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A joint World Health Organization-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a slab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.
The findings offer little new insight into how the virus first emerged and leave many questions unanswered. But the report does provide more detail on the reasoning behind the researchers’ conclusions.
The team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis — a speculative theory that was promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump among others. It also said the role played by a seafood market where human cases were first identified was uncertain.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, said he would like to see the report’s raw information first before deciding about its credibility.
“I’d also like to inquire as to the extent to which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data that they would need to make a determination,” he said. “I want to read the report first and then get a feel for what they really had access to — or did not have access to.”
The report, which is expected to be made public Tuesday, is being closely watched because discovering the origins of the virus could help scientists prevent future pandemics. But it’s also extremely sensitive because China bristles at any suggestion that it is to blame for the current one.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said experts from seven U.S. government organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security had the report in hand.
“Seventeen experts, longstanding leaders from the field, including epidemiology, public health, clinical medicine, veterinary medicine, infectious disease, law, food security, biosafety, biosecurity — we have a lot of experts in government — will be reviewing this report intensively and quickly,” she said at a daily briefing.
Matthew Kavanagh of Georgetown University said the report deepened the understanding of the virus’s origins, but more information was needed.
“It is clear that the Chinese government has not provided all the data needed and until they do, firmer conclusions will be difficult,” he said in a statement.
Last year, an AP investigation found the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the origins of the coronavirus. And repeated delays in the report’s release have raised questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew its conclusions.
“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent CNN interview.
China rejected that criticism Monday.
“The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the World Health Organization expert group?” asked Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Still, suspicion of China has helped fuel the theory that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first identified. The report cited several reasons for all but dismissing that possibility.
It said that such laboratory accidents are rare, that the labs in Wuhan were well-managed and there is no record of viruses closely related to the coronavirus in any laboratory before December 2019.
The report is based largely on a visit by a World Health Organization team of international experts to Wuhan. The mission was never meant to identify the exact natural source of the virus, an endeavor that typically takes years. For instance, more than 40 years of study has still failed to pinpoint the exact species of bat that are the natural reservoir of Ebola.
In the draft obtained by the AP, the researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood for the emergence of the new coronavirus. Topping the list was a transmission from bats through another animal, which they said was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely and said that spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products as possible but not likely.
That last possibility was previously dismissed by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but researchers on this mission have taken it up again, further raising questions about the politicization of the study since China has long pushed the theory.
While it’s possible an infected animal contaminated packaging that was then brought to Wuhan and infected humans, the report said the probability is very low.
Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said even that “very low probability” was an overstatement.
“There’s no compelling evidence of people actually being infected through packaging,” he said, calling the theory “far-fetched.”
Woolhouse said it was possible the source of COVID-19 might never be identified.
“The emergence of a new (disease) is always a sequence of unlikely events,” he said. “It’s hard to be definitive and rule anything out.” But he said most scientists agree that bats are the most likely source.
Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and, in fact, the closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats.
The report said highly similar viruses have been found in pangolins, a scaly anteater prized in traditional Chinese medicine, but scientists have yet to identify the same coronavirus in animals that have been infecting humans.
The AP received the draft copy on Monday from a Geneva-based diplomat from a WHO-member country. It wasn’t clear whether the report might still be changed before its release, though the diplomat said it was the final version. A second diplomat confirmed getting the report, too. Both refused to be identified because they were not authorized to release it ahead of publication.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged he had received the report over the weekend and said it would be formally presented Tuesday.
“All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies,” he said at a news conference.
The report is inconclusive on whether the outbreak started at a Wuhan seafood market that had one of the earliest clusters of human cases in December 2019. Research published last year in the journal Lancet suggested the market may have merely served to further spread the disease rather than being its source.
The market was an early suspect because some stalls sold a range of unusual animals — and some wondered if they had brought the new virus to Wuhan. The report noted that animal products — including everything from bamboo rats to deer, often frozen — were sold at the market, as were live crocodiles. (VOA/KB)
An international team of astronomers has identified 366 new exoplanets, using data from the NASA Kepler Space Telescope's K2 mission.
The findings, described in a paper published in the Astronomical Journal, showed a planetary system that comprises a star and at least two gas giant planets, each roughly the size of Saturn and located unusually close to one another.
The discovery is significant because it's rare to find gas giants -- like Saturn in the solar system -- as close to their host star as they were in this case.
The researchers cannot yet explain why it occurred there, but it makes the finding especially useful because it could help scientists form a more accurate understanding of the parameters for how planets and planetary systems develop.
"The discovery of each new world provides a unique glimpse into the physics that play a role in planet formation," said lead author Jon Zink, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar.
The findings could be a significant step toward helping astronomers understand which types of stars are most likely to have planets orbiting them and what that indicates about the building blocks needed for successful planet formation, acoording to the study.
"We need to look at a wide range of stars, not just ones like our sun, to understand that," Zink said.
The term "exoplanets" is used to describe planets outside of the solar system. The number of exoplanets that have been identified by astronomers numbers fewer than 5,000 in all, so the identification of hundreds of new ones is a significant advance.
Kepler's original mission came to an unexpected end in 2013 when a mechanical failure left the spacecraft unable to precisely point at the patch of sky it had been observing for years.
But astronomers repurposed the telescope for a new mission known as K2, whose objective is to identify exoplanets near distant stars. Data from K2 is helping scientists understand how stars' location in the galaxy influences what kind of planets are able to form around them. (IANS/JB)
By Venkatachari Jagannathan
Officials of the Indian space sector, both serving and retired, are of the view that the space sector's organisational structure is expected to mirror that of India's atomic energy sector.
They also said that senior officials of the Indian space agency should address the employees on what is happening in the sector and how it will pan out so that uncertainty and confusion are addressed.
In the Indian atomic energy sector, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is at the top, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the sectoral regulator while the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), the Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (both power companies), the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd, the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, and IREL (India) Ltd are public sector units (PSU).
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The Bhabha Atomic Energy Centre (BARC), Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) are the premier research and development (R&D) organizations and there are several DAE-aided organizations.
While the DAE is headed by a Secretary (normally from the R&D units) who is also the head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the R&D centres and PSUs are headed by different persons.
Similarly, the government that has started the space sector reforms seems to be replicating the atomic energy model, several officials told IANS.
"The Central government's moves in the space sector seems to replicate the atomic energy model," an official told IANS.
Currently, the Department of Space (DOS) is at the top and below that, comes the private sector space regulator Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) with various R&D-cum-production (rockets, satellites and others) units.
The sector has two PSUs - Antrix Corporation Ltd and NewSpace India Ltd.
Unlike the atomic energy sector, the Secretary of the DOS and Chairman of the Space Commission is also the Chairman of the ISRO.
As part of the space sector reform measures, the government has set up IN-SPACe as a regulator for the private sector players.
"Ultimately there will be only one sectoral regulator. There cannot be two regulators - one for the private sector and other for the public sector. Who will be the regulator if there is a company that is floated in public-private partnership," an official asked.
"It is good that there is a separate sectoral regulator outside of the DOS and the ISRO," an official said.
The recently-formed PSU NewSpace India has been mandated to build, own satellites, rockets and also provide space based services and transfer ISRO-developed technologies to others.
ISRO Chairman and Secretary DOS K.Sivan has been saying that ISRO will focus on high end research.
As a result, the positions of Secretary, DOS and Chairman, ISRO may not be held by the same person.
"Looking forward, there are possibilities of the government coming out with a voluntary retirement scheme for ISRO officials and merging its various production centres with NewSpace to synergise its operations," a former senior official of ISRO told IANS.
"But there is one issue in this proposition. For ISRO, the production centres are also its R&D centre. Both production and R&D are interwoven. One has to see how both will be separated to be housed under ISRO and NewSpace India."
Meanwhile, the minds of ISRO officials are filled with uncertainty and confusion about their future which is linked to that of their organization.
ISRO Staff Association General Secretary G.R.Pramod had told IANS that there is "uncertainty all around about the future of about 17,300 employees of ISRO".
"The ISRO top management that includes the Chairman and the Heads of various centres should come out openly and address the employee concerns at the earliest," an official added.
Space sector reforms are a much-needed move on the part of the government. | Unsplash
Also read: ISO: Achievements and History
According to officials, the uncertainty in the minds of ISRO officials is due to the communication from the government to freeze all recruitment as sectoral reforms are underway - allowing the private sector players in making and launching of satellites and rockets.
The ISRO officials also told IANS that promotions for several categories were kept on hold for the past two years. The promotion exercise for some has been carried out recently.
"Further the number of rocket launches this year from India came down drastically to just two from six or seven per year at an average. Out of two one critical mission for the country had failed," an official said.
However, the unanimous view is that the space sector reforms are a much-needed move on the part of the government so that the resources are used economically.
"For a long time, satellite utilization was an issue. Perhaps the satellites will be launched based on the demand from now onwards. The days of launching a satellite to utilize the rockets and then, searching for customers should be over," an official remarked.
Curiously, officials said all these years, ISRO had not approached its commercial arm Antrix to find out what the market needs so that it can build and launch such satellites.(IANS/PR)
Keywords: Atomic Energy, Satellite, ISRO, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), DOS
Twitter has announced to ban sharing of private media, such as photos and videos, without permission from the individuals that are shown in those images.
The micro-blogging platform already covers explicit instances of abusive behaviour under its policies, the expansion of the policy will allow the platform to take action on media that is shared without any explicit abusive content, provided it's posted without the consent of the person depicted.
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"Sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person's privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm," Twitter said in a blog post late on Tuesday.
"The misuse of private media can affect everyone, but can have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities. When we receive a report that a Tweet contains unauthorised private media, we will now take action in line with our range of enforcement options," the company informed.
Under the existing policy, publishing other people's private information, such as phone numbers, addresses, and IDs, is already not allowed on Twitter.
This includes threatening to expose private information or incentivising others to do so.
"There are growing concerns about the misuse of media and information that is not available elsewhere online as a tool to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of individuals," Twitter said.
When Twitter is notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorised representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, it removes it.
Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced his resignation | Unsplash
Also read: Twitter to label Accounts of Government
This policy is not applicable to media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.
The expansion of the policy came after Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced his resignation, with Indian-origin CTO Parag Agrawal taking over the position.
Twitter in September rolled out a feature called Safety Mode that temporarily blocks certain accounts for seven days if they are found insulting users or repeatedly sending hateful remarks.
Keywords: Twitter, Feature, Private media, Permission