Malawi declares end of country’s deadliest cholera outbreak  

Blantyre, Malawi     — Malawi has declared the end of the country’s worst cholera outbreak, which began in March 2022 and killed nearly 2,000 people.

In a statement Monday, the Ministry of Health said the country had registered no cases or deaths from cholera in 26 of Malawi’s 29 health districts in the past four weeks. Some health experts, however, said the outbreak could resurface if the country failed to address sanitation problems that caused it.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera launched a national campaign to end the cholera outbreak in February 2023. The “Tithetse Kolera” or “Let’s End Cholera” campaign came three months after he declared the disease to be a public health emergency in Malawi.

The campaign aimed to interrupt cholera transmission in all districts and reduce the fatality rate from 3.2% to below 1%, which the World Health Organization considers a controlled cholera outbreak.

Dr. Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma,  co-chairperson for the presidential task force on COVID-19 and cholera in Malawi, told VOA the disease had now been defeated largely because of the campaign.

“By WHO definition, a country stands to end the transmission of cholera when they have gone at least four weeks without reporting a laboratory confirmed case of cholera,” he said. “So that is the case with Malawi right now. We haven’t had a confirmed case since 6th of June.”

Successful steps

Nkhoma attributed the development to several interventions Malawi conducted over the past two years. He said they involved educating people about transmission, prevention and control of cholera; increasing surveillance; and properly managing cholera cases.

“The key one — and that must remain the key one — is to increase access to safe water and also improve adequate sanitation,” he said. “The Ministry of Water and Sanitation was taking the lead in this, but they were supported very well by nongovernmental organizations that are working in the water and sanitation sector.”

Nkhoma said another measure was the oral cholera vaccination campaign, which began in December 2022.

“We were able as a country to access some doses from WHO,” he said. “We were able to administer not less than about  6 million doses of cholera vaccine focusing first and foremost in priority areas.”

The Ministry of Health said in its Monday statement that Malawi had registered 56,376 cases of cholera, with 1,772 deaths since March 2022.

Maziko Matemba, a national community health ambassador in Malawi, told VOA that Malawi seemed to have managed the cholera outbreak at the treatment and case-management levels, but added that sanitation problems remained a challenge.

“Because at the moment, if you go to villages, if you go to public places, people are not doing the sanitation issues properly,” Matemba said. “Even if you check in public toilets, even if you check how people are preparing food, you will find that we still have challenges as a country to contain disease like cholera.” 

Nkhoma said the government would continue its effort to educate people about how cholera is transmitted, prevented and controlled to try to avoid further outbreaks.

Second malaria vaccine launched in Ivory Coast marks new milestone

LONDON — The world’s second vaccine against malaria was launched on Monday as Ivory Coast began a routine vaccine program using shots developed by the University of Oxford and the Serum Institute of India. 

The introduction of the World Health Organization (WHO)-approved R21 vaccine comes six months after the first malaria vaccine, called RTS,S and developed by British drugmaker GSK, began being administered in a routine program in Cameroon. 

Some 15 African countries plan to introduce one of the two malaria vaccines this year with support from the Gavi global vaccine alliance. 

Ivory Coast has received a total of 656,600 doses of the Oxford and Serum shot, which will initially vaccinate 250,000 children aged between 0 and 23 months across the West African country. The vaccine has also been approved by Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. 

The rollout of a second vaccine is the latest milestone in the global fight against malaria and should help address a problem that emerged well before either of the two shots was launched: demand for them is likely to far outstrip supply for several years. 

Experts say having safe and effective malaria vaccines is important to meet demand. The shot is meant to work alongside existing tools — such as bed nets — to combat malaria, which in Africa kills nearly half a million children under the age of five each year. 

The Serum Institute of India, which manufactures the vaccine, has produced 25 million doses for the initial rollout of the shot and “is committed to scaling up to 100 million doses annually,” the company said on Monday about the launch in Ivory Coast. 

Serum said it is offering the vaccine for less than $4 per dose, in keeping with its aim to deliver low-cost vaccines at scale. 

Results from a large trial in February showed the vaccine prevented around three-quarters of symptomatic malaria cases in young children the first year after they got the shots. 

Experts told Reuters at that time that comparing the two malaria vaccines head-to-head was difficult because of the many variables involved in the trials, but overall their performance was similar — a conclusion endorsed by WHO.

Scientists confirm cave on the moon that could be used to shelter future explorers

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Scientists have confirmed a cave on the moon, not far from where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed 55 years ago, and suspect there are hundreds more that could house future astronauts.

An Italian-led team reported Monday that there’s evidence for a sizable cave accessible from the deepest known pit on the moon. It’s located at the Sea of Tranquility, just 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Apollo 11’s landing site.

The pit, like the more than 200 others discovered up there, was created by the collapse of a lava tube.

Researchers analyzed radar measurements by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and compared the results with lava tubes on Earth. Their findings appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. 

From basement to battlefield: Ukrainian startups create low-cost robots to fight Russia

Northern Ukraine — Struggling with manpower shortages, overwhelming odds and uneven international assistance, Ukraine hopes to find a strategic edge against Russia in an abandoned warehouse or a factory basement.

An ecosystem of laboratories in hundreds of secret workshops is leveraging innovation to create a robot army that Ukraine hopes will kill Russian troops and save its own wounded soldiers and civilians.

Defense startups across Ukraine — about 250 according to industry estimates — are creating the killing machines at secret locations that typically look like rural car repair shops.

Employees at a startup run by entrepreneur Andrii Denysenko can put together an unmanned ground vehicle called the Odyssey in four days at a shed used by the company. Its most important feature is the price tag: $35,000, or roughly 10% of the cost of an imported model.

Denysenko asked that The Associated Press not publish details of the location to protect the infrastructure and the people working there.

The site is partitioned into small rooms for welding and body work. That includes making fiberglass cargo beds, spray-painting the vehicles gun-green and fitting basic electronics, battery-powered engines, off-the-shelf cameras and thermal sensors.

The military is assessing dozens of new unmanned air, ground and marine vehicles produced by the no-frills startup sector, whose production methods are far removed from giant Western defense companies.

A fourth branch of Ukraine’s military — the Unmanned Systems Forces — joined the army, navy and air force in May.

Engineers take inspiration from articles in defense magazines or online videos to produce cut-price platforms. Weapons or smart components can be added later.

“We are fighting a huge country, and they don’t have any resource limits. We understand that we cannot spend a lot of human lives,” said Denysenko, who heads the defense startup UkrPrototyp. “War is mathematics.”

One of its drones, the car-sized Odyssey, spun on its axis and kicked up dust as it rumbled forward in a cornfield in the north of the country last month.

The 800-kilogram (1,750-pound) prototype that looks like a small, turretless tank with its wheels on tracks can travel up to 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) on one charge of a battery the size of a small beer cooler.

The prototype acts as a rescue-and-supply platform but can be modified to carry a remotely operated heavy machine gun or sling mine-clearing charges.

“Squads of robots … will become logistics devices, tow trucks, minelayers and deminers, as well as self-destructive robots,” a government fundraising page said after the launch of Ukraine’s Unmanned Systems Forces. “The first robots are already proving their effectiveness on the battlefield.”

Mykhailo Fedorov, the deputy prime minister for digital transformation, is encouraging citizens to take free online courses and assemble aerial drones at home. He wants Ukrainians to make a million of flying machines a year.

“There will be more of them soon,” the fundraising page said. “Many more.”

Denysenko’s company is working on projects including a motorized exoskeleton that would boost a soldier’s strength and carrier vehicles to transport a soldier’s equipment and even help them up an incline. “We will do everything to make unmanned technologies develop even faster. [Russia’s] murderers use their soldiers as cannon fodder, while we lose our best people,” Fedorov wrote in an online post.

Ukraine has semi-autonomous attack drones and counter-drone weapons endowed with AI and the combination of low-cost weapons and artificial intelligence tools is worrying many experts who say low-cost drones will enable their proliferation.

Technology leaders to the United Nations and the Vatican worry that the use of drones and AI in weapons could reduce the barrier to killing and dramatically escalate conflicts.

Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups are calling for a ban on weapons that exclude human decision making, a concern echoed by the U.N. General Assembly, Elon Musk and the founders of the Google-owned, London-based startup DeepMind.

“Cheaper drones will enable their proliferation,” said Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “Their autonomy is also only likely to increase.”

UN alarmed as childhood immunization levels stall

Geneva — Global childhood vaccination levels have stalled, leaving millions more children un- or under-vaccinated than before the pandemic, the U.N. said Monday, warning of dangerous coverage gaps enabling outbreaks of diseases like measles.

In 2023, 84% of children, or 108 million, received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP), with the third dose serving as a key marker for global immunization coverage, according to data published by the U.N. health and children’s agencies.

That was the same percentage as a year earlier, meaning that modest progress seen in 2022 after the steep drop during the COVID-19 crisis has “stalled,” the organizations warned. The rate was 86% in 2019 before the pandemic.

“The latest trends demonstrate that many countries continue to miss far too many children,” UNICEF chief Catherine Russell said in a joint statement.

In fact, 2.7 million additional children remained un- or under-vaccinated last year compared to the pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the organizations found.

‘Off track’

“We are off track,” World Health Organization vaccine chief Kate O’Brien told reporters. “Global immunization coverage has yet to fully recover from the historic backsliding that we saw during the course of the pandemic.”

Not only has progress stalled, but the number of so-called zero-dose children, who have not received a single jab, rose to 14.5 million last year from 13.9 million in 2022 and from 12.8 million in 2019, according to the data published Monday.

“This puts the lives of the most vulnerable children at risk,” O’Brien warned.

Even more concerning is that more than half of the world’s unvaccinated children live in 31 countries with fragile, conflict-affected settings, where they are especially vulnerable to contracting preventable diseases, due to lacking access to security, nutrition and health services.

Children in such countries are also far more likely to miss out on the necessary follow-up jabs.

A full 6.5 million children worldwide did not complete their third dose of the DTP vaccine, which is necessary to achieve disease protection in infancy and early childhood, Monday’s datasets showed. 

‘Canary in the coal mine’

The WHO and UNICEF voiced additional concern over lagging vaccination against measles — one of the world’s most infectious diseases — amid an exploding number of outbreaks around the world.

“Measles outbreaks are the canary in the coal mine, exposing and exploiting gaps in immunization and hitting the most vulnerable first,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement.

In 2023, only 83% of children worldwide received their first dose of the measles vaccine through routine health services — the same level as in 2022 but down from 86% before the pandemic.

And only 74% received their second necessary dose, while 95% coverage is needed to prevent outbreaks, the organizations pointed out.

“This is still too low to prevent outbreaks and achieve elimination goals,” Ephrem Lemango, UNICEF immunization chief, told reporters.

He pointed out that more than 300,000 measles cases were confirmed in 2023 — nearly three times as many as a year earlier.

And a full 103 countries have suffered outbreaks in the past five years, with low vaccination coverage of 80% or lower seen as a major factor.

By contrast, 91 countries with strong measles vaccine coverage experienced no outbreaks.

“Alarmingly, nearly three in four infants live in places at the greatest risk of measles outbreaks,” Lemango said, pointing out that 10 crisis-wracked countries, including Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, account for more than half of children not vaccinated against measles.

On a more positive note, strong increases were seen in vaccination against the cervical cancer-causing HPV virus.

But that vaccine is still only reaching 56% of adolescent girls in high-income countries and 23% in lower-income countries — far below the 90% target.

Kenyan government app gives girls info on a taboo topic: menstruation

The Kenyan government is using a new mobile application to educate girls about menstrual health. Through the Oky Kenya app, users can access information on hygiene and other topics. The goal is to dispel myths and misconceptions about menstruation and protect girls against teenage pregnancies. Victoria Amunga reports from Nairobi.

Stegosaurus nicknamed Apex will be auctioned in New York

NEW YORK — The nearly complete fossilized remains of a 161-million-year-old stegosaurus discovered in Colorado in 2022 will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York next week, auction house officials said.

The dinosaur that Sotheby’s calls Apex stands 3.3 meters tall and measures 8.2 meters nose to tail, according to Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s global head of science and popular culture.

The stegosaurus, with its distinctive pointy dorsal plates, is one of the world’s most recognizable dinosaurs.

Apex, which Hatton called “a coloring book dinosaur,” was discovered in May 2022 on private land near the town of Dinosaur, Colorado. The excavation was completed in October 2023, Sotheby’s said.

Though experts believe stegosauruses used their fearsome tail spikes to fight, this specimen shows no signs of combat, Sotheby’s said. The fossil does show evidence of arthritis, suggesting that Apex lived to an advanced age.

Hatton said Apex was found “with the tail curled up underneath the body, which is a common death pose for animals.”

The dinosaur will be auctioned on July 17 as part of Sotheby’s “Geek Week” series.

Sotheby’s is estimating that it will sell for $4 million to $6 million, but that’s just an educated guess.

“This is an incredibly rare animal,” Hatton said. “A stegosaurus of this caliber has never sold at auction before, so we will find out what it is actually worth.”

DR Congo detects at least 25 mpox cases in Goma

PARIS — At least 25 cases of a dangerous new strain of mpox spreading through the Democratic Republic of Congo have been detected in the eastern city of Goma, mostly in camps housing people fleeing a surrounding conflict, health authorities said Wednesday.

Congo has seen 20,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths from mpox, mainly among children, since the start of 2023. Over 11,000 cases, including 443 deaths, have been reported so far this year.

Authorities recently approved the use of vaccines to tackle the upsurge, but none are currently available outside of clinical trials in the country.

The head of the national response team against the mpox epidemic, Cris Kacita, said in an interview that most of the new reported cases were in displaced people camps.

He said cases were infected with a new strain of the virus that is spreading in South Kivu province. Goma is the capital and largest city of the neighboring North Kivu province.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists raised the alarm last month about the mpox situation in Congo, including the spread of a new strain of mpox spreading in South Kivu.

Mpox has been endemic in Congo for decades but a new variant of the clade I of the virus emerged last year. It is a viral infection that spreads through close contact, causing flu-like symptoms and pus-filled lesions. Most cases are mild, but it can kill.

A different, less severe form of mpox – clade IIb – spread globally in 2022, largely through sexual contact among men who have sex with men. This prompted the WHO to declare a public health emergency that has now ended, although there are still cases and the agency has said mpox remains a public health threat.

“The national biomedical research institute in Goma has sequenced the virus and this proves that the virus has been circulating for a long time in the city of Goma,” Kacita said.

“The risk here is the promiscuity in the camps and the speed with which the epidemic is spreading,” he warned.

Hundreds of thousands of people who fled conflict in Congo’s insurgent-hit east are staying in overcrowded camps in and around Goma.

The number of displaced has increased since a rebel group known as the M23 launched a major offensive in 2022, prompting national and regional military responses that have struggled to stem the militia’s advance. 

SpaceX rocket accident leaves Starlink satellites in wrong orbit 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX rocket failed for the first time in nearly a decade, leaving the company’s internet satellites in an orbit so low that they’re doomed to fall through the atmosphere and burn up. 

The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from California on Thursday night, carrying 20 Starlink satellites. Several minutes into the flight, the upper stage engine malfunctioned. SpaceX on Friday blamed a liquid oxygen leak. 

The company said flight controllers managed to make contact with half of the satellites and attempted to boost them to a higher orbit using onboard ion thrusters. But with the low end of their orbit 135 kilometers above Earth — less than half what was intended — “our maximum available thrust is unlikely to be enough to successfully raise the satellites,” the company said via X. 

SpaceX said the satellites will reenter the atmosphere and burn up. There was no mention of when they might come down. More than 6,000 orbiting Starlinks provide internet service to customers in some of the most remote corners of the world. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said the problem must be fixed before Falcon rockets can fly again. 

It was not known if or how the accident might impact SpaceX’s upcoming crew flights. A billionaire’s spaceflight is scheduled for July 31 from Florida with plans for the first private spacewalk, followed in mid-August by an astronaut flight to the International Space Station for NASA. 

The tech entrepreneur who will lead the private flight, Jared Isaacman, said Friday that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has “an incredible track record” and as well as an emergency escape system. 

The last launch failure occurred in 2015 during a space station cargo run. Another rocket exploded the following year during testing on the ground. 

SpaceX’s Elon Musk said the high flight rate will make it easier to identify and correct the problem. 

America’s pioneering sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer dies at 96

NEW YORK — Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive sex therapist who became a pop icon, media star and best-selling author through her frank talk about once-taboo bedroom topics, has died. She was 96.

Westheimer died on Friday at her home in New York City, surrounded by her family, according to publicist and friend Pierre Lehu.

Westheimer never advocated risky sexual behavior. Instead, she encouraged an open dialogue on previously closeted issues that affected her audience of millions. Her one recurring theme was that there was nothing to be ashamed of.

“I still hold old-fashioned values, and I’m a bit of a square,” she told students at Michigan City High School in 2002. “Sex is a private art and a private matter. But still, it is a subject we must talk about.”

Westheimer’s giggly, German-accented voice, coupled with her 4-foot-7 frame, made her an unlikely looking — and sounding — outlet for “sexual literacy.” The contradiction was one of the keys to her success.

But it was her extensive knowledge and training, coupled with her humorous, nonjudgmental manner, that catapulted her local radio program, “Sexually Speaking,” into the national spotlight in the early 1980s. She had a nonjudgmental approach to what two consenting adults did in the privacy of their home.

Her radio success opened new doors, and in 1983 she wrote the first of more than 40 books: “Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex,” demystifying sex with rationality and humor. There was even a board game, Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex.

She soon became a regular on the late-night television talk-show circuit, bringing her personality to the national stage. Her rise coincided with the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when frank sexual talk became a necessity.

“If we could bring about talking about sexual activity the way we talk about diet — the way we talk about food — without it having this kind of connotation that there’s something not right about it, then we would be a step further. But we have to do it with good taste,” she told Johnny Carson in 1982.

She normalized the use of words such as “penis” and “vagina” on radio and TV, aided by her Jewish grandmotherly accent, which The Wall Street Journal once said was “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse.” People magazine included her in their list of “The Most Intriguing People of the Century.”

Westheimer defended abortion rights, suggested older people have sex after a good night’s sleep and was an outspoken advocate of condom use. She believed in monogamy.

In the 1980s, she stood up for gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic and spoke out loudly for the LGBTQ community. She said she defended people deemed by some far-right Christians to be “subhuman” because of her own past.

Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928, she was an only child. At 10, she was sent by her parents to Switzerland to escape Kristallnacht — the Nazis’ 1938 pogrom that served as a precursor to the Holocaust. She never saw her parents again; Westheimer believed they were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

At the age of 16, she moved to Palestine and joined the Haganah, the underground movement for Israeli independence. She was trained as a sniper, although she said she never shot at anyone.

Her legs were severely wounded when a bomb exploded in her dormitory, killing many of her friends. She said it was only through the work of a “superb” surgeon that she could walk and ski again.

She married her first husband, an Israeli soldier, in 1950, and they moved to Paris as she pursued an education. Although not a high school graduate, Westheimer was accepted into the Sorbonne to study psychology after passing an entrance exam.

The marriage ended in 1955; the next year, Westheimer went to New York with her new boyfriend, a Frenchman who became her second husband and father to her daughter, Miriam.

In 1961, after a second divorce, she finally met her life partner: Manfred Westheimer, a fellow refugee from Nazi Germany. The couple was married and had a son, Joel. They remained wed for 36 years until “Fred” — as she called him — died of heart failure in 1997.

After receiving her doctorate in education from Columbia University, she went on to teach at Lehman College in the Bronx. While there she developed a specialty — instructing professors how to teach sex education. It would eventually become the core of her curriculum.

“I soon realized that while I knew enough about education, I did not really know enough about sex,” she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. Westheimer then decided take classes with the renowned sex therapist, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan.

It was there that she had discovered her calling. Soon, as she once said in a typically folksy comment, she was dispensing sexual advice “like good chicken soup.”

In 1984, her radio program was nationally syndicated. A year later, she debuted in her own television program, “The Dr. Ruth Show,” which went on to win an Ace Award for excellence in cable television.

She also wrote a nationally syndicated advice column and later appeared in a line of videos produced by Playboy, preaching the virtues of open sexual discourse and good sex. She even had her own board game, “Dr. Ruth’s Game of Good Sex,” and a series of calendars.

Her rise was noteworthy for the culture of the time, in which then-President Ronald Reagan’s administration was hostile to Planned Parenthood and aligned with conservative voices.

Demand for rare elements used in clean energy could help clean up abandoned coal mines in US

MOUNT STORM, West Virginia — Down a long gravel road, tucked into the hills in West Virginia, is a low-slung building where researchers are extracting essential elements from an old coal mine that they hope will strengthen the nation’s energy future.

They aren’t mining the coal that powered the steel mills and locomotives that helped industrialize America — and that is blamed for contributing to global warming.

Rather, researchers are finding that groundwater pouring out of this and other abandoned coal mines contains the rare earth elements and other valuable metals that are vital to making everything from electric vehicle motors to rechargeable batteries to fighter jets smaller, lighter or more powerful.

The pilot project run by West Virginia University is now part of an intensifying worldwide race to develop a secure supply of the valuable metals and, with more federal funding, it could grow to a commercial scale enterprise.

“The ultimate irony is that the stuff that has created climate change is now a solution, if we’re smart about it,” said John Quigley, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

The technology that has been piloted at this facility in West Virginia could also pioneer a way to clean up vast amounts of coal mine drainage that poisons waterways across Appalachia.

The project is one of the leading efforts by the federal government as it injects more money than ever into recovering rare earth elements to expand renewable energies and fight climate change by reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

For the U.S., which like the rest of the West is beholden to a Chinese-controlled supply of these valuable metals, the pursuit of rare earth elements is also a national security priority.

Those involved, meanwhile, hope their efforts can bring jobs in clean energy to dying coal towns and clean up entrenched coal pollution that has hung around for decades.

In Pennsylvania alone, drainage from coal piles and abandoned mines has turned waterways red from iron ore and turquoise from aluminum, killing life in more than 8,000 kilometers of streams. Federal statistics also show about 1,200 square kilometers of abandoned and unreclaimed coal mine lands host more than 200 million tons of coal waste.

The metals that chemists are working to extract from mine drainage here are lightweight, powerfully magnetized and have superior fluorescent and conductive properties.

One aim of the Department of Energy is to fund research that proves to private companies that the concepts are commercially viable and profitable enough for them to invest their own money.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from President Joe Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law is accelerating the effort.

Department officials hope that by the middle of the 2030s this infusion will have spawned full-fledged commercial enterprises.

The two most advanced projects funded by the department are the one in West Virginia treating mine drainage and another processing coal dug up by lignite mining in North Dakota.

The first could be an important source of a number of critical metals, such as yttrium, neodymium and gadolinium, used in catalysts and magnets. The latter could be a major source of germanium and gallium, used in semiconductors, LEDs, electrical transmission components, solar panels and electric vehicle motors.

Researchers at each site are designing a commercial-scale operation, based on their pilot projects, in hopes of landing a massive federal grant to build it out.

The alternative would be to develop new mines, disturb more land, get permits, hire workers, build roads and connect power supplies, tasks that take years.

“With acid mind drainage, that’s already done for you,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.

Ziemkiewicz began the mine drainage project almost a decade ago, helped by federal subsidies. He had envisioned it as a way to treat runoff, recover critical minerals and raise money for more mine cleanups in West Virginia.

But the Biden administration’s ambitious funding for clean energy and a domestic supply of critical minerals broadened that goal.

At the facility, drainage from a one-time coal mine — now closed and covered by a grassy slope — emerges from two pipes, and dumps about 3,028 liters per minute into a retention pond.

From there the water is routed through massive indoor pools and a series of large tanks that, with the help of lime to lower the acidity, separate out most of the silicate, iron and aluminum. That produces a pale powdery concentrate that is about 95% rare earth oxides, plus water clean enough to return to a nearby creek.

The Department of Energy is funding research on coal wastes in various states.

“There are literally billions of tons of coal ash and coal waste lying around, across the country. And so if we can go back in and remine those, there’s decades worth of materials there,” said Grant Bromhal, the acting director of the Department of Energy’s Division of Minerals Sustainability.

Not only coal, but old copper and phosphate mines also hold potential, Bromhal said.

The country won’t be able to recover metals from all of them right away, but technologies the department is helping develop can satisfy a substantial part of demand in the next 20 to 30 years, Bromhal said.

“So if we get into the tens of percents or 50%, I think that’s in the realm of possibility,” he said.

Other solutions to obtain more of these metals are retrieving them from discarded devices and shifting sourcing to friendly nations and away from geopolitical rivals or unstable countries, analysts say. For now, there is only a handful of critical or rare earth mineral mines in the United States, although many more are being proposed.

One final subsidy will be required from the federal government: buy the reclaimed metals at a price that guarantees a commercially viable operation, Ziemkiewicz said.

That way China can’t simply buy up the product or use its market dominance to drive down prices and scare away private investors, he said.

Quigley, a former environmental protection secretary of Pennsylvania and a one-time small-city mayor in coal country, hopes to see a facility like Ziemkiewicz’s come to the Jeddo mine tunnel system in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Jeddo has defied decades of efforts to treat its flow, which drains a vast network of abandoned underground mines.

It is a massive source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, producing an estimated 114,000 to 151,000 liters per minute.

Bringing the Little Nescopeck Creek back to life could put people to work cleaning up the stream and creating recreational opportunities from a newly revived waterway, Quigley said.

“This could mean a lot to coal communities, to a lot of people in the coal region,” Quigley said. “And to the country.”

EU: X’s blue checks are deceptive ‘dark patterns’ that breach social media laws

EU says online platform falls short on transparency and accountability requirements

EU accepts Apple plan to open iPhone tap-to-pay to rivals

Brussels — The EU on Thursday approved Apple’s offer to allow rivals access to the iPhone’s ability to tap-to-pay within the bloc, ending a lengthy probe and sparing it a heavy fine.

The case dates back to 2022 when Brussels first accused Apple of blocking rivals from its popular iPhone tap payment system in a breach of EU competition law.

“Apple has committed to allow rivals to access the ‘tap and go’ technology of iPhones. Today’s decision makes Apple’s commitments binding,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

“From now on, competitors will be able to effectively compete with Apple Pay for mobile payments with the iPhone in shops. So consumers will have a wider range of safe and innovative mobile wallets to choose from,” she said.

The EU previously found that Apple enjoyed a dominant position by restricting access to “tap-as-you-go” chips or near-field communication (NFC), which allows devices to interconnect within a very short range, to favor its own system.

Now competitors will have access to the standard technology behind contactless payments to offer alternative tap-to-pay tools to iPhone users in the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes the EU and also Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Only customers with an Apple ID registered in the EEA would be able to make use of these outside apps, the European Commission said in a statement.

The changes must remain in force for 10 years and a “monitoring trustee” must be chosen by Apple to report to the commission during that period on their implementation.

Apple had risked a fine of up to 10% of its total worldwide annual turnover. Apple’s total revenue in the year to September 2023 stood at $383 billion.

“Apple Pay and Apple Wallet will continue to be available in the EEA for users and developers, and will continue to provide an easy, secure and private way to pay, as well as present passes seamlessly from Apple Wallet,” the company said in a statement.

The probe’s conclusion comes at a particularly difficult moment in relations between the EU and Apple, especially over the bloc’s new competition rules for big tech.

The Digital Markets Act (DMA) seeks to ensure tech titans do not privilege their own services over rivals, but the iPhone maker says it puts users’ privacy at risk.

One of the DMA’s main objectives is to give consumers more choice in the web browsers, app marketplaces, search engines and other digital services they use.

The EU in June accused Apple of breaching the DMA by preventing developers from freely pointing consumers to alternative channels for offers and content outside of its proprietary App Store.

It also kickstarted another probe under the DMA into Apple’s new fees for app developers.

The company could face heavy fines if the DMA violations are confirmed.

In March, the EU slapped a $1.9 billion fine on Apple in a different antitrust case but the company has appealed the penalty in an EU court.

Brussels also forced Apple last year to scrap its Lightning port on new iPhone models, in a change that was introduced worldwide and not just in Europe.

Las Vegas hits record of fifth consecutive day of 46.1 Celsius or greater

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas baked Wednesday in its record fifth consecutive day of temperatures sizzling at 46.1 Celsius or greater amid a lengthening hot spell that is expected to broil much of the U.S. into the weekend.

The temperature climbed to 46.1 shortly after 1 p.m. at Harry Reid International Airport, breaking the old mark of four consecutive days set in July 2005. And the record could be extended, or even doubled, by the weekend.

Even by desert standards, the prolonged baking that Nevada’s largest city is experiencing is nearly unprecedented, with forecasters calling it “the most extreme heat wave” since the National Weather Service began keeping records in Las Vegas in 1937.

Already the city has broken 16 heat records since June 1, well before the official start of summer, “and we’re not even halfway through July yet,” meteorologist Morgan Stessman said Wednesday. That includes an all-time high of 48.8 C set on Sunday, which beat the previous 47.2 C record.

Alyse Sobosan said this July has felt the hottest in the 15 years she has lived in Las Vegas. She said she doesn’t step outside during the day if she can help it.

“It’s oppressively hot,” she said. “It’s like you can’t really live your life.”

It’s also dangerously hot, health officials have emphasized. There have been at least nine heat-related deaths this year in Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, according to the county coroner’s office. Officials say the toll is likely higher.

“Even people of average age who are seemingly healthy can suffer heat illness when it’s so hot it’s hard for your body to cool down,” said Alexis Brignola, an epidemiologist at the Southern Nevada Health District.

For homeless residents and others without access to safe environments, officials have set up emergency cooling centers at community centers across southern Nevada.

The Las Vegas area has been under an excessive heat warning on three separate occasions this summer, totaling about 12 days of dangerous heat with little relief even after the sun goes down, Stessman said.

Keith Bailey and Lee Doss met early Wednesday morning at a Las Vegas park to beat the heat and exercise their dogs, Breakie, Ollie and Stanley.

“If I don’t get out by 8:30 in the morning, then it’s not going to happen that day,” Bailey said, wearing a sunhat while the dogs played in the grass.

More than 142 million people around the U.S. were under heat alerts Wednesday, especially in Western states, where dozens of locations tied or broke heat records over the weekend and are expected to keep doing so all week.

Oregon has seen record daily high temperatures, with Portland reaching 39.4 C and Salem and Eugene hitting 40.5 C on Tuesday. The number of potentially heat-related deaths in Oregon has risen to 10, according to the state medical examiner’s office. The latest two deaths involved a 54-year-old man in Jackson County and a 27-year-old man in Klamath County.

On the other side of the nation, the National Weather Service warned of major-to-extreme heat risk over portions of the East Coast.

An excessive heat warning remained in place Wednesday for the Philadelphia area, northern Delaware and nearly all of New Jersey. Temperatures were around 32.2 C for most of the region, and forecasters warned the heat index could soar as high as 42.2 C. The warning was due to expire at 8 p.m. Wednesday, though forecasters said there may be a need to extend it.

The heat was blamed for a motorcyclist’s death over the weekend in Death Valley National Park. At Death Valley on Tuesday, tourists queued for photos in front of a giant thermometer that was reading 48.9 C.

Simon Pell and Lisa Gregory from London left their air-conditioned RV to experience a midday blast of heat that would be unthinkable back home.

“I wanted to experience what it would feel like,” Pell said. “It’s an incredible experience.”

At the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service was investigating the third hiker death in recent weeks. Temperatures on parts of some trails can reach 49 C in the shade.

An excessive heat warning continued Wednesday in many parts of southern and central Arizona. Forecasters said the high in Phoenix was expected to reach 45.5 C after it hit 46.6 C Tuesday, tying the previous record for the date set in 1958.

Authorities were investigating the death of a 2-year-old who was left alone in a hot vehicle Tuesday afternoon in Marana, near Tucson, police said. At Lake Havasu, a 4-month-old died from heat-related complications Friday, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department said.

The U.S. heat wave came as the global temperature in June was a record warm for the 13th straight month and marked the 12th straight month that the world was 1.5 degrees Celsius  warmer than pre-industrial times, the European climate service Copernicus said. Most of this heat, trapped by human-caused climate change, is from long-term warming from greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, scientists say.

Firefighters in Henderson, Nevada, last week became the first in the region to deploy what city spokesperson Madeleine Skains called “polar pods,” devices filled with water and ice to cool a person exhibiting symptoms of heat stroke or a related medical emergency.

Extreme heat in the West has also dried out vegetation that fuels wildfires.

A blaze burning in northern Oregon, about 178 kilometers east of Portland, blew up to 28 square kilometers by Wednesday afternoon due to hot temperatures, gusty wind and low humidity, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal. The Larch Creek Fire closed Highway 197 and forced evacuations for remote homes.

In California, firefighters were battling least 19 wildfires Wednesday, including a 117-square-kilometer blaze that prompted evacuation orders for about 200 homes in the mountains of Santa Barbara County.

Astronauts confident Boeing space capsule can safely return to Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — Two astronauts who should have been back on Earth weeks ago said Wednesday that they’re confident that Boeing’s space capsule can return them safely, despite breakdowns.

NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams launched aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule early last month, the first people to ride it. Leaks and thruster failures almost derailed their arrival at the International Space Station and have kept them there much longer than planned.

In their first news conference from orbit, they said they expect to return once thruster testing is complete on Earth. They said they’re not complaining about getting extra time in orbit and are enjoying helping the station crew.

“I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem,” Williams told reporters.

The two rocketed into orbit on June 5 on the test flight, which was originally supposed to last eight days.

NASA ordered the Starliner and SpaceX Dragon capsules a decade ago for astronaut flights to and from the space station, paying each company billions of dollars. SpaceX’s first taxi flight with astronauts was in 2020. Boeing’s first crew flight was repeatedly delayed because of software and other issues.

Russian election meddlers hurting Biden, helping Trump, US intelligence warns

WASHINGTON — Russia is turning to a familiar playbook in its attempt to sway the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, looking for ways to boost the candidacy of former President Donald Trump by disparaging the campaign of incumbent President Joe Biden, according to American intelligence officials. 

A new assessment of threats to the November election, shared Tuesday, does not mention either candidate by name. But an intelligence official told reporters that the Kremlin view of the U.S. political landscape has not changed from previous election cycles.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections,” the official told reporters, agreeing to discuss the intelligence only on the condition of anonymity.

The official said that preference has been further cemented by “the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia.”

The caution from U.S. intelligence officials comes nearly four years after it issued a similar warning about the 2020 presidential elections, which pitted then-President Trump against Biden.

Moscow was using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” William Evanina, the then-head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at the time.

“Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” he added. 

A declassified post-election assessment, released in March 2021, reaffirmed the initial findings. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized “influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party” while offering support for Trump, the report said. 

U.S. intelligence officials said they have been in contact with both presidential campaigns and the candidates but declined to share what sort of information may have been shared.

Trump pushback

The Trump campaign Tuesday rejected the U.S. intelligence assessment as backward.

“Vladimir Putin endorsed Joe Biden for President because he knows Biden is weak and can easily be bullied, as evidenced by Putin’s years-long invasion of Ukraine,” national press secretary Karoline Leavitt told VOA in an email.

“When President Trump was in the Oval Office, Russia and all of America’s adversaries were deterred, because they feared how the United States would respond,” she said.

“The only people in America who don’t see this clear contrast between Biden’s ineffective weakness versus Trump’s effective peace through strength approach are the left-wing stenographers in the mainstream media who write false narratives about Donald Trump for a living,” she added.

The Biden campaign has so far not responded to questions from VOA about the new U.S. assessment.

Russian sophistication

Russian officials also have not yet responded to requests for comment on the latest allegations, which accuse the Kremlin of using a “whole of government” approach to see Trump and other American candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow win in November.

“Moscow is using a variety of approaches to bolster its messaging and lend an air of authenticity to its efforts,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “This includes outsourcing its efforts to commercial firms to hide its hand and laundering narratives through influential U.S. voices.”

Russia’s efforts also appear focused on targeting U.S. voters in so-called swing states, states most likely to impact the outcome of the presidential election, officials said.

Some of those efforts have already come to light.

Russia and AI

Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the seizure of two internet domains and of another 968 accounts on the X social media platform, part of what officials described an artificial intelligence-driven venture by Russian intelligence and Russia’s state-run RT news network.

A Justice Department statement said Russian intelligence and RT used specific AI software to create authentic-looking social media accounts to mimic U.S. individuals, “which the operators then used to promote messages in support of Russian government objectives.”

A joint advisory, issued simultaneously by the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, warned Russia was in the process of expanding the AI-fueled influence operation to other social media platforms.

The U.S. intelligence official who spoke to reporters Tuesday described such use of AI as a “malign influence accelerant,” and warned the technology had already been deployed, likely by China, in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections this past January.

China waiting

For now, though, U.S. intelligence officials see few indications Beijing is seeking to interfere in U.S. elections, as it did in 2020 and 2022. 

China “sees little gain in choosing between two parties that are perceived as both seeking to contain Beijing,” said the U.S. intelligence official, noting things could change.

“The PRC is seeking to expand its ability to collect and monitor data on U.S. social media platforms, probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion,” the official said. “In addition, we are watching for whether China might seek to influence select down-ballot races as it did in the 2022 midterm elections.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, which has denied previous U.S. allegations, responded by calling the U.S. “the biggest disseminator of disinformation.”

“China has no intention and will not interfere in the US election, and we hope that the US side will not make an issue of China in the election,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

‘Chaos agent’

The new U.S. election threat assessment warns that in addition to concerns about Russia and China, there is growing evidence Iran is seeking to play the role of a “chaos agent” in the upcoming U.S. vote.

“Iran seeks to stoke social divisions and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions around the elections,” according to an unclassified version of the assessment. 

It also warned that Tehran “has demonstrated a long-standing interest in exploiting U.S. political and societal tensions through various means, including social media.”

As an example, officials Tuesday pointed to newly declassified intelligence showing Iran trying to exploit pro-Gaza protests across the U.S.

“We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,” said National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.

Haines cautioned, though, that Americans who interacted with the Iranian actors “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government.”

Iranian officials have not yet responded to VOA’s request for comment.

 

Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket successfully launches for first time

Kourou, France — Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket successfully blasted off for the first time on Tuesday, releasing satellites into orbit and restoring the continent’s independent access to space.

European space efforts have suffered a series of blows, including four years of delays on Ariane 6, that have robbed the continent of its own way to launch missions into space for the past year. 

But with the successful inaugural flight of Europe’s most powerful rocket yet, European space chiefs were keen to move on from recent setbacks. 

“It’s a historic day for Europe,” European Space Agency head Josef Aschbacher said.  

“Europe is back,” announced Philippe Baptiste, head of France’s CNES space agency. 

Surrounded by jungle on the South American coast, the rocket launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 4 p.m. local time (1900 GMT). 

The crew in the Jupiter control room, located 17 kilometers from the launch site, portrayed calm. 

Then head of operations Raymond Boyce announced, “propulsion nominal,” meaning that the launch was going as planned. 

Applause rang out in the room. 

Even louder applause came a little over an hour later, when the rocket successfully delivered microsatellites into orbit. 

NASA chief Bill Nelson on X welcomed the “giant leap forward” for the ESA. 

But Martin Sion, the CEO of the rocket’s manufacturer ArianeGroup, emphasized that “the mission is not yet complete.” 

It will only be fully completed when the reusable Vinci engine in the rocket’s upper stage has fallen back into Earth’s atmosphere. 

This is expected around three hours after liftoff. 

Since the last flight of its workhorse predecessor, Ariane 5, a year ago, Europe has had to rely on rivals such as Elon Musk’s U.S. firm SpaceX. 

Ariane 6 will be able to place satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers (22,369.36 miles) above Earth, as well as satellite constellations a few hundreds of kilometers up. 

The first flight was carrying a payload of university microsatellites, various experiments and two atmospheric re-entry capsules that will be jettisoned near the end of the mission. 

The last of three ignitions of the Vinci engine will be to shoot the Vinci engine back down into the Pacific Ocean, so it does not contribute to the space debris cluttering Earth’s orbit. 

After months of analyzing the rocket’s inaugural launch, a first commercial flight is expected before the end of the year. 

The next challenge will be to “successfully ramp up” the number of flights, ESA space transportation director Toni Tolker-Nielsen said. 

Six launches are scheduled for next year, and eight for 2026.