Pandas Could Be Gone From US Zoos by End of 2024

Wearing an “I Love Pandas” T-shirt and clutching a panda-covered diary, 10-year-old Kelsey Lambert bubbled with excitement as she glimpsed the real thing. She and her mother, Alison, had made a special trip from San Antonio, Texas, just to watch the National Zoo’s furry rock stars  munch bamboo and roll on the grass. 

“It felt completely amazing,” Kelsey said on Friday. “My mom has always promised she would take me one day. So, we had to do it now that they’re going away.” 

The National Zoo’s three giant pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji — are set to return to China in early December with no public signs that the 50-year-old exchange agreement struck by President Richard Nixon will continue. 

National Zoo officials have remained tight-lipped about the prospects of renewing or extending the agreement, and repeated attempts to gain comment on the state of the negotiations did not receive a response. However, the public stance of the zoo has been decidedly pessimistic — treating these remaining months as the end of an era. 

‘Punitive panda diplomacy’

The zoo just finished a weeklong celebration called Panda Palooza: A Giant Farewell. 

The potential end of the National Zoo’s panda era comes amid what veteran China-watchers say is a larger trend. With diplomatic tensions running high between Beijing and a number of Western governments, China appears to be gradually pulling back its pandas from multiple Western zoos as their agreements expire. 

Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called the trend “punitive panda diplomacy,” noting that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures with no signs of their loan agreements being renewed. 

Beijing currently lends out 65 pandas to 19 countries through “cooperative research programs” with a stated mission to better protect the vulnerable species. The pandas return to China when they reach old age and any cubs born are sent to China around age 3 or 4. 

The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year. The departure of the National Zoo’s bears would mean that the only giant pandas left in America are at the Atlanta Zoo — and that loan agreement expires late next year. 

Wilder said the Chinese possibly could be “trying to send a signal.” 

He cited a litany of Chinese-American flashpoints: sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on prominent Chinese citizens and officials; restrictions on the import of Chinese semiconductors; accusations that Chinese-made fentanyl is flooding American cities; suspicion over Chinese ownership of the social media platform TikTok; and the uproar early this year over the Chinese balloon floating over America. 

Beijing, Wilder said, is convinced that “NATO and the United States are lining up against China.” 

The panda-related tension has even spilled into the hallways of the U.S. Senate. Last week, Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman complained about China buying up American farmland and added, “I mean, they’re taking back our pandas. You know, we should take back all their farmland.” 

Petition to return panda

That animosity has been at least partially shared by the public in China, where anti-American sentiments are on the rise. Those sentiments developed into a perfect panda storm earlier this year when Le Le, a male panda on loan to the zoo in Memphis, died suddenly in February at the age of 24. Pandas generally live 15 to 20 years in the wild, while those in human care often live to be around 30. 

Le Le’s unexpected death prompted an explosion on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, with widespread allegations that the Memphis Zoo had mistreated the bear and its female companion, Ya Ya. The campaign gained intensity when photos circulated on the Internet of Ya Ya looking dirty and gaunt (by panda standards) with patchy fur. 

An online petition on demanded Ya Ya be returned immediately, alleging malnourishment and deprivation of proper medical care. Slogans such as “the panda’s life matters” surfaced in China’s social media along with emotional memes pleading with authorities to rescue the bear. One particular meme depicts a miserable-looking Ya Ya gazing at a plane flying overhead with the caption: “Mama, I have worked away from home for 20 years. Have I earned enough for a plane ticket to return home?” 

The heat grew so intense that the Memphis Zoo released a statement responding to what it called “misinformation” about its pandas and stating that Ya Ya has “a chronic skin and fur condition” that “makes her hair look thin and patchy” and that Le Le died of natural causes. 

Even an official Chinese scientific delegation that visited Memphis and announced that Le Le was not mistreated and died of a heart condition failed to quell the outrage. Ya Ya was returned to China on schedule in April when the loan agreement expired and received a celebrity’s welcome at Shanghai’s airport. 

The Chinese government, which gifted the first pair of pandas — Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling — to the U.S., now leases the pandas out for a typical 10-year renewable term. The annual fee ranges from $1 million to $2 million per pair, plus mandatory costs to build and maintain facilities to house the animals. Any cub born to the pandas belongs to the Chinese government but can be leased for an additional fee until it reaches mating age. 

Over the 50 years of American panda loan agreements, the arrangement has hit more than one rough patch. In 2010, Daniel Ashe, then head of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, traveled to China to help resolve a technical bureaucratic issue that was threatening the renewal of the National Zoo’s agreement. The problem was quickly resolved, and the agreement was extended. 

“But the situation now is completely different,” said Ashe, now CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “What we’re seeing now is tensions between our governments at a much higher level, and they need to be addressed and resolved at that level.” 

Observers are holding out hope that exactly this sort of 11th-hour high-level intervention will come through. Wilder pointed to the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November as a potential forum for President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to make headlines by breaking the deadlock. And Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng has sounded semi-optimistic in his public statements. 

“I will do my utmost to do that, and here, in Aspen, there also will be (pandas),” Xie said during the Aspen Security Forum in July in Aspen, Colorado. 

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New Malaria Vaccine Could Save Thousands of Children’s Lives  

A new malaria vaccine approved Monday for use by the World Health Organization could be rolled out in African countries in the next few months, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of children’s lives in the coming years.

The new vaccine, known as R21, was developed by Britain’s Oxford University along with the Serum Institute of India. It is already in use in Ghana and Burkina Faso.

“This new approval for R21 has the potential now that vaccination can occur across sub-Saharan Africa and protect many more children at risk,” said Professor Azra Ghani, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Imperial College London.

“We estimate that if this is rolled out across the continent at the sort of coverage levels that we’ve seen in the implementation study so far, this could avert up to a third of malaria deaths in children under five,” she said.

Dr. Hanna Nohynek, chair of WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, said the R21 vaccine is expected to close the gap between supply and demand, “enabling broader and possibly unconstrained access. Malaria vaccines introduced widely have the potential of saving tens of thousands of young lives each year,” she told reporters Monday in Geneva.

African trials

The vaccine has been undergoing clinical trials in several African countries. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the approval at a press conference Monday in Geneva.

“In areas with seasonal transmission, it’s reduced symptomatic cases of malaria by 75% in the 12 months following a three-dose series of the vaccine. A fourth dose given a year after the third was shown to maintain protection,” he said.

In 2021, WHO approved the first malaria vaccine, RTS,S, made by the British pharmaceutical firm GSK.

“As a malaria researcher, I used to dream of the day when we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria. Now we have two,” Tedros told reporters.

WHO officials said there is little difference in the effectiveness of the two vaccines. However, the new R21 vaccine is cheaper to make, at around $2 to $4 a dose, with each patient needing four doses. That adds up to about half the cost of the RTS,S vaccine.

The new vaccine can also be made in much greater volumes. The Serum Institute of India is already in line to make 100 million doses a year, with plans to double that output.

Mosquito nets

Experts warn the new vaccine won’t beat malaria on its own, and other preventative measures are needed, including the use of mosquito nets.

“The children in both the vaccine arms and also the control arms [of the trials] were given nets. So, this additional efficacy of the vaccine is in the presence of this really important intervention. The second is something known as chemoprevention, that’s providing drugs to children in high-risk areas where malaria is particularly seasonal. And this is mostly in the Sahel region in west Africa,” Ghani told VOA.

Malaria burden

The World Health Organization estimates there were 247 million cases of malaria in 2021, a small increase on the previous year, and around 619,000 deaths. Ninety-five percent of cases and deaths are in Africa, and most deaths are in children under 5.

“We do hope that by introducing this new vaccine, we can really make a dent in this and get us back on track to the goals which were set by the WHO to reduce malaria by 90% by 2030,” Ghani added.

Dengue fever

WHO also approved a new vaccine Monday against dengue fever, another mosquito-borne disease common in tropical Latin American and Asian countries.

The drug, made by the Japanese multinational firm Takeda, was about 84% effective in clinical trials in preventing people from being hospitalized.

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WHO Announces 2nd Malaria Vaccine Recommendation

The World Health Organization on Monday announced the recommendation of a second malaria vaccine, with the aim of giving countries a cheaper and more readily available option to tackle the deadly disease.

Developed by Oxford University with the help of the Serum Institute of India, the new vaccine, known as R-21, will be rolled out in some African countries early next year, and expand into other countries later in 2024, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Research that has not yet undergone the usual process of scientific review suggests the three-dose vaccine to be around 75% effective. Boosters would be available for continued protection.

“Almost exactly two years ago, WHO recommended the broad use of the world’s first malaria vaccine called RTS,S” also known as Mosquirix, Tedros told a briefing in Geneva.

Developed by British pharmaceutical GSK, Mosquirix requires four doses, is only about 30% effective, and fades within months. The WHO says there is not enough data available to confirm whether the newly developed Oxford vaccine will be more effective.

The Serum Institute has said it could produce 200 million doses of the R-21 vaccine per year, while GSK is able to produce only 15 million doses of Mosquirix annually.

The aim of widespread rollout of the vaccine would be to significantly curb infection rates and spread of the disease. However, experts have urged the public not to see vaccines as a replacement for other preventative measures, such as bed nets and the spraying of insecticides.

The WHO also issued a recommendation on a Takeda Pharmaceuticals-produced vaccine against dengue, a disease prevalent in subtropical climates which, like malaria, is spread by mosquitoes.

Takeda Pharmaceuticals’ vaccine was shown to be effective in all four stereotypes of the virus in previously infected individuals, but it showed a lower performance in some stereotypes of people not previously infected.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Nobel Prize Awarded to mRNA COVID-19 Vaccine Scientists

Two scientists who jointly worked on the ground-breaking technology behind some of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize for medicine, one of the most prestigious accolades in the field.

Hungarian American scientist Katalin Kariko and her American colleague, Drew Weissman, began working on so-called “mRNA” technology in the early 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania. Their breakthrough was crucial in developing the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccines, which have proved among the most effective in tackling COVID-19.

Lifesaving vaccines

The Nobel Prize in Medicine Committee in Sweden said the discovery had helped defeat one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.

“mRNA vaccines, together with other COVID-19 vaccines, have been administered over 13 billion times. Together, they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden, and enabled societies to open up again,” Nobel committee member Rickard Sandberg told reporters following the announcement Monday.

“mRNA technologies are now being used to develop vaccines against other infections. The technology may also be used for therapeutic protein delivery and cancer treatment in the hope of further improving human health,” Sandberg said.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated the Nobel Prize winners Monday. “Today is a great day for health, a great day for science and a great day for vaccines,” he told reporters in Geneva.

mRNA Technology

mRNA — or messenger RNA — instructs cells to make proteins that match those found on the surface of pathogens, like the coronavirus. The body sees these as invaders and makes antibodies and T-cells to attack them; thus, training it to deal with a real virus in the future.

Kariko and Weissman first met while lining up to use a photocopier machine at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s.

By 2005, the pair had worked out a way to stop the immune system from attacking RNA made in the laboratory, previously seen as a major hurdle against its use.

Kariko said Monday they made a good team.

“I was the RNA person and Drew was [the] immunologist, and we educated each other. And together we learned [from] each other and developed mRNA,” she told The Associated Press.

Future applications

Weissman said the future potential for mRNA was incredible.

“We’ve been thinking for years about everything that we could do with RNA, and now it’s here,” he told AP.

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the development of mRNA technology, said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

“Prior to COVID, people knew that work was being done on mRNA vaccines,” he told VOA. “But I don’t think we were ever close to getting real-world use of the technology. Now that it’s been shown to work — to work probably better than many if not most other vaccine types — I think is a big boost to it, and there are a substantial number of potential uses of this technology.

“Then there is the speed of the development of this technology,” he added. “It’s a lot easier now and a lot quicker to develop new vaccines.”

Cancer hope

The chair of the Nobel Committee for Medicine, Gunilla Karlsson-Hedestam, expressed hope that mRNA technology could one day be used to fight cancer.

“Vaccines that are targeted towards specific kinds of tumors, maybe even to specific individuals or personalized cancers. That will become an area that this platform is really ideally suited for, because of the flexibility,” she told Reuters.

Kariko and Weissman share the prize of $1 million and will receive their medals at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.

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Endangered Sumatran Rhino Born in Indonesia

An endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, the smallest and hairiest of the five extant rhino species, was born in Indonesia last week in a conservation area, the government said Monday. 

Weighing about 27 kilograms (59.52 lbs.), the yet-to-be named female calf, was born Saturday at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) facility in Way Kambas National Park, Lampung province in the tropical Southeast Asian country. 

Covered in black hair, the newborn stood about 45 minutes after her birth. On the next day, she began to walk around the jungle, the environment ministry said in a statement. 

The mother, 22-year-old Ratu, was in a healthy condition, the ministry said. 

Ratu is a native of Lampung, while her mate, Andalas, aged 23, was born at the Cincinnati Zoo, in the midwestern U.S. state of Ohio, but has since moved to the same park as Ratu. 

The pair previously had Delilah in 2016 and Andatu in 2021. 

“This is a happy news, not only for Indonesia but for the world,” Indonesia’s environment minister, Siti Nurbaya, said in the statement. 

There were just 80 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, based on a 2019 assessment of threatened species by the Indonesian government. 

The mammal, also known by the scientific name, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, is the only Asian rhino with two horns and can grow up to 1.5 meters-tall, weighing between 500 kg to 960 kg (1,102 lbs. to 2,116 lbs.). 

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Deadly Dengue Outbreak in Bangladesh 

More than 1,000 people have died from dengue fever in Bangladesh this year, making 2023 the deadliest year due to dengue, since the disease was first detected in the country, according to government figures.

The Directorate General of Health Services said that more than 200,000 dengue cases were recorded this year.

In a recent 24-hour period, nearly 3,000 were admitted to hospitals because of dengue, the Daily Star newspaper said.

The Mayo Clinic says dengue fever is “a mosquito-borne illness that occurs in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. Mild dengue fever causes a high fever and flu-like symptoms. The severe form of dengue fever, also called dengue hemorrhagic fever, can cause serious bleeding, a sudden drop in blood pressure [shock] and death.”

“All our efforts to control the mosquito population have been ineffective,” Mushtaq Hussain, a consultant at Bangladesh’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, told The Daily Star. He said the extended monsoon season is another contributing factor to the high case load.

Some information for this report came from AFP.

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Nobel in Medicine Goes to 2 Scientists Whose Work Enabled Creation of COVID-19 Vaccines

Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that enabled the development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

The award was given to Katalin Karikó, a professor at Sagan’s University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Drew Weissman, who performed his prizewinning research together with Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Through their groundbreaking findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the panel that awarded the prize said.

Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly, announced the prize and said both scientists were “overwhelmed” by news of the prize when he contacted them shortly before the announcement.

Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, part of the panel that chose the winners, said of their work that “in terms of saving lives, especially in the early phase of the pandemic, it was very important.”

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was won last year by Swedish scientist Svante Paabo for discoveries in human evolution that unlocked secrets of Neanderthal DNA which provided key insights into our immune system, including our vulnerability to severe COVID-19.

The award was the second in the family. Paabo’s father, Sune Bergstrom, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1982.

Nobel announcements continue with the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9.

The prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.

The prize money was raised by 1 million kronor this year because of the plunging value of the Swedish currency.

The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The prestigious peace prize is handed out in Oslo, according to his wishes, while the other award ceremony is held in Stockholm.

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South Sudan Faces Growing Health and Hunger Crisis   

The World Health Organization warns that soaring rates of severe malnutrition, acute hunger, and deteriorating health conditions are threatening the lives and well-being of millions of people in South Sudan with the situation set to worsen as the climate crisis kicks in.

“South Sudan is a country where you see the overlap and compounding impact of conflict, climate crisis, hunger crisis, and disease outbreaks that have been going on for several years,” said Liesbeth Aelbrecht, WHO incident manager for the Horn of Africa. “Three in four South Sudanese need humanitarian assistance this year; two in three are facing crisis levels of hunger,” she said. “And these numbers are only getting worse.”

The United Nations reports 6.3 million South Sudanese are suffering from acute hunger and more than 9 million of the country’s population of 12 million people depend on humanitarian assistance.

As conditions continue to deteriorate, the World Health Organization reports 500,000 more people this year will need international aid. Among the most vulnerable are the children.

Aelbrecht said, “The numbers of children with severe malnutrition needing medical intervention have been higher this year than at any point in the last four years,” adding that almost 150,000 children had been treated for severe acute malnutrition so far this year.

She warned the humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan will worsen with the onset of El Niño, a climate phenomenon that can cause temperatures to rise and excess rains.

“Flooding and hunger and drought will increase hunger even further. But it is also very likely to increase the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and dengue and water-borne diseases,” she said, adding that malaria is one of the five main causes of death in South Sudan.

Aelbrecht recently returned from a mission to South Sudan, where she visited so-called stabilization centers for severely malnourished children in the capital, Juba, and in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.

Speaking Friday from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to journalists in Geneva, Aelbrecht said she watched doctors trying to resuscitate babies on life support. In one of these centers, she said she saw a baby pass away in her mother’s arms.

“I quote figures. I give you percentages, but behind those figures there are just faces. I am standing there as a bystander and watching this child die of hunger and of preventable diseases,” she said. “Even after doing humanitarian work for 25 years now, it does remain one of the most difficult things to do.”

She said the international community must not act as a bystander but help South Sudan during this time of immense need. Since conflict in Sudan erupted in April, she said there has been a large inflow of refugees and returnees from Sudan, putting an even greater strain on South Sudan’s overstretched health system.

“In fact, one out of four of all the people who had fled Sudan, 1.2 million people who fled Sudan are being hosted now in South Sudan,” she said.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports humanitarian operations in both Sudan and South Sudan are severely underfunded. It says lack of security in these countries is also a huge hindrance to the delivery of aid to the millions in need.

“South Sudan and Sudan are the world’s most dangerous countries for aid workers,” said Jens Laerke, OCHA spokesman.

Of 71 aid worker deaths recorded so far this year, he said 22 were in South Sudan and 19 in Sudan.

“The victims are overwhelming local humanitarians working on the front lines of the response,” he said.

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New Zealand PM Tests Positive for COVID 2 Weeks Before Election

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has tested positive for COVID-19 and will work remotely while isolating, his office said Sunday, just two weeks before a general election in which his Labour party is struggling.

The positive test will temporarily sideline Hipkins in the campaign for the Oct. 14 election. Labour has been sliding in the opinion polls, with the center-right National party leading by 31.9% to 26.5% in a recent survey.

Hipkins has cold and flu symptoms that began Saturday and will isolate for five days or until he returned a negative test, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

“He will continue with engagements he can undertake via Zoom,” the statement said.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni would stand in for Hipkins at a Samoan church service in Auckland on Sunday, a spokesperson said.

“Thanks to all of Labour’s great volunteers and supporters who I know will keep our campaign going in my absence,” Hipkins said on his official Facebook page. “There’s a lot at stake this election, and I’ll be working doubly hard when I can get back out there to make sure Labour is reelected.”

The prime minister’s office said further updates on his schedule “will be provided in due course.”

The government removed its last COVID restrictions in August, but health authorities still recommend that people stay home for five days if feeling unwell or if they have tested positive.

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New Report Gives Mexicans Hope for Long-Awaited Mine Cleanup

Nine years after a massive waste spill from a copper mine in the northern Mexican border state of Sonora, locals are still suffering from “alarming” levels of soil, air and water pollution, Mexico’s Environment Department said Thursday.

Summarizing a 239-page report, officials also confirmed, using satellite images, that the spill was not solely caused by dramatic rainfall, as was initially reported, but by the “inadequate design” of a dam at Buenavista del Cobre mine, owned by the country’s largest copper producer, Grupo México.

Locals and environmental advocates say the report offers the clearest view yet of the catastrophic scale of the accident and, with it, new hope that Grupo México may finally be held financially accountable after almost a decade of legal battles and broken promises.

“We expect that, with this new document, we’ll have an easy path for getting the money,” said Luis Franco, a community coordinator with regional advocacy group PODER. “At the moment, I’m happy but at the same time I know this is just the beginning for the people of Sonora,” he said. “We have to keep fighting.”

On Aug. 6, 2014, after heavy rainfall, 40 million liters of acidified copper sulfate flooded from a waste reservoir at Buenavista mine into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, just under 100 kilometers from the border city of Nogales, Sonora.

After the spill, Grupo México first agreed to give 1.2 billion pesos (about $68 million) to a recovery fund, but in 2017 that trust was closed and the remaining funds returned to the mining company, PODER claims. After a legal battle, the trust was reopened three years later but, said Franco, without any new funding.

Mexico’s environmental secretary María Luisa Albores González insisted Thursday during a news briefing that the report was solely “technical,” not “ideological,” but added that the trust would remain open until 2026.

“We in this institution do not accept said trust is closed,” said Albores González.

In another report earlier this year Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change calculated the total cost of the spill at over 20 billion pesos ($1.1 billion), more than 16 times the size of the original support fund.

“Under no circumstances” have locals been given enough money to recover, according to the report. “Neither the amount paid for the fine, nor the compensation given to the Sonora River Trust cover the direct, indirect or cumulative effects on the population, the ecosystem or the economy.”

The initial fund promised to open 36 water treatment stations and a toxicology clinic. But according to the Sonora River Basin Committees, a group of locals from the eight polluted townships, only one water station is open and the clinic has long been abandoned.

Unsafe levels of arsenic, lead and mercury have been recorded across over 250 square kilometers around the spill. Across the Sonoran townships of Ures, Arizpe, Baviácora, Aconchi, Banamichi, Cananea, Huépac and San Felipe de Jesús, locals have complained of health risks and decreased productivity in their farms and ranches.

In what officials described as one of their most “alarming” findings, 93% of soil samples from the city of Cananea did not meet international requirements for arsenic levels.

Adrián Pedrozo Acuña, director general for the Mexican Institute for Water Technology, said the pollution had also impacted the region’s drinking water. “The results presented here show very clearly that there is a safety or health problem in the water the population consumes,” he said.

Franco, who lives in the nearby city of Hermosillo, said this brings the most urgency for communities in which many cannot afford to buy bottled water.

Since the spill, Buenavista del Cobre has continued to operate — and grown in size. In the years immediately before the accident production increased threefold, according to Pedrozo. By 2020 it had grown half as big again, in what he described as “chronic overexploitation” of the area’s water supplies.

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FDA to Regulate Thousands of Lab Tests That Have Long Skirted Oversight

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday laid out a proposal to begin regulating laboratory medical tests, a multibillion-dollar industry that the agency says poses a growing risk to patients because of potentially inaccurate results.

The proposed rule would end decades of regulatory ambiguity and formally bring thousands of tests performed in large laboratories under FDA oversight. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said the change will help ensure tests used to diagnose cancer, heart disease and many other conditions are safe, accurate and reliable.

“A growing number of clinical diagnostic tests are being offered as laboratory-developed tests without assurance that they work,” Califf said in a statement. He added that the agency has long worried that many tests offered by laboratories are not as accurate or reliable as those that undergo FDA review.

Here’s a look at the history and background of the testing issue:

What are laboratory-developed tests?

Most Americans are familiar with medical tests like those used to screen for COVID-19, strep throat and other health conditions. Those tests are developed by a handful of large manufacturers that undergo FDA review before selling their test kits to hospitals, doctors offices or pharmacies.

The tests targeted by the FDA’s latest action are developed and used by high-tech laboratories, including those at academic medical centers and companies such as Quest Diagnostics. They include tests for complex diseases like cancer, as well as simpler conditions like high cholesterol and sexually transmitted infections.

Over time, laboratory-developed tests have grown into a multibillion-dollar nationwide business, with labs processing thousands of blood, urine and other samples per week from hospitals and clinics. Others advertise directly to consumers — including some claiming to measure the risk of developing ailments like Alzheimer’s and autism.

Laboratory-developed tests have long skirted FDA oversight, though the agency has maintained that it has the authority to step in. The debate over regulating the space stretches back to the 1990s, with several government advisory groups recommending greater FDA oversight.

Why does the FDA want to regulate them now?

Many lab-developed tests are staples of medical care, used to make important decisions about pregnancy, nutrition and many other health issues.

FDA officials have long voiced concerns about the accuracy of some tests, pointing to patients who have received inaccurate results for heart disease, Lyme disease, cancer and other conditions. Inaccurate tests can lead to patients getting an incorrect diagnosis, skipping treatments or receiving unnecessary medication or surgery.

More than a decade ago, the agency drafted tougher guidelines for the industry, but they were never finalized.

The tests attracted new scrutiny with the downfall of Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was sentenced to prison last year for misleading investors about the potential of her company’s blood testing technology.

What do test makers say?

The laboratory industry has long argued that FDA regulation would stifle their ability to quickly innovate and develop new tests. They also say that additional federal regulation is unnecessary because it would duplicate existing requirements.

Under a quirk of federal law, testing laboratories are overseen by the same agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid, the government health plans for seniors, the disabled and the poor. Inspectors evaluate the general conditions and procedures at labs, but not specific tests or the claims used to market them.

Lawmakers in Congress drafted a bill last year — backed by FDA officials — that would have given the FDA explicit authority to regulate high-risk tests. But the measure failed to pass the House or the Senate amid opposition by testing industry lobbyists.

What is the FDA proposing?

Under the new proposal, FDA would gradually phase in tighter regulation of lab tests over five years. The agency is considering exempting some existing tests from review but is seeking public input on its approach. At the end of the process, most new tests would be subject to FDA standards and regulatory review before launching.

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As Alpine Glaciers Disappear, New Landscapes Take Their Place

In pockets of Europe’s Alpine mountains, glaciers are abundant enough that ski resorts operate above the snow and ice.

Ski lifts, resorts, cabins and huts dot the landscape — and have done so for decades. But glaciers are also one of the most obvious and early victims of human-caused climate change, and as they shrink year by year, the future of the mountain ecosystems and the people who enjoy them will look starkly different.

Glaciers — centuries of compacted snow and ice — are disappearing at an alarming rate. Swiss glaciers have lost 10% of their volume since 2021, and some glaciers are predicted to disappear entirely in the next few years.

At the Freigerferner glacier in Austria, melting means the glacier has split into two and hollowed out as warm air streamed through the glacier base, exacerbating the thaw.

Gaisskarferner, another glacier that forms part of a ski resort, is only connected to the rest of the snow and ice by sections of glacier that were saved over the summer with protective sheets to shield them from the sun.

But the losses go beyond a shorter ski season and glacier mass.

Andrea Fischer, a glaciologist with the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said the rate of glacier loss can tell the world more about the state of the climate globally and how urgent curbing human-caused warming is.

“The loss of glaciers is not the most dangerous thing about climate change,” said Fischer. “The most dangerous thing about climate change is the effect on ecosystems, on natural hazards, and those processes are much harder to see. The glaciers just teach us how to see climate change.”

From a vantage point above the mountains in a light aircraft, the changing landscape is obvious. The glaciers are noticeably smaller and fewer, and bare rock lies in their place.

Much of the thawing is already locked in, so that even immediate and drastic cuts to planet-warming emissions can’t save the glaciers from disappearing or shrinking in the short term.

While the extent of glacier melt can create awareness and concern for the climate, “being only concerned does not change anything,” Fischer said.

She urged instead that concern should be channeled into “a positive attitude toward designing a new future,” where warming can successfully be curbed to stop the most detrimental effects of climate change.

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Inside Scientists’ Mission to Save US Wine Industry From Climate Change

The U.S. West Coast produces over 90% of America’s wine, but the region is also prone to wildfires — a combustible combination that spelled disaster for the industry in 2020 and one that scientists are scrambling to neutralize.

Sample a good wine and you might get notes of oak or red fruit. But sip on wine made from grapes that were penetrated by smoke, and it could taste like someone dumped the contents of an ashtray into your glass.

Wine experts from three West Coast universities are working together to meet the threat, including developing spray coatings to protect grapes, pinpointing the elusive compounds that create that nasty ashy taste, and deploying smoke sensors to vineyards to better understand smoke behavior.

The U.S. government is funding their research with millions of dollars.

Wineries are also taking steps to protect their product and brand.

The risk to America’s premier wine-making regions — where wildfires caused billions of dollars in losses in 2020 — is growing, with climate change deepening drought and overgrown forests becoming tinderboxes.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, grapes are the highest-value crop in the United States, with 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) of grape-bearing land, 96% of it on the West Coast.

Winemakers around the world are already adapting to climate change, including by moving their vineyards to cooler zones and planting varieties that do better in drought and heat. Wildfires pose an additional and more immediate risk being tackled by scientists from Oregon State University, Washington State University and the University of California, Davis.

“What’s at stake is the ability to continue to make wine in areas where smoke exposures might be more common,” said Tom Collins, a wine scientist at Washington State University.

Researcher Cole Cerrato recently stood in Oregon State University’s vineyard, nestled below forested hills near the village of Alpine, as he turned on a fan to push smoke from a Weber grill through a dryer vent hose. The smoke emerged onto a row of grapes enclosed in a makeshift greenhouse made of taped-together plastic sheets.

Previously, grapes exposed to smoke in that setup were made into wine by Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor leading Oregon State’s efforts, and her researchers.

They found sulfur-containing compounds, thiophenols, in the smoke-impacted wine and determined they contributed to the ashy flavor, along with “volatile phenols,” which Australian researchers identified as factors more than a decade ago. Bush fires have long impacted Australia’s wine industry. Up in Washington state, Collins confirmed that the sulfur compounds were found in the wine that had been exposed to smoke in the Oregon vineyard but weren’t in samples that had no smoke exposure.

The scientists want to find out how thiophenols, which aren’t detectable in wildfire smoke, appear in smoke-impacted wine, and learn how to eliminate them.

“There’s still a lot of very interesting chemistry and very interesting research, to start looking more into these new compounds,” Cerrato said. “We just don’t have the answers yet.”

Wine made with tainted grapes can be so awful that it can’t be marketed. If it does go on shelves, a winemaker’s reputation could be ruined — a risk that few are willing to take.

When record wildfires in 2020 blanketed the West Coast in brown smoke, some California wineries refused to accept grapes unless they had been tested. But most growers couldn’t find places to analyze their grapes because the laboratories were overwhelmed.

The damage to the industry in California alone was $3.7 billion, according to an analysis that Jon Moramarco of the consulting firm bw166 conducted for industry groups. The losses stemmed mostly from wineries having to forego future wine sales.

“But really what drove it was, you know, a lot of the impact was in Napa [Valley], an area of some of the highest priced grapes, highest priced wines in the U.S.,” Moramarco said, adding that if a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes is ruined, “you lose probably 720 bottles of wine. If it is worth $100 a bottle, it adds up very quickly.”

Between 165,000 to 325,000 tons of California wine grapes were left to wither on the vine in 2020 due to actual or perceived wildfire smoke exposure, said Natalie Collins, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

She said she hasn’t heard of any growers quitting the business due to wildfire impacts, but, “Many of our members are having an extremely difficult time securing insurance due to the fire risk in their region, and if they are able to secure insurance, the rate is astronomically high.”

Some winemakers are trying techniques to reduce smoke impact, such as passing the wine through a membrane or treating it with carbon, but that can also rob a wine of its appealing nuances. Blending impacted grapes with other grapes is another option. Limiting skin contact by making rosé wine instead of red can lower the concentration of smoke flavor compounds.

Collins, over at Washington State University, has been experimenting with spraying fine-powdered kaolin or bentonite, which are clays, mixed with water onto wine grapes so it absorbs materials that are in smoke. The substance would then be washed off before harvest. Oregon State University is developing a spray-on coating.

Meanwhile, dozens of smoke sensors have been installed in vineyards in the three states, financed in part by a $7.65 million USDA grant.

“The instruments will be used to measure for smoke marker compounds,” said Anita Oberholster, leader of UC Davis’ efforts. She said such measurements are essential to develop mitigation strategies and determine smoke exposure risk.

Greg Jones, who runs his family’s Abacela winery in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and is a director of the Oregon Wine Board, applauds the scientists’ efforts.

“This research has really gone a long way to help us try to find: Are there ways in which we can take fruit from the vineyard and quickly find out if it has the potential compounds that would lead to smoke-impacted wine?” Jones said.

Collins predicts success.

“I think it’s increasingly clear that we’re not likely to find a magic bullet,” he said. “But we will find a set of strategies.”

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Food Prices Rising Due to Climate Change, El Nino, and Russia’s War

How do you cook a meal when a staple ingredient is unaffordable? 

This question is playing out in households around the world as they face shortages of essential foods like rice, cooking oil and onions. That is because countries have imposed restrictions on the food they export to protect their own supplies from the combined effect of the war in Ukraine, El Nino’s threat to food production and increasing damage from climate change. 

For Caroline Kyalo, a 28-year-old who works in a salon in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, it was a question of trying to figure out how to cook for her two children without onions. Restrictions on the export of the vegetable by neighboring Tanzania has led prices to triple. 

Kyalo initially tried to use spring onions instead, but those also got too expensive. As did the prices of other necessities, like cooking oil and corn flour. 

“I just decided to be cooking once a day,” she said. 

Despite the East African country’s fertile lands and large workforce, the high cost of growing and transporting produce and the worst drought in decades led to a drop in local production. Plus, people preferred red onions from Tanzania because they were cheaper and lasted longer. By 2014, Kenya was getting half of its onions from its neighbor, according to a U.N. Food Agriculture Organization report. 

At Nairobi’s major food market, Wakulima, the prices for onions from Tanzania were the highest in seven years, seller Timothy Kinyua said. 

Some traders have adjusted by getting produce from Ethiopia, and others have switched to selling other vegetables, but Kinyua is sticking to onions. 

“It’s something we can’t cook without,” he said. 

Tanzania’s onion limits this year are part of the “contagion” of food restrictions from countries spooked by supply shortages and increased demand for their produce, said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

Globally, 41 food export restrictions from 19 countries are in effect, ranging from outright bans to taxes, according to the institute. 

India banned shipments of some rice earlier this year, resulting in a shortfall of roughly a fifth of global exports. Neighboring Myanmar, the world’s fifth-biggest rice supplier, responded by stopping some exports of the grain. 

India also restricted shipments of onions after erratic rainfall — fueled by climate change — damaged crops. This sent prices in neighboring Bangladesh soaring, and authorities are scrambling to find new sources for the vegetable. 

Elsewhere, a drought in Spain took its toll on olive oil production. As European buyers turned to Turkey, olive oil prices soared in the Mediterranean country, prompting authorities there to restrict exports. Morocco, also coping with a drought ahead of its recent deadly earthquake, stopped exporting onions, potatoes and tomatoes in February. 

This isn’t the first time food prices have been in a tumult. Prices for staples like rice and wheat more than doubled in 2007-2008, but the world had ample food stocks it could draw on and was able to replenish those in subsequent years. 

But that cushion has shrunk in the past two years, and climate change means food supplies could very quickly run short of demand and spike prices, said Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“I think increased volatility is certainly the new normal,” he said. 

Food prices worldwide, experts say, will be determined by the interplay of three factors: how El Nino plays out and how long it lasts, whether bad weather damages crops and prompts more export restrictions, and the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

The warring nations are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food, especially to developing nations where food prices have risen and people are going hungry. 

An El Nino is a natural phenomenon that shifts global weather patterns and can result in extreme weather, ranging from drought to flooding. While scientists believe climate change is making this El Nino stronger, its exact impact on food production is impossible to glean until after it’s occurred. 

The early signs are worrying. 

India experienced its driest August in a century, and Thailand is facing a drought that has sparked fears about the world’s sugar supplies. The two are the largest exporters of sugar after Brazil. 

Less rainfall in India also dashed food exporters’ hopes that the new rice harvest in October would end the trade restrictions and stabilize prices. 

“It doesn’t look like [rice] prices will be coming down anytime soon,” said Aman Julka, director of Wesderby India Private Limited. 

Most at risk are nations that rely heavily on food imports. The Philippines, for instance, imports 14% of its food, according to the World Bank, and storm damage to crops could mean further shortfalls. Rice prices surged 8.7% in August from a year earlier, more than doubling from 4.2% in July. 

Food store owners in the capital of Manila are losing money, with prices increasing rapidly since September 1 and customers who used to snap up supplies in bulk buying smaller quantities. 

“We cannot save money anymore. It is like we just work so that we can have food daily,” said Charina Em, 32, who owns a store in the Trabajo market. 

Cynthia Esguerra, 66, has had to choose between food or medicine for her high cholesterol, gallstones and urinary issues. Even then, she can only buy half a kilo of rice at a time — insufficient for her and her husband. 

“I just don’t worry about my sickness. I leave it up to God. I don’t buy medicines anymore, I just put it there to buy food, our loans,” she said. 

The climate risks aren’t limited to rice but apply to anything that needs stable rainfall to thrive, including livestock, said Elyssa Kaur Ludher, a food security researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Vegetables, fruit trees and chickens will all face heat stress, raising the risk that food will spoil, she said. 

This constricts food supplies further, and if grain exports from Ukraine aren’t resolved, there will be additional shortages in feed for livestock and fertilizer, Ludher said. 

Russia’s July withdrawal from a wartime agreement that ensured ships could safely transport Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea was a blow to global food security, largely leaving only expensive and divisive routes through Europe for the war-torn country’s exports. 

The conflict also has hurt Ukraine’s agricultural production, with analysts saying farmers aren’t planting nearly as much corn and wheat. 

“This will affect those who already feel food affordability stresses,” Ludher said. 

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Millions Travel in China in 1st Big Autumn Holiday Since End of Zero-COVID

Many millions of Chinese tourists are expected to travel within their country, splurging on hotels, tours, attractions and meals in a boost to the economy during the 8-day autumn holiday period that began Friday.

This year’s holiday began with the Mid-Autumn Festival on Friday and also includes the Oct. 1 National Day. The public holidays end Oct. 6.

Typically hundreds of millions of Chinese travel at home and overseas during such holidays. The eight-day-long holiday is the longest week of public holidays since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted in December. Outbound tourism has lagged domestic travel, with flight capacities lagging behind pre-pandemic levels.

Big cities like the capital, Beijing, Shanghai, and southern cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou are favored destinations. Smaller cities, such as Chengdu and Chongqing in southwest China also are popular.

All that travel is a boon for the world’s No. 2 economy: During the week-long May holiday this year, 274 million tourists spent 148 billion yuan ($20.3 billion).

“Over the last few years with the pandemic, there’s been really strong pent-up demand,” said Boon Sian Chai, managing director at the online travel booking platform Group. Both domestic and outbound travel have “recovered significantly,” but travel within China accounted for nearly three-quarters of total bookings, Chai said.

China Railway said it was expecting about 190 million passenger trips during the Sept. 27-Oct. 8 travel rush, more than double the number of trips last year and an increase from 2019, before the pandemic started.

In Guangzhou and Shenzhen, extra overnight high-speed trains will operate for 11 days to cope with a travel surge during the long holiday, according to the China Railway Guangzhou Group Co., Ltd.

Another 21 million passengers are expected to travel by air during the holiday, with an average of about 17,000 flights per day, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. More than 80% of those flights are domestic routes.

Jia Jianqiang, CEO of Liurenyou International Travel Agency, said Chinese are splurging on more luxurious travel.

“Many people are now also inclined towards more customized, high-end tours compared to the large group tours that were popular (before the pandemic),” Jia said.

For many Chinese, long public holidays such as Golden Week are the best time to travel, since paid vacation can be as few as five days a year.

“Most Chinese don’t have long holidays, so this time of the year is when everyone can take the longest break and the only time to travel for fun,” said Fu Zhengshuai, an IT engineer and photography enthusiast who often travels alone to remote areas in China such as far western Qinghai and Xinjiang.

The downside of traveling during such big holidays is that everyone else is out there, too, and prices of tickets to attractions, food, and accommodations are high, Fu said.

For student Ma Yongle, traveling during big holidays means long waiting times, huge crowds, and heavy traffic. Train tickets often are sold out.

“I saw more people than scenery. I spent longer time waiting than eating. Train tickets were sold out quickly and traffic was heavy,” Ma said. “More time was wasted and little was left for enjoying the scenery, which spoiled my mood.”

She has since adopted what is referred in China as a “special forces travel trend” where tourists don’t stay overnight at a destination, but only take day trips to save money.

A growing but still relatively small number of Chinese are venturing abroad. According to data, outbound travel orders this year are nearly 20 times those during last year’s autumn holidays, when many pandemic restrictions were still in place. Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia are popular destinations, as are more distant places such as Australia and the United Kingdom.

Overseas travel is bound to bounce back, Chai said.

“If you look at flight capacity, it has only recovered to about half of pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “As flight capacity starts to pick up toward the end of this year and next year, outbound travel will continue to increase.”

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Thousands of Women March in Latin America Calling for Abortion Rights

The streets of cities across Latin America were bathed in green Thursday as tens of thousands of women marched to commemorate International Safe Abortion Day.

Latin American feminists have spent decades fighting to roll back strict prohibitions, although there are still few countries with a total ban, like El Salvador and Dominican Republic.

In Mexico, marchers celebrated the recent decision by Mexico’s Supreme Court to decriminalize abortions at the federal level. In Argentina, marchers had a more somber tone, worrying that the strength of a populist far-right presidential candidate going into elections in October could signal peril after years of work by feminists.

Abortion was the heart of the protests, but crowds of women also raised alarm about the region’s high rates of gender-based violence as well as abuses aimed at LGBTQ+ communities.

Green smoke floated over a roaring crowd of thousands of women in Mexico City who waved green handkerchiefs, which have become the symbol of Latin America’s “green wave” abortion movement. Signs reading “It’s my decision” and “Free and safe abortions for everyone” speckled the crowd.

The march came just weeks after Mexico’s Supreme Court knocked down all federal criminal penalties for abortion, ruling that national laws prohibiting the procedure are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights. The move will also require federal health institutions to offer abortion to anyone who requests it.

“It’s absolutely an achievement,” said Fernanda Castro, an organizer at GIRE, the women’s rights organization that brought forward the lawsuit before Mexico’s high court. “And now we have another even more important fight — decriminalizing abortion in the minds of the people.”

While 20 Mexican states still have abortion bans on the books, the decision by the Supreme Court greatly expanded access to the procedure in a country where reproductive laws were long defined by its religious and conservative roots.

Latin American feminists have spent decades fighting to roll back strict prohibitions.

Mexico City was the first Mexican jurisdiction to decriminalize abortion 15 years ago. The trend picked up speed in Argentina, which in 2020 legalized the procedure. In 2022, Colombia, a highly conservative country, did the same.

Brazil may be next. Currently, abortion is a crime with exceptions for cases of rape and birth defects in a fetus, but a case before the nation’s Supreme Court could potentially decriminalize the procedure up to 12 weeks of gestation.

“The green wave is going to keep growing and (Brazilian women) are not alone,” Castro said.

While marches in Mexico and other parts of the region were celebratory, in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, the demonstration was marked with unease.

As elections loom in October, many in the crowd marching toward the Congress building fear their legal gains may soon get rolled back with the rise of right-wing candidate Javier Milei.

Now the leading candidate in polls, Milei, has spoken out against abortion, compulsory sex education in schools and free medical coverage for sex change treatments, among other issues. If he wins, he has promised to hold a referendum to repeal the decriminalization of abortion nationwide approved by Congress in 2022.

“More than winning more rights, this is about protecting them. The most important thing is to protect what’s already there,” said Sara Rivas, an art student. “Milei is a denialist. We’ve seen him deny everything from femicides to the years-long struggle that has brought us to this green wave.”

Still, Rivas, who carried a sign with a drawing of Milei hanging from a green bandana, said women will turn to the same approach they have used for decades to press for their goals.

“Our answer is that we are here. We are not going to leave the streets, because these gains, we conquered them in the streets,” she said.

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FDA Advisers Vote Against Experimental ALS Treatment Pushed by Patients

Federal health advisers voted overwhelmingly against an experimental treatment for Lou Gehrig’s disease at a Wednesday meeting prompted by years of patient efforts seeking access to the unproven therapy.

The panel of Food and Drug Administration experts voted 17-1 that drugmaker Brainstorm’s stem cell-based treatment has not been shown effective for patients with the fatal, muscle-wasting disease known as ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. One panel member abstained from voting.

While the FDA is not bound by the vote, it largely aligns with the agency’s own strikingly negative review released earlier this week, in which staff scientists described Brainstorm’s application as “scientifically incomplete” and “grossly deficient.”

“Creating false hope can be considered a moral injury and the use of statistical magic or manipulation to provide false hope is problematic,” said Lisa Lee, a bioethics and research integrity expert from Virginia Tech who voted against the treatment. The lone positive vote came from a panel member representing patients.

Wednesday’s public meeting was essentially a longshot attempt by Brainstorm and the ALS community to sway FDA’s thinking on the treatment, dubbed NurOwn.

Brainstorm’s single 200-patient study failed to show that NurOwn extended life, slowed disease or improved patient mobility. But the FDA agreed to convene the panel of outside advisers after ALS patients and advocates submitted a 30,000-signature petition seeking a public meeting.

In the last year, the FDA has approved two new drugs for ALS, after a nearly 20-year drought of new options. The approvals followed intense lobbying by advocacy groups.

FDA leaders have recently emphasized a new level of “regulatory flexibility” when reviewing experimental treatments for fatal, hard-to-treat conditions, including ALS, Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy.

But the agency appears unwilling to overlook the failed study results and missing information in Brainstorm’s submission, including key details on manufacturing and quality control needed to establish the product’s safety.

“It really is a disease that needs a safe and effective treatment and there are a lot of other prospects out there that we need to encourage. Approving one like this would get in the way of that,” said Dr. Kenneth Fischbeck of the National Institutes of Health.

ALS destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord needed to walk, talk, swallow and — eventually — breathe. Most people die within three to five years of their first symptoms.

More than a dozen people spoke during a public comment session Wednesday, including ALS patients, their family members and physicians who implored FDA to grant approval. Several speakers presented before-and-after videos showing patients who participated in Brainstorm’s study walking, climbing stairs and performing other tasks that they attributed to NurOwn.

“When Matt is on NurOwn it helps him, when he’s off of it he gets worse,” said Mitze Klingenberg, speaking on behalf of her son, Matt Klingenberg, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2018.

The FDA is expected to issue a decision on the therapy by December 8.

Israel-based Brainstorm Cell Therapeutics’ stock price has lost more than 90% of its value over the last year, falling to 39 cents per share before being halted ahead of Wednesday’s FDA meeting.

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Climate Change Exacerbating Sudan’s Instability, Experts Say

Environmental experts are ringing alarm bells, saying decades-long climate and environmental changes in Sudan have exacerbated social and political instability, fueling the monthslong conflict in the country centered around access to land, water and other vital resources.

The current conflict in Sudan, rooted in global geopolitics and the historical legacy of the previous leadership of now-deposed authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir, is increasingly being attributed to climate change.

In a May report, Practical Action, a Britain-based international development organization, highlighted the impact of climate change in Sudan, which includes the encroachment of the desert southward and a stark reduction in rainfall.

Akinyi Walender, Practical Action Africa director, underscored the consequences of climate change in Sudan, including heightened drought, extreme rainfall variability, depletion of water sources and desertification spanning millions of hectares of land.

Speaking to VOA via WhatsApp, Walender said the conversion of migratory routes and pastureland into farmland has significantly disrupted “the natural balance” and accelerated desertification.

The United Nations says desertification is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climate change and mainly human activities — unsustainable farming, mining, overgrazing and clear-cutting of land.

The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification says approximately 65% of Sudan’s land is affected by desertification.

Walender said climate change and conflict in Sudan are caught in a destructive cycle, potentially worsening the situation in the East African nation.

“The effects of war, such as the destruction of infrastructure, displacement of communities, and the use of airstrikes and heavy artillery, intensify the environmental damage in Sudan,” she said.

The International Organization for Migration, the U.N.’s migration agency, says nearly 7.1 million people are internally displaced within Sudan, 3.8 million being newly displaced due to the country’s monthslong conflict between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Force.

Awadalla Hamid, an environmental conservation manager at Practical Action in Sudan’s North Darfur State, said human activities have taken a toll on natural resources and ecosystems, intensifying environmental degradation.

Hamid said the displacement of communities in Sudan has led to further environmental damage.

“As people are forced to flee their homes, they often settle in temporary camps or new areas, leading to uncontrolled land-use changes, overexploitation of resources and increased pressure on fragile environments,” Hamid said. “The influx of displaced populations can also result in deforestation, soil erosion and pollution.”

The U.N. Environment Program says environmental destruction during conflicts has a direct impact on public health due to air and water pollution. The use of airstrikes and heavy artillery, while causing immediate destruction, also results in long-term environmental consequences, the U.N says.

Walender said addressing the environmental consequences of conflict requires a holistic approach —peacebuilding, conflict resolution and sustainable environmental practices.

Swar Adam, who fled violence in South Darfur and currently resides in Kosti, White Nile State, Sudan, told VOA his displacement has left him unable to tend to his livestock, which is his livelihood.

“It is very difficult at the moment to go and identify your cattle in such a situation,” Adam said. “I am not sure if they are now being fed on good grazing land or not. This is the situation I am in now.”

This story originated in VOA English to Africa’s South Sudan In Focus Program.

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Hope Fades for India’s Historic Moon Lander after It Fails to ‘Wake Up’

India’s moon lander and rover, which made a historic landing on the south pole of the moon, have not “woken up” after being put in sleep mode earlier this month to survive the freezing lunar night temperatures.

Scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization have not succeeded in reestablishing communication with the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover, which were part of India’s pioneering Chandrayaan-3 mission.

After the spacecraft soft-landed on the little-explored lunar south pole on Aug. 23 — five days after a Russian spacecraft on an identical mission crashed — the rover spent 10 days traveling more than 100 meters on the lunar surface gathering scientific data.

Tasked with “the pursuit of lunar secrets” by the ISRO, the spacecraft transmitted images and scientific data back to Earth and confirmed the presence of sulfur, iron, titanium and oxygen on the moon.

Before the sun set on the moon Sept. 2, ISRO scientists switched the rover to sleep mode to hibernate and protect the spacecraft’s sensitive components from the freezing lunar night conditions. The lander was switched to sleep mode on Sept. 4.

A lunar day and night each lasts a little over 14 Earth days. During the lunar night, the temperature on the moon can drop between minus 200 degrees Celsius and minus 250 degrees Celsius.

After switching the lander and rover to sleep mode, ISRO said in a statement that the rover had completed its first set of assignments — Chandrayaan-3 mission’s primary goal — and they were confident the spacecraft could survive the extreme lunar night.

The ISRO said that after the spacecraft reawakened Friday, the sun would shine on its solar panels, and its batteries would recharge. The agency also said that if the spacecraft did not reawaken it would “forever stay there as India’s lunar ambassador.”

In a Friday post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the ISRO scientists explained their attempts to reawaken the robotic explorers.

“Efforts have been made to establish communication with the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to ascertain their wake-up condition. As of now, no signals have been received from them. Efforts to establish contact will continue,” ISRO said, raising doubts about whether communication with the spacecraft would be reestablished and the mission’s scientific exploration of the lunar surface would be resumed.

In its latest update on Chandrayaan-3, ISRO said it would continue attempting to make contact with the spacecraft at least until the lunar night begins Oct. 6.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission made India the fourth country in the world to land on the moon, and the first to reach the south pole region. The achievement, hailed as “a victory cry of a new India” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sparked a feeling of national pride among millions of Indians, who watched the touchdown of the spacecraft live on television. 

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Washington Zoo Says Goodbye to Its Giant Pandas 

In a grand farewell to its beloved giant pandas, Smithsonian’s National Zoo is hosting “Panda Palooza,” a celebration ending October 1. From their longtime Washington base, the pandas have brought joy to millions of visitors and generations of fans — and now they are being moved to China. Liliya Anisimova has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Sergey Sokolov.

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Girls Avoid Internet Due to Abuse and Bias, Report Warns

Deeply entrenched gender norms, biases and perceptions are affecting the ability of girls and young women to use the internet, influencing their online activity and hurting their access to information and work, a new report has found.

A survey of more than 10,000 users aged 14-21, and their parents, in over half a dozen countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and India, found that girls are constantly being monitored and told they are vulnerable and not competent online, “creating a crisis of confidence.”

“This is resulting in girls setting up more protections and behaving more conservatively when connecting with others and sharing personal information online,” said the report by nonprofit Girl Effect, the Malala Fund, the United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF and the Vodafone Americas Foundation.

“These attitudes are not just impacting girls’ access and usage, they are influencing their self-confidence and shaping their own perceptions of their ability to use these tools to pursue their social, educational, and intellectual interests,” said the report.

The gender digital divide has persisted despite efforts by governments worldwide. A UNICEF study earlier this year showed that in 54 countries, the median gender parity ratio is 71, meaning that for every 100 adolescent boys and young men who use the internet, only 71 adolescent girls and young women do.

At the same time, women experience more online abuse, and harassment is driving girls to quit social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, recent studies have found.

Among digitally connected youth, 12% more girls than boys said that they feel self-conscious while using social media and are 11% less likely to post photos or comments online compared to boys of the same age, the report by Girl Effect found.

Vicious cycle

As girls’ exposure to the internet is restricted by biases and fear of abuse, they do not see themselves as tech-savvy, and do not see the internet as something that is for them, the report from Girl Effect said.

“This creates a vicious cycle whereby girls avoid tech because they don’t think it’s for them, and then tech is seen as ‘not for them’ because they have been avoiding it,” it said.

As teenagers who scrutinize, regulate and limit their behavior online, women “often carry these traits to their workplace, where they face difficulties in demonstrating their skills and building strategic connections,” said Mitali Nikore, a gender policy specialist at research group Nikore Associates.

“This negatively affects women’s behavior at workplaces, constraining their labor market opportunities and professional advancement … and their access to potential sources of revenue-generating activities,” Nikore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Besides better smartphone access for girls and young women, digital literacy programs and an end to discrimination based on gender norms are needed, said Nikore.

Girls must also be involved in creating digital products for their needs, said a spokesperson for Girl Effect.

For example, Girl Effect developed artificial intelligence-enabled chatbots in South Africa and India — Big Sis and Bol Behen (“tell me, sister”) — with girls, as a source of accurate information on general health and sexual wellbeing for girls.

While new laws such as Britain’s Online Safety Act and the proposed Kids Online Safety Act in the United States can help protect children somewhat, “regulations can only go so far, and often lag behind technological advances,” the spokesperson for Girl Effect said.

“Adolescent girls and young women want to be involved in co-creating solutions; they have clear ideas for the functions, experiences, and strategies that could be applied to make the internet a safer, more accessible place.”

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Medics: Hundreds Dead From Dengue Fever in War-Torn Sudan

Outbreaks of dengue fever and acute watery diarrhea have “killed hundreds” in war-torn Sudan, medics reported on Monday, warning of “catastrophic spreads” that could overwhelm the country’s decimated health system. 

In a statement, the Sudanese doctors’ union warned that the health situation in the southeastern state of Gedaref, on the border with Ethiopia, “is deteriorating at a horrific rate,” with thousands infected with dengue fever. 

Although Gedaref has been spared the direct effects of the brutal war between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), it has nonetheless been impacted by mass displacement and other humanitarian crises. 

More than five months into the war, 80% of the hospitals in Sudan are out of service, according to the United Nations. 

Even before the war, the fragile health care system struggled to contain the annual disease outbreaks that accompany the country’s rainy season starting in June, including malaria — endemic in Sudan — and dengue fever. 

This year, with Gedaref hosting upwards of 250,000 internally displaced persons, according to the U.N., the situation is much worse. 

“The hospital’s beds are all full, but the cases keep coming in, particularly children,” a medical source told AFP from Gedaref Hospital, requesting anonymity out of concern for his safety. 

“But the number of those receiving treatment at home are much more than those at the hospital,” he said. 

Gedaref resident Amal Hussein told AFP that “in each home, there are at least three people sick with dengue.” 

Dengue is a mosquito-borne disease that causes high fever, headaches, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and, in the most serious cases, bleeding that can lead to death. 

Medics and the U.N. have repeatedly warned that the violence in Sudan, combined with the rainy season and devastated infrastructure, would cause disease outbreaks. 

More than 1,200 children have died in refugee camps since May, due in part to a measles outbreak, according to the U.N. refugee agency. 

‘Disaster is knocking’ 

In El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, “13 cases of malaria were reported in one week,” the health ministry said. 

In Khartoum, “three people died of acute watery diarrhea” — suspected cases of cholera — in the Hajj Youssef district in the east of the capital, the local resistance committee said on Monday. 

“Take precautions to avoid infection,” urged the committee — one of many that used to organize pro-democracy demonstrations before the war and that now volunteers to help those caught in the crossfire. 

Health crises have compounded the dire humanitarian situation in Sudan, where half of the population of 48 million relies on aid to survive and with 6 million on the brink of starvation, according to the U.N. 

Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the U.N.’s humanitarian representative in Sudan, warned on Monday that “disaster is knocking on the door in Sudan.” 

She urged “donors to immediately disburse pledged funds to sustain life-saving humanitarian aid.” 

By early September, the conflict between army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy, RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, had killed nearly 7,500 people, according to a conservative estimate by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. 

Dozens of hospitals have been bombed or occupied by fighters, in what the U.N. has called “cruel disregard for civilians.” 

The medics and aid workers who remain are themselves regularly targeted and their stocks looted as more people demand help.

The health ministry said on Monday RSF forces had seized control of the main medical supplies warehouse.

“Medicines and medical equipment amounting to $500 million have been lost,” ministry spokesman Haitham Mohamed Ibrahim said, adding that “70% of the equipment in specialized centers in Khartoum … has been lost.”

Even before the war, 1 in 3 Sudanese needed to walk more than an hour to gain access to medical care, and just 30% of vital medicines were available, according to the U.N. 

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Antarctic Winter Sea Ice Hits ‘Extreme’ Record Low

Sea ice that packs the ocean around Antarctica hit record low levels this winter, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said Monday, adding to scientists’ fears that the impact of climate change at the southern pole is ramping up. 

Researchers warn the shift can have dire consequences for animals like penguins who breed and rear their young on the sea ice, while also hastening global warming by reducing how much sunlight is reflected by white ice back into space. 

Antarctic sea ice extent peaked this year on September 10, when it covered 16.96 million square kilometers (6.55 million square miles), the lowest winter maximum since satellite records began in 1979, the NSIDC said. That’s about 1 million square kilometers (about 621,371 square miles) less ice than the previous winter record set in 1986. 

“It’s not just a record-breaking year, it’s an extreme record-breaking year,” said NSIDC senior scientist Walt Meier. 

NSIDC in a statement said that the figures were preliminary with a full analysis to be released next month. 

Seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere with sea ice generally peaking around September near the end of winter and later melting to its lowest point in February or March as summer draws to a close. 

The summer Antarctic sea ice extent also hit a record low in February, breaking the previous mark set in 2022. 

The Arctic has been hit hard by climate change over the last decade, with sea ice rapidly deteriorating as the northern region warms four times faster than the global average. 

While climate change is contributing to melting glaciers in Antarctica, it has been less certain how warming temperatures are impacting sea ice near the southern pole. Sea ice extent there grew between 2007 and 2016. 

The shift in recent years toward record-low conditions has scientists concerned climate change may finally be presenting itself in Antarctic sea ice. 

While Meier cautioned it is too soon to say, an academic article published earlier this month in the journal Communications Earth and Environment pointed to climate change as a potential factor. 

The study found that warming ocean temperatures, driven mainly by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, are contributing to the lower sea ice levels seen since 2016. 

“The key message here is that to protect these frozen parts of the world that are really important for a whole number of reasons,” said Ariaan Purich, a sea ice researcher at Australia’s Monash University who co-authored the study, “we really need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.” 

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Poll: More Americans See Climate Change as Culprit for Extreme Weather

Kathleen Maxwell has lived in Phoenix for more than 20 years, but this summer was the first time she felt fear, as daily high temperatures soared to 110 degrees or hotter and kept it up for a record-shattering 31 consecutive days.

“It’s always been really hot here, but nothing like this past summer,” said Maxwell, 50, who last week opened her windows for the first time since March and walked her dog outdoors for the first time since May. “I was seriously scared. Like, what if this doesn’t end and this is how it’s going to be?”

Maxwell blames climate change, and she’s not alone.

New polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates that extreme weather, including a summer that brought dangerous heat for much of the United States, is bolstering Americans’ belief that they’ve personally felt the impact of climate change.

About 9 in 10 Americans (87%) say they have experienced at least one extreme weather event in the past five years — including drought, extreme heat, severe storms, wildfires or flooding — up from 79% who said that just a few months ago in April. And about three-quarters of those believe climate change is at least partly to blame.

In total, 64% of U.S. adults say both that they’ve recently experienced extreme weather and that they believe it was caused at least partially by climate change, up from 54% in April. And about 65% say climate change will have or already has had a major impact in their lifetime.

This summer’s heat might be a big factor: About three-quarters of Americans (74%) say they’ve been affected by extremely hot weather or extreme heat waves in the last five years, up from 55% in April — and of those, 92% said they’ve had that experience just in the past few months.

This summer was the hottest ever measured in the Northern Hemisphere, according to the World Meteorological Organization and the European climate service Copernicus.

Millions of Americans also were affected by the worst wildfire season in Canada’s history, which sent choking smoke into parts of the U.S. About six in 10 U.S. adults say haze or smoke from the wildfires affected them “a lot” (15%) or “a little” (48%) in recent months.

And around the world, extreme heat, storms, flooding and wildfires have affected tens of millions of people this year, with scientists saying climate change has made such events more likely and intense.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said researchers there have conducted twice-yearly surveys of Americans for 15 years, but it wasn’t until 2016 that they saw an indication that people’s experience with extreme weather was affecting their views about climate change. “And the signal has been getting stronger and stronger year by year as these conditions continue to get worse and worse,” he said.

But he also believes that media coverage of climate change has changed dramatically, and that the public is interpreting information in a more scientific way than they did even a decade ago.

Seventy-six-year-old Bruce Alvord, of Hagerstown, Maryland, said it wasn’t unusual to experience days with a 112-degree heat index this summer, and health conditions mean that “heat really bothers me because it’s restricted what I can do.”

Even so, the retired government worker doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change; he recalls stories from his grandparents about bad weather, and thinks the climate is fluctuating on its own. 

“The way the way I look at it is I think it’s a bunch of powerful politicians and lobbying groups that … have their agenda,” said Alvord, a Republican who sees no need to change his own habits or for the government to do more. “I drive a Chrysler 300 (with a V8 engine). I use premium gas. I get 15 miles a gallon. I don’t give a damn.”

The AP-NORC poll found significant differences between Democrats and Republicans. Among those who have experienced extreme weather, Democrats (93%) are more certain that climate change was a cause, compared to just half of Republicans (48%).

About 9 in 10 Democrats say climate change is happening, with nearly all of the remaining Democrats being unsure about whether climate change is happening (5%), rather than outright rejecting it. Republicans are split: 49% say climate change is happening, but 26% say it’s not and an additional 25% are unsure. Overall, 74% of Americans say climate change is happening, largely unchanged from April.

Republican Ronald Livingston, 70, of Clute, Texas, said he’s not sure if human activity is causing climate change, “but I know something is going on because we have been sweating our butts off.”

The retired history teacher said it didn’t rain for several months this year, killing his grass and drying up a slough on his property where he sometimes fishes. It was so hot — with 45 days of 100 degrees or more — that he could barely go outside, and he struggled to grow a garden. He also believes that hurricanes are getting stronger.

And after this summer, he’s keeping an open mind about climate change.

“It worries me to the extent that I don’t think we can go two or three more years of this,” Livingston said.

Jeremiah Bohr, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who studies climate change communication, said scientific evidence “is not going to change the minds that haven’t already been changed.” But people might be swayed if people or institutions they already trust become convinced and spread the word, Bohr said.

After a brutal summer, Maxwell, the Phoenix resident, said she hopes more Americans will accept that climate change is happening and that people are making it worse, and support measures to slow it.

“It seems very, very obvious to me, with all of the extreme weather and the hurricanes and flooding,” said Maxwell. “I just can’t imagine that people wouldn’t.”

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EU Member States Weaken Proposal Setting New Emission Standards for Cars and Vans

European Union member countries have watered down a proposal by the bloc’s executive arm aimed at lowering vehicle emissions.

The European Commission had proposed last year updated pollution standards for new combustion engine vehicles that are expected to remain on European roads well after the 27-nation bloc bans their sale in 2035, with the aim of lowering emissions from tailpipes, brakes and tires.

The Commission hoped that new guidelines would help lower nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and vans by 35% compared to existing exhaust emission regulations for pollutants other than carbon dioxide, and by 56% from buses and trucks.

But several member states and automakers pushed for a weaker legislation and agreed Monday on a diluted compromise put forward by the rotating presidency of the EU currently held by Spain.

Member states instead decided to keep existing emissions limits and test conditions for cars and vans, and to lower them only for buses and heavy commercial vehicles. They also agreed to reduce brake particle emissions limits and tire abrasion rate emissions.

The standards are separate from but intended to complement the EU’s climate change rules for CO2.

“The Spanish presidency has been sensitive to the different demands and requests of the member states and we believe that, with this proposal, we achieved broad support, a balance in the investment costs of the manufacturing brands and we improve the environmental benefits derived from the regulation,” said Héctor Gómez Hernández, the acting Spanish minister for industry, trade and tourism.

The position adopted by member countries will be negotiated with the European Parliament once lawmakers have also defined their stance.

EU lawmakers and member states last year reached a deal to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars and vans by 2035. The deal was part of the bloc’s “Fit for 55” package, which the European Commission set up to achieve the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% over this decade.

Under the deal, carmakers will be required to reduce the emissions of new cars sold by 55% in 2030, compared to 2021, before reaching a 100% cut five years later.

The Commission thought that introducing new pollution norms for the last generation of combustion engines was crucial because vehicles that enter the market before the 2035 deadline will remain in service for years.

According to the EU, emissions from transportation are responsible for some 70,000 premature deaths each year in the bloc.

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