France Denies Reports of Bedbugs on Trains

France has urged the public not to worry about reports of bedbug outbreaks on public transportation in Paris and throughout the country.

At least 37 sightings of bedbugs on public transportation have been reported over the past few weeks by national rail operator SNCF, with a dozen additional reports made to Paris public transport operator RATP.

French Transport Minister Clément Beaune said that each report had been checked out, and that none were proved to be true.

“When there is a problem, we deal with it. We won’t deny it,” Beaune said. “There is no outbreak of bedbugs in public transportation.”

French media have reported extensively about bedbugs on trains and in cinemas, and the government worries about the impact on tourism and the Paris Olympics, which start in less than a year.

Despite the denials, France will be taking preventative measures against a potential outbreak, using sniffing dogs on trains to detect the pests.

Beaune also plans to meet with pest control companies to preemptively come up with a solution if bedbugs were to infest public transportation.

He has promised transparency and said he would publish data every three months citing all reports and confirmed bedbug infestations.

On a radio spot Tuesday, French Health Minister Aurelien Rousseau told the French public there’s “no reason for panic” about “widespread” reports of bedbugs in Paris.

According to a report Tuesday by CNN, Marie Effroy, head of the Paris-based National Institute for the Study and Control of Bedbugs, said the level of bedbug infestation in France, which tends to spike toward the end of each summer season, is worse than previous years but treatable.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded for Discovery of Quantum Dots Used in LED Lights

Scientists Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus and Alexei Ekimov won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots,” which illuminate computer monitors and television screens and are used by doctors to map tumors.

“The Nobel Laureates … have succeeded in producing particles so small that their properties are determined by quantum phenomena. The particles, which are called quantum dots, are now of great importance in nanotechnology,” the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said in a statement.

“Researchers believe that in the future they could contribute to flexible electronics, tiny sensors, thinner solar cells and encrypted quantum communication.”

Nanoparticles and quantum dots are used in LED-lights and can also be used to guide surgeons while removing cancer tissue.

The more than century-old prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and is worth 11 million Swedish crowns ($997,959).

Earlier on Wednesday, the academy appeared to have inadvertently published the names of the three scientists it said had won this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Bawendi is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Brus is professor emeritus at Columbia University and Ekimov works for Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

Brus was hired by AT&T Bell Labs in 1972 where he spent 23 years, devoting much of the time to studying nanocrystals.

Bawendi was born in Paris and grew up in France, Tunisia, and the U.S. Bawendi did his postdoctoral research under Brus then joined MIT in 1990 and became professor in 1996.

Ekimov was born in the Soviet Union worked for the Vavilov State Optical Institute before moving to the United States. In 1999, Ekimov was named chief scientist at Nanocrystals Technology Inc.

The third of this year’s crop of awards, the chemistry Nobel follows those for medicine and physics announced earlier this week.

Established in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and chemist Alfred Nobel, the prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901 with a few interruptions, primarily due to the world wars.

The economics prize is a later addition funded by the Swedish central bank.

While the chemistry awards are sometimes overshadowed by the physics prize and its famous winners such as Albert Einstein, chemistry laureates include many scientific greats, including radioactivity pioneer Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie, who also won the physics prize.

Last year’s chemistry award went to scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless for pioneering work in “click chemistry,” discovering reactions that let molecules snap together to create new compounds.

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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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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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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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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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