Day: October 2, 2021

European-Japanese Space Mission Gets First Glimpse of Mercury 

A joint European-Japanese spacecraft got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung by the solar system’s innermost planet while on a mission to deliver two probes into orbit in 2025. 

The BepiColombo mission made the first of six flybys of Mercury at 11:34 p.m. GMT Friday, using the planet’s gravity to slow the spacecraft down. 

After swooping past Mercury at altitudes of under 200 kilometers (125 miles), the spacecraft took a low-resolution black-and-white photo with one of its monitoring cameras before zipping off again. 

The European Space Agency said the captured image shows the Northern Hemisphere and Mercury’s characteristic pock-marked features, among them the 166-kilometer-wide (103-mile-wide) Lermontov crater. 

The joint mission by the European agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was launched in 2018, flying once past Earth and twice past Venus on its journey to the solar system’s smallest planet. 

Five further flybys are needed before BepiColombo is sufficiently slowed down to release ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. The two probes will study Mercury’s core and processes on its surface, as well as its magnetic sphere. 

The mission is named after Italian scientist Giuseppe “Bepi” Colombo, who is credited with helping develop the gravity assist maneuver that NASA’s Mariner 10 first used when it flew to Mercury in 1974. 

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Alaska’s Vanishing Salmon Push Yukon River Tribes to the Brink

In a normal year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon to tide them through the winter would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them. 

This year, there are no fish. For the first time in memory, both king and chum salmon have dwindled to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing on the Yukon, even the subsistence harvests that Alaska Natives rely on to fill their freezers and pantries for winter. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its bounty — far from road systems and easy, affordable shopping — are desperate and doubling down on moose and caribou hunts in the waning days of fall. 

“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fish camp. “We have to fill that void quickly before winter gets here.” 

Opinions on what led to the catastrophe vary, but those studying it generally agree human-caused climate change is playing a role as the river and the Bering Sea warm, altering the food chain in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. Many believe commercial trawling operations that scoop up wild salmon along with their intended catch, as well as competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean, have compounded global warming’s effects on one of North America’s longest rivers. 

The assumption that salmon that aren’t fished make it back to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold up because of changes in both the ocean and river environments, said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on Yukon River salmon issues for a decade and is the Alaska Venture Fund’s program director for fisheries and communities. 

Looking for ‘smoking gun’

King, or chinook, salmon have been in decline for more than a decade, but chum salmon were more plentiful until last year. This year, summer chum numbers plummeted and numbers of fall chum — which travel farther upriver — are dangerously low. 

“Everyone wants to know, ‘What is the one smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point to and stop?’ ” she said of the collapse. “People are reluctant to point to climate change because there isn’t a clear solution … but it’s probably the biggest factor here.” 

Many Alaska Native communities are outraged they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change — and many feel state and federal authorities aren’t doing enough to bring Indigenous voices to the table. The scarcity has made raw strong emotions about who should have the right to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and it underscores the powerlessness many Alaska Natives feel as traditional resources dwindle. 

The nearly 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) Yukon River starts in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in both Canada and Alaska as it cuts through the lands of Athabascan, Yup’ik and other tribes. 

The crisis is affecting both subsistence fishing in far-flung outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribal members in communities along the lower Yukon and its tributaries. 

“In the tribal villages, our people are livid. They’re extremely angry that we are getting penalized for what others are doing,” said P.J. Simon, chairman and chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in the Alaska interior. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. We have a right to have a say in how things are drawn up and divvied up.” 

More than a half-dozen Alaska Native groups have petitioned for federal aid, and they want the state’s federal delegation to hold a hearing in Alaska on the salmon crisis. The groups also seek federal funding for more collaborative research on the effects that ocean changes are having on returning salmon. 

Citing the warming ocean, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy requested a federal disaster declaration for the salmon fishery this month and has helped coordinate airlifts of about 41,000 kilograms (90,000 pounds) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s adviser for rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development. 

A vital tradition

That’s done little to appease remote villages that are dependent on salmon to get through winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures can dip to minus 29 C (minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. 

Families traditionally spend the summer at fish camps using nets and fish wheels to snag adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to the place where they hatched so they can spawn. The salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets that are frozen, canned in half-pint jars or preserved in wooden barrels with salt. 

Without salmon, communities are under intense pressure to find other protein sources. In the Alaska interior, the nearest road system is often dozens of miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snowmachine or airplane to reach a grocery store.

Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many: 3.8 liters (1 gallon) of milk can cost nearly $10, and a pound of steak was recently $34 in Kaltag, an interior village about 528 kilometers (328 air miles) from Fairbanks. A surge in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately hit Alaska Natives has also made many hesitant to venture far from home. 

Instead, villages sent out extra hunting parties during the fall moose season and are looking to the upcoming caribou season to meet their needs. Those who can’t hunt themselves rely on others to share their meat. 

“We have to watch our people because there will be some who will have no food about midyear,” said Christina Semaken, 63, a grandmother who lives in Kaltag, an Alaska interior town of fewer than 100 people. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or chicken.” 

Semaken hopes to fish next year, but whether the salmon will come back remains unknown. 

Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaska waters to make sure that commercial fisheries aren’t intercepting wild Yukon River salmon. They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure an accurate count of the salmon that escape harvest and make it back to the river’s Canadian headwaters.

Loss of sea ice

Yet changes in the ocean itself might ultimately determine the salmon’s fate.

The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, has had unprecedented ice loss in recent years, and its water temperatures are rising. Those shifts are throwing off the timing of the plankton bloom and the distribution of small invertebrates that the fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that’s still being studied, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Researchers have also documented warming temperatures in the river that are unhealthy for salmon, she said. 

Because salmon spend time in both rivers and the ocean during their unique life cycle, it’s hard to pin down exactly where these rapid environmental changes are most affecting them, but it’s increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit, Howard said. 

“When you dig into all the available data for Yukon River salmon,” she said, “it’s hard to explain it all unless you consider climate change.” 

Alaska Natives, meanwhile, are left scrambling to fill a hole in their diet — and in centuries of tradition built around salmon. 

On a recent fall day, a small hunting party zoomed along the Yukon River by motorboat, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, for roughly a month in their small community of Stevens Village. 

At the end of a long day, they butchered the animals as the Northern Lights blazed a vibrant green across the sky, their headlamps piercing the inky darkness. 

The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally host several dozen families harvesting salmon, sharing meals and teaching children how to fish. On this day, it was eerily quiet. 

“I don’t really think that there is any kind of bell out there that you can ring loud enough to try to explain that type of connection,” said Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon, to us, is life. Where can you go beyond that?” 

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COP26 Chief: Delegates Agree on Need to Deliver on $100B Climate Pledge

Delegates heading to the COP26 U.N. climate summit in Glasgow agreed they must deliver on the $100 billion per year pledge to help most vulnerable nations tackle climate change, COP26 president Alok Sharma said on Saturday.

 

Speaking after days of meetings at the pre-COP26 climate event in Italy, Sharma said there was a consensus to do more to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target within reach, adding more needed to be done collectively in terms of national climate plans.

 

The COP26 conference in Glasgow aims to secure more ambitious climate action from the nearly 200 countries that signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2.0 degrees Celsius – and preferably to 1.5 degrees – above pre-industrial levels.

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Battle for Abortion Rights Hits America’s Streets Saturday

The abortion rights battle takes to the streets across America Saturday, with hundreds of demonstrations planned as part of a new “Women’s March” aimed at countering an unprecedented conservative offensive to restrict the termination of pregnancies.

 

The fight has become even more intense since Texas adopted a law on September 1 banning almost all abortions, unleashing a veritable legal guerrilla warfare and a counterattack in Congress, but with few public demonstrations until now.

 

Two days before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will have the final say on the contentious issue, is due to reconvene, nearly 200 organizations have called on abortion rights defenders to make their voices heard from coast to coast.

 

The flagship event will be held in the nation’s capital Washington, where thousands are expected to march to the Supreme Court, which nearly 50 years ago recognized the right of women to have an abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

 

Now the court, stacked by former President Donald Trump with conservative justices, seems ready to head in the opposite direction.  

 

It has already refused to block the Texas law and has accepted reviewing a restrictive Mississippi law that could provide an opportunity to overturn its precedent.

 

Rallies are planned in these two conservative states’ capitals, Austin and Jackson, as well as in more than 600 cities in all 50 states. According to the organizers, nearly a quarter million people are expected to turn out across the United States.

 

“Together, we are joining hands to advocate for a country where abortion isn’t just legal — it’s accessible, affordable and destigmatized,” said the organizers of the Rally for Abortion Justice in a statement.  

 

The group called on Congress to enshrine the right to abortion in federal law, to protect it from any possible reversal by the Supreme Court.

 

A bill to that effect was adopted a week ago in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, but has no chance of passing the Senate where Republicans have enough votes to block it.

 

‘Patriarchal desire’

 

In 2017, a first “Women’s March” was held the day after Trump’s inauguration, rallying millions of opponents of the Republican billionaire who had been accused of sexism.

 

Since then, other demonstrations have failed to turn out such huge numbers, in part due to internal divisions over accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at one of the organizers.  

 

But that page seems to have been turned.

 

“This year, we are united with a coalition of nearly 200 organizations,” the organizers said. Participants will include small feminist groups, community and local organizations as well as the giant of family planning, Planned Parenthood.

 

“We’re taking to the streets once again, for the first time in the (Joe) Biden era,” the statement said. “Because a change in the Oval Office hasn’t stopped the politicized, perverse, and patriarchal desire to regulate our bodies. If anything, it’s only gotten even more intense.”  

 

That escalation has been spurred on by Trump’s appointment of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, emboldening local conservative elected officials across to the country to embark on an anti-abortion offensive.  

 

So far this year, 19 states have adopted 63 laws restricting access to abortions.  

 

If the high court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, every state would be free to ban or allow abortions.

 

That would mean 36 million women in 26 states — nearly half of American women of reproductive age — would likely lose the legal right to an abortion, according to a Planned Parenthood report released Friday.

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Twitter Appeals French Court Ruling on Anti-Hate Speech

Twitter has appealed a French court decision that ordered it to give activists full access to all of its relevant documents on efforts to fight hate speech, lawyers and a judicial source said on Saturday.

 

In July, a French court ordered Twitter to grant six French anti-discrimination groups full access to all documents relating to the company’s efforts to combat hate speech since May 2020. The ruling applied to Twitter’s global operation, not just France.

 

Twitter has appealed the decision and a hearing has been set for December 9, 2021, a judicial source told AFP, confirming information released by the groups’ lawyers.

 

Twitter and its lawyers declined to comment.

 

The July order said that Twitter must hand over “all administrative, contractual, technical or commercial documents” detailing the resources it has assigned to fight homophobic, racist and sexist discourse on the site, as well as the offense of “condoning crimes against humanity”.

 

It also said Twitter must reveal how many moderators it employs in France to examine posts flagged as hateful, and data on the posts they process.

 

The July ruling gave the San Francisco-based company two months to comply. Twitter can ask for a suspension pending the appeal.

 

The six anti-discrimination groups had taken Twitter to court in France last year, accusing the US social media giant of “long-term and persistent” failures in blocking hateful comments from the site.  

 

The groups campaign against homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.

 

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy bans users from promoting violence or threatening or attacking people based on their race, religion, gender identity or disability, among other forms of discrimination.  

 

Like other social media giants, it allows users to report posts they believe are hateful, and employs moderators to vet the content.  

 

But anti-discrimination groups have long complained that holes in the policy allow hateful comments to stay online in many cases.

 

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Why Climate Change Is Making it Harder to Chase Fall Foliage

Droughts that cause leaves to turn brown and wither before they can reach peak color. Heat waves prompting leaves to fall before autumn even arrives. Extreme weather events like hurricanes that strip trees of their leaves altogether.

For a cheery autumnal activity, leaf peeping is facing some serious threats from the era of climate change.

Leaf peeping, the practice of traveling to watch nature display its fall colors, is a beloved annual activity in many corners of the country, especially New England and New York. But recent seasons have been disrupted by weather conditions there and elsewhere, and the trend is likely to continue as the planet warms, said arborists, conservationists and ecologists.

Typically, by the end of September, leaves cascade into warmer hues throughout the U.S. This year, many areas have yet to even pivot from their summer green shades. In northern Maine, where peak conditions typically arrive in late September, forest rangers had reported less than 70% color change and moderate leaf drop on Wednesday.

Across the country in Denver, high temperatures have left “dead, dry edges of leaves” early in the season, said Michael Sundberg, a certified arborist in the area.

“Instead of trees doing this gradual change, they get thrown these wacky weather events. They change all of a sudden, or they drop leaves early,” Sundberg said. “Its been a few years since we’ve had a really good leaf year where you just drive around town and see really good color.”

 

The reason climate change can be bad for fall foliage has a bit to do with plant biology. When fall arrives, and day length and temperature drop, the chlorophyll in a leaf breaks down, and that causes it to lose its green color. The green gives way to the yellows, reds and oranges that make for dramatic autumn displays.

Achieving those peak colors is a delicate balance, and one jeopardized by changes in the environment, said Paul Schaberg, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service based in Burlington, Vermont. Warm fall temperatures can cause leaves to remain green longer and delay the onset of what leaf peepers look for in terms of fall color, he said.

Worse, dry summers can stress trees and cause their leaves to miss the fall color turn altogether, Schaberg said. A 2003 study in the journal Tree Physiology that Schaberg cowrote stated that “environmental stress can accelerate” leaf deterioration.

“If climate change is going to mean significant drought, that means trees are going to shut down, and many trees are just going to drop their leaves,” he said. “Severe droughts that really mean that the tree just can’t function — that doesn’t improve color.”

 

It’s happening already. This summer’s heatwave in the Pacific Northwest brought temperatures of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) to Oregon, and that led to a condition called “foliage scorch,” in which leaves prematurely browned, said Chris Still, a professor at the Forest Ecosystems & Society department at Oregon State University.

The leaves’ pigment was degraded and they fell shortly thereafter, Still said. That will led to a less scenic fall season in parts of Oregon.

“That’s a really big example of color change just due to heatwave shock,” Still said.

Climate change also poses longer-term threats that could disrupt leaf peeping. The spread of diseases and invasive pests and the northward creep of tree species are all factors tied to warming temperatures that could make for less vibrant fall colors, said Andrew Richardson, a professor of ecosystem science at Northern Arizona University.

The onset of fall colors, which has been drifting later into the fall, could also continue to arrive later, said Jim Salge, foliage expert for Yankee magazine.

“My observations in the last decade have had more years that were later than what we would consider historical averages,” he said.

The economic impact of poor leaf peeping seasons could also be consequential. Officials throughout New England have said fall tourism brings billions of dollars into those states every year.

Conservationists say that’s a good reason to focus on preserving forests and reducing burning fossil fuels. Recent fall seasons have been less spectacular than typical in Massachusetts, but leaf peeping can stay a part of the state’s heritage if forests are given the protections they need, said Andy Finton, landscape conservation director and forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy.

“If we can keep the big, important forests intact, they will provide what we’ve depended on — clean air, clean water, clean forests, as well as fall inspiration,” Finton said.

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How China’s Ban on Cryptocurrency Will Ripple Overseas

Since China’s government declared all cryptocurrency transactions illegal last week and banned citizens from working for crypto-related companies, the price of bitcoin went up despite being shut out of one of its biggest markets.

Experts say large-scale Chinese miners of cryptocurrency — the likes of Bitcoin and Ethereum — will take their high-powered, electricity-guzzling servers offshore. Exchanges of the digital money and the numerous Chinese startups linked to the trade also are expected to rebase offshore after dropping domestic customers from their rosters.

The shift highlights how virtual currencies can evade government regulation.

“The exchanges have been pushing offshore anyways, and with the exchange business you need cloud infrastructure, you need developers, you need management to move things in the right direction, and so whether that is sitting in Taipei, San Francisco, Singapore or Shanghai, it doesn’t really matter — those businesses are very virtual,” said Zennon Kapron, Singapore-based founder the financial consulting firm Kapronasia.

“The real impact we’ve probably seen though is in the miners, and most of those miners [are in] the process of shifting overseas or [have] already completed moving overseas,” he said.

Strongest anti-crypto action to date

On Sept. 24, the People’s Bank of China, Beijing’s monetary authority, released a statement saying cryptocurrencies lack the status of other monetary instruments. The notice, issued in tandem with nine other government agencies, including the Bureau of Public Security, declared all related business illegal and warned that cryptocurrency transactions originating outside China will also be treated as crimes.

Explaining the ban, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday that cryptocurrencies have disrupted the controlled economy’s financial systems and contributed to crimes such as money laundering.

Cryptocurrencies — digital commerce tools that aren’t linked to a centralized banking authority — first appeared in China around 2008. Chinese banks began to prohibit the use of digital currencies in 2013 and stepped up regulations after 2016.

China was the world’s biggest Bitcoin miner and supported the largest exchange by volume, according to the news website CryptoVantage. It says many of those who suddenly made millions when Bitcoin prices soared four years ago were in China.

Chinese miners and traders head to Singapore

The Chinese ban carries penalties for international exchanges that do business with people inside China, and news reports indicate international crypto exchanges are trying to cut ties with Chinese clients in recent days. But the companies themselves are largely staying quiet.

A spokesperson for digital currency exchange Coinbase said Wednesday it does not “have anything to share at this time” about the crackdown in China. U.S.-based Worldcoin Global, a new type of cryptocurrency, did not reply to a request for comment.

China’s growing pressure on crypto over the past few years had prompted stakeholders to leave the country, Kapron said, adding that less than a quarter of the country’s original cryptocurrency peer-to-peer lending startups — small firms that connect individual lenders and borrowers — remain in China.

Mining for digital currency — the process of using computers to enter bitcoins into circulation and verify cryptocurrency transactions in exchange for a payout — should get easier overseas as Chinese exit the market, Kapron said.

Smaller operators, he added, may be able to mine more easily without the competition of giant Chinese operations.

Singapore looms as a prime go-to place for operations that need not be physically onshore. The country had accepted about 300 cryptocurrency license applications as of July. From China, e-commerce giant Alibaba as well as digital financial firms Yillion Group and Hande Group have applied, news reports in Asia say.

Other Asian countries lack the legal welcome mat that Singapore has extended, said Jason Hsu, vice president of the Taiwan Fintech Association industry group.

“Where would that money flow to? I think it’s a question that needs to be answered,” Hsu said. “I think in Asia, Singapore would be a destination for them to go to. Singapore obviously has the clearest regulations and also wants to attract more digital fintech [financial-technology] companies.”

Outside Asia, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are “establishing their footprint as international centers” for financial technology, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist with market research firm IHS Markit. Financial technology covers cryptocurrency.

Western Europe ranked this year as the world’s biggest crypto economy in the world with inflows of more than $1 trillion or 25% of all global trade, activity, news and data service Chainalysis says. Europe’s surge follows similarly rapid growth in 2020.

Eventual resurgence for crypto in China?

Authorities in China are targeting crypto now as part of a wider “crackdown on overnight riches” and to “clean out the wild, wild West,” Hsu said, referring to largely unregulated market sectors. The trade will go underground for now, he forecasts, and China will eventually come out with an official digital currency issued through major banks.

Several countries are considering adopting new digital currencies that would allow people to exchange money without an intermediary, such as a bank. Proponents argue these currencies could capture the benefits of cryptocurrencies that make exchanging money easy, but without the price volatility of decentralized digital assets like bitcoin.

Chinese authorities may eventually swing to a more tolerant view of non-state-sanctioned digital currencies, though subject to strict criteria on what’s legal or otherwise, said Song Seng Wun, economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB. Blockchain, the core technology behind the public transaction ledger that makes crypto commerce transparent, could continue to develop in China for other ends, he added. 

 

 

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Fact-Checking Biden’s Claim US Is World’s ‘Arsenal of Vaccines’

At the virtual COVID-19 summit on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly last week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced an additional donation of 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to low-income and lower-middle-income countries, bringing total U.S. pledged donations to 1.1 billion shots.

“I made — and I’m keeping — the promise that America will become the arsenal of vaccines as we were the arsenal of democracy during World War II,” Biden said at the summit.

Here are some facts and context surrounding that claim.

How many doses has the U.S. pledged and shipped?

Of the 1.1 billion doses the U.S. has promised, nearly 172 million have been shipped to more than 100 countries, according to the State Department.

Most are distributed via COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing initiative co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the World Health Organization; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and some through bilateral agreements.

This makes the U.S. the global leader in both pledged and shipped doses, according to data compiled by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center as of October 1.

The next-largest pledges come from the European Union (500 million), France (120 million), and the United Kingdom, Germany and China (100 million each).

Countries that have shipped the most donations after the U.S. are China (47 million), EU (33.8 million), Japan (21.5 million) and Germany (9.9 million).

The 1.1 billion doses pledged is in line with the administration’s commitment to donate three shots for every shot administered domestically. So far, 392 million shots have been given in the U.S.

The question is when the U.S. will deliver on the rest of its commitment of almost 1 billion doses.

“The claim about being an arsenal of vaccines for the world is a great talking point,” said Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. “It would be great to see put into action.”

The U.S. has shipped only 15% of the 1.1 billion doses it has promised. It is lagging behind other countries with considerably less ambitious donation goals, including China (46%), Japan (30%) and France (8%).

When and to whom will the rest be shipped? 

The White House said 200 million more doses would go out by year’s end, and the remaining 800 million will be sent by September 2022.

“The world can’t wait that long,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative at Georgetown University. He said the U.S. should be ramping up shipments now, particularly if it wants to meet its target to support the WHO’s goal of having at least 70% of the world’s population fully vaccinated in every country and income category by September 2022.

The administration has not provided a plan identifying the countries slated for future shipments. Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s COVID-19 Task Force, said countries already signed up with COVAX and ready to receive and distribute the vaccines would be first in line. Those that are not will be supplied with vaccines as their capacity to receive them grows.

“It’s really hard to project over that full time period where any individual country will shake out,” Konyndyk said. “We’re kind of working it out and making adjustments as we go along depending on how the pandemic evolves.”

How much surplus does the U.S. have? 

The administration does not make public the number of doses it has in reserve and those it has secured for domestic needs in the production pipelines of vaccine manufacturers. The numbers are constantly in flux, an administration official told VOA.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 82 million doses have been distributed across the country but not yet administered. Humanitarian organizations allege that the U.S. is sitting on an even larger stockpile.

“They must now get these doses — and more of the 593 million excess doses the U.S. will have by the end of the year — out the door and into the arms of people in low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs for Doctors Without Borders USA, responding to Biden’s announcement of an additional 500 million doses.

Data compiled by analytics company Airfinity on COVID-19 vaccine stock in the U.S., EU, U.K., Canada and China — countries with the biggest surpluses — show an excess of close to 670 million doses by the end of September. This projection factored in those countries offering booster shots to people 12 and older six months after their second doses.

Airfinity data also predict that 241 million doses of vaccines stockpiled in the Group of Seven leading industrial nations will expire by December without immediate redistribution.

Is the global vaccine shortage a question of production capacity or distribution? 

Airfinity data show vaccine manufacturers currently produce 1.5 billion doses per month. It forecasts a total global production of 12.2 billion doses for 2021, of which 6.5 billion are Western vaccines and 5.7 billion are Chinese.

This would mean the goal set by the WHO of 11.3 billion doses required to vaccinate the world’s population could be achieved in months, providing wealthy nations do not continue to cushion their reserves to provide booster shots and guard against new variants before lower-income countries get their first shots.

“Wealthy countries bought up most of the world’s supply of vaccines and have not moved fast enough in creating a global plan to get these vaccines delivered and distributed where they are needed around the world,” said Sarah Swinehart, spokesperson for the ONE Campaign, an organization formed to fight poverty and preventable diseases.

High-income countries have now administered almost 100 doses for every 100 people, while low-income countries have administered just 1.5 doses, according to the WHO.

If there is high production capacity, why aren’t producers exporting them? 

“If we’re going to be the arsenal of vaccines, we actually have to export vaccines, not just donate them once in a while,” said Udayakumar of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. Separate from the doses donated by the administration, American vaccine producers have exported 161 million doses for sale, far below China (1.1 billion) and the EU (nearly 800 million).

Most exports still go to higher-income countries, and some export restrictions are still in place. This week, the EU extended a mechanism to potentially limit vaccine exports until the end of 2021 because of the bloc’s need to secure booster shots.

India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, stopped exports in April to focus on inoculating its own population as infections surged. It will resume exports in October.

The WHO is also urging scaling up manufacturing through technology transfer. In June, it announced the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, to be set up in South Africa.

The world health body also called for the so-called Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement waiver, or TRIPS waiver, the suspension of intellectual property rights for vaccines at the World Trade Organization, so that countries can access vaccine “recipes” and produce their own without fear of legal action.

The TRIPS waiver proposal, submitted by South Africa and India in October 2020, is supported by more than 100 countries, 100 Nobel laureates and prominent human rights groups, but it cannot move forward without the consensus of all WTO members. The EU, U.K. and Switzerland oppose the waiver.

Didn’t the U.S. support the TRIPS waiver?

We have not seen the full weight of the U.S. diplomatic corps engaging on this topic, said Matthew Rose, director of U.S. policy and advocacy for the Health Global Access Project. “In multiple TRIPS council meetings, the U.S. has been mostly silent in reaching a consensus and moving the council to text-based negotiations,” he said.

In May, the U.S. said it broadly supported the proposal to waive TRIPS, but it has since declined to support the proposal as it is, in effect helping prolong negotiations.

Instead of leading, the Biden administration has largely stayed on the sidelines of TRIPS negotiations, said Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America, an organization aiming to end global poverty. “We cannot vaccinate 70% of the world with the same tools that have vaccinated only 1% of Africa so far.”

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who is leading the TRIPS waiver negotiations at the WTO, did not respond to a request for comment.

The TRIPS waiver received little attention at the COVID-19 summit that Biden convened. Except for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, no other leaders from wealthy nations, including Biden, mentioned it in their remarks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA that the administration expects TRIPS waiver negotiations to be a lengthy process and that it has “never been the only basket that we’re focused on.”

VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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US Has Delivered Only 15% of Vaccine Donations Promised

The U.S. is the global leader in vaccine donations, pledging to send 1.1 billion doses to help the world fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has shipped only 15% of the doses it has promised. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

Producer: Bakhtiyar Zamanov 

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China’s Tech Titans Funding Beijing’s Effort to Close Income Gap

During the three-day World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, China, this week, the country’s biggest tech tycoons rushed to show their support for Beijing’s “common prosperity” initiative.

Their enthusiasm for the initiative comes amid a yearlong crackdown on the country’s tech industry, where several high-profile companies have faced investigations and fines. Formerly high-flying celebrity CEOs are now keeping a low profile.

Daniel Zhang, CEO at e-commerce giant Alibaba group, said his company’s donation of $15 billion to the initiative over the next five years represented its willingness to help China achieve its goal of prosperity for all.

Zhou Hongyi, billionaire entrepreneur and chairman and CEO of the country’s largest Internet security firm, Qihoo 360, said his company will donate an as yet undisclosed sum to the initiative and step up to help smaller firms thrive.

Stressing the need to develop these enterprises, Zhou said, “Our success depends on our country’s policies. … We must take the initiative to align our development with our national strategies and serve our country with science and technology.”

Lei Jun, CEO of consumer electronics manufacturer Xiaomi, said that technological development must be used to achieve social good and that tech companies should help build a good life for everyone.

Other tech giants, such as technology conglomerate Tencent, online agricultural marketplace Pinduoduo and food delivery platform Meituan, answered Beijing’s call before the Sept. 26-28 gathering, pledging financial support for social causes.

‘Common prosperity’ initiative

During his first eight years in office, Chinese President Xi Jinping occasionally mentioned the term “common prosperity.” Since February, when he declared China had eliminated poverty, “common prosperity” has become one of his favorite themes.

At a meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs on Aug. 17, Xi stressed that those who are already rich need to guide and help others achieve prosperity.

“Common prosperity means prosperity for all, not just a few people,” Xi said, according to a meeting note published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. “We can allow some to get rich first, but we must then launch a scientific public policy to make sure every citizen can have their fair share.”

Central to achieving common prosperity is a concept known as the three distributions, first introduced by the Chinese economist Li Yining in the 1990s.

According to the explanation from China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the first distribution of wealth comes through market competition. The second is achieved through the state via taxes, subsidies and social welfare programs. The third distribution taps enterprises and individuals to redistribute their wealth through voluntary donations.

‘Third distribution’

“The target of this round of the common prosperity initiative is the wallet of wealthy domestic entrepreneurs,” said Lu Jun, founder of the influential nongovernmental organization Beijing Yirenping Center, in a phone interview with VOA Mandarin. His NGO focuses on eliminating discrimination and defending the rights of disadvantaged groups.

Wang Hsin-Hsien, a political science professor and chair of the East Asian Studies Institute at National Cheng-Chi University in Taiwan, told VOA Mandarin that businesses are essentially forced to make charity donations under the current system.

“China’s current common prosperity initiative is controlled by the party-state. That means large enterprises must make donations in order to show that they are choosing the right side. So I don’t think these donations will be voluntary,” he told VOA Mandarin via phone.

“This is not the charitable donation we see in Western countries, because eventually the money will be returned to the state for redistribution,” he added.

Meanwhile, analysts say this new wave of donation will not likely help boost China’s civil society.

NGOs under microscope

China has been tightening its grip on NGOs since 2016, demanding they provide specific funding sources and membership information or face being banned.

This year, China announced a new wave of crackdowns targeting NGOs. In May, the Ministry of Civil Affairs started to target “illegal NGOs with measures such as limiting their access to conference venues, publicity resources and manpower,” according to the state-owned news outlet China Daily.

“The moves were part of a sweeping campaign launched last month by the ministry and 21 other central agencies to clamp down on the unregistered NGOs, which have masqueraded as foundations, industrial associations and other nongovernmental groups to rake in money from the public,” China Daily said.

Lu told VOA Mandarin that the NGOs that can survive or get funding will be those that align their goals with the government’s agenda — unlike many NGOs outside China, whose views diverge from those of the government.

“I don’t think this is necessarily good news for NGOs, as I believe the money donated by private companies will go to the government-run or government-affiliated NGOs,” he said of the third distribution.

“Beijing won’t allow companies to donate to independent NGOs freely, let alone the ones they don’t like, such as NGOs working on human rights, labor rights and women’s rights.”  

 

 

 

 

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