Microsoft Wins $22 Billion Deal Making Headsets for US Army

Microsoft won a nearly $22 billion contract to supply U.S. Army combat troops with its augmented reality headsets.     Microsoft and the Army separately announced the deal Wednesday.   The technology is based on Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, which were originally intended for the video game and entertainment industries.   Pentagon officials have described the futuristic technology — which the Army calls its Integrated Visual Augmentation System — as a way of boosting soldiers’ awareness of their surroundings and their ability to spot targets and dangers.   Microsoft’s head-mounted HoloLens displays let people see virtual imagery superimposed over the physical world in front of them — anything from holograms in virtual game worlds to repair instructions floating over a broken gadget. Users can control what they see using hand gestures or voice commands.   The Army’s website says soldiers tested the gadgets last year at Fort Pickett in Virginia. It said the system could help troops gain an advantage “on battlefields that are increasingly urban, congested, dark and unpredictable.”   The Army first began testing Microsoft’s system with a $480 million contract in 2018 and said the headsets could be used for both training and in actual battle. The new contract will enable Microsoft to mass produce units for more than 120,000 soldiers in the Army’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force. Microsoft said the contract will amount to up to $21.88 billion over the next decade, with a five-year base agreement that can be extended for another five years.   …

Russia Registers Vaccine to Protect Animals from COVID-19

Russia says it registered the world’s first vaccine for animals against the COVID-19 virus on Wednesday — with government officials hailing an inoculation labeled ‘Carnivac-Cov’ as a victory in the global race to protect both animals and humans from further mutations of the coronavirus.“The clinical trials of Carnivac-Cov, which started last October, involved dogs, cats, Arctic foxes, minks, foxes and other animals,” said  Konstantin Savenkov, Deputy Head of Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s agricultural watchdog agency, in a statement announcing the vaccine.“The results allow us to conclude that the vaccine is harmless and provides high immunity, in such as the animals who were tested developed antibodies to the coronavirus in 100% of cases,” added Savenkov.Savenkov added that the shot currently provided immunity of up to 6 months — and could be in production in the coming weeks.The Russian announcement came just a day after the World Health Organization issued a report exploring the origins of COVID-19 in China.  The WHO study offered no firm conclusions but suggested the most likely source lay in animals — specifically, a bat.The U.S. has expressed reservations about what some US officials believe are the Chinese government’s efforts to skew the report’s findings.Studies have repeatedly documented select cases of COVID-19 infecting both domesticated and captive animals around the globe — including common household pets such as cats and dogs, as well as farmed mink and several animals in zoos.Mutation fearsScientists have raised concerns that the virus could subsequently mutate to other host animals — and eventually circulate back …

Rural COVID, Urban COVID: Africa Sees Sharp Divide 

It is hard to see COVID-19 here, in the small village of KaMatsamo. Goats pick their way through a path that runs from the highway, the main thoroughfare in this South African town of some 23,000 people. On a recent day, most residents were not diligently wearing masks outdoors, as is the law. About half were. Africa’s megacities will bear deep scars from this coronavirus pandemic. But 59% of the continent’s population lives in rural areas, according to the World Bank, and large-scale lockdowns have effectively sealed off these rural areas — for better and for worse, residents say.    On a recent fall day, VOA spoke to a group of residents who had gathered by the side of the road in this town just 12 square kilometers in size. Several said they knew of someone who had contracted COVID-19 — but most said that they did not think the virus itself has penetrated their community to the extent that it has urban areas.  But the pandemic is deeply felt here, say residents — who point not to death tolls, but to economic and social devastation. South Africa is the continent’s epicenter, with more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 52,000 deaths.  Phakade Sambo is a bright 22-year-old with a dream — one that she said the pandemic has slashed. “It’s been a problem — like, a really problem, a big problem — to me,” she said.  She wants to learn a trade and, eventually, set up her own carpentry shop.  “I can’t continue with my carpentry studies,” she …

Race to Produce COVID Vaccine May Cause Measles Jabs Shortage

World Health Organization experts fear the race to produce large quantities of COVID-19 vaccine could cut into the supply of global measles vaccines.   Critical topics relating to immunization globally were discussed during a regular meeting last week by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, known as SAGE. Recommendations were made regarding the status of Ebola vaccines, as well as an oral polio vaccine, and COVID-19 vaccines undergoing evaluation.During this review, SAGE Chair Alejandro Cravioto said the experts raised concerns regarding the situation of vaccinations against measles and rubella.“We are deeply worried that this had been stalled because of the COVID situation and we fear that if this is not properly looked at by each one of the countries that has not been able to vaccinate the children so far, we will be having problems with outbreaks of, especially measles. That is something that worries everybody and that we saw happening in 2019 in the very clearest way,” Cravioto said.Measles surged worldwide in 2019, reaching the highest number since 1996. Nearly 900,000 measles cases were reported, claiming more than 207,000 child lives, most in developing countries.Director of the WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Kate O’Brien said she does not expect shortages of measles vaccine right now. However, she warned that could change because of the intense pressure to increase the manufacturing capacity of COVID-19 vaccine.“As that ramps up, we have to continue watching this really carefully. We are starting to see the supply chains start to shrink to …

South Africans Construct Award-Winning Zero Carbon Home

A team of South Africans has won a Cape Town competition to create a zero-carbon home, just ahead of Earth Day on April 22. Experts say the house design, which incorporates solar power, passive cooling, rainwater harvesting, and a food garden, could help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. Vinicius Assis reports from Cape Town, South Africa.Camera: Vinícius Assis  …

South Africa to Receive COVID-19 Vaccine for 41 Million 

The coronavirus vaccine is coming, with South Africa expecting to conclude negotiations in upcoming weeks to vaccinate 41 million people, and the next stage of vaccinations to begin in May, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced late Tuesday.    In addition to 31 million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, President Ramaphosa said the nation is finalizing an agreement for 20 million doses of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. He did not say precisely when that vaccine would arrive.  FILE – An ambulance is parked near tents erected at the parking lot of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, amid a nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Pretoria, South Africa, Jan. 11, 2021.South Africa is the continent’s COVID-19 epicenter. In the last year, the nation has seen 1.5 million known cases, and more than 52,000 deaths. But the nation appears to be holding firm in the face of a possible third wave, with a “stable” level of about 1,200 new cases per day and declining hospitalizations and deaths.  And, Ramaphosa said, more vaccine — from China and Russia — may also be on the way.    “We are also in various stages of negotiations with the manufacturers of other vaccines such as Sinovac, Sinopharm and Sputnik V,” he said. “Some of these manufacturers are in the final stages of the approval process for use of their vaccines in South Africa. In addition to vaccine doses we will receive directly through our agreements with manufacturers, we will also receive an allocation of vaccine doses through …

Forest Losses Increased Again in 2020

The world lost a Netherlands-sized area of mature tropical forests in 2020, the second year in a row of worsening losses, according to the latest figures from the research and advocacy organization the World Resources Institute (WRI). The losses are helping drive climate change and also being driven by it, as hot, dry conditions contribute to forest losses in several parts of the world. Some bright spots emerged. The rate of forest loss decreased in Indonesia and Malaysia for the fourth consecutive year.  But overall, the 4.2 million hectare loss of primary, undisturbed forest was a 12% increase over 2019.  “Those dense forests can be hundreds of years old and store significant amounts of carbon,” said Rod Taylor, head of WRI’s forest program. “Losing them has irreversible impacts on biodiversity and climate change.” While experts had raised concerns that the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could contribute to forest losses by reducing environmental enforcement and driving more people to subsistence farming, Taylor said there were no obvious trends in the data.  The impacts may come later, however. “Unless we offer alternatives, it’s likely that governments will try to restart their economies on the backs of forests,” said WRI Distinguished Senior Fellow Frances Seymour.  Forest declines The tropics lost a total of 12.2 million hectares of primary and secondary regrown forest in 2020, WRI’s data said. The losses released the equivalent of the annual emissions from 570 million cars, more than twice the number on the road in the United States. Brazil saw the largest decline. The 1.7 million hectares lost was a 25% increase …

US Lawmakers Press Big Tech for Internal Research on Kids’ Mental Health

Four Republican U.S. lawmakers requested on Tuesday that Facebook Inc., Twitter, and Alphabet Inc.’s Google turn over any studies they have done on how their services affect children’s mental health.The request follows a joint hearing last week of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees at which the companies’ chief executives discussed their content moderation practices in the wake of the siege on the Capitol in January.Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the committee’s ranking Republican, asked the CEOs at the hearing whether their companies had conducted internal research concerning children’s mental health.Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said he believed the company had, while Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said he did not believe so. Google’s Sundar Pichai said the company consulted with outside experts and invested “a lot of time and effort in these areas.”In letters to the companies on Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers asked for copies of any relevant research or internal communications, as well as information on any contractors and partners involved. They also requested any research the companies had done about how competitors’ products affect mental wellness of people under 18 years old.The requests also cover Google’s YouTube Kids service and Facebook’s Instagram, which is developing a version for people under 13 years old.The other lawmakers who signed the letter were ranking Republicans on various subcommittees, including Robert Latta, Gus Bilirakis and Morgan Griffith.They asked for the companies to respond by April 16.  …

US, 13 Other Nations Concerned About WHO COVID Origins Report

The United States and 13 other nations issued a statement Tuesday raising “shared concerns” about the newly released World Health Organization report on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. The statement, released on the U.S. State Department website, as well as the other signatories, said it was essential to express concerns that the international expert study on the source of the virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples. The WHO formally released its report earlier Tuesday, saying while the report presents a comprehensive review of available data, “we have not yet found the source of the virus.”  The team reported difficulties in accessing raw data, among other issues, during its visit to the city of Wuhan, China, earlier this year. The researchers also had been forced to wait days before receiving final permission by the Chinese government to enter Wuhan. The joint statement by the U.S. and others went on to say, “scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings.”  The nations expressed their concerns in the hope of laying “a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.” Along with the U.S., the statement was signed by the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Slovenia. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus …

COVID Pandemic Has Big Effect in Small Nation of eSwatini   

Eddie Simelane is a patient.  Every two months, this 46-year-old, HIV-positive father of four wakes up early to line up at a government clinic near eSwatini’s capital for his supply of free anti-retroviral medication.      The emaSwati are no strangers to pandemics. This small nation, formerly known as Swaziland, has one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates, estimated at over 27%.  But it’s not that pandemic that scares him, Simelane says. It’s coronavirus. He says he’s lucky to have not fallen ill, but says it’s thrown his life into disarray.     “Here in eSwatini, COVID-19 has taken many lives that I’ve heard of,” he said outside a clinic on a foggy morning last week. “And the difficult part of it is the economy. The economy has been down and there’s been no jobs for everybody for something like a year now.”   He’s not exaggerating the effect of this pandemic — in a nation that is smaller than all but three U.S. states, everything feels like it hits closer to home. While eSwatini has only reported some 17,000 cases, and just under 670 deaths, its small size makes each loss seem much bigger.    eSwatini, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control, has seen 1,400 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — and 55 deaths per 100,000 people. But the population is just over a million people.     According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, eSwatini’s COVID-19 mortality rate stands at 3.9%. That’s more than twice the U.S. death rate, of 1.8%, …