Science & Health

Share of Cases of COVID-19 Variants Nearly Doubles in US; Europe Warns of Rise 

U.S. health regulators Friday estimated that BQ.1 and closely related BQ.1.1 accounted for 16.6% of coronavirus variants in the country, nearly doubling from last week, while Europe expects them to become the dominant variants in a month. 

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said the variants are likely to drive up cases in the coming weeks to months in the European region. 

The two variants are descendants of Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant, which is the dominant form of the coronavirus in the United States. Regulators in Europe and the U.S. have recently authorized vaccine boosters that target it. 

There is no evidence yet that BQ.1 is linked with increased severity compared with the circulating Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, European officials said, but warned it may evade some immune protection, citing laboratory studies in Asia. 

“These variants [BQ.1 and BQ.1.1] can quite possibly lead to a very bad surge of illness this winter in the U.S. as it’s already starting to happen in Europe and the U.K.,” said Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher at the Mayo Clinic. 

In the U.S., weekly cases have been falling recently, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The amount of coronavirus found in wastewater samples tested by Biobot Analytics has been basically flat around the United States over the last six weeks. Wastewater samples often predict possible spikes in COVID-19 ahead of the CDC data. 

New variants are monitored closely by regulators and vaccine manufacturers in case they start to evade protection offered by current shots. 

The World Health Organization this week said BQ.1.1 is circulating in at least 29 countries. 

The U.S. CDC said Friday that BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 last week were estimated to make up 9.4% of circulating variants. 

Science & Health

As Leaders Meet, Chinese Hope for End to ‘Zero-COVID’ Limits

As China’s ruling Communist Party holds a congress this week, many Beijing residents are focused on an issue not on the formal agenda: Will the end of the meeting bring an easing of the at times draconian “zero-COVID” policies that are disrupting lives and the economy?

It appears to be wishful thinking. As the world moves to a post-pandemic lifestyle, many across China have resigned themselves to lining up several times a week for COVID-19 tests, restrictions on their travels to other regions, and the ever-present possibility of a community lockdown.

“There is nothing we can do,” Zhang Yiming, 51, said this week at a park in Beijing. “If we look at the situation abroad, like the United States where over 1 million people have died, right? In China, although it is true that some aspects of our life are not convenient, such as travel and economy, it seems that there is no good solution.”

People are looking to the party congress, which ends Saturday, for two reasons. The meeting, which is held every five years and sets the national agenda for the next five, can send signals of possible changes in policy direction.

Secondly, authorities always tighten controls — COVID-19 and otherwise — before and during a major event to try to eliminate disruptions or distractions, so they could relax controls when the event ends.

Any hopes for an easing, though, appear to have been dashed before the congress. The Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, published a series of opinion pieces on the effectiveness of China’s “zero-COVID” approach, and health officials said last week China must stick with it.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, praised the policy at the opening ceremony of the congress. He said it had prioritized and protected people’s health and safety and made a “tremendous achievement in striking the balance between epidemic response and economic and social development.”

After an initial outbreak in early 2020 that killed more than 4,000 people and overflowed hospitals and morgues, China was largely successful in taming the virus while other countries were overwhelmed with it — a contrast trumpeted in Communist Party propaganda.

Then came omicron in late 2021. China had to employ ever more widespread restrictions to control the faster-spreading variant, locking down entire cites and starting regular testing of practically the entire population of 1.4 billion people.

The measures have bred simmering discontent, fed by instances of harsh enforcement that in some cases had tragic consequences.

During a two-month lockdown of Shanghai last spring, videos widely shared on social media showed officials breaking down apartment doors to drag unwilling residents to quarantine facilities. Children were also separated from their parents, because one or the other was infected.

Instances of hospitals denying treatment because of pandemic rules sparked outrage, including a woman in labor who lost her baby after she wasn’t allowed into a hospital during a lockdown of the city of Xi’an because she couldn’t show a negative COVID-19 test result.

While public protests are relatively rare in China, some people took to the streets in Shanghai and Dandong to protest harsh and prolonged lockdowns.

Last week, three days before the congress opened, banners were flung over an elevated roadway calling for Xi’s overthrow and an end to the “zero-COVID” policy. The incident spilled over into at least one other city, where photos shared on Twitter showed similar statements posted on a bus stop in the city of Xi’an.

Andy Chen, senior analyst at Trivium China, a Beijing-headquartered policy consultancy, said restrictions beyond the party congress should come as no surprise.

“All the conditions that have forced the government to put zero-COVID in place haven’t really changed,” he said, singling out the lack of an effective vaccine and the absence of sound home quarantine rules.

Even though vaccines are widely available, China’s homegrown versions don’t work as well as the Pfizer, Moderna and other shots developed elsewhere. China also has resisted vaccine mandates, keeping down vaccination rates. As of mid-October, 90% had received two shots, but only 57% had a booster shot.

Beijing authorities have doubled down on the hardline coronavirus policies during the congress.

Highway checkpoints into the city are heavily policed, with all entrants required to show a “green” code on a mobile phone app to prove they haven’t traveled to medium or high-risk areas.

Some express commuter bus lines between Beijing and neighboring Tianjin city and Hebei province have been suspended since Oct. 12.

Anyone who has been in a city, district, or neighborhood where even one case of coronavirus has been found within seven days is banned from entering the Chinese capital.

Within the city, the daily lives of residents are dictated by their health codes. They must use an app to scan the QR code of any facility they enter to show their status and log their whereabouts.

Without a green code and a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours, people are not allowed into office buildings, shopping malls, restaurants and other public places. The policy means most of Beijing’s 21 million-plus residents take a coronavirus test at least two to three times a week.

And there is always the risk of a sudden lockdown. Officials in hazmat suits guarded entries to gated communities this week in Fengtai district, where five neighborhoods have been categorized as high-risk. Residents were not allowed to leave their compounds, and some shops were forced to close.

While the party congress has not provided the watershed moment that some have been hoping for, it may turn out to be the point at which the government begins to lay the groundwork for a long process of loosening restrictions, said Dr. Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University and an expert on public health in China.

Some factors suggest the government will be in no rush to open up, including a broad acceptance of the policy among those who are inconvenienced but have not experienced prolonged or repeated lockdowns.

“The vast, vast majority of the population goes on with their lives, unaffected, and that’s a much better policy from the government perspective to implement than, for example, forcing a vaccine mandate through the population,” Chen said.

But Huang noted signs of social instability, especially among the middle class and urban residents.

“I think the question is whether it has reached a tipping point that people really find this is not acceptable anymore,” he said. “We cannot tolerate that anymore. It remains to be seen even in the large cities, you know, how people are willing to tolerate draconian measures.”

Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology

Companies Weigh Fallout From US Ban on Sending Chip Tech to China

The Biden administration’s announcement earlier this month that it would ban the transfer of advanced U.S. semiconductor technology to China continues to reverberate through global markets. The ruling by the Department of Commerce affects not only U.S. firms that sell to China but any company whose products contain American semiconductor technology.

In mainland China, according to Bloomberg News, officials from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology have been summoning executives from domestic semiconductor manufacturers to assess how being deprived of high-tech manufacturing tools from overseas would impact their businesses. And companies that rely on imports of high-end semiconductors are assessing the viability of their businesses going forward.

In the U.S., semiconductor companies and other tech firms that count China among their largest single markets are facing potentially severe damage to their revenues. Other companies that manufacture tech products in China are having to recall U.S. employees because the ban also bars “U.S. persons” from supporting technology covered by the ban.

Internationally, large chipmakers, such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and South Korea’s Samsung, as well as Netherlands-based ASML, which makes chip manufacturing equipment, are reassessing their business with China as they explore how deeply the new rules will cut into their sales.

“It really is reshaping the market,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Koreans, the Taiwanese and some American companies are really nervous about it. I mean, everyone’s asking, ‘What can I still sell to China?’ And in some cases, the answer is ‘nothing,'” he told VOA.

Targeting China’s military

The Biden administration has characterized the ban as a national security measure, saying that withholding highly sophisticated semiconductors from China will hamper the development of Chinese weapons and surveillance technology.

The trouble is that the same technology that goes into Chinese weapons systems is also necessary for other goods, including electric vehicles, an area in which China is significantly further advanced than the U.S.

It remains unclear precisely how U.S. authorities will enforce the ban. It primarily targets the most advanced chip technology available, meaning that “mature” chip technology — older and less sophisticated chips — will not be affected.

Where the U.S. draws that line, however, could determine whether Chinese businesses such as smartphone manufacturers and commercial aerospace companies are left alone or devastated.

‘Cold war’ tactic

Experts and pundits saw the imposition of the tough new ban as a dramatic escalation of the Biden administration’s efforts to keep China from being able to advance toward technological parity with the U.S.

Writing for the American news publication Foreign Policy, Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the move “looks increasingly drawn from the Cold War playbook.” He also noted that “the new restrictions, which will be fully implemented as soon as Oct. 21, go well beyond any previous measures by seeking to freeze China at a backward state of semiconductor development and cut Chinese companies off from U.S. industry expertise.”

In the Financial Times, U.S. national editor and columnist Edward Luce wrote that “Joe Biden this month launched a full-blown economic war on China.”

“His escalation … marks a final break with decades of U.S. foreign policy that assumed China’s global integration would tame its rise as a great power,” he added.

China reacts

Speaking at the start of the Chinese Communist Party’s five-year congress Sunday, during which he is expected to be named to an extraordinary third term as party leader, Xi Jinping did not address the ban directly. However, he did promise to step up investment in areas that would help his country achieve “technology self-reliance.”

“China will move faster to launch a number of major national projects that are of strategic, big-picture and long-term importance,” Xi said.

In a statement provided to VOA by the Chinese embassy in the U.S., spokesperson Liu Pengyu said that he was not aware of any specific meetings being held in China.

“I would like to note that what the U.S. is doing is purely ‘sci-tech hegemony.’ It seeks to use its technological prowess as an advantage to hobble and suppress the development of emerging markets and developing countries,” Liu said. “The U.S. probably hopes that China and the rest of the developing world will forever stay at the lower end of the industrial chain. This will disrupt the global supply chain and industrial chain, and the final result will hurt itself and others alike.”

Industry concerned

Semiconductor companies have reacted carefully to the Biden administration’s decision. Although they are acknowledging the government’s concerns, they are signaling frustration that they were neither given clear guidance about how the ban will be applied nor given an opportunity to consult with the Commerce Department before it was put into place.

In a statement provided to VOA, SEMI, a trade group representing the semiconductor industry, said that its members understand the United States’ national security concerns. In addition, it said, “We are currently evaluating the potential effects of the Commerce Department’s unilateral controls on the semiconductor industry in the U.S. and abroad. We plan to provide feedback to the government on these rules, as they were not previously published for public comment.”

“We believe it is vitally important that the U.S. government implements these rules in close collaboration with and input from our key international partners in order to limit unintended adverse consequences that could reverberate through the domestic supply chain of this critical industry.”

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Globally Renowned Australian Exhibition Showcases Ukrainian Sculptures

Works by Ukrainian artists will be the highlight of the world’s largest outdoor sculpture exhibition, starting Friday in Sydney.

The annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, near Bondi beach in Sydney, will raise money for the Australian-Ukrainian community’s humanitarian aid charity. The seaside gallery will show more than 100 exhibits from 16 countries from Oct. 21-Nov. 7.

Organizers of the event have said sculptures that are part of the Ukraine Showcase in Sydney are symbols of solidarity and resistance.

Colossus Holds Up the World by artist Egor Zigura is about the fragility of life and refers to Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014. Another exhibit warns of the dangers of global warming.

The Ukrainian sculptures are curated by Viktoria Kulikova, the art director at the Abramovych Art Agency in Kyiv.

She told VOA the exhibition sends powerful messages of support to the people of Ukraine.

“It is very important for us because it is about a relationship with Ukraine and Australia also,” she said. “It is also about solidarity with Ukraine, about culture, about resistance, about our unity, also.”

Organizers of the exhibition on cliffs near Bondi beach say they want to remind Australians of the plight of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee Russia’s invasion.

About 400,000 visitors are expected to attend the exhibition, which has been held since 1997.

About 9,000 people displaced by the conflict have been granted visas in Australia. Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor of military aid to Ukraine.

It has sent missiles and armored personnel carriers as well as humanitarian supplies. The government has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russian institutions and its political and military leaders, including President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this month, campaigners from the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations again called on Australia to declare the Russian government, military and its Federal Security Service, the FSB, terrorist organizations under Australian law.

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

US National Air and Space Museum Reopens With New Exhibits

The popular National Air and Space Museum in Washington on the National Mall has partially reopened, after being closed for almost seven months, with a new look and new exhibits.

Among them, a historical look at The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age, and Exploring the Planets.

Rather than an assortment of objects spread out across the museum, larger exhibitions tell in-depth stories on everything from commercial passenger flight in the past to today’s delivery drones.

“There’s a gallery that shows the importance of using drones and airplanes for the greater good,” said Jeremy Kinney, the museum’s associate director for research and curatorial affairs.

These include drones that deliver food packages to the Amazon, and a commercial airliner, converted into an eye-surgery hospital, that travels around the world to developing countries.

The National Air and Space Museum, which first opened its doors 46 years ago, was upgraded to include eight new exhibitions, hundreds of new artifacts, and 50 digital interactive exhibits – with the aim of making it more modern and engaging.

It’s an experience that reflects the 21st century, bringing people into the digital age,” Kinney said.

That includes an interactive tour of the solar system.

“The planets gallery is a fully immersive journey through our solar system, stopping at different locations, and seeing what that looks like on a large scale,” Kinney said. “You learn about the surface of different planets and asteroids. It almost feels like you’re walking on them.”

Visitor Taylor Brautigan, 18, looked at some of the artifacts in the gallery and then watched the seven-minute video on a huge screen.

“Wow, it was fantastic to see how different the planets are, and it made me want to find out more about them,” she said.

Kinney said that’s the kind of reaction the museum is hoping for.

“We want young people to connect with the artifacts and the stories we tell about them,” he said, “so when they get home, they will want to learn more about the history and importance of the objects.”

Visitors can see favorite artifacts in new settings that tell compelling stories past and present.

They include the 1903 Wright Flyer, the first powered and piloted mechanical aircraft.

Ahmed Chaudry, who had traveled from Pakistan to visit relatives in Washington, said he had looked forward to seeing the aircraft.

“The exhibit explains the background behind the Wright Brothers and what they went through to build the plane,” he said. “They only flew it for 12 seconds the first time, but it was incredible they were able to do that.”

The Destination Moon exhibit shows icons of space history, including the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, and the spacesuit astronaut Neil Armstrong wore during the journey to the moon. Armstrong, who was first man to walk on the moon, uttered the famous line, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Items used in film and video are also included in the museum, including the fictional X-Wing Starfighter used in a Star Wars movie, and the prosthetic ear tips made for Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series.

More accomplishments by women and people of color are incorporated than were in the past.

Highlights include the air racer constructed by Neal Loving, the first African American to be licensed as a racing pilot, and a supersonic jet trainer flown by Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier.

The museum also shows the discrimination they faced, though.

“Our goal is to tell the whole history of air and space which also includes gender and race discrimination,” said Kinney.

That includes women who were qualified, but denied entry into the space program, and Black people who were allowed on commercial passenger planes but not in some airports because of the color of their skin.

A renovation of the National Museum of Air and Space in Washington began in 2018, with the rest of the museum set to open in 2025.

The museum, along with its companion facility in Chantilly, Virginia, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, contains the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft.