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China’s Latest COVID Wave May Hit 65 Million a Week With Mild Symptoms

China, where COVID-19 was first identified in humans more than three years ago, expects its current wave of infection to hit as many as 65 million cases per week by late June, according to official accounts of models presented at a medical conference.

While that may be an exhausting number to a post-pandemic world wearied by a still rising toll of 767 million confirmed cases and more than 6.9 million deaths, the predicted onslaught in China comes with less severe symptoms, Wang Guiqiang, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Peking University First Hospital, told the official newspaper Beijing Daily.

And, experts say, the outbreak is likely to be confined to China. Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology and a top COVID-variant tracker, told Fortune that when it comes to XBB variants, “the rest of the world has seen them all.” But up until recently, “China hasn’t.”

Respiratory disease specialist Zhong Nanshan, who spoke on May 22 at a conference in the southern city of Guangzhou, said the current wave of infections that started in late April was “anticipated.” His modeling suggested that by the end of June, the weekly number of infections will peak at 65 million, according to the official Global Times.

After Beijing relaxed the draconian lockdowns enforced under its “zero-COVID” policy, an omicron variant different from the current one ripped through China in December 2022 and January 2023.

About 80% of China’s 1.4 billion people were infected during that wave, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in January, CNN reported. Patients packed hospitals and families waited for days to cremate those who died.

The latest COVID wave is something most people do not take seriously, said Mr. Lin, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The resident of Quanzhou in Fujian province said, “They go about their activities normally and don’t do any protection. No one wears masks.”

Mr. Lin told VOA Mandarin he was infected in mid-December 2022, soon after Beijing lifted the lockdowns that had sent the world’s second-largest economy into a tailspin.

He realized he was infected — again — in May. Mr. Lin said he knew others who were likely reinfected and didn’t even bother to take a COVID test because their symptoms were so mild.

Mr. Zhang, who was infected for the first time in December, told VOA Mandarin he was infected a second time on a business trip to Shanghai and Beijing in May. The Hunan province resident, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid attracting official attention, thought he had caught a cold because of the air conditioning he encountered on his trip.

But he took a test while still in Beijing and with a positive result, ended up at a hospital where he said a doctor told him, “People all over the country are like this. No need for medical attention at all. Just go home.”

After suffering four days with insomnia, loss of appetite and recurring fever, Mr. Zhang went to another Beijing hospital. Admitted, he was given Paxlovid, an anti-coronavirus drug developed by Pfizer.

“I took the medicine at noon and felt relieved at night,” he told VOA Mandarin.

During his hospital stay, Mr. Zhang said, “All the infectious disease wards were full, and there was a long queue to get an appointment. The hospital used wards of other departments for patients from the Infectious Diseases Department.”

Jin Dong-yan, a biochemistry professor with the Li Ka-shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told VOA Mandarin there is not much difference between the current situation in China and in the U.S., but the Chinese media devote more coverage to the outbreak.

Jin said, “In fact, looking at the data, the U.S. has experienced about four peaks after the outbreak last year, but each peak is getting smaller and smaller.”

The United States, by comparison, was reporting more than 5 million cases a week at its most recent peak in January.

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 over as a global health emergency on May 5.

Like the U.S., China stopped providing weekly case updates in May, making it difficult to know the true extent of the current outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 1.1 million deaths in the U.S. involving COVID-19 from January 4, 2020, to May 27, 2023. 

In China, from January 3, 2020, to May 31, 2023, there have been almost 100 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 120,000 deaths reported by Beijing to WHO.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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‘Ray of Hope’: New Advances in Fighting Range of Cancers

New advances in the fight against a range of cancers have been revealed at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which wraps up in Chicago on Tuesday.

Here are some of the announcements that have most excited experts.

Lung cancer

One of the trial results that caused a stir in Chicago has raised hopes for a new weapon against lung cancer, the deadliest of all cancers.

The treatment osimertinib was shown to halve the risk of death from a certain type of lung cancer when taken daily after surgery to remove the tumor.

Developed by the pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca, the daily pill targets patients with non-small cell cancer — by far the most common type — as well as a mutation of their epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR.

Iris Pauporte, head of research at France’s League Against Cancer, told AFP the advance was a “big ray of hope” for this type of cancer, for which progress has been slow.

Muriel Dahan, head of research at Unicancer, said that if the results are confirmed, it “should change” common practice in treating this kind of lung cancer.

Systematic testing for the EGFR mutation would also become necessary for lung cancer patients, she added.

Brain cancer

Another treatment, called vorasidenib, was found to significantly prolong the progression-free survival of patients with brain tumor glioma, according to clinical trial results.

The daily pill, developed by French pharma firm Servier, aims to block an enzyme responsible for the progression of some brain cancers, which have been particularly difficult to treat.

Patrick Therasse, Servier’s vice-president of oncology research, told AFP that there “have been few therapeutic advances for brain tumors over the last 20 years.”

“Thanks to our targeted treatment, patients avoided cancer progression for 27.7 months, compared to 11.1 months” for those taking a placebo, he added.

Fabrice Andre, head of research at France’s Gustave Roussy cancer center, said “precision medicine opens a door for a disease for which there was nothing until now.”

“It means that science can unblock situations that were catastrophic,” he told AFP.

Unicancer’s Dahan said it was important to “remain cautious” but added that “this could become the new therapeutic standard — depending on further trials.”

Breast cancer

Preliminary trial results also released in Chicago indicated the drug ribociclib reduced the risk of breast cancer recurring by 25 percent for a large group of early-stage survivors.

The drug, developed by Swiss pharmaceutical maker Novartis, is already widely approved around the world. It was tested in combination with hormonal therapy.

ASCO expert Rita Nanda said it was a “very important and practice-changing clinical trial.”

Cervical cancer

There was also good news for patients with early-stage cervical cancer with a low risk of progression.

There was no greater risk of the cancer returning for patients who get a simple hysterectomy, in which the uterus and cervix are removed, than a radical hysterectomy, in which the uppermost part of the vagina is also removed, according to phase three trials.

League Against Cancer’s Pauporte said this was “good news,” adding that “it shows that it’s not just progress involving drugs that was important.”

Ovarian cancer

A trial also presented at ASCO showed that taking the antibody treatment mirvetuximab soravtansine significantly improved the survival rate of patients with ovarian cancer, a particularly deadly form of cancer.

ASCO expert Merry Jennifer Markham said the treatment “demonstrates progress and offers hope for these patients.”

Rectal cancer

Study results released in Chicago indicated that patients with locally advanced rectal cancer could receive chemotherapy without getting radiation therapy before undergoing surgery.

This would spare patients from the brutal side effects of radiation.


Vaccines that treat existing cancer have long been a goal of the medical community.

Preliminary studies announced at the ASCO meeting involved vaccines targeting lung cancer, head and neck cancers, brain tumor glioblastoma and the cancer-causing HPV virus.

Christophe Le Tourneau, an oncologist at France’s Curie Institute which presented a study about a vaccine for a certain form of HPV, said there has been “significant technological progress” in the area recently.

“Therapeutic vaccines, we talk about them more and more, and there are more and more trials in progress,” he said.

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New Global Climate Assessment Aims to Gauge Progress

Global leaders in the battle against global warming convened in Bonn, Germany, on Monday for the start of the final phase of a two-year long assessment of the progress being made to limit rising temperatures.

The annual Bonn Climate Change Conference is part of the “global stocktake” — a process by which countries around the world assess how much progress has been made toward compliance with the 2015 Paris Agreement, a worldwide effort to prevent global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era average.

“The global stocktake is an ambition exercise. It’s an accountability exercise. It’s an acceleration exercise,” U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said in a statement. “It’s an exercise that is intended to make sure every Party is holding up their end of the bargain, knows where they need to go next and how rapidly they need to move to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

However, Stiell warned that the findings will only be meaningful if they are paired with action.

“The global stocktake will end up being just another report unless governments and those that they represent can look at it and ultimately understand what it means for them and what they can and must do next. It’s the same for businesses, communities and other key stakeholders,” he said.

The stocktake will conclude in November, when the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) is held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Stocktake process

The global stocktake is a two-year process that happens once every five years, as dictated by the Paris Agreement. It has three parts: an information collection and preparation phase, a technical assessment and a consideration of the process’s outputs.

The stocktake began in 2021, with countries, NGOs, experts and other stakeholders gathering information about efforts currently underway to slow global warming. This includes efforts by individual countries to meet the emission-reduction goals they have agreed to at previous COP gatherings — known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — as well as challenges and barriers to meeting those goals, and data about new mitigation techniques.

At last year’s Bonn Climate Conference, technical experts began to assess the findings, a process meant to be finalized over this year’s 10-day gathering.

The consideration of the findings will begin immediately following the conference and will be translated into recommendations for further action meant to be finalized in Dubai later this year.

No mystery

While the final details of the global stocktake will not be published until later this year, there is little mystery about what the process is likely to uncover. An interim report published in March found that progress has been “significant yet inadequate” in terms of reaching the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

“While the remarkable speed with which the Paris Agreement entered into force in 2016 demonstrates a broad commitment, and Parties are making progress in implementation, we as a global community are not on track to meet its long-term goals,” the report found.

Still, experts said that there are reasons for optimism.

“The big value out of the global stocktake is that it’s also meant to be telling us not only where we are and where we need to be, but how to get there. What we’re hearing through the process so far is that there are solutions across all sectors and all [greenhouse] gases,” Maggie Ferrato, a manager for global climate cooperation at the Environmental Defense Fund, told VOA.

“And really the challenge is to kind of distill really clear signals from the wealth of information that’s out there on the highest impact opportunities that should be incorporated into Nationally Determined Contributions in the next round.”

More upbeat assessment

The Bonn Conference comes just a few weeks after a pair of reports from U.N.-affiliated research organizations painted grim pictures of the planet’s climate future.

In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the planet is getting close to being unable to avoid a temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and predicted that more negative consequences of global climate change will soon become apparent. It said that the changes will frequently harm poor and vulnerable populations across the globe, many of which have contributed little to global warming.

Last month, the World Meteorological Organization issued a report that found a two-thirds chance the world will experience at least one year of temperatures averaging more than 1.5 degrees over the pre-industrial average within the next five years.

Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told VOA that organizers of the Bonn Conference and of the COP process in general seem to realize unremitting gloom about the climate future may be doing more harm than good.

“I think there’s certainly a realization that just always saying, ‘We’re far behind. Everything looks terrible,’ is losing some impact,” he said.

Mehling said that he anticipates a report that recognizes that progress has been made and that achieving a less ambitious goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees — a level that scientists warn could be catastrophic — is achievable.

“I would probably anticipate some sort of a split message that suggests that we have to continue holding the line and staying [focused] on 2 degrees, but we can achieve that,” he said. “But it doesn’t look good for 1.5, unless we dramatically change what we’re doing. That’s what I expect to be the headline message.”

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Is It Real or Made by AI? Europe Wants a Label as It Fights Disinformation 

The European Union is pushing online platforms like Google and Meta to step up the fight against false information by adding labels to text, photos and other content generated by artificial intelligence, a top official said Monday.

EU Commission Vice President Vera Jourova said the ability of a new generation of AI chatbots to create complex content and visuals in seconds raises “fresh challenges for the fight against disinformation.”

Jourova said she asked Google, Meta, Microsoft, TikTok and other tech companies that have signed up to the 27-nation bloc’s voluntary agreement on combating disinformation to dedicate efforts to tackling the AI problem.

Online platforms that have integrated generative AI into their services, such as Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Google’s Bard chatbot, should build safeguards to prevent “malicious actors” from generating disinformation, Jourova said at a briefing in Brussels.

Companies offering services that have the potential to spread AI-generated disinformation should roll out technology to “recognize such content and clearly label this to users,” she said.

Jourova said EU regulations are aimed at protecting free speech, but when it comes to AI, “I don’t see any right for the machines to have the freedom of speech.”

The swift rise of generative AI technology, which has the capability to produce human-like text, images and video, has amazed many and alarmed others with its potential to transform many aspects of daily life. Europe has taken a lead role in the global movement to regulate artificial intelligence with its AI Act, but the legislation still needs final approval and won’t take effect for several years.

Officials in the EU, which is bringing in a separate set of rules this year to safeguard people from harmful online content, are worried that they need to act faster to keep up with the rapid development of generative artificial intelligence.

The voluntary commitments in the disinformation code will soon become legal obligations under the EU’s Digital Services Act, which will force the biggest tech companies by the end of August to better police their platforms to protect users from hate speech, disinformation and other harmful material.

Jourova said, however, that those companies should start labeling AI-generated content immediately.

Most of those digital giants are already signed up to the EU code, which requires companies to measure their work on combating disinformation and issue regular reports on their progress.

Twitter dropped out last month in what appeared to be the latest move by Elon Musk to loosen restrictions at the social media company after he bought it last year.

The exit drew a stern rebuke, with Jourova calling it a mistake.

“Twitter has chosen the hard way. They chose confrontation,” she said. “Make no mistake, by leaving the code, Twitter has attracted a lot of attention and its actions and compliance with EU law will be scrutinized vigorously and urgently.”

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Pill Halves Risk of Death in Type of Lung Cancer

A pill has been shown to halve the risk of death from a certain type of lung cancer when taken daily after surgery to remove the tumor, according to clinical trial results presented on Sunday.

The results were unveiled in Chicago at the largest annual conference of cancer specialists, hosted by the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Lung cancer is the form of the disease that causes the most deaths, with approximately 1.8 million fatalities every year worldwide.

The treatment developed by the pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca is called osimertinib and is marketed under the name Tagrisso. It targets a particular type of lung cancer in patients suffering from so-called non-small cell cancer, the most common type, and showing a particular type of mutation.

These mutations, on what is called the epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, affect 10% to 25% of lung cancer patients in the United States and Europe, and 30 to 40% in Asia.

The clinical trial included some 680 participants at an early stage of the disease (stages 1b to 3a), in more than 20 countries. They had to have been operated on first to remove the tumor, then half of the patients took the treatment daily, and the other a placebo.

The result showed that taking the tablet resulted in a 51% reduction in the risk of death for treated patients, compared to placebo.

After five years, 88% of patients who took the treatment were still alive, compared to 78% of patients who took the placebo.

These data are “impressive,” said Roy Herbst of Yale University, who presented them in Chicago. The drug helps “prevent the cancer from spreading to the brain, to the liver, to the bones,” he added at a press conference.

About a third of cases of non-small cell cancers can be operated on when detected, he said.

“It is hard for me to convey, I think, how important this finding is,” said Nathan Pennell of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation at the press conference.

“We started entering the personalized therapy era for early-stage patients,” said Pennell, who did not take part in the trials, and noted that “we should firmly close the door on one-size-fits-all treatment for people with non-small cell lung cancer.”

Osimertinib is already authorized in dozens of countries for various indications, and has already been given to some 700,000 people, according to a press release from AstraZeneca.

Its approval in the United States for early stages in 2020 was based on previous data that showed an improvement in patient disease-free survival, that is, the time a patient lives without a recurrence of cancer.

But not all doctors have adopted the treatment, and many were waiting for the data on overall survival that was presented on Sunday, said Herbst.

He stressed the need to screen patients to find out if they have the EGFR mutation. Otherwise, he said, “we cannot use this new treatment.”

Osimertinib, which targets the receptor, causes side effects that include severe fatigue, skin rashes or diarrhea.

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Tour de France Anti-COVID Protocol to Keep Riders in Hotels

Tour de France organizers have set up an anti-COVID protocol for this year’s race, with riders and team staff banned from signing autographs and eating out of their hotels, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters Saturday. 

Riders and staff members were allowed out of their hotels last year. Access to the paddock at the start of the stages was open to reporters until midway through the race, when organizers decided to close it to “fight against the propagation of COVID-19.” 

Access to the paddock will be allowed when the Tour starts in Bilbao, Spain, on June 29, with everyone required to wear a mask. 

“For all the team members: Respect a confinement – Limit the interactions outside the race bubble. No eating out. Respect social distancing at the hotel,” the chart, seen by Reuters, said. 

“Do not get too close to the spectators – Social distancing, no selfies, no autograph.” 

On Friday, France reported 3,204 COVID-19 cases in the country. At this time last year, there were about 25,000 reported daily cases in France. 

Giro d’Italia organizers last month set up an anti-COVID protocol near the halfway point of the race after overall leader Remco Evenepoel pulled out after testing positive for coronavirus. 

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Death in the Amazon: Dangers of Environmental Reporting 

The latest threat to the life of Txai Surui is still fresh in her mind. Protesting deforestation in the Amazon with other Indigenous people last week, she found herself held at gunpoint.

“They got out guns and ambushed two days ago,” Surui said. The Indigenous campaigner recalled the confrontation with gunmen in a telephone interview from Brazil with VOA.

“I am 26 and my parents have been getting death threats since before I was born. We are threatened all the time,” Surui said.

Her testimony speaks of the dangers faced by Indigenous protesters and the journalists who report their stories from gunmen hired by illegal loggers or fishermen.

On June 5, 2022, Dom Phillips, a British journalist who wrote for The Guardian and The Washington Post, and Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, went missing.

They had been on a four-day reporting trip looking at the situation for communities in the Javari region of the Amazon and were working on a book together.

Ten days after they went missing, their bodies were found. 

 In May 2023, Brazilian federal police brought criminal charges against the former head of Brazil’s Indigenous protection agency for alleged acts of omission they believe indirectly paved the way for the killings.

Marcelo Xavier, a former police chief and head of the protection agency that covered the region where the killings took place, has not commented on the accusations.

Three fishermen are being held in high-security prisons for their alleged involvement in the killings while a judge prepares to rule on whether they will face trial by jury, Reuters reported.

A fourth man, who is suspected of running an illegal fishing network in the Javari Valley region, was named as the mastermind in January, although he has yet to be formally charged.

‘I am here in resistance’ Listen to Bruno Pereira’s last voice note to Survival International. 

For those who cover or live in that region, the killings underscored the increasingly risky environment.

“I was not surprised Dom and Bruno were killed. A friend of mine, Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, was murdered three years ago too,” said Surui, who lives in Rodoñia, another Amazonian state.

Her struggle to save the Amazon with her mother, Neidinha Surui, was made into a 2021 film, Believing in a New World.

“People outside Brazil have to realize the damage that these gangs are doing to the Amazon,” she said.

In the wake of the Phillips killing, The Guardian and about a dozen other international media organizations investigated organized crime and the theft of natural resources in the Amazon.

The joint project was arranged by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit dedicated to completing the work of journalists killed for their work.

Sarah Shenker, a campaigner for Survival International, which campaigns for Indigenous people’s rights, was a close friend of Phillips and Pereira.

She says their deaths left her “shocked and devastated.”

“The difference here is that Bruno and Dom were not Indigenous and Bruno was not from the area. Some non-Indigenous people were killed. It sets a sort of difference with the killings of Indigenous,” she told VOA.

“People thought the gunmen would not go as far as to kill non-Indigenous people, maybe they would not enjoy the same impunity as if they killed Indigenous people, but clearly they did go that far.”

Shenker said she had received threats from gunmen while working to protect Indigenous rights from illegal loggers.

“We are questioned and threatened. Gunmen sometimes fire shots because they don’t want activists to protect Indigenous land. They just want to steal Indigenous land. But we have to carry on. This is one of the most important fights of our time.”

Jonathan Watts, The Guardian’s global environmental editor, is one of the contributors to the book Phillips and Pereira were working on.

Phillips had completed half of How to Save the Amazon: Ask the People Who Know, before he was killed. Watts and other journalists hope they can finish the book as they mark the journalist’s death and that of Pereira.

‘The dangers are immense’

“I think obviously as we have seen, horrifically with the case of Dom Phillips, the dangers are immense. It is unusual for a journalist to be killed in the [Amazon] forest.  But it is becoming more dangerous as organized crime increases its presence in the region,” Watts said in a telephone interview with VOA.

“In the past, there was crime, but there was not big narco gangs as it is today. There are suspicions that they are linked to the illegal fishing gangs which were responsible for the deaths of Dom and Bruno,” Watts said.

He said environmental campaigners who stand in the way of “extractive industries” like logging or illegal fishing face the same dangers as war reporters.

“I think the risk is like being a war reporter. It is a toll on a scale with a war and we lose about 300 per year, according to Global Witness,” Watts said.

Global Witness, an NGO that challenges abuses of power that threaten human rights and the environment, published a report in May that said since 2012, 1,733 of what it terms environmental defenders had been killed. The most dangerous countries: Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

Environmental journalists who often accompanied activists like Pereira also ran the same risks as war reporters, Watts said.

“Sometimes being an environment reporter has similarities with being a war reporter. By being with a target or traveling with a target, as in the case of Dom, you can accidentally become a witness to a crime.”

Figures from the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety showed that with more than 8,000 deaths, the rate of intentional lethal crime in the Amazon was more than 50% higher than the rest of the country in 2022, The Guardian reported, making it a murder rate similar to Mexico.

In Amazonas state, where Phillips and Pereira were among 1,432 people killed last year, the murder rate was 74% above the national average. 

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Honeybee Health Blooming at Federal Facilities Across US

While judges, lawyers and support staff at the federal courthouse in Concord, New Hampshire, keep the American justice system buzzing, thousands of humble honeybees on the building’s roof are playing their part in a more important task — feeding the world. 

The Warren B. Rudman courthouse is one of several federal facilities around the country participating in the General Services Administration’s Pollinator Initiative, a government program aimed at assessing and promoting the health of bees and other pollinators, which are critical to life on Earth. 

“Anybody who eats food, needs bees,” said Noah Wilson-Rich, co-founder, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Boston-based Best Bees company, which contracts with the government to take care of the honeybee hives at the New Hampshire courthouse and at some other federal buildings. 

Bees help pollinate the fruits and vegetables that sustain humans, he said. They pollinate hay and alfalfa, which feed cattle that provide the meat we eat. And they promote the health of plants that, through photosynthesis, give us clean air to breathe. 

Yet the busy insects that contribute an estimated $25 billion to the U.S. economy annually are under threat from diseases, agricultural chemicals and habitat loss that kill about half of all honeybee hives annually. Without human intervention, including beekeepers creating new hives, the world could experience a bee extinction that would lead to global hunger and economic collapse, Wilson-Rich said. 

The pollinator program is part of the federal government’s commitment to promoting sustainability, which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting climate resilient infrastructure, said David Johnson, the General Services Administration’s sustainability program manager for New England. 

The GSA’s program started last year with hives at 11 sites. 

Some of those sites are no longer in the program. Hives placed at the National Archives building in Waltham, Massachusetts, last year did not survive the winter. 

Since then, other sites were added. Two hives, each home to thousands of bees, were placed on the roof of the Rudman building in March. 

The program is collecting data to find out whether the honeybees, which can fly 3 to 5 miles from the roof in their quest for pollen, can help the health of not just the plants on the roof, but also of the flora in the entire area, Johnson said. 

“Honeybees are actually very opportunistic,” he said. “They will feed on a lot of different types of plants.” 

The program can help identify the plants and landscapes beneficial to pollinators and help the government make more informed decisions about what trees and flowers to plant on building grounds. 

Best Bees tests the plant DNA in the honey to get an idea of the plant diversity and health in the area, Wilson-Rich said, and they have found that bees that forage on a more diverse diet seem to have better survival and productivity outcomes. 

Other federal facilities with hives include the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services headquarters in Baltimore; the federal courthouse in Hammond, Indiana; the Federal Archives Records Center in Chicago; and the Denver Federal Center. 

The federal government isn’t alone in its efforts to save the bees. The hives placed at federal sites are part of a wider network of about 1,000 hives at home gardens, businesses and institutions nationwide that combined can help determine what’s helping the bees, what’s hurting them and why. 

The GSA’s Pollinator Initiative is also looking to identify ways to keep the bee population healthy and vibrant and model those lessons at other properties — both government and private sector — said Amber Levofsky, the senior program advisor for the GSA’s Center for Urban Development. 

“The goal of this initiative was really aimed at gathering location-based data at facilities to help update directives and policies to help facilities managers to really target pollinator protection and habitat management regionally,” she said. 

And there is one other benefit to the government honeybee program that’s already come to fruition: the excess honey that’s produced is donated to area food banks. 

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WHO: Tanzania Declares End of Deadly Marburg Virus Outbreak

Tanzania on Friday declared the end of a deadly outbreak of the Marburg virus, more than two months after it was first confirmed, the World Health Organization said. 

Nine cases – eight confirmed and one probable – and six deaths were recorded in the outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever in the northwestern region of Kagera, the WHO said in a statement. 

The U.N. health agency said it was the first such outbreak in Tanzania, an East African country with a population of almost 62 million. 

The last confirmed case tested negative on April 19, setting off the 42-day mandatory countdown to declare the end of the outbreak, it added. 

Neighboring Uganda, which witnessed its last outbreak in 2017 and shares a porous border with Tanzania, had gone on high alert after Marburg was confirmed by Tanzania’s health ministry on March 21. 

Uganda had just emerged in January from an almost four-month-long Ebola outbreak, which killed 55 people. 

The WHO said Tanzania’s health authorities, with help from the U.N. agency and other partners, had “immediately rolled out outbreak response to stop the spread of the virus and save lives.” 

The Marburg virus is a highly virulent microbe that causes severe fever, often accompanied by bleeding and organ failure. 

No vaccines 

It is part of the so-called filovirus family that also includes Ebola, which has caused havoc in several previous outbreaks in Africa. 

Fatality rates from Marburg in confirmed cases have ranged from 24% to 88% during previous outbreaks, according to the WHO. 

The virus is transmitted to people from fruit bats and spreads among humans through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, surfaces and materials, it says.  

There are currently no vaccines or antiviral treatments, but the WHO has said potential treatments, including blood products, immune therapies and drug therapies, as well as early vaccine candidates, are being evaluated. 

Tanzania’s outbreak coincided with cases in the West African state of Equatorial Guinea, where the death toll had risen to 12, according to health ministry figures issued on April 24. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday said the outbreak in Equatorial Guinea “is also expected to be declared there over in the next week, if no further cases are detected.” 

The agency “will continue to support both countries to strengthen their outbreak prevention and preparedness activities,” he told reporters in Geneva.  

Previous Marburg outbreaks and sporadic cases have been also reported in South Africa, Angola, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

The virus takes its name from the German city of Marburg, where it was first identified in 1967 in a lab where workers had been in contact with infected green monkeys imported from Uganda.

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US Proposal for Remote Pacific Marine Sanctuary Draws Mixed Response

In March, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the creation of a marine sanctuary across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean. If finalized, it would help the U.S. meet its goal of protecting 30% of its oceans by 2030. The public comment period is underway, revealing the competing interests of conservation and economic development across the region. VOA’s Jessica Stone reports.

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Sweden Approaches ‘Smoke-Free’ Status as Daily Use of Cigarettes Dwindles

Summer is in the air — cigarette smoke is not — in Sweden’s outdoor bars and restaurants.

As the World Health Organization marks “World No Tobacco Day” on Wednesday, Sweden, which has the lowest rate of smoking in the Europe Union, is close to declaring itself “smoke-free” — defined as having fewer than 5% daily smokers in the population.

Many experts give credit to decades of anti-smoking campaigns and legislation, while others point to the prevalence of “snus,” a smokeless tobacco product banned elsewhere in the EU but marketed in Sweden as an alternative to cigarettes.

Whatever the reason, the 5% milestone is now within reach. Only 6.4% of Swedes over 15 were daily smokers in 2019, the lowest in the EU and far below the average of 18.5% across the 27-nation bloc, according to the Eurostat statistics agency.

Figures from the Public Health Agency of Sweden show the smoking rate has continued to fall since then, reaching 5.6% last year.

“We like a healthy way to live, I think that’s the reason,” said Carina Astorsson, a Stockholm resident. Smoking never interested her, she said, because “I don’t like the smell; I want to take care of my body.”

The risks of smoking appear well understood among health-conscious Swedes, including younger generations. Twenty years ago, almost 20% of the population were smokers — which was a low rate globally at the time. Since then, measures to discourage smoking, including bans on smoking in restaurants, have brought down smoking rates across Europe.

France saw record drops in smoking rates from 2014-19, but that success hit a plateau during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — blamed in part for causing stresses that drove people to light up. About one-third of people ages 18-75 in France professed to having smoked in 2021 — a slight increase on 2019. About a quarter smoke daily.

Sweden has gone further than most to stamp out cigarettes, which it says has resulted in a range of health benefits, including a relatively low rate of lung cancer.

“We were early in restricting smoking in public spaces, first in school playgrounds and after-school centers, and later in restaurants, outdoor cafes and public places such as bus stations,” said Ulrika Årehed, secretary-general of the Swedish Cancer Society. “In parallel, taxes on cigarettes and strict restrictions on the marketing of these products have played an important role.”

She added that “Sweden is not there yet,” noting that the proportion of smokers is higher in disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.

The sight of people lighting up is becoming increasingly rare in the country of 10.5 million. Smoking is prohibited at bus stops and train platforms and outside the entrances of hospitals and other public buildings. Like in most of Europe, smoking isn’t allowed inside bars and restaurants, but since 2019 Sweden’s smoking ban also applies to their outdoor seating areas.

On Tuesday night, the terraces of Stockholm were full of people enjoying food and drinks in the late-setting sun. There was no sign of cigarettes, but cans of snus could be spotted on some tables. Between beers, some patrons stuffed small pouches of the moist tobacco under their upper lips.

Swedish snus makers have long held up their product as a less harmful alternative to smoking and claim credit for the country’s declining smoking rates. But Swedish health authorities are reluctant to advise smokers to switch to snus, another highly addictive nicotine product.

“I don’t see any reason to put two harmful products up against each other,” Årehed said. “It is true that smoking is more harmful than most things you can do, including snus. But that said, there are many health risks even with snus.”

Some studies have linked snus to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature births if used during pregnancy.

Swedes are so fond of their snus, a distant cousin of dipping tobacco in the United States, that they demanded an exemption to the EU’s ban on smokeless tobacco when they joined the bloc in 1995.

“It’s part of the Swedish culture, it’s like the Swedish equivalent of Italian Parma ham or any other cultural habit,” said Patrik Hildingsson, a spokesperson for Swedish Match, Sweden’s top snus maker, which was acquired by tobacco giant Philip Morris last year.

WHO, the U.N. health agency, says Turkmenistan, with a rate of tobacco use below 5%, is ahead of Sweden when it comes to phasing out smoking, but notes that’s largely due to smoking being almost nonexistent among women. For men the rate is 7%.

WHO attributes Sweden’s declining smoking rate to a combination of tobacco control measures, including information campaigns, advertising bans and “cessation support” for those wishing to quit tobacco. However, the agency noted that Sweden’s tobacco use is at more than 20% of the adult population, similar to the global average, when you include snus and similar products.

“Switching from one harmful product to another is not a solution,” WHO said in an email. “Promoting a so-called ‘harm reduction approach’ to smoking is another way the tobacco industry is trying to mislead people about the inherently dangerous nature of these products.”

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Private Astronaut Crew, Including First Arab Woman in Orbit, Returns from Space Station

An all-private astronaut team of two Americans and two Saudis, including the first Arab woman sent into orbit, splashed down safely off Florida on Tuesday night, capping an eight-day research mission aboard the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying them parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, after a 12-hour return flight and blazing re-entry plunge through Earth’s atmosphere.

The splashdown was carried live by a joint webcast presented by SpaceX and the company behind the mission, Axiom Space.

It concluded the second space station mission organized, equipped and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a seven-year-old Houston-based venture headed by NASA’s former ISS program manager.

The Axiom 2 crew was led by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, who holds the U.S. record for most time spent in orbit with 665 days in space over three long-duration missions to the ISS, including 10 spacewalks. She now serves as Axiom’s director of human spaceflight.

“That was a phenomenal ride. We really enjoyed all of it,” Whitson radioed to mission controllers moments after splashdown.

Ax-2’s designated pilot was John Shoffner, 67, an aviator, race car driver and investor from Alaska.

Rounding out the crew as mission specialists were the first two astronauts from Saudi Arabia to fly aboard a private spacecraft: Ali Alqarni, 31, a fighter pilot for the Royal Saudi Air Force; and Rayyanah Barnawi, 34, a biomedical scientist in cancer stem cell research.

Barnawi was the first woman from the Arab world ever launched into Earth orbit and the first Saudi woman to fly in space, an achievement that came barely five years after women in the Persian Gulf kingdom gained the right to drive in June 2018.

In August 2022, Sara Sabry became the first Arab woman and the first Egyptian to fly to space on a brief suborbital ride operated by the Blue Origin astro-tourist venture of Jeff Bezos.

The ISS stay of Alqarni and Barnawi was also notable for overlapping with that of Sultan Al Neyadi, an ISS Expedition-69 crew member from the United Arab Emirates, marking the first time three astronauts from the Arab world were aboard the space station together.

The Axiom 2 mission, which launched on May 21, was the latest in a series of space expeditions bankrolled by private investment capital and wealthy passengers rather than by taxpayer dollars as NASA seeks to expand commercial access to low-Earth orbit.

Axiom, which sent its first four-member astronaut team to the ISS in April 2022, also has signed a contract with the U.S. space agency to build the first commercial addition to the orbiting laboratory.

California-based SpaceX, founded by Twitter owner and Tesla Inc. electric carmaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the Falcon 9 rocket and crew capsule that ferried Axiom’s team to and from orbit and controlled the flight.

NASA furnished the launch site at its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew during its stay aboard the space station, orbiting some 400 kilometers above Earth.

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Argentinian Meteorologist Celeste Saulo to Lead UN Weather Agency

The U.N.’s weather service, the World Meteorological Organization, selected Argentinian meteorologist Celeste Saulo Thursday to be the agency’s first woman secretary-general, effective in January 2024.

In a statement, the WMO said Saulo was elected by the organization’s 193 members as part of the World Meteorological Congress being held at the U.N. in Geneva. 

In the WMO statement, Saulo said inequality and climate change are among the biggest threats facing the world, and that “the WMO must contribute to strengthening the meteorological and hydrological services to protect populations and their economies, providing timely and effective services and early warning systems.”

She said, “My ambition is to lead the WMO towards a scenario in which the voice of all members is heard equally, prioritizing those most vulnerable and in which the actions it undertakes are aligned with the needs and particularities of each one of them.”

Saulo has been director of the National Meteorological Service of Argentina since 2014 and is currently the first vice-president of the WMO. She will succeed outgoing Secretary-General Petteri Taalas of Finland, who will complete his two-year term at the end of this year.

Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Namibia Signs $10 Billion Green Energy Deal With Germany’s Hyphen

Namibia’s president recently signed a projected $10 billion deal that calls for Namibia and the German company Hyphen Energy to produce “green hydrogen,” a clean energy source that advocates see as the fuel of the future.

Hyphen Energy last Friday concluded a multibillion-dollar agreement with the Namibian government to construct the project in the Tsau Khaeb National Park.

If a study finds the project to be feasible, Hyphen will build factories, pipelines and ports with the goal of producing 2 million tons of ammonia by 2030.

The ammonia, which could be used as fuel, would be produced using renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. The project would also produce oxygen and electricity for local consumption.

Speaking to the Voice of America, Namibia’s green hydrogen commissioner and economic adviser to the president, James Mnyupe, said Hyphen Energy has made agreements with companies from Germany, England, South Korea and Japan that will ensure buyers for the company’s main products.

The green hydrogen project, he said, will be vertically integrated.

“In other parts of the world you might get one player developing the port, another player developing the pipelines, another player developing the renewable energy and so on and so forth, whereas this project, we are envisioning to do all of that under one umbrella and that is what a vertically integrated project looks like,” he said.

Hyphen’s chief executive officer, Marco Raffinetti, said securing funding for green hydrogen projects is a massive undertaking but the investments are necessary if the world is to reduce the carbon output from fossil fuels which drive climate change.

Raffinetti said alternative sources of power, such as solar energy, were very expensive 20 years ago but have gradually become cheaper. He said green hydrogen might follow the same trajectory.

Namibian political commentators have raised red flags, however, regarding the speedy adoption of the project that is being spearheaded by the presidency. They question whether the project actually has national buy-in.

Speaking to VOA, political analyst Pendapala Hangala expressed some reservations about the project.

“This is a 45-year project, and a 40-year project, and … I don’t think it went through the right due process, and it is not clear what is going on because we are also looking at critical raw material…. It’s a comprehensive project, which is being fast tracked, that is my concern,” he said.

This green hydrogen project is touted as the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa.

Other countries such as Morocco are also embarking on green hydrogen projects, and Namibian commentators question what competitive advantage Namibia would have with exports over countries in closer proximity to Europe, which is viewed as the main buyer.

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In Canada, Each Cigar and Cigarette to Bear Cancer Warning

Canada will soon require that health warnings be printed on individual cigarettes and cigars in a further crackdown on smoking, the country’s addictions minister announced Wednesday.

The messaging, to be phased in starting August 1, will include lines such as “Poison in every puff,” “Tobacco smoke harms children” and “Cigarettes cause cancer.”

Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said tobacco use continues to kill 48,000 Canadians each year. The new labeling rule is a world first, she said, although Britain has flirted with a similar regulation.

“This bold step will make health warning messages virtually unavoidable and, together with updated graphic images displayed on the package, will provide a real and startling reminder of the health consequences of smoking,” Bennett said.

The Canadian government noted that some young people, who are particularly susceptible to the risk of tobacco dependence, start smoking after being given a single cigarette rather than a pack labeled with health warnings.

In 2000, Canada became the first country to order graphic warnings on packs of cigarettes — including grisly pictorials of diseased hearts and lungs — to raise awareness of the health hazards associated with tobacco use.

Smoking has been trending down over the past two decades.

Ottawa aims to further reduce the number of smokers in the country to 5% of the population, or about 2 million people, by 2035, from about 13% currently.

According to government data, almost half of the country’s health care costs are linked to substance use.

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Scientists Expand Search for Signs of Intelligent Alien Life

Scientists have expanded the search for technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations by monitoring a star-dense region toward the core of our galaxy for a type of signal that could be produced by potential intelligent aliens that until now has been ignored. 

Efforts to detect alien technological signatures previously have focused on a narrowband radio signal type concentrated in a limited frequency range or on single unusual transmissions. The new initiative, scientists said Wednesday, focuses on a different signal type that perhaps could enable advanced civilizations to communicate across the vast distances of interstellar space. 

These wideband pulsating signals for which the scientists are monitoring feature repetitive patterns – a series of pulses repeating every 11 to 100 seconds and spread across a few kilohertz, similar to pulses used in radar transmission. The search involves a frequency range covering a bit less than a tenth the width of an average FM radio station. 

“The signals searched in our work would belong to the category of deliberate ‘we are here’ type beacons from alien worlds,” said Akshay Suresh, a Cornell University graduate student in astronomy and lead author of a scientific paper published in The Astronomical Journal describing the new effort. 

“Aliens may possibly use such beacons for galaxy-wide communications, for which the core of the Milky Way is ideally placed. One may imagine aliens using such transmissions at the speed of light to communicate key events, such as preparations for interstellar migration before the explosive death of a massive star,” Suresh added. 

The effort, called the Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals (BLIPSS), is a collaboration between Cornell, the SETI Institute research organization and Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million initiative to search for advanced extraterrestrial life. 

Diverse exploration called crucial

“In the realm of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, we embark on a journey to detect signals from technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations,” said astronomer and study co-author Vishal Gajjar of the SETI Institute and University of California at Berkeley. 

“However, the nature of these signals remains a mystery, leaving us uncertain about their specific characteristics. Hence, it becomes crucial to explore a diverse array of signals that are unlikely to occur naturally in the cosmic environment,” Gajjar added. 

Using a ground-based radio telescope in West Virginia, BLIPSS has focused upon a sliver of the sky less than 1/200th of the area covered by the moon, stretching toward the center of the Milky Way roughly 27,000 light-years away. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, 9.5 trillion kilometers. 

This area contains about 8 million stars, Suresh said. If extraterrestrial life forms exist, they presumably would populate rocky planets orbiting in what is called the habitable zone, or Goldilocks zone, around a star – not too hot and not too cold. 

The scientists in the various monitoring efforts passively scan for signals of alien beings and do not actively send their own signals advertising our presence on Earth. 

“In my opinion, transmission of ‘we are here’ type beacons comes with the danger of potentially inviting aliens with unknown intentions to the Earth,” Suresh said. 

Prudent approach

Deliberate transmissions to potential aliens from Earth should be considered only if by global consensus humankind deems it safe and appropriate, Gajjar said. 

“In my personal opinion, as a relatively young species in the grand cosmic scale, it would be prudent for us to focus on listening and investigating before embarking on deliberate transmissions,” Gajjar said. “Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that sending signals on behalf of the entire Earth raises political and ethical considerations. Presently, it would not be appropriate for a single country or entity to make decisions on behalf of the entire planet.” 

No aliens have yet been detected in the monitoring efforts. 

“Thus far, we have not come across any definitive evidence. However, it’s important to note that our exploration has been limited to a relatively small parameter space,” Gajjar said.

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US Regulator Approves Pfizer’s RSV Vaccine for Adults 60 and Older

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday approved Pfizer Inc.’s respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine for older adults, making it the second shot against the common respiratory disease that can be fatal for seniors.

The approval comes less than a month after the FDA approved a similar shot by rival GSK PLC. Pfizer’s vaccine was approved for people aged 60 and older, the company said, the same age group as GSK’s shot.

In a late-stage study, Pfizer’s vaccine, to be sold under the brand name Abrysvo, was 67% effective among those aged 60 and older with two or more symptoms of RSV, and 85.7% effective against severe illness defined by three or more symptoms.

Pfizer and GSK have said they expect a multibillion-dollar market for RSV vaccines.

Vaccine available in third quarter

The company expects to make the vaccine available during the third quarter, ahead of the next RSV season, once the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signs off on its use.

The CDC’s advisory committee is expected to meet in June to discuss the vaccines, including who should receive them and how often.

Pfizer did not disclose a price for the vaccine. It said the price would be value-based to support routine vaccination for the recommended age group for the shots.

If the vaccine is recommended by the CDC for routine use, it will be widely available at no out-of-pocket cost for most older Americans covered by the government Medicare health plan, the company said.

RSV usually causes mild cold-like symptoms but also can lead to serious illness and hospitalization. It is estimated to be responsible for 14,000 deaths in adults aged 65 and older in the United States annually, according to government data.

Seeking OK for pregnant women

Pfizer also is seeking FDA approval for its RSV vaccine to prevent the disease in infants by inoculating pregnant women. It could become the first RSV vaccine available to protect babies, who are among those at greatest risk for severe illness.

The shot received backing by the agency’s panel of outside experts earlier this month for use in pregnant women.

The company has said it is ready to launch its RSV vaccine for both older adults and pregnant women in the United States and Europe this year.

Moderna Inc. has said it expects to seek approval for its RSV vaccine this quarter for those aged 60 and older.

Sanofi and partner AstraZeneca PLC in November gained European marketing authorization for their antibody treatment nirsevimab for preventing RSV in newborns and infants. It is currently under FDA review.

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Earth Is ‘Really Quite Sick Now’ and in Danger Zone in Nearly all Ecological Ways, Study Says

Earth has pushed past seven out of eight scientifically established safety limits and into “the danger zone,” not just for an overheating planet that’s losing its natural areas, but for the well-being of people living on it, according to a new study.

The study looks not just at guardrails for the planetary ecosystem but for the first time it includes measures of “justice,” which is mostly about preventing harm for countries, ethnicities and genders.

The study by the international scientist group Earth Commission published Wednesday in the journal Nature looks at climate, air pollution, phosphorus and nitrogen contamination of water from fertilizer overuse, groundwater supplies, fresh surface water, the unbuilt natural environment and the overall natural and human-built environment. Only air pollution wasn’t quite at the danger point globally.

Air pollution is dangerous at local and regional levels, while climate was beyond the harmful levels for humans in groups but not quite past the safety guideline for the planet as a system, the study from the Swedish group said.

The study found “hot spots” of problem areas throughout Eastern Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, parts of Africa and much of Brazil, Mexico, China and some of the U.S. West — much of it from climate change. About two-thirds of Earth don’t meet the criteria for freshwater safety, scientists said as an example.

“We are in a danger zone for most of the Earth system boundaries,” said study co-author Kristie Ebi, a professor of climate and public health at the University of Washington.

If planet Earth just got an annual checkup, similar to a person’s physical, “our doctor would say that the Earth is really quite sick right now, and it is sick in terms of many different areas or systems, and this sickness is also affecting the people living on Earth,” Earth Commission co-chair Joyeeta Gupta, a professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam, said at a press conference.

It’s not a terminal diagnosis. The planet can recover if it changes, including its use of coal, oil and natural gas and the way it treats the land and water, the scientists said.

But “we are moving in the wrong direction on basically all of these,” said study lead Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

“This is a compelling and provocative paper — scientifically sound in methodology and important for identifying the dimensions in which the planet is nearing the edge of boundaries that would launch us into irreversible states,” Indy Burke, dean of the Yale School of the Environment, said in an email. She wasn’t part of the study.

The team of about 40 scientists created quantifiable boundaries for each environmental category, both for what’s safe for the planet and for the point at which it becomes harmful for groups of people, which the researchers termed a justice issue.

Rockstrom said he thinks of those points as setting up “a safety fence,” outside of which the risks become higher, but not necessarily fatal.

Rockstrom and other scientists have attempted in the past this type of holistic measuring of Earth’s various interlocking ecosystems. The big difference in this attempt is that scientists also looked at local and regional levels, and they added the element of justice.

The justice part includes fairness between young and old generations, different nations and even different species. Frequently, it applies to conditions that harm people more than the planet.

An example of that is climate change.

The report uses the same boundary of 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times that international leaders agreed upon in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The world has so far warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), so it hasn’t crossed that safety fence, Rockstrom and Gupta said, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t being hurt.

“What we are trying to show through our paper is that event at 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) there is a huge amount of damage taking place,” Gupta said, pointing to tens of millions of people exposed to extreme hot temperatures.

The planetary safety guardrail of 1.5 degrees hasn’t been breached, but the “just” boundary where people are hurt of 1 degree has been.

“Sustainability and justice are inseparable,” said Stanford environmental studies chief Chris Field, who wasn’t part of the research. He said he would want even more stringent boundaries. “Unsafe conditions do not need to cover a large fraction of Earth’s area to be unacceptable, especially if the unsafe conditions are concentrated in and near poor and vulnerable communities.”

Another outside expert, Dr. Lynn Goldman, an environmental health professor and dean of The George Washington University’s public health school, said the study was “kind of bold,” but she wasn’t optimistic that it would result in much action.

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Operation to Empty Decaying Oil Tanker Set to Begin in Yemen, UN Says

Operations to salvage 1.1 million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker moored off Yemen’s coast will soon begin after a technical support ship arrived on site on Tuesday, the United Nations said.

U.N. officials have been warning for years that the Red Sea and Yemen’s coastline was at risk as the Safer tanker could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

The Ndeavor tanker, with a technical team from Boskalis/SMIT, is in place at the Safer tanker off the coast of Yemen’s Ras Isa, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen David Gressley said on Twitter from on board the Ndeavor.

The war in Yemen caused suspension of maintenance operations on the Safer in 2015. The U.N. has warned its structural integrity has significantly deteriorated and it is at risk of exploding.

The U.N. launched a fundraising drive, even starting a crowdfunding campaign, to raise the $129 million needed to remove the oil from the Safer and transfer it to a replacement tanker, the Nautica, which set sail from China in early April.

The salvage operation cannot be paid for by the sale of the oil because it is not clear who owns it, the U.N. has said.

“Work at sea will start very soon. Additional funding is still important to finish the process,” the U.N said on its Yemen Twitter account.

Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015 aiming to restore the government.

Peace initiatives have seen increased momentum since Riyadh and Tehran in March agreed to restore diplomatic ties severed in 2016.

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Cholera Catastrophe Looming at Kenya Refugee Camp, Aid Group Warns

Health care providers in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp say an ongoing cholera outbreak is becoming a looming catastrophe. Doctors Without Borders has described the six-month-long cholera outbreak as the worst yet, amid an influx of new refugees from Somalia.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, popularly known as Doctors Without Borders, told a news conference Tuesday that a cholera outbreak the Dadaab camp is approaching epidemic proportions and that urgent attention in the areas of water and sanitation is needed. Dr. Nitya Udayraj is the medical coordinator. 

“The humanitarian conditions there are already at its limit. An outbreak like cholera, like measles, is literally the last stroke that will bring it to the breaking point,” said Dr. Nitya Udayraj, MSF’s medical coordinator. “Which is why today we want to bring focus that the humanitarian situation is already precarious. … We would like to bring attention that after six months, the outbreak is still continuing. It is not normal.”

The cholera outbreak hit East Africa’s largest refugee camp last November. At least five people have died since then. The Dadaab complex in Kenya’s northeastern region is home to over 300,000 refugees, most from neighboring Somalia.

Their numbers have exceeded capacity due to the extended drought in Somalia. At least 67,000 more refugees arrived in the camp last year, according to national data, putting pressure on already limited resources. Doctors Without Borders’ country director Hassan Maiyaki said sanitary conditions are dire.

“Today, according to humanitarian organizations working in the camps, almost half of the camp population has no access to functional latrines, leading to open defecation in and around the camp, which raises the risk of disease outbreaks.”

Kenya’s Ministry of Health conducted cholera vaccinations at the camp, but the doctors say curbing the outbreak remains elusive without sanitation and hygiene intervention.

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China’s Shenzhou-16 Mission Takes Off Bound for Space Station

China sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, putting a civilian scientist into space for the first time as Beijing pursues plans to send a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.   

The world’s second-largest economy has invested billions of dollars in its military-run space program in a push to catch up with the United States and Russia.   

The Shenzhou-16 crew took off atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 9:31 am (0131 GMT), AFP journalists and state TV showed.   

Leading the mission is commander Jing Haipeng on his fourth extra-terrestrial trip, as well as engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese civilian in space.   

The Tiangong is the crown jewel of China’s space program, which has also seen it land robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon and made it the third country to put humans in orbit.   

The mission is the first to the Tiangong space station since it entered its “application and development” stage, Beijing said.   

Once in orbit, the Shenzhou-16 will dock at the space station’s Tianhe core module, before the crew meet three colleagues from the previous manned Shenzhou-15 flight, who have been at the space station for six months and will return to Earth in the coming days.   

The mission will “carry out large-scale, in-orbit experiments… in the study of novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity, and the origin of life,” CMSA spokesperson Lin Xiqiang told reporters on Monday.   

The space station was resupplied with drinking water, clothing, food and propellant this month in preparation for Shenzhou-16’s arrival.   

One expert told AFP that Tuesday’s flight represented “a regular crew rotation flight as one crew hands over to another”, but even that was significant.   

“Accumulating depth of experience in human spaceflight operations is important and doesn’t involve new spectacular milestones all the time,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.   

‘Heavenly palace’    

Plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping.   

China is planning to build a lunar base, and CMSA spokesman Lin reaffirmed on Monday Beijing’s plan to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2030.   

“The overall goal is to achieve China’s first manned landing on the Moon by 2030 and carry out lunar scientific exploration and related technological experiments,” he said.   

The final module of the T-shaped Tiangong — which means “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the core structure last year.   

The station carries several pieces of cutting-edge scientific equipment, state news agency Xinhua reported, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.   

The Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometers above the planet for at least 10 years.   

It is constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts.   

China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country — pushing Beijing to develop the Tiangong.   

China’s space agency reiterated on Monday it is actively seeking international cooperation in the project.   

China “is looking forward to and welcomes the participation of foreign astronauts in the country’s space station flight missions”, Lin said.   

Beijing plans to send two manned space missions to the space station every year, according to the CMSA.   

The next will be Shenzhou-17, which is expected to be launched in October. 

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UAE Unveils Groundbreaking Mission to Asteroid Belt

The United Arab Emirates unveiled plans Monday to send a spaceship to explore the solar system’s main asteroid belt, the latest space project by the oil-rich nation after it launched the successful Hope spacecraft to Mars in 2020. 

Dubbed the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, the project aims to develop a spacecraft in the coming years and then launch it in 2028 to study various asteroids. 

“This mission is a follow up and a follow on the Mars mission, where it was the first mission to Mars from the region,” said Mohsen Al Awadhi, program director of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt. “We’re creating the same thing with this mission. That is, the first mission ever to explore these seven asteroids in specific and the first of its kind when it’s looked at from the grand tour aspect.” 

The UAE became the first Arab country and the second country ever to successfully enter Mars’ orbit on its first try when its Hope probe reached the red planet in February 2021. The craft’s goals include providing the first complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers and helping answer key questions about the planet’s climate and composition. 

If successful, the newly announced spacecraft will soar at speeds reaching 33,000 kilometers (20,500 miles) per hour on a seven-year journey to explore six asteroids. It will culminate in the deployment of a landing craft onto a seventh, rare “red” asteroid that scientists say may hold insight into the building blocks of life on Earth. 

Organic compounds like water are crucial constituents of life and have been found on some asteroids, potentially delivered through collisions with other organic-rich bodies or via the creation of complex organic molecules in space. Investigating the origins of these compounds, along with the possible presence of water on red asteroids, could shed light on the origin of Earth’s water, thereby offering valuable insights into the genesis of life on our planet. 

The endeavor is a significant milestone for the burgeoning UAE Space Agency, established in 2014, as it follows up on its success in sending the Amal, or “Hope,” probe to Mars. The new journey would span a distance over ten times greater than the Mars mission. 

The explorer is named MBR after Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as the vice president and prime minister of the hereditarily ruled UAE. It will first make its way toward Venus, where the planet’s gravitational pull will slingshot it back past the Earth and then Mars. 

The craft will eventually reach the asteroid belt, flying as close as 150 kilometers (93 miles) to the celestial boulders and covering a total distance of 5 billion kilometers (around 3 billion miles). 

In October 2034, the craft is expected to make its final thrust to the seventh and last asteroid, named Justitia, before deploying a lander over a year later. Justitia, believed to be one of only two known red asteroids, is thought to potentially have a surface laden with organic substances. 

“It’s one of the two reddest objects in the asteroid belt, and scientists don’t really understand why it’s so red,” said Hoor AlMaazmi, a space science researcher at the UAE space agency. “There are theories about it being originally from the Kuiper Belt and where there’s much more red objects there. So that’s one thing that we can study because it has the potential for it to be water rich as well.” 

The MBR Explorer will deploy a landing craft to study the surface of Justitia that will be fully developed by private UAE start-up companies. It may lay the groundwork for possible future resource extraction from asteroids to eventually support extended human missions in space — and maybe even the UAE’s ambitious goal of building a colony on Mars by 2117. 

“We have identified different key areas that we want startups in the private sector to be part of, and we will engage with them through that,” said Al Awadhi. 

“We understand that the knowledge we have in the UAE is, you know, still being built. We will provide these startups with the knowledge they need.” 

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IAEA Team in Japan for Final Review Before Planned Discharge of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Water

An International Atomic Energy Agency team arrived in Tokyo on Monday for a final review before Japan begins releasing massive amounts of treated radioactive water into the sea from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, a plan that has been strongly opposed by local fishing communities and neighboring countries. 

The team, which includes experts from 11 countries, will meet with officials from the government and the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, and visit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant during their five-day visit, the economy and industry ministry said. 

Japan announced plans in April 2021 to gradually release the wastewater following further treatment and dilution to what it says are safe levels. The release is expected to begin within a few months after safety checks by Japanese nuclear regulators of the newly constructed water discharge facility and a final report by IAEA expected in late June. 

The plan has faced fierce protests from local fishing communities concerned about safety and reputational damage. Nearby countries, including South Korea, China and Pacific Island nations, have also raised safety concerns. 

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA’s Jessica Stone

Japan sought IAEA’s assistance in ensuring the release meets international safety standards and to gain the understanding of other countries. 

Japanese officials say the water will be treated to legally releasable levels and further diluted with large amounts of seawater. It will be gradually released into the ocean over decades through an undersea tunnel, making it harmless to people and marine life, they say. 

Some scientists say the impact of long-term, low-dose exposure to radionuclides is unknown and the release should be delayed. 

Japan’s government has stepped up campaigns in Japanese media and at food fairs to promote the safety of seafood from Fukushima, while providing regular briefings to foreign governments including South Korea and members of the Pacific Islands Forum. 

A massive March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s cooling systems, causing three reactors to melt and releasing large amounts of radiation. Water used to cool the reactor cores accumulated in about 1,000 tanks at the plant which will reach their capacity in early 2024. 

Japanese officials say the water stored in the tanks needs to be removed to prevent accidental leaks in case of another disaster and to make room for the plant’s decommissioning.