Fresh COVID-19 Outbreaks Put Millions Under Lockdown in China

Tens of millions of people were under lockdown across China on Wednesday and businesses in a major tourist city were forced to close as fresh COVID-19 clusters sparked fears of wider restrictions. 

Chinese health authorities have reported more than 300 infections in the historic northern city of Xian, home to the Terracotta Army, with new clusters found in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere. 

The outbreaks and official response have dashed hopes that China would move away from the strict virus curbs seen earlier this year, when its hardline zero-COVID policy saw tens of millions forced to stay home for weeks. 

In Shanghai, some social media users reported receiving government food rations, a throwback to the monthslong confinement forced on the city’s residents earlier this year. 

“I’m so nervous, the epidemic has destroyed my youth,” posted a Shanghai-based user on Weibo. 

Mass testing

Officials launched a new round of mass testing in more than half of the city’s districts after a rebound in cases since the weekend.  

All karaoke bars were closed Wednesday after some infections were linked to six venues. 

“I think this is unnecessary, and I don’t really want to do it,” Shanghai resident Alice Chan told AFP. 

She said she took part in the latest testing round over fears that her smartphone-stored health code, which is used to access public spaces, might otherwise flag her as a COVID risk. 

“I think the situation won’t improve in the short term,” said another resident, who gave his name as Yao. “People now aren’t really scared of COVID anymore, they’re scared of being locked down in their homes.” 

‘Temporary control’

Japanese bank Nomura has estimated that at least 114 million people were under full or partial lockdowns nationwide in China as of Monday, a sharp jump from last week’s 66.7 million. 

The recent resurgences pose a fresh challenge for President Xi Jinping, who last week reaffirmed his commitment to the zero-COVID strategy despite the mounting economic cost. 

In Xian,  a city of 13 million that endured a monthlong lockdown last year, the population was placed under “temporary control measures” after 29 infections were found since Saturday, mostly among recycling workers. 

The city government said it would close entertainment venues including pubs, internet cafes and karaoke bars starting at midnight on Wednesday. 

State media showed Xian residents queuing up for tests past midnight Tuesday but said the city was not under lockdown. 

Officials have blamed the outbreak on a subvariant of omicron, which is more transmissible and immune evasive. 

“The positive infections are all the BA.5.2 branch of the omicron variant, and epidemiological tracing work is still in full swing,” Xian health official Ma Chaofeng said at a briefing. 

Tighter vaccination requirements

In Beijing, officials said Wednesday that the BA.5.2 branch has also been detected in the capital, but stressed the outbreak remains controllable. 

But the city will tighten vaccination requirements starting Monday, health official Li Ang told reporters. 

Visitors to places including museums, sports centers, libraries and cinemas must be vaccinated unless exempt, Li said. 

The city is also pushing to get more retirees vaccinated, saying those who visit centers for the elderly must be jabbed as soon as possible. 

China’s biggest cluster is in the central province of Anhui, where more than 1,000 infections have been reported since last week. 

Dozens of cases have also been recorded in Jiangsu province, neighboring Shanghai, threatening the Yangtze Delta manufacturing region. 

“A resurgence of omicron is not an issue in most other countries, but it remains a predominant issue for the Chinese economy,” warned Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura. 

A Scramble as Last Mississippi Abortion Clinic Shuts Its Doors

 Mississippi’s only abortion clinic has been buzzing with activity in the chaotic days since the U.S. Supreme Court upended abortion rights nationwide — a case that originated in this conservative Deep South state — with this bright-pink medical facility closing its doors Wednesday. 

Physicians at Jackson Women’s Health Organization have been trying to see as many patients as possible before Thursday, when, barring an unlikely intervention by the state’s conservative Supreme Court, Mississippi will enact a law to ban most abortions. 

Amid stifling summer heat and humidity, clashes intensified Wednesday between anti-abortion protesters and volunteers escorting patients into the clinic, best known as the Pink House. 

When Dr. Cheryl Hamlin, who has traveled from Boston for five years to perform abortions, walked outside the Pink House, an abortion opponent used a bullhorn to yell at her. 

“Repent! Repent!” Doug Lane shouted at her. 

His words were drowned out by abortion rights supporter Beau Black, who repeatedly screamed at Lane: “Hypocrites and Pharisees! Hypocrites and Pharisees!” 

Abortion access has become increasingly limited across wide swaths of the U.S. as conservative states enact restrictions or bans that took effect when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. 

The court, reshaped by three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump, issued the ruling June 24. But the Mississippi clinic has been inundated with patients since September, when Texas enacted a ban on abortion early in pregnancy. 

Cars with license plates from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas have been driving through Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood to bring women and girls — some of whom appeared to be teenagers — to the Pink House. Drivers parked on side streets near the clinic in the shade of pink and purple crepe myrtles, their car air-conditioners blasting as they waited. 

Diane Derzis, who has owned the Mississippi clinic since 2010, drove to Jackson to speak at the Pink House hours after the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. 

“It’s been such an honor and a privilege to be in Mississippi. I’ve come to love this state and the people in it,” Derzis told those gathered in the sweltering heat. 

The Supreme Court ruling was in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the clinic’s challenge of a 2018 Mississippi law to ban most abortions after 15 weeks. The Pink House had been doing abortions through 16 weeks, but under previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, abortion was allowed to the point of fetal viability, about 24 weeks. 

Mississippi’s top public health official, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, was named in the lawsuit, but has not taken a public position on the case. The state’s Republican attorney general urged justices to use the case to overturn Roe v. Wade and give states more power to regulate or ban abortion. 

Derzis told The Associated Press after the ruling that she didn’t regret filing the lawsuit that eventually undercut nearly five decades of abortion case law. 

“We didn’t have a choice. And if it hadn’t been this lawsuit, it would have been another one,” said Derzis, who also owns abortion clinics in Georgia and Virginia, and lives in Alabama. 

The Mississippi clinic uses out-of-state physicians like Dr. Hamlin because no in-state doctors will work there. 

As the Pink House prepared to close, Dr. Hamlin said she worries about women living in deep poverty in parts of the state with little access to health care. 

“People say, ‘Oh, what am I supposed to do?'” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Vote.'” 

Shannon Brewer, the Pink House director, agrees low-income women will be most affected because they will be unable to get abortions in-state. 

Some staffers were expected to be in the Pink House on Thursday for paperwork ahead of its closure, but no procedures. 

Derzis and Brewer will soon open an abortion clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about an hour’s drive from El Paso, Texas, — calling it Pink House West. Hamlin said she is getting licensed in New Mexico so she can work there. 

Mississippi and New Mexico are two of the poorest states in the U.S. but have vastly different positions on abortion politics and access. 

Home to a Democratic-led legislature and governor, New Mexico recently took an extra step to protect providers and patients from out-of-state prosecutions. It’s likely to continue to see a steady influx of people seeking abortions from neighboring states with more restrictive abortion laws. 

One of the largest abortion providers in Texas, Whole Woman’s Health, announced Wednesday that it is also planning to reopen in New Mexico in a city near the state line, to provide first- and second-trimester abortions. It began winding down operations in Texas after a ruling Friday by the state Supreme Court that forced an end to abortions at its four clinics.

WHO: Monkeypox Outbreak Grows to More Than 6,000 Cases

The World Health Organization says more than 6,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 58 countries, with over 80% of the cases in Europe.

The WHO was expected to determine whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, the highest level of alert, later this month, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference from Geneva Wednesday.

“I continue to be concerned by the scale and spread of the virus across the world,” Tedros said, adding that because of a lack of testing, many cases are being unreported.

The viral infection, which is endemic in Africa, is normally mild and similar to the flu, but can cause skin lesions. The current outbreak began in May. It is unclear what the fatality rate of the current strain is, but previous strains have been about 1%.

Most cases of the virus have been in 21- to 40-year-old males, many of whom have sex with other men, said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe in a Friday statement.

But he added that “small numbers of cases have also now been reported among household members, heterosexual contacts, and nonsexual contacts, as well as among children.”

There have been no reported deaths from monkeypox in the U.S., The Associated Press reported.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters and The Associated Press.

Africa’s IGAD Bloc Seeks Support to Feed Millions Amid Severe Drought

Members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional bloc that includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, met Tuesday in Nairobi to discuss humanitarian, political, and security issues in the region.

The humanitarian situation that has made more than 23 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia food insecure took center stage at IGAD’s 39th head of state and government meeting. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said the countries in the region need to combat the drought situation.

“The drought, the worst in 40 years, has intensified food insecurity, dried up water resources and forced displacement of people, raising tensions that could trigger new conflicts,” said Kenyatta. “We urgently need to manage the drought before it becomes a threat multiplier.”

Some parts of the region have had four consecutive seasons without rain, forcing millions to move in search of food, water and pasture. Sudan’s leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said the drought greatly affects the region and people’s lives.

“If we do not handle the drought situation, it’s going to be the worst we have seen in 40 years,” said the leader. “Drought is killing our people and livestock. The drought has also become a reason for our under development.”

Experts predict the region may fail to get any rain between October and December. Amina Abdulla is the regional director for the Horn of Africa at Concern Worldwide, an Irish humanitarian agency. She recently warned that without urgent humanitarian assistance to millions, the region risks losing 350,000 children to hunger. In Somalia, eight areas are at risk of famine and at least 200,000 children have died due to malnutrition since January.

Climate change and conflict are also blamed on the region’s food insecurity. Bankole Adeoye, the African Union’s commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, assured the IGAD members of the bloc’s support to mitigate the effects of the drought.

“The humanitarian situation, which has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and by the drought being experienced in many parts of the region, is concerning and the African Union herewith pledges African solidarity and collective responsibility,” said Adeoye. “It’s for us all to continue to fight the glaring effect of climate change in the world today. The African Union is ready to mobilize African and international partners to fight this scourge and to promote sustainable growth and development.”

Humanitarian agencies estimate 5 million children in the Horn of Africa region are malnourished, with 30 percent experiencing severe malnutrition. The European Union ambassador to Kenya, Henriette Geiger, told IGAD leaders that efforts are being made to get much-needed food from Ukraine.

“The security situation in the region is aggravated by unprecedented drought in the Horn and by Russian aggression, which caused the global food crisis,” said Geiger. “In Europe, we are working with the U.N. to transport grain out of Ukraine and the European Union, and its member states pledged over 630 million euros [$648 million] recently to strengthen food systems and resilience here in the Horn of Africa.”

The United Nations says it needs at least $4.4 billion to provide assistance until next month. But the donor support has fallen short of the targets.

New US Study Helps Demystify Long COVID Brain Fog

A small new study published Tuesday by scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health suggests that the immune response triggered by coronavirus infections damages the brain’s blood vessels and could be responsible for long COVID symptoms.

The paper, published in the journal Brain, was based on brain autopsies from nine people who died suddenly after contracting the virus.

Rather than detecting evidence of COVID in the brain, the team found it was the people’s own antibodies that attacked the cells lining the brain’s blood vessels, causing inflammation and damage.

This discovery could explain why some people have lingering effects from infection including headache, fatigue, loss of taste and smell, and inability to sleep as well as “brain fog” — and may also help devise new treatments for long COVID.

NIH scientist Avindra Nath, the paper’s senior author, said in a statement: “Patients often develop neurological complications with COVID-19, but the underlying pathophysiological process is not well understood.

“We had previously shown blood vessel damage and inflammation in patients’ brains at autopsy, but we didn’t understand the cause of the damage. I think in this paper we’ve gained important insight into the cascade of events.”

The nine individuals, ages 24 to 73, were selected from the team’s earlier study because they showed evidence of blood vessel damage in their brains based on scans.

Their brains were compared to those from 10 control individuals.

The scientists discovered that antibodies produced against COVID-19 mistakenly targeted cells that form the blood-brain barrier, a structure designed to keep harmful invaders out of the brain while allowing necessary substances to pass.

Damage to these cells can cause leakage of proteins, bleeding and clots, which elevates the risk of stroke.

The leaks also trigger immune cells called macrophages to rush to the site to repair damage, causing inflammation.

The team found that normal cellular processes in the areas targeted by the attack were severely disrupted, which had implications for things such as their ability to detoxify and to regulate metabolism.

The findings offer clues about the biology at play in patients with long-term neurological symptoms, and can inform new treatments, for example, a drug that targets the buildup of antibodies on the blood-brain barrier.

“It is quite possible that this same immune response persists in long COVID patients resulting in neuronal injury,” Nath said.

This would mean that a drug that dials down that immune response could help those patients, he added. “So these findings have very important therapeutic implications.”

Alarm Over Oceans Heat Up Europe’s Summertime Politics

There is growing alarm among European and other environmentalists over what they say is governments’ failure to ensure healthy oceans, which are vital for food, jobs, biodiversity and clean air.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls it an “ocean emergency.”

“Global heating is pushing ocean temperature to record levels, creating fiercer and more frequent storms,” he said. “Sea levels are rising, low-lying island nations face inundation, and some 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year.”

Those are just some of the threats facing the oceans, which cover 70% of the Earth’s surface. Overfishing, shipping and ocean wind turbines also pressure marine ecosystems.

At an ocean conference in Lisbon last week, Guterres and others called for faster, stronger protection measures. But green groups claim the meeting failed to deliver real progress.

Environmentalists hope for better results next month, when countries resume discussions on a global agreement to protect critical ocean ecosystems.

For some, that includes a ban on deep sea mining, which could start as early as 2023.

While countries like China are exploring mining opportunities, critics claim the practice could destroy fragile seabeds and ecosystems. Those critics include President Emmanuel Macron of France.

“I think we have to create the legal framework to stop the high sea mining, and to not allow new activities putting in danger these ecosystems,” Macron said. “We know almost nothing about the deep sea. We don’t know a lot about the ecosystem. It’s a very complex and slow ecosystem. It takes decades or even more for animals to grow.”

Tobias Troll, marine policy director for Seas at Risk, an umbrella group of more than 30 European environmental associations, said: “Imagine you put these robots down there — it can trigger all kinds of effects on this ecosystem which can trigger up into the food chain.”

In Europe and elsewhere, green groups are pushing countries to meet the ocean promises they’ve already made. That includes the European Union’s 2030 healthy oceans goals. A new environmental report card by six EU nonprofits finds the bloc met just one of eight progress markers last year.

“I think the underlying problem of the situation … is that there is a significant lack of policy coherence around EU legislation around the ocean,” Troll said. “For example, we have the marine strategy framework or the fisheries policy, but they don’t really work together.”

Troll said EU countries are also overselling the progress they’ve made. Marine protection is a case in point, he said, with only a tiny fraction of Europe’s marine habitat truly protected, contrary to official claims.

Ukrainian Mathematician Second Woman to Win Prestigious Mathematics Prize 

Ukrainian mathematician Maryna Viazovska on Tuesday became just the second woman to receive the prestigious Fields Medal, described as the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

The 37-year-old Viazovska, received the medal during a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, along with three other mathematicians: 36-year-old Hugo Duminil-Copin of the University of Geneva, 39-year-old Korean-American June Huh of Princeton University, and 35-year-old British mathematician James Maynard of the University of Oxford.

The International Mathematical Union, which administers the Fields Medal, cited Viazovska, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, for her 2016 discovery that equal-sized spheres can be stacked symmetrically in the eighth dimension and higher. Her discovery proved a theory first proposed by German astronomer and philosopher Johannes Kepler more than 400 years ago.

The Fields Medal is awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40 years old.

The late Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran was the first woman to win the medal in 2014.

The ceremony was initially scheduled to be held in Saint Petersburg, Russia during a meeting of the International Congress of Mathematicians. But it was moved to the Finnish capital after hundreds of mathematicians signed an open letter protesting the choice of Saint Petersburg after Russia invaded Viazovska’s native Ukraine in February.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.