Category: Science

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Germany Reports 850 COVID-19 Deaths in 24 Hours

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier says he will begin leaving a light in a window at his official residence, Bellevue Palace, to remember those killed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Steinmeier has called on Germans to do the same as a remembrance that “the dead in the corona pandemic are not just statistics for us.”  He added, “Even if we don’t know their names and families, we know that every figure stands for a loved one whom we miss infinitely.”With more than 850 deaths from the coronavirus in the previous 24-hour period, Germany said Friday its death toll has surpassed the 50,000 mark. Less than two weeks ago, according to an Associated Press report, Germany’s death toll was 40,000.  U.S. President Joe Biden spent his first full day in office Thursday signing executive orders addressing the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected more people in the United States than anyplace else in the world. The U.S. has 24.6 million of the world’s more than 97 million infections. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases speaks via video link during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 21, 2021.In a related story, the Reuters news agency says the COVAX initiative announced Thursday that it is aiming to deliver 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to poor countries in 2021, and hopes to fulfill supply deals for wealthier ones in the second half of the year.  The world is racing against time to produce and deliver billions of doses of new coronavirus vaccines to blunt the pandemic, which has killed over 2 million people out of a total of over 97 million confirmed COVID-19 infections, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Vaccination efforts have run into numerous difficulties, however, including logistical hurdles,  bureaucratic failures and a basic shortage of vaccines, which has led to residents across the U.S. having had their vaccine appointments canceled. In Peru, a group of doctors launched a hunger strike this week to protest the government’s lack of preparation for a second wave of COVID-19 cases.Dr. Teodoro Quiñones, the secretary-general of Peru’s physician’s union, and at least a half-dozen doctors are staging a strike in a makeshift tent outside the headquarters of the health ministry in the capital, Lima.  He told The New York Times the state-run EsSalud network dismissed COVID-19 specialists after the first wave receded and failed to hire them back when more and more new cases began filling up hospital intensive care units.  The South American country has more than a million confirmed coronavirus infections, including over 39,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. 

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WHO Welcomes US Back After Biden Moves to Retain Membership

The World Health Organization (WHO) Friday formally welcomed back the United States, after President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week to retain U.S. membership.
Speaking at the agency’s regular briefing in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the United States was a founding member of the organization in 1948 and has long played a vital role in global health.  
Tedros said he welcomes Biden’s commitment, “not just to remaining part of the WHO family, but to working constructively with the WHO, its Member States and the multilateral system to end the COVID-19 pandemic and address the many health challenges we face globally.”
The director-general also noted that the U.S. committed to joining the WHO-organized international vaccine cooperative, COVAX. Tedros said the cooperative has signed an agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 40 million doses of its vaccine.  
He said they also expect 150 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, pending its approval for emergency use by the WHO. Tedros said if all goes as planned, COVAX is on schedule to begin delivering vaccines by February and meeting its goal of delivering 2 billion doses by the end of year.
The WHO director-general also thanked U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whom he said he spoke with Thursday on her first full day in office. He said he told the vice president he was grateful for the new administration’s commitment to advancing women’s health as well as action on climate change.

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New COVID-19 Variants Are Different – What that Means for Us

New coronavirus variants appearing in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere have experts concerned. Not only do they spread faster than existing strains, it’s possible that vaccines against them might not work as well, though that hasn’t been a problem so far. Here’s how these variants are different and why scientists think vaccines will still work.

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Brazil to Receive More COVID-19 Vaccines Friday as President Defends Government Effort

Brazil expects to receive 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine Friday in its buildup to launching a mass immunization program.
 
The vaccine is due to arrive a day after President Jair Bolsonaro fended off criticism by health officials over whether Brazil has enough vaccine to begin its nationwide immunization program.
 
Bolsonaro, who has long played down the impact of the coronavirus, even after he contracted the disease, said the government will provide the vaccine to all Brazilians free of charge.    
 
However, health officials say the country’s 6 million doses of the China-based Coronavac vaccine and nearly 5 million doses of the vaccine on order is well below what is needed to immunize Brazilians.
 
A second wave of coronavirus cases and concern over the government’s ability to secure more vaccine prompted the new mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, to tweet Thursday that it will not be possible to host annual carnival celebrations in July.
 
Brazil has more than 8.6 million coronavirus cases and 212,831 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Resource Center.  
 
Brazil’s COVID-19 mortality total is second only to the United States’ 406,417 deaths as of Thursday evening.

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Australia Demands Foreign Travelers Take COVID-19 Test

Beginning Friday, foreign nationals granted special permission to fly to Australia take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their departure. Masks will also be compulsory on all international flights.Australia has had a fortress-like approach to COVID-19. It closed its borders to most foreign travelers in March to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.But 25,000 overseas passengers have been granted travel exemptions since the pandemic began, while a similar number have been rejected. People allowed into Australia include those wishing to attend a funeral of a close relative, those needing urgent medical care or key workers with critical skills.Arrivals, including foreign diplomats and transit passengers, now need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test at check-in prior to departure.There are some exemptions. They include international air crew, children under the age of 4, and travelers flying from New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.All passengers face 14 days’ mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival in Australia. Masks will also be compulsory on international flights into the country.“These are difficult and will be challenging for many people, and I am apologetic that we need to put in place these restrictions,” said Greg Hunt, Australia’s federal health minister. “The fact that we have new, more virulent strains that are emerging around the world – these remind us of precisely why we have been able to keep Australians safe, but we have to be ever-vigilant and responding to international events as they occur.”Australian citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return to Australia. They, too, must go into quarantine in a hotel at their own expense, but they do not need to take a COVID-19 test before their flight home.Along with border closures, mass screenings for the coronavirus have been a key part in Australia’s strategy to contain the virus. More than 12.5 million tests – an average of one for every two people – have been carried out.Strict lockdowns have also been important, and there are signs the economic harm inflicted by the pandemic is beginning to ease.Official government figures show that nine out of 10 of the jobs lost during the coronavirus crisis were recovered before Christmas, with the Australian economy rebounding as outbreaks were brought under control.The health department estimates there are 170 active COVID-19 infections in Australia.Nearly 29,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia since the pandemic began, and 909 people have died, according to the department of health.

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Public Face of South Africa’s COVID-19 Fight Dies of Virus Complications

South Africa is mourning the sudden death of Jackson Mthembu, a cabinet minister and presidential adviser who was the public face of South Africa’s fight against COVID-19.President Cyril Ramaphosa offered condolences in a statement Thursday, saying he was shocked and saddened that 62-year-old Mthembu had died from COVID-related complications.He is the first of six South African cabinet members infected with COVID-19 to succumb to the disease.Mthembu revealed last week that he tested positive for the virus during a checkup for abdominal pain.His death comes as South Africa battles a second wave of COVID-19 propelled by a virus variant believed to be more easily spread.So far, South Africa has confirmed more than 1.3 million infections and 39,501 deaths, according to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

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Judge Says Amazon Won’t Have to Restore Parler Web Service

Amazon won’t be forced to immediately restore web service to Parler after a federal judge ruled Thursday against a plea to reinstate the fast-growing social media app, which is favored by followers of former President Donald Trump.U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle said she was not dismissing Parler’s “substantive underlying claims” against Amazon but said it had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction forcing it back online.Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service on Jan. 11. In court filings, it said the suspension was a “last resort” to block Parler from harboring violent plans to disrupt the presidential transition.The Seattle tech giant said Parler had shown an “unwillingness and inability” to remove a slew of dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others.The social media app, a magnet for the far right, sued to get back online, arguing that Amazon had breached its contract and abused its market power. It said Trump was likely on the brink of joining the platform, following a wave of his followers who flocked to the app after Twitter and Facebook expelled Trump after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.Rothstein said she rejected “any suggestion that the public interest favors requiring Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host the incendiary speech that the record shows some of Parler’s users have engaged in.” She also faulted Parler for providing “only faint and factually inaccurate speculation” about Amazon and Twitter colluding with one another to shut Parler down.Political motives?Parler CEO John Matze asserted in a court filing that Parler’s abrupt shutdown was motivated at least partly by “a desire to deny Trump a platform on any large social-media service.” Matze said Trump had contemplated joining the network as early as October under a pseudonym. The Trump administration last week declined to comment on whether he had planned to join.Amazon denied its move to pull the plug on Parler had anything to do with political animus. It claimed that Parler had breached its business agreement “by hosting content advocating violence and failing to timely take that content down.”Parler was formed in May 2018, according to Nevada business records, with what co-founder Rebekah Mercer, a prominent Trump backer and conservative donor, later described as the goal of creating “a neutral platform for free speech” away from “the tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords.”Amazon said the company signed up for its cloud computing services about a month later, thereby agreeing to its rules against dangerous content.Matze told the court that Parler has “no tolerance for inciting violence or lawbreaking” and has relied on volunteer “jurors” to flag problem posts and vote on whether they should be removed. More recently, he said the company informed Amazon it would soon begin using artificial intelligence to automatically pre-screen posts for inappropriate content, as bigger social media companies do.Amazon last week revealed a trove of incendiary and violent posts that it had reported to Parler over the past several weeks. They included explicit calls to harm high-profile political and business leaders and broader groups of people, such as schoolteachers and Black Lives Matter activists.Move to EpikGoogle and Apple were the first tech giants to take action against Parler in the days after the deadly Capitol riot. Both companies temporarily banned the smartphone app from their app stores. But people who had already downloaded the Parler app were still able to use it until AWS pulled the plug on the website.Parler has kept its website online by maintaining its internet registration through Epik, a U.S. company owned by libertarian businessman Rob Monster. Epik has previously hosted 8chan, an online message board known for trafficking in hate speech. Parler is currently hosted by DDoS-Guard, a company whose owners are based in Russia, public records show.DDoS-Guard did not respond to emails seeking comment on its business with Parler or on published reports that its customers have included Russian government agencies.Parler did not return requests for comment this week about its future plans. Though its website is back, it has not restored its app or social network. Matze has said it will be difficult to restore service because the site had been so dependent on Amazon engineering, and Amazon’s action has turned off other potential vendors.The case has offered a rare window into Amazon’s influence over the workings of the internet. Parler argued in its lawsuit that Amazon violated antitrust laws by colluding with Twitter, which also uses some Amazon cloud services, to quash the upstart social media app.Rothstein, who was appointed to the Seattle-based court by Democratic President Jimmy Carter, said Parler presented “dwindlingly slight” evidence of antitrust violations and no evidence that Amazon and Twitter “acted together intentionally — or even at all — in restraint of trade.” 

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Climate Change Returns to White House Agenda with Biden Executive Order

President Joe Biden immediately began to reverse the Trump administration’s policies on climate change with one of 17 executive orders signed Wednesday after his inauguration.That’s in addition to the move to rejoin the Paris agreement to limit climate-changing greenhouse gases. After four years of federal disinterest in the issue, the order calls on all federal agencies “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.”  Among its dictates is the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that perhaps more than any other has become a symbol of the rise and fall and rise of climate policy over the past three administrations.  FILE – President Joe Biden pauses as he signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 20, 2021.Keystone XL aims to connect tar sand pits in Canada’s Alberta province with crude oil refineries in the southern United States. This sludgy oil takes more energy to extract and refine than standard crude oil, so its total impact on the climate is therefore even greater than that of standard fossil fuels.  Environmental groups strongly opposed the pipeline. They persuaded then-President Barack Obama to kill the project in 2015. Energy dominance In a preview of his “energy dominance” agenda, then-President Donald Trump revived Keystone XL with an executive order signed just days after taking office in 2017.  Trump consistently favored domestic fossil fuel production over environmental regulations. He loosened rules on leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and natural gas development. He shrank the land area protected in national monuments to allow for more energy extraction. He weakened efficiency standards for appliances and vehicles, saying that the standards made these items more expensive.  FILE – Demonstrators gather to protest then-President Donald Trump’s plan to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, in Albany, N.Y., Feb. 15, 2018.Biden’s executive order starts the process of reversing those policies. It instructs agency chiefs to consider “suspending, revising or rescinding” Trump’s rules.  In all, the FILE – A depot used to store pipes for TransCanada Corp.’s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, North Dakota, Nov. 14, 2014.The Sierra Club, a major environmental group, called Biden’s order a “huge and hard-fought victory.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing a large swath of U.S. businesses, called it “a politically motivated decision” that “will harm consumers and put thousands of Americans in the building trades out of work.” Not all of Biden’s actions drew the ire of the business community, however. In a separate statement, the U.S. Chamber said it “welcomes President Biden’s action to rejoin the Paris climate agreement.” Business groups have not supported all of Trump’s rollbacks, so they may not object to tightening them again.  Major oil companies opposed weakening rules on methane leaks. Automakers split over Trump’s vehicle efficiency rules.  Also, many of Trump’s rules are being challenged in court. Biden’s order says his attorney general does not have to defend them.  Heating up In signing the order, Biden acknowledged that these executive actions are “all starting points” and much more will need to be done.  And soon. The year FILE – Green lights are projected onto the facade of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, France, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate agreement at a news conference, June 1, 2017.The United States is not on track to meet its Paris pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Experts say even the world’s commitments under the Paris agreement are not enough to ward off potentially catastrophic levels of global warming.  Biden proposed an aggressive agenda to tackle climate change, but executive orders alone will not be enough. He will need Congress to pass legislation.  With a narrow Democratic majority in the House and an evenly split Senate, the task will not be easy. Republicans from fossil fuel-producing states have signaled their opposition. Biden’s policies “from Day One hurt American workers and our economy,” West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito said in a statement.  His executive order “comes at the expense of low-income and rural families that rely upon industries opposed by liberal environmental groups,” she said. “My constituents and I have not forgotten the harm brought by this approach under the Obama administration.”

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Google Seals Content Payment Deal with French News Publishers

Google and a French publishers lobby said Thursday that they had agreed to a copyright framework for the U.S. tech giant to pay news publishers for content online, a first for Europe.The move paves the way for individual licensing agreements for French publications, some of which have seen revenues drop with the rise of the internet and declines in print circulation.The deal, which Google describes as a sustainable way to pay publishers, is likely to be closely watched by other platforms such as Facebook, a lawyer involved in the talks said.Facebook was not immediately reachable for comment.Alphabet-owned Google and the Alliance de la Presse D’information Générale (APIG) said in a statement that the framework included criteria such as the daily volume of publications, monthly internet traffic and “contribution to political and general information.”Google has so far only signed licensing agreements with a few publications in France, including national daily newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro. These take into account the framework agreed with APIG, a Google spokesman said.Google News ShowcaseGoogle’s vehicle for paying news publishers, called Google News Showcase, is so far only available in Brazil and Germany.On Thursday, Reuters confirmed it had signed a deal with Google to be the first global news provider to Google News Showcase. Reuters is owned by news and information provider Thomson Reuters Corp.”Reuters is committed to developing new ways of providing access to trusted, high-quality and reliable global news coverage at a time when it’s never been more important,” Eric Danetz, Reuters global head of revenue, said in a statement.Google and APIG did not say how much money would be distributed to APIG’s members, who include most French national and local publishers. Details on how the remuneration would be calculated were not disclosed.The deal follows months of bargaining among Google, French publishers and news agencies over how to apply revamped EU copyright rules, which allow publishers to demand a fee from online platforms showing extracts of their news.Google, the world’s biggest search engine, initially fought against the idea of paying publishers for content, saying their websites benefited from the greater traffic it brought. 

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NASA Makes Progress Toward Deep-space Travel

A NASA-Boeing partnership took its next steps toward deep-space exploration. Two commercial space flight companies reached new heights, and China says “foreign scientists” can inspect lunar samples it recently collected.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.Produced by: Arash ArabasadiCamera: NASA/AP/Reuters/Virgin Orbit/Blue Origin 

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