Science & Health

1.7 Million Locked Down in China’s Anhui Province

China placed 1.7 million people under lockdown in central Anhui province, where authorities reported nearly 300 new cases Monday in the latest of a string of outbreaks testing Beijing’s no-tolerance approach to COVID-19.

The country is the last major economy wedded to a zero-COVID strategy, responding to all cases with strict isolation orders and tough testing campaigns.

The outbreak in Anhui  — where officials first found hundreds of cases last week — comes as the Chinese economy begins to rebound from a months-long lockdown in Shanghai and disruptive COVID restrictions in the capital Beijing.

Two counties in the province — Sixian and Lingbi — announced lockdowns last week, with more than 1.7 million residents only permitted to leave their homes if they are getting tested.

Footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed empty streets in Sixian over the weekend and people lining up for their sixth round of mass testing in recent days.

The province reported 287 new infections on Monday, including 258 people who had no symptoms, according to China’s National Health Commission, bringing the total cases found to just over 1,000.

Provincial governor Wang Qingxian urged local authorities to “seize every minute and earnestly implement quick screening” as well as rapid quarantine and reporting of cases, in a statement published by the Anhui government on Monday.

Neighboring Jiangsu province also reported 56 new local infections across four cities on Monday.

Photos shared widely online, verified by AFP Fact Check, showed hundreds of people in hazmat suits lining up in the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu, appearing to be waiting for buses to quarantine facilities.

Some of the shots showed babies in blue protective clothing carried by people with suitcases waiting outside a hospital in sweltering heat.

Temperatures in Wuxi have recently reached up to 36° C (97° F).

While cases remain low relative to China’s vast population, officials insist the zero-COVID policy is necessary to prevent a healthcare calamity, pointing to unevenly distributed medical resources and low vaccination rates among the elderly.

But the strategy has hammered the world’s second-largest economy and heavy-handed enforcement has triggered rare protests in the tightly controlled country.

China’s international isolation has also prompted some foreign businesses and families with the financial means to make exit plans.

National authorities announced a reduced quarantine requirement for international arrivals last month, rallying most Asian markets as investors hoped the move could provide a boost for Beijing’s COVID-slumped economy.

But health official Lei Zhenglong has insisted the new quarantine policy was “absolutely not a loosening of (COVID) prevention and control.”

Science & Health

Climate Change Means More Mice, Demand for Pest Control in US

At her home in Rockford, Illinois, Rita Davisson said the “one or two” mice she normally sees during the waning winter months “have turned into more like 10 or 15” in the last couple years, and scientists say the warmer weather might have something to do with it.

The 66-year-old said the influx prompted her to contract a pest control service for the first time in the more than 30 years she’s lived in her house.

“They’re sneaking around the basement, the garage, my backyard,” she said. “The one trap I have just hasn’t been enough lately.”

Researchers say warming temperatures and milder winters have increased the population of the white-footed mouse, the most abundant small rodent found throughout much of the eastern U.S. and Canada, making more work for pest control experts.

Above-average temperatures were recorded across most eastern and central U.S. states last winter. Since 1970, average winter temperatures have increased by at least one degree Fahrenheit (0.6 Celsius) in every state, with states in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region warming by more than 3 degrees F (1.7 C).

While the mouse population typically decreases during long winters, warmer winters fueled by climate change mean fewer mice die before spring, said Christian Floyd, a wildlife biologist at the University of Rhode Island.

“These small mammals spend their whole lives shivering. They lose heat so fast,” Floyd said. “When you get a milder winter, they’re going to survive better. The mice don’t have to shiver as much, and they’re also less likely to die from starvation because they have more ability to hunt for food.”

Susan Hoffman, associate professor of biology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said the white-footed mice have migrated past a transitional forest region that has long served as a dividing line for many species, noting that they’ve expanded “surprisingly fast” in North America — about 125 miles in 30 years, 15 times farther than previously expected.

The white-footed mouse, which has historically proliferated from the Tennessee Valley through the northern Atlantic Coast, has already expanded its northern limit into Québec, Hoffman said. By 2050, the mice population is predicted to have migrated north in even greater numbers, especially as the warming climate pushes their preferred forest habitats farther north, too.

This migration also has been documented with other species, including chipmunks, flying squirrels and meadow-jumping mice, she said.

“Multiple lines of evidence indicate that warmer temperatures, and overall climate effects, are permitting (white-footed mice) to survive farther north,” Hoffman said, adding that humans are also likely responsible for unintentionally carrying some mice north in cars, boats and RVs.

Scientists say the rodents’ spread could mean more mice in and around homes. Michael Bentley, director of training and education for the National Pest Management Association, noted that the increased mice activity also requires pest management technicians to spend more time eliminating food sources and entry points in homes to control mice populations.

That’s already the case in Indiana, where Allie Dickman, a director at AAA Pest Control, said technicians saw an uptick in mice calls this winter. Calls for more mice services at rural and suburban homes, as well as in urban buildings, have continued into the spring.

“Right now, I would say 30% to 40% of our calls involve mice, which is pretty surprising given the time of year,” Dickman said. “They’re just adapting and expanding more … and there’s more of them.”

Experts also warn of even greater public health implications, given that white-footed mice are natural reservoirs for Lyme disease bacteria, which can then infect ticks that are capable of transmitting Lyme disease to people.

The bacterial illness that can cause fever, fatigue, joint pain, and skin rash, as well as more serious joint and nervous system complications, is the most common vector-borne disease in the U.S.

Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have so far experienced the largest increases in reported cases, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has attributed, in part, to climate change.

Fifty-three-year-old Elliot Smythe, who owns a farm near Randolph, Vermont, said he’s paying more attention to the growing numbers of mice and ticks and the property after his 15-year-old son contracted Lyme disease last fall.

“Living in a more rural area like I do, I didn’t mind mice that much,” Smythe said. “But when they keep coming, and they turn into a nuisance … well now I have a problem.”

Over time, the northward shift of mice could mean that more southern regions of the U.S. will see fewer rodents, Floyd said, but areas in the Midwest, New England and Canada could see them in greater numbers.

“We’re going to need more research to understand better where and how fast (the mice) are moving,” he said. “We’ll also need to learn more about how wetter conditions from climate change could also play a role. There’s a lot more to learn.”

Science & Health

Canada Abortion Providers Prepare to Receive US Patients

Medical centers in Canada that perform abortions are preparing to receive patients from U.S. states that ban the procedure. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning a constitutional right to abortion in America is also being used as motivator to expand Canada’s abortion services and provide other forms of support to pregnant women.

Canada’s Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in 1988, 15 years after America’s landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion across the United States. 


Canada is the world’s second-largest land mass, and abortion services are not easily accessible for hundreds of kilometers in some rural areas, but most major urban areas have hospitals or medical centers where they are available.  


Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, the 13 U.S. states along the border with Canada are free to allow abortions, restrict them or ban them entirely. 


Winnipeg is the capital of Manitoba, which borders North Dakota, a state that is expected to restrict access to abortion. 


Blandine Tona, director of clinical programs at the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg, expects to see American patients visit the center, as some did before the coronavirus pandemic. She said this has had less to do with laws and more to do with proximity; some Americans are closer to Winnipeg than to states where abortion is still legal.

Martha Paynter, author of Abortion to Abolition, Reproductive Health Injustice in Canada, is not sure about the number of cross-border trips that might happen to access abortion services.   


Paynter, who has a doctorate in nursing, said there are costs and logistical obstacles for Americans to obtain care in Canada. However, she said, the situation is a motivator to expand access to abortions across the country.

“It seems unlikely because you’d have to pay for the travel, you’d have to have a passport — it would be quite a process,” she said. “I nevertheless think that we should prepare. This is a very good reminder of how we need to be ever vigilant and expanding access.”

Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia shares a stretch of border with Washington state, where abortion services will continue to be widely available, but also Idaho, where a state law will soon ban the procedure if it survives court challenges. 


Michelle Fortin, executive director of Options for Sexual Health, formerly Planned Parenthood Association of British Columbia, said possible immigration issues such as requiring passports and having to cross an international border lead most Americans who seek abortion services to visit the nearest U.S. state that allows it.

Even so, she said, nobody will be turned away in Canada, and many Canadians are looking to offer other types of support as well.

“So I believe that any American that shows up who’s got a pregnancy that is unintended and unwanted would be served,” she said. “I don’t know that we’re going to see huge influx. I do know that there’s a lot of folks in Canada looking for ways in which we can support people in America to access abortion.”

Fortin said this support is mostly financial to help cover travel, child care and other costs for Americans.  She said this might also include sending pharmaceutical abortion medication into the United States, much like what has been done for years with other prescriptions that are cheaper in Canada than in the United States.

Science & Health

Climate Envoy: Despite Legal Setbacks, US to Achieve Goals 

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said Friday that setbacks for President Joe Biden’s climate efforts at home have “slowed the pace” of some of the commitments from other countries to cut climate-wrecking fossil fuels, but he insisted the U.S. would still achieve its own ambitious climate goals in time.

Kerry spoke to The Associated Press after a major Supreme Court ruling Thursday limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s options for regulating climate pollution from power plants. The ruling raised the prospect the conservative-controlled court could go on to hinder other efforts by the executive branch to cut the country’s coal, oil and gas emissions. It came after Democrats failed in getting what was to be Biden’s signature climate legislation through the narrowly divided Senate.

The Biden administration is striving now to show audiences at home and abroad that the U.S. can still make significant climate progress and strike deals with other countries to do the same. Scientists say only a few years are left to stave off the worst levels of global warming that triggers ever more deadly droughts, storms, wildfires and other disasters.

Kerry, Biden’s climate negotiator abroad, said he had not talked to foreign counterparts since the Supreme Court ruling, which some climate scientists called a gut punch and a disaster.

“But I’m confident they’ll ask me questions,” Kerry said. “But my answer is going to be look, we’re going to meet our goals … and the president is going to continue to fight for legislation from the Congress.”

“We absolutely are convinced we can meet our goals,” Kerry said.

Biden has pledged 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. Despite two Democrats joining with Republicans to block what was supposed to be transformative legislation moving the United States to cleaner energy, Biden has managed to free significant funding for electric charging stations and some other moves. The EPA has pledged to release alternative regulations to limit climate damage from the power sector early next year.

Kerry cited continuing progress in climate efforts abroad this year, including more governments committing to faster cuts in emissions and more signing a U.S.-backed methane pledge targeting climate-damaging leaks, venting and flaring from natural gas industries.

“This decision by the Supreme Court … is disappointing, but … it doesn’t take away our ability to do a whole bunch of things that we need to get done,” Kerry said.

“President Biden has enormous authority to continue to move forward. We are going to move forward. I am absolutely confident about our ability to continue to offer leadership on a global basis, which we’re doing right now.”

Kerry also pointed to progress the U.S. was making in cutting fossil fuel emissions independently of the government efforts, including through electric cars and other marketplace technological advances, and through clean-energy pushes from California and dozens of other states, mostly those led by Democrats.

Kerry described legislation on tax credits to encourage cleaner energy as commonsense and doable. He declined to talk about the impact if even those failed to clear Congress.

“I wouldn’t be a gloomy-doomy over this,” he said. “I just say we got to work harder and fight harder.”

Asked if it was possible to ask China and other major polluters to make fast moves away from fossil fuels when the U.S. was struggling to meet some of its own goals, Kerry said, “They’ll make their own analysis. That will conceivably have an impact on what they decide to do or not.”

The administration’s setbacks getting major climate retooling through conservatives in Congress and the Supreme Court haven’t hurt the momentum he’s working for abroad in climate negotiations, Kerry insisted. “But I think it’s slowed the pace at which some of these things could happen,” he said.

“If the United States were able to accomplish more regarding our own goals, and we did so rapidly, that would put a lot of pressure on a lot of countries,” he said.


Science & Health

UN Urges Ambitious Action to Protect Oceans

World leaders must do more to protect the oceans, a major U.N. conference concluded Friday, setting its sights on a new treaty to protect the high seas. 

“Greater ambition is required at all levels to address the dire state of the ocean,” the U.N. Ocean Conference in Lisbon said in its final declaration. 

The meeting in the Portuguese capital — attended by government officials, experts and advocates from 140 countries — is not a negotiating forum. But it sets the agenda for final international negotiations in August on a treaty to protect the high seas — those international waters beyond national jurisdiction. 

“Biodiversity loss, the decline of the ocean’s health, the way the climate crisis is going … it all has one common reason, which is … human behavior, our addiction to oil and gas, and all of them have to be addressed,” Peter Thomson, U.N. special envoy for the ocean, told AFP. 

Oceans produce half the oxygen we breathe, regulate the weather and provide humanity’s single largest source of protein. 

They also absorb a quarter of CO2 pollution and 90% of excess heat from global warming, thus playing a key role in protecting life on Earth. 

But they are being pushed to the brink by human activities.  

Sea water has turned acidic, threatening aquatic food chains and the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon. Global warming has spawned massive marine heat waves that are killing off coral reefs and expanding dead zones bereft of oxygen. 

Humans have fished some marine species to the edge of extinction and used the world’s waters as a rubbish dump.  


Patchwork of agreements

Today, a patchwork of agreements and regulatory bodies govern shipping, fishing and mineral extraction from the seabed.

Thomson said he was “very confident” national governments could agree on a “robust but operable” high seas treaty in August. 

Tiago Pitta e Cunha, head of Portuguese foundation Oceano Azul (Blue Ocean), said: “Pressure has increased a lot on less interested countries to create an effective mechanism to protect the high seas.” 

Laura Meller of Greenpeace called for more action. 

“We know that if words could save the oceans, then they wouldn’t be on the brink of collapse,” she told AFP. “So in August when governments meet at the United Nations, they really need to finalize a strong global ocean treaty.” 

Efforts to protect the oceans will then continue at two key summits later this year: U.N. climate talks in November and U.N. biodiversity negotiations in December. 

Overfishing, mining, plastic

At the heart of the draft U.N. biodiversity treaty is a plan to designate 30% of Earth’s land and oceans as protected zones by 2030.

Currently, under 8% of oceans are protected.

A number of new, protected marine areas could be declared off-limits to fishing, mining, drilling or other extractive activities that scientists say disrupt fragile seabed ecosystems. 

Making things worse is an unending torrent of pollution, including a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic every minute, the United Nations says.  

“The ocean is not a rubbish dump,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday. “It is not a source of infinite plunder. It is a fragile system on which we all depend.”

Science & Health

Researchers Forecast Volcanic Eruptions Using Satellite Data 

Scientists appear one step closer to predicting volcanic eruptions — a problem that has vexed volcanologists for decades. Research published last week in Nature Geoscience found that using satellite observations to calculate how quickly underground molten rock, or magma, accumulates beneath volcanoes could forecast certain eruptions weeks or months in advance.   


“Any kind of information we can use to get at this forecasting thing is going to be important, because the more time you have to warn people that they can take some action, the more you can decrease the impacts of eruptions,” volcanologist Michael Poland of the United States Geological Survey told VOA. “That’s all we have, really, in terms of decreasing eruption impacts — to get out of the way.”   


Most volcanoes don’t erupt without warning. They swell up, set off small earthquakes and let off gas leading up to an eruption — what volcanologists call “unrest.” But while volcanoes rarely erupt completely out of the blue, it’s also not uncommon for unrest to settle down without an eruption.    


“The challenge is to understand when these changes in these monitoring parameters will lead to eruption, and when it doesn’t,” Federico Galetto, a volcanologist at Cornell University and first author of the new study, told VOA.   


Currently, the gold standard for eruption forecasting involves highly localized observation of individual volcanoes, said Poland. But most volcanoes aren’t closely monitored on the ground. In contrast, deformation — how volcanoes bulge and distort during unrest — can be measured from space for even the most remote volcanoes.   


“The satellite deformation technique has really shown that a lot of these volcanoes inflate and deflate, and that allows us to help get to that sort of forecasting ‘Holy Grail’ in some places where there aren’t ground-based data,” said Poland.  

Unfortunately, deformation alone can’t reliably forecast eruptions. But Galetto and his colleagues thought that magma flow rate, which can be calculated using deformation data, might work better.    


To find out, they considered 45 episodes of unrest in basaltic calderas — common volcanoes that usually look like flat, broad shields of dark basalt rock, including the volcanoes of Hawaii, Iceland and the Galápagos Islands. Basaltic calderas are considered relatively easy to study thanks to relatively shallow magma chambers — pools of molten rock beneath the Earth’s surface — and frequent eruptions, and they have been observed for a long time.     


“They picked a subset where we have a lot of information and a lot of observations, these basaltic calderas,” said Poland. “These types of volcanoes, we have a lot of experience with … they tend to be great laboratories.”   


Galetto’s analysis revealed that magma flow rate reliably predicted whether unrest would end in a magma chamber rupture — which usually causes eruption — or just fizzle out.   


All volcanoes in the dataset with magma flow rates greater than one-tenth of a cubic kilometer per year — roughly 40,000 Olympic swimming pools — ruptured their magma chambers within a year. Inflow rates 10 times lower didn’t lead to a magma chamber rupture in 89% of cases, and never before more than a year of unrest. Volcanoes with middling flow rates were harder to predict, with factors like rock type and magma chamber size coming into play.   


“This is really promising,” said Galetto. “That seems to [be] working very well in these types of volcanoes.”    


Calculations by Galetto and his team suggest that low magma flow rates don’t tend to cause eruptions because slow-filling magma chambers behave a bit like viscous silly putty or molasses, oozing outward to accommodate a slow trickle of incoming magma without rupturing. Fast flow rates drive up pressure abruptly enough to crack magma chambers instead of just squeezing them.    


“That makes sense,” said Poland. “The faster you blow up the balloon, the more likely it’s going to pop.” But he also cautioned it’s going to be a challenge to use the new results to forecast specific volcanoes.    


“In volcanology, there’s always a level of local expertise for your volcano that’s needed, because every volcano is different,” he said. “But we can learn some general trends … that can help us out in guiding us in the right direction when we are looking at these specific systems we’re trying to forecast.   


Based on his results, Galetto thinks magma flow rate could help forecast eruptions weeks or months ahead for basaltic calderas. But there’s still work to be done. Fine-tuning forecast calculations with volcano-specific data as Poland described will be important for making good predictions, he said, as will collecting and analyzing better satellite deformation data.   


“My paper is just a starting point, not the ending point,” said Galetto. “We should start … to see if this relationship can be found out in other volcanoes. Because the other point is to try to extend these results not only to the group of volcanoes that I studied but also to try to extend these results to other groups of volcanoes. And it will be much more complicated.”    



Science & Health

North Korea Implies South Korean Balloons Caused COVID Outbreak

Weeks after acknowledging its first coronavirus infections, North Korea appears to be blaming the outbreak on balloons sent by defector-activists in South Korea.

North Korean officials said Friday they traced the outbreak to an inter-Korean border region, where an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child came into contact with “alien things” in early April.

The statement, published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, did not specify what the objects were, but later warned residents to be on the lookout for balloons and other “alien things” in the area.

North Korean officials have long warned the coronavirus could enter the country through novel means, including through migratory birds, snow, air pollution or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists.

Earlier this week, South Korea-based defector Park Sang-hak said he launched 20 balloons with COVID-19 medical supplies, including masks, pain relievers and vitamin pills.

North Korea, an authoritarian state that prevents its citizens from accessing outside information, despises the balloon launches. In the past, it has used them as an opportunity to direct anger, and pressure, at South Korea.

Friday’s statement did not direct any anger toward South Korea. But some analysts said it could be part of an effort to keep North Koreans away from border areas.

On May 12, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The admission came more than two years into a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, North Korea has said its COVID-19 situation has vastly improved, though outside experts emphasize that even Pyongyang may not know the true extent of the outbreak.

Instead of reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, North Korea has posted daily counts of “fevered persons,” possibly because the country does not have enough COVID-19 testing supplies.

In total, North Korea has reported 4.74 million fever cases but only 73 deaths. If the fever cases were counted as confirmed COVID-19 cases, that would mean North Korea has achieved the world’s lowest COVID-19 fatality rate by far.

North Korea has an antiquated and poorly resourced medical system. It has rejected most international offers of pandemic aid, though it is thought to have recently accepted some vaccines from China.

In a statement Thursday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry slammed U.S. and Western offers of COVID-19 aid, calling them a “clumsy farce” and insisting that its own pandemic situation is rapidly improving.

In an unusually blunt statement last month, the World Health Organization said it assumes North Korea’s COVID-19 situation “is getting worse, not better.”

Science & Health

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.