Facebook Plans to Hire 10,000 in EU to Build ‘Metaverse’

Facebook says it plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to work on a new computing platform.

The company said in a blog post Sunday that those high-skilled workers will help build “the metaverse,” a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality.

Facebook executives have been touting the metaverse as the next big thing after the mobile internet as they also contend with other matters such as antitrust crackdowns, the testimony of a whistleblowing former employee and concerns about how the company handles vaccine-related and political misinformation on its platform.

In a separate blog post Sunday, the company defended its approach to combating hate speech, in response to a Wall Street Journal article that examined the company’s inability to detect and remove hateful and excessively violent posts.

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In Quiet Debut, Alzheimer’s Drug Finds Questions, Skepticism

The first new Alzheimer’s treatment in more than 20 years was hailed as a breakthrough when regulators approved it more than four months ago, but its rollout has been slowed by questions about its price and how well it works.

Several major medical centers remain undecided on whether to use Biogen’s Aduhelm, which is recommended for early stages of the disease. Big names like the Cleveland Clinic and Mass General Brigham in Boston say they’ll pass on it for now. 

One neurology practice has even banned the company’s sales reps from its offices, citing concerns about the drug and its price, which can climb past $50,000 annually.

Many doctors say they need to learn more about how Aduhelm works and what will be covered before they decide whether to offer it. That might take several months to sort out. Even then, questions may linger.

“The drug won’t be for everybody, even with access,” said Salim Syed, an analyst who covers Biogen for Mizuho Securities USA. 

Syed estimates that only around one-tenth of the people diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s may wind up taking Aduhelm chronically, especially if regulators approve similar treatments from Biogen’s competitors.

Biogen, which reports third-quarter financial results Wednesday, is not saying how many people have received the drug since it was approved on June 7. A company executive said last month that Biogen was aware of about 50 sites infusing Aduhelm, far fewer than the 900 the company had said it expected to be ready shortly after regulators approved the drug.

Aduhelm is the first in a line of new drugs that promise to do what no other Alzheimer’s treatment has managed: slow the progress of the fatal brain-destroying disease instead of just managing its symptoms. 

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Dr. Stephen Salloway, a Rhode Island neurologist and Biogen consultant who is prescribing the drug. People with Alzheimer’s “know what’s coming, and they want to do whatever they can to stay in the milder stage.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Aduhelm despite objections from its own independent advisers, several of whom resigned. The agency later said the drug was appropriate for patients with mild symptoms or early-stage Alzheimer’s.

Aduhelm clears brain plaque thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and regulators made the call based on study results showing the drug seemed likely to benefit patients. 

Biogen, which developed Aduhelm with Japan’s Eisai Co., had halted two studies on the drug due to disappointing results. It later said further analysis showed the treatment was effective at higher doses. 

The FDA is requiring Biogen to conduct a follow-up study.

The research Biogen submitted so far doesn’t give doctors as much insight as they would normally have into a drug, said Dr. Brendan Kelley, a neurologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Its experts are still reviewing Aduhelm. 

“Biogen went to the FDA with preliminary data, so it makes it really challenging to know how to navigate,” he said. More complete research would give doctors a better idea for how the drug will work in a broader patient population, Kelley said.

Cost is another concern.

Biogen’s pricing for Aduhelm is “irresponsible and unconscionable,” according to signs posted on office doors for The Neurology Center, a Washington, D.C.-area practice. The signs also refer to Aduhelm as a medication “of dubious effectiveness” and tell Biogen sales reps they are no longer welcomed in the center’s offices. 

“As physicians we feel compelled to speak out and protest BIOGEN’s actions,” one of the signs reads.

Neurology Center CEO Wendy Van Fossen said the signs went up in July, but she declined to elaborate on why they were posted.

A Biogen spokeswoman said in an email that it was disappointing that some centers are denying access to the drug. 

As for Aduhelm’s effectiveness, company data shows that plaque removal “is reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit,” said Biogen Chief Medical Officer Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan. She said regulators reviewed data from more than 3,000 patients, counting two late-stage studies and earlier research.

Doctors also are worried about whether patients taking Aduhelm will be able to get the regular brain scans needed to monitor their progress on the drug.

Issues with care access weren’t explored in the clinical research, which also involved patients who were generally younger and healthier than those in the broader population, noted Dr. Zaldy Tan, director of the Cedars-Sinai memory and aging program.

The Los Angeles health system is still evaluating Aduhelm. Its committee of experts is considering things like which doctors will prescribe the drug and how to ensure patients are monitored for problems like dizziness or if headaches develop. Bleeding in the brain is another potential side effect.

“Safety and access are real issues that need to be prioritized,” Tan said. 

Aduhelm also requires a deeper level of coordination among doctors than other Alzheimer’s treatments, noted Radhakrishnan. 

Prescribing doctors have to work with neurologists, radiologists and nurse practitioners to diagnose patients, confirm the presence of plaque in the brain, get them started on the treatment and then monitor them.

“All of this is work in progress,” Radhakrishnan said. 

Uncertainty about insurance coverage is another holdup.

Some insurers have decided not to cover the drug. Others, including the major Medicare Advantage insurer Humana, haven’t made a decision yet but are reviewing claims case by case in the meantime. 

The federal Medicare program is expected to make a national coverage determination by next spring that will lay out how it handles the drug.

Biogen executives said recently they think most sites that will offer the drug are waiting for clarity on reimbursement, including that Medicare decision. 

Medicare’s determination looms large for the Cedars-Sinai experts. Tan said they know they should reach a decision before the Medicare decision prompts more patient inquiries. 

He said doctors also realize they aren’t just evaluating Aduhelm: They’re also thinking about how to handle similar treatments that could get FDA approval.

“We want to make sure we get it right,” Tan said.

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Bitcoin-Mining Power Plant Raises Ire of Environmentalists 

An obstacle to large-scale bitcoin mining is finding enough cheap energy to run the huge, power-gobbling computer arrays that create and transact cryptocurrency. One mining operation in central New York came up with a novel solution that has alarmed environmentalists: It uses its own power plant.

Greenidge Generation runs a once-mothballed plant near the shore of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region to produce about 44 megawatts to run 15,300 computer servers, plus additional electricity it sends into the state’s power grid. The megawatts dedicated to Bitcoin might be enough electricity to power more than 35,000 homes. 

Proponents call it a competitive way to mine increasingly popular cryptocurrencies, without putting a drain on the existing power grid. 

Environmentalists see the plant as a climate threat. 

They fear a wave of resurrected fossil-fuel plants pumping out greenhouse gasses more for private profit than public good. Seeing Greenidge as a test case, they are asking the state to deny renewal of the plant’s air quality permit and put the brakes on similar projects.

“The current state of our climate demands action on cryptocurrency mining,” said Liz Moran of Earthjustice. “We are jeopardizing the state’s abilities to meet our climate goals, and we set the stage for the rest of the country as a result.”

Millions in Bitcoin 

The former coal plant, in a touristy region known for its glacial lakes and riesling wines, was converted to natural gas by Greenidge and began producing electricity in 2017. Bitcoin mining at the plant, which has a 106-megawatt capacity, started in earnest last year. The company said it was “bringing a piece of the world’s digital future” to upstate New York. 

“For decades, this region has been told it would see new industries and opportunities,” Greenidge said in a prepared statement. “We are actually making it happen, and doing it fully within the state’s nation-leading high environmental standards.” 

Bitcoin miners unlock bitcoins by solving complex, unique puzzles. As the value of Bitcoin goes up, the puzzles become increasingly more difficult, and it requires more computer power to solve them. Estimates on how much energy Bitcoin uses vary. 

Greenidge said it mined 729 bitcoins over three months ending September 30. The value of cryptocurrency fluctuates, and on Friday, one bitcoin was worth more than $59,000.  


Plant opponents suspect Greenidge of pulling a bait-and-switch, applying to run a power plant but planning to run a mining operation that is taking up more of the plant’s power. 

Greenidge says mining was not part of the plan when the plant came back online and note they continue to provide power to the grid. From January through June, Greenidge said it used 58% of its power for mining. 

Supporters see it as an economic boon in a part of upstate New York that could use the help. Douglas Paddock, chairman of the Yates County Legislature, testified at a public hearing this week that the plant has brought 45 high-paying jobs and made a “significant contribution” to the area through tax payments and capital investments. 

Environmental concerns

Some opposition to the plant centers on the potential effects of its water withdrawals from Seneca Lake. But air quality issues have taken center stage as the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews the plant’s air emission permits. 

Greenidge has said it’s in compliance with its permits and that the plant is 100% carbon neutral, thanks to the purchase of carbon offsets, such as forestry programs and projects that capture methane from landfills. 

Opponents claim the plant undercuts the state’s efforts to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades under its 2019 climate law. 

A large coalition of environmental groups and other organizations this week asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to deny the air permit for Greenidge and to take a similar action to keep an existing plant near Buffalo from becoming a mining site. The coalition wants Hochul to set a “national precedent” and enact a statewide moratorium on the energy intensive “proof-of-work” cryptocurrency used by bitcoin miners. 

Environmentalists estimate that there are 30 plants in New York that could be converted into mining operations. 

“I really think more than anything, this plant is a significant test for whether the state’s climate law is really worth anything,” said Judith Enck, who served as the EPA’s regional northeastern U.S. administrator under President Barack Obama. 

U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have separately asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to exercise oversight. 

Other mining operations

Around the country, there are other power plants being used for cryptocurrency mining under different types of arrangements. 

In Venango County, Pennsylvania, a generation plant that converts coal waste into power is being used to mine bitcoins and can provide electricity to the grid when needed. Stronghold Digital Mining has plans to replicate that kind of operation at two other sites in Pennsylvania.  

And in Montana, a coal-fired generating station is now providing 100% of its energy to Marathon Digital Holdings for bitcoin mining under a power purchase agreement. 

“We had previously done what many miners do, which is you find an industrial building, set it up for mining and then you contract for power from the grid,” Marathon CEO Fred Thiel said. “And we wanted to flip that model upside down because we knew that there are lots of underutilized energy generation sources in the U.S.” 

Thiel said that harmful emissions are low because of the quality of the coal and pollution controls, and that the plant would be carbon offset by the end of next year. He said his company is focused on moving toward renewable energy, saying cryptocurrency miners can provide crucial financial incentives to build more clean energy projects. 

New York permits pending 

New York state has yet to make a determination on Greenidge’s permits. 

Greenidge said that even if the plant ran at full capacity, its potential emissions equate to 0.23% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2030. 

However, state Environmental Commissioner Basil Seggos tweeted last month that “Greenidge has not shown compliance with NY’s climate law” based on goals in that law. 

“New York state is leading on climate change,” Seggos said in a prepared statement, “and we have some major concerns about the role cryptocurrency mining may play in generating additional greenhouse gas emissions.” 

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Chinese Astronauts Arrive at Space Station for Longest Mission

Three astronauts successfully docked with China’s new space station on Saturday on what is set to be Beijing’s longest crewed mission to date and the latest landmark in its drive to become a major space power.

The three blasted off shortly after midnight (1600 GMT Friday) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China’s Gobi desert, the China Manned Space Agency said, with the team expected to spend six months at the Tiangong space station.

The space agency declared the launch a success and said the crew “were in good shape.”

The Shenzhou-13 vessel carrying the three completed its docking with the radial port of the space station less than seven hours after the launch.

The mission, which is expected to last twice as long as a previous 90-day visit, will involve the crew setting up equipment and testing technology for future construction on the Tiangong station.

Mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, a former fighter pilot who performed the country’s first spacewalk in 2008, said the team would undertake “more complex” spacewalks than during previous missions.

The crew include military pilot Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first woman to visit the space station after becoming China’s second woman in space in 2013.

The other team member is People’s Liberation Army pilot Ye Guangfu, 41.

Pictures released by the space agency showed the three astronauts waving to well-wishers who held up slogans of encouragement at a send-off ceremony before the launch.

A previous record-breaking crew — making the first mission to Tiangong — returned to Earth in September after spending three months on the space station.

China’s heavily promoted space program has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the moon.

Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace,” is expected to operate for at least 10 years.

Its core module entered orbit earlier this year, with the station expected to be operational by 2022.

The completed station will be similar to the Soviet Mir station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.

The latest mission is set to “expand China’s technological boundary” and verify the space station system’s capacity for a longer duration of human occupation, Chen Lan, an independent space analyst at GoTaikonauts, told AFP.

“I don’t think it is very challenging, as China’s technologies (are) quite mature, though anything in space is always challenging,” Chen said.

Saturday’s blast-off came shortly after China launched its first solar exploration satellite into space, equipped with a telescope to observe changes in the Sun.

The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 missions to Tiangong through to the end of next year, including at least two more crewed launches that will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-ton station.

China’s space ambitions have been fueled in part by a U.S. ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, a collaboration among the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could remain functional beyond 2028.

Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration on the space station, although the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.

The country has come a long way since launching its first satellite in 1970.

It put the first Chinese “taikonaut” in space in 2003 and landed the Chang’e-4 robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 — a historic first.

China in May became the second nation to land and operate a rover on Mars.

Astronauts on the Tiangong space station will have separate living spaces, exercise equipment and a communication center for emails and video calls with ground control.

State broadcaster CCTV said astronauts had also packed special food and supplies to celebrate the Lunar New Year during their long mission, including dumplings.

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NASA to Launch Craft to Explore Jupiter’s Asteroids

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is preparing to launch a craft Saturday to boldly go to a part of space never visited before — the asteroids of Jupiter.

The spacecraft Lucy is set to take off before dawn Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is embarking on a 12-year mission during which it will travel more than 6 billion kilometers.

Lucy aims to fly near seven of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. Thousands of asteroids surround the giant planet.

The asteroids are believed to be artifacts from when the solar system was formed, and scientists hope that by studying them, they can better understand how the solar system evolved.

Tom Statler, Lucy program scientist, told VOA in an email that the asteroids are “leftovers from the formation of our solar system’s giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune” and that “the formation and early evolution of the Earth was influenced by what was happening to the giant planets farther from the sun.

“The Trojan asteroids hold unique clues to this special era,” he added.

NASA scientist Carly Howett told NASA TV that there are two main ideas of how the Trojan asteroids came to orbit near Jupiter: one, they formed deep in the solar system, and in a game of cosmic billiards were kicked back toward Jupiter; or two, they formed closer to Jupiter and are composed of substances similar to those of Jupiter’s moons.

“We are going to learn a lot about the composition” of the asteroids, she said, which will help NASA learn how and where they were formed.

Wil Santiago, an engineer at Lockheed Martin Space, told NASA TV, “It’s like going back in time. These asteroids are time capsules.”

Lucy is named for the fossilized remains of an early human discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. NASA scientists say the spacecraft will hopefully provide clues about the solar system’s evolution, just as the remains of the human ancestor Lucy were important in understanding how humans evolved.

The fossilized Lucy was in turn named for the 1967 Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Coming full circle, NASA says there are diamonds in the instrument that will measure the temperature of the asteroids.

On its mission to Jupiter, Lucy will perform three Earth flybys for a gravity boost to propel it farther into the solar system. It will also fly by an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, in what scientists consider a test run before it approaches the Trojan asteroids.

The craft has two massive solar panels, 7 meters each, that will provide the power it needs to travel 850 million kilometers from the sun. Because of its large panels, the craft will not be nimble enough to make quick adjustments in its trajectory.

Howett said scientists will use the spacecraft’s camera system to make sure there are no obstacles in its path, but added, “We’re not going to be doing a U-turn — let’s just put it like that.”

To chart a safe course, she said, NASA has been using the world’s best telescopes to study the region of space where Lucy will travel.

“We think we have an idea of what the risks are,” Howett said; however, she added, “whenever you explore somewhere new, there are some hazards.”

Lucy is not the only spacecraft exploring asteroids in the solar system. Next month, the spacecraft Dart is set to ram an asteroid 11 million kilometers from Earth in an attempt to change its course. The mission is a test of technologies that could be used one day to save Earth from a hazardous asteroid.

Also, next year, a craft will explore the asteroid Psyche, which is heavy with nickel and iron, and the following year, a space capsule will return to Earth with NASA’s first samples from an asteroid, collected last year by the Osiris-Rex rover exploring the asteroid Bennu.

“It’s going to be a great few years for asteroid science,” Howett said.

With all the activity in space exploration right now, scientists are seeking to explore one of the few regions of the solar system that has yet to be visited.

The Trojan asteroids “are the last major population of objects in our solar system that have not yet been seen close-up by spacecraft,” Statler said. 


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US Health Panel Recommends Booster Shot for Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

A panel of U.S. health advisers has recommended the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorize a second shot of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who has received the single-dose inoculation.

The panel expressed concerns Friday that Americans who received the shot are not as protected as those who were given a two-dose vaccination from drugmakers Pfizer or Moderna.

Last month, the FDA authorized a third booster shot for the Pfizer vaccine for seniors as well as adults who are at high risk for COVID-19. On Thursday, the FDA advisory panel recommended a similar course of action for Moderna boosters, except using lower doses.

Johnson & Johnson is the only COVID-19 vaccine approved in the United States that is only one dose. Initially, it was hailed for its ability to take effect quickly, but soon ran into concerns that it led to a rare blood clot disorder and a neurological disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is now facing criticism that it is less effective than rival brands.

Only about 15 million Americans received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine out of 188 million Americans who are fully vaccinated.

In other developments Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would accept mixed-dose coronavirus vaccines from international travelers. It has said it would allow travelers to have received any vaccine authorized for use by the FDA or the World Health Organization.

Earlier in the day, the White House said it would lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for international travelers who are fully vaccinated on Nov. 8.

In France, health officials ended a policy Friday of allowing free COVID-19 tests for everyone in an effort to persuade people to get vaccinated. Now, only those who have been vaccinated, who have a prescription from a doctor, or minors will be allowed to take free tests while others will have to pay.

Health ministry data Friday showed COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the country, with 6,099 new cases up from last Friday’s 4,470 cases.

South Africa said Friday it would start vaccinating children between the ages of 12 and 17 next week using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The government is trying to meet a goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by December.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said Friday they have submitted data to the European Union’s regulatory agency to approve their coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5-11. The companies have already taken a similar step with U.S. regulators.

In Italy, officials made health passes mandatory for all workers Friday. The passes must show proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from infection in order to work.

Scattered demonstrations were held across the country to protest the new rules, including 6,000 protesters in the northeastern port of Trieste.

And in Russia, the coronavirus task force said the daily number of new coronavirus infections and deaths surged to another record Friday. It reported 32,196 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 999 deaths in the previous 24 hours. 



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Canada Sees Benefits from Delaying Second COVID Vaccine Dose

Recent studies indicate Canada’s decision to extend the interval between the first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines can actually lead to increased resistance to the virus. It also finds mixing the brand and type of doses gives better protection.

The decision by Canadian authorities to immunize as many people as possible with any available dose of COVID-19 vaccine, then extending the time until administering the second dose, appears to be paying off.

Recent data compiled by the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and the Quebec National Institute of Public Health also show the strategy of using the first available vaccine for a second dose, even if not the same brand as the first, actually increased effectiveness and saved lives.

Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca all recommend 21-28 days between the two shots. Canada’s experience suggests protection is even stronger after a six-week interval.

For the Pfizer vaccine, this effectiveness went from 82% after a three- to four-week interval, to 93% when the booster, or secondary dose was given after four months.

The study also finds two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine gave less protection than the mRNA vaccines of Pfizer and Moderna. However, those who received an mRNA as a booster dose have the same protection as if they had two of the same, even if their first dose was AstraZeneca.

All three vaccines were found to be more than 90% effective in keeping recipients out of the hospital for COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer for the Canadian province of British Columbia, has encouraged first doses to be administered as quickly as possible — and not to worry whether the second dose is from a different vaccine.

Overall, she said, Canada’s experience could provide insights for the rest of the world.

“We don’t want countries to have to hold doses back or wait for manufacturers to be able to give people the full protection they need when they’re seeing outbreaks in other countries — and we saw this in India, for example,” she said. So it is really important globally that we’re able to use whatever vaccines are available to support people to have good protection.”

Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious disease doctor and professor at the University of Alberta and Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, said increasing the time between the doses can be good for the long term in areas with stable or low coronavirus levels.

However, Robinson said, there is one downside for the short term, especially in areas where there are high concentrations of COVID-19 cases.

“So the delay between the doses during the time between your first and second dose, you’re much more likely to get COVID than if you had got this second dose earlier,” she said. “Certainly with the delta variant, one gets the impression that one dose may be less effective.”

The findings of researchers in British Columbia and Quebec, which are thousands of kilometers apart, are almost identical.

This most recent Canadian data have not been widely published or peer reviewed, but researchers released the information early to make it available globally as soon as possible.

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US Puts Cryptocurrency Industry on Notice Over Ransomware Attacks 

Suspected ransomware payments totaling $590 million were made in the first six months of this year, more than the $416 million reported for all of 2020, U.S. authorities said on Friday, as Washington put the cryptocurrency industry on alert about its role in combating ransomware attacks. 

The U.S. Treasury Department said the average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3 million, with REvil/Sodinokibi, Conti, DarkSide, Avaddon, and Phobos the most prevalent ransomware strains reported. 

President Joe Biden has made the government’s cybersecurity response a top priority for the most senior levels of his administration following a series of attacks this year that threatened to destabilize U.S. energy and food supplies. 

Avoiding  U.S. sanctions

Seeking to stop the use of cryptocurrencies in the payment of ransomware demands, Treasury told members of the crypto community they are responsible for making sure they do not directly or indirectly help facilitate deals prohibited by U.S. sanctions. 

Its new guidance said the industry plays an increasingly critical role in preventing those blacklisted from exploiting cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions. 

“Treasury is helping to stop ransomware attacks by making it difficult for criminals to profit from their crimes, but we need partners in the private sector to help prevent this illicit activity,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. 

The new guidance also advised cryptocurrency exchanges to use geolocation tools to block access from countries under U.S. sanctions. 

Hackers use ransomware to take down systems that control everything from hospital billing to manufacturing. They stop only after receiving hefty payments, typically in cryptocurrency. 

Large scale hacks

This year, gangs have hit numerous U.S. companies in large scale hacks. One such attack on pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to temporary fuel supply shortages on the U.S. East Coast. Hackers also targeted an Iowa-based agricultural company, sparking fears of disruptions to grain harvesting in the Midwest. 

The Biden administration last month unveiled sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange Suex OTC, S.R.O. over its alleged role in enabling illegal payments from ransomware attacks, officials said, in the Treasury’s first such move against a cyptocurrency exchange over ransomware activity.

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US National Blood Inventory Hits Six-Year Low

The American Red Cross says it is facing a blood shortage. Officials say there have less than a day’s supply of certain blood types. Lesia Bakalets has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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US Donates 9.6 Million Additional COVID Vaccine Doses to Pakistan

The United States announced Friday an additional 9.6 million doses of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are being shipped to Pakistan through the global vaccine-sharing COVAX initiative.

The shipment brings to more than 25 million the total number of COVID-19 vaccine doses donated by Washington to the Pakistani people, said the American Embassy in Islamabad.

“The United States is proud to partner with Pakistan to get effective, life-saving Pfizer vaccinations into the arms of Pakistanis, and Pakistan has done a great job of distributing our donated vaccines,” U.S. Chargé d’affaires Angela Aggeler was quoted as saying. “This donation comes just in time for young Pakistanis over age 12 to get their first jabs.” 

COVID-19 infections are decreasing in Pakistan, with fewer than 1,000 new daily cases reported on average. The government last week eased restrictions on almost all public movement, education activities and businesses across the country of roughly 220 million people.

The latest government data show there have been 1,262,771 confirmed cases of infections, 39,953 of them active, and 28,228 COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic hit Pakistan. 

Officials reported Friday that more than 95 million doses have been administered to Pakistanis, including roughly 1 million in last 24 hours alone, since the national vaccination drive was rolled out in February.

The vaccination campaign has largely relied on Chinese vaccine, but the U.S. donations are helping officials overcome critical shortages of Western-developed anti-coronavirus shots. 

“These Pfizer vaccines are part of the 500 million Pfizer doses the United States purchased this summer to deliver to 92 countries worldwide, including Pakistan, to fulfill President [Joe] Biden’s commitment to provide safe and effective vaccines around the world and supercharge the global fight against the pandemic,” the U.S. Embassy noted in its statement. 

Washington has also delivered $63 million in COVID-19 assistance to Islamabad. 

The COVAX program is co-led by Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), the WHO (World Health Organization) and CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness). The United States is the single largest contributor supporting the initiative toward global COVID-19 vaccine access.

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Biden’s Popularity Tied to Pandemic Numbers

Recent polls have shown that U.S. President Joe Biden’s standing with the American public is entwined with the state of the pandemic in the country. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has more.

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Facebook Objects to Releasing Private Posts About Myanmar’s Rohingya Campaign

Facebook was used to spread disinformation about the Rohingya, the Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, and in 2018 the company began to delete posts, accounts and other content it determined were part of a campaign to incite violence. 

That deleted but stored data is at issue in a case in the United States over whether Facebook should release the information as part of a claim in international court. 

Facebook this week objected to part of a U.S. magistrate judge’s order that could have an impact on how much data internet companies must turn over to investigators examining the role social media played in a variety of international incidents, from the 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar to the 2021 Capitol riot in Washington. 

The judge ruled last month that Facebook had to give information about these deleted accounts to Gambia, the West African nation, which is pursuing a case in the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, seeking to hold the Asian nation responsible for the crime of genocide against the Rohingya.

But in its filing Wednesday, Facebook said the judge’s order “creates grave human rights concerns of its own, leaving internet users’ private content unprotected and thereby susceptible to disclosure — at a provider’s whim — to private litigants, foreign governments, law enforcement, or anyone else.” 

The company said it was not challenging the order when it comes to public information from the accounts, groups and pages it has preserved. It objects to providing “non-public information.” If the order is allowed to stand, it would “impair critical privacy and freedom of expression rights for internet users — not just Facebook users — worldwide, including Americans,” the company said. 

Facebook has argued that providing the deleted posts is in violation of U.S. privacy, citing the Stored Communications Act, the 35-year-old law that established privacy protections in electronic communication. 

Deleted content protected? 

In his September decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui said that once content is deleted from an online service, it is no longer protected.

Paul Reichler, a lawyer for Gambia, told VOA that Facebook’s concern about privacy is misplaced. 

“Would Hitler have privacy rights that should be protected?” Reichler said in an interview with VOA. “The generals in Myanmar ordered the destruction of a race of people. Should Facebook’s business interests in holding itself out as protecting the privacy rights of these Hitlers prevail over the pursuit of justice?” 

But Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said on Twitter that the judge’s ruling erred and that the implication of the ruling is that “if a provider moderates contents, all private messages and emails deleted can be freely disclosed and are no longer private.”

The 2017 military crackdown on the Rohingya resulted in more than 700,000 people fleeing their homes to escape mass killings and rapes, a crisis that the United States has called “ethnic cleansing.”

‘Coordinated inauthentic behavior’ 

Human rights advocates say Facebook had been used for years by Myanmar officials to set the stage for the crimes against the Rohingya. 

Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who testified about the company in Congress last week, said Facebook’s focus on keeping users engaged on its site contributed to “literally fanning ethnic violence” in countries. 

In 2018, Facebook deleted and banned accounts of key individuals, including the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces and the military’s television network, as well as 438 pages, 17 groups and 160 Facebook and Instagram accounts — what the company called “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The company estimated 12 million people in Myanmar, a nation of 54 million, followed these accounts. 

Facebook commissioned an independent human rights study  of its role that concluded that prior to 2018, it indeed failed to prevent its service “from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” 

Facebook kept the data on what it deleted for its own forensic analysis, the company told the court. 

The case comes at a time when law enforcement and governments worldwide increasingly seek information from technology companies about the vast amount of data they collect on users. 

Companies have long cited privacy concerns to protect themselves, said Ari Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University. What’s new is the vast quantity of data that companies now collect, a treasure trove for investigators, law enforcement and government. 

“Private companies have untold amounts of data based on the commodification of what we do,” Waldman said.

Privacy rights should always be balanced with other laws and concerns, such as the pursuit of justice, he added.

Facebook working with the IIMM 

In August 2020, Facebook confirmed that it was working with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), a United Nations-backed group that is investigating Myanmar. The U.N. Human Rights Council established the IIMM, or “Myanmar Mechanism,” in September 2018 to collect evidence of the country’s most serious international crimes.

Recently, IIMM told VOA it has been meeting regularly with Facebook employees to gain access to information on the social media network related to its ongoing investigations in the country. 

A spokesperson for IIMM told VOA’s Burmese Service that Facebook “has agreed to voluntarily provide some, but not all, of the material the Mechanism has requested.” 

IIMM head Nicholas Koumjian wrote to VOA that the group is seeking material from Facebook “that we believe is relevant to proving criminal responsibility for serious international crimes committed in Myanmar that fall within our mandate.”  

Facebook told VOA in an email it is cooperating with the U.N. Myanmar investigators. 

“We’ve committed to disclose relevant information to authorities, and over the past year we’ve made voluntary, lawful disclosures to the IIMM and will continue to do so as the case against Myanmar proceeds,” the spokesperson wrote. The company has made what it calls “12 lawful data disclosures” to the IIMM but didn’t provide details. 

Human rights activists are frustrated that Facebook is not doing more to crack down on bad actors who are spreading hate and disinformation on the site.

“Look, I think there are many people at Facebook who want to do the right thing here, and they are working pretty hard,” said Phil Robertson, who covers Asia for Human Rights Watch. “But the reality is, they still need to escalate their efforts. I think that Facebook is more aware of the problems, but it’s also in part because so many people are telling them that they need to do better.” 

Matthew Smith of the human rights organization Fortify Rights, which closely tracked the ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar, said the company’s business success indicates it could do a better job of identifying harmful content. 

“Given the company’s own business model of having this massive capacity to deal with massive amounts of data in a coherent and productive way, it stands to reason that the company would absolutely be able to understand and sift through the data points that could be actionable,” Smith said. 

Gambia has until later this month to respond to Facebook’s objections.

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US Authorities Disclose Ransomware Attacks Against Water Facilities

U.S. authorities said on Thursday that four ransomware attacks had penetrated water and wastewater facilities in the past year, and they warned similar plants to check for signs of intrusions and take other precautions. 

The alert from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) cited a series of apparently unrelated hacking incidents from September 2020 to August 2021 that used at least three different strains of ransomware, which encrypts computer files and demands payment for them to be restored. 

Attacks at an unnamed Maine wastewater facility three months ago and one in California in August moved past desktop computers and paralyzed the specialized supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) devices that issue mechanical commands to the equipment. 

The Maine system had to turn to manual controls, according to the alert co-signed by the FBI, National Security Agency and Environmental Protection Agency. 

A March hack in Nevada also reached SCADA devices that provided operational visibility but could not issue commands. 

CISA said it is seeing increasing attacks on many forms of critical infrastructure, in line with those on the water plants. 

In some cases, the water facilities are handicapped by low municipal spending on technology cybersecurity. 

The Department of Homeland Security agency’s recommendations include access log audits and strict use of additional factors for authentication beyond passwords.  

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NASA Launching Series of Crafts to Visit, Bash Asteroids

Attention asteroid aficionados: NASA is set to launch a series of spacecraft to visit and even bash some of the solar system’s most enticing space rocks. 

The robotic trailblazer named Lucy is up first, blasting off this weekend on a 12-year cruise to swarms of asteroids out near Jupiter — unexplored time capsules from the dawn of the solar system. And yes, there will be diamonds in the sky with Lucy, on one of its science instruments, as well as lyrics from other Beatles’ songs. 

NASA is targeting the predawn hours of Saturday for liftoff. 

Barely a month later, an impactor spacecraft named Dart will give chase to a double-asteroid closer to home. The mission will end with Dart ramming the main asteroid’s moonlet to change its orbit, a test that could one day save Earth from an incoming rock. 

Next summer, a spacecraft will launch to a rare metal world — a nickel and iron asteroid that might be the exposed core of a once-upon-a-time planet. A pair of smaller companion craft — the size of suitcases — will peel away to another set of double asteroids. 

And in 2023, a space capsule will parachute into the Utah desert with NASA’s first samples of an asteroid, collected last year by the excavating robot Osiris-Rex. The samples are from Bennu, a rubble and boulder-strewn rock that could endanger Earth a couple of centuries from now. 

“Each one of those asteroids we’re visiting tells our story … the story of us, the story of the solar system,” said NASA’s chief of science missions, Thomas Zurbuchen. 

There’s nothing better for understanding how our solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago, said Lucy’s principal scientist, Hal Levison of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “They’re the fossils of planet formation.”

China and Russia are teaming up for an asteroid mission later this decade. The United Arab Emirates is also planning an asteroid stop in the coming years.

Advances in tech and design are behind this flurry of asteroid missions, as well as the growing interest in asteroids and the danger they pose to Earth. All it takes is looking at the moon and the impact craters created by asteroids and meteorites to realize the threat, Zurbuchen said. 

The asteroid-smacking Dart spacecraft — set to launch November 24 — promises to be a dramatic exercise in planetary defense. If all goes well, the high-speed smashup will occur next fall just 11 million kilometers (7 million miles) away, within full view of ground telescopes. 

The much longer $981 million Lucy mission — the first to Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage — is targeting an unprecedented eight asteroids. 

Lucy aims to sweep past seven of the countless Trojan asteroids that precede and trail Jupiter in the giant gas planet’s path around the sun. Thousands of these dark reddish or gray rocks have been detected, with many thousands more likely lurking in the two clusters. Trapped in place by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and the sun, the Trojans are believed to be the cosmic leftovers from when the outer planets were forming. 

“That’s what makes the Trojans special. If these ideas of ours are right, they formed throughout the outer solar system and are now at one location where we can go and study them,” Levison said.

Before encountering the Trojans, Lucy will zip past a smaller, more ordinary object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists consider this 2025 flyby a dress rehearsal. 

Three flybys of Earth will be needed as gravity slingshots in order for Lucy to reach both of Jupiter’s Trojan swarms by the time the mission is set to end in 2033. 

The spacecraft will be so far from the sun — as much as 850 million kilometers (530 million miles) distant — that massive solar panels are needed to provide enough power. Each of Lucy’s twin circular wings stretches 7 meters (24 feet) across, dwarfing the spacecraft tucked in the middle like the body of a moth. 

Lucy intends to pass within 965 kilometers (600 miles) of each targeted asteroid. 

“Every one of those flybys needs to be near perfection,” Zurbuchen said.

The seven Trojans range in size from a 64-kilometer (40-mile) asteroid and its 1-kilometer (half-mile) moonlet to a hefty specimen exceeding 100 kilometers (62 miles). That’s the beauty of studying these rocks named after heroes of Greek mythology’s Trojan War and, more recently, modern Olympic athletes. Any differences among them will have occurred during their formation, Levison said, offering clues about their origins.

Unlike so many NASA missions, including the upcoming Dart, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, Lucy is not an acronym. The spacecraft is named after the fossilized remains of an early human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974; the 3.2-million-year-old female got her name from the 1967 Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. 

“The Lucy fossil really transformed our understanding of human evolution, and that’s what we want to do is transform our understanding of solar system evolution by looking at all these different objects,” said Southwest Research Institute’s Cathy Olkin, the deputy principal scientist who proposed the spacecraft’s name. 

One of its science instruments actually has a disc of lab-grown diamond totaling 6.7 carats. 

And there’s another connection to the Fab Four. A plaque attached to the spacecraft includes lines from songs they wrote, along with quotes from other luminaries. From a John Lennon single: “We all shine on … like the moon and the stars and the sun.” 


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New Malaria Vaccine to Benefit Hundreds of Thousands of African Children

The World Health Organization’s endorsement of the world’s first malaria vaccine marks a major advance against the mosquito-borne illness, which kills some 265,000 children in Africa annually.

Bitrus Yusuf pours syrup into a measuring cup to give to his three-year-old daughter and grandson who are sick with malaria. 

He said the mosquito-borne parasite that causes the illness is all too common at this Abuja camp for internally displaced people where they live. 

“We went to bed, all was well, everybody was well,” Yusuf said. “But toward midnight I heard him shivering. As I touched his body (it was) very hot, so I woke him up.” 

The World Health Organization said some 94% of malaria cases and deaths worldwide occur in Africa, and that Nigeria accounts for a quarter of the fatalities. The U.N. agency said children under the age of five and pregnant women are the most affected.

Last week, the global health body announced its approval for the rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine, Mosquirix. The vaccine, made by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, has been in development for more than three decades.

The WHO said Mosquirix could potentially change the course of public health history.

Walter Kazadi Mulombo is the WHO representative in Nigeria. 

“You know before the vaccine could be introduced in the country, it has to be cleared by NAFDAC for the case of Nigeria and there are steps to be taken for the country to approve the vaccine so that introduction can start,” Mulombo said.

NAFDAC refers to the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control in Nigeria. 

During a large-scale pilot program that began in 2019, some 2.3 million doses of the vaccine were administered to children in Malawi, Kenya and Ghana. 

The WHO said when rolled out, the vaccine could help prevent up to four in 10 cases of malaria.

But Mulombo warns there could be supply problems at first.

“There may be some supply issues so it may not be in the quantity we require to reach all those that we need to reach,” Mulombo said. “But we understand that GSK, the manufacturer, is working already with some African countries to decentralize production.”

Abuja Primary Health Board official, Ndaeyo Iwot, said the new vaccine does not eliminate the need for taking other malaria preventive measures.

“If you don’t combine it with sleeping under insecticide treated nets and also taking care of your environment, where the vectors can breed, then you’re more likely to continue to have the scourge of malaria in this country,”  Iwot said.

GlaxoSmithKline said it will manufacture about 15 million doses of the vaccine yearly, but experts say at least 50 to 100 million doses are needed every year in areas with moderate to high transmission.

In the meantime, Nigerian parents like Yusuf said they are hoping to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible.

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Actor Who Played Legendary Starship Captain Visits Space

The world’s most famous “starship captain” takes the trek of a lifetime. Plus, new software makes possible virtual trips through the universe, and a mining company in Greenland offers a potentially planet-saving alternative to aluminum. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us the Week in Space.

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