Science & Health
0 Comments

WHO: COVID-19 Cases Rising Nearly Everywhere Around World

The number of new coronavirus cases rose by 18% in the last week, with more than 4.1 million cases reported globally, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly report on the pandemic that the worldwide number of deaths remained similar to the week before, at about 8,500. COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

The biggest weekly rise in new COVID-19 cases was seen in the Middle East, where they increased by 47%, according to the report released late Wednesday. Infections rose by about 32% in Europe and Southeast Asia, and by about 14% in the Americas, WHO said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said cases were on the rise in 110 countries, mostly driven by the omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.

“This pandemic is changing, but it’s not over,” Tedros said this week during a press briefing. He said the ability to track COVID-19’s genetic evolution was “under threat” as countries relaxed surveillance and genetic sequencing efforts, warning that would make it more difficult to catch emerging and potentially dangerous new variants.

He called for countries to immunize their most vulnerable populations, including health workers and people older than 60, saying that hundreds of millions remain unvaccinated and at risk of severe disease and death.

Tedros said that while more than 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, the average immunization rate in poor countries is about 13%.

“If rich countries are vaccinating children from as young as 6 months old and planning to do further rounds of vaccination, it is incomprehensible to suggest that lower-income countries should not vaccinate and boost their most at-risk [people],” he said.

According to figures compiled by Oxfam and the People’s Vaccine Alliance, fewer than half of the 2.1 billion vaccines promised to poorer countries by the Group of Seven large economies have been delivered.

Earlier this month, the United States authorized COVID-19 vaccines for infants and preschoolers, rolling out a national immunization plan targeting 18 million of the youngest children.

American regulators also recommended that some adults get updated boosters in the fall that match the latest coronavirus variants.

0
Science & Health
0 Comments

US Supreme Court Limits EPA in Curbing Power Plant Emissions

In a blow to the fight against climate change, the Supreme Court on Thursday limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.

The court’s ruling could complicate the administration’s plans to combat climate change. Its proposal to regulate power plant emissions is expected by the end of the year.

President Joe Biden aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output.

The justices heard arguments in the case on the same day that a United Nations panel’s report warned that the effects of climate change are about to get much worse, likely making the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the coming years.

The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That plan would have required states to reduce emissions from the generation of electricity, mainly by shifting away from coal-fired plants.

But that plan never took effect. Acting in a lawsuit filed by West Virginia and others, the Supreme Court blocked it in 2016 by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives in the majority.

With the plan on hold, the legal fight over it continued. But after President Donald Trump took office, the EPA repealed the Obama-era plan. The agency argued that its authority to reduce carbon emissions was limited and it devised a new plan that sharply reduced the federal government’s role in the issue.

New York, 21 other mainly Democratic states, the District of Columbia and some of the nation’s largest cities sued over the Trump plan. The federal appeals court in Washington ruled against both the repeal and the new plan, and its decision left nothing in effect while the new administration drafted a new policy.

Adding to the unusual nature of the high court’s involvement, the reductions sought in the Obama plan by 2030 already have been achieved through the market-driven closure of hundreds of coal plants.

Power plant operators serving 40 million people called on the court to preserve the companies’ flexibility to reduce emissions while maintaining reliable service. Prominent businesses that include Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Tesla also backed the administration.

Nineteen mostly Republican-led states and coal companies led the fight at the Supreme Court against broad EPA authority to regulate carbon output.

0
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

Instagram Hides Some Posts That Mention Abortion

Instagram is blocking posts that mention abortion from public view, in some cases requiring its users to confirm their age before letting them view posts that offer up information about the procedure. 

Over the last day, several Instagram accounts run by abortion rights advocacy groups have found their posts or stories hidden with a warning that described the posts as “sensitive content.” Instagram said it was working to fix the problem Tuesday, describing it as a bug. 

In one example, Instagram covered a post on a page with more than 25,000 followers that shared text reading: “Abortion in America How You Can Help.” The post went on to encourage followers to donate money to abortion organizations and to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion. 

The post was covered with a warning from Instagram, reading “This photo may contain graphic or violent content.” 

Instagram’s latest snafu follows an Associated Press report that Facebook and Instagram were deleting posts that offered to mail abortion pills to women living in states that now ban abortion procedures. The tech platforms said they were deleting the posts because they violated policies against selling or gifting certain products, including pharmaceuticals, drugs and firearms. 

Yet, the AP’s review found that similar posts offering to mail a gun or marijuana were not removed by Facebook. The company did not respond to questions about the discrepancy. 

Berlin photographer Zoe Noble runs the Instagram page whose post referencing abortion was blocked for viewing. The page, which celebrates women who decide not to have children, has been live for over a year. Monday was the first time a post mentioning abortion was restricted by Instagram, although Noble has mentioned it many times before. 

“I was really confused because we’ve never had this happen before, and we’ve talked about abortion before,” Noble said. “I was really shocked that the word abortion seemed to be flagged.” 

The platform offers no way for users to dispute the restriction. 

The AP identified nearly a dozen other posts that mentioned the word “abortion” and were subsequently covered up by Instagram. All of the posts were informational in nature, and none of the posts featured photos of abortions. An Instagram post by an AP reporter that asked people if they were experiencing the problem was also covered by the company on Tuesday and required users to enter their age in order to view it. 

The AP inquired about the problem on Tuesday morning. Hours later, Instagram’s communication department acknowledged the problem on Twitter, describing it as a glitch. A spokesman for Instagram-owner Meta Platforms Inc. said in an email that the company does not place age restrictions around its abortion content. 

“We’re hearing that people around the world are seeing our ‘sensitivity screens,’ on many different types of content when they shouldn’t be. We’re looking into this bug and working on a fix now,” the company tweeted. 

Tech companies like Meta can hide details about how posts or keywords have been promoted or hidden from view, said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor at Cornell University who studies social media. 

“This can all take place behind the scenes, and it can be attributed to a glitch,” Duffy said. “We don’t know what happened. That’s what’s chilling about this.

0
Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business
0 Comments

Drag and Size-Inclusive Fashion on Display for Pride Month

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride month. In the Western U.S. city of Denver, a museum exhibition features fashions from the gender-inclusive DCR Studios. VOA correspondent Scott Stearns caught up with designer Darlene Ritz at the show.
Videographers: Scott Stearns, Jodi Westrum

0
Science & Health
0 Comments

Fears of Cholera Outbreak Surface in Ukraine

As Russia pounds Ukrainian cities to rubble, water and sewer systems have broken down in some places. The British Defense Ministry says Mariupol is at risk of a major cholera outbreak. Just how big the threat is, though, is not clear. Scientists disagree over where the strains of cholera that can cause a major outbreak come from, and whether they are present in Ukraine currently. Producer:  Steve Baragona

0
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

Scientists’ Model Uses Google Search Data to Forecast COVID Hospitalizations

Future waves of COVID-19 might be predicted using internet search data, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the study, researchers watched the number of COVID-related Google searches made across the country and used that information, together with conventional COVID-19 metrics such as confirmed cases, to predict hospital admission rates weeks in advance.

Using the search data provided by Google Trends, scientists were able to build a computational model to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations. Google Trends is an online portal that provides data on Google search volumes in real time.

“If you have a bunch of people searching for ‘COVID testing sites near me’ … you’re going to still feel the effects of that downstream at the hospital level in terms of admissions,” said data scientist Philip Turk of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “That gives health care administrators and leaders advance warning to prepare for surges — to stock up on personal protective equipment and staffing and to anticipate a surge coming at them.”

For predictions one or two weeks in advance, the new computer model stacks up well against existing ones. It beats the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “national ensemble” forecast, which combines models made by many research teams — though there are some single models that outperform it.

Different perspective

According to study co-author Shihao Yang, a data scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the new model’s value is its unique perspective — a data source that is independent of conventional metrics. Yang is working to add the new model to the CDC’s COVID-19 forecasting hub.

Watching trends in how often people Google certain terms, like “cough” or “COVID-19 vaccine,” could help fill in the gaps in places with sparse testing or weak health care systems.

Yang also thinks that his model will be especially useful when new variants pop up. It did a good job of predicting spikes in hospitalizations thought to be associated with new variants such as omicron, without the time delays typical of many other models.

“It’s like an earthquake,” Yang said. “Google search will tell me a few hours ahead that a tsunami is hitting. … A few hours is enough for me to get prepared, allocate resources and inform my staff. I think that’s the information that we are providing here. It’s that window from the earthquake to when the tsunami hit the shore where my model really shines.”

The model considers Google search volumes for 256 COVID-19-specific terms, such as “loss of taste,” “COVID-19 vaccine” and “cough,” together with core statistics like case counts and vaccination rates. It also has temporal and spatial components — terms representing the delay between today’s data and the future hospitalizations it predicts, and how closely connected different states are.

Every week, the model retrains itself using the past 56 days’ worth of data. This keeps the model from being weighed down by older data that don’t reflect how the virus acts now.

Turk previously developed a different model to predict COVID-19 hospitalizations on a local level for the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area. The new model developed by Yang and his colleagues uses a different method and is the first to make state- and national-level predictions using search data.

Turk was surprised by “just how harmonious” the result was with his earlier work.

“I mean, they’re basically looking at two different models, two different paths,” he said. “It’s a great example of science coming together.”

Using Google search data to make public health forecasts has downsides. For one, Google could stop allowing researchers to use the data at any time, something Yang admits is concerning to his colleagues.

‘Noise’ in searches

Additionally, search data are messy, with lots of random behavior that researchers call “noise,” and the quality varies regionally, so the information needs to be smoothed out during analysis using statistical methods.

Local linguistic quirks can introduce problems because people from different regions sometimes use different words to describe the same thing, as can media coverage when it either raises or calms pandemic fears, Yang said. Privacy protections also introduce complications — user data are aggregated and injected with extra noise before publishing, a protection that makes it impossible to fish out individual users’ information from the public dataset.

Running the model with search data alone didn’t work as well as the model with search data and conventional metrics. Taking out search data and using only conventional COVID-19 metrics to make predictions also hurt the new model’s performance. This indicates that, for this model, the magic is in the mix — both conventional COVID-19 metrics and Google Trends data contain information that is useful for predicting hospitalizations.

“The fact that the data is valuable, and [the] data [is] difficult to process are two independent questions. There [is] information in there,” Yang said. “I can talk to my mom about this. It’s very simple, just intuitive. … If we are able to capture that intuition, I think that’s what makes things work.”

0
Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
0 Comments

Biden Offers Alternative to China Development Juggernaut at G7 Summit

This week, the Group of Seven leaders launched a $600 billion global infrastructure initiative they say will compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Telfs, Austria, with reporting from Patsy Widakuswara in Washington.

0