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Mass bleaching detected on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

SYDNEY — Vast areas of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s biggest coral system, have been affected by mass coral bleaching caused by a marine heatwave.

Surveys have shown major bleaching is occurring along the 2,300-kilometer ecosystem.

Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef was detected weeks ago, but recent aerial surveillance carried out by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science revealed that 75 percent of 1,001 reefs inspected contain bleached corals. This means the organisms residing on them are struggling to survive. 

A quarter of individual reefs surveyed recorded low to no levels of bleaching, while half had high or very high levels. 

The authority that manages the reef confirmed “widespread bleaching across all three regions of the marine park” — its north, south and central sectors.  

It said, “Sea surface temperatures remain 0.5-1.5 degrees above average for this time of year.”

Scientists say that corals bleach, or turn white, when they are stressed by changes in water temperature, light, or nutrients. In response, the coral expels the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, exposing their white skeleton.  

Not all bleaching incidents are due to warm water, but experts say the mass bleaching reported on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is caused by a marine heatwave.

“The coral will expel their micro algae and so when you see a bleached coral it is not dead, but it is starving,” said Lissa Schindler, Great Barrier Reef campaign manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society. She told VOA that bleaching makes corals fragile and weak.

“If they do recover, they will be more prone to disease and have a lower reproductive output. What happens, though, if temperatures are too hot for too long then the coral cannot survive and then that is when it dies, she said.

Schindler says that reefs around the world are becoming more vulnerable to bleaching due to the impact of climate change.

“We do not know how long our oceans can continue to absorb the amount of heat that they are, and I think these mass bleaching events that are occurring around the world are showing that this heat absorption is having a real impact on coral reefs and will continue to do so,” she said. “So, with climate change there will be more severe and more frequent mass bleaching events to come to the point where coral reefs will not be able to recover in between these events.”

The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,300 kilometers down Australia’s northeastern coast and covers an area about the size of Japan.

Conservationists say it faces a range of threats, including warmer ocean temperatures, overfishing, pollution and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

The Australian government has a target to cut national emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.  

 

Despite Google Earth, people still buy globes. What’s the appeal?

London — Find a globe in your local library or classroom and try this: Close the eyes, spin it and drop a finger randomly on its curved, glossy surface.

You’re likely to pinpoint a spot in the water, which covers 71% of the planet. Maybe you’ll alight on a place you’ve never heard of — or a spot that no longer exists after a war or because of climate change. Perhaps you’ll feel inspired to find out who lives there and what it’s like. Trace the path of totality ahead of Monday’s solar eclipse. Look carefully, and you’ll find the cartouche — the globemaker’s signature — and the antipode (point diametrically opposed) of where you’re standing right now.

In the age of Google Earth, watches that triangulate and cars with built-in GPS, there’s something about a globe — a spherical representation of the world in miniature — that somehow endures.

London globemaker Peter Bellerby thinks the human yearning to “find our place in the cosmos” has helped globes survive their original purpose — navigation — and the internet. He says it’s part of the reason he went into debt making a globe for his father’s 80th birthday in 2008. The experience helped inspire his company, and 16 years later — is keeping his team of about two dozen artists, cartographers and woodworkers employed.

“You don’t go onto Google Earth to get inspired,” Bellerby says in his airy studio, surrounded by dozens of globes in various languages and states of completion. “A globe is very much something that connects you to the planet that we live on.”

Building a globe amid breakneck change?

Beyond the existential and historical appeal, earthly matters such as cost and geopolitics hover over globemaking. Bellerby says his company has experience with customs officials in regions with disputed borders such as India, China, North Africa and the Middle East.

And there is a real question about whether globes — especially handmade orbs — remain relevant as more than works of art and history for those who can afford them.

They are, after all, snapshots of the past — of the way their patrons and makers saw the world at a certain point in time. So, they’re inherently inaccurate representations of a planet in constant flux.

“Do globes play a relevant role in our time? If so, then in my opinion, this is due to their appearance as a three-dimensional body, the hard-to-control desire to turn them, and the attractiveness of their map image,” says Jan Mokre, vice president of the International Coronelli Society for the Study of Globes in Vienna.

Joshua Nall, Director of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, says a globe remains a display of “the learning, the erudition, the political interests of its owner.”

How, and how much?

Bellerby’s globes aren’t cheap. They run from about 1,290 British pounds (about $1,900) for the smallest to six figures for the 50-inch Churchill model. He makes about 600 orbs a year of varying size, framing and ornamentation.

The imagery painted on the globes runs the gamut, from constellations to mountains and sea creatures. And here, The Associated Press can confirm, be dragons.

Who buys a globe these days?

 

Bellerby doesn’t name clients, but he says they come from more socioeconomic levels than you’d think — from families to businesses and heads of state. Private art collectors come calling. So do moviemakers.

Bellerby says in his book that the company made four globes for the 2011 movie, “Hugo.” One globe can be seen in the 2023 movie “Tetris,” including one, a freestanding straight-leg Galileo model, which features prominently in a scene.

‘A political minefield’

 

There is no international standard for a correctly drawn earth. Countries, like people, view the world differently, and some are highly sensitive about how their territory is depicted. To offend them with “incorrectly” drawn borders on a globe is to risk impoundment of the orbs at customs.

“Globemaking,” Bellerby writes, “is a political minefield.”

China doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a country. Morocco doesn’t recognize Western Sahara. India’s northern border is disputed. Many Arab countries, such as Lebanon, don’t acknowledge Israel.

Bellerby says the company marks disputed borders as disputed: “We cannot change or rewrite history.”

Speaking of history, here’s the ‘earth apple’

Scientists since antiquity, famously Plato and Aristotle, posited that the earth is not flat but closer to a sphere. (More precisely, it’s a spheroid — bulging at the equator, squashed at the poles).

No one knows when the first terrestrial globe was created. But the oldest known surviving one dates to 1492. No one in Europe knew of the existence of North or South America at the time.

It’s called the “Erdapfel,” which translates to “earth apple” or “potato.” The orb was made by German navigator and geographer Martin Behaim, who was working for the king of Portugal, according to the Whipple Museum in Cambridge. It contained more than just the cartographical information then known, but also details such as commodities overseas, marketplaces and local trading protocols.

It’s also a record of a troubled time.

“The Behaim Globe is today a central document of the European world conquest and the Atlantic slave trade,” according to the German National Museum’s web page on the globe, exhibited there. In the 15th century, the museum notes, “Africa was not only to be circumnavigated in search of India, but also to be developed economically.

“The globe makes it clear how much the creation of our modern world was based on the violent appropriation of raw materials, the slave trade and plantation farming,” the museum notes, or “the first stage of European subjugation and division of the world.”

Twin globes for Churchill and Roosevelt during WWII

If you’ve got a globe of any sort, you’re in good company. During World War II, two in particular were commissioned for leaders on opposite sides of the Atlantic as symbols of power and partnership.

For Christmas in 1942, the United States delivered gigantic twin globes to American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They were 50 inches in diameter and hundreds of pounds each, believed to be the largest and most accurate globes of the time.

It took more than 50 government geographers, cartographers, and draftsmen to compile the information to make the globe, constructed by the Weber Costello Company of Chicago Heights, Illinois.

The Roosevelt globe now sits at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Churchill’s globe is at Chartwell House, the Churchill family home in Kent, England, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

In theory, the leaders could use the globes simultaneously to formulate war strategy. “In reality, however,” Bellerby writes, “the gift of the globes was a simple PR exercise, an important weapon in modern warfare.”

In much of Africa, abortion is legal but not advertised

ACCRA, Ghana — When Efua, a 25-year-old fashion designer and single mother in Ghana, became pregnant last year, she sought an abortion at a health clinic but worried the procedure might be illegal. Health workers assured her abortions were lawful under certain conditions in the West African country, but Efua said she was still nervous.

“I had lots of questions, just to be sure I would be safe,” Efua told The Associated Press, on condition that only her middle name be used, for fear of reprisals from the growing anti-abortion movement in her country.

Finding reliable information was difficult, she said, and she didn’t tell her family about her procedure. “It comes with too many judgments,” she decided.

More than 20 countries across Africa have loosened restrictions on abortion in recent years, but experts say that like Efua, many women probably don’t realize they are entitled to a legal abortion. And despite the expanded legality of the procedure in places like Ghana, Congo, Ethiopia and Mozambique, some doctors and nurses say they’ve become increasingly wary of openly providing abortions. They’re fearful of triggering the ire of opposition groups that have become emboldened since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning the nationwide right to abortion.

“We are providing a legal service for women who want an abortion, but we do not advertise it openly,” said Esi Asare Prah, who works at the clinic where Efua had the procedure — legal under Ghana’s law, passed in 1985. “We’ve found that people are OK with our clinic providing abortions, as long as we don’t make it too obvious what we are doing.”

The Maputo Protocol, a human rights treaty in effect since 2005 for all 55 countries of the African Union, says every nation on the continent should grant women the right to a medical abortion in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest, and endangerment for the mental or physical health of the mother or fetus.

Africa is alone globally in having such a treaty, but more than a dozen of its countries have yet to pass laws granting women access to abortions. Even in those that have legalized the procedure, obstacles to access remain. And misinformation is rampant in many countries, with a recent study faulting practices by Google and Meta.

“The right to abortion exists in law, but in practice, the reality may be a little different,” said Evelyne Opondo, of the International Center for Research on Women. She noted that poorer countries in particular, such as Benin and Ethiopia, may permit abortions in some instances but struggle with a lack of resources to make them available to all women. Many women learn of their options only through word of mouth.

Across Africa, MSI Reproductive Choices — which provides contraception and abortion in 37 countries worldwide — reports that staff have been repeatedly targeted by anti-abortion groups. The group cites harassment and intimidation of staff in Ethiopia. And in Nigeria, MSI’s clinic was raided and temporarily closed after false allegations that staffers had illegally accessed confidential documents.

“The opposition to abortion in Africa has always existed, but now they are better organized,” said Mallah Tabot, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Kenya. She noted that a significant amount of money backing anti-abortion efforts appears to have come from conservative American groups — and several reports have found millions in such funding from conservative Christian organizations.

The spike from opposition groups is alarming, said Angela Akol, of the reproductive rights advocacy group Ipas.

“We’ve seen them in Kenya and Uganda advocating at the highest levels of government for reductions to abortion access,” she said. “There are patriarchal and almost misogynistic norms across much of Africa. … The West is tapping into that momentum after the Roe v. Wade reversal to challenge abortion rights here.”

Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, introduced a law in 2018 permitting abortions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest, and physical or mental health risks to the woman.

Even so, pamphlets aimed at women who might want an abortion use coded language, said Patrick Djemo, of MSI in Congo.

“We talk about the management of unwanted pregnancies,” he said, noting that they don’t use the word abortion. “It could cause a backlash.”

Accurate language and information can be hard to find online, too. Last week, a study from MSI and the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Google and Meta — which operates Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — restricted access to accurate information about abortion in countries including Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.

The study said the tech giants banned local abortion providers from advertising services while approving paid ads from anti-abortion groups pushing false claims about decriminalization efforts as part of a global conspiracy to “eliminate” local populations.

Google didn’t respond to a request for comment on the study. Meta said via email that its platforms “prohibit ads that mislead people about services a business provides” and that it would review the report.

Opondo, of the international women’s center, said she’s deeply concerned about the future of abortion-rights movements in Africa, with opponents using the same tactics that helped overturn Roe vs. Wade in the U.S.

Yet, she said, for now it’s “still probably easier for a woman in Benin to get an abortion than in Texas.”

For Efua, information and cost were obstacles. She cobbled together the necessary 1,000 Ghana cedis ($77) for her abortion after asking a friend to help.

She said she wishes women could easily get reliable information, especially given the physical and mental stress she experienced. She said she wouldn’t have been able to handle another baby on her own and believes many other women face similar dilemmas.

“If you’re pregnant and not ready,” she said, “it could really affect you mentally and for the rest of your life.”

Melting glaciers, drying sea highlight Central Asia’s water woes

WASHINGTON — Climate change and water scarcity are harsh realities facing Central Asia. Glaciers in the east, in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are rapidly melting, while in the west, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea has turned into a desert.

According to the World Bank, almost a third of the region’s 80 million people lack access to safe water, highlighting the urgent need to modernize outdated infrastructure. Afghanistan is building a canal that could exacerbate the crisis.

Shrinking rivers, drying sea

Last summer and fall in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, people living along the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers described to VOA extreme weather conditions — droughts and floods posing existential dangers.

“It’s all about water, our constant worry,” said Ganikhan Salimov, a cotton farmer in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana region, bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“This water is not just for us, but a source of life for the entire region,” he said, pointing to a muddy canal near his crops.

The Syr Darya River originates in the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, flowing more than 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) west through Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to the northern remnants of the Aral Sea, which has been gradually disappearing for five decades.

The Amu Darya stems from the confluence of the Vakhsh and Panj rivers. Separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan, it runs for 2,400 kilometers (almost 1,500 miles) northwest through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into the southern remnants of the Aral.

“We don’t fool ourselves with this magnificent view,” said a local resident who introduced himself only as Bayram, enjoying a hot day with his family on a bank of the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Republic, adjacent to Turkmenistan.

“It continuously shrinks and becomes nothing by the time it winds its way to the Aral Sea, which is nowhere to be found,” he said.

Bayram is right. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya have shrunk by a third in little more than 70 years. The Aral Sea, once a vast inland sea, has diminished by 90% since the 1960s, as pointed out in a recent U.N. report. The northern end of the sea, bordering Kazakhstan, is more vibrant, but life has become nearly impossible around all its shores.

Authorities insist they are working with international institutions to revitalize the local ecosystem, but VOA mainly heard stories of disillusionment from residents.

A new water deal?

Aggravating the situation, Taliban-run Afghanistan is building a 285-kilometer (177-mile) canal off the Amu Darya, which could draw off 20% to 30% of the water that now goes to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Tashkent and Ashgabat have been in separate talks with the Taliban, who have argued that the purpose of the canal, called Qosh Tepa, is not to deprive their neighbors of a strategic resource but to provide more water for Afghans.

Central Asian experts express concern over the quality of the Qosh Tepa construction, which started in 2022. Officials in Tashkent say they have offered Kabul technical assistance.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev calls the Taliban “a new stakeholder” not bound by any prior obligations to their northern neighbors. Last September in Tajikistan, at a meeting on the Aral Sea, he proposed a dialogue of riparian countries.

“We believe it is necessary to set up a joint working group to study all aspects of the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal and its impact on the water regime of the Amu Darya involving our research institutes,” Mirziyoyev said.

No progress has been made since then, but Eric Rudenshiold, a former U.S. official with decades of experience working with Central Asian governments, believes the best outcome would be a new water-sharing agreement.

“Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, all are facing water shortage issues, and so cooperation is really the only answer. And the question is, at what point these countries do that. Cooperation is much better than conflict,” he told VOA.

They would not even talk to each other on these issues until recently, Rudenshiold said.

“We’ve seen Central Asian states lean forward to engage with the Taliban, and I think that’s a big step,” he said.

While optimistic about the prospects for regional dialogue, Rudenshiold said he doubts Western governments will participate, given their strong opposition to the Taliban and its repressive policies.

“I think the region is going to have to resolve this issue itself, not relying on international organizations or other powers, but actually having the countries come together,” Rudenshiold said.

He sees enough leverage to negotiate: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan provide power to Afghanistan. “The question is, how do you add water into that equation?”

“Yes, Afghanistan can take water for agriculture and drinking water. The problem is it’s still depleting, and Afghanistan needs to be part of the solution,” Rudenshiold said.

America’s offering

At a recent forum at the Wilson Center in Washington, U.S. officials and Central Asian diplomats highlighted growing water demand and worsening environmental conditions.

Tajikistan’s ambassador, Farrukh Hamralizoda, said that “more than 1,000 of the 30,000 glaciers” in his country have already melted.

“Every year, we suffer from floods, landslides, avalanches and other water-related natural disasters,” Hamralizoda said, adding that his mountainous country generates 98% of its electricity from hydropower.

Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador, Baktybek Amanbaev, said glaciers have also been vanishing in his similarly mountainous country, which he said hosts 30% of the clean water in the five former Soviet republics that make up Central Asia.

“We need effective water management to be able to estimate water reserves and flows,” Amanbaev said.

To that end, the U.S. Agency for International Development is funding MODSNOW, a digital program for hydrological forecasting that uses satellite imaging to monitor snow depth and melt and water flows from the mountains.

By providing governments and local stakeholders with accurate and timely data, the U.S. hopes to enable informed decision-making and sustainable management of resources.

“With accelerated snowmelt and heavy rainfall events also comes the greater risk of landslides and other severe natural disasters,” said Anjali Kaur, the agency’s deputy administrator, also speaking at the Wilson Center.

Surrogacy debate comes to a head in Rome

ROME — An international campaign to ban surrogacy received a strong endorsement Friday from the Vatican, with a top official calling for a broad-based alliance to stop the “commercialization of life.”

A Vatican-affiliated university hosted a two-day conference promoting an international treaty to outlaw surrogacy, be it commercial arrangements or so-called altruistic ones. It’s based on the campaigners’ argument that the practice violates U.N. conventions protecting the rights of the child and surrogate mother.

At issue is whether there is a fundamental right to have a child, or whether the rights of children trump the desires of potential parents.

The conference, which also drew U.N. human rights representatives and experts, marked an acceleration of a campaign that has found some support in parts of the developing world and western Europe. At the same time, Canada and the United States are known for highly regulated arrangements that draw heterosexual and homosexual couples alike from around the world, while other countries allow surrogacy with fewer rules.

Pope Francis in January called for an outright global ban on the practice, calling it a despicable violation of human dignity that exploits the surrogate mother’s financial need. On Thursday, Francis met privately with one of the proponents calling for a universal ban, Olivia Maurel, a 33-year-old mother of three.

Maurel was born in the U.S. in 1991 via surrogacy and attributes a lifetime of mental health issues to the “trauma of abandonment” she says she experienced at birth. She says she was separated from her biological mother and given to parents who had contracted with an agency in Kentucky after experiencing infertility problems when they tried to have children in their late 40s.

Maurel says she doesn’t blame her parents and she acknowledges there are “many happy stories” of families who use surrogate mothers. But she says that doesn’t make the practice ethical or right, even with regulations, since she said she was made to sacrifice “for the desire of adults to have a child.”

“There is no right to have a child,” Maurel told the conference at the LUMSA university. “But children do have rights, and we can say surrogacy violates many of these rights.”

She and proponents of a ban argue that surrogacy is fundamentally different from adoption, since it involves creating a child for the specific purpose of separating him or her from the birth mother for others to raise as their own.

Monsignor Miloslaw Wachowski, undersecretary for relations with states in the Vatican secretariat of state, concurred, saying the practice reduces human procreation to a concept of “individual will” and desire, where the powerful and wealthy prevail.

“Parents find themselves in the role of being providers of genetic material, while the embryo appears more and more like an object: something to produce — not someone, but something,” he said.

He called for the campaign to ban the practice not to remain in the sphere of the Catholic Church or even faith-based groups, but to transcend traditional ideological and political boundaries.

“We shouldn’t close ourselves among those who think exactly the same way,” he said. “Rather, we should open up to pragmatic alliances to realize a common goal.”

The Vatican’s overall position, which is expected to be crystalized in a position paper Monday on human dignity, stems from its belief that human life begins at conception and must be given the consequent respect and dignity from that moment on. The Vatican also holds that human life should be created through intercourse between husband and wife, not in a petri dish, and that surrogacy takes in vitro fertilization a step further by “commercializing” the resulting embryo.

As the conference was getting underway, Italy’s main gay family advocacy group, Rainbow Families, sponsored a pro-surrogacy counter-rally nearby. The aim was to also voice opposition to proposals by Italy’s hard-right-led government to make it a crime for Italians to use surrogates abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal.

“We are families, not crimes,” said banners held by some of the 200 or so participants, many of them gay couples who traveled abroad to have children via surrogate.

A 2004 law already banned surrogacy in Italy. The proposed law would make it illegal in Italy for citizens to engage a surrogate mother in another country, with prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to 1 million euros ($1.15 million) for convictions.

Participants at the rally complained that the law would stigmatize their children and they denied anyone’s rights or dignity was violated in the surrogacy process, which they noted was legal and regulated.

“All parties involved are consenting, aware,” said Cristiano Giraldi, who with his partner Giorgio Duca used a surrogate in the U.S. to have their 10-year-old twins. “We have a stable relationship with our carrier, our children know her. So actually there is no exploitation, there is none of the things that they want the public to believe.”

In the U.S., Resolve, the National Infertility Association, which advocates for people experiencing infertility problems, has criticized any calls for a universal ban on surrogacy as harmful and hurtful to the many people experiencing the “disease of infertility.”

“Resolve believes that everyone deserves the right to build a family and should have access to all family building options,” Betsy Campbell, Resolve’s chief engagement officer, said in a telephone interview. “Surrogacy, and specifically gestational carrier surrogacy, is an option.”

She said the U.S. regulations, which include separate legal representation for the surrogate and the intended parents, and mental health and other evaluations, safeguard all parties in the process and that regardless less than 2% of pregnancies in the U.S. using assisted reproductive technology involves surrogacy.

“Most people do not expect to have infertility or to need medical assistance to build their families,” she said. “So when non-medical people speak about IVF and surrogacy in a negative way, it can be very discouraging and make an already challenging journey all the more challenging.”

Velina Todorova, a Bulgarian member of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, told the Rome conference that the U.N. committee hasn’t taken a definitive position on surrogacy, but that its concern was the rights of children born via the practice.

It was a reference to legislation to prevent parents from being able to register the births of children born through surrogacy in their home countries.

Exclusive: Russian company supplies military with microchips despite denials

PENTAGON — Russian microchip company AO PKK Milandr continued to provide microchips to the Russian armed forces at least several months after Russia invaded Ukraine, despite public denials by company director Alexey Novoselov of any connection with Russia’s military.

A formal letter obtained by VOA dated February 10, 2023, shows a sale request for 4,080 military grade microchips for the Russian military. The sale request was addressed from a deputy commander of the 546 military representation of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the commercial director of Russian manufacturer NPO Poisk to Milandr CEO S.V. Tarasenko for delivery by April 2023, more than a year into the war.

The letter instructs Milandr to provide three types of microchip components to NPO Poisk, a well-established Russian defense manufacturer that makes detonators for weapons used by the Russian Armed Forces.

“Each of these three circuits that you have in the table on the document, each one of them is classed as a military-grade component … and each of these is manufactured specifically by Milandr,” said Denys Karlovskyi, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. VOA shared the document with him to confirm its authenticity.

In addition to Milandr CEO Tarasenko, the letter is addressed to a commander of the Russian Defense Ministry’s 514 military representation of the Russian Ministry of Defense named I.A. Shvid.

Karlovskyi says this inclusion shows that Milandr, like Poisk, appears to have a Russian commander from the Defense Ministry’s oversight unit assigned to it — a clear indicator that a company is part of Russia’s defense industry.

Milandr, headquartered near Moscow in an area known as “Soviet Silicon Valley,” was sanctioned by the United States in November 2022, for its illegal procurement of microelectronic components using front companies.

In the statement announcing the 2022 sanctions against Milandr and more than three dozen other entities and individuals, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “The United States will continue to expose and disrupt the Kremlin’s military supply chains and deny Russia the equipment and technology it needs to wage its illegal war against Ukraine.”

Karlovskyi said that in Russia’s database of public contracts, Milandr is listed in more than 500 contracts, supplying numerous state-owned and military-grade enterprises, including Ural Optical Mechanical Plant, Concern Avtomatika and Izhevsk Electromechanical Plant, or IEMZ Kupol, which also have been sanctioned by the United States.

“It clearly suggests that this entity is a crucial node in Russia’s military supply chain,” Karlovskyi told VOA.

Novoselov, Milandr’s current director, told Bloomberg News last August that he was not aware of any connections to the Russian military.

“I don’t know any military persons who would be interested in our product,” he told Bloomberg in a phone interview, adding that the company mostly produces electric power meters.

The U.S. allegations are “like a fantasy,” he said. “The United States’ State Department, they suppose that every electronics business in Russia is focused on the military. I think that is funny.”

But a U.S. defense official told VOA that helping Russia’s military kill tens of thousands of people in an illegal invasion “is no laughing matter.”

“The company is fueling microchips for missiles and heavily armored vehicles that are used to continue the war in Ukraine,” said the defense official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of discussing U.S. intelligence.

Milandr’s co-founder Mikhail Pavlyuk was also sanctioned during the summer of 2022 for his involvement in microchip smuggling operations and was caught stealing from Milandr. Pavlyuk fled Russia and has claimed he was not involved.

Officials estimate that 500,000 Ukrainian and Russian troops have been killed or injured in the war, with tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians killed in the fighting.

“There are consequences to their actions, and the U.S. will persist to expose and disrupt the Kremlin’s supply chain,” the U.S. defense official said.

Activist Greta Thunberg detained at climate demonstration in The Hague

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Climate activist Greta Thunberg was among dozens of people detained Saturday by police in The Hague as they removed protesters who were partially blocking a road in the Dutch city.

Thunberg was seen flashing a victory sign as she sat in a bus used by police to take detained demonstrators from the scene of a protest of Dutch subsidies and tax breaks to companies linked to fossil fuel industries.

The Extinction Rebellion campaign group said before the demonstration that the activists would block a main highway into The Hague, but a heavy police presence, including officers on horseback, initially prevented the activists from getting onto the road.

A small group of people managed to sit down on another road and were detained after ignoring police orders to leave.

Extinction Rebellion activists have blocked the highway that runs past the temporary home of the Dutch parliament more than 30 times to protest the subsidies.

The demonstrators waved flags and chanted: “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.”

One held a banner reading: “This is a dead-end street.”

In February, Thunberg, 21, was acquitted by a court in London of refusing to follow a police order to leave a protest blocking the entrance to a major oil and gas industry conference last year.

Her activism has inspired a global youth movement demanding stronger efforts to fight climate change since she began staging weekly protests outside the Swedish parliament starting in 2018.

She has repeatedly been fined in Sweden and the U.K. for civil disobedience in connection with protests.

US, Europe, Issue Strictest Rules Yet on AI

washington — In recent weeks, the United States, Britain and the European Union have issued the strictest regulations yet on the use and development of artificial intelligence, setting a precedent for other countries.

This month, the United States and the U.K. signed a memorandum of understanding allowing for the two countries to partner in the development of tests for the most advanced artificial intelligence models, following through on commitments made at the AI Safety Summit last November.

These actions come on the heels of the European Parliament’s March vote to adopt its first set of comprehensive rules on AI. The landmark decision sets out a wide-ranging set of laws to regulate this exploding technology.

At the time, Brando Benifei, co-rapporteur on the Artificial Intelligence Act plenary vote, said, “I think today is again an historic day on our long path towards regulation of AI. … The first regulation in the world that is putting a clear path towards a safe and human-centric development of AI.”

The new rules aim to protect citizens from dangerous uses of AI, while exploring its boundless potential.

Beth Noveck, professor of experiential AI at Northeastern University, expressed enthusiasm about the rules.

“It’s really exciting that the EU has passed really the world’s first … binding legal framework addressing AI. It is, however, not the end; it is really just the beginning.”

The new rules will be applied according to risk level: the higher the risk, the stricter the rules.

“It’s not regulating the tech,” she said. “It’s regulating the uses of the tech, trying to prohibit and to restrict and to create controls over the most malicious uses — and transparency around other uses.

“So things like what China is doing around social credit scoring, and surveillance of its citizens, unacceptable.”

Noveck described what she called “high-risk uses” that would be subject to scrutiny. Those include the use of tools in ways that could deprive people of their liberty or within employment.

“Then there are lower risk uses, such as the use of spam filters, which involve the use of AI or translation,” she said. “Your phone is using AI all the time when it gives you the weather; you’re using Siri or Alexa, we’re going to see a lot less scrutiny of those common uses.”

But as AI experts point out, new laws just create a framework for a new model of governance on a rapidly evolving technology.

Dragos Tudorache, co-rapporteur on the AI Act plenary vote, said, “Because AI is going to have an impact that we can’t only measure through this act, we will have to be very mindful of this evolution of the technology in the future and be prepared.”

In late March, the Biden administration issued the first government-wide policy to mitigate the risks of artificial intelligence while harnessing its benefits.

The announcement followed President Joe Biden’s executive order last October, which called on federal agencies to lead the way toward better governance of the technology without stifling innovation.

“This landmark executive order is testament to what we stand for: safety, security, trust, openness,” Biden said at the time,” proving once again that America’s strength is not just the power of its example, but the example of its power.”

Looking ahead, experts say the challenge will be to update rules and regulations as the technology continues to evolve.

Mercury exposure widespread among Yanomami tribe in Amazon, report finds

BRASILIA, Brazil — Many Yanomami, the Amazon’s largest Indigenous tribe in relative isolation, have been contaminated with mercury coming from widespread illegal gold mining, according to a report released on Thursday by Brazil’s top public health institute.

The research was conducted in nine villages along the Mucajai River, a remote region where illegal mining is widespread. Mercury, a poison, is commonly used in illegal mining to process gold.

The researchers collected hair samples from nearly 300 Yanomami of all ages. They were then examined by doctors, neurologists, psychologists and nurses.

The vast majority, 84% of Yanomami tested, had contamination equal to or above 2 micrograms per gram, a level of exposure that can lead to several health problems, according to standards by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization.

Even more worrying, a smaller part of this group, 10%, surpassed the 6 micrograms per gram threshold, a contamination level often associated with more severe medical conditions.

Research teams also tested fish in the area, finding high levels in them. Eating fish with high mercury levels is the most common path of exposure.

Exposure studies usually test for methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin formed when bacteria, in this case in rivers, metabolize inorganic mercury. Ingestion of large amounts over weeks or months damages the nervous system. The substance also can pass through a placenta of a pregnant woman, exposing a fetus to developmental abnormalities and cerebral palsy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health effects can include decreased sensitivity in the legs, feet, and hands, overall weakness, dizziness, and ringing in the ears. In some cases, a compromise of the central nervous system can lead to mobility issues.

“Chronic exposure to mercury settles in slowly and progressively,” Paulo Basta, an epidemiologist with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, which led the testing, told The Associated Press. “There’s a wide spectrum of clinical actions that range from mild to severe symptoms.”

Concerted global efforts to address mercury pollution led to the 2013 Minamata Convention, a U.N.-backed agreement signed by 148 parties to curb emissions. The treaty is named after the Japanese city of Minamata, whose population was contaminated by decades-long emissions of mercury dumped along with wastewater. Brazil and the United States were among the signatories.

The Brazilian government report has not been peer reviewed but synthesizes three papers published recently in the journal Toxics, all based on the same field work. One of the studies noted that determining what long-term mercury exposure levels constitute a significant risk for health remains a challenge.

The study’s findings align with prior research in other areas of the Amazon, said Maria Elena Crespo López, a biochemist at the Federal University of Pará who was not involved in the report and has studied the subject for 20 years.

“The mercury problem is widespread throughout the Amazon,” she told the AP. “Since the 1970s, when the first major gold rush happened here, mercury has been released for decades and ends up being transported over long distances, entering the food chain.”

A global review of mercury exposure in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2018 identified Amazon river tributary communities as one of four communities of most concern.

The World Health Organization ranks small-scale gold mining as the single largest source of human-led contamination. The Yanomami territory, which spans the size of Portugal and has a population of 27,000, has endured decades of this illegal activity.

The mining problem significantly expanded during the four-year term of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which ended in 2022. He defanged Brazil’s environment protection agencies amid rising gold prices. The combination caused a rush of thousands of miners onto Yanomami lands. Basta said that during the fieldwork, which took place near the end of Bolsonaro’s term, Mucajai was teeming with illegal miners.

Upon arrival by plane, the 22-strong team had to wait for about hours to proceed by boat due to heavy gold barge traffic in the Mucajai River. During ten days of testing, researchers were guarded by four military police carrying machine guns and grenades. Basta recalls counting 30 to 35 small planes flying to and from illegal mining sites each day.

“The tension was present throughout our entire stay in the village. I have been working in Indigenous villages for 25 years, and it was the most tense work I have done,” he said.

Current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to expel gold prospectors from Yanomami territory and improve health conditions, but the task is far from complete.

“Mining is the biggest threat we face in Yanomami land today,” Yanomami leader Dário Kopenawa said in a statement. “It’s mandatory and urgent to expel these intruders. If mining continues, so will contamination, devastation, malaria, and malnutrition. This research provides concrete evidence of it.”

Universe’s expansion might be slowing, findings indicate

paris — The universe is still expanding at an accelerating rate, but it may have slowed down recently compared with a few billion years ago, early results from the most precise measurement of its evolution yet suggested Thursday.

The preliminary findings are far from confirmed, but if they hold up, it would further deepen the mystery of dark energy – and likely mean there is something important missing in our understanding of the cosmos.

These signals of our universe’s changing speeds were spotted by the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), which is perched atop a telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the U.S. state of Arizona.

Each of the instrument’s 5,000 fiber-optic robots can observe a galaxy for 20 minutes, allowing astronomers to chart what they have called the largest-ever 3D map of the universe.

“We measured the position of the galaxies in space but also in time, because the farther away they are, the more we go back in time to a younger and younger universe,” Arnaud de Mattia, a co-leader of the DESI data interpretation team, told AFP.

Just one year into its five-year survey, DESI has already drawn up a map that includes 6 million galaxies and quasars using light that stretches up to 11 billion years into the universe’s past.

The results were announced at conferences in the United States and Switzerland on Thursday, ahead of a series of scientific papers being published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.

DESI is on a mission to shed light on the nature of dark energy – a theoretical phenomenon thought to make up roughly 70 percent of the universe.

Another 25 percent of the universe is composed of the equally mysterious dark matter, leaving just 5 percent of normal matter – such as everything you can see.

An inconstant constant?

For more than a century, scientists have known that the universe started expanding after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.

But in the late 1990s, astronomers were shocked to discover it has been expanding at an ever-increasing rate.

This was a surprise because gravity from matter – both normal and dark – was thought to have been slowing the universe down.

But obviously something was making the universe expand at ever-faster speeds, and the name “dark energy” was given to this force.

More recently, it was discovered that the acceleration of the universe significantly sped up around 6 billion years after the Big Bang.

In the push-and-pull between matter and dark energy, the latter certainly seems to have the upper hand, according to the leading model of the universe called the Lambda CDM.

Under this model, the quickening expansion of the universe is called the “cosmological constant,” which is closely linked to dark energy.

DESI director Michael Levi said that so far, the instrument’s early results were showing “basic agreement with our best model of the universe.”

“But we’re also seeing some potentially interesting differences, which could indicate that dark energy is evolving with time,” Levi said in a statement.

In other words, the data seem to show “that the cosmological constant Lambda is not really a constant,” because dark energy would be displaying “dynamic” and changing behavior, De Mattia said.

Slowing down in old age

This could suggest that – after switching into high gear 6 billion years after the Big Bang – the speed at which the universe has been expanding has been “slowing down in recent times,” DESI researcher Christophe Yeche said.

Whether dark energy does in fact change over time would need to be verified by more data from DESI and other instruments, such as the space telescope Euclid.

But if it was confirmed, our understanding of the universe will likely have to be changed to accommodate for this strange behavior.

For example, the cosmological constant could be replaced by some kind of field linked to some as-yet-unknown particle.

It could even necessitate updating the equations of Einstein’s theory of relativity “so that they behave slightly differently on the scale of large structures,” De Mattia said.

But we are not there yet.

The history of science is full of examples in which “deviations of this type have been observed then resolved over time,” De Mattia said.

After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity has withstood more than a century of scientific poking and prodding and still stands stronger than ever.

Hybrids, electric vehicles shine at New York auto show

The 2024 New York International Auto Show kicked off in Manhattan in late March — and visitors have until April 7 to admire some of the coolest new car technology. Evgeny Maslov has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Michael Eckels.

Slashing methane emissions: A quest on land and in space

On Earth and in space, efforts are underway to curb emissions of the super-pollutant methane, a greenhouse gas. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias looks at the latest innovations and policies, as the International Energy Agency warns the clock is ticking to win the fight against climate change.

Negotiator for South Korean walkout doctors sees ‘no future’ after Yoon meeting

Seoul, South Korea — A much-heralded first meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and a negotiator for young doctors who walked off the job in February appeared to have made little progress on Thursday after the latter expressed pessimism on social media.  

Yoon’s office said his first in-person talks lasted more than two hours, after he showed the first signs of flexibility in an approach until now marked by a hard-line attitude, as crucial parliament elections approach next week.

“There is no future for medical care in Korea,” the negotiator, Park Dan, posted on his Facebook page after the meeting at which Yoon’s office said the two exchanged views on improving working conditions and compensation for the doctors.

It was not immediately clear what aspect of the talks Park was referring to. Reuters has sent him a text message to seek comment.  

The long drawn-out walkout by thousands of trainee doctors nationwide is putting increasing strain on South Korea’s health care system, forcing hospitals to turn away patients and cut back on surgeries except in emergencies.

Park, the head of the Korean Intern Resident Association, accepted Yoon’s invitation to meet and conveyed the views of his colleagues, Yoon’s office said in its brief statement.

It added that Yoon would respect the position of the trainee doctors in future discussions with the medical community on health care reform, including an increase in physician numbers.

The centerpiece of Yoon’s contested plan is to boost medical school admissions and the number of doctors in a rapidly aging society, but many are instead concerned about securing better working conditions and legal protection.

Unless action is taken, South Korea faces having 15,000 fewer doctors than it needs to maintain essential services, the government has warned.

Yoon had said his plan to raise the number of new medical students to 5,000 a year from 3,000 now is not up for discussion but signaled on Monday there might be room to adjust it if the medical community offered reasonable proposals.  

South Korea’s practicing physicians and teachers in medical school have demanded that Yoon scrap his reform plans.  

While a large majority of the public support the thrust of Yoon’s plan, a poll on Monday showed more people are unhappy with the way his government has handled the stalemate.

South Koreans go to the polls on April 10 to elect a 300-member parliament and Yoon’s conservative People Power Party faces an uphill battle to win back a majority now held by the opposition.

Scathing federal report rips Microsoft for response to Chinese hack

BOSTON — In a scathing indictment of Microsoft corporate security and transparency, a Biden administration-appointed review board issued a report Tuesday saying “a cascade of errors” by the tech giant let state-backed Chinese cyber operators break into email accounts of senior U.S. officials including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

The Cyber Safety Review Board, created in 2021 by executive order, describes shoddy cybersecurity practices, a lax corporate culture and a lack of sincerity about the company’s knowledge of the targeted breach, which affected multiple U.S. agencies that deal with China.

It concluded that “Microsoft’s security culture was inadequate and requires an overhaul” given the company’s ubiquity and critical role in the global technology ecosystem. Microsoft products “underpin essential services that support national security, the foundations of our economy, and public health and safety.”

The panel said the intrusion, discovered in June by the State Department and dating to May, “was preventable and should never have occurred,” and it blamed its success on “a cascade of avoidable errors.” What’s more, the board said, Microsoft still doesn’t know how the hackers got in.

The panel made sweeping recommendations, including urging Microsoft to put on hold adding features to its cloud computing environment until “substantial security improvements have been made.”

It said Microsoft’s CEO and board should institute “rapid cultural change,” including publicly sharing “a plan with specific timelines to make fundamental, security-focused reforms across the company and its full suite of products.”

In a statement, Microsoft said it appreciated the board’s investigation and would “continue to harden all our systems against attack and implement even more robust sensors and logs to help us detect and repel the cyber-armies of our adversaries.”

In all, the state-backed Chinese hackers broke into the Microsoft Exchange Online email of 22 organizations and more than 500 individuals around the world — including the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns — accessing some cloud-based email boxes for at least six weeks and downloading some 60,000 emails from the State Department alone, the 34-page report said. Three think tanks and foreign government entities, including a number of British organizations, were among those compromised, it said.

The board, convened by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in August, accused Microsoft of making inaccurate public statements about the incident — including issuing a statement saying it believed it had determined the likely root cause of the intrusion “when, in fact, it still has not.” Microsoft did not update that misleading blog post, published in September, until mid-March, after the board repeatedly asked if it planned to issue a correction, it said.

Separately, the board expressed concern about a separate hack disclosed by the Redmond, Washington, company in January, this one of email accounts — including those of an undisclosed number of senior Microsoft executives and an undisclosed number of Microsoft customers — and attributed to state-backed Russian hackers.

The board lamented “a corporate culture that deprioritized both enterprise security investments and rigorous risk management.”

The Chinese hack was initially disclosed in July by Microsoft in a blog post and carried out by a group the company calls Storm-0558. That same group, the panel noted, has been engaged in similar intrusions — compromising cloud providers or stealing authentication keys so it can break into accounts — since at least 2009, targeting companies including Google, Yahoo, Adobe, Dow Chemical and Morgan Stanley.

Microsoft noted in its statement that the hackers involved are “well-resourced nation state threat actors who operate continuously and without meaningful deterrence.”

The company said that it recognized that recent events “have demonstrated a need to adopt a new culture of engineering security in our own networks,” and added that it had “mobilized our engineering teams to identify and mitigate legacy infrastructure, improve processes, and enforce security benchmarks.”

Zimbabwe appeals for $2 billion to avert food insecurity

Harare, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe appealed to the United Nations, aid agencies and individuals on Wednesday for $2 billion to avert food insecurity caused by an El Nino-induced drought.

At the State House in Harare, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a nationwide state of disaster. He told reporters that Zimbabwe is expecting a harvest of 868,000 metric tons of grain this year — far short of expectations and about 680,000 tons less than the country needs.

“Preliminary assessment shows that Zimbabwe requires in excess of $2 billion toward various interventions we envisage in the spectrum of our national response,” he said.

Zimbabwe isn’t alone. Malawi and Zambia declared a state of disaster earlier this year due to the drought.

Edward Kallon, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Zimbabwe, said the world body is monitoring the severe impact of the ongoing dry spell in southern Africa. He said the crisis has far-reaching consequences across various sectors, including food and nutrition security, health, water resources, education and jobs.

So far, Kallon said, the U.N. has allocated $5 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund for needs such as water, hygiene, sanitation, food and medical response to a cholera outbreak.

“The U.N. pledges its support to the government of Zimbabwe in mobilizing resources to tackle the El Nino-induced drought,” he said. “Efforts are underway to finalize a response plan.”

Paul Zakariya, executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, said that while nothing can be done to stop climate change effects, irrigation farming is one of the methods that can be used to mitigate calamity.

“Only depending on rain-fed agriculture, we will not go too far,” Zakariya said.

The government should ensure that even farmers with small amounts of land can irrigate, he said.

“With irrigation, our farmers are producing all year round,” he said.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, has largely depended on handouts from organizations such as the World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the last 20-plus years.

The government attributes the food shortages to recurring droughts.

Critics attribute the problem to the confiscation of land from white commercial farmers who produced crops all year round. They were replaced with peasant farmers who let irrigation systems fall into disrepair and are reliant on rain to grow their crops.

U.N. agencies said they will provide funding so Zimbabwe can revive the irrigation systems. Details are expected at a news conference on Thursday.

Person is diagnosed with bird flu after being in contact with cows in Texas

ATLANTA — A person in Texas has been diagnosed with bird flu, an infection tied to the recent discovery of the virus in dairy cows, health officials said Monday.

The patient was being treated with an antiviral drug and their only reported symptom was eye redness, Texas health officials said. Health officials say the person had been in contact with cows presumed to be infected, and the risk to the public remains low. 

It marks the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal, federal health officials said.

However, there’s no evidence of person-to-person spread or that anyone has become infected from milk or meat from livestock, said Dr. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Genetic tests don’t suggest that the virus suddenly is spreading more easily or that it is causing more severe illness, Shah said. And current antiviral medications still seem to work, he added.

Last week, dairy cows in Texas and Kansas were reported to be infected with bird flu — and federal agriculture officials later confirmed infections in a Michigan dairy herd that had recently received cows from Texas. None of the hundreds of affected cows have died, Shah said.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species – including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises – in scores of countries. 

However, the detection in U.S. livestock is an “unexpected and problematic twist,” said Dr. Ali Khan, a former CDC outbreak investigator who is now dean of the University of Nebraska’s public health college.

This bird flu was first identified as a threat to people during a 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong. More than 460 people have died in the past two decades from bird flu infections, according to the World Health Organization. 

Most infected people got it directly from birds, but scientists have been on guard for any sign of spread among people. 

Texas officials didn’t identify the newly infected person, nor release any details about what brought them in contact with the cows.

The CDC does not recommend testing for people who have no symptoms. Roughly a dozen people in Texas who did have symptoms were tested in connection with the dairy cow infections, but only the one person came back positive, Shah said.

It’s only the second time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered.

US, Britain announce partnership on AI safety, testing

WASHINGTON — The United States and Britain on Monday announced a new partnership on the science of artificial intelligence safety, amid growing concerns about upcoming next-generation versions.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and British Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington to jointly develop advanced AI model testing, following commitments announced at an AI Safety Summit in Bletchley Park in November.

“We all know AI is the defining technology of our generation,” Raimondo said. “This partnership will accelerate both of our institutes work across the full spectrum to address the risks of our national security concerns and the concerns of our broader society.”

Britain and the United States are among countries establishing government-led AI safety institutes.

Britain said in October its institute would examine and test new types of AI, while the United States said in November it was launching its own safety institute to evaluate risks from so-called frontier AI models and is now working with 200 companies and entites.

Under the formal partnership, Britain and the United States plan to perform at least one joint testing exercise on a publicly accessible model and are considering exploring personnel exchanges between the institutes. Both are working to develop similar partnerships with other countries to promote AI safety.

“This is the first agreement of its kind anywhere in the world,” Donelan said. “AI is already an extraordinary force for good in our society and has vast potential to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges, but only if we are able to grip those risks.”

Generative AI, which can create text, photos and videos in response to open-ended prompts, has spurred excitement as well as fears it could make some jobs obsolete, upend elections and potentially overpower humans and catastrophic effects.

In a joint interview with Reuters Monday, Raimondo and Donelan urgent joint action was needed to address AI risks.

“Time is of the essence because the next set of models are about to be released, which will be much, much more capable,” Donelan said. “We have a focus one the areas that we are dividing and conquering and really specializing.”

Raimondo said she would raise AI issues at a meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council in Belgium Thursday.

The Biden administration plans to soon announce additions to its AI team, Raimondo said. “We are pulling in the full resources of the U.S. government.”

Both countries plan to share key information on capabilities and risks associated with AI models and systems and technical research on AI safety and security.

In October, Biden signed an executive order that aims to reduce the risks of AI. In January, the Commerce Department said it was proposing to require U.S. cloud companies to determine whether foreign entities are accessing U.S. data centers to train AI models.

Britain said in February it would spend more than 100 million pounds ($125.5 million) to launch nine new research hubs and AI train regulators about the technology.

Raimondo said she was especially concerned about the threat of AI applied to bioterrorism or a nuclear war simulation.

“Those are the things where the consequences could be catastrophic and so we really have to have zero tolerance for some of these models being used for that capability,” she said.

Poliovirus near extinction in Pakistan, Afghanistan, health experts say

islamabad, pakistan — Global eradication efforts have “cornered” polio in a “few pockets” of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries where the virus continues to paralyze children.

Experts hailed the progress being made in tackling the “outbreak-prone” disease during a virtual briefing last week to mark a decade since India was declared polio-free in March 2014.

“We have Pakistan and Afghanistan [where polio is] still endemic, but the virus is cornered in very few pockets in very few districts of these two countries,” said Dr. Ananda Bandyopadhyay, deputy director of polio technology, research and analytics at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The virus is gasping in these last corridors,” Bandyopadhyay said.

Pakistan has reported two wild poliovirus cases this year, while the number stood at six in 2023. Afghanistan has yet to detect a polio case this year and recorded six cases last year.

Experts credited continued efforts to vaccinate populations with pushing polio to the verge of extinction.

Wild poliovirus affects young children and can paralyze them in severe cases or can be deadly in certain instances. The paralytic disease is the only currently designated public health emergency of international concern.

Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, told the event that until 2020, about 13 families of wild poliovirus had spread across the neighboring countries.

Since then, only two families have survived, and they remain endemic to Pakistan “in a very small geographic area” in southern parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa border province and in eastern Afghanistan, he said.

While the “historic reservoirs” have been cleared of the virus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, transmission is now surviving in “exceptionally hard-to-reach” populations, making it difficult for polio teams to inoculate children there, he said.

Jafari said “militancy and extensive population movement” across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and keeping track of those populations, were the kinds of “last-mile challenges that we have.”

“The genetic cluster that seems to be on its way out and getting eliminated is in the heart of the area of militancy in Pakistan,” he said.

Jafari noted that India’s polio program did not face the same militancy challenge that Afghanistan’s did until the Taliban takeover in August 2021, and that it remains a significant problem in Pakistan in the last stages of eradicating the virus.

Bandyopadhyay said successes against the poliovirus in both countries raise hope it is on the verge of extinction there.

He said clinicians “observed similar trends” even in the countries that “saw polio’s disappearing act.”

“Initially, we would have multiple families or lineages of the virus … and then you saw that disappearing act,” he said.

Jafari said that lessons learned in India had been applied to Nigeria, which was declared polio-free in June 2020. He added that many of “these practices were instilled in the program” in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

WHO has said that cases caused by wild poliovirus have dropped by more than 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 in more than 125 endemic countries to just two endemic countries as of October 2023.

It attributed the decline to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, led by the WHO, the U.N. Children’s Fund, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jay Wenger, director of the polio program at the Gates Foundation, said that even though Afghanistan and Pakistan had reported a handful of cases, global efforts against the virus must continue.

“As we get to the end of the [polio program], it’s critical to finish. We usually say if there is polio anywhere, it’s a threat to everywhere,” he said.