Science & Health

Ghana Records First-Ever Suspected Cases of Marburg Virus Disease

Ghana’s health authorities say they have, for the first time, confirmed two fatal cases of the Marburg virus, a relative of the Ebola virus.

In a statement on Thursday, the Ghana Health Service said the two cases of Marburg Virus Disease (MVD) were detected in the Ashanti region – about 250 kilometers from the capital, Accra.

“Blood samples were sent to the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research,” the statement said, adding, “Preliminary results suggest the infection is due to the Marburg virus.”

Applying standard procedure, the samples have been sent to the Institut Pasteur in Senegal, a World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating center, for confirmation, the statement added.

The two patients from the southern Ashanti region – both deceased and unrelated – showed symptoms that included diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting, the WHO said on its website.

So far, 34 persons have since been quarantined and are being monitored for coming in contact with the two infected persons.

The health directorate in the region, according to the statement, is “currently conducting further investigations on the cases and contacts.”

It would be the second time Marburg is being detected in West Africa, if Ghana’s case is confirmed by the WHO. Guinea confirmed a single case in September 2021.

Marburg virus is transmitted by infected persons or animals from direct contact with body fluids, blood and other discharges from the affected person or animal. The incubation period for the disease is two to 21 days.

The WHO said Marburg is a disease with a case fatality rate of up to 88%.

Prospective patients may suffer from fever, bloody diarrhea, bleeding from gums, bleeding of the skin, bleeding of the eyes and bloody urine.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Film on Hindu Goddess Sparks Anger in India

There is public outrage in India over the depiction of a Hindu goddess that critics say disparages the religious figure.

The image appears in a poster promoting the new short film Kaali by Canadian-based Indian filmmaker Leena Manimekalai. The poster depicts Hindu goddess Kaali smoking a cigarette and holding an LGBTQ+ flag.

After filmmaker Leena Manimekalai shared the poster in a tweet Saturday, the day a museum in Toronto hosted the film’s first showing, the image of the smoking goddess sparked a furor in India with angry Hindus demanding a ban on the film and legal action against the filmmaker.

Monday, the Indian High Commission in Canada said it had received complaints from Hindu community leaders over the “disrespectful depiction of Hindu gods” in the poster, and it urged the Canadian authorities and the event organizers to withdraw all “provocative” materials related to the film.

A day later, the museum issued an apology, saying the film was no longer being shown there, and that it regretted having “inadvertently caused offense to members of the Hindu and other faith communities.”

Manimekalai wrote and directed Kaali as an academic project in her graduate study program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In the film, Manimekalai is an incarnation of the goddess Kaali. Living as a queer female filmmaker in Toronto, she attempts to find belonging in a land stolen from its rightful inhabitants— the First Nations.

As the goddess of death, time and change, the dilemma of the reincarnated goddess in the film finds a resolution only at the end, when it dawns on her that ultimately, the land can be owned by no one; the universe is in a state of constant flux. The promotional poster shows a scene in which, dressed as the goddess Kaali, Manimekalai shares a cigarette with a homeless man.

“When I embody Kaali, I am Kaali myself. My Kaali is queer. She is a free spirit. She spits at the patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva. She destroys capitalism,” Manimekalai told VOA. “She embraces everyone with all her thousand hands.”

Death threats

Manimekalai’s tweet of the poster went viral Saturday with tens of thousands of members of the Hindu community retweeting it with a hashtag reading “Arrest Leena Manimekalai.”

Police cases were filed against her in several states for “hurting the religious sentiments” of Hindus.

One Hindu group said in a police complaint that the depiction of the goddess Kaali in the poster was “completely unacceptable to Hindus” and Manimekalai “deliberately distorted the Hindu religion and culture with malicious intent to insult Hindu religious feelings.”

Manimekalai said she and her family members received death and rape threats from more than 200,000 social media accounts. In a video that surfaced online, a Hindu priest from the north Indian temple town Ayodhya threatened: “Do you want your head to be severed from your body?”

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Manimekalai’s native state in India, police arrested the female leader of a Hindu right-wing group for allegedly threatening her with death. The leader allegedly posted a video online in which she condemned her using strong words and threatened to kill her.

Twitter on Wednesday removed Manimekalai’s poster tweet.

Reacting to Twitter’s action, she said in a tweet, “Will @TwitterIndia withhold the tweets of the 200000 hate mongers?! These lowlife trolls tweeted and spread the very same poster that they find objectionable. Kaali cannot be lynched. Kaali cannot be raped. Kaali cannot be destroyed. She is the goddess of death.”

The filmmaker said that the reaction in India against her film cannot be termed just an “outrage.”

“If a person in the street pounces upon you, it is a crime. If a person violates your body in a public place, it is sexual harassment. If a person throws acid on your face, it is an attempt of murder. If a person uses foul language against you, it is abuse. If a person goes after your family and friends and supporters and threatens them, it is violence. If all this is done by a mob, how can you call it just an ‘outrage’?” she asked.

“How can I report 200000 ids? Where should I report? Who is going to take action? There is no law in India. The Constitution of the country is dead.”

Science & Health

Huge Underground Search for Mysterious Dark Matter Begins

In a former gold mine a mile underground, inside a titanium tank filled with a rare, liquefied gas, scientists have begun the search for what so far has been unfindable: dark matter.

Scientists are pretty sure the invisible stuff makes up most of the universe’s mass and say we wouldn’t be here without it — but they don’t know what it is. The race to solve this enormous mystery has brought one team to the depths under Lead, South Dakota.

The question for scientists is basic, says Kevin Lesko, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: “What is this great place I live in? Right now, 95% of it is a mystery.”

The idea is that a mile of dirt and rock, a giant tank, a second tank and the purest titanium in the world will block nearly all the cosmic rays and particles that zip around — and through — all of us every day. But dark matter particles, scientists think, can avoid all those obstacles. They hope one will fly into the vat of liquid xenon in the inner tank and smash into a xenon nucleus like two balls in a game of pool, revealing its existence in a flash of light seen by a device called “the time projection chamber.”

Scientists announced Thursday that the five-year, $60 million search finally got underway two months ago after a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the device has found nothing. At least no dark matter.

That’s OK, they say. The equipment appears to be working to filter out most of the background radiation they hoped to block.

“To search for this very rare type of interaction, job number one is to first get rid of all of the ordinary sources of radiation, which would overwhelm the experiment,” said University of Maryland physicist Carter Hall.

And if all their calculations and theories are right, they figure they’ll see only a couple fleeting signs of dark matter a year. The team of 250 scientists estimates they’ll get 20 times more data over the next couple of years.

By the time the experiment finishes, the chance of finding dark matter with this device is “probably less than 50% but more than 10%,” said Hugh Lippincott, a physicist and spokesman for the experiment in a Thursday news conference.

While that’s far from a sure thing, “you need a little enthusiasm,” Lawrence Berkeley’s Lesko said. “You don’t go into rare search physics without some hope of finding something.”

Two hulking Depression-era hoists run an elevator that brings scientists to what’s called the LUX-ZEPLIN experiment in the Sanford Underground Research Facility. A 10-minute descent ends in a tunnel with cool-to-the-touch walls lined with netting. But the old, musty mine soon leads to a high-tech lab where dirt and contamination is the enemy. Helmets are exchanged for new, cleaner ones and a double layer of baby blue booties go over steel-toed safety boots.

The heart of the experiment is the giant tank called the cryostat, lead engineer Jeff Cherwinka said in a December 2019 tour before the device was closed and filled. He described it as “like a thermos” made of “perhaps the purest titanium in the world” designed to keep the liquid xenon cold and keep background radiation at a minimum.

Xenon is special, explained Aaron Manalaysay, experiment physics coordinator, because it allows researchers to see if a collision is with one of its electrons or with its nucleus. If something hits the nucleus, it is more likely to be the dark matter that everyone is looking for, he said.

These scientists tried a similar, smaller experiment here years ago. After coming up empty, they figured they had to go much bigger. Another large-scale experiment is underway in Italy run by a rival team, but no results have been announced so far.

The scientists are trying to understand why the universe is not what it seems.

One part of the mystery is dark matter, which has by far most of the mass in the cosmos. Astronomers know it’s there because when they measure the stars and other regular matter in galaxies, they find that there is not nearly enough gravity to hold these clusters together. If nothing else was out there, galaxies would be “quickly flying apart,” Manalaysay said.

“It is essentially impossible to understand our observation of history, of the evolutionary cosmos without dark matter,” Manalaysay said.

Lippincott, a University of California, Santa Barbara, physicist, said “we would not be here without dark matter.”

So while there’s little doubt that dark matter exists, there’s lots of doubt about what it is. The leading theory is that it involves things called WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles.

If that’s the case, LUX-ZEPLIN could be able to detect them. And scientists want to find “where the WIMPs can be hiding,” Lippincott said.

Science & Health

As COVID-19 Cases Rise, New Variant Poses Major Challenge 

Cases of COVID-19 are surging again globally, due in large part to the rise of virus variant Omicron BA.5, which is much more contagious than its predecessors and is able to circumvent existing immunity in many people.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released data indicating that the BA.5 variant is now responsible for more than half of new cases and is poised to continue outcompeting older versions of the Omicron variant that remain in circulation.

The new variant is also carving its path across other countries. In the Americas, Brazil and Mexico are both experiencing upticks. In Europe, cases are on the rise across the continent, including in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Greece, among others. The United Kingdom is experiencing a rise as well.

In Asia, cases are rising in Japan, South Korea and India, among others. Cases are also climbing in Australia and New Zealand.

‘Worst’ variant yet

Public health experts are warning that despite the fact that death rates from COVID-19 remain low in the U.S., the Omicron BA.5 variant remains a major concern. Evidence suggests that a recent prior infection with COVID-19 offers little or no protection against reinfection with the new variant.

During past waves, it has typically been assumed that an individual who had recovered from a bout of COVID-19 would have enhanced immune protection against reinfection for a significant period of time.

“The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen,” Dr. Eric Topol, a member of the Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps Research, wrote in his popular Substack newsletter. “It takes immune escape, already extensive, to the next level, and, as a function of that, enhanced transmissibility, well beyond Omicron (BA.1) and other Omicron family variants that we’ve seen.”

Even though people appear to be less likely to get extremely sick from the new variant, public health experts say that they are concerned about the possibility that as infections increase, more people will come down with lingering symptoms. So-called long COVID, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction and other adverse health events, has been detected in as many as one in five people who survive an infection.

Public health challenge

Rising case counts have public health experts deeply concerned about what will take place in the coming months.

“Right now, the public health stance should be maximizing vaccination, including boosters for those who are eligible and primary vaccination and boosters for children,” David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a public health foundation, told VOA. “That’s the absolutely critical, essential first step in a public health campaign to reduce the impact of COVID. That also should include planning for, we hope, a more specific vaccine in the fall against the Omicron variants.”

Blumenthal said he believed that the threat of long COVID meant that it also makes sense for people to continue wearing masks in public during surges in infection. However, he said he recognized that calling for more restrictions presented a serious challenge to public health officials, who will find themselves trying to persuade a pandemic-weary public to embrace masking again.

“I think that civic leaders — respected, nonmedical leaders, as well as personal physicians — are probably the best communicators at this point,” he said.

US in detail

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, in the 90 days ending on July 6, the average number of daily cases over the previous seven days in the U.S. rose to 106,193, from 34,795. However, the actual number of cases is believed to be far higher, because the prevalence of at-home testing means that the majority of cases are not reported to public health agencies.

The same data set shows that over the same 90-day period, the seven-day average of people hospitalized for COVID-19 rose to 35,637, from 14,904. While that marked a significant upward move in percentage terms, the absolute number of people currently hospitalized for the disease remains far below the more than 807,000 recorded at the peak in January.

Deaths from COVID-19 have actually fallen over the past 90 days, with a seven-day average of 309 recorded on July 6, compared with 507 recorded 90 days earlier. The current death rate remains near all-time lows since the beginning of the pandemic.

China changes direction

In China this week, Beijing became the first major city in the mainland to adopt a vaccination requirement for people to enter public spaces. Starting Monday, individuals will have to provide proof of vaccination to enter a broad range of public buildings in the city.

As recently as September of last year, the Chinese government had been explicitly against mandatory vaccination.

Wu Liangyou, a senior official with the National Health Commission, criticized municipalities that had instituted requirements like those coming into force in the capital, and said that all vaccination programs ought to remain voluntary.

Unlike many other countries, China has pursued what has been called a zero-COVID approach to managing the pandemic. The government has implemented major lockdowns across the country in efforts to slow or stop the spread of the disease.

The city of Xian, in the northwest of the country, is currently locked down because of a major outbreak of the disease caused by the new variant.

China was initially slow to roll out vaccines, even to older members of the population, who remain the most vulnerable to the disease. Now, however, Johns Hopkins data indicate that nearly 90% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Whether Beijing’s decision to mandate vaccination for access to public spaces marks the beginning of a turn away from the lockdown-focused, zero-COVID policy is unclear.