Excitement Over Investing in Cryptocurrency Tinged With Fear of Big Slide

The price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has fallen dramatically in recent months. Still, many investors are excited about the future of digital currencies despite the risks. VOA’s Michelle Quinn reports from San Francisco. VOA footage by Matt Dibble and Michelle Quinn.

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‘Warn Everyone’: Spain’s Gay Community Acts as Monkeypox Spreads

Whether it’s abstinence, avoiding nightclubs, limiting sexual partners or pushing for a swift vaccine rollout, Spain’s gay community is on the front line of the monkeypox virus and is taking action. 

“With this monkey thing, I prefer to be careful. … I don’t have sex anymore, I don’t go to parties anymore, and that’s until I’m vaccinated and have some immunity,” said Antonio, a 35-year-old from Madrid who declined to give his last name. 

Antonio, who often went to nightclubs and sometimes to sex parties, decided to act as cases continued to increase. 

Spain on Saturday reported its second monkeypox-related death. 

Outside of Africa, the only other such death has been in Brazil. 

More than 18,000 cases have been detected throughout the world outside of Africa since the beginning of May, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Spain is one of the world’s worst-hit countries. The health ministry’s emergency and alert coordination center put the number of infected people at 4,298. 

As cases increase globally, the WHO has called on the group currently most affected by the virus, men who have sex with men, to limit their sexual partners. 

Lack of vaccines 

“This is not like Covid, the vaccine already exists, there’s no need to invent it. If it wasn’t a queer disease, we would have acted more — and faster,” said Antonio. 

Like other members of the gay community, he believes the authorities have not done enough. 

NGOs have denounced a lack of prevention, a shortage of vaccines and stigmatization linked to the virus.  

This is despite the WHO declaring the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency. 

Early signs of the disease include a high fever, swollen lymph glands and a chickenpox-like rash. 

The disease usually heals by itself after two to three weeks, sometimes taking a month. 

A smallpox vaccine from Danish drug maker Bavarian Nordic, marketed under the name Jynneos in the United States and Imvanex in Europe, has been found to protect against monkeypox. 

It took Antonio three weeks to get an appointment to be vaccinated, after logging on to the official website every day at midnight. 

Appointments “are going as fast as tickets to the next Beyonce concert,” another said. 

So far, Spain has only received 5,300 doses, which arrived in late June. 

The Spanish health ministry declined to comment when contacted by AFP. 

‘Anyone can catch it’ 

Nahum Cabrera of the FELGTBI+ NGO, an umbrella group of more than 50 LGBTQ organizations from all over Spain, insists there is an urgent need to vaccinate those most at risk. 

That means not just gay men, but anyone who has “regular sex with multiple partners, as well as those who frequent swingers’ clubs, LGTBI saunas, etc.,” he said. 

“It risks creating a false sense of security among the general population, and they relax into thinking that they are safe and that it only happens to men who have sex with men,” he said. 

The target age group for vaccination is those ages 18 and 46, he added. 

Older people are vaccinated against smallpox which was eradicated in Europe in the early 1970s. 

“We are facing a health emergency… that affects the LGBTI community, so people think it is insignificant, that it is not serious,” said Ivan Zaro, of the Imagina MAS (Imagine More) NGO. “This is exactly what happened 40 years ago with HIV.” 

Image director Javier spent three days in hospital in early July after becoming infected.   

The 32-year-old, who is in a monogamous relationship, said he still did not know how he had caught it. 

“I warn everyone,” he said. “It’s an infectious disease, anyone can catch it.” 

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China’s Factory Activity Contracts Unexpectedly in July as COVID Flares Up

China’s factory activity contracted unexpectedly in July after bouncing back from COVID-19 lockdowns the month before, as fresh virus flare-ups and a darkening global outlook weighed on demand, a survey showed on Sunday.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 49.0 in July from 50.2 in June, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said, below the 50-point mark that separates contraction from growth and the lowest in three months.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a reading of 50.4.

“The level of economic prosperity in China has fallen, the foundation for recovery still needs consolidation,” NBS senior statistician Zhao Qinghe said in a statement on the NBS website.

Continued contraction in the energy-intensive industries, such as petrol, coking coal and ferrous metals, contributed most to pulling down the July manufacturing PMI, he said.

Sub-indexes for output and new orders fell by 3 points and about 2 points in July, respectively, while the employment sub-index edged down by 0.1 point.

Weak demand has constrained recovery, Bruce Pang, chief economist and head of research at Jones Lang Lasalle Inc, said in a research note. “Q3 growth may face greater challenges than expected, as recovery is slow and fragile,” he added.

The official non-manufacturing PMI in July fell to 53.8 from 54.7 in June. The official composite PMI, which includes manufacturing and services, fell to 52.5 from 54.1.

China’s economy barely grew in the second quarter amid widespread lockdowns, and top leaders recently signaled their strict zero-COVID policy would remain a top priority.

Policymakers are prepared to miss their GDP growth target of “around 5.5%” for this year, state media reported after a high-level meeting of the ruling Communist Party.

Beijing’s decision to drop mention of the target has doused speculation that the authorities would roll out massive stimulus measures, as they often have in previous downturns.

Capital Economics says that policy restraint, along with the constant threat of more lockdowns and weak consumer confidence, is likely to make China’s economic recovery more drawn-out.

Faltering recovery

After a rebound in June, the recovery in the world’s second-biggest economy has faltered as COVID flare-ups led to tightening curbs on activity in some cities, while the once mighty property market lurches from crisis to crisis.

Chinese manufacturers continue to wrestle with high raw material prices, which are squeezing profit margins, as the export outlook remains clouded with fears of a global recession.

China’s southern megacity of Shenzhen has vowed to “mobilize all resources” to curb a slowly spreading COVID outbreak, ordering strict implementation of testing and temperature checks, and lockdowns for COVID-hit buildings.

The port city of Tianjin, home to factories linked to Boeing and Volkswagen, and other areas tightened curbs this month to fight new outbreaks.

According to World Economics, the lockdown measures had some impact on 41% of Chinese companies in July, though its index of manufacturing business confidence rose significantly from 50.2 in June to 51.7 in July.

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New York City Declares Monkeypox Public Health Emergency

New York has declared a public health emergency due to a monkeypox outbreak.  Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan made the announcement Saturday.

The two officials said in a joint statement that “New York City is currently the epicenter of the outbreak, and we estimate that approximately 150,000 New Yorkers may currently be at risk for monkeypox exposure.”

“Over the past few weeks, we have moved as quickly as possible to expand outreach and access to vaccines and treatment to keep people safe,” the officials said.  “We will continue to work with our federal partners to secure more doses as soon as they become available. This outbreak must be met with urgency, action, and resources, both nationally and globally, and this declaration of a public health emergency reflects the seriousness of the moment.”

On Friday, New York state Governor Kathy Hochul issued an executive order declaring a state disaster emergency because of the monkeypox outbreak. In her executive order, Hochul said that “More than one in four monkeypox cases in this country are in New York State.”  Her declaration also expanded the number of health care individuals who can administer the monkeypox vaccines.

The World Health Organization has declared the global monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that while 98% of global monkeypox cases “are among men who have sex with men, anyone exposed can get monkeypox, which is why WHO recommends that countries take action to reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups, including children, pregnant women and those who are immunosuppressed.”

Tedros said, “In addition to transmission through sexual contact, monkeypox can be spread in households through close contact between people, such as hugging and kissing, and on contaminated towels or bedding.” 

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In US, Abortion Laws Differ Across the Street  

The bedsheets are big. Some are light pink, others hot pink or purple, connected and stretched taut by people holding wooden poles. Together, the sheets form a barrier across the parking lot. The activists, who are supporting a woman’s right to an abortion, wear bright pink vests with PRO-CHOICE in black emblazoned on the front.

This is the front line of protection for pregnant women who drive to this women’s center for an abortion. The sheeting forms a tunnel for them to leave their cars and enter the center, unseen by anti-abortion protesters trying to stop them.

‘There’s very little conversation’

This is the daily scene at the Bristol Regional Women’s Center.   The abortion-rights activists stay inside the center parking lot; the anti-abortion protesters stand on the sidewalk. They walk next to a busy street with posters reading “Love Your Baby and Yourself” or “Babies are Murdered Here” next to competing pink signs that read, “Honk Twice for Choice.”

A local church organizes the anti-abortion protesters. Natalie, who asked to use only her first name for safety reasons, is 24. She has been coming here weekly for seven years, saying, “This is what the Lord has called us to do.” She says  no patient has ever approached her for help.

Another young protester, Haven, says he’s handed out a few pamphlets but it is difficult to approach the women because of the sheeting. He has not spoken to the doctors or the abortion-rights protesters, adding, “There’s very little conversation that can happen.”

The abortion-rights protesters chose not to speak to VOA about their views and asked us to leave. One shone a flashlight into the lens of our video camera.

Inside the clinic, women are given an ultrasound on the first visit. If no fetal heartbeat is detected, they return for a second ultrasound in 48 hours. Again, if no cardiac activity is heard, they are given counseling before a medical abortion.

That is not the case in the adjacent state.

Legal and illegal separated by a street

Bristol, Tennessee, is a border town.

The state line is marked by numerous 20-centimeter-long brass plaques that run down the center of State Street, separating Tennessee from Virginia and its different laws.

As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down abortion as a constitutional right, some states instituted “trigger laws” outlawing some or all abortions.

Tennessee’s trigger law outlawed surgical abortions and allowed medical abortions, which use medication to end a pregnancy, during the first six weeks of a pregnancy or until a heartbeat can be recognized, which typically occurs near that time limit.

That means abortions remain legal in Virginia but across State Street, they are restricted in Tennessee.

Olivia, who prefers to use only her first name for safety reasons, is a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. She says in the past month, her clinic has had to turn away women in tears, some who had driven many hours to reach the clinic, because an ultrasound found fetal heart activity. The office refers them to Virginia offices if they live nearby. But some drive from eastern Tennessee, and a delay of an extra day to reach another state that’s closer than Virginia can affect the legality of an abortion.

“It becomes a bigger issue,” Olivia says, giving as an example, “North Carolina, [where] you have two separate visits with a 72-hour waiting period.”

Star Eans is a makeup artist on TikTok. The U.S. Supreme Court decision motivated her to become a abortion-rights activist. Eans had a medical abortion less than a year ago when she lived in Tennessee, and complications required a surgical abortion.

“It just makes me angry thinking that, like, if that had happened this year, I would have just died,” Eans says. “If I was still living in Tennessee, and I had to have this baby that I didn’t want, I was very much on the verge of ending myself.”

Doctor looks to move across the border

On Aug. 25, another Tennessee law will prohibit all abortions, surgical and medical.

Because of that, the doctor who runs the Bristol women’s center is considering a satellite office less than a mile away where abortions are legal in Bristol, Virginia.  A GoFundMe page has raised more than $100,000 for the new clinic, and an update on July 29 said it had opened.

But anti-abortion protesters held a rally earlier in July at the Virginia clinic and alerted residents, including Emmitt Russell, whose house is next door. He objects to the anti-abortion protesters and the clinic and says a Virginia ban would motivate him to the polls.

“I didn’t vote in the last two presidential elections … but I would vote against abortions in Virginia, yes,” he said.

No trigger laws exist in Virginia. But Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is supporting making abortions illegal after 15 weeks. Republicans hold a majority in the state House and could support a ban, but experts think it would be defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.  

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More Americans Struggling to Find Affordable Housing

Danira Ford is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, Louisiana. Like tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants, she has struggled to find an affordable place to live for her and her five children.

“Affordable housing would bring stability,” she said.

“My kids can’t play sports, be in band or get tutored on their homework because mommy needs to pick up extra shifts to cover rent,” Ford continued. “An affordable home would let them live more like normal children.”

A 2018 report by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that 80% of New Orleans households pay more for housing than they can afford. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center recently estimated that 30,000 families in the city are languishing on a waitlist for an affordable housing voucher from the Housing Authority of New Orleans. By issuing a voucher, the city is agreeing to pay up to a certain amount of the voucher holder’s rent.

But the problem extends far beyond New Orleans. In a May 2022 news release on the Biden Administration’s housing supply action plan the White House said that while estimates vary, financial research company Moody’s Analytics estimates that the shortfall in the housing supply is more than 1.5 million homes nationwide.

In a 2021 white paper “Overcoming the Nation’s Daunting Housing Supply Shortage,” by Moody’s Analytics, co-authored by Jim Parrot, a nonresident fellow at Urban Institute, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, the U.S. has less housing available for rent or sale now than at any point in the last three decades.

As federal, state and local officials search for solutions, an ongoing affordable housing crisis is having real effects on residents.

Ford and her family, for example, have been waiting for an affordable housing voucher for more than a decade. Without it, she has cobbled together only enough money to live in the farther reaches of the metropolis, away from many of its amenities.

“It’s far from my work, it’s far from my kids’ schools, it’s far from grocery stores, it’s far from public transportation, it’s far from friends,” Ford said. “When it’s all you can afford, what choice do you have? But, also, what kind of life is it?”

Getting pushed out

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, potential homebuyers and renters across the U.S. have seen real estate prices skyrocket and the supply of available units plummet. According to a Pew Research Center study last year, 85% of Americans said availability of affordable housing was a problem in their community. Forty-nine percent of respondents indicated it was a major problem, up from 39% just three years earlier.

According to HUD, housing becomes a problem when a household spends more than 30% of its income on home-related costs. This is known as “cost burdened,” a designation that applies to nearly 1 in 3 Americans.

Exacerbating the problem, Real Estate brokerage company Redfin found rent has risen sharply over the past two years, as much as 40% in some metro areas, while according to data this year from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages — or the amount workers earn relative to inflation — has actually fallen by 1.2% since the end of 2019.

Workers can no longer afford to purchase or rent homes in the neighborhoods they once could.

“The result is that thousands of residents — mostly people of color — get pushed farther and farther outside of desirable neighborhoods,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.

Evidence of the trend isn’t hard to find in New Orleans. Just east of the city’s famed French Quarter, the Bywater neighborhood was once considered a dangerous area, a perception that helped keep rents low. Over the past 20 years, however, helped in large part by its faring better than most during Hurricane Katrina, the Bywater has seen one of the area’s most rapid increases in home and rental prices.

“And that’s resulting in a demographic shift,” Ciardullo told VOA. “In the year 2000, the census tract that encompasses most of the Bywater had 74% Black residents. Just 20 years later, that was down to 37%.”

Multifaceted problem

A crisis of this magnitude stems from many causes.

The white paper blames the shortage of affordable housing primarily on the 2008 financial crisis. In the years that followed, a shortage of land, lending, labor and building materials drove up the cost of building new homes. This cut into contractors’ profit margins and reduced their incentive to build.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem as more Americans sought larger homes where they could telework and live comfortably during lockdowns.

“In New Orleans, we were certainly experiencing these issues,” Ciardullo said, “but we also had some unique challenges, such as an aged housing stock and a lot of gentrification.”

“You used to be able to buy a home for really cheap,” said Alton Osborne, co-owner of the Bywater Bakery. In the 1990s, he bought a home in the neighborhood that he still owns today.

“They were blighted, but at least they were affordable,” Osborne said. “Nowadays, you have a lot of people who moved here from out of town and bought those homes, rehabilitated them, and now they’re worth a lot more. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It’s complicated, but what’s certain is a lot of people don’t have enough money to live in this neighborhood anymore.”

Short-term rentals

One of the most high-profile reasons for New Orleans’ lack of affordable housing is the prevalence of short-term rentals, through Airbnb and other services, popular with the throngs of tourists who visit the city.

“In the Bywater, you’ve got entire blocks now taken over by Airbnb,” Osborne said.

According to the Inside Airbnb website, which looks at the rental service’s impact on communities, the city has more than 5,500 short-term rental units on Airbnb alone — dwellings that could otherwise go to local tenants. Renting to tourists at high prices also tends to drive up the rents on other types of units.

It’s simple math, according to Bywater Neighborhood Association President John Guarnieri.

“A landlord can make a ton more money renting short term on something like Airbnb than they can by renting to locals with a long-term lease,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

New Orleans City Council has worked in recent years to combat the problem by passing laws regulating how much of each property can be used as a short-term rental, as well as limiting the number of guests allowed per unit. Additionally, fees from each booking are used to contribute to a citywide affordable housing fund.

“It’s a good and important step,” said Ciardullo, “but enforcement has been severely lacking so far.”

In addition to attempting to regulate short-term rentals, lawmakers across the U.S. have sought to address the affordable housing crisis with proposals as varied as raising the minimum wage, mandating rent control, subsidizing affordable housing and pursuing partnerships with developers.

In New Orleans, the City Council passed a zoning ordinance that allows the construction of larger buildings if a percentage of those units are made available at affordable prices.

Policies like these can take years to bring about tangible results, but several large projects in the Bywater are said to be close to breaking ground. But forcing change in a neighborhood can trigger resistance from existing residents.

“As neighbors, we’ve learned to fight back against so much development,” said Julie Jones, president of the Neighbors First for Bywater organization. “It’s just too much for one neighborhood to be expected to take. We like our Bywater as it feels now.”

Jones is far from alone. As each housing project is announced, more residents seem to worry about its effect.

For example, a plot of land awaiting development into a 90-unit mixed income residential building currently serves as a de facto park for the community. As the project’s groundbreaking nears, neighbors bemoan the eventual loss of this greenspace.

New Orleanian Danira Ford just shakes her head.

“I understand they enjoy that space,” she said, “but for families like mine, affordable housing like this would change our lives. We’re not talking about a park. We’re talking about a home and a new and better life.”

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Pakistan Army Chief Reportedly Seeking US Help in Securing Crucial IMF Loan

Pakistan’s military chief has reportedly sought help from the United Sates in securing the early disbursement of an International Monetary Fund loan as the high price of energy imports pushes the cash-strapped South Asian nation to the brink of a payment crisis.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke by phone to Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman earlier this week and raised the issue, government sources told VOA late Friday on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan last week reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF for the revival of a multibillion-dollar bailout package. However, the deal is subject to approval by the lender’s board, which is due to meet in late August. Islamabad is expected to get about $4.2 billion under the loan program, starting with an initial tranche of about $1.2 billion.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Asim Iftikhar Ahmad has confirmed the phone contact between Bajwa and Sherman but did not share details.

“Well, I understand conversation has taken place, but at this stage, I am not in direct knowledge of the content of this discussion,” Ahmad told a weekly news conference in Islamabad.

A State Department spokesperson in Washington would not directly confirm whether the conversion had taken place.

“U.S. officials talk to Pakistani officials regularly on a range of issues. As standard practice, we don’t comment on the specifics of private diplomatic conversations,” the spokesperson told VOA.

Nikkei Asia first reported Friday on the Bajwa-Sherman contact, saying the Pakistani military chief asked for the White House and Treasury Department to use their leverage to help speed up the release of the loan. The United States is the largest shareholder in the IMF.

“Yes,” the sources in Islamabad said when asked whether the two officials had spoken on the matter involving the IMF loan disbursement. The outcome of Bajwa’s appeal was not known immediately, however.

Critics attributed the delay in the release of the loan to Pakistan’s track record of not living up to commitments to undertake crucial economic reforms.

Late on Friday, Bajwa also spoke by phone to General Michael Erik Kurilla, the commander of the U.S. CENTCOM.

The army’s media wing in a statement quoted its chief as telling Kurilla that Pakistan “values its relations with (the) U.S. and we earnestly look forward to enhance mutually beneficial multi-domain relations based on common interests.”

The statement quoted U.S. commander as pledging “to play his role for further improvement in cooperation with Pakistan at all levels.”

The approval of the IMF program is key to Pakistan’s access to other avenues of finances for the country, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Pakistan’s central bank foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to just about $8.5 billion, barely enough to cover a few weeks of imports, and its currency has fallen to historic lows against the U.S. dollar in recent days, with inflation at its highest in more than a decade.

Shortly after negotiating the deal with the IMF, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government said it would “very soon” receive the first tranche of $1.17 billion.

But Sharif is under increasing pressure from ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is demanding the government step down and hold snap general elections in Pakistan.

Khan criticized Bajwa for reaching out to Washington, saying “it is not the job of an army chief to talk to the U.S. on financial matters.” The deposed prime minister told local ARY television channel in an interview the army chief’s move had demonstrated that neither the IMF nor foreign governments trust the Shehbaz administration.

Analysts noted, however, that both civilian and military leaders in Pakistan have traditionally conducted economic dealings with Washington, citing the army’s role in  Pakistani politics and foreign policy matters.

Khan alleges Shehbaz conspired with Washington to orchestrate his government’s ouster in a parliamentary vote of confidence in April, triggered in part by rising inflation. The U.S. rejects the charges.

The former prime minister indirectly also has accused the military chief of playing a role in his removal from office, charges the army rejects as politically motivated.

Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party are campaigning hard to stage a comeback in the next election widely expected to be held by October. The opposition leader has organized and addressed massive anti-government public rallies across Pakistan since his ouster.

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Action on Monkeypox Accelerates in US as Outbreak Expands 

Two of the hardest-hit U.S. regions have raised the alert level over the monkeypox outbreak.

San Francisco declared a public health emergency Thursday. The city accounts for 281 of California’s nearly 800 cases. The declaration gives health officials access to additional resources to deal with the outbreak.

New York, with nearly 1,400 cases statewide, made a similar declaration Thursday.

Worldwide, more than 21,000 cases have been reported in 78 countries, nearly all of them outside West and Central Africa, where the virus is endemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat level to its highest ranking last weekend.

The U.S. case count is nearing 5,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The federal government has not declared an emergency but announced plans Thursday to distribute nearly 800,000 additional doses of monkeypox vaccine.

U.S. health officials said they had already distributed 340,000 doses, but many jurisdictions have reported that they have had to turn away patients because of short supplies.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.

Who gets monkeypox, and how?

The outbreak has been concentrated among men who have sex with men, though anyone can get monkeypox.

The virus spreads through contact with the rash that infected patients develop. It can also pass through bodily fluids, respiratory droplets after prolonged face-to-face contact or contaminated clothing, bedding or towels.

Men who have sex with men should have fewer sex partners in order to curb the spread, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

“This is an outbreak that can be stopped,” Tedros said. “The best way to do that is to reduce the risk of exposure.”

However, he added, intolerance of homosexuality would not help.

“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus, and can fuel the outbreak,” Tedros said.

What are the symptoms? Is it fatal?

The disease causes fever, headache, muscle pain, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes, followed by a rash, usually on the face, palms and soles of the feet. About a third of cases also develop a rash on the genitals.

The strain of monkeypox responsible for the global outbreak is rarely fatal but can be extremely painful, according to the CDC. About 10% of cases have been hospitalized “to manage the pain caused by the disease,” Tedros said.

Five deaths have been reported — three in Nigeria and two in the Central African Republic.

What about vaccines and treatments?

About 16 million doses of vaccine are available worldwide, but most will take several months to be packaged and distributed, according to the WHO, which is recommending vaccination only for people at high risk, including people exposed to an infected person, health workers and people with multiple sex partners.

People vaccinated against smallpox likely have some protection against monkeypox, which is a related virus. Smallpox vaccination ended after the disease was declared eradicated in 1980.

Several antiviral medications have been approved.

How unusual is this outbreak?

The current outbreak is the first time this many cases have occurred in such widely dispersed areas outside the endemic countries in West and Central Africa.

Europe accounts for two-thirds of the cases. Nearly one-fifth are in the United States.

WHO’s advisory committee did not agree on the magnitude of the threat at its meeting last Saturday, but Tedros made the decision to declare a “public health emergency of international concern,” the agency’s highest threat assessment.

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US, Japan to Set Up Research Center for Next Semiconductors

The United States and Japan launched a new high-level economic dialogue Friday aimed at pushing back against China and countering the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two longtime allies agreed to establish a new joint research center for next-generation semiconductors during the so-called economic “two-plus-two” ministerial meeting in Washington, Japanese Trade Minister Koichi Hagiuda said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Hagiuda also discussed energy and food security, the officials said in a news briefing.

“As the world’s first- and third-largest economies, it is critical that we work together to defend the rules-based economic order, one in which all countries can participate, compete and prosper,” Blinken told the opening session.

Hagiuda said “Japan will quickly move to action” on next-generation semiconductor research and said Washington and Tokyo had agreed to launch a “new R&D organization” to establish a secure source of the vital components.

The research hub would be open for other “like-minded” countries to participate in, he said.

The two countries did not immediately release additional details of the plan, but Japan’s Nikkei Shimbun newspaper earlier said it would be set up in Japan by the end of this year to research 2-nanometer semiconductor chips. It will include a prototype production line and should begin producing semiconductors by 2025, the newspaper said.

“As we discussed today, semiconductors are the linchpin of our economic and national security,” said Raimondo, adding that the officials had discussed collaboration on semiconductors, “especially with respect to advanced semiconductors.”

Taiwan now makes the vast majority of semiconductors under 10 nanometers, which are used in products such as smart phones, and there is concern about the stability of supply should trouble arise involving Taiwan and China, which views the island as part of its territory.

The United States and Japan said in a joint statement they would work together “to foster supply chain resilience in strategic sectors, including, in particular, semiconductors, batteries, and critical minerals.” They vowed to “build a strong battery supply chain to lead collaboration between like-minded countries.”

On ties with Russia, Hagiuda said he gained U.S. understanding about Japan’s intention to keep its stake in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project despite sanctions against Moscow by Washington, Tokyo and others following the Ukraine invasion.

“There are voices calling for withdrawal. But it would mean our stake goes to a third country and Russia earns an enormous profit. We explained how keeping our stake is in line with sanctions, and I believe we gained U.S. understanding,” he said.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui & Co and Mitsubishi Corp hold a combined 22.5% stake in the project.

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US Rules Out Summer COVID Boosters for Adults Under 50 to Focus on Fall

U.S. regulators said Friday they are no longer considering authorizing a second COVID-19 booster shot for all adults under 50 this summer, focusing instead on revamped vaccines for the fall that will target the newest viral subvariants.

Pfizer and Moderna expect to have updated versions of their shots available as early as September, the Food and Drug Administration said in a statement. That would set the stage for a fall booster campaign to strengthen protection against the latest versions of omicron.

The announcement means the U.S. won’t pursue a summer round of boosters using the current vaccines for adults under 50, as some Biden administration officials and outside experts previously suggested. They had argued that another round of shots now could help head off rising cases and hospitalizations caused by the highly transmissible omicron strains.

Currently, all Americans ages 5 and over are eligible for a booster shot five months after their initial primary series. Fourth doses of the Pfizer or Moderna shots — a second booster — are recommended for Americans 50 and older and for younger people with serious health issues that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The FDA urged eligible adults who haven’t been boosted to get their extra shot now: “You can still benefit from existing booster options and leave time to receive an updated booster in the fall,” the agency said in a statement.

The White House has also emphasized that getting a fourth dose now won’t impact anyone’s ability to get omicron-targeted shots once they’re made available — although how long it’s been since their last dose will play a role in how soon they’re eligible.

Two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are even more contagious than their predecessors and have pushed new daily cases above 125,000 and hospitalizations to 6,300. Those are the highest levels since February, though deaths have remained low at about 360 per day, thanks to widespread immunity and improved treatments against the virus.

The subvariants are offshoots of the strain responsible for nearly all of the virus spread in the U.S. this year.

All the COVID-19 vaccines given in the U.S. until now have been based on the original version of the virus that began spreading across the country in early 2020.

In June, the FDA told the vaccine makers that any boosters for the fall would have to combine protection against omicron BA.4 and BA.5 and the original coronavirus strain. Both manufacturers have been speeding their production and data gathering to have those so-called bivalent vaccines ready for the fall.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to sign off on revamped shots before their launch.

The U.S. has a contract to buy 105 million doses of the Pfizer combination shots once they’re ready, and 66 million of Moderna’s version. But how soon large amounts would become available isn’t clear. The government contracts include options to purchase 300 million doses each but reaching that total will require more funding from Congress, the Biden administration said.

As for timing, getting a booster too soon after the previous dose means missing out on its full benefit — something policymakers will have to take into consideration when rolling out revamped shots.

The White House has at times been frustrated by the pace of decision-making at the FDA and CDC, most notably last summer, when the regulators took weeks to decide whether to authorize the first booster dose for U.S. adults. Privately, West Wing officials believe the delay cost lives, preventing optimum protection amid the delta and omicron surges, and also fed into doubts about vaccine and booster effectiveness that affected their uptake.

In recent weeks, some of those frustrations have bubbled up again, as regulators considered whether to recommend a fourth shot for all adults, not just those at highest risk from the virus. Some in the White House believe that the additional dose would have helped somewhat with the rapidly spreading BA.5 subvariant, and also lift the confidence of anyone worried that their protection had waned.

Still, officials across the government have acknowledged the risks of vaccine fatigue among Americans, including tens of millions who still haven’t received their first booster. Government figures show less than half of those eligible for a booster have gotten that third shot.

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Scientists: Fires in American West Bigger, Hotter, More Destructive 

Scientists say wildfires in the American West are bigger, hotter and more destructive than in the past.

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Record EU Inflation Expected; Economy Continues to Grow

The European Union’s statistical office, Eurostat, on Friday estimated inflation is expected to reach a record 8.9% in July, while the Eurozone and EU economy overall continued to grow during the first quarter of 2022.

In its report, Eurostat indicated inflation in July was driven largely by the energy sector with 39.7% growth, down from 42% in June. The food, alcohol and tobacco sector follows, with a rise of 9.8%, compared with 8.9% in June. The non-energy industrial goods sector grew 4.5% compared with 4.3% in June, and the services sector grew 3.7%, compared with 3.4% in June.

For months, inflation has been running at its highest levels since 1997, when record-keeping for the euro began, leading the European Central Bank to raise interest rates last week for the first time in 11 years and signal another boost in September.

Meanwhile, Eurostat also reported Friday the eurozone’s seasonally adjusted GDP increased by 0.7% and by 0.6% in the EU overall, compared with the previous quarter. In the first quarter of 2022, GDP had grown by 0.5% in the euro area and 0.6% throughout the EU.

The positive numbers come despite stagnant growth in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. France showed modest 0.5% growth, while Italy and Spain exceeded expectations with 1 and 1.1% economic expansions, respectively.

Eurostat says the numbers for both GDP growth and inflation are preliminary flash estimates based on data that are incomplete and subject to further revision.

The Associated Press, citing regional economic analysts, reports a rebound in tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive economic growth. The analysts caution, however, that inflation, rising interest rates and the worsening energy crisis are expected to push the region into recession later this year.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

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Congress OKs Bill to Aid Computer Chip Firms, Counter China 

The House on Thursday passed a $280 billion package to boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research in a bid to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it better compete with international rivals, namely China. 

The House approved the bill by a solid margin of 243-187, sending the measure to President Joe Biden to be signed into law and providing the White House with a major domestic policy victory. Twenty-four Republicans voted for the legislation. The Senate passed the bill Wednesday, 64-33.

“Today, the House passed a bill that will make cars cheaper, appliances cheaper and computers cheaper,” Biden said. “It will lower the costs of everyday goods. And it will create high-paying manufacturing jobs across the country and strengthen U.S. leadership in the industries of the future at the same time.” 

As the vote was taking place, Biden was discussing the economy with CEOs at the White House. During the event, he was handed a note informing him it was clear the bill would pass — a development that produced a round of applause before the tally was final. 

Most Republicans argued that the government should not spend billions to subsidize the semiconductor industry. GOP leadership in the House recommended a vote against the bill, telling members the plan would provide enormous subsidies and tax credits “to a specific industry that does not need additional government handouts.” 

 

Taxes, regulations

Representative Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the way to help the industry would be through tax cuts and easing federal regulations, “not by picking winners and losers” with subsidies — an approach that Representative Joseph Morelle, a New York Democrat, said was too narrow. 

“This affects every industry in the United States,” Morelle said. “Take, for example, General Motors announcing they have 95,000 automobiles awaiting chips. So, you want to increase the supply of goods to people and help bring down inflation? This is about increasing the supply of goods all over the United States in every single industry.” 

Some Republicans viewed passing the legislation as important for national security. 

Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was critical to protect semiconductor capacity in the U.S. and that the country was too reliant on Taiwan for the most advanced chips. That could prove to be a major vulnerability should China try to take over the self-governing island that Beijing views as a breakaway province 

“I’ve got a unique insight in this. I get the classified briefing. Not all these members do,” McCaul said. “This is vitally important for our national security.” 

The bill provides more than $52 billion in grants and other incentives for the semiconductor industry as well as a 25% tax credit for those companies that invest in chip plants in the U.S. It calls for increased spending on various research programs that would total about $200 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

The CBO also projected that the bill would increase deficits by about $79 billion over the coming decade. 

Senate health, climate package

A late development in the Senate — progress announced Wednesday night by Democrats on a $739 billion health and climate change package — threatened to make it harder for supporters to get the semiconductor bill over the finish line, based on concerns about government spending that GOP lawmakers said would fuel inflation. 

Representative Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, said he was “disgusted” by the turn of events. 

Despite bipartisan support for the research initiatives, “regrettably, and it’s more regrettably than you can possibly imagine, I will not be casting my vote for the CHIPS and Science Act today,” Lucas said. 

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, likened the bill’s spending to “corporate welfare to be handed out to whoever President Biden wants.” 

Leading into the vote, it was unclear whether any House Democrats would join with Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in voting against the bill; in the end, none did. 

Democrats urged to step up

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo talked to several of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus in a meeting before the vote, emphasizing that the proposal was a critical part of the president’s agenda and that Democrats needed to step up for him at this important moment. 

Some Republicans criticized the bill as not tough enough on China, and GOP leaders emphasized that point in recommending a “no” vote. Their guidance acknowledged the threat China poses to supply chains in the U.S. but said the package “will not effectively address that important challenge.” 

But, as McCaul pointed out, China opposed the measure and worked against it. The bill includes a provision that prohibits any semiconductor company receiving financial help through the bill from supporting the manufacture of advanced chips in China. 

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, commenting before the House vote, said the U.S. “should not put in place obstacles for normal science, technology and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation” and “still less should it take away or undermine China’s legitimate rights to development.”

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Study: Climate Change Made UK Heat Wave Hotter, More Likely

Human-caused climate change made last week’s deadly heat wave in England and Wales at least 10 times more likely and added a few degrees to how brutally hot it got, a study said.

A team of international scientists found that the heat wave that set a new national record high at 40.3 degrees Celsius was made stronger and more likely by the buildup of heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. They said Thursday that temperatures were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer in the heat wave than they would have been without climate change, depending on which method scientists used.

The study has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal yet but follows scientifically accepted techniques, and past such studies have been published months later.

“We would not have seen temperatures above 40 degrees in the U.K. without climate change,” study senior author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College of London, said in an interview. “The fingerprint is super strong.”

World Weather Attribution, a collection of scientists across the globe who do real-time studies of extreme weather to see whether climate change played a role in an extreme weather event and if so how much of one, looked at two-day average temperatures for July 18 and 19 in much of England and Wales and the highest temperature reached in that time.

The daily highest temperatures were the most unusual, a one-in-1,000-year event in the current warmer world, but “almost impossible in a world without climate change,” the study said. Last week’s heat smashed the old national record by 1.6 degrees Celsius. The average over two hot days and nights is a once a century event now but is “nearly impossible” without climate change.

When the scientists used the long history of temperatures in England to determine the impact of global warming, they saw a stronger climate change influence than when they used simulations from climate models. For some reason that scientists aren’t quite certain about, climate models have long underestimated extreme weather signals in the summer in Western Europe, Otto said.

With climate models, the scientists simulate a world without the 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming since pre-industrial times and see how likely this heat would have been in that cooler world without fossil fuel-charged warming. With observations they look at history and calculate the chances of such a heat wave that way.

“The methodology seems sound, but candidly, I didn’t need a study to tell me this was climate change,” said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd, who wasn’t on this study team but was on a U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel that said these types of studies are scientifically valid. “This new era of heat is particularly dangerous because most homes are not equipped for it there.”

The World Weather Attribution study refers to another analysis that estimates a heat wave like this would kill at least 800 people in England and Wales, where there is less air conditioning than in warmer climates.

Otto, who had to sleep and work in the basement because of the heat, said as the world warms, these record-smashing heat waves will continue to come more frequently and be hotter.

In addition to spurring people to cut greenhouse gas emissions, study co-author Gabe Vecchi said, “this heat wave and heat waves like it should be a reminder that we have to adapt to a warmer world. We are not living in our parents’ world anymore.”

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US Probes Cyber Breach of Federal Court Records System

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating a cyber breach involving the federal court records management system, the department’s top national security attorney told lawmakers Thursday.

Matt Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, alluded to the threat of cyberattacks by foreign nations as he told the U.S. House of Representative Judiciary Committee that the incident was a “significant concern.”

Olsen made the remarks in response to questions from Representative Jerrold Nadler, the panel’s Democratic chairman, who said that “three hostile foreign actors” had attacked the courts’ document filing system.

Nadler said the committee learned only in March of the “startling breadth and scope” of the breach. Olsen said the Justice Department was working closely with the federal judiciary around the country to address the issue.

“While I can’t speak directly to the nature of the ongoing investigation of the type of threats that you’ve mentioned regarding the effort to compromise public judicial dockets, this is of course a significant concern for us given the nature of the information that’s often held by the courts,” Olsen said.

Olsen did not comment on who was behind the attack, but he noted that his division was focused generally on the risk of cyberattacks by foreign nations including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in January 2021 said it was adding new security procedures to protect confidential or sealed records following an apparent compromise of its electronic case management and filing system.

The Administrative Office, the judiciary’s administrative arm, in a statement on Thursday called cybersecurity a high priority and said it has been taking “significant actions to protect our systems and the sensitive information they contain.”

Further details could not be immediately determined. A Justice Department spokesman said the department as a general policy does not confirm or deny the existence of specific investigations.

The federal judiciary has been working to modernize its electronic case management and filing system and the related online portal known as PACER, which is used to access records, citing the risk of cyberattacks on the aging electronic system.

“We are vulnerable,” U.S. Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve testified at a House committee hearing in May on the judiciary’s budget request. 

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Los Angeles County Avoids New Mask Rule as COVID Stabilizes

Los Angeles County dropped a plan to impose a universal indoor mask mandate this week as COVID-19 infections and rates of hospitalizations have stabilized, a top health official said Thursday. 

Health director Barbara Ferrer said two weeks ago that the nation’s most populous county could again require face coverings if trends in hospital admissions continued under criteria set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

On Thursday, she said the county had dodged imposition of the broad mask rule. The county remains at the “high” CDC level of community transmission, but it could drop to “medium” in coming weeks. 

Ferrer made the announcement during a briefing at which she displayed flat and declining data graphs. She said transmission had dropped steadily since July 23, “potentially signaling the beginning of a downward trend in cases.” Hospitalizations are also down. 

“We’re on a decline right now, and it’s hard for us to imagine reinstating universal indoor masking when we’re on this significant of a decline,” Ferrer said. But she added that health officials would reassess things should case rates and hospital admissions spike again. 

While masks won’t be required in most indoor spaces, Ferrer reminded residents that face coverings remain an effective tool to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. 

As it has for most of the pandemic, L.A. County will still require masks in some indoor spaces, including health care facilities, mass transit vehicles, airports, jails and homeless shelters. 

The new mandate, which would have gone into effect Friday, would have expanded the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared offices, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, restaurants and bars, theaters and schools. 

Nationwide, the latest COVID-19 surge is driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 variant, which now accounts for a majority of cases. It has shown a remarkable ability to get around the protection offered by vaccination.

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