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US VP Harris Says Nation Must Address Climate Change with ‘A Sense of Urgency’

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said final congressional passage of the Biden administration’s major infrastructure plan comes down to “a fundamental issue” of the lack of water brought on by climate change.    

Harris made the comments Monday during a visit to Lake Mead, a man-made reservoir near the gambling and tourist destination city of Las Vegas, Nevada, which provides drinking water and electricity for more than 40 million people across seven western U.S. states and northern Mexico.  

The U.S. government in August declared the first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead, which has fallen to record lows amid a two decade-long drought in the Western United States. The shortage has forced officials to impose water rationing next year for Nevada, the neighboring state of Arizona and Mexico.

During the visit, the vice president promoted a $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, an agreement reached earlier this year between President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators. The investment includes tens of billions of dollars to shore up the nation’s water infrastructure and protect communities against the impact of climate change, including lingering heat waves and droughts, along with investments in water recycling and technology to convert sea water into usable drinking water.   

“This is about thinking ahead, recognizing where we are and where we’re headed — if we don’t address these issues with a sense of urgency, understanding this is literally about life,” Harris said.   

The infrastructure plan has been approved by the U.S. Senate, but is stalled in the House over intense and increasingly bitter negotiations over funding for the president’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan, which would provide a significant boost to the nation’s social safety net.   

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press. 

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Biden Administration Asks Supreme Court to Block Texas Abortion Law

As a legal battle plays out in the courts, the Biden administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a Texas law that bans most abortions in the state.

The Justice Department asked the high court Monday to reverse a decision by an appeals court that allows the law to remain in effect while litigation over the policy continues. 

The Republican-backed law bans abortions once cardiac activity has been detected in an embryo, which typically occurs at six weeks, a point when some women are not aware they are pregnant.

The law also allows members of the public to sue people who may have facilitated an abortion after six weeks. 

The Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue once before in a lawsuit filed by abortion providers. In a 5-4 vote last month, the court allowed the law to remain in effect as the legal battle over it continues.

The Supreme Court, however, has not yet ruled on the constitutionally of the Texas law. 

The high court became more conservative under former President Donald Trump, who appointed three justices to the nine-seat bench. Conservatives now hold a 6-3 majority.

The court’s handling of the abortion issue is being closely watched since it allowed the restrictive Texas law to take effect last month. Later in September, the court announced it would hear arguments in December in a case that directly challenges Roe v. Wade, the decades-old ruling that gives women the right to an abortion.

The court scheduled oral arguments for December 1 to hear a case concerning a Mississippi state law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The case asks justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that allows women to have abortions in most circumstances. Roe v. Wade establishes a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus is viable, typically around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The court’s latest actions have fueled speculation that a majority of the justices could be inclined to formally curtail abortion rights.

A poll released by Monmouth University last month found that 62% of Americans believe abortion should either always be legal or be legal with some limitations. Twenty-four percent said it should be illegal except in rare circumstances such as rape, while 11% said it should always be illegal. 

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

 

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Afghan Door-to-Door Anti-Polio Drive to Resume After 3 years

The United Nations announced Monday that a nationwide house-to-house polio vaccination campaign in conflict-torn Afghanistan will recommence next month and hailed the new Taliban government for agreeing to lift a ban on such drives.

Afghanistan is one of two countries in the world, along with neighboring Pakistan, where the highly infectious and incurable disease continues to cripple children.  

Officials on both sides documented only one infection each so far in 2021 of the wild poliovirus Type 1 (WPV1), the lowest-ever transmission seen at the same time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, compared to 84 and 56 cases respectively last year.  

The house-to-house Afghan anti-polio campaign due to start November 8 is aimed at reaching around 10 million children under the age of 5 across the country, including more than 3 million in remote and previously inaccessible areas, according to the World Health Organization and U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

The Taliban, who regained power in August, banned door-to-door vaccinations in April 2018 in areas under their control as they waged insurgent attacks against the ousted Western-backed Afghan government and international forces.

“Over this 3-and-a-half-year period, there were approximately 3.3 million children, some of whom could never be reached — or some of them inconsistently reached — with vaccination because of this ban,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, told VOA.

He explained that the Taliban had seen polio teams’ house-to-house movement as a security risk for their fighters in the wake of the nature of the conflict at the time.  

“They have now the controlling authority across the country, and there is not much active conflict right now. So, they (Taliban) have decided to continue their support for polio eradication and specially vaccination through house-to-house vaccination,” the WHO official said.

Jafari recalled the polio eradication program started in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the Taliban were in government and hailed the Islamist group for being supportive of the anti-polio efforts from the outset.  

He stressed the need for aggressively implementing the anti-polio campaign, saying the low number of cases offer a “truly unique opportunity” to eradicate the virus from Afghanistan.

Jafari underlined the economic importance of the house-to-house campaign, saying it will be the first major mobilization of Afghan health workers for delivery of a nationwide vaccination service since the Taliban takeover of the country.

“In the current situation of real economic challenges, where many workers and people have not been paid their salaries, this campaign will be one activity in which a large number of the workforce will actually participate in vaccine delivery and will get paid for it,” he said.  

WHO officials said a second campaign in Afghanistan, due to begin in coordination with a campaign in Pakistan in December, has also been agreed to.

Jafari cautioned that it is too early for both countries to celebrate that they are nearing polio eradication. He noted there are still several million children in Afghanistan who have not been administered polio drops in recent years, and there are areas in Pakistan where children still need to be inoculated against the virus.

“We have an unprecedented epidemiological opportunity right now to succeed in final polio eradication in both countries. The progress is encouraging, but it is very fragile, and both countries still have to work very hard. This is not a time to be complacent,” Jafari said.

 

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Some Zimbabweans Affected by Cyclone Turn to Beekeeping for Survival

After Cyclone Idai hit in 2019, some Zimbabweans turned to activities like illegal gold panning to survive. Now Voluntary Service Overseas, an international development charity, is giving them a new option – bee keeping. As Columbus Mavhunga reports from the town of Chimanimani, life has turned sweet for one Zimbabwean because of the honey from his bees. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe.

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VP Heads West to Promote Administration’s Climate Crisis Strategy

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will travel Monday to Lake Mead to promote the Biden administration’s climate crisis strategy and urge passage of a major infrastructure plan.   

The man-made reservoir near the gambling and tourist destination city of Las Vegas, Nevada, is a major source of water for seven Western U.S. states and northern Mexico. Harris will hear from local, state and federal officials on the declining water levels at Lake Mead, the largest in the U.S. by volume, which provides drinking water and electricity for more than 40 million people across the region.   

The U.S. government in August declared the first-ever water shortage at Lake Mead, which has fallen to record lows amid a decades-long drought in the Western U.S. The shortage has forced officials to impose water rationing next year for Nevada, the neighboring state of Arizona and Mexico. 

With the trip to Lake Mead, Harris plans to promote a $550 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, an agreement reached earlier this year between President Joe Biden and a bipartisan group of senators. The investment includes tens of billions of dollars to shore up the nation’s water infrastructure and protect communities against the impact of climate change, including lingering heat waves and droughts.  

The infrastructure plan has been approved by the U.S. Senate, but is stalled in the House over intense and increasingly bitter negotiations over funding for the president’s Build Back Better plan, which would provide a significant boost to the nation’s social safety net.   

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press. 

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In Quiet Debut, Alzheimer’s Drug Finds Questions, Skepticism

The first new Alzheimer’s treatment in more than 20 years was hailed as a breakthrough when regulators approved it more than four months ago, but its rollout has been slowed by questions about its price and how well it works.

Several major medical centers remain undecided on whether to use Biogen’s Aduhelm, which is recommended for early stages of the disease. Big names like the Cleveland Clinic and Mass General Brigham in Boston say they’ll pass on it for now. 

One neurology practice has even banned the company’s sales reps from its offices, citing concerns about the drug and its price, which can climb past $50,000 annually.

Many doctors say they need to learn more about how Aduhelm works and what will be covered before they decide whether to offer it. That might take several months to sort out. Even then, questions may linger.

“The drug won’t be for everybody, even with access,” said Salim Syed, an analyst who covers Biogen for Mizuho Securities USA. 

Syed estimates that only around one-tenth of the people diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s may wind up taking Aduhelm chronically, especially if regulators approve similar treatments from Biogen’s competitors.

Biogen, which reports third-quarter financial results Wednesday, is not saying how many people have received the drug since it was approved on June 7. A company executive said last month that Biogen was aware of about 50 sites infusing Aduhelm, far fewer than the 900 the company had said it expected to be ready shortly after regulators approved the drug.

Aduhelm is the first in a line of new drugs that promise to do what no other Alzheimer’s treatment has managed: slow the progress of the fatal brain-destroying disease instead of just managing its symptoms. 

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Dr. Stephen Salloway, a Rhode Island neurologist and Biogen consultant who is prescribing the drug. People with Alzheimer’s “know what’s coming, and they want to do whatever they can to stay in the milder stage.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Aduhelm despite objections from its own independent advisers, several of whom resigned. The agency later said the drug was appropriate for patients with mild symptoms or early-stage Alzheimer’s.

Aduhelm clears brain plaque thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and regulators made the call based on study results showing the drug seemed likely to benefit patients. 

Biogen, which developed Aduhelm with Japan’s Eisai Co., had halted two studies on the drug due to disappointing results. It later said further analysis showed the treatment was effective at higher doses. 

The FDA is requiring Biogen to conduct a follow-up study.

The research Biogen submitted so far doesn’t give doctors as much insight as they would normally have into a drug, said Dr. Brendan Kelley, a neurologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Its experts are still reviewing Aduhelm. 

“Biogen went to the FDA with preliminary data, so it makes it really challenging to know how to navigate,” he said. More complete research would give doctors a better idea for how the drug will work in a broader patient population, Kelley said.

Cost is another concern.

Biogen’s pricing for Aduhelm is “irresponsible and unconscionable,” according to signs posted on office doors for The Neurology Center, a Washington, D.C.-area practice. The signs also refer to Aduhelm as a medication “of dubious effectiveness” and tell Biogen sales reps they are no longer welcomed in the center’s offices. 

“As physicians we feel compelled to speak out and protest BIOGEN’s actions,” one of the signs reads.

Neurology Center CEO Wendy Van Fossen said the signs went up in July, but she declined to elaborate on why they were posted.

A Biogen spokeswoman said in an email that it was disappointing that some centers are denying access to the drug. 

As for Aduhelm’s effectiveness, company data shows that plaque removal “is reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit,” said Biogen Chief Medical Officer Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan. She said regulators reviewed data from more than 3,000 patients, counting two late-stage studies and earlier research.

Doctors also are worried about whether patients taking Aduhelm will be able to get the regular brain scans needed to monitor their progress on the drug.

Issues with care access weren’t explored in the clinical research, which also involved patients who were generally younger and healthier than those in the broader population, noted Dr. Zaldy Tan, director of the Cedars-Sinai memory and aging program.

The Los Angeles health system is still evaluating Aduhelm. Its committee of experts is considering things like which doctors will prescribe the drug and how to ensure patients are monitored for problems like dizziness or if headaches develop. Bleeding in the brain is another potential side effect.

“Safety and access are real issues that need to be prioritized,” Tan said. 

Aduhelm also requires a deeper level of coordination among doctors than other Alzheimer’s treatments, noted Radhakrishnan. 

Prescribing doctors have to work with neurologists, radiologists and nurse practitioners to diagnose patients, confirm the presence of plaque in the brain, get them started on the treatment and then monitor them.

“All of this is work in progress,” Radhakrishnan said. 

Uncertainty about insurance coverage is another holdup.

Some insurers have decided not to cover the drug. Others, including the major Medicare Advantage insurer Humana, haven’t made a decision yet but are reviewing claims case by case in the meantime. 

The federal Medicare program is expected to make a national coverage determination by next spring that will lay out how it handles the drug.

Biogen executives said recently they think most sites that will offer the drug are waiting for clarity on reimbursement, including that Medicare decision. 

Medicare’s determination looms large for the Cedars-Sinai experts. Tan said they know they should reach a decision before the Medicare decision prompts more patient inquiries. 

He said doctors also realize they aren’t just evaluating Aduhelm: They’re also thinking about how to handle similar treatments that could get FDA approval.

“We want to make sure we get it right,” Tan said.

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Bitcoin-Mining Power Plant Raises Ire of Environmentalists 

An obstacle to large-scale bitcoin mining is finding enough cheap energy to run the huge, power-gobbling computer arrays that create and transact cryptocurrency. One mining operation in central New York came up with a novel solution that has alarmed environmentalists: It uses its own power plant.

Greenidge Generation runs a once-mothballed plant near the shore of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region to produce about 44 megawatts to run 15,300 computer servers, plus additional electricity it sends into the state’s power grid. The megawatts dedicated to Bitcoin might be enough electricity to power more than 35,000 homes. 

Proponents call it a competitive way to mine increasingly popular cryptocurrencies, without putting a drain on the existing power grid. 

Environmentalists see the plant as a climate threat. 

They fear a wave of resurrected fossil-fuel plants pumping out greenhouse gasses more for private profit than public good. Seeing Greenidge as a test case, they are asking the state to deny renewal of the plant’s air quality permit and put the brakes on similar projects.

“The current state of our climate demands action on cryptocurrency mining,” said Liz Moran of Earthjustice. “We are jeopardizing the state’s abilities to meet our climate goals, and we set the stage for the rest of the country as a result.”

Millions in Bitcoin 

The former coal plant, in a touristy region known for its glacial lakes and riesling wines, was converted to natural gas by Greenidge and began producing electricity in 2017. Bitcoin mining at the plant, which has a 106-megawatt capacity, started in earnest last year. The company said it was “bringing a piece of the world’s digital future” to upstate New York. 

“For decades, this region has been told it would see new industries and opportunities,” Greenidge said in a prepared statement. “We are actually making it happen, and doing it fully within the state’s nation-leading high environmental standards.” 

Bitcoin miners unlock bitcoins by solving complex, unique puzzles. As the value of Bitcoin goes up, the puzzles become increasingly more difficult, and it requires more computer power to solve them. Estimates on how much energy Bitcoin uses vary. 

Greenidge said it mined 729 bitcoins over three months ending September 30. The value of cryptocurrency fluctuates, and on Friday, one bitcoin was worth more than $59,000.  

Bait-and-switch?

Plant opponents suspect Greenidge of pulling a bait-and-switch, applying to run a power plant but planning to run a mining operation that is taking up more of the plant’s power. 

Greenidge says mining was not part of the plan when the plant came back online and note they continue to provide power to the grid. From January through June, Greenidge said it used 58% of its power for mining. 

Supporters see it as an economic boon in a part of upstate New York that could use the help. Douglas Paddock, chairman of the Yates County Legislature, testified at a public hearing this week that the plant has brought 45 high-paying jobs and made a “significant contribution” to the area through tax payments and capital investments. 

Environmental concerns

Some opposition to the plant centers on the potential effects of its water withdrawals from Seneca Lake. But air quality issues have taken center stage as the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews the plant’s air emission permits. 

Greenidge has said it’s in compliance with its permits and that the plant is 100% carbon neutral, thanks to the purchase of carbon offsets, such as forestry programs and projects that capture methane from landfills. 

Opponents claim the plant undercuts the state’s efforts to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades under its 2019 climate law. 

A large coalition of environmental groups and other organizations this week asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to deny the air permit for Greenidge and to take a similar action to keep an existing plant near Buffalo from becoming a mining site. The coalition wants Hochul to set a “national precedent” and enact a statewide moratorium on the energy intensive “proof-of-work” cryptocurrency used by bitcoin miners. 

Environmentalists estimate that there are 30 plants in New York that could be converted into mining operations. 

“I really think more than anything, this plant is a significant test for whether the state’s climate law is really worth anything,” said Judith Enck, who served as the EPA’s regional northeastern U.S. administrator under President Barack Obama. 

U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have separately asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to exercise oversight. 

Other mining operations

Around the country, there are other power plants being used for cryptocurrency mining under different types of arrangements. 

In Venango County, Pennsylvania, a generation plant that converts coal waste into power is being used to mine bitcoins and can provide electricity to the grid when needed. Stronghold Digital Mining has plans to replicate that kind of operation at two other sites in Pennsylvania.  

And in Montana, a coal-fired generating station is now providing 100% of its energy to Marathon Digital Holdings for bitcoin mining under a power purchase agreement. 

“We had previously done what many miners do, which is you find an industrial building, set it up for mining and then you contract for power from the grid,” Marathon CEO Fred Thiel said. “And we wanted to flip that model upside down because we knew that there are lots of underutilized energy generation sources in the U.S.” 

Thiel said that harmful emissions are low because of the quality of the coal and pollution controls, and that the plant would be carbon offset by the end of next year. He said his company is focused on moving toward renewable energy, saying cryptocurrency miners can provide crucial financial incentives to build more clean energy projects. 

New York permits pending 

New York state has yet to make a determination on Greenidge’s permits. 

Greenidge said that even if the plant ran at full capacity, its potential emissions equate to 0.23% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2030. 

However, state Environmental Commissioner Basil Seggos tweeted last month that “Greenidge has not shown compliance with NY’s climate law” based on goals in that law. 

“New York state is leading on climate change,” Seggos said in a prepared statement, “and we have some major concerns about the role cryptocurrency mining may play in generating additional greenhouse gas emissions.” 

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Chinese Astronauts Arrive at Space Station for Longest Mission

Three astronauts successfully docked with China’s new space station on Saturday on what is set to be Beijing’s longest crewed mission to date and the latest landmark in its drive to become a major space power.

The three blasted off shortly after midnight (1600 GMT Friday) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China’s Gobi desert, the China Manned Space Agency said, with the team expected to spend six months at the Tiangong space station.

The space agency declared the launch a success and said the crew “were in good shape.”

The Shenzhou-13 vessel carrying the three completed its docking with the radial port of the space station less than seven hours after the launch.

The mission, which is expected to last twice as long as a previous 90-day visit, will involve the crew setting up equipment and testing technology for future construction on the Tiangong station.

Mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, a former fighter pilot who performed the country’s first spacewalk in 2008, said the team would undertake “more complex” spacewalks than during previous missions.

The crew include military pilot Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first woman to visit the space station after becoming China’s second woman in space in 2013.

The other team member is People’s Liberation Army pilot Ye Guangfu, 41.

Pictures released by the space agency showed the three astronauts waving to well-wishers who held up slogans of encouragement at a send-off ceremony before the launch.

A previous record-breaking crew — making the first mission to Tiangong — returned to Earth in September after spending three months on the space station.

China’s heavily promoted space program has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the moon.

Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace,” is expected to operate for at least 10 years.

Its core module entered orbit earlier this year, with the station expected to be operational by 2022.

The completed station will be similar to the Soviet Mir station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.

The latest mission is set to “expand China’s technological boundary” and verify the space station system’s capacity for a longer duration of human occupation, Chen Lan, an independent space analyst at GoTaikonauts, told AFP.

“I don’t think it is very challenging, as China’s technologies (are) quite mature, though anything in space is always challenging,” Chen said.

Saturday’s blast-off came shortly after China launched its first solar exploration satellite into space, equipped with a telescope to observe changes in the Sun.

The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 missions to Tiangong through to the end of next year, including at least two more crewed launches that will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-ton station.

China’s space ambitions have been fueled in part by a U.S. ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, a collaboration among the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could remain functional beyond 2028.

Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration on the space station, although the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.

The country has come a long way since launching its first satellite in 1970.

It put the first Chinese “taikonaut” in space in 2003 and landed the Chang’e-4 robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 — a historic first.

China in May became the second nation to land and operate a rover on Mars.

Astronauts on the Tiangong space station will have separate living spaces, exercise equipment and a communication center for emails and video calls with ground control.

State broadcaster CCTV said astronauts had also packed special food and supplies to celebrate the Lunar New Year during their long mission, including dumplings.

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