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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

4-20-21 America's vaccine glut is here. Time to share.
The U.S. has more than enough doses. But we are increasingly standing in the way of the rest of the world getting theirs. As of Monday, every person 16 or older in the United States is officially eligible for a coronavirus vaccine shot. Daily doses administered have crept up past 3 million, and in most parts of the country appointments are easily available. Half of all adults have gotten at least one shot, and about a third are fully vaccinated. But some parts of the country are already struggling to use up their available shots, a problem that is only going to get worse. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world has barely started on its vaccine rollout, and numerous poorer countries have not administered a single dose. The pandemic is still raging out of control — last week saw the highest number of global infections ever. What's more, American regulations are potentially starting to get in the way of the rest of the world producing their own vaccine supply. It's long since time President Biden started sharing America's surplus vaccine and also took steps to make it easier for the rest of the world to crank up production. What's happening in the American vaccine rollout is easy to understand: steadily-increasing supply is catching up with demand or outstripping it in some states, and so doses are starting to pile up fast. The problem is worst in conservative regions, because Republicans are disproportionately resistant to the vaccine — Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Wyoming have used less than 70 percent of their allotment (and that figure is falling), and the Biden administration is considering altering deliveries to get shots to where demand is higher. Other states are still managing to get their supply into arms, but within weeks they will no doubt run into the same problem. Already many places are adding community vaccination clinics in addition to large, central facilities to make it as easy as possible for busy or distracted people to get their shot. But this will probably not take up the ever-growing supply, and in any case America has already ordered enough doses to vaccinate our entire population more than three times. Very soon we will be swimming in surplus. That is not remotely the case outside the U.S. Big chunks of sub-Saharan Africa have not gotten any, and most of the rest of the continent is at less than 1 percent vaccination. The situation is similar in much of Central and Southeast Asia. Europe is doing somewhat better, but that continent is still far behind the U.S., and Belarus and Ukraine are also barely started. The world very badly needs those surplus vaccines, and America should start sharing. As I have previously argued, we should just give them away for free — it would be both a diplomatic coup and a way to ensure that payment worries don't foul up vaccination campaigns in the poorest countries. But not only that — the Biden administration must act to protect and expand the global vaccine supply chain. Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate domestic vaccine production, but this comes with rules against exporting related products, which will soon screw up international production. The point of the DPA is to allow the government to control domestic production and raw materials in times of emergency or war, and using it made sense earlier in the pandemic so that we could make sure U.S. factories are going at top speed. But now that the kinks have mostly been ironed out, it makes sense to allow exports to maximize global capacity. For instance, India has the largest vaccine factory in the world, and The Economist reports: "Production lines in India, making at least 160 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine a month, will come to a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies 37 critical items." (These include things like plastic tubing, special bags, chemical reagents, and so on.) It would be stark madness to let those factories fall idle; Biden must either issue export clearances or retract his invocation of the DPA.

4-20-21 Covid-19: US to advise against travel to 80% of countries
The US state department is to advise Americans to avoid 80% of countries worldwide because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a note to the media about its updated travel guidance, it said the pandemic continued to "pose unprecedented risks to travellers". The current US "Do Not Travel" advisory covers 34 out of 200 countries. Covid-19 has now claimed more than three million lives worldwide - more than half a million of them in the US. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned the world was "approaching the highest rate of infection" so far, despite the global rollout of vaccination programmes. India - currently in the grip of a second wave - is to begin offering vaccinations to all adults over 18 in a bid to control the surge in infections. The US state department said its decision to update its travel advisories was to bring it more in line with those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and "does not imply a reassessment of the current health situation in a given country". However, it said the move would "result in a significant increase in the number of countries at Level 4: Do Not Travel, to approximately 80% of countries worldwide". Only three places at the world are assessed at the lowest of the state department's four risk levels - "Exercise normal precautions". They are Macau, Taiwan and New Zealand. Even Antarctica is at level two - "Exercise increased caution" - while the UK is at level three - "Reconsider travel" - with an extra warning to exercise caution because of the risk of terrorism. The CDC currently recommends all Americans refrain from travelling domestically until they have been fully vaccinated and warns that international travel "poses additional risks" even for those vaccinated. While more than 860 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered in 165 countries worldwide, many countries are still struggling to contain the virus.

4-20-21 All the times the US spent big on infrastructure
The US federal government played a key role in developing infrastructure over the course of the 20th Century, from the public works project of the 1930s to the building of the highways in the 1950s. Now, Joe Biden hopes to build on that legacy with a $2tn (£1.4tn) plan that would mark the largest federal investment in infrastructure "in a generation". Where does it rank among the largest projects in American history? The president's plan has received criticism from Republicans for defining infrastructure too widely. Only about 6% of the spending would go directly towards roads and bridges. The bill makes significant investments in home-care services, job-training, expansion of broadband access, electric vehicle incentives and R&D.

4-20-21 George Floyd: US city on edge as jury deliberates Chauvin verdict
The jury in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis policeman accused of killing George Floyd last year, has retired to consider its verdict. The prosecution told jurors that Mr Chauvin had murdered Mr Floyd, but the defence said their client had correctly followed police training. The court is being protected by barbed wire, high barriers and armed soldiers from the National Guard. Cities across the country are bracing for protests regardless of the verdict. On Monday, the prosecution and defence made their closing statements in a trial that lasted three weeks. The prosecution then had another opportunity to rebut defence arguments before the jury was sent to deliberate. Mr Chauvin's lawyer Eric Nelson argued that his client did what any "reasonable police officer" would have done after finding himself in a "dynamic" and "fluid" situation involving a large man scuffling with three officers. He said Mr Chauvin's body camera and badge were knocked off his chest owing to "the intensity of the struggle". Mr Nelson also argued that Mr Floyd's drug use was "significant" because the body reacts to opioid use, specifically in the case of someone who had been diagnosed with hypertension and high blood pressure. The lawyer also argued that his client was unlikely to have intentionally violated use-of-force rules as he would have been aware that the whole interaction was being recorded. "Officers know that they are being videotaped," added Mr Nelson. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher urged jurors to "use your common sense. Believe your eyes. What you saw, you saw," referring to the video showing Mr Chauvin kneeling on Mr Floyd for more than nine minutes last 25 May. "This wasn't policing; this was murder," he added. Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell had the final word on Monday. He said the matter was "so simple that a child can understand it". "In fact, a child did understand it, when the nine-year-old girl said, 'Get off of him,'" Mr Blackwell said, referring to a young onlooker who objected. "That's how simple it was. 'Get off of him.' Common sense."

4-20-21 George Floyd death: Congresswoman denies inciting violence
A US congresswoman is under fire after urging demonstrators to "get more confrontational" if a not-guilty verdict comes in the George Floyd case. At a protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Maxine Waters told protesters to "stay on the streets" if ex-officer Derek Chauvin is acquitted in the case. The trial judge said the Democrat's comments were "abhorrent". Republicans called for a congressional censure of Ms Waters, but Democrats said she had no reason to apologise. Ms Waters spoke on Saturday in a Minneapolis suburb not far from where Mr Chauvin, who is white, is on trial accused of the murder and manslaughter of Mr Floyd, a black man, in the city on 25 May last year. If there is a not-guilty verdict in Mr Chauvin's trial, Ms Waters said, "then we know that we got to not only stay in the street, but we have got to fight for justice". She also said: "We've got to get more confrontational. We've got to make sure that they know that we mean business." Of the curfew, Ms Waters said: "I don't think anything about curfew. Curfew means I want you all to stop talking. I want you to stop meeting. I want you to stop gathering. I don't agree with that." On Monday, she rejected the furore, insisting she was "non-violent" and arguing Republicans were merely seizing on her remarks to "send a message to all of the white supremacists, the KKK". After the jury was sent out on Monday, Judge Peter Cahill rejected an argument from Mr Chauvin's defence lawyer that Ms Waters' comments may have influenced the jury. Judge Cahill said: "I give you that congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this trial being overturned." The judge said he wished "elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law". "Their failure to do so is abhorrent," he added. However, Judge Cahill dismissed Mr Nelson's motion for a mistrial, saying Ms Waters' "opinion really doesn't matter a whole lot". (Webmaster's comment: If the law does not protect us from police murdering us then what should we do?)

4-20-21 The Ugandan mum who was once ashamed of her gay son
When Rita heard rumours that her son was gay she refused to believe it. At the time, she thought that homosexuality was an abomination - a "problem" that happened elsewhere, not in Uganda. When she finally realised the truth, she felt that something bad had invaded her own home. "When I confirmed it, I wept. I wept because I could not believe it… I locked myself in and wept," she told The Comb, a BBC podcast. Uganda's hostility towards homosexuality is well known. Gay sex is punishable by life imprisonment, and LGBTI people often face discrimination, threats and harassment. But the battle over gay rights is often thought of as a situation with two clear sides - LGBTI individuals on one hand, and homophobic communities on the other. The reality is a lot more messy, with parents like Rita caught in the middle - between the strongly held beliefs they have grown up with and the plight of their loved ones. A group in Uganda is trying to help parents like Rita understand and accept their children, and deal with the challenges and trauma of living with homophobia. Rita found out about the rumours surrounding her son from a friend, who had heard people saying that he was homosexual. She was in turmoil and started to think about whether there had been signs that she had missed. Eventually, her son confirmed it was true that he was gay. With friends and neighbours talking about the family, Rita locked herself in the house to escape the gossip andpublic shame, while her son's father blamed her, saying she had failed as a mother. Eventually, she says she "soothed herself", realising that no-one else would look out for her son, and she tried to find a way to deal with the situation. Rita found herself totally alone at a time when she needed advice and support. A huge turning-point for her came when her son heard about the new support group, and encouraged her to attend.

4-19-21 Covid-19 news: Immunity trial will deliberately expose people to virus
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. Volunteers will be exposed to the coronavirus to learn which immune components confer protection. Young adults who have recovered from covid-19 will have live coronavirus sprayed into their noses to see whether they can be reinfected as part of a new trial. The study, which is being run by the University of Oxford, is one of two “challenge” trials in the UK. It is designed to reveal, among other things, the elusive “correlates of protection” against SARS-CoV-2– which means the levels of antibodies, T-cells and other immune system components that are required to protect people against infection. This is currently a significant gap in our understanding of the virus, and knowing the correlates of protection could lead to even more rapid vaccine development. That’s because some vaccines are approved based on whether they elicit these measures of protection, bypassing lengthy clinical trials. The other study, using volunteers who have not had covid-19, is already under way at Imperial College London. More people were diagnosed with covid-19 during the past seven days than any other week since the start of the pandemic, totalling more than 5.2 million globally for the week. The infection count was 12 per cent higher than the previous week. The Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine has shown efficacy of 97.6 per cent in real-world data from 3.8 million people who have received two doses, according to the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. A week-long lockdown has been imposed in Delhi, India. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the measures were necessary to “prevent a collapse of the health system”. India’s rate of new infections is continuing to climb, with over 270,000 cases and 1619 deaths reported today. The UK will add India to the “red list” for travel from Friday, and prime minister Boris Johnson has cancelled a planned trip to India next week because of the country’s coronavirus situation. Health officials in the UK are investigating whether a covid-19 variant first found in India spreads more easily and evades vaccines, after more than 70 cases were identified in England and Scotland. The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee has recommended that proof of vaccination should not be required as a condition of international travel. The panel cited limited evidence on whether vaccination against covid-19 reduces people’s ability to transmit the virus and “the persistent inequity in global vaccine distribution”.

4-19-21 Closing arguments in Floyd officer murder trial
Closing arguments will begin today in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. After both sides present their final remarks, the jury will be isolated as they discuss a verdict. Chauvin stands accused of second-degree and third-degree murder and manslaughter over the death of George Floyd. Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd for over nine minutes during his arrest last May. Chauvin's defence has argued that drugs and poor health caused Floyd's death. The verdict in this case is being seen as a key moment in US race relations and policing. The city of Minneapolis is on edge as the trial nears its end and a nearby suburb grapples with the fall-out of another police killing. The men and women seated in the jury box hold the outcome of this trial in their hands. The closing arguments we're hearing now are meant for them - a last chance for both sides to sway the jurors before they begin their isolated discussions. Selecting jurors in an emotionally charged case over a black man's death in police custody was no easy feat. It was made even more complicated in the George Floyd case because of how well known his death was. After 11 days worth of jury summons last month, the two opposing legal teams settled on 15 Minnesota residents out of a jury pool of over 130 people. Among that group, 14 people - including two alternates - were sworn in for the trial. The jury panel skews younger, more white and more female. This is the last chance for the prosecution to try and convince the jury Chauvin is guilty. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher is speaking slowly, using repetitive language to drill home his points. "What the defendant did to George Floyd killed him," says Schleicher in his closing argument. The state prosecutor insists Derek Chauvin ignored Floyd's pleas repeatedly. "When he was unable to speak, the defendant continued," he says. "When he was unable to breathe, the defendant continued." "Beyond the point where he had a pulse, the defendant continued."

4-19-21 Namibian court denies entry to gay couple's surrogate daughters
A Namibian court has refused to issue a gay man emergency travel documents so that he can bring home his twin daughters from South Africa where they were born by surrogate. The authorities say Phillip Lühl must show genetic proof that he is their father before they can travel. Mr Lühl, 38, and his Mexican husband Guillermo Delgado say this is discriminatory. Both fathers' names are on the babies' birth certificates. Mr Lühl, a university lecturer and Namibian citizen, has argued that the paternity test being demanded of him would not be required from a single mother or heterosexual couple. He told the BBC his daughters were currently "stateless", and previously told AFP that Namibia's refusal amounted to "state-sanctioned homophobia". Sexual contact between males is forbidden in Namibia but the law is rarely enforced. Neighbouring South Africa meanwhile - where the couple got married - was the first country in the world to use its constitution to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation back in 1996. Mr Delgado is in Namibia with the couple's two-year-old son, while Mr Lühl is stuck in Johannesburg with the girls who are five weeks old. The BBC's Nomsa Maseko in Johannesburg says more details of the Namibian judge's ruling are to be made public later on Monday. Namibia's government said in March that the home affairs minister "did not agree to a request to issue the twins Namibian travel documents, because their entitlement to Namibian citizenship by descent had not been determined". Before Windhoek High Court's ruling on Monday, LGBTQ activists had decried the government's stance and a number of Mr Lühl's supporters took part in street protests a month ago. He spoke of his frustration at the time from South Africa. The couple have another ongoing case in Namibia, where they are seeking citizenship for their two-year-old son, born to the same surrogate in South Africa. They say there is a possibility they will appeal against the judgement once it has been reviewed by their lawyers.

4-19-21 India coronavirus: Delhi announces lockdown as Covid cases surge
India's capital Delhi has announced a week-long lockdown after a record spike in cases overwhelmed the city's healthcare system. Government offices and essential services, such as hospitals, pharmacies and grocers, will be open during the lockdown which starts on Monday. The city had imposed a weekend curfew, but reported its highest single-day spike so far on Sunday - 24, 462 cases. India has been reeling from a deadly second wave since the start of April. "I have always been against lockdowns, but this one will help us amplify the number of hospital beds in Delhi," Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a press conference on Monday. He also appealed to the city's migrant workers not to leave - last year's national lockdown saw millions of them heading back to their villages after they found themselves unemployed and running out of money. "This was a difficult decision to take but we had no other option left," Mr Kejriwal said. "I know when lockdowns are announced, daily-wage workers suffer and lose their jobs. But I appeal to them to not leave Delhi, it's a short lockdown and we will take care of you." India has been reporting more than 200,000 cases daily since 15 April - this is well past its peak last year, when it was averaging around 93,000 cases a day. Deaths too have been rising. India confirmed 1,620 deaths from the virus on Sunday. On Monday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled a planned trip to India in view of the situation. Mr Johnson and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will speak later this month to "launch ambitious plans for the future partnership", a statement said. Maharashtra, which has India's financial hub Mumbai as its capital, remains the worst-hit state, accounting for a nearly a third of India's more than 1.9 million active cases. But Delhi is the worst-hit city, confirming more cases daily than Mumbai in recent days.

4-17-21 Adam Toledo: Chicago police release video of officer shooting boy
Chicago police have released graphic footage of an officer shooting dead a 13-year-old boy in a dark alley. Bodycam video shows the policeman shouting "drop it" before shooting Adam Toledo once in the chest on 29 March. The boy does not appear to be holding a weapon in the split second he is shot, but police video shows a handgun near the spot where he falls. Small protests were held on Thursday evening around Chicago, hours after the city's mayor appealed for calm. The video's release follows the fatal police shooting on 11 April of Daunte Wright by an officer in a Minneapolis suburb. That shooting has sparked violent protests as the city awaits the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused in the death of George Floyd. The clip shows the officer jumping out of his squad car and chasing the Latino boy on foot down a dark alley as another suspect disappears from view. The policeman shouts: "Police! Stop! Stop right [expletive] now! Hands! Hands! Show me your [expletive] hands!" The boy turns and raises his hands. The officer shouts "Drop it" and fires his weapon - 19 seconds after exiting his squad car. Separate CCTV footage appears to show the teenager throwing something through a gap in the fence as the officer runs up to him. Bodycam video shows officers shining a light on a handgun behind the wooden fence after the shooting. The policeman calls for an ambulance while urging the fallen boy to "stay awake". Other officers arrive at the scene in the Little Village neighbourhood on the city's west side and CPR is performed. According to prosecutors, the teenager was with a 21-year-old man, Ruben Roman, who had just fired a gun at a passing car. The gunfire drew police to the area, resulting in the deadly confrontation. Mr Roman appeared in court on Saturday charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, reckless discharge of a firearm and child endangerment, according to local media reports. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability released the bodycam footage on Thursday along with CCTV video, arrest reports and audio recordings of the shots fired in the area that alerted police. (Webmaster's comment: Another black boy murdered by police. The bodycam shows him with his hands up and empty.)

4-17-21 Capitol riot: Prosecutors get first guilty plea 100 days after attack
Exactly 100 days since the 6 January riot that saw a pro-Trump mob storm the US Capitol, prosecutors have their first guilty plea. Jon Schaffer, 53, a member of the Oath Keepers militia group, pleaded guilty to two charges - obstruction of an official proceeding and entering a restricted building with a dangerous weapon. Schaffer, who is also a heavy metal guitarist in the band Iced Earth, had originally faced six charges including using a chemical irritant designed for grizzly bears on police officers during clashes. He turned himself to FBI agents in Indiana two weeks after his arrest, and after a photo of him inside the Capitol wearing a hat reading "Oath Keepers Lifetime Member" appeared on the front pages of US newspapers. He is facing 30 years in prison and is expected to co-operate with investigators. The suspects in the Capitol riot are a varied group: they include an ousted West Virginia lawmaker, several police officers and a left-wing activist from Utah. Most of the rioters were allowed to leave the crime scene, forcing investigators to conduct a national manhunt for the pro-Trump crowd that stormed the halls of Congress. Investigators for the District of Columbia says they have identified over 540 suspects and charged some 400 people in connection with the Capitol siege. Just weeks after the rampage in January, FBI officials said they had already been inundated with 140,000 videos and photos from members of the public. Officials say they are considering filing serious charges of seditious activity against some individuals who were involved in the siege on the Capitol. According to federal criminal code, seditious conspiracy means an effort to conspire to overthrow the US government. The punishment is severe: up to 20 years in prison. The rioters facing federal charges hail from 42 out of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia, according to the George Washington University extremism tracker.

4-17-21 Biden set to further regulate 'ghost guns'
Gun policy is a very politicized issue in the U.S. that impacts people across borders. President Joe Biden announced this week his desire to further regulate "ghost guns," which are homemade firearms made from parts bought online that don't have traceable serial numbers. Biden would like to see the individual kits and parts treated as weapons with serial numbers and require background checks. It's the first major gun control legislation in two decades that Democrats in Congress are trying to pass under the new administration. Biden says it is "long past time" to do so. A bipartisan Senate compromise that was narrowly defeated eight years ago was focused on expanding checks to sales at gun shows and on the internet. But Republicans say extending the requirements would trample Second Amendment rights. And the National Rifle Association (NRA), while weakened by some infighting and financial disputes, is still a powerful force in GOP campaigns. Around the world, these weapons often make their way into the hands of organized crime groups, creating dangerous living conditions for ordinary people. Ioan Grillo is an author and journalist based in Mexico City who has reported on ghost guns. He's published a new book called Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels. Grillo spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about the situation with ghost guns in the U.S. Ioan, what can you tell us about the proliferation of ghost guns in Latin America? Well, it's an increasingly serious issue. So, I can think of a couple of cases of various serious organized crime groups taking advantage of the huge market in gun parts in the United States. One is the Jalisco cartel. There was one raid back in 2014 of workshops of the Jalisco cartel where they found them assembling AR-15s; they had assembled 100 already with some machinery and parts almost certainly bought in the United States in 2019 in Florida. Customs inspectors found 100 receivers, which are one of the main parts for AR-15s. This led them to trace them down, going to Argentina, something called Operation Patagonia. And they found a group there called the PCC, which was assembling these rifles in workshops, and they found 2,500 guns. So, this is a serious pipeline of weaponry. Is there a clear sense of who is behind the creation and distribution of these types of weapons in Latin America? And are the creators traveling to the U.S. to collect them and sell them back in Jalisco, for example? People buy in the United States, online. You can order these kits, take them over the border quite easily. I had one interview with somebody who was also running gun parts over the border close to Ciudad Juárez. He was an American who actually had, was laying cable on both sides of the border and had a government permit and was taking advantage of that to traffic firearms. So, it's one way people could bring them easily and in bulk to Mexico. And also, the advantage of having no serial numbers. Then, when these are used in crimes, you can't trace them. And Latin American governments, have they had ghost guns on their radars? Are they generally aware that this has been going on — cross-border trafficking ghost gun parts? There is now, in the Mexican government, a move to take this issue seriously. This issue was kind of off the agenda for about a decade, but now we are seeing Latin American governments take this seriously. I was also in Los Angeles. I mean, right now the sheer numbers of ghost guns are not that high in a percentage. But I think one other reason that the need to act against ghost guns, as well as other firearms trafficking, is if you stop other firearms trafficking, they'll just switch to ghost guns.

4-17-21 Biden backtracks on keeping Trump cap on refugees
President Joe Biden has reversed course hours after signing an order to keep the number of refugees admitted annually to the US at Trump-era levels. Mr Biden drew ire on Friday as he held the cap at the historically low figure of 15,000, two months after he pledged to increase it to 65,500. The White House later said Mr Biden would raise the refugee cap next month. Reports say Mr Biden is concerned about letting in more people amid a record influx at the US-Mexico border. UN figures indicate there are more than 80 million refugees worldwide, with 85% of them hosted by developing countries. The White House said Friday's order would speed up refugee admissions to the US - since October around 2,000 people have been admitted under the programme. The order also changes the allocation of who is allowed in, with more slots being provided to arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and Central America, and an end to restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen. But Mr Biden - who vowed to raise the cap on refugees during his campaign - kept the maximum number allowed in annually at 15,000, a ceiling set by his predecessor as president, Donald Trump. Mr Biden stated the Trump-era cap "remains justified by humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest". White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Democratic president's directive had been the "subject of some confusion" after the news sparked outrage among aid groups, as well as from within Mr Biden's own party. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez described the figure as "appallingly low". Ms Psaki blamed Mr Biden's failure to deliver on the 62,500 figure that he announced to Congress two months ago on "the decimated refugee admissions programme we inherited". Ms Psaki said Mr Biden's order on Friday was meant to allow refugee flights to the US to begin within days.

4-17-21 Raúl Castro steps down as Cuban Communist Party leader
Raúl Castro says he is resigning as Cuban Communist Party leader, ending his family's six decades in power. Mr Castro, 89, told a party congress that he is handing over the leadership to a younger generation "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit". His successor will be voted in at the end of the four-day congress. The move, which was expected, ends the era of formal leadership by him and his brother Fidel Castro, which began with the 1959 revolution. "I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots," he told party delegates in Havana on Friday. Although Mr Castro has not endorsed a successor, it is widely believed the party leadership will pass to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took over as the island's president in 2018. While the entire island knew this moment was coming, it was no less historic or symbolic when it arrived: Cuba will be officially governed by someone other than a Castro for the first time since 1959. The reality is that, at least in the short term, little will change. The man who took over from Raúl Castro as president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, may well succeed him now as the party's first secretary too. It seems likely he will be forced to take further steps to liberalise Cuba's centrally controlled economy. The island is currently in the grip of its worst economic crisis since the period immediately following the end of the Cold War. As a result, private farmers were recently permitted to sell beef and dairy products - goods previously under the sole control of the state. Any hope of improving ties with the US however may have to wait as the Biden administration has shown little inclination to unpick the Trump administration's harsher sanctions on Cuba at this stage. One thing is for sure, Raúl Castro's words of keeping "one foot in the stirrup" means he will remain a powerbroker behind the scenes. And by reiterating the island's eternal commitment to socialism it means that political change remains as unlikely under his successor as it was under his late brother, Fidel.

4-17-21 Covid-19 deaths pass three million worldwide
The number of people who have died worldwide in the Covid-19 pandemic has surpassed three million, according to Johns Hopkins University. The milestone comes the day after the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the world was "approaching the highest rate of infection" so far. India - experiencing a second wave - recorded more than 230,000 new cases on Saturday alone. Almost 140 million cases have been recorded since the pandemic began. WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday that "cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates". He added that "globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months". The US, India and Brazil - the countries with the most recorded infections - have accounted for more than a million deaths between them, according to Johns Hopkins University. Last week saw an average of 12,000 deaths a day reported around the world, according to news agency AFP. However, official figures worldwide may not fully reflect the true number in many countries. Up until a few weeks ago, India appeared to have the pandemic relatively under control. Cases had been below 20,000 a day for much of January and February - a low figure in a country of more than a 1.3 billion people. But then infections began to rise rapidly: Saturday saw a record set for the third day in a row, with more than 234,000 cases reported. Hospitals are running low on beds and oxygen. Sick people are being turned away, and some families are turning to the black market to get the drugs they need. A BBC investigation found medication being offered at five times the official price. The capital Delhi has gone into lockdown over the weekend, with restrictions put in place in several other states, as officials try to stem the tide. All eyes are now on the Kumbh Mela festival, which has continued despite fears the millions of Hindu devotees who attend each year could bring the virus home with them. Some 1,600 people tested positive this week at the gathering in the northern state of Uttrakhand, with pictures showing thousands gathered closely together along the banks of the Ganges river. It has led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to plead with people to refrain from gathering.

4-17-21 Covid: Canada sounds the alarm as cases overtake US
The rate of coronavirus infections in Canada's biggest province has reached an all-time high as hospitals warn they are close to being overwhelmed. A panel of experts say infections in Ontario could increase by 600% by June if public health measures are weak and vaccination rates do not pick up. Last week, for the first time since the pandemic began, Canada registered more cases per million than the US. About 22% of Canadians have now received a first vaccine dose. That compares to 37% in the US. Ontario is now introducing strict new public measures, including: 1. a six-week stay-at-home order, 2. restrictions on non-essential travel, including checkpoints at the borders with the neighbouring provinces of Quebec and Manitoba, 3. new powers for police to stop and question people who leave home, 4. a halt to non-essential construction. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would help Toronto, the largest city in the country, which has been hard-hit by the latest surge. "We're going to do whatever it takes to help. Discussions are ongoing about extra healthcare providers, and we are ready to step up," he said on Friday. New variants - especially the UK variant, B1.1.7 - account for more than two-thirds of infections in Ontario. Even with vaccinations progressing, the expert panel warned that the number of new cases in Ontario could go as high as 30,000 a day - in a province with 14 million people, 38% of the total population of Canada. On Friday, Ontario reported 4,812 new cases, its third straight day of setting new records since the pandemic began. Hospital admissions and the number of patients in intensive care also set records for Ontario: 1,955 and 701, respectively. The expert panel said the best-case scenario would bring new cases down to about 5,000 a day, but only with considerably more stringent public health measures than the ones now in place. It would also require a vaccination rate of 300,000 a day - three times the current pace.

4-17-21 India's Kumbh festival attracts big crowds amid devastating second Covid wave
This past week, as India grapples with a devastating second wave of the coronavirus, millions of devotees have descended on the banks of the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar to take a dip in the water. Hindus believe the river is holy and taking a dip in it will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. But the government of Uttarakhand state, where Haridwar is located, is facing heavy criticism for allowing the Kumbh Mela festival to go ahead amid a sharply worsening Covid picture. On Thursday, India reported more than 200,000 Covid cases for the first time since the pandemic began. One influential Hindu congregation decided to opt out of the massive festival. "The Kumbh Mela is over for us," Ravindra Puri, secretary of the Niranjani Akhada or congregation was quoted as saying in local media. The decision came a day after Swami Kapil Dev, the head of another prominent congregation, died after being diagnosed with Covid-19. It's unclear how many devotees at the Kumbh Mela have tested positive since the first day of bathing on 11 March. But Haridwar's chief medical officer, Dr SK Jha, said more than 1,600 cases had been confirmed among devotees between 10 and 14 April. But there are fears that the numbers could be even higher, and that many of those who have returned home could have taken the disease with them across the country. India has confirmed more than 14 million cases and 174,000 deaths from the virus so far. There had been a sharp drop in case numbers in January and February, but with cases and deaths now rising again, hospitals across the country are reporting a shortage of beds, oxygen cylinders and drugs. The uptick in cases did not discourage people from attending the Kumbh Mela. Ujwal Puri, a 34-year-old businessman, arrived in Haridwar on March 9 armed with bottles of sanitiser, masks and vitamin pills. Mr Puri expected stringent Covid security checks. But he told the BBC he faced no checks at the airport or in Haridwar. One of his photographs from the festival shows crowds at the banks, waiting to take a dip on one of the nights. Many people can be seen not wearing a mask or pulling it down to their chin. (Webmaster's comment: The Ganges is a giant sewer! Animals and humans bathe in it, shit in it, and then drink it!)

4-16-21 Covid-19 news: Infections in England at lowest level in 7 months
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. An estimated one in 480 people in England had covid-19 in the week up to 10 April. Coronavirus infections in England have fallen to their lowest level since September, according to the latest results of a random swab testing survey by the Office for National Statistics. An estimated one in 480 people in communities in England had covid-19 in the week up to 10 April, down from about one in 340 the previous week. It is the lowest prevalence rate recorded since the week up to 24 September, during which an estimated one in 500 people had covid-19. Equivalent prevalence estimates for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were one in 500, one in 710 and one in 920 people, respectively, during the week up to 10 April. The world is seeing a “worrying” rise in coronavirus infections, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on 16 April. “Globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled over the past two months. This is approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic,” he said at a briefing. More than 139.2 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed worldwide since the start of the pandemic, with the global covid-19 death toll approaching 3 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, has said it is likely that people will need a third covid-19 vaccine dose within six to 12 months after they are first vaccinated, with a requirement for annual jabs also a possibility. “Variants will play a key role,” he said. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel urged lawmakers on 16 April to approve new powers that would enable her to impose coronavirus lockdowns and curfews on areas with high infection rates. Daily new case numbers in Germany are rapidly approaching those seen during the peak of its second wave in January.

4-16-21 Indianapolis mass shooting: Eight dead at FedEx facility
Eight people have been killed and seven injured in a shooting in the US city of Indianapolis, police say. Witnesses heard several gunshots at a FedEx facility and one said he had seen a man firing an automatic weapon. The gunman, thought to have been acting alone, is believed to have killed himself, police say, adding that there is no ongoing threat to the public. Police say several of the injured are in hospital. Flights from the nearby airport are not affected. "As officers arrived, they came into contact with an active shooting incident," city police spokeswoman Genae Cook said, adding that it had taken place at around 23:00 local time (03:00 GMT). "After a preliminary search of the grounds, inside and out, we have located eight people at the scene with injuries consistent to gunshot wounds. Those eight were pronounced deceased here at the scene. Ms Cook said four of the injured had been transported to hospital, one in a critical condition. Many others were treated at the scene or themselves sought treatment in hospital. She said the motive for the killing was unclear. Ms Cook paid tribute to the officers involved. "It is very heart-breaking and, you know, in the Indianapolis Metro Police Department, the officers responded,... they went in and they did their job," she said. "And a lot of them are trying to face this because this is a sight that no-one should ever have to see." A FedEx statement said the company was aware of the shooting and co-operating with the authorities. "Safety is our top priority, and our thoughts are with all those who are affected," it said. Local media quoted FedEx worker Jeremiah Miller as saying he had seen the gunman firing. "I saw a man with a sub-machine gun of some sort, an automatic rifle, and he was firing in the open. I immediately ducked down and got scared," he said. The Gun Violence Archive puts the number of gun violence deaths from all causes at 12,395 so far this year in the US, of which 147 were in mass shootings. Last year saw a total of 43.549 deaths, and 610 in mass shootings.

4-16-21 Adam Toledo: Chicago police release video of officer shooting boy
Chicago police have released graphic footage of an officer shooting dead a 13-year-old boy in a dark alley. Bodycam video shows the policeman shouting "drop it" before shooting Adam Toledo once in the chest on 29 March. The boy does not appear to be holding a weapon in the split second he is shot, but police video shows a handgun near the spot where he falls. Small protests were held on Thursday evening around Chicago, hours after the city's mayor appealed for calm. The video's release follows the fatal police shooting on 11 April of Daunte Wright by an officer in a Minneapolis suburb. That shooting has sparked violent protests as the city awaits the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused in the death of George Floyd. The clip shows the officer jumping out of his squad car and chasing the Latino boy on foot down a dark alley as another suspect disappears from view. The policeman shouts: "Police! Stop! Stop right [expletive] now! Hands! Hands! Show me your [expletive] hands!" The boy turns and raises his hands. The officer shouts "Drop it" and fires his weapon - 19 seconds after exiting his squad car. Separate CCTV footage appears to show the teenager throwing something through a gap in the fence as the officer runs up to him. Bodycam video shows officers shining a light on a handgun behind the wooden fence after the shooting. The policeman calls for an ambulance while urging the fallen boy to "stay awake". Other officers arrive at the scene in the Little Village neighbourhood on the city's west side and CPR is performed. According to prosecutors, the teenager was with a 21-year-old man, Ruben Roman, who had just fired a gun at a passing car. The gunfire drew police to the area, resulting in the deadly confrontation. Mr Roman appeared in court on Saturday charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, reckless discharge of a firearm and child endangerment, according to local media reports. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability released the bodycam footage on Thursday along with CCTV video, arrest reports and audio recordings of the shots fired in the area that alerted police.

4-16-21 How George Floyd's death changed a small Iowa town
George Floyd's death, and the trial of Derek Chauvin, has shone a light on racial issues in small towns. Yet coming to terms with racism is tough, even for the well-meaning. Guy Nave, an academic with a Yale PhD, moved to Decorah nearly two decades ago. The Iowa town seemed idyllic. It had stone buildings, a train depot and Victorian homes that looked like gingerbread houses. Then, shortly after starting his job at a local college, he locked himself out of his house. He was rattling a patio door when police showed up. The officer had gotten a call, and was told "someone who didn't look like they belonged in the neighbourhood was walking around the house", Nave recalls. That person was a black man - that person was Nave. There were other incidents. He was pulled over a dozen times for minor violations during his first year living in the town. He focused on work and tried to ignore those incidents. Then, in May 2020, George Floyd died while in police custody and townspeople organised a Black Lives Matter march, the first of its kind. The town was waking up. Small towns are slow to change. A point of pride here is that glaciers missed Decorah, located in north-eastern Iowa, some 12,000 years ago, leaving it with rolling hills - a topography that dates back eons. It had been stuck in time culturally, too. Until recently, racism was rarely discussed. Floyd's death affected people here deeply, however, and sparked a movement. "It changed Decorah, in a way where they cannot close off from what is happening all around," says Maria Leitz, an educator. But not everyone reacted in the same way. "People were really sad about it," says Leitz. "But I was really mad about it." As the trial of Derek Chauvin - the former police officer accused in Floyd's death - unfolds, she pays attention, and watches some of the testimony. "I do hear snippets," she says. But she has tried to limit how much she sees: "It's just so emotional." With the trial underway, and as more protests take place in Minneapolis, people here are fighting racism with new energy.

4-16-21 China's economy grows 18.3% in post-Covid comeback
China's economy grew a record 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same quarter last year. It's the biggest jump in gross domestic product (GDP) since China started keeping quarterly records in 1992. However, Friday's figures are below expectations, with a Reuters poll of economists predicting 19% growth. They are also heavily skewed, and less indicative of strong growth, as they are compared to last year's huge economic contraction. In the first quarter of 2020, China's economy shrank 6.8% due to nationwide lockdowns at the peak of its Covid-19 outbreak. "The national economy made a good start," said China's National Bureau of Statistics, which released the first quarter data. But it added: "We must be aware that the Covid-19 epidemic is still spreading globally and the international landscape is complicated with high uncertainties and instabilities." Other key figures released by China's statistics department also point to a continuing rebound, but are also unusually strong because they are compared against extremely weak numbers from last year. Industrial output for March rose 14.1% over a year ago, while retail sales grew 34.2%. "Promisingly, the monthly indicators suggest that industrial production, consumption and investment all gained pace in March on a sequential basis, following the weakness in the first two months," said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at research and consultancy firm Oxford Economics. However, some analysts predicted a number of sectors will slow as government fiscal and monetary support is reduced. Yue Su, the Economist Intelligence Unit's principal economist for China, while the latest figures show that the country's economic recovery is broad-based, some production and export activity could have been "front-loaded" into the first quarter, suggesting slower growth ahead. "Trade performance and domestic industrial activities for the rest of year might not be able to maintain such strong momentum, due to lack of measures to stimulate domestic economy," she said.

4-16-21 US imposes sanctions on Russia over cyber-attacks
The US has announced sanctions against Russia in response to what it says are cyber-attacks and other hostile acts. The measures, which target dozens of Russian entities and officials, aim to deter "Russia's harmful foreign activities", the White House said. The statement says Russian intelligence was behind last year's massive "SolarWinds" hack, and accuses Moscow of interference in the 2020 election. Russia denies all the allegations and says it will respond in kind. The sanctions announced on Thursday are detailed in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden. They come at a tense time for relations between the two countries. Last month the US targeted seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Russia says it was not involved. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Mr Biden vowed to defend US national interests "firmly", while proposing a meeting with Mr Putin to find areas where the two countries could work together. On Thursday, Mr Biden described his decision to impose sanctions on Russia as "proportionate". "I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further, but I chose not to do so," Mr Biden told reporters. "The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia." He added that the way forwards is through "thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process". A statement from the White House said the new sanctions show the US "will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia" if it continues its "destabilising international action". It reaffirms the administration's view that the Russian government is behind cyber-attacks and has been trying to "undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections" in the US and allied nations.

4-16-21 TB Joshua: YouTube blocks Nigerian preacher over gay cure claim
YouTube has suspended the account of influential Nigerian TV evangelist TB Joshua over allegations of hate speech. A rights body filed a complaint after reviewing at least seven videos showing the preacher conducting prayers to "cure" gay people. Facebook has also removed at least one of the offending posts showing a woman being slapped while TB Joshua says he is casting out a "demonic spirit". The preacher said he was appealing against YouTube's decision. His YouTube account had 1.8 million subscribers. TB Joshua is one of Africa's most influential evangelists, with top politicians from across the continent among his followers. UK-based openDemocracy filed a complaint after reviewing seven videos posted on TB Joshua Ministries' YouTube channel between 2016 and 2020, which show the preacher conducting prayers to "cure" gay people. A YouTube spokesperson told openDemocracy that the channel had been closed because its policy "prohibits content which alleges that someone is mentally ill, diseased, or inferior because of their membership in a protected group including sexual orientation". A post on TB Joshua Ministries Facebook account said: "We have had a long and fruitful relationship with YouTube and believe this decision was made in haste." The video is an update of a prayer session of a woman called Okoye, first broadcast in 2018. In it TB Joshua slaps and pushes Okoye and an unnamed woman at least 16 times and tells Okoye: "There is a spirit disturbing you. She has transplanted herself into you. It is the spirit of woman," openDemocracy reports. The video which was viewed more than 1.5 million before the YouTube channel was taken down, later shows her testifying before the congregation that "the spirit of woman" had been destroying her life but she had been healed after the preacher's prayers. She declares that she had stopped having "affection" to women and "now I have affections for men".

4-16-21 Vaccines and risk
The human brain tends to make us fear the wrong threats. The human brain has two systems for assessing risk, and one isn't very reliable. The neocortex, which developed relatively late in human evolution, can make rational, risk-reward assessments based on evidence, data, and logic. The amygdala, a more primitive region we share with other mammals, reacts instantly to perceived threats with fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response. Strong emotions often overrule logic, so our brains are biased to overreact to exotic risks like terrorism, plane crashes, and tarantulas, while downplaying the much greater likelihood we'll die of the flu, a car crash, heart disease — or COVID. For the past year, the pandemic has made us all subjects in a massive experiment on human risk assessment. We haven't done very well. Too many Americans decided that going about their usual activities without a mask or social distancing didn't feel as risky as the experts were saying ... and as a result, they caught and spread an invisible contagion. More than 560,000 have died. Now our brains are assessing the risk of getting vaccinated vs. going unprotected against COVID. That task was complicated this week with the discovery that six women out of the 7 million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed blood clots — a rate of 0.00008 percent. By way of perspective, an unvaccinated American's risk of dying of COVID is 1 in 1,666, and the risk COVID will cause severe illness and lasting, "long haul" symptoms is far greater. But the "pause" in J&J vaccinations, while ethical and responsible, will undoubtedly harden the resistance of the 30 percent who say they will not take any vaccine. That would be a terrible outcome — for them and for the rest of us. The pandemic won't truly subside until vaccinations give the coronavirus vanishingly few new people to infect. Those whose amygdalae are wrongly telling them vaccines are riskier than COVID may well determine when, and if, life returns to normal.

4-16-21 Chile sees Covid surge despite vaccination success
Chile's Health Minister Enrique Paris has been striking a gloomy note at his daily Covid news conferences in recent days. The number of daily cases reached a new record high on 9 April, going over 9,000 for the first time since the pandemic began and considerably higher than the previous peak of just under 7,000 cases in mid-June. "It's worrying," he said last Friday. "We're going through a critical moment of the pandemic… I urge you to take care of yourselves, of your loved ones, of your families." Intensive care units are again overwhelmed, the country has for a second time closed its borders to everyone who is not a resident and most of its 18 million inhabitants are back in lockdown. "It feels like we're going backwards," says Santiago resident Sofía Pinto. "We need to download special permits online to be allowed out just twice a week for essential things like food shopping or doctor's visits." The frustration and confusion many Chileans are feeling over the renewed lockdown is due partly to the fact that just two months ago, President Sebastián Piñera was boasting about Chile having one of the fastest vaccination rollouts in the world. Critics have accused the Piñera government of getting caught up in triumphalism over the vaccine rollout and of having loosened coronavirus restrictions too fast. Like governments across the world, ministers here faced difficult choices. Chile's borders had been closed - bar for a few exceptions - from March to November 2020. But after a strict lockdown had driven the rolling seven-day average down to 1,300 cases in November, the decision was taken to reopen them, including to international tourists. Chileans were also given special holiday permits to travel more freely around the country during the southern hemisphere summer holidays after some experts argued it was important for people's mental health. Restaurants, shops, and holiday resorts were opened up to kickstart the faltering economy.

4-15-21 Covid-19 news: Doubts about Olympics as cases surge in Japan
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. As Japan battles fourth wave of infections, official says cancelling the Olympics is still an option. An official from Japan’s ruling party has said that cancelling the Olympics, scheduled to take place in Tokyo at the end of July, remains an option and will depend on the coronavirus situation. “If it seems impossible [to host the Olympics] anymore, then we have to stop it, decisively,” Toshihiro Nikai, a member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, told broadcaster TBS. He added: “If the Olympics were to spread infection, then what are the Olympics for?” Government and organising officials have previously said the postponed event would go ahead, but without international spectators. The number of positive coronavirus tests in England fell by 34 per cent in the week up to 7 April, according to the latest figures from NHS Test and Trace. 19,196 people tested positive for the virus, continuing a downward trend in positive tests observed since the week up to 6 January, NHS Test and Trace said in its report. Mass testing for the B.1.351 coronavirus variant, first identified in South Africa, is being carried out in six London boroughs as well as in parts of Smethwick in the West Midlands in England, after a new case was detected there. More than 200,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in India on 15 April, the highest daily case rate in the country since the pandemic began. Some hospitals, including those in the state of Maharashtra, have reported shortages of beds and oxygen supplies. India’s second wave of infections appears to be driven mainly by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant.

4-15-21 Afghanistan: Biden calls for end to 'America's longest war'
The US will continue to support Afghanistan after withdrawing all US troops, but not "militarily," President Joe Biden has pledged. "It is time to end America's longest war," he said in a speech from the White House room where US airstrikes there were first declared in 2001. The pull-out is to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, officials say. At least 2,500 US troops are part of the 9,600-strong Nato Afghan mission. The number of US troops on the ground in Afghanistan fluctuates, and US media report the current total is closer to 3,500. US and Nato officials have said the Taliban, a hardline Islamist movement, have so far failed to live up to commitments to reduce violence in Afghanistan. In Kabul, Afghan officials say they will continue peace talks in preparation for the withdrawal. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted that he had spoken on the phone with Mr Biden on Wednesday, and that the country "respects the US decision and we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition". He added that Afghanistan's defence forces "are fully capable of defending its people and country". "We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result," said Mr Biden, the fourth president to oversee the war. "While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue," he continued, adding: "We will continue to support the government of Afghanistan." Mr Biden also pledged to continue providing assistance to Afghan defence and security forces - including 300,000 personnel, who he says "continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghan people, at great cost". He also paid his respects to the victims of the 11 September 2001 attack which triggered the US invasion of Afghanistan. "We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," he said. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021." (Webmaster's comment: Just like in Vietnam we cannot win if the people don't want us!)

4-15-21 Afghanistan: 'We have won the war, America has lost', say Taliban
Driving to Taliban-controlled territory doesn't take long. Around 30 minutes from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, passing large craters left by roadside bombs, we meet our host: Haji Hekmat, the Taliban's shadow mayor in Balkh district. Perfumed and in a black turban, he's a veteran member of the group, having first joined the militants in the 1990s when they ruled over the majority of the country. The Taliban have arranged a display of force for us. Lined up on either side of the street are heavily armed men, one carrying a rocket propelled grenade launcher, another an M4 assault rifle captured from US forces. Balkh was once one of the more stable parts of the country; now it's become one of the most violent. Baryalai, a local military commander with a ferocious reputation, points down the road, "the government forces are just there by the main market, but they can't leave their bases. This territory belongs to the mujahideen". It's a similar picture across much of Afghanistan: the government controls the cities and bigger towns, but the Taliban are encircling them, with a presence in large parts of the countryside. The militants assert their authority through sporadic checkpoints along key roads. As Taliban members stop and question passing cars, Aamir Sahib Ajmal, the local head of the Taliban's intelligence service, tells us they're searching for people linked to the government. "We will arrest them, and take them prisoner," he says. "Then we hand them over to our courts and they decide what will happen next." The Taliban believe victory is theirs. Sitting over a cup of green tea, Haji Hekmat proclaims, "we have won the war and America has lost". The decision by US President Joe Biden to delay the withdrawal of remaining US forces to September, meaning they will remain in the country past the 1 May deadline agreed last year, has sparked a sharp reaction from the Taliban's political leadership. Nonetheless, momentum seems to be with the militants. "We are ready for anything," says Haji Hekmat. "We are totally prepared for peace, and we are fully prepared for jihad." Sitting next to him, a military commander adds: "Jihad is an act of worship. Worship is something that, however much of it you do, you don't get tired."

4-15-21 US imposes sanctions on Russia over cyber-attacks
The US has announced sanctions against Russia in response to what it says are cyber-attacks and other hostile acts. The measures are aimed at deterring "Russia's harmful foreign activities", the White House said on Thursday. The sanctions, detailed in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden, target dozens of Russian entities, officials and diplomats. The US accuses Russia of malicious cyber-activity and interference in presidential elections. The Russian government has denied the allegations and called any new sanctions "illegal". The measures come at a tense time for relations between the two countries. Last month the US targeted seven Russian officials and more than a dozen government entities over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Russia says it had no part in the poisoning. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Mr Biden vowed to defend US national interests "firmly", while proposing a meeting with Mr Putin to find areas where the two countries could work together. According to Thursday's White House statement, the new sanctions show the US "will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia" if it continues its "destabilizing international action". It reaffirms the administration's view that the Russian government is behind the cyber-attacks and has been trying to "undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections" in the US and its allies. The sanctions target 32 entities and officials accused of trying to influence the 2020 US presidential election "and other acts of disinformation". Ten diplomats, including alleged spies, are being expelled from the US. The executive order also bars US financial institutions from purchasing rouble-denominated bonds from June. Last year, cyber-security researchers identified a hack in a piece of software called SolarWinds - which gave cyber-criminals access to 18,000 government and private computer networks.

4-15-21 Daunte Wright shooting: US ex-officer Kim Potter charged over killing
A US former police officer who shot dead a black motorist in Minnesota has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, prosecutors say. Kim Potter was arrested and later released on $100,000 (£72,000) bail. Police say Mrs Potter shot Daunte Wright accidentally, having mistakenly drawn her gun instead of her Taser. Responding to the charges, the Wright family's lawyer Ben Crump said the killing was an "intentional, deliberate, and unlawful use of force". Both Mrs Potter and local police chief Tim Gannon have resigned. The killing has sparked clashes between police and protesters in Brooklyn Center - a suburb of Minneapolis - and late on Wednesday, several hundred demonstrators again defied a curfew to gather outside police headquarters. As on previous nights, protesters threw bottles and other projectiles at police who responded with stun grenades and pepper spray. Minneapolis is already on edge amid the trial of a white ex-police officer accused of murdering African-American George Floyd. Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said Mrs Potter was taken into custody on Wednesday morning. She was booked into Hennepin County Jail on probable cause second-degree manslaughter before bail was posted. In Minnesota state law, a person can be found guilty of second-degree manslaughter if they can be proven to have shown culpable negligence whereby they create an unreasonable risk and "consciously take chances of causing death or great bodily harm" to someone else. Mrs Potter is due to make her first court appearance on Thursday. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 (£14,500) fine. Prosecutors must show that Mrs Potter was "culpably negligent" and took an "unreasonable risk" in her actions, Reuters reported. At a news conference, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott called for people to protest peacefully. "With the news of the decision to charge the former Brooklyn Center police officer with manslaughter comes a prolonged period of continued grieving, hurt and understandable anger," he said.

4-15-21 Texas students disciplined over 'slave trade game'
A group of school students in Texas have been disciplined for setting up a "Slave Trade" messaging group that assigned prices to their black peers. Messages shared on the Snapchat app at a school in Aledo said one student was worth a dollar and another "100 bucks", the New York Times reported. The school district conducted an inquiry and found "racial harassment and cyber bullying" had occurred. But some parents accused authorities of failing to respond appropriately. School students at the Daniel Ninth Grade Campus in Aledo had posted messages on a group Snapchat that was reportedly labelled with terms such as "farm" and "auction". Ninth graders are typically 14 or 15. One message said the price set for one student "would be better if his hair wasn't so bad", according to the New York Times, which said it had seen screenshots of exchanges. The Aledo independent school district, situated about 32km (20 miles) west of Fort Worth, condemned the students' behaviour in a statement on Monday, saying that its investigation had been conducted in co-operation with the police. "We made a formal determination that racial harassment and cyber bullying had occurred and assigned disciplinary consequences," the statement said, without providing details about the number of students involved or the action taken. "This incident has caused tremendous pain for the victims, their families, and other students of colour and their families, and for that we are deeply saddened," it added. The principal of the Daniel Ninth Grade Campus of the Aledo Independent School District, Carolyn Ansley, said the investigation had found that "racially charged language" had been used in violation of the district's code of conduct. However, some parents have since criticised the district's response. "Calling it cyber bullying rather than calling it racism... that is the piece that really gets under my skin," parent Mark Grubbs said, NBC News in Dallas reports. "It makes me sick from the standpoint - 'Who do they think they are? What gives them the right to think they can do that to someone else?'" Mr Grubbs added.

4-13-21 Covid-19 news: One vaccine dose produces strong response in over-80s
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. A single dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine produced strong immune responses among over-80s in a preliminary study. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccines produced a strong immune response after a single dose in people aged over 80 in a preliminary study. It showed that 93 per cent of people had produced coronavirus-specific antibodies after receiving the Pfizer vaccine and 87 per cent of people after receiving the AstraZeneca jab. This was the first study to compare the performance of the two vaccines. Those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine showed a greater T-cell response, which forms another important arm of the body’s immune response to viruses. Just 12 per cent of people who had the Pfizer vaccine developed T-cells against the coronavirus spike protein compared with 31 per cent of those who had received the AstraZeneca jab. Overall immune responses were much higher in people who had previously had covid-19, compared with those who hadn’t. The study was carried out by Helen Parry at the University of Birmingham, UK, and her colleagues who analysed immune responses in a group of 165 volunteers aged 80 and over, each of whom had received a single dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine five to six weeks earlier. The US, the European Union and South Africa are pausing rollouts of the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine, following a small number of reports of rare blood clots in people who had received it. In the US, six cases of rare blood clots had been reported among 6.8 million people who had received the vaccine as of 13 April. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it is working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration and other international regulators to investigate all the cases reported and it expects to issue a recommendation next week. “While its review is ongoing, EMA remains of the view that the benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects,” it said in a statement on 14 April. Denmark has become the first country to completely stop using the AstraZeneca vaccine, after the EMA concluded on 7 April that unusual blood clotting events should be listed as very rare side effects of the vaccine. However, the country’s health agency has not ruled out the possibility of resuming use of the vaccine in future if another wave of infections hits. Several European countries suspended use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in March over blood clot concerns, but many have since resumed use of the vaccine for certain age groups.

4-14-21 Derek Chauvin trial: Use of force 'justified' says defence expert
A police officer was "justified" in pinning George Floyd to the ground before his death, says a use-of-force expert called by the defence team. Barry Brodd told the trial in Minnesota that Derek Chauvin - who denies murder - acted with "objective reasonableness" during the arrest last May. Video of Mr Chauvin kneeling on the neck of Mr Floyd led to worldwide protests against racism and policing. Tensions are running high over a recent police shooting of a black man. That happened on Sunday in a Minnesota suburb only 10 miles (16 km) away from the court where Mr Chauvin's trial is taking place. On Tuesday, the court heard testimony from witnesses called by Mr Chauvin's defence team. Former police officer Mr Brodd told the court that "the imminent threat" posed by Floyd was a major factor in his detention. "I felt that Derek Chauvin was justified and acting with objective reasonableness following Minneapolis police department policy and current standards of law enforcement in his interaction with George Floyd," he said. "From a police officer's standpoint, you don't have to wait for it to happen. You just have to have a reasonable fear that somebody is going to strike you, stab you, shoot you." Mr Brodd added: "It's easy to sit in an office and judge an officer's conduct. It's more of a challenge to put yourself in the officer's shoes, to try to make an evaluation through what they are feeling, what they're sensing, the fear they have, and then make a determination." Defence lawyer Eric Nelson asked Mr Brodd: "Was this a deadly use of force?" "No, it was not," Mr Brodd replied. He said that the crowd surrounding George Floyd during his arrest "posed an unknown threat" and drew Mr Chauvin's attention away from Floyd. Cross-examining Mr Brodd, the prosecution maintained that the dangers of positional asphyxia - not being able to breathe in a certain position - were well known. (Webmaster's comment: The police want the right to kill blacks for any reason! This killing would never have happened if the victim had been white man!)

4-14-21 Daunte Wright shooting: Police resignations fail to ease unrest over death
The resignations of a police chief and of an officer who shot dead a black motorist in Minnesota have failed to end unrest over Sunday's killing. Chief Tim Gannon and Officer Kim Potter have quit the Brooklyn Center force. Mrs Potter said she shot Daunte Wright accidentally, having mistakenly drawn her gun instead of her Taser, a stance backed by Mr Gannon. Despite the resignations fresh clashes between police and protesters erupted for a third night. Mr Wright's mother has been speaking about her last phone call to her son. In tears, she told reporters she could never have imagined he would be killed. The death happened in a suburb of Minneapolis, a city already on edge amid the trial of a white ex-police officer accused of murdering African American George Floyd. On Tuesday night bottles and other projectiles were thrown at the Brooklyn Center police headquarters and officers responded by firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. More than 60 people were arrested, Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matt Langer told reporters. Another demonstration broke out in Portland, Oregon, on Tuesday night, with about 100 protesters marching on the Portland Police Association Building. Flames were seen coming out of the side of the police building about an hour later. The Portland Police Bureau declared the gathering a riot. Portland was the centre of mass demonstrations last year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Speaking to reporters earlier, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said he had appointed 19-year veteran Tony Gruenig to take over for Tim Gannon. On Monday, Mr Gannon had said the shooting of Mr Wright appeared to be an "accidental discharge" after Mrs Potter mistook her service pistol for a stun gun. "I appreciate the officer stepping down," the mayor said, adding that he hoped her leaving would "bring some calm to the community".

4-14-21 Daunte Wright shooting: How can you mistake a gun for a Taser?
The killing of Daunte Wright, a young black man, in a suburb of Minneapolis in the US, was because an officer mistook her gun for a Taser, according to police. So how is it possible to mix up the two weapons? asers fire small dart-like electrodes that can deliver a high-voltage shock to disable temporarily a suspect and allow officers to deal with violent, or potentially violent, people at a distance. They are used by police forces around the world. Almost all American police departments now issue their officers with Tasers, according to one assessment. The US-based Axon company, which developed the Taser used by the Brooklyn Center police department involved in this incident, was quoted as saying their weapons were designed to be distinguishable from handguns. It had "implemented numerous features and training recommendations to reduce the possibility of these incidents occurring" - including making them look and feel different from a firearm. Distinctive Taser features include that they: are often produced in bright colours, weigh significantly less than police guns, typically have different grips, have no trigger safety mechanism, as most guns do. Police officers are typically trained to keep guns in a holster on their dominant side to avoid confusing it with their Taser, which is kept on the belt on the other side of the body. The Brooklyn Center police manual says that officers must position Tasers "in a reaction-side holster on the side opposite the duty weapon". "So if you're right-handed you carry your firearm on your right side and [you] carry your Taser on your left," Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told reporters after the shooting of Mr Wright. He added: "This appears to me... that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr Wright." The video of the incident that was circulated by police shows the officer shouting out "Taser, Taser, Taser" before shooting, and then appearing to realise she had used a handgun instead. The officer has been named as Kim Potter, who had worked for Brooklyn Center Police for 26 years. She has now resigned. (Webmaster's comment: No person could exer mistake the two weapons. She wanted to kill him!)

4-14-21 Haridwar: Hundreds test positive for Covid at Kumbh Mela
Hundreds of devotees, including nine top saints, have tested positive for Covid-19 in India's Haridwar city where huge crowds have gathered to participate in the Kumbh Mela festival. More than three million Hindu devotees bathed in the Ganges river on Tuesday to mark one of the most auspicious days of the two-month-long festival. Millions are expected to repeat the ritual on Wednesday. India reported 184,372 new cases on Tuesday - its highest-daily spike yet. Many have criticised the government for allowing the festival to go ahead amid a raging pandemic. Officials said that nearly 900,000 people had taken a dip in the holy river by afternoon on Wednesday, which is considered to be the most auspicious day of the entire festival. Hindus believe that the Ganges river is holy, and taking a dip in the water will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. Police officials say they are struggling to impose safety norms due to huge crowds on the banks of the river in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Officials leading the festival's Covid-19 testing cell told the BBC that out of more than 20,000 samples collected in the area on Tuesday, 110 returned positive results. On Monday, 184 devotees had tested positive. They have been isolated while others have been moved to hospitals in Haridwar city. Dr Arjun Sengar, the health officer at the Kumbh Mela, said nine top religious leaders had also tested positive. Narendra Giri, the president of a consortium of 14 Hindu groups, also tested positive. He has been admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which is a leading public hospital, in Haridwar. Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, has also tested positive. He visited Haridwar on Sunday and met some top saints, including Mr Giri. Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has also tested positive although he did not visit the festival.

4-14-21 Johnson & Johnson vaccine paused over rare blood clots
The US, South Africa and European Union will temporarily stop the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Covid jab, after reports of rare blood clotting. Six cases were detected in more than 6.8 million doses of the vaccine, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said. Johnson & Johnson has paused its EU rollout, which started this week. It follows similar cases after doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which prompted curbs to its use. The FDA said it was recommending the temporary pause "out of an abundance of caution". It confirmed that one patient died from blood clotting complications, and another is in a critical condition. All six cases were in women aged between 18 and 48, with symptoms appearing six to 13 days after vaccination. Following the advice, all federal sites in the US have stopped using the vaccine until further investigations into its safety are completed. State and private contractors are expected to follow suit. The US has by far the most confirmed cases of Covid-19 - more than 31 million - with more than 562,000 deaths, another world high. Johnson & Johnson is a US health care company, but the vaccine was developed mainly by a pharmaceutical branch in Belgium with laboratories in the Netherlands, and is also known as Janssen. Unlike some of the other jabs, it is given as a single shot and can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, making it easier to distribute in hotter climates or more remote areas. While many countries have pre-ordered millions of doses, it has only been approved in a few nations. It was cleared for use in the US on 27 February, but the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been used more widely. The J&J vaccine has been administered to nearly seven million people in the US, which is around 3% of the total immunisations given so far. Dr Anthony Fauci, the country's top Covid adviser, said it was too early to comment on whether it could have its authorisation revoked.

4-14-21 AstraZeneca vaccine: Denmark ceases rollout completely
Denmark has ceased giving the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine amid concerns about rare cases of blood clots, the first European country to do so fully. The move is expected to delay the country's vaccination programme by several weeks. Drug watchdog the European Medicines Agency last week announced a possible link with clots but said the risk of dying of Covid-19 was much greater. Several European countries had previously briefly suspended the jab. Most have now resumed vaccinations with AstraZeneca, but often with limits to older age groups. On Tuesday, the US, Canada and the European Union paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for similar reasons over clotting. South Africa has also paused its use, despite the Johnson & Johnson being its preferred vaccine because of its effectiveness against the South African variant. For both AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, the blood clot side effects are extremely rare. The EU's vaccine roll-out has been criticised by the World Health Organization (WHO) for being too slow, and there are concerns this latest delay could throw it into further turmoil. Both vaccines work by a similar method, known as adenoviral vectors. Danish officials said that all 2.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be withdrawn until further notice. In a statement, the Danish Health Authority said studies had shown a higher than expected frequency of blood clots following doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Director General Soren Brostrom said it had been a "difficult decision" but Denmark had other vaccines available and the epidemic there was currently under control. "The upcoming target groups for vaccination are less likely to become severely ill from Covid-19," he said. "We must weigh this against the fact that we now have a known risk of severe adverse effects from vaccination with AstraZeneca, even if the risk in absolute terms is slight." However, the authority said it could not rule out using it again at another time.

4-14-21 U.S. pauses J&J vaccine rollout after 6 people of 6.8 million get rare blood clots
AstraZeneca's vaccine has also been linked to the rare clots in Europe and the U.K. Federal health officials in the United States are pressing pause on administering Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine following rare reports of blood clots in people who received the shot. U.S. officials are recommending that, for now, states halt the shots, too. Out of more than 6.8 million people vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s jab in the United States, six developed severe blood clots in the sinuses that drain blood from the brain, officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said April 13 in a news release. That condition, called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis or CVST, is coupled with low levels of platelets in the blood after vaccination. How long the pause will last largely depends on the outcome of an expert review of the cases, but could be a matter of days, Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting commissioner, said in an April 13 call with news reporters. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet April 14 to discuss the cases and potentially update its recommendations for use. The U.S. action comes less than a week after the European Medicines Agency announced that its experts had found a link between a COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford and conditions like CVST (SN:4/7/21). In the European Union and the United Kingdom, most of the rare blood clots have occurred in vaccinated women younger than 60 years old. But the risk factors remain unclear, according to the EMA. Health officials there have recommended that CVST and other unusual clots be listed as a rare side effect of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. In the United States, all six CVST cases were in women younger than 50 and appeared six to 13 days after vaccination. One person died and another is in critical condition. “These events appear to be extremely rare,” Woodcock said. She noted that like with AstraZeneca’s shot, there are too few cases with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to come to any conclusions about who is at highest risk of developing the clots. Johnson & Johnson has delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe, the pharmaceutical company said April 13 in a news release.


FEMINISM

4-14-21 STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large
Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented while it varies widely by field for women. Efforts to promote equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math have a long way to go, a new report suggests. Over the last year, widespread protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people have sparked calls for racial justice in STEM. Social media movements such as #BlackinSTEM have drawn attention to discrimination faced by Black students and professionals, and the Strike for Black Lives challenged the scientific community to build a more just, antiracist research environment (SN: 12/16/20). An analysis released in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how wide the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in STEM representation are. “This has been an ongoing conversation in the science community” for decades, says Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Because the most recent data come from 2019, Pew’s snapshot of STEM cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity and inclusion may have moved the needle. But here are four big takeaways from existing STEM representation data: From 2017 to 2019, Black professionals made up only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States — lower than their 11 percent share of the overall U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even larger for Hispanic professionals, who made up only 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they made up 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. White and Asian professionals, meanwhile, remain overrepresented in STEM. Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, skew particularly white. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds do not necessarily boast more supportive environments, notes Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., not involved in the research.

4-9-21 Sexual health: 'I can't tell my mum I'm having sex'
When Singapore resident Nadia* visited a local clinic to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI) three years ago, she left the doctor's office feeling ashamed. The elderly woman doctor there had talked down to her and dumped a stack of pamphlets on her "as if I was stupid", the 24-year-old student recalled. "I felt judged the entire time too - as if it was my fault if I got an infection because I shouldn't have been having sex with my boyfriend in the first place," she said. But now, the country's internet-savvy are being offered alternative options, thanks to a bunch of telehealth start-ups which have popped up in the city-state in the last year - all with a focus on sexual health. They are allowing people "shame-free" access to sexual health products and advice - something which young people like Nadia say they need, given their attitudes to sex differ markedly to traditionally accepted views. Nadia says she used Ferne Health - a company that offers STI tests from the privacy of your own home. After consulting a doctor via video call on the website, she was mailed a vaginal swab kit in discreet packaging which allowed her to self-collect samples. A courier picked them up the next day, and she received her results within the week. "Nothing was written on the box so even the courier didn't know what was inside, which was great," said Nadia, who shares a flat with her parents and two siblings. It is common for young adults to live at home with their parents before marriage - due to both high property prices as well as cultural or religious attitudes. "My family is very traditional - I'm Singaporean and I'm also Malay Muslim, so there are certain things expected of you. I can't tell my mum I'm having sex," she said. While at-home STI tests may be common across Europe and the US, the concept is relatively new in Singapore. But while both experts and users agree that such services are long overdue, clinical sexologist Martha Lee has said there needs to be some considerations when signing up for them.


SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

4-20-21 Climate change: UK to speed up target to cut carbon emissions
Radical new climate change commitments will set the UK on course to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, the UK government has announced. Hitting the targets would require more electric cars, low-carbon heating, renewable electricity and, for many, cutting down on meat and dairy. For the first time, climate law will be extended to cover international aviation and shipping. But Labour said the government had to match "rhetoric with reality". It urged Boris Johnson to treat "the climate emergency as the emergency it is" and show "greater ambition". The prime minister's commitments, which will become law, bring forward the current target for reducing carbon emissions by 15 years. This would be a world-leading position. Homes will need to be much better insulated, and people will be encouraged to drive less and walk and cycle more. Aviation is likely to become more expensive for frequent fliers. The government has accepted the advice of its independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) to adopt the emissions cut, which is based on 1990 levels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted a major surge in CO2 emissions from energy this year, as the world rebounds from the pandemic. The UK's new commitments come as US President Joe Biden prepares to stage a climate summit from Washington DC. Environmentalists welcomed the government's move, but warned that ministers had consistently failed to achieve previous CCC-set targets. And they insisted that Chancellor Rishi Sunak must show clearly how the transition is to be funded. Tom Burke, from the environmental think tank E3G, explained what policy changes were needed to achieve the goal: "The most important thing, I think, is for [the prime minister] to focus his policy around energy efficiency, around wind and solar, and around storage of electricity and the management of the grid." However, he told the BBC's Today programme: "At the moment, it's... a bit of a Boris blunderbuss and is a huge range of marginal things instead of a concentration of effort on those things that will deliver the most emissions reductions in the fastest time."

4-20-21 Climate change: Carbon 'surge' expected in post-Covid energy boom
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting a major surge in CO2 emissions from energy this year, as the world rebounds from the pandemic. Total energy emissions for 2021 will still be slightly lower than in 2019, the agency says. But CO2 will rise by the second largest annual amount on record. The use of coal in Asia is expected to be key: the IEA says it will push global demand up by 4.5%, taking it close to the global peak seen in 2014. However, renewable energy is also booming, with green sources set to supply 30% of electricity this year. The empty roads, high streets and airports that marked the global response to coronavirus saw the biggest fall in demand for energy since World War Two. That decline saw carbon emissions tumble by around 6% in 2020, as the more carbon-intensive fuels such as coal and oil were hardest hit by restrictions. Many hoped that these changes in energy use would be sustained in the recovery from the pandemic, but these latest predictions from the IEA indicate that is not likely to be the case. Energy demand is booming in the developing world, with a rise of 3.4% predicted for this year - this contrasts with richer economies, where overall energy use is expected to still be 3% below 2019. In the places where energy demand is growing, coal is playing a key role. Overall global use declined by around 4% in 2020, but is expected to rise by 4.5% this year. This is mainly happening in Asia, where China is leading the way and expected to account for more than half of the global coal growth this year. But even in the US and EU, where coal has been on the back foot for some time, demand is expected to rise - although it will still likely remain below 2019 levels in these regions. According to the IEA, coal demand is likely to be close to the global peak seen in 2014 - and that has implications for efforts to rein in climate change. "Global carbon emissions are set to jump by 1.5 billion tonnes this year - driven by the resurgence of coal use in the power sector," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director. "This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate."

4-20-21 Untouched nature was almost as rare 12,000 years ago as it is now
As early as 12,000 years ago, nearly three-quarters of land on Earth was inhabited and shaped by human societies, suggesting global biodiversity loss in recent years may have been driven primarily by an intensification of land use rather than by the destruction of previously untouched nature. “It’s not the process of using land itself [that causes biodiversity loss], it’s the way that land is used,” says Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “You can have traditional land use and still have biodiversity.” Ellis and his colleagues analysed the most recent reconstruction of global land use by humans over the past 12,000 years and compared this with contemporary global patterns of biodiversity and conservation. They found that most – 72.5 per cent – of Earth’s land has been shaped by human societies since as far back as 10,000 BC, including more than 95 per cent of temperate and 90 per cent of tropical woodlands. “Our work confirms that untouched nature was almost as rare 12,000 years ago as it is today,” says Ellis. He and his team found that lands now considered natural, intact or wild generally exhibit long histories of use, as do protected areas and lands inhabited only by relatively small numbers of Indigenous peoples. The extent of historical human land use may previously have been underestimated because prior analyses didn’t fully account for the influence that hunter-gatherer populations had on landscapes, says Ellis. “Even hunter-gatherer populations that are moving around are still interacting with the land, but maybe in what we would see as a more sustainable way,” he says. The researchers also found that in regions now characterised as natural, current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and overall biodiversity are more strongly linked to past patterns of land use than they are with present ones. Ellis says this indicates the current biodiversity crisis can’t be explained by the loss of uninhabited wild lands alone. Instead, this points to a more significant role for recent appropriation, colonisation and intensification of land use, he says.

4-19-21 'Lost' coffee plant can resist climate change and tastes just as good
A rare species of coffee has been found to have a similar flavour to the varieties favoured by coffee growers for their high quality – but it is also more tolerant of the higher temperatures and more varied rainfall that are becoming increasingly typical of coffee-growing regions. Many types of coffees favoured for their taste only grow in a narrow range of conditions, meaning they might not survive if temperatures increase. In fact, around 60 per cent of wild coffee species are facing extinction. Coffea stenophylla may offer a solution. Farmers stopped cultivating it in the 1920s, believing it couldn’t compete in the market at the time, and it was thought to have gone extinct in some countries where it once grew, including Guinea and Sierra Leone. But two small, wild populations were rediscovered in Sierra Leone in 2018. Historical records showed that it had an excellent flavour, but Aaron Davis at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London and his team wanted to test this properly. Working alongside their colleagues at CIRAD, a French agricultural research centre, they created samples of coffee brewed with C. stenophylla beans and served them to five professional judging panels alongside samples of high-quality Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora), which is commonly used for instant coffee. The judges said coffee made from C. stenophylla had a complex flavour with sweetness and a good body, similar to the taste of Arabica. Some 81 per cent of judges thought C. stenophylla coffee was actually Arabica. They also gave it a score of 80.25 on the Speciality Coffee Association’s 100-point Coffee Review scale, meaning it is considered a speciality coffee. “I was really blown away by the taste,” says Davis. “It’s rare to find something that tastes as [good] as high-quality Arabica, so this is really exciting.”

4-19-21 The best climate solution you've never heard of
Around the world, there are teams of people who are working to track down and destroy hidden sources of greenhouse gases - stopping them from harming the planet. Some of the gases, which are used in refrigeration, have many times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. On the outskirts of Guatemala City, Ángel Toledo runs a waste disposal company dealing with metal, plastic and glass. For the last three years they've also started dealing with refrigerant gases - which contribute to climate change. He siphons the gases from household appliances like fridges into refrigerant recovery machines. They are then transferred to a huge tank that's taken to be destroyed once it's full. It's a tangible measure of what Ángel has helped save. "I feel fulfilled," he says. "I've had this plant for 16 years working with plastic and glass and other waste but I've been working on refrigerants for the last three years. "I feel it's like a dream, helping the environment. Avoiding these gases from reaching the atmosphere. It's an ecstasy being able to help the planet through this work. It's very important for me." But not everyone is disposing of refrigerant canisters or fridges in the right way. "Unfortunately, you see that a lot and one of the biggest challenges we face is having to change the common practice. You see the cylinders on the street," he explains. "They vent the gases as they're dealing with equipment or the cylinders and it's going to the atmosphere." Ángel is part of a chain of people working to stop these gases causing damage to the planet. Teams from Tradewater, a company funded through climate offsetting, are working around the world negotiating with governments, private companies and individuals to find ways to find, secure and destroy the gases safely. Once they get an agreement from the owner and local authorities, they take them somewhere they can be disposed of safely.

4-19-21 Table Mountain fire: Residents evacuated in Cape Town suburb
South African emergency workers have evacuated three 17-storey residential buildings overlooking Cape Town as a huge fire burns along Table Mountain. The blaze spread quickly after breaking out on Sunday morning near a memorial to politician Cecil Rhodes. A restaurant was destroyed. The University of Cape Town's historic library was also badly damaged. About 250 firefighters have been battling the blaze, which has been fanned by strong winds. Helicopters were used to water-bomb flames, but their work had been hampered by the strong winds. South African National Parks said firefighters were alerted at 09:00 local time (07:00 GMT) on Sunday. The flames spread quickly because of the low humidity and dry bush. The fire created its own wind further increasing the rate of spread, it added, estimating that firefighters would need at least three days to control the blaze. City officials said a suspect had been detained amid speculation that new fires may have been started and the original fire was an act of arson. "The fire is not under control yet. At this time, the wind is a major contributing factor," a statement issued by city officials said. The emergency services have evacuated some residents from the upmarket suburb of Vredehoek, along the slopes of Table Mountain. Schools in the suburb have been also ordered to evacuate. "The fire that initially started in the vicinity of Rhodes Memorial just under 24 hours ago continues to rage and has spread in the direction of Vredehoek," city officials said in a statement. Disa Park, which refers to three identical residential buildings close to the foot of Table Mountain, has also been evacuated. The nearby University of Cape Town has also been shut and students evacuated. The fire destroyed the Reading Room at its 200-year-old Jagger Library and the historic Mostert's Mill. Other buildings were also affected. "Some of our valuable collections have been lost," the university said. This includes some 3,500 archival collections, including the Bleek-Lloyd collection of San language and mythology, the university added.

4-18-21 China and US pledge climate change commitment
China and the US say they are committed to working together and with other countries on tackling climate change. It comes after several meetings between Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua and his US counterpart John Kerry in Shanghai last week. They both agreed on further specific actions to reduce emissions, a joint statement on Sunday confirmed. US President Joe Biden is holding a virtual climate summit this week, which China says it is looking forward to. However it is not yet known if Chinese President Xi Jinping will join the world leaders who have pledged to attend. "The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands," the statement said. It added that both nations will continue to discuss "concrete actions in the 2020s to reduce emissions aimed at keeping the Paris Agreement-aligned temperature limit within reach". Both nations also agreed to help developing countries finance a switch to low-carbon energy. Li Shuo, senior climate adviser for environmental group Greenpeace, described the statement as "positive". "It sends a very unequivocal message that on this particular issue (China and the United States) will co-operate. Before the meetings in Shanghai this was not a message that we could assume, " Mr Li told Reuters news agency. Mr Kerry's trip to China is the first high-level visit by a member of the Biden administration since the new US president took office. However US and Chinese officials met for talks in Alaska last month. Ahead of his trip to Shanghai, Mr Kerry told CNN that China's co-operation was "absolutely critical" to battle the climate crisis. "Yes, we have big disagreements with China on some key issues, absolutely. But climate has to stand alone," he said.

4-18-21 These teenage climate activists are pushing for change in Australia
Bushfires in Australia in January 2020 destroyed lives, homes and wildlife. A study by the World Weather Attribution consortium said that global warming boosted the risk of the hot, dry weather likely to cause fires by 30%. Teenage climate activists Airly, Ava and Will want more to be done to tackle climate change in Australia, one of the world's biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitters. "Climate Action" is Goal 13 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, a set of targets announced in 2015 to transform lives around the world by 2030. The UN wants countries around the world to take "urgent action" to combat climate change.

4-18-21 Table Mountain fire 'burns out of control' in Cape Town
A wildfire is raging out of control on the slopes of Table Mountain above the city of Cape Town, South African authorities say. The blaze has destroyed part of a cafe at the Rhodes Memorial overlooking the city's port. Hundreds of students have been evacuated from a nearby University of Cape Town campus. The fire is moving towards the campus, the Western Cape Government said. Three helicopters are water-bombing the flames. Firefighters were first alerted at 08:45 local time (06:45 GMT). Local environment chief Anton Bredell said the situation was serious and the wind was picking up, which he said was a cause for concern. Residents in the area have been warned of smoke and soot in the air and told to keep windows and doors closed. Meanwhile hikers in the Table Mountain National Park have been told to leave and drivers who have parked in the area have been told to collect their vehicles. People who were in the area and city residents have been uploading footage of the blaze.

4-18-21 A68: Iceberg that became a social media star melts away
The iceberg that was for a time the biggest in the world is no more. A68, as it was known, covered an area of nearly 6,000 sq km (2,300 sq miles) when it broke away from Antarctica in 2017. That's like a small country; it's equal to a quarter of the size of Wales. But satellites show the mega-berg has now virtually gone, broken into countless small fragments that the US National Ice Center says are no longer worth tracking. A68 calved from the Larson C Ice Shelf on the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, and for a year it hardly moved. But then it started to drift north with increasing speed, riding on strong currents and winds. The billion-tonne block took a familiar route, spinning out into the South Atlantic towards the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia. The small island is where many of the biggest icebergs go to die. Caught in the local shallows, they are doomed to gradually melt away. But this one somehow managed to escape that particular fate. Instead, it was the waves, the warm water and higher air temperatures in the Atlantic that eventually consumed A68. It simply shattered into smaller and smaller fragments. "It's amazing that A68 lasted as long as it did," Adrian Luckman, from Swansea University, told BBC News. "If you think about the thickness ratio - it's like four pieces of A4 paper stacked up on top of one another. So this thing is incredibly flexible and fragile as it moved around the ocean. It lasted for years like that. But it eventually broke into four-to-five pieces and then those broke up as well." A68 will probably be best remembered as the first iceberg to become a star on social media. People around the world shared satellite pictures online, especially as the frozen block neared South Georgia. Had it grounded, the berg's immense bulk could have disrupted the foraging behaviour of the island's many penguins - and who isn't worried about penguins in peril?

4-17-21 Brazil 'needs $10bn to reach zero emissions' says minister
Brazil's environment minister says the country needs $10bn (£7.2bn) a year in foreign aid in order to reach zero emissions by 2050. The move would mean that Brazil could achieve the symbolic figure 10 years earlier than currently planned. It comes ahead of US President Joe Biden's climate summit next week. Brazil's environmental policies have brought international condemnation since President Jair Bolsonaro took office two years ago. He has encouraged agriculture and mining activities in the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said $1bn would be used to reach zero illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. He added that a third of the money would be used to recruit more environmental agents, potentially from the national military police. The remainder would be used to invest in sustainable development of the Amazon, he told Reuters news agency. Mr Salles said he does not expect a deal to be made before next week's virtual summit. His call for foreign aid comes as Mr Bolsonaro's government is attempting to negotiate a deal with the US in which it would receive financial aid in return for protecting the Amazon. The move has been criticised by environmentalists and indigenous groups who say they haven't been consulted on the plans. A report by Brazil's space agency (Inpe) released in 2020, said that deforestation of the Amazon had surged to its highest level in 12 years. The Amazon is home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people. Mr Bolsonaro has previously clashed with Inpe over its deforestation data, accusing it of smearing Brazil's reputation. Vice-President Hamílton Mourão said Brazil has a set goal to reduce illegal deforestation by 15-20% per year in order to eliminate it by 2030. He said that the target was mentioned in a letter sent by Mr Bolsonaro to Mr Biden earlier this week.

4-17-21 Your biggest climate decision isn't what you cook — it's what you don't
So how do we make sustainable food choices from start to finish? Author Paul Greenberg has some ideas. We spend a lot of time climate-agonizing over what to buy and what to cook. By now, most of us know that beef can have 25 times the carbon footprint of legumes, that out-of-season air-freighted things like winter berries and fish from distant shores burden the planet, and that water from the tap is a vastly better choice than bottled. But if we're really looking to trim our carbon footprints consistently throughout the year — what I call going on a climate diet — addressing what we do after our meals are cooked and eaten can be a real game changer. By doing that, every American could easily cut their carbon footprint from food in half. The culprit here of course is waste, but not necessarily in the way you think of it. So, let's take a moment to look at the way discarded food can come back to bite you, and then make a plan to lessen that bite. To begin with, Americans throw out a lot of food. Somewhere around 40 percent of what we buy goes into landfills. But the hidden problem for climate change isn't just that we have to grow 40 percent more food than we'd have to in a more frugal society. No, the problem with our wasted food happens in the landfill itself. Food waste in landfills, starved of oxygen, releases methane, which has a warming consequence dozens of times that of carbon dioxide. Because of decomposing food waste, the United States has larger landfill emissions than any other country on Earth, the equivalent of 37 million cars on the road each year. To keep food out of landfills, we can start by changing how we plan for the full lifecycle of our food. We can and should look at the available space in our refrigerators and freezers before going to the grocery store or hitting the buy button. We can plan weekly meals with an eye toward moving perishables from fridge to freezer as they approach their expiration dates. But perhaps the most significant change we can make with respect to our food is to change our perspective on the very concept of waste. As I've slowly begun modifying the way I cook, I've come to a shocking realization. There is no such thing as food waste. Food, all of it, is by definition, edible. Take for example a head of cauliflower. In nearly every recipe I've ever read, the cook is instructed to trim the leaves and stem and discard. But why? The stem and leaves of that same head of cauliflower are perfectly acceptable substitutes for celery in a Bolognese or zucchini in a Moroccan vegetable stew. Similarly, the cook is always told to peel carrots and potatoes, trim any fat, and discard chicken skin. Each of these thrown-away items add flavor, texture, and nutrients to your food. Next, we'll want to be prepared to take on some post-processing tasks to further stretch what we can do with the food we've bought. To this end, I direct you to the vinegar barrel and the stockpot. Because of their sugar content, fruit peels and cores are great agents to promote fermentation. A leftover yogurt container half-filled with water and gradually filled with your cores and peels makes a fine receptacle to start a vinegar culture. Let fruit discards steep for several weeks, strain and boil, and you've just saved yourself a trip to the store to buy vinegar. You can take some of that vinegar production and use it to pickle vegetable peels, which make for excellent side slaws and sandwich accompaniments.

4-16-21 Whitest paint ever reflects 98 per cent of light and could cool homes
An extremely white paint that reflects 98.1 per cent of sunlight can cool itself by radiating heat into deep space. It could help keep buildings cool, potentially replacing energy-intensive air conditioners. Xiulin Ruan at Purdue University in Indiana and his colleagues previously developed an ultra-reflective paint using calcium carbonate particles that reflected 95.5 per cent of sunlight. They have now improved on that by using barium sulphate particles in a paint that reflects 98.1 per cent of sunlight. This new ultra-white paint absorbs less than half the amount of energy from the sun as the previous paint. Standard commercial white paint absorbs between 10 and 20 per cent of sunlight energy. The amount of sunlight absorbed by the new paint is lower than the amount of energy it radiates through our atmosphere and into deep space, so the material actually becomes cooler than its surroundings. The team plans to carry out experiments with painted tubes carrying water and hopes to create an electricity-free refrigeration effect. The team hopes that the paint can lower global carbon emissions as houses coated in the paint would need less air conditioning. If the paint is used on a 930 square metre roof, the cooling effect could be as high as 10 kilowatts, which the team says is more powerful than a standard air conditioner. Ruan says there is a double-pronged positive effect because the paint sends energy away from our planet. “We send the heat to space, we’re not leaving the heat on Earth,” he says. “Traditional air conditioners leave the heat on Earth’s surface, it’s just moved from the inside of your house to the outside.” The team calculated that if 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent of Earth’s surface was covered in this paint, for instance by coating roofs with it, the total effect would reverse global heating to date.

4-16-21 Carbon Mapper satellite network to find super-emitters
A constellation of satellites will be flown this decade to try to pinpoint significant releases of climate-changing gases, in particular carbon dioxide and methane. The initiative is being led by an American non-profit organisation called Carbon Mapper. It will use technology developed by the US space agency over the past decade. The satellites - 20 or so - will be built and flown by San Francisco's Planet company. Planet operates today the largest fleet of Earth-observing spacecraft. There are already quite a few satellites in the sky that monitor greenhouse gases, but the capability is far from perfect. Most of these spacecraft can sense the likes of methane over very large areas but have poor resolution at the local level, at the scale, say, of a leaking pipeline. And those systems that can capture this detail will lack the wide-area coverage and the timely return to a particular location. The Carbon Mapper project wants to fix this either-or-situation by flying multiple high-resolution (30m) sensors that can deliver a daily view, or better. They will look for super-emitters - the actors responsible for large releases of greenhouse gases. These would include oil and gas infrastructure, or perhaps poorly managed landfills and large dairy factory facilities. Often these emitters want to know they have a problem but just don't have the data to take action. "What we've learned is that decision support systems that focus just at the level of nation states, or countries, are necessary but not sufficient. We really need to get down to the scale of individual facilities, and even individual pieces of equipment, if we're going to have an impact across civil society," explained Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper's CEO and a research scientist at the University of Arizona. "Super-emitters are often intermittent but they are also disproportionately responsible for the total emissions. That suggests low-hanging fruit, because if you can identify and fix them you can get a big bang for your buck," he told BBC News. The aim is to put the satellite data in the hands of everyone, and with the necessary tools also to be able to understand and use that information.

4-16-21 Meteorologists can predict strength of Asian monsoon a year in advance
A climate model can now reliably predict the strength of the Asian summer monsoon – and tropical cyclone activity associated with it – more than one year ahead of time, which could enable government agencies to make preparations for damaging weather events. Yuhei Takaya at the Japan Meteorological Agency and his colleagues have developed a climate prediction system that takes into account both historical and up-to-date meteorological measurements to simulate atmospheric changes and temperatures on land and in the ocean. The key to its long-range forecasting is the ability to predict when an El Niño-Southern Oscillation will occur. “When an El Niño occurs, the Indian Ocean warms during the fall to winter and this persists in the next summer,” says Takaya. The resulting warm conditions in the Indian Ocean have a significant effect on the Asian summer monsoon, he says. The team’s model was tested using oceanic and climate data gathered between 1980 and 2016. Given meteorological data for a particular year, the model predicts what will happen the following summer, including the sea surface temperature, regional rainfall and a weather pattern known as the western North Pacific monsoon. “In summer, we have droughts or floods associated with this variability,” says Takaya. The climate model predicted the strength of the monsoon a year ahead, measuring how linear the correlation is between real and predicted weather patterns with a value of 0.5, where a score of 1 indicates a perfect correlation. It was more accurate at predicting temperatures over South-East Asia than predicting monsoon strength, with a score of 0.75. Existing climate models used by meteorological centres are usually able to predict weather patterns six months in advance, says Takaya.

4-15-21 Alaskan forests may store more carbon after being burned by wildfire
As the boreal forests of Alaska recover from wildfires, they may shift from containing mostly coniferous trees to a deciduous-coniferous mix – and this change could ultimately offset some of the carbon emitted during the fires. Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and intense in certain parts of the world, such as the boreal forests of the Arctic. These forests typically act as carbon sinks, but if fires burn deep into their soil, they could begin to release more carbon into the atmosphere than they store through new wood growth, accelerating the effects of climate change. Michelle Mack at Northern Arizona University and her team assessed the Alaskan boreal forest, which is experiencing more frequent fires, to see how the blazes are affecting forest recovery and carbon storage. Around 2.7 million hectares of land was burned there in 2004 – the area’s worst wildfire season on record – due to extreme temperatures and frequent lightning strikes. The team monitored 75 sites across this forest for 15 years after this fire year. Before 2004, records showed that the forest contained mainly black spruce trees, a conifer species. In 2017, this spruce was the principal species at 28 per cent of sites, while 72 per cent were dominated by deciduous trees, like aspen and birch, or had a mix of deciduous and conifer. “The fire burned more deeply at these sites, exposing the deeper, nutrient-rich layer of soil,” says Mack. Fast-growing deciduous seeds dispersed from further afield could develop rapidly in this soil layer, which might be why so many sites changed composition, she says. Because deciduous trees take in more carbon dioxide than conifers to grow their denser wood, the team estimated that sites shifting towards deciduous species could ultimately store around five times as much carbon as those where spruce remained. This means that if deciduous trees replace conifers following a fire in a boreal forest, the new mix of tree species could more than compensate for the carbon released during the wildfire, providing a negative feedback to climate change.

4-15-21 Heat overrides genes to make bearded dragon embryos change sex
Some lizards that begin developing as males will actually hatch as females if the egg is particularly warm – and now we know why. The heat triggers genes that override chromosomal sex determination. In the 1960s, French scientists discovered that reptiles in Senegal would hatch as females when temperatures rose much above about 30°C. Since then, researchers have noted that the sex of many reptiles and some fish actually depends entirely on the temperature during their development. In a few animals, like the central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) of Australia, sex determination depends on both genetics and temperature. Males have two identical sex chromosomes – ZZ – and females have two different sex chromosomes – ZW. But male embryos will develop as females if the egg is warm enough. This means females may develop in one of two ways, but the mechanisms behind this phenomenon have eluded scientists for more than half a century. To explore the mystery, Sarah Whiteley at the University of Canberra in Australia and her colleagues ran genetic sequencing on unhatched bearded dragons incubated either at 28°C – cool enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as males – or at 36°C – warm enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as females. For the eggs at 36°C, the researchers found that ZW female embryos had “dramatically” different active genes during the major stages of sex development, compared with ZZ females, demonstrating there are two distinct sets of genes that can make a central bearded dragon female. In the ZZ females, the genes that “wanted” to code for male development were forcibly switched off, and those for female development were switched on. “The sex chromosomes in the dragon are… more recently developed – on an evolutionary timescale – compared to [human] sex chromosomes,” Whiteley says. “So sex reversal might be a relic of temperature sensitivity [alone].”

4-15-21 Just 3 per cent of the land on Earth is still ecologically intact
Most of Earth’s terrestrial habitats have lost their ecological integrity, including areas previously categorised as being intact. Ecological integrity encompasses three measures of intactness. Habitat intactness is a measure of the extent to which people have made changes to the land, faunal intactness is a measure of the number of animal species lost from a habitat, and functional intactness measures whether there are enough animals of individual species to effectively play their part in a functioning ecosystem. “We only find about 2 to 3 per cent of the Earth[’s land] is where you could be considered as having the same fauna and flora that you had 500 years ago, in pre-industrial times, before major human impacts had occurred,” says Andrew Plumptre, head of the Key Biodiversity Areas Secretariat and an employee at BirdLife International in the UK. Plumptre and his colleagues combined data on human impacts and loss of animal species from various global databases to map the ecological integrity of different regions. Only 11 per cent of ecologically intact sites lie within environmentally protected areas. However, many other of the intact sites, including parts of the Sahara, Amazon and northern Canada, are within territories managed by indigenous communities, which have played a role in maintaining ecological integrity. “Conservation of intact ecosystems is critical for the maintenance of biodiversity on Earth, and in turn for the services that these ecosystems provide to humans,” says Kimberly Komatsu at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. The team determined that by reintroducing between one and five different species to sites that aren’t completely degraded, ecological integrity could be restored across about 20 per cent of Earth’s land.

4-15-21 Only 3 percent of Earth’s land hasn’t been marred by humans
Human activity has had a far-ranging impact on the numbers and abundance of other species. The Serengeti looks largely like it did hundreds of years ago. Lions, hyenas and other top predators still stalk herds of wildebeests over a million strong, preventing them from eating too much vegetation. This diversity of trees and grasses support scores of other species, from vivid green-orange Fischer’s lovebirds to dung beetles. In turn, such species carry seeds or pollen across the plains, enabling plant reproduction. Humans are there too, but in relatively low densities. Overall, it’s a prime example of what biologists call an ecologically intact ecosystem: a bustling tangle of complex relationships that together sustain a rich diversity of life, undiminished by us. Such places are vanishingly rare. The vast majority of land on Earth — a staggering 97 percent — no longer qualifies as ecologically intact, according to a sweeping survey of Earth’s ecosystems. Over the last 500 years, too many species have been lost, or their numbers reduced, researchers report April 15 in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. Of the few fully intact ecosystems, only about 11 percent fall within existing protected areas, the researchers found. Much of this pristine habitat exists in northern latitudes, in Canada’s boreal forests or Greenland’s tundra, which aren’t bursting with biodiversity. But chunks of the species-rich rainforests of the Amazon, Congo and Indonesia also remain intact. “These are the best of the best, the last places on Earth that haven’t lost a single species that we know of,” says Oscar Venter, a conservation scientist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George who wasn’t involved in the study. Identifying such places is crucial, he says, especially for regions under threat of development that require protection, like the Amazon rainforest.

4-15-21 China 'can save $1.6 trillion by scrapping coal', report says
China can save up to $1.6 trillion (£1.2 trillion) over 20 years by switching from coal power to renewables, a report says. The authors say China must close 588 coal-fired power plants in a decade to meet climate pledges - but they insist the move will save cash. That's because renewables are now so much cheaper than coal. It mirrors the situation in the US, where coal tumbled from being the cheapest major fuel to the most expensive. China is currently running 1,058 coal plants – more than half the world’s capacity. The authors of the report from the climate think tank, TransitionZero, say to meet its stated goal of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2060, China must take radical action now. China has announced it’s building five new nuclear stations to supply clean power – and President Xi has announced he will join a French-German climate summit on Friday. It's also the world leader in wind turbines and solar panels. But over the past year the country has strayed in a high-carbon direction, with regional governors building new power stations to stimulate economic growth. The report warns that China’s 14th Five-year Plan risks creating “stranded assets” – that’s coal plants which get built but not used. It’s based on satellite technology and machine learning, which are being used for the first time to determine exactly how much CO2 China’s power sector is emitting. Western diplomats have been suspicious about the nation’s data, which is published on a provincial basis every month. The UK and the US, by comparison, publish CO2 data at plant level every day. Accurate numbers are essential as countries attempt to fulfil their pledges to reduce emissions. Matt Gray, one of the report’s authors, told BBC News: “There has to be credible data on emissions so nations can trust each other in climate negotiations. “Independent of climate considerations, our analysis finds China could save money, reduce stranded assets and improve its international reputation by replacing coal plants with zero-carbon alternatives,” he said. Former US vice-president Al Gore, one of the sponsors of the research, said: “The economic opportunity presented by a transition from coal to clean energy shows that climate action and economic growth go hand in hand.”

4-15-21 Torres Strait 8: Australian Islanders in landmark climate fight
A group of indigenous islanders from Australia’s Torres Strait has launched a world-first legal battle in a bid to protect their homes. They argue Australia has breached their rights to culture and life by failing to adequately address climate change. The low-lying islands, located on the northern tip of Australia, have seen rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding in recent years. It’s the first time a claim of this kind has been taken to the UN Human Rights Committee.

4-14-21 Earthquakes in Taiwan are linked to seasonal changes in water levels
Earthquakes in Taiwan may be linked to seasonal variations in the water cycle, driven by the Asian monsoon. Taiwan has both a high frequency of damaging earthquakes and a wide variation in the amount of precipitation and water stored in the ground, as a result of the heavy rains and typhoons that buffet the island between May and September. Ya-Ju Hsu at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and her colleagues analysed earthquake data in eastern and western Taiwan and found a correlation between seismic activity and fluctuations in the water cycle. Hsu had initially noticed that many earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater seemed to occur during Taiwan’s dry season between about February and April. She and her colleagues analysed seismic data collected between 2002 and 2018, as well as groundwater measurements from 40 monitoring stations and data on how the Earth’s crust changes in response to seasonal water loading. They found that seismic activity in western Taiwan was highest in the dry season and lowest between July and September, at the end of the monsoon season. “In the dry season, we see more earthquakes because the water load has been removed,” says Hsu. The researchers found that this decreased groundwater resulted in a peak in the rebounding of Earth’s crust even when under low amounts of stress. Eastern Taiwan had a more complex pattern of seismic activity. There, deeper earthquakes tended to occur more frequently from December to February. Shallow earthquakes in this part of Taiwan were also linked to the variations in groundwater level and crust changes, but there was greater variability in their timing. The researchers also looked at records of 63 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater between 1604 and 2018, and found similar trends in the seasonal variation in seismic activity.

4-14-21 COP26: Delaying key climate meeting preferable to 'messing it up'
A former UN climate chief says that delaying the critical Glasgow meeting this year would be preferable to risking a failed conference. There have been doubts over the wisdom of having thousands of delegates attending the event - known as COP26 - while concerns linger over Covid-19. The UK says that a physical meeting is still the preferred option. But Yvo de Boer, who ran UN climate talks until 2010, says that delay is preferable to "messing it up". COP26, or the 26th Conference of the Parties, is the key forum for countries all over the world to tackle climate change. The meeting in Glasgow was due to take place late last year but was postponed because of the pandemic. The UK, which is presiding over the meeting, hopes that around 200 world leaders will turn up in Scotland later this year to try and agree a number of key steps forward on dealing with rising temperatures. But with new waves of the virus sweeping many countries, and vaccine rollouts happening at varying speeds, there are worries that the Glasgow meeting may again be in jeopardy. There have been suggestions that Glasgow should become what's termed a "hybrid" COP, with many of the side events taking place online and with slimmed down teams of negotiators taking part in person. "There will be the key elements that have to be in-person and then a lot else that would be virtual, and I think there's that's probably the most likely scenario from my perspective," said Helen Mountford from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a long-time observer of UN negotiations. Not everyone is in favour of this form of meeting. "I think a hybrid whereby you have the high-level ministerial segment in person and the rest virtual that might work," said Yvo de Boer, who ran the UN talks at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009. "But can you cover all the ground that needs to be covered in a virtual meeting, given the fact that generally the process relies very heavily on bilateral meetings and backroom deals? "My overall senses that delay is better than messing it up, overplaying your hand and having a failed meeting."

4-14-21 US envoy John Kerry woos China over climate
US envoy John Kerry is heading to Shanghai to woo China in advance of a climate summit President Joe Biden is hosting next week. After a major diplomatic row at the UN, both sides hope to co-operate over plans to drastically cut emissions. The US wants China to cease building coal-fired power stations and to stop financing coal ventures abroad. China wants the US to give more cash to developing countries to obtain clean technology and adapt to climate change. It also wants Washington to announce deep cuts in emissions. Speaking to CNN, Mr Kerry said China's co-operation was "absolutely critical" to battle the climate crisis. "Yes, we have big disagreements with China on some key issues, absolutely. But climate has to stand alone." He is hoping to salvage the superpower relationship to allow progress at President Biden’s virtual summit on 22 and 23 April. Scientists warn that without an agreement between the world’s great polluters there’s little chance of averting dangerous climate change. Bernice Lee, a China expert at the UK think tank Chatham House, said: “This is good news. At least they’re talking in the run-up to the summit. There will be big issues for both sides to resolve. But they must be resolved." Neither party has formally declared its climate masterplan to the UN, and each is struggling to coax more concessions from the other. The US was absent from climate negotiations during President Donald Trump’s term of office and it is now being urged to cut emissions to between 57%-63% below 2005 levels this decade. President Biden is expected to declare the formal US offer before, or at, next week’s summit. China, meanwhile, has pledged to peak its emissions by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (that means cutting out all carbon emissions from fossil fuels but still allowing farm emissions of methane – another planet-heating gas). It will be pressed to explain the policies that will achieve those targets.

4-14-21 Limiting fossil fuel use isn’t enough – we must stop extraction too
FOSSIL fuels aren’t mentioned in the world’s landmark deal for tackling catastrophic climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement commits leaders to holding warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, or “well below” 2°C at the worst – but nowhere does it say how much oil, gas or coal must be left in the ground. This is convenient for world leaders, who are happy to talk about curbing fossil fuel demand, but desperate to continue business as usual when it comes to extraction – a disconnect that risks serious consequences for the planet’s thermostat. Political aversion doesn’t change the facts. Staying under 2°C warming means huge chunks of fossil fuel reserves – the known amount that can be extracted in a profitable way – must remain unused. A 2015 study estimated that four-fifths of coal, half of gas and a third of oil reserves globally must be left in the ground. Despite such warnings, six years on from Paris and with the pivotal COP26 climate summit looming in November, governments are still struggling to reduce fossil fuel extraction. Take the UK. It has an internationally respected record on policies to curb demand, including an ambitious 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales announced last November. But just a few months later, on 24 March, the UK government backed future permits to extract oil and gas in the North Sea, disappointing campaigners who had called for a ban. Ministers have previously justified continued extraction on the grounds the country still needs fossil fuels and, if it doesn’t produce them, another nation will. Nonetheless, in a sop to climate concerns, the UK government’s recent green light was coupled with carbon emissions targets for industry (see “Tiny tweaks are not enough“) and a pledge that new drilling would only be approved if it meets an as-yet-undefined “climate compatibility checkpoint”. Even so, a week later the UK government’s chief climate adviser, Chris Stark, branded the emissions targets unambitious.

4-14-21 UK woodlands 'at crisis point' amid wildlife decline
A review of the state of Britain's native woods and trees has found only 7% are in a good condition. While woodland cover is slowly increasing, the wildlife within it is decreasing, says the Woodland Trust. If threats to woodland aren't tackled, the UK's ability to tackle climate and nature crises will be "severely damaged", the charity warns. The Woodland Trust is among a number of groups calling for legally binding targets for the recovery of nature. "The warning signs in this report are loud and clear," says Abi Bunker, director of conservation and external affairs at the Woodland Trust. "If we don't tackle the threats facing our woods and trees, we will severely damage the UK's ability to address the climate and nature crises." Woodland now covers 13% of UK land, up from 12% in 1998. About half is made up of native tree species, such as oak, beech and ash, including centuries-old ancient woodlands. The remaining half comprises non-native trees such as conifers grown commercially for timber. Despite the small increase in the amount of woodland cover over the past few decades, the trend for wildlife is one of steep decline, said the Woodland Trust. "Wildlife is going down - woodland birds, woodland butterflies, woodland plants are all going in the wrong direction for woodlands as a whole," Chris Reid, lead author of the report, told BBC News. "This is down to factors such as pollution, invasive species, deer browsing and fragmentation - woods chopped up into small parcels. All of these need to be tackled." The report, State of the UK's Woods and Trees 2021, found that ancient woodlands lock up proportionally more carbon than other types of tree cover. Estimates suggest that ancient and long-established woodlands hold 36% of all woodland carbon (77 million tonnes). "They're really important in terms of their ability to tackle climate change whilst providing that real specialist and irreplaceable habitat for declining wildlife," says Hazel Jackson of the Woodland Trust. Ancient woodlands continue to be lost and damaged by house building, new road and railways, the report says. It calls for a better balance to be restored by removing non-native trees and invasive plants such as rhododendrons.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

4-20-21 Reporting of US police killings harms Black people's mental health
Black people are more likely than white people to have their mental health affected by strings of highly publicised US police killings of Black people, according to the first nationwide scientific assessment of these media reports. Police violence against Black people in the US often leads to extensive media coverage. David Curtis at the University of Utah and his colleagues wanted to understand how the mental health of Black individuals was affected after such events. The team combined a database of US police killings with Google Trends data to identify 47 high-profile incidents of police killing Black individuals or subsequent legal decisions that occurred between 2013 and 2017, including the killing of Michael Brown. These comprised the reporting of 38 police killings of Black individuals, and coverage of about nine legal decisions not to convict officers involved in some of those killings. The team also looked at the reporting of two convicted murderers with links to white supremacy for a total of 49 events. The researchers assessed the mental health impacts on people during this time period using weekly data from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, a large-scale health-related telephone survey funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, this included 696 responses a week from Black people and 6707 from white people – more than 200,000 Black individuals and 2 million white respondents in total between 2012 and 2017. The survey asks respondents whether they experienced poor mental health days in the past month, including those related to stress, depression and problems with emotions. Black respondents reported more poor mental health days during weeks when two or more of the selected events occurred in the country. Conversely, white respondents’ mental health wasn’t correlated to the timing of the events.

4-20-21 50 years ago, scientists claimed marijuana threatened teens’ mental health
Excerpt from the April 24, 1971 issue of Science News. The White House Conference on Youth voted to legalize the sale of grass (with restrictions). On the same day, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article condemning the use of marijuana by the young.… The researchers conclude that marijuana smoking is particularly harmful to the adolescent. It adds unnecessary anxieties to the already disturbing problems of physical and psychological maturation. Fifty years after the recommendation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, at least 15 U.S. states have done so. In that time, a growing body of research has strengthened the link between teen marijuana use and mental health effects, including an increased risk of depression later in life. Such health concerns partly explain why people younger than 21 are prohibited from recreationally using pot. But pot use is prevalent among U.S. middle and high school students: About 25 percent of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 disclosed using the drug in 2020, scientists report.

4-20-21 New species of dinosaur unearthed in Chile's Atacama desert
Scientists have identified a new species of dinosaur from parts of a skeleton found in northern Chile. The creature's remains were unearthed in the Atacama desert - the world's driest - near the city of Copiapó. Experts say the plant-eating titanosaur had a small head and long neck, and an unusually flat back. Studies suggest the creature lived in what would then have been a lush landscape of flowering plants, ferns and palm trees. A team led by Chilean geologist Carlos Arévalo unearthed the remains in the 1990s and carried out research in the 2000s. The findings, published in the journal Cretaceous Research, were made public on Monday. The remains, according to the team, included parts of a humerus, a femur and the ischium, and vertebral elements of the neck and back. They represent a small sub-adult individual, with an estimated length of 6.3m (20ft). The creature was a sauropod, or a long-necked, long-tailed, plant-eating dinosaur. It was found in beds dating from the Late Cretaceous, the last epoch before dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago. The creature has been named Arackar licanantay, which means Atacama bones in the indigenous Kunza language. The remains will eventually be exhibited in Chile's Museum of Natural History. The head of the museum's palaeontology area, David Rubilar, said: "This represents a relevant milestone for the Chilean palaeontological heritage." This is the third dinosaur named from Chile and the third titanosaur from the western side of the Andes in South America, the team said. In 2014, one of biggest dinosaurs ever discovered was unearthed in Argentina, also a titanosaur whose estimated length was more than 37m.

4-19-21 Here’s what we know about B.1.1.7, the U.S.’s dominant coronavirus strain
The variant appears to be more contagious and deadlier, but is still susceptible to vaccines. In December 2020, health officials in the United Kingdom announced that a new coronavirus variant was rapidly spreading across the region. Weeks later, U.S. officials found the first case in the United States (SN: 12/22/20). And by early April, the variant had become the most common form of the coronavirus identified across the country, an event that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had warned in January might happen (SN: 1/15/21). The news came amid a surge in coronavirus cases in many states, including Michigan, where the new variant, dubbed B.1.1.7, makes up nearly 58 percent of genetically screened samples collected as of March 27. The variant is less prevalent in California, New York and other states, where homegrown versions of concerning coronavirus variants are currently causing the majority of cases instead. Following the emergence of the variant in the United Kingdom, scientists have worked to get a handle on how mutations in the virus’s genetic blueprint might change its behavior, amid concerns that the virus might have gained the ability to evade vaccines or cause more severe disease. Here’s what researchers have learned so far about B.1.1.7. Rapid spread of the coronavirus among people in a corner of London that was linked to the emergence of a variant was what first raised health officials’ concerns. In the months since, multiple studies support that initial finding that B.1.1.7 is more contagious than previous versions of the virus, on the order of around 40 to 70 percent. The current hypothesis for why the variant is more transmissible is that a mutation in the spike protein — which helps the coronavirus break into cells — allows the virus to attach more tightly to the cellular protein that lets it enter a new cell. That leads to a higher amount of virus in the body and a more transmissible virus, says Eleni Nastouli, a clinical virologist at University College London.

4-19-21 America's untenable happiness imperative
How COVID-19 exposed our culture's relentless pressure to be positive. here were many good reasons not to be happy in America this winter. By January, an average of 3,100 people were dying every day from COVID-19. And, if you were lucky enough to be spared from the most acute impacts of the virus, there was still plenty of isolation, anxiety, grief, and feelings of helplessness to go around. Meanwhile, as the pandemic raged on, we watched a violent and deadly insurrection at the nation's capital that served as a finale to the most unhinged and rancorous presidency of my lifetime. After four years of watching the nation splinter and smoke and shatter and beat itself up, on January 6, the figurative became real. Added to all of this was a brutal recession, a series of unusual and extreme weather events, and news reports about alarming, non-climate-or-pandemic-related threats to human survival. More recently, mass shootings and police killings have made a devastating return to our streets and social media feeds. And yet despite this abundance of bad news — which included, for me, a months-long string of rejections for a book project that I had poured years into — I realized at some point that I was still feeling bad about the fact that I wasn't feeling happier. In the rare times when I socialized, whether that was on the phone or outdoors and masked, I felt slightly ashamed that I wasn't more energetic and chipper. In quieter moments by myself, I noticed a nagging feeling of self-reproach for not feeling more content or buoyant. I knew this wasn't rational. More than perhaps any other time in my life, this cursed winter had given me, and millions of others, a long list of logical reasons for not feeling particularly cheery. And yet there it was. As someone with a history of anxiety and depression, I wasn't entirely surprised by this. But I was intrigued. Because while certainly some of this guilt could be traced back to the bad feelings factory that is my psyche, I don't think this explained all of it. I was — and still am — convinced that some of the happiness inadequacy I felt was a reflection of the country and culture where I live. For 36 years, I have absorbed the American pressure to be bright, shiny, happy, and perpetually laughing. But for the first time, in the extremity of the pandemic, the senses of how I was supposed to feel and how I actually felt had shifted far enough to leave a gulf between them that was too wide to ignore. Was this American pressure to be happy real or imagined? Where does it come from? Is it possible to be happy as often as Americans are expected to be? And what would it mean to finally opt out? The word "happiness," of course, appears in one of the most famous sentences in U.S. history: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But at some point, that crucial bit of hedging contained in the words "pursuit of" seemed to dissolve, and left us with a culture that views abiding happiness as a birthright. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened. Though it was certainly visible to the British social theorist Harriet Martineau, who in her 1838 book Retrospect of Western Travel, described "the inexhaustible American mirth" and noted of Americans that, "One of the rarest characters among them, and a great treasure to all his sportive neighbours, is a man who cannot take a joke." In the history of this country, "the feeling, the imperative… to feel happy is deeply rooted historically and pervasive," says Daniel Horowitz, emeritus professor of American Studies at Smith College and author of the book Happier? The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America.

4-17-21 People with rare blood clots after a COVID-19 jab share an uncommon immune response
Some who get AstraZeneca’s or Johnson & Johnson’s shots make antibodies that spark clots. Evidence is building that an uncommon immune response is behind dangerous, but incredibly rare, blood clots associated with some COVID-19 vaccines. But the good news is that there is a test doctors can use to identify it and get patients the right care. A small number of people out of the millions vaccinated with AstraZeneca’s or Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shots have developed severe blood clots, such as ones in the sinuses that drain blood from the brain (SN: 4/7/21; 4/13/21). A few have died. Studies suggest that some inoculated people develop an immune response that attacks a protein called platelet factor 4 or PF4, which makes platelets form clots. Those platelets get used up before the body can make more. So these patients wind up with both the rare clots and low levels of blood platelets. Of 23 patients who received AstraZeneca’s jab and had symptoms of clots or low platelets, 21 tested positive for antibodies to PF4, researchers report April 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Of those, 20 people developed blood clots. The finding adds to previous studies that found the same antibodies in additional patients who got AstraZeneca’s shot and had the dangerous clots. Five out of six women who had clots after receiving Johnson & Johnson’s shot in the United States also had PF4 antibodies, health officials said April 14 during an Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting. That advisory group to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is assessing what needs to be done to lift a temporary pause on administering the Johnson & Johnson jab that was prompted by blood clot concerns (SN: 4/13/21). One man had developed brain sinus clots during the shot’s clinical trial and a seventh case is under investigation, the pharmaceutical company said during the meeting.

4-16-21 Human cells grown in monkey embryos spark ethical debate
Monkey embryos containing human cells have been made in a laboratory, a study has confirmed. The research, by a US-Chinese team, has sparked fresh debate into the ethics of such experiments. The scientists injected human stem cells - cells that have the ability to develop into many different body tissues - into macaque embryos. The developing embryos were studied for up to 20 days. Other so-called mixed-species embryos, or chimeras, have been produced in the past, with human cells implanted into sheep and pig embryos. The scientists were led by Prof Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute in the US, who, in 2017, helped make the first human-pig hybrid. Their work could pave the way in addressing the severe shortage in transplantable organs as well as help understand more about early human development, disease progression and ageing, he said. "These chimeric approaches could be really very useful for advancing biomedical research not just at the very earliest stage of life, but also the latest stage of life." He maintained that the study, published in the journal Cell, had met the current ethical and legal guidelines. "Ultimately, we conduct these studies to understand and improve human health," he said. Some scientists have, however, raised concerns about the experiment, arguing that while the embryos in this case were destroyed at 20 days, others could try to take the work further. They are calling for public debate over the implications of creating part human/part nonhuman chimeras. Commenting on the research, Dr Anna Smajdor, lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics at the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School, said it posed "significant ethical and legal challenges". She added: "The scientists behind this research state that these chimeric embryos offer new opportunities, because 'we are unable to conduct certain types of experiments in humans'. But whether these embryos are human or not is open to question."

4-16-21 Facebook says its AI could help find drug combinations to treat cancer
Facebook claims that its new artificial intelligence can predict the way drugs interact with each other inside cells quicker than existing methods, enabling speedier discovery of new drug combinations to treat illnesses like cancer, but some researchers say it may not translate into results that will be useful in humans. The system, developed by Facebook AI Research and the Helmholtz Centre in Munich, Germany, is claimed to be the first easy-to-use AI model able to estimate how different drugs will work in the body. It could speed up our ability to uncover new treatments for diseases like cancer. “Drug research often takes half a decade to develop a compound,” says Fabian Theis at the Helmholtz Centre, one of the authors of the work. The model works by measuring how individual cells change in response to treatment from a particular set of drugs and recording those responses. Such an approach could theoretically help tackle cancer tumours, which vary from person to person and react differently to the same treatment, says Eytan Ruppin at the US National Cancer Institute. The AI factors in variables including the type of drug, what it is used in combination with, the dosage level, the time it is taken and the type of cell it targets. It can then use that information to predict the effect of drug combinations it hasn’t yet seen. The research team behind it says humans can’t make these kinds of predictions: if they were given a pool of 100 different drugs, and asked to choose five to be given in three different doses – not uncommon in cancer treatment – there could be 19 billion possible drug regimes. The team tested the AI’s predictions against known combinations of drugs and found it was able to accurately forecast cell responses with over 90 per cent accuracy, says Theis. Unsurprisingly, the more drugs put into the model that the AI has seen before, the better its results.

4-16-21 The alphabet may have been invented 500 years earlier than we thought
The early history of the alphabet may require rewriting. Four clay artefacts found at an ancient site in Syria are incised with what is potentially the earliest alphabetic writing ever found. The discovery suggests that the alphabet emerged 500 years earlier than we thought, and undermines leading ideas about how it was invented. A popular idea is that the alphabet first appeared in Egypt about 3800 years ago, when 20 or so Egyptian hieroglyphs were repurposed as the first alphabet’s letters. The script was then used to write down words in one or more of the ancient languages spoken in south-west Asia at the time. But a discovery at the roughly 4300-year-old site of Umm el-Marra in Syria challenges this narrative. During excavations there in 2004, Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and his colleagues found four lumps of clay each the size and shape of a human finger. The clay fingers are each inscribed with between one and five symbols, and Schwartz has spent the past 17 years trying to understand them. “When I first saw them, I thought: this looks like writing,” says Schwartz, but it was clearly unlike the cuneiform writing typical of the time and place. After considering and rejecting other possibilities – that, for instance, the symbols were from the script used by the Indus Civilisation – Schwartz now argues that the symbols may be early alphabetic letters. He thinks versions of the letters A, L, O and K are present, although it isn’t clear what words the letters might spell out. The discovery has perplexed some researchers of the early alphabet. If the clay fingers are as old as claimed, they would “blow our current theories about the invention of the alphabet clear out of the water”, says Aaron Koller at Yeshiva University, New York.

4-16-21 Neandertal DNA from cave mud shows two waves of migration across Eurasia
Genetic material left behind in sediments could yield troves of data. Neandertal DNA recovered from cave mud reveals that these ancient humans spread across Eurasia in two different waves. Analysis of genetic material from three caves in two countries suggests an early wave of Neandertals about 135,000 years ago may have been replaced by genetically and potentially anatomically distinct successors 30,000 years later, researchers report April 15 in Science. The timing of this later wave suggests potential links to climate and environmental shifts. By extracting genetic material from mud, “we can get human DNA from people who lived in a cave without having to find their remains, and we can learn interesting things about those people from that DNA,” says Benjamin Vernot, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. A few years ago, scientists showed that it’s possible to extract prehistoric human DNA from dirt, which contains genetic material left behind by our ancestors from skin flakes, hair or dried excrement or bodily fluids such as sweat or blood. Genetic analysis of ancient sediments could therefore yield valuable insights on human evolution, given that ancient human fossils with enough DNA suitable for analysis are exceedingly rare (SN: 6/26/19). Until now, the ancient human DNA analyzed from sediments came from mitochondria — the organelles that act as energy factories in our cells — not the chromosomes in cell nuclei, which contain the actual genetic instructions for building and regulating the body. Although chromosomes hold far more information, retrieving samples of this nuclear DNA from caves proved challenging because of its relative scarcity. A human cell often possesses thousands of copies of its mitochondrial genome for every one set of chromosomes, and the vast majority of any DNA found in ancient dirt belongs to other animals and to microbes.

4-15-21 Switching beef for chicken could reduce water footprint of US diets
Simple changes to US diets may help to save water. Five billion people globally could be facing water scarcity by 2050 if we don’t learn to use it more wisely in the face of more severe droughts connected to climate change. But a study focusing on US consumers shows they can help through dietary choices. To examine how our food choices impact water resources, Martin Heller at the University of Michigan and his colleagues studied the diets of 16,800 people in the US. They calculated each person’s impact on water scarcity based on the types of foods they consumed, the irrigation water used in the production of these foods and the water scarcity in the regions where they were farmed. The researchers found that, for the average US diet, beef consumption contributed most to water scarcity. Other foods that tended to require intense water use included almonds, cashews, walnuts, avocado, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. Foods that typically had lower impacts on water resources included chicken, peanuts, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and fresh peas. The findings hint at ways people in industrialised societies could modify their diets to save water, say the researchers. For example, they calculate that swapping 100 grams of beef for chicken could cut the impact on water scarcity of the average US diet by up to 16 per cent, while replacing 100 grams of asparagus with Brussels sprouts could lower it by up to 45 per cent. The important caveat is that the impact of food production on water supplies “can vary dramatically by geographic location”, says Heller. Tomatoes grown in some parts of drought-prone California, for example, require a lot irrigation compared with those grown in Louisiana, where it rains a lot.

4-15-21 Around 2.5 billion Tyrannosaurus rex ever walked the Earth
A total of 2.5 billion Tyrannosaurus rex probably existed during the lifespan of the species, researchers have calculated – suggesting that very few survived as fossils. Charles Marshall at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues used body mass and population density to estimate how many T. rex once lived. Larger animals tend to have a larger individual range, because they need more food to support their body mass than smaller animals, meaning body mass is inversely correlated with population density – a rule known as Damuth’s law. Previous analysis of T. rex fossils shows that the average body mass of an adult was about 5200 kilograms. The team also used climate models and the locations of T. rex remains to estimate that the total geographic range of the species was about 2.3 million square kilometres across North America. Using these figures and data from living species, the team estimated that there was around one T. rex for every 100 square kilometres in North America. “This would mean there was about 20,000 adult T. rex at any given time,” says Marshall. Previous research shows T. rex lived into its late 20s and, using this figure, the team estimates that 2.5 billion T. rex spanning 127,000 generations graced our planet between 69 and 66 million years ago, the lifespan of the species. Estimates of population size for long-extinct animals are rare because there are so few fossils. This estimate for adult T. rex suggests a very low fossil incidence rate – it would mean only one in 80 million T. rex survived as fossilised remains. “This question has been in my head for years,” says Marshall. “I would ask the question every time I held a fossil in my hand.” Marshall and his colleagues acknowledge that their estimates could vary because there are some uncertainties in the data – there could have been anywhere from 140 million to 42 billion individuals over the time period they existed. There are animals with similar body masses that have very different population densities. “For example, spotted hyenas have the same body mass as jaguars, but are about 50 times more densely populated,” says Marshall.

4-15-21 The P.1 coronavirus variant is twice as transmissible as earlier strains
The variant first found in Brazil can evade some immunity from previous infections. The P.1 coronavirus variant first identified in Brazil may be twice as transmissible as earlier strains and may evade up to nearly half of immune defenses built during previous infections, a new study suggests. According to data collected in Manaus, Brazil, P.1 probably arose in mid-November 2020 in the city, researchers report April 14 in Science. The variant quickly rose to prominence there and spread to the rest of Brazil and at least 37 other countries, including the United States. Earlier examinations of the variant’s genetic makeup have shown that P.1 contains many differences from earlier strains, including 10 amino acid changes in the spike protein, which helps the virus infect cells. Three of those spike protein changes are of concern because they are the same mutations that allow other worrisome variants to bind more tightly to human proteins or to evade antibodies (SN: 2/5/21). Simulations of P.1’s properties suggest that the variant is 1.7 to 2.4 times more transmissible than the previous SARS-CoV-2 strain. It is not clear whether that increase in transmissibility is because people produce more of the virus or have longer infections. Some studies have hinted that people who previously had COVID-19 can get infected with P.1. The new study suggests that people who had earlier infections have about 54 percent to 79 percent of the protection against P.1 as they do against other local strains. That partial immunity may leave people vulnerable to reinfection with the variant. Whether the virus makes people sicker or is more deadly than other strains is not clear. The researchers estimate that coronavirus infections were 1.2 to 1.9 times more likely to result in death after P.1 emerged than before. But Manaus’ health care system has been under strain, so the increase in deaths may be due to overburdened hospitals.

4-15-21 Why are so many babies dying of Covid-19 in Brazil?
More than a year into the pandemic, deaths in Brazil are now at their peak. But despite the overwhelming evidence that Covid-19 rarely kills young children, in Brazil 1,300 babies have died from the virus. One doctor refused to test Jessika Ricarte's one-year-old son for Covid, saying his symptoms did not fit the profile of the virus. Two months later he died of complications from the disease. DAfter two years of trying, and failed fertility treatments, teacher Jessika Ricarte had all but given up on having a family. Then she fell pregnant with Lucas. "His name comes from luminous. And he was a light in our life. He showed that happiness was much more than we imagined," she says. She first suspected something was wrong when Lucas, always a good eater, lost his appetite. At first Jessika wondered if he was teething. Lucas's godmother, a nurse, suggested that he might just have a sore throat. But after he developed a fever, then fatigue and slightly laboured breathing, Jessika took him to hospital, and asked for him to be tested for Covid. "The doctor put on the oximeter. Lucas's levels were 86%. Now I know that is not normal," says Jessika. But he was not feverish, so the doctor said: "My dear, don't worry. There's no need for a Covid test. It's probably just a minor sore throat." He told Jessika that Covid-19 was rare in children, gave her some antibiotics and sent her home. Despite her misgivings, there was no option to have Lucas tested privately at the time. Jessika says that some of his symptoms dissipated at the end of his 10-day antibiotics course, but the tiredness remained - as did her concerns about coronavirus. "I sent several videos to his godmother, my parents, my mother-in-law, and everyone said that I was exaggerating, that I should stop watching the news, that it was making me paranoid. But I knew that my son was not himself, that he was not breathing normally."

4-14-21 How to keep your brain healthy: The 7 things you should do every day
Keeping your brain in good shape will not only stave off mental decline, but can also improve your relationships and boost your well-being – and it's never too late to make a difference. ONE sultry afternoon in 1862 in Luxor in Egypt, Edwin Smith was haggling with an antiquities dealer for an unknown papyrus. Though he suspected its importance, Smith couldn’t know it would turn out to be not just the earliest known medical text, at over 4000 years old, but the first ever documented mention of the brain. And what did it say about the most complex entity in the known universe? That it was “cranial offal”, to be unceremoniously trashed during embalming. We have learned rather a lot about the brain since then. Even so, it is only in the past 25 years that learning how best to look after the stuff upstairs has become a major priority for researchers. It is easy to be resigned to the idea that as we get older, our brains wind down, memories decline and reactions slow. But a wealth of new research shows that it is never too late to improve our brain health – a concept that goes way beyond the absence of disease. A long view of how, across some 2 million years, evolution has shaped the function of our brains is revealing new and unexpected ways to keep them healthy for longer. In 2018, an international group of specialists forming the Global Council on Brain Health identified a surprisingly simple test to assess whether your brain is in good shape: whether you function well in daily life. This may even sound overly simplistic, but the group, for which I am a special adviser, found that the brain requires three vital functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, or our ability to think and reason; social cognition, which enables us to interact successfully with others; and emotion regulation, through which we generate our sense of well-being. 1. Go with your gut 2. Watch what you eat 3. Get moving 4. Keep in touch 5. Learn a new skill 6. Stay in rhythm 7. Do what makes you happy 8. Chew it over 9. Sex on the brain

4-14-21 We have overlooked a crucial cause of the world's nutrition crisis
Attempts to tackle undernutition in children around the world often overlook an important part of the puzzle, says Priti Parikh. THE world’s children are in the midst of a nutrition crisis. At least one in three children under 5 globally experiences some form of undernutrition. Not only can this result in them being underweight for their age, it can also lead to stunted growth and affect brain development. But tackling this problem isn’t simply about food and healthy diets. There is an often overlooked piece of the puzzle that is needed to make a difference: sanitation. Figures from the World Health Organization show that around 45 per cent of deaths among children under 5 are linked to undernutrition, with most of these occurring in low and middle-income countries. The pandemic has worsened nutrition crises. Around 55 million children were considered underweight for their height before covid-19 struck, but since then 7 million more have been added to this category. Current global food stocks are higher than previous years, so a food shortage alone is unlikely to be driving this. A few years ago, Robert Chambers and Gregor von Medeazza at the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reviewed 250 papers on links between gaps in water and sanitation services and nutrition, chronic diarrhoea and disease to help understand the picture. They found that undernutrition is higher when families lack sanitation facilities in their own homes – an issue that isn’t limited to low-income households – and concluded that sanitation and hygiene are overlooked in nutrition studies. This also matches a pattern I have seen first hand. My colleagues and I studied nine villages in Rajasthan state in India where half of children under 5 have stunted growth for their age. We observed existing water and sanitation facilities, interviewed families and held group discussions on nutrition and living conditions.

4-14-21 Exploring 'Aquaterra', the drowned continent walked by our ancestors
A continent's worth of land inhabited by ancient people has been submerged by rising seas over the past 20,000 years. Now we're discovering its secrets. BEAUTIFUL corals, graceful sea turtles and 4-metre-long tiger sharks. It is easy to see why tourists flock to the Dampier Archipelago in north-west Australia to dive among the thrilling – if occasionally intimidating – marine life. But these seas contain something that isn’t advertised by tour guides. When Chelsea Wiseman and her colleagues went diving here in 2019, they found stone tools on the seabed. The artefacts were last touched by human hands at least 7000 years ago, before the sea rose, the land drowned and the sharks moved in. “We were ecstatic, just blown away, to find the tools,” says Wiseman, an archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. And with good reason. During the early millennia of human evolution, sea levels were mostly much lower than they are today, with huge areas of what is now submerged coastal shelf inhabited by our ancient relatives. What they were up to in these Stone Age coastal areas has long been a mystery because studying these underwater sites is so hard. With the archaeology of our coastal waters largely unexplored, we are missing a huge piece of human history. Now, however, that is changing. Underwater archaeology like that carried out by Wiseman and her team is already showing us how people lived and thrived along Stone Age coasts. It even suggests that, as the seas rose, people took action to hold them back, in a poignant foreshadowing of today. And as the coasts were a crucial route for Stone Age travellers, studying them is changing our understanding of how and when humans began spreading around the world. Underwater archaeology began in the 19th century. For decades, it mostly involved investigating shipwrecks, and we tended to learn about ancient maritime life. For instance, we found that civilisations that existed around the edges of the Mediterranean Sea 3500 years ago often shipped metals in the right ratios to be smelted into strong alloys like bronze. This focus on wrecks was understandable, says Jonathan Benjamin at Flinders University, who led the work at the Dampier Archipelago as part of a project called the Deep History of Sea Country. Shipwrecks are often easy to find. “I call them the castles of the sea,” he says.

4-14-21 How a return to offices after covid-19 lockdown affects mental health
A RETURN to the workplace can’t come soon enough for some people. Others, however, may be experiencing post-lockdown anxiety, triggered in part by thoughts of sharing indoor space, socialising with other people or commuting on crowded buses or trains. The covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on mental health. A study of more than 53,000 people in the UK that tracked mental health before the pandemic and into the first lockdown showed an immediate increase in mental distress in people aged 16 and older (The Lancet, doi.org/gg5ngp). Despite a slight improvement in anxiety levels over the past year, they are significantly worse than they were before the pandemic, according to the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS). The effect is stronger for people in a lower socio-economic bracket. Medical insurance company Bupa tells New Scientist it has seen twice as many calls to its mental health direct access service as it did two years ago. New stressors arrive as lockdowns end. Anxiety UK polled 900 people and found that of those who were feeling anxious about the lifting of restrictions, 46 per cent cited pressure to socialise as their biggest concern, while 23 per cent were worried about public transport and 20 per cent were anxious about returning to work. About 23 per cent felt that they would be pressured to go back to the office sooner than they would like. But it wouldn’t necessarily be best for our mental health if we continued to work from home, says Peter Smith at the University of Toronto, Canada. Smith and his colleagues studied people working in different environments in Canada in 2020. They found that anxiety and depression were lower for those working remotely than for people still working on site or who had lost their jobs. However, when workplaces had adequate infection control schemes, on-site workers had the lowest prevalence of anxiety (Annals of Work Exposures and Health, doi.org/f58k).

4-14-21 5 steps to make offices as coronavirus-proof as possible
MANY more people in the UK are returning to their workplaces as coronavirus lockdowns ease. Some US companies are also attempting a return: Google is allowing workers to return on a voluntary basis, for instance. More will do so in coming months. Returning safely will involve a mix of strict measures and tailored arrangements to make employees feel safe and happy. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all problem,” says Michael Tildesley at the University of Warwick, UK. From 12 April, many premises in England were allowed to reopen, including all shops, hairdressers and libraries. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has argued that most people will return to their workplaces full-time and that there won’t be a permanent shift towards working from home. With more than 11,000 covid-19 cases in the UK in the past week, there are risks associated with going back to the workplace. It may not cause many additional deaths – because almost half of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, including the majority of those who are most vulnerable – but it will raise the number of cases. That increase has two consequences. First, 1 in 10 infected people seem to develop long covid, which can include exhaustion and concentration problems. Second, more cases means more opportunities for the virus to mutate to become more dangerous. The risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19, needs to be reduced as much as possible in the workplace, says Lisa Lee at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The key to this is to follow an established risk management strategy called the Hierarchy of Controls, says Catherine Noakes at the University of Leeds, UK. This involves doing the most effective things first, and only using less effective strategies as a fallback.

4-14-21 STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large
Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented while it varies widely by field for women. Efforts to promote equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math have a long way to go, a new report suggests. Over the last year, widespread protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people have sparked calls for racial justice in STEM. Social media movements such as #BlackinSTEM have drawn attention to discrimination faced by Black students and professionals, and the Strike for Black Lives challenged the scientific community to build a more just, antiracist research environment (SN: 12/16/20). An analysis released in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how wide the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in STEM representation are. “This has been an ongoing conversation in the science community” for decades, says Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Because the most recent data come from 2019, Pew’s snapshot of STEM cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity and inclusion may have moved the needle. But here are four big takeaways from existing STEM representation data: From 2017 to 2019, Black professionals made up only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States — lower than their 11 percent share of the overall U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even larger for Hispanic professionals, who made up only 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they made up 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. White and Asian professionals, meanwhile, remain overrepresented in STEM. Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, skew particularly white. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds do not necessarily boast more supportive environments, notes Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., not involved in the research.

4-14-21 Surprisingly, humans recognize joyful screams faster than fearful screams
It’s a twist to a long-held idea that our brains are wired to quickly detect threats first. Screams of joy appear to be easier for our brains to comprehend than screams of fear, a new study suggests. The results add a surprising new layer to scientists’ long-held notion that our brains are wired to quickly recognize and respond to fearful screams as a survival mechanism (SN: 7/16/15). The study looked at different scream types and how listeners perceive them. For example, the team asked participants to imagine “you are being attacked by an armed stranger in a dark alley” and scream in fear and to imagine “your favorite team wins the World Cup” and scream in joy. Each of the 12 participants produced seven different types of screams: six emotional screams (pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness, and joy) and one neutral scream where the volunteer just loudly yelled the ‘a’ vowel. Separate sets of study participants were then tasked with classifying and distinguishing between the different scream types. In one task, 33 volunteers were asked to listen to screams and given three seconds to categorize them into one of the seven different screams. In another task, 35 different volunteers were presented with two screams, one at a time, and were asked to categorize the screams as quickly as possible while still trying to make an accurate decision about what type of scream it was, either alarming screams of pain, anger or fear or non-alarming screams of pleasure, sadness or joy. It took longer for participants to complete the task when it involved fear and other alarming screams, and those screams were not as easily recognizable as non-alarming screams like joy, the researchers report online April 13 in PLOS Biology. In another experiment, 30 different volunteers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while listening to the screams. Less-alarming screams elicited more activity in the auditory and frontal brain regions than more-alarming screams, the team found, though why we respond that way isn’t yet clear.

4-14-21 A coronavirus epidemic may have hit East Asia about 25,000 years ago
Descendants of the outbreak may have inherited some DNA that affects their response to COVID-19. An ancient coronavirus, or a closely related pathogen, triggered an epidemic among ancestors of present-day East Asians roughly 25,000 years ago, a new study indicates. Analysis of DNA from more than 2,000 people shows that genetic changes in response to that persistent epidemic accumulated over the next 20,000 years or so, David Enard, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, reported April 8 at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. The finding raises the possibility that some East Asians today have inherited biological adaptations to coronaviruses or closely related viruses. The discovery opens the way to exploring how genes linked to ancient viral epidemics may contribute to modern disease outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Genes with ancient viral histories might also provide clues to researchers searching for better antiviral drugs, although that remains to be demonstrated. Enard’s group consulted a publicly available DNA database of 2,504 individuals from 26 ethnic populations on five continents, including Chinese Dai, Vietnamese Kinh and African Yoruba people. The team first focused on 420 proteins known to interact with coronaviruses, including 332 that interact with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These interactions could range from boosting immune responses to making it easier for a virus to hijack a cell. Substantially increased production of all 420 proteins, a sign of past exposures to coronavirus-like epidemics, appeared only in East Asians. Enard’s group traced the viral responses of 42 of those proteins back to roughly 25,000 years ago. An analysis of the genes known to orchestrate production of those proteins determined that specific variants became more common around 25,000 years ago before leveling off in frequency by around 5,000 years ago. That pattern is consistent with an initially vigorous genetic response to a virus that waned over time, either as East Asians adapted to the virus or as the virus lost its ability to cause disease, Enard said. Twenty-one of the 42 gene variants act either to enhance or deter the effects of a wide array of viruses, not just coronaviruses, suggesting that an unknown virus that happened to exploit similar proteins as coronaviruses could have instigated the ancient epidemic, Enard said.

4-14-21 ‘First Steps’ shows how bipedalism led humans down a strange evolutionary path
A new book argues that upright walking had profound effects on human anatomy and behavior. No other animal moves the way we do. That’s awfully strange. Even among other two-legged species, none amble about with a straight back and a gait that, technically, is just a form of controlled falling. Our bipedalism doesn’t just set us apart, paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva posits; it’s what makes us human. There’s no shortage of books that propose this or that feature — tool use or self-awareness, for example — as the very definition of humankind. But much of our supposed uniqueness doesn’t stand up to this tradition. In First Steps, DeSilva takes a slightly different approach. Our way of walking, he argues, set off an array of consequences that inform our peculiar evolutionary history. DeSilva starts his tour through the annals of bipedalism with other upright organisms. Tyrannosaurus and ancient crocodile relatives are trotted out to show how they moved on two legs, thanks to long, counterbalancing tails (SN: 6/12/20). DeSilva stumbles a little here, like arguing that “bipedalism was not a successful locomotion for many dinosaur lineages.” An entire group — the theropods — walked on two legs and still do in their avian guises. But the comparison with dinosaurs is still worthwhile. With no tail, the way we walk is even stranger. “Let’s face it,” DeSilva writes, “humans are weird.” Each following chapter gets more surefooted as DeSilva guides readers through what we’ve come to know about how our ancestors came to be bipedal. This is breezy popular science at its best, interweaving anecdotes from the field and lab with scientific findings and the occasional pop culture reference. DeSilva gets extra credit for naming oft-overlooked experts who made key discoveries.

4-14-21 ‘Monkeydactyl’ may be the oldest known creature with opposable thumbs
The winged reptile’s dexterity may have helped it climb trees during the age of dinosaurs. Future Jurassic Park films could feature one weird new beast in the menagerie: a pterosaur nicknamed Monkeydactyl for its opposable thumbs. This flying reptile from the Jurassic Period may be the earliest known animal that could touch the insides of its thumbs to the insides of its other fingers, researchers report online April 12 in Current Biology. Such dexterity probably allowed Monkeydactyl to climb trees about 160 million years ago, perhaps to feed on insects and other prey that nonclimbing pterosaurs did not, the researchers say (SN: 12/21/18). The latter half of the creature’s official name, Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, comes from the words “opposite” and “thumb” in ancient Greek. Monkeydactyl’s fossilized remains, unearthed in northeastern China in 2019, are embedded in rock. So the team used micro-CT scanning to create a 3-D rendering of the fossil. “With this detail, we’re able to look at the fossil from any angle, and make sure that the bones are in their right [original] place,” says study coauthor Rodrigo Pêgas, a paleontologist at the Federal University of ABC in São Bernardo, Brazil. Those scans helped confirm that the skeleton had a well-preserved opposable thumb on each hand. “Almost all of the modern animals that have opposable thumbs use them to climb trees,” Pêgas says, including primates and some tree frogs. That evidence, along with the apparent flexibility of Monkeydactyl’s joints, suggests this species was well suited to clambering through tree branches.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

4-20-21 Redonda: The Caribbean island transformed into an eco haven
There are no resorts, no beaches, no amenities, and its contribution to the national GDP is practically zero. Yet the mile-long rocky isle of Redonda in the Caribbean Sea is deemed one of the most valuable spots in the region. Virtually untouched by humans for centuries, Antigua and Barbuda's lesser known third island has long been a key nesting site for migrating birds from across the world and home to wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. When environmentalists first touted the idea of entirely removing thousands of invasive black rats and a herd of feral goats threatening this wildlife, it seemed ambitious at best. Fast forward five years and uninhabited Redonda's once barren terrain is today a fertile eco haven, teeming with fresh new vegetation while populations of birds and endemic lizards have soared. Work began in 2016 but the project's real success was only revealed recently when conservationists made their first trip back in 18 months. "It was such a stark contrast from the first time I saw Redonda in 2016 when it was literally crumbling into the sea," she recalls. "As the helicopter got closer, I could see all these little circles of green and I realised they were brand new trees and shrubs. Not only has the vegetation recovered, it's thriving." Prior to their relocation, the long-horned goats introduced by early colonists 300 years ago had steadily eaten almost all of Redonda's plants to the extent they were starving to death. The rodents, which arrived with a 19th Century guano mining community, were preying on reptiles and eating rare birds' eggs. Removing both species was not without its challenges. The timid goats, unused to human contact, were corralled and flown by helicopter to farmers on the mainland keen to breed them for their drought-hardy genes. Eradicating the rats involved painstakingly laying bait in nooks and crannies across the landscape, flavoured with everything from peanut butter to chocolate "to make sure we got the picky ones", Ms Challenger explains. The bait was laced with a pesticide irresistible to rats but unpalatable to birds and reptiles. (Webmaster's comment: This is wonderful but the island is less than one square mile in area.)

4-19-21 Lucy the Human Chimp review: The ape that was raised like a human
So much is known, now, about our similarities to other primates, it is easy to forget that it was relatively recently that we were still establishing exactly where we humans ended – and they began. Through the 20th century, the study of chimpanzees in particular was a way to learn about ourselves: how we might fare in space, for example, and how we might communicate in the absence of a common tongue. Lucy The Human Chimp, a new television documentary from HBO and Channel 4, explores the meeting of those worlds through the story of one unique relationship: that between Lucy, a chimpanzee raised as a human, and Janis Carter, a graduate student hired to clean her cage. Through the late 1960s, Lucy was the subject of a high-profile study by psychologists Maurice and Jane Temerlin, ostensibly to explore the limits of nature versus nurture. The Temerlins brought Lucy up in their home more or less as though she was a human child, to the point of teaching her to dress herself, eat with silverware and even fix a gin and tonic. Primatologist Roger Fouts, whose success teaching a chimp named Washoe a form of American sign language was heavily publicised in 1970, likewise taught Lucy a vocabulary of 100 signs (though the extent of apes’ comprehension of signing remains disputed). Eventually the Temerlins came to regard the chimp as their daughter. Much has been made of Lucy’s story, including an episode of the acclaimed Radiolab podcast and the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (for which author Karen Joy Fowler said she drew from Maurice Temerlin’s “very disturbing” book Lucy: Growing Up Human). Lucy The Human Chimp, written and directed by Alex Parkinson, puts forward Carter, now 70, to share what happened next. Carter had been a 25-year-old psychology student within the University of Oklahoma’s chimp research project when, in 1976, she answered the Temerlins’ advertisement for a part-time carer for Lucy. After a frosty start – Carter remembers the chimp as “arrogant, and very condescending” about her poor comprehension of sign language – the two forged a close bond. But the adolescent chimp increasingly posed a threat to her human family, and was confined to a cage.

4-15-21 Heat overrides genes to make bearded dragon embryos change sex
Some lizards that begin developing as males will actually hatch as females if the egg is particularly warm – and now we know why. The heat triggers genes that override chromosomal sex determination. In the 1960s, French scientists discovered that reptiles in Senegal would hatch as females when temperatures rose much above about 30°C. Since then, researchers have noted that the sex of many reptiles and some fish actually depends entirely on the temperature during their development. In a few animals, like the central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) of Australia, sex determination depends on both genetics and temperature. Males have two identical sex chromosomes – ZZ – and females have two different sex chromosomes – ZW. But male embryos will develop as females if the egg is warm enough. This means females may develop in one of two ways, but the mechanisms behind this phenomenon have eluded scientists for more than half a century. To explore the mystery, Sarah Whiteley at the University of Canberra in Australia and her colleagues ran genetic sequencing on unhatched bearded dragons incubated either at 28°C – cool enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as males – or at 36°C – warm enough for ZZ embryos to hatch as females. For the eggs at 36°C, the researchers found that ZW female embryos had “dramatically” different active genes during the major stages of sex development, compared with ZZ females, demonstrating there are two distinct sets of genes that can make a central bearded dragon female. In the ZZ females, the genes that “wanted” to code for male development were forcibly switched off, and those for female development were switched on. “The sex chromosomes in the dragon are… more recently developed – on an evolutionary timescale – compared to [human] sex chromosomes,” Whiteley says. “So sex reversal might be a relic of temperature sensitivity [alone].”

4-14-21 Wasps with no social life may find it harder to recognise others
Paper wasps that live alone don’t see as much development of a part of their brain that seems to be important for facial recognition. The discovery shows how vital the social environment can be to brain development, even in biologically simple animals like insects. Northern paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) usually live in groups of around a dozen, though these sometimes comprise up to 100 individuals. Group members all share umbrella-shaped nests, often built beneath roof hangings. The wasps can live their entire adult lives alone, but they rarely do. Within their social groups, these insects recognise that all nest-mates share the same odour – but they also learn to identify individual group members by the unique colour patterns on their faces. “These wasps use facial recognition to basically know who’s who and maintain hierarchies, similar to what we see in many primate systems,” says Christopher Jernigan at Cornell University, New York. “It’s really incredible.” To understand how the paper wasps are able to recognise the unique colour patterns on other individuals’ faces, Jernigan and his colleagues gathered several cocoon-filled nests from the natural environment and placed them in clear plastic containers in their laboratory. As soon as the new adults chewed their way out of their silk cocoons – and could see for the first time – the researchers isolated some in a separate container, while leaving others in their nests to lead a social life. They provided all of the wasps with plenty of coloured paper, which stimulates their brains. When the wasps were between 58 and 71 days old, the researchers analysed their brains under a microscope, comparing them with each other and with the brains of newly hatched wasps. They found that, even though the wasps’ bodies didn’t grow after emerging from their cocoons, their brains had increased by about 13 per cent in size during those first two months of adulthood.