhan in late 2019, allowing millions of the city's residents to move around the country in the days leading up to Chinese New Year, a traditional high-travel period, in January 2020. Earlier this week, an interim report by an independent panel appointed by the World Health Organization (WHO) criticised China's initial response, saying that "public health measures could have been applied more forcefully". But once China finally recognised there was a problem, authorities cracked down hard. On January 23, two days before the country celebrated Chinese New Year, the streets of Wuhan fell silent: some 11 million people were put under tight quarantine, and face masks and social distancing became mandatory. With medical capacities overwhelmed, authorities surprised the world as they managed to set up entire field hospitals within days. But even so, residents like Wenjun Wang were scared. She told the BBC at the time how her uncle had already died, and her parents were sick - but getting help was still all but impossible. The methods used in Wuhan would become routinely employed in the following months as China tackled outbreaks in other major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai with immediate lockdowns and swift mass testing. Entry into China, meanwhile, was managed by tight entry and quarantine control. (Webmaster's comment: Thanks to China's strict policies they have had only 4,635 deaths in a nation of almost 1.4 billion. In the the United States we have had over 420,000 deaths with a population of 1/4 that of China.)

1-22-21 America needs a better vaccine plan — and story
Why President Biden's most urgent pandemic task might be messaging. resident Biden's team has reviewed their predecessors' agenda for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and reportedly discovered the plans had the significant problem of failing to exist. "There is nothing for us to rework," an unnamed source with knowledge of the new administration's COVID-19 efforts told CNN. "We are going to have to build everything from scratch." In that it means months of potential progress have been needlessly lost — that the abysmally slow vaccination pace we've seen since mid-December was not inevitable — this is a horrifying revelation. But there may be an advantage here: The Biden administration can craft its vaccine distribution plan and, crucially, its messaging with a free hand. The message the Biden administration should be preaching is this: The vaccines are good. In fact, they are remarkably good. They are best-case scenario good. Our goal now is to get these good vaccines into as many people as possible as rapidly as possible so we can return to normal as soon as possible, because that is what the vaccines will enable us to do. Do you hate masks? Are you tired of social distancing? Do you want this whole stupid, awful thing to be over? That is what the vaccines can do — if we get them into our bodies, for, as epidemiologist Walter Orenstein observes, "vaccines which remain in the vial are 0 percent effective." It is vaccinations, not vaccines, that save lives. This seems simplistic, I know. It is certainly simple, and yet somehow it still needs to be said. Far too much of our public health messaging around the vaccines has been negative, as David Leonhardt has compellingly argued at The New York Times. "Right now, public discussion of the vaccines is full of warnings about their limitations," Leonhardt writes. "They're not 100 percent effective. Even vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus. And people shouldn't change their behavior once they get their shots." These warnings have a "basis in truth," he adds, but their collective impression is deeply — dangerously — misleading. They're adding to the very fears discussion of the vaccines should be relieving. "We're underselling the vaccine," one expert told Leonhardt. "It's driving me a little bit crazy," said another. A third: "It's going to save your life — that's where the emphasis has to be right now." There are two very different sources for the underselling Leonhardt describes. One is what we saw with the Trump administration: unjustified skepticism of vaccines generally, of the COVID-19 vaccine specifically, and (somehow, after 400,000 deaths even with all the lockdowns and distancing and so on) the reality of COVID-19 itself. This is the mindset encouraged by an ex-president apparently unwilling to get his own shot even though it might enhance his personal immunity and convince millions of his followers this vaccination is safe and desirable. The temptation for the Biden administration will be the opposite extreme, what critics have dubbed "doomerism." This is the perspective in which all risk is unacceptable, the mindset that last spring castigated Floridians for taking perfectly safe walks on the beach and now produces headlines like, "Vaccinated Brits told not to hug kids amid fears millions will ignore COVID rules once they have jab." However good the intentions here, any health message to the general public which says to refuse to hug your children indefinitely even after vaccination — and the article doesn't specify adult children in a separate household; it seems to be a blanket directive — should be a non-starter. It is utterly hopeless. Perhaps nothing is more certain to push an already-anxious public into pandemic nihilism and dismissal of vaccination as useless or worse.

1-22-21 Trump impeachment: Senate trial poised to start next week
Donald Trump's impeachment trial over his role in the deadly US Capitol riot is poised to begin next week in the Senate, according to Democrats. On Monday, the House of Representatives will deliver the impeachment charge to the Senate, triggering the trial process in the 100-member chamber. Republicans had argued for a delay, asking for more time to prepare. Mr Trump flew to Florida as his term ended on Wednesday, skipping his successor Joe Biden's inauguration. The House of Representatives last week charged Mr Trump with inciting a deadly riot at the US Capitol, paving the way for a Senate trial. If convicted, he could be barred from future office. Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said on Friday that the House would deliver the impeachment article on Monday. Unless Democrats, who took control of the Senate this week, change the rules, it will mean Mr Trump's trial will begin on Tuesday. "The Senate will conduct a trial of the impeachment of Donald Trump. It will be a full trial. It will be a fair trial," Senate Majority Leader Schumer said on the floor of the Senate. Mr Trump's actions ahead of the 6 January riot are at the heart of the case. The then president told protesters near the White House to "peacefully and patriotically" make their voices heard as they prepared to march towards the US Capitol building. He also told them to "fight like hell". The demonstration turned ugly as a mob forced its way into the congressional complex where lawmakers were certifying Mr Biden's election victory. Four protesters and a Capitol Police officer died in the mayhem. A week later, Mr Trump became the first US president to be impeached twice. His trial in the Senate will be the only one ever to have taken place after a president has left office.

1-22-21 Trump impeachment: Republicans seek delay until February
Republicans in the US Senate are asking Democrats to delay the start of former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial until February. They argue that this will give Mr Trump time to prepare a defence. The House of Representatives last week charged Mr Trump with inciting a deadly riot at the US Capitol, paving the way for a Senate trial. If convicted, he could be barred from future office. Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer is reviewing the Republicans' request. Some Democrats back a delay, saying it will give the Senate more time to confirm cabinet nominees, but others say a speedy trial is necessary to allow the country to move on. Mr Trump flew to Florida as his term ended on Wednesday, skipping his successor Joe Biden's inauguration. Mr Trump's actions ahead of the 6 January riot are at the heart of the case. The then president told protesters near the White House to "peacefully and patriotically" make their voices heard as they prepared to march towards the US Capitol building. He also told them to "fight like hell". The demonstration turned ugly as a mob forced its way into the congressional complex where lawmakers were certifying Mr Biden's election victory. Four protesters and a Capitol Police officer died in the mayhem. A week later, Mr Trump became the first US president to be impeached twice. His trial in the Senate will be the only one ever to have taken place after a president has left office. On a call to his fellow Republican senators on Thursday, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he had asked House Democrats to hold off sending the single impeachment article to the Senate until 28 January - the move that would kick-start the trial's first phase. Under this timetable, Mr Trump would then have two weeks - until 11 February - to submit his pre-trial defence. Arguments would be expected to begin in mid-February. Republicans, who as of Wednesday no longer control the Senate, need the new Democratic majority leader, Mr Schumer, to agree to the idea.

1-22-21 Coronavirus vaccine delays halt Pfizer jabs in parts of Europe
Vaccinations in parts of Europe are being held up and in some cases halted because of a cut in deliveries of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine. Germany's most populous state and several regions in Italy have suspended first jabs, while vaccinations for medics in Madrid have been stopped too. The US pharmaceutical firm has had to cut deliveries temporarily while cases in many European countries surge. Germany has reached 50,000 Covid deaths and Spain has seen record infections. Italy and Poland have threatened to take legal action in response to the reduction in vaccines. Pfizer said last week it was delaying shipments for the next few weeks because of work to increase capacity at its Belgian processing plant. The EU has ordered 600 million doses from Pfizer and has also authorised the Moderna vaccine. Responding to the delays, Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, said the EU had to take some responsibility because of its slow approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which may come at the end of next week. Hungary has reached a deal with Russia to buy up large quantities of the Sputnik V vaccine, even though it has not received EU approval. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after an EU summit on Thursday night that quick delivery had to be ensured. "We are determined to provide more predictability and stability to the delivery process and we look forward to more vaccines and more doses coming on stream soon," she said. Italy has been told to expect a a 20% cut in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine next week - it has already seen a 29% dip this week - and Rome is considering legal action. Special Covid commissioner Domenico Arcuri says jabs fell from 80,000 a day to an average of 28,000 last Saturday. Some Italian regions have seen a 60% fall in doses. Germany, where BioNTech is based, has had several states struggle with vaccine deliveries. North Rhine-Westphalia, in the west, halted jabs in hospitals on Tuesday and paused first vaccinations in nursing homes too. Second vaccinations are continuing but special centres for the over-80s will not open now until next month.

1-22-21 Africa's long wait for the Covid-19 vaccine
Africa will have to wait "weeks if not months" before receiving Covid-19 vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, according to various officials working towards getting doses for the continent. Close to 900 million doses have been secured so far through various initiatives, enough to inoculate about 30% of the continent's 1.3 billion people this year. Hoarding by wealthy nations, funding shortfalls, regulations and cold chain requirements have slowed the process of rolling out the vaccines. "The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and the price will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the poorest countries," warned WHO head Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus. Calls for equity have been growing. Close to 40 million doses have been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries, compared to just 25 doses given in just one of the lowest-income countries, according to Dr Tedros. "Not 25 million, not 25,000, just 25," he said, without saying which country. So far, none of the main, Western vaccines has yet been administered in Africa, almost two months after the first doses were rolled out in Europe. A coalition of organisations and activists dubbed The People's Vaccine Alliance found that "rich nations representing just 14% of the world's population had bought up more than half (53%) of all the most promising vaccines." That included all of Moderna's vaccines for 2021 and 96% of Pfizer's expected production. Canada topped the chart, according to the data by analytics company Airfinity, "with enough doses to vaccinate each Canadian five times". Much of that demand has to be met before lower income countries can have a turn. In Africa, the situation rekindles memories of the 1990s, when antiretroviral (ARVs) treatment for HIV/Aids was made in the United States. Even though the continent had a much bigger population of people infected with HIV, it took at least six years before the life-saving treatment could be available for Africans. Twelve million people died in Africa from Aids-related complications in a decade, even as mortality in the US dropped drastically, according to analyses by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1-21-21 Covid-19 news: ‘Too early to say’ when England lockdown will be lifted
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. Too soon to say when restrictions in England could be lifted, says UK prime minister. US president Joe Biden signed 10 executive orders aimed at boosting the country’s fight against covid-19, including halting US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO). The emergency legislation also aims to accelerate the nation’s covid-19 vaccination programme, increase coronavirus testing and increase the production of personal protective equipment, such as masks. On Thursday, it is expected that Biden will issue a directive including the intent to join the WHO’s vaccine accelerating COVAX scheme, which is working to deliver vaccines to low-income countries. Overall, the Biden administration is aiming to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the pandemic, Biden’s covid-19 task force coordinator, Jeff Zients, told journalists. The US has recorded more than 24.4 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and more than 406,000 deaths from covid-19. The European Union may ban travel from the UK and restrict movement across internal borders, in order to try to curb the spread of new coronavirus variants. Leaders will discuss potential measures on Thursday evening. “The danger is that when the infections in a country go up, this mutation becomes a quasi-majority variant and then the infection can no longer be controlled,” German chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, told German broadcaster ARD. “And therefore even stricter entry rules at our internal borders are unavoidable, and since everyone does not want that, it is important that we act together now.”

1-21-21 Covid dominates Biden’s first full day
Newly-elected US President Joe Biden has signed a series of executive orders reversing some of Trump's policies. He set America on the path to re-joining the Paris climate agreement and scrapped plans for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. He recommitted the US to the World Health Organization and ordered face masks to be worn on federal land. Biden ended a travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and ordered construction on Trump's Mexico border wall to stop. He is expected to sign 10 more executive orders later on Thursday as part of his ambitious plan to tackle the pandemic. World leaders welcomed the new presidency, hoping for a reset in relations after four turbulent years under Donald Trump. Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president in a ceremony on Wednesday, with few present due to the coronavirus restrictions. Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice-president - the first female and first black and Asian-American person to serve in the role.

1-21-21 Biden to sign 10 executive orders to tackle Covid-19
President Joe Biden is set to sign 10 executive orders to boost the fight against Covid which has ravaged the US. Vaccination will be accelerated and testing increased. Emergency legislation will be used to increase production of essentials like masks. In a break with former President Donald Trump, the policy stresses a national strategy rather than relying on states to decide what is best. The moves comes a day after Mr Biden was sworn in as the 46th president. The Trump administration was widely accused of failing to get to grips with the pandemic. In terms of total deaths from coronavirus, the US is the worst-hit country with more than 406,000 lives lost according to Johns Hopkins University. Nearly 24.5m have been infected. In his inauguration speech, Mr Biden warned that the coronavirus pandemic in the US was entering its "deadliest period". Mr Biden's Covid-19 task force co-ordinator, Jeff Zients, told reporters that under Mr Trump there was no strategy at federal level and a comprehensive approach was lacking. "As President Biden steps into office today, that all changes," he said. The administration unveiled a seven-point plan which included efforts to facilitate effective distribution of vaccines and reliable access to testing. "The American people deserve an urgent, robust and professional response to the growing public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak," an introduction to the plan said. It said Mr Biden believed the government "must act swiftly and aggressively to help protect and support" essential workers and the most vulnerable. The aim is to give 100 million vaccine doses by the end of April, and reopen most schools safely within 100 days. Vaccine centres will be established at stadiums and community facilities. There will be more funding for state and local officials to help tackle the pandemic, and a new office will be established to co-ordinate the national response. The Defense Production Act will be used to speed up production of personal protective equipment and essential supplies needed for vaccine production. Mr Trump used the same piece of legislation to compel the production of items in short supply last year.

1-21-21 Biden administration outlines its ambitious plan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic
The president plans to ask Congress for $400 billion to respond to the health crisis. Inauguration Day marks both a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic and a new chapter in the U.S. response to it. On January 19, the United States surpassed 400,000 coronavirus deaths. A day later, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden was poised to launch an ambitious plan to tackle the public health crisis, including distributing 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, issuing a “100 Days Masking Challenge” to encourage the public to wear masks and requiring people to keep physically distant and wear masks in federal buildings and on federal lands. The President also intends to ask Congress to spend $400 billion to kick-start his national COVID-19 response. The plan includes: 1. $20 billion for a national vaccine program that would partner with states, localities and tribal nations to fast-track vaccine rollout. The plan calls for more vaccination sites, including mobile centers, and expanded efforts to reach underserved communities. The National Guard will also be made available to states to assist with the effort; 2. $50 billion to expand testing, including bolstering support for laboratories and purchasing rapid antigen tests; 3. Funding 100,000 public health workers to aid in contact tracing, vaccine distribution or other needs of local health departments; 4. Expanding paid leave programs to allow more workers to stay home if sick. Exactly how much money goes toward these, and other, efforts depends in part on Congress, and the details will likely change in the coming weeks. Science News talked with Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and an adviser to the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 advisory board, about the new administration’s plans to handle the pandemic. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

1-21-21 Biden inauguration leaves QAnon believers in disarray
Followers of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory are split over how to react after Joe Biden's inauguration confounded their predictions that Donald Trump would remain president in order to punish his enemies in the "deep state". Many reacted with shock and despair as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th US president. "I just want to throw up," said one in a popular chat on the Telegram messaging app. "I'm so sick of all the disinformation and false hope." For weeks, QAnon followers had been promoting 20 January as a day of reckoning, when prominent Democrats and other elite "Satanic paedophiles" would be arrested and executed on the orders of President Trump. But, as Mr Biden took his oath and no arrests were made, some in the QAnon community had an uncomfortable meeting with reality. "It's done and we were played," wrote another. In the hours that followed, thousands more made similar comments on platforms like Gab, Telegram and other online forums where believers go to discuss the conspiracy, after being kicked off mainstream social media in the wake of the Capitol riots. Doubt even seeped into posts by some of the biggest influencers of the movement, as some started to question the phrase "trust the plan" - a key QAnon slogan that has been used by Q, an anonymous figure whom followers believe to be an influential government insider. "This is a very difficult day for all of us," said one influencer whose Twitter account with 200,000 followers was recently suspended. "Today's inauguration makes no sense to the Christian patriots and we thought 'the plan' was the way we would take this country back." The QAnon community "risks fracturing", said another influencer on Gab, a right-wing social media platform, adding that "real friendships might be irreparably damaged because people are angry". A number of extremist and neo-Nazi Telegram channels have already tried to capitalise on the chaos in the QAnon community, asking their members to seek out and convert distraught followers.

1-20-21 Covid-19 news: UK hospitals ‘like a war zone’ as deaths hit new record
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. Hospitals in the UK under ‘enormous pressure’, says chief scientific adviser. UK hospitals are under significant strain, the country’s chief scientific adviser has warned, as hospital admissions and deaths continue to rise. “It may not look like it when you go for a walk in the park, but when you go into a hospital, this is very, very bad at the moment with enormous pressure and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with,” said Patrick Vallance. There are currently 39,068 people in hospital with covid-19 across the country, with 3947 receiving ventilation. On Wednesday, the UK reported 1820 deaths from covid-19 within 28 days of a positive test – the highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic. In the seven days up to 17 January, the UK reported an average of 1218 covid-19 deaths each day. A formula used to distribute covid-19 vaccines in England, which didn’t account for the size of GP practices, has resulted in fewer people receiving the jab in London, according to London mayor Sadiq Khan. He told the Guardian the supply model is now going to be revised, following a crisis meeting with UK vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi last week. NHS England figures show that 388,437 people in London have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine – the lowest of any region in England – despite London being one of the largest NHS regions in the country, with a population of 8.6 million people. The Midlands region, which includes 10.6 million people, has administered the most first doses of vaccine at 713,602. “Some areas have had different logistical challenges than others,” a spokesperson for Boris Johnson told the Guardian. US president Joe Biden held a vigil in Washington DC on Tuesday to memorialise the more than 400,000 people in the US who have died from covid-19. “To heal, we must remember,” he said at the memorial. “It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”

1-20-21 Trump pardons dozens in final hours, including ex-aide Steve Bannon
In the final hours of his presidency, Donald Trump has pardoned 73 people, including his former adviser Steve Bannon, who is facing fraud charges. Another 70 people had sentences commuted, ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration at noon (17:00 GMT). Rapper Lil Wayne received a pardon and there were commutations for rapper Kodak Black and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The president has not issued preemptive pardons for himself or family members. He can still issue more pardons on Wednesday morning, as he remains president until Mr Biden takes the oath of office outside the US Capitol. The inauguration ceremony will be tight on security following the recent breach of the Capitol by violent pro-Trump protesters. It will also be stripped of crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic. A statement from the White House listed the 73 individuals who had received pardons and the 70 who had their sentences commuted. Although many on the list are conventional examples of convicts whose cases have been championed by rights activists and supporters in the community, others maintain the president's trend of focusing on allies. Steve Bannon was a key strategist and adviser to President Trump during his 2016 campaign. He was charged in August last year with fraud over a fundraising campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration, a key plank of Mr Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors said Mr Bannon and three others defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with the "We Build the Wall" campaign, which pledged to use donations to build segments of the barrier and raised $25m (£18m). It was alleged Mr Bannon received more than $1m, at least some of which he used to cover personal expenses. He denied the claims. As he was yet to stand trial his pardon is unusual, though certainly not unprecedented. The White House statement said Mr Bannon had been "an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen". It said prosecutors had "pursued" him with charges "related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project".

1-20-21 Biden inauguration: Trump leaves White House vowing 'we will be back'
Donald Trump has vowed he will be "back in some form" after departing the White House for the final time as president. He told supporters as he prepared to fly to Florida that it had been "a great honour to be your president". He is the first president to snub his successor's inauguration since 1869 but did say: "I wish the new administration great luck and great success." Joe Biden will take the oath of office by noon (17:00 GMT) in Washington amid heavy security. Some 25,000 troops will guard the inauguration ceremony following a deadly riot by pro-Trump supporters at the Capitol earlier this month. Mr Trump delivered his final speech as president at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, after flying there from the White House with First Lady Melania Trump. In a typically unscripted speech, he highlighted his "amazing" achievements, citing job creation, the establishment of a "Space Force", policies for veterans and on taxation, as well as the speedy development of Covid vaccines. He urged people to be "very, very careful" about the "horrible" pandemic and paid respects to those who had suffered. He added: "It's been a great honour and privilege to be your president... I will always fight for you. I will be watching. I will be listening. "I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they will have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular." But, as with his farewell video address on Tuesday, he did not mention Mr Biden by name. Mr Trump added: "Goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form. Have a good life. We will see you soon." He also paid tribute to his Vice-President Mike Pence, who was not at Andrews, having chosen instead to attend the inauguration ceremony. Mr Trump will be the first president not to attend his successor's inauguration since Andrew Johnson snubbed Ulysses S Grant in 1869.

1-20-21 Biden inauguration: New president to be sworn in amid Trump snub
Joe Biden is preparing to be sworn in as the 46th US president, ending one of the most dramatic political transitions in American history. He is due to take the oath of office at about 12:00 local time (17:00 GMT). Outgoing President Donald Trump, who has not formally conceded to Mr Biden, is snubbing the ceremony. The new president has announced a raft of executive orders aimed at dealing with the coronavirus crisis and reversing Mr Trump's key policies. Mr Trump left the White House for the last time as president shortly after 08:00 (13:00 GMT). He boarded a helicopter, flew to the nearby Andrews base, and is now flying to Florida. He is the first president not to attend his successor's inauguration since 1869. Mr Biden, a Democrat, will take the oath of office outside the US Capitol. There is extra-tight security after the building was stormed by violent pro-Trump protesters in a deadly riot on 6 January. Some 25,000 troops are guarding the inauguration ceremony, which will be missing the traditional hundreds of thousands of spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside Mr Biden, Kamala Harris will make history when she is sworn in as the nation's first female vice-president. Early on Wednesday Mr Biden attended Mass at a cathedral in Washington - along with four Roman Catholic congressional leaders, both Democrats and Republicans - before making his way to the Capitol. Age 78, Mr Biden is the oldest US president ever to be sworn in. He will take the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Among those present are three of his predecessors: Barack Obama - under whom Mr Biden served for eight years as vice-president - Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Outgoing Vice-President Mike Pence will also attend the ceremony. He skipped Mr Trump's farewell military salute event at Andrews base. Aides say Mr Biden will use his inaugural address of about half an hour to deliver an optimistic call for national unity after his Republican predecessor's turbulent tenure.

1-20-21 Biden inauguration: The stage is set at Capitol
Joe Biden has arrived at the US Capitol in Washington, where he will be sworn in as 46th US president just before 17:00 GMT. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will take the oath of office alongside him - the first woman to hold that position. Guests include former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, George W. Bush and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Trump will not attend his successor's inauguration - only the fourth president not to do so - but his deputy Mike Pence will be there. Biden and Harris started their day with a church service at the Cathedral of St Matthew in Washington. Some 25,000 troops will guard the inauguration ceremony after a deadly riot at the Capitol earlier this month. Donald and Melania Trump have left the White House for the last time, aboard the Marine One helicopter. The outgoing president spoke at a military send-off at Joint Base Andrews before flying to his resort in Florida. In the final hours of his presidency Trump pardoned 73 people, including his former adviser Steve Bannon. It’s windy from our live position looking down on the White House, as the behind-the-scenes ritual is under way of preparing the president’s residence for the next occupant. The pandemic and the circumstances of Donald Trump’s departure have made this tradition all the stranger. A speedy deep clean of the residence is under way, now that the 45th president and first lady have left for Florida. Staff have more time than usual to get ready for the next president, since Mr Trump is not attending the inaugural of his successor. One tradition which Mr Trump is honouring - he’s left a note for Joe Biden in the Resolute desk, reportedly at the urging of his chief of staff Mark Meadows.

1-20-21 Kamala Harris: A beginner's guide to being vice-president
Kamala Harris will make history when she takes the oath of office on Wednesday, becoming the first woman and first black and South Asian American to serve as US vice-president. Here's what awaits Ms Harris in her new job. Historically speaking, not a lot. It has been described as the least understood, most ridiculed and most often ignored constitutional role in the federal government, and for a long time it stayed that way. "The role of the vice-president was, frankly, to just be that heartbeat away from the president," said Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre. Unless the president died, or was seriously ill, the vice-president's job was largely to sit around and wait. For some vice-presidents, the dynamic meant holding a job you hoped would never be needed. "One of the vice-presidents in the early 20th Century said, 'Every day I ring the doorbell at the White House and hope the president will answer,'" Ms Perry said. That's not a role to take lightly. Nine of the country's 45 presidents has left office before the end of their term, eight by death - about one fifth of all presidents - giving their vice-presidents a sudden promotion. At 78 years old, Mr Biden will be the oldest president to assume the office, putting added stress on his next-in-line. It wasn't until the 1970s, under President Jimmy Carter, that the vice-president began to assume a bigger role. Mr Carter, a former Georgia governor, had built his candidacy around being a political outsider. "He knew he didn't know Washington," Ms Perry said. So when he won the nomination, he called on Walter Mondale, a long-time US senator, to show him the ropes and be a "true governing partner". While their close relationship was new, their strategic match followed a well-worn pattern of vice-presidents offering geographical or ideological balance to the president.

1-20-21 The inauguration's sad symbolism
Like almost every other aspect of the past year, Wednesday's inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won't look like any we've seen before. Aside from the alterations that have been made due to the coronavirus pandemic, the special measures being taken because of the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the ongoing threat of violence from Trump loyalists mean that this day will be a terrifyingly unique moment in history. The security measures are extensive. As many as 25,000 troops have been deployed to Washington, D.C. The National Mall, normally filled with as many as one million spectators, has been declared off limits, and barricades circle the Capitol where the inauguration ceremony will take place. Across the city, various zones have been marked off to restrict traffic and general movement. As The New York Times recently reported, "the security perimeter…is necessary to prevent an attack from domestic extremists. Such groups 'pose the most likely threat' to the inauguration, according to a joint threat assessment from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security." None of those threats should be confused with the legitimate and lawful protests that often accompany a presidential transition. Indeed, peaceful protests have been a regular feature of presidential inaugurations — and of American history itself. But the violence that has marked this presidential transition, and that possibly overshadows Wednesday's events, demonstrates the particular danger Trumpism still poses to the country and how much it has assaulted the basic foundations of American democracy. Especially in the 20th century, when inaugurations became enormous public spectacles, Americans have regularly protested the events. Sometimes they protested the person taking office. Other times, they used the moment to direct attention to a cherished cause. That was the case at the first major protest to mark an inauguration. In 1913, over five thousand women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson's swearing in as president in what became known as the Women's Suffrage Parade. Wanting to bring focus to their call for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, the marchers instead drew the ire of thousands of spectators, many of whom unleashed violent attacks on the women as police stood by. But the parade gave a boost to the growing suffrage movement. Seven years later, the Nineteenth Amendment fulfilled their goal. In the second half of the century, protests at presidential inaugurations accelerated. Anti-Vietnam War protestors gathered in Washington for Richard Nixon's first and second inaugurations in 1969 and 1973. At the latter, as many as 60,000 anti-war activists shouted, "Nixon, Agnew, you can't hide; we charge you with genocide." Opponents of another war, this time in Iraq, descended on George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005. By then, Bush was used to it. Four years earlier, 20,000 of what The New York Times described as "loud but mostly peaceful protestors" had shown up to demonstrate against what they believed had been a stolen election. Much smaller protests visited Barack Obama's two inaugurations. His successor, however, would witness the largest protest ever assembled for a presidential inauguration when nearly half a million people in D.C. — and at least four million more in cities across the United States — joined in the Women's March the day after Donald Trump was sworn in.

1-20-21 Global spread of UK coronavirus variant could overwhelm health systems
THE more infectious coronavirus variant from the UK has gone global, causing fears that it could lead to a new wave of infections and deaths around the world in coming months if not brought under control. That brings new urgency to vaccination efforts. The B.1.1.7 variant has so far been reported in 55 countries. There is no evidence that it is more deadly, nor that it is yet spreading locally outside Europe and North America. But initial studies suggest that it is around 50 per cent more transmissible. That is actually a bigger problem than if it were more deadly, says Adam Kucharski at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. A simple calculation illustrates why. Suppose 10,000 people are infected in a city and each infects 1.1 other people on average, the low end for the estimated rate of infection in England now. After a month, 16,000 people would have been infected. If the infection fatality rate is 0.8 per cent, as it was in England at the end of the first wave of infections, it would mean 128 deaths. With a variant that is 50 per cent more deadly, those 16,000 cases would result in 192 deaths. But with a variant that is 50 per cent more transmissible, though no more deadly, there would be 122,000 cases after a month, leading to 976 deaths. To halt a surge in UK cases partly due to B.1.1.7, England and Scotland this month joined Wales and Northern Ireland in strict lockdown. By the start of this week, all parts of the UK had brought in tougher travel rules. Last month, Ireland began a strict lockdown after reporting the fastest growth rate of any country in coronavirus cases. One reason was relaxed restrictions in early December, with pubs and restaurants reopening, says Kingston Mills at Trinity College Dublin. But by last week, nearly half of all new cases were due to B.1.1.7. “I think it was a combination of both,” he says. The B.1.1.7 variant is now spreading locally in other nations in Europe and in some US states.

1-20-21 Recruiters less likely to contact ethnic minority groups on Swiss site
People from ethnic minority groups are less likely to be contacted by job recruiters than people from the majority group, according to an analysis of users on a Swiss public employment website. Dominik Hangartner of ETH Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues studied the actions of more than 43,000 recruiters who conducted 450,000 searches of 17.4 million jobseekers’ profiles between March and December 2017. They tracked every click to see how recruiters interacted with the profiles, which include information on ethnicity, age and nationality inserted by case workers at the Swiss national employment agency, similar to Job Centre Plus in the UK. How often Swiss nationals born in the country and from the majority ethnic group were contacted by recruiters was used as the baseline for the analysis, with the probability of recruiters clicking a button to contact job applicants based on ethnicity calculated relative to that. The team found that people from immigrant and ethnic minority groups were up to 19 per cent less likely to be contacted. Recruiters spent only 0.3 seconds less, on average, on profiles of ethnic minority jobseekers, which the researchers say means the result cannot be entirely explained by recruiters consciously discriminating against people based on ethnicity. But the time recruiters spent on a person’s profile varied depending on the time of day: between 9am and 10am, they spent 10.5 seconds on average per profile, and 12 per cent less time on those from jobseekers from minority ethnic backgrounds. Between 5pm and 6pm, they spent 9.5 seconds on the average profile, and 14.7 per cent less on ethnic minority accounts. Similar variations are found just before lunch breaks. The team found no significant difference based on the gender of applicants for the average job.

1-19-21 Can coronavirus variants reinfect people and evade the vaccines?
SOON after vaccination began in many countries, reports of faster-spreading coronavirus variants triggered fears that vaccines might not protect against them. The good news is that initial studies suggest that the existing shots will still work, although they might be slightly less effective against two variants, one that emerged in South Africa and one from Brazil. “I am optimistic that current vaccines will remain quite useful,” says Jesse Bloom at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “But I do expect that eventually it will be necessary to update vaccines to account for viral evolution.” Antibodies are our main defence against viruses. When we get infected by a new virus, our immune system starts producing a range of antibodies that bind to various parts of viral proteins. Not all antibodies are equal. Studies show that only a few antibodies can “neutralise” viruses and prevent infections. These neutralising antibodies bind to key sites on viral proteins. For the coronavirus, one such site is the part of its so-called spike protein that binds to receptors on human cells and helps the virus get inside – the receptor binding domain. If this part of the spike protein changes, neutralising antibodies may not bind as well. A rapidly spreading variant named B.1.1.7, first spotted in the UK, has only one mutation that affects this binding domain. Initial studies of antibodies from those previously infected by the coronavirus or given the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine show little or no drop in effectiveness against B.1.1.7. The variant from South Africa, called B.1.351, is of more concern. It has three mutations in the binding domain, including one named E484K as it occurs at a site called E484. The variant from Brazil, known as P.1, has almost the same three mutations. According to a computer model, B.1.351’s spread can be explained by this variant being 50 per cent more transmissible or 20 per cent better at evading immunity in previously infected people, when compared with previous variants. Lab studies point to the latter.

1-19-21 Biden inauguration rehearsal paused amid US Capitol lockdown
The Capitol complex in Washington DC was briefly locked down after a security alert, two days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as US president. Police say they acted out of an abundance of caution after witnesses reported smoke rising nearby. The fire was several blocks away. It came amid preparations for a rehearsal for Mr Biden's inauguration. Five people died after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, which is home to the US Congress, on 6 January. Thousands of National Guard reserve soldiers have been deployed at the Capitol and around central Washington DC. There was no threat to the public, officials said after Monday's lockdown. Congress is currently in recess. Security is tight after the rioters overran the Capitol earlier this month. The National Mall - the landscaped park around the complex - has been closed, along with many major roads. Fences have been put up around the White House. The inauguration rehearsal scheduled for Monday has already been postponed once on security grounds. All 50 US states and the District of Columbia (DC) are on alert for possible violent protests. The FBI has warned of possible armed marches by pro-Trump supporters across state capitols. Once he is sworn in, Mr Biden will issue executive orders to reverse President Trump's travel bans and re-join the Paris climate accord. The president-elect is also expected to focus on reuniting families separated at the US-Mexico border, and to issue mandates on Covid-19 and mask-wearing. Mr Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will take the oath of office in front of the Capitol building, overlooking the National Mall. Normally a crowd of hundreds of thousands would be there to witness a significant moment in American national life. However, between the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns, the size of the crowd is being severely restricted this year.

1-19-21 Capitol riots: Are US militia groups becoming more active?
Far-right groups like those that took part in the Capitol riots are an increasing and serious threat across the US, experts say. Since Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election in November, the involvement of armed groups in demonstrations has increased significantly, according to a group that tracks political violence. The FBI has warned of armed protests in all 50 states ahead of Mr Biden's inauguration on 20 January. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) says far-right groups have taken an increasing part in demonstrations against the election result. Demonstrations are more likely to turn violent if militia members are present, the ACLED says. And these groups have not just started attending more protests - they are also ramping up training and recruitment events. There are dozens of militias across the US with varying ideologies, but generally they are anti-government. While they don't necessarily advocate violence, often they are armed and some have engaged in violent demonstrations. Many say they are acting in self-defence over fears of what they believe to be increasing federal government intrusion, with gun control a particular concern. Some states require militias to be authorised by the state government, but the second amendment of the US constitution limits the extent to which controls can be imposed on their activities. The number of militia groups declined in the US between 2017 and 2019, which militia researcher Amy Cooter says is a common pattern under Republican presidents. Despite typically being anti-government, these groups have increasingly gravitated towards President Trump. "Most of these groups see Mr Trump as the closest person to their ideal president that we have ever had," says Ms Cooter. Militia activity is widespread across most of the US.

1-19-21 US Capitol riots: Trump supporter arrested after Pelosi 'data theft'
A Donald Trump supporter suspected of stealing a laptop or hard drive from Democrat Nancy Pelosi's office during the US Capitol riots has been arrested. Riley June Williams, 22, was detained in Pennsylvania on charges of violently and illegally entering the building, and disorderly conduct. A former romantic partner had said in an affidavit Ms Williams intended to sell the data to Russian intelligence. Five people died after a pro-Trump mob stormed Congress on 6 January. Ms Williams' case is among more than 200 that have been opened since the president's supporters forced their way into the Capitol building as lawmakers met to confirm Joe Biden's election win. Ms Williams was arrested on Monday in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, police records show. Ms Williams had surrendered herself to authorities, sources told CBS News. The charge sheet lists "knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds". It makes no mention of the data allegations. The FBI is reportedly still investigating these claims, which were carried in a sworn statement presented by an FBI agent to a court. The affidavit says Ms Williams was seen in TV footage directing crowds who stormed the Capitol. The FBI agent in the court filing says the agency was tipped off by a former romantic partner of Ms Williams who alleged she had intended to take a laptop or hard drive from the office of Ms Pelosi, the Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives. The witness "stated that Williams intended to send the computer device to a friend in Russia, who then planned to sell the device to SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service", the affidavit said. The transfer of the device "fell through for unknown reasons", the witness is alleged to have said, "and Williams still has the computer device or destroyed it". Ms Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, tweeted two days after the attack that a laptop had been stolen from the speaker's office but it was only used to give presentations. The affidavit goes on to give details of an ITV News report from inside the Capitol building at the time of the siege, in which a woman identified as Ms Williams can be seen and heard directing the crowd to go up a staircase that leads to Ms Pelosi's office.

1-19-21 Pardons expected on Trump's final full day
Donald Trump is expected to pardon dozens of people on his final full day in office. Former New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and the rapper Lil Wayne are among those reported to be under consideration. Democrat Joe Biden will be sworn in on Wednesday. Preparations are under way for the inauguration, with heightened security at the Capitol. Confirmation hearings begin in the Senate for some of Joe Biden's cabinet nominees. There could be as many as 25,000 National Guard troops in Washington DC by tomorrow. As many observers have pointed out on social media, that's more US troops than are currently stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. "We're making sure that our folks are trained and ready for anything they're going to be asked to do," said General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. In an interview on the TODAY Show, Hokanson said his Guardsmen - who have arrived in the nation's capital from all over the country - will co-ordinate with the Secret Service and other federal agencies on security and logistics for inauguration-related events. Referring to fears that right-wing extremists may be among the ranks of the National Guard, Hokanson said the organisation had vetted all troops. "I'm not concerned about that at all," said Hokanson. "We don't allow extremism of any type in our organisation." However, according to the Associated Press, two members of the National Guard have just been pulled from the security mission after they were found to have ties to right-wing militia groups. No plot against Joe Biden has been uncovered. The US Senate is back at work for the first time since its members voted to certify the results of the 2020 election. The upper chamber is holding confirmation hearings for five nominees to Joe Biden's cabinet. After two upset victories for the Democratic Party in Georgia earlier this month, the Senate is now split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Leaders of the two parties - Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell - are reportedly due to meet today to discuss how they will share power in the divided chamber. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not yet transmitted articles of impeachment against the president to the Senate, an action that must take place before it can begin its impeachment trial and decide whether or not to convict President Trump.

1-19-21 The most alarming thing about the Trump presidency
The presidency of Donald J. Trump is ending not with a whimper but with something like blissful silence. This doesn't mean the Trump administration ended early. On Monday, two days before the swearing in of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, Trump issued an executive order calling for the creation of a statue-filled National Garden of American Heroes. On Tuesday, Trump's last day in office, he's set to issue dozens of pardons that are bound to make waves. Yet something has nonetheless been different about the waning days of the Trump administration — and that is how little the president himself has been heard from. After four years of incessant lies, insults, exaggerations, and poisonous conspiracy-mongering, the presidential gaslighting came to an abrupt end when Twitter and Facebook muzzled Trump by suspending his accounts in the days following the on Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. The result has been 10 days unlike any similar stretch of time since January 2017. And that tells us something important about what we've lived through since then. In the days following Trump's inauguration four years ago, I proposed that in trying to make sense of the new and highly unusual administration just getting off the ground, analysts should work to separate out the normal from the abnormal and the truly alarming. The normal included things any Republican president would do — nominate conservative judges, support tax cuts, take executive action to roll back regulations, break from the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord. The abnormal, meanwhile, involved policy moves connected to distinctively Trumpian policy commitments. These included everything from the travel ban and family separation on the Southern border to an international trade war, insults to allies, and chummy meetings with Kim Jong Un. For someone like myself, who isn't a Republican at all, there has been plenty in both categories to dislike, even hate. But most of these have been reversible — and indeed, the incoming Biden administration is preparing to reverse many of them very quickly. This can cause its own problems, since severe, even diametric, shifts of direction from one administration to the next make it hard for citizens and business owners at home, as well as allies, rivals, and opponents on the world stage, to anticipate and plan for the future. But it also means that many of the bad things that Trump has done can be undone. But not all them. That's where the third category comes in — with those actions and statements of the president that may well have irreparably damaged absolutely crucial aspects of American democracy. One week into the Trump presidency, just days after the new commander in chief lied during a visit to CIA headquarters about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, I placed that and other early events firmly in the category of the truly alarming. Just a week into the Trump administration, I had no idea how bad things would get. Four years later, many of us feel like people about to be liberated from a psychological torture chamber where we've been subjected to continual abuse by a merciless tormenter out to break our wills — daring us, over and over again, to continue upholding the truth in the face of a torrent of lies.

1-19-21 Trump tried to act like a mob boss. Instead he's just a thug.
He's no Don Corleone. Throughout the final, tortured moments of the 2020 presidential campaign, Donald Trump took to referring to his rival, Joe Biden, as the head of "the Biden crime family." But as psychologist Mary L. Trump, the soon-to-be-erstwhile commander-in-chief's niece, and author of Too Much and Never Enough, has suggested, some of Trump's statements are, in fact, projections of his own behavior. Indeed, Trump's alpha male posturing and affected bravado — which he used to foment a personal brand of being a savvy businessman and a mover-and-shaker blessed with raw cunning — is bound up in the mythos of the mobster as portrayed in pop culture, film, and TV. However, the realities that seep through that mythos, like blood on carpet, demonstrate why Trump is leaving the White House at a record low in approval. Trump may have tried to affect the steely suaveness of the hyper-competent crime boss, but he failed because, in fact, he's a blundering thug. The grand figure of the gangster mythos is Marlon Brando's tuxedoed Vito Corleone, brows furrowed with the pain of being such an intense strategic and tactical genius, speaking with an eloquent pathos about loyalty. His famous-to-the-point-of-parody offer to get what he wants by making his rival "an offer he can't refuse" has its sleazier echo in Trump's self-described "perfect" phone calls to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, asking him to "do me a favor, though" by launching a fake investigation into Joe Biden, and in his post-election conversation with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, in which he said, "I only need 11,000 votes … Give me a break … Or we can keep it going, but that's not fair to the voters of Georgia because they're going to see what happened." It turned out that these men — and 81,283,485 voters — could very much refuse Trump's offers. Trump's inability to muscle his way to victory is a testament to how the pop culture perception of the all-powerful kingpin collides with the more finite realities of wheeling and dealing in real life. "He knows how to perform [the role of a gangster], with the bullying and aggression," says Joe Loya, critically acclaimed author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, podcaster of Bank Robber Diaries, and former bank robber. "He kept trying to do the thing that mobsters do where they don't say the thing [they're asking for]. Finally, he realizes nothing he's saying is sticking, so he comes out and says it. He's a buffoon." To Loya, this highly performative aspect of Trump's persona — the part that will make a show of firing people on TV or by tweet, but kowtows to men like Vladimir Putin — is why he fails to achieve the mettle of a successful gangster, or world leader: "If this guy walked down the prison tier, everyone would recognize him as puffery." Trump is no Don Corleone. But Loya does see similarities between Trump and the more bullish scion of the Corleone family, Sonny, "who rose to the top, ran the family, but only for a moment because he was undone by his hubris. There's this hubris among certain people that ensures the most glorious moments of their entire lives are tied to their doom."

1-19-21 Biden to block Trump's Covid rule change on president's final day in office
US President-elect Joe Biden is to undo one of Donald Trump's last actions in office by blocking his decree lifting Covid travel bans on visitors from much of Europe and Brazil. Mr Biden's spokeswoman said now was not the time to be easing travel measures. Joe Biden will take office at 12:00 (17:00 GMT) on Wednesday. However, much of the spotlight is on Mr Trump's final moves, including presidential pardons. Security is intense in Washington DC ahead of the inauguration ceremony. Thousands of National Guard reserve soldiers have been deployed in the wake of the storming of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob on 6 January that left five people dead. The FBI had earlier warned of possible protests across the nation by right-wing extremists emboldened by the invasion. The US imposed travel restrictions on Europe last March and the Brazilian entry ban was put in place in May, but the White House decreed on Monday that the entry ban would end on 26 January, six days after Mr Biden takes office. Just minutes later, Mr Biden's spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Twitter: "On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19." She said that with "more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel". Barred from Twitter following the Capitol riots, the president has been uncharacteristically quiet and there have been few details of what he might do on Tuesday. A statement from the White House press office read simply: "President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings." There has been no invitation to Joe Biden for the traditional pre-inauguration meeting at the White House.

1-19-21 Joe Biden inauguration: When are he and Kamala Harris sworn in?
The inauguration of a new president is a day that usually follows decades of custom and precedent. A day that follows a routine set in stone. Well, you can forget all that this year. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will still take the oath, of course, to make them officially US president and vice-president, but this will be a much scaled back affair, due to Covid and the recent riots. Here's everything you need to know about the big day. The inauguration is the formal ceremony that marks the start of a new presidency, and it takes place in Washington DC. The only required feature is that the president-elect recite the presidential oath of office. "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Once he utters these words, Mr Biden will then take his place as the 46th president and the inauguration will be complete (but that's not all - celebrations follow). Kamala Harris will become vice-president once she takes the oath of office, which usually happens just before the president. By law, inauguration day is 20 January. Opening remarks are usually scheduled for around 11:30 EST (16:30 GMT) and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in around midday. Mr Biden will move into the White House later in the day - his home for the next four years. Presidential inaugurations typically involve detailed security plans, but even more so now, after a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. Officials have ramped up security and closed off large sections of the city. The Secret Service has taken command of the security plans, backed up by some 15,000 National Guard troops, in addition to thousands of police officers. Washington DC is already under a state of emergency and will remain that way through inauguration. Agent Matt Miller, who is leading the security effort on behalf of the Secret Service, told reporters on Friday that planning for the event has been going on for over a year. And while Mr Biden has insisted on taking the oath of office outside, as is tradition, attendance to the event will be scaled back.

1-18-21 Covid-19 news: UK vaccine rollout extended to people 70 and over
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. Over 70s and clinically vulnerable people next in line for covid-19 vaccines in the UK. People in the UK’s four nations aged 70 and over, as well as clinically extremely vulnerable individuals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, will start receiving invitations to get vaccinated against covid-19 this week. “Today is a significant milestone in our vaccination programme as we open it up to millions of people who are most at risk from covid-19,” said UK prime minister Boris Johnson in a statement on Monday. “We have a long way to go and there will doubtless be challenges ahead – but by working together we are making huge progress in our fight against this virus,” he said. People in the top two priority groups, which include care home residents and staff, people aged 80 and over and frontline health and care staff, will continue to be prioritised first. That is in accordance with recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, UK health minister Matt Hancock explained. “When an area has already reached the vast majority of groups 1-2, they can now start opening up the programme to groups 3-4,” said Hancock. Just 25 covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered in low-income countries, compared to 39 million doses given to people so far in wealthier countries, according to World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who described it as a “catastrophic moral failure”. All 25 doses were administered in Guinea, which is the only low-income country to have delivered any covid-19 jabs so far. “It’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries,” he said at a meeting of the WHO’s executive board on Monday. It is unlikely that Australia will fully open its borders in 2021, even if the majority of its population gets vaccinated against covid-19, according to Australian health minister Brendan Murphy. “I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions,” Murphy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday. “Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don’t know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus.” Quarantine requirements for travellers to Australia will probably also continue for some time, he said.

1-18-21 Biden inauguration: Fortified US statehouses see some small protests
Small groups of protesters - some of them armed - gathered on Sunday at statehouses in the US, where tensions are high after the deadly riots at the Capitol in Washington. Protests were held outside capitol buildings in Texas, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere. But many other statehouses were quiet, amid a ramping up of security across US legislatures. No clashes were reported. The FBI has warned of armed protests ahead of Wednesday's inauguration. President-elect Joe Biden will take office two weeks after pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January, leaving five dead, including a police officer. More than 25,000 National Guard troops are being deployed to secure Washington. In a sign of just how worried officials are about potential unrest, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the Associated Press on Sunday that all Guard members were being vetted because of fears of an insider threat. Also on Sunday, a county official from New Mexico was arrested in Washington in connection with the riots at the US Capitol on 6 January. Couy Griffin, the founder of a group called Cowboys for Trump, had vowed to return on inauguration day with firearms to "embrace my Second Amendment". Many cities had prepared for potentially violent protests over the weekend, erecting barriers and deploying thousands of National Guard troops. Posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks had called for armed demonstrations on Sunday in particular, but some militias told their followers not to attend, citing heavy security or claiming the planned events were police traps. Small crowds of protesters numbering in the dozens gathered in only some cities, leaving the streets surrounding many statehouses largely empty. The New York Times reported about 25 members of the Boogaloo Bois movement were among heavily-armed protesters who gathered at the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. But the men - who are part of a loosely organised extremist group that wants to overthrow the US government - said they were there for a long-planned gun rights rally. Meanwhile in Michigan, about two dozen people - some carrying rifles - protested outside the statehouse in Lansing, as police watched on. "I am not here to be violent and I hope no one shows up to be violent," one protester told Reuters news agency.

1-18-21 Capitol riots: Are US militia groups becoming more active?
Far-right groups like those that took part in the Capitol riots are an increasing and serious threat across the US, experts say. Since Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election in November, the involvement of armed groups in demonstrations has increased significantly, according to a group that tracks political violence. The FBI has warned of armed protests in all 50 states ahead of Mr Biden's inauguration on 20 January. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) says far-right groups have taken an increasing part in demonstrations against the election result. Demonstrations are more likely to turn violent if militia members are present, the ACLED says. And these groups have not just started attending more protests - they are also ramping up training and recruitment events. There are dozens of militias across the US with varying ideologies, but generally they are anti-government. While they don't necessarily advocate violence, often they are armed and some have engaged in violent demonstrations. Many say they are acting in self-defence over fears of what they believe to be increasing federal government intrusion, with gun control a particular concern. Some states require militias to be authorised by the state government, but the second amendment of the US constitution limits the extent to which controls can be imposed on their activities. The number of militia groups declined in the US between 2017 and 2019, which militia researcher Amy Cooter says is a common pattern under Republican presidents. Despite typically being anti-government, these groups have increasingly gravitated towards President Trump. "Most of these groups see Mr Trump as the closest person to their ideal president that we have ever had," says Ms Cooter. Militia activity is widespread across most of the US.

1-18-21 Trumpism isn't going anywhere
Donald Trump is on his way out. But the Trump era isn't over yet. It doesn't feel like 2020 ever really ended, does it? Many of us looked forward to the new year as, hopefully, something really new — a clean break from all the misery the last 12 months brought, a chance to start over with something like a clean slate, an opportunity to get it right this time. So far, though, 2021 feels like more of the same, full of doomscrolling, death, and demagoguery. I suspect a similar dynamic will be at play with Donald Trump. Trump's presidency will end at noon on Wednesday. Joe Biden will take the oath of office while soon-to-be-former Vice President Mike Pence looks on. Trump himself — now all but completely discredited after inciting the Capitol insurrection — will fly home to Florida. Even though the Trump administration is at an end, we are not quite finished with the Trump era. Whether he wants to or not, Biden will open his term focused on cleaning up Trump's mess. He inherits a pandemic that is killing as many as 4,000 Americans a day, a vaccine distribution system that has so far proven frustratingly inadequate, and a teetering economy. Biden has plans to fix these problems, of course — a goal of distributing 100 million vaccine doses within the first 100 days of his presidency, plus a new round of stimulus that would send another $1,400 per person to eligible families. Biden's success as a president will depend upon whether he can implement those plans, and how successful his solutions end up being. Complicating those challenges, of course, is Trump's other mess. Sometime soon, the Senate — controlled by the Democrats, but just barely — will take up the ex-president's impeachment trial for his role in the insurrection. Congress will have to juggle that effort with the need to pass the legislation to advance Biden's agenda, and Republican infighting over Trump's legacy probably won't help matters. Lurking in the background is the possibility of more violence by Trumpist dead-enders. There are reasons to hope that the extended Trump era will be over quickly. Twitter's permanent ban of Trump from its platform, for example, is already making a huge difference: One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform. Reality itself might make a difference, too: When Wednesday comes and goes and Trump is no longer president, surely some (but probably not all) of those conspiracy theorists who support him will realize they have been duped and quietly recede from activism. It's also possible that multiple civil and criminal legal issues will leave Trump too occupied to make trouble over the next few years. And if we're lucky, a successful vaccination effort will also bring down the national temperature by a degree or two. Many observers have pointed out that the QAnon conspiracy became more popular because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We shouldn't underestimate how the imposed social isolation of the pandemic and our pivot to social media for community has fostered the spread of such conspiracies," Tablet's Yair Rosenberg points out. As people emerge from isolation — to return to their churches, their workplaces, and other communal spaces — they may find they don't have time to indulge in dark political fantasies.

1-18-21 Racism in education: How 'truth pages' helped students fight back
The killing of George Floyd was a catalyst moment for social justice movements across the world. But after the coronavirus pandemic worsened some of those movements were pushed aside. One which hasn’t is an online reckoning orchestrated by students, known as 'Truth Pages'. In the summer following George Floyd’s death, racism exposé pages began springing up across both sides of the Atlantic, primarily on Instagram, allowing Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to share their experiences online. The result was a wave of call to actions, some more successful than others, enlisting the cooperation of institutions in tackling racism and racial inequality. The BBC’s Lorna Acquah investigates the racism experienced by students in the UK and the US and how the movement snowballed.

1-18-21 Migrant caravan: Guatemala blocks thousands bound for US
A group of US-bound Central American migrants has been met with truncheons and tear gas in Guatemala, where security forces blocked their path. Thousands of people were intercepted on a road near the border with Honduras on Sunday. The government said it would not accept "illegal mass movements". An estimated 7,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, have entered in recent days, fleeing poverty and violence. They hope to travel on to Mexico, and then the US border. Every year, tens of thousands of Central American migrants attempt this perilous journey to try and reach the US, often on foot, in groups known as "caravans". President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, has vowed to end the strict immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, a Republican. But the Biden administration, which will take office on Wednesday, has warned migrants not to make the journey, as immigration policies will not change overnight. As the migrants trekked across Guatemala towards its border with Mexico, they were slowed down by security forces near the south-eastern village of Vado Hondo. A group of soldiers and police officers blockaded a road, stopping many of them from advancing. Some people still attempted to force their way through, prompting security forces to push them back. Several people were injured. Many migrants retreated, with some waiting nearby to make a new attempt later. Others fled into nearby mountains. "Fortunately the security forces established a contingency plan... and contained this battle," said Guillermo Díaz, head of Guatemala's migration agency. A statement from the Guatemalan president's office said: "Guatemala's message is loud and clear: These types of illegal mass movements will not be accepted, that's why we are working together with the neighbouring nations to address this as a regional issue." The government later said 21 migrants who had sought medical assistance tested positive for Covid-19.

1-17-21 Biden inauguration: All 50 US states on alert for armed protests
All 50 US states and the District of Columbia (DC) are on alert for possible violent protests this weekend, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday. National Guard troops have been sent en masse to Washington DC, to deter any repeat of last week's deadly riots. The FBI has warned of possible armed marches by pro-Trump supporters at all 50 state capitols. Meanwhile, the Biden team has set out plans to reverse key Trump policies. In the hours after Mr Biden sets foot in the White House, he will embark on a blitz of executive actions designed to signal a clean break from his predecessor's administration, according to a memo seen by US media. He will return the US to the Paris climate agreement - a global pact on cutting carbon emissions. He will repeal the controversial travel ban on a list of mostly Muslim-majority countries. He will make wearing masks mandatory on federal property and when travelling interstate. Although Mr Biden, like President Trump, will be able to use executive orders as a means of bypassing Congress on some issues, his $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan announced earlier this week will need to be approved by lawmakers, as will a bill on immigration reform. Much of Washington DC will be locked down ahead of Wednesday's inauguration, with National Guard troops deploying in their thousands. Many streets - some miles from the Capitol, the site of deadly rioting on 6 January - have been blocked off with concrete barriers and metal fences. The National Mall, which is usually thronged with thousands of people for inaugurations, has been shut at the request of the Secret Service - the agency charged with protecting the president. The Biden team had already asked Americans to avoid travelling to the nation's capital for the inauguration because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Local officials said people should watch the event remotely. Sunday is expected to also be a particular focus for protests, after posts on pro-Trump and far-right online networks called for armed demonstrations on that day. Some militias have told their followers not to attend, however, citing heavy security or claiming the planned events are police traps.

1-17-21 Biden inauguration: Executive orders to reverse Trump policies
Details are emerging of a raft of executive orders planned by US president-elect Joe Biden as soon as he takes office this week. Mr Biden will issue decrees to reverse President Trump's travel bans and re-join the Paris climate accord on his first day, US media reports. The president-elect is also expected to focus on reuniting children separated from families at the border and issue mandates on Covid-19 and mask-wearing. He will be inaugurated on Wednesday. All 50 US states are on high alert for possible violence in the run-up to the inauguration ceremony, with National Guard troops deployed in their thousands to guard Washington DC. In the hours after Mr Biden sets foot in the White House, he will embark on a blitz of executive actions designed to signal a clean break from his predecessor's administration, according to a memo seen by US media. Among the orders planned soon after taking office are: 1. A US return to the Paris climate agreement - the global pact on cutting carbon emissions. 2. Repealing the controversial travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries. 3. Mandating the wearing of masks on federal property and when travelling interstate. 4. An extension to nationwide restrictions on evictions and foreclosures due to the pandemic. The executive orders are just one part of his ambitious plan for his first 10 days in office, according the memo. The President-elect is also expected to send a major new immigration bill to Congress as well as focusing on passing a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) stimulus plan to help the country's economy recover from coronavirus. Mr Biden has also said his administration will aim to deliver 100 million Covid-19 jabs in his first 100 days in office - describing the rollout so far as a "dismal failure". "President-elect Biden will take action - not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration - but also to start moving our country forward," incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain wrote in the memo. The president-elect is taking over a country in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Daily deaths from Covid-19 are in their thousands and almost 400,000 have lost their lives. On top of the virus raging, the country is reeling from recent political violence. The theme for Mr Biden's inauguration will be "America United" with the president-elect focusing on healing political divisions. Vice-President Mike Pence is expected to attend the ceremony, though Mr Trump has said he will not. Mr Biden will be sworn in exactly two weeks after the violent riots at the US Capitol on 6 January which aimed to thwart his election victory.

1-17-21 China looks to turn vaccine distribution into diplomacy
It is unclear whether China is poised to fully follow through on its vaccine pledges to developing countries. The hottest commodity on the planet right now is the COVID-19 vaccine. As wealthy countries such as the United States, Canada, and European nations stockpile doses — according to some estimates, enough to vaccinate their entire populations multiple times over — that leaves less wealthy countries wondering where to turn. (Webmaster's comment: It's obvious that they only want to save the white people!) That's where China has stepped in, offering priority access to Chinese-developed vaccines to countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The effort could end up being a "soft power" diplomacy tool for China, says Yangzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of global health studies at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. "Especially when you are dealing with countries where, for example, you have territorial disputes...by promising or providing the desperately needed vaccines, you expect them to soften their positions," Huang told The World. Expanding vaccine access also helps China reframe the narrative of the pandemic and improve China's image, Huang said. "By helping mitigating this gap in access between developing countries and developer countries, China actually not only mitigated that gap but portrayed itself as a benign global power," he said. In December, the Sinopharm vaccine, created by a state-run firm in China, announced a 79 percent efficacy rate and was approved for use by the government. But China has been criticized for a lack of transparency around trial results. Currently, it is unclear whether China is poised to fully follow through on its pledges. Huang says there has been a shift from emphasizing Chinese vaccines as a "global public good," as President Xi Jinping said last May, to "cooperation between China and countries in the developing world and accessing the Chinese-made vaccines," according to Huang. For example, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a tour of a number of African nations last weekend without making a concrete commitment about vaccines or a timetable when nations could expect them. "That raises concerns, whether China actually overpromised," Huang said. "That is certainly not good news for successful vaccine diplomacy, because countries might feel China reneged on its promises, and they might turn to other countries like India or even Russia." But if China is seizing an opportunity to turn vaccine distribution into diplomacy, that's an opportunity seemingly missed by the United States, which has instead pursued a policy of "vaccine nationalism" under the Trump administration. As the New York Times reported last weekend, Ukraine turned to China for vaccine access after its initial attempts to obtain vaccines from "Pfizer and other Western vaccine makers" was thwarted by President Donald Trump's executive order blocking vaccine exports. "China was able to practice this vaccine diplomacy…precisely because the U.S. is not a player in this game," Huang said. "That allows countries like China or Russia to fill this void left by the United States," Huang added.

1-17-21 The pandemic windfall
Large companies and the very rich made a killing last year, while the U.S. wealth gap became wider than ever. Large companies and the very rich made a killing last year, while the U.S. wealth gap became wider than ever. Here's everything you need to know:

  1. Who has benefited? Tech giants, many major corporations, and Wall Street investors have had eye-popping gains during the pandemic, even as the COVID-19 recession has devastated major sectors of the economy. Apple's total stock value climbed to $2.29 trillion, up 133 percent since March.
  2. Who did best?: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' net worth has rocketed up $70 billion, to an estimated $182 billion, and four men have joined him in the ranks of "centibillionaires": Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose wealth increased by about 80 percent; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who made about $20 billion; French luxury brand tycoon Bernard Arnault, whose fortune doubled to $117 billion; and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world's richest man as of last week.
  3. Why the big payday?: Life under quarantine has been a boon for e-commerce retailers like Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Best Buy; food delivery services like DoorDash; and streaming services like Netflix. Restless consumers not spending money on restaurants and travel are splurging at Home Depot and Lowe's for home-improvement projects, and on video games for escapism.
  4. How are workers faring?: It depends on their tax bracket. White-collar job losses were mostly recovered by late summer, while millions of low-wage workers remain out of work, especially in restaurant, hotel, and other service industries.
  5. Is the wealth gap widening? Profoundly. About 84 percent of stocks owned by U.S. households are held by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. The majority of last year's layoffs occurred at small businesses, millions of which could go under as massive COVID-19 surges force states to reimpose safety restrictions.
  6. How does the future look? For big corporations, bright. Wall Street is bullish, expecting a recovery similar to the one that followed the 2008 crisis, when large banks and private-equity firms gobbled up weakened competitors at fire-sale prices, and the top 1 percent of earners took in 95 percent of income gains made from 2009 to 2012.
  7. Not much trickle-down: When the economy cratered, several prominent CEOs vowed to look after their workers. Chuck Robbins, CEO of the software giant Cisco, said in April, "It's just silly for those of us who have the financial wherewithal to absorb this, for us to add to the problem."

1-17-21 Wilmington 1898: When white supremacists overthrew a US government
A violent mob, whipped into a frenzy by politicians, tearing apart a town to overthrow the elected government. Following state elections in 1898, white supremacists moved into the US port of Wilmington, North Carolina, then the largest city in the state. They destroyed black-owned businesses, murdered black residents, and forced the elected local government - a coalition of white and black politicians - to resign en masse. Historians have described it as the only coup in US history. Its ringleaders took power the same day as the insurrection and swiftly brought in laws to strip voting and civil rights from the state's black population. They faced no consequences. Wilmington's story has been thrust into the spotlight after a violent mob assaulted the US Capitol on 6 January, seeking to stop the certification of November's presidential election result. More than 120 years after its insurrection, the city is still grappling with its violent past. After the end of the US Civil War in 1865 - which pitted the northern Unionist states against the southern Confederacy - slavery was abolished throughout the newly-reunified country. Politicians in Washington DC passed a number of constitutional amendments granting freedom and rights to former slaves, and sent the army to enforce their policies. But many southerners resented these changes. In the decades that followed the civil war there were growing efforts to reverse many of the efforts aimed at integrating the freed black population into society. Wilmington in 1898 was a large and prosperous port, with a growing and successful black middle class. Undoubtedly, African Americans still faced daily prejudice and discrimination - banks for instance would refuse to lend to black people or would impose punishing interest rates. But in the 30 years after the civil war, African Americans in former Confederate states like North Carolina were slowly setting up businesses, buying homes, and exercising their freedom. Wilmington was even home to what was thought to be the only black daily newspaper in the country at that time, the Wilmington Daily Record. "African Americans were becoming quite successful," Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore told the BBC. "They were going to universities, had rising literacy rates, and had rising property ownership."


FEMINISM

1-22-21 Julie Payette: Canada governor general quits amid bullying claims
Canadian Governor General Julie Payette has resigned amid claims she created a toxic work environment for her staff. The representative of the head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, quit amid reports a highly critical workplace inquiry would be made public. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed he had received her resignation. He had recommended the appointment of the former astronaut in 2017, though her exit has no immediate implications for his Liberal government. The government had launched a third-party investigation of harassment claims after CBC News reported last July that several staff members felt bullied by Ms Payette. "Everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, at all times and under all circumstances," Ms Payette, 57, said in a written letter to the public on Thursday. "It appears this was not always the case at the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General. Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry. "From a personal side, this decision comes at an opportune time, as my father's health has seriously worsened in the last few weeks and my family needs my help," she added. Assunta Di Lorenzo, Ms Payette's secretary and a top bureaucrat, is also resigning, CBC News reports. Ms Payette has held a high profile in Canada for many years. In 1992, she was chosen from over 5,300 applicants to become one of four astronauts in the Canadian Space Agency. In 1999, she became the first Canadian to board the International Space Station. As The Queen's representative in Canada, the governor general is the official head of state in her absence. Although the position is largely ceremonial, the governor general presides over important state duties. He or she has the power to give a throne speech and suspend parliament, give royal assent to legislation, swear in the prime minister and is commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces. "Every employee in the Government of Canada has the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and we will always take this very seriously," Mr Trudeau said in a statement.

1-22-21 Honduran abortion law: Congress moves to set total ban 'in stone'
Parliament in Honduras has initially approved a bill that will make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion in the country. The new measure will require at least three-quarters of Congress to vote in favour of modifying the abortion law, which is among the strictest in world. Honduras forbids abortion under any circumstance, even rape or incest. Its latest move comes in response to Argentina legalising abortion last month. Across Latin America, there has been increased pro-choice campaigning, known as the "green wave", based on the colour worn by protesters. The new legislation in Honduras hinges on an article in the constitution that gives a fetus the same legal status of a person. Constitutional changes have until now been permitted with a two-thirds majority, but the new legislation raises that bar to three-quarters within the 128-member body. The measure still needs to be ratified by a second vote. However, support was clear on Thursday: with 88 legislators voting in favour, 28 opposed and seven abstentions. Honduras has a stanchly conservative majority, which referred to the measure as a "shield against abortion". "What they did was set this article in stone because we can never reform it if 96 votes are needed [out of 128]", opposition MP Doris Gutiérrez told AFP news agency. Mario Pérez, a lawmaker with the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, formally proposed the change last week, calling it a "constitutional lock" to prevent any future moderations of the abortion law. "Every human being has the right to life from the moment of conception," said Mr Pérez. Ahead of the vote, UN human rights experts condemned the move, saying in a statement: "This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards."

1-21-21 Christine Dacera: Police chief's removal ordered over 'botched' rape probe
An order has been made to remove a police chief of an affluent area of the Philippine capital, Manila, for his handling of a probe into the suspected rape and murder of an air stewardess. The case of Christine Dacera, found dead in a hotel room after a New Year's Eve party, made headlines for weeks. Police quickly said she had been raped and murdered, arresting three men. But the men have now been released while questions have been raised over officers' initial conclusions. The ordered removal of Makati Police Chief Colonel Harold Depositar is the latest development, and comes in the wake of massive criticism for their handling of the high profile case. Critics say the case represents a denial of due process, an issue that has been raised before in relation to their implementation of President Rodrigo Duterte's "War on Drugs." On 4 January, police issued a statement that they had "solved" the death of the 23-year-old flight attendant, adding that she had been raped and murdered. The statement added that police had arrested three suspects arrested while nine others were "still at large". All 12 men had been with her that night. Despite a pending legal medical review of the death, Colonel Depositar confirmed they had "already filed a rape with homicide" case. Initially, outrage. The story exploded on social media and was trending for days. The hashtag #JusticeForChristineDacera went viral following the police statement, although there were those who blamed her for partying with so many men. General Sinas called on the nine "at large" to "surrender within 72 hours or we will hunt you down using force if necessary". Senator, and decorated boxer, Manny Pacquiao offered a reward of US$10,400 (£7.600) for information related to the death. Senator Pacquiao, who is tipped to run for president in 2022, said the case was another example of why the death penalty should be revived in the Philippines.

1-20-21 Greece #Metoo: Women ending silence of sport abuse shake Greece
When former Olympic champion Sofia Bekatorou revealed she had been sexually assaulted by an unnamed Hellenic Sailing Federation (HSF) executive, few realised her powerful testimony would prompt a #Metoo movement in Greek sport. She was addressing a little-advertised online conference after all. But when the sailing federation hit back at her allegations the following day, the whole story exploded. It said it had never received any complaint from Bekatorou and essentially asked her to name the man, since she had "taken the initiative to speak about this unpleasant incident after so many years". Inspired by Sofia Bekatorou's courage and angered by the federation's cynicism, more athletes began going public with experiences of sexual harassment and abuse using the hashtag #metisofia (on Sofia's side). Now the Greek president has praised the former champion for ending a "conspiracy of silence" and the government says her story has shaken not just sport but society as a whole. Bekatorou was 21 when she went abroad with the rest of the Greek sailing team in 1998 to compete in qualifying trials for the Sydney Olympics. The team was joined by a sailing federation executive who celebrated their qualification with them. Now 43 and a mother of two children, she told the online conference she had been subjected to "sexual harassment and abuse" in the official's hotel room. The transcript of her speech circulated online. Bekatorou went on to win two Olympic medals and several world championship golds and was given the honour of carrying the Greek flag at the Rio Olympics in 2016. But she also maintains that the official became an obstacle to her career. Her decision to stay silent so she could keep on sailing took its toll. It took "years with a lot of work and therapy", she said, before she could take responsibility for not speaking out and seeking the man's removal.

1-19-21 Olivier Duhamel: French incest allegations prompt victims to speak out
Tens of thousands of people have responded to a social media campaign in France designed to shed light on the problem of sexual abuse within families. The campaign, featuring the hashtag #MeTooInceste (after the #MeToo movement) was started over the weekend by NousToutes, an organisation battling sexual violence in France. Incest in French is used to mean sexual abuse by relatives, including those who are not related by blood. It followed accusations against a prominent political commentator, Olivier Duhamel, who has been accused by his stepdaughter of abusing her twin brother 30 years ago. Mr Duhamel has described the allegations as "personal attacks". The Twitter campaign began late last week with a message by a 67-year-old NousToutes activist known as Marie Chenevance. "It was now or never to break the omerta [code of silence] around this issue," Marie said. In earlier years, she said, activists had met a "wall of silence" when they shared their stories of family abuse. More than 80,000 people have responded to the campaign since Saturday, the organisation says. Mié Kohiyama was one of those who shared her story, alongside a drawing she made when she was five years old. The picture shows a child with no mouth, alongside the words "Help Me" ("au secours", which she spelt "o scour"). Back then, it was her way of speaking about the abuse, she said, but no-one heard the message. "On Saturday, when I posted this tweet," she told me, "it's strange to say, but I was proud of the little girl who drew this picture. "I tell myself that now people can understand these kinds of drawings. Forty years before, it was not possible." Part of the reason the accusations against Mr Duhamel have had such an impact, activists say, is that the account of his stepdaughter Camille Kouchner in her book La Familia Grande describes not just the alleged behaviour itself, but the culture of secrecy that she says surrounded the family. Muriel Salmona, a leading psychologist specialising in sexual violence, says that the issues raised by Mr Duhamel's stepdaughter along with the launch of the new hashtag opened up a "safe space" for victims to speak out. Historically, she says, there has been "almost-total impunity in France" for family abusers, with less than 1% of rape cases against minors ending up in court. "The figures on violence against children are bad for most of Europe," Dr Salmona explained. "But in France there is a current that tolerates sexual violence against children."

1-19-21 Egyptian woman arrested for baking 'indecent' cakes
A woman in Egypt was briefly detained after being accused of baking "indecent" cakes, local media say. The cakes, topped with genitalia and underwear fashioned out of fondant icing, were eaten at a birthday party at an exclusive Cairo sports club. After photographs went viral, the baker was arrested and later released on $319 (£234) bail. There are reports that the partygoers may face legal action too. A top religious body warned that such baked goods were forbidden by Islam. Dar al-Ifta wrote on Facebook that products featuring sexual representations were "an assault on the value system and a crude abuse of society". The ministry of youth and sports is reportedly looking into the involvement of the club that hosted the private gathering. Human rights lawyer Negad El Borai tweeted that the incident confirmed "there is a segment of society, with support of the state, that wants to eliminate any space for personal freedom in Egypt under the pretext of safeguarding Egyptian family values". He drew parallels with the cases of several young Egyptian women accused of morality-related offences in connection with videos posted on TikTok and other social media platforms. Last Tuesday, an appeals court overturned the two-year prison sentences handed to two influencers - Haneen Hossam, 20, and Mawada al-Adham, 22 - who were convicted in July of "undermining family values and principles" and publishing "indecent" photos and videos. But days later it emerged that the public prosecutor had ordered the women's continued detention pending an investigation on human trafficking charges. The prosecutor alleged that they had exploited teenage girls by encouraging them to post similar videos to theirs. A lawyer for the women said they would appeal against the move.

1-17-21 Sofia Bekatorou: Olympic medalist's decision to speak out over alleged 1998 sexual assault sparks public outcry in Greece
Greek Olympic gold medalist Sofia Bekatorou's very public detailing of her alleged sexual assault in 1998 by a high-ranking Hellenic Sailing Federation (HSF) official has sparked an outcry in the Mediterranean country over the way her revelations were initially dealt with. Bekatorou did not name the person she is accusing. On Saturday, Aristides Adamopoulos -- the vice Chairman of the HSF Board -- resigned, according to the Greek sailing body. "It is expected that complaints against me made by a public figure, of great recognition and wide social impact, will gather public interest, create feelings of compassion for the complainant and disgust for the alleged 'perpetrator,'" said Adamopoulos in a statement as he called for due process. Later on Saturday, in a statement posted on the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) website, Adamopoulos said Bekatorou's accusation was "false and defamatory." "Nevertheless, I fully understand that due to the extensive negative publicity of the matter, it is very likely there will be damage to the status of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which must always remain high for the good of Greek sport," said Adamopoulos. "For this reason alone and fully aware of my responsibility towards the HOC, I declare that from today and until the full clarification of this case by the authorities I will abstain from meetings of the HOC bodies which I am a member and I will generally abstain from the exercise of my duties from any position I hold." CNN does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Bekatorou came forward publicly with her allegations. Bekatorou said the alleged assault took place in 1998 during preparations for the Sydney Olympics, that were held two years later. One of Greece's best-known female athletes, Bekatorou won a sailing gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then bronze four years later at the Beijing Games. Now 43, Bekatorou said a male official performed a "lewd act" after inviting her to his hotel room to discuss preparations ahead of the Sydney Olympics. The athlete said the act was not consensual.

1-17-21 Are women let down by period trackers?
When journalist Orla Barry received a notification from her iPhone informing her that her period was due "any day in the next three weeks", she shared it on social media with wry amusement. It wasn't the first time she'd received such an unspecific notification from the app, and it prompted others to share their stories. "I got one which said my period was 56 days late," wrote one. "My notification said 'the next nine days'," said another. One man said his smartwatch had a menstruation tracker activated by default when he got it, and it kept telling him his period was "due" - despite him never having had one. These apps do face a big challenge - periods are not always renowned for their punctuality. But are they up to the job? At their most simple, women input the dates when their periods begin and end, and an app calculates when their next is due to arrive based on this information. It can also use this data to estimate when they might ovulate: this is also when they are most likely to conceive. Some offer to track additional data including basal body temperature, sleep patterns, menstrual pain and sexual activity, which can provide further clues - although there have been concerns around what else this data can be used for by the developers of the app. However, women's cycles can change from month to month based on a large number of factors including stress, age, and hormone fluctuations. It is perhaps not all that surprising that a scientific study of nearly 1,000 women carried out in 2018 found that the apps they were using were only correctly identifying when they ovulated 21% of the time. But period trackers remain very popular. They are used for a number of reasons.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

1-23-21 Climate impact on childhood diet may undermine food security efforts
Warming temperatures and more variable rainfall are reducing diet diversity among children in many countries around the world – and may even undermine efforts to improve food security. Meredith Niles at the University of Vermont and her colleagues analysed the results of health surveys from more than 107,000 children in 19 countries – in Asia; North, south-east and West Africa; and Central and South America. The surveys were conducted between 2005 and 2009. In the surveys, the diversity of a child’s diet was quantified with a score based on their intake of foods from different food groups, including cereal grains, dairy products and meat. The data included details of each child’s diet the day before they were surveyed. On average, the children – aged 5 and under – consumed food from 3.2 food groups out of a possible 10. There was, however, variation from country to country. On average, children in Colombia ate 4.8 food groups and those in Lesotho just 1.8. To study whether climate had an effect on child diet diversity, the researchers linked the results from each country to 30 years of temperature and rainfall data in the surveyed regions. They found that higher long-term temperatures were associated with lower overall diet diversity for children everywhere except Central America. There were shorter-term trends too. In North Africa and South America, there was typically a reduction in diet diversity in countries that experienced higher-than-average temperatures in the year prior to the survey. In Central America and West Africa, diets typically became more diverse in countries that experienced higher-than-average rainfall in the previous year. The researchers controlled for geographic and socio-economic factors that could affect diet diversity, such as household wealth and population and livestock density. In some countries, the researchers say that the negative effect of climate on diet diversity was so great that it outweighed the beneficial impact of development efforts focused on education, improved toilet facilities and poverty reduction. The negative effects of climate may even undermine efforts to improve food security, the researchers suggest.

1-23-21 Trudeau conveys Keystone pipeline 'disappointment' to Biden
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau expressed "disappointment" at Joe Biden's decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline during the new US president's first call to a foreign leader. Two days into the job, President Biden spent 30 minutes on the phone with Mr Trudeau on Friday evening. The PM's office said they found shared values on issues like climate change, global leadership and diversity. The US and Canada enjoy one of the world's largest trade relationships. Nearly $2bn (C$2.5bn) in goods and services are exchanged between the US and Canada every day. The Canadian prime minister's office said the pair discussed a range of issues, including "working closely together to defeat" the Covid-19 pandemic. "The prime minister raised Canada's disappointment with the United States' decision on the Keystone XL pipeline," a statement said. "The prime minister underscored the important economic and energy security benefits of our bilateral energy relationship as well as his support for energy workers." On President Biden's side, a White House statement about the call said: "The president acknowledged Prime Minister Trudeau's disappointment regarding the decision to rescind the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and reaffirmed his commitment to maintain an active bilateral dialogue and to further deepen co-operation with Canada." More than 1,000 construction jobs will be lost in the coming weeks due to the cancellation, pipeline builder TC Energy Corp has said. Despite the two leaders' minor disagreement, they plan to meet next month. They also discussed expanding co-operation on defence matters and working together in the Arctic region, as well as the "arbitrary detention" of two Canadians - Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor - in China, Mr Trudeau's office said. It also said he urged his US counterpart to remove tariffs on softwood lumber - duties that were introduced under Mr Biden's predecessor, President Donald Trump.

1-22-21 Climate change: Trump's Paris withdrawal was 'reckless' - John Kerry
US Special Envoy on climate change John Kerry has said the country will now push for rapid action after four years of "reckless behaviour" under Donald Trump. Mr Kerry said that withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement had threatened people's futures all over the world. One of President Biden's first acts following his inauguration was to re-apply to join the climate pact. Mr Kerry said the US would now move forward with "humility and ambition". And this year's climate meeting in Glasgow would be the "last, most important opportunity" to make progress, he said. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is the most senior figure dealing with climate change in the new administration. His high-profile role gives him a position on the National Security Council, and he will report directly to President Biden. On the morning after the new President signed an executive order seeking urgent re-admission to the Paris agreement, Mr Kerry hit out at the wasted years under former President Trump. "We know with pain and some embarrassment that, for the last four years, the leader of our country chose to pull out of the agreement and, frankly, engage in reckless behaviour, with respect to the future of people all over the world," Mr Kerry said. He was speaking remotely to a meeting in Italy of the B20 - a forum for the global business community to make their views known to the G20 group of countries. A former presidential candidate, Mr Kerry has long been a powerful voice in climate politics. As President Obama's Secretary of State he played a key role in securing the Paris agreement in 2015. The US would now move forward with "humility and ambition" in the global negotiations. Time was very short, he argued, and the world was currently moving much too slowly to avoid dangerous warming.

1-22-21 Nearly 700 million people could be living in extreme drought by 2100
The number of people living in extreme drought could hit nearly 700 million by the end of the century, more than triple the number today. The total area of land affected could also more than double by 2100. Yadu Pokhrel at Michigan State University and his colleagues have modelled how the amount of water stored on land will change under varying degrees of climate change. They studied a measure known as terrestrial water storage, which represents the sum of all water available on land, including water stored in canopies, snow, rivers, lakes and groundwater, by using hydrological models, to predict the movement and distribution of water. These models take into account variables including rainfall, temperature, humidity and wind speed. Under a high-emissions scenario, in which global carbon emissions peak around 2080 and decline afterwards, 688 million people, or 8 per cent of the world’s projected future population, could be in extreme to exceptional drought by 2100, compared with 200 million, or 3 per cent, in the period between 1976 to 2005. The global land area under extreme drought would also rise to 7 per cent, up from 3 per cent. People in the southern hemisphere will probably be disproportionately affected, particularly those living in Australia and the Amazon basin. Under such a scenario, two-thirds of land would also experience a reduction in terrestrial water storage. “There’s a need to impose stringent climate mitigating measures, and where possible to increase water use efficiency, primarily in the agricultural sector,” says Pokhrel. “If we continue using water at the same rate as the rate that we do, and if climate change continues at the same rate, the impacts are going to be really severe,” he says.

1-21-21 Climate change: Trump's Paris withdrawal was 'reckless' - John Kerry
US Special Envoy on climate change John Kerry has said the country will now push for rapid action after four years of "reckless behaviour" under Donald Trump. Mr Kerry said that withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement had threatened people's futures all over the world. One of President Biden's first acts following his inauguration was to re-apply to join the climate pact. Mr Kerry said the US would now move forward with "humility and ambition". And this year's climate meeting in Glasgow would be the "last, most important opportunity" to make progress, he said. Former Secretary of State John Kerry is the most senior figure dealing with climate change in the new administration. His high-profile role gives him a position on the National Security Council, and he will report directly to President Biden. On the morning after the new President signed an executive order seeking urgent re-admission to the Paris agreement, Mr Kerry hit out at the wasted years under former President Trump. "We know with pain and some embarrassment that, for the last four years, the leader of our country chose to pull out of the agreement and, frankly, engage in reckless behaviour, with respect to the future of people all over the world," Mr Kerry said. He was speaking remotely to a meeting in Italy of the B20 - a forum for the global business community to make their views known to the G20 group of countries. A former presidential candidate, Mr Kerry has long been a powerful voice in climate politics. As President Obama's Secretary of State he played a key role in securing the Paris agreement in 2015. The US would now move forward with "humility and ambition" in the global negotiations. Time was very short, he argued, and the world was currently moving much too slowly to avoid dangerous warming.

1-21-21 What is the Paris climate agreement and why is the US rejoining?
One of US President Joe Biden's first acts in office was to start the process of rejoining the Paris climate deal - reversing Donald Trump's decision to withdraw. The historic agreement, which came into force in 2016, united nearly 200 countries in a global pact to tackle climate change. The Paris climate deal pledged to keep global temperatures "well below" 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and preferably to 1.5C. Under the agreement, each country sets its own emission-reduction targets, known as national determined contributions (NDCs), which are reviewed every five years to raise ambition. Rich countries are required to help poorer nations adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy. UN scientists say limiting the rise to 1.5C could prevent small island states from sinking beneath the waves, help millions of people avoid the impacts of extreme weather and limit the chances of an ice-free Arctic summer. President Trump announced his intention to leave the deal, in 2017, saying letting countries such as India and China use fossil fuels while the US had to curb its carbon was unfair. The withdrawal became official on 4 November 2020 - by chance, the day after he lost the presidential election. The US, which has historically released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, is the only one to have withdrawn. The new administration has signed a statement accepting the terms of the agreement. It was sent to the United Nations, and the US is now set to formally re-enter the agreement in 30 days. President Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration and rejoin the agreement. His special envoy on climate change, John Kerry, tweeted that Biden was "restoring America's credibility and commitment" and that the world "must and will raise ambition" to tackle global warming.

1-21-21 People buying SUVs are cancelling out climate gains from electric cars
The good news is that more people bought electric cars in 2020. The bad news is that SUVs continued to grow in popularity, too. The fall in oil consumption due to the first trend was completely cancelled out by the second, say Laura Cozzi and Apostolos Petropoulos at the International Energy Agency in France. The growing popularity of SUVs is making it even harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate goals. “Policy-makers need to find ways to persuade consumers to choose smaller and more efficient cars,” says Petropoulos. Oil consumption by conventional cars – excluding SUVs – is estimated to have dropped 10 per cent in 2020, or by more than 1.8 million barrels a day, Cozzi and Petropoulos say in a commentary published on 15 January. Most of this fall was due to reduced travel because of the pandemic and is therefore likely to be temporary. However, a small part of the reduction – around 40,000 barrels a day – was due to the increased share of electric vehicles. “We have seen a skyrocketing of global electric car sales in 2020,” says Petropoulos. Unfortunately, the number of SUVs increased as well. While overall car sales fell in 2020, 42 per cent of buyers chose SUVs, up around three percentage points from 2019. The growing popularity of SUVs is making it even harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet climate goals. “Policy-makers need to find ways to persuade consumers to choose smaller and more efficient cars,” says Petropoulos. Oil consumption by conventional cars – excluding SUVs – is estimated to have dropped 10 per cent in 2020, or by more than 1.8 million barrels a day, Cozzi and Petropoulos say in a commentary published on 15 January. Most of this fall was due to reduced travel because of the pandemic and is therefore likely to be temporary. However, a small part of the reduction – around 40,000 barrels a day – was due to the increased share of electric vehicles. “We have seen a skyrocketing of global electric car sales in 2020,” says Petropoulos. Unfortunately, the number of SUVs increased as well. While overall car sales fell in 2020, 42 per cent of buyers chose SUVs, up around three percentage points from 2019.

1-19-21 Keystone pipeline: Biden 'to cancel it on his first day'
US President-elect Joe Biden is to cancel the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline on his first day in office, North American media report. The pipeline is projected to carry oil nearly 1,200 miles (1,900km) from the Canadian province of Alberta down to Nebraska, to join an existing pipeline. Environmentalists and Native American groups have fought the project for more than a decade. Work had been halted but restarted in 2019 under President Donald Trump. Mr Trump overturned a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who vetoed a bill approving construction in 2015. The privately financed pipeline is expected to cost about $8bn (£5.8bn; CAD $10bn). A briefing note seen by Canadian and US media says Mr Biden will sign an executive order revoking the permit for Keystone XL on Inauguration Day - 20 January. He will also return the US to the Paris climate agreement - a global pact on cutting carbon emissions - reversing another decision by Mr Trump, who took the US out of the accord on 4 November last year. Mr Biden has pledged to make the fight against climate change a top priority of his administration. Alberta's leader, Premier Jason Kenney, said he was "deeply concerned" by the reports of Mr Biden's plans and said if the pipeline was cancelled, his government would look at legal action. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry some 830,000 barrels of heavy crude a day from the fields in Alberta to Nebraska. From there, the oil would travel via existing pipelines to reach refineries around the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would transport oil extracted from Alberta's oil sands, a mixture of sand, water, clay and a thick substance called bitumen. The oil is more expensive and energy-intensive to extract than that from conventional sources. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace say the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per barrel of oil from the oil sands can be 30% higher throughout its life cycle than conventional oil. However, the Canadian government says technology has created more energy efficient practices, reducing climate-damaging emissions. Indigenous groups in northern Alberta have sued the provincial and federal governments for damages from 15 years of oil sands development they were not consulted on, saying it infringed on their guaranteed rights to hunt, trap and fish on traditional lands.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

1-23-21 New light shed on Charles Darwin's 'abominable mystery'
A scientist has shed new light on the origins of Charles Darwin's "abominable mystery". The famous naturalist was haunted by the question of how the first flowering plants evolved. Darwin feared this inexplicable puzzle would undermine his theories of evolution, says Prof Richard Buggs. Forgotten historical documents show a rival scientist was arguing for divine intervention in the rise of the flowering plants. This greatly vexed Darwin in his final months, says the evolutionary biologist at Queen Mary, University of London. "The mystery seems to have been made particularly abominable to him by its highly publicised use by the keeper of botany at the British Museum to argue for divine intervention in the history of life," he says. Darwin coined the phrase, abominable mystery, in 1879. In a letter to his closest friend, botanist and explorer Dr Joseph Hooker, he wrote: "The rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geological times is an abominable mystery." The mystery centres on the rise of the flowering plants, or angiosperms, the family of plants that produce flowers and bear their seeds in fruits. They make up the vast majority of all known living plants, from oaks to wildflowers and water lilies. Flowering plants appeared on Earth relatively recently on a geological timescale, then swiftly diversified in an explosion of colour, shape and form. "In the fossil record they appear very suddenly in the Cretaceous, dated at about 100 million years ago, and there's nothing that looks like an angiosperm before them and then they suddenly appear and in considerable diversity," says Prof Buggs. Questions raised by the sudden appearance of flowering plants are at the heart of Darwin's abominable mystery, he explains. "Why isn't there a gradual evolution of the angiosperms? Why can't we see intermediate forms between the gymnosperms - things like conifers - and the flowering plants? And why, when they appear, are they already so diverse?"

1-23-21 Giant worms may have burrowed into the ancient seafloor to ambush prey
Trace fossils are possible evidence of predatory behavior similar to modern bobbit worms. Around 20 million years ago, giant ocean worms may have burrowed into the seafloor and burst forth like the space slug from Star Wars to ambush unsuspecting fish. Ancient underground lairs left behind by these animals appear in rocks from coastal Taiwan, researchers report January 21 in Scientific Reports. The diggers may have been analogs of modern bobbit worms (Eunice aphroditois), known for burying themselves in sand to surprise and strike their prey. The burrows are trace fossils — evidence of animal activity preserved in the geologic record (SN: 6/15/14) such as footprints (SN: 4/27/20) or even fossilized poop (SN: 9/21/17). These newly reported fossils were first spotted in 2013 at Taiwan’s Badouzi promontory by paleontologist Masakazu Nara of Kochi University in Japan. More turned up later amid the otherworldly rock structures of Yehliu geopark, a popular tourist attraction that was once a shallow ocean ecosystem 20 million to 22 million years ago. From 319 fossil specimens, the team was able to reconstruct the burrows. The animals drilled L-shaped paths into the seafloor, leaving a funnel structure at the top that looks like a feather in vertical cross sections. The burrows were about 2 meters long and 2 to 3 centimeters wide. “Compared to other trace fossils, which are usually only a few tens of centimeters long, this trace fossil was huge,” says Yu-Yen Pan, a geologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. She dubbed the trace fossil Pennichnus formosae, combining the Latin words for feather, footprint and beautiful. The tunnels were most likely dug by some kind of giant worm, the researchers conclude, because they lacked the hallmark pellets lining crustacean tunnels and had smoother lining than bivalve tunnels. Iron deposits along the inside suggest the digger must have been long and slender and used mucus to reinforce the walls. Funneling at the top of the burrow also points to the ancient worm emerging from its hideout, retreating and then rebuilding the top sections over and over again.

1-22-21 Does the coronavirus spread more through the air than on surfaces?
It may seem surprising, but more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, we still don’t know the relative importance of the different ways of catching covid-19: by touching contaminated surfaces or by breathing it in. In March, UK government advice was that face coverings weren’t generally needed and that people should focus on frequent handwashing, use of hand sanitiser and wiping down surfaces. Since then, the evidence has mounted that the virus can spread through the air, not only through larger droplets, but also through smaller ones that linger in the air for hours and spread for many metres – estimates for the cut-off range from 5 to 100 micrometres. Though most coronavirus safety guidelines now recognise the virus can spread through the air, they tend to focus on the risks from catching it via surfaces or large droplets that fall from the air in seconds and rarely spread more than 2 metres. Studies in places where covid-19 is rare, which helps narrow possible transmission routes, are turning up incidents where aerosols seem to be the culprit. For instance, a person in South Korea was found to have caught the virus from someone sitting more than 6 metres away at an air-conditioned restaurant for five minutes. A study of a superspreading event during a bus journey in China found that people caught the virus who were sitting 5 metres away. But community infections were going unreported at the time so the bus riders could have been infected by other people, says Didier Pittet at The Geneva University Hospitals, who was not involved in the study. There have also been cases within apartment blocks where the virus seems to have spread from one flat to others above it through their shared sewage pipes. “When you flush the toilet there’s massive aerosolisation,” says Raina MacIntyre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

1-22-21 Covid-19 outbreak in Manaus suggests herd immunity may not be possible
Hospitals in the Brazilian Amazon are collapsing once again under the strain of treating covid-19 patients. This is despite the high rate of coronavirus infections in Amazonas during the first wave of the virus, and suggests that if herd immunity by infection is possible, it may be harder to achieve than previously thought. In Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, hospital beds are unavailable. People are queuing to buy oxygen tanks from private suppliers to attempt to treat family or friends at home, as oxygen supplies in hospitals were exhausted as of 15 January. The state is “in the most critical moment of the pandemic”, said the region’s governor, Wilson Lima. It is the second time that Manaus has been in crisis since the pandemic began. In May 2020, the region recorded one of the worst fatality rates in Central and South America, then the epicentre of the pandemic. The region’s poverty, crowded housing and lack of widespread access to clean water have fuelled the virus’ spread. Between March and October, 76 per cent of people in Manaus had contracted covid-19, according to a recent study co-led by Lewis Buss at the University of São Paolo. The virus was so prevalent during the first wave that it created the belief that the region had reached herd immunity, says Jesem Orellana at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil. “[The initial surge] created a favourable climate for a false victory over the epidemic in Manaus,” says Orellana. “We had politicians, business leaders and a large part of the local population defending that Manaus…had already reached herd immunity.” A preliminary version of Buss’s study suggested that the virus’ spread could have slowed due to herd immunity. State authorities justified their inaction on that belief, says Orellana, and the public practised less social distancing. The second wave of cases has disproved the theory that the region has reached herd immunity.

1-22-21 The COVID-19 pandemic made U.S. college students’ mental health even worse
Almost half of the students surveyed experienced high levels of emotional distress and worry. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused the mental health of U.S. college students to plummet, a new study shows. Students most at risk of mental health challenges stemming from the pandemic include women, Asians, students under age 25, those in poor health, those who knew somebody with COVID-19 and lower-income students, researchers report January 7 in PLOS ONE. Even before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, U.S. college students struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders at higher rates than the general population. Many college students are grappling with a new social environment, struggling to figure out their careers and worrying about finances, says Matthew Browning, an environmental psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina. To assess how the pandemic is impacting student mental health, Browning and colleagues surveyed more than 2,500 students from seven public universities across the United States last spring when the pandemic was ramping up. Study participants ranked statements about their emotional state, preoccupation with COVID-19, stress and time use. Based on total scores, researchers classified the students as having experienced high, moderate or low levels of emotional distress and worry. The researchers note that they did not use standardized screening tools for disorders such as anxiety and depression, but instead zoomed in on mental health stressors arising directly from the pandemic (SN: 3/29/20). About 85 percent of the students surveyed experienced high to moderate levels of distress, Browning’s team found — about 45 percent were highly impacted and about 40 percent were moderately impacted. Those who reported low levels of distress were more likely to be white and spend two or more hours outdoors.

1-22-21 Extroverts have more success training their dogs than introverts
Dogs with certain kinds of behavioural problems are more likely to show improvement during training if their owners are extroverts and open-minded. After comparing human personalities and the success of behavioural training, scientists have found that introversion, close-mindedness and even conscientiousness are linked to fewer changes in some types of undesirable dog behaviour, including aggression and fearfulness. The information could help veterinarians identify dog-owner pairs that might need more help during training, says Lauren Powell at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who co-led the study. Over a six-month period, Powell and her colleagues followed 131 dogs and their owners attending training sessions with a University of Pennsylvania veterinarian, who performed an initial behaviour assessment of each dog. The dogs had various issues, such as aggression towards people or dogs, chasing cars or animals, general fearfulness, separation anxiety, excessive barking and fear of being touched. Owners underwent personality testing and provided information about their dogs through a global canine research database called C-BARQ. The researchers also used a survey to evaluate how attached each dog and owner were to one another. The most important factor affecting success was how bad the dog’s behaviour was to start with, Powell says. Those with the worst behaviour improved the most over six months – possibly because they had so much to gain from the training. Confirming previous studies, the group also noted that younger dogs improved more than older dogs, and that the stronger the pair’s attachment, the more successful the training was. However, their research also revealed that human personality plays a role in corrective training for some kinds of unwanted behaviour.

1-22-21 Strange fossil is the first to show an ammonite without its shell
Ammonites are among the most common marine fossils from the age of the dinosaurs, but no one has found one like this before. It shows one of the swimming marine molluscs without its distinctive spiral shell – offering a rare opportunity to study ammonite internal anatomy. On a first look, Christian Klug at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and his colleagues struggled to make sense of the fossil. “I wasn’t very sure what was what,” he says. Although the researchers could instantly recognise the shield-shaped structure on the left as part of a Subplanites ammonite jaw, the rest was a jumbled mess. As a result, photos of the 150-million-year-old fossil from southern Germany languished on Klug’s computer for years. Eventually, one of his colleagues tried photographing the specimen under ultraviolet light to highlight some of its subtler features. Through comparison with the soft internal structures of nautilus, a still-living relative of ammonites, it became clearer that the fossil preserved almost the entire body of an ammonite shorn of its shell. “I recognised the oesophagus, then the stomach,” says Klug. “Next, I saw the coprolite [fossilised faeces] in its intestine, so that was clear as well. Then I identified the gills and last came the reproductive organs.” How the ammonite lost its shell is a mystery. A likely scenario is that it was a meal that got away. “A predator might have pulled the yummy soft parts out of the shell and then dropped it [by mistake] in a place where they could preserve,” says Klug. This could explain why the ammonite is missing its tentacles. Ammonites floated in open water, and predators seem to have found it easiest to attack by nibbling a hole in the rear of the shell and then yanking the animal out. The tentacles might have been ripped off in the process.

1-21-21 Low-carb diets seem to involve more calories than low-fat diets
People who follow a low-carb diet consume more calories on average than those who follow a low-fat diet, according to a new study, although both diets can result in similar levels of total weight loss. “There [are] benefits for both of these diets,” says Kevin Hall at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Maryland. “It’s a lot more complicated than a lot of the diet gurus and folks would have you believe.” Hall and his colleagues studied 20 volunteers who were admitted to a clinic for the duration of the study. Ten were put on a plant-based, low-fat diet for two weeks and the other 10 were placed on an animal-based, ketogenic, low-carb diet. After two weeks on one diet, the participants were swapped to the other diet for a further two weeks. Participants were free to eat as much as they wanted from whichever diet they were on, and Hall and his team monitored their calorie intake as well as their weight, body fat and insulin levels after meals. On both diets, volunteers lost between 1 and 2 kilograms, on average, but people on the low-fat diet consumed fewer calories and lost body fat at a higher rate than people who followed the low-carb diet. However, those on the low-carb diet experienced less variability in blood sugar and insulin levels after meals. “It’s a mixed bag,” says Hall. “If you think that large swings in glucose and insulin are potentially harmful, then the ketogenic diet came out the winner,” he says. “But there are benefits to the low-fat diet – they lost a greater percentage of their weight coming from body fat.” “Maybe studies like this can help us distinguish between what diets are better targeted to different people,” says Hall. “If you think your insulin surges are particularly harmful, then the ketogenic diet might be for you. If you’re worried about triglyceride [a constituent of fat] levels in your blood going up too high after meals, then clearly the low-fat diet was better.”

1-21-21 How covid-19 could become as mild as a common cold
POLICY-MAKERS are scrabbling to contain the spread of the coronavirus, as more highly transmissible variants travel around the world. Yet the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in this way comes as no surprise to virologists. In fact, it is probably just one step on a much longer evolutionary trajectory. In time, virologists predict, the virus will become more benign, following an evolutionary pathway previously taken by four other human coronaviruses that today cause nothing more than the “common cold”. How could this happen, and how will our actions play a part? Coronaviruses tend to evolve slowly compared with other RNA viruses because they proofread their genetic material as they replicate, so can filter out mutations. What’s more, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t currently under much pressure to change, says virologist Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is successfully colonising a new species – with an open banquet of hosts – and variants that spread faster are outcompeting others. But evolutionary pressures are starting to kick in. As the virus encounters increasing resistance from antibodies among people who have been infected or vaccinated, new mutations become more likely to take hold. Indeed, some experts suggest that the new variants we currently see arose inside the bodies of people with long-lasting infections. Lab studies back up this idea. “Some of these variants emerged in vitro when the virus was cultured for several days in the presence of convalescent plasma,” says Manuela Sironi, an evolutionary virologist at the Scientific Institute IRCCS Eugenio Medea in Italy. We don’t know exactly what mutations might increase the speed at which the virus can spread. SARS-CoV-2 has four main structural proteins, including the spike protein that sticks out from its surface and helps it attach to cells in the body, as well as non-structural proteins that hijack the machinery inside host cells.

1-21-21 The oldest known abrading tool was used around 350,000 years ago
Using a grinding or rubbing stone represented an early shift in stone-tool making. A round stone excavated at Israel’s Tabun Cave in the 1960s represents the oldest known grinding or rubbing tool, say researchers who scrutinized the 350,000-year-old find. The specimen marks a technological turn to manipulating objects with wide, flat stone surfaces, say Ron Shimelmitz, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and his colleagues. Up to that time, stone implements had featured thin points or sharp edges. Microscopic wear and polish on a worn section of the Tabun stone resulted from it having been ground or rubbed against relatively soft material, such as animal hides or plants, the scientists conclude in the January Journal of Human Evolution. Similar stones bearing signs of abrasion date to no more than around 200,000 years ago. Specific ways in which the Tabun stone was used remain a mystery. By around 50,000 years ago, though, human groups were using grinding stones to prepare plants and other foods, Shimelmitz says. The team compared microscopic damage on the Tabun stone to that produced in experiments with nine similar stones collected near the cave site. Archaeology students forcefully ran each of the nine stones back-and-forth for 20 minutes over different surfaces: hard basalt rock, wood of medium hardness or a soft deer hide. Those applied to deer hide displayed much in common with the business end of the ancient stone tool, including a wavy surface and clusters of shallow grooves. It’s unclear which evolutionary relatives of Homo sapiens — whose origins go back about 300,000 years (SN: 6/7/17) —made the Tabun tool, Shimelmitz says. Other innovations around the same time included regular fire use (SN: 4/2/12).

1-20-21 Genomic medicine is deeply biased towards white people
Lack of diversity in genome studies means that treatments derived from them are leaving people of colour behind. Changing that isn’t only about justice – it could also lead to new therapies that would otherwise go undiscovered. IF YOUR doctor suspects you might have type 2 diabetes, they will want to know your average blood sugar level, which typically means taking a glycated haemoglobin test. This method of diagnosis is recommended by the World Health Organization and used pretty much everywhere. The problem, as Deepti Gurdasani discovered in 2019, is that the test may not work for everyone. Gurdasani and her colleagues found that a gene variant present in almost a quarter of people with sub-Saharan African ancestry alters the levels of glycated haemoglobin in their blood independent of blood sugar. This suggests they will be more likely to be falsely diagnosed with diabetes, she says. Gurdasani’s discovery is just the latest in a growing list of medical injustices resulting from the fact that the vast majority of people who have had their DNA sequenced are of European descent. Again and again, people from under-represented backgrounds find that drugs and diagnostics based on research that makes connections between DNA and disease don’t work for them. The dearth of diversity in these studies also means that people in overlooked populations are more likely to get inaccurate results from tests that look at an individual’s genetic risk of developing a condition, excluding them from the much-vaunted promise of personalised medicine. All of which explains why researchers like Gurdasani, a geneticist at Queen Mary, University of London, are sequencing the DNA of thousands of people from under-represented populations around the world. This isn’t just about justice: increasing the diversity of genetic studies could also uncover novel genetic variants associated with disease, providing targets for treatments that would otherwise go undiscovered. “There’s this treasure trove of human genetic variation that could lead to a new understanding of human biology,” says Keolu Fox, an anthropologist and genome scientist at the University of California, San Diego. The challenge now is to make sure that in the rush to harness it, geneticists don’t exploit the very people they seek to include.

1-20-21 As the coronavirus mutates, we will need to adjust our approach to it
JUST one month ago, the world was already struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Now the challenge has become even harder. The emergence of new variants with different properties has changed the rules of engagement. That the coronavirus should evolve isn’t surprising – this is what viruses do. Scientists have been sequencing the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus since it began spreading out of Wuhan in China, recording the mutations that naturally accumulate as more and more people become infected and pass it on. This virus evolves mercifully slowly. Until recently, the genetic changes we saw were of little consequence to us, but that has begun to change. Now the virus has picked up mutations that allow it to spread more easily and, in some cases, that could help it evade our immune system (see “How worried should we be about the new coronavirus variants?”). A faster-spreading virus leads to more infections, as has been seen in the UK and several other countries, and thus, inevitably, to more deaths. An “escape mutant” virus that can evade our immune response, meanwhile, has the potential to reinfect those who have already had covid-19. Such a variant might even lead to the need for tweaks to vaccines or new treatments (see “Can coronavirus variants reinfect people and evade the vaccines?”). The news of these new variants has coincided closely with the widespread and very welcome roll-out of vaccines against covid-19. These vaccines offer us a way out of the pandemic, but we already knew it would be a long road to vaccinating almost the entire adult population of the globe. The recent evolution of the virus shows us just how long and complicated that road could be. As we try to work out how best to counter these variants, and what tweaks may need to be made to our vaccines, there is really only one thing we know for certain: the only way to stop the virus from evolving is to stop it from spreading.

1-20-21 How worried should we be about the new coronavirus variants?
THE rise and spread of new variants of the coronavirus are seen as ushering in a dangerous new phase of the covid-19 pandemic. But from the virus’s perspective, nothing has changed. It is just doing what comes naturally to viruses: evolving. It is now well-established that SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus with a large and unusually stable RNA genome, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change at all. Unlike most other RNA viruses, which are among the most mutation-prone biological entities in the world, SARS-CoV-2’s genome changes very slowly. This is largely because it has a proofreading function that is efficient at eliminating errors during replication, a major source of the genetic variation that we call evolution. “There’s not masses of evolution occurring, this is a very slow-evolving virus,” says David Robertson at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research in the UK. A project called Nextstrain, based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, compiles all published viral genome sequences and plots them on a family tree. This shows the original virus, called Wuhan-Hu-1, diverging steadily as it spread around the world. The virus’s average mutation rate remains low and steady at about two mutations per lineage per month, but over time this has given rise to thousands of different lineages. For example, there are more than 4000 different versions of the spike protein that the virus uses to break into host cells and which is the target of most vaccines. Intriguingly, most of the mutations seem to be induced by the human immune system rather than by RNA replication errors. One arm of our innate immune system is a generalised antiviral weapon that introduces random errors into viral genomes in a bid to neutralise them. It doesn’t always succeed.

1-20-21 Why vaccinating everyone on the planet may still not wipe out covid-19
VACCINE roll-out in a growing number of countries should eventually allow life to return to normal, but it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate the coronavirus that causes covid-19 altogether. “I don’t see that these vaccines will be eliminating SARS-CoV-2 any time in the coming years,” says Kingston Mills at Trinity College Dublin. Despite the many variants, the coronavirus mutates less than many other viruses. “It does not seem to be as mutable a virus as influenza,” says Mills. That means we shouldn’t need to update vaccines every year, although occasional tweaks might be required. Despite this, wiping out the virus will be really hard even if we manage to vaccinate most people. To stop a disease spreading, infected individuals must pass it on to less than one other person on average. Early in the pandemic, infected people were infecting around three others on average, leading to estimates that two out of three people, or 67 per cent, need to be immune to halt transmission. This is what we mean by herd immunity. Some people now think 70 to 90 per cent of the population may have to be immune to achieve this, especially with more transmissible variants. This could be hard to do. Some covid-19 vaccines don’t reach this level of effectiveness when it comes to preventing disease. What is more, it isn’t yet clear to what extent any of the vaccines prevent transmissible infections, as opposed to merely preventing symptoms, although this is still being investigated. A few vaccines, such as the one for whooping cough, prevent symptoms, but don’t block transmission, says Mills. This means that viruses – or bacteria in the case of whooping cough – can circulate largely undetected, popping up only when they spread to unvaccinated people and cause disease.

1-20-21 China and the US clash over mission to find source of the coronavirus
THE World Health Organization’s scientific mission to explore the origins of the coronavirus has only been under way for a few days, but has already been the subject of clashes between the US and China over the investigation’s access to people and evidence. The first of the 13 scientists arrived in Wuhan on 14 January, after visa issues delayed an original 5 January start date. Led by Peter Ben Embarek at the WHO, the team is currently in quarantine for 14 days in a hotel and talking with Chinese officials, including those at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control. Members of the mission have said they are having daily covid-19 tests and are being “treated very well”. The polite language contrasts with the verbal sparring between the US and Chinese governments in recent days. The US state department claimed last weekend that it had reason to believe several staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been the subject of debunked claims it was the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, had covid-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019. The US government later called on China to give the WHO team access to samples from the Huanan wildlife market that might have had a role in the outbreak of the virus, as well as to allow interviews with caregivers, former patients and lab workers in Wuhan. China issued a rebuke on Monday, with Reuters reporting that Sun Yang of the China National Health Commission told the board of the WHO: “The virus origin studies are of a scientific nature. It needs coordination, cooperation. We must stop any political pressure.” Such interventions from the US won’t assist the scientific mission, says David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “I don’t think that’s helpful at all. They [the WHO team] are the ones that should be making the decisions, and China is a sovereign country.”

1-20-21 Parental burnout is on the rise, says psychologist Moira Mikolajczak
Stress levels of burned-out parents can be higher than those of people in extreme pain, according to research by Moira Mikolajczak. She tells New Scientist why the pandemic has brought new urgency to her work. “A STATE of vital exhaustion.” This is a surprisingly poetic description of burnout by the World Health Organization. Burnout – severe exhaustion caused by uncontrolled chronic stress – is increasingly becoming the focus of health research. It was originally identified as a work-related phenomenon, but now a form that affects parents is coming under the spotlight. Any parent can relate to the fatigue associated with looking after a child. But for some parents, that tiredness can tip into harmful exhaustion, leaving them physically unwell and damaging their relationships with their children and partners. Moïra Mikolajczak at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium has been at the forefront of research into parental burnout. Over the past five years, she and her colleagues have found that it isn’t something that just affects parents of ill children – it can affect any parent, although it is more likely to affect highly educated people who are perfectionists and put too much pressure on themselves. Since Mikolajczak began studying the phenomenon, the field has expanded. A consortium of researchers she launched a few years ago to investigate parental burnout now has 90 members. The advent of covid-19 lockdowns, which have led to many parents juggling childcare with homeworking, has made the research more relevant and the need to understand this condition more urgent, says Mikolajczak. She tells New Scientist which factors can tip parents over the edge and how all parents can help protect themselves from extreme exhaustion.

1-20-21 Water may be even more crucial to life than we thought
WATER is essential for life as we know it, but why? A new analysis may rewrite the idea that it is solely the medium in which the reactions that drive life occur, instead viewing it as an active participant. The findings offer clues to the role that water played in the beginning of life on Earth, suggesting it may have “selected” the chemicals that now form the basis of life. “While the importance of water in life is well known and appreciated, the involvement of water as the most reactive chemical participant in today’s biochemistry was not well appreciated,” says Moran Frenkel-Pinter at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Water is often viewed as the background in which all the other chemicals, such as DNA and protein, are dissolved – in other words, the stage on which the real business of life happens. To show how active water really is, Frenkel-Pinter and her colleagues turned to a database of biochemical reactions. Out of 6500 known reactions, around 40 per cent of them either made a molecule of water or destroyed one. That is a conservative estimate, says team member Loren Dean Williams, also at the Georgia Institute of Technology, because the precise mechanisms of many reactions aren’t known and may depend on water in subtle ways. The team also looked at the molecules produced during the life cycle of a well-studied bacterium called Escherichia coli. More than 99 per cent of these are water molecules, the team estimates. Each time an E. coli divides to form two new cells, every water molecule it contains is either transformed or drives a chemical reaction 3.7 times on average (Journal of Molecular Evolution, doi.org/fq3f). “I do think there is this tendency to view water as a background actor,” says Lena Vincent at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study “confirmed something that we already appreciated and suspected, but didn’t fully grasp the extent of”, she says.

1-19-21 Covid-19 news: One in 10 people in the UK had antibodies in December
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. Estimated one in 10 people in the UK had covid-19 antibodies in December. About one in 10 people in private households across the UK are estimated to have had antibodies against the coronavirus in their blood in December 2020, according to the latest results from an infection survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The detection of antibodies in the blood is an indication of a previous infection, but doesn’t indicate exactly when that infection took place. In England, about one in eight people – equivalent to 5.4 million people – would have been expected to test positive for antibodies during the same period. This is an increase from about one in 11 people the previous month. Equivalent estimates for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland put the figures for December at one in 10, one in 11 and one in 13 people who would have been expected to test positive for coronavirus antibodies, respectively, although these estimates are based on smaller numbers of positive antibody tests. Deaths in care homes in England have reached their highest level since mid-May, according to the most recent figures reported to the Care Quality Commission. About 1260 deaths involving covid-19 were reported in care homes in England in the week up to 8 January, up from 824 the previous week. US president Donald Trump rescinded coronavirus-related travel bans on non-US citizens travelling to the US from Brazil and much of Europe, effective from 26 January. President-elect Joe Biden plans to reimpose the restrictions once in office, according to a spokesperson. Germany will extend its nationwide lockdown until 14 February, with most shops and schools to remain shut. People aged 40 and above in Israel can now get a covid-19 vaccine, its health ministry announced.

1-19-21 Stunning fossil suggests dinosaurs lured mates with smell and vision
A reconstruction of the only fossilised dinosaur cloaca in existence may help illuminate how the prehistoric animals mated. The cloaca is an all-purpose opening on the body of many animals – including lizards, turtles and birds – that is used for mating, laying eggs, urinating and defecating. In 2016, Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol, UK, and his colleagues were assessing evidence of camouflage in the well-preserved skin of a metre-long horn-billed dinosaur called Psittacosaurus. They noticed that the animal also seemed to have a surprisingly intact cloaca. Vinther and his colleagues took the fossil, flattened by years of compacting, and turned it from a 2D pancake into a 3D digital model. The team then tried to compare the Psittacosaurus’s cloaca against those of other animals. Most birds, which evolved from dinosaurs, don’t have a penis and reproduce using “cloacal kissing”, im which cloacas touch. Vinther believes that Psittacosaurus didn’t do this. Its cloaca had two flaps of skin covering most of the cloacal vent, which gives it an appearance more like that of a crocodile’s cloaca rather than a bird’s. Male crocodiles have a penis that emerges from the cloaca and Vinther’s team suspects that Psittacosaurus did too. Vinther reckons the Psittacosaurus’s skin flaps could have hidden musk glands producing sexually attractive scents. The conclusions mirror those reached by another team that analysed the same Psittacosaurus fossil and posted their findings to a preprint server last year. The new analysis also shows that the cloaca contains large amounts of the pigment melanin. Vinther initially thought that the melanin was to protect against microbial infection. But the melanin is in the outer skin, rather than inside the body, “so it’s probably to make the cloaca stand out”, he says. Such visual signalling is unusual, says Vinther, who hypothesises that Psittacosaurus could have lured mates a little like a dog does, through a combination of vision and sniffing around the tail region.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

1-22-21 A quarter of all known bee species haven't been seen since the 1990s
The number of bee species recorded worldwide has been sharply decreasing since the 1990s. Eduardo Zattara and Marcelo Aizen at the National University of Comahue in Argentina analysed how many wild bee species are observed each year as recorded in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility – a publicly available platform where researchers and citizens can record sightings of bee species. They found that there were a quarter fewer species reported between 2006 and 2015, as compared with the records we have from before 1990. The decline is especially alarming considering the number of bee records in this database has increased by around 55 per cent since 2000, so it isn’t down to a lack of observations. “Our work is the first long-term assessment of global bee decline,” says Zattara. Previous bee research has been confined to a specific species or a particular location. The researchers found that the decline isn’t consistent across all bee families. Records of the rare Melittidae family of around 200 bee species have fallen by as much as 41 per cent since the 1990s, versus 17 per cent for the more common Halictidae family. It may not necessarily mean unrecorded bee species are extinct, but they are now rare enough that people who tend to report bee sightings aren’t encountering them. The destruction of natural habitats, heavy use of pesticides and climate change could explain this decline in species richness, says Zattara. “We are producing more food to feed our growing population,” says Zattara. “[We are] using highly economically convenient ways to grow single-culture crops, which is removing a lot of the bees’ natural habitat.” The global decline in species mirrors what has previously been reported in Britain. But the researchers note that studies in more remote areas are needed to gain a full picture, as most existing data comes from North America and Europe, where it may be easier to record bee species.

1-21-21 Physicists find best way for insects to avoid collisions when jumping
A mathematical solution to a biological puzzle that may not really exist might prove useful for designing hopping rovers for space exploration. Alberto Vailati at the University of Milan, Italy, normally researches the physics of fluid dynamics. However, about 10 years ago, after noticing jumping insects on a holiday, he was intrigued to read some lab studies in which insects, including fruit fly larvae, gall midge larvae and froghoppers, had all been seen leaping with an average take-off angle of about 60 degrees. The idea that many different types of insects should have independently evolved to leap at this take-off angle seemed odd to Vailati: for insects wanting to escape predators, or simply move efficiently from A to B, a 45-degree take-off angle is the natural choice, as this maximises the range of a jump. For several years, Vailati mentioned the insects to his first-year students, in the hope that it would pique their curiosity too. After a recent lecture, one student, Samuele Spini, came back with two pages of hand calculations and the idea that a 60-degree take-off angle may help the insects avoid obstacles mid-jump. Vailati, Spini and their colleagues then built a mathematical model to investigate the idea. They considered the trajectory an insect would take depending on the take-off angle and explored which aerial path would give the insect the best chance of avoiding step-like or fence-like obstacles of random size and position lying ahead. The researchers also factored in wind and air resistance to make their calculations more applicable to the real world. Defining a successful jump as one in which the insect leaps over or lands on top of an obstacle, they found that a take-off angle of 60 degrees minimised the probability of striking the side of an obstacle, while maintaining a long jump range.

1-21-21 Elephants counted from space for conservation
At first, the satellite images appear to be of grey blobs in a forest of green splotches - but, on closer inspection, those blobs are revealed as elephants wandering through the trees. And scientists are using these images to count African elephants from space. The pictures come from an Earth-observation satellite orbiting 600km (372 miles) above the planet's surface. The breakthrough could allow up to 5,000 sq km of elephant habitat to be surveyed on a single cloud-free day. And all the laborious elephant counting is done via machine learning - a computer algorithm trained to identify elephants in a variety of backdrops. "We just present examples to the algorithm and tell it, 'This is an elephant, this is not an elephant,'"Dr Olga Isupova, from the University of Bath, said. "By doing this, we can train the machine to recognise small details that we wouldn't be able to pick up with the naked eye." The scientists looked first at South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park. "It has a high density of elephants," University of Oxford conservation scientist Dr Isla Duporge said. "And it has areas of thickets and of open savannah. "So it's a great place to test our approach. "While this is a proof of concept, it's ready to go. "And conservation organisations are already interested in using this to replace surveys using aircraft." Conservationists will have to pay for access to commercial satellites and the images they capture. But this approach could vastly improve the monitoring of threatened elephant populations in habitats that span international borders, where it can be difficult to obtain permission for aircraft surveys. The scientists say it could also be used in anti-poaching work. "And of course, [because you can capture these images from space,] you don't need anyone on the ground, which is particularly helpful during these times of coronavirus," Dr Duporge said. "In zoology, technology can move quite slowly. "So being able to use the cutting-edge techniques for animal conservation is just really nice."

1-20-21 Natural wonder: Wing 'clap' solves mystery of butterfly flight
The fluttering flight patterns of butterflies have long inspired poets but baffled scientists. Researchers have struggled to understand how these delicate creatures can fly with their large but inefficient wings. Now, a new study shows that butterflies evolved an effective way of cupping and clapping their wings to generate thrust. The scientists say that this ability helps them avoid dangerous predators. Flying species have evolved various methods of evading death. Some have developed powerful and efficient wings to speed them to safety. Others survive by tasting awful when eaten. But what about the slow-moving, meandering butterfly? The problem for these creatures is that they have unusually large wings relative to their body size, which are aerodynamically inefficient for flight. Back in the 1970s, researchers developed a theory that their big wings allowed the butterfly to clap them together on the upstroke to power their take off. But no one has shown how this works in natural flying conditions. Now, Swedish scientists, using a wind tunnel and high-speed cameras, have captured the butterfly's unique flying skill. "The wings are behaving in quite an interesting way," co-author Dr Per Henningsson, from Lund University, in Sweden, told BBC News. "The leading and the trailing edge are meeting before the central part, forming this pocket shape. "We think that sort of behaviour is going to improve the clap because it forms an air pocket between the wings which, when the wings collapse, that makes the jet even stronger and more efficient." As well as recording slow-motion video of the butterflies in flight, the researchers constructed two simple pairs of mechanical clappers to test their ideas. One was rigid, the other flexible and more akin to the butterfly wings observed in the wind tunnel tests. The team found that the flexible wings dramatically increased the force created by the clap. It also improved the efficiency by 28%, which the authors describe as a huge amount for a flying animal.

1-20-21 Male mantises fight females to mate - but they get eaten if they lose
Female praying mantises are famous for attacking and cannibalising their mates during or after a sexual encounter, but evidence is emerging that some males attack too, and that winning a fight is crucial for successful mating. Sexual cannibalism is common amongst praying mantises. Typically, the female is the aggressor, which encourages males to approach the female carefully and cautiously when mating. But Nathan Burke and Gregory Holwell at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, say some male praying mantises go on the attack instead. They wrestle and sometimes seriously injure the females in an attempt to mate and avoid being eaten. The two researchers studied 52 pairs of Miomantis caffra, commonly known as the springbok mantis, in the lab for 24 hours. During the first 12 hours, they watched the insects carefully to see which pairs fought, and which member of each pair “won” the fight. Over half of the praying mantis pairs had a fight within the first 12 hours. “These struggles were always initiated by the males and involved bouts of violent wrestling where each sex tried to be the first to pin down the other,” says Burke. He and Holwell think that the males were trying to use force to encourage the females to mate. At the end of the 24 hours, Burke and Holwell recorded if the insect pairs had mated or whether the male had met its demise. It turns out the outcome was dependent on who won the fights recorded within the first 12 hours. If the female won the fight, she always cannibalised the male. But if the males won, mating was the most common outcome. “It seems that many females would rather eat a male than mate with one,” says Burke. It’s no surprise that the females are in no hurry to mate, as M. caffra females are able to reproduce asexually without sperm. In four of the fights that Burke and Holwell observed, the male praying mantis used its dagger-like claws to strike the female, inflicting a wound that leaked plenty of bodily fluid. “Sex is rarely a bed of roses, even at the best of times. But for praying mantises, it’s a deadly game,” says Burke.

1-20-21 Some bacteria are suffocating sea stars, turning the animals to goo
Microbes that thrive in high nutrient settings deplete oxygen in water around the animals. The mysterious culprit behind a deadly sea star disease is not an infection, as scientists once thought. Instead, multiple types of bacteria living within millimeters of sea stars’ skin deplete oxygen from the water and effectively suffocate the animals, researchers report January 6 in Frontiers in Microbiology. Such microbes thrive when there are high levels of organic matter in warm water and create a low oxygen environment that can make sea stars melt in a puddle of slime. Sea star wasting disease — which causes lethal symptoms like decaying tissue and loss of limbs — first gained notoriety in 2013 when sea stars living off the U.S. Pacific Coast died in massive numbers. Outbreaks of the disease had also occurred before 2013, but never at such a large scale. Scientists suspected that a virus or bacterium might be making sea stars sick. That hypothesis was supported in a 2014 study that found unhealthy animals may have been infected by a virus (SN: 11/19/14). But the link vanished when subsequent studies found no relationship between the virus and dying sea stars, leaving researchers perplexed (SN: 5/5/16). The new finding that a boom of nutrient-loving bacteria can drain oxygen from the water and cause wasting disease “challenges us to think that there might not always be a single pathogen or a smoking gun,” says Melissa Pespeni, a biologist at the University of Vermont in Burlington who was not involved in the work. Such a complex environmental scenario for killing sea stars “is a new kind of idea for [disease] transmission.” There were certainly many red herrings during the hunt for why sea stars along North America’s Pacific Coast were melting into goo, says Ian Hewson, a marine biologist at Cornell University. In addition to the original hypothesis of a viral cause for sea star wasting disease — which Hewson’s team reported in 2014 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but later disproved — he and colleagues analyzed a range of other explanations, from differences in water temperature to exposing the animals to bacteria. But nothing reliably triggered wasting.

1-20-21 New owners of Tiger King zoo ordered to surrender cubs
The new owners of an Oklahoma zoo featured in the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King have been ordered to surrender all tiger cubs and their mothers to the federal government. The case was filed against Jeff and Lauren Lowe, owners of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park. They are accused of violating the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act. Mr Lowe is the former business partner of Joe Exotic, star of the hit show. Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is currently serving a 22-year sentence for his involvement in a contract killing plot and animal abuse. "The Lowes have showed a shocking disregard for both the health and welfare of their animals, as well as the law," said the acting assistant attorney general Jonathan D Brightbill of the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division. Both Jeff and Lauren Lowe appeared in Tiger King. The court found that the pair's "failure to provide safe conditions, proper nutrition, and timely veterinary care resulted in harm to a number of animals, including the death of two tiger cubs less than a week apart". The court rejected claims by the Lowes that they were not "exhibitors" under the Animal Welfare Act as the zoo was still under construction. Joe Exotic has formally requested a pardon from US President Donald Trump, who is expected to pardon dozens of people in his final hours in office.

1-20-21 People in Scotland to be asked about reintroducing lynx to the country
Conservationists are taking the first step towards a potential reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) to Scotland, with the launch of a year-long study into public attitudes. Believed to have been wiped out in Scotland between 500 and 1000 years ago, the carnivore has already been returned to several European countries since the 1970s, including France, Germany and Switzerland. However, previous efforts to reintroduce the species to the UK have failed, with the UK government rejecting a 2018 bid to release six in Northumberland. Now three charities are embarking on research to better understand Scottish public attitudes to the lynx. “This project is not a reintroduction project, it’s a social feasibility project. This is the first step in what could be a very long journey,” says Peter Cairns at Scotland: The Big Picture, one of the three groups conducting the research, along with Trees for Life and the Vincent Wildlife Trust. The study will use face-to-face interviews, initially held via video calls due to the pandemic, to find out if people even know what lynx are, and whether a lack of knowledge is an obstacle or a benefit to their return. “There’s a tendency to tribalise these things: farmers against, bunny huggers for it. In reality that’s not true, there’s a massive spectrum of perspectives even under those tribal umbrellas,” says Cairns. Bringing the species back to Scotland would be one piece in a wider jigsaw of efforts to rewild landscapes. The predator could help bring deer numbers in Scotland under control, and boost tree-planting efforts that are hampered by deer damage to saplings. The return of the lynx could also serve as a precursor to hopes to return wolves to Scotland. Past research has found broadly strong public support for a reintroduction of lynx either to the Scottish Highlands or the Forest of Dean in England, with a 2014 paper finding 65 per cent in favour.

1-19-21 Monitor lizards’ huge burrow systems can shelter hundreds of small animals
The giant reptiles are “ecosystem engineers, providing a service similar to beavers and seabirds. Meters below the copper, sun-broiled dirt of northwestern Australia, an entire community hides in the dark. Geckos lay their eggs as centipedes and scorpions scuttle by. A snake glides deeper underground, away from the light. This subterranean menagerie is capitalizing on an old burrow, gouged into the earth by a massive lizard. Now, a new study shows that two different species of Australian monitor lizard dig arrays of these burrows into the earth and that the openings have a great impact on local biodiversity, providing shelter to a surprisingly wide assortment of animal life. The findings, published December 18 in Ecology, indicate that the lizards are “ecosystem engineers,” akin to beavers that flood streams with dams or seabirds that fertilize reefs with their guano, the researchers say (SN: 7/11/18). Sean Doody, an ecologist at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, started monitoring the cat-sized lizards in northern Australia with colleagues from Australia’s University of Canberra in Bruce and the University of Newcastle. The team was tracking how invasive, poisonous cane toads were adversely impacting the reptiles. Until recently, it wasn’t clear where monitor lizards lay their eggs. Reaching into burrows thought to contain their eggs yielded nothing. Then Doody and his team started excavating burrows of the yellow-spotted monitor (Varanus panoptes) and found that the holes were a tight helical shape, plunging into the soil roughly four meters — deeper than any other known vertebrate nest — with eggs at the very bottom. What’s more, the nests was part of a warren consisting of dozens of twisting burrows, each made by a single monitor and arranged in the soil like dozens of fusilli noodles set vertically.

1-18-21 Australian lungfish has largest genome of any animal sequenced so far
The Australian lungfish has the largest genome of any animal so far sequenced. Siegfried Schloissnig at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Austria and his colleagues have found that the lungfish’s genome is 43 billion base pairs long, which is around 14 times larger than the human genome. Its genome is 30 per cent larger than that of the previous record holder: the axolotl, a Mexican amphibian that the team sequenced in 2018. The researchers used high-powered computer sequencers to piece together the lungfish genome. To account for inherent errors that the sequencers introduce, they used multiple copies of the genome, each fragmented into small pieces of DNA. After all the fragments were sequenced, the team used algorithms to reassemble the pieces into a complete genome. The result took roughly 100,000 hours of computer processing power, Schloissnig estimates. The Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri), native to south-east Queensland, has changed little in appearance since the time when animals began transitioning from a water-based to a terrestrial-based lifestyle, says Schloissnig. The animal’s fins are fleshy and flipper-like, and it has a single dorsal lung, which it can use to breathe air at the water’s surface. Previously, it was unclear whether lungfish or coelacanths – a group of archaic fish found in the Indian Ocean and around Indonesia – were more closely related to land-based vertebrates such as mammals and birds. The new genomic analysis shows unequivocally that lungfish are more closely linked to the evolutionary line that gave rise to four-legged animals. Coelacanths diverged earlier, while lungfish branched off 420 million years ago. “In order to get out of the water, you need to adapt towards a terrestrial lifestyle,” says Schloissnig. “You have to be able to breathe air, you have to be able to smell.”