Science & Health
0 Comments

Scientists Report Coronavirus Shutdowns Have Reduced Seismic ‘Noise’

Researchers who study Earth’s movements say mandatory shutdowns of transportation systems and other human activities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a drop in what they call seismic “noise” around the world.An article published Tuesday in the scientific research journal Nature explains that human activity, such as moving vehicles and industrial machinery, can move Earth’s crust the way earthquakes and volcanic activity do. And researchers say the lack of such human activity in recent days has made a significant difference.Royal Observatory of Belgium seismologist Thomas Lecocq says vibrations caused by human activity have dropped by one-third since coronavirus containment measures were introduced in that country.  Researchers at the California Institute of Technology reported a similar drop in the Los Angeles area, as did researchers in Britain.Nature reports the reduced human-generate “noise” has allowed scientists to get more accurate and sensitive readings regarding earthquake aftershocks in urban areas that might otherwise go undetected.  The researchers say this also allows for the study of more subtle vibrations, such as those generated by ocean waves crashing, which help when probing the Earth’s crust.

9
Science & Health
0 Comments

Trump Administration to Release Final Rule on Mileage Rollback

President Donald Trump is poised to roll back ambitious Obama-era vehicle mileage standards and raise the ceiling on damaging fossil fuel emissions for years to come, gutting one of the United States’ biggest efforts against climate change.
The Trump administration is expected to release a final rule Tuesday on mileage standards through 2026. The change — making good on the rollback after two years of Trump threatening and fighting states and a faction of automakers that opposed the move — waters down a tough Obama mileage standard that would have encouraged automakers to ramp up production of electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient gas and diesel vehicles.  
“When finalized, the rule will benefit our economy, will improve the U.S. fleet’s fuel economy, will make vehicles more affordable, and will save lives by increasing the safety of new vehicles,” Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said Monday, ahead of the expected release.
Opponents contend the change — gutting his predecessor’s legacy effort against climate-changing fossil fuel emissions — appears driven by Trump’s push to undo regulatory initiatives of former President Barack Obama and say even the administration has had difficulty pointing to the kind of specific, demonstrable benefits to drivers, public health and safety or the economy that normally accompany standards changes.
The Trump administration says the looser mileage standards will allow consumers to keep buying the less fuel-efficient SUVs that U.S. drivers have favored for years. Opponents say it will kill several hundred more Americans a year through dirtier air, compared to the Obama standards.
Even “given the catastrophe they’re in with the coronavirus, they’re pursuing a policy that’s going to hurt public health and kill people,” said Chet France, a former 39-year veteran of the EPA, where he served as a senior official over emissions and mileage standards.
“This is first time that an administration has pursued a policy that will net negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings,” France said.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, called it “the height of irresponsibility for this administration to finalize a rollback that will lead to dirtier air while our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution.  
“We should be enacting forward-looking environmental policy, not tying our country’s future to the dirty vehicles of the past,” Carper said.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, resident Columba Sainz expressed disappointment at the prospect of losing the Obama-era rule, which she had hoped would allow her preschool age children to break away from TV indoors and play outside more. Sainz reluctantly limited her daughter to a half-hour at the park daily, after the girl developed asthma, at age 3, at their home a few minutes from a freeway.
“I cried so many times,” Sainz said. “How do you tell your daughter she can’t be outside because of air pollution?”
Trump’s Cabinet heads have continued a push to roll back public health and environment regulations despite the coronavirus outbreak riveting the world’s attention. The administration — like others before it — is facing procedural rules that will make changes adopted before the last six months of Trump’s current term tougher to throw out, even if the White House changes occupants.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been the main agency drawing up the new rules, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The standards have split the auto industry with Ford, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen siding with California and agreeing to higher standards. Most other automakers contend the Obama-era standards were enacted hastily and will be impossible to meet because consumers have shifted dramatically away from efficient cars to SUVs and trucks.
California and about a dozen other states say they will continue resisting the Trump mileage standards in court.
Last year, 72% of the new vehicles purchased by U.S. consumers were trucks or SUVS. It was 51% when the current standards went into effect in 2012.
The Obama administration mandated 5% annual increases in fuel economy. Leaked versions of the Trump administration’s latest proposal show a 1.5% annual increase, backing off from its initial proposal simply to stop mandating increases in fuel efficiency after 2020.
The transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of climate-changing emissions.
John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing automakers, said the industry still wants middle ground between the two standards, and it supports year-over-year mileage increases. But he says the Obama-era standards are outdated due to the drastic shift to trucks and SUVs.
The Trump administration standards are likely to cause havoc in the auto industry because, with legal challenges expected, automakers won’t know which standards they will have to obey.
“It will be extraordinarily disruptive,” said Richard J. Pierce Jr., a law professor at the George Washington University who specializes in government regulations.  
States and environmental groups will challenge the Trump rules, and a U.S. District Court likely will issue a temporary order shelving them until it decides whether they are legal. The temporary order likely will be challenged with the Supreme Court, which in recent cases has voted 5-4 that a District judge can’t issue such a nationwide order, Pierce said. But the nation’s highest court could also keep the order in effect if it determines the groups challenging the Trump standards are likely to win.
“We’re talking quite a long time, one to three years anyway, before we can expect to get a final decision on the merits,” Pierce said. 

1
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

China’s Huawei Warns More US Pressure May Spur Retaliation

Huawei’s chairman warned Tuesday that more U.S. moves to increase pressure on the Chinese tech giant might trigger retaliation by Beijing that could damage its worldwide industry.  Huawei Technologies Ltd., which makes smartphones and network equipment, reported that its 2019 sales rose by double digits despite curbs imposed in May on its access to U.S. components and technology. But the chairman, Eric Xu, said 2020 will be its “most difficult year” as Huawei struggles with the sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.  Huawei is at the center of tensions with Washington over technology and possible spying that helped to spark Trump’s tariff war with China in 2018.Xu said he couldn’t confirm news reports President Donald Trump might try to extend controls to block access to foreign-made products that contain U.S. technology. Xu said Huawei can find other sources but warned more American action might trigger Chinese retaliation against American companies.”I think the Chinese government will not just stand by and watch Huawei be slaughtered,” Xu said at a news conference. He said U.S. pressure on foreign suppliers “will be destructive to the global technology ecosystem.”  “If the Chinese government followed through with countermeasures, the impact on the global industry would be astonishing,” Xu said. “It’s not only going to be one company, Huawei, that could be destroyed.”  Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, denies U.S. accusations the company is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or facilitates Chinese spying. The company says it is owned by the 104,572 members of its 194,000-member workforce who are Chinese citizens.Chinese officials say the Trump administration is abusing national security claims to restrain a rival to U.S. tech companies.  Last year’s sales rose 19.1% over 2018 to 858.8 billion yuan ($123 billion), in line with the previous year’s 19.5% gain, the company reported. Profit increased 5.6% to 62.7 billion yuan ($9 billion), decelerating from 2018’s 25% jump.  Huawei has had to spend heavily to replace American components in its products and find new suppliers after Trump approved the sanctions on May 16, Xu said.  The controls, if fully enforced, could cut off access to most U.S. components and technology. Washington has granted extensions for some products, but Huawei says it expects the barriers to be enforced.  The company, the world’s No. 2 smartphone brand behind Samsung, said 2019 handset sales rose 15% to 240 million units.  Xu said it was impossible to forecast this year’s handset sales until the spreading coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.Huawei phones can keep using Google’s popular Android operating system, but the American company is blocked from supplying music and other popular services for future models.  Huawei is creating its own services to replace Google and says its system had 400 million active users in 170 countries by the end of 2019. That requires Huawei to persuade developers to write applications for its new system, a challenge in an industry dominated by Android and Apple’s iOS-based applications.  Huawei hopes Google applications can run on the Chinese company’s system and that its apps can be distributed on the American company’s online store, Xu said.  Huawei also is, along with Sweden’s LM Ericsson and Nokia Corp. of Finland, one of the leading developers of fifth-generation, or 5G, technology. It is meant to expand networks to support self-driving cars, medical equipment and other futuristic applications, which makes the technology more intrusive and politically sensitive.  The Trump administration is lobbying European governments and other U.S. allies to avoid Huawei equipment as they prepare to upgrade to 5G. Australia, Taiwan and some other governments have imposed curbs on use of Huawei technology, but Germany and some other nations say the company will be allowed to bid on contracts.  The company has unveiled its own processor chips and smartphone operating system, which helps to reduce its vulnerability to American export controls. The company issued its first smartphone phone last year based on Huawei chips instead of U.S. technology.  Huawei also is embroiled in legal conflicts with Washington.  Its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is Ren’s daughter, is being held in Vancouver, Canada, for possible extradition to face U.S. charges related to accusations Huawei violated trade sanctions on Iran.  Separately, U.S. prosecutors have charged Huawei with theft of trade secrets, accusations the company denies.  The company, headquartered in the southern city of Shenzhen, also has filed lawsuits in American courts challenging government attempts to block phone carriers from purchasing its equipment.   

2
Science & Health
0 Comments

Europe’s Hospitals Among The Best But Can’t Handle Pandemic

As increasing numbers of European hospitals buckle under the strain of tens of thousands of coronavirus patients, the crisis has exposed a surprising paradox: Some of the world’s best health systems are remarkably ill-equipped to handle a pandemic.  
Outbreak experts say Europe’s hospital-centric systems, lack of epidemic experience and early complacency are partly to blame for the pandemic’s catastrophic tear across the continent.
 
“If you have cancer, you want to be in a European hospital,” said Brice de le Vingne, who heads COVID-19 operations for Doctors Without Borders in Belgium. “But Europe hasn’t had a major outbreak in more than 100 years, and now they don’t know what to do.”  
Last week, the World Health Organization scolded countries for “squandering” their chance to stop the virus from gaining a foothold, saying that countries should have reacted more aggressively two months ago, including implementing wider testing and stronger surveillance measures.
De le Vingne and others say Europe’s approach to combating the new coronavirus was initially too lax and severely lacking in epidemiological basics like contact tracing, an arduous process where health officials physically track down people who have come into contact with those infected to monitor how and where the virus is spreading.  
During outbreaks of Ebola, including Congo’s most recent one, officials released daily figures for how many contacts were followed, even in remote villages paralyzed by armed attacks.
After the new coronavirus emerged late last year, China dispatched a team of about 9,000 health workers to chase thousands of potential contacts in Wuhan every day.  
But in Italy, officials in some cases have left it up to ill patients to inform their potential contacts that they had tested positive and resorted to mere daily phone calls to check in on them. Spain and Britain have both declined to say how many health workers were working on contact tracing or how many contacts were identified at any stage in the outbreak. 
“We are really good at contact tracing in the U.K., but the problem is we didn’t do enough of it,” said Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Exeter in southwestern England.  
As cases began picking up speed in the U.K. in early March, Pankhania and others desperately pleaded for call centers to be transformed into contact tracing hubs. That never happened, in what Pankhania calls “a lost opportunity.”  
Pankhania added that while Britain has significant expertise in treating critical care patients with respiratory problems, like severe pneumonia, there are simply too few hospital beds to cope with the exponential surge of patients during a pandemic.
“We are already running at full capacity, and then on top of that we have the arrival of the coronavirus at a time when we’re fully stressed and there isn’t any give in the system,” he said, noting years of reductions in bed capacity within Britain’s National Health Service.  
Elsewhere, the fact that health care workers and hospital systems have little experience with rationing care because European hospitals are generally so well resourced is now proving problematic.  
“Part of the issue is that Italian doctors are getting very distressed to make decisions about which patients can get the ICU bed because normally they can just push them through,” said Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, who has studied health systems across Europe. “Not having the triage experience to do that in a pandemic situation is very overwhelming.”
In a departure from their normal role as donors who fund outbreak responses in poorer countries, countries including Italy, France and Spain are all now on the receiving end of emergency aid.  
But Dr. Chiara Lepora, who heads Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in the hot spot of Lodi in northern Italy, said the pandemic had revealed some critical problems in developed countries.
“Outbreaks cannot be fought in hospitals,” she said. “Hospitals can only deal with the consequences.”
Doctors in Bergamo, the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak, described the new coronavirus as “the Ebola of the rich” in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, warning that health systems in the West are at risk of being as overrun by COVID-19 as West African hospitals were in the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.  
“Western health systems have been built around the concept of patient-centered care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward community-centered care,” they wrote.  
That model of community care is more typically seen in countries in Africa or parts of Asia, where hospitals are reserved for only the very sickest patients and far more patients are isolated or treated in stripped-down facilities — similar to the field hospitals now being hastily constructed across Europe.  
Even Europe’s typically strong networks of family physicians are insufficient to treat the deluge of patients that might be more easily addressed by armies of health workers — people with far less training than doctors but who focus on epidemic control measures. Developing countries are more likely to have such workforces, since they are more accustomed to massive health interventions like vaccination campaigns.  
Some outbreak experts said European countries badly miscalculated their ability to stop the new coronavirus.  
“But I think the fact that this is a new disease and the speed at which it moved surprised everyone,” said Dr. Stacey Mearns of the International Rescue Committee.  
Mearns said the current scenes of desperation across Europe — doctors and nurses begging for protective gear, temporary morgues in ice rinks to house the dead — were unimaginable just weeks ago. In Spain, 14% of its coronavirus cases are infected medical workers, straining resources at a critical time.
“We saw hospitals and communities get overwhelmed like this during Ebola in West Africa,” she said. “To see it in resource-wealthy nations is very striking.”

0
Science & Health
0 Comments

German Scientists Identify New Strain of Plastic-eating Bacteria

German scientists say they have identified a strain of bacteria that is feeding on polyurethanes, a plastic resistant to biodegradation. A team of researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, has found that a strain of soil bacterium, identified as Pseudomonas putida, can produce enzymes to digest polyurethanes thus making it biodegradable.  The German team says the bacterium found in the soil surrounding a heap of plastic waste was feeding on polyurethane diol, which is used in plastic as a component that protects products from corrosion. Hermann Heipieper, one of the researchers and author of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, said “this finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle (polyurethane) products.”A worker sorts through recycling bins at a center that offers residents money in exchange of their recyclable garbage in an attempt to keep the streets clean in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2017.The study offers hope of ridding the planet of the growing quantities of discarded plastic products that threaten human and animal life. But some scientists are skeptical.  In earlier experiments, biodegradation of some plastic components was achieved with fungi. Yale University students in 2011 discovered a fungus that can digest and break down polyurethane plastic even in a place without air – like the bottom of a landfill. Since then scientists around the world have identified other fungal species that can breakdown polyurethane. In 2017, a team of scientists identified another fungus that can feed on plastic by breaking down chemicals that hold it together.  These studies also raised concerns about the ability of micro-organisms to invade and corrupt a dead and therefore sterile substance like plastic. Research on coral reefs has shown that floating plastics carry disease-causing microbes that infect the coral.  The Leipzig study says bacteria are much easier to control and produce for industrial use. Its authors say the next step is to identify the gene code of the enzymes produced by the bacteria to digest polyurethane. Some scientists are arguing against introducing man-made enzymes or potentially dangerous micro-organisms into the natural environment.  Two years ago, scientist Douglas Rader wrote in an op-ed for the Environmental Defense Fund that “There is so much more we need to understand about the complex relationships between plastics and marine ecosystems before we can take drastic action such as spraying the ocean with so-called plastic-eating bacteria.”Workers load collected plastic bottles on to a truck at a junk shop in Manila, March 10, 2015. The Philippines placed third among the list of countries with the most ocean plastic pollution per year.Despite new findings, science is nowhere near solving the growing plastic pollution problem. Humankind has manufactured and discarded so much plastic over the years that the world is getting short of places to dump the enormous quantities accumulated every day. Refusal by many developing countries to accept plastic waste from rich nations has exacerbated the problem.  Some countries are cutting down on the use of plastic bags, drinking straws, plastic bottles and utensils. Scientists keep coming up with new biodegradable products to replace plastic, such as wrapping materials made from algae, straws made of paper and disposable utensils made of bamboo, but the movement could be described as “too little too late.” Recycling the plastics to make building materials, fabrics, and other new plastic products cannot even make a dent in the growing amounts of plastic waste.   Plastic remains the most practical packaging material and is indispensable in medical, pharmaceutical, sanitary and many other industries. Some new biodegradable, but equally useful material, has yet to be developed. Meanwhile scientists estimate that about 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every day. For some of them it will take hundreds of years to properly degrade if they are not first swallowed by fish and other marine creatures that will die from it. 

0
Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business
0 Comments

Van Gogh Painting Stolen from Dutch Museum

Officials at a Dutch museum which was closed to the public due to the coronavirus outbreak say a painting by Vincent van Gogh was stolen during an overnight break-in. Singer Laren museum director Evert van Os told reporters Monday the 1884 painting called “Spring Garden” had been on loan from the Groninger Museum, located in the northern Dutch city of the same name.  The Reuters news agency reports police believe the thieves forced the museum’s glass front doors open in the pre-dawn hours. They say they are continuing to investigate the incident. The estimated value of the painting was not available, but French news agency AFP reports that a van Gogh painting from 1889 was sold three years ago at Christie’s auction house in New York for $81 million. “Spring Garden,” a painting by Vincent van Gogh, is seen in this handout picture released by the Singer Laren Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 30, 2020.
 

0
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

Spain Postpones 5G Spectrum Auction Due To Coronavirus

Spain will delay a planned auction of 5G spectrum due to the coronavirus outbreak, the government said on Monday.
 
As part of a Europe-wide drive to speed up the roll out of fast Internet and broaden coverage, Spain had been due to free up space in the 700 MHz band of its network by switching from analog to digital terrestrial television by June 30.
 
One of the world’s worst national outbreaks of the virus, which had infected 85,915 people and killed 7,340 as of Monday, constitutes force majeure, making it impossible to stick to that deadline, the government said in a statement.
 
Madrid has told Brussels it will set a new deadline for the 700 MHz band depending on the eventual end-date for emergency measures including restrictions on people’s movements, it added.
 
Austria postponed a planned 5G auction last week, and the CEO of French group Iliad said one coming up in France would likely meet the same fate. 

0
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

Spain Tries Tracking Coronavirus, Sparking Privacy Concerns

In Madrid only a few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took part in a women’s march, defiant or unaware of calls for social distancing to stop what then appeared to be the distant threat of coronavirus. Now, Spain is one of the biggest battlegrounds in the global war against the pandemic.Spain’s health system is stressed to the breaking point. Coronavirus information hotlines have been jammed by frightened people desperate for information.Madrid city leaders launched a web and mobile service modeled after ones that South Korea successfully used to track those infected.
 
“Our sole objective at this time is to save lives,” explains Isabel Diaz Ayuso, President of the Community of Madrid.The CoronaMadrid website and the App – is a public-private initiative that involves giving citizens’ personal information to the government and to various companies whose names are not disclosed.  In these times of fear, few ask questions. 
“We are immersed in a state of extreme urgency or extreme need, that is when at least we begin to understand these rather awkward actions of various public administrations when developing technological solutions,” says Enric Lujan, a politics professor at the  Universitat de Barcelona. “The application of the Community of Madrid does not specify data protection clauses, of transfers to third parties and, it seems, these data can be transferred to companies.”South Korea’s tracking measures helped the government there flatten the contagion curve – and other countries have followed.  Israel has approved the use of counterterrorism technology to track the virus, and Iran’s official coronavirus app was recently pulled by Google from its Play Store, amid privacy concerns.
 
“Medical data is classified as highly sensitive,” Lujan says.  “The transfer to third parties of medical data is being left in the background when what is prioritized is the fact of having a lower number of deaths.”The coronavirus pandemic has made many people across the world feel afraid, helpless, and desperate for solutions.  It has also raised new questions about how much of their personal freedom and privacy they are willing to sacrifice.     

0