North Korea Implies South Korean Balloons Caused COVID Outbreak

Weeks after acknowledging its first coronavirus infections, North Korea appears to be blaming the outbreak on balloons sent by defector-activists in South Korea. North Korean officials said Friday they traced the outbreak to an inter-Korean border region, where an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child came into contact with “alien things” in early April. The statement, published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, did not specify what the objects were, but later warned residents to be on the lookout for balloons and other “alien things” in the area. North Korean officials have long warned the coronavirus could enter the country through novel means, including through migratory birds, snow, air pollution or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists. Earlier this week, South Korea-based defector Park Sang-hak said he launched 20 balloons with COVID-19 medical supplies, including masks, pain relievers and vitamin pills. North Korea, an authoritarian state that prevents its citizens from accessing outside information, despises the balloon launches. In the past, it has used them as an opportunity to direct anger, and pressure, at South Korea. Friday’s statement did not direct any anger toward South Korea. But some analysts said it could be part of an effort to keep North Koreans away from border areas. On May 12, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The admission came more than two years into a worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Since then, North Korea has said its COVID-19 situation has vastly improved, …

WHO: COVID-19 Cases Rising Nearly Everywhere Around World

The number of new coronavirus cases rose by 18% in the last week, with more than 4.1 million cases reported globally, according to the World Health Organization. The U.N. health agency said in its latest weekly report on the pandemic that the worldwide number of deaths remained similar to the week before, at about 8,500. COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas. The biggest weekly rise in new COVID-19 cases was seen in the Middle East, where they increased by 47%, according to the report released late Wednesday. Infections rose by about 32% in Europe and Southeast Asia, and by about 14% in the Americas, WHO said. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said cases were on the rise in 110 countries, mostly driven by the omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5. “This pandemic is changing, but it’s not over,” Tedros said this week during a press briefing. He said the ability to track COVID-19’s genetic evolution was “under threat” as countries relaxed surveillance and genetic sequencing efforts, warning that would make it more difficult to catch emerging and potentially dangerous new variants. He called for countries to immunize their most vulnerable populations, including health workers and people older than 60, saying that hundreds of millions remain unvaccinated and at risk of severe disease and death. Tedros said that while more than 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, the average immunization rate in poor countries is about 13%. “If rich countries are vaccinating …

US Supreme Court Limits EPA in Curbing Power Plant Emissions

In a blow to the fight against climate change, the Supreme Court on Thursday limited how the nation’s main anti-air pollution law can be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. By a 6-3 vote, with conservatives in the majority, the court said that the Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming. The court’s ruling could complicate the administration’s plans to combat climate change. Its proposal to regulate power plant emissions is expected by the end of the year. President Joe Biden aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade and to have an emissions-free power sector by 2035. Power plants account for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide output. The justices heard arguments in the case on the same day that a United Nations panel’s report warned that the effects of climate change are about to get much worse, likely making the world sicker, hungrier, poorer and more dangerous in the coming years. The power plant case has a long and complicated history that begins with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That plan would have required states to reduce emissions from the generation of electricity, mainly by shifting away from coal-fired plants. But that plan never took effect. Acting in a lawsuit filed by West Virginia and others, the Supreme Court blocked it in 2016 by a 5-4 vote, with conservatives …

Instagram Hides Some Posts That Mention Abortion

Instagram is blocking posts that mention abortion from public view, in some cases requiring its users to confirm their age before letting them view posts that offer up information about the procedure.  Over the last day, several Instagram accounts run by abortion rights advocacy groups have found their posts or stories hidden with a warning that described the posts as “sensitive content.” Instagram said it was working to fix the problem Tuesday, describing it as a bug.  In one example, Instagram covered a post on a page with more than 25,000 followers that shared text reading: “Abortion in America How You Can Help.” The post went on to encourage followers to donate money to abortion organizations and to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion.  The post was covered with a warning from Instagram, reading “This photo may contain graphic or violent content.”  Instagram’s latest snafu follows an Associated Press report that Facebook and Instagram were deleting posts that offered to mail abortion pills to women living in states that now ban abortion procedures. The tech platforms said they were deleting the posts because they violated policies against selling or gifting certain products, including pharmaceuticals, drugs and firearms.  Yet, the AP’s review found that similar posts offering to mail a gun or marijuana were not removed by Facebook. The company did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.  Berlin photographer Zoe Noble runs the Instagram page whose post referencing abortion was blocked for viewing. The page, …

Fears of Cholera Outbreak Surface in Ukraine

As Russia pounds Ukrainian cities to rubble, water and sewer systems have broken down in some places. The British Defense Ministry says Mariupol is at risk of a major cholera outbreak. Just how big the threat is, though, is not clear. Scientists disagree over where the strains of cholera that can cause a major outbreak come from, and whether they are present in Ukraine currently. Producer:  Steve Baragona …

Scientists’ Model Uses Google Search Data to Forecast COVID Hospitalizations

Future waves of COVID-19 might be predicted using internet search data, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. In the study, researchers watched the number of COVID-related Google searches made across the country and used that information, together with conventional COVID-19 metrics such as confirmed cases, to predict hospital admission rates weeks in advance. Using the search data provided by Google Trends, scientists were able to build a computational model to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations. Google Trends is an online portal that provides data on Google search volumes in real time. “If you have a bunch of people searching for ‘COVID testing sites near me’ … you’re going to still feel the effects of that downstream at the hospital level in terms of admissions,” said data scientist Philip Turk of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “That gives health care administrators and leaders advance warning to prepare for surges — to stock up on personal protective equipment and staffing and to anticipate a surge coming at them.” For predictions one or two weeks in advance, the new computer model stacks up well against existing ones. It beats the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “national ensemble” forecast, which combines models made by many research teams — though there are some single models that outperform it. Different perspective According to study co-author Shihao Yang, a data scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the new model’s value is its unique perspective …

FDA Advisers Recommend Updating COVID-19 Booster Shots for Fall

At least some U.S. adults may get updated COVID-19 shots this fall, as government advisers voted Tuesday that it’s time to tweak booster doses to better match the most recent virus variants.  Advisers to the Food and Drug Administration wrestled with how to modify doses now when there’s no way to know how the rapidly mutating virus will evolve by fall — especially since people who get today’s recommended boosters remain strongly protected against COVID-19’s worst outcomes.  Ultimately, the FDA panel voted 19-2 that COVID-19 boosters should contain some version of the super-contagious omicron variant, to be ready for an anticipated fall booster campaign.  “We are going to be behind the eight-ball if we wait longer,” said one adviser, Dr. Mark Sawyer of the University of California, San Diego.  The FDA will have to decide the exact recipe, but expect a combination shot that adds protection against either omicron or some of its newer relatives to the original vaccine.  “None of us has a crystal ball” to know the next threatening variant, said FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks. But “we may at least bring the immune system closer to being able to respond to what’s circulating” now rather than far older virus strains.  It’s not clear who would be offered a tweaked booster — they might be urged only for older adults or those at high risk from the virus. But the FDA is expected to decide on the recipe change within days and then Pfizer and Moderna will …

US Officials Announce More Steps Against Monkeypox Outbreak 

Reacting to a surprising and growing monkeypox outbreak, U.S. health officials on Tuesday expanded the group of people recommended to get vaccinated against the monkeypox virus.  They also said they are providing more monkeypox vaccine, working to expand testing, and taking other steps to try to get ahead of the outbreak.  “We will continue to take aggressive action against this virus,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, who has also been playing a role in how the government deals with monkeypox.  The administration said it was expanding the pool of people who are advised to get vaccinated to include those who may realize on their own that they could have been infected. That includes men who have recently had sex with men at parties or in other gatherings in cities where monkeypox cases have been identified.  Most monkeypox patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.  The disease is endemic in parts of Africa, where people have been infected through bites from rodents or small animals. It does not usually spread easily among people.  Last month, cases began emerging in Europe and the United States. Many — but not all — of those who contracted the virus had traveled internationally. Most were men who have sex with men, but health officials stress that anyone can get monkeypox.  Case counts have continued …