COVID-19 Experts Urge Australians to Wear Masks Even as Latest Omicron Wave Passes

Australian health officials say there are encouraging signs that a wave of COVID-19 omicron variant infections is in decline. However, more than 4,000 Australians are hospitalized with the virus and an unknown number of others are suffering the effects of long COVID.

COVID-19 no longer makes the headlines as it once did in Australia. Strict public health measures, including lockdowns, curfews, mask mandates and international border closures that were imposed during the pandemic have come to an end.

The country is doing its best to live with the virus.

More than 95% of Australians older than 16 have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccination, according to government data. More than 70% of the eligible population — 14 million  have had three or more doses.

But the virus persists. Officials have said omicron variants have fueled a recent wave of infections that has coincided with winter in the southern hemisphere. It appears to be weakening. Still, dozens of deaths and thousands of infections are being reported every day.

Leading epidemiologists at the Burnet Institute, a Melbourne-based medical facility, have released new research showing how many lives could be saved if more Australians wore masks.

The institute’s chief executive Brendan Crabb said face coverings continue to be an important defense against the disease.

“We have to change from a high COVID strategy to a low COVID one. We have done modeling with mask use and increasing mask use to say that if that happened even from July that many cases, up to 20% of cases, 20% of hospitalizations, and 14 percent of deaths between July and October could be averted,” said Crabb.

Australia had some of the world’s toughest disease-control measures. Most foreign nationals were banned from Australia for more than two years after March 2020. Australian citizens needed government permission to leave the country. The military was deployed to enforce lockdowns and vaccine mandates were imposed on some key workers.

The country’s coronavirus strategy now relies on individuals making their own decisions about vaccines, masks, hygiene and distancing. However, experts say that the return of personal freedoms has come at a cost.

Australia has recorded 12,400 deaths from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. More than half of the fatalities occurred in 2022 when restrictions were scrapped.

Government data Wednesday has shown that 9.6 million COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Australia during the pandemic. 270,000 active cases are reported across the country.

your ad here

US Will Stretch Monkeypox Vaccine Supply With Smaller Doses

U.S. health officials on Tuesday authorized a plan to stretch the nation’s limited supply of monkeypox vaccine by giving people just one-fifth the usual dose, citing research suggesting the reduced amount is about as effective. 

The so-called dose-sparing approach also calls for administering the Jynneos vaccine with an injection just under the skin rather than into deeper tissue — a practice that may rev up the immune system better. Recipients would still get two shots spaced four weeks apart. 

The unusual step is a stark acknowledgment that the U.S. currently lacks the supplies needed to vaccinate everyone seeking protection from the rapidly spreading virus. 

That includes 1.6 million to 1.7 million Americans considered by federal officials to be at highest risk from the disease, primarily men with HIV or men who have a higher risk of contracting it. Vaccinating that group would require more than 3.2 million shots. 

White House officials said the new policy would immediately multiply the 440,000 currently available full doses into more than 2 million smaller doses. 

“It’s safe, it’s effective, and it will significantly scale the volume of vaccine doses available for communities across the country,” Robert Fenton, the White House’s monkeypox response coordinator, told reporters. 

The Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health emergency last week in an effort to slow the outbreak that has infected more than 8,900 Americans. 

The FDA authorized the approach for adults 18 and older who are at high risk of monkeypox infection. Younger people can also get the vaccine if they are deemed high risk, though they should receive the traditional injection, the agency said. 

FDA officials stressed that the second dose is critical to ensuring protection. 

“We feel pretty strongly that the two doses are necessary because, in part, we don’t have any evidence that three, six, eight months later people will be adequately protected by a single dose,” said Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s vaccine chief. 

Regulators pointed to a 2015 study showing that inoculation with one-fifth of the traditional two-dose vaccine generated a robust immune-system response comparable to that of the full dose. About 94% of people receiving the smaller dose had adequate levels of virus-fighting antibodies, compared with 98% of those receiving the full dose, according to the study funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

The NIH is planning an additional trial of the technique. And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said her agency is starting to track real-world vaccine effectiveness in U.S. communities. 

But some experts and advocates worried that with little data to support the policy, it could backfire if it reduces vaccine effectiveness. 

“We have grave concerns about the limited amount of research that has been done on this dose and administration method, and we fear it will give people a false sense of confidence that they are protected,” said David Harvey of the National Coalition of STD Directors in a statement. 

The smaller doses require a different type of injection that penetrates only the top layer of skin, rather than the lower layer between the skin and muscle. That’s a less common technique that may require extra training for some health practitioners.  

“Intradermal administration is certainly something that has been used for other vaccines, including the smallpox vaccine, which was administered to hundreds of millions of people during the 20th century,” said Anne Rimoin, director of UCLA’s Center for Global and Immigrant Health. 

The shallower injection is thought to help stimulate the immune system because the skin contains numerous immunity cells that target outside invaders. 

Rationing vaccine doses is common in Africa and other parts of the world with limited health resources. In recent years the World Health Organization has endorsed the strategy to address outbreaks of yellow fever, polio and other diseases. 

Both the U.K. and Canada have adopted a single-dose vaccine strategy prioritizing people who face the highest risk from monkeypox. And health departments in several large U.S. cities adopted a similar strategy amid limited supplies, including New York, San Francisco and Washington. 

Officials said Tuesday that anyone who previously received a full first dose can get the smaller amount for their second dose. 

U.S. officials have shipped more than 625,000 full vaccine doses to state and local health departments.  

The Biden administration has come under fire for not quickly marshaling millions more doses from the strategic national stockpile.  

The FDA approved the Jynneos vaccine in 2019 to prevent smallpox and monkeypox based, in part, on studies in monkeys.  

Additional human studies showed people who received Jynneos had an immune response similar to those who received an older smallpox vaccine. But Jynneos hasn’t been tested in humans with either monkeypox or its relative smallpox, which was eradicated decades ago. 

 

your ad here

WMO: July Is One of Warmest Months on Record

The World Meteorological Organization or WMO reports the month of July was one of the three warmest on record globally. This, despite a weak La Nina event, which is supposed to have a cooling influence.

Meteorologists warn the heatwave that swept through large parts of Europe last month is set to continue in August. They note July was drier than average in much of Europe, badly affecting local economies and agriculture, as well as increasing the risk of wildfires.

WMO Spokeswoman Clare Nullis says Britain’s Met Office has issued another advisory warning of a heat buildup throughout this week. However, she says temperatures are not expected to reach the extreme, record-setting temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius seen in July.

“But it is well above average. Temperatures in France this week, well above average. In Switzerland, many parts of Switzerland well above average. And as I said, continuing the trend that we saw in July, Spain saw its hottest ever month in July. So, not just the hottest July but the hottest ever month on record.”

Nullis says Europe and other parts of the world will have to get used to and adapt to the kind of heatwaves WMO’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas calls “the new normal.”

While Europe was sweltering under extreme heat in July, WMO reports Antarctic Sea ice reached its lowest July level on record. This follows a record low Sea ice level in June. While Europe saw a lot of heat in July, Nullis notes big chunks of the Antarctic did as well.

“It is important to bear in mind there is quite a big sort of monthly and year-to-year variability in Antarctica. So, the fact that it was the lowest on record in June and in July does not mean necessarily that this is a long-term irreversible trend.”

WMO reports the long-lasting drought in parts of Europe also is set to continue. It warns below-normal precipitation in many parts of Europe will cause or worsen drought conditions and likely trigger more forest fires.

your ad here

Biden Signs Semiconductor Bill Boosting US Competitiveness

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed the CHIPS and Science Act, which aims to boost U.S. competitiveness against China by allocating billions of dollars toward domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research.

“The United States must lead the world in the production of these advanced chips. This law will do exactly that,” Biden said in remarks during the signing ceremony Tuesday. The president is recovering from COVID-19 and coughed repeatedly during his remarks.

He called the bipartisan legislation a “once in a generation investment” in the country and said it will create good jobs, grow the economy and protect U.S. national security.

Biden noted stiff competition with China in the chips industry. “It’s no wonder the Chinese Communist Party actively lobbied U.S. business against this bill,” he remarked.

Biden was joined on stage for the event by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Joshua Aviv, CEO of Spark Charge, an electric vehicle charging network.

Schumer called the legislation the “largest investment in manufacturing science and innovation in decades” and thanked Republican Senator Todd Young for his partnership for over three years working on semiconductor-related legislation, beginning with what was then called the Endless Frontier Act.

The proposed act went through various iterations before it was passed as the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act on a 243-187 vote in the House of Representatives and a 64-33 vote in the Senate in July.

Last year, a semiconductor shortage affected the supply of automobiles, electronic appliances and other goods, causing higher inflation globally and pummeling Biden’s public approval rating among American voters.

Catching up in the chips race

The CHIPS Act includes $52 billion in incentives for domestic semiconductor production and research, as well as an investment tax credit for semiconductor manufacturing. Advocates say it will allow the U.S. to catch up in the global semiconductor manufacturing race currently dominated by China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Following the passage of the bill, the White House noted that Micron, a leading U.S. chip manufacturer, will announce a $40 billion plan to boost domestic chip production while Qualcomm and GlobalFoundries will unveil a $4.2 billion expansion of a chip plant in New York.

The U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity has decreased from 37% in 1990 to 12% today, largely because other governments have offered manufacturing incentives and invested in research to strengthen domestic chipmaking capabilities, according to a state of the industry report by the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Now China accounts for 24% of the world’s semiconductor production, followed by Taiwan at 21%, South Korea at 19% and Japan at 13%, the report said.

The CHIPS Act also includes $4.2 billion to fund defense initiatives and the U.S. mobile broadband market, particularly efforts to promote non-Chinese 5G equipment manufacturing.

Broadly, the legislation lays out a strategy for Washington as it aims for global technological and economic dominance – gaining production autonomy by leveraging allies, including South Korea and Japan and eliminating political dependencies on the global semiconductor supply chain.

That strategy puts the U.S. on a collision course with China, which also aims to be the global leader in semiconductors. In 2015, Beijing launched the Made in China 2025 project, which aimed to increase chip production from less than 10% of global demand at the time to 40% in 2020 and 70% in 2025.

The Taiwan factor

Taiwan — a self-governed island that Beijing claims to be its breakaway province — is the main producer of the world’s most high-tech chips. It lies at the heart of the semiconductor showdown, the latest battlefront in the increasingly tense U.S.-China strategic rivalry.

Taiwan accounts for 92% of the global production of 10 nm or smaller semiconductors, essentially creating what some observers have characterized as a “silicon shield” that ensures American support in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as a deterrence against such a move.

In a visit to Taipei that angered Beijing earlier this month, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Mark Liu, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s biggest chipmaker.

Pelosi delivered all but one Democratic vote in the House of Representatives for the CHIPS Act. “Mr. President with the stroke of your pen, America declares our economic independence,” she said in her remarks Tuesday. “We strengthen our national security, and we enhance our family’s financial future.”

Following Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, Beijing halted key communication channels with Washington and conducted live-fire military drills, raining Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters near Taiwan’s eastern, southern, and northern coasts.

While most experts don’t believe a war over Taiwan is imminent, many fear a conflict there would disrupt semiconductor production and have disastrous effects on global manufacturing.

your ad here

Five Southern African Countries Kick-Start Elephant Census

Five southern African countries, with more than half the continent’s elephants, are conducting a first-ever aerial census to determine the elephant population and how to protect it. 

Light aircraft will fly simultaneously across the plains of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe — in a conservation area known as the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-frontier Conservation Area (KAZA) — in an exercise that will run until October 20.

KAZA is home to an estimated 220,000 elephants, and the five countries are keen to know the exact figures and the animals’ distribution patterns. 

More than 130,000 of the animals are found in Botswana, which has the world’s largest elephant population. 

Botswana’s National Parks and Wildlife director, Kabelo Senyatso, said the population count will be key in the management of the elephants. 

The data primarily will be used to guide decision-making by the five partner states, Senyatso said, including land-use planning, managing human-elephant conflict, hunting, and tourism.

Senyatso said the exercise is critical for a region with a high number of trans-boundary elephants. 

“It is important that as managers of the resource, we have a clear understanding of where they are and how they are distributed across the landscape,” Senyatso said. “It is an exciting project, the first of its kind. We expect the data on the patterns to be analyzed starting early 2023 such that by quarter one of 2023, we would already be having preliminary data that we can share with the public and for our decision-making.”      

KAZA’s executive director, Nyambe Nyambe, said the elephant count will determine a scientific approach to the management of the elephant populations.      

“It is highly anticipated that it will generate science-based information on the population distribution and other factors and is a reaffirmation of the KAZA partner states’ commitment to the joint pursuit of science-led conservation supported by accurate and reliable data,” Nyambe said. “The results from this survey will become the cornerstone for the long-term protection and management of Africa’s largest trans-boundary elephant population.”     

Botswana-based conservationist Map Ives said revealing the elephant migration patterns across the five countries’ borders is key. 

“We hope to see what the results come up with,” Ives said. “What we will be interested in seeing is not only how many elephants there are but the distribution, therefore, and what the likelihood of those elephants moving between countries is. We know that this population is one single contiguous population.”          

While elephant populations are increasing in the KAZA region, elsewhere on the African continent the numbers are decreasing due to loss of habitat and poaching. 

 

your ad here

Nonprofits Launch $100M Plan to Support Local Health Workers

A new philanthropic project hopes to invest $100 million in 10 countries, mostly in Africa, by 2030 to support 200,000 community health workers, who serve as a critical bridge to treatment for people with limited access to medical care.

The Skoll Foundation and The Johnson & Johnson Foundation announced Monday that they donated a total of $25 million to the initiative. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which will oversee the project, matched the donations and hopes to raise an additional $50 million.

The investment seeks to empower the front-line workers that experts say are essential to battling outbreaks of COVID-19, Ebola and HIV.

“What have we found out in terms of community health workers?” said Francisca Mutapi, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, who helps lead a multiyear project to treat neglected tropical diseases in multiple African countries. “They are very popular. They are very effective. They are very cost effective.”

On a recent trip to Zimbabwe for research, Mutapi described how a community health worker negotiated the treatment of a parasitic infection in a young child who was part of a religious group that doesn’t accept clinical medicine.

“She’s going to the river, getting on with her day-to-day business, and she notices that one of the children in her community is complaining about a stomachache,” said Mutapi.

The woman approached the child’s grandmother for permission to bring the child to a clinic, which diagnosed and began treating the child for bilharzia. That would not have happened without the woman’s intervention, Mutapi said.

Ashley Fox, an associate professor specializing in global health policy at Albany, SUNY, said evidence shows community health workers can effectively deliver low-cost care “when they are properly equipped and trained and paid – that’s a big caveat.”

Though the current number of these workers is not well documented, in 2017, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the continent required 2 million to meet health targets. Many of these workers are women and unpaid, though The Global Fund advocates for some sort of salary for them.

“It’s hard to think of a better set of people that you would want to be paying if you think about it from both the point of view of creating good jobs as well as maximizing the health impact,” said Peter Sands, the fund’s executive director.

The Global Fund, founded in 2002, channels international financing with the aim of eradicating treatable infectious diseases. In addition to its regular three-year grants to countries, it will deploy these new philanthropic donations through a catalytic fund to encourage spending on some of the best practices and program designs.

Last Mile Health, part of the Africa Frontline First health initiative, has worked with the Liberian government to expand and strengthen its community health program since 2016.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, former Liberian president and Noble Peace Prize recipient, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, convened Last Mile Health and other organizations to grapple with a response.

“We were all kind of seeing the Deja vu moment of recalling back to a couple of years ago where Liberia was beset by this tragic epidemic of Ebola,” said Nan Chen, managing director of Last Mile Health. “And as President Sirleaf reminded us: the tide was turned when we turned to the community.”

Along with the other organizations that specialize in the financing, research and policy of public health, they set about designing an initiative to expand community health programs and to capitalize on the attention the pandemic brought to the need for disease surveillance.

The catalytic fund is the result. “I think the pandemic has shone a light on the critical role of these health workers,” said Lauren Moore, vice president of global community impact at Johnson & Johnson.

Don Gips, CEO of the Skoll Foundation, emphasized that these workers also can raise early warnings that benefit people everywhere.

“It’s critical not just for delivering health care in Africa, but this is how we’ll also catch the next set of diseases that could threaten populations around the world,” said Gips, who is also the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa. 

Last Mile Health won a major donation from the Skoll Foundation in 2017 and has also received large donations from the Audacious Project from TED and Co-Impact, another funding collective. The organization’s co-founder, Raj Panjabi, now serves in the Biden administration.

“What philanthropy has noticed about Last Mile Health is that we were not only taking direct action on the problem by actively managing community health worker programs, but that we were seeing our innovation adopted in national policy at scale,” said James Nardella, the organization’s chief program officer.

SUNY’s Fox and other experts say linking the work of community health care workers to the national health system is a priority, along with securing sustainable funding for their programs.

The Global Fund said it will assist countries with the design of proposed community health care worker expansions over the next year.

Chen acknowledged there is no silver bullet for the issue of sustainability.

“Part of the work that organizations like Last Mile Health have to do is to sit in that discomfort and wrestle with it, with our partners, with donors, until we incrementally squeeze out the solution here,” Chen said.

Mutapi said eventually governments must fund the programs themselves and she argued the experiences of places like Zimbabwe and Liberia with community health workers could benefit people in other contexts as well.

“Actually, having lived on Scottish islands, which are inaccessible,” she said, the innovation of community health workers is “something that actually can be exported to Western communities that are remote because that connection between a health provider and the local community is really important for compliance and for access.” 

your ad here

Australia to Permit Offshore Wind Farms 

Offshore wind farms are to be permitted for the first time in Australia. The Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen has declared part of the Victoria coast an offshore wind zone and a 60-day community consultation process will soon begin.

The Australian government has designated the country’s first offshore wind zone, which gives developers permission to increase their planning and consultation for wind farm projects.

Australia currently has no offshore wind generation, which was seen as too expensive and hard to build compared to onshore wind or solar projects.

The Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen says there is no time to lose.

“We are way behind the game, way behind the rest of the world in producing wind off our coastline. Again, we have a lot of catching up to do. Offshore wind is jobs-rich and energy-rich,” he said.

The first official offshore wind zone is off the Gippsland coast in the state of Victoria. There are plans to install up to 200 wind turbines, with the closest located 7 kilometers from the coastline. It would be one of the world’s largest wind farms. Construction could begin in 2025.

Other areas will follow off the coasts of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Erin Coldham, the acting chief executive of the Danish-owned Star of the South wind project in the Bass Strait in Victoria, says the project will help reduce Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“In the region where we are looking to put a project in Gippsland, it is a region that has been generating power for over 100 years and been working in the offshore oil and gas business. But those communities know those opportunities will not be around forever. So, there is a really strong sense of enthusiasm for technologies like offshore wind to continue that tradition into the future,” said Coldham.

Wind turbines have been identified as a key part in Australia’s plan to generate more than 80% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2030.

In 2020, 24% of Australia’s electricity came from renewable energy, up from 21% in 2019.

Solar is Australia’s largest source of green power. A quarter of Australian homes have rooftop solar systems — the highest uptake in the world.

But despite this, Australia has been one of the world’s worst per capita emitters of greenhouse pollution. Coal and gas still generate most of its electricity. Analysts have said that for years it has been regarded as a climate laggard.

But that perception is now changing.

For the first time, Australia has a legislated target to cut greenhouse gas output.

Last week, new laws were passed by the federal parliament in Canberra that will cut carbon emissions by 43% by 2030.

 

your ad here

US Senate Democrats Approve Climate, Tax Legislation

The evenly split U.S. Senate has passed sweeping climate and tax legislation, which Democrats also dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. With Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote and all Democrats on board, lawmakers worked late Saturday into Sunday debating the measure. As VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports, Senate Republicans – unified in opposition – warn the legislation will lead to reckless spending.

your ad here

At Least 100,000 Expected for NASA’s Moon Launch

Sold-out hotels. Excitement that seems to grow by the day. The potential for hundreds of thousands of visitors, support staff, and more.

These are just a few of the factors being calculated into preparations for Artemis I, the first launch of NASA’s moon-focused Space Launch System rocket slated for Aug. 29. Standing 322 feet tall, it promises to be the biggest, most powerful rocket to launch from the Space Coast in years – bringing with it a level of excitement to match.

All told, Space Coast officials are expecting at least 100,000 visitors for the rocket’s first window, which includes opportunities on Aug. 29, Sept. 2, and Sept. 5 (Labor Day). Currently, T-0 on Aug. 29 is set for 8:33 a.m. ET. Pad 39B will host.

The rocket is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put humans back on the moon sometime this decade. That starts with the uncrewed Artemis I mission and its plan to take an Orion capsule on a four-to-six-week journey to the moon and back. Artemis II will do the same with astronauts, then Artemis III will put two astronauts on the surface sometime after 2024.

Hotels and tourism

The Space Coast isn’t a stranger to launch day crowds. During the space shuttle era that ran through 2011, half a million or more visitors would sometimes flood the area, scooping up hotel rooms and packing local businesses.

Since then, crowds have been smaller, but still significant. Even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands still flocked to Brevard County to see launches.

Some of the recent SpaceX Crew Dragon launches, which take astronauts to the International Space Station from KSC, have drawn between 100,000 and 250,000 visitors, according to Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect more than 100,000 for Artemis I.

“I think the crewed launches and these Artemis launches are going to be of equal interest to people,” Cranis said. “I would expect certainly over 100,000, if not more, coming for that.”

As of June, Cranis said, Brevard County had 10,734 hotel rooms and 4,500 vacation rental units. Each unit can obviously accommodate more than one person, but those numbers likely won’t be impacted by spectators driving from Orlando, for example, to see the launch without staying overnight.

Speaking to the greater launch cadence, Cranis said Artemis also supports his office’s efforts at marketing the Space Coast. Both KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station have hosted 32 launches this year, a pace not seen since the 1960s.

“Our marketing line is we’re the only beach that doubles as a launch pad and now that’s a message we can put out there because the frequency is so elevated,” he said. “Being known for that is something that makes us special among our peers who obviously have beaches to promote, but no space program.”

Just glancing at hotel room listings shows a rapidly dwindling supply among those that haven’t been sold out.

The space-themed Courtyard by Marriott Titusville – Kennedy Space Center is one of the area’s newest hotels. Completed this year and opened to the public in April, it boasts views of KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station pads and even has a rooftop “Space Bar” specifically for launch viewing.

All the Courtyard’s rooms, along with the Space Bar, are sold out for Artemis I.

“We’ve had more and more people discover the hotel since it opened in April, with steadily increasing room bookings and patronage of The Space Bar on the roof,” said Glen White, director of corporate communications for Delaware North. The company franchised the Courtyard hotel brand and paid for the project.

“We also anticipate having people book rooms and visit the Space Bar to feel the excitement of seeing Artemis on the launch pad in the days leading up to launch,” White said.

Delaware North’s main Space Coast operation is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is expecting to sell out its Artemis day offerings.

“We are expecting capacity crowds at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the upcoming Artemis launch,” said Therrin Protze, the visitor complex’s chief operating officer. “(The visitor complex) will offer special Artemis launch viewing packages that will include some of the closest public viewing opportunities with distinctive experiences like live commentary from space experts and access to select exhibits and attractions.”

Artemis I’s launch ties in with the complex’s recently opened “Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex” exhibit, which focuses on the future of spaceflight. Inside the new exhibit is a scale model of the SLS rocket, a flown Orion capsule similar to the one on Artemis I, and other items like a ceiling-mounted SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster.

The visitor complex’s tickets for Artemis I viewing will go on sale 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the Kennedy Space Center website.

Kennedy Space Center and media

Crowds gathering to see the launch as spectators aren’t the only visitors expected on the Space Coast. Hundreds of media members from around the world have signed up to cover the liftoff, too.

KSC’s public affairs team confirmed at least 700 media have signed up so far, a figure that dwarfs typical launches and is closer to crowds seen during the space shuttle program. Heather Scott, a spokesperson for the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45, said the military branch will also be pitching in to help manage media.

“The growing sense of energy and excitement that has been steadily building around Kennedy and among our workforce in the last year is tangible,” said Mike Bolger, director of KSC’s Exploration Ground Systems. “A sense of anticipation is growing daily as we close in on launching this amazing rocket and spacecraft.”

From an employee perspective, launch day car passes that can be used to bring personal vehicles – and family and friends, in most cases – are highly sought after.

And it’s not just about launch day viewing: employees not directly working on Artemis have been handling non-critical items for those who are, even going as far as buying their lunch to help free up time.

“Our teams are laser-focused on walking SLS and Orion through the final steps before its maiden flight around the moon, but the excitement across the center is palpable,” KSC Director Janet Petro said. “You can see it in peoples’ faces, you can hear it in their voices, and when we all stand together with our eyes to the sky on launch day, I don’t think there will be a feeling in the world like it.”

your ad here

US Senate Democrats Poised to Approve Climate, Tax Legislation 

U.S. Senate Democrats, over uniform Republican opposition, are poised Sunday to approve sweeping legislation to combat climate change, trim health care costs and raise taxes on highly profitable corporations.

The measure, a scaled-down version of President Joe Biden’s long-stalled economic legislative plan, calls for the biggest U.S. investment ever in attacking the effects of global warming, $370 billion to boost the use of clean energy, encourage Americans to buy electric vehicles and reduce plant-warming emissions 40% by 2030.

The legislation would also for the first time authorize the U.S. government to negotiate the cost of some drugs with pharmaceutical companies to potentially lower the cost of medicines for older Americans, extend health insurance subsidies for millions of people and impose a 15% minimum tax on billion-dollar companies that now pay nothing. The bill would also add 87,000 more federal tax agents to further scrutinize individual and corporate tax returns to catch tax cheaters and cut the chronic U.S. budget debt by about $300 billion.

The measure narrowly survived a key test vote Saturday by a 51-50 margin, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote after all 50 Senate Democrats supported the legislation and the 50-member Republican caucus uniformly opposed it.

Democrats engaged in months of rancorous debate over what was originally a $2 trillion measure, what Biden called his Build Back Better plan. Now, with U.S. consumers worried about the sharpest increase in consumer prices in four decades — a 9.1% annualized surge in June — Democrats are calling the legislation the Inflation Reduction Act.

However, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office review of the legislation said the bill’s provisions would have a “negligible effect” on inflation during the remainder of 2022 and little effect next year either.

The entirety of the legislation appeared doomed until Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, with Biden’s approval, was recently able to reach agreement with two centrist Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, on tax and climate control provisions in the proposal that they would accept.

As debate opened Saturday, before lawmakers from both parties offered an array of amendments that were rejected, Schumer said, “This historic bill will reduce inflation, lower costs, fight climate change, and it’s time to move this nation forward.”

Senate debate on the measure was continuing Sunday but Democrats are hoping to approve the legislation later in the day, almost certainly on the same 51-50 party-line margin requiring Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote as she did on the opening vote to begin debate. If the Senate approves it, the House of Representatives is expected to pass it Friday and send it to the White House for Biden’s signature.

The debate also played out on Sunday television talk shows.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who supports the legislation, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that its passage would give the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service agency the greatly expanded staff it needs to “go after” tax cheats and “the biggest earners.”

He also noted that Americans “overwhelmingly want to cut the cost of their medicine,” a provision that could be achieved for some drugs prescribed for older Americans under the country’s Medicare health insurance program.

But Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina balked at Blumenthal’s analysis of the measure, saying that tax agents are “going after Uber drivers and nurses. They’re going after everyone.”

He said the legislation is “going to make everything worse. It’s not going to help [cut] inflation.”

your ad here

‘Synthetic Embryo’ Breakthrough but Growing Human Organs Far Off

Stem cell scientists say they have created “synthetic embryos” without using sperm, eggs or fertilization for the first time, but the prospect of using such a technique to grow human organs for transplantation remains distant.

The breakthrough was hailed as a major step forward, though some experts said the result could not fully be considered to be embryos and warned of future ethical considerations.

In research published in the journal Cell this week, scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said found a way to have mouse stem cells self-assemble into embryo-like structures in the lab.

They started by collecting cells from the skin of mice, then made them return to the state of stem cells.

The stem cells were then placed in a special incubator designed by the researchers, which continuously moved to mimic a mother’s womb.

The vast majority of the cells failed to form anything.

But 50 — 0.5 percent of the 10,000 total — collected themselves into spheres, then embryo-like structures, the researchers said.

After eight days — around a third of the 20-day mouse gestation period — there were early signs of a brain and a beating heart, they added.

They were described as 95% similar to normal mouse embryos.

‘Time will tell’

If human organs could one day be grown in a lab, the technique could provide life-saving transplants for thousands of people every year.

Stem cell scientist Jacob Hanna, who led the research, told AFP, “The big problem for transplantation is that you need to find a matching donor and the DNA is never identical to the patient.”

But using the new technique, one day scientists could take cells from a patient’s liver, for example, use them to make stem cells, grow a synthetic embryo then “transplant them back into the patient,” Hanna said.

“The cell will be made from the patient, so it will be the exact DNA — no need to find donors and there can be no rejection,” he added.

While they were the most advanced synthetic embryo-like structures ever grown, some scientists not involved in the research warned against calling them “embryos.”

“These are not embryos,” French stem cell scientist Laurent David told AFP.

He preferred to call them embryoids, the name for a group of cells that resemble an embryo.

However, David welcomed the “very convincing” research, which he said could allow further experiments to understand exactly how organs form.

Beyond organs, Hanna said the embryoids could also help identify new targets for drugs and potentially help find solutions for a range of issues such as pregnancy loss, infertility, endometriosis and preeclampsia.

“Time will tell,” he said.

Hanna, a Palestinian who led the research at the institute in Israel, said, “Science is my escape from the harsh reality I face while living in my homeland.”

“And I am one of the very ‘lucky’ ones,” he added.

The first author of the Cell study is a PhD student from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, who needs a special permit regularly renewed to allow him to work at the institute in the Israeli city of Rehovot, Hanna said.

Ethical implications

Hanna has founded a company, Renewal Bio, that he said “will be focusing on testing potential clinical applications of human synthetic embryoids.”

He said they had ethical approval for such testing in Israel and it was legal in many other countries such as the U.S. and U.K.

“We should remember that synthetic embryos are embryoids and not real embryos and do not have the potential to become viable,” he said.

But researchers not involved in the study said it was very early to consider using such a technique for humans.

Alfonso Martinez Arias of Spain’s Pompeu Fabra University said the breakthrough “opens the door to similar studies with human cells, though there are many regulatory hoops to get through first and, from the point of view of the experiments, human systems lag behind mouse systems.”

And aiming to get similar results from human cells is likely to open an ethical can of worms.

“Although the prospect of synthetic human embryos is still distant, it will be crucial to engage in wider discussions about the legal and ethical implications of such research,” James Briscoe of Britain’s Francis Crick Institute said.

your ad here

US Senate Preps for Landmark Climate Legislation

Congressional Democrats appear to be on the cusp of passing legislation that would dedicate $369 billion to combat climate change through a combination of grants, tax cuts, subsidies and other measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

In addition to its climate-related elements, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) makes it possible for Medicare, the government-sponsored health insurance program for older Americans, to negotiate certain drug prices with the pharmaceuticals industry, a move expected to lower drug costs for all Americans. It also creates a minimum tax on large corporations, raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and will reduce the federal deficit by an estimated $300 billion over 10 years.

In a statement issued Thursday, President Joe Biden praised the legislation and called on lawmakers to pass it quickly.

The bill, Biden said, “makes the largest investment in history in combating climate change and increasing energy security, creating jobs here in the U.S. and saving people money on their energy costs. I look forward to the Senate taking up this legislation and passing it as soon as possible.”

Key provisions

A major element of the bill is a package of rebates, tax credits, and grants to help individual American families reduce their reliance on fossil fuels by subsidizing energy efficient home improvement projects and the purchase of electric vehicles.

The bill would dedicate $60 billion to helping establish clean energy production in the U.S. That includes tax credits to support $30 billion in spending on the domestic production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other critical clean energy components as well as $20 billion in low-cost loans to support the manufacture of electric vehicles.

Other elements of the bill aim to support a broad range of decarbonization efforts across the economy, including $30 billion in grants and loans to states and electric utilities to “accelerate the transition to clean energy.”

The bill also earmarks tens of billions of dollars for “environmental justice” efforts meant to reduce the impact of climate change on disadvantaged communities and billions more toward increasing the climate resilience of farms and rural communities.

A catalyst for global action

“We could not be more excited about this huge breakthrough,” David Kieve, president of EDF Action, an arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, told VOA. “There’s been a shift in the attitudes of the American public in recent years towards an understanding that the jobs of the future are going to be in clean energy. And the only open question is, are they going to be here in the United States?”

Kieve said that in addition to creating those jobs in the U.S., he believes the investments in the bill will put the U.S. “on the fast track” to hitting the administration’s broader climate goals. He said he also expects it to catalyze action in other countries.

“What we’ve heard from other nations for quite some time, is that it’s nice that America has a president who’s saying the right thing about climate change, but do they really have the political will to execute on it?” he said. “When this bill is passed, and goes to President Biden’s desk, we will have answered that question definitively for the rest of the world and other nations will have no excuse but to get in line and follow our lead.”

Big promises

In an effort to push the bill across the finish line, Democrats in Congress have been touting its expected impact on the Biden administration’s pledge to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. While the $369 billion of climate-directed spending falls short of the $555 billion that the administration was seeking last year, many experts say that the IRA will have a major impact.

As negotiations were ongoing last week, Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from the state of Delaware who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works issued a statement that said, “In what would amount to the most ambitious climate bill ever enacted, this legislation would put our nation on track to nearly 40% emissions reduction by the end of the decade, unleash the potential of the American clean energy industry, and create good-paying jobs across the country.”

Experts and activists who have reviewed the legislation have broadly agreed that the bill lives up to the hype.

In a statement calling the legislation “transformative,” Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz said the bill “will be the single largest investment in our communities — including those that have long been disproportionately impacted by climate-fueled disasters — and a healthy and secure future for all of us.”

Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology, a non-partisan energy and climate policy think tank analyzed the legislation and issued a report that read, in part, “We find that the IRA is the most significant federal climate and clean energy legislation in U.S. history, and its provisions could cut greenhouse gas emissions 37-41% below 2005 levels.”

Criticism from the right

Not all analyses of the bill’s climate provisions were positive. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argued that the effort to move the country toward greater use of renewable energy is an infringement on Americans’ freedom.

“Energy impacts every aspect of our lives and every sector of the economy. By dictating how we produce and consume energy, this bill would dictate how we live our lives and limit the freedoms we enjoy,” the report argued. “It’s a pretext for control. And there is little to no regard for the high prices incurred by Americans and the costs that will arise for trying to achieve the left’s radical climate agenda. And what’s even worse, this is all pain for no gain.”

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who represents West Virginia, a state that relies heavily on fossil fuel for both jobs and energy, also criticized the bill.

“It will hurt our industries in West Virginia, our hard working men and women in the oil and gas business or in the coal business,” she said. “That will also, I think, hamper our energy security in this country.”

Former EPA officials in support

A bipartisan group of former Environmental Protection Administration leaders released a statement Friday in support of the bill’s climate components.

“The legislation meets the moment of urgency that the climate crisis demands, and will position the U.S. to meet President Biden’s climate goals of reducing emissions 50-52% by 2030, while making unprecedented investments in clean energy solutions that will save families hundreds of dollars a year and create new, good paying union jobs across the country,” the former administrators said.

The group included Carol Browner, who ran the EPA under President Barack Obama, and Christine Todd Whitman, who ran the agency under President George W. Bush.

Complicated process

The bill is the product of months of negotiations among Senate Democrats, who had to make a number of concessions to appease centrist members of their party. Keeping all Democrats on board was essential because the Senate is currently divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast deciding votes in the instance of a tie. Republicans appear united in opposition to the bill.

Democrats are moving to pass the bill through a process called “budget reconciliation” that makes legislation immune to the filibuster, a rule that allows a minority of senators to block a piece of legislation unless it receives 60 votes in the 100-member body. Under budget reconciliation, the Democrats’ 50 votes, plus Harris’s tie-breaker, would be sufficient to pass the Inflation Reduction Act even if Republicans unanimously oppose it.

If the Senate passes the bill, which could happen within days, it would then go to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass and to be sent to Biden for his signature.

your ad here

Milk Use and Lactose Tolerance Didn’t Develop Hand in Hand in Europe

Early Europeans drank milk for thousands of years before they evolved the ability to fully digest it as adults, scientists say.

New results published in the journal Nature suggest that being able to digest the lactose in milk wasn’t usually much of an advantage for ancient people in Europe. Instead, the new study suggests that famine and disease made lactose intolerance deadly.

The new discovery challenges the long-standing assumption that dairy farming spread through ancient populations alongside the genetic quirks that prevent adults from losing the ability to digest lactose.

Like other young mammals, human children produce an enzyme called lactase that breaks down lactose. The gene for lactase usually turns off in adulthood because aside from humans, adult mammals don’t drink milk.

Without lactase, lactose from milk ends up feeding gut microbes that produce gas, which can cause uncomfortable digestive problems.

“You’ll get some cramps. You’ll get some diarrhea. Might fart a bit more. It might be unpleasant for you,” said geneticist Mark Thomas of University College London, who led the genetics work for the new study. “It might be embarrassing, but you’re not going to die.”

But when our ancient ancestors suffered through plagues or famines, getting diarrhea from drinking milk was probably more than just uncomfortable, the authors suggest.

“Then we’re talking about a life-threatening condition,” Thomas said.

About one-third of people alive today have a genetic variant that keeps their lactase gene from turning off. This trait has evolved independently multiple times in the ancestors of people now living in parts of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Scientists long assumed that lactase persistence evolved alongside the spread of dairy farming, which happened over a few thousand years beginning around 7000 BC.

However, earlier studies revealed that lactase persistence was vanishingly rare in Europe until about 3,000 years ago. But after that, it took only a few thousand years for the trait to become widespread — the blink of an eye in evolutionary time.

Why this trait would evolve so quickly was a mystery.

“Lactase persistence has been under enormous amounts of natural selection over the last eight to ten thousand years … more than any other part of the genome in Europeans,” said Thomas. “It was, for a very long period of time, the one trait upon which life and death pivoted more than any other. … It’s insane. It just defies explanation.”

Searching for an explanation, the authors sought to reconstruct the history of milk use in the region over the past 9,000 years. They examined fat residues left on more than 7,000 pottery shards collected at 550 archaeological sites across Europe.

“When people were cooking … fat liquefies and then penetrates into the pores of the pottery,” said organic geochemist and study co-author Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol. “It’s quite stunning, really. But thousands of years later when archaeologists excavate a piece of pottery that had been discarded and then we analyze the pottery, it’s still there.”

The pottery shards showed that milk consumption was widespread across most of Europe for thousands of years before most Europeans became lactose tolerant.

Studying health data on modern Britons, the researchers didn’t find any evidence that drinking milk hurts the health of modern adults who don’t produce lactase.

Surprisingly, using data on ancient population fluctuations to approximate when and where ancient Europeans dealt with famine and disease, the researchers found that sickness and hunger might explain the evolution of lactase persistence better than milk consumption.

Famine could have forced ancient people to drink more milk than usual as other food sources ran out. And both malnutrition and disease could have made lactose-induced diarrhea very dangerous. Severe diarrhea can kill — it is still the second leading cause of death for children under 5 worldwide.

Shevan Wilkin, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Zurich who reviewed the new paper, said the research was an important step forward but that she’s not necessarily convinced that famine and disease alone can explain the evolution of lactase persistence.

“The reason I don’t know if I think they’re right, I also don’t know if I think they’re wrong, is before 2,000 years ago, there were absolutely times of famine,” Wilkin said.

Thomas said he’d like to see similar studies done in Africa, where lactase persistence evolved independently three different times. Wilkin agreed, noting that Europe is over-studied, and that future research should focus on other regions, including central Asia, where people drink lots of milk despite lacking a genetic variant that keeps lactase from turning off in adults.

“I think it’d be really interesting to apply this [in] multiple places,” said Wilkin. “It’s just such a cool and ambitious undertaking, and I think it’s really going to spur a ton of new studies.”

your ad here

Spain Leads Europe in Monkeypox, Struggles to Check Spread 

As a sex worker and adult film actor, Roc was relieved when he was among the first Spaniards to get a monkeypox vaccine. He knew of several cases among men who have sex with men, which is the leading demographic for the disease, and feared he could be next. 

“I went home and thought, ‘Phew, my God, I’m saved,’ ” the 29-year-old told The Associated Press. 

But it was already too late. Roc, the name he uses for work, had been infected by a client a few days before. He joined Spain’s steadily increasing count of monkeypox infections that has become the highest in Europe since the disease spread beyond Africa, where it has been endemic for years. 

He began showing symptoms: pustules, fever, conjunctivitis and tiredness. Roc was hospitalized for treatment before getting well enough to be released. 

Spanish health authorities and community groups are struggling to check an outbreak that has killed two young men. They reportedly died of encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, that can be caused by some viruses. Most monkeypox cases cause only mild symptoms. 

Spain has confirmed 4,942 cases in the three months since the start of the outbreak, which has been linked to two raves in Europe, where experts say the virus was likely spread through sex. 

The only country with more infections than Spain is the much larger United States, which has reported 7,100 cases. 

Global count

In all, the global monkeypox outbreak has seen more than 26,000 cases in nearly 90 countries since May. There have been 103 suspected deaths in Africa, mostly in Nigeria and Congo, where a more lethal form of monkeypox is spreading than in the West. 

Health experts stress that this is not technically a sexually transmitted disease, even though it has been mainly spreading via sex among gay and bisexual men, who account for 98% of cases beyond Africa. The virus can be spread to anyone who has close, physical contact with an infected person, their clothing or bed sheets. 

Part of the complexity of fighting monkeypox is striking a balance between not stigmatizing men who have sex with men, while also ensuring that both vaccines and pleas for greater caution reach those currently in the greatest danger. 

Spain has distributed 5,000 shots of the two-shot vaccine to health clinics and expects to receive 7,000 more from the European Union in the coming days, its health ministry said. The EU has bought 160,000 doses and is donating them to member states based on need. The bloc is expecting another 70,000 shots to be available next week. 

To ensure that those shots get administered wisely, community groups and sexual health associations are targeting gay men, bisexuals and transgender women. 

In Barcelona, BCN Checkpoint, which focuses on AIDS/HIV prevention in gay and trans communities, is now contacting at-risk people to offer them one of the precious vaccines. 

Pep Coll, medical director of BCN Checkpoint, said the vaccine rollout is focused on people who are already at risk of contracting HIV and are on preemptive treatment, men with a high number of sexual partners and those who participate in sex with the use of drugs, as well as people with suppressed immune responses. 

But there are many more people who fit those categories than doses, about 15,000 people just in Barcelona, Coll said. 

The lack of vaccines, which is far more severe in Africa than in Europe and the U.S., makes social public health policies key, experts say. 

Contact tracing more difficult

As with the coronavirus pandemic, contact tracing to identify people who could have been infected is critical. But, while COVID-19 could spread to anyone simply through the air, the close bodily contact that serves as the leading vehicle for monkeypox makes some people hesitant to share information. 

“We are having a steady stream of new cases, and it is possible that we will have more deaths. Why? Because contact tracing is very complicated because it can be a very sensitive issue for someone to identify their sexual partners,” said Amós García, epidemiologist and president of the Spanish Association of Vaccinology. 

Spain says that 80% of its cases are among men who have sex with men and only 1.5% are women. But García insisted that will change unless the entire public, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, grasps that having various sexual partners creates greater risk. 

Given the dearth of vaccines and the trouble with contact tracing, more pressure is being put on encouraging prevention. 

From the start, government officials ceded the leading role in the get-out-the-word campaign to community groups. 

Sebastian Meyer, president of the STOP SIDA association dedicated to AIDS/HIV care in Barcelona’s LGBTQ community, said the logic was that his group and others like it would be trusted message-bearers with person-by-person knowledge of how to drive the health warning home. 

Community associations that represent gay and bisexual men have bombarded social media, websites and blogs with information on monkeypox safety. Officials in Catalonia, the region including Barcelona that has over 1,500 cases, are pushing public service announcements on dating apps Tinder and Grindr warning about the disease. 

But Meyer believes fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic has played a part. Doctors advise people with monkeypox lesions to isolate until they have fully healed, which can take up to three weeks. 

“When people read that they must self-isolate, they close the webpage and forget what they have read,” Meyer said. “We are just coming out of COVID, when you couldn’t do this or that, and now, here we go again. … People just hate it and put their heads in the sand.”

your ad here

Washington Lightning Toll Rises to 3; Experts See Climate Warning 

Scientists say that climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States, after lightning struck at a square near the White House, leaving three people dead and one more in critical condition. 

The hot, humid conditions in the U.S. capital on Thursday were primed for electricity. Air temperatures topped out at 34 degrees Celsius, 3 C higher than the 30-year normal maximum temperature for August 4, according to the National Weather Service. 

More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while also encouraging rapid updraft, two key factors for charged particles that lead to lightning. A key study released in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% in this century in the United States, with each 1 C of warming translating into a 12% rise in the number of lightning strikes. 

Fast-warming Alaska has seen a 17% rise in lightning activity since the cooler 1980s. And in typically dry California, a siege of 14,000 lightning strikes during August 2020 sparked some of the state’s biggest wildfires on record. 

Beyond the United States, there is evidence that lightning strikes are also shooting up in India and Brazil. 

Bolts rarely hit people

But even as lightning strikes increase, being hit by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say. Roughly 40 million lightning bolts touch down in the country every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the odds of being struck at less than 1 in a million. 

Among those who are hit, about 90% survive the ordeal, the CDC says. The country counted 444 deaths from lightning strikes from 2006 through 2021. 

The two men and two women struck by lightning on Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, were not so lucky when a bolt hit the ground during a violent afternoon thunderstorm. 

The lightning hit near a tree that stands meters from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices across from the square, which is often crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months. 

All four victims suffered life-threatening injuries and were taken to area hospitals. Two later died: James Mueller, 76, and Donna Mueller, 75, from Janesville, Wisconsin, the Metropolitan Police Department said. 

“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. “Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.” 

Later Friday a third victim, a 29-year-old male, was pronounced dead, the Metropolitan Police Department said. Further details on the victim were being withheld until the person’s family could be notified. 

Because heat and moisture are often needed to make lightning, most strikes happen in the summer. In the United States, the populous, subtropical state of Florida sees the most people killed by lightning. 

your ad here

US Employers Added 528,000 Jobs; Unemployment Falls to 3.5%

Defying anxiety about a possible recession and raging inflation, America’s employers added a stunning 528,000 jobs last month, restoring all the jobs lost in the coronavirus recession. Unemployment fell to 3.5%, lowest since the pandemic struck in early 2020.

July’s job creation was up from 398,000 in June and the most since February.

The red-hot jobs numbers from the Labor Department on Friday arrive amid a growing consensus that the U.S. economy is losing momentum. The U.S. economy shrank in the first two quarters of 2022 — an informal definition of recession. But most economists believe the strong jobs market has kept the economy from slipping into a downturn.

That surprisingly strong jobs numbers will undoubtedly intensify the debate over whether the U.S. is in a recession or not.

“Recession – what recession?” wrote Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch Ratings, wrote after the numbers came out. “The U.S. economy is creating new jobs at an annual rate of 6 million – that’s three times faster than what we normally see historically in a good year. ”

Economists had expected only 250,000 new jobs this month.

The Labor Department also revised May and June hiring, saying an extra 28,000 jobs were created in those months. Job growth was especially strong last month in the healthcare industry and at hotels and restaurants.

Hourly earnings posted a healthy 0.5% gain last month and are up 5.2% over the past year — still not enough to keep up with inflation.

The strong job numbers are likely to encourage the Federal Reserve to continue raising interest rates to cool the economy and combat resurgent inflation.

There are, of course, political implications in the numbers being released Friday: Voters have been worried about rising prices and the risk of recession ahead of November’s midterm elections as President Joe Biden’s Democrats seek to maintain control of Congress. The unexpectedly strong hiring number will be welcomed at the White House.

The economic backdrophas been troubling: Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — fell in both the first and second quarters; consecutive GDP drops is one definition of a recession. And inflation is roaring at a 40-year high.

The resiliency of the current labor market, especially the low jobless rate — is the biggest reason most economists don’t believe a downturn has started yet, though they increasingly fear that one is on the way.

Recession is not an American problem alone.

In the United Kingdom, the Bank of England on Thursday projected that the world’s fifth-largest economy would slide into recession by the end of the year.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has darkened the outlook across Europe. The conflict has made energy supplies scarce and driven prices higher. European countries are bracing for the possibility that Moscow will keep reducing — and perhaps completely cut off — flows of natural gas, used to power factories, generate electricity and keep homes warm in winter.

If Europeans can’t store enough gas for the cold months, rationing may be required by industry.

Economies have been on a wild ride since COVID-19 hit in early 2020.

The pandemic brought economic life to a near standstill as companies shut down and consumers stayed home. In March and April 2020, American employers slashed a staggering 22 million jobs and the economy plunged into a deep, two-month recession.

But massive government aid — and the Feds decision to slash interest rates and pour money into financial markets — fueled a surprisingly quick recovery. Caught off guard by the strength of the rebound, factories, shops, ports and freight yards were overwhelmed with orders and scrambled to bring back the workers they furloughed when COVID hit.

The result has been shortages of workers and supplies, delayed shipments — and rising prices. In the United States, inflation has been rising steadily for more than a year. In June, consumer prices jumped 9.1% from a year earlier — the biggest increase since 1981.

The Fed underestimated inflation’s resurgence, thinking prices were rising because of temporary supply chain bottlenecks. It has since acknowledged that the current spate of inflation is not, as it was once referred to, ” transitory.”

Now the central bank is responding aggressively. It has raised its benchmark short-term interest rate four times this year, and more rate hikes are ahead.

Higher borrowing costs are taking a toll. Rising mortgage rates, for instance, have cooled a red-hot housing market. Sales of previously occupied homes dropped in June for the fifth straight month.

Real estate companies — including lending firm loanDepot and online housing broker Redfin — have begun laying off workers.

The labor market is showing other signs of wobbliness.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that employers posted 10.7 million job openings in June — a healthy number but the lowest since September.

And the four-week average number of Americans signing up for unemployment benefits — a proxy for layoffs that smooths out week-to-week swings — rose last week to the highest level since November, though the numbers may have been exaggerated by seasonal factors.

your ad here