New Zealand Begins Vaccinating 5-to-11-Year-Olds

New Zealand began inoculating 5- to11-year-old children Monday with Pfizer’s pediatric COVID vaccine. More than 120,000 vaccines have been delivered to 500 vaccination centers around the country, the health ministry said.  

“Getting vaccinated now is a great way to help protect tamariki (children) before they go back to school,” Dr. Anthony Jordan, Auckland’s COVID-19 vaccination program clinical director, said in a statement. “The evidence shows that while children may have milder symptoms, some will still get very sick and end up in hospital if they do get COVID-19. Getting vaccinated also helps to prevent them from passing it on to vulnerable family members,” he added. 

The omicron surge has not yet peaked in the U.S., Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union. “The next few weeks could be tough,” he cautioned, but noted that there has been a drop in cases in some locations, including New York and New Jersey.  

The new self-isolation period for people with COVID in England has been reduced from ten days to five full days. The new measure went into effect Monday. 

“This is a balanced and proportionate approach to restore extra freedoms and reduce the pressure on essential public services over the winter,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. “It is crucial people only stop self-isolating after two negative tests to ensure you are not infectious.” 

The Credit Suisse Group, a Switzerland-based global investment bank, has announced the resignation of its chairman Antonio Horta-Osorio, after an investigation revealed that Horta-Osorio had violated COVID-19 protocols, including attending Wimbledon tennis tournament finals in London in July.  

“I regret that a number of my personal actions have led to difficulties for the bank and compromised my ability to represent the bank internally and externally,” Horta-Osorio said in a statement on the Credit Suisse’s website. 

UNICEF’s executive director said Saturday’s shipment of 1.1 million COVID-19 vaccines to Rwanda “included the billionth dose supplied to COVAX.” Henrietta Fore said, “With so many people yet to be offered a single dose, we know we have much more to do.” 

COVAX is the international alliance working to ensure that equitable allotment of COVID-19 vaccines to low- and medium-income countries. 

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Monday that it has recorded 328.1 million global COVID-19 infections and 5.5 million deaths. The center said 9.7 billion vaccines have been administered.  


EXPLAINER: Scientists Struggle to Monitor Tonga Volcano After Massive Eruption

Scientists are struggling to monitor an active volcano that erupted off the South Pacific island of Tonga at the weekend, after the explosion destroyed its sea-level crater and drowned its mass, obscuring it from satellites. 

The eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard some 2,300 kms (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand. 

“The concern at the moment is how little information we have and that’s scary,” said Janine Krippner, a New Zealand-based volcanologist with the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program. “When the vent is below water, nothing can tell us what will happen next.” 

Krippner said on-site instruments were likely destroyed in the eruption and the volcanology community was pooling together the best available data and expertise to review the explosion and predict anticipated future activity. 

Saturday’s eruption was so powerful that space satellites captured not only huge clouds of ash but also an atmospheric shockwave that radiated out from the volcano at close to the speed of sound. 

Photographs and videos showed grey ash clouds billowing over the South Pacific and meter-high waves surging onto the coast of Tonga. 

There are no official reports of injuries or deaths in Tonga yet, but internet and telephone communications are extremely limited and outlying coastal areas remain cut off. 

Experts said the volcano, which last erupted in 2014, had been puffing away for about a month before rising magma, superheated to around 1,000 degrees Celsius, met with 20-degree seawater on Saturday, causing an instantaneous and massive explosion. 

The unusual “astounding” speed and force of the eruption indicated a greater force at play than simply magma meeting water, scientists said. 

As the superheated magma rose quickly and met the cool seawater, so did a huge volume of volcanic gases, intensifying the explosion, said Raymond Cas, a professor of volcanology at Australia’s Monash University.

Some volcanologists are likening the eruption to the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, which killed around 800 people. 

The Tonga Geological Services agency, which was monitoring the volcano, was unreachable on Monday. Most communications to Tonga have been cut after the main undersea communications cable lost power. 

Lightning strikes 

American meteorologist, Chris Vagasky, studied lightning around the volcano and found it increasing to about 30,000 strikes in the days leading up to the eruption. On the day of the eruption, he detected 400,000 lightning events in just three hours, which comes down to 100 lightning events per second. 

That compared with 8,000 strikes per hour during the Anak Krakatau eruption in 2018, caused part of the crater to collapse into the Sunda Strait and send a tsunami crashing into western Java, which killed hundreds of people.

Cas said it is difficult to predict follow-up activity and that the volcano’s vents could continue to release gases and other material for weeks or months. 

“It wouldn’t be unusual to get a few more eruptions, though maybe not as big as Saturday,” he said. “Once the volcano is de-gassed, it will settle down.” 


Third Blow for Millions in India’s Vast Informal Sector as Cities Impose Curbs

On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile.

“We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said.

“Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.”

This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.

 

While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern — their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements.

In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter.

“We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said.

Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave.

Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.

 

The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted.

“Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug.

Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs.

At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave.

“We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed.

On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts.

Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.

 

“Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said.

Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress.

“There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor.

“Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.”

That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit.

“They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.”

Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.”

Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.

 


COVAX Delivers Billionth Vaccine

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Sunday 326.2 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, while 5.5 million deaths have been recorded. More than 9 billion vaccines have been administered, the center reported.

UNICEF’S executive director said Saturday’s shipment of 1.1 million COVID vaccines to Rwanda “included the billionth dose supplied to COVAX.” Henrietta Fore said, “With so many people yet to be offered a single dose, we know we have much more to do.”

COVAX is the international alliance working to ensure the equitable allotment of COVID vaccines to low- and medium-income countries.

One case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in Beijing — a rare breach of the city’s strict containment measures — as Chinese authorities battle outbreaks elsewhere before the February opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the start of the Lunar New Year.

A locally transmitted omicron infection was discovered in Beijing’s Haidaian district Saturday morning, Beijing disease prevention and control official Pang Xinghuo said at a news conference.

 

Pang said other occupants in the patient’s residential building and an office building were being tested and that access to 17 locations linked to the patient had been restricted.

Officials in the southern city of Zhuhai suspended the city’s bus service after uncovering seven cases of the highly contagious variant and advised residents to stay home.

Authorities in China are also trying to contain a series of outbreaks, including from the omicron variant, in the port city of Tianjin, the central city of Anyang and in other smaller cities, keeping millions of people in lockdown across the country.

Additionally, China’s National Health Commission spokesperson, Mi Feng, warned Saturday that China is facing “severe” challenges before the Feb. 1 beginning of the Lunar New Year amid the spread of omicron and delta variants.

“The Lunar New Year travel rush is about to start,” Mi noted. “The migration and gathering of people will increase significantly.”

In the next week or two, Americans will begin receiving free rapid home coronavirus tests from the U.S. government. Residents will have to request the tests on a designated website. The tests have been almost impossible to find in stores.

 

The Russian government on Friday delayed approving unpopular legislation that would have restricted access to public places without proof of COVID-19 vaccination, amid a surge in new infections.

The Associated Press reports the bill would have required Russians seeking to enter certain public places to have a QR code either confirming vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from immunization.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the measure was pulled due to uncertainty regarding its effectiveness as it was drawn up in response to the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The omicron variant is currently driving a surge in new infections in the country.

Meanwhile, a French court suspended an outdoor mask requirement in the streets of Paris. The requirement had been imposed Dec. 31 in an effort to suppress the spread of the omicron variant.

A court in Versailles on Wednesday suspended a similar outdoor masking requirement for the Yvelines region.

Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse. 

 

 

 


Djokovic Out of Australian Open as Court Upholds Deportation

Novak Djokovic faces deportation instead of starting his Australian Open title defense on Monday, a stunning and unprecedented end to his run of success at Melbourne Park.

Djokovic has won nine of his 20 Grand Slam trophies at the Australian Open — including three in a row — and was scheduled to play in the main stadium at night on Day 1 of the tournament.

But the No. 1-ranked player in men’s tennis now must leave the country after three federal court judges decided unanimously Sunday to uphold the immigration minister’s right to cancel Djokovic’s visa.

The 34-year-old from Serbia was trying to use a medical exemption to get around the requirements that everyone at the Australian Open — players, their support teams, spectators and others — be inoculated against COVID-19.

Djokovic is not vaccinated, and the government said his presence could stir up anti-vaccine sentiments.

Djokovic released a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling but said he respected the court’s decision, would cooperate with the authorities “in relation to my departure from the country,” and that he planned to take time out “to rest and to recuperate.”

“I am extremely disappointed with the Court ruling to dismiss my application for judicial review of the Minister’s decision to cancel my visa, which means I cannot stay in Australia and participate in the Australian Open,” his statement said. “I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love.”

“Finally, I would like to thank my family, friends, team, supporters, fans and my fellow Serbians for your continued support. You have all been a great source of strength to me.”

Australian Open organizers declined to comment immediately on the court’s decision.

Djokovic’s dominance in Grand Slam play of late has been particularly impressive, winning four of the last seven major tournaments and finishing as the runner-up at two others. The only time he did not get at least to the final in that span was at the 2020 U.S. Open, where he was disqualified in the fourth round for hitting a ball that inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat after a game.

On Monday, Djokovic was supposed to play another man from Serbia, Miomir Kecmanovic, in the first round of the season’s opening Grand Slam tournament. Instead, Kecmanovic will face a so-called “lucky loser” — someone who loses in qualifying rounds but gets access to the main draw because someone else withdraws after the order of play for Day 1 was released.

 

About 90 minutes after the verdict in Djokovic’s challenge was delivered, tournament organizers announced that Salvatore Caruso, an Italian ranked No. 150, had replaced Djokovic in the draw and that the match had been moved to a smaller court in the day session.

Third-seeded Alexander Zverev’s opener against Daniel Altmaier was moved onto Rod Laver Arena.

Patrick Mouratoglou, an elite coach who has worked with Serena Williams among other star players, said the “biggest loser of this mess is the tournament.”

Djokovic’s visa originally was canceled after his flight arrived in Melbourne just before midnight on Jan. 5, but that decision was overturned by a judge on procedural grounds last Monday. He spent four nights in immigration detention before the first court hearing and he was confined to an immigration hotel again on Saturday while awaiting his legal challenge.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended Australia’s tough border policies since news first emerged 10 days ago that Djokovic was in detention, saying at the time that “rules are rules” and that nobody was above the law.

Morrison late Sunday issued a statement saying he welcomed the decision “to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe . . . Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected.” 


Djokovic Fights Australia Deportation in Final Court Showdown

Novak Djokovic’s lawyers painted Australia’s effort to deport him as “irrational” and “unreasonable” Sunday, in an eleventh-hour bid to reinstate the tennis star’s visa and allow him to remain in the country to defend his Australian Open crown.

With just hours to go before the first ball is served at Melbourne Park, Djokovic’s high-powered legal team kicked off an emergency appeal in Australia’s Federal Court.

The hearing will decide whether the Australian Open’s top seed and defending champion can retain his title and become the first male player in history to win 21 Grand Slams.

His lawyer Nick Wood sought to systematically dismantle the government’s central argument that Djokovic’s anti-vaccine views are a public threat and could cause “civil unrest” unless he is deported.

Despite the 34-year-old being unvaccinated, Wood insisted he has not courted anti-vaxxer support and was not associated with the movement.

The government “doesn’t know what Mr. Djokovic’s current views are,” Wood insisted.

Government lawyer Stephen Lloyd said the fact that Djokovic was not vaccinated two years into the pandemic and had repeatedly ignored safety measures — including failing to isolate while COVID-19 positive — was evidence enough of his views.

“He’s chosen not to go into evidence in this proceeding. He could set the record straight if it needed correcting. He has not — that has important consequences,” the government said in a written submission.

Lloyd also pointed to a series of protests already sparked by Djokovic’s arrival in Australia.

Those competing arguments will be weighed by a panel of three court justices, who are expected to give their verdict Sunday, or Monday at the latest.

Because of the format of the court, their decision will be extremely difficult to appeal by either side.

If the Serbian star loses, he will face immediate deportation and a three-year ban from Australia — dramatically lengthening his odds of winning a championship he has bagged nine times before.

‘We stand by you’

If he wins, it sets the stage for an audacious title tilt and will deal another humiliating blow to Australia’s embattled prime minister ahead of elections expected in May.

Scott Morrison’s government has tried and failed to remove Djokovic once before — on the grounds he was unvaccinated and that a recent COVID infection was not sufficient for a medical exemption.

A lower circuit judge ruled that officials at Melbourne airport made procedural errors when canceling his visa.

For a few days, Djokovic was free to train before a second visa revocation and a return to a notorious Melbourne immigration detention facility.

Many Australians — who have suffered prolonged lockdowns and border restrictions — believe Djokovic gamed the system to dodge vaccine entry requirements.

Experts say the case has taken on significance beyond the fate of one man who happens to be good at tennis.

“The case is likely to define how tourists, foreign visitors and even Australian citizens view the nation’s immigration policies and ‘equality before the law’ for years to come,” said Sanzhuan Guo, a law lecturer at Flinders University.

The case has also been seized on by culture warriors in the roiling debate over vaccines and how to handle the pandemic.

Australia’s immigration minister Alex Hawke has admitted that Djokovic is at “negligible” risk of infecting Australians but argued his past “disregard” for COVID-19 regulations may pose a risk to public health and encourage people to ignore pandemic rules.

The tennis ace contracted COVID-19 in mid-December and, according to his own account, failed to isolate despite knowing he was positive.

Public records show he attended a stamp unveiling, a youth tennis event, and granted a media interview around the time he got tested and his latest infection was confirmed.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday accused Australia of “mistreating” the country’s biggest star, and a national hero.

“If you wanted to ban Novak Djokovic from winning the 10th trophy in Melbourne, why didn’t you return him immediately, why didn’t you tell him, ‘It is impossible to obtain a visa’?” Vucic said on Instagram.

“Novak, we stand by you!”

‘With or without him’

Djokovic is currently tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each.

Spanish great Nadal took a swipe at his rival on Saturday as players complained the scandal was overshadowing the opening Grand Slam of the year.

“The Australian Open is much more important than any player,” Nadal told reporters at Melbourne Park.

“The Australian Open will be a great Australian Open with or without him.”

Defending Australian Open women’s champion Naomi Osaka called the Djokovic saga “unfortunate” and “sad” and said it could be the defining moment of his career. 

 


China Tries to Contain Omicron Outbreak Ahead of Winter Olympics

Ahead of the February opening of the Winter Olympics in China, authorities are attempting to contain an outbreak of the omicron coronavirus variant in a southern city.

Officials in Zhuhai suspended the city’s bus service after uncovering seven cases of the highly contagious variant and advised residents to stay home.

In the next week or two, Americans will begin receiving free rapid home coronavirus tests from the U.S. government. Residents will have to request the tests on a designated website. The tests have been almost impossible to find in stores.

India’s health ministry on Saturday said it had recorded 268,833 new COVID cases, which is 4,631 more cases than were recorded Friday.

The Russian government on Friday delayed approving unpopular legislation that would have restricted access to public places without proof of COVID-19 vaccination, amid a surge in new infections.

The Associated Press reports the bill would have required Russians seeking to enter certain public places to have a QR code either confirming vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from immunization.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the measure was pulled due to uncertainty regarding its effectiveness as it was drawn up in response to the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The omicron variant is currently driving a surge in new infections in the country.

She said 783 omicron variant cases have been confirmed across Russia. Moscow officials reported 729 confirmed omicron cases in the capital since Dec. 20.

Meanwhile, a French court suspended an outdoor mask requirement in the streets of Paris. The requirement had been imposed Dec. 31 in an effort to suppress the spread of the omicron variant.

A court in Versailles on Wednesday suspended a similar outdoor masking requirement for the Yvelines region.

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Saturday that 323.7 million COVID cases have been recorded and 5.5 million deaths. The center said 9.6 billion vaccines have been administered.

 

 

 

 

 

  

 


Manatee Feeding Experiment Starts Slowly as Cold Looms

An unprecedented, experimental attempt to feed manatees facing starvation in Florida has started slowly but wildlife officials expressed optimism Thursday that it will work as cold weather drives the marine mammals toward warmer waters.

A feeding station established along the state’s east coast has yet to entice wild manatees with romaine lettuce even though the animals will eat it in captivity, officials said on a news conference held remotely.

Water pollution from agricultural, urban and other sources has triggered algae blooms that have decimated seagrass beds on which manatees depend, leading to a record 1,101 manatee deaths largely from starvation in 2021. The typical five-year average is about 625 deaths.

That brought about the lettuce feeding program, part of a joint manatee death response group led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains a violation of state and federal law for people to feed manatees on their own.

“We have not documented animals foraging on the lettuce,” said Ron Mezich, chief of the joint effort’s provisioning branch. “We know manatees will eat lettuce.”

During winter months, hundreds of manatees tend to congregate in warmer waters from natural springs and power plant discharges. Because this winter has been unusually mild in Florida so far, the animals have been more dispersed.

“They’re moving, but they are not being pressed by cold temperatures yet,” said Tom Reinert, south regional director for the FWC. “We expect that to happen.”

In addition to the feeding experiment, officials are working with a number of facilities to rehabilitate distressed manatees that are found alive. These include Florida zoos, the SeaWorld theme park and marine aquariums. There were 159 rescued manatees in 2021, some of which require lengthy care and some that have been returned to the wild, officials said.

“Our facilities are at or near capacity,” said Andy Garrett, chief of rescue and recovery. “These animals need long-term care. It’s been a huge amount of work to date.”

There are a minimum of 7,520 manatees in Florida waters currently, according to state statistics. The slow-moving, round-tailed mammals have rebounded enough to list them as a threatened species rather than endangered, although a push is on to restore the endangered tag given the starvation deaths.

Officials are also using $8 million in state money on several projects aimed at restoring manatee habitat and planting new seagrass beds, but that is a slow process and won’t ultimately solve the problem until the polluted waters are improved.

People can report any manatee they see that might be distressed by calling a wildlife hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922). Other ways to help are donating money through a state-sponsored fund or purchasing a Save the Manatee vehicle license plate.

That’s better than feeding manatees personally, which does more harm than good because the animals will associate humans with food, according to officials. People and manatees have struggled to coexist for decades.

“This is a very serious situation,” Reinert said. “Use your dollars and not heads of lettuce.”


More Evidence Links a Virus to Multiple Sclerosis, Study Finds

There’s more evidence that one of the world’s most common viruses may set some people on the path to developing multiple sclerosis. 

Multiple sclerosis is a potentially disabling disease that occurs when immune system cells mistakenly attack the protective coating on nerve fibers, gradually eroding them. 

The Epstein-Barr virus has long been suspected of playing a role in the development of MS. It’s a connection that’s hard to prove because just about everybody gets infected with Epstein-Barr, usually as kids or young adults, but only a tiny fraction develop MS.

On Thursday, Harvard researchers reported one of the largest studies yet to back the Epstein-Barr theory. 

They tracked blood samples stored from more than 10 million people in the U.S. military and found the risk of MS increased 32-fold following Epstein-Barr infection. 

The military regularly administers blood tests to its members, and the researchers checked samples stored from 1993-2013, looking for antibodies signaling viral infection. 

Just 5.3% of recruits showed no sign of Epstein-Barr when they joined the military. The researchers compared 801 MS cases subsequently diagnosed over the 20-year period with 1,566 service members who never got MS.

Only one of the MS patients had no evidence of the Epstein-Barr virus before the MS diagnosis. And despite intensive searching, the researchers found no evidence that other viral infections played a role. 

The findings “strongly suggest” that Epstein-Barr infection is “a cause and not a consequence of MS,” study author Dr. Alberto Ascherio of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and colleagues reported in the journal Science. 

It’s clearly not the only factor, considering that about 90% of adults have antibodies showing they’ve had Epstein-Barr, while nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are living with MS, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

The virus appears to be “the initial trigger,” Drs. William H. Robinson and Lawrence Steinman of Stanford University wrote in an editorial accompanying Thursday’s study. But they cautioned, “additional fuses must be ignited,” such as genes that may make people more vulnerable. 

Epstein-Barr is best known for causing “mono,” or infectious mononucleosis, in teens and young adults but often occurs with no symptoms. A virus that remains inactive in the body after initial infection, it also has been linked to later development of some autoimmune diseases and rare cancers. 

It’s not clear why. Among the possibilities is what’s called “molecular mimicry,” meaning viral proteins may look so similar to some nervous system proteins that it induces the mistaken immune attack. 

Regardless, the new study is “the strongest evidence to date that Epstein-Barr contributes to cause MS,” said Mark Allegretta, vice president for research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

And that, he added, “opens the door to potentially prevent MS by preventing Epstein-Barr infection.” 

Attempts are underway to develop Epstein-Barr vaccines including a small study just started by Moderna Inc., best known for its COVID-19 vaccine. 


Birdwatchers Flock for Glimpse of Rare Snowy Owl in US Capital

The white dome of the U.S. Capitol shone through the night, illuminating a small group huddled down the hill, bundled tightly against the winter cold and carrying binoculars and cameras with long lenses.

The motley crew were not there to photograph Washington’s famous monuments, they had their sights set on a rare creature that flew in from the arctic: a snowy owl.

“There he is!” shouted one of the birdwatchers.

The crowd shifted positions to get a better angle.

“It’s amazing,” said an enthused Meleia Rose, 41. “I’ve been a birder a long time, and this is my first time ever seeing a snowy owl.”

Birdwatching, or birding as it is also known, is a popular pastime in the United States, with hobbyists typically hiking through forests or camping in rural areas to spot different species of birds.

So the majestic owl’s appearance a week ago in the city, much further south than its usual habitat, has proved a magnet.

“You can see the Capitol,” Rose said, wrapped in a big winter coat and accompanied by her partner. “It’s arresting to have the contrast, the wildness with the city — but especially D.C. where it’s so … monumental and iconic.

The couple, who hired a babysitter for the occasion, got a good look at the rare bird, allowing them to mark “snowy owl” off their “life list,” a catalog of every bird they’ve seen.

Like others staring up at the young female owl, identified by its gray and white plumage, Rose was alerted to its arrival by eBird, a network used by birdwatchers to signal particularly interesting finds, which logged 200 million observations last year by 290,000 enthusiasts worldwide.

Users had pinpointed the snowy owl near Union Station, a bustling transportation hub just down the road from the Capitol, where a line of taxis curls around a grassy park, crisscrossed with walkways and dotted with tents set up by the homeless.

At the center of the park, on top of a marble fountain, a pair of yellow eyes peered out, searching for an evening snack, most likely one of the capital’s countless rats.

An ‘arctic visitor’

One recent visitor was Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States and a passionate birdwatcher.

“The snowy owl has been on my list a long time,” Pitteloud told AFP, “but it’s truly extraordinary to see it in the middle of Washington, D.C.”

“She was truly the superstar of Union Station!” he added.

With broad white wings, these birds are “like a creature from another world,” explained Kevin McGowan, a professor with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

Snowy owls live a good part of the year near the Arctic Circle, but most migrate south for the winter, usually stopping near the U.S. border with Canada.

Its visit so far south to Washington is “like having a polar bear coming by your neighborhood,” McGowan said.

“Snowy owls are such a charismatic bird,” noted Scott Weidensaul, the co-leader of Project SNOWstorm, a group that researches and tracks snowy owls.

“And particularly for birdwatchers in the Washington, D.C., area where it is an unusual event to see one down there. You know, that’s a big deal.”

In a black down jacket, Edward Eder was setting up his camera for a second night in a row. It’s equipped with an ultra-long lens for him to see the bird up close.

“A lot of people have taken up or become more enthusiastic birders during the pandemic,” explained the 71-year-old retiree, attributing the trend in part to the ability to easily social distance.

With their parents pointing the way, a small group of children attempt to catch a glimpse of the bird, which some may even recognize as kin to Hedwig, the snowy owl companion to Harry Potter in the cult book and movie series.