Science & Health

Experimental Vaccines Offer Promise in War on Malaria

Two vaccine candidates have been shown to be effective — in one case, 100 percent effective — in preventing malaria.  

The biotech firm Sanaria Inc. of Rockville, Maryland, developed the vaccines. They prime the immune system against the malaria parasite by introducing live but weakened sporozoites — the earliest spore stage of the parasite — which infected mosquitoes inject into the body, beginning the cycle of disease.

Both vaccines target Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and deadly form of the disease.

In the more successful of the two trials, carried out in Germany, varying doses of the live-attenuated vaccine, weakened by a chemotherapy agent, were injected into 27 healthy volunteers, while another group of 15 was given a placebo.

The participants were then exposed to P. falciparum parasites between eight and 10 weeks after the last vaccine dose.  

Stephen Hoffman, Sanaria’s chief executive and scientific officer, said results from nine of the participants who received the highest vaccine dose surprised the researchers.

“We got 100 percent protection against malaria at 10 weeks, 2½ weeks after the last dose of the vaccine,” he said. “That is really beginning to look like something quite extraordinary and that’s never been done before.”

The results of the study were published in the journal Nature.

Reinfection test

A second trial involving another sporozoite vaccine, weakened by radiation, was carried out in Mali. It tested whether the vaccine prevented reinfection among people who had already been exposed to malaria.

In that study, 66 percent of those in the treatment group became reinfected with malaria within six months after they were vaccinated, compared with 93 percent of participants in the placebo group.

While far from ideal, Hoffman called the results a good first step, saying, “This is the highest level of efficacy against malaria infection ever seen in a vaccine trial in Africa.”

The results of that trial were reported simultaneously in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Hoffman thinks Sanaria’s vaccines show more promise than others because they use the entire sporozoite to ramp up the immune system. He says other vaccine candidates use only a few P. falciparum proteins — out of some 5,000 — to try to get a good immune response against the malaria parasite, which he believes is a less effective strategy.

He says more clinical trials of both vaccines are planned throughout Africa, including in Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania.

Hoffman hopes Sanaria can develop a product for mass vaccination campaigns that can “immunize the entire population in a geographically defined area so that one can halt transmission and eliminate the parasite.”

Malaria is a leading global killer, especially among children in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization estimates there are 214 million cases of malaria each year and that the disease causes 438,000 deaths worldwide.

Economy & business

Trump to Visit Boeing Plant Where Workers Rejected Union

President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit a Boeing aircraft factory in South Carolina on Friday, just days after workers there rejected a bid to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Trump is scheduled to see the rollout of a new version of a wide-body jetliner, the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. Boeing announced Thursday that Singapore Airlines had committed to buying 10 of the huge planes, which can seat more than 300 passengers.

Three thousand of the workers who build Dreamliners at the North Charleston facility were eligible to join the union, but three-quarters of them voted against the measure after a long and hard-fought campaign pitted union organizers against the company.

Each side accused the other of lies and distortions in a campaign fought on television, online and in the workplace.   

Joan Robinson-Berry, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, wrote that Boeing workers “will continue to move forward as one team” and have “a bright future.”

Union leader Mike Evans expressed disappointment that workers will “continue to work under a system that suppresses wages, fosters inconsistency and rewards only a chosen few.

Union strategy seen as key

An expert on labor relations from Cornell University, Kate Bronfenbrenner, said her research showed “that union victory or loss depends most on the union’s strategy.”  She said most companies follow similar, usually very tough steps in their fight to avoid unionization. The machinists, Bronfenbrenner said, needed an “all-out campaign” that was “really organized right” in order to win.  

South Carolina has the lowest level of union representation in the nation, at 1.6 percent. State officials say businesses are more likely to bring jobs to an area where companies don’t have to cope with unions.

Boeing says it’s the largest aerospace company in the world, with 148,000 employees. Published reports said Trump might try to help Boeing sell planes overseas by supporting the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a government agency that guarantees loans and gives technical advice to U.S. exporters.  

The Ex-Im Bank has been under political attack by conservative Republicans in Congress, who say the bank gives out unfair government subsidies, mostly to large companies that do not need help.  

The bank’s supporters say the agency’s services are paid for by the firms that use them, and that the Ex-Im makes a profit that goes to the U.S. Treasury. They also argue that killing the Ex-Im Bank would leave the United States as the only major trading nation that does not offer such help to its companies.

Silicon Valley & Technology

New Mosquito Trap Smart Enough to Keep Just the Bad Bugs

A smart trap for mosquitoes? A new high-tech version is promising to catch the bloodsuckers while letting friendlier insects escape — and even record the exact weather conditions when different species emerge to bite.

Whether it really could improve public health is still to be determined. But when the robotic traps were pilot-tested around Houston last summer, they accurately captured particular mosquito species — those capable of spreading the Zika virus and certain other diseases — that health officials wanted to track, researchers reported Thursday.

The traps act like “a field biologist in real time that’s making choices about the insects it wants to capture,” said Microsoft lead researcher Ethan Jackson, who displayed a prototype trap at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

The traps are part of Microsoft’s broader Project Premonition, aimed at learning how to spot early signs of outbreaks.

“It catches people’s imagination,” said University of Florida medical entomology professor Jonathan Day, who isn’t involved with the project. “But whether it is actually a trap that will functionally improve surveillance, I think that remains to be seen.”

Trapping is a key part of mosquito surveillance and control, important so health officials know where to spray or take other measures to fight mosquito-borne diseases. Trapping hasn’t changed much in decades: Typically net traps are outfitted with mosquito-attracting bait and a fan, and suck in whatever insect gets close enough. Entomologists later sort the bugs for the ones they want.

Jackson’s trap consists of 64 “smart cells,” compartments outfitted with an infrared light beam. When an insect crosses the beam, its shadow changes the light intensity in a way that forms almost a fingerprint for that species, Jackson said.

Program the trap for the desired species — such as the Aedes aegypti mosquito that is the main Zika threat — and when one flies into a cell, its door snaps closed. In pilot testing in Harris County, Texas, last July and August, the trap was more than 90 percent accurate in identifying the insect buzzing through the door, Jackson said.

Harris County already is well known in public health for strong mosquito surveillance, and had been keeping a sharp eye out for Zika — fortunately finding none. But mosquito control director Mustapha Debboun called the high-tech trap promising, and is looking forward to larger scale testing this summer.

“If we are trying to collect the Zika virus mosquito, you can teach this trap to collect just that mosquito,” he said.

When each mosquito is captured, sensors record the time, temperature, humidity and other factors, to show what environmental conditions have different species buzzing. That’s information officials might use to schedule pesticide spraying.

The next step: Rapid genetic scans of the mosquitoes’ blood check for harmful pathogens — and can tell what animal the mosquito had been biting, Jackson said. If that work pans out, he said the data may help predict emerging diseases.

But bringing Microsoft’s tech know-how to mosquito control ultimately will depend on cost, cautioned Debboun, who spends about $350 for one of today’s traps and says the new high-tech ones can’t cost more.

While Jackson doesn’t know a final price, he said he used low-cost microprocessors and other equipment to design the traps and plans to test if drones can place them in remote areas.

Today’s traps already provide lots of useful information, Florida’s Day noted. Some mosquito species are so plentiful that he can catch thousands in a single trap. Others, like Aedes aegypti, are much harder to find, and information about when it flies might be useful, he said.

Economy & business

Egypt’s Agricultural Exports Ripe for World Markets After Currency Float

Egypt’s agricultural exporters are seeing a surge in demand and finding new foreign markets only months after the currency was floated, with many rushing to expand capacity to keep up.

Egypt’s pound has roughly halved in value since the central bank abandoned its peg of 8.8 to the dollar on November 3, making Egyptian fruit and vegetables look cheap and attractive to foreign buyers, exporters said.

“Demand has doubled, with every product gaining one or two markets,” said Mostafa al-Naggari, Chairman of Fresh Fruit Co, which recently signed deals to ship to China and is finalizing others with Australia, New Zealand and Korea.

Trade deficit a problem

The currency flotation helped Egypt to secure a $12 billion IMF loan to support a wide-ranging reform program aimed at restoring foreign inflows and reining in the budget deficit.

A series of tax increases and subsidy cuts, along with the currency depreciation, have driven inflation to record levels in a country where millions live a pay check away from hunger. But amid the pain of government austerity, local manufacturers and exporters are reporting a pick up in activity.

Egyptian politicians have blamed the import-dependent country’s ballooning trade deficit, which stood at $42.64 billion in 2016, for putting pressure on the pound. Along with a sharp reduction in imports, a rise in agricultural exports could help narrow that gap.

Turbulent year

Exports of Egyptian vegetables, fruits and legumes amounted to $2.2 billion last year and would likely rise by about 15 percent in 2017 as a result of the float, Abdel Hamid al-Demerdash, the head of Egypt’s Agriculture Export Council, said.

The main vegetable exports include onions and artichokes, and fruits include oranges and strawberries.

The growing interest follows a turbulent year for Egyptian produce, with a Hepatitis A scare in North America linked to Egyptian strawberries and a temporary ban of Egyptian fruits and vegetables in Russia, one of Cairo’s top buyers.

But traders say growth now comes down to how quickly they can expand to meet demand.

‘A golden opportunity’

Japan Food Solutions (JFS), a fruit and vegetable exporter, is working to double its planted area this year to meet an expected 20-30 percent increase in demand on the back of new orders from markets in Europe and North America, senior managing director Emad Said said.

“I see this as a golden opportunity for Egyptian produce to compete more aggressively … The clever ones will seize this opportunity to enter new markets,” he said.

PICO Modern Agriculture, another exporter, has seen its demand from Gulf Arab countries jump by about 50 percent in the last two months, chief executive Alaa Diab said.

“The flotation has been very tempting and very helpful. It opened the eyes of many importers to come look at Egypt where they can get much more competitive deals,” Diab said.

Arts & Entertainment

Fans Call Shots in Futuristic Football League

The Salt Lake Screaming Eagles take flight on Thursday as the normally low- profile Indoor Football League offers a glimpse into the future of interactive sports.

The expansion team’s site, coach, logo, mascot, cheerleaders and players have already been chosen by fans, who will use an app to pick the Screaming Eagles’ plays in real time when they meet the visiting Nebraska Danger at 8,000-seat Maverik Center.

“That’s the future of sports,” club owner and co-founder of Project FANchise Sohrab Farudi told Reuters. “Twenty years from now fans are going to be very hands on and interactive with all of their sports teams.”

More than 30,000 fans across the United States and over 20 countries have jumped on the Screaming Eagles’ digital bandwagon and some major movers in sports are paying attention.

Sports Illustrated will live stream Thursday’s game on its website and Farudi said the entire Screaming Eagles home schedule might be streamed. The rest of the league’s games are available on YouTube Live.

The ownership group includes longtime NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball business executive Andy Dolich, who spent four years with the San Francisco 49ers, seven with the Memphis Grizzlies and 15 with the Oakland A’s.

“This is the laboratory for fans to actually express themselves and be involved however immersively we can take them as we move forward,” Dolich told Reuters in a phone interview.

“We can go to the white board and really give the fans, who are giving of their time, their money, their enthusiasm, their heart and soul and their knowledge, an opportunity to get involved.”

Any fan that downloads the app can engage in voting, though fans that hunger for advanced participation can ante up for special tutorials that allow them to contribute in the team’s virtual front office.

“That’s the future of sports, the interactive model,” said Farudi, whose group has also bought the IFL’s Colorado Crush for a second team in the 10-club league that will be run by fans.

“With e-sports and gaming taking such a large role now .. traditional sports have to catch up. The younger generation is looking for this type of interactive experience.”

Fans are paying from $10 to $40 a month for tutorials from Screaming Eagles staff on scouting, breaking down game tape, designing plays and game-planning among other skills and are allowed to watch meetings and clubhouse speeches.

“A couple of players on our team were found by some of our fan scouts in our virtual front office,” said Farudi. “They sent in tape to our coaching staff, who were impressed and invited them to try out.”

Team president Thom Carter said there are 15 to 20 assistant general managers and 75 scouts in the virtual front office.

“We’re all working together,” Carter said. “Every other week we do a Google hangout. These folks that are all over the world sign in and we have an open conversation about the business side of the team as well as the football side of the team.”

Farudi envisions the entire IFL becoming fan-driven and renamed the Interactive Football League.

“My plan is to build this platform in a way that we can go out and take it the NFL or Major League Baseball and provide them services and opportunity,” he said. “That’s the future of sports, the interactive model.”

Arts & Entertainment

Keith Urban Leads Academy of Country Music Nominations

Keith Urban’s boundary-pushing album “Ripcord” has spawned several top country singles and led him to pick up seven nominations including entertainer of the year and album of the year at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

Lady Antebellum announced the nominations Thursday on “CBS This Morning” for the awards show, which will be held April in Las Vegas and aired live on CBS. Urban is also nominated for male vocalist of the year, single record of the year and song of the year.

Six-time nominee Miranda Lambert could make history again as she is nominated for female vocalist of the year, which she has won a record seven years in a row. She is also nominated for album of the year for her double album, “The Weight of These Wings,” single record of the year, song of the year and video of the year.

Coming off her Grammy win for best country solo performance, Maren Morris tied Lambert with six nominations, including album of the year for “HERO.” She also is nominated as female vocalist of the year, new female vocalist of the year and single record of the year for her song, “My Church.”

With strong pop, dance and R&B influences, Urban’s album has dominated country radio over the past year, with four singles reaching the top six on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Urban, who performed his newest single “The Fighter” at the Grammys last Sunday with Carrie Underwood, said the entertainer of the year nomination is an acknowledgement of great live performances.

“I have been a musician since I was six and playing on stage since I was like 7,” Urban told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I have always loved performing on stage, being an entertainer. So that category has always been the highest honor imaginable.”

He added that great performances are all about being “in the flow,” and mentioned Adele’s performance at the Grammys when she restarted her tribute to George Michael.

“She had this incredible courage to stop it in the middle of a live show and say, ‘Let me get this thing right,'” Urban said. “It was the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen on a live TV show.”

Competing with Urban for entertainer of the year will be last year’s winner, Jason Aldean, along with Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Underwood.

Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw both have five nominations each, including a shared nomination for vocal event of the year for their collaboration on the song “May We All.”

Bryan and Dierks Bentley, who has three nominations, return to host the awards for a second time together. Thomas Rhett and Chris Stapleton also each have three nominations.


Science & Health

Nigerians Pay for Leaders’ Treatment Abroad, Get Little Health Care at Home

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s nearly monthlong medical leave in London is a sharp reminder to taxpayers that while they finance their leaders’ health care abroad, they often are stuck with decrepit, ill-staffed government health facilities at home.


For decades, Nigerians have paid for their leaders and former rulers to get medical treatment overseas. That courtesy also extends to senior government employees.


This is despite taxpayers’ funding of the State House Medical Center, said to be Nigeria’s best-equipped facility, which serves the president and vice president, their families and staff. The center’s budget this year of 3.8 billion naira to care for fewer than 1,000 people represents 1 percent of the entire public health budget for the country’s 170 million people.


“For years, billions have been budgeted for the State House Medical Center while it has always been evident that every president mostly accessed medical facilities outside the country, going back to the 1980s,” said Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT, an organization that tries to bring clarity to the West African nation’s opaque budget.

Recession at home 

The mysterious nature of Buhari’s absence is adding to the unhappiness at home, as one of Africa’s largest economies and oil producers lurches through a recession. 


His government has not said what exactly his health issues might be or when he will return. The president’s trip, originally scheduled from January 20 to February 6, was described as a vacation during which he would undergo routine medical tests. It has been extended for further tests.


Officials insist that Buhari is “hale and hearty,” and he was well enough this week to speak by telephone with U.S. President Donald Trump.


Human rights lawyer Femi Falana said Nigerians should seize on the president’s medical leave to demand adequate funding for public hospitals he described as “mortuaries for the masses.”


“The practice of allowing poor citizens to die of preventable diseases while top public officers and rich private citizens are allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment can no longer be justified,” he said in a lecture this week, noting that Nigerians have a life expectancy of 52 years.

Medical bills add up 

It is not clear how much the country’s taxpayers pay for leaders’ treatments abroad. 


Former first lady Patience Jonathan has claimed that half of $31.5 million frozen in a corruption investigation was a government payout for medical bills she incurred in London in 2013. Ever-witty Nigerians took to social media to ask if she was buying eternal life.


The Ministry of Health estimated that Nigeria paid about $1 billion for government officials traveling abroad for medical care in 2014, with ordinary Nigerians spending about $6.3 billion in 2015 for what is called medical tourism.


Senior Nigerian officials get “high yearly allowances” for health care abroad, which “provides them opportunity to demand amounts to take care of their non-health care needs like shopping abroad,” economist Vitalis Chi. Nwaneri wrote in his 2013 book “Governing the Ungovernable.”


Former military dictator Gen. Ibrahim Babangida returned home this month from a six-week “medical vacation” in Switzerland. Last year, he was treated for weeks in Germany.


Taxpayers also footed the bill when former President Umaru Yar’Adua received months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia in 2008-2009, before he returned home to die in office.

Best Nigerian clinic not enough 

In April, Buhari announced that his government would no longer pay for officials to travel abroad for medical services available at home. But two months later, the president was in London for treatment of an ear infection. 


“The best-funded clinic in Nigeria does not suffice to treat the president’s ear infection. Nor does the president have enough confidence in the same clinic to do his ‘routine checkups’ there,” novelist Okey Ndibe wrote at . 


“Imagine, then, the fate of Nigerians who have no choice but must seek treatment at the ill-equipped, wretchedly funded hospitals in our country?” he asked.


Nigeria has just five hospital beds and not even one doctor for every 100,000 people, as opposed to an average of 35 beds and 24 doctors per 100,000 in South Africa, which has the continent’s most advanced medical care, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study in 2015. 


Nigerians who can afford it shun even private health care at home. 


Because the country has one of the world’s worst infant and maternal mortality rates, women fly to the United States and Britain to have babies safely delivered. The risk of a woman dying because of pregnancy or childbirth in Nigeria is one in 15, compared to one in 5,000 in developed nations, according to Dr. Chris Akani, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Nigeria’s College of Health Sciences at the University of Port Harcourt.


Buhari’s medical bills do not come with a bed at a heftily priced five-star hotel, as did those of predecessors. The 74-year-old anti-corruption crusader known for his simple lifestyle is staying at the residence of the Nigerian High Commission in London, a spokesman said. 

Silicon Valley & Technology

Big Data and the Business of Mind-Reading

Big data is playing an increasing role in people’s lives.

Loosely defined as data that is too massive to be contained or processed by any one machine or person, it includes information on individuals’ Facebook likes, supermarket loyalty cards, and other seemingly innocuous personal information that was used by both the Trump and Brexit campaigns to reach voters who wouldn’t normally disclose their political opinions.

Finding out more about people

Apps created by researchers in Britain and the United States can guess how old a person is, their IQ, and to whom they are sexually attracted.

“There’s lots of different sources for sentiment data,” said John Kreisa, a London-based executive at Hortonworks, a California software company. “One probably very obvious one is things like Twitter. Social media in general is a way that people express themselves and express a like or dislike, sentiments obviously positive or negative,” Kreisa said.

By themselves, the trillions of bits of information would amount to a pile of worthless junk. Add the power of the human mind, and it is a different story.

When Julian Dailly graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English and philosophy and faced a world dominated by machines and technology, he wondered how he was going to make a living. Now, he is part of a mega industry that, considering it includes Google and Facebook, is so large no one seems able to estimate its worth.

Predicting what people will do

Dailly’s research company, Morar Consulting, started three years ago with five employees. With annual revenues up by 25 percent each year, Dailly’s firm now has a staff of 90.

“What we ultimately do here is we try to discover what’s meaningful for people, and we correlate that to their economic behavior.” Dailly said.

Diversity, he adds, is important.

“There’s always the risk I think if you have people from too similar backgrounds that you end up with a bit of group think. You don’t consider all the alternatives, and you maybe take too many bets on the same thing,” Dailly said. “We have people from traditional research backgrounds, in addition to some in social sciences, economics, people from tech backgrounds, and sales people.”

Companies like Dailly’s also draw recent college graduates who bring perspectives of youth to the industry.

New forms of data also make it possible for analysts to predict the future. They are thus more valuable to companies and campaigns than the traditional forms of recordkeeping, recording or reporting data.

“We have access to the core information inside people’s heads,” Dailly said. “They tell you what people are going to do as opposed to what they’ve done. That helps people take preemptive action. This makes it much more useful for strategy.”

Brexit, Trump and Clinton used this new data

Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns used big data, with Trump hiring the London-based Cambridge Analytica. The company employs a trademark method known as “psychographs” that uses psychological profiling to influence consumers. The company also provided its services to the Brexit campaign.

Both the Trump and the Brexit campaigns faced charges of xenophobia, a topic many people preferred not to discuss.

For both Trump and Brexit, polls had predicted Election Day losses. But their victories hinged on voters who had remained quiet during the campaign, often declining to publicly state their opinions out of concern of being labeled as racist.

Big Data beat the polls

Polls did not tell the truth, but big data did.

“You just rely on data that you collect at the polls, you’re not going to be able to gather the same amount of data, but also people might lie or might not reveal whom they will vote for or what way they are going to vote,” said Tamara Chehayeb Makarem, a user experience designer at Scott Logic, a British software development consultancy.

“Using big data, you would be able to generate certain patterns, and what people like,” she said. “Let’s say what you like something on Facebook, if you publish certain articles, follow certain people. That could give them (campaign strategists) an indicator about your views, and based on that they could get a better indication about how likely you are to vote for someone or something.” 

The prospect of having companies read minds is spooky, and there has been pushback. Facebook has blocked the use of much of its content and the European Union has enacted some of the world’s toughest privacy protections.

Many uses for Big Data

Proponents of the industry are eager to show that big data is a force for good.

Laurie Miles, director of analytics at SAS UK, an analytics company whose clients include HSBC. He says the ability to capture and process data in real time is crucial for protecting credit card users. 

“You go into a shop, you swipe your card,” she said. “In real time, it’s determined whether that transaction is likely to be fraudulent or not.”

Dailly, of Morar Consulting, discounts concerns that computers have finally taken over.

“There is a moment of suspension of disbelief when we allow ourselves to believe that humans will be allowed to be replaced by machines. I think it’s a fantasy,” he said.

Artificial intelligence will evolve and so will their autonomy to make decisions, he said.

“But fundamentally, they will always be plugged into the wall. They can be turned off. With that in mind, humans will still remain in control.”

Silicon Valley & Technology

Small US Company Bucks a Trend, Adds Manufacturing Jobs

A rising tide of automation, trade problems and lagging growth in productivity have slashed millions of jobs from the U.S. manufacturing sector. At the same time, a small factory in Massachusetts has been hiring, expanding and exporting. Riverdale Mills hopes to grow further by making unusual products and building a strong workforce. VOA’s Jim Randle reports.