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Asteroid Samples Escaping From Jammed NASA Spacecraft 

A NASA spacecraft is stuffed with so much asteroid rubble from this week’s grab that it’s jammed open and precious particles are drifting away in space, scientists said Friday.Scientists announced the news three days after the spacecraft named Osiris-Rex briefly touched asteroid Bennu 321 million kilometers (200 million miles) away.The mission’s lead scientist, Dante Lauretta, said Tuesday’s operation collected far more material than expected for return to Earth — in the hundreds of grams. The sample container on the end of the robot arm penetrated so deeply into the asteroid and with such force, however, that rocks got sucked in and became wedged around the rim of the lid.The team was scrambling to put the sample container into the return capsule as early as Tuesday — much sooner than originally planned — for the long trip home. Particles are continuing to escape, and scientists want to minimize the loss.“Time is of the essence,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of NASA’s science missions.A cloud of asteroid particles could be seen swirling around the spacecraft as it backed away from Bennu — at least 5 to 10 grams (half an ounce) at any one time. The situation appeared to stabilize, according to Lauretta, once the robot arm stopped moving and was locked into place.The requirement for Orisis-Rex — NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, totaling more than $800 million — was at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of samples for return. The carbon-rich material holds the preserved building blocks of our solar system and could help scientists better understand how the planets were formed and how life originated on Earth.Launched in 2016, the spacecraft arrived at Bennu in 2018. Regardless of what’s on board, it will still leave the vicinity of the asteroid in March. The samples won’t reach Earth until 2023.Japan is awaiting its second batch of samples taken from a different asteroid, due back in December.

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Two Drugmakers Resume US Tests of COVID-19 Vaccines

Two drugmakers announced Friday the resumption of U.S. testing of their COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Testing of AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate had been halted since early September, while Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine study was paused at the beginning of last week. Each company had a study volunteer develop a serious health issue, requiring a review of safety data. The two coronavirus vaccines are among several candidates in final-stage testing, the last step before seeking regulatory approval. The drugmakers said they got the go-ahead Friday from the Food and Drug Administration to restart tests in the United States. FILE – AstraZeneca offices and its corporate logo are seen on a building in Cambridge, Britain, July 18, 2020.Such temporary halts of drug and vaccine testing are relatively common: In research involving thousands of participants, some are likely to fall ill. Pausing a study allows researchers to investigate whether an illness is a side effect or a coincidence. Testing of the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University, has already resumed in the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa and Japan. “The restart of clinical trials across the world is great news as it allows us to continue our efforts to develop this vaccine to help defeat this terrible pandemic,” Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s CEO, said in a statement. AstraZeneca’s study involves 30,000 people in the U.S., with some getting the vaccine and others a dummy shot. Testing was stopped after one British participant developed severe neurological symptoms consistent with a rare inflammation of the spinal cord called transverse myelitis. AstraZeneca testing had also been paused earlier in the summer. FILE – A lab technician researches COVID-19 at Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical in Beerse, Belgium, June 17, 2020.Johnson & Johnson said it’s preparing to resume recruitment soon for its U.S. vaccine study. In a statement, the company didn’t disclose the nature of the volunteer’s illness but said a thorough evaluation “found no evidence that the vaccine candidate caused the event.” The company added that it’s in talks with other regulators around the world to resume testing in their countries. 
 

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WHO Urges World’s Leaders to Act as COVID-19 Cases Surge

Noting the world is at a critical juncture in the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization is urging nations to take immediate action to prevent unnecessary deaths, the collapse of essential health systems and the shutdown of economies. Speaking at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said too many countries, particularly in the northern hemisphere, are seeing an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases forcing hospitals and intensive care units to run near or above capacity. He called on governments to take key actions immediately to prevent the crisis from spinning out of control. First, the WHO chief said leaders need to make an honest assessment of the COVID-19 outbreak in their countries. For those nations who have successfully brought it under control, he suggested they “double down” to keep transmissions low, identify cases and clusters, and be ready to act. Traffic passes a COVID-19 sign informing drivers of the upcoming lockdown which closes non-food retailers, cafes, restaurants, pubs and hotels for two weeks in a bid to reduce soaring coronavirus cases, in Cardiff, Wales, Oct. 23, 2020. (AFP)Second, Tedros said nations who see a rising number of cases, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions should do whatever they can to address the upward trend as quickly as possible. Third, the director-general urged leaders to be clear and honest with their constituents about the status of the pandemic in their country and outline the steps required to fight the spread. He said this action requires putting systems in place to make it easy for citizens to comply with the COVID-19-related measures. Finally, Tedros said governments need to reach out to people and their families who are infected with the virus to give them specific instructions on their next steps. The WHO director said if leaders follow the steps and fine tune their contact tracing and isolating programs, then future shutdowns and stay-at-home orders can be avoided. 
 

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German Health Minister Predicts Vaccine by Early 2021

German Health Minister Jens Spahn says he expects a viable vaccine to be available to Germans by early next year and enough for “a large number of those want to be vaccinated” within six or seven months. In an interview published Friday in Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spahn — who tested positive for COVID-19 this week — said he expects there would be more than enough vaccine for the German population, and he would like to pass on any surplus to other nations that might need it. FILE – German Health Minister Jens Spahn receives an influenza injection at Charite hospital, during the coronavirus pandemic, in Berlin, Germany, Oct. 14, 2020. (Reuters)Spahn told the German media outlet that health care workers would be prioritized to be vaccinated first. But he said he would refer to the Standing Vaccinations Commission at Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for Health and Infectious Diseases for guidance. In another sign the German government is preparing for vaccine distribution, Germany’s Daily Bild also reported Friday the health ministry has asked the nation’s 16 state governors to identify potential vaccination centers by November 10. The report says the government is seeking to establish at total of 60 vaccination centers nationwide in order to effectively vaccinate the population. On Thursday, the Koch Institute chief Lothar Wieler warned the COVID-19 situation in Germany was “very serious,” as the nation set a record for daily infections with more than 11,000. 
 

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Millions of Sudan Flood Victims at Risk of Mosquito-Borne Diseases

The United Nations warns of a looming health crisis in Sudan following historic floods which have created conditions for deadly insect-transmitted diseases to thrive.
   
Some 875,000 people across the country are affected by torrential rains and floods, which have caused widespread damage to homes, crops and livelihoods.   
 
The floods have left behind stagnant water pools which are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns that more than 4.5 million people are at risk of mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria, chikungunya and viral hemorrhagic fevers, or VHF.  
 
Sudan’s Federal Ministry of Health has already reported increasing numbers of suspected VHF cases, which include dengue, yellow fever and Rift Valley fever.  The agency reports 2,226 cases, most in Northern state, including 56 deaths.
 
Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian affairs office, says there also is an outbreak of chikungunya in West Darfur, where nearly 250 people have been diagnosed with this viral disease.
 
“The worst disease and the most lethal disease is in fact malaria. There [are] over 1.1 million malaria cases as of the end of September this year across the country, and malaria has reached epidemic levels in 15 out of the 18 states in Sudan,” he said.     
 
Laerke said U.N. aid agencies have procured hundreds of emergency health kits to support malaria treatment and other health needs.  He said the kits can serve up to 2.7 million people for three months.  However, he told VOA aid workers are having difficulty getting the supplies out into the field.
 
“One of the things that the partners on the ground are actually mentioning trying to get these emergency health kits out in the communities and particularly among the many internally displaced—there are almost two million internally displaced people in Sudan–is that the floods and stagnant water is still hampering access to those people,” he said.   
 
Laerke said there is a shortage of medical supplies and needs will increase as insect-driven diseases continue to spread throughout the country. He said the U.N.’s operation is in financial difficulty as it only has received 19% of needed funding.   
 
He said aid agencies urgently need to raise an estimated $25 million to procure essential medicines and to support measures for vaccine-preventable vector and water-borne diseases.
 

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UN Chief Calls for More Coordinated Global Efforts to Fight COVID

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it was very unfortunate that the 20 major industrialized nations did not come together in March, as he suggested then, to establish a coordinated response to suppress COVID-19 worldwide.In an interview with the Associated Press, Guterres said he hopes that as the G-20 summit is coming next month, the international community understand “they need to be much more coordinated in fighting the virus.”Guterres said the U.N. will be “strongly advocating” for a coordinated response to the disease, in addition to seeking a “guarantee” that any developed vaccine be treated as “a global public good” and be made “available and affordable for everyone, everywhere.”Scores of researchers around the world are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, which has killed more than 1.1 million people worldwide and sickened more than 41 million.Meanwhile, the number of countries with more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases has risen to seven, with France and Spain the latest nations to reach the mark.On Thursday, France extended curfews to about 65% of its population and Belgium’s foreign minister was hospitalized with COVID-19 and treated in the intensive care unit, as a second wave of the pandemic surged across Europe.However, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States remains the country with highest number of infections, more than 8.4 million total cases, followed by India, with 7.76 million; Brazil, with 5.32 million; Russia, with 1.45 million; and Argentina, which has 1,053,650. France is in sixth place with 1,041,991 cases, followed by Spain with 1,026,281.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revised its definition of close contact with a person infected with COVID-19.The agency had previously determined that close contact was spending 15 consecutive minutes within 2 meters of an infected individual. The revised changes announced Wednesday now defines a close contact as someone who spent a total of 15 minutes accumulated over a 24-hour period.The change by the CDC was prompted by a report of a prison officer in the northeastern U.S. state of Vermont who became infected with COVID-19 after more than 20 brief interactions with inmates who later tested positive for the virus. The brief visits added up to about 17 total minutes of exposure.

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Many Successes, but Difficult Challenges Ahead in Ending Polio

At a time when growing numbers of people are shunning vaccines, the polio vaccine proves that they work. As VOA’s Carol Pearson reports, despite setbacks and a coronavirus pandemic, the world is making headway in eliminating the crippling disease.

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US Marks October As Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

October marks Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in the US. It’s a topic not often talked about but something many couples go through, as Anush Avetisyan reports in this story narrated by Anna Rice.
Camera: Anush Avetisyan

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