Science & Health

FDA Advisers Back Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine for Older Kids

A government advisory panel Tuesday endorsed a second brand of COVID-19 vaccine for school-age children and teens.

The Food and Drug Administration’s outside experts voted unanimously that Moderna’s vaccine is safe and effective enough to give to kids ages 6 to 17. If the FDA agrees, it would become the second option for those children, joining Pfizer’s vaccine.

The same FDA expert panel will meet Wednesday to consider tot-sized shots from Moderna and Pfizer for the littlest kids, those under 5.

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine has long been available for adults in the U.S. and elsewhere, and more than three dozen countries offer it to older children. If the FDA authorizes Moderna’s vaccine for teens and younger children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will next decide whether to formally recommend the shots.

The Massachusetts company is seeking clearance for two doses and plans to later offer a booster. Tuesday’s vote was only for two doses — full-strength for 12-17 and half-sized doses for those 6-11.

“The data do support that the benefits outweigh the risks for both of these doses, in both of these age groups,” said the CDC’s Dr. Melinda Wharton, a member of the panel.

“I believe that this will provide families an important option” and may be particularly important for families who live in areas where coronavirus spread is increasing, said another panel member, Dr. Ofer Levy of Boston Children’s Hospital.

The FDA held up Moderna’s teen vaccine for months while it investigated a rare side effect, heart inflammation. That’s mostly a risk for teen boys and young men, and also can occur with the Pfizer vaccine. Moderna got extra scrutiny because its shots are a far higher dose.

In their review, FDA scientists said there were no confirmed cases of heart inflammation in Moderna’s kid studies. But experts say the studies may have had too few participants for a rare side effect like that to appear.

“That clearly needs to be watched closely going forward as we expand the use of the vaccine,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a panel member from the University of California, San Diego’s medical school.

As for other side effects, FDA officials said nothing worrisome was reported — mainly sore arms, headache and fatigue.

The FDA analysis concluded that two doses of Moderna are effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 illness in teens and younger kids, with the levels of virus-fighting antibodies comparable to those developed in young adults.

Vaccine effectiveness was estimated at 93% for the teens, and 77% for the younger children, according to the FDA analysis. However, the research was done when earlier versions of the coronavirus were causing most U.S. infections, before more contagious versions emerged. It’s also based on a limited number of COVID-19 cases, making the estimates a bit rough.

A booster shot was added to the studies, and data is expected in about the next month, Moderna officials said. Booster shots are now recommended for children vaccinated with Pfizer’s shots, as well as for all adults.

How much demand there will be for even two Moderna shots isn’t clear. Teens became eligible a year ago for Pfizer’s vaccine, which uses the same technology, and only 60% have gotten two doses. Shots for younger kids started in November; about 29% have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

US Open Will Allow Russian, Belarusian Tennis Players

Citing “concern about holding individual athletes accountable for the actions and decisions of their governments,” the U.S. Tennis Association will let Russian and Belarusian tennis players participate in the U.S. Open later this summer.

Wimbledon will still maintain the ban on those athletes, which will include the world’s No. 1 player, Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev is the defending U.S. Open champion.

Wimbledon starts June 27 in England. The U.S. Open starts August 29 in New York.

Players from Russia and Belarus will participate under a neutral flag.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian athletes have been banned from competing in a variety of sports, including soccer’s World Cup qualifying playoffs.

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

From DRC to NBA, Congolese Player Biyombo Gives Others a Shot at Better Life

Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bismack Biyombo dreamed of playing professional basketball in the United States. His dream has been reality ever since he was drafted into the NBA more than a decade ago. But what he’s doing off the court gives a notable assist to his home country.

The 29-year-old center for Arizona’s Phoenix Suns calls himself “a child of Africa” who “stepped onto a basketball court at the age of 13 in Lubumbashi,” a major city in southeastern DRC. “And I was lucky enough to have, you know, parents that supported me,” he told VOA in an interview at the Suns’ practice facility earlier this spring.

Biyombo credits his father Francois Biyombo and mother Françoise Ngoy with nurturing a spirit of purpose and generosity. They sacrificed to ensure that the eldest of their seven children could play basketball, including when he went to Yemen at 16 to try out for a local team, and later when he joined a club league in Spain. After Biyombo was drafted into the NBA in 2011, they encouraged his giving back.

He has. Bismack Biyombo has donated time and millions of dollars to support education and health care in the DRC, largely through the self-named foundation he started in 2017 in Florida. (Before joining the Phoenix Suns for the 2021-22 season, he played with the Orlando Magic — also in Florida — as well as the Charlotte Hornets in North Carolina and Toronto Raptors in Canada.)

Biyombo heavily funded the Kivu International School, which opened in Goma in 2017. “Each year, we award more than 150 scholarships within the DRC and the U.S.,” he said in a video clip posted on the foundation website. The foundation has brought more than 60 DRC students to the United States to study, he told VOA. Biyombo also hosts free basketball camps each summer in the DRC, equipping youths with new skills, athletic shoes and other gear.

“My job becomes to inspire kids across Congo and make sure that we give all of them an equal opportunity,” he said in the VOA interview.

Biyombo’s foundation has supported Congolese mobile clinics and upgrades to public health facilities. It also provided hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of health care equipment, including face masks and hazmat suits, to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the DRC.

“And now we’ve set bigger goals and we’re going for it,” Biyombo said.

That includes building a Lubumbashi hospital in honor of his father, who died last August at age 61 of complications from COVID-19. Biyombo announced earlier this year that he would donate his salary for the 2021-2022 season — $1.3 million, according to his foundation’s website — toward that mission.

“I want to build my dad a hospital that will continue servicing people, because he believed in one guy, which is me,” Biyombo said. “And now we get to do it for him.”

Such humanitarian gestures are right out of the playbook of retired NBA great Dikembe Mutombo, a Congolese player who, Biyombo said, is “like a big brother.”

Mutombo, who hung up his jersey in 2009 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame six years later, started a foundation in 1997 to aid people, especially those in his native DRC. That foundation’s projects include building the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in his hometown of Kinshasa.

Dr. Joseph Nsambi Bulanda, health minister for Haut Katanga province where Lubumbashi is located, told VOA his government appreciated Biyombo’s offer of a new hospital. Construction has not yet begun.

“We can give him some advice,” Nsambi said, noting his government aims “to improve and to let all Congolese and all people from Haut Katanga province have a very good health system.”

Nsambi said of Biyombo, “He’s someone with very good will.” He added that the public health system in his country – one of the world’s poorest — welcomes an assist. “We need people. We need organizations.”

Biyombo’s generosity has brought him accolades. TIME named him to its 2021 list of Next Generation Leaders. The NBA and health care provider Kaiser Permanente honored him this year with a “community cares” award — and a $10,000 check for his foundation — for his efforts to aid the DRC.

The athlete wants others to benefit from basketball, as he has.

“So many young African American leaders [are] now coming into the NBA that I think the future of Africa there is great,” Biyombo said. He also talked up the Basketball Africa League, a partnership of the NBA and International Basketball Federation (FIBA).

“The reality of the league,” Biyombo said, “is that I think a lot of these kids are given an opportunity to actually stay home” and still prosper in the sport.

“You know, most of the kids want to find a way to escape what’s happening in Africa,” he said. “And you got to give them a reason to stay. I think that’s one thing that motivated me to invest so much in the younger generation. … The more tools we can give to the next generation, they’ll be able to solve more of the problems that we’re dealing with today.

“There is an opportunity to make an impact,” Biyombo said. “And I don’t want to waste it.”

VOA Lingala service’s Eddy Isango contributed to this report.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Refuged in Paris, Kyiv City Ballet Dances On

About 5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to other parts of Europe since Russia’s assault on their homeland began in February. Among them: nearly three dozen dancers from the Kyiv City Ballet. They’ve found refuge in Paris and continue to perform and plan foreign tours, but the conflict is never far away. For VOA, Lisa Bryant has more from Paris.

Science & Health

Polluted Air Cuts Global Life Expectancy by 2 Years

Microscopic air pollution caused mostly by burning fossil fuels shortens lives worldwide by more than two years, researchers reported Tuesday.

Across South Asia, the average person would live five years longer if levels of fine particulate matter met World Health Organization standards, according to a report from the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

In the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, home to 300 million, crippling lung and heart disease caused by so-called PM2.5 pollution reduces life expectancy by eight years, and in the capital city of New Delhi by a decade.

PM2.5 pollution – 2.5 microns across or less, roughly the diameter of a human hair – penetrates deep into the lungs and enters the bloodstream.

In 2013, the United Nations classified it as a cancer-causing agent.

The WHO says PM2.5 density in the air should not top 15 micrograms per cubic meter in any 24-hour period, or 5 mcg/m3 averaged across an entire year.

Faced with mounting evidence of damaging health impacts, the WHO tightened these standards last year, the first change since establishing air quality guidance in 2005.

“Clean air pays back in additional years of life for people across the world,” lead research Crista Hasenkopf and colleagues said in the Air Quality Life Index report.

“Permanently reducing global air pollution to meet the WHO’s guidelines would add 2.2 years onto average life expectancy.”

Major gains in China

Almost all populated regions in the world exceed WHO guidelines, but nowhere more so that in Asia: by 15-fold in Bangladesh, 10-fold in India, and nine-fold in Nepal and Pakistan.

Central and West Africa, along with much of Southeast Asia and parts of central America, also face pollution levels — and shortened lives — well above the global average.

Surprisingly, PM2.5 pollution in 2020, the most recent data available, was virtually unchanged from the year before despite a sharp slow-down in the global economy and a corresponding drop in CO2 emissions due to Covid lockdowns.

“In South Asia, pollution actually rose during the first year of the pandemic,” the authors noted.

One country that has seen major improvements is China.

PM2.5 pollution fell in the nation of 1.4 billion people by almost 40 percent between 2013 and 2020, adding two years to life expectancy.

But even with this progress, lives in China are on average cut short today by 2.6 years.

The worst-hit provinces include Henan and Hebei, in north-central China, and the coastal province of Shandong.

Compared to other causes of premature death, the impact of PM2.5 pollution is comparable to smoking tobacco, more than three times that of alcohol use, and six times that of HIV/AIDS, the report said.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

New Saudi-Sponsored Golf Tour Roils US Golf

A startup professional golf tour backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has roiled the usually staid world of professional golf — the PGA Tour — in the United States.

The PGA suspended 17 professional players last week for participating in the inaugural Saudi tournament, which began June 9.

The new tour, the LIV Golf Invitational Series, has caused controversy for months, in large part because critics of the Saudi regime’s policies claimed it was a way to launder the reputation of the country’s monarchy, particularly that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The crown prince has been held in disrepute internationally since at least 2018, when agents of his government allegedly assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and dismembered his body to hide the evidence. The CIA later concluded that Salman ordered the killing.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who, as a candidate in 2019, declared that Saudi Arabia should be considered a “pariah” state based on its record of human rights abuses, including the Khashoggi killing, is currently attempting a rapprochement with the Saudi regime. He is expected to visit Riyadh in July.

A new approach

The Roman numerals in the new tour’s name — LIV, or 54 — refer to its format. Unlike the traditional PGA Tour, which typically involves four rounds of golf totaling 72 holes, LIV Golf consists of just three rounds, for a total of 54 holes.

LIV Golf markets itself as taking a fresh approach to a sport steeped in history, decorum and understatement. Its tournaments feature loud music, a team format and “shotgun” starts in which all teams begin play at the same time at different holes.

The new tour also offers large purses. On Saturday, South African golfer Charl Schwartzel won the tournament’s top individual prize of $4 million. Schwartzel’s side also won the team competition, splitting an additional $3 million between the four of them.

The Saudis are also reportedly paying top players undisclosed appearance fees, which in some cases might exceed the prize money on offer at specific tournaments.

Indeed, the amount of money the Saudis are pouring into LIV Golf appears be a major reason it has been able to separate well-known players, including Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, from the PGA Tour.

LIV ‘leverage’

Early this year, American golfer Phil Mickelson, one of the most popular and successful players of his generation, sparked anger after a biographer quoted him weighing the pros and cons of playing in the new league.

Characterizing the Saudi leadership as “scary,” Mickelson said, “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”

Mickelson went on to say that he has joined LIV Golf because he saw the new league as a way to force change on the PGA Tour, which he characterized as “manipulative” and “coercive,” toward players.

“The Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” he said.

Mickelson was immediately dropped by a number of high-profile sponsors. He later apologized and withdrew from professional golf for months. However, he was on hand when the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational London tournament kicked off June 9 in Hemel Hempstead, England.

Dueling statements

As the LIV event began, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan sent a letter to the tour members announcing that 17 players had been suspended for their participation. Ten of them had already voluntarily resigned their PGA Tour membership.

“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” a decision, he wrote, that “disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”

He added: “I am certain our fans and partners — who are surely tired of all this talk of money, money and more money — will continue to be entertained and compelled by the world-class competition you display each and every week, where there are true consequences for every shot you take and your rightful place in history whenever you reach that elusive winner’s circle.”

LIV Golf responded immediately with a statement of its own.

“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” it said. “It’s troubling that the Tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing. This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”

‘Staggering’ amount of money

John A. Fortunato, a professor at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, told VOA that the question of “free agency” in golf is not new. Some European players, for example, play in PGA Tour events in the U.S. but also participate in non-PGA events in Europe.

Fortunato, the author of the book Making the Cut: Life Inside the PGA Tour System, also said that freedom from the PGA’s participation rules is probably not the main driver behind some players opting for the LIV, he said.

“The amount of money is staggering,” he said. Indeed, Schwartzel’s $4 million purse in the LIV opener dwarfed the approximately $1.5 million that Rory McIlroy took home for winning a PGA Tour event in Canada on the same weekend.

Television deals and sponsors

Fortunato said the new league’s long-term success will hinge in part on getting television networks to cover its tournaments — a task that will be difficult in the U.S., given that most major broadcast networks as well as cable sports giant ESPN have long-standing relationships with the PGA Tour.

He said another factor will be how two “major” tournaments in the U.S. that are not run by the PGA Tour decide to address the issue of LIV participation.

One of those tournaments, the U.S. Open, begins Thursday, June 16, and appears poised to allow LIV participants to play. But that may be in part because the organizers did not have time to develop a policy toward the new tour.

The next Masters Tournament, held by the Augusta National Golf Club, will not take place until spring 2023. The Masters could prevent LIV participants from playing in Augusta.

“That’s the big domino that I’m watching,” Fortunato said. “And that is the thing that the PGA Tour, I think, is most hoping for.”