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Fears of Cholera Outbreak Surface in Ukraine

As Russia pounds Ukrainian cities to rubble, water and sewer systems have broken down in some places. The British Defense Ministry says Mariupol is at risk of a major cholera outbreak. Just how big the threat is, though, is not clear. Scientists disagree over where the strains of cholera that can cause a major outbreak come from, and whether they are present in Ukraine currently. Producer:  Steve Baragona

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Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
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Scientists’ Model Uses Google Search Data to Forecast COVID Hospitalizations

Future waves of COVID-19 might be predicted using internet search data, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the study, researchers watched the number of COVID-related Google searches made across the country and used that information, together with conventional COVID-19 metrics such as confirmed cases, to predict hospital admission rates weeks in advance.

Using the search data provided by Google Trends, scientists were able to build a computational model to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations. Google Trends is an online portal that provides data on Google search volumes in real time.

“If you have a bunch of people searching for ‘COVID testing sites near me’ … you’re going to still feel the effects of that downstream at the hospital level in terms of admissions,” said data scientist Philip Turk of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “That gives health care administrators and leaders advance warning to prepare for surges — to stock up on personal protective equipment and staffing and to anticipate a surge coming at them.”

For predictions one or two weeks in advance, the new computer model stacks up well against existing ones. It beats the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “national ensemble” forecast, which combines models made by many research teams — though there are some single models that outperform it.

Different perspective

According to study co-author Shihao Yang, a data scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the new model’s value is its unique perspective — a data source that is independent of conventional metrics. Yang is working to add the new model to the CDC’s COVID-19 forecasting hub.

Watching trends in how often people Google certain terms, like “cough” or “COVID-19 vaccine,” could help fill in the gaps in places with sparse testing or weak health care systems.

Yang also thinks that his model will be especially useful when new variants pop up. It did a good job of predicting spikes in hospitalizations thought to be associated with new variants such as omicron, without the time delays typical of many other models.

“It’s like an earthquake,” Yang said. “Google search will tell me a few hours ahead that a tsunami is hitting. … A few hours is enough for me to get prepared, allocate resources and inform my staff. I think that’s the information that we are providing here. It’s that window from the earthquake to when the tsunami hit the shore where my model really shines.”

The model considers Google search volumes for 256 COVID-19-specific terms, such as “loss of taste,” “COVID-19 vaccine” and “cough,” together with core statistics like case counts and vaccination rates. It also has temporal and spatial components — terms representing the delay between today’s data and the future hospitalizations it predicts, and how closely connected different states are.

Every week, the model retrains itself using the past 56 days’ worth of data. This keeps the model from being weighed down by older data that don’t reflect how the virus acts now.

Turk previously developed a different model to predict COVID-19 hospitalizations on a local level for the Charlotte, North Carolina, metropolitan area. The new model developed by Yang and his colleagues uses a different method and is the first to make state- and national-level predictions using search data.

Turk was surprised by “just how harmonious” the result was with his earlier work.

“I mean, they’re basically looking at two different models, two different paths,” he said. “It’s a great example of science coming together.”

Using Google search data to make public health forecasts has downsides. For one, Google could stop allowing researchers to use the data at any time, something Yang admits is concerning to his colleagues.

‘Noise’ in searches

Additionally, search data are messy, with lots of random behavior that researchers call “noise,” and the quality varies regionally, so the information needs to be smoothed out during analysis using statistical methods.

Local linguistic quirks can introduce problems because people from different regions sometimes use different words to describe the same thing, as can media coverage when it either raises or calms pandemic fears, Yang said. Privacy protections also introduce complications — user data are aggregated and injected with extra noise before publishing, a protection that makes it impossible to fish out individual users’ information from the public dataset.

Running the model with search data alone didn’t work as well as the model with search data and conventional metrics. Taking out search data and using only conventional COVID-19 metrics to make predictions also hurt the new model’s performance. This indicates that, for this model, the magic is in the mix — both conventional COVID-19 metrics and Google Trends data contain information that is useful for predicting hospitalizations.

“The fact that the data is valuable, and [the] data [is] difficult to process are two independent questions. There [is] information in there,” Yang said. “I can talk to my mom about this. It’s very simple, just intuitive. … If we are able to capture that intuition, I think that’s what makes things work.”

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Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
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Biden Offers Alternative to China Development Juggernaut at G7 Summit

This week, the Group of Seven leaders launched a $600 billion global infrastructure initiative they say will compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Telfs, Austria, with reporting from Patsy Widakuswara in Washington.

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Science & Health
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FDA Advisers Recommend Updating COVID-19 Booster Shots for Fall

At least some U.S. adults may get updated COVID-19 shots this fall, as government advisers voted Tuesday that it’s time to tweak booster doses to better match the most recent virus variants. 

Advisers to the Food and Drug Administration wrestled with how to modify doses now when there’s no way to know how the rapidly mutating virus will evolve by fall — especially since people who get today’s recommended boosters remain strongly protected against COVID-19’s worst outcomes. 

Ultimately, the FDA panel voted 19-2 that COVID-19 boosters should contain some version of the super-contagious omicron variant, to be ready for an anticipated fall booster campaign. 

“We are going to be behind the eight-ball if we wait longer,” said one adviser, Dr. Mark Sawyer of the University of California, San Diego. 

The FDA will have to decide the exact recipe, but expect a combination shot that adds protection against either omicron or some of its newer relatives to the original vaccine. 

“None of us has a crystal ball” to know the next threatening variant, said FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks. But “we may at least bring the immune system closer to being able to respond to what’s circulating” now rather than far older virus strains. 

It’s not clear who would be offered a tweaked booster — they might be urged only for older adults or those at high risk from the virus. But the FDA is expected to decide on the recipe change within days and then Pfizer and Moderna will have to seek authorization for the appropriately updated doses.

Current COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives globally. With a booster dose, those used in the U.S. retain strong protection against hospitalization and death but their ability to block infection dropped markedly when omicron appeared. And the omicron mutant that caused the winter surge has been replaced by its genetically distinct relatives. The two newest omicron cousins, called BA.4 and BA.5, together now make up half of U.S. cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Pfizer and Moderna already were brewing boosters that add protection to the first omicron mutant. Their combination shots, what scientists call “bivalent” vaccines, substantially boosted levels of antibodies capable of fighting that variant more than simply giving another dose of today’s vaccine. 

Both companies found the tweaked shots also offered some cross-protection against those worrisome BA.4 and BA.5 mutants, too, but not nearly as much. 

Many scientists favor the combination approach because it preserves the original vaccines’ proven benefits, which include some cross-protection against other mutants that have cropped up during the pandemic. 

The question facing FDA is the correct recipe change. Both companies said they’d have plenty of omicron-targeted combo shots by October, but Moderna said switching to target omicron’s newest relatives might delay its version another month. 

Further complicating the decision is that only half of vaccinated Americans have received that all-important first booster. And while the CDC says protection against hospitalization has slipped some for older adults, a second booster that’s recommended for people 50 and older seems to restore it. But only a quarter of those eligible for the additional booster have gotten one. 

Marks said that by tweaking the shots, “we’re hoping we can convince people to go get that booster to strengthen their immune response and help prevent another wave.” 

The logistics would be challenging. Many Americans haven’t had their first vaccinations yet, including young children who just became eligible — and it’s not clear whether tweaked boosters eventually might lead to a change in the primary vaccine. But the FDA’s advisers said it’s important to go ahead and study updated vaccine recipes in children, too. 

And one more complexity: A third company, Novavax, is awaiting FDA authorization of a more traditional kind of COVID-19 vaccine, protein-based shots. Novavax argued Tuesday that a booster of its regular vaccine promises a good immune response against the new omicron mutants without a recipe change. 

Advisers to the World Health Organization recently said omicron-tweaked shots would be most beneficial as a booster only because they should increase the breadth of people’s cross-protection against multiple variants. 

“We don’t want the world to lose confidence in vaccines that are currently available,” said Dr. Kanta Subbarao, a virologist who chairs that WHO committee.

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US Officials Announce More Steps Against Monkeypox Outbreak 

Reacting to a surprising and growing monkeypox outbreak, U.S. health officials on Tuesday expanded the group of people recommended to get vaccinated against the monkeypox virus. 

They also said they are providing more monkeypox vaccine, working to expand testing, and taking other steps to try to get ahead of the outbreak. 

“We will continue to take aggressive action against this virus,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, who has also been playing a role in how the government deals with monkeypox. 

The administration said it was expanding the pool of people who are advised to get vaccinated to include those who may realize on their own that they could have been infected. That includes men who have recently had sex with men at parties or in other gatherings in cities where monkeypox cases have been identified. 

Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body. 

The disease is endemic in parts of Africa, where people have been infected through bites from rodents or small animals. It does not usually spread easily among people. 

Last month, cases began emerging in Europe and the United States. Many — but not all — of those who contracted the virus had traveled internationally. Most were men who have sex with men, but health officials stress that anyone can get monkeypox. 

Case counts have continued to grow. As of Tuesday, the U.S. had identified 306 cases in 27 states and the District of Columbia. More than 4,700 cases have been found in more than 40 other countries outside the areas of Africa where the virus is endemic. 

There have been no U.S. deaths and officials say the risk to the American public is low. But they are taking steps to assure people that medical measures are in place to deal with the growing problem. 

One of the steps was to expand who is recommended to get vaccinated. Vaccines customarily are given to build immunity in people before they are ever infected. But if given within days or even a few weeks of first becoming infected, some vaccines can reduce severity of symptoms. 

A two-dose vaccine, Jynneos, is approved for monkeypox in the U.S. The government has many more doses of an older smallpox vaccine — ACAM2000 — that they say could also be used, but that vaccine is considered to have a greater risk of side effects and is not recommended for people who have HIV. So it’s the Jynneos vaccine that officials have been trying to use as a primary weapon against the monkeypox outbreak. 

So far, the government has deployed more than 9,000 doses of vaccine. U.S. officials on Tuesday said they are increasing the amount of Jynneos vaccine they are making available, allocating 56,000 doses immediately and about 240,000 more over the coming weeks. They promised more than 1 million more over the coming months. 

Another change: Until now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that vaccines be given after exposure to people whom health officials identify as close personal contacts of cases. But on Tuesday, CDC officials say they are expanding the recommendation to people who were never identified but may realize on their own that they may have been infected. 

“It’s almost like we’re expanding the definition of who a contact might be,” said the CDC’s Jennifer McQuiston. If people have been to a party or other place where monkeypox has been known to spread “we recommend they come in for a vaccine,” she said. 

The CDC’s expansion follows similar steps taken in New York City and the District of Columbia. 

 

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Ghana Hosts NFL’s First African Development Camp

The National Football League (NFL), the top league in American-style football, has hosted its first African developmental camp in Ghana’s capital, Accra. The weeklong program was aimed at finding fresh talent and building the sport’s popularity across Africa. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

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Thailand Hosts Transgender Pageant as Equality Drive Hits Parliament

Held for the first time since the pandemic, the world’s biggest transgender pageant pulled contestants from as far apart as Honduras and India to Thailand, a country where gender equality law is under the spotlight. For VOA, Vijitra Duangdee has this story from Pattaya, Thailand.

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