Uganda Says Ebola Caseload Rises to 16 as Outbreak Grows

Uganda said on Sunday its Ebola caseload had jumped to 16 people while a further 18 people also likely had the disease, fueling fears of a spreading outbreak that involves a strain for which a vaccine has not yet been found.

In a tweet, the Ministry of Health also said the death toll of confirmed cases remained four while 17 others classified as probable cases had also died. The outbreak had also now spread to three districts, all in central Uganda.

The east African country last week announced the outbreak of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever whose symptoms include intense body weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea and rashes among others.

The current outbreak, attributed to the Ebola Sudan strain, appears to have started in a small village in Mubende district around the beginning of September, authorities have said.

The first casualty was a 24-year old man who died earlier this week.

The World Health Organization says the Ebola Sudan strain is less transmissible and has shown a lower fatality rate in previous outbreaks than Ebola Zaire, a strain that killed nearly 2,300 people in the 2018-2020 epidemic in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Why is a NASA Spacecraft Crashing Into an Asteroid?

In the first-of-its kind, save-the-world experiment, NASA is about to clobber a small, harmless asteroid millions of miles away.

A spacecraft named Dart will zero in on the asteroid Monday, intent on slamming it head-on at 14,000 mph (22,500 kph). The impact should be just enough to nudge the asteroid into a slightly tighter orbit around its companion space rock — demonstrating that if a killer asteroid ever heads our way, we’d stand a fighting chance of diverting it.

“This is stuff of science-fiction books and really corny episodes of “StarTrek” from when I was a kid, and now it’s real,” NASA program scientist Tom Statler said Thursday.

Cameras and telescopes will watch the crash, but it will take days or even weeks to find out if it actually changed the orbit.

The $325 million planetary defense test began with Dart’s launch last fall.

Asteroid target

The asteroid with the bull’s-eye on it is Dimorphos, about 7 million miles (9.6 million kilometers) from Earth. It is actually the puny sidekick of a 2,500-foot (780-meter) asteroid named Didymos, Greek for twin. Discovered in 1996, Didymos is spinning so fast that scientists believe it flung off material that eventually formed a moonlet. Dimorphos — roughly 525 feet (160 meters) across — orbits its parent body at a distance of less than a mile (1.2 kilometers).

“This really is about asteroid deflection, not disruption,” said Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and mission team leader at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the effort. “This isn’t going to blow up the asteroid. It isn’t going to put it into lots of pieces.” Rather, the impact will dig out a crater tens of yards (meters) in size and hurl some 2 million pounds (1 million kilograms) of rocks and dirt into space.

NASA insists there’s a zero chance either asteroid will threaten Earth — now or in the future. That’s why the pair was picked.

Dart, the impactor

The Johns Hopkins lab took a minimalist approach in developing Dart — short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test — given that it’s essentially a battering ram and faces sure destruction. It has a single instrument: a camera used for navigating, targeting and chronicling the final action. Believed to be essentially a rubble pile, Dimorphos will emerge as a point of light an hour before impact, looming larger and larger in the camera images beamed back to Earth. Managers are confident Dart won’t smash into the larger Didymos by mistake. The spacecraft’s navigation is designed to distinguish between the two asteroids and, in the final 50 minutes, target the smaller one.

The size of a small vending machine at 1,260 pounds (570 kilograms), the spacecraft will slam into roughly 11 billion pounds (5 billion kilograms) of asteroid. “Sometimes we describe it as running a golf cart into a Great Pyramid,” said Chabot.

Unless Dart misses — NASA puts the odds of that happening at less than 10% — it will be the end of the road for Dart. If it goes screaming past both space rocks, it will encounter them again in a couple years for Take 2.

Saving earth

Little Dimorphos completes a lap around big Didymos every 11 hours and 55 minutes. The impact by Dart should shave about 10 minutes off that. Although the strike itself should be immediately apparent, it could take a few weeks or more to verify the moonlet’s tweaked orbit. Cameras on Dart and a mini tagalong satellite will capture the collision up close. Telescopes on all seven continents, along with the Hubble and Webb space telescopes and NASA’s asteroid-hunting Lucy spacecraft, may see a bright flash as Dart smacks Dimorphos and sends streams of rock and dirt cascading into space. The observatories will track the pair of asteroids as they circle the sun, to see if Dart altered Dimorphos’ orbit. In 2024, a European spacecraft named Hera will retrace Dart’s journey to measure the impact results.

Although the intended nudge should change the moonlet’s position only slightly, that will add up to a major shift over time, according to Chabot. “So if you were going to do this for planetary defense, you would do it five, 10, 15, 20 years in advance in order for this technique to work,” she said. Even if Dart misses, the experiment still will provide valuable insight, said NASA program executive Andrea Riley. “This is why we test. We want to do it now rather than when there’s an actual need,” she said.

Asteroid missions galore

Planet Earth is on an asteroid-chasing roll. NASA has close to a pound (450 grams) of rubble collected from asteroid Bennu headed to Earth. The stash should arrive next September. Japan was the first to retrieve asteroid samples, accomplishing the feat twice. China hopes to follow suit with a mission launching in 2025. NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, meanwhile, is headed to asteroids near Jupiter, after launching last year. Another spacecraft, Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, is loaded into NASA’s new moon rocket awaiting liftoff; it will use a solar sail to fly past a space rock that’s less than 60 feet (18 meters) next year. In the next few years, NASA also plans to launch a census-taking telescope to identify hard-to-find asteroids that could pose risks. One asteroid mission is grounded while an independent review board weighs its future. NASA’s Psyche spacecraft should have launched this year to a metal-rich asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, but the team couldn’t test the flight software in time.

Hollywood’s take

Hollywood has churned out dozens of killer-space-rock movies over the decades, including 1998′s “Armageddon” which brought Bruce Willis to Cape Canaveral for filming, and last year’s “Don’t Look Up” with Leonardo DiCaprio leading an all-star cast. NASA’s planetary defense officer, Lindley Johnson, figures he’s seen them all since 1979′s “Meteor,” his personal favorite “since Sean Connery played me.” While some of the sci-fi films are more accurate than others, he noted, entertainment always wins out. The good news is that the coast seems clear for the next century, with no known threats. Otherwise, “it would be like the movies, right?” said NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen. What’s worrisome, though, are the unknown threats. Fewer than half of the 460-foot (140-meter) objects have been confirmed, with millions of smaller but still-dangerous objects zooming around. “These threats are real, and what makes this time special, is we can do something about it,” Zurbuchen said. Not by blowing up an asteroid as Willis’ character did — that would be a last, last-minute resort — or by begging government leaders to take action as DiCaprio’s character did in vain. If time allows, the best tactic could be to nudge the menacing asteroid out of our way, like Dart.

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Senators Urge Biden to Increase Pressure on North Korea

Two Republican senators have expressed concern to the Biden administration at the growing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“We are troubled by news reports that Russia and North Korea are strengthening their relationship, which will aid [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s unjust and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Hagerty said in their letter dated Thursday. 

“North Korea and Russia have recently agreed to dispatch North Korean laborers to areas in Ukraine seized by Russia,” their letter continued. “We also learned that Russia is attempting to purchase millions of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.”

Rubio and Hagerty urged the Biden administration ”to fully enforce Congressional and multilateral sanctions to increase the pressure on the Kim regime.”

The senators sent the letter  Thursday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Rubio is the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Hagerty is a member of the Senate Banking Committee and the Committee on Foreign Relations.

In response to the senators’ letter, a spokesperson for the State Department told VOA’s Korean Service on Saturday that “it is important for the international community to send a strong, unified message that the DPRK must halt its unlawful actions, abide by its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, and engage in serious and sustained negotiations with the United States.”

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The spokesperson continued, “U.N. sanctions on the DPRK remain in place, and we will continue to encourage all member states to implement them, including through diplomacy at the United Nations and with the DPRK’s neighbors.”

VOA Korean Service contacted North Korea’s U.N. mission in New York City requesting comment on the senators’ letter but has not received a reply. The service also contacted the Russian embassy in Washington ​and its U.N. mission in New York City but has not received a reply.

The U.N. Security Council has sanctioned North Korea against exporting arms in multiple resolutions dating back to 2006, and in December 2017, it passed a resolution banning member states from hiring North Korean workers in response to Pyongyang’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile a month earlier.

The U.S. and its allies and partners sanctioned Russia, excluding it from the global financial system days after its Feb. 21 invasion of Ukraine.

After setbacks in the war, Moscow has turned to Pyongyang for support.

In July, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia that Moscow was willing to hire North Korean workers to rebuild the Russian-controlled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region.

North Korea recognized the Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, on July 14.

According to the U.S. State Department, Russia wants to purchase rockets and artillery shells from North Korea as it runs short on weapons.

During a press briefing on Sept. 6, Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson at the State Department, said, ”The Russian Ministry of Defense is in the process of purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine.”

He added, ”This purchase indicates that the Russian military continues to suffer from severe supply shortages due in part because of export controls and sanctions.”

Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya said that the U.S. claim of Moscow’s arms purchase from Pyongyang is “another fake,” according to Tass, a state-owned news agency.

North Korea said on Thursday it has ”never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia” and “will not plan to export them,” it said in the statement released through KCNA.

The North Korean statement did not address sending workers to the Donbas.

North Korea continued to say it ”never recognized” the U.N. Security Council’s ”unlawful sanctions resolutions” imposed against North Korea ”which was cooked up by the U.S. and its vassal forces.”

If Moscow hires workers and buys weapons from North Korea, it would be violating sanctions it imposed on the regime as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Such transactions would also put North Korea in violation of sanctions designed to prevent Pyongyang from earning much-needed hard currency to finance the development of nuclear missiles and ballistic missiles. 

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Republicans Quiet as Arizona Democrats Condemn Abortion Ruling

Arizona Democrats vowed Saturday to fight for women’s rights after a court reinstated a law first enacted during the Civil War that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances, looking to capitalize on an issue they hope will have a major impact on the midterm elections.

Republican candidates were silent a day after the ruling, which said the state can prosecute doctors and others who assist with an abortion unless it’s necessary to save the mother’s life. Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor, and Blake Masters, the Senate candidate, did not comment.

Katie Hobbs and Kris Mayes, the Democratic nominees for governor and attorney general, implored women not to sit on the sidelines this year, saying the ruling sets them back more than a century to an era when only men had the right to vote.

“We cannot let (Lake) hold public office and have the power to enact extreme anti-choice policies that she’s spent her entire campaign touting,” Hobbs said during a news conference outside the attorney general’s office. “As Arizona’s governor I will do everything in my power and use every tool at my disposal to restore abortion rights in Arizona.”

The ruling presents a new hurdle for Republicans who were already struggling to navigate abortion politics. It fires up Democrats and distracts attention from Republican attacks on President Joe Biden and his record on border security and inflation less than three weeks before the start of early and mail-in voting, which are overwhelmingly popular in Arizona.

Abortion rights are particularly salient among suburban women, who play a decisive role in close elections in Arizona.

“In Arizona, with a draconian abortion law in effect today, I think you will see suburban women take a real look at Democratic candidates who promise to do something even if it’s not in their power,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican consultant.

Democrats have poured tens of millions of dollars into television advertising focused on abortion rights, and women have been registering to vote in greater numbers than men across the country.

The old law was first enacted among a set of laws known as the “Howell Code” adopted by the first Arizona Territorial Legislature in 1864. It has been periodically re-adopted throughout the state’s history, including in 1901 and as recently as the 1970s.

Lake has spoken positively of Arizona’s territorial ban on abortion, which she called “a great law that’s already on the books.” She has called abortion “the ultimate sin” and has also said abortion pills should be illegal.

Masters called abortion “demonic” during the Republican primary and called for a federal personhood law that would give fetuses the rights of people. He’s toned down his rhetoric more recently, deleting references to a personhood law from his campaign website and dropping language describing himself as “100% pro-life.”

More recently, Masters has said he would support a bill proposed by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., that would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the physical health of the mother. He has also said he supports a different Arizona law that seeks to ban abortions at 15 weeks.

Neither the Lake nor Masters campaign responded to requests for comment.

“Their silence speaks volumes,” said Mayes, the Democratic attorney general candidate. “They know how absolutely unpopular this 1901 law is. They know how indefensible it is. And they know that when Nov. 8 comes the people of Arizona are going to resoundingly reject this extreme abortion ban, this attack on the people of Arizona by voting them down.”

If elected, Mayes said, she would not enforce the abortion law and would direct county prosecutors to do the same. She said she believes it violates the privacy rights guaranteed by the state constitution.

Hobbs said she’d push lawmakers on her first day in office to repeal the abortion ban, a long shot for a legislature that is widely expected to be controlled by Republicans. Failing that, she said she’d support a ballot measure giving the voters the chance to decide in the 2024 election.

Hobbs also said she’d veto any legislation that further restricts abortion.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned the ruling, which she said would have “catastrophic, dangerous and unacceptable” consequences.

“Make no mistake: this backwards decision exemplifies the disturbing trend across the country of Republican officials at the local and national level dead-set on stripping women of their rights,” Jean-Pierre said in a statement. 

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NASA Scraps Tuesday Artemis Moon Launch Due to Storm

NASA has called off the scheduled Tuesday launch of its historic uncrewed mission to the moon due to a tropical storm that is forecast to strengthen as it approaches Florida.

After two previously canceled launch attempts, NASA is weighing returning the Artemis 1 mission rocket to its assembly site under the threat of extreme weather.

“NASA is forgoing a launch opportunity… and preparing for rollback (from the launchpad), while continuing to watch the weather forecast associated with Tropical Storm Ian,” it said Saturday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Ian is due to “rapidly intensify” over the weekend as it moves toward Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center, from which the rocket is set to launch.

Currently south of Jamaica, the storm is expected to approach Florida’s west coast “at or near major hurricane strength” early next week, threatening storm surge, flooding and hurricane-force winds across much of the state, the NHC said.

On the launchpad, the giant orange and white Space Launch System (SLS) rocket can withstand wind gusts of up to 137 kilometers (85 miles) per hour. But if it has to be sheltered, the current launch window, which runs until October 4, will be missed.

A decision on whether to roll back the rocket to the Vehicle Assembly Building is due to be taken by the Artemis 1 team Sunday, “to allow for additional data gathering and analysis,” with the operation, if necessary, starting late Sunday or Monday morning, NASA said.

Jim Free, associate administrator for the agency’s exploration systems development directorate, said on Twitter that a “step-wise approach” to the decision to roll back preserves “a launch opportunity if conditions improve,” indicating a launch date before October 5 was still on the table.

If not, the next launch window will run from October 17 to 31, with one possibility of takeoff per day, except from October 24-26 and 28.

The Artemis 1 space mission hopes to test the SLS as well as the unmanned Orion capsule that sits atop it, in preparation for future Moon-bound journeys with humans aboard.

Artemis is named after the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo, after whom the first moon missions were named.

Unlike the Apollo missions, which sent only white men to the moon between 1969 and 1972, Artemis missions will see the first person of color and the first woman step foot on the lunar surface.

A successful Artemis 1 mission would come as a huge relief to the U.S. space agency, after years of delays and cost overruns.  

But another setback would be a blow to NASA, after two previous launch attempts were scrapped when the rocket experienced technical glitches including a fuel leak.

The cost of the Artemis program is estimated to reach $93 billion by 2025, with its first four missions clocking in at a whopping $4.1 billion each, according to a government audit.

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4.4M Americans Roll Up Sleeves for Omicron-Targeted Boosters

U.S. health officials say 4.4 million Americans have received the updated COVID-19 booster shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the count Thursday as public health experts bemoaned President Joe Biden’s recent remark that “the pandemic is over.” 

The White House said more than 5 million people had received the new boosters by its own estimate, which accounts for reporting lags in states. 

Health experts said it was too early to predict whether demand would match up with the 171 million doses of the new boosters the U.S. ordered for the fall. 

“No one would go looking at our flu shot uptake at this point and be like, ‘Oh, what a disaster,’ ” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If we start to see a large uptick in cases, I think we’re going to see a lot of people getting the [new COVID] vaccine.” 

A temporary shortage of Moderna vaccine caused some pharmacies to cancel appointments while encouraging people to reschedule for a Pfizer vaccine. The issue was expected to resolve as government regulators wrapped up an inspection and cleared batches of vaccine doses for distribution. 

“I do expect this to pick up in the weeks ahead,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. “We’ve been thinking and talking about this as an annual vaccine like the flu vaccine. Flu vaccine season picks up in late September and early October. We’re just getting our education campaign going. So, we expect to see, despite the fact that this was a strong start, we actually expect this to ramp up stronger.” 

Some Americans who plan to get the shot, designed to target the most common omicron strains, said they were waiting because they either had COVID-19 recently or another booster. They are following public health advice to wait several months to get the full benefit of their existing virus-fighting antibodies. 

Others are scheduling shots closer to holiday gatherings and winter months when respiratory viruses spread more easily. 

Retired hospital chaplain Jeanie Murphy, 69, of Shawnee, Kansas, plans to get the new booster in a couple of weeks after she has some minor knee surgery. Interest is high among her neighbors, she said. 

“There’s quite a bit of discussion happening among people who are ready to make appointments,” Murphy said. “I found that encouraging.”

Steady state 

Biden later acknowledged criticism of his remark about the pandemic being over and clarified the pandemic is “not where it was.” The initial comment didn’t bother Murphy. She believes the disease has entered a steady state when “we’ll get COVID shots in the fall the same as we do flu shots.” 

Experts hope she’s right but are waiting to see what levels of infection winter brings. The summer ebb in case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths may be followed by another surge, Dowdy said. 

Some Americans who got the new shots said they were excited about the idea of targeting the vaccine to the variants circulating now. 

“Give me all the science you can,” said Jeff Westling, 30, an attorney in Washington, who got the new booster and a flu shot Tuesday, one in each arm. He participates in the combat sport jujitsu, so he wants to protect himself from infections that may come with close contact.  

Meanwhile, Biden’s pronouncement in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday echoed through social media. 

By Wednesday on Facebook, when a Kansas health department posted where residents could find the new booster shots, the first commenter remarked: “But Biden says the pandemic is over.” 

The president’s statement, despite his attempts to clarify it, adds to public confusion, said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington. 

“People aren’t sure when is the right time to get boosted. ‘Am I eligible?’ People are often confused about what the right choice is for them, even where to search for that information,” Michaud said. 

“Any time you have mixed messages, it’s detrimental to the public health effort,” Michaud said. “Having the mixed messages from the president’s remarks makes that job that much harder.” 

University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said he’s worried the president’s pronouncement has taken on a life of its own and may stall prevention efforts. 

“That soundbite is there for a while now, and it’s going to spread like wildfire. And it’s going to give the impression that ‘Oh, there’s nothing more we need to do,’ ” Salemi said. 

“If we’re happy with 400 or 500 people dying every single day from COVID, there’s a problem with that,” Salemi said. “We can absolutely do better because most of those deaths, if not all of them, are absolutely preventable with the tools that we have.”

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