Omicron Surge Prompts CES to Trim a Day from Schedule

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show will end a day earlier than planned, the organizer of the global technology and gadget show said, after companies including Amazon and General Motors dropped out of attending the Las Vegas event in person because of omicron concerns. 

“The step was taken as an additional safety measure to the current health protocols that have been put in place for CES,” event organizer Consumer Technology Association said on Friday, announcing the event will now end on January 7. 

The spread of the omicron variant has led to a sharp jump in COVID-19 infections across the world, making many reconsider their travel plans and leading to thousands of flight cancellations. 

The number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has doubled in eight days to a record of 587,143 new cases on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally. 

As worries over the new variant loom, many companies have withdrawn from presenting in-person at the event, planned both virtually and in-person, that begins on January 5 with more than 2,200 exhibitors. 

Over the last few days, a host of firms including Advanced Micro Devices, Proctor & Gamble, Google, and Facebook parent Meta Platforms have also dropped their in-person plans. 

Sony Group’s Sony Electronics has said it will have limited staffing and attendees at the event. 

All attendees in Las Vegas will be required to be fully vaccinated and masked. COVID-19 test kits will also be provided at the venue, according to CTA’s statement. 

 

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Tesla Recalls 675,000 Cars in US, China

Tesla has recalled 675,000 cars in the United States and China over issues with the trunk and front hood of two models, raising new questions about the safety of the popular electric vehicle. 

Chinese regulators announced the recall of almost 200,000 cars on Friday, hours after some 475,000 Tesla vehicles were flagged in the United States. 

The problems with the trunk and hood increase the risk of crashes, according to U.S. and Chinese regulators. 

Authorities said the repeated opening and closing of the trunk of the Model 3 can damage a cable for the rearview camera. 

An issue with the latch assembly for the front hood of the Model S could cause it to open without warning and obstruct the driver’s visibility, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

Tesla estimates that the problems affect 1% of Model 3 and 14% of Model S vehicles recalled in the United States, without causing any accidents so far. 

Mass recalls are not rare in the auto industry.

Volkswagen had to take 8.5 million cars out of circulation in 2015 due to the Dieselgate scandal, in which the German company admitted tampering with millions of diesel vehicles to dupe emissions tests. 

At least 100 million vehicles were recalled by car companies across the world in recent years due to a defect with airbags made by bankrupt Japanese group Takata. 

Tesla’s recall represents a quarter of the number of cars Elon Musk’s young company has produced so far. 

“It is a reality wake-up call for Tesla though, with a slap-in-the-face welcome to the automotive world that is perhaps more complex than the smartphone industry that many like to compare it to,” said German auto analyst Matthias Schmidt. 

“After all, a dysfunctional car on four wheels can do a lot more potential damage than a dysfunctional iPhone,” Schmidt said. 

Other incidents 

In June, Tesla recalled more than 285,000 cars in China over issues with its assisted driving software that could cause accidents. 

The company also recalled thousands of Model 3 and Model Y vehicles earlier that month to inspect brake calipers for loose bolts. 

In November, the NHTSA recalled nearly 12,000 Tesla cars due to errors with their communication software. 

U.S. safety officials are also investigating Tesla’s Autopilot after identifying 11 crashes involving the driver assistance system. 

The previous month, U.S. highway safety regulators demanded details from Tesla on issues with its new autonomous system, building on a previously announced probe. 

Tesla executives have downplayed the regulatory inquiries, saying they were to be expected with “cutting edge” technology and that they were cooperating “as much as possible.” 

Banner year 

The issues have been blights to an otherwise banner year for Tesla, as it joined the exclusive club of companies with a market capitalization of $1 trillion. 

The company delivered a record 240,000 vehicles in the third quarter, and Tesla’s billionaire chief Elon Musk was named Time magazine’s person of the year. 

Tesla’s good fortune contrasted with other, traditional automakers that were heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic and a shortage of semiconductors that are key components in cars. 

Trip Chowdhry, analyst at Global Equities Research consultancy, said the latest Tesla recall is a “non-event” as the company still holds a big advantage over its competitors. 

 

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Pakistan: 70 Million Fully Vaccinated Against COVID-19

Pakistan says it has administered 155 million COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Friday, fully vaccinating 70 million people, or 30% of the country’s total population, since launching the inoculation drive in February.

The South Asian nation of about 220 million reported its first case in early 2020 and since then the pandemic has infected about 1.3 million people and killed nearly 29,000 people, keeping the situation largely under control.

“Of the total eligible population [age 12 and above], 46% is fully vaccinated and 63% has received at least one dose,” Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar who heads the National Command and Operation Center that oversees Pakistan’s pandemic response, tweeted.

 

The government had set the target in May and achieved it “with the help of countless workers, citizens and leadership across the country,” tweeted Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on national health services.

 

Faisal advised Pakistanis to continue to use masks, avoid crowded places and ensure social distancing in the wake of rising cases of infection from the omicron variant.

Officials said Pakistan has received a total of 247 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to date. The government has purchased 157 million while 78 million arrived through the COVAX dose-sharing program, including 32.6 million donated by the United States, and nearly 9 million donated from China.

 

The United Nations and other global partners have acknowledged Pakistan’s effective response to the pandemic, citing the country’s success in vaccinating children against polio and other transmittable diseases through mass immunization campaigns.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal health ministry adapted its facilities to vaccinate adults, who make up about half of Pakistan’s population, according to a recent UNICEF statement. 

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Wet December Raises Some Hope for Drought-Stricken California

Record snowfalls in the western United States that closed roads and caused flight delays also brought some good news for drought-hit California on Thursday, with officials saying the state’s snowpack is now well above normal. 

After a string of mountain blizzards, snowpack measured at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada stands at more than 200% of its average for this date, according to the first measurement of the season by California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR). The Sierra Nevada supplies almost a third of the state’s water needs, once the snow runs off to reservoirs and aqueducts. 

Statewide, snowpack is 160% of its average, the DWR said. 

“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said Karla Nemeth, the director of the DWR. 

Droughts in California are growing more frequent and intense with climate change, according to scientists, threatening the state’s already tenuous water supply and creating conditions for dangerous wildfires. 

Despite the precipitation-heavy end to 2021, the DWR warned against complacency. 

The state would still have to see “significant” precipitation in January and February to make up for the two previous winters, the state’s fifth- and second-driest water years on record, the DWR said. 

“California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit. 

He added that a wet start to the winter season did not necessarily mean precipitation in 2022 would end above average. 

 

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South Africa Lifts Curfew, Says COVID-19 Fourth Wave Peaked

South Africa has lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement, effective immediately, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the omicron variant, a government statement said Thursday. 

However, wearing a face mask in public places remains mandatory. Failure to wear a mask in South Africa when required is a criminal offense. 

The country made the curfew and other changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency. 

South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels. 

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier Thursday said. 

Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25 compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said. 

South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts. 

Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate after 11 p.m. local time may revert to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season. 

“While the omicron variant is highly transmissible, there have been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves,” the statement said.

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US Braces for Omicron Surge 

Health authorities in the United States are sounding the alarm again, saying Americans could experience disruptions in the coming weeks because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The U.S has reported record numbers of cases two days in a row, Reuters reported, adding that 18 states have set pandemic case records. Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C., have reported record hospitalizations. 

“We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC. 

Many public agencies like police departments and fire departments have reported numerous employees calling in sick, making it harder to deliver services. 

Omicron is causing havoc in the airline industry, with thousands of flights either delayed or canceled. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans against taking cruises. 

According to a recent University of Texas study, omicron cases could peak between January 18 and February 3. The study said cases could subside by March. 

Roughly 62% of Americans have been given two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, USA Today reported. They are considered fully vaccinated, but many health officials are urging booster shots. Only one-third of Americans have gotten boosters, the paper reported. 

The U.S. death toll for the pandemic is 823,743, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. It is unclear how many deaths the omicron variant has caused.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

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James Webb Telescope Begins Long-awaited Space Journey

NASA successfully launched its much-anticipated next-generation space telescope.  Now come weeks of nervousness for project scientists who can only hope the next steps go as planned.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space. 

Produced by: Arash Arabasadi 

Camera :  AP/ NASA TV/ PURDUE UNIVERSITY/ YOUTUBE NASA/  “ARMAGEDDON” / TOUCHSTONE PICTURES – JERRY BRUCKHEIMER FILMS/ NASA JOHNS HOPKINS APL

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US Jobless Claims Dip Below 200,000

Applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 8,000 from 206,000 applications last report to 198,000 for the week ending December 25, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

Economists had predicted 205,000 applications.

The number of applications was near a 50-year low, but concerns over COVID-19, low labor market participation rates and rising inflation continue to add to economic uncertainty.

Labor participation, the number of people working or actively seeking a job, continues to hover at rates not seen since the early 1970s

“The claims data may be more volatile in the upcoming weeks due to the seasonal adjustment process, but looking past that noise, we expect claims to remain around 200,000 as layoffs remain low amid tight labor market conditions,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, according to CBS News.

Continuing claims reportedly were 1.72 million for the week ending December 18, which is the lowest since March of 2020, when the pandemic began to peak.

n October, the U.S. had nearly 11 million job openings, a near record.

The news sent the stock market slightly higher on low, pre-holiday volume.

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US Infectious Disease Expert: Skip Large New Year’s Eve Parties

The top infectious disease expert in the United States is urging Americans to avoid taking part in mass New Year’s Eve celebrations as the nation continues to set record-breaking levels of daily new coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The U.S. posted 489,267 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, just two days after recording a new single-day record of 512,553.

The U.S. is now averaging more than 265,000 new coronavirus cases per day, breaking the previous mark of 250,000 daily new infections set in January.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said Wednesday he “strongly recommends” that people cancel plans to attend large holiday parties with “30, 40, 50 people” this year, and instead spend the time with small gatherings of friends or relatives who are vaccinated and have received a booster shot.

In an interview Wednesday on financial cable network CNBC, Fauci also predicted the current omicron-driven surge may hit its peak in the U.S. by the end of January.

Health experts say despite omicron’s fast-moving spread around the world since it was first detected in South Africa last month, it appears to cause less severe illnesses than other versions of the coronavirus. However a World Health Organization official warned this week it is still too early to tell how omicron will affect older, more vulnerable people.

Meanwhile, a new study out of South Africa suggests a booster shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine provides strong protection against the omicron variant.

Researchers at the South African Medical Research Council say the booster shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was given to about 69,000 health care workers between November 15 and December 20. The results show the effectiveness at preventing hospitalization rose from 63% shortly after it was administered to 84% 14 days later, and 85% within one to two months.

Also, a separate study involving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States suggests the vaccine provides a 41-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies when used as a booster shot for people who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.

Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston also told CNN the Johnson & Johnson booster produces a five-fold increase in so-called T cells, an arm of the human immune system that kills virus-infected cells and keeps them from replicating and spreading.

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

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Iran Says Rocket Launch Sent 3 ‘Research Payloads’ Into Space 

Iran has used a satellite launch rocket to send three research devices into space, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on Thursday, as indirect U.S.-Iran talks take place in Austria to try to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal. 

He did not clarify whether the devices had reached orbit. 

Iran, which has one of the biggest missile programs in the Middle East, has suffered several failed satellite launches in the past few years due to technical issues. 

Spokesman Ahmad Hosseini said the Simorgh satellite carrier rocket, whose name translates as “Phoenix”, had launched the three research devices at an altitude of 470 kilometers (290 miles). He did not give further details. 

“The intended research objectives of this launch were achieved,” Hosseini said, in comments broadcast on state television. “This was done as a preliminary launch … God willing, we will have an operational launch soon.” 

Iranian state television showed footage of what it said was the firing of the launch vehicle. 

Thursday’s reported space launch comes as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna in an attempt to salvage a nuclear accord that Iran reached with world powers and that former U.S. president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. 

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s civilian space agency and two research organizations in 2019, claiming they were being used to advance Tehran’s ballistic missile program. 

Tehran denies such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development. 

Iran launched its first satellite Omid (Hope) in 2009 and its Rasad (Observation) satellite was also sent into orbit in June 2011. Tehran said in 2012 that it had successfully put its third domestically-made satellite, Navid (Promise), into orbit. 

In April 2020, Iran said it successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit, following repeated failed launch attempts in the previous months. 

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2 US Stock Market Indexes Set Records as Omicron Worries Ease

The Dow and S&P 500 closed at all-time highs on Wednesday on a boost from retailers including Walgreens and Nike as investors shrugged off concerns on the spreading omicron variant. 

The Dow has now risen six straight trading days, marking the longest streak of gains since a seven-session run from March 5-15 this year. 

Walgreens Boots Alliance and Nike rose 1.59% and 1.42% respectively against the backdrop of recent reports suggesting holiday sales were strong for U.S. retailers. 

Data on Wednesday showed the U.S. trade deficit in goods mushroomed to the widest ever in November as imports of consumer goods shot to a record and the coronavirus pandemic has limited spending by Americans on services. 

Some early studies pointing to a reduced risk of hospitalization in omicron cases have eased some investors’ concerns over the travel disruptions and powered the S&P 500 to record highs this week. 

Meanwhile, the S&P 1500 airlines index dipped. Delta Air Lines and Alaska Air Group canceled hundreds of flights again on Tuesday as the daily tally of infections in the United States surged. 

Typically, the final five trading days of the year and the first two of the subsequent year are seasonally strong for U.S. stocks, in a phenomenon known as the “Santa Claus Rally.” Market participants, however, warned against reading too much into daily moves as the holiday season tends to record some of the lowest volume turnovers, which can cause exaggerated price action. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 90.42 points, or 0.25%, to 36,488.63, the S&P 500 gained 6.71 points, or 0.14%, to 4,793.06 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 15.51 points, or 0.1%, to 15,766.22. 

As 2021 draws to a close, the main U.S. stock indexes are on pace for their third straight year of stunning annual returns, boosted by historic fiscal and monetary stimulus. The S&P 500 is looking at its strongest three-year performance since 1999. 

The focus next year will shift to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s path of interest rate hikes amid a surge in prices caused by supply chain bottlenecks and a strong economic rebound. 

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 7.89 billion shares, compared with the 11.15 billion average for the full session over the past 20 trading days. 

 

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US Goods Trade Gap Hits Record; Pending Home Sales Slip

The U.S. trade deficit in goods mushroomed to the widest ever in November as imports of consumer goods shot to a record ahead of the second straight COVID-19-distorted holiday shopping season along with industrial supplies, while exports slipped after a historic gain a month earlier.

The goods trade gap reported Wednesday by the Commerce Department is likely to remain historically high as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, economists said. The emergence of the fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 that has driven U.S. and global caseloads to a record this week may exacerbate it further in the near term if it limits American consumers’ spending on services and restokes demand for imported goods.

Omicron also stands as a downside risk in the housing market. A reading of pending home sales also out Wednesday showed an unexpected drop in November, and while that data largely predated omicron’s ascendance in the United States, the highly contagious new variant could further limit home sales in the near term, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) said.

The goods trade deficit widened last month by 17.5% to $97.8 billion from $83.2 billion in October, Census Bureau data showed. That exceeds the previous record deficit set in September of $97 billion and may damp optimism that trade might finally add to U.S. economic growth this quarter for the first time in more than a year.

Imports rose by 4.7% with industrial supplies leading the way with an increase of $5.7 billion to $63.2 billion, followed by consumer goods rising by $2.9 billion to just shy of $67 billion as retailers rushed to fill store shelves ahead of Christmas. Both were record highs.

“The emergence of the omicron variant may further ignite demand for imported goods if services activity is restricted” in the first quarter of 2022, Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, wrote after Wednesday’s report.

Goods exports, meanwhile, declined 2.1%, with weakness across the board outside of a 4.3% increase in food exports. The drop was led by declines of $1.4 billion in industrial supplies and $1.3 billion in capital goods.

The worldwide surge of coronoavirus cases to a record in recent days – including a record U.S. caseload – may weigh on global demand in the months ahead, risking an even wider trade gap, Vanden Houten said.

The so-called Advance Indicators report also showed wholesale inventories climbed 1.2% last month, while retail inventories increased 2.0%. Retail inventories, excluding autos, which go into the calculation of gross domestic product, edged up by 1.3% to $465.2 billion, the latest in a string of record-high readings.

The economy grew at a 2.3% annualized rate in the third quarter, a step-down from earlier in the year, but activity has rebounded in the fourth quarter with a consensus among economists building around a growth rate of 6% to 7% in the final three months of 2021.

Trade has been a drag on gross domestic product growth for five straight quarters, while inventories added to output in the third quarter.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department reported a sharp reduction in the overall trade deficit – including services – for October, which had generated some optimism that trade may contribute to the improvement in output in the final quarter of the year. The big reversal to a record goods trade gap in November may prompt a rethinking of that.

Economists at Action Economics have dialed back their fourth-quarter GDP growth estimate to 6.5% from 7.0%, with exports now seen subtracting from growth rather than adding to it as had been previously expected. Economists at JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, left their estimates intact at 7%.

Meanwhile, contracts to buy U.S. previously owned homes fell unexpectedly in November as limited housing stock and lofty prices crimped activity, and the explosion of new coronavirus cases poses a risk to the housing market headed into 2022.

NAR said its Pending Home Sales Index, based on signed contracts, fell 2.2% last month to 122.4. Pending home sales were lower in all four regions.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast contracts, which typically become final sales after a month or two, would rise 0.5% in November.

“There was less pending home sales action this time around, which I would ascribe to low housing supply, but also to buyers being hesitant about home prices,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.

Looking ahead, Yun said Omicron poses a risk to the housing market’s performance, as buyers and sellers are sidelined, and home construction is delayed.

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Ghana’s Coastal Communities Threatened by Erosion, Sand Harvesting

Tidal waves and coastal erosion have submerged an entire fishing community on Ghana’s eastern coast. Many villagers had already been relocated from past tidal waves and have petitioned the government for a permanent solution. Senanu Tord reports from the village of Fuvemeh in Ghana. 

Camera: Senanu Tord 

 

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WHO: Populism, Nationalism, Vaccine Hoarding Are Prolonging Pandemic

The World Health Organization is warning that the rapid circulation of the omicron and delta variants of the coronavirus is leading to a tsunami of cases, severe disease and surging deaths among the unvaccinated.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that while science had led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the global death toll from the disease has kept rising.

In 2020, the World Health Organization reported 1.8 million deaths globally, a number that pales in comparison to the additional 3.5 million deaths reported in 2021.

 

Tedros said the reason for the climb was that politics has too often trumped the need to work together to defeat this pandemic.

“Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants,” he said.

Tedros condemned the misinformation and disinformation that often has been spread by a small number of people for undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools. He said these twin evils have driven vaccine hesitancy and are to blame for the disproportionately large number of unvaccinated people dying from the delta and omicron strains of the coronavirus.

He warned that the virus that causes COVID-19 would continue to evolve and threaten the health system if nations did not improve their collective response. He said it was time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by addressing global vaccine inequity.

“Ending health inequity remains the key to ending the pandemic,” Tedros said. “As this pandemic drags on, it is possible that new variants could evade our countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.”

The WHO chief said it was time to banish the politics of populism and self-interests that have been derailing the global response to the pandemic. He asked everyone to make a New Year’s resolution to get behind WHO’s campaign to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by the middle of 2022.

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World Struggles With Rising COVID-19 Infections

The United States recorded more than 512,000 daily new coronavirus cases Tuesday – the single highest one-day number of cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data released by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

The one-day record coincides with a New York Times database showing the seven-day average of cases in the U.S. rose above 267,000 on Tuesday.

The recent surge is driven by a record number of children infected and hospitalized with COVID-19.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, lowered its previous estimate of new coronavirus cases driven by the rapidly spreading omicron variant. The federal health agency said Tuesday that omicron accounted for roughly 59 percent of all variants, far lower than the 73 percent figure it announced last week.

The surge of new infections in the United States has forced the cancelation of another postseason college football game. The Holiday Bowl was canceled Tuesday just hours before the game’s scheduled kickoff in San Diego, California, when UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) announced it would be unable to play against North Carolina State because too many players had been diagnosed with the infection.

Five postseason games have been canceled, while at least one bowl game is going ahead with a different team. Central Michigan will meet Washington State in Friday’s Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, after the Miami Hurricanes were forced to drop out. Central Michigan was supposed to play in the Arizona Bowl, but that game was canceled after Boise State withdrew.

Officials with the coming major college football championship playoffs have warned the four teams – Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan and Georgia – that if they cannot play in Friday’s semifinal matchups, they may have to forfeit.

The U.S. is among several nations reporting record new numbers of infections. France on Tuesday reported a new one-day record of 179,807 new cases, making it one of the highest single-day tallies worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

Denmark, which has the world’s highest infection rate, with 1,612 cases per 100,000 people, posted a single-day record of 16,164 new infections on Monday.

Other European nations reporting new record-setting numbers of one-day infections Tuesday include Britain (138,831), Greece (21,657), Italy (78,313), Portugal (17,172) and Spain (99,671).

Australia is also undergoing a dramatic increase in new cases driven by omicron, posting nearly 18,300 infections Wednesday, well above Tuesday’s previous high of about 11,300.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, reported just over 11,200 infections Wednesday – nearly double the 6,602 new cases posted the previous day.

Worldwide, the number of recorded cases increased by 11% last week, according to the World Health Organization. The United Nations agency said Wednesday the risk posed by omicron remains “very high.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Scientists Discover Coastal Marine Life Thriving on Plastic Ocean Trash

The growing issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is affecting coastal marine life, transporting many species to areas of the open ocean, surprising researchers. 

A group of U.S. and Canadian marine and environmental scientists were amazed to find that some species are thriving on plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The team discovered oceanic barnacles and crabs living alongside coastal barnacles and anemones.

“We expected to find oceanic marine species that have adapted on plastics, but we were absolutely surprised to discover coastal marine species as well,” said Linsey Haram, a research associate with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.

It is not known how some coastal marine life managed to get out into the ocean, added Haram, the lead author of a recent report on the findings in the journal Nature Communications.

“They may already be out there settling on the plastics, but most likely they are being rafted or transported from the coast on floating debris,” she told VOA.

The study focused on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. The massive garbage patch, which is over 1.5 million square kilometers, is mostly made up of plastic waste, big and small.

The debris includes massive quantities of tiny plastic fragments, along with water bottles, toothbrushes and abandoned fishing gear that are drawn into the patch by ocean currents called gyres.

The report notes the plastic can remain in the gyres for years.

“They come into the center [of the gyres] where the water is relatively stationary,” explained Amy Uhrin, chief scientist of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington. The majority of the garbage comes from the Pacific Rim and the West Coast of North America, she said.

The size of the patch can change depending on the wind and ocean currents, Uhrin told VOA in an interview.

The Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California, which works to clean up trash in the ocean, provided plastic samples for the research.

“We’ve had a large sailing cargo ship with a crane hoist tons of trash from the patch onto the deck of the vessel, especially the very harmful elements like plastic fishing nets that still catch and kill whales, dolphins and turtles,” Ocean Voyages founder and President Mary Crowley said.

The results from the samples provided the researchers with some food for thought.

“What has been most eye-opening is that the coastal marine species were not only thriving but reproducing,” Haram said.

However, there are many questions still unanswered.

“How do you survive being on piece of plastic in the middle of the ocean?” asks Greg Ruiz, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center and a contributor to the report.

“The coastal species may be creating their own ecosystem on the plastic debris that allows for microorganisms and algae to grow and essentially function as a food chain,” Ruiz said. “Fish and bird waste in the water may also be contributing nutrients.”

“We also want to figure out how the coastal and oceanic species are interacting since they are competing for limited space on the objects,” Haram said. “They could be using each other as a source of food.”

There is concern coastal hitchhikers could become invasive species.

“We want to know if other coastal marine life are on plastics in all of the five main ocean gyres worldwide,” Haram said. 

Ruiz added, “we’re concerned that coastal organisms from different regions could form colonies and spread disease to other marine life, including fish.”

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