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ATHEISM and HUMANISM

10-23-20 Presidential debate: Trump and Biden row over Covid, climate and racism
US President Donald Trump and his White House challenger Joe Biden clashed over Covid and race while trading corruption charges, in their final live TV debate. On the pandemic, Mr Biden would not rule out more lockdowns, while Mr Trump insisted it was time to reopen the US. Mr Trump cited unsubstantiated claims Mr Biden personally profited from his son's business dealings. The Democrat brought up Mr Trump's opaque taxes. Mr Biden has a solid lead with 11 days to go until the presidential election. But winning the most votes does not always win the election, and the margin is narrower in a handful of states that could decide the race either way. More than 47 million people have already cast their ballots in a voting surge driven by the pandemic. This is already more than voted before polling day in the 2016 election. There are about 230 million eligible voters in total. In snap polls - from CNN, Data Progress and US Politics - most respondents said Mr Biden had won the debate by a margin of more than 50% to about 40%. Thursday night's primetime duel in Nashville, Tennessee, was a less acrimonious and more substantive affair than the pair's previous showdown on 29 September, which devolved into insults and name-calling. Following that political brawl, debate organisers this time muted microphones during the candidates' opening statements on each topic to minimise disruption. But the 90-minute debate, moderated by NBC's Kristen Welker, was the scene of plenty of personal attacks between the opponents, whose mutual dislike was palpable. In individual closing argument to voters, they offered starkly different visions for the nation on everything from shutting down the country to tackle coronavirus, to shutting down the fossil fuel industry to confront climate change.

10-23-20 Trump loses on the merits
His antics didn't overshadow his message, and his message is a bad one. The conventional wisdom heading into the final presidential debate was that all President Trump needed to do was remain calm and act like a passing human being to regain his footing in his now long-shot bid to retain control of the White House. He managed not to lose his cool every five seconds, but, unfortunately for him, he still lost the debate to former Vice President Joe Biden decisively. That's because the modern Republican Party's policy positions are politically disastrous and virtually indefensible, even when they're outlined semi-coherently. Trump entered Thursday's debate trailing Biden by nearly 10 points in the Five Thirty Eight polling average, and hasn't been within 8 points since before he was hospitalized with COVID-19 on October 3rd. If today's numbers hold for another week and a half, the president will go down to the worst defeat in American politics in 36 years and likely take the GOP's Senate majority with him. His performance in the first debate with Biden on September 29th was such a horror show of emotional incontinence, relentless sociopathy, and repellant hubris that it terrified the audience and triggered an unprecedented weeks-long decline in his polling numbers. The president could have stanched the bleeding a week ago by participating in the October 15th virtual forum arranged by the Commission on Presidential Debates to protect against the White House team's homicidal disregard for social distancing and masking practices in the fight against COVID-19. Instead, the president threw a messy tantrum, claiming a virtual debate was unworkable even though hundreds of millions of Americans have been doing their jobs over Zoom and Slack and Google Hangouts for half a year. Is there an adult alive today in this country who hasn't been forced to produce miracles on a video conference? Why does the president think he's too good for technology that has literally kept the whole economy from imploding? We'll never get a firm answer to that one. All we know is that for weeks before this showdown, Trump's advisers pleaded with him to act less like a logorrheic basket case in an ill-fitting skin suit and more like a human being with some kind of minimal understanding of decency. The big question asked in media circles was whether he could pull of this kind of sudden transformation. The prevailing consensus was: probably not. In a way, he defied those low expectations. He kept his yap latched during most of Biden's time and, most unexpectedly, didn't directly assail moderator Kristen Welker as an Enemy of the People or the proceedings as a Deep State Hoax. Unlike in the first debate, his antics didn't constantly overshadow his message. In the end, though, it turned out that Trump's message isn't actually much more appealing than his worst behavioral shenanigans. Given the opportunity to ramble at length without the obligation to incessantly interrupt Biden, Trump managed to repeatedly hang himself with his own words. His first mistake was to lean into his disastrous rhetoric about "Democrat" states, cities, and politicians. "His Democrat governors, Cuomo in New York, you look at what's going on in California, you look at Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Democrats, Democrats all," he ranted, just minutes into the debate. "They're shut down so tight and they're dying." He called New York City "a ghost town." This repulsive, brain-dead hyper-partisanship granted Biden an incredibly easy layup: "And I don't look at this in terms of the way he does, blue states and red states. They're all the United States."

10-23-20 Coronavirus: France puts 46 million under night curfew
The French government is imposing a curfew on two-thirds of the country - 46 million people - from Friday night for six weeks, after a record 41,622 new coronavirus infections in one day. The total infected in the epidemic has now passed one million. In Europe, only Spain and Russia have reached that. A week ago night curfews were introduced in Paris and eight other French cities. Now 38 more areas will have curfews from 21:00 to 06:00. Most of Europe has rising infections. Slovakia is to impose a partial lockdown for a week from Saturday, allowing only travel to work, shopping for essentials and school for younger children. New lockdowns have come into force in the Czech Republic and Republic of Ireland. There are also high infection rates in Belgium, Spain and Italy, putting many hospitals under severe pressure. Italy's Lazio and Campania regions begin night curfews on Friday, a day after one took effect in Lombardy in the north. The wider French curfew comes into effect at midnight (22:00 GMT) on Friday, then at 21:00 from Saturday onwards. It has drawn complaints from restaurant and bar owners, whose businesses are already suffering after the two-month lockdown in the spring. In several regions of France, more than half the intensive care beds are now occupied by Covid-19 patients. Over the past 24 hours France recorded 162 more deaths. A new French app called "#TousAntiCovid" has been launched, to replace the previous one "#StopCovid" that was downloaded by only 2.7 million people - far below the take-up of similar anti-Covid apps in the UK and Germany. #TousAntiCovid is a smartphone tracing tool with more local information than the previous app. French Prime Minister Jean Castex said "circulation of the virus has today reached a very high level" - 251 infections per 100,000 people in the past week. He said that was a 40% increase in one week and the reproduction (R) rate was around 1.35, "which basically means a doubling of the number of cases every two weeks". The R rate measures how many others each infected person is passing the virus on to.

10-22-20 Covid-19 news: England tracing system hits new low for contacts traced
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. NHS Test and Trace reaches lowest ever percentage of the contacts of virus cases. People from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups in England are at an increased risk of getting infected with the coronavirus and dying from covid-19, and part of this excess risk remains unexplained, according to a report released today by the UK government’s Race Disparity Unit. The report says “current evidence clearly shows that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors such as occupational exposure, population density, household composition and pre-existing health conditions contribute to the higher infection and mortality rates for ethnic minority groups” but don’t account for all of the increased risk. In response, Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association council chair, called for “tangible action right now” to protect Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. “As we sit amid a second wave of infections, we know that about a third of those admitted to intensive care are not white – showing no change since the first peak,” said Nagpaul in a statement. “Meanwhile, Black and Asian people have been found twice as likely to be infected compared to white people.” The report suggested measures to help investigate the disparity in England, which the UK government has accepted, including making the recording of ethnicity on death certificates mandatory. In a trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine, a participant who reportedly did not receive the vaccine but instead got a placebo has died. The individual was taking part in a trial in Brazil of a vaccine candidate being developed by AstraZeneca in partnership with the University of Oxford. In a statement, AstraZeneca said “all required review processes have been followed”, adding that “assessments have not led to any concerns about continuation of the ongoing study”. The phase 3 trial was paused in September after a participant in the UK became ill. Trials have since resumed in the UK, Brazil, South Africa and India, although they remain suspended in the US.

10-22-20 US Election 2020: Trump and Obama mock each other in rival rallies
US President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, have directed blistering attacks at each other during rival rallies. Campaigning for Democratic White House nominee Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Mr Obama likened Mr Trump to a "crazy uncle" and said he emboldened racists. In North Carolina, the Republican president mocked Mr Obama for being wrong about the 2016 election outcome. With 13 days to go until this election, Mr Biden holds a solid lead nationally. But the margin is slimmer in the handful of US states that could go either way and ultimately decide the outcome on 3 November. Americans are voting early at a record pace this year, with 42 million having already cast ballots both by post and in person. Mr Trump trained most of his fire during his rally in Gastonia on Wednesday evening on his current Democratic challenger for the White House. He said the choice for voters was between a "Trump super-recovery" or a "Biden steep depression". Mr Biden has been off the campaign trail all week preparing for the final presidential debate on Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee, while Mr Trump holds rallies across the battleground states. The president could not resist taking a pop at Mr Obama, who hit the campaign trail in person about an hour earlier for the first time since the August political conventions. "There was nobody that campaigned harder for crooked Hillary Clinton than Obama, right?" Mr Trump told supporters, who booed at the mention of his old adversaries' names. "He was all over the place." The president added: "I think the only one more unhappy than crooked Hillary that night was Barack Hussein Obama." Mr Trump also mocked Mr Obama's reported initial lack of enthusiasm for the White House bid of Mr Biden, who was his vice-president from 2009-2017. In 2016, Mr Obama reportedly pressured Mr Biden to sit out the race and allow Hillary Clinton to run, believing she had the better chance of defeating Mr Trump. Last year Mr Obama said there was a need for "new blood" in the Democratic leadership, which was widely interpreted as a slight against Mr Biden.

10-22-20 Biden: Supreme Court should not be 'political football'
Joe Biden has told CBS 60 Minutes that he will appoint commission to review the US court system. The former vice-president and current Democratic presidential candidate said that he would put together a bipartisan group of scholars to come up with recommendations. Mr Biden has come under pressure to explain whether he will engage in "court-packing" - adding more justices to the Supreme Court - after President Donald Trump nominated three conservatives during his term, tilting the balance in their favour.

10-22-20 The double-edged sword of Pope Francis' same-sex union comments
Civil unions are not equality. In a new documentary that premiered in Rome this week, Pope Francis expressed his support for the creation of civil unions for same-sex couples. Such relationships, Francis said, should be "legally covered." "Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family," the pontiff declared. Immediately, Francis' words were hailed by many as a remarkable breakthrough for the world's largest religious organization. Understandably so. In the darkness that is 2020, the news that one of the world's most important religious figures has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples will strike many as a rare bright moment in these very bleak times. While Francis' words seem to diverge from official church teaching that regards homosexual physical relations as "disordered" and forbids same-sex relationships, legal or otherwise, they are in keeping with his prior efforts and statements on behalf of LGBTQ persons. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis, then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, worked behind the scenes to indicate his support for civil unions when Argentinian lawmakers were debating legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010. As Pope, Francis has been more outspoken, famously saying shortly after his installation, "who am I to judge" when it came to gay Catholics' relationship with God. Elsewhere, he has called LGBTQ young persons "children of God" and has signaled his support for priests who work on outreach to LGBTQ Catholics, something that has earned him harsh criticism from conservative Catholics. Yet the Pope's call for same-sex civil unions should not be seen as an unabashed sign of progress. Instead, the overall effect of Francis' words may be more harmful than helpful, doing more to embolden those who seek to rescind established LGBTQ rights than they do to empower those fighting for basic civil protections for LGBTQ folks, including marriage. No doubt, Pope Francis' statement might be very useful for changing attitudes, if not laws, in much of the world where same-sex marriage has not been legalized. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, only 28 of the world's nearly 200 countries permit same-sex marriage. In many of the countries where not only same-sex marriage remains illegal but much of homosexual life is criminalized, including most of Africa, the Catholic Church holds tremendous influence. Francis' position likely won't lead to the creation of civil unions in most of these countries — and his stance is sure to be resisted by church leaders throughout the world, including the United States — but they could help soften support for the broad array of draconian laws and customs that seriously harm LGBTQ persons in their daily lives. In other parts of the world, especially Muslim countries, the endorsement of civil unions by the head of the Catholic Church could only further entrench opposition to LGBTQ rights there. Rather than a respected religious leader promoting tolerance, Pope Francis might be cast by religious conservatives as yet another example of the degeneracy of "the West," an embodiment of the heresy that righteous nations must resist.

10-22-20 James Randi: Magician and sceptic dies aged 92
One of the best known magicians in the entertainment industry, James Randi, famous for exposing claimants of the paranormal, has died in the US aged 92. Known by just his surname, Canadian-born Randi earned a reputation as one of the world's foremost sceptics of matters from ghosts to UFOs. His performances inspired legions of admirers, including the likes of TV and stage illusionists Penn & Teller. Randall James Zwinge was born in Toronto, Canada in 1928. His career as a magician saw him escape from a straightjacket while hanging upside down over Niagara Falls. He also joined rock star Alice Cooper on tour in the early 1970s, carrying out fake executions of the singer on stage. But Randi always reminded his audiences that his acts were based on tricks and not magic, and soon turned his attention to debunking claims by others who claimed paranormal powers. In 1972, he helped the US network NBC's Tonight Show prepare for an appearance by Uri Geller, the illusionist best known for bending spoons. With neither Geller nor his team able to access the props in advance, the magician failed to carry out any tricks - although the attention from Randi and other sceptics did nothing to harm his career. Randi also exposed faith healers, including televangelist Peter Popoff, who claimed to be receiving messages from God about his audience but was actually wearing an earpiece. The magician's own foundation went on to offer an award of $1m (£750,000) to anyone who could prove paranormal powers under controlled conditions. However, by the time of Randi's retirement from the foundation in 2015, the amount had still not been claimed.Randi is survived by his husband Deyvi Peña, whom he married in 2013.

10-21-20 Covid-19 news: Sheffield and Doncaster set for tier 3 restrictions
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. South Yorkshire becomes latest region of England to face strictest virus rules. Scotland is expected to move to a tiered system of coronavirus restrictions on 2 November. Restrictions on hospitality venues in Scotland were today extended for another week after bars and restaurants in Scotland’s central belt area were closed on 9 October. Venues in other parts of the country are not allowed to serve alcohol indoors. The UK as a whole recorded 26,688 new coronavirus cases today, a new daily record. New Zealand recorded 25 new coronavirus cases today, its biggest daily count since April. Two of the recent infections were locally acquired and the remainder were discovered at the New Zealand border, including 18 among Russian and Ukranian fishing crews who had arrived on a flight from Moscow. New Zealand has been widely praised for its aggressive response to the coronavirus, which is aimed at eliminating the virus from the country entirely. Lockdowns have been reintroduced in regions of Spain and Italy, and Ireland will today become the first European country to return to a full, national coronavirus lockdown. Ireland is currently recording 270.8 virus cases per 100,000 people, compared to 348.7 per 100,000 people in the UK, according to the latest figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

10-21-20 US election 2020: Why it can be hard to vote in the US
A fierce battle over who should vote and how has sparked hundreds of lawsuits and prompted accusations of voter suppression. So what are the barriers to voting and why do they exist? Images of the long queues of early voters were both celebrated as a sign of enthusiasm and criticised as evidence of a creaking electoral system. Queues, restrictive voting laws and limited access to polling stations all keep people from participating in the democratic process, says Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, a non-partisan non-profit that aims to use technology to help people register to vote. Some of those obstacles have been amplified by the pandemic, which has led to a nationwide shortage of poll workers and fewer in-person polling stations. "People are having to jump through an extra series of hoops just to participate," Ms Hailey warned. In response to the obvious risks in getting large numbers of people to polling stations this year, many states eased up on voting restrictions. This meant more Americans can vote early, in person or by mail, than ever before. But not everyone is on board. There are currently over 300 lawsuits in 44 states concerning how absentee votes are counted, who is allowed to vote early and how mail-in ballots are collected. Republican-run states say restrictions are necessary to clamp down on voter fraud, while Democrats say these are attempts to keep people from exercising their civic rights. So what are the challenges facing people trying to vote? In Georgia, thousands of voters waited hours just to cast their ballot during early voting. Many attribute the long wait to voter enthusiasm, but other factors - like a limited number of polls, understaffing or computer glitches - have also been blamed. It's not known how many people are put off from voting because of the queues. But it's clear who it inconveniences more. A survey conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that black voters waited, on average, 16 minutes in line during the 2016 election, while white voters only waited 10 minutes. Other studies backed that up. And long queues disproportionately affect wage workers, who don't get paid time off to vote.

10-21-20 Trump maintains bank account in China, says NY Times
US President Donald Trump has a Chinese bank account and spent years pursuing business projects in the country, the New York Times has reported. The account is controlled by Trump International Hotels Management and paid local taxes between 2013 and 2015. It was set up "to explore the potential for hotel deals in Asia", according to a Trump spokesman. Mr Trump has been critical of US firms doing business in China and sparked a trade war between the two countries. The NY Times revealed the account after obtaining Mr Trump's tax records, which included both personal and company financial details. The newspaper's previous reports show he paid $750 (£580) in US federal taxes in 2016 and 2017, when he became president. The Chinese bank account has paid out $188,561 in local taxes. Mr Trump has been critical of presidential candidate rival Joe Biden and his policies towards China in the lead-up to the US election, taking place on 3 November. The Trump administration has singled out Mr Biden's son Hunter and made unsubstantiated claims about his dealings with China. Joe Biden's income tax returns and public financial disclosures show no business dealings connected to China. Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organisation, described the NY Times story as "pure speculation" and said that it made "incorrect assumptions". He told the paper that Trump International Hotels Management had "opened an account with a Chinese bank having offices in the United States in order to pay the local taxes". "No deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialised and, since 2015, the office has remained inactive," Mr Garten said. "Though the bank account remains open, it has never been used for any other purpose," he told the NY Times. The US president has multiple business interests both in the US and overseas. These include golf courses in Scotland and Ireland and a chain of five-star luxury hotels. The NY Times reported that Mr Trump maintains foreign bank accounts in China, Britain and Ireland.

10-21-20 Obama to stump for Biden as Trump quits interview
There are now just 13 days to the US election on 3 November. President Trump trails Joe Biden in most national polls Former US President Barack Obama is making his first personal appearance on the campaign trail, stumping for Biden. On Tuesday evening, President Trump cut short a CBS "60 Minutes" interview and tweeted against the journalist Lesley Stahl. The New York Times reports that Trump has a Chinese bank account and spent years pursuing business projects in the country. The US president has been critical of US firms doing business in China and sparked a trade war between the two countries. Joe Biden is off the campaign trail today preparing for Thursday’s last presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee. President Trump will attend a rally in Gastonia, North Carolina.

10-21-20 Breonna Taylor: Grand jury 'not given chance to bring homicide charges'
A Kentucky grand juror has said the jury was not given the opportunity to consider homicide charges in the killing of Breonna Taylor by police. Ms Taylor, a 26-year-old black hospital worker, was shot six times when police forced their way into her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, on 13 March. Last month the jury recommended no homicide charges against the officers. The anonymous juror was permitted to release the statement by a judge who ruled it was in the public interest. In the statement, they said the state's attorney general only presented to the grand jury - a panel drawn from members of the public to determine whether there is enough evidence to pursue a prosecution - wanton endangerment charges to be considered against one officer. On 23 September, the jury charged one officer, Brett Hankison - not with Ms Taylor's death but with wanton endangerment for firing into a neighbour's apartment. Two other officers who were involved have not been charged. The ruling reignited Black Lives Matter protests in Louisville against police misconduct and racial inequality. After the juror's statement was released, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron tweeted that he stood by his department's work, and would not be appealing against the judge's ruling. "Indictments obtained in the absence of sufficient proof under the law do not stand up and are not fundamentally fair to anyone," he said. In response Ben Crump, the lawyer representing Ms Taylor's family, accused Mr Cameron of misrepresenting facts to the jury. He called for an independent prosecutor to hold new hearings, and to "do the work AG Cameron failed to do and seek justice for Breonna Taylor". Ms Taylor's family sued the Kentucky city for the death in May and reached a $12m (£9.4m) settlement. The killing of Ms Taylor has resonated around the world this year, with protesters calling on the public to "say her name".

10-20-20 Covid-19 news: UK government imposes tier three rules in Manchester
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. UK government imposes tier three virus rules in Greater Manchester despite local disagreement To break the chains of coronavirus transmission in Europe, countries need to systematically quarantine people who have been in contact with those testing positive for coronavirus, said Mike Ryan, World Health Organization (WHO) director of health emergencies, at a virtual press briefing yesterday. “About half of our member states within the European region have experienced a 50 per cent increase in cases in the last week,” said Ryan. “If I was asked for one thing […] that might change the game here, that is: making sure that each and every contact of a confirmed case is in quarantine for the appropriate period of time, so as to break chains of transmission.” The WHO recommends that all contacts of people with confirmed or probable covid-19 be quarantined in a designated facility or at home for 14 days from their last exposure. “I do not believe that has occurred systematically anywhere, and particularly in countries that are experiencing large increases now,” said Ryan. The UK recorded 21,331 coronavirus cases today, up from 18,804 yesterday, according to official figures. There were also 241 deaths from covid-19 – the highest daily figure recorded since 258 deaths were recorded on 5 June. Deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan van Tam, said during a press briefing today that he expects the upwards trend in deaths to continue. Researchers in the UK announced plans to infect volunteers with the coronavirus as part of a “challenge trial” starting in January, although the study has not yet received final ethical approval. The initial aim of the trial will be to establish the minimum infectious dose before testing potential vaccines.

10-20-20 Coronavirus: New Covid-19 cases rising rapidly across US
New coronavirus infections are growing rapidly across the US, experts say, with new hospital admissions also increasing around the country. Nearly 70,000 new cases were recorded on Friday - the highest number of new infections seen in one day since July. Cases have been trending upward for 48 states over the past week. Only two states, Missouri and Vermont, are recording numbers that are improving. Dealing with the pandemic has continued to be a central issue in the US election. Despite the uptick in infections - and recovering from Covid himself earlier this month - President Donald Trump is still traveling the country for large in-person campaign rallies. At an outdoor event in Nevada on Sunday, Mr Trump said his Democratic opponent Joe Biden "will surrender your future to the virus". "This guy wants to lockdown. He'll listen to the scientists," he said. "If I listened totally to the scientists, we would right now have a country that would be in a massive depression." Many of Mr Trump's supporters do not wear masks or practice social distancing at the rallies, and there have been warnings against large gatherings from local health officials. A Biden spokesman called Mr Trump's remarks "the polar opposite of reality" and blamed the country's recession on the president. On Monday, Mr Trump denounced top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci as "a disaster" and claimed that more people would have died if he had listened to the respected researcher. Dr Fauci told CBS News earlier that he was not surprised the president had caught coronavirus, given his reluctance to practice safe techniques. "Fauci's a disaster," the president said in a campaign phone call that was overheard by reporters. "He's been here for 500 years," he said, adding: "People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots." Mr Trump, who has reportedly had a tense relationship with Dr Fauci since March, called him "a nice guy", but said he would have fired him if not for the negative press that would result.

10-20-20 US election 2020: Trump and Biden feud over debate topics
US President Donald Trump and his White House challenger Joe Biden are feuding over plans for their final TV debate. The Republican president's campaign accused organisers of Thursday's showdown of helping the Democrat by leaving out foreign policy as a topic. The Biden camp shot back that Mr Trump was trying to avoid questions about his response to the coronavirus pandemic. With two weeks to go until the election, Mr Biden has a commanding lead nationally in opinion polls. However, he has a smaller lead in the handful of key US states that will ultimately decide the outcome. On Monday, the president's camp sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates calling for topics to be adjusted for the final primetime duel this Thursday. Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in the letter that the campaigns had already agreed foreign policy would be the focus of the third debate. The topics were announced by moderator and NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker last week: American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership. During a campaign rally on Monday afternoon in Prescott, Arizona, Mr Trump described Ms Welker as a "radical Democrat" and said she would be "no good". Mr Stepien accused Mr Biden of being "desperate to avoid conversations about his own foreign policy record" and the commission of trying to "insulate Biden from his own history". "The Commission's pro-Biden antics have turned the entire debate season into a fiasco and it is little wonder why the public has lost faith in its objectivity," he wrote. He also accused Mr Biden of trying to avoid questions over reports about purported emails from his son, Hunter, and alleged conflicts of interest. The Democrat's camp hit back that it was actually Mr Trump who was trying to duck questions. "The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics," said national press secretary TJ Ducklo.

10-20-20 Exxon clarifies Trump phone call: 'It never happened'
Oil giant Exxon has clarified a fundraising comment by Donald Trump that he could raise more money than rival Joe Biden. The US president invoked the company's name at a rally in Arizona, saying all he had to do to raise funds was call Wall Street and oil executives. He suggested calling Exxon's boss to offer permits in exchange for funds - adding he would never make such a call. Exxon said on Twitter: "Just so we're all clear, it never happened." At the rally President Trump gave a scenario of what he could do: "Don't forget, I'm not bad at that stuff anyway, and I'm president. "So I call some guy, the head of Exxon. I call the head of Exxon. I don't know." President Trump went on to describe a hypothetical conversation: "How are you doing? How's energy coming? When are you doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits?" "When I call the head of Exxon I say, 'You know, I'd love [for you] to send me $25m [£19m] for the campaign.' 'Absolutely sir,'" he added. "I will hit a home run every single call," Mr Trump said. "I would raise a billion dollars in one day if I wanted to. I don't want to do that." Exxon said on Twitter that Exxon chief executive Darren Woods had not had such a call with the president. "We are aware of the President's statement regarding a hypothetical call with our CEO [chief executive]… and just so we're all clear, it never happened," Exxon said. President Trump has been trailing Mr Biden in opinion polls and more recently in fundraising. Mr Trump's re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee started the last full month before the election on 3 November with $251.4m in cash, after raising $247.8m in September. The intake was about $135m less than the amount raised for Mr Biden in September. However, President Trump has raised more than Mr Biden overall. According to NPR, Donald Trump has raised $1.33bn, while Joe Biden has raised $990m.

10-20-20 India's coronavirus pandemic is leading to many more deaths from TB
The covid-19 pandemic has collided with the ongoing tuberculosis epidemic, leaving many without adequate medical care and stuck at home, where they could pass an infection on to others. Global cases of TB are set to increase by around 200,000 to 400,000 in 2020 alone, and most of the brunt will be borne by India, along with Indonesia, the Philippines and South Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2019, 445,000 people died from TB in India, according to a recent WHO report. This figure could increase in the coming years. A study led by Finn McQuaid at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that there could be an additional 149,448 TB deaths above that baseline level in India between 2020 and 2024. “We are definitely still expecting large numbers of additional cases and deaths from TB in India in particular,” says McQuaid. “It’s a major concern.” Another study, by Anurag Bhargava at Yenepoya Medical College and Hemant Deepak Shewade from global health organisation The Union, both based in India, estimated there would be nearly 186,000 additional TB cases and almost 88,000 extra TB deaths in India this year alone, owing to worsening poverty, undernutrition and under-detection of TB related to the covid-19 pandemic. Undernutrition is a factor in 32 to 44 per cent of TB cases, and a one unit decrease in average body mass index across the population – 2 to 3 kilograms of weight loss on average – could lead to about a 14 per cent increase in TB incidence, the pair found. “India has inadequate levels of baseline nutrition and the pandemic has worsened the situation,” says Bhargava. India launched a national TB control programme in 2017 with the aim of eradicating the disease in the country by 2025. Key to this project is accurate accounting, but under-detection of TB is a problem. Even before the covid-19 pandemic hit, there were more than 1 million TB cases missing from India’s official statistics, according to a 2016 analysis of drug sales data.

10-19-20 Avoiding America's worst possible future
It isn't authoritarianism we should fear. It's violence. Is the United States on the brink of authoritarianism? A shockingly large number of commentators seem to think so. This would appear to suggest that we should take the threat very seriously indeed — except for one crucially important consideration: Those raising alarms can be found on both sides of the political spectrum, with each camp pointing to its ideological opposite as the source of the impending breakdown of democracy and advent of tyranny in America.That highlights another, deeper problem that threatens a very different, though no less catastrophic, outcome. The center-left has been making versions of the authoritarian argument from the very start of the Trump administration. In addition to the president's tendency to talk like a demagogic dictator at campaign rallies and on Twitter, his hesitancy to distance himself from right-wing hate groups, and his pursuit of xenophobic immigration policies, progressives highlight GOP efforts at voter suppression, the counter-majoritarianism of the Electoral College and Senate, and Trump's own refusal to say he'll step down from office if he loses his bid for re-election. All of it adds up to a narrative of incipient Republican Party dictatorship. The right, meanwhile, has its own story of creeping totalitarianism. Some conspiracy-minded conservatives have viewed liberals as would-be tyrants going all the way back to the New Deal, if not before. But such concerns surged into the mainstream with new fervor in the run-up to the 2016 election with the claim that Trump and his supporters were like courageous martyrs storming the cockpit of Flight 93 on September 11, willing to risk everything to avert the existential threat that a Hillary Clinton presidency posed to conservative priorities. More recently, journalist Rod Dreher has published a bestselling book warning conservative Christians about the looming threat of "soft totalitarianism," as progressives prepare to use combined state and cultural power to enforce conformity in the United States to a "woke" moral-spiritual outlook that's virulently hostile to anything resembling traditional Christianity. Those are the camps, each fearing and loathing the other, each seeing itself as freedom's sole savior and its opponents as freedom's mortal enemy. Obviously, both cannot be right, and in fact neither wholly is. But their civic significance lies not in the truth of the warnings each of them broadcasts about the other but in their shared conviction that those on the other side of our partisan divide pose a grave danger — so grave that permitting them to win political power may soon prove to be unacceptable and illegitimate. That sounds like competing defenses of one-party rule — and it would be that if we had any reason to believe either side would back down and allow its opponents to seize such dictatorial powers. Another scenario is far more likely: Each side's fear of the other's authoritarianism could push it to embrace outright political violence.

10-19-20 Covid-19 news: Wales to enter a 17-day national lockdown from Friday
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. Welsh government announces temporary national lockdown to start on Friday. In Wales from Friday all mixing between households will be banned, and people will be required to stay at home and work from home wherever possible, said Drakeford. Non-essential shops, tourism and hospitality businesses will be required to close, as will community centres and places of worship. Primary school pupils and those in years 7 and 8 will return as usual after the half term break, but all other secondary school pupils will have to study at home. Universities and colleges will also remain open and continue to provide a mix of online and in-person teaching. The lockdown will last until Monday 9 November. Coronavirus cases are rising in the majority of US states, with Florida and Connecticut experiencing the largest seven-day increases of 50 per cent or more. Only two states, Vermont and Missouri, have seen declines in the average number of reported coronavirus cases over the past week. “We’re seeing this happen because we’re getting colder weather and we’re losing that natural social distancing that happens from being out of doors,” US health secretary Alex Azar told NBC in an interview. US president Donald Trump hosted two election campaign rallies in Michigan and Winsconsin over the weekend, with many attendees not wearing masks or maintaining physical distance from one another. On Friday, the US recorded more than 68,000 new virus cases, the highest daily total since July. The 14-day quarantine period for people arriving in the UK from abroad could be reduced, with people allowed to end their quarantine after a week if they test negative for the virus. At a conference today, UK transport minister Grant Shapps said the government was discussing a new “test and release regime”, which he said would “mean a single test for international arrivals, a week after arrival.” New coronavirus restrictions came into force in Italy today, after the country recorded a record high number of daily new cases of 11,705 yesterday. Local officials can now close public areas at 9 pm each evening, and people are no longer allowed to meet in groups of more than six.

10-19-20 Should we plan for regular 'circuit-breaker' coronavirus lockdowns?
With cases of covid-19 rising in most parts of the UK, there is fierce debate over the best way to respond. While some people argue for a “let the virus rip” strategy, others want increasing social restrictions, up to and including full lockdown, as happened in the pandemic’s first wave. But is there another way? One idea gaining ground is that countries should hold regular pre-emptive lockdowns, each lasting about two weeks. They could be timed to coincide with school holidays, minimising disruption to education. In the UK, this would mean having these shut downs around every two months. The concept may sound similar to the short, sharp, “circuit-breaker” lockdown, an idea that has been advocated by some scientists advising the UK government, including chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance. Northern Ireland began such a lockdown on 16 October and Wales has announced it will do the same from 23 October. But there is a crucial difference between these strategies: the idea is that pre-emptive lockdowns would happen periodically, even when a country’s coronavirus case numbers are relatively low. The advance knowledge of when they are due to happen is supposed to reduce the impact on businesses, while the fact that they are short and have a definite end point could make them more bearable for the public. It is hard to work out exactly what effect this would have on virus prevalence, but it should regularly reset case numbers to a lower level. At best, it could mean avoiding the longer kind of lockdowns seen in the pandemic’s first wave. This year, there has been growing appreciation of the toll on mental health caused by stopping people mixing with their friends and family. Pre-emptive circuit-breakers may lessen this burden slightly. “The specified length of time reduces uncertainty, and it is uncertainty that often promotes anxiety and poor mental well-being,” says Charlotte Hilton, a chartered psychologist based in the East Midlands, UK.

10-19-20 Coronavirus: The place in North America with no cases
Covid-19 cases are rising in many parts of Canada, but one region - Nunavut, a northern territory - is a rare place in North America that can say it's free of coronavirus in its communities. Last March, as borders around the world were slamming shut as coronavirus infections rose, officials in Nunavut decided they too would take no risks. They brought in some of the strictest travel regulations in Canada, barring entry to almost all non-residents. Residents returning home from the south would first have to spend two weeks, at the Nunavut government's expense, in "isolation hubs" - hotels in the cities of Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Ottawa or Edmonton. Security guards are stationed throughout the hotels, and nurses check in on the health of those isolating. To date, just over 7,000 Nunavummiut have spent time in these hubs as a stopover on their return home. It's not been without challenges. People have been caught breaking isolation and have had stays extended, which has in part contributed to occasional waiting times to enter the some of the hubs. There have been complaints about the food available to those confined there. But, as coronavirus infections spread throughout Canada, and with the number of cases on the rise again, the official case count in Nunavut remains zero. The "fairly drastic" decision to bring in these measures was made both due to the population's potential vulnerability to Covid-19 and the unique challenges of the Arctic region, says Nunavut's chief public health officer, Dr Michael Patterson. About 36,000 people live in Nunavut, bound by the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Northwest Territories to the west, in 25 communities scattered across its two million square kilometres (809,000 square miles). That's about three times the size of Texas. The distances are "mind-boggling at times", admits Dr Patterson. Natural isolation is likely to be part of the reason for the lack of cases - those communities can only be reached year-round by plane.

10-19-20 China's economy continues to bounce back from virus slump
China's economy continues its recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic according to its latest official figures. The world's second-biggest economy saw growth of 4.9% between July and September, compared to the same quarter last year. However, the figure is lower than the 5.2% expected by economists. China is now leading the charge for a global recovery based on its latest gross domestic product (GDP) data. The near-5% growth is a far cry from the slump the Chinese economy suffered at the start of 2020 when the pandemic first emerged. For the first three months of this year China’s economy shrank by 6.8% when it saw nationwide shutdowns of factories and manufacturing plants. It was the first time China’s economy contracted since it started recording quarterly figures back in 1992. The key economic growth figures released on Monday suggest that China’s recovery is gathering pace, although experts often question the accuracy of its economic data. The quarterly figures are compared to the same quarter of 2019. "I don't think the headline number is bad," said Iris Pang, chief China economist for ING in Hong Kong. "Job creation in China is quite stable which creates more consumption." China’s trade figures for September also pointed to a strong recovery, with exports growing by 9.9% and imports growing by 13.2% compared to September last year. Over the previous two decades, China had seen an average economic growth rate of about 9% although the pace has gradually been slowing. While the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered this year's growth targets, China also remains in a trade war with the US which has hurt the economy.

10-19-20 Coronavirus: Germany improves ventilation to chase away Covid
The German government is investing €500m (£452m; $488m) in improving ventilation systems in public buildings to help stop the spread of coronavirus. The grants will go to improve the air circulation in public offices, museums, theatres, universities and schools. Private firms are not yet eligible. Viruses spread on tiny droplets called aerosols, exhaled by infected people - especially when they sneeze or cough. Studies suggest they can remain in a room's air for at least eight minutes. Colder weather puts more people at risk because they spend more time indoors. The main aim is to upgrade existing air conditioning systems, rather than install new ones, which costs more. Each upgrade is eligible for a maximum of €100,000. Funding is also available for CO2 sensors which indicate when the air in a room is unhealthily stale. The grants will be allocated from Tuesday. The government also wants schools lacking central air conditioning systems to at least get mobile air purifiers. But much will also depend on how easily rooms can be ventilated simply by opening the windows. The Bavarian broadcaster BR24 reports that the mobile ventilators, which filter out tiny particles and cost from €2,000 each, can effectively purify a room within minutes. But German experts say apparatus that relies on UV-light, ionisation or ozone can be ineffective against coronavirus, and in some cases worsen the air quality. According to Germany's latest official figures, 4,325 new cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours, but Monday's figure is usually lower as fewer cases are reported at the weekend. The reported German death toll is 9,789. The infection rate has risen across Germany in recent weeks, but the surge is more marked in some neighbouring countries, notably the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and France. There are widespread fears that the new coronavirus wave will only intensify as the weather gets colder in Europe and more people share confined spaces. Windows will stay shut longer to keep out cold draughts. Virus particles also survive longer when they are not exposed to direct heat and sunlight. The cool air in abattoirs is reckoned to have contributed to several Covid-19 outbreaks in Germany in recent months.

10-19-20 Coronavirus: Has the pandemic really peaked in India?
Has the coronavirus pandemic already peaked in India? And can the spread of the virus be controlled by early next year? A group of India's top scientists believe so. Their latest mathematical model suggests India passed its peak of reported infections in September and the pandemic can be controlled by February next year. All such models assume the obvious: people will wear masks, avoid large gatherings, maintain social distancing and wash hands. India has recorded some 7.5 million Covid-19 cases and more than 114,00 deaths so far. It has a sixth of the world's population and a sixth of reported cases. However, India accounts for only 10% of the world's deaths from the virus. Its case fatality rate or CFR, which measures deaths among Covid-19 patients, is less than 2% - among the lowest in the world. India hit a record peak in the middle of September when it reported more than a million active cases. Since then the caseload has been steadily declining. Last week, India reported an average of 62,000 cases and 784 deaths every day. Daily deaths have also been falling in most states. Testing has remained consistent - an average of more than a million samples were tested every day last week. The seven scientists involved in the latest mathematical study commissioned by the government include Dr Gagandeep Kang, a microbiologist and the first Indian woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Among other things, the model looks at the rate at which people are getting infected, the rate at which they have recovered or died, and the fraction of infected people with significant symptoms. It also maps the trajectory of the disease by accounting for patients who have shown no signs of infection. The scientists suggest that without the lockdown in late March, the number of active cases in India would have peaked at more than 14 million and that more than 2.6 million people would have died from Covid-19, some 23 times the current death toll. Interestingly, based on studies in the two states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the scientists concluded that the impact of the unchecked return of out-of-work migrants from the cities to the villages after the lockdown had "minimal" impact on case numbers.

10-18-20 Coronavirus: Empty streets in France as curfew enforced
The streets of Paris and eight other French cities were deserted on Saturday night as a new curfew was enforced. The controversial overnight curfew is aimed at curbing the soaring Covid infection rate in France, which is one of Europe's coronavirus hotspots. There have been complaints from restaurant owners, whose businesses are already suffering after the two-month lockdown in the spring. New measures are also to be announced in Italy due to a rise in cases. Italy, which was the first European country to be hit significantly by Covid in the first wave, registered a record number of new daily cases on Saturday. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will announce fresh restrictions on Sunday. Local media said the new rules could target non-essential activities including gyms, pools and amateur sporting events. In France, about 20 million French people are covered by the month-long curfew in cities including Marseille, Lyon, Lille and Toulouse, as well as the capital. The curfew runs from 21:00 to 06:00 every night. President Emmanuel Macron said the curfews were necessary to avoid the risk of hospitals being overrun. But many are concerned about the effect it could have on businesses. "There will surely be employees who will lose their jobs," Stefano Anselmo, manager of Italian restaurant Bianco in Paris told the Reuters news agency. "It's a disaster." France reported a record number of new cases of the virus on Saturday - a rise of 32,427, the health ministry said. A day earlier the country recorded 25,086 new infections.

10-18-20 Coronavirus: Dutch PM concedes 'wrong assessment' over royal holiday
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has conceded he "made the wrong assessment" by not intervening against plans by the royal family to holiday in Greece. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima headed off on Friday but flew back a day later, following a public backlash. They left as the Dutch government introduced a new partial lockdown - which included discouraging unnecessary travel - but did not break any rules. Mr Rutte has acknowledged that he had been aware of the royal plans. In a letter to parliament, the prime minister said he had "realised too late" that the holiday "could no longer be reconciled with the increasing infections and the stricter measures. "This should have prompted me to reconsider the intended holiday. I bear full ministerial responsibility," he added. The royals flew out on a government plane but were immediately criticised for going on holiday when people were being advised to stay at home as much as possible to curb the spread of Covid-19. They flew back on a scheduled KLM flight on Saturday evening. In a statement, the royals said: "We do not want to leave any doubts about it: in order to get the Covid-19 virus under control, it is necessary that the guidelines are followed. The debate over our holiday does not contribute to that." Initially there appeared to be some confusion about who in government knew about the trip and whether advice had been given. The Dutch monarchy has no formal role in the day-to-day running of the Netherlands. But the Ministry of General Affairs, headed by the prime minister, is responsible for what the monarchy says and does. As a result, several MPs are calling on Mr Rutte to explain why he did not advise the royals to cancel their holiday. "If Rutte had said that this was a bad idea, you can assume that the king would have changed his plans," said Peter Rehwinkel of the PvdA party.

10-18-20 France teacher attack: Rallies held to support beheaded Samuel Paty
Rallies are being held across France in support of Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson. Loud applause rose from the crowd in the Place de la République in Paris, with people carrying the slogan "Je suis enseignant" (I am a teacher). A man named as Abdoulakh A was shot dead by police on Friday after killing Mr Paty close to his school near Paris. An 11th person has been arrested as part of the investigation. No details have been given about the arrest. Four close relatives of the suspect were detained shortly after the killing. Six more people were held on Saturday, including the father of a pupil at the school and a preacher described by French media as a radical Islamist. President Emmanuel Macron said the attack bore all the hallmarks of an "Islamist terrorist attack" and the teacher had been murdered because he "taught freedom of expression". The Place de la République in Paris is now full of people rallying in support of Mr Paty. Prime Minister Jean Castex and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo joined them. It was in the square that 1.5 million people protested following the deadly attack in 2015 on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after it had published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. One protester on Sunday carried a sign reading "zero tolerance to all enemies of the Republic", another "I am a professor. I'm thinking of you, Samuel." Another told Le Figaro she was a French Muslim who was at the rally to express her disgust at the killing. A minute's silence was followed by the playing of the Marseillaise. All the protesters were wearing masks to protect from coronavirus. Mr Castex tweeted the rendition of the anthem, along with the words "you do not scare us... we are France!"

10-17-20 US election 2020: Early voting records smashed amid enthusiasm wave
State election officials across the US are reporting record numbers of voters casting their ballots ahead of election day on 3 November. More than 22m Americans had voted early by Friday, either in person or by mail, according to the US Election Project. At the same point in the 2016 race, about 6m votes had been cast. Experts say the surge in early voting correlates to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many people to seek alternatives to election day voting. On Tuesday, Texas, a state that has relatively tight restrictions on who can qualify for postal voting, set a record for most ballots cast on the first day of early voting. On Monday, the Columbus Day federal holiday, officials in Georgia reported126,876 votes cast - also a state record. In Ohio, a crucial swing state, more than 2.3m postal ballots have been requested, double the figure in 2016. Reports indicate that registered Democrats have so far outvoted registered Republicans - casting more than double the number of ballots. And of these early voting Democrats, women and black Americans are voting in particularly high numbers. Some are motivated by dislike for Donald Trump, while others have been energised by racial justice protests throughout the summer following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. But this early advantage does not mean that Democrats can already claim victory. Republicans, who claim postal voting is vulnerable to fraud, say Democrats may win the early vote, but that Republicans will show up in large numbers on election day. According to a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, the rate of voting fraud overall in the US is between 0.00004% and 0.0009%. The enormous numbers of voters have led to long lines, with some people waiting for up to 11 hours for an opportunity to vote. Younger people, who historically have been difficult to get to the polls, appear to be turning out in larger numbers this year. The youth vote may be the highest its been since 2008 for the election of Barack Obama - the country's first black president. A recent survey by Axios found that four in 10 university students said they planned to protest if Mr Trump wins. Six in 10 said they would shame friends who could vote but choose not to. By contrast, only 3% of surveyed students said they would protest if Joe Biden was elected. (Webmaster's comment: Trump will claim election fraud and call for white supremists to show up with their guns at the white house to defend his presidency!)

10-17-20 Covid: Chris Christie 'was wrong' to not wear masks
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has urged Americans to take coronavirus "seriously" after spending days in intensive care with Covid-19. Mr Christie, a Trump administration ally, revealed on Thursday he had recovered from the disease. He was one of several virus cases confirmed at the same time as President Donald Trump in early October. The infections have been linked to a "superspreader event" at the White House. More than a dozen cases have been traced to the Rose Garden event on 26 September, including two senators, the White House press secretary and President Trump's former counsellor Kellyanne Conway. All appear to have recovered. Mr Christie said he attended the event, a ceremony where Mr Trump formally announced his nomination of the conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a Supreme Court vacancy, believing he had "entered a safe zone". "I was wrong," Mr Christie, who is in a high-risk category for Covid-19 because of his weight and asthma, said in a statement. "I was wrong to not wear a mask at the Amy Coney Barrett announcement and I was wrong not to wear a mask at my multiple debate prep sessions with the President and the rest of the team." Mr Christie said he hoped his experience would encourage Americans to follow virus guidelines "in public no matter where you are and wear a mask to protect yourself and others". By contrast, Mr Trump left hospital after three nights of treatment for Covid-19, urging Americans not to let the virus "dominate" them. Mr Christie, 58, was admitted to the Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey on 3 October as a precaution. He said he ended up spending seven days in the intensive care unit of the hospital. He said he recovered thanks to the "skilful care" of doctors and "extraordinary treatments", including an antibody cocktail given to President Trump. Mr Christie said his stint in "isolation" gave him time to do some thinking about the coronavirus pandemic.

Confirmed cases around president Trump!

10-17-20 We can't go inside yet
What the U.S. needs to learn from Europe's coronavirus resurgence. It sounds like the tagline for the world's lamest horror movie: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your spin class... But last week, a single fitness studio in Hamilton, Ontario, was linked to more than 72 positive cases of COVID-19, with an additional 2,500 people potentially exposed. What's shocking is that the gym seemingly did almost everything right: six-foot distancing, 50 percent capacity, screening customers, a robust sanitizing regime. "This is not about how well the gym was run; this is about how COVID spreads," Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, explained to The Spec. "If you let people hangout together, without masks, sharing air, in the same space for a prolonged period of time ... this was going to happen anyways." Just look at Europe, where the World Health Organization is reporting "exponential increases" in cases, and warns that the daily death toll could balloon to five times what it was during the peak in April. It appears that the spike there, too, is linked to increased indoor activity — like the Hamilton spin studio outbreak, but on a macro scale. For the moment, the United States has a brief respite from being the rest of the world's cautionary tale about what not to do during a pandemic, but the message we're receiving from overseas is abundantly clear: it isn't safe yet to go back indoors. After the initial explosion of cases in Europe in February and March, as the disease was still emerging globally, the continent appeared to get the crisis mostly under control by the late spring and early summer. Germany's Bundesliga soccer league even resumed in mid-May with only minor hiccups, making it the first professional sport to return after the pandemic shutdowns. As U.S. cases began to rise again over the summer, foreign correspondents' accounts of life across the Atlantic sounded like dispatches from the moon: "People are out everywhere," NPR's Paris correspondent, Eleanor Beardsley, said in July. "There's a very relaxed feeling that it's — if it's not completely behind us, it's almost behind us." Famous last words? This week, France recorded 120,000 new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days, "one of the highest rates in the world" according to The New York Times; officials warned that in Paris, hospital beds could reach 70 to 90 percent capacity by the end of October. "We are on the brink of disaster," immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski, of Poland, told The Guardian, despite the fact that the country had managed to stay relatively healthy up to this point. Italy, meanwhile, reported this week its largest one-day total of cases, "with more than 7,300 — easily surpassing the terrible heights the country reached in March," NPR reports. And the reason for the spike across the continent seems to be linked to the casual easing back indoors. Europe's strict restrictions in the spring took less than a month to visibly downturn the continent's daily confirmed COVID-19 cases, but ever since regional lockdowns began to lift around May 5, there has been a slow — but increasingly steep — rise again. "In several European countries," The New York Times explains, "lockdowns were lifted abruptly, sowing complacency among people who felt they could return to their normal lives." Indeed, as the government in the Netherlands succinctly put it, "In recent weeks coronavirus has had too many opportunities to spread again." Especially as the weather starts to get colder, an already-blasé population might not feel the need to be as diligent as they once were, bringing behaviors that might have been relatively safe outside, indoors.

10-17-20 Hundreds queue in Yiwu, China for experimental Covid-19 vaccine
A city in eastern China has started offering a coronavirus vaccine to the general public - although it has not yet completed clinical trials. Hundreds of people have been queuing outside a hospital in Yiwu, where nurses are administering the injections for a fee of around $60 (£45).

10-17-20 France teacher had received 'days of threats' before his brutal killing
The teacher who was beheaded in a street in France had received threats after showing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils, French media report. He has been named as 47-year-old Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher. Nine people have been arrested, including the parents of a child at Mr Paty's school, judicial sources are quoted as saying. Police say the attacker was an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin. The killing took place while a trial is under way in Paris over a 2015 Islamist assault on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted for publishing the cartoons. President Emmanuel Macron said the attack bore all the hallmarks of an "Islamist terrorist attack" and the teacher had been murdered because he "taught freedom of expression". Speaking at the scene hours after the incident, he stressed national unity. "They will not prevail, they will not divide us," he said. The attack occurred at about 17:00 (15:00 GMT) near the College du Bois d'Aulne, where he taught, in the town of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, some 30km (20 miles) north-west of central Paris. A man wielding a large knife attacked the teacher in the street, cutting off his head. Witnesses are said to have heard the attacker shout "Allahu Akbar", or "God is Greatest". A picture of the beheaded teacher was posted to social media in the immediate aftermath, but it is not clear if this was by the assailant or an accomplice. The attacker then ran from the scene but was chased by local police who had been alerted by the public. The officers confronted the man in the nearby town of Éragny. When they shouted at him to give himself up, he is said to have threatened them. The officers shot him and he died a short time later. Police have said the attacker was an 18-year-old, born in Moscow but from Russia's predominantly-Muslim southern region of Chechnya. He was living in Évreux in Normandy. His grandparents and brothers are among those arrested. (Webmaster's comment: Religious extremism is a danger to us all!)


FEMINISM

10-23-20 Italian held in France on suspicion of 160 rapes and sexual assaults
A 52-year-old Italian man wanted in Germany on suspicion of carrying out 160 rapes and sexual assaults, mainly on underage girls, has been arrested across the border in France. France's BNRF brigade for hunting fugitives said he was held last Friday at Rumersheim-le-Haut near Mulhouse. He was wanted in connection with attacks, mainly on the children of his partners, between 2000 and 2014. Officials said 122 inquires had so far been opened against him in Germany. French reports said that among the offences he was suspected of committing were the rape of his daughter over a number of years. German authorities first alerted their counterparts on 7 October that the suspect had crossed into France. His whereabouts were passed on days later and he was detained on 16 October. He is now being held in Colmar during extradition proceedings.

10-23-20 Poland abortion ruling: Police use pepper spray against protesters
Police in Poland have used pepper spray against hundreds of people protesting in Warsaw against a court ruling that almost completely bans abortions. Protesters clashed with riot police outside the home of Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. It follows Thursday's ruling from the top court that ending the life of a deformed foetus is unconstitutional. It means abortion is only valid in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the mother's life. Poland's abortion laws were already among the strictest in Europe and it is estimated that about 100,000 women seek a termination abroad each year to get around the tight restrictions. The ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal led to protests in other cities across Poland on Thursday evening, including Krakow, Lodz and Szczecin. In Warsaw, hundreds of people marched from the court to the home of Jaroslaw Kaczynski - who heads the governing Law and Justice party - to vent their anger at the ruling. Some held candles or carried signs with the word "torture" on them. Current coronavirus restrictions limit public gatherings in Warsaw to just 10 people. Police said officers used pepper spray and physical force when some protesters threw stones and tried to push through the cordon around the house. A spokesman said 15 people were detained. The protest dispersed in the early hours of Friday but organisers called for further rallies later in the day. Although Poland is one of Europe's most Catholic countries, opinion polls suggest there is a clear majority against making the abortion law stricter, the BBC's Adam Easton in Warsaw reports. Rights groups had urged the government not to increase restrictions. The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights said the court's decision marked a "sad day for women's rights". Dunja Mijatovic wrote on Twitter: "Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban and violates human rights."

10-22-20 A painful postpartum injury is plaguing America's moms — but nobody really talks about it
When I learned I was having twins, I knew I was in for a physically difficult pregnancy. In some ways, I got off easy: I had morning sickness, but it was mild enough that I only vomited once. My legs and feet swelled, but never enough to keep me from wearing my usual shoes. However, I am a short person with a short torso which did not really have room for two babies plus their respective intrauterine accessories. By 20 weeks, I was pregnant and pathetic enough to persuade an airline clerk to bend company policy and offer me a free hotel room when my plane was delayed. Where some mothers delight in their babies' kicks, I groaned. It hurt! From around 32 weeks onward, my lungs were so crowded I'd sometimes run out of breath before the end of a sentence. The delivery, after all that, came as something of a relief. I knew there would be a few months of recovery to follow, but I expected to go back to normal after that. Aside from the second baby, my pregnancy had been nearly free of complications. I was pronounced healthy at my six-week postpartum check-up and cleared to resume exercise. So I was surprised and dismayed to find, seven months after my twins were born, that my stomach was as big as it was at five months pregnant, exactly a year prior, when I won the pity of the airline clerk. In retrospect, the real tip-off that something was wrong with my recovery was function, not form. Half a year after giving birth, I couldn't sit up from lying down. Sometimes I forgot this. I'd anticipate sitting up, and then ... nothing would happen. It was as if my brain sent a letter to my abdomen, and it got lost in the post. I could get upright by rolling to my side and pushing myself up with my arms, but this method was risky, too: About one time in 10 I'd have sudden, intense pain deep in the muscles around my hips that would only pass once I was finally upright. My problem, as I suspected and a physical therapist who specializes in postpartum treatment confirmed, is a condition called diastasis recti. During pregnancy, the uterus grows to about six times its size, approximating a watermelon by full term. This transformation happens inside the core cavity, bounded by four sets of muscles. Diastasis recti is the injury to the muscles and connective tissues at the front of the core cavity. This doesn't primarily mean the rectus abdominis, the "six-pack muscles." Those run (and thus stretch) vertically. But below them is a layer called the transverse abdominals, sheets of muscles that span more horizontally. And down the middle, connecting both muscle layers and running from the sternum to the pubic bone, is the linea alba, a white, fibrous connective tissue. Normally, the linea alba is around an inch wide (or about two finger widths, as it's commonly measured by therapists). If you have diastasis recti, however, the tissue is pulled apart, and the gap can be as much as 10 finger widths (about five inches) while feeling deep and unsettlingly squishy and vulnerable. Typically combined with weak, overlax abdominal muscles, the visual result is what some call "mommy pooch" or "mum tum." Weight loss won't help, because the bulge isn't fat (though that may be there, too). It's your vital organs. Were the pooch its only symptom, diastasis recti might be fairly grouped with stretch marks as an unwanted but harmless consequence of pregnancy. But the pooch is not the only symptom. People with diastasis recti describe experiences of chronic back pain and difficulty "lift[ing] objects or do[ing] other routine daily activities," explains the Mayo Clinic. It can be implicated in more serious problems including "pelvic organ prolapse (when organs drop into the vagina), urinary and fecal incontinence, loss of stability, breathing and digestive problems, pelvic girdle pain," and sexual dysfunction. Many of these issues also involve damage to the pelvic floor, the bottom "hammock" of the core cavity. This type of injury is less visible than diastasis recti, but these muscles are crucial for maintaining continence, bowel function, and normal physical movement.

10-22-20 Poland abortion: Top court rules in favour of almost total ban
A court in Poland has ruled that abortions in cases of foetal defects are unconstitutional. Poland's abortion laws were already among the strictest in Europe but the Constitutional Tribunal's ruling will mean an almost total ban. Once the decision comes into effect, terminations will only be allowed in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother's health is at risk. Rights groups had urged the government not to increase restrictions. A legal challenge against the 1993 law permitting abortion in cases of severe foetal disabilities - which accounts for the vast majority of terminations carried out in Poland - was launched last year. A majority of the court's judges were nominated by the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, which has sought a tightening of abortion legislation since coming to power in 2015. Ahead of the ruling, Polish sexual and reproductive health and rights activist Antonina Lewandowska told the BBC that the defence of the 1993 law was based on UN rules outlawing torture. "It's inhuman, it's despicable honestly to make anyone carry a pregnancy to term, especially if the foetus is malformed, and 98% of legal abortions carried out in Poland are due to foetal malformations," she said. International human rights groups opposed the government's stance, with Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch saying they would send independent monitors to the court. "The Constitutional Tribunal's upcoming proceedings take place in the context of repeated government attacks on women's rights and efforts to roll back reproductive rights, as well as legal and policy changes that have undermined the independence of the judiciary and rule of law in Poland," they said in a joint statement. Previous proposals to restrict access to abortion under a citizen's bill but backed by many in the Law and Justice party were put forward in 2016, but the government backed down following mass street protests. The government backed a similar bill earlier this year, although it has not yet been passed.

10-21-20 How Kamala Harris highlights what women in politics face
With Senator Kamala Harris as a historic vice-presidential running mate, it's impossible to avoid the topic of gender this election cycle - but are the rules of the race really different for women? Here's how her nomination highlights the issues women in politics have faced for decades - and how things are changing - with analysis from Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Women in politics must walk a fine line between assertive and aggressive. Research shows that existing, unconscious gender biases can make women come across as condescending where their male counterparts might be lauded as confident. For minority women, these gender biases are compounded by racial ones too. And in the US, the trope of the "angry black woman" is an old, insidious stereotype. The trope, which emerged in the 19th Century, characterised black women as unfeminine, irrational and sassy. As Ms Walsh explains: "Women are accused of not being strong enough and tough enough to be president or vice-president, but at the same time, how do you portray strength without it being seen as anger?" She feels Ms Harris did a good job toeing the line during the VP debate, but adds that there were some instances were she seemed to hold herself back - although her polite response to the interruptions was "brilliant" and relatable to any woman who has experienced being talked over. Some analysts argue that women have to prove themselves on the campaign trail in ways men do not, even if gender isn't a primary concern for voters. Where people assume competency for men, women must demonstrate it. Economist/YouGov polls in August showed that the sitting vice-president held a narrow lead in favourability compared to Ms Harris. A quarter of Americans polled said they were uncertain how they felt about Ms Harris, and 14% said the same of Mr Pence. After the debate, most voters felt Harris won. But when asked who might be better to take over as president, some polls looked a bit different.

10-18-20 If Roe falls
Why overturning the 1973 landmark ruling won't mean the end of abortion. Here's everything you need to know:

  1. Is Roe in jeopardy? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death may change the political balance of the court, but even if conservative Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to replace her, it won't guarantee the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
  2. How would repeal happen? There are several cases now making their way to the court that could provide a basis for a Roe reversal, including a near-total ban on abortions in Alabama that has already been signed by Gov. Kay Ivey, as well as a case brought by Whole Woman's Health challenging a prohibition of the dilation and evacuation (D&E) method of abortion.
  3. Can Congress intervene? If Roe were to fall, Congress could pass a national law either legalizing or prohibiting abortion in every state. Meanwhile, the total number of abortions in America has steadily fallen since reaching a high of 1.61 million in 1990.
  4. Would the number of abortions fall? Yes, but not dramatically. A study from Middlebury College in Vermont found that states most likely to criminalize abortion already have the lowest abortion rates, because there are already so many restrictions.
  5. What about mail-order drugs? Today about 40 percent of women who end their pregnancies do so by taking the abortion drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which studies have shown are safe and effective at terminating pregnancies up to 20 weeks.
  6. Regulating providers out of business: Many legal analysts think it's more likely a 6-3 conservative majority will uphold ever more restrictive state laws on abortion than repeal Roe altogether. So-called TRAP laws, or targeted regulation of abortion providers, place costly and logistically difficult burdens on abortion providers to the point where they are effectively prohibited from practicing. Five states — Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia — have only a single abortion provider.

SCIENCE - GLOBAL WARMING and ENVIRONMENT

10-23-20 China's cuts to air pollution may have saved 150,000 lives each year
Levels of harmful air pollution over China have been falling steadily since 2015, due to stricter controls on emissions. China’s air is still terribly polluted, but the reduction has probably prevented 150,000 premature deaths per year. “It’s probably the fastest any country has improved their air quality ever,” says Ben Silver at the University of Leeds in the UK. “But it’s still really bad.” Silver and his colleagues tracked levels of tiny particles, called PM2.5, using data from over 1600 monitoring stations dotted around China. In line with previous studies, they found that levels of PM2.5 declined from 2015 to 2017. Other researchers had expressed concern that the apparent decline in pollution might be nothing to do with falling emissions, but due to changes in weather patterns, which can affect where pollutants build up. So the team used a model of the air over China, which simulated wind patterns and the chemistry of the pollution. They ran the model twice, once with a decline in emissions after 2015 and another with no decline. The latter model saw little change in pollution levels, suggesting weather changes alone couldn’t be responsible for the decline. “We showed the weather was a relatively small effect, compared to emissions reductions,” says Silver. The most important source of China’s air pollution is industry, followed by people burning fuel for cooking and heating in their homes, power generation, transport and agriculture. “The major decline has been in industry and power generation,” says Silver. “That’s usually the easiest thing to target, because you have big point sources like factories.” It is difficult to determine how many people are killed by air pollution, and how many would be saved by cutting it. “You can’t ever isolate a single death and say ‘PM2.5 killed this person’,” says Silver. Instead, epidemiologists treat it as a risk factor for early death.

10-23-20 Norway funds satellite map of world's tropical forests
A unique satellite dataset on the world's tropical forests is now available for all to see and use. It's a high-resolution image map covering 64 countries that will be updated monthly. Anyone who wants to understand how trees are being managed will be able to download the necessary information for analysis - for free. The Norwegian government is funding the project through its International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI). The dataset should be an enormous help in the fight against deforestation, said Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment. "There are many parts of the world where high-resolution images simply aren't available, or where they are available - the NGOs, communities, and academia in those countries can't afford them because they're quite expensive. "So, we've decided to foot the bill for the world, basically," he told BBC News. The NICFI has awarded a $44m (£33m) contract to Earth-observation specialists Airbus, Planet and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) for access to their pictures and expertise. European aerospace giant Airbus is opening up its Spot image archive going back to 2002. US-based Planet operates the single biggest constellation of imaging satellites in orbit today. The San Francisco firm acquires a complete picture of the Earth's land surface daily (cloud permitting), and it will provide the bulk of the data for the monthly map going forward. KSAT will tie the information together and provide the technical support for users. The Planet video at the top of this page gives a good demonstration of how satellite imagery can be used to track deforestation. It shows a section of the Amazon being systematically felled over a period of three years. For Planet CEO Will Marshall, the new project encapsulates what his company is about. "It's very validating," he said. "Our mission, when we set up the company, was to see change all over the planet and to help people make smarter decisions. And the canonical example for us was forests.

10-23-20 Should Japan dump radioactive water from Fukushima into the ocean?
Around 1.2 million tonnes of water contaminated by radioactive substances from the 2011 Fukushima disaster will be dumped in the Pacific ocean, under a plan expected to be approved by the Japanese government within weeks. The water is sitting in around 1000 tanks at the former nuclear power station, but the amount is growing daily as rainfall and groundwater entering the site continue to be contaminated. With 160 tonnes a day on average being added last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency expects existing capacity will be full by mid-2022. That is why the Japanese government is reportedly going to approve a strategy of discharging the water to the ocean, as recommended by advisers. The release would start around 2022 and last over a period of decades. The news sparked immediate complaints from Japanese fishing groups and veiled warnings that China would ban Japanese seafood imports. But are they right to be worried about the environmental and health impact of releasing such a large amount of contaminated water? Much of the existing water has already been filtered by a process designed to remove more than 62 radioactive contaminants. The Japanese government and Tepco, the company that runs the site, have emphasised the main radionuclide remaining is tritium, which Francis Livens at the University of Manchester, UK says is very hard to separate, because it is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen and so part of the water molecules themselves. Tepco has looked at technology to remove the tritium, but a presentation by the firm shows most would not work for the low concentrations in the tanks. Livens points out most operating nuclear sites release tritium. Tritium is light, so could reach as far afield as the US west coast within two years, says Ken Buesseler at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Fortunately, he says tritium is relatively harmless for marine life as the low energy particles it emits do little damage to living cells.

10-22-20 Why geothermal energy should be Biden's easy answer to the fracking question
Get all those oil and gas workers building the zero-carbon future. Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in natural gas production, and President Trump basically has to win the state to have any reasonable chance of victory. Thus, he is relentlessly attacking Joe Biden on the issue of fracking. At a rally in Erie recently, he said the "Democrat Party hate fracking, they hate coal, good beautiful clean coal … they hate American energy and Joe Biden will shut it all down." This is a lie regarding Biden's platform. He promises to ban new fracking on federal land, which is not even close to banning it altogether. However, it is actually true that fracking is not long for the world, no matter what Biden does. Luckily, there is a zero-carbon energy alternative that is ready to employ all the laid-off oil and gas workers, and a lot more besides: geothermal. This should be Biden's easy response to Trump's taunts and the actual problem of lost oil and gas jobs. The reason that oil and gas fracking is all but doomed is that wind and solar are now beating all other technologies for new generation capacity on price in most places across the country — nuclear, coal, oil, and even natural gas — and they will only get cheaper. With even modest climate policy, superior zero-carbon technology will soon out-compete most carbon-based electricity and transportation. With aggressive policy, that process will happen much faster. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has walloped the fracking industry, as oil demand has cratered with the collapse of travel. Indeed, the government will probably have to spend billions of dollars over the coming years capping wells that bankrupt fracking outfits have (as usual) abandoned because they didn't have enough insurance. The good news is that, as David Roberts writes in an extensive article for Vox, geothermal power technology is finally reaching the liftoff stage. This is one of those technologies that is theoretically very promising but an engineering nightmare. Essentially, the molten core of the earth is very hot thanks to the decay of radioactive isotopes inside it, and you can use that (virtually inexhaustible) heat to generate electricity. In certain volcanically active places you can access the heat easily, but to really get at the potential, you've got to build geothermal stations all over the place. That means drilling down hundreds or thousands of feet to get to the hot zone, and transporting that heat back up somehow to run a turbine. Geothermal would be an excellent complement for wind and solar, because it can be switched on and off at will — providing either baseload or quick-deployment power to compensate for changing wind and sun conditions, but until now it hasn't been feasible at a large scale. For years the drilling technology to do this kind of thing did not exist. Ironically, the fracking revolution has created exactly the innovations needed. One method is to find a natural reservoir of hot water trapped relatively close to the surface, pump it out through a well, and then pump it back down again once it has run the turbine. Or you can create a new reservoir by pumping down some water to crack apart the rock layers, and then pumping it back out again. Further along the engineering frontier, you can drill down very far to get water hot enough that it becomes "supercritical" and hence able to hold dramatically more energy, or heat the water through an entirely closed loop with deep horizontal pipes. The second option is akin to oil and gas fracking, and it's bound to raise some environmentalist hackles because of all the water contamination and seismic instability that have come with that process. However, as Roberts points out, there are key differences that make geothermal substantially less risky. For instance, the point is to get enough water down that it can be sucked back up, not shake loose fossil fuels by blasting the rock layers apart. That means safer fluid (typically water or brine, as opposed to the toxic chemicals used in gas fracking) injected at lower pressure, and a steady process of injection and removal once the operation is going. Most induced earthquakes from gas fracking come after the waste water is re-injected into the well all at once, which would not happen here. It's not zero-risk, but it's likely tolerable with safety mechanisms given the benefits. After all, even wind turbines and solar panels come with some environmental trade-off.

10-22-20 More pollution expected from stay-home workers
Air pollution in big cities could increase because so many people are working from home, a report says. Gas burning from boilers is a major source of local pollution, accounting for 21% of total NOx emissions across Greater London, for instance. Computer modelling predicts that boiler use will rise by 56% this winter due to coronavirus changing work patterns. The report assumes that workers’ offices will continue to be heated for staff still needed in the workplace. It also assumes that NOx emissions from cars will stay roughly the same, because although fewer people are going to the office, many are using cars when previously they would have taken buses or trains. The study from the think tank ECIU warns that the predicted spike in emissions may threaten the UK’s legally binding air quality targets. It says the increase in energy use may driving up NOx emissions by approximately 12% in towns and cities – enough to offset the last two years’ worth of progress on reducing traffic emissions. The report says: “The increase in pollution from gas boilers provides a graphic illustration of their forgotten role in contributing to air pollution.” Some estimates suggest that energy bills will rise on average £32 a month through home working. But that could be offset by a decrease in the costs of commuting. Debate over air pollution in the UK tends to focus on motor vehicles, but boilers are a major contributor in big cities. Dirty air from devices like boilers doesn't directly kill people. But it's estimated in the UK to contribute to the shortening of the lives of around 40,000 people a year, principally by undermining the health of people with heart or lung problems. This is not a count of actual deaths - it's a statistical construct, with a lot of uncertainty involved. Government advisers say the 40,000 number might range from fewer than 7,000 to as many as 80,000.

10-22-20 Colorado River drought can be predicted by warming in the ocean
Forecasting drought in the Colorado River, one of the most important rivers in the arid western US, could come down to ocean temperatures thousands of kilometers away. The Colorado River runs for just over 2400 kilometres, providing water to vast farmlands and 30 million people in seven US states and Mexico. A team of researchers found that distant sea surface temperatures today could help predict the river’s water supply up to two years into the future. “If we can predict the shortage of Colorado River water supply one year before, the water resource managers can develop a mitigation plan against the upcoming water shortage,” says Yoshimitsu Chikamoto at Utah State University. Most models that forecast water in the Colorado River rely on recent atmospheric and weather data, but when preparing for a drought requires more time, policy-makers and scientists need longer-term forecasting models. Chikamoto and his colleagues’ model uses data on global sea surface temperatures between 1960 and 2015, and relies on “ocean memory”, or the ocean’s ability to retain heat and release it slowly. While atmospheric heat is released and transferred relatively quickly, the ocean can store large amounts of heat and release it over the span of years. According to the researchers’ results, Colorado River water shortages were preceded by cooling in the tropical Pacific Ocean one to two years prior, warming in the north Pacific Ocean two to three years prior and warming in the southern tropical Atlantic Ocean three to four years prior. They found that more distant oceans affected the river more strongly. The researchers say this could be due in part to the Pacific North American pattern, an annual climate fluctuation that affects the East Asian jet stream and temperatures over western North America.

10-22-20 Planners 'must prepare' for weather extremes - Met Office
The Met Office is launching a tool to help planners prepare for further extremes of rainfall and high temperatures. It warns that wild weather in the future is likely to place increasing challenges on health, infrastructure and services. The projections follow a year of UK extremes. The country experienced its wettest February, a record sunny May and the wettest ever day on 3 October. This new analysis doesn’t speculate on possible record high temperatures. Instead, it offers a projection of what researchers call “relatively high extremes” - the sort of weather you’d expect once every 50 years. The UK Met Office says this is the timeframe that informs decision-making by planners. It says the government, organisations and engineers typically plan to safeguard against a one-in-50-year event – not to protect buildings and systems against more freakish weather. For London, the high temperature numbers steadily creep up from 1950 - when 35C was a one-in-50-year event - to 2100, when a temperature high-point of 39C is projected to occur every 50 years. Prof Jason Lowe from the Met Office said: “Some of the most severe consequences of climate change will come from an increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. “We know that, on average, the UK is projected to become hotter and drier in summer, and warmer and wetter in winter. “This tells us a lot, but for those assessing climate change risk it’s important to better understand how extreme weather events are likely to change too.” His Met Office colleague Dr Simon Brown added: “If you’re designing a flood-relief scheme or building a railway, for example, you can’t assume that the climate will remain the same - because we know that it is already changing. “The things you want to know will be 'how much heat or rainfall will my project have to cope with', and that is what our projections will do.”

10-22-20 Climate change: 'Cooling paint' could cut emissions from buildings
A new type of white paint has the potential to cool buildings and reduce the reliance on air conditioning, say researchers. In a study, the new product was able to reflect 95.5% of sunlight and reduce temperatures by 1.7C compared to the ambient air conditions. The engineers involved say the impact is achieved by adding different-sized particles of calcium carbonate. Buildings of all types are one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. According to the World Green Building Council, the lighting, heating and cooling of buildings is responsible for around 28% of global CO2. That's because the heating and cooling of buildings is mainly powered by coal, oil and gas - In Europe, around 75% of this energy need comes from fossil fuels. For decades, researchers have been trying to come up with ideas to increase the efficiency of cooling and heating. A number of reflective paints have been developed for the outside of homes and offices that would reflect away sunlight and reduce the temperatures inside. As yet, none of these products have been able to deflect enough of the Sun's rays to make the building's temperature lower than the ambient conditions. Now, researchers in the US say they have developed a white paint with strong cooling properties. "In one experiment where we put a painted surface outside under direct sunlight, the surface cooled 1.7C below the ambient temperature and during night time it even cooled up to 10C below the ambient temperature," said Prof Xiulin Ruan, from Purdue University in Indiana, who's an author on the study. "This is a significant amount of cooling power that can offset the majority of the air conditioning needs for typical buildings."

10-21-20 Superwhite paint can cool buildings even in hot sunlight
A new superwhite paint is so reflective that it can cool a surface to below the surrounding air temperature, even under sunlight. It could help reduce the use of energy-intensive air conditioning in hot countries. With global energy use expected to grow 90 per cent by 2050, ways to passively keep cool without using energy will be vital in coming decades. While “cool roofs” painted white are a common sight in hot climates, materials experts think they can do one better. Xiulin Ruan at Purdue University and his colleagues developed a white paint that was so reflective and good at radiating heat that it cooled a surface to 1.7°C below the surrounding noon air temperature during tests in Indiana. Compared with existing, commercial heat-reflective paints that reflect about 80-90 per cent of solar energy, the new one managed 95.5 per cent. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, the surface can be cooled below the surrounding temperature because it emits enough heat through radiative sky cooling, the natural process of a body under the sky – such as a roof – radiating heat out to space. Light-coloured surfaces regularly do this on cloudless nights, but it wasn’t until 2014 that we found a material that managed the feat in daylight, when our cooling needs are greatest. Compared with that breakthrough, Ruan says his team’s paint is thinner, cheaper and could be easily scaled up. The acrylic paint is made with calcium carbonate, and partly achieves its qualities by containing particles of many different sizes, which help to scatter different wavelengths in the solar spectrum. Ruan estimates a typical US home of 200 square metres would save about $50 per month on cooling costs, compared with using an existing heat-resistant paint. “This is a very nice result,” says Aaswath Raman at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It demonstrates a paintable solution that employs materials commonly used by the paint industry, and gets reasonably good cooling performance. One potential limitation could be its use of organic solvents, but that could be addressed in the future.”

10-21-20 US election 2020: What the results will mean for climate change
Who occupies the White House for the next four years could play a critical role in the fight against dangerous climate change, experts say. Matt McGrath weighs the likely environmental consequences of the US election. Scientists studying climate change say that the re-election of Donald Trump could make it "impossible" to keep global temperatures in check. They're worried another four years of Trump would "lock in" the use of fossil fuels for decades to come - securing and enhancing the infrastructure for oil and gas production rather than phasing them out as environmentalists want. Joe Biden's climate plan, the scientists argue, would give the world a fighting chance. In addition to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement - the international pact designed to avoid dangerous warming of the Earth - President Trump's team has worked hard to remove what they see as obstacles to efficient energy production. Over the past three years, researchers at Columbia University in New York have tracked more than 160 significant rollbacks of environmental regulations. These cover everything from car fuel standards, to methane emissions, to light bulbs. This bonfire of red tape has occurred at the same time that the US is reeling from several years' worth of severe wildfires in western states. Many scientists have linked these fires to climate change. So where are we after four years of Donald Trump - and where are things likely to go after the election on 3 November? "Trump believes that regulations are all cost and no benefit," says Prof Michael Gerrard from Columbia University in New York. "He denies that there really is such a thing as anthropogenic climate change, or at least that it is bad. He believes that if you cut back on regulations of all kinds, not just environmental, but also occupational and labour and everything else, it'll create more jobs."

10-21-20 US election 2020: Trump's impact on the environment, health and space
AS US President Donald Trump prepares to face the ballot box in the hopes of winning a second term, his handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be at the forefront of voters’ minds. But Trump’s impact on health, space and environment policy during his time in office also warrants examining. In the past four years, Trump has promised to reverse environmental regulations and climate change policy, to repeal and replace his predecessor Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare policy and to revive the fortunes of NASA. Has he succeeded? One promise Trump has kept is the removal of the US from the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, in which nearly all nations agreed goals to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. During a campaign speech in May 2016, Trump said: “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programmes.” He followed through once in office, announcing in June 2017 that the US would exit the agreement, though Congress continued to fund such UN programmes. Environmental campaigners were dismayed. As the US is the second largest carbon emitter behind China, combating global warming can only be done with it on side. “The alternative is the end of the world as we know it,” says Kassie Siegel at the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund in Washington DC. “We’ve known this for a long time, we’ve known what the science demands.” “The Paris climate accord shackles economies and has done nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Judd Deere, deputy press secretary for the White House. The US won’t officially exit the Paris Agreement until 4 November, the day after the US election, due to the rules of withdrawal in the accord. Siegel thinks rejoining could happen quickly under another president, but other environmental policy changes may be harder to reverse. The Trump administration has rolled back dozens of regulations, such as endangered species protections, limits on greenhouse gas emissions and emissions standards for power plants and vehicles. “There’s a whole suite of things intended to ram through as much fossil fuel production as possible,” says Siegel. These include weakening regulations put in place under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). Its Trump-era replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, scraps federal emissions standards and gives responsibility for setting those standards to state governments. This effectively takes the legs out from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for policing infractions but is now unable to set common standards. The CPP called for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 32 per cent between 2005 and 2030, and would have relied on states moving away from using coal power plants. Its elimination makes it easier to keep coal plants operating for longer.

10-21-20 Satellites picture methane across the globe
Want to understand what methane is doing in our atmosphere? Take a look at the new interactive global map produced by Montreal firm GHGSat. Its Pulse tool allows you to move around the world to see how concentrations of the powerful greenhouse gas vary in space and time. From the highs above oil and gas fields in the southwestern United States, to the naturally elevated levels in permafrost regions during summer. The map shows monthly averages which, GHGSat says it will update weekly. Pulse combines the focussed data from the company's two small methane-detecting spacecraft with the wide-field observations from the EU and European Space Agency's Sentinel-5P Tropomi mission. The Canadian pair are used to "tune up" the European detections so the map can display concentrations on a 2km by 2km grid scale. Centre the map over southern China, and you can see the effect the country's fleet of coal-fired power stations has in raising concentrations. Move across to northern Italy and look at how the Dolomite Mountains trap methane in the Po Valley, as they do all pollutants emanating from this industrialised sector of the nation. Just like carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) is increasing in the atmosphere. The globally averaged monthly trend is now above 1,876 parts per billion. Quite why methane is climbing as rapidly as it is, though, is not fully understood. Emissions associated with fossil-fuel use are obviously a major factor, but there are many natural sources of the gas that require a more complete explanation, too. What is certain, however, is that the rise can't be left unchecked. Methane's global warming potential is 30 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period, so it's imperative any unnecessary releases are constrained or curtailed. GHGSat's business is about identifying human-produced sources and working with those responsible to close off the emissions. But company CEO, Stephane Germain, hopes the new Pulse map will initiate a much wider conversation about the methane issue.

10-21-20 Climate change: 'Cooling paint' could cut emissions from buildings
A new type of white paint has the potential to cool buildings and reduce the reliance on air conditioning, say researchers. In a study, the new product was able to reflect 95.5% of sunlight and reduce temperatures by 1.7C compared to the ambient air conditions. The engineers involved say the impact is achieved by adding different-sized particles of calcium carbonate. Buildings of all types are one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. According to the World Green Building Council, the lighting, heating and cooling of buildings is responsible for around 28% of global CO2. That's because the heating and cooling of buildings is mainly powered by coal, oil and gas - In Europe, around 75% of this energy need comes from fossil fuels. For decades, researchers have been trying to come up with ideas to increase the efficiency of cooling and heating. A number of reflective paints have been developed for the outside of homes and offices that would reflect away sunlight and reduce the temperatures inside. As yet, none of these products have been able to deflect enough of the Sun's rays to make the building's temperature lower than the ambient conditions. Now, researchers in the US say they have developed a white paint with strong cooling properties. "In one experiment where we put a painted surface outside under direct sunlight, the surface cooled 1.7C below the ambient temperature and during night time it even cooled up to 10C below the ambient temperature," said Prof Xiulin Ruan, from Purdue University in Indiana, who's an author on the study. "This is a significant amount of cooling power that can offset the majority of the air conditioning needs for typical buildings." So how does the new paint work? According to the researchers, the key has been to add calcium carbonate to the mix. The scientists found that by using high concentrations of this chalky substance, with differing particle sizes, they were able to develop a product that reflected 95.5% of sunlight

10-20-20 Colorado battles a record-breaking wildfire
The Cameron Peak wildfire has become the biggest fire in Colorado state history after burning over 200,000 acres. Residents have been forced to evacuate their homes as firefighters work to keep the blaze contained. The previous record for the largest wildfire in Colorado was set earlier this year, and saw 139,000 acres burned.

10-20-20 Even the deepest, coldest parts of the ocean are getting warmer
It’s not yet clear if a small increase in temperature is the result of climate change. Things are heating up at the seafloor. Thermometers moored at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean recorded an average temperature increase of about 0.02 degrees Celsius over the last decade, researchers report in the Sept. 28 Geophysical Research Letters. That warming may be a consequence of human-driven climate change, which has boosted ocean temperatures near the surface (SN: 9/25/19), but it’s unclear since so little is known about the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean. “The deep ocean, below about 2,000 meters, is not very well observed,” says Chris Meinen, an oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami. The deep sea is so hard to reach that the temperature at any given research site is typically taken only once per decade. But Meinen’s team measured temperatures hourly from 2009 to 2019 using seafloor sensors at four spots in the Argentine Basin, off the coast of Uruguay. Temperature records for the two deepest spots revealed a clear trend of warming over that decade. Waters 4,540 meters below the surface warmed from an average 0.209° C to 0.234° C, while waters 4,757 meters down went from about 0.232°C to 0.248°C. This warming is much weaker than in the upper ocean, Meinen says, but he also notes that since warm water rises, it would take a lot of heat to generate even this little bit of warming so deep. It’s too soon to judge whether human activity or natural variation is the cause, Meinen says. Continuing to monitor these sites and comparing the records with data from devices in other ocean basins may help to clarify matters.

10-19-20 Plastic baby bottles shed millions of microplastics when shaken
Plastic feeding bottles release an average of 4 million microplastic particles per litre into baby formula during preparation, but it still isn’t clear whether ingesting microplastics is harmful to infant health. John Boland at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and his colleagues measured microplastics released during the process of baby formula preparation in feeding bottles made of polypropylene plastic, which they estimate account for almost 69 per cent of such bottles available on the market. The researchers cleaned and sterilised brand-new polypropylene feeding bottles, left them to dry and then poured in purified water, which had been heated to 70°C, the World Health Organization-recommended temperature for infant formula preparation. After putting the bottles on a mechanical shaker for a minute to mimic the formula mixing process, Boland and his team filtered the water and analysed it under a microscope. They discovered that the bottles were leaking an average of 4 million microplastic particles per litre into the water inside, with a range of between 1 and 16 million particles per litre. The researchers found similar results when they used water containing baby formula. “We were surprised by the quantity,” says Boland. “Based on research that has been done previously looking at the degradation of plastics in the environment, we had a suspicion that the quantities would be substantial, but I don’t think anyone expected the very high levels that we found.” Boland says his team was also surprised to discover that the shedding of microplastics by the bottles was temperature dependent. When the researchers repeated their experiments using water at a range of temperatures, they found that particle shedding accelerated as temperature rose. Shaking the bottles also increased microplastic release.

10-19-20 Why the US election could decide battle against climate change
Who occupies the White House for the next four years could play a critical role in the fight against dangerous climate change, experts say. Matt McGrath weighs the likely environmental consequences of the US election. Scientists studying climate change say that the re-election of Donald Trump could make it "impossible" to keep global temperatures in check. They're worried another four years of Trump would "lock in" the use of fossil fuels for decades to come - securing and enhancing the infrastructure for oil and gas production rather than phasing them out as environmentalists want. Joe Biden's climate plan, the scientists argue, would give the world a fighting chance. In addition to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement - the international pact designed to avoid dangerous warming of the Earth - President Trump's team has worked hard to remove what they see as obstacles to efficient energy production. Over the past three years, researchers at Columbia University in New York have tracked more than 160 significant rollbacks of environmental regulations. These cover everything from car fuel standards, to methane emissions, to light bulbs. This bonfire of red tape has occurred at the same time that the US is reeling from several years' worth of severe wildfires in western states. Many scientists have linked these fires to climate change. So where are we after four years of Donald Trump - and where are things likely to go after the election on 3 November? "Trump believes that regulations are all cost and no benefit," says Prof Michael Gerrard from Columbia University in New York. "He denies that there really is such a thing as anthropogenic climate change, or at least that it is bad. He believes that if you cut back on regulations of all kinds, not just environmental, but also occupational and labour and everything else, it'll create more jobs."

10-18-20 Why the US election could decide battle against climate change
Who occupies the White House for the next four years could play a critical role in the fight against dangerous climate change, experts say. Matt McGrath weighs the likely environmental consequences of the US election. Scientists studying climate change say that the re-election of Donald Trump could make it "impossible" to keep global temperatures in check. They're worried another four years of Trump would "lock in" the use of fossil fuels for decades to come - securing and enhancing the infrastructure for oil and gas production rather than phasing them out as environmentalists want. Joe Biden's climate plan, the scientists argue, would give the world a fighting chance. In addition to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement - the international pact designed to avoid dangerous warming of the Earth - President Trump's team has worked hard to remove what they see as obstacles to efficient energy production. Over the past three years, researchers at Columbia University in New York have tracked more than 160 significant rollbacks of environmental regulations. These cover everything from car fuel standards, to methane emissions, to light bulbs. This bonfire of red tape has occurred at the same time that the US is reeling from several years' worth of severe wildfires in western states. Many scientists have linked these fires to climate change. So where are we after four years of Donald Trump - and where are things likely to go after the election on 3 November? "Trump believes that regulations are all cost and no benefit," says Prof Michael Gerrard from Columbia University in New York. "He denies that there really is such a thing as anthropogenic climate change, or at least that it is bad. He believes that if you cut back on regulations of all kinds, not just environmental, but also occupational and labour and everything else, it'll create more jobs."

10-18-20 Have we reached 'peak oil'?
Drop in demand for fossil fuels sends the industry into free fall. The U.S. oil and gas industry faces a daunting recovery from the pandemic, said Paul Takahashi at the Houston Chronicle. "About 107,000 oil, gas, and petrochemical workers have been laid off between March and August," a staggering total even for an industry that is accustomed to soaring heights and crushing lows. But analysts say this oil bust is different even from those in the past. "Growing concerns about climate change" are expected to keep reducing demand for fossil fuels, meaning those jobs lost now might not return after this downturn. Even if crude prices "claw their way back to $45 per barrel" by the end of 2021 — up from around the $40 price mark where they have remained for months — an estimated 70 percent of the jobs lost may disappear permanently. A drop to $35 per barrel, and the industry is looking at 100,000 jobs gone for good. The collapse in oil prices hasn't just hurt the drilling states, said Alexander Osipovitch and Ryan Dezember at The Wall Street Journal. "Wisconsin doesn't produce a drop of oil or gas, but there has been a bust there too," because of its supportive ecosystem for fracking. Wisconsin, along with northern states like Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, employs thousands of workers in open-pit salt mines that ship "pebbly grains ideal for hydraulic fracking" by the trainload to drilling fields in Texas, Appalachia, and North Dakota. Now the "local governments that envisioned the mines bringing long-term prosperity are looking at budget crunches." All the places that rely on fracking face another threat, said the Journal in an editorial: Democrats who want to shut down the industry. "Hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling has unleashed a gusher of natural gas production in the Midwest and Southwest." Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris now say they don't plan to ban fracking, but there is no way to reconcile that with their goal of making the U.S. carbon-neutral by 2035. In reality, natural gas fracking has let utilities shift away from coal, and has "done more to reduce CO2 emissions over the last decade than government regulation and renewable subsidies." The U.S. has eased "economically destructive climate regulation," and still, thanks to fracking, last year the U.S. led the world in carbon reductions. Demand for energy is starting to tick back up, just not the way it used to, said Jeffrey Blair at Bloomberg. Oil refineries have relied on "long-standing patterns of consumption" of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. But while "thousands of airliners lie mothballed," gasoline consumption is rising quickly to pre-pandemic levels as "millions of drivers forgo mass transit to get in their cars." Refineries still aren't celebrating, though. Their ability to produce enough gasoline is constrained without buyers for pricier diesel and jet fuel. It's just not going to be easy from here on out for Big Oil, said Julian Lee also at Bloomberg. The pandemic has "accelerated" trends that have been building for years as more countries shift away from fossil-fuel dependence. OPEC finally admitted last week that "peak oil" could arrive by 2040. For some rich nations, it may already be here. Those companies that can't adapt "will go the way of the T. rex."

10-18-20 Climate change: Arctic Circle teens call for help to save their homes
Teenagers living in remote Arctic communities say they’re worried about the effects of climate change. Scientists warn that melting ice and warming temperatures show rapid climate change is taking place. Rarely heard young people from multiple countries within the Arctic Circle say their way of life is at risk and governments must act.


SCIENCE - EVOLUTION and GENETICS

10-23-20 Covid: US gives full approval for antiviral remdesivir drug
US regulators have given full approval for the antiviral drug remdesivir to treat Covid-19 patients in hospitals. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Veklury, the drug's brand name, cut the recovery time on average by five days during clinical trials. "Veklury is the first treatment for Covid-19 to receive FDA approval," the FDA said in a statement. The World Health Organization (WHO) said last week remdesivir had little to no effect on patients' survival. The WHO said this was based on its own study - but the drug's manufacturer Gilead rejected the findings of the trial. Remdesivir had been authorised for emergency use only in the US since May. In the US it will cost $3,120 via private insurers and $2,340 via government purchasers for a five-day course. It was recently given to President Donald Trump after he tested positive for Covid-19. He has since recovered. In the statement, the FDA said the drug was approved on Thursday "for use in adult and paediatric patients 12 years of age and older and weighing at least 40 kilograms (about 88 pounds) for the treatment of Covid-19 requiring hospitalisation". "Today's approval is supported by data from multiple clinical trials that the agency has rigorously assessed and represents an important scientific milestone in the Covid-19 pandemic," said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn. The regulator said its decision was supported by the analysis of data from "three randomised, controlled clinical trials that included patients hospitalised with mild-to-severe Covid-19". One of the studies showed that that "the median time to recovery from Covid-19 was 10 days for the Veklury group compared to 15 days for the placebo group". For its Solidarity clinical trial, the WHO tested the effects four potential treatments - remdesivir was one, but they also looked at malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, auto-immune drug interferon, and the HIV drug combination of lopinavir and ritonavir. Dexamethasone, a low-cost steroid now widely used on Covid patients in intensive care in the UK, was not included in this study. The four drugs were tested with 11,266 adult patients in total, across 500 hospitals in more than 30 different countries. The results, which are yet to be peer-reviewed, suggested that none of these treatments had a substantial effect on mortality or on the length of time spent in hospital, the WHO said.

10-23-20 The arthritis drug tocilizumab doesn’t appear to help fight COVID-19
Additional clinical trials are still assessing the anti-inflammatory drug. An initial crop of clinical trials testing an anti-inflammatory drug against COVID-19 do not look promising. The best available evidence among these trials “doesn’t show that this drug is beneficial,” says Adarsh Bhimraj, an infectious diseases physician at the Cleveland Clinic, who was not involved in the research. The drug, tocilizumab, is a treatment for the painful joint swelling that occurs in rheumatoid arthritis and is also used to manage a dangerous side effect of the cancer treatment CAR-T cell therapy (SN: 6/27/18). So clinical trials have been assessing whether tocilizumab might help COVID-19 patients by taming excessive inflammation as it does for these other two conditions. The drug works by blocking the activity of a protein called interleukin 6, which contributes to the immune system’s inflammatory response. High levels of this protein, known as a cytokine, are a harbinger of severe disease in COVID-19 patients, studies have found. Of the four clinical trials that have just reported peer-reviewed results on tocilizumab for COVID-19, only one meets the “gold standard” for evaluating a drug. Such randomized, double-blinded controlled trials randomly assign patients to receive a drug or a placebo, and don’t reveal to participants or doctors who is getting which. In the trial with this design, tocilizumab did not reduce the risk of intubation or death as of four weeks compared with the placebo, researchers reported online in the New England Journal of Medicine on October 21. The study included 243 participants hospitalized with COVID-19 at seven Boston hospitals. Two-thirds received the drug, while the remainder received the placebo; participants also got other available drugs for COVID-19, such as remdesivir (SN: 5/13/20).

10-23-20 Bat-winged dinosaurs were clumsy fliers
Yi and Ambopteryx were a dead end on the evolutionary road to bird flight. Only two dinosaur species are known to have had wings made out of stretched skin, like bats. But unlike bats, these dinos were capable of only limited gliding between trees, a new anatomical analysis suggests. That bat-winged gliding turned out to be a dead end along the path to the evolution of flight, researchers say. “They are a failed experiment,” says Alexander Dececchi, a paleontologist at Mount Marty University in Sioux Falls, S.D. Fliers with feathered wings, rather than membranous wings, begin to appear in the fossil record just a few million years after the bat-winged dinosaurs. Those feathered fliers may have outcompeted the gliders in their evolutionary niche, Dececchi and colleagues suggest October 22 in iScience. Yi qi and Ambopteryx longibrachium were crow-sized dinosaurs that lived about 160 million years ago (SN: 4/29/15). They were distant cousins, both belonging to a bizarre group of dinosaurs known as scansoriopterygids. Unlike other scansoriopterygids, however, these two species sported large wings with membranes, thin skin stretched between elongated arm bones. Scansoriopterygids were a branch of theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes giants like Tyrannosaurus rex as well as the ancestors of birds. So the recent discoveries of two different bat-winged theropod dinosaurs shook up long-standing ideas about the evolution of flight in birds. Scientists had thought that path, while a bit circuitous, centered around variations of just one basic, birdlike body plan. But whether Yi and Ambopteryx were actually adept at flying, such as being able to launch from the ground or flap their wings, wasn’t clear. To assess the dinos’ flight capability, Dececchi and colleagues used laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging, which can pick up details of soft tissues such as membranes or cartilage in fossils, to reanalyze the anatomy of Yi and Ambopteryx. The team made new estimations of the reptiles’ weight, wing shape and wingspan, and then simulated how those features might translate into flapping, gliding or launching.

10-22-20 The first flying dinosaurs were a failed evolutionary experiment
The first dinosaurs to take to the air were a failed evolutionary experiment. They had wings made of a skin membrane, similar to bats, but they were bad at flying and were soon outcompeted by birds. “They were badly designed gliders,” says Alex Dececchi at Mount Marty University in South Dakota. “They got squeezed out.” Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and it used to be thought they were the only evolutionary branch to gain the ability to fly. But in 2015, Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology in Beijing reported his team’s discovery of a bizarre fossil dubbed Yi qi, meaning “strange wing” in Mandarin Chinese, with wings made of a bat-like membrane, rather than feathers. In 2019, a team including Xu unveiled a fossil of another membrane-winged species called Ambopteryx longibrachium. Now, a team including Dececchi and Xu have done a more detailed study of the flying abilities of these animals, based partly on laser scans of the Yi fossil, that have revealed more details about their soft tissues. It still isn’t clear exactly what shape the wings were, however, so the team looked at several arrangements. One possibility is these animals had wings shaped like a bat’s, connected to the legs. Another is that they were shaped more like those of birds. It was most likely something in-between these, the team thinks. The findings suggest that Yi and Ambopteryx were not only incapable of powered flight, as previously thought, but they weren’t even as good at gliding as some modern animals like flying squirrels. This means they were almost certainly tree-dwelling animals that only glided short distances, the team believes. At the time that Yi and Ambopteryx evolved around 160 million years ago, there were no birds and the skies were dominated by relatively large pterosaurs, a separate group to dinosaurs. But once birds evolved a few million years later, membrane-winged dinosaurs had nowhere to go, in evolutionary terms.

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10-22-20 Llamas may have been buried alive in ritual sacrifice by the Incas
The remains of five llamas that may have been ritually sacrificed by Incas have been found in Peru. It isn’t clear how the animals were killed, but it may have been a slow death. “I have no way to prove it, but I think they were buried alive,” says Lidio Valdez at the University of Calgary in Canada. He says the llamas don’t have injuries like knife wounds to their throats, which would point to different methods of killing. The Inca Empire dominated western regions of South America for several hundred years, until Spain invaded in the 1500s. The Inca never invented the wheel and many other seemingly key technologies, but nevertheless built an advanced society. Llamas were central to their success. “They were the single most important animal,” says Valdez, providing transport, skin, fibre, fertiliser and meat. “In addition to that, the Incas believed llamas were sacred animals.” Spanish people who came into contact with the Inca reported that they regularly killed hundreds of llamas, either for feasts or for ritual sacrifices to deities. However, while archaeologists have found many examples of llamas that were killed and then eaten, llamas that were ritually sacrificed haven’t been found before. Valdez and his colleagues found five such llamas in an Inca settlement called Tambo Viejo in the Acari Valley, near the coast of Peru. The site had previously been looted, so Valdez suspects there were originally more. The llamas had no injuries, but their legs were securely tied together. Valdez suspects this was done to keep them under control while they were buried alive. He says this method of sacrifice fits with what we know about Inca practices. “Incas used to sacrifice children, and it is said some of the children were buried alive,” says Valdez, referring to written accounts from Spanish conquistadors. “If they did that with children, I’m sure they would have done the same thing with llamas.”

10-22-20 Homo erectus, not humans, may have invented the barbed bone point
An 800,000-year-old tool may be the oldest known of its kind. A type of bone tool generally thought to have been invented by Stone Age humans got its start among hominids that lived hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens evolved, a new study concludes. A set of 52 previously excavated but little-studied animal bones from East Africa’s Olduvai Gorge includes the world’s oldest known barbed bone point, an implement probably crafted by now-extinct Homo erectus at least 800,000 years ago, researchers say. Made from a piece of a large animal’s rib, the artifact features three curved barbs and a carved tip, the team reports in the November Journal of Human Evolution. Among the Olduvai bones, biological anthropologist Michael Pante of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and colleagues identified five other tools from more than 800,000 years ago as probable choppers, hammering tools or hammering platforms. The previous oldest barbed bone points were from a central African site and dated to around 90,000 years ago (SN: 4/29/95), and were assumed to reflect a toolmaking ingenuity exclusive to Homo sapiens. Those implements include carved rings around the base of the tools where wooden shafts were presumably attached. Barbed bone points found at H. sapiens sites were likely used to catch fish and perhaps to hunt large land prey. The Olduvai Gorge barbed bone point, which had not been completed, shows no signs of having been attached to a handle or shaft. Ways in which H. erectus used the implement are unclear, Pante and his colleagues say. This find and four of the other bone implements date to at least 800,000 years ago, based on their original positions below Olduvai sediment that records a known reversal of Earth’s magnetic field about 781,000 years ago. Another bone artifact dates to roughly 1.7 million years ago, the researchers say.

10-22-20 How environmental changes may have helped make ancient humans more adaptable
A sediment core traces 1 million years of ecological shifts in eastern Africa. An unforgiving environmental twist deserves at least some credit for the behavioral flexibility that has characterized the human species since our African origins around 300,000 years ago, a new study suggests. For hundreds of thousands of years in parts of East Africa, food and water supplies remained fairly stable. But new evidence shows that starting about 400,000 years ago, hominids and other ancient animals in the region faced a harsh environmental reckoning, says a team led by paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The climate began to fluctuate dramatically. Faults caused by volcanic eruptions fractured the landscape and reduced the size of lakes. Large animals died out and were replaced by smaller creatures with more diverse diets. These changes heralded a series of booms and busts in the resources hominids needed to survive, Potts and his colleagues report October 21 in Science Advances. Around that time, hominids at a site called Olorgesailie in what’s now Kenya transformed their culture. That shift, between around 500,000 and 320,000 years ago, was probably influenced by increasingly unpredictable periods of water and food scarcity, the scientists contend. Stone hand axes and other cutting tools made of local stone had dominated African toolkits for 700,000 years before that transition occurred. After that, Middle Stone Age tools, such as spearpoints made from rock imported from distant sources, gained popularity, Potts’ team has previously found (SN: 3/15/18). Middle Stone Age tools were smaller and more carefully crafted implements. Widely scattered hominid groups began to trade with one another to obtain suitable toolmaking rock and other resources.

10-22-20 Dinosaur fossil with preserved genital orifice hints how they mated
A fossil dinosaur originally discovered in northwestern China is so exquisitely preserved that the shape of its cloaca – the opening used for excretion and mating – is visible for the first time. The evidence has actually been in plain sight. The psittacosaurus – a kind of early ceratopsian related to Triceratops that lived around 120 million years ago – has been on public display at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, Germany, for over a decade and several scientific papers have already been written about its primitive feathers and colouring. Only now, though, has a team led by Phil Bell at the University of New England in Australia formally described the cloaca. Bell declined to discuss the finding until the paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal. Birds and reptiles have a cloaca – a single orifice used for excretion, urination, mating and laying eggs – so it has always been assumed that dinosaurs had them too. The cloaca of the psittacosaurus confirms this expectation. Only the external part of the cloaca has been preserved. The vent is around 2 centimetres long, is flush with the surrounding area rather than protruding as some cloacas do, and is surrounded by darkly pigmented tissue (see picture, above). The internal anatomy has not been preserved, so the fossil doesn’t definitively resolve questions about how dinosaurs mated. However, the cloaca has a longitudinal opening like those of crocodiles, which do have penises. By contrast, most birds – the living descendants of dinosaurs – do not. “It is a triumph of discovery to have such a delicate region so perfectly preserved in a fossil so old,” says John Long of Flinders University in Australia, who wasn’t involved in the research. “We have various other different parts preserved but not a cloaca.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t reveal much. It isn’t possible to tell the sex of this particular animal, but the cloaca’s resemblance to those of crocodiles suggests that this type of dinosaur had a penis.

10-21-20 We must hold a steady course on our response to covid-19
EARLY on in the pandemic, we heard a lot about behavioural fatigue – the hunch that people would quickly grow tired of restrictions on their lives and throw caution to the wind. It was a factor in the reluctance of the UK government to go into lockdown too quickly, a delay that led to the virus getting out of hand. We don’t hear very much about behavioural fatigue any more. We feel it. The prospect of further restrictions or even “circuit breaker” lockdowns (see “Should we plan for regular ‘circuit-breaker’ coronavirus lockdowns?”) is greeted with dread, and the very real possibility of disobedience. This isn’t the time to let our guard down. Two obvious reasons are that we don’t want to overwhelm hospitals or shut schools. But there is another reason to mask up, observe distancing and stick to any extra rules that apply: to prevent the virus from evolving. Up to now, we have been lucky on this score. SARS-CoV-2 has changed little since it emerged. It is so stable genetically that drugs and vaccines in development ought to work against all variants currently circulating (see “Is the coronavirus evolving and will it become more or less deadly?”). Yet we cannot take that for granted. The virus does have the capacity to mutate into something worse, but can only do so if it is transmitted from human to human. Cutting off transmission is therefore vital while we await a vaccine. If and when that vaccine arrives, high levels of uptake are vital for the same reason. Even more so, in fact, as the vaccine will put pressure on the virus to mutate. Fatigue is also partially responsible for the enthusiastic welcome that the herd immunity strategy, or “letting the virus rip”, has received in some circles. It undeniably has a certain freedom-loving appeal. Unfortunately, it is bad science (see “It is bad science to say covid-19 infections will create herd immunity”), and would also expose us to the risk of viral evolution. Risk is something we are notoriously bad at assessing. This pandemic has brought new challenges for individuals in balancing the risks to themselves and others, and for governments in balancing the needs of different sectors of society (see “Your covid-19 risk: How to navigate this new world of uncertainty”). But the behavioural fatigue fiasco showed the danger of basing policy on plausible-sounding hunches. We must not make that mistake again.

10-21-20 You can manage your covid-19 risk by setting your own ‘contact budget’
When it comes to covid-19, we all have different levels of risk we're comfortable with. Setting a weekly "contact budget" can make it easier to decide which risks are worth taking, says epidemiologist Eleanor Murray. Eleanor Murray: Back in March and April, most people had clear guidance about what they were allowed to do, and it wasn’t very much. That made life somewhat unpleasant, but it also made life easy. When things started opening up, everybody had to make their own decisions about what they are comfortable with and what might be risky. The way I was thinking about it is that there is a level of risk I am comfortable with. If I go to a grocery store during a really crowded time, to keep my average risk level constant, I’m probably not going to do something risky the next day. We are all familiar with the idea of financial budgeting, it is easy to translate to this situation. There are four metrics to keep in mind. First is how much risk you can tolerate. If you or someone in your household has a medical condition, then your tolerance is going to be lower. Next is how comfortable you are knowing that you could get infected and transmit that infection. That’s something we don’t talk a lot about, but people have told me how guilty they felt afterwards. The last two pieces are the amount of contact we need for our job and for our mental health. If you are a healthcare worker or grocery store clerk, a certain amount of contacts are required as part of your job. Then there are contacts that you need for emotional reasons. It could be really important to you to deliver groceries to your elderly neighbour or to attend a religious service. Think of person, place, time and space. “Person” is about how many people are there, and how many you are in regular contact with. The less regular contact you have, the more potential for expanding your infection network. “Place” is about whether something is inside or outside, whether it is crowded, and the risks associated with that location. “Time” is the duration you’ll be there. And “space” is whether the location is well ventilated and how well you can maintain masks and physical distancing. Whether necessary or optional, how do you make an activity as low risk as possible? Can you eat outside or get takeaway instead? Could you get the same benefit virtually?

10-21-20 Viruses have busy social lives that we could manipulate to defeat them
The coronavirus and others are no lone wolves, they cooperate and compete with one another. Understanding these social interactions could help us fight them. IF YOUR social life has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, you may not want to know that the virus has a social life too. And it is probably better than yours right now. It may seem odd to say that viruses fraternise when they arguably aren’t even alive, but virologists are discovering just how rich this aspect of their existence is. Far from being lone operators, viruses cooperate and compete with one another; they can be altruists, freeloaders or cheats. These discoveries are rewriting the virus rule book and suggesting novel ways to tackle viral diseases, and that includes the newest one, covid-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2. Understanding these complex and sometimes strange interactions could be the key to getting our own lives back to normal. The classical view of a viral infection doesn’t create much opportunity for social interaction. A single virus particle, or virion, encounters a target cell and breaks and enters. Once inside, it disassembles like a cat burglar unpacking tools and then executes its potentially deadly genetic program. This program is designed to do one thing: build an army of virus clones to move on to the next victim. To this end, the virus requisitions the cell’s protein and genome production facilities, churning out millions of copies of its constituent parts. These viral genomes and proteins assemble into virus particles and, once they reach a critical mass, disgorge out of the host cell, killing it in the process. The infection cycle then begins anew. This view isn’t wrong, but is vastly simplified. Viral attacks are rarely solo missions. “The virion has been traditionally viewed as the minimal viral infectious unit,” says Rafael Sanjuán at the University of Valencia in Spain. “However, single virions often fail to establish productive infections.” In truth, virions usually hunt in packs, and can infect cells en masse, alongside other species of virus. And this creates hitherto underappreciated opportunities for virus-virus interactions. The microbiologists who study such interactions in the new field of sociovirology say they can be understood using the same concepts developed to describe those between animals, plants and, more recently, bacteria.

10-21-20 Long Covid: Who is more likely to get it?
Old age and having a wide range of initial symptoms increase the risk of "long Covid", say scientists. The study, seen by the BBC, estimates one in 20 people are sick for least eight weeks. The research at King's College London also showed being female, excess weight and asthma raised the risk. The aim is to develop an early warning signal that can identify patients who need extra care or who might benefit from early treatment. The findings come from an analysis of people entering their symptoms and test results into the Covid Symptom Study app. Scientists scoured the data for patterns that could predict who would get long-lasting illness. The results, which are due to be published online, show long Covid can affect anyone, but some things do raise the risk. "Having more than five different symptoms in the first week was one of the key risk factors," Dr Claire Steves, from Kings College London, told BBC News. Covid-19 is more than just a cough - and the virus that causes it can affect organs throughout the body. Somebody who had a cough, fatigue, headache and diarrhoea, and lost their sense of smell - which are all potential symptoms - would be at higher risk than somebody who had a cough alone. The risk also rises with age - particularly over 50 - as did being female. Dr Steves said: "We've seen from the early data coming out that men were at much more risk of very severe disease and sadly of dying from Covid, it appears that women are more at risk of long Covid." No previous medical conditions were linked to long Covid except asthma and lung disease. The precise symptoms of long-Covid vary from one patient to the next, but fatigue is common. Vicky Bourne, 48, started off with a fever and a "pathetic little cough" in March, which became "absolutely terrifying" when she struggled to breathe and needed to be given oxygen by a paramedic. She was not admitted to hospital, but is still - in October - living with long Covid.

10-21-20 Your covid-19 risk: How to navigate this new world of uncertainty
Baffling statistics and their impact on our emotions can make it hard to evaluate risk in this pandemic. But there are simple steps you can take to put risk in context and feel more confident in your decisions. THE covid-19 pandemic recently passed the milestone of a million deaths, and infections continue to rise. For months to come, perhaps years, we will have to keep a balance between minimising the deaths and harms caused by the coronavirus and carrying on with life to maintain our economic livelihoods and mental well-being. “Getting through this pandemic is essentially an exercise in risk management,” says Allison Schrager, an economist at the Manhattan Institute in New York. To do this well, we have to rely on the information we get from public health experts, the media and governments. We want to know how dangerous the virus is to us, and to friends or loved ones made perhaps more vulnerable by age or other factors. We want to know the risks stemming from the current surge in infection rates, so we understand whether measures such as renewed lockdowns are proportionate. Risk communication is a tricky business even at the best of times, but in many countries, the covid-19 pandemic has brought a deluge of scary-sounding statistics and graphs about infection rates and rising death tolls. David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, has called it “number theatre”. So how do we take the drama out of the theatre and come to a measured assessment of the uncertainties we face? There are no easy answers, but by understanding how our brains deal with risk and the pitfalls in the way numbers concerning risk are often presented to us, we can go some way to easing the mental burden – through the pandemic and beyond. Despite nearly non-stop media coverage since the start of the year, the covid-19 pandemic remains an unfamiliar threat for most of us. This is where the difficulties with assessing its risks start. “We’re comfortable with risks we take every day, but new and dramatic ones throw us,” says Schrager.

10-21-20 Is the coronavirus evolving and will it become more or less deadly?
“FORTUNATE” isn’t a word that often comes up in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, but in one respect it is true. In the nine months that the virus behind covid-19 has been circulating widely, it has hardly mutated at all. “We are fortunate that the virus is not mutating fast,” says Sudhir Kumar at Temple University in Pennsylvania. A rapidly mutating virus could evolve into different, possibly more virulent, strains. “So it’s good to have a low diversity” among the viruses currently circulating, he says. However, this could be the calm before the storm. A recent analysis of more than 18,000 genomes of the new coronavirus, formally called SARS-CoV-2, sampled from around the world found very low levels of genetic diversity. The study, led by Morgane Rolland at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, concluded that these viruses are so similar that a single vaccine should protect against them all (PNAS, doi.org/fdkz). There are three main reasons for this. First, even though SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, which generally have the fastest mutation rate of any biological entity, coronaviruses change relatively slowly because their genome-copying machinery has a proofreading function. Second, when mutations have appeared, they are almost all biologically harmful or neutral to the virus, and so haven’t persisted. And third, the virus hasn’t needed to evolve in order to be successful. Not yet, anyway. This is what makes some virologists nervous as we move into the next phase of the pandemic. As a rule, evolutionary adaptation happens due to “selection pressure”, which is when an organism’s environment changes to favour certain variants over others. Right now, SARS-CoV-2 is under very weak selection pressure. There are still plenty of humans to infect who have no “immune memory” to fight the virus; there are very few drugs to evade; and there is no vaccine. But as these benign conditions become harsher for the virus, selection pressure will ramp up and we can expect to see it evolve in response, perhaps in ways that make it even more dangerous.

10-20-20 UK's vital covid-19 infection tracking survey deluged by complaints
The UK’s flagship covid-19 infection tracking survey has been deluged by complaints, with volunteers calling it an “absolute shambles”, “disappointing and frustrating” and an “utter incompetence“. Hundreds of people taking part in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Covid-19 Infection Survey have taken to Twitter in the past month to register their frustration at alleged multiple problems by IQVIA, a US multinational that organises the household visits for tests to be collected. Households receive a letter inviting them to call to register for the survey, and the survey team is meant to contact them within seven days to book an appointment for a worker to visit, supervise and collect completed tests. After the first appointment, volunteers are given the option of having follow-up appointments to continue taking part in the survey. But complaints suggest this isn’t happening smoothly. Reported issues include not calling people back to book appointments, no-shows when appointments have been booked, constantly busy helplines, unanswered emails and tweets, and workers offering poor guidance on how volunteers should swab their nose and throat. The picture painted by the complaints could offer one explanation for a growing share of invited households failing to complete any tests for the survey, as New Scientist reported last week. Pete Liggins in Prestwich says the first IQVIA worker to visit him didn’t offer any advice on how to do self-swabbing tests, and it was only when he watched a video online after completing the test that he realised how to do it properly. No one called to book a follow-up appointment, and he was unable to get through to a helpline which was constantly busy. “If it’s not being carried out properly then all the sacrifices we’re being asked to make could be for nothing,” he says.

10-20-20 UK trial plans to infect volunteers with the coronavirus in January
Researchers in the UK have announced plans to infect volunteers with the coronavirus, starting in January. The initial aim will be to establish the minimum infectious dose before testing potential vaccines. The study will be funded by the UK government, but has yet to get final ethical approval. “The top priority is participants’ safety,” says Chris Chiu at Imperial College London, whose team will carry out the study. “We have spent many months thinking about the evidence and weighing up the pros and cons.” The coronavirus doses will be created by a company called hVIVO, as the research requires a pure, quantifiable source of the virus, rather than an infection spreading person to person. The doses will contain the same strain that is currently circulating and not weakened, or attenuated, in any way. Volunteers will have the virus delivered to their nose in droplets, a method widely used in previous studies of this kind. As soon they show signs of infection, they will be given the antiviral drug remdesivir. A large trial recently found that remdesivir didn’t reduce the death rate from covid-19. However, that trial involved severely ill people who had already been hospitalised, says Chiu. He thinks giving the drug very early on will stop the infection spreading to the lungs. The team will also consider using other drugs such as antibodies as more evidence becomes available. The volunteers will be healthy individuals aged between 18 and 30. Initially they are likely to be from a white ethnic background because of evidence that black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to get severely ill. However, the team says it will include volunteers from more diverse backgrounds as soon as it can do so safely.

10-20-20 Fire ants build little syphons out of sand to feed without drowning
To escape a watery death, the insects construct relatively sophisticated structures on the fly. The threat of death is no obstacle for some hungry fire ants. To escape drowning while feeding on sugary water, black imported fire ants built syphons out of sand that moved the water to a safer spot. A range of animals, including birds, dolphins, primates and even ants, use objects as tools (SN: 12/30/19; SN: 6/25/20; SN: 6/24/19). Ants often employ debris or sand grains to carry food. But this is the first time that the insects have been observed adjusting their tool use to build relatively complex structures in response to a problem, researchers report October 7 in Functional Ecology. In the wild, black imported fire ants (Solenopsis richteri) typically eat honeydew produced by aphids. In the lab, entomologist Jian Chen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., and colleagues provided the ants with containers of sugary water. The insects have a hard, water-repellent outer covering called a cuticle, and can typically float on a liquid — and sure enough, the insects floated and fed without a problem. The researchers then reduced the water’s surface tension with a surfactant to make it more difficult for the ants to float. While some ants drowned, most stopped entering the containers and instead used grains of sand placed nearby to build structures leading from the inside of a container to outside of it. Those structures acted like syphons. Within five minutes of building one, nearly half of the water was drawn out through the sand pathway, allowing the ants to feed safely. “The fact that ants are building little syphons is new and interesting,” says Valerie Banschbach of Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn., who was not involved in the study. The insects’ “flexibility to act in a creative way responding to a situation suggests that they have higher cognitive abilities than what is traditionally believed.”

10-19-20 Should we plan for regular 'circuit-breaker' coronavirus lockdowns?
With cases of covid-19 rising in most parts of the UK, there is fierce debate over the best way to respond. While some people argue for a “let the virus rip” strategy, others want increasing social restrictions, up to and including full lockdown, as happened in the pandemic’s first wave. Yet is there another way? One idea gaining ground is that countries should hold regular pre-emptive lockdowns, lasting about two weeks. They could be timed to coincide with school holidays, minimising disruption to education. In the UK, this would mean having these shut downs about every two months. The idea may sound similar to the short, sharp “circuit-breaker” lockdown, an idea advocated by some UK government scientists, including chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance. Northern Ireland began such a lockdown on 16 October and Wales has announced it will do the same from 23 October. But there is a crucial difference between these strategies: the idea is that pre-emptive lockdowns would be planned to happen periodically, even when a country’s coronavirus case numbers are relatively low. The advance knowledge of when they are due to happen is supposed to reduce the impact on businesses, while the fact that they are short and have a definite end point could make them more bearable for the public. It is hard to work out exactly what effect this would have on virus prevalence, but it should regularly reset case numbers to a lower level. At best, it could mean avoiding the longer kind of lockdowns seen in the pandemic’s first wave. This year, there has been growing appreciation of the toll on mental health caused by stopping people mixing with their friends and family. The benefit of pre-emptive circuit breakers is that it is easier to put up with something unpleasant if you know it will be short-lived and that there is a definite end in sight. “The specified length of time reduces uncertainty, and it is uncertainty that often promotes anxiety and poor mental well-being,” says Charlotte Hilton, a chartered psychologist based in the East Midlands, UK.

10-19-20 Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?
Cold water swimming may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia, researchers from Cambridge University have discovered. In a world first, a "cold-shock" protein has been found in the blood of regular winter swimmers at London's Parliament Hill Lido. The protein has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice. Prof Giovanna Mallucci, who runs the UK Dementia Research Institute's Centre at the University of Cambridge, says the discovery could point researchers towards new drug treatments which may help hold dementia at bay. The research - although promising - is at an early stage, but it centres on the hibernation ability that all mammals retain, which is prompted by exposure to cold. There are already more than a million people with dementia in the UK and the total is expected to double by 2050. Researchers are searching for new ways to treat the condition, as current options have only limited impact. Doctors have known for decades that cooling people down can - in certain circumstances - protect their brains. People with head injuries and those who need cardiac operations are often cooled during surgery, as are babies. What has not been so well understood was why cold has this protective effect. The link with dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses - the connections between cells in the brain. In the early stages of Alzheimer's and other neuro-degenerative diseases, these brain connections are lost. This leads to the cascade of symptoms associated with dementia - including memory loss, confusion and mood swings - and, in time, the death of whole brain cells. What intrigued Prof Mallucci was the fact that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats bed down for their winter sleep. About 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for winter. But when they awake in the spring, those connections are miraculously reformed.

10-17-20 Remdesivir doesn’t reduce COVID-19 deaths, a large WHO trial finds
An international study found no benefit of the drug or three others. Remdesivir, an antiviral drug that was the first found to combat COVID-19, doesn’t reduce deaths from the disease, a large international study found. The World Health Organization’s Solidarity trial, which combined data from 405 hospitals in 30 countries, randomly assigned more than 11,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19 to receive one of four drugs or standard care, which could include other drugs such as steroids. The tested drugs include remdesivir, the antimalaria drug hydroxychloroquine, an anti-HIV drug called lopinavir and interferon-beta1a. Interferon is an immune system chemical that triggers the body’s antiviral defenses. None of the drugs showed any benefit in reducing deaths, the need for ventilation or the length of hospital stays, researchers report October 15 in a preliminary study posted at medRxiv.org. The work has not been vetted by other scientists yet, and some analyses may change during the peer-review process, experts say. Other studies had already shown that neither lopinavir — given in combination with ritonavir, a drug that boosts lopinavir’s levels in the body — nor hydroxychloroquine were effective against the novel coronavirus (SN: 3/19/20; SN: 8/2/20). These studies, in addition to the new data, deliver a clear message that those drugs are not helpful for treating COVID-19, says David Brett-Major, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. But remdesivir has been shown to shave four days off of hospital stays in a trial conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (SN: 4/29/20). In that study, the drug “showed a trend toward reducing deaths,” but the result wasn’t statistically meaningful. Preliminary results from small studies conducted by remdesivir’s maker, Gilead Sciences of Foster City, Calif., also suggested that drug might cut the chance of dying from the disease (SN: 7/13/20).

10-17-20 Can supplements really help fight COVID-19? Here’s what we know and don’t know
There’s little evidence yet, except maybe in people who are deficient in vitamins and minerals. Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream “This supplement could save you from coronavirus.” It also helps to have celebrity enthusiasts. When President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, his pill arsenal included Vitamin D and zinc. And in an Instagram chat with actress Jennifer Garner in September, infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci touted vitamins C and D as ways that might generally boost the immune system. “If you’re deficient in vitamin D,” he noted, “that does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection. I would not mind recommending, and I do it myself, taking vitamin D supplements.” But whether over-the-counter supplements can actually prevent, or even treat, COVID-19, is not clear. Since the disease is so new, researchers haven’t had much time for the kind of large experiments that provide the best answers. Instead, scientists have mostly relied on fresh takes on old data. Some studies have looked at outcomes of patients who routinely take certain supplements — and found some promising hints. But so far there’s little data from the kinds of scientifically rigorous experiments that give doctors confidence when recommending supplements. Vitamin D Why it might help: Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system. Zinc Why it might help: It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth. Vitamin C Why it might help: It’s a potent antioxidant that’s important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.


ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE and ZOOLOGY

10-23-20 Why bat scientists are socially distancing from their subjects
Biologist Winifred Frick argues for precautions to shield North American bats from the coronavirus. There’s nothing Winifred Frick likes better than crawling through guano-filled caves and coming face-to-face with bats. As chief scientist of Bat Conservation International, she is on a mission to promote understanding of bats and protect imperiled species from extinction. For months, though, Frick has avoided research that would put her within spitting distance of bats. Her only projects to persist through the pandemic have been conducted from afar, like using acoustic monitors to eavesdrop on the animals’ squeaks and swooshes. In an era of COVID-19, that “hands-off” approach and other precautions are crucial to protect both bats and people, Frick, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and over two dozen other scientists argue online September 3 in PLOS Pathogens. Why the call to action? SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, likely originated in bats in China (SN: 3/26/20). But neither it nor other coronaviruses belonging to the same genus — Betacoronavirus — have been detected in the more than 40 bat species in North America, although the animals do harbor other types of coronaviruses. Scientists are not worried about catching SARS-CoV-2 from these bats. They’re afraid of giving it to the bats — not an impossibility, the authors argue, given that the United States leads the world in infections, with nearly 8 million as of October 16. “We can’t tell bats to socially distance,” Frick says. “We want to reduce the chance that there’s any pathogen transfer across animals, full stop.” The goal is to prevent viral “spillover.” Human-to-bat transmission isn’t an unheard-of scenario. People are likely to blame for introducing Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes white nose syndrome, to North American bats. The disease has killed millions of bats throughout the United States and Canada since it was first detected in 2006 (SN: 3/31/16).

10-23-20 Cats cost Australia A$6 billion a year by spreading diseases
Diseases transmitted by cats cost the Australian economy more than A$6 billion (£3.3 billion) annually through their impact on human health and livestock production. Sarah Legge at Australian National University in Canberra and her colleagues have analysed the economic impact of cat scratch disease, in which a scratch or bite can cause an infection of the bacterium Bartonella henselae, and toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease. The researchers estimate that these diseases and others spread by cats to humans cost the Australian economy $6.06 billion annually in medical care, insurance, social support and lost productivity. Toxoplasmosis also affects animals, causing miscarriages in sheep and goats. Another parasitic disease that spreads through cats, sarcocystosis, causes cysts to form in sheep meat, which reduces the amount that can be sold. The researchers estimate that the two parasitic diseases result in annual costs to livestock production of about $11.7 million. Toxoplasmosis is a result of an infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which cats can catch when they prey on infected birds, mice or other small animals. The parasite reproduces inside cats, and the disease probably wouldn’t exist in Australia if cats hadn’t been introduced by the British in 1788. Infected cats release the T. gondii oocysts – an egg-like form of the parasite – in their faeces, which people can then accidentally ingest, for example while gardening. People can also ingest the oocysts by eating raw or undercooked meat that is infected. The parasite enters the body, often the brain, and remains there indefinitely. The researchers used estimates of toxoplasmosis prevalence – about 30 per cent of the global population – as well as the frequency of its health impacts. They combined government and other research statistics on medical costs and employment data.

10-21-20 Near-uncrushable beetle's exoskeleton could inspire tough structures
The diabolical ironclad beetle is so tough that engineers are hoping to copy features of its exoskeleton to design stronger and more robust structures. “You can run these things over with a car and they don’t die,” says David Kisailus at the University of California, Irvine. “We took a Toyota, like a sedan, and drove over them and they survived. That was kind of surprising.” To investigate what makes these creatures virtually uncrushable, Kisailus and his colleagues performed compression tests on the beetle’s exoskeleton, while analysing it under a microscope and by CT scan. The researchers discovered ellipsoidal beam-like structures surrounding the beetle’s exoskeleton, which combine with tiny interlocking blades that form joints between the two segments of the beetle’s exoskeletal forewings, enabling the beetle to endure extreme compression. Kisailus hopes that understanding the diabolical ironclad beetle’s uniquely tough structure will help inform the design of stronger components for use in building lighter aircraft, resulting in planes that consume less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide. “No need to reinvent the wheel, just figure out what nature’s done,” he says. As a test, he and his team joined together a carbon-based material with a piece of metal, mimicking the joint structure of the beetle’s exoskeleton. They found it was about twice as tough as a standard joint commonly used to connect similar parts when building aircraft. “In engineering applications, commonly used joints between materials often fracture at their thinnest regions due to stress concentration,” says Po-Yu Chen at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. The beetle’s tiny interlocking blades provide a new way to improve toughness and prevent fracturing at these types of joints, he says. Why this species of beetle evolved such a tough exoskeleton in the first place is a mystery. The beetle spends a lot of its time squeezing under rocks and into bark, says Kisailus, and is predated by rodents, birds and lizards. “Maybe it was just exposed to a more dangerous environment than other beetles.”

10-22-20 The diabolical ironclad beetle can survive getting run over by a car. Here’s how
Microstructures in the beetle’s armor make it nearly impossible to squish. The diabolical ironclad beetle is like a tiny tank on six legs. This insect’s rugged exoskeleton is so tough that the beetle can survive getting run over by cars, and many would-be predators don’t stand a chance of cracking one open. Phloeodes diabolicus is basically nature’s jawbreaker. Analyses of microscope images, 3-D printed models and computer simulations of the beetle’s armor have now revealed the secrets to its strength. Tightly interlocked and impact-absorbing structures that connect pieces of the beetle’s exoskeleton help it survive enormous crushing forces, researchers report in the Oct. 22 Nature. Those features could inspire new, sturdier designs for things such as body armor, buildings, bridges and vehicles. The diabolical ironclad beetle, which dwells in desert regions of western North America, has a distinctly hard-to-squish shape. “Unlike a stink beetle, or a Namibian beetle, which is more rounded … it’s low to the ground [and] it’s flat on top,” says David Kisailus, a materials scientist at the University of California, Irvine. In compression experiments, Kisailus and colleagues found that the beetle could withstand around 39,000 times its own body weight. That would be like a person shouldering a stack of about 40 M1 Abrams battle tanks. Within the diabolical ironclad beetle’s own tanklike physique, two key microscopic features help it withstand crushing forces. The first is a series of connections between the top and bottom halves of the exoskeleton. “You can imagine the beetle’s exoskeleton almost like two halves of a clamshell sitting on top of each other,” Kisailus says. Ridges along the outer edges of the top and bottom latch together.

10-22-20 Secrets of the 'uncrushable' beetle revealed
The diabolical ironclad beetle is one tough critter, as its name might suggest. Equipped with super-tough body armour, the insect can survive being stamped on or even run over by a car. Now scientists have investigated the secrets of how the beetle can withstand forces up to 39,000 times its body weight. And the findings could give clues to building tougher materials for use in construction and aeronautics. The research, published in the journal Nature, could lead to "tough, impact- and crush-resistant materials", says a team led by David Kisailus of the University of California, Irvine. The diabolical ironclad beetle (Phloeodes diabolicus) is found mainly in the US and Mexico, where it lives under the bark of trees or beneath rocks. The beetle has one of the toughest exoskeletons of any known insect. Early insect collectors became aware of this when trying to mount specimens to boards with standard steel pins. Their pins bent and snapped, and they had to resort to a drill to penetrate the tough outer casing. The beetle, having lost the ability to fly away from danger, has evolved crush-resistant forewings (known as elytra), to survive being pecked to death by hungry birds. The researchers used microscopy, spectroscopy and mechanical testing, to identify a series of interlocked jigsaw-shaped joints within the exoskeleton, which allow the beetle to withstand forces of up to 149 Newtons (approximately 39,000 times the creature's body weight). To test the potential of this type of structure as a way of joining different materials, such as plastics and metal, the scientists made a series of joints from metal and composites based on those seen in the beetle. They say their designs enhanced the strength and toughness of the materials. Other natural materials, such as bones, teeth and shells, have long served as inspiration for scientists seeking to develop new materials. Many have exceptional mechanical performance, as well as strength, toughness and the ability to self-heal.

10-21-20 Some male fish use their tails to fan rivals’ sperm away from eggs
To boost their chances of fertilising a nest-load of eggs, some male fish use their tailfin to fan away the sperm deposited by rivals. Scientists have previously determined that penis shapes can help male animals remove a rival’s sperm from the female reproductive tract. However, the new study is the first to discover that even among animals that fertilise eggs outside the body, males have strategies to remove rivals’ sperm and increase their paternity chances. Takeshi Takegaki of Nagasaki University in Japan and his colleagues studied the behaviour of 12 nest-holding male dusky frillgoby fish (Bathygobius fuscus), common in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, when faced with rival sperm in their nests. Like most bony fish, dusky frillgobies reproduce by spawning, meaning males ejaculate semen into the water to fertilise eggs. Nest-holding males are fish that occupy a hole between rocks and then encourage females to lay eggs inside, which the male then fertilises and protects from other males. So-called sneaker males – which are smaller but with larger testicles – literally sneak into nests to ejaculate over just-laid eggs and then swim away. Nest-holding males “aggressively chase” sneaker males away from their rock holes, says Takegaki, and then fan their tails at the nest entrance after the intruder leaves as if they’re “sweeping out” the rival semen. Takegaki’s team injected equivalent amounts of either sea water or sneaker male semen into nest-holding males’ rock holes in laboratory aquariums. They found that the nest-holding males swished their tails about 30 times more when they detected the presence of manually injected sneaker sperm compared with sea water. The fish probably pick up chemical signals from the rival sperm which influence their behaviour, he says. This active tail swishing led, on average, to an 87 per cent drop in sperm concentration in the nest, he says. While that effectively contributes to the removal of rival sperm from the nest, tail swishing has a major drawback: it also removes the nest-holding male’s sperm. To compensate, the fish then produce more of their own sperm in the nest.

10-21-20 Naked mole-rats invade neighboring colonies and steal babies
When the burrow is king, it may pay to be part of a huge, aggressive army. Naked mole-rats — with their subterranean societies made up of a single breeding pair and an army of workers — seem like mammals trying their hardest to live like insects. Nearly 300 of the bald, bucktoothed, nearly blind rodents can scoot along a colony’s labyrinth of tunnels. New research suggests there’s brute power in those numbers: Like ants or termites, the mole-rats go to battle with rival colonies to conquer their lands. Wild naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) will invade nearby colonies to expand their territory, sometimes abducting pups to incorporate them into their own ranks, researchers report September 28 in the Journal of Zoology. This behavior may put smaller, less cohesive colonies at a disadvantage, potentially supporting the evolution of bigger colonies. Researchers stumbled across this phenomenon by accident while monitoring naked mole-rat colonies in Kenya’s Meru National Park. The team was studying the social structure of this extreme form of group living among mammals (SN: 6/20/06). Over more than a decade, the team trapped and marked thousands of mole-rats from dozens of colonies by either implanting small radio-frequency transponder chips under their skin, or clipping their toes. One day in 1994, while marking mole-rats in a new colony, researchers were surprised to find in its tunnels mole-rats from a neighboring colony that had already been marked. The queen in the new colony had wounds on her face from the ravages of battle. It looked like a war was playing out down in the soil. “Naked mole-rats are better known for their cooperation within colonies than competition between colonies,” notes Stan Braude, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis. But over the course of the long-term study, Braude and his colleagues found that 26 colonies expanded their tunnels by digging into burrow systems occupied by neighboring colonies. In half of these cases, the invaded colony fled to a different arm of their tunnel system as the invaders expanded their territory. In the other half of cases, the invaded colony was entirely displaced, and the original mole-rats were never encountered there again. In four incursions, researchers caught invading mole-rats in the act, and in three of those, the bigger colony was doing the invading.

10-20-20 Eating jellyfish: Why scientists are talking up a 'perfect food'
Australian researchers recently found that over 90 species of endangered fish are caught legally by industrial fisheries globally. In the wake of the study, scientists have again suggested eating more jellyfish as a sustainable option. Why? Marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin says there are a few reasons.

10-20-20 Fire ants build little syphons out of sand to feed without drowning
To escape a watery death, the insects construct relatively sophisticated structures on the fly. The threat of death is no obstacle for some hungry fire ants. To escape drowning while feeding on sugary water, black imported fire ants built syphons out of sand that moved the water to a safer spot. A range of animals, including birds, dolphins, primates and even ants, use objects as tools (SN: 12/30/19; SN: 6/25/20; SN: 6/24/19). Ants often employ debris or sand grains to carry food. But this is the first time that the insects have been observed adjusting their tool use to build relatively complex structures in response to a problem, researchers report October 7 in Functional Ecology. In the wild, black imported fire ants (Solenopsis richteri) typically eat honeydew produced by aphids. In the lab, entomologist Jian Chen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., and colleagues provided the ants with containers of sugary water. The insects have a hard, water-repellent outer covering called a cuticle, and can typically float on a liquid — and sure enough, the insects floated and fed without a problem. The researchers then reduced the water’s surface tension with a surfactant to make it more difficult for the ants to float. While some ants drowned, most stopped entering the containers and instead used grains of sand placed nearby to build structures leading from the inside of a container to outside of it. Those structures acted like syphons. Within five minutes of building one, nearly half of the water was drawn out through the sand pathway, allowing the ants to feed safely. “The fact that ants are building little syphons is new and interesting,” says Valerie Banschbach of Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn., who was not involved in the study. The insects’ “flexibility to act in a creative way responding to a situation suggests that they have higher cognitive abilities than what is traditionally believed.”

10-20-20 A rope bridge restored a highway through the trees for endangered gibbons
Simple artificial structures could help reconnect forests fragmented by human activities. With acrobatic leaps, Hainan gibbons can cross a great gully carved by a 2014 landslide in the forest on China’s Hainan Island. But when a palm frond caught by the vaulting apes to steady their landing started to sag, researchers rushed to provide a safer route across. Though slow to adopt it, the gibbons increasingly traveled a bridge made of two ropes that was installed across the 15-meter gap, researchers report October 15 in Scientific Reports. The finding suggests that such tethers could also help connect once-intact forests that have been fragmented by human activities and aid conservation efforts of these and other canopy dwellers. “Fragmentation is becoming an increasing problem,” says Tremaine Gregory, a conservation biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s probably going to be, along with climate change, one of the biggest challenges for biodiversity in decades.” The landslide damaged an arboreal highway, a preferred route through the trees that the apes use to traverse the rainforest. Hainan gibbons (Nomascus hainanus) are almost strictly arboreal, and forest fragmentation can divide the already critically endangered primates (SN: 8/6/15) into smaller breeding populations, says Bosco Chan, a conservation biologist at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong. That can lead to inbreeding or local groups dying out. Only about 30 individuals remain of this species, all living in a nature reserve on Hainan Island. For the group of nine gibbons studied, the researchers didn’t want the animals to get hurt crossing the gap. Enter the rope bridge. It took months for the gibbons to catch on, but about 176 days after the bridge’s installation, camera traps captured the gibbons taking to the ropes. “I was very excited when [the gibbons] first started using it,” Chan says.

10-19-20 Heating deltamethrin may help it kill pesticide-resistant mosquitoes
The insecticide is used to control pests that spread life-threatening diseases like malaria. A few minutes in the microwave made a common insecticide about 10 times more lethal to mosquitoes in lab experiments. The toxin deltamethrin is used around the world in home sprays and bed nets to curb the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria — which kills over 400,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization. But “mosquitoes the world over are showing resistance to deltamethrin and [similar] compounds,” says Bart Kahr, a crystallographer at New York University who has helped develop a more potent form of deltamethrin by heating it. This form of deltamethrin may stand a better chance of killing insecticide-resistant pests, Kahr and colleagues report online October 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Malaria has been essentially eradicated in the United States, but more effective pesticides could be a boon for regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is a major public health problem. Kahr’s team increased the potency of commercial deltamethrin dust spray simply by melting a vial of it — either by heating it to 150° Celsius in an oil bath for five minutes or by popping it in a 700-watt microwave for the same amount of time. While the microscopic deltamethrin crystals in the original spray have a haphazard structure, which looks like a jumble of misaligned flakes, the melted deltamethrin crystals solidified into starburst shapes when they cooled to room temperature. Chemical bonds between deltamethrin molecules in the starburst-shaped crystals are not as strong as those in the original microcrystal structure. “The molecules are intrinsically less happy, or settled, in the arrangement,” Kahr says. So, when a mosquito lands on a dusting of starburst-shaped crystals, it should be easier for deltamethrin molecules to be absorbed into the insect’s body via its feet.