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‘Pandemic Phase’ Over for US, but COVID-19 Still Here, Fauci Says

Dr. Anthony Fauci has given an upbeat assessment of the current state of the coronavirus in the United States, saying the country is “out of the pandemic phase” with regard to new infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and that it appears to be making a transition to COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease — occurring regularly in certain areas. 

Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said on the PBS NewsHour on Tuesday that the coronavirus remains a pandemic for much of the world. The threat is not over for the United States, he said, adding that he was speaking about the worst phase of the pandemic. 

“Namely, we don’t have 900,000 new infections a day and tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now,” he said. 

In comments Wednesday to The Washington Post, however, Fauci seemed to clarify his earlier remarks, saying that unlike the “full-blown, explosive pandemic phase” during the brutal winter omicron surge, he was describing what appears to be a period of transition toward COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease. 

“The world is still in a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t anybody get any misinterpretation of that. We are still experiencing a pandemic,” Fauci told the Post. 

His comments came as health authorities wrestle with how to keep COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations manageable and learn to live with what’s still a mutating and unpredictable virus.  

The Biden administration has stressed that the nation has more tools — vaccinations, booster shots and medications — to better handle infections than earlier in the pandemic. 

U.S. cases are far lower than they were in recent months. But health officials are keeping a close eye as highly contagious variants continue to spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cases have risen about 25% in the past week. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the U.S. has recorded more than 81 million cases and more than 992,000 deaths.

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Major Japan Railway Now Powered Only by Renewable Energy

Tokyo’s Shibuya is famed for its Scramble Crossing, where crowds of people crisscross the intersection in a scene symbolizing urban Japan’s congestion and anonymity. It may have added another boasting right.

Tokyu Railways’ trains running through Shibuya and other stations were switched to power generated only by solar and other renewable sources starting April 1.

That means the carbon dioxide emissions of Tokyu’s sprawling network of seven train lines and one tram service now stand at zero, with green energy being used at all its stations, including for vending machines for drinks, security camera screens and lighting.

Tokyu, which employs 3,855 people and connects Tokyo with nearby Yokohama, is the first railroad operator in Japan to have achieved that goal. It says the carbon dioxide reduction is equivalent to the annual average emissions of 56,000 Japanese households.

Nicholas Little, director of railway education at Michigan State University’s Center for Railway Research and Education, commends Tokyu for promoting renewable energy but stressed the importance of boosting the bottom-line amount of that renewable energy.

“I would stress the bigger impacts come from increasing electricity generation from renewable sources,” he said. “The long-term battle is to increase production of renewable electricity and provide the transmission infrastructure to get it to the places of consumption.”

The technology used by Tokyu’s trains is among the most ecologically friendly options for railways. The other two options are batteries and hydrogen power.

And so is it just a publicity stunt, or is Tokyu moving in the right direction?

Ryo Takagi, a professor at Kogakuin University and specialist in electric railway systems, believes the answer isn’t simple because how train technology evolves is complex and depends on many uncertain societal factors.

In a nutshell, Tokyu’s efforts are definitely not hurting and are probably better than doing nothing. They show the company is taking up the challenge of promoting clean energy, he said.

“But I am not going out of my way to praise it as great,” Takagi said.

Bigger gains would come from switching from diesel trains in rural areas to hydrogen powered lines and from switching gas-guzzling cars to electric, he said.

Tokyu paid an undisclosed amount to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility behind the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, for certification vouching for its use of renewables, even as Japan continues to use coal and other fossil fuels.

“We don’t see this as reaching our goal but just a start,” said Assistant Manager Yoshimasa Kitano at Tokyu’s headquarters, a few minutes’ walk from the Scramble Crossing.

Such steps are crucial for Japan, the world’s sixth-biggest carbon emitter, to attain its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

About 20% of Japan’s electricity comes from renewable sources, according to the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a Tokyo-based independent non-profit research organization.

That lags way behind New Zealand, for instance, where 84% of power used comes from renewable energy sources. New Zealand hopes to make that 100% by 2035.

The renewable sources driving Tokyu trains include hydropower, geothermal power, wind power and solar power, according to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that provides the electricity and tracks its energy sourcing.

Tokyu has more than 100 kilometers (64 miles) of railway tracks serving 2.2 million people a day, including commuting “salarymen” and “salarywomen” and schoolchildren in uniforms.

Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, when a tsunami set off by a massive earthquake sent three reactors into meltdowns, Japan has shut down most of its nuclear plants and ramped up use of coal-fired power plants.

The country aims to have 36%-38% of its energy come from renewable sources by 2030, while slashing overall energy use.

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Musk’s Twitter Ambitions Likely to Collide with Europe’s Tech Rules 

A hands-off approach to moderating content at Elon Musk’s Twitter could clash with ambitious new laws in Europe meant to protect users from disinformation, hate speech and other harmful material. 

Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” pledged to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, with European Union officials and digital campaigners quick to say that any focus on free speech to the detriment of online safety would not fly after the 27-nation bloc solidified its status as a global leader in the effort to rein in the power of tech giants.

“If his approach will be ‘just stop moderating it,’ he will likely find himself in a lot of legal trouble in the EU,” said Jan Penfrat, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi.

Musk will soon be confronted with Europe’s Digital Services Act, which will require big tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook parent Meta to police their platforms more strictly or face billions in fines.

Other crackdowns

Officials agreed just days ago on the landmark legislation, expected to take effect by 2024. It’s unclear how soon it could spark a similar crackdown elsewhere, with U.S. lawmakers divided on efforts to address competition, online privacy, disinformation and more.

That means the job of reining in a Musk-led Twitter could fall to Europe — something officials signaled they’re ready for.

“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding,” Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, tweeted Tuesday. “Mr Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”

Musk’s plans for Twitter haven’t been fleshed out beyond a few ideas for new features, opening its algorithm to public inspection and defeating “bots” posing as real users.

France’s digital minister, Cedric O, said Musk has “interesting things” that he wants to push for Twitter, “but let’s remember that #DigitalServicesAct — and therefore the obligation to fight misinformation, online hate, etc. — will apply regardless of the ideology of its owner.” 

EU Green Party lawmaker Alexandra Geese, who was involved in negotiating the law, said, “Elon Musk’s idea of free speech without content moderation would exclude large parts of the population from public discourse,” such as women and people of color. 

Twitter declined to comment. Musk tweeted that “the extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.” He added that by free speech, he means “that which matches the law” and that he’s against censorship going “far beyond the law.” 

The United Kingdom also has an online safety law in the works that threatens senior managers at tech companies with prison if they don’t comply. Users would get more power to block anonymous trolls, and tech companies would be forced to proactively take down illegal content. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office stressed the need for Twitter to remain “responsible” and protect users. 

“Regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be responsible,” Johnson spokesman Max Blain said Tuesday. 

Need seen for cleanup

Damian Collins, a British lawmaker who led a parliamentary committee working on the bill, said that if Musk really wants to make Twitter a free speech haven, “he will need to clean up the digital town square.” 

Collins said Twitter has become a place where users are drowned out by coordinated armies of “bot” accounts spreading disinformation and division and that users refrain from expressing themselves “because of the hate and abuse they will receive.” 

The laws in the U.K. and EU target such abuse. Under the EU’s Digital Services Act, tech companies must put in place systems so illegal content can be easily flagged for swift removal. 

Experts said Twitter will have to go beyond taking down clearly defined illegal content like hate speech, terrorism and child sexual abuse and grapple with material that falls into a gray zone. 

The law includes requirements for big tech platforms to carry out annual risk assessments to determine how much their products and design choices contribute to the spread of divisive material that can affect issues like health or public debate. 

“This is all about assessing to what extent your users are seeing, for example, Russian propaganda in the context of the Ukraine war,” online harassment or COVID-19 misinformation, said Mathias Vermeulen, public policy director at data rights agency AWO. 

Violations would incur fines of up to 6% of a company’s global annual revenue. Repeat offenders can be banned from the EU.

More openness 

The Digital Services Act also requires tech companies to be more transparent by giving regulators and researchers access to data on how their systems recommend content to users. 

Musk has similar thoughts, saying his plans include “making the algorithms open source to increase trust.” 

Penfrat said it’s a great idea that could pave the way to a new ecosystem of ranking and recommendation options. 

But he panned another Musk idea — “authenticating all humans” — saying that taking away anonymity or pseudonyms from people, including society’s most marginalized, was the dream of every autocrat.

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Elon Musk Quest to Scrap Deal Over 2018 Tweets is Rejected

Elon Musk’s request to scrap a settlement with securities regulators over 2018 tweets claiming he had the funding to take Tesla private was denied by a federal judge in New York.

Judge Lewis Liman on Wednesday also denied a motion to nullify subpoenas of Musk seeking information about possible violations of his settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Musk had asked the court to throw out the settlement, which required that his tweets be approved by a Tesla attorney. The SEC is investigating whether the Tesla CEO violated the settlement with tweets last November asking Twitter followers if he should sell 10% of his Tesla stock.

The whole dispute stems from an October 2018 agreement with the SEC in which Musk and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million in civil fines over Musk’s tweets about having the money to take Tesla private at $420 per share.

The funding was far from secured and the electric vehicle company remains public, but Tesla’s stock price jumped. The settlement specified governance changes, including Musk’s ouster as board chairman, as well as pre-approval of his tweets.

Musk attorney Alex Spiro contended in court motions that the SEC was trampling on Musk’s right to free speech.

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WHO: Congo Starts Ebola Vaccinations to Stem Outbreak in Northwest

The Democratic Republic of Congo has kicked off Ebola vaccinations to stem an outbreak in the northwest city of Mbandaka, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday. 

Two people are known to have died so far in the city of over one million inhabitants where people live in close proximity to road, water and air links to the capital Kinshasa. 

The first death occurred on April 21 and the second on Tuesday, marking the central African country’s 14th Ebola outbreak.  

Around 200 doses of the rVSV-ZEBOV Ebola vaccine have been shipped to Mbandaka from the eastern city of Goma, with more to be delivered in coming days, the WHO said in a statement. 

So far 233 contacts have been identified and are being monitored, it added. 

Three vaccination teams are on the ground and will focus on reaching all people at high risk. 

“With effective vaccines at hand and the experience of the Democratic Republic of the Congo health workers in Ebola response, we can quickly change the course of this outbreak for the better,” WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti said in the statement. 

Congo’s equatorial forests are a natural reservoir for the Ebola virus, which was discovered near the Ebola River in northern Congo in 1976. 

The country has seen 13 previous Ebola outbreaks, including one in 2018-2020 in the east that killed nearly 2,300 people, the second highest toll recorded in the history of the hemorrhagic fever. 

The most recent ended in December in the east and caused six deaths. Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province, has also contended with outbreaks in 2018 and in 2020.

Genetic testing has shown that the current outbreak was a new “spillover event,” meaning it was transmitted from infected animals rather than linked to previous events. 

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