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Video: A Colorful 'landing' On Pluto

What would it be like to actually land on Pluto? This movie was made from more than 100 images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft over six weeks of approach and close flyby in the summer of 2015. The video offers a trip down onto the surface of Pluto—starting with ....
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Unprepared For Pandemic


      A global alliance is investing $500 million to stop the spread

      of deadly outbreaks we are utterly unprepared for

      That's four lives saved. (Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

      NOTE: In a separate article I posted two days ago, one of the risks in repeal (without replacement) of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is that it would eliminate $1 billion in funds for the already cash-strapped programs tasked with combatting bioterrorism and pandemic.)


      By Akshat Rathi


      January 18, 2017

      One of the biggest nightmares for those tasked with worrying about humanity’s future is a pandemic. A fast-spreading, high-mortality pathogen that doesn’t care about national borders could bring the world to a halt in a way that even the largest natural disaster is not capable of: killing millions and hurting the world economy more than the recent Great Recession.

      And, yet, despite knowing the scale of the threat we’re facing, the world is ill-prepared to prevent epidemics or deal with them once they’ve begun. That’s a realization we’ve only come to recently, thanks to the Ebola epidemic, which caused 11,000 deaths, and the current wave of Zika that is estimated to leave just as many newborns severely handicapped for the rest of their lives. Together, these two epidemics alone have already cost the world economy billions of dollars.

      But it’s not all doom and gloom. We know what we need to do stop such pandemics from causing havocs: develop vaccines.

      The Ebola epidemic showed that, if we have the right system in place, it’s possible to come up with new vaccines quickly. All we need to do is take the next step: create vaccines in preparation for when an outbreak strikes, rather than reacting after it begins spreading.

      At the World Economic Forum in Davos, a global alliance announced today that it has secured nearly $500 million to do just that. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), created by governments and nonprofits, has identified a key gap: though the World Health Organization (WHO) knows which diseases we need to prepare for, we don’t actually have vaccines for them. CEPI aims to use the money to fill the gap that is stopping the crucial development of such vaccines.

      Why doesn’t Big Pharma do it?

      Pharmaceutical companies make money from helping people live better lives. They also invest more money into research and development (R&D), as a proportion of profits, than companies in any other high-tech industry. These investments often result in big losses when drugs fail in clinical trials—but when a drug succeeds, it can lead to billions of dollars in profit. So, in theory, they should be more than willing to develop and test new vaccines.

      But in recent years pharma companies are getting less return on their R&D investment. Lower profits have caused some of these companies to take extreme steps, such as promoting drugs for indications they have not been approved for.

      On top of that, investments in vaccines is especially risky. If there isn’t an outbreak, there is no way to recoup the cost of developing vaccines. In other words, the vaccine gap exists because there’s no real incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to work on them.

      What’s up with the WHO?

      Given that pharma companies are not up to task, it seems leadership on vaccine development should fall to the World Health Organization, the group charged with advancing public-health globally. But it’s not that simple.

      There are two reasons why the WHO isn’t able to do the job, according to John-Arne Røttingen, CEO of CEPI: First, the WHO doesn’t have the kind of money needed to invest in vaccine development. Second, and more crucially, is a conflict of interest. The WHO is the organization that provides countries with the regulatory framework for vaccine development; they can’t also be the one to develop vaccines. It would compromise the ability of the WHO from assessing a technology, if it were also incentivized to develop its own sets of technologies.

      It takes a public-private partnership to make vaccines financially viable, says Rajeev Venkayya of Takeda Pharmaceuticals, the Japan-based pharma company that is Asia’s largest. “In case of our polio vaccine, the Gates Foundation is funding all of the research and development,” he says. “That allows us to provide 50 million shots of the vaccines to low-income countries at a very affordable price.”

      The long history of polio is also one of innovative drug-development frameworks. In 1938, a $26 million investment from the US government helped create the polio vaccine. The Harvard University economist Larry Summers argues that it was perhaps the best investment ever made, because it delivered a net benefit of $180 billion in cost savings for health treatments. As he writes in an op-ed for Quartz, “Now we have the opportunity to make a similarly sound investment.”

      So what will CEPI actually do?

      CEPI has signed a memorandum of understanding with the WHO. The alliance will rely on the expertise of the global-health body to guide their work. It’s using the WHO’s priority list to choose which diseases to pursue, and then relying on the WHO’s blueprint—which sets out how to act on priorities, share information, and develop interventions (like vaccines) in preparation for an epidemic—to drive the R&D agenda.

      For CEPI that means producing “just-in-case” vaccine candidates for three diseases to start: Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Lassa fever, and Nipah. (Dengue, influenza and Zika didn’t make the cut because they are already well-served by pharma companies.)

      This will involve working with pharmaceutical companies to push promising candidates through animal trials and then small trials on humans. That way, if a MERS outbreak occurs, it will take only a few months to test those vaccine candidates in the last phase of a clinical trial (testing it on thousands of humans) and push them out to markets quickly if found to be safe and effective. In contrast, the fastest we’ve been able to achieve such a feat was in the case of Ebola, where we had a fully effective vaccine two years after the outbreak began.

      The alliance will also work on “just-in-time” approaches to deal with unknown viruses. These will involve development of new technologies, such as DNA-constructs that allow scientists to quickly identify a virus and produce a candidate vaccine. This is not science fiction. A company called CureVac, which the Gates Foundation has invested in, is already making progress. If such technologies are successful, Røttingen says, CEPI will make them available to all pharmaceutical companies working with the alliance.

      Both these approaches will require working closely with pharmaceutical companies and biotech startups, and that means having the money to incentivize them. CEPI has now raised $460 million in committed funds from the governments of Norway, Japan, Germany, and India, as well as commitments from the European Commission, the Wellcome Trust, and the Gates Foundation. It aims to raise a total of $1 billion by seeking new partners—Røttingen says CEPI is currently in talks with the US and UK governments.

      With big names and plenty of money on the table, it’s no surprise that pharmaceutical companies are ready to talk new vaccines candidates. CEPI partners now include GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Sanofi. The next step is for CEPI to start a competitive phase, where they’ll take funding proposals from pharmaceutical companies for development of candidate vaccines for the first three diseases.

      There hasn’t been a coalition like CEPI before, so nobody knows if it will succeed. But regardless of success, the fact that the biggest health charities, pharma companies, and governments are interested in working together means we’ll finally make progress on preparing a defense against deadly pandemics. It’s never too late to buy insurance.

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      Pundit Post

      2016 Hottest Year Ever Recorded


          2016 hottest year ever recorded

          – and scientists say human activity to blame

          Final data confirms record-breaking temperatures for third year in a row

          Earth has not been this warm for 115,000 years

          By Damian Carrington

          The Guardian

          January 18, 2017

          2016 was the hottest year on record, setting a new high for the third year in a row, with scientists firmly putting the blame on human activities that drive climate change.

          The final data for 2016 was released on Wednesday by the three key agencies – the UK Met Office and NASA and NOAA in the US – and showed 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century.

          Direct temperature measurements stretch back to 1880, but scientific research indicates the world was last this warm about 115,000 years ago and that the planet has not experienced such high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 4 million years.

          In 2016, global warming delivered scorching temperatures around the world.

          The resulting extreme weather means the impacts of climate change on people are coming sooner and with more ferocity than expected, according to scientists.

          The natural El Niño climate phenomenon, which helped ramp up temperatures to “shocking” levels in early 2016, has now waned, but carbon emissions were the major factor and will continue to drive rising heat.

          Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said: “El Niño was a factor this year, but both 2015 and 2016 would have been records even without it.” He said about 90% of the warming signal in 2016 was due to rising greenhouse gas emissions. He expects 2017 to be another extremely hot year.

          The new data shows the Earth has now risen about 1.1C above the levels seen before the industrial revolution, when large-scale fossil fuel burning began. This brings it perilously close to the 1.5C target included as an aim of the global climate agreement signed in Paris in December 2015.

          The declaration of 2016 as a year of record-breaking heat comes just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president. Trump has called global warming a hoax and is filling his administration with climate change deniers and former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson. Tillerson said recently that climate change does exist but that the ability to predict the effects of greenhouse gas emissions is “very limited”, a statement most climate scientists would reject.

          Trump’s team has said it will strip away funding for “politically correct environmental monitoring”.

          Presenting the 2016 temperature data, Derek Arndt, at NOAA, said only: “We present this assessment for the benefit of the American people.”

          The three temperature records are independent but reached very similar conclusions. “The datasets are all singing the same song, said Arndt. The data from NOAA showed a run of 16 successive months from May 2015 to August 2016 when the global average temperature broke or equaled previous records, while no land area experienced an annual average temperature in 2016 that was cooler than 20th-century average.

          NOAA also found Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest annual average extent on record and Antarctic sea ice to the second smallest extent on record.

          The warming in the Arctic in 2016 was “astounding”, Schmidt said.

          Prof Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said: “The spate of record-warm years that we have seen in the 21st century can only be explained by human-caused climate change. The effect of human activity on our climate is no longer subtle. It’s plain as day, as are the impacts – in the form of record floods, droughts, super-storms and wildfires – that it is having on us and our planet.”

          “While there may be some cost in mitigating climate change, there are already major costs in damages,” said Prof Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, who estimates the costs as already tens of billions of dollars a year. “Yet if sensible approaches are implemented in the right way for [cutting emissions] and building resilience, the increases in energy efficiency can actually make it a net gain, not only for the planet for for everyone.”

          Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, said: “Any politician who denies this evidence from world-class climate scientists will be wilfully turning a blind eye to rising risks that threaten the lives and livelihoods of their citizens.

          “I hope that president-elect Trump and his team in particular will acknowledge and act on this important scientific information.”

          A photograph of a melting glacier in Patagonia, Argentina, February 2016


          The head of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Petteri Taalas, said in November: “The extra heat from the powerful El Niño event has disappeared. The heat from global warming will continue. Because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen. ‘Once in a generation’ heatwaves and flooding are becoming more regular.”

          A WMO report said human-induced global warming had contributed to at least half the extreme weather events studied in recent years, with the risk of extreme heat increasing by 10 times in some cases.

          The record-smashing temperatures in 2016 led to searing heatwaves across the year: a new high of 42.7C (108.9F) was recorded in Pretoria, South Africa in January; Mae Hong Son in Thailand saw 44.6C (112.3F) on 28 April; Phalodi in India reached 51.0C (123.8F) in May, and Mitribah in Kuwait recorded 54.0C(129.2F) in July. Warm oceans saw coral mortality of up to 50% in parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and bleaching of 75% of Japan’s biggest reef.

          The level of CO2 in the atmosphere also broke records in 2016, with May seeing the highest monthly value yet – 407.7 ppm – at Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, the site of the longest-running measurements dating back to 1958.

          Global carbon emissions have barely grown in the last three years, after decades of strong growth, according to an analysis published in November. The main reason is China burning less coal, but CO2 is still being emitted into the atmosphere at record levels. “CO2 will continue to rise and cause the planet to warm until emissions are cut down to near zero,” said Prof Corinne Le Quéré at the University of East Anglia.

          Global warning: a live digital event, Thursday 19 January, 7am GMT

          Amid fears Donald Trump’s administration will shatter decades of hard-won progress on climate change, the Guardian, Univision and Tumblr are uniting to deliver 24 hours of live coverage from around the world on what is at stake. Hours from Trump taking power, we will be reporting from all seven continents, in English and Spanish, hearing from those most affected, and finding out how we can all help protect the planet.

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