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Tiny Airborne Particles May Pose a Big Coronavirus Problem

At a University of Maryland lab, people infected with the new coronavirus take turns sitting in a chair and putting their faces into the big end of a large cone. They recite the alphabet and sing or just sit quietly for a half hour. Sometimes they cough.The cone sucks up everything that comes out of their mouths and noses. It’s part of a device called “Gesundheit II” that is helping scientists study a big question: Just how does the virus that causes COVID-19 spread from one person to another?It clearly hitchhikes on small liquid particles sprayed out by an infected person. People expel particles while coughing, sneezing, singing, shouting, talking and even breathing. But the drops come in a wide range of sizes, and scientists are trying to pin down how risky the various kinds are.The answer affects what we should all be doing to avoid getting sick. That’s why headlines were made a few days ago when a U.S. health agency appeared to have shifted its position on the issue, but later said it had published new language in error.The recommendation to stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart — some authorities cite about half that distance — is based on the idea that larger particles fall to the ground before they can travel very far. They are like the droplets in a spritz of a window cleaner, and they can infect a person by landing on his nose, mouth or eyes, or maybe if they are inhaled.Smaller particlesBut some scientists are now focusing on tinier particles, the ones that spread more like cigarette smoke. Those are carried by wisps of air and even upward drafts caused by the warmth of our bodies. They can linger in the air for minutes to hours, spreading throughout a room and building up if ventilation is poor.The potential risk comes from inhaling them. Measles can spread this way, but the new coronavirus is far less contagious than that.For these particles, called aerosols, “6 feet is not a magic distance,” said Linsey Marr, a leading researcher who is studying them at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But she says it’s still important to keep one’s distance from others, “the farther the better,” because aerosols are most concentrated near a source and pose a bigger risk at close range.Public health agencies have generally focused on the larger particles for coronavirus.That prompted more than 200 other scientists to publish a plea in July to pay attention to the potential risk from aerosols. The World Health Organization, which had long dismissed a danger from aerosols except in the case of certain medical procedures, later said that aerosol transmission of the coronavirus can’t be ruled out in cases of infection within crowded and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.FILE – A view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta.The issue drew attention recently when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted and then deleted statements on its website that highlighted the idea of aerosol spread. The agency said the posting was an error, and that the statements were just a draft of proposed changes to its recommendations.Dr. Jay Butler, CDC’s deputy director for infectious disease, told The Associated Press that the agency continues to believe larger and heavier droplets that come from coughing or sneezing are the primary means of transmission.Last month, Butler told a scientific meeting that current research suggests aerosol spreading of the coronavirus is possible, but it doesn’t seem to be the main way that people get infected. Further research may change that conclusion, he added, and he urged scientists to study how often aerosol spread of the coronavirus occurs, what situations make it more likely and what reasonable steps might prevent it.Marr said she thinks infection by aerosols is “happening a lot more than people initially were willing to think.”‘Superspreader’ eventsAs a key piece of evidence, Marr and others point to so-called “superspreader” events where one infected person evidently passed the virus to many others in a single setting.Butler said such events raise concern about aerosol spread but don’t prove it happens.There could be another way for tiny particles to spread. They may not necessarily come directly from somebody’s mouth or nose, said William Ristenpart of the University of California-Davis. His research found that if paper tissues are seeded with influenza virus and then crumpled, they give off particles that bear the virus. So people emptying a wastebasket with tissues discarded by somebody with COVID-19 should be sure to wear a mask, he said.Scientists who warn about aerosols say current recommendations still make sense.FILE – Public information messages are posted in Manchester, England, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued new restrictions to slow the renewed spread of the coronavirus, Sept 22, 2020.Wearing a mask is still important, and make sure it fits snugly. Keep washing those hands diligently. And again, staying farther apart is better than being closer together. Avoid crowds, especially indoors.Their main addition to recommendations is ventilation to avoid a buildup of aerosol concentration. So, the researchers say, stay out of poorly ventilated rooms. Open windows and doors. One can also use air-purifying devices or virus-inactivating ultraviolet light.Best of all: Just do as much as you can outdoors, where dilution and the sun’s ultraviolet light work in your favor.”We know outdoors is the most spectacularly effective measure, by far,” said Jose-Luis Jimenez of the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Outdoors it is not impossible to get infected, but it is difficult.”FILE – In this July 15, 2020, photo, job seekers exercise social distancing as they wait to be called into the Heartland Workforce Solutions office in Omaha, Neb.The various precautions should be used in combination rather than just one at a time, researchers say. In a well-ventilated environment, “6 feet [of separation] is pretty good if everybody’s got a mask on” and nobody stays directly downwind of an infected person for very long, said Dr. Donald Milton of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, whose lab houses the Gesundheit II machine.Duration of exposure is important, so there’s probably not much risk from a short elevator ride while masked or being passed by a jogger on the sidewalk, experts say.Scientists have published online tools for calculating risk of airborne spread in various settings.At a recent meeting on aerosols, however, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, noted that preventive steps can be a challenge in the real world. Keeping apart from other people can be difficult in homes that house multiple generations. Some old buildings have windows that were “nailed shut years ago,” he said. And “we have far too many communities where they simply don’t have access to clean water to wash their hands.”It might seem strange that for all the scientific frenzy to study the new coronavirus, the details of how it spreads can still be in doubt nine months later. But history suggests patience.”We’ve been studying influenza for 102 years,” said Milton, referring to the 1918 flu epidemic. “We still don’t know how it’s transmitted and what the role of aerosols is.”

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Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
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US Imposes Curbs on Exports by China’s Top Chipmaker SMIC

The U.S. government has placed new export restrictions on China’s most advanced maker of computer chips, citing an “unacceptable risk” that equipment sold to the country’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC) could be used for military purposes.According to a letter Friday by the Commerce Department, American suppliers of certain technology products to SMIC will need to apply for individual licenses before they can export to the Chinese company.The U.S. has cut off China’s telecom giant Huawei from essential supplies of semiconductors since September 15. As the requirement takes effect, SMIC becomes the second leading Chinese technology company to face U.S. trade sanctions.When asked for comment, the Chinese chipmaker told Reuters it had not received any official notice of the restrictions from Washington and said it had no ties with the Chinese military.’No relationship’ with militaryLast month, after the Trump administration reportedly was considering adding SMIC to a trade blacklist, the company denied its technology was for military use. “The company manufactures semiconductors and provides services solely for civilian and commercial end-users and end-uses. We have no relationship with the Chinese military,” SMIC said in a statement.The Chinese company indicated last month that in order to avoid U.S. sanctions, it was willing to abide by the American rules and stop selling chips to Huawei.For all of China’s efforts to become a global leader in high technology, the factory of the world is yet not able to manufacture top-level contenders in one crucial area — the microchip, the nervous system that runs just about every electronic device. Last year, China imported more than $304 billion in computer chips, more than it spent on crude oil.SMIC’s best manufacturing process is believed to be able to make 14-nanometer microchips, which are several generations behind Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which already makes 5-nanometer chips.  Even for those less advanced chips, SMIC still heavily relies on American technology and equipment.

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Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business
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Mythical (But Possibly Real) Creatures That Roam the USA

Mysterious creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are more than just fun scary stories that we tell ourselves. Myths and superstitions that are passed down through the generations can provide insight into a culture’s perspective. As VOA’s Dora Mekouar  reports, they can also function as a warning.

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Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business
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For Standup Comics, a Tricky COVID Comeback

From dark, crowded venues, to social-distanced back yards, stand-up comedians are adapting to life in the nation with the world’s highest death toll from COVID-19.  VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias found comics in the Washington, DC area who, despite their own struggles, are still succeeding to make people laugh.
Camera, producer: Veronica Balderas Iglesias

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Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
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Justice Department Asks Judge to Allow US to Bar WeChat from US App Stores

The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge in San Francisco on Friday to allow the government to bar Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google from offering WeChat for download in U.S. app stores pending an appeal.The filing asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler to put on hold her preliminary injunction issued Saturday. That injunction blocked the U.S. Commerce Department order that was set to take effect late September 20 and that would also bar other U.S. transactions with Tencent Holding’s WeChat, potentially making the app unusable in the United States.Beeler responded late Friday by setting a hearing for October 15 on the motion but said she could potentially hold it on “a tighter time period.”The Justice Department filing said Beeler’s order was in error and “permits the continued, unfettered use of WeChat, a mobile application that the Executive Branch has determined constitutes a threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”Tencent had put forward a “mitigation proposal” that sought to create a new U.S. version of the app, deploy specific security measures to protect the new apps source code, partner with a U.S. cloud provider for user data storage, and manage the new app through a U.S.-based entity, the filing said.However, its proposal still allowed Tencent to retain ownership of WeChat and did not address U.S. concerns over the company, it added.Tencent declined to comment.Lawyers for U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, the group behind the legal challenge to the WeChat ban, questioned the urgency of the government’s request, noting the time it took for the government to seek a stay.”The government’s decision to sit tight for five days shows that there is no emergency,” they wrote.In support of its argument, the Justice Department made public portions of a September 17 Commerce Department memo outlining the WeChat transactions to be banned.”The WeChat mobile application collects and transmits sensitive personal information on U.S. persons, which is accessible to Tencent and stored in data centers in China and Canada,” the memo said. Beeler said WeChat users who filed a lawsuit “have shown serious questions going to the merits of the First Amendment claim.”The Justice Department filing said, “The First Amendment does not bar regulation of WeChat simply because it has achieved the popularity and dependency sought by (China), precisely so it can surveil users, promote its propaganda, and otherwise place U.S. national security at risk.”WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, Americans living in China and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.Beeler wrote “certainly the government’s over-arching national-security interest is significant. But on this record — while the government has established that China’s activities raise significant national security concerns — it has put in scant little evidence that its effective ban of WeChat for all U.S. users addresses those concerns.”WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.TikTok on Wednesday sought a similar preliminary injunction from a U.S. judge in Washington. A judge on Friday said he would hold a hearing Sunday morning about whether to halt the U.S. app store ban on new TikTok downloads set to take effect Sunday night.  

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Science & Health
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NASA Says It Added $64 Billion to US Economy in 2019

The U.S. space agency NASA released the results of its first-ever agency-wide economic impact study Friday, indicating its work generated more than $64 billion for the U.S. economy last year. In a release on its official website, NASA said through all its activities during fiscal year 2019, the agency supported more than 312,000 jobs nationwide, and generated an estimated $7 billion in federal, state and local taxes throughout the country. NASA said it commissioned the study to better understand how the U.S. economy benefited from its work and paid back the investment by the federal government. FILE – NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 23, 2020.In the release, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the study provides numbers and data to illustrate how taxpayer investment of one-half of one percent of the total federal budget in America’s space program pays off, in both a stronger economy and through advances in science and technology. The study showed that every state in the country saw some benefit from NASA activities, with 43 states seeing an economic impact of $10 million or more, and eight showing an impact of $1 billion or more. The analysis also showed that NASA’s “Moon to Mars” program alone generated $14 billion in economic output, brought in $1.5 billion in tax revenue and supported more than 69,000 jobs. The study said the program is expected to double those figures next year. The program aims to return people to the moon by 2024, and use it as a base for operations to Mars and elsewhere. The economic impact study also showed NASA has generated more than 2,000 technologies since 1976. The study was conducted by the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 
 

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Science & Health
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Thousands March in Berlin Climate Rally

Thousands of mostly young people gathered Friday in Berlin to demand more action on climate change, part of a global day of action for the environment.Defying gray skies, the participants, many on bicycles, brought placards and banners to a rally near the iconic Brandenburg Gate. Most wore face masks as a COVID-19 precaution. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.Germany is a focal point for the demonstrations in Europe because it holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, which together with Britain accounts for 22 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans.The climate has made headlines around the world recently, from melting Arctic ice to record Siberian heat to wildfires in California and elsewhere.German climate activist Luisa Neubauer told the crowd, “We’re here because we know that climate justice is possible as long as we keep fighting for it. That’s why we’re here today.”Fridays for Future activists protest calling for a “Global Day of Climate Action” in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 25, 2020.The demonstration was one of 3,000 scheduled to be held around the world Friday, as part of the youth activist movement “Fridays for Future.” COVID-19 restrictions forced many of the activities online.In Stockholm, the person considered to be the founder of the movement, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, was in her usual location, in front of the Swedish parliament. She told a reporter the main goal of the protests was to raise awareness and sway public opinion on the urgency of climate issues.She said, “We need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It’s just as simple as that. The climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, and unless we treat it as a crisis, we won’t be able to so-called ‘solve’ it.’ ”In 2018, at age 15, Thunberg began skipping school on Fridays and going to the parliament to hold demonstrations for legislation on climate change. Soon, she was joined by others, and the protests eventually went viral through social media.
 

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Science & Health
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WHO Recommends Flu Shots to Prevent Surge of Influenza During Pandemic

As the flu season is set to start in the northern hemisphere, the World Health Organization recommends people at highest risk be vaccinated to protect themselves and to prevent national health systems from getting overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The WHO is updating its guidance to help nations navigate the complex challenges posed by the simultaneous circulation of influenza and the coronavirus.The seasonal influenza results in up to a billion cases globally each year, causing an average of 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, according to the WHO. Influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory diseases with some similar symptoms.   FILE – An ad offering free flu shots is seen in Brooklyn, New York, Aug. 21, 2020.Ann Moen, chief of the WHO’s Influenza Preparedness and Response program, says the vaccines, antivirals and non-pharmaceutical interventions that can protect people against influenza are not available for COVID-19.  “So, all of the protective measures that we have been messaging about COVID and about flu in the past, such as people taking physical distancing measures, hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes, wearing masks when appropriate and staying home when sick, seeking care when needed, are all very important for both flu and COVID,” she said.   The WHO advises health care workers and the elderly, who are at highest risk for the flu, to be vaccinated first. Other at-risk people include pregnant women, individuals with underlying health conditions, and children. Moen says people who are at high risk from the flu are also at high risk from COVID-19, and the upcoming season will be especially challenging if there is co-circulation between the two illnesses. “It could cause confusion in health care settings or additional challenges,” she said. “And so, the more flu that we can prevent with the tools and the vaccines and the antivirals that we have and the ongoing health measures, I think that we can help alleviate some of those challenges in the health system setting and we can also protect people that are at risk from flu from actually getting sick.”   Moen says health officials think the sharp drop in influenza cases in the southern hemisphere earlier this year was due to the social distancing and travel restrictions put in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.   That same drop in influenza cases could be seen in parts of the northern hemisphere, where similar measures have been taken. However, Moen predicts cases of influenza are likely to rise as society opens up and COVID-19 restrictions are eased. 
 

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