Malawi Makes Fresh Appeal for Cholera Vaccine

Malawi has appealed for more than 7 million additional doses of cholera vaccine from the World Health Organization as it struggles to control a record outbreak of the bacterial illness.

The WHO donated almost 3 million doses of the vaccine to Malawi in November but those were quickly used up. Since March of last year, almost 30,000 people have been infected and nearly 1,000 have died.

The appeal for more cholera doses comes as Malawi continues to register an increase in cases that have now affected all of its 29 districts.

The spokesperson for the health ministry, Adrian Chikumbe, said talks with the WHO are underway.

“We are expecting a consignment of 7.6 million doses for 17 districts, but we are going to also consider districts that are hard hit with the current outbreak,” Chikumbe said.

The Ministry of Health said Tuesday that there is no indication Malawi will receive the vaccine any time soon because many other countries are also pressing the WHO on the same issue.

The World Health Organization first supported Malawi with 3.9 million doses of the oral cholera vaccine last May, after the outbreak was reported in March.

The country received another consignment of 2.9 million doses in November through the WHO and the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

Maziko Matemba, community health ambassador in Malawi, said the vaccine shortage shows a change in attitude toward the shots.

“We had a similar situation with COVID-19 where we had low uptake when we saw more people getting sick and more people dying,” Matemba said. “So I am hoping WHO and the government of Malawi will take it as an advantage that now we have high uptake, people are demanding the vaccine. Some of us have even received calls where people want to access the vaccine. So I am hoping this time we will utilize the demand.”

Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated.

Malawi is currently battling its worst cholera outbreak in a decade, largely blamed on poor sanitation and hygiene.

The hard-hit districts include Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and commercial hub Blantyre

Wongani Mbale, health promotion officer for the Blantyre District Health Office, said the main cause of cholera is the use of unsafe water.

“[In] Blantyre the population is growing due to urbanization, so the source of water is so scarce, so people are resorting into using the unsafe sources of water,” Mbale said.

The Malawian government is reconnecting water kiosks in hard-hit areas. They had been disconnected because of unpaid water bills.

As the country awaits another supply of cholera vaccine, health authorities have intensified campaigns on preventive measures, like eating boiled foods, washing hands with soap before eating and using toilets.

US, 8 States Sue Google on Digital Ad Business Dominance

The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Alphabet’s GOOGL.O Google on Tuesday over allegations that the company abused its dominance of the digital advertising business, according to a court document.

“Google has used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies,” the government said in its antitrust complaint.

The Justice Department asked the court to compel Google to divest its Google Ad manager suite, including its ad exchange AdX.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is the second federal antitrust complaint filed against Google, alleging violations of antitrust law in how the company acquires or maintains its dominance. The Justice Department lawsuit filed against Google in 2020 focuses on its monopoly in search and is scheduled to go to trial in September.

Eight states joined the department in the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, including Google’s home state of California.

Google shares were down 1.3% on the news.

The lawsuit says “Google has thwarted meaningful competition and deterred innovation in the digital advertising industry, taken supra-competitive profits for itself, prevented the free market from functioning fairly to support the interests of the advertisers and publishers who make today’s powerful internet possible.”

While Google remains the market leader by a long shot, its share of the U.S. digital ad revenue has been eroding, falling to 28.8% last year from 36.7% in 2016, according to Insider Intelligence. Google’s advertising business is responsible for some 80% of its revenue.

Space Environmentalist Uses Technology to Raise Awareness of Space Trash

A so-called space environmentalist is working to make the public more aware about space debris by tracking its movement in real time on a website. He says we need to think about space as an ecosystem. Deana Mitchell has the story. Camera: Deana Mitchell Produced by: Deana Mitchell

WHO Appeals for Record $2.54 Billion to Address 54 Global Health Emergencies

The World Health Organization is appealing for a record $2.54 billion to assist millions of people in 54 countries facing catastrophic health emergencies triggered by multiple man-made and natural disasters.  

In launching the appeal, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world is witnessing an unprecedented convergence of crises that demand an unprecedented response. 

He said WHO is addressing an overwhelming number of intersecting health emergencies. These include climate change-related flooding in Pakistan, drought and acute hunger across the Sahel and in the greater Horn of Africa, health challenges sparked by the war in Ukraine, and the outbreaks of measles, cholera, and other killer diseases in dozens of countries. 

“The world cannot look away and hope these crises resolve themselves,” Tedros emphasized. “With funding and urgent action, we can save lives, support recovery efforts, prevent the spread of diseases within countries and across borders, and help give communities the opportunity to rebuild for the future.” 

WHO reports 80 percent of humanitarian needs globally are driven by conflict and around half of preventable maternal and child deaths occur in fragile, conflict-affected and vulnerable settings. 

The African region faces the highest burden of public health emergencies globally. In 2022, the continent accounted for 64 percent of all Grade 3, or most acute, emergencies globally. 

Fiona Braka, health emergencies operations manager in WHO’s regional office for Africa, said the continent has had to deal with conflicts and climate-driven humanitarian crises combined with new and recurrent outbreaks of diseases.

Speaking from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, she said dealing with these complex emergencies has not been easy. But she said support provided by WHO and partners is proving to be beneficial in many ways. She noted that member states have been making progress in dealing with emergencies as they arise. 

“For instance, the time taken by countries to detect and interrupt outbreaks is shortening,” Braka gave as an example. “The investments made to address the COVID-19 pandemic over the past three years are paying off with the region better able to cope with the virus and its health emergency response systems bolstered.” 

The 54 health crises WHO currently is assisting include 11 classified as Grade 3. They include seven African countries, along with Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. 

US Proposes Switching to Annual COVID Vaccine Shots

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing switching to an annual COVID-19 vaccination campaign for the country, similar to the flu shot.

In documents posted online Monday, the agency said the new strategy would provide a simplified approach to the coronavirus vaccine. The proposed plan is set to be discussed at a meeting this week of FDA scientists and the agency’s panel of external vaccine advisers.

The FDA said most Americans would need only one annual vaccination to help protect them against the coronavirus, while others — including the elderly, the very young and those with weakened immune systems — might need a two-dose inoculation for additional protection.

Under the current vaccination system, a person must get two doses of the original COVID-19 vaccine, which targets the coronavirus that emerged in 2020. Following that, booster shots have been recommended at periodic intervals, with the latest boosters targeting both the original virus and the omicron variant.

The proposed FDA changes would do away with the system of primary vaccinations and boosters and would instead recommend for most Americans a single vaccine dose that is developed annually.

As with the flu shot, vaccine makers and independent experts would aim to develop a shot that targets the virus strains most likely to dominate in the winter season. The targeted strains could be changed every year.

The FDA is also considering making the shots interchangeable, so people would not have to keep track of which vaccine brand they receive.

The agency is hoping the changes will make it easier for Americans to continue with their COVID inoculations amid a waning interest from the public to receive repeated booster shots.

While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one vaccine dose, only 16% of eligible Americans have received the latest booster shot, according to The Associated Press.

The proposed FDA changes also come as experts have been publicly debating how effective the latest booster shots have been at increasing protection against COVID-19, especially in healthy adults.

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

Earth’s Inner Core May Have Started Spinning Other Way, Study Says

Far below our feet, a giant may have started moving against us. 

Earth’s inner core, a hot iron ball the size of Pluto, has stopped spinning in the same direction as the rest of the planet and might even be rotating the other way, research suggested on Monday.

Roughly 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) below the surface we live on, this “planet within the planet” can spin independently because it floats in the liquid metal outer core. 

Exactly how the inner core rotates has been a matter of debate between scientists — and the latest research is expected to prove controversial.

What little we know about the inner core comes from measuring the tiny differences in seismic waves — created by earthquakes or sometimes nuclear explosions — as they pass through the middle of the Earth.

Seeking to track the inner core’s movements, new research published in the journal Nature Geoscience analysed seismic waves from repeating earthquakes over the last six decades.

The study’s authors, Xiaodong Song and Yi Yang of China’s Peking University, said they found that the inner core’s rotation “came to near halt around 2009 and then turned in an opposite direction.”

“We believe the inner core rotates, relative to the Earth’s surface, back and forth, like a swing,” they told AFP.

“One cycle of the swing is about seven decades,” meaning it changes direction roughly every 35 years, they added.

They said it previously changed direction in the early 1970s and predicted the next about-face would be in the mid-2040s.

The researchers said this rotation roughly lines up with changes in what is called the “length of day” — small variations in the exact time it takes Earth to rotate on its axis.

Stuck in the middle 

So far there is little to indicate that what the inner core does has much effect on we surface dwellers.

But the researchers said they believed there are physical links between all Earth’s layers, from the inner core to the surface. 

“We hope our study can motivate some researchers to build and test models which treat the whole Earth as an integrated dynamic system,” they said.

Experts not involved in the study expressed caution about its findings, pointing to several other theories and warning that many mysteries remain about the center of the Earth.

“This is a very careful study by excellent scientists putting in a lot of data,” said John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Southern California.

“[But] none of the models explain all the data very well in my opinion,” he added. 

Vidale published research last year suggesting the inner core oscillates far more quickly, changing direction every six years or so. His work was based on seismic waves from two nuclear explosions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That timeframe is around the point when Monday’s research says the inner core last changed direction — which Vidale called “kind of a coincidence.”

Geophysicists ‘divided’  

Another theory — which Vidale said has some good evidence supporting it — is that the inner core only significantly moved between 2001 to 2013 and has stayed put since.

Hrvoje Tkalcic, a geophysicist at the Australian National University, has published research suggesting that the inner core’s cycle is every 20 to 30 years, rather than the 70 proposed in the latest study.

“These mathematical models are most likely all incorrect because they explain the observed data but are not required by the data,” Tkalcic said.

“Therefore, the geophysical community will be divided about this finding and the topic will remain controversial.”

He compared seismologists to doctors “who study the internal organs of patients’ bodies using imperfect or limited equipment.” 

Lacking something like a CT scan, “our image of the inner Earth is still blurry,” he said, predicting more surprises ahead.

That could include more about a theory that the inner core might have yet another iron ball inside it — like a Russian doll.

“Something’s happening and I think we’re going to figure it out,” Vidale said. “But it may take a decade.” 

WHO Urges ‘Immediate Action’ After Cough Syrup Deaths

The World Health Organization has called for “immediate and concerted action” to protect children from contaminated medicines after a spate of child deaths linked to cough syrups last year. 

In 2022, more than 300 children — mainly younger than 5 years old — in Gambia, Indonesia and Uzbekistan died of acute kidney injury, deaths that were associated with contaminated medicines, the WHO said in a statement on Monday. 

The medicines, over-the-counter cough syrups, had high levels of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol. 

“These contaminants are toxic chemicals used as industrial solvents and antifreeze agents that can be fatal even taken in small amounts, and should never be found in medicines,” the WHO said. 

It said seven countries had reported finding the contaminated syrups in the last four months, and called for action across its 194 member states to prevent more deaths. 

“Since these are not isolated incidents, WHO calls on various key stakeholders engaged in the medical supply chain to take immediate and coordinated action,” WHO said. 


Spotify to Cut 6% of Workforce, Some 600 Employees

Swedish music streaming giant Spotify said Monday it was cutting six percent of its roughly 10,000 employees, the latest cost-cutting announcement among technology companies.

“In hindsight, I was too ambitious in investing ahead of our revenue growth. And for this reason, today, we are reducing our employee base by about six percent across the company,” Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek said on Spotify’s official blog.

“I take full accountability for the moves that got us here today,” Ek added.

The Swedish company, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has invested heavily since its launch to fuel growth with expansions into new markets and, in later years, exclusive content such as podcasts.

Spotify has never posted a full-year net profit despite its success in the online music market. 

In recent months, tech giants such as Google parent company Alphabet, Facebook-owner Meta, Amazon and Microsoft have announced tens of thousands of job cuts as the sector faces economic headwinds.

WHO: 500K People Die Prematurely from Trans Fat Annually

The World Health Organization is calling for the total elimination of trans fat — an artificial toxic chemical commonly found in packaged foods, baked goods, cooking oils, and spreads which is responsible for half a million premature deaths each year. 

WHO reports 5 billion people are being exposed to this toxic product, increasing their risk of heart disease and death. 

Tom Frieden, the president and chief executive officer of the public health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, said that the global elimination of trans fat from food could prevent up to 17 million deaths from cardiovascular diseases by 2040. 

Frieden also spoke of the importance of distinguishing artificial trans fat, “which is a toxic chemical, which has no valid use in the food supply and should be eliminated,” from saturated fat, which he called “an inherent part of many food groups in which nobody is proposing to ban.” 

To put it simply, Frieden said, “Think of artificial trans fat as the tobacco of nutrition. It has no values.” 

Progress has been made since 2018 when the WHO set a goal for the global elimination of trans fat in 2023. It says 43 countries now have implemented best-practice policies for tackling trans fat in food, thus protecting 2.8 billion people from heart disease and death. 

To Frieden, however, that still leaves 5 billion people at risk from the devastating health impacts of trans fat. He said governments can stop these preventable deaths by enacting WHO’s best-practice policies. 

He noted several countries, especially Mexico, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, are very close to passing these lifesaving policies. According to him, all they need is a simple push to get them over the finish line. 

“Policy wins in one country can help encourage other countries to take action,” Frieden noted. “We hope that leaders such as India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines will be examples for all of the South and Southeast Asia region, and we hope that Nigeria, along with South Africa, which has already banned trans fat, will be a leader for Africa.” 

Friedan said experience shows the industry can adapt, innovate and replace trans fat with healthy alternatives. It is just a few large companies who continue to manufacture a toxic product.  

Friedan added that these companies will come into line when they see the days of trans fat are numbered. 

WHO reports most trans fat elimination policies have been implemented in high-income countries, mainly in the Americas and Europe, and that an increasing number of middle-income countries are following suit. As of now, however, no low-income countries have done so. 

Canada Leads World in Organ Donations from Euthanasia

A study published in the December 2022 issue of the American Journal of Transplantation finds Canada leading the world in harvesting organs from those who received medical assistance in dying.

The study found that in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, a total of 286 people who sought euthanasia provided organs to save the lives of 837 people. Almost half of those donors, 136, came from Canada.

Patients who choose a medically assisted death due to suffering from cancer cannot be organ donors, due to the medications that are usually taken. Usable donors were suffering from diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis.

Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, is pleased with the findings of the report.

“I was rather proud to learn that Canadian patients who receive medical assistance in dying have been given the opportunity to make something morally significant out of their death, by opting to give life through their organs to other patients,”‘ he said.

Nicole Scheidl, executive director of Ottawa-based Physicians for Life, had a very different reaction.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I also think that it really undermines the organ donation framework in this country.”

A longtime opponent of any form of euthanasia, Scheidl said it reminds her of suspected organ harvesting of executed prisoners in places such as the People’s Republic of China.

“I think people are concerned,” she said. “I know transplant teams would want to make sure that individuals who were euthanized were not coerced.”

Scheidl added that more questions should be asked about euthanasia in Canada. She said there is not enough oversight or data collection, and it is being expanded too fast.

Victoria-based lawyer Chris Considine represented Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and made world headlines in the early 1990s for seeking a medically assisted death, which was rejected at the time by Canada’s Supreme Court.

He said the use of organs from patients who received medical assistance in dying, also known as MAID, is something he thought about back then.

“I knew that it would take 20 years for the law to change,” he said. “And that society would then gradually adapt the law to its needs and based on the experiences that Canadians had and the physicians had with MAID.”

Schafer said that, in the future, committees that approve medical assistance in dying should be required to notify organizations that counsel patients about organ donation.

“There shouldn’t be any conflict of interest,” said Schafer. “There shouldn’t be even a hint or a suggestion that maybe a patient was hustled into requesting MAID, or obtaining MAID earlier than they would themselves wish to do, because the doctors are eager to snatch their organs.”

MAID has been legal in Canada since 2016. The Canadian government is expected to delay a planned expansion of the law that would make euthanasia available to those with severe mental health issues.

Fashion Sneakers Propel Sustainable Rubber in Brazil Amazon

Rubber tapper Raimundo Mendes de Barros prepares to leave his home, surrounded by rainforest, for an errand in the Brazilian Amazon city of Xapuri. He slides his long, scarred, 77-year-old feet into a pair of sneakers made by Veja, a French brand.

At first sight, the expensive, white-detailed urban tennis shoes seem at odds with the muddy tropical forest. But the distant worlds have converged to produce soles made from native Amazonian rubber.

Veja works with a local cooperative called Cooperacre, which has reenergized the production of a sustainable forest product and improved the lives of hundreds of rubber tapper families. It’s a project that, though modest in scale, provides a real-life example of living sustainably from the forest.

“Veja and Cooperacre are doing an essential job for us who live in the forest. They are making young people come back. They have rekindled the hope of working with rubber,” Rogério Barros, Raimundo’s 24-year-old son, told The Associated Press as he demonstrated how to tap a rubber tree in the family’s grove in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. Extractive reserves in Brazil are government-owned lands set aside for people to make a living while they keep the forest standing.

Rubber was once central to the economy of the Amazon. The first boom came at the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of people migrated inland from Brazil’s impoverished Northeast to work in the forest, often in slave-like conditions.

That boom ended abruptly in the 1910s when rubber plantations started to produce on a large scale in Asia. But during World War II, Japan cut the supply, prompting the United States to finance a restart of rubber production in the Amazon.

After the war, Amazon latex commerce again fell into decline, even as thousands of families continued to work in poor conditions for rubber bosses. In the 1970s, these relatively wealthy individuals began selling land to cattle ranchers from the south, even though, in most cases, they didn’t actually own it, but rather just held concessions because they were well-connected with government officers.

These land sales caused the large scale expulsion of rubber tappers from the forest. That loss of livelihood and deforestation to make way for cattle raising is what prompted the famous environmentalist Chico Mendes — together with a cousin of Barros — to found and lead a movement of rubber tappers. Mendes would be murdered for his work in 1988.

After Mendes’ assassination, the federal government began to create extractive reserves so that the forest could not be sold to make way for cattle. The Chico Mendes reserve is one of these. But the story did not end with the creation of the reserves. Government attempts to promote the latex, including a state-owned condom factory in Xapuri, failed to create a reliable income.

What sets the Veja operation apart is that rubber tappers are now getting paid far above the commodity price for their rubber. In 2022, the Barros family received US$ 4.20 per kilo (2.2 pounds) of rubber tapped from their grove. Before, they made one tenth that amount.

This price that shoe company Veja pays the tappers includes bonuses for sustainable harvests plus recognition of the value of preserving the forest, explains Sebastião Pereira, in charge of Veja’s Amazonian rubber supply chain. The rubber workers also receive federal and state benefits per kilo.

Veja also pays bonuses to tappers who employ best practices and local cooperatives that buy directly from them. The criteria range from zero deforestation to the proper management of rubber trees. Top producers also receive a pair of shoes as a prize.

Veja’s rubber is produced by some 1,200 families from 22 local cooperatives spread across five Amazonian states: Acre, home to the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, Amazonas, Rondonia, Mato Grosso, and Pará.

All the rubber goes to the Cooperacre plant in Sena Madureira, in Acre state, where raw product is cut, washed, shredded into smaller pieces, heated, weighed, packed and finally shipped to factories that Veja contracts with in industrialized Rio Grande Sul state, thousands of miles to the south, as well as to Ceara state, in Brazil’s Northeast.

From there the sneakers are distributed to many parts of the world. Over the last 20 years, Veja has sold more than 8 million pairs in several countries and maintains stores in Paris, New York and Berlin. The amount of Amazon rubber it purchases has soared: from 5,000 kilos (11,023 pounds) in 2005 to 709,500 kilos (1.56 million pounds) in 2021, according to company figures.

However, it has not been a game changer for the forest in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, where almost 3,000 families live. The illegal advance of cattle, an old problem, has picked up. Deforestation there has tripled in the past four years, amid the policies of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who was defeated in his reelection bid and left office at the end of last year.

Cattle long ago replaced rubber as Acre’s main economic activity. Nearly half of the state’s rural workforce is employed in cattle ranching, where only 4% live from forest products, mainly Brazil nuts.

According to an economic study by Minas Gerais Federal University, 57% of Acre’s economic output comes from cattle. Rubber makes up less than 1%.

Surrounded by cattle pasture and paved highway — the entry point for deforestation — Chico Mendes has the third highest rate of deforestation of any protected reserve in Brazil.

The growing pressure of cattle on the reserve, which has already lost 9% of its original forest cover, even led Veja to set up its own satellite monitoring system.

“Our platform shows a specific region where deforestation is rampant. So we may go there and talk. But we are aware that our role is to offer an alternative and raise awareness,” Pereira told the AP in a phone interview. “We are careful not to cross the line, as the public authority should be the one doing the law enforcement.”

According to Roberta Graf, who leads Acre’s branch of the association of federal environmental officials, the Veja experience is essential as it shows a path for living inside extractive reserves sustainably. But to achieve that, she argues, requires a joint effort that includes government at different levels, nonprofits and grassroots organizations.

“The forest communities still hold rubber tapping dear. They enjoy making a living off the latex,” she told the AP in an interview in her home in Rio Branco, Acre’s capital. “There are many forest products: copaiba, andiroba (vegetable oils), Brazil nuts, wild cacao, and seeds. The ideal should be to work with all of them according to what each reserve can offer.”

Loss of Tiny Organisms Hurts Ocean, Fishing, Scientists Say

The warming of the waters off the East Coast has come at an invisible, but very steep cost — the loss of microscopic organisms that make up the base of the ocean’s food chain.

The growing warmth and saltiness of the Gulf of Maine off New England is causing a dramatic decrease in the production of phytoplankton, according to Maine-based scientists who recently reported results of a yearslong, NASA-funded study. Phytoplankton, sometimes described as an “invisible forest,” are tiny plant-like organisms that serve as food for marine life.

The scientists found that phytoplankton are about 65% less productive in the Gulf of Maine, part of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by New England and Canada, than they were two decades ago. The Gulf of Maine has emerged as one of the fastest warming sections of the world’s oceans.

Potential loss of phytoplankton has emerged as a serious concern in recent years in other places, such as the Bering Sea off Alaska. The loss of the tiny organisms has the ability to disrupt valuable fishing industries for species such as lobsters and scallops, and it could further jeopardize imperiled animals such as North Atlantic right whales and Atlantic puffins, scientists said.

“The drop in the productivity over these 20 years is profound,” said William Balch, a senior research scientist with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, who led the study. “And that has large ramifications to what can grow here. The health of the ecosystem, the productivity of the ecosystem.”

The scientists did the study using data gathered since 1998 by tracking chemical changes in the Gulf of Maine. The samples used to perform the work were gathered via commercial ferries and research vessels that run the same routes over and over.

The data showed changes between the gulf and the broader Atlantic, Balch said. Intrusions of warm water from the North Atlantic since 2008 have created a gulf that is hotter, saltier and less hospitable to the phytoplankton, the study states. The scientists published their findings last June in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

Phytoplankton are eaten by larger zooplankton, small fish and crustaceans, and they are critically important to sustaining larger marine life up the food chain such as sharks and whales. Loss of phytoplankton “will likely have negative impacts on the overall productivity” of larger animals and commercial fisheries, the study states.

Decline of fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine would be especially disruptive to American fishermen because it’s a key ground for the U.S. lobster industry. Other important species such as haddock, flounder and pollock are also harvested there.

Researchers have tracked similar warming trends in the Bering Sea, Southern Ocean and northern Barents Sea in recent years. Warming’s impact on plankton is an ongoing subject of scientific inquiry. A 2020 article in the journal Nature Communications found that climate change “is predicted to trigger major shifts in the geographic distribution of marine plankton species.”

Cyclical ocean conditions also have placed more stress on phytoplankton. An El Niño climate pattern, when surface water in the equatorial Pacific becomes warmer, can reduce phytoplankton production, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said. The impacts include lack of anchovies off South America, fewer squid off California and less salmon in the Pacific, NOAA said.

The Maine scientists say loss of phytoplankton is also significant because the organisms absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, much like plants do on land.

It’s part of the toll climate change is taking on ecosystems all over the world, said Jeff Runge, a professor in the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, who was not involved in the study.

“There’s mounting evidence that it’s linked to climate change,” Runge said. “It’s having all kinds of effects on the system that we’re beginning to see.”

Brazil Declares Public Health Emergency for Yanomami People

Brazil’s government has declared a public health emergency for the Yanomami people in the Amazon who are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria because of illegal mining.

The decree, signed by Health Minister Nisia Trindade on Friday, has no expiration date and allows for hiring extra personnel. It determines that the team in charge has to publish reports regarding the Indigenous group’s health and general well-being.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also created a multiministerial committee to be coordinated by his chief of staff for an initial period of 90 days. He is traveling to Roraima state’s capital, Boa Vista, where many ill Yanomami have been admitted to specialized hospitals.

The Yanomami are the largest native group in Brazil, with a population of around 30,000 that lives in an area larger than 9 million hectares (22 million acres) in the northern area of the Amazon rainforest, close to the border with Venezuela.

In recent years, specialists sounded the alarm that humanitarian and sanitary crises were taking shape. The report “Yanomami Under Attack,” written by the nonprofit Socio-Environmental Institute, points out that in 2021 the region was responsible for 50% of the malaria cases in the country. The same report said that more than 3,000 children were malnourished.

Illegal mining is the main root of the problems faced by the Yanomami people. Activists accuse miners of death threats, sexual violence and alcohol and drug abuse, especially against Indigenous children. The same report shows that the region had more than 40 illegal airstrips made by miners and that they had taken over some of the government health centers installed in the region.

Earlier this week, the Health Ministry had already designated a team for a special health mission in the Yanomami region. Lula scheduled an emergency trip to Roraima state following a report by independent local news website Sumauma, featuring shocking pictures of malnourished children.

According to the report, during the last four years of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, the death of children aged 5 or less had jumped 29% in comparison to the previous government. The same report shows that 570 Yanomami children died between 2019 and 2022 from curable diseases.

Lula tweeted that the government received information on the “absurd situation” of malnourishment in Yanomami children. The president will be accompanied by several of his ministers in Boa Vista.

Sections of Balkan River Become Floating Garbage Dump

Tons of waste dumped in poorly regulated riverside landfills or directly into the waterways that flow across three countries end up accumulating behind a trash barrier in the Drina River in eastern Bosnia during the wet weather of winter and early spring.

This week, the barrier once again became the outer edge of a massive floating waste dump crammed with plastic bottles, rusty barrels, used tires, household appliances, driftwood and other garbage picked up by the river from its tributaries.

The river fencing installed by a Bosnian hydroelectric plant, a few kilometers upstream from its dam near Visegrad, has turned the city into an unwilling regional waste site, local environmental activists complain.

Heavy rain and unseasonably warm weather over the past week have caused many rivers and streams in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro to overflow, flooding the surrounding areas and forcing scores of people from their homes. Temperatures dropped in many areas Friday as rain turned into snow.

“We had a lot of rainfall and torrential floods in recent days and a huge inflow of water from (the Drina’s tributaries in) Montenegro which is now, fortunately, subsiding,” said Dejan Furtula of the environmental group Eko Centar Visegrad.

“Unfortunately, the huge inflow of garbage has not ceased,” he added.


The Drina

The Drina River runs 346 kilometers (215 miles) from the mountains of northwestern Montenegro through Serbia and Bosnia. and some of its tributaries are known for their emerald color and breathtaking scenery. A section along the border between Bosnia and Serbia is popular with river rafters when it’s not “garbage season.”

Some 10,000 cubic meters (more than 353,000 cubic feet) of waste are estimated to have amassed behind the Drina River trash barrier in recent days, Furtula said. The same amount was pulled in recent years from that area of the river.

Removing the garbage takes up to six months, on average. It ends up at the municipal landfill in Visegrad, which Furtula said “does not even have sufficient capacity to handle (the city’s) municipal waste.”

“The fires on the (municipal) landfill site are always burning,” he said, calling the conditions there “not just a huge environmental and health hazard, but also a big embarrassment for all of us.”


Environmental woes

Decades after the devastating 1990s wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Balkans lag behind the rest of Europe both economically and with regard to environmental protection.

The countries of the region have made little progress in building effective, environmentally sound trash disposal systems despite seeking membership in the European Union and adopting some of the EU’s laws and regulations.

Unauthorized waste dumps dot hills and valleys throughout the region, while trash litters roads and plastic bags hang from the trees.

In addition to river pollution, many countries in the western Balkans have other environmental woes. One of the most pressing is the extremely high level of air pollution affecting several cities in the region.

“People need to wake up to problems like this,” Visegrad resident Rados Brekalovic said.

Study: Warming To Make California Downpours Even Wetter

As damaging as it was for more than 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow to fall on California since Christmas, a worst-case global warming scenario could juice up similar future downpours by one-third by the middle of this century, a new study says.

The strongest of California’s storms from atmospheric rivers, long and wide plumes of moisture that form over an ocean and flow through the sky over land, would probably get an overall 34% increase in total precipitation, or another 11 trillion gallons more than just fell. That’s because the rain and snow is likely to be 22% more concentrated at its peak in places that get really doused, and to fall over a considerably larger area if fossil fuel emissions grow uncontrolled, according to a new study in Thursday’s journal Nature Climate Change.

The entire western United States would likely see a 31% increase in precipitation from these worst of the worst storms in a souped-up warming world because of more intense and widely spread rainfall, the study said.

Scientists say the worst-case scenario, which is about 4.4 degrees Celsius (7.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since pre-industrial times, looks a bit more unlikely since efforts are being undertaken to rein in emissions. If countries do as they promise, temperatures are on track to warm about 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit), according to Climate Action Tracker.

The National Weather Service calculated that California averaged 11.47 inches of precipitation statewide from Dec. 26 to Jan. 17 — including 18.33 inches in Oakland and 47.74 inches in one spot 235 miles north of San Francisco — because of a series of nine devastating atmospheric rivers that caused power outages, flooding, levee breaks, washouts and landslides. At least 20 people died.

“It could be even worse,” said study author Ruby Leung, a climate scientist at the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Lab. “We need to start planning how would we be able to deal with this.”

Leung used regional scale computer simulations to predict what the worst of the western winter storms will be like between 2040 and 2070 in a scenario where carbon emissions have run amok. She looked at total precipitation, how concentrated peak raining and snowing would be and the area that gets hit. All three factors grow for the West in general. California is predicted to get the highest increase in peak precipitation, while the Southwest is likely to see more rain because of a big jump in area of rainfall. The Pacific Northwest would see the least juicing of the three areas.

Overall precipitation is a bit lessened from adding all the factors, because just as the peak rainfall grows the rainfall on the edges of the storms is predicted to weaken, according to the study.

There are two types of storms that Leung said she worries about: Flash floods from intense rain concentrated over a small area and slower, larger floods that occur from rain and snow piling up over a large area. Both are bad, but the flash floods cause more damage and hurt people more, she said.

And those flash floods are likely to get worse from what Leung’s paper calls a “sharpening” effect that happens in an ever warmer world. That means more rainfall concentrated in the central areas of storms, falling at higher rates per hour, while at the outer edges rainfall is a bit weaker.

This happens because of the physics of rain storms, Leung said.

Not only can the atmosphere hold 4% more moisture per degree Fahrenheit (7% per degree Celsius), but it’s what happens in the storm that changes and makes the precipitation come down even more, Leung said. You’ve got air rising inside the storm with more water vapor condensing to produce rain and snow; it then releases heat “that kind of causes the storm to become more vigorous and stronger,” she said.

When water vapor condenses it comes down as rain and snow along the edges of the storm, but heating sort of squeezes that falling precipitation in toward the middle, Leung said.

“The concepts and impacts of how precipitation features are likely to change are well quantified and well explained,” said David Gochis, an expert in how water affects the weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who wasn’t part of the study.

When she used computer simulations, Leung chose the most severe worst-case scenario for how the world’s carbon emissions will grow. It’s a scenario that used to be called business as usual, but the world is no longer on that track. After years of climate negotiations and the growth of renewable fuels the globe is heading to less warming than the worst case, according to climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth.

“We are providing more of a worst-case scenario, but understanding that if we do take action to reduce emissions in the future, we could end up better,” Leung said. “If we control the emissions and lower the global warming in the future, we can limit the impacts of climate change on the society, particularly flooding and extreme precipitation that we are talking about in this study.”

AI Tools Can Create New Images, But Who Is the Real Artist?

Countless artists have taken inspiration from “The Starry Night” since Vincent Van Gogh painted the swirling scene in 1889.

Now artificial intelligence systems are doing the same, training themselves on a vast collection of digitized artworks to produce new images you can conjure in seconds from a smartphone app.

The images generated by tools such as DALL-E, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion can be weird and otherworldly but also increasingly realistic and customizable — ask for a “peacock owl in the style of Van Gogh” and they can churn out something that might look similar to what you imagined.

But while Van Gogh and other long-dead master painters aren’t complaining, some living artists and photographers are starting to fight back against the AI software companies creating images derived from their works.

Two new lawsuits —- one this week from the Seattle-based photography giant Getty Images —- take aim at popular image-generating services for allegedly copying and processing millions of copyright-protected images without a license.

Getty said it has begun legal proceedings in the High Court of Justice in London against Stability AI — the maker of Stable Diffusion —- for infringing intellectual property rights to benefit the London-based startup’s commercial interests.

Another lawsuit filed Friday in a U.S. federal court in San Francisco describes AI image-generators as “21st-century collage tools that violate the rights of millions of artists.” The lawsuit, filed by three working artists on behalf of others like them, also names Stability AI as a defendant, along with San Francisco-based image-generator startup Midjourney, and the online gallery DeviantArt.

The lawsuit said AI-generated images “compete in the marketplace with the original images. Until now, when a purchaser seeks a new image ‘in the style’ of a given artist, they must pay to commission or license an original image from that artist.”

Companies that provide image-generating services typically charge users a fee. After a free trial of Midjourney through the chatting app Discord, for instance, users must buy a subscription that starts at $10 per month or up to $600 a year for corporate memberships. The startup OpenAI also charges for use of its DALL-E image generator, and StabilityAI offers a paid service called DreamStudio.

Stability AI said in a statement that “Anyone that believes that this isn’t fair use does not understand the technology and misunderstands the law.”

In a December interview with The Associated Press, before the lawsuits were filed, Midjourney CEO David Holz described his image-making subscription service as “kind of like a search engine” pulling in a wide swath of images from across the internet. He compared copyright concerns about the technology with how such laws have adapted to human creativity.

“Can a person look at somebody else’s picture and learn from it and make a similar picture?” Holz said. “Obviously, it’s allowed for people and if it wasn’t, then it would destroy the whole professional art industry, probably the nonprofessional industry too. To the extent that AIs are learning like people, it’s sort of the same thing and if the images come out differently then it seems like it’s fine.”

The copyright disputes mark the beginning of a backlash against a new generation of impressive tools — some of them introduced just last year — that can generate new images, readable text and computer code on command.

They also raise broader concerns about the propensity of AI tools to amplify misinformation or cause other harm. For AI image generators, that includes the creation of nonconsensual sexual imagery.

Some systems produce photorealistic images that can be impossible to trace, making it difficult to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s AI. And while most have some safeguards in place to block offensive or harmful content, experts say it’s not enough and fear it’s only a matter of time until people utilize these tools to spread disinformation and further erode public trust.

“Once we lose this capability of telling what’s real and what’s fake, everything will suddenly become fake because you lose confidence of anything and everything,” said Wael Abd-Almageed, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Southern California.

As a test, The Associated Press submitted a text prompt on Stable Diffusion featuring the keywords “Ukraine war” and “Getty Images.” The tool created photo-like images of soldiers in combat with warped faces and hands, pointing and carrying guns. Some of the images also featured the Getty watermark, but with garbled text.

AI can also get things wrong, like feet and fingers or details on ears that can sometimes give away that they’re not real, but there’s no set pattern to look out for. And those visual clues can also be edited. On Midjourney, for instance, users often post on the Discord chat asking for advice on how to fix distorted faces and hands.

With some generated images traveling on social networks and potentially going viral, they can be challenging to debunk since they can’t be traced back to a specific tool or data source, according to Chirag Shah, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, who uses these tools for research.

“You could make some guesses if you have enough experience working with these tools,” Shah said. “But beyond that, there is no easy or scientific way to really do this.”

But for all the backlash, there are many people who embrace the new AI tools and the creativity they unleash. Searches on Midjourney, for instance, show curious users are using the tool as a hobby to create intricate landscapes, portraits and art.

There’s plenty of room for fear, but “what can else can we do with them?” asked the artist Refik Anadol this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he displayed an exhibit of his AI-generated work.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Anadol designed “Unsupervised,” which draws from artworks in the museum’s prestigious collection — including “The Starry Night” — and feeds them into a massive digital installation generating animations of mesmerizing colors and shapes in the museum lobby.

The installation is “constantly changing, evolving and dreaming 138,000 old artworks at MoMA’s Archive,” Anadol said. “From Van Gogh to Picasso to Kandinsky, incredible, inspiring artists who defined and pioneered different techniques exist in this artwork, in this AI dream world.”

For painters like Erin Hanson, whose impressionist landscapes are so popular and easy to find online that she has seen their influence in AI-produced visuals, she is not worried about her own prolific output, which makes $3 million a year.

She does, however, worry about the art community as a whole.

“The original artist needs to be acknowledged in some way or compensated,” Hanson said. “That’s what copyright laws are all about. And if artists aren’t acknowledged, then it’s going to make it hard for artists to make a living in the future.”

WHO: No Evidence COVID-19 Vaccines Increase Risk of Strokes in Older People

The World Health Organization says there is no evidence that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines increase the risk of strokes in older people.

WHO officials say there is no basis to the recent concerns raised by the media and science communities about the safety of the mRNA booster shots. They say the concerns, which are related to one U.S. data system that monitors safety, presented misinformation about deaths related to COVID-19 infection.

Kate O’Brien, WHO director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, said other U.S. and national vaccine safety monitoring systems have not found further evidence that mRNA vaccines lead to strokes.

“At this point in time, the best evidence is that there is no true association between the booster doses of Pfizer in the older adults and strokes,” she said. “And, again, there is an ongoing, unending system to continuously monitor safety, not only for COVID vaccine and dose-by-dose, but also for all other vaccines.”

O’Brien said COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization, severe disease, or death, but less effective at stopping people from getting infected and transmitting the disease.

She noted it is particularly important that people in high priority groups receive all their recommended doses. They include people over age 60, those who have underlying medical conditions or are immunocompromised, pregnant women and health workers.

“For the strains that we have circulating in the world now, the omicron strains, the first booster dose actually improves the performance of your primary series for protection against the severe end of the disease spectrum,” O’Brien said. “So, you actually need three doses to get that optimal protection from vaccines.”

O’Brien said there is no direct evidence of the performance of the monovalent or bivalent vaccines on the XBB.1.5 strain of COVID-19. Since there currently is no data on whether the newer bivalent vaccines are more effective than ancestral vaccines, she said the WHO recommends both for booster doses.

India Facilitates IMF Bailout for Crisis Stricken Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has moved closer to securing a crucial $2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund after India extended financing assurances that Colombo needs from its major foreign creditors to get the bailout package. 

The IMF loan is critical for the tiny island country to begin a slow recovery process from its worst economic crisis in decades. 

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar announced that the ministry would facilitate the IMF loan Friday in Colombo, where he met President Ranil Wickremesinghe and other senior Sri Lankan ministers.    

“India decided not to wait on others, but to do what we believe is right. We extended financing assurances to the IMF to clear the way for Sri Lanka to move forward,” Jaishankar said in a statement. “Our expectation is that this will not only strengthen Sri Lanka’s position but ensure that all bilateral creditors are dealt with equally.”  

India is the first of Sri Lanka’s major creditors to agree to restructuring the country’s debt. Colombo needs the same assurances from China, its largest lender, to clear the way for the disbursement of the loan, which the IMF had agreed to grant in August but which remains contingent on the support of its lenders.   

Sri Lankan officials expressed optimism that they will also get Beijing’s backing soon.  

“We can say that discussions with China are at the final stage and we expect their assurances in the next few days,” Sri Lanka’s deputy treasury secretary, Priyantha Ratnayake, told reporters. “Once China also gives assurances soon, then Sri Lanka will work to get [IMF] approval as soon as possible.”  

Sri Lanka went virtually bankrupt last year as it grappled with severe foreign exchange shortages to pay either for essential imports or its foreign creditors. Since then, it has grappled with runaway inflation of food and fuel prices. It also suspended repayment of $7 billion in foreign debt due last year.  

The Indian foreign minister also expressed New Delhi’s commitment to increase investment flows to hasten Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.

“India will encourage greater investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in core areas like energy, tourism, and infrastructure,” Jaishankar said.   

India has extended assistance of about $4 billion since Sri Lanka’s economy sank. “For us, it was an issue of the neighborhood first and not leaving a partner to fend for themselves,” he said. 

The two countries are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding for a renewable power project for three islands in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka, which will have to implement stringent reforms to get the IMF loan, has raised taxes and tightened government spending. It has also announced deep cuts in its defense expenditure, saying it will slash its army by one third.  

Political stability has returned to the country after it was rocked by widespread citizen protests that led to the resignation of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was widely blamed for the crisis.  

The severe fuel and food shortages have also eased and tourists are returning to the county, helping the recovery of its tourist-dependent economy. But the dramatic rise in the cost of living continues to pose a challenge to millions in the country. 

Google Parent Company To Lay Off 12,000 Workers Globally

Alphabet Inc., the parent company of tech giant Google, announced Friday it is laying off 12,000 workers across the entire company — cuts reflecting six percent of the company’s total workforce.

In an email to employees Friday, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said the company saw dramatic growth over the past two years and hired new employees “for a different economic reality than the one we face today.” He said he takes full responsibility for the decisions that led to where the company is today.

In his email, Pichai said the layoffs come following “a rigorous review across product areas and functions” to ensure the company’s employees and their roles are aligned with Google’s top priorities. “The roles we’re eliminating reflect the outcome of that review,” he said.

In the email, Pichai said U.S. employees to be laid off already have been notified, while it is going to take longer for employees in other countries because of different laws and regulations.

Google’s decision comes the same week other big tech companies, Meta Platforms Inc. – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Twitter Inc., Microsoft and Amazon, announced they were laying off thousands of employees.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 


South Korea Ends Indoor Mask Rule, But Seoul Residents Skeptical

South Korea on Friday announced an end to its indoor mask mandate, one of the country’s last major pandemic restrictions.

Health authorities said as of Jan. 30, face coverings will no longer be required indoors, except in hospitals, pharmacies, and on public transportation.

The move was made because a winter spike in COVID-19 cases is on the decline and the overall pandemic situation is under control, authorities said.

“Of course, there may be some increase in cases after changing the mandatory mask rule, but given the current situation in Korea we are not expecting a major spike,” said Jee Young-mee, the commissioner of the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The announcement came exactly three years after South Korea reported its first COVID-19 case.

South Korea is the world’s last remaining developed country to lift its indoor mask rule and one of just a handful of nations where masks are still expected to be worn in nearly every public setting.

In Seoul, the densely populated metropolitan area where nearly half the country lives, many residents say they disagree with lifting the mask mandate.

“It’s too early,” said Kim Da-young, a 30-year-old nursing student, who said she fears a spike in COVID-19 cases. “I’m still nervous about taking off my mask, so I’ll keep wearing it.”

According to an opinion poll released earlier this month, 66% of South Koreans will continue to wear masks even after the mandate is lifted. Several polls suggest a large percentage of South Koreans do not ever anticipate a situation in which masks are not needed.

In Seoul, masks have become an expected part of daily life – and not just in crowded indoor settings. The vast majority of residents wear masks while walking outside. Many even keep the masks on when riding alone in an automobile, jogging on an empty path, or sitting on a park bench away from others.

Many residents say there’s little reason to take a mask off, if they have to put it back on to get on a bus or train. Others cite personal circumstances, such as living with older family members who are more susceptible to even mild diseases. South Korea has one of the world’s oldest populations.

Seoul resident Choi Seo-hyun said she is worried about spreading COVID-19 to her 2-month-old daughter.

“Even if I go out without the baby, I think I’ll still wear [the mask],” said Choi, who also cited fears about the seasonal flu.

“People have been wearing masks for a while, so I understand why they want to take them off. But wouldn’t it still be a little dangerous to take it off indoors?” she asked.

Widespread mask-wearing is seen as one of the main reasons South Korea was able to prevent the level of mass COVID-19 deaths seen in other countries, while at the same time avoiding mass lockdowns.

Other factors include the country’s quick and effective system of contact tracing, which has now ended, and an affordable national health care system.

South Korea has also quickly adjusted its COVID-19 policies as conditions changed. Almost all pandemic restrictions have been lifted, except for a seven-day isolation guideline for those who test positive at an official testing center.

The country has also imposed new rules for visitors from China, which has seen a massive spike in cases after abandoning its zero-COVID policy.

Lee Juhyun contributed to this story.