Microsoft Wins $22 Billion Deal Making Headsets for US Army

Microsoft won a nearly $22 billion contract to supply U.S. Army combat troops with its augmented reality headsets.  
 
Microsoft and the Army separately announced the deal Wednesday.
 
The technology is based on Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, which were originally intended for the video game and entertainment industries.
 
Pentagon officials have described the futuristic technology — which the Army calls its Integrated Visual Augmentation System — as a way of boosting soldiers’ awareness of their surroundings and their ability to spot targets and dangers.
 
Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens displays let people see virtual imagery superimposed over the physical world in front of them — anything from holograms in virtual game worlds to repair instructions floating over a broken gadget. Users can control what they see using hand gestures or voice commands.
 
The Army’s website says soldiers tested the gadgets last year at Fort Pickett in Virginia. It said the system could help troops gain an advantage “on battlefields that are increasingly urban, congested, dark and unpredictable.”
 
The Army first began testing Microsoft’s system with a $480 million contract in 2018 and said the headsets could be used for both training and in actual battle. The new contract will enable Microsoft to mass produce units for more than 120,000 soldiers in the Army’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force. Microsoft said the contract will amount to up to $21.88 billion over the next decade, with a five-year base agreement that can be extended for another five years.  
 
Microsoft President Brad Smith told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that the system could integrate thermal night vision and facial recognition to provide soldiers with “real-time analytics” on remote battlefields. He also described how it could help in planning a hostage rescue operation by creating a “digital twin” of the building.
 
A group of Microsoft workers in 2019 petitioned the company to cancel its initial Army deal, arguing it would turn real-world battlefields into a video game.
 
Microsoft is among several tech companies that have sought to wow the gaming world with glitzy new virtual reality goggles over the past decade, though the efforts have largely fizzled. Microsoft pivoted away from consumer applications for its second-generation HoloLens 2, introduced in 2019, which is the basis for the Army’s new gadgets.
 
Although Microsoft recently demonstrated a way to use the goggles to play the hit game Pokemon Go, it mostly pitches the devices as work tools to help surgeons, factory crews and others.  
 
The headset deal is part of Microsoft’s broader work as a defense contractor. The Pentagon in September reaffirmed Microsoft as winner of a cloud computing contract potentially worth $10 billion, although the work has been delayed by a legal battle over rival Amazon’s claim that the bidding process was flawed.
 

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CDC: COVID-19 Third Largest Cause of US Deaths in 2020

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Wednesday that COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States during 2020, and it boosted the overall U.S. death toll by nearly 16% from the previous year.During the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters the pandemic trailed only heart disease and cancer last year, accounting for about 378,000 fatalities, or 11% of all deaths in the country last year.Walensky said COVID-19 deaths were highest among Hispanic people, and deaths among ethnic and racial minority groups were more than double the death rate of non-Hispanic white people.Elsewhere Wednesday, European Medicines Agency (EMA) Executive Director Emer Cooke said the organization has found no scientific evidence to support restrictions on using the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.She told a virtual news conference from the drug regulator’s headquarters in Denmark that they stand by the statement they made nearly two weeks ago that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh any risks.The comments come a day after Germany announced it was limiting the vaccine to people 60 years of age and older due to concerns that it may be causing blood clots.Federal and state health authorities cited nearly three dozen cases of blood clots known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis in its decision Tuesday, including nine deaths.  The country’s medical regulator, the Paul Ehrlich Institute, said all but two of the cases involved women between the ages of 20 and 63.Canada, France and Spain have made similar decisions regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine.  

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Race to Produce COVID Vaccine May Cause Measles Jabs Shortage

World Health Organization experts fear the race to produce large quantities of COVID-19 vaccine could cut into the supply of global measles vaccines.
 
Critical topics relating to immunization globally were discussed during a regular meeting last week by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, known as SAGE. Recommendations were made regarding the status of Ebola vaccines, as well as an oral polio vaccine, and COVID-19 vaccines undergoing evaluation.During this review, SAGE Chair Alejandro Cravioto said the experts raised concerns regarding the situation of vaccinations against measles and rubella.“We are deeply worried that this had been stalled because of the COVID situation and we fear that if this is not properly looked at by each one of the countries that has not been able to vaccinate the children so far, we will be having problems with outbreaks of, especially measles. That is something that worries everybody and that we saw happening in 2019 in the very clearest way,” Cravioto said.Measles surged worldwide in 2019, reaching the highest number since 1996. Nearly 900,000 measles cases were reported, claiming more than 207,000 child lives, most in developing countries.Director of the WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Kate O’Brien said she does not expect shortages of measles vaccine right now. However, she warned that could change because of the intense pressure to increase the manufacturing capacity of COVID-19 vaccine.“As that ramps up, we have to continue watching this really carefully. We are starting to see the supply chains start to shrink to some degree so that the amount of vaccine in the supply chain is narrowing. But we do not see in those analyses that that would lead to shortages anywhere at this point. But a very important area to continue watching carefully,” O’Brien said.On another matter, two Chinese manufacturers of Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine products, for the first time presented SAGE with interim data for review.The experts are evaluating the efficacy and safety of those vaccines.They say the WHO also will analyze the information for Emergency Use Listing. If the WHO approves the vaccines, SAGE says it would likely recommend their use as part of the growing arsenal of vaccine products already in worldwide use. 

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Russia Registers Vaccine to Protect Animals from COVID-19

Russia says it registered the world’s first vaccine for animals against the COVID-19 virus on Wednesday — with government officials hailing an inoculation labeled ‘Carnivac-Cov’ as a victory in the global race to protect both animals and humans from further mutations of the coronavirus.“The clinical trials of Carnivac-Cov, which started last October, involved dogs, cats, Arctic foxes, minks, foxes and other animals,” said  Konstantin Savenkov, Deputy Head of Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s agricultural watchdog agency, in a statement announcing the vaccine.“The results allow us to conclude that the vaccine is harmless and provides high immunity, in such as the animals who were tested developed antibodies to the coronavirus in 100% of cases,” added Savenkov.Savenkov added that the shot currently provided immunity of up to 6 months — and could be in production in the coming weeks.The Russian announcement came just a day after the World Health Organization issued a report exploring the origins of COVID-19 in China.  The WHO study offered no firm conclusions but suggested the most likely source lay in animals — specifically, a bat.The U.S. has expressed reservations about what some US officials believe are the Chinese government’s efforts to skew the report’s findings.Studies have repeatedly documented select cases of COVID-19 infecting both domesticated and captive animals around the globe — including common household pets such as cats and dogs, as well as farmed mink and several animals in zoos.Mutation fearsScientists have raised concerns that the virus could subsequently mutate to other host animals — and eventually circulate back to humans.Last November, Denmark ordered the mass extermination of 15 million mink after a mutated variation of COVID-19 was discovered on more than 200 farms in the region.Danish officials noted the measure was grim necessity after a dozen people were found have been infected by a mutated COVID-19 strain.Rosselkhoznadzor’s Savenkov said the new Russian vaccine was intended primarily to protect household pets and farmed captive animals important to the global economy — as well as the humans in contact with them.“People and animals we live together on one planet and both are in contact with a great number of infections,” said Tatiana Galkina, a lead researcher behind Carnivac-Cov in a promotional video released to Youtube.“Of course in the future, we’re not insured against new viral infections. Therefore science should keep advancing and be a step ahead,” added Galkina, while petting a purring cat.Another video released to social media shows officials administering the vaccine to a plump white mink at a Russian fur farm.В России зарегистрировали первую в мире вакцину для животных от коронавируса
Препарат получил название «Карнивак-Ков». Клинические испытания препарата провели на кошках, собаках, песцах, норках, и лисах. В Россельхознадзоре даже показали, как прививают на примере норок pic.twitter.com/igQQZ38tIZ
— ФедералПресс (@FederalPress) March 31, 2021While the inoculation will face further peer review, Carnivac-Cov appears the latest example of Russia’s flexing its scientific muscle in the global race against the coronavirus pandemic.Last August, President Vladimir Putin claimed his nation was first to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 for humans with its Sputnik V inoculation. The announcement faced heavy skepticism for claiming a Russian victory before standard third phase trials had even begun.Subsequent international reviews later showed the Russian vaccine with an efficacy rate of over 90%.
 

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South Africans Construct Award-Winning Zero Carbon Home

A team of South Africans has won a Cape Town competition to create a zero-carbon home, just ahead of Earth Day on April 22. Experts say the house design, which incorporates solar power, passive cooling, rainwater harvesting, and a food garden, could help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. Vinicius Assis reports from Cape Town, South Africa.Camera: Vinícius Assis 

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Forest Losses Increased Again in 2020

The world lost a Netherlands-sized area of mature tropical forests in 2020, the second year in a row of worsening losses, according to the latest figures from the research and advocacy organization the World Resources Institute (WRI). The losses are helping drive climate change and also being driven by it, as hot, dry conditions contribute to forest losses in several parts of the world. Some bright spots emerged. The rate of forest loss decreased in Indonesia and Malaysia for the fourth consecutive year.  But overall, the 4.2 million hectare loss of primary, undisturbed forest was a 12% increase over 2019.  “Those dense forests can be hundreds of years old and store significant amounts of carbon,” said Rod Taylor, head of WRI’s forest program. “Losing them has irreversible impacts on biodiversity and climate change.” While experts had raised concerns that the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could contribute to forest losses by reducing environmental enforcement and driving more people to subsistence farming, Taylor said there were no obvious trends in the data.  The impacts may come later, however. “Unless we offer alternatives, it’s likely that governments will try to restart their economies on the backs of forests,” said WRI Distinguished Senior Fellow Frances Seymour.  Forest declines The tropics lost a total of 12.2 million hectares of primary and secondary regrown forest in 2020, WRI’s data said. The losses released the equivalent of the annual emissions from 570 million cars, more than twice the number on the road in the United States. Brazil saw the largest decline. The 1.7 million hectares lost was a 25% increase from the previous year and more than three times the next-highest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Bolivia was third. As in Brazil, much of the loss was due to fires set to clear land for agriculture, but which burned out of control due to hot, dry conditions.  In a rare bit of good news, Indonesia slowed its rate of loss by 17% in 2020, dropping out of third place and into fourth for the first time in the 20 years that WRI has been keeping records.Wooden houses are pictured as smoke from forest fires envelops trees near Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, March 21, 2021.Wetter weather and lower prices for palm oil, the commodity driving deforestation, likely played a role. But following devastating fires in 2015, the government also put measures in place that are contributing, experts say. Those include fire monitoring and prevention, restrictions on new palm oil plantations and agrarian reforms aimed at alleviating poverty.  Palm oil prices have rebounded, which may put pressure on the industry to expand again, said Sustainable Commodities and Business Manager Andika Putraditama in WRI’s Indonesia office. “The next two to three years would be the real test if Indonesia can maintain its performance in reducing deforestation,” he said. Climate change, cause and effect While deforestation is a leading contributor to climate change, “the most ominous signal from the 2020 data is the number and variety of instances where forests themselves have fallen victim to climate change,” Seymour said. Hot, dry weather in 2019 and 2020 drove bark beetle damage in Germany and the Czech Republic, tripling forest losses compared to 2018. Extreme heat and drought drove Australia’s devastating fires in 2019 and 2020. Tree cover loss increased nine-fold between 2018 and 2020. Climate change is likely to make these conditions more common.  An abnormally hot spring and summer in Russia led to fires in Siberia’s forests, and in peatlands that are normally frozen.   “Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time. But now she is shouting,” Seymour said. “We’re getting into a vicious cycle,” she added. “Climate change and forest degradation combine to make the forests that remain warmer, drier and more vulnerable to fire and pest infestations, which in turn releases more carbon when those forests burn and decay.”  The longer it takes to stop deforestation and cut greenhouse gas emissions, Seymour said, “the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke.” 

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US Lawmakers Press Big Tech for Internal Research on Kids’ Mental Health

Four Republican U.S. lawmakers requested on Tuesday that Facebook Inc., Twitter, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google turn over any studies they have done on how their services affect children’s mental health.The request follows a joint hearing last week of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees at which the companies’ chief executives discussed their content moderation practices in the wake of the siege on the Capitol in January.Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s ranking Republican, asked the CEOs at the hearing whether their companies had conducted internal research concerning children’s mental health.Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said he believed the company had, while Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said he did not believe so. Google’s Sundar Pichai said the company consulted with outside experts and invested “a lot of time and effort in these areas.”In letters to the companies on Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers asked for copies of any relevant research or internal communications, as well as information on any contractors and partners involved. They also requested any research the companies had done about how competitors’ products affect mental wellness of people under 18 years old.The requests also cover Google’s YouTube Kids service and Facebook’s Instagram, which is developing a version for people under 13 years old.The other lawmakers who signed the letter were ranking Republicans on various subcommittees, including Robert Latta, Gus Bilirakis and Morgan Griffith.They asked for the companies to respond by April 16. 

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COVID Pandemic Has Big Effect in Small Nation of eSwatini   

Eddie Simelane is a patient.  Every two months, this 46-year-old, HIV-positive father of four wakes up early to line up at a government clinic near eSwatini’s capital for his supply of free anti-retroviral medication.      The emaSwati are no strangers to pandemics. This small nation, formerly known as Swaziland, has one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates, estimated at over 27%.  But it’s not that pandemic that scares him, Simelane says. It’s coronavirus. He says he’s lucky to have not fallen ill, but says it’s thrown his life into disarray.     “Here in eSwatini, COVID-19 has taken many lives that I’ve heard of,” he said outside a clinic on a foggy morning last week. “And the difficult part of it is the economy. The economy has been down and there’s been no jobs for everybody for something like a year now.”   He’s not exaggerating the effect of this pandemic — in a nation that is smaller than all but three U.S. states, everything feels like it hits closer to home. While eSwatini has only reported some 17,000 cases, and just under 670 deaths, its small size makes each loss seem much bigger.    eSwatini, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control, has seen 1,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — and 55 deaths per 100,000 people. But the population is just over a million people.     According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, eSwatini’s COVID-19 mortality rate stands at 3.9%. That’s more than twice the U.S. death rate, of 1.8%, and also higher than the death rate in the continent’s epicenter — and eSwatini’s biggest neighbor — South Africa, which is 3.4%.     And it has affected lives at all levels of society. Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku fell into this job because Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini died of COVID-19 in December.     He said the past year has been tough.     “It’s something that we had never seen before, we had never experienced before,” he said. “So, when it started, we tried to manage it. The first wave, I think we fairly managed that, but the second wave, which was brutal, this is when we felt overwhelmed. But it taught us certain things that we have now put in place so that if the next, the anticipated — which I really don’t want — the third wave, we think we will be more prepared than the first and second waves because we didn’t have the experience.”      But health minister Lizzy Nkosi says their records found that HIV-positive COVID-19 patients did not fare as badly as they had feared.     “What we’ve learned — not just us, but across the world — is that HIV turned out not to be such a major factor,” she said. “It is a factor, but in terms of the people that get severely ill and the people that we’ve lost — I mean, from our death audit that we did recently, we found that 82% of the people that have died have had comorbidities, and about 80% of those had either diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure and the combination of those.”     She said the nation is starting to vaccinate health workers and will soon expand the vaccination plan. That is cold comfort for Simelane. He is a careful man, he says — he faithfully takes his medication and takes meticulous care of his possessions, mending a small rip in his red backpack with a row of neat stitches.     But, like people across the globe, he says he struggles with COVID-19 anxiety.    “I’m worried, because I actually don’t know how you contract the virus,” he said. “That is what worries me the most. Because you can say that you have protected yourself with masks and everything, only to find out at the end of the day that you caught COVID, not knowing how.”  
 

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US, 13 Other Nations Concerned About WHO COVID Origins Report

The United States and 13 other nations issued a statement Tuesday raising “shared concerns” about the newly released World Health Organization report on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The statement, released on the U.S. State Department website, as well as the other signatories, said it was essential to express concerns that the international expert study on the source of the virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.
The WHO formally released its report earlier Tuesday, saying while the report presents a comprehensive review of available data, “we have not yet found the source of the virus.”  The team reported difficulties in accessing raw data, among other issues, during its visit to the city of Wuhan, China, earlier this year.
The researchers also had been forced to wait days before receiving final permission by the Chinese government to enter Wuhan.
The joint statement by the U.S. and others went on to say, “scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings.”  The nations expressed their concerns in the hope of laying “a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.”
Along with the U.S., the statement was signed by the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Slovenia.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday further study and more data are needed to confirm if the virus was spread to humans through the food chain or through wild or farmed animals.  
Tedros said that while the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, the matter requires further investigation.
WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek told reporters Tuesday that it is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating as far back as November or October 2019 around Wuhan, earlier than has been documented regarding the spread of the virus.
 

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SpaceX’s SN11 Rocket Prototype Explodes Upon Landing

Elon Musk’s SpaceX suffered another setback Tuesday when one of its experimental rockets malfunctioned during a test flight at the company’s Texas facility.
 
The incident occurred as the Starship SN11 prototype was attempting to land after what the company called a normal ascent to roughly 12 kilometers in altitude.
 
Heavy fog obscured observers from seeing exactly what happened, but an explosion seems most likely, as there were reports of fire and debris.
 
“At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted.
 
This is the third time the experimental rocket has crash-landed or exploded.
 
John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer, said all was going well when data feeds and the on-board cameras stopped working as the vehicle entered a thick layer of fog while trying to land.  
 
The company said it will provide more information as it gets it but added it does not expect to be able to recover video footage.
 
Starship SN11 is the vehicle Musk hopes will carry the first humans to Mars.  
 
The company wants to send it into orbit by the end of the year. NASA has also awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to potentially use the Starship SN11 to take astronauts to the moon.

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A ‘Soft’ Robot Dropped by Drone Helps First Responders

A robot conceived to roll on planets is being used by firefighters in the U.S. to give them “situational awareness” before going into dangerous situations. It’s called Squishy, and Michelle Quinn found out more.Camera: Michelle Quinn
Producer: Michelle Quinn  

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WHO, EU, World Leaders Support Pandemic Treaty

Leaders of the European Union, (EU) the World Health Organization (WHO) and 23 countries expressed support Tuesday for an international pandemic treaty to help the world better address future global medical emergencies.  The world leaders, along with the WHO and the EU, signed a commentary published in several media outlets Tuesday expressing support for such an agreement. The U.S. China, and Russia are not among the signatories.The idea of such a treaty, to ensure universal and equitable access to vaccines, medicine and diagnostics for pandemics, was floated by European Council (the EU’s political arm) President Charles Michel at a G20 summit last November. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed support for such a treaty earlier this year.British PM Calls for Global Treaty on Pandemics Johnson calls for universal standards for transparency regarding future pandemics In a joint, virtual news conference from Brussels and Geneva, EU Council President Michel and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus laid out the need for such an international agreement.  Michel said, “COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses and divisions across our societies, and now, it is time to come together as one global community to build a pandemic defense for future generations that extends far beyond this crisis.”  Michel compared the situation to post-World War II, when the world’s leaders came together to build a “multi-lateral model” for international cooperation.”Such a treaty would state that the health of humans, animals and the planet are all connected and should lead to shared responsibility, transparency and cooperation globally.Tedros said the treaty would help to tackle gaps exposed by COVID-19, strengthen implementation of international health regulations and provide a framework for cooperation in areas such as pandemic prevention and response.He said, “The treaty, which could be taken forward by the World Health Assembly, would be based on the WHO constitution including the principles of health for all and no discrimination.” He said WHO member states would determine the content and whether it was ratified.He also said that in discussions they have had with member states, all – including the United States and China – have reacted positively to the proposal.

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3 Female Polio Vaccinators Killed in Afghanistan

Unknown gunmen have shot dead three female anti-polio workers in Afghanistan, one of the two countries in the world along with its neighbor Pakistan, where the crippling children’s disease remains endemic. 
 
Tuesday’s violence came on the second day of a five-day polio immunization drive, this year’s first in the conflict-torn country, that officials say aims to reach nearly one million Afghan children under five years of age in 32 out of the country’s 34 provinces.  
 
Officials said the slain women were administering polio drops to children in parts of Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province. 
 
No one immediately took responsibly for the violence. 
 
Afghanistan reported 56 new cases of polio in 2020, and officials have already detected around two dozen new cases this year.  
 
Continued fighting and a ban on door-to-door vaccinations in areas held by Taliban insurgents are blamed for hampering efforts to eradicate the polio virus in the country. 
 
The Afghan health ministry estimates about three million children were deprived of the polio vaccine in the past three years. 
 
Health Minister Waheed Majroj told a gathering Monday while launching the polio immunization campaign that security concerns may again deprive about one million children from receiving polio drops in 2021.  
 
Pakistan also launched its five-day nationwide door-to-door vaccinations of children against polio on Monday amid a substantial surge in coronavirus infections. 
 
The polio immunization drive targets more than 40 million children under the age of five across 156 Pakistani districts, said Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the Pakistani prime minister on national health services. 
 FILE – A boy receives polio vaccine drops, during an anti-polio campaign, in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan.Sultan said the government has engaged some 285,000 frontline workers, respecting coronavirus safety guidelines, to administer polio drops to the targeted population. 
 
Anti-polio drives have also suffered setbacks in Pakistan in recent years due to attacks on vaccinators and police personnel guarding them, leading to a spike in new infections. The violence has killed scores of polio workers and security guards escorting them. 
 
Islamist militants see the polio vaccine as an effort to collect intelligence on their activities while radical religious groups in conservative rural parts of majority-Muslim Pakistan reject the immunization as a Western-led conspiracy to sterilize children. 
 
Pakistani officials insist attacks on polio teams have particularly increased since 2011 when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency arranged a fake vaccination campaign with the help of a local doctor, enabling U.S. forces to locate and kill fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan. 
 
Pakistan, where polio infected 84 children in 2020, has reported one confirmed case so far this year. 
 
”The year 2021 presents a unique opportunity to leverage the gains made in 2020, despite the challenges of the (COVID-19) pandemic,” said a government statement released in connection with Monday’s launch of the immunization drive. 
 
The South Asia nation’s second polio drive of 2021 comes amid a third wave of coronavirus infections, with Pakistani officials reporting more than 4,000 new cases and 100 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in the last 24 hours. 
 
Hours after Monday’s polio vaccination drive began, authorities imposed partial lockdowns in “high-risk” Pakistani districts, including the capital, Islamabad, citing a “very dangerous” spike in new coronavirus cases. 
 
Since the coronavirus outbreak in the country 13 months ago, the government has recorded nearly 14,400 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 663,000 infections. 
 
Pakistani officials said the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 had alarmingly risen to nearly 12% from a low of about 3% a few weeks ago, suggesting the actual number of infections is likely much higher than the reported cases. 
 
Sultan said the current wave of coronavirus infections has the “potential to be worse than the first one in the summer of 2020,” when Pakistan had to impose a nationwide lockdown to contain the virus. 
 
Pakistan President Arif Alvi tweeted Monday that he had been tested positive for COVID-19 as did the country’s defense minister, Shaukat Khattak. 
 
Prime Minister Imran Khan had also tested positive for the virus earlier this month. Faisal tweeted Sunday that Khan had made “steady clinical recovery” and had been advised to resume building up his official work routine.

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Biden Boosts Offshore Wind Energy, Wants to Power 10 Million Homes

The Biden administration is moving to sharply increase offshore wind energy along the East Coast, saying Monday it is taking initial steps toward approving a huge wind farm off the New Jersey coast as part of an effort to generate electricity for more than 10 million homes nationwide by 2030. Meeting the target could mean jobs for more than 44,000 workers and for 33,000 others in related employment, the White House said. The effort also would help avoid 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, a key step in the administration’s fight to slow global warming. FILE – National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Jan. 27, 2021.President Joe Biden “believes we have an enormous opportunity in front of us to not only address the threats of climate change but use it as a chance to create millions of good-paying, union jobs that will fuel America’s economic recovery,” White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy said. “Nowhere is the scale of that opportunity clearer than for offshore wind.” The administration’s commitment to the still untapped industry “will create pathways to the middle class for people from all backgrounds and communities,” she added. “We are ready to rock and roll.” The administration said it intends to prepare a formal environmental analysis for the Ocean Wind project off New Jersey. That would move Ocean Wind toward becoming the third commercial-scale offshore wind project in the United States.  The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it is targeting offshore wind projects in shallow waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast. A recent study shows the area can support up to 25,000 development and construction jobs by 2030, Interior said. The ocean energy bureau said it will push to sell commercial leases in the area in late 2021 or early 2022. The administration also pledged to invest $230 million to upgrade U.S. ports and provide up to $3 billion in loan guarantees for offshore wind projects through the Energy Department’s recently revived clean-energy loan program. FILE – Jennifer Granholm speaks during a hearing to examine her nomination to be Secretary of Energy on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2021.”It is going to be a full-force gale of good-paying, union jobs that lift people up,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.  Ocean Wind, 15 miles off the coast of southern New Jersey, is projected to produce about 1,100 megawatts a year, enough to power 500,000 homes, once it becomes operational in 2024. The Interior Department has previously announced environmental reviews for Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts and South Fork wind farm about 35 miles east of Montauk Point in Long Island, New York. Vineyard Wind is expected to produce about 800 megawatts of power, and South Fork about 132 megawatts. Biden has vowed to double offshore wind production by 2030 as part of his effort to slow climate change. The likely approval of the Atlantic Coast projects — the leading edge of at least 16 offshore wind projects along the East Coast — marks a sharp turnaround from the Trump administration, which stymied wind power both onshore and in the ocean.  As president, Donald Trump frequently derided wind power as an expensive, bird-slaughtering way to make electricity, and his administration resisted or opposed wind projects nationwide, including Vineyard Wind. The developer of the Massachusetts project temporarily withdrew its application late last year in a bid to stave off possible rejection by the Trump administration. Biden provided a fresh opening for the project after taking office in January. FILE – Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, looks on during a hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 23, 2021.”For generations, we’ve put off the transition to clean energy, and now we’re facing a climate crisis,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose department oversees offshore wind. “As our country faces the interlocking challenges of a global pandemic, economic downturn, racial injustice and the climate crisis, we have to transition to a brighter future for everyone,” Haaland said. Vineyard Wind is slated to become operational in 2023, with Ocean Wind following a year later. Despite the enthusiasm, offshore wind development is still in its infancy in the U.S., far behind progress made in Europe. A small wind farm operates near Block Island in waters controlled by the state of Rhode Island, and another small wind farm operates off the coast of Virginia. The three major projects under development are all owned by European companies or subsidiaries. Vineyard Wind is a joint project of a Danish company and a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish energy giant, Iberdrola. Ocean Wind and South Fork are led by the Danish company, Orsted.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday it is signing an agreement with Orsted to share data about U.S. waters where the company holds leases. The data should aid NOAA’s ocean-mapping efforts and help it advance climate adaptation and mitigation efforts, the agency said. NOAA also will spend $1 million to study the impacts of offshore wind operations on fishing operators and coastal communities. Wind developers are poised to create tens of thousands of jobs and generate more than $100 billion in new investment by 2030, “but the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must first open the door to new leasing,” said Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. Not everyone is cheering the rise of offshore wind. Fishing groups from Maine to Florida have expressed fear that large offshore wind projects could render huge swaths of the ocean off-limits to their catch. 
 

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Biden: 90% of US Adults Will Be Eligible for COVID Vaccine by April 19

Nine out of 10 adults in the United States will be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine three weeks from now, President Joe Biden announced Monday during remarks that were dosed with a warning of a devastating resurgence of COVID-19 in the country.“We’re in a life-and-death race with a virus that is spreading quickly with cases rising again,” Biden said. “New variants are spreading and, sadly, some of the reckless behavior we’ve seen on television over the past few weeks means that more new cases are to come in the weeks ahead.”Earlier in the day, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, expressed a feeling of “impending doom,” pointing out a picture similar to that of Europe of a few weeks ago. Another wave of coronavirus infections is now sweeping the continent.Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testifies during a hearing to examine the COVID-19 response on Capitol Hill, March 18, 2021.But Walensky said the latest virus figures from around the United States show the daily average for infections rising by 10% over the past week, to nearly 70,000 per day. Hospitalizations were up by more than 4% and deaths by almost 3%. Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris standing in the background in the White House South Court auditorium, reiterated his call to governors, mayors and other local leaders not to relax restrictions on the mandatory wearing of masks.“Please, this is not politics, reinstate the mandate if you let it down,” implored the president, adding that businesses should also require masks.House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., responds during his weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, March 18, 2021.Republicans are criticizing Biden for being too slow to reopen the economy and what they deemed an overly cautious approach. “What America needs now is to fully reopen our economy and our classrooms,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter.Biden also announced the federal government will ensure, by April 19, the number of pharmacies where people can get inoculated will double so that those eligible for the vaccine will have a site for the shot within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of their homes.Biden also said his administration is increasing the number of pharmacies in the federal vaccination program from 17,000 to nearly 40,000 across the country and will establish a dozen more mass vaccination sites by April 19. A new effort is also under way to fund community organizations to provide transportation and assistance for seniors and other groups deemed at high risk, such as those with disabilities, to be able to get access to vaccines, according to the president.New York, the fourth most populous state, announced Monday that starting March 30 all state residents who are 30 years old or older will be eligible for the vaccine.As of Monday, federal officials report that more than 95 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine and 52.6 million people have been fully vaccinated in the United States.  The coronavirus has killed nearly 547,000 people in the country and infected more than 30 million, according to the CDC.President Joe Biden walks past freezers used to store Pfizer-BioNtech’s COVID-19 vaccine as he tours a Pfizer manufacturing site, Feb. 19, 2021, in Portage, Mich.A study released Monday by the CDC shows that the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in real-world conditions. The study was conducted among nearly 4,000 health care workers, first responders, and other essential workers in six U.S. states between mid-December of last year and the middle of this month. The results showed the risk of infection was reduced by 80 percent after one dose and 90 percent after two doses. CDC Director Walensky, speaking during a White House COVID-19 response team briefing, said the study showed the two vaccines can be effective not only in symptomatic infections but in asymptomatic infections as well. She called it “tremendously encouraging” and that it complements other recent studies.Meanwhile, a World Health Organization report on the origin of the COVID-19 virus is being reviewed by 17 U.S. experts, according to the White House.”We have been clear that independent, technically sound investigation is what our focus is on, and once this is reviewed, we’ll have an assessment about the steps forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday about the WHO report.The joint WHO study with China on the origins of COVID-19 says that the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal and that a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan was “extremely unlikely” as a cause, according to media organizations which obtained an advance copy of the report.“All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies from what I have seen so far,” commented WHO chief  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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WHO Report: COVID-19 Likely First Jumped Into Humans from Animals

A joint World Health Organization-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.The findings offer little new insight into how the virus first emerged and leave many questions unanswered. But the report does provide more detail on the reasoning behind the researchers’ conclusions.The team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis — a speculative theory that was promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump among others. It also said the role played by a seafood market where human cases were first identified was uncertain.Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director at the National Institute Of Allergy and Infectious Diseases speaks at a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, March 18, 2021.Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, said he would like to see the report’s raw information first before deciding about its credibility.”I’d also would like to inquire as to the extent in which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data that they would need to make a determination,” he said. “I want to read the report first and then get a feel for what they really had access to — or did not have access to.”The report, which is expected to be made public Tuesday, is being closely watched because discovering the origins of the virus could help scientists prevent future pandemics. But it’s also extremely sensitive because China bristles at any suggestion that it is to blame for the current one.White House press secretary Jen Psaki said experts from seven U.S. government organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health and the Department of Homeland Security had the report in hand.”Seventeen experts, longstanding leaders from the field, including epidemiology, public health, clinical medicine, veterinary medicine, infectious disease, law, food security, biosafety, biosecurity — we have a lot of experts in government — will be reviewing this report intensively and quickly,” she said at a daily briefing.Matthew Kavanagh of Georgetown University said the report deepened the understanding of the virus’s origins, but more information was needed.”It is clear that the Chinese government has not provided all the data needed and, until they do, firmer conclusions will be difficult,” he said in a statement.Last year, an AP investigation found the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the origins of the coronavirus. And repeated delays in the report’s release have raised questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew its conclusions.”We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent CNN interview.Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian takes a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing on April 8, 2020.China rejected that criticism Monday.”The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the WHO expert group?” asked Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.Still, suspicion of China has helped fuel the theory that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first identified. The report cited several reasons for all but dismissing that possibility.It said that such laboratory accidents are rare, that the labs in Wuhan were well-managed and there is no record of viruses closely related to the coronavirus in any laboratory before December 2019.The report is based largely on a visit by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan. The mission was never meant to identify the exact natural source of the virus, an endeavor that typically takes years. For instance, more than 40 years of study has still failed to pinpoint the exact species of bat that are the natural reservoir of Ebola.In the draft obtained by the AP, the researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood for the emergence of the new coronavirus. Topping the list was transmission from bats through another animal, which they said was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products was possible but not likely.That last possibility was previously dismissed by the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but researchers on this mission have taken it up again, further raising questions about the politicization of the study since China has long pushed the theory.While it’s possible an infected animal contaminated packaging that was then brought to Wuhan and infected humans, the report said the probability is very low.Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said even that “very low probability” was an overstatement.”There’s no compelling evidence of people actually being infected through packaging,” he said, calling the theory “far-fetched.”Woolhouse said it was possible the source of COVID-19 might never be identified.”The emergence of a new (disease) is always a sequence of unlikely events,” he said. “It’s hard to be definitive and rule anything out.” But he said most scientists agree that bats are the most likely source.Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and, in fact, the closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats.The report said highly similar viruses have been found in pangolins, a scaly anteater prized in traditional Chinese medicine, but scientists have yet to identify the same coronavirus in animals that has been infecting humans.The AP received the draft copy on Monday from a Geneva-based diplomat from a WHO-member country. It wasn’t clear whether the report might still be changed before its release, though the diplomat said it was the final version. A second diplomat confirmed getting the report, too. Both refused to be identified because they were not authorized to release it ahead of publication.FILE – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2021.WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged he had received the report over the weekend and said it would be formally presented Tuesday.”All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies,” he said at a news conference.The report is inconclusive on whether the outbreak started at a Wuhan seafood market that had one of the earliest clusters of human cases in December 2019. Research published last year in the journal Lancet suggested the market may have merely served to further spread the disease rather than being its source.The market was an early suspect because some stalls sold a range of unusual animals — and some wondered if they had brought the new virus to Wuhan. The report noted that animal products — including everything from bamboo rats to deer, often frozen — were sold at the market, as were live crocodiles.

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