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Pakistan says it has administered 155 million COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Friday, fully vaccinating 70 million people, or 30% of the country’s total population, since launching the inoculation drive in February.
The South Asian nation of about 220 million reported its first case in early 2020 and since then the pandemic has infected about 1.3 million people and killed nearly 29,000 people, keeping the situation largely under control.
“Of the total eligible population [age 12 and above], 46% is fully vaccinated and 63% has received at least one dose,” Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar who heads the National Command and Operation Center that oversees Pakistan’s pandemic response, tweeted.
The government had set the target in May and achieved it “with the help of countless workers, citizens and leadership across the country,” tweeted Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on national health services.
Faisal advised Pakistanis to continue to use masks, avoid crowded places and ensure social distancing in the wake of rising cases of infection from the omicron variant.
Officials said Pakistan has received a total of 247 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to date. The government has purchased 157 million while 78 million arrived through the COVAX dose-sharing program, including 32.6 million donated by the United States, and nearly 9 million donated from China.
The United Nations and other global partners have acknowledged Pakistan’s effective response to the pandemic, citing the country’s success in vaccinating children against polio and other transmittable diseases through mass immunization campaigns.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal health ministry adapted its facilities to vaccinate adults, who make up about half of Pakistan’s population, according to a recent UNICEF statement.
Record snowfalls in the western United States that closed roads and caused flight delays also brought some good news for drought-hit California on Thursday, with officials saying the state’s snowpack is now well above normal.
After a string of mountain blizzards, snowpack measured at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada stands at more than 200% of its average for this date, according to the first measurement of the season by California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR). The Sierra Nevada supplies almost a third of the state’s water needs, once the snow runs off to reservoirs and aqueducts.
Statewide, snowpack is 160% of its average, the DWR said.
“We could not have asked for a better December in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said Karla Nemeth, the director of the DWR.
Droughts in California are growing more frequent and intense with climate change, according to scientists, threatening the state’s already tenuous water supply and creating conditions for dangerous wildfires.
Despite the precipitation-heavy end to 2021, the DWR warned against complacency.
The state would still have to see “significant” precipitation in January and February to make up for the two previous winters, the state’s fifth- and second-driest water years on record, the DWR said.
“California continues to experience evidence of climate change with bigger swings between wet and dry years and even extreme variability within a season,” said Sean de Guzman, manager of DWR’s Snow Surveys and Water Supply Forecasting Unit.
He added that a wet start to the winter season did not necessarily mean precipitation in 2022 would end above average.
South Africa has lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement, effective immediately, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the omicron variant, a government statement said Thursday.
However, wearing a face mask in public places remains mandatory. Failure to wear a mask in South Africa when required is a criminal offense.
The country made the curfew and other changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency.
South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels.
“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier Thursday said.
Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25 compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said.
South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts.
Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate after 11 p.m. local time may revert to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season.
“While the omicron variant is highly transmissible, there have been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves,” the statement said.
Health authorities in the United States are sounding the alarm again, saying Americans could experience disruptions in the coming weeks because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The U.S has reported record numbers of cases two days in a row, Reuters reported, adding that 18 states have set pandemic case records. Maryland, Ohio and Washington, D.C., have reported record hospitalizations.
“We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC.
Many public agencies like police departments and fire departments have reported numerous employees calling in sick, making it harder to deliver services.
Omicron is causing havoc in the airline industry, with thousands of flights either delayed or canceled. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned Americans against taking cruises.
According to a recent University of Texas study, omicron cases could peak between January 18 and February 3. The study said cases could subside by March.
Roughly 62% of Americans have been given two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, USA Today reported. They are considered fully vaccinated, but many health officials are urging booster shots. Only one-third of Americans have gotten boosters, the paper reported.
The U.S. death toll for the pandemic is 823,743, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. It is unclear how many deaths the omicron variant has caused.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.
The top infectious disease expert in the United States is urging Americans to avoid taking part in mass New Year’s Eve celebrations as the nation continues to set record-breaking levels of daily new coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
The U.S. posted 489,267 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, just two days after recording a new single-day record of 512,553.
The U.S. is now averaging more than 265,000 new coronavirus cases per day, breaking the previous mark of 250,000 daily new infections set in January.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said Wednesday he “strongly recommends” that people cancel plans to attend large holiday parties with “30, 40, 50 people” this year, and instead spend the time with small gatherings of friends or relatives who are vaccinated and have received a booster shot.
In an interview Wednesday on financial cable network CNBC, Fauci also predicted the current omicron-driven surge may hit its peak in the U.S. by the end of January.
Health experts say despite omicron’s fast-moving spread around the world since it was first detected in South Africa last month, it appears to cause less severe illnesses than other versions of the coronavirus. However a World Health Organization official warned this week it is still too early to tell how omicron will affect older, more vulnerable people.
Meanwhile, a new study out of South Africa suggests a booster shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine provides strong protection against the omicron variant.
Researchers at the South African Medical Research Council say the booster shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was given to about 69,000 health care workers between November 15 and December 20. The results show the effectiveness at preventing hospitalization rose from 63% shortly after it was administered to 84% 14 days later, and 85% within one to two months.
Also, a separate study involving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the United States suggests the vaccine provides a 41-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies when used as a booster shot for people who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine.
Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston also told CNN the Johnson & Johnson booster produces a five-fold increase in so-called T cells, an arm of the human immune system that kills virus-infected cells and keeps them from replicating and spreading.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
Iran has used a satellite launch rocket to send three research devices into space, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on Thursday, as indirect U.S.-Iran talks take place in Austria to try to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal.
He did not clarify whether the devices had reached orbit.
Iran, which has one of the biggest missile programs in the Middle East, has suffered several failed satellite launches in the past few years due to technical issues.
Spokesman Ahmad Hosseini said the Simorgh satellite carrier rocket, whose name translates as “Phoenix”, had launched the three research devices at an altitude of 470 kilometers (290 miles). He did not give further details.
“The intended research objectives of this launch were achieved,” Hosseini said, in comments broadcast on state television. “This was done as a preliminary launch … God willing, we will have an operational launch soon.”
Iranian state television showed footage of what it said was the firing of the launch vehicle.
Thursday’s reported space launch comes as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna in an attempt to salvage a nuclear accord that Iran reached with world powers and that former U.S. president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.
The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s civilian space agency and two research organizations in 2019, claiming they were being used to advance Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
Tehran denies such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development.
Iran launched its first satellite Omid (Hope) in 2009 and its Rasad (Observation) satellite was also sent into orbit in June 2011. Tehran said in 2012 that it had successfully put its third domestically-made satellite, Navid (Promise), into orbit.
In April 2020, Iran said it successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit, following repeated failed launch attempts in the previous months.
Tidal waves and coastal erosion have submerged an entire fishing community on Ghana’s eastern coast. Many villagers had already been relocated from past tidal waves and have petitioned the government for a permanent solution. Senanu Tord reports from the village of Fuvemeh in Ghana.
Camera: Senanu Tord
The World Health Organization is warning that the rapid circulation of the omicron and delta variants of the coronavirus is leading to a tsunami of cases, severe disease and surging deaths among the unvaccinated.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that while science had led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the global death toll from the disease has kept rising.
In 2020, the World Health Organization reported 1.8 million deaths globally, a number that pales in comparison to the additional 3.5 million deaths reported in 2021.
Tedros said the reason for the climb was that politics has too often trumped the need to work together to defeat this pandemic.
“Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants,” he said.
Tedros condemned the misinformation and disinformation that often has been spread by a small number of people for undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools. He said these twin evils have driven vaccine hesitancy and are to blame for the disproportionately large number of unvaccinated people dying from the delta and omicron strains of the coronavirus.
He warned that the virus that causes COVID-19 would continue to evolve and threaten the health system if nations did not improve their collective response. He said it was time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by addressing global vaccine inequity.
“Ending health inequity remains the key to ending the pandemic,” Tedros said. “As this pandemic drags on, it is possible that new variants could evade our countermeasures and become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.”
The WHO chief said it was time to banish the politics of populism and self-interests that have been derailing the global response to the pandemic. He asked everyone to make a New Year’s resolution to get behind WHO’s campaign to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population by the middle of 2022.
The United States recorded more than 512,000 daily new coronavirus cases Tuesday – the single highest one-day number of cases recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data released by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center
The one-day record coincides with a New York Times database showing the seven-day average of cases in the U.S. rose above 267,000 on Tuesday.
The recent surge is driven by a record number of children infected and hospitalized with COVID-19.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, lowered its previous estimate of new coronavirus cases driven by the rapidly spreading omicron variant. The federal health agency said Tuesday that omicron accounted for roughly 59 percent of all variants, far lower than the 73 percent figure it announced last week.
The surge of new infections in the United States has forced the cancelation of another postseason college football game. The Holiday Bowl was canceled Tuesday just hours before the game’s scheduled kickoff in San Diego, California, when UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) announced it would be unable to play against North Carolina State because too many players had been diagnosed with the infection.
Five postseason games have been canceled, while at least one bowl game is going ahead with a different team. Central Michigan will meet Washington State in Friday’s Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, after the Miami Hurricanes were forced to drop out. Central Michigan was supposed to play in the Arizona Bowl, but that game was canceled after Boise State withdrew.
Officials with the coming major college football championship playoffs have warned the four teams – Alabama, Cincinnati, Michigan and Georgia – that if they cannot play in Friday’s semifinal matchups, they may have to forfeit.
The U.S. is among several nations reporting record new numbers of infections. France on Tuesday reported a new one-day record of 179,807 new cases, making it one of the highest single-day tallies worldwide since the start of the pandemic.
Denmark, which has the world’s highest infection rate, with 1,612 cases per 100,000 people, posted a single-day record of 16,164 new infections on Monday.
Other European nations reporting new record-setting numbers of one-day infections Tuesday include Britain (138,831), Greece (21,657), Italy (78,313), Portugal (17,172) and Spain (99,671).
Australia is also undergoing a dramatic increase in new cases driven by omicron, posting nearly 18,300 infections Wednesday, well above Tuesday’s previous high of about 11,300.
New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, reported just over 11,200 infections Wednesday – nearly double the 6,602 new cases posted the previous day.
Worldwide, the number of recorded cases increased by 11% last week, according to the World Health Organization. The United Nations agency said Wednesday the risk posed by omicron remains “very high.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
The growing issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is affecting coastal marine life, transporting many species to areas of the open ocean, surprising researchers.
A group of U.S. and Canadian marine and environmental scientists were amazed to find that some species are thriving on plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.
The team discovered oceanic barnacles and crabs living alongside coastal barnacles and anemones.
“We expected to find oceanic marine species that have adapted on plastics, but we were absolutely surprised to discover coastal marine species as well,” said Linsey Haram, a research associate with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.
It is not known how some coastal marine life managed to get out into the ocean, added Haram, the lead author of a recent report on the findings in the journal Nature Communications.
“They may already be out there settling on the plastics, but most likely they are being rafted or transported from the coast on floating debris,” she told VOA.
The study focused on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. The massive garbage patch, which is over 1.5 million square kilometers, is mostly made up of plastic waste, big and small.
The debris includes massive quantities of tiny plastic fragments, along with water bottles, toothbrushes and abandoned fishing gear that are drawn into the patch by ocean currents called gyres.
The report notes the plastic can remain in the gyres for years.
“They come into the center [of the gyres] where the water is relatively stationary,” explained Amy Uhrin, chief scientist of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington. The majority of the garbage comes from the Pacific Rim and the West Coast of North America, she said.
The size of the patch can change depending on the wind and ocean currents, Uhrin told VOA in an interview.
The Ocean Voyages Institute in Sausalito, California, which works to clean up trash in the ocean, provided plastic samples for the research.
“We’ve had a large sailing cargo ship with a crane hoist tons of trash from the patch onto the deck of the vessel, especially the very harmful elements like plastic fishing nets that still catch and kill whales, dolphins and turtles,” Ocean Voyages founder and President Mary Crowley said.
The results from the samples provided the researchers with some food for thought.
“What has been most eye-opening is that the coastal marine species were not only thriving but reproducing,” Haram said.
However, there are many questions still unanswered.
“How do you survive being on piece of plastic in the middle of the ocean?” asks Greg Ruiz, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center and a contributor to the report.
“The coastal species may be creating their own ecosystem on the plastic debris that allows for microorganisms and algae to grow and essentially function as a food chain,” Ruiz said. “Fish and bird waste in the water may also be contributing nutrients.”
“We also want to figure out how the coastal and oceanic species are interacting since they are competing for limited space on the objects,” Haram said. “They could be using each other as a source of food.”
There is concern coastal hitchhikers could become invasive species.
“We want to know if other coastal marine life are on plastics in all of the five main ocean gyres worldwide,” Haram said.
Ruiz added, “we’re concerned that coastal organisms from different regions could form colonies and spread disease to other marine life, including fish.”
Beijing on Tuesday accused the United States of irresponsible and unsafe conduct in space over two “close encounters” between the Chinese space station and satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Tiangong, China’s new space station, had to maneuver to avoid colliding with one Starlink satellite in July and another in October, according to a note submitted by Beijing to the United Nations space agency this month.
The note said the incidents “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station.”
“The U.S. … ignores its obligations under international treaties, posing a serious threat to the lives and safety of astronauts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing on Tuesday.
Starlink, a division of SpaceX, operates a constellation of close to 2,000 satellites that aims to provide internet access to most parts of Earth.
SpaceX is a private American company, independent of the U.S. military and civilian space agency, NASA.
But China said in its note to the U.N. that members of the Outer Space Treaty — the foundation of international space law — are also responsible for actions by their nongovernment entities.
Addressing reporters, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to respond specifically to the Chinese accusations.
“We have encouraged all countries with space programs to be responsible actors, to avoid acts that may put in danger astronauts, cosmonauts, others who are orbiting the Earth or who have the potential to,” Price said.
SpaceX has not responded to a request for comment.
Evasive maneuvers to reduce the risk of collisions in space are becoming more frequent as more objects enter Earth’s orbit, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“We’ve really noticed the increase in the number of close passes since Starlink started getting deployed,” he told AFP.
Any collision would likely “completely demolish” the Chinese space station and kill everyone on board, McDowell added.
The core module of China’s station Tiangong — meaning “heavenly palace” — entered orbit earlier this year, and it is expected to become fully operational next year.
‘Prepare to boycott Tesla’
Beijing’s complaint about Starlink prompted criticism on Chinese social media of SpaceX’s billionaire founder Musk, who is widely admired in China.
One hashtag about the topic on the Twitter-like Weibo platform racked up 90 million views Tuesday.
“How ironic that Chinese people buy Tesla, contributing large sums of money so Musk can launch Starlink, and then he (nearly) crashes into China’s space station,” one user commented.
Musk’s electric car maker Tesla sells tens of thousands of vehicles in China each month, though the firm’s reputation has taken a hit this year following a spate of crashes, scandals and data security concerns.
“Prepare to boycott Tesla,” said another Weibo user, echoing a common response in China to foreign brands perceived to be acting contrary to national interests.