Science & Health

France, England Widen Availability of COVID-19 Vaccines

To fight a rise in cases caused by the coronavirus variants, France and England moved Monday to increase vaccinations.France is now allowing all adults to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, were vaccinated Monday.”Like Brigitte and I, like 25 million French people have already done, let’s get vaccinated! To protect ourselves, to protect our loved ones,” Macron, who contracted the disease caused by the coronavirus in December, tweeted.As of Monday, France had confirmed more than 5.7 million cases of COVID-19 and 109,690 deaths caused by the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.People paddle board backdropped by Brighton Palace Pier on England’s south coast, May 30, 2021. The bank holiday weekend and relaxation of England’s coronavirus restrictions has enabled many people to visit beaches. In Britain, health officials opened London’s Twickenham rugby station as a mass vaccination site. No appointments were required. The country, which is experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases, is trying to contain a fast-spreading virus variant that was first identified in India and accounts for most of its new cases.The United Kingdom had confirmed 4.5 million COVID-19 cases on Monday, and 128,044 deaths.Beginning June 7, Germany plans to make the coronavirus vaccine available to all people older than 16.As of Monday, Germany had nearly 3.7 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 88,469 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.Variants renamedThe World Health Organization, responding to criticisms that the scientific names of the various coronavirus variants were too complicated or stigmatized certain countries, on Monday assigned the variants letters of the Greek alphabet.The four main variants are generally referred to as the Brazil, India, South Africa and U.K. variants. Critics have told the WHO the scientific names were too complicated. For example, the so-called South African coronavirus variant goes by several names, such as B.1.351, 501Y.V2 and 20H/501Y.V2.The variants’ scientific names will remain the same, the WHO said. The change affects the names given the variants when being discussed with the public. The U.K., South Africa, Brazil and India variants have now been given the letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, respectively, according to the order in which they were detected, the WHO said.”No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove tweeted.No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants.Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants, incl epi, molecular and sequencing to be carried out and shared. We need to continue to do all we can to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 A Bolivian woman walks past a stand that provides information about COVID-19, as authorities have started to vaccinate people who make a living crossing the border between Bolivia and Peru, in Desaguadero, Bolivia, May 21, 2021.Peru toll revisedAlso Monday, Peru Health Minister Oscar Ugarte revised the coronavirus death toll for the country, from 69,342 to 180,764.“What is being said is that a significant number of deaths were not classified as caused by COVID-19,” Ugarte said, adding that the criteria for assigning COVID-19 as the cause of death was changed. Previously, only patients who “had a positive diagnostic test” were considered to have died from the coronavirus, he said.The criteria were broadened beyond people who tested positive for the virus to include probable cases with “an epidemiological link to a confirmed case,” according to a panel composed of experts from public and private health entities in Peru and from the World Health Organization, the Agence France-Presse reported.The country’s death toll had been questioned since early last year, and experts warned the death toll was being undercounted.Vietnam ramps up testingBecause of a recent surge in coronavirus cases, all 9 million residents in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, will be tested for the coronavirus, city officials said.The state newspaper, Vietnam News, said the city has a testing capacity of 100,000 samples a day, according to The Associated Press.The country has been battling a surge in the coronavirus since the end of April, tallying more than 4,000 cases. Since early last year, Vietnam has had only 7,321 confirmed cases of the virus and 47 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. Bullet trains are seen parked at a station in preparation for the upcoming Lunar New Year travel peak in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, Jan. 27, 2021.China restricts travelMeanwhile, China reimposed on Monday travel controls on Guangdong province after the region recorded 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 24-hour period ending at midnight Sunday.Provincial officials said that anyone leaving the province, which has a population of 113.4 million people, must provide the results of a nucleic acid test within the previous 72 hours.As of Monday, China had recorded 102,991 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 4,846 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. 

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Thailand Welcomes Back Stolen Artifacts After San Francisco Forfeiture

Thailand held a welcoming ceremony Monday to mark the return of two ancient handcarved artifacts that were stolen decades ago and smuggled out of the country to the United States.The two 680-kilogram Khmer-style stone carvings had been on display at the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco, which was required to forfeit them when a settlement was reached in February between the U.S. government and San Francisco authorities.Thailand had informed the United States in 2017 that the lintels, which date back to the 10th and 11th centuries, had been stolen.”Today is the day that they are finally returned to their home country and displayed here,” Thai Culture Minister Itthiphol Kunplome said at the Bangkok ceremony.The sandstone lintels were once parts of the structure of two religious sanctuaries in Thailand’s northeast. The government will assess whether they can be returned to their original locations.”This is a legal battle that has set an excellent example for the museums that still own Thai artifacts illegally, because they know they will lose the case,” said Tanongsak Hanwong, who located the artifacts and pushed for their return.”Many museums have chosen to reach out to begin the return process instead of going into the legal process.”

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Osaka: ‘Best Thing’ for French Open Would Be Her Withdrawal

Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter on Monday that “the best thing for the tournament” would be if she withdrew from the French Open, a dramatic turn of events for the four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1-ranked player.She had declared she would not speak to the media during Roland Garros and was fined $15,000 after she skipped the postmatch news conference following her first-round victory Sunday.”I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote Monday.She also said that she has “suffered long bouts of depression” since the 2018 U.S. Open, which she won by beating Serena Williams in a final filled with controversy.In addition to Sunday’s fine during Day 1 of the French Open, she drew a surprising warning from all four Grand Slam tournaments that she could face stiffer penalties, including disqualification or even suspension, if she continues to avoid the media.Osaka returned to Roland Garros after sitting out the tournament last year and turned in a mistake-filled 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig at Court Philippe Chatrier on Day 1.She had said last week on social media she would not speak to the media and kept that promise.Hours later, Osaka turned to her preferred method of communication these days, tweeting: “anger is a lack of understanding. change makes people uncomfortable.”Tennis players are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so. The maximum fine, of course, is not a big deal to Osaka, the world’s highest-earning female athlete thanks to endorsement contracts totaling tens of millions of dollars.She framed the matter as a mental health issue, saying that it can create self-doubt to have to answer questions after a loss.Other players, notably 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal and No. 1-ranked Ash Barty, have said they respect Osaka’s right to take a stance but explained that they consider speaking to reporters part of the job. 

Science & Health

Pakistan’s COVID-19 Positivity Rate Dips, But ‘We Aren’t Out of the Woods’, Official Tells VOA

Pakistan reported Monday that the national coronavirus positivity rate had remained well below 5% over the past week, with the country’s top health official attributing the declining trend to “effective” government policies, including restrictions on public movement and effective screening of international travelers.Officials recorded 43 deaths and detected more than 2,100 new cases in the last 24 hours, raising the national tally of deaths to nearly 21,000 and infections to more than 921,000 since the pandemic hit the South Asian nation early last year.The national positivity ratio decreased to just over 4% from more than 11% a couple of weeks ago.Last week, health authorities reported the detection of the first case of a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus which has caused record infections and deaths in neighboring India, threatening Pakistan’s gains against the disease.But Faisal Sultan, an infectious disease physician who is also special assistant to the prime minister on national health services, told VOA that an “effective” screening system for international travelers and other measures to deal with the health crisis have so far enabled the country to keep the situation under control in a country of about 220 million.“I would say we are not out of the woods yet, but it seems at this point that I don’t foresee an India-like situation,” Sultan, who is directing all health-related interventions and measures against the pandemic, told VOA in a detailed interview at his office in Islamabad.People queue to receive the first shot of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Karachi, Pakistan, May 8, 2021.“We really do think that to reach our targets, we need to go over the 500,000 a day mark, perhaps the 600,000 a day mark. So, I think that we really need to ramp up our vaccinations.”Sultan said government surveys have found that “at least two-thirds” of the Pakistani population is willing to get vaccinated.“So, the vaccine centers will have to go close to their homes. It will have to be easy and accessible. It will have to be so easy that in the United States, even normal retail pharmacies were allowed to do the vaccination,” he said.Sultan said the government really needed “to get at least a quarter of its population” in dense urban areas vaccinated before Pakistan “can even talk about any relaxation” in coronavirus-related restrictions, including asking those inoculated against the disease to remove their masks.Health care systemPrime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which took office in August 2018, has from the outset focused on the country’s underfunded and largely neglected national health care system.The focus, Sultan noted, enabled the government to timely position itself to combat the pandemic, despite critical economic challenges facing Pakistan.“We added over 7,000 oxygenated beds into the health care system across Pakistan. The second expansion that was done is even more important — a 66% increase in the medical oxygen capacity was done. Had we not done that, we would have faced a crisis. We came to about 90% capacity in the ongoing third wave,” Sultan explained.A vendor refills oxygen cylinders which will supply private hospitals for COVID-19 patients, in Karachi, Pakistan, April 26, 2021.Pakistan initially received vaccine donations from close ally China to launch the national vaccination drive in early March before purchasing large quantities of vaccine doses to ensure supplies for the national campaign.“They came out, gifted us the first lot, although we had told them we can pay for it. But they insisted. I think it speaks volumes about the level of trust and cooperation between China and Pakistan,” Sultan said.The Pakistani government is using the Chinese-made Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines. It has also received just over a million doses of AstraZeneca under a United Nations-backed program for poor nations, known as COVAX.Pakistani officials say they are in conversations with several suppliers, and the government will have procured about 20 million additional vaccine doses by end of July.“The only challenge is, in an environment where everybody wants the vaccine, to have a steady supply so that you don’t run out of it. This is a challenge that will stay for the rest of the world,” Sultan said, noting that Pakistan was in talks with several suppliers to secure enough doses to sustain domestic supplies.Beijing has also trained Pakistani staff and established a facility at Islamabad’s National Health Institute, where the one-dose CanSino vaccine is being filled from the concentrate provided by China. Sultan noted that the rare facility has the capacity to roll out about 3 million doses of CanSino a month to help boost the vaccination drive.“It may be a small step for us that we have started filling the vaccine from concentrate. But it is a vital step toward actually manufacturing the vaccine in Pakistan, and I think it may take a few months,” he said. 

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Fueling Box Office Rebound, ‘Quiet Place’ Opens With $58.5M asso

Moviegoing increasingly looks like it didn’t die during the pandemic. It just went into hibernation.  
John Krasinski’s thriller sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” opened over the Memorial Day weekend to a pandemic-best $48.4 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. Including the Monday holiday, the studio forecasts the film will gross $58.5 million in North America. It added another $22 million in ticket sales overseas.  
The film’s performance cheered a movie industry that has been punished and transformed by the pandemic. Paramount Pictures’ “A Quiet Place Part II,” which was on the cusp of opening in March 2021 before theaters shut, was the first big film this year — and one of the only larger budget COVID-era releases beside Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” — to open exclusively in theaters.  
Chris Aronson, distribution chief for Paramount, called the opening “an unqualified success.”
“It’s a huge sigh of a relief and a sense of optimism for sure,” Aronson said.
“Movies, moviegoing, movie theaters aren’t dead. Yes, they’ve been threatened but they’re proving once again that they’re resilient and that people do want to have that communal experience.”  
Many studios have trotted out hybrid release plans during the pandemic, debuting films simultaneously in the home. The Walt Disney Co. did that this weekend with its  live-action PG-13 Cruella De Vil prequel, “Cruella,”  making it available to Disney+ subscribers for $30. In theaters, it grossed $21.3 million, Disney said, and an estimated $26.4 million over the four-day weekend. “Cruella” also added $16.1 million in 29 international territories. Disney didn’t say how much the film made on the company’s streaming platform.  
“A Quiet Place II” will also turn to streaming after 45 days in theaters when it becomes available on Paramount+. One clear result of the pandemic is that the theatrical window has shrunk, probably permanently. Three months was once the customary length of a movie’s run in theaters. The year’s previous best debut belonged to Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which opened with $32.2 million, or $48.5 million over its first five days, while simultaneously streaming on HBO Max. 
The contrasting release strategies between “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Cruella” offered a test case for Hollywood. How much does a day-and-date release cost a movie like “Cruella” in ticket sales? Is it worth it? Without knowing how much “Cruella” benefitted Disney+, a true comparison isn’t possible. But the strong returns for the theater-only “A Quiet Place Part II” are telling, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. He called it a “pivotal weekend” for the movie industry that proved predictions of the movie theater’s demise “flat-out wrong.”  
“That ‘Quiet Place Part II’ did so well makes a strong case that a theatrical-first release for a big movie is the way to go,” Dergarabedian said. “This is the best possible news for an industry that’s been dealing with probably the most profoundly challenging chapter in the history of the movie theater.”  
The debut of “A Quiet Place Part II” was much watched throughout Hollywood as the kickoff to its delayed summer movie season. After largely sitting out the pandemic, or diverting to streaming platforms, a lineup of blockbusters are again queuing up. On tap are Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights,” Universals’ “F9” and Disney’s “Black Widow.”  
Last week, Universal Pictures’ ninth installment in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, “F9,” opened with $162 million in ticket sales in eight international markets, and $135 million in China alone. In its second weekend, “F9,” which opens in North America on June 25, raced toward $230 million worldwide.  Emily Blunt and John Krasinski attend the world premiere of Paramount Pictures’ “A Quiet Place Part II” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, March 8, 2020, in New York.”A Quiet Place Part II” had already had its red-carpet premiere in March last year, and spent some of its marketing budget. But it opened remarkably in line with predictions of how many tickets it would sell before the onset of the pandemic.
In the intervening months, Paramount sold off many of its films to streamers — “Coming 2 America,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — but Krasinski and the studio felt strongly that the hushed intensity of “A Quiet Place Part II” worked best on the big screen.  
In an interview ahead of the film’s release, Krasinski said a theatrical release was “non-negotiable.” And Krasinski worked hard to stoke excitement, traveling the country in the week leading up to release to surprise moviegoers. Still, given the circumstances, he had little idea whether audiences would come out.  
“As bizarre as the entire year has been is how bizarre whatever opening weekend is,” Krasinski said. “I don’t really know what it is anymore.”  
In the end, “A Quiet Place Part II” performed a lot like how the first one did. That 2018 hit, which ultimately grossed $340 million globally on a $17 million budget, launched with $50.2 million in North American ticket sales. Sequels usually do better than the original but “Part II” had far more challenges due to pandemic.  
Rich Gelfond, chief executive of IMAX, where “A Quiet Place Part II” earned $4.1 million domestically, called the film “the first domestic release this year to cross the threshold from ‘great opening weekend given the pandemic’ to ‘great opening weekend, period.'”
Memorial Day weekend, usually one of the busiest for theaters, still didn’t look like it normally does at the movies. Total box office exceeded $80 million but that’s about a third of the holiday weekend’s normal business. Last Memorial Day, when nearly all operating theaters were drive-ins, ticket sales amounted to $842,000, according to Comscore.  
Many theaters, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, are still operating with social distancing measures. But guidelines are thawing. Last week, the nation’s top theater chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark — said they would no longer require vaccinated moviegoers to wear face masks. 

Science & Health

UNICEF Says Malnutrition Spikes for Haiti Kids Amid Pandemic

Severe acute childhood malnutrition is expected to more than double this year in Haiti as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, a spike in violence and dwindling resources, a UNICEF report said Monday.
More than 86,000 children under age 5 could be affected, compared with 41,000 reported last year, said Jean Gough, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“I was saddened to see so many children suffering from malnutrition,” she said after a weeklong visit to Haiti. “Some will not recover unless they receive treatment on time.”
Severe acute malnutrition is considered a life-threatening condition.  
In a slightly less dangerous category, acute malnutrition in kids younger than 5 in Haiti has risen 61%, with some 217,000 children expected to suffer from it this year, compared with 134,000 last year.  
Overall, UNICEF said, about 4.4 million of Haiti’s more than 11 million inhabitants lack sufficient food, including 1.9 million children.
Gough told The Associated Press during a recent visit to a hospital in the southern city of Les Cayes that UNICEF has only a one-month supply left of a special food paste given to children in need and is seeking $3 million by the end of June.  
Officials said the pandemic also has disrupted health services, with childhood immunization rates dropping from 28% to 44%, depending on the vaccine. The decrease has led to a rise in diphtheria cases as health workers brace for an expected measles outbreak this year.
UNICEF noted that unvaccinated children also are more likely to die from malnutrition.
Lamir Samedi, a nurse who works at a community health center in the southern town of Saint-Jean-du-Sud, said the target was to vaccinate 80% of children in the area, but they had yet to reach 50%.
Among the children hospitalized is 11-month-old Denise Joseph, who lay quietly in a crib in Les Cayes after being diagnosed with tuberculosis two weeks ago.
“She never eats,” said her grandmother, Marie-Rose Emile, who is caring for the infant since her mother also is ill. Emile is struggling to provide for the baby, saying she has barely harvested any beans, corn or potatoes this year.
Gough, the UNICEF official, said she was discouraged by the dismal numbers of malnutrition and drop in childhood immunizations. She said more outreach services are needed because not enough people are visiting community health centers.
Among those visiting a health center for the first time was 27-year-old Franceline Mileon, who brought her young child after hearing a health official with a bullhorn in her neighborhood announcing that a vaccination program had begun. She sat on a bench, coddling her baby, as she waited for a nurse to weigh her.
Overall, UNICEF said it needs nearly $49 million this year to meet humanitarian needs in Haiti, adding that little of that amount has been pledged. The agency $5.2 million of that amount would go toward nutrition and $4.9 million for health, including childhood immunizations.

Science & Health

Smokers at Greater Risk of Dying from COVID-19 

In marking World No-Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization is urging smokers to quit their habit, warning they are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than non-smokers.     Head of WHO’s Tobacco Control Program, Vinayak Prasad tells VOA a plethora of scientific studies over the past year confirm smokers face a 50%  higher risk of developing severe disease and death from COVID-19.    “It is logical because smoking does compromise on the lung functions and this virus does attack the lungs. So, that is where we see the rational for taking measures to not use tobacco,” he said.    The World Health Organization is urging smokers to join its year-long quit tobacco campaign, which helps countries scale-up their tobacco-control services. These include running national awareness campaigns, opening new cessation clinics, and offering nicotine replacement therapies.   Prasad says it is of utmost importance to make users aware of the risks they run. He says some eight million people will die prematurely this year from tobacco-related illnesses, such as cancers, heart disease and respiratory illnesses. Most of these deaths will occur in low-income countries.   He notes it usually takes decades for these deadly illnesses to develop. Therefore, preventing young people from taking up this habit is essential as that can lead to a life-long addiction.    FILE – Customers puff on e-cigarettes at the Henley Vaporium in New York City, Dec. 18, 2013.He accuses the tobacco industry of targeting young people to get them hooked on their products by offering freebies, such as tickets to concerts, nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes. This, he says has been met with success in many countries. For example, he notes 38% of Indonesia’s teenage boys smoke. “Likewise, in European settings for example, the girls’, the women’s tobacco use is so high, that the male to female difference is no longer there… The industry is continuing to reap all of these benefits they can getting more and more women, targeting the girl child, adolescents from this divide, and then continuing to push their products in developing countries,”  he said.  WHO reports imposing substantial taxes on tobacco products is one of the most effective ways of getting smokers to quit. Other successful smoke-reduction measures include a ban on advertisements and promotions, health warnings on tobacco products and designating areas as smoke-free zones. 

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

‘Tarzan’ Actor Joe Lara Among 7 Presumed Dead in US Plane Crash

All seven passengers aboard a plane, including “Tarzan” actor Joe Lara and his diet guru wife, are presumed dead after it crashed in a lake near the U.S. city of Nashville, authorities said.
The small business jet crashed at around 11:00 am local time Saturday, shortly after taking off from the Smyrna, Tennessee airport for Palm Beach, Florida, Rutherford County Fire & Rescue (RCFR) said on Facebook.
The plane went down into Percy Priest Lake, about 19 kilometers south of Nashville.
The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed seven people had been aboard the plane, CNN reported.
By Saturday night, operations had switched from search and rescue to recovery efforts, RCFR incident commander Captain Joshua Sanders told a press conference.
“We are no longer in an attempt to (look) for live victims at this point so we’re now recovering as much as we can from the crash site,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, RCFR said on Facebook that recovery operations had found “several components of the aircraft as well as human remains” in a debris field about half a mile wide.
Operations would continue until dark and resume Monday morning, RCFR wrote.
Lara played Tarzan in the 1989 television movie “Tarzan in Manhattan.” He later starred in the television series “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures,” which ran from 1996-1997.
His wife Gwen Shamblin Lara, whom he married in 2018, was the leader of a Christian weight-loss group called Weigh Down Ministries. She founded the group in 1986, and then in 1999 founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.
She is survived by two children from a previous marriage, according to a statement posted on the church’s website.