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White House Steps Up Work on What to do About Thawing Arctic

The Biden administration is stepping up its work to figure about what to do about the thawing Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the world.

The White House said Friday it is reactivating the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which coordinates domestic regulations and works with other Arctic nations. It also is adding six new members to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, including two Indigenous Alaskans.

The steering committee had been moribund for the past four years, not meeting at a high level, said David Balton, appointed to direct it. He said “it will step up and do more in the Arctic.”

The revamped committee will try to figure out what “needs to be done to get a better handle on addressing the changes in the Arctic,” Balton said.

University of Colorado scientist Twila Moon, who is not involved with the committee or commission, praised the developments. She said that because the Arctic is changing so quickly, “serious issues like national security, stability of buildings and roads, food availability, and much more must be considered and acted on promptly,” Moon said. “The U.S. cannot afford to sit back on Arctic issues.”

Balton, in an interview, said the Arctic is “opening up in a number of ways. Most of this is bad news.”

“But there’s also increased tourism and increased shipping, potentially other industries coming up into the Arctic that need regulation,” he said. “And right now the nations and the peoples of the Arctic are scrambling to keep up with this change.”

The new efforts emphasize working with Indigenous people.

“It’s really important to achieve these goals, so it has to be done in partnership with people who live in the area,” said committee deputy director Raychelle Alauq Daniel, a climate policy analyst and Yup’ik who grew up in Tuntuliak, Alaska.

Superpower tensions are likely to increase in the region as it becomes more ice-free in parts of the year, allowing not just more shipping but the temptation for going after resources such as oil, Balton said.

People who live in the Lower 48 states should still care about what happens in the polar region, Balton said.

“The Arctic is kind of a bellwether for what happens to the planet as a whole. The fate of places like Miami are tied very closely to the fate of Greenland ice sheet,” Balton said. “If you live in Topeka, Kansas, or if you live in California, if you live in Nigeria, your life is going to be affected. … The Arctic matters on all sorts of levels.”

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Biden: 60 Million Americans Eligible for COVID-19 Boosters

U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday that around 60 million Americans are eligible for a booster shot against the coronavirus.

His announcement came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a third Pfizer shot for those 65 and older, frontline workers and adults with underlying medical conditions.

Biden urged eligible Americans to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, and he said he would get his own shot as soon as possible.

In comments from the White House Friday, Biden said, “Like your first and second shot, the booster shot is free and easily accessible.”

The CDC approved the boosters for Americans 65 or older; frontline workers such as teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19; and those ages 50 to 64 with underlying conditions.

The booster shot will be available for those who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at least six months ago. The White House said Friday 20 million Americans are eligible for the shot immediately, while a total of 60 million Pfizer-shot recipients will be eligible for boosters once they reach the six-month mark.

The European Union’s drug watchdog said Thursday it plans to decide in early October whether to approve a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those over age 16.

Elsewhere, Norway’s government said Friday it would end all remaining coronavirus restrictions on Saturday.

“It is 561 days since we introduced the toughest measures in Norway in peacetime. … Now the time has come to return to a normal daily life,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a news conference. 

In Australia, health officials announced Friday that more than half the population had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

A wave of coronavirus infections has led to lockdowns in Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the capital, Canberra. 

Health officials in South Korea said Friday the country set a record for daily cases with 2,434 in the past 24 hours, surpassing a record set last month. 

Officials said that although cases were spiking, the mortality rate and the number of severe cases remain relatively low. They attributed that in large part to a vaccination campaign that prioritized older people and those who were at high risk for disease.

In Singapore, the health ministry announced it was tightening restrictions to fight a wave of coronavirus infections. The new policies include limiting social gatherings to two people, down from five.

The ministry also reported 1,650 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Earlier this week, Singapore said 92% of the population had been fully vaccinated. Officials said about 98% of the confirmed coronavirus cases in the past four weeks were in people who had mild or no symptoms. 

Russia reported 828 deaths from COVID-19 in past 24 hours on Friday, the country’s highest daily number of the pandemic. The toll breaks the record set a day earlier.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly, “It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1% has gone to low-income countries,” 

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

“The hoarding and inequitable distribution with the resultant uneven vaccination patterns across the globe is not acceptable,” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in a prerecorded message to the assembly on Thursday.

“Vaccine nationalism is self-defeating and contrary to the mantra that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe.’ Whether in the global North or South, rich or poor, old or young, all people of the world deserve access to vaccines.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

 

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CDC Approves Booster Shots for Some Pfizer Vaccine Recipients

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved Pfizer vaccine booster shots for some individuals who completed their first vaccinations at least six months ago. 

Frontline workers – teachers, healthcare workers and others whose jobs place them at risk of contracting COVID-19 – will be able to get the boosters, in addition to people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and other people, aged 50 to 64, with underlying conditions

Rochelle Walensky added the frontline workers late Thursday to the list of those eligible for the boosters prepared by a CDC’s advisory panel. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for people 65 and older, those at high risk of severe disease and people who are routinely exposed to the coronavirus. 

 

The European Union’s drug watchdog said Thursday it plans to decide in early October whether to approve a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those over age 16. 

The European Medicines Agency first approved a two-dose process but said breakthrough infections in those already vaccinated had added urgency to its review of a third dose for people 16 and older, six months after being fully vaccinated.

African leaders on vaccine inequity 

“It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1% has gone to low-income countries,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly.

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 4% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated.

“The hoarding and inequitable distribution with the resultant uneven vaccination patterns across the globe is not acceptable,” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in a prerecorded message. “Vaccine nationalism is self-defeating and contrary to the mantra that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe.’ Whether in the global North or South, rich or poor, old or young, all people of the world deserve access to vaccines.” 

Antibodies passed to babies 

Pregnant women who are vaccinated against COVID-19 also pass on the coronavirus antibodies to their unborn children, according to a new study published this week in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology: Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

Researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine examined 36 newborns whose mothers received either the Pfizer or Moderna two-dose vaccine regimen before giving birth, and found that every baby had antibodies when delivered.

The study did not determine how well the babies were protected from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, or how long the protection might last.

Scientists have discovered that pregnant women develop antibodies in response to a vaccine or an infection, then pass them on to their babies either through the umbilical cord or breast milk.

“Studies continue to reinforce the importance of vaccines during pregnancy and their power to protect two lives at once by preventing severe illness in both mothers and babies,” said Dr. Ashley Roman, one of the study’s principal investigators.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month urged pregnant women and women who were recently pregnant to get vaccinated for COVID-19, saying there is mounting evidence that the benefits of the shot far outweigh any known or potential risks. 

Meanwhile, a new study published in the medical journal Nature Communications found that some COVID-19 patients develop so-called “autoantibodies,” or self-destructive antibodies, that could trick the immune system into attacking otherwise healthy tissue and cause inflammatory diseases. Scientists at Stanford University found autoantibodies in blood samples of at least 50% of nearly 150 patients admitted for treatment of COVID-19, compared to 15% of 41 healthy volunteers.

The researchers found the antibodies have the potential to aggravate the symptoms of COVID-19. 

The foundation that awards the Nobel Prizes announced Thursday that its annual banquet for the laureates in Stockholm has been canceled for the second consecutive year due to the pandemic. The Nobel Foundation said the winners for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics will receive their medals and diplomas in their home countries.

In a statement announcing the decision, the foundation said, “Everybody would like the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, but we are not there yet.” 

Some information for this report is from the Associated Press.

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Simple Australian First-Aid Technique Could Save Shark Bite Survivors

An Australian researcher has developed a new first-aid technique that could save shark attack victims from a fatal loss of blood in the crucial moments after the attack.

The method requires a rescuer or bystander to place his or her fist on the femoral artery, between the hip of the wounded leg and the genitals, and apply pressure using their full body weight to stop blood flow to the leg wound. It is a practice commonly used in some hospital emergency rooms for treating severe leg injuries.

The technique was developed by Dr. Nicholas Taylor, associate dean of the Australian National University Medical School and an avid surfer, and described in a paper published Friday in the Journal of Emergency Medicine Australasia.

Taylor says research has shown that compressing the femoral artery is more effective than applying pressure to a leg wound or using a makeshift tourniquet.

“You don’t need to be necessarily anywhere near the wound to make it work, and in some ways, it is less of a squeamish problem than trying to put pressure on a bleeding limb,” he said. “The trouble with a shark bite, they don’t just cause a clean cut, they cause lots of damage and trauma. They often break bones and rip muscle to pieces, and so trying to push on something to stop it bleeding is almost impossible. But pushing on the groin where there is no blood is actually an easy thing to do.”

Taylor says surfers are at a higher risk of a shark attack, and leg wounds are the most common injury. He says he would like his method to be promoted on first-aid posters at beaches around the world.

“On the International Shark Attack File, most of the shark attacks happen in the USA, followed by Australia, then South Africa and then Europe, and there’s a few islands like Reunion, which tends to get a, you know, disproportionate number of shark attacks,” he said. “Australia was unlucky to lead the world in fatalities in the last couple of years. You know, anywhere where there’s sharks, people are at potential risk, and I think this technique, if it’s well-known, could potentially be a lifesaver.”

The Australian research asserts that shark attacks “are increasing in frequency in Australasia and worldwide.”

The year 2020 was the worst for fatal shark attacks since 2013. The U.S.-based International Shark Attack File recorded 10 deaths last year. Six were in Australian waters.

 

 

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CIA Removes Vienna Station Chief Over Handling of Havana Syndrome Cases, Report Says

The CIA removed its Vienna, Austria, station chief recently amid criticism the person did not take seriously a surge in mysterious “Havana syndrome” cases, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Dozens of cases affecting embassy staff and Central Intelligence Agency officers and family members have been reported in Vienna recently, but the unnamed station chief expressed skepticism and showed insensitivity, the Post said, citing intelligence sources.

A CIA spokesperson declined to confirm or deny the report, but said the agency takes seriously scores of possible incidents of the mysterious ailment in U.S. diplomatic missions around the world.

The cause and source remain enigmatic, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said last week.

“Have we gotten closer? I think the answer is yes — but not close enough to make the analytic judgment that people are waiting for,” he said.

The U.S. government, including the CIA and Pentagon, has ramped up staff to investigate and provide treatment for the cases.

Dubbed “Havana syndrome” because reports of the condition first showed up in the Cuban capital, the ailment is marked by bloody noses, headaches, vision problems and other symptoms that resemble concussions.

Some people experiencing it have reported hearing focused, high-pitched or sharp sounds that left them nauseated.

The incidents are little understood and have sparked theories that they were caused by a weapon that used focused microwaves, ultrasound, poison or are even a reaction to crickets.

But for several years, senior government officials dismissed the complaints, judging them to be the symptoms of people under stress or reacting with hysteria to unknown stimuli.

The administration of Joe Biden has geared up the investigation into what have been renamed anomalous health incidents, or AHI.

If the cases are caused by something like a directed energy attack, U.S. officials suspect Russia could be behind it.

The Post called Vienna, where the United States has a large embassy and intelligence collection operation, a “hotbed” of AHI incidents, with dozens of people reporting unexplained symptoms.

The issue has U.S. officials around the world jittery. In August, Vice President Kamala Harris delayed by several hours a visit to Vietnam after the U.S. Embassy there reported a possible case involving “acoustic incidents.”

And during a visit to India by CIA Director William Burns in early September, an official in his retinue reported symptoms and sought medical assistance, according to the Post. 

 

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Mask Mandate Prompts Cheers, Jeers in Charlotte, North Carolina

The fluctuating severity of the pandemic and ever-changing public health pronouncements have left North Carolina with a patchwork of masking requirements, mirroring much of the United States. Some residents embrace the mandates, others do not.

“I personally feel like it affects my breathing,” said Mackenzie Gilley when asked about mask-wearing.

Gilley, 26, a leasing agent in a Charlotte high-rise apartment complex, said masks impede her work.

“I have a job that’s always been on the front lines in property management, where it’s very difficult to talk to people and relate to people wearing the mask all day,” Gilley told VOA.

In May of this year, as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 cases plunged, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper lifted a statewide mask mandate that had been in effect for nearly a year.

In August, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases triggered by the delta variant, the city of Charlotte reimposed a mandate that masks be worn “in any indoor public place, business, or establishment” regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

The Aug. 18 citywide mandate was followed by a similar order for surrounding Mecklenburg County, population 1.1 million, where average daily infection rates topped 500.

The trend of rising infections appears to have reversed in recent weeks, but area residents are nevertheless compelled to embrace a public health measure some find cumbersome, and many had hoped were a thing of the past.

Others applauded Charlotte for requiring masks indoors.

“Personally, I was very happy about the mask mandate,” medical student Kirthi Reddy, 23, told VOA. “I think this is a great step to try and control the virus the best we can.”

Reddy, who is aiming for placement as a medical resident, added, “COVID is something that is rapidly spreading and mutating, so I think it’s very important. If we don’t (mask up), the virus will only mutate and spread even more.”

Gilley urged a case-by-case basis for face coverings.

“I think it should be up to the (individual) business whether or not they want to enforce it,” she said. “It has just gone on for way too long.”

Health care professionals like pediatric nurse Zoe Morgan warned against apathy in preventing virus transmission.

“I think the new mask mandate since the delta variant is very necessary,” she said, adding that, even with rising vaccination rates, people shouldn’t lose diligence in protecting themselves.

“I think everyone getting vaccinated and the numbers of vaccinated (people) increasing is wonderful,” Morgan said. “However, the delta variant is just that, it’s a variant. This proves that we can still catch the virus, spread it, even if we are vaccinated.”

Morgan described how a few weeks ago, amid aggressive spread of the delta variant, her entire hospital unit suspended operations when several staffers contracted the virus, forcing her and her colleagues into quarantine. The unit resumed admitting patients this week.

Morgan believes people went about their lives with a false sense of security as the delta variant spread.

“I think this has to do with the delta variant, and people feeling reassured since everyone was getting vaccinated, the numbers were going down, and employees were admittedly less strict and … probably not as diligent as they should have been with masks,” she said.

Enforcing the mandate

Authorities in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are relying on the public to comply with mask mandates rather than strict enforcement. As of the beginning of the week, the local police department reported it had issued zero citations for failing to wear a mask since the renewed orders went into effect.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) “has worked to reach voluntary cooperation with each member of the community through education and conversations,” Public Information Officer Thomas Hildebrand told VOA, saying officers have focused on communication and outreach to the community.

“Our efforts are prompted through a complaint-driven approach,” he said. “This has been the CMPD’s approach to consistent enforcement of the mandate, and it will remain so until the mandate is rescinded.”

Some see voluntary enforcement as no enforcement.

“I think the overall mask mandate should be enforced a little more,” said Tamia Wately.

The 21-year-old works at an arcade park and said that mask-wearing is not strictly enforced in her workplace. She indicated she would welcome more coercive means to force compliance.

“It would definitely make a difference. I think many companies would start enforcing it more,” she said, adding that, to the extent she can make arcade visitors don masks, “I try to do my best.”

Morgan said business owners should do their part.

“I think everyone should just kind of be, in essence, a team player and wear their masks,” she said.

No date has been set for ending mask mandates in the Charlotte area. Local officials told VOA any decision will be made in consultation with Mecklenburg County’s health department.

Meanwhile, the city is incentivizing municipal employees to get vaccinated, offering a $250 pay bonus to those who provide proof of vaccination by Sept. 30. An additional bonus has been promised if the municipal workforce reaches a 75% inoculation rate.

As of Sept. 1, about 62% of Charlotte city employees were vaccinated.

For Mecklenburg County as a whole, about 54% of the population, or just over 600,000 people, were fully vaccinated as of Sept. 16.

 

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Displaced Children in Northeast Syria May Never Recover, Observers Fear 

Nearly 2½ years after the fall of the Islamic State terror group’s self-declared caliphate, there still appears to be no escape for tens of thousands of children left homeless in its wake. 

Aid groups and observers say the children, some from families that flocked to join Islamic State and some from families who fled from its forces, are wasting away in displaced persons camps in northeast Syria, stalked by violence and even death. 

“These children are experiencing traumatic events that no child should have to go through,” said Sonia Khush, Syria response director for Save the Children, in a statement Thursday.

“It is incomprehensible that they are condemned to this life,” Khush added. “Every day they are denied the opportunity to return to their home, denied the specialized services they so desperately need, and denied the right to live in safety and recover from their experiences is a day too many.” 

In a report Thursday, the aid group described the conditions in the two main camps — al-Hol and Roj — as dire for the 40,000 children who live there. 

The camps are strewn with rubbish and waste, the report said, and there is little access to sanitation or health care. Some residents complained they sometimes go days without drinking water. 

Malnutrition rates are rising, and diseases are taking a toll, all contributing to the deaths of two children a week on average through the first eight months of 2021, according to the report. 

Despite a crackdown by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late March and early April,  violence is also widespread. 

The pro-Kurdish Rojava Information Center (RIC) has recorded 86 killings at al-Hol through the end of August, including more than 30 since the start of April. 

In three cases this year, the victims were children, all shot to death. 

“I fear living in the camp,” one 10-year-old told Save the Children. “The people here keep fighting. I close my ears with my hands whenever I hear them fight. I don’t even let my mother go outside.” 

Many of the children are already starting to lash out. Thirty-seven percent of caregivers at the al-Hol camp told Save the Children that their children “are always or usually angry.” 

And there are concerns it will only get worse. 

“The longer they remain in the camps, the more acute a lack of belonging can become, growing frustration, a sense of uncertainty and a risk — particularly for boys — of prolonged detention can all reinforce trauma and isolation,” the report said. 

Others have also been sounding alarms. 

“Fear, worry and stress is commonplace among children, adolescents and young people,” an international aid worker with access to the camps told VOA last year. “Deprived from the traditional community support they enjoyed back home, it has led to significant long-term mental health and psychosocial consequences.” 

The worker further warned that “specialized targeted mental health interventions” had not been available. 

VOA reached out to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which oversee security for the camps and have yet to respond to the Save the Children report. But both have repeatedly called for more help to maintain the camps and for third countries to repatriate their citizens.

“The international community must help, and the citizens of every country must return to their homeland,” Ali al-Hassan, a spokesman for the internal security forces, said earlier this year. 

The process, though, has been slow. 

According to Save the Children, since 2017, just under 1,200 children have been repatriated from Syria, with just 14 repatriation operations taking place so far this year. 

The U.S. State Department has consistently pressured countries to take back citizens stuck in northeast Syria. The department itself repatriated 27 known Islamic State supporters from SDF custody.

Still, top U.S. military officials have repeatedly raised concerns that the combined efforts have not been enough. 

“It is one of my very highest concerns,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in April. 

“The long-term threat is ISIS radicalization,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “Unless we find a way to pull these children out of these camps … find a way to reintegrate them into civil society and deradicalize them, we are giving ourselves a very significant military problem 10 years down the road.” 

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All-Civilian Space Crew Returns Home

The all-amateur crew of the SpaceX Dragon capsule makes it home, but not before a string of first time-ever events. Plus, cosmonauts vote from space, and a film crew readies for a trip to the International Space Station. Buckle up, as VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on this historic Week in Space.

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