Science & Health

Carbon Dioxide Levels in Atmosphere Spike Past Milestone 

The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has shot past a key milestone — more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times — and is at levels not seen since millions of years ago when Earth was a hothouse ocean-inundated planet, federal scientists announced Friday. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said its longtime monitoring station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, averaged 421 parts per million of carbon dioxide for the month of May, which is when the crucial greenhouse gas hits its yearly high.

Before the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million, scientists said, so humans have significantly changed the atmosphere. Some activists and scientists want a level of no more than 350 parts per million.

Industrial carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of coal, oil and gas. This year’s carbon dioxide level is nearly 1.9 ppm more than a year ago, a slightly bigger jump than from May 2020 to May 2021. 

“The world is trying to reduce emissions, and you just don’t see it. In other words, if you’re measuring the atmosphere, you’re not seeing anything happening right now in terms of change,” said NOAA climate scientist Pieter Tans, who tracks global greenhouse gas emissions for the agency. 

Outside scientists said the numbers show a severe climate change problem. 

More heat waves, floods, storms

University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles said without cuts in carbon pollution “we will see ever more damaging levels of climate change, more heat waves, more flooding, more droughts, more large storms and higher sea levels.” 

The slowdown from the pandemic did cut global carbon emissions a bit in 2020, but they rebounded last year. Both changes were small compared with how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere each year, especially considering that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere as long as a thousand years, Tans said. 

The world puts about 10 billion metric tons of carbon in the air each year. Much of it gets drawn down by oceans and plants. That’s why May is the peak for global carbon dioxide emissions. Plants in the Northern Hemisphere start sucking up more carbon dioxide in the summer as they grow.

NOAA said carbon dioxide levels are now about the same as 4.1 million to 4.5 million years ago in the Pliocene Era, when temperatures were 3.9 degrees Celsius hotter and sea levels were 5 to 25 meters higher than now. South Florida, for example, was completely under water. These are conditions that human civilization has never known. 

The reason it was much warmer and seas were higher millions of years ago at the same carbon dioxide level as now is that in the past the natural increase in carbon dioxide levels was far more gradual. With carbon sticking in the air hundreds of years, temperatures heated up over longer periods of time and stayed there. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melted over time, raising sea levels tremendously and making Earth darker and reflecting less heat off the planet, Tans and other scientists said. 

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography calculated levels a bit differently based on time and averaging. They put the May average at 420.8 ppm, slightly lower than NOAA’s figure.

Science & Health

More Than 700 Monkeypox Cases Globally, 21 in US, CDC Says

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday it was aware of more than 700 cases of monkeypox globally, including 21 in the United States, with investigations now suggesting it is spreading inside the country. 

Sixteen of the first 17 cases were among people who identify as men who have sex with men, according to a new CDC report, and 14 were thought to be associated with travel. 

All patients are in recovery or have recovered, and no cases have been fatal. 

“There have also been some cases in the United States that we know are linked to known cases,” Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, told reporters on a call.  

“We also have at least one case in the United States that does not have a travel link or know how they acquired their infection.” 

Monkeypox is a rare disease that is related to but less severe than smallpox, causing a rash that spreads, fever, chills and aches, among other symptoms. 

Generally confined to western and central Africa, cases have been reported in Europe since May, and the number of countries affected has grown since. 

Canada also released new figures Friday, counting 77 confirmed cases — almost all of them detected in Quebec province, where vaccines have been delivered. 

Though its new spread may be linked to particular gay festivals in Europe, monkeypox is not thought to be a sexually transmitted disease, with the main risk factor being close skin-to-skin contact with someone who has monkeypox sores.  

A person is contagious until all the sores have scabbed and new skin is formed. 

‘More than enough vaccine’ 

Raj Panjabi, senior director for the White House’s global health security and biodefense division, added that 1,200 vaccines and 100 treatment courses had been delivered to U.S. states, where they were offered to close contacts of those infected. 

There are currently two authorized vaccines: ACAM2000 and JYNNEOS, which were originally developed against smallpox.  

Though smallpox has been eliminated, the United States retains the vaccines in a strategic national reserve in case it is deployed as a biological weapon.  

JYNNEOS is the more modern of the two vaccines, with fewer side effects. 

“We continue to have more than enough vaccine available,” Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters.  

In late May, the CDC said it had 100 million doses of ACAM200 and 1,000 doses of JYNNEOS available, but O’Connell said Friday the figures had shifted, though she could not divulge precise numbers for strategic reasons. 

The CDC has also authorized two antivirals used to treat smallpox, TPOXX and Cidofovir, to be repurposed to treat monkeypox. 

“Anyone can get monkeypox, and we are carefully monitoring for monkeypox that may be spreading in any population, including those who are not identifying as men who have sex with men,” said McQuiston.  

That being said, the CDC is undertaking special outreach in the LGBT community, she added. 

A suspected case “should be anyone with a new characteristic rash,” or anyone who meets the criteria for high suspicion such as relevant travel, close contact, or being a man who has sex with men.  


Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Special Olympics Drops Vaccine Rule After Threat of $27 Million Fine

The Special Olympics has dropped a coronavirus vaccine mandate for its games in Orlando after Florida moved to fine the organization $27.5 million for violating a state law against such rules. 

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis on Friday announced the organization had removed the requirement for its competition in the state, which is scheduled to run June 5-12. 

“In Florida, we want all of them to be able to compete. We do not think it’s fair or just to be marginalizing some of these athletes based on a decision that has no bearing on their ability to compete with honor or integrity,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Orlando. 

The Florida health department notified the Special Olympics of the fine in a letter Thursday that said the organization would be fined $27.5 million for 5,500 violations of state law for requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for attendees or participants. 

Florida law bars businesses from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination. DeSantis has strongly opposed vaccine mandates and other virus policies endorsed by the federal government. 

In a statement on its website, the Special Olympics said people who were registered but unable to participate because of the mandate can now attend. 


Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Harini Logan Wins US Spelling Bee In 1st-Ever Tiebreaker

Harini Logan was eliminated from the Scripps National Spelling Bee once, then reinstated. She missed four words in a grueling standoff against Vikram Raju, including one that would have given her the title.

In the first-ever lightning-round tiebreaker, Harini finally claimed the trophy.

The 13-year-old eighth grade student from San Antonio, Texas, who competed in the last fully in-person bee three years ago and endured the pandemic to make it back, spelled 21 words correctly during a 90-second spell-off, beating Vikram by six.

Harini, one of the best-known spellers entering the bee and a crowd favorite for her poise and positivity, wins more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.

Perhaps no champion has ever had more final-round flubs, but Harini was no less deserving.

She is the fifth Scripps champion to be coached by Grace Walters, a former speller, fellow Texan and student at Rice University who is considering bowing out of the coaching business. If so, she will depart on top.

The key moment came during the bee’s much-debated multiple-choice vocabulary round, when Harini defined the word “pullulation” as the nesting of mating birds. Scripps said the correct answer was the swarming of bees.

But wait!

“We did a little sleuthing after you finished, which is what our job is, to make sure we’ve made the right decision,” head judge Mary Brooks said to Harini. “We (did) a little deep dive in that word and actually the answer you gave to that word is considered correct, so we’re going to reinstate you.”

From there, Harini breezed into the finals against Vikram. They each spelled two words correctly. Then Scripps brought out the toughest words of the night.

Both misspelled. Then Vikram missed again and Harini got “sereh” right, putting her one word away from the title. The word was “drimys,” and she got it wrong.

Two more rounds, two more misspelled words by each, and Scripps brought out the podium and buzzer for the lightning round that all the finalists had practiced for in the mostly empty ballroom hours earlier.

Harini was faster and sharper throughout, and the judges’ final tally confirmed her victory.

The last fully in-person version of the bee had no tiebreaker and ended in an eight-way tie. The 2020 bee was canceled because of the pandemic, and in 2021 it was mostly virtual, with only 11 finalists gathering in Florida as Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American champion.

The changes continued this year with Scripps ending its deal with longtime partner ESPN and producing its own telecast for its networks ION and Bounce, with actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton as host. The transition was bumpy at times, with long and uneven commercial breaks that broke up the action and audio glitches that exposed the inner workings of the broadcast to the in-person crowd.

The bee itself was leaner, with fewer than half the participants it had in 2019 because of sponsors dropping out and the end of a wild-card program. And spellers had to answer vocabulary questions live on stage for the first time, resulting in several surprising eliminations during the semifinals.

Harini bowing out on a vocabulary word was briefly the biggest shock of all. Then she was back on stage, and at the end, she was still there.

Science & Health

US Prepares for Launch of COVID Vaccines for Under-5s 

American children under age 5 could receive their first COVID-19 vaccines as early as June 21, the White House’s top COVID official said Thursday — if the two vaccines under review are approved by both U.S. government bodies responsible for such authorizations.

“We know that many, many parents are eager to vaccinate their youngest kids,” said White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. “And it’s important to do this right. And that’s what this process has been all about.”

Starting Friday, he said, the federal government will make 10 million doses available for order by states, pharmacies, community health centers and federal entities. Once the Food and Drug Administration approves the vaccine, those doses can be shipped, and once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives its approval, children can start to get vaccinated. He predicted that if the process unfolds smoothly, children could begin receiving shots on June 21.

Currently, only children 5 or older are eligible for two-dose vaccines and for booster shots. If the vaccine is approved, the doses will be smaller than adult doses, Jha said, and the government has encouraged suppliers to make vaccinations available outside work and school hours, so parents can easily access them.

“We are prepared,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “We’re working with states, local health departments, pediatricians, family doctors, other health providers and pharmacies to get ready, as we did with kids that are between 5 and 11. So we want to make sure that we get this done swiftly but also safely and … follow CDC recommendations.”

Last month, during the Quad leaders summit in Tokyo, the U.S. committed to providing COVID-19 boosters and pediatric doses to countries in greatest need, including in the Indo-Pacific. But it’s not clear whether the administration has firm plans to donate the vaccines for young children at this point.

“One of the things that the Quad partners are committed to is making sure that doses are safe and effective, and not trying to do anything to try and prejudge the approval process,” a senior administration official told VOA.

Moderna asked for authorization for pediatric vaccines in late April; Pfizer asked last month. The most recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 18% of parents of under-5 children will get their children vaccinated quickly. But 38% say they will wait and observe how others take the vaccine. And another 38% say they will either “definitely not” pursue the vaccine or will do so only if required.

Johns Hopkins University, a leading tracker of the pandemic, notes that parental uptake of child vaccinations has been “stubbornly slow,” with less than 30% of children receiving the vaccine.

“The consistent message throughout the pandemic has been that the virus is mild for children,” said Rupali Limaye, deputy director of the International Vaccine Access Center.

The CDC emphasizes that the child-sized vaccine is safe and effective.

While severe cases among children are less prevalent than among adults, the CDC notes that since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has taken the lives of 479 American children under age 5.

Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.