After COVID-19 Jab, BioNTech Sets Sights On Malaria Vaccine

A health worker shows a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19 at the Pascual Guerrero Olympic stadium, in Cali, Colombia, on April 26, 2021. Luis ROBAYO / AFP

 

Germany’s BioNTech, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with US giant Pfizer in record time, said Monday it aimed to start trialling a malaria vaccine next year using the same breakthrough mRNA technology.

If successful, the vaccine could be a crucial step in the fight against the mosquito-borne disease, which kills more than 400,000 people a year — mainly young children in Africa.

“We will do whatever it takes to develop a safe and effective mRNA-based malaria vaccine that will prevent the disease, reduce mortality and ensure a sustainable solution for the African continent and other regions affected by this disease,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.

The company said it will assess several vaccine candidates and begin clinical trials by the end of 2022.

The project is backed by the World Health Organization, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Union.

READ ALSO: World Bank To Finance Extra COVID-19 Jabs For Poorer Nations

BioNTech said it was also looking at setting up an mRNA hub in Africa so that future vaccines can be manufactured and distributed on the continent.

The planned malaria vaccine would use the same messenger RNA method that made its debut with the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which was the first jab against Covid to be approved in the West in late 2020.

The coronavirus jab developed by US rival Moderna also uses mRNA technology.

Scientists believe mRNA vaccines, which provoke an immune response by delivering genetic molecules containing the code for key parts of a pathogen into human cells, could be a game-changer against many diseases.

They also take less time to develop than traditional vaccines.

BioNTech’s Covid-19 shot was developed and approved by regulators in less than a year.

– ‘Realistic goal’ –

“We are witnessing the start of a revolution in medical science, the revolution of messenger RNA,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at Monday’s online launch event.

“Eradicating malaria is now a realistic goal and now we know that it can be achieved already in this generation.”

In a conference call with reporters, Sahin said he believed BioNTech’s malaria efforts have “a high likelihood for success”.

The fight against malaria received a boost in April when researchers from Britain’s Oxford University announced that their Matrix-M vaccine candidate had become the first to surpass the WHO’s threshold of 75-percent efficacy, in a study on infants in Burkina Faso.

A large-scale, final stage trial is ongoing.

AFP

US Maintains Entry Restrictions Due To Rising Delta COVID-19 Cases

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 26, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

 

The United States said Monday it would maintain restrictions on international travel into the country, sidestepping European pressure, as cases rise of the Covid-19 Delta variant.

“We will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

“The more transmissible Delta variant is spreading both here and abroad,” she said.

She said the trend of rising cases appeared likely to continue “in the weeks ahead,” although she repeated that it mostly affected unvaccinated people.

READ ALSO: NYC Orders COVID-19 Vaccines Or Weekly Tests For All Public Workers

The United States has restricted travel from the European Union, Britain, China and Iran for more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, later adding other countries including Brazil and India.

The European Union in June opened up to travelers from the United States, typically requiring proof of vaccination or negative tests, under pressure from tourism-dependent nations such as Greece, Spain and Italy that feared another troubled year.

EU leaders have asked the United States to show reciprocity and President Joe Biden on July 15 said he would have an answer on the issue “within the next several days” after appeals by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

AFP

Insecurity: Ortom Backs Kukah, Asks FG To Stop Intimidating Nigerians

Combination of Bishop Matthew Kukah and Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom.

 

The Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom has backed the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Bishop Matthew Kukah over his recent comments on insecurity.

Kukah had during an address to the US Congress Commission on July 15, accused President Muhammadu Buhari of showing preference to people of his religion which according to him, has worsened the rivalry between Christians and Muslims.

Kukah said the Buhari administration has failed to address insecurity but the presidency had replied the Catholic bishop, accusing him of trying to sow discord and strife among Nigerians.

The Presidency has since tackled Kukah, describing his comments as “unfortunate and disappointing”, complaining that the cleric “castigated” Nigeria before the US lawmakers.

However, supporting the cleric via a statement issued on Saturday by his spokesman, Terver Akase, Governor Ortom asked the Federal Government to stop intimidating patriotic Nigerians who are raising genuine concerns over the worsening security and economic situation in the country.

READ ALSO: Police Foil Kidnap Attempt By Bandits, Rescue Eight Travellers In Katsina

Ortom said he “stands with Bishop Kukah on the issues he raised,” adding that he would have said similar things if he were to address the same audience.

“Governor Ortom states that the country is practicing democracy which has no room for repression and dictatorship,” the statement partly read.

“He notes that the country’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech to all citizens, unlike a military regime which suppresses the right of the people to voice their opinions on challenges facing their country.”

The Benue governor described the cleric as “one Nigerian who is selfless and speaks his mind frankly on national issues calling on the government to ensure justice, the rule of law and equity for all.”

He also took a swipe at the Presidency’s response to the criticism, wondering why the current administration has chosen to politicize the views of Bishop Kukah when all the issues he highlighted in his address are facts about the country.

“He says Kukah was right when he stated that nepotism has been elevated above federal character by the present administration. He further agrees with the Bishop that Christians across the country are targets of elimination and thousands have already fallen to the sword of jihadist supremacists,” the statement added.

See the full statement issued by Governor Samuel Ortom below:

I STAND WITH BISHOP KUKAH – GOV ORTOM

Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom describes as unfortunate, the response of the Presidency to the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Bishop Matthew Kukah’s address to the United States Congress Committee on Foreign Affairs regarding the wave of insecurity in the country.

The Governor says he stands with Bishop Kukah on the issues he raised and stresses that he would have said similar things if he were to address the same audience.

He advises the Federal Government to stop intimidating patriotic Nigerians who are raising genuine concerns over the worsening security and economic situation in the country.

Governor Ortom states that the country is practicing democracy which has no room for repression and dictatorship. He notes that the country’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech to all citizens, unlike a military regime which suppresses the right of the people to voice their opinions on challenges facing their country.

He says Bishop Kukah is one Nigerian who is selfless and  speaks his mind frankly on national issues calling on the government to ensure justice, the rule of law and equity for all.

The Governor wonders why the Presidency has chosen to politicize the views of Bishop Kukah when all the issues he highlighted in his address are facts about the country.

He says Kukah was right when he stated that nepotism has been elevated above federal character by the present administration. He further agrees with the Bishop that Christians across the country are targets of elimination and thousands have already fallen to the sword of jihadist supremacists.

Governor Ortom states that Kukah is not to blame for the ranking of Nigeria as the 8th least peaceful country in Africa and the rating of killer herdsmen as the 4th deadliest terror group in the world by the Global Terrorism Index.

He expects the Presidency to rather be worried that Nigeria is ranked as the most terrorised nation in Africa with an average of over 2,000 deaths per year on account of terrorism.

He emphasizes that the combative approach the Presidency has adopted in engaging citizens on issues will not solve the problems confronting the country.

Governor Ortom says Bishop Kukah is not the first Nigerian to address a foreign audience on the security situation in the country. He recalls that in February, 2015 President Buhari was at the time the candidate of All Progressives Congress, APC, when he delivered a speech at Chatham House in London, where he stated that “Boko Haram has sadly put Nigeria on the terrorism map, killing more than 13,000 of our nationals.” The President went on to announce to the world on that occasion that apart from the civil war era, Nigeria had never been more insecure in the country’s history.

The Governor states that if a man who was seeking to govern the country could reel out such scary statistics, why will his aides now launch media attacks on a clergyman who is only advocating peace and is drawing the attention of the global community to the plight of helpless Nigerians.

Governor Ortom once again tasks the Federal Government to arrest and prosecute members of armed Fulani groups for killing innocent Nigerians, the same way it effected the arrest of the leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, and Yoruba nation agitator, Sunday Igboho to prove critics wrong that its fight against terrorism and other crimes is unbiased.

He says the President may not be collecting proceeds from corrupt deals under his administration and may even not be aware that such shady deals exist, but some of his aides are deeply involved in corrupt practices and are denying Nigerians of the services and projects meant to alleviate poverty and hunger in the land.

Governor Ortom maintains that the President may also not be aware that Nigerians are facing harsh economic conditions and many are being killed by bandits, herdsmen and other terrorists because some of the persons saddled with the responsibility of telling him the truth have refused to do so.

He urges the Presidency to listen to the voices of reason and resist the temptation to whip into silence those who genuinely love the country and are offering solutions to its challenges.

Terver Akase

Chief Press Secretary

July 24, 2021.

Do Vaccinated People Need To Go Back To Masking?

 

With the Delta variant pushing US Covid cases back up, fully vaccinated people are wondering whether they need to start masking indoors again.

Covid vaccines remain extremely effective against the worst outcomes of the disease — hospitalization and death — and breakthrough infections remain uncommon.

But experts told AFP that one size doesn’t fit all, and people should consider factors like community transmission, personal risk levels, and their own risk tolerance to help decide what’s right for them.

Risk low for vaccinated

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its mask guidance for vaccinated people in May.

At the time, cases were plummeting and the administration of President Joe Biden was keen to declare a return to normal on the back of a vaccination campaign that was still going strong.

On Thursday the country registered more than 50,000 cases, a surge driven by the now overwhelmingly dominant Delta variant, the most contagious strain to date, and centered in low-vaccination regions.

Crucially, however, the rise in cases has been largely decoupled from hospitalizations and deaths.

With 80 per cent of seniors fully vaccinated, average daily deaths remain in the 200s — much lower than the more than 3,500 deaths per day seen in the worst wave over winter.

More than 97 percent of hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said last week, while 99.5 percent of people dying were unvaccinated, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last weekend.

Walensky defended the unchanged mask guidance Thursday, stressing the agency has always said communities and individuals should consider local conditions.

“If you’re in an area that has a high case rate and low rates of vaccination where Delta cases are rising, you should certainly be wearing a mask if you are unvaccinated,” she said.

“If you are vaccinated, you get exceptional protection from the vaccines. But you have the opportunity to make the personal choice to add extra layers of protection if you so choose.”

Why local conditions matter

Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, said he supported the CDC’s view.

While the World Health Organization has urged fully vaccinated people to continue to wear masks, that is in light of the global situation where just 13.4 percent of the world population is fully vaccinated.

“I just don’t think we’re at the phase in the US and other highly vaccinated countries where this top-down blanket guidance makes sense anymore,” he told AFP.

“For me, the goal is and has always been with all the vaccines to prevent severe disease, and death, and that’s exactly what they do really well.”

As far as breakthrough infections go, a recent study of a US prison found 27 positive cases from 2,380 vaccinated individuals, or 1.1 per cent. All were asymptomatic and detected through routine screening.

Research shows that asymptomatic people are less likely to transmit, while people who develop symptoms are supposed to self-isolate.

Still, the greater the community prevalence of the virus, the more likely such breakthroughs become.

People’s personal risk levels vary by their age and underlying conditions, some people may have high-risk people at home they want to protect, while some just have lower risk tolerance.

On and off ramps

The divergence in case levels across the country closely correlates with vaccination rates, and parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida are currently experiencing the worst spikes.

Celine Gounder, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist, compared the situation prior to Delta surges to driving your car in your own neighborhood, while the current scenario is closer to driving on a race car track.

“When you’re driving around in your neighborhood, a seatbelt is enough,” she told AFP, with the seatbelt representing a vaccine.

“But if you’re driving on a NASCAR race track, in addition to seatbelts, those drivers also have helmets, they have airbags,” she added, emphasizing that masks add an additional layer of protection.

Even without the CDC, some parts of the country, like Los Angeles County and Philadelphia, have reinstituted mask guidance.

Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor at UC San Francisco told AFP she has been advocating for statistical benchmarks, “as the back and forth is very frustrating for people.”

She suggests tying mask mandates to the local hospitalization rate — a more reliable measure of disease prevalence than cases — and, along with other experts, has proposed fewer than five hospitalized cases per 100,000 people as the threshold for resuming normal activity.

Gandhi, Allen and others argue such “off-ramps” can also be applied to schools when they reopen in fall, while the American Academy of Pediatrics favors universal masking, even among vaccinated teachers and students.

US NBA Star LaVine Gets Olympics All Clear After COVID-19 Scare

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 17, 2021 Usman Garuba #16 of Spain catches a pass under pressure from Zach LaVine #5 of the United States during an exhibition game at Michelob ULTRA Arena ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

 

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine was given the all-clear to travel to Tokyo for the Olympics Wednesday after being placed into Covid-19 safety protocols this week.

The 26-year-old, who played in all four of the United States’ recent exhibition matches in Las Vegas, averaging 10.8 points and 2.5 rebounds, was sidelined on Monday.

USA Basketball said at the time he did not travel with the three-time defending champions to Japan “out of an abundance of caution” after starting Covid-19 health and safety measures.

But it did not say if he contracted the virus or was being kept back for contact tracing.

READ ALSO: ‘We’Ve Done It, Brisbane!’: Australian City Awarded 2032 Olympics

“US Olympic men’s basketball team member Zach LaVine has cleared USA Basketball’s health and safety protocols and will join the USA team in Tokyo Thursday afternoon,” USA Basketball said in a statement Wednesday, without giving further details.

The US squad has already lost Washington guard Bradley Beal after he was placed into Covid-19 protocols, and center Kevin Love to a calf injury.

The Americans added Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee and San Antonio Spurs guard Keldon Johnson to replace Beal and Love.

The US squad, which opens its Olympic campaign on Sunday against France, is set to add three more players in coming days following the conclusion of the NBA Finals — Phoenix guard Devin Booker and Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.

AFP

Biden Names Big Tech Critic To Head Anti-trust Unit

US President Joe Biden, with Attorney General Merrick Garland, speaks about gun violence prevention in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 8, 2021. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

President Joe Biden on Tuesday named a prominent Big Tech critic to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division in another sign of aggressive moves to counter the dominance of major Silicon Valley firms.

Jonathan Kanter, a lawyer who has represented firms challenging tech platforms, would if confirmed head up the division to handle an array of cases expected against the largest tech firms for alleged monopoly abuses.

The Kanter nomination follows the appointment Lina Khan, an advocate of breaking up the biggest tech firms, to head the Federal Trade Commission, which is also involved in antitrust enforcement.

A White House statement called Kanter “a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy.”

Kanter has represented firms such as Yelp and Spotify which have claimed tech giants such as Google and Apple have used unfair practices to thwart competition. He also represented the News Media Alliance in claims that large platforms have stymied media firms.

A former FTC lawyer, he recently started his own “boutique antitrust law firm that advocates in favor of federal and state antitrust law enforcement,” according to the White House.

Early indications from the Biden administration suggest a ramped-up effort at antitrust enforcement, amid calls by some to break up some of the biggest and most successful Big Tech firms.

Biden earlier this month unveiled a wide-ranging plan aimed at tilting the balance of power away from corporations and towards “the little guy.”

Biden described the initiative as a shift from what he called Washington’s 40-year “experiment of letting giant corporations accumulate more and more power” as he signed an executive order directing changes on everything from the sale of hearing aids to the disclosure of airline baggage fees.

“We have to get back to an economy that grows from the bottom up,” he said.

The order, which drew strong praise from consumer advocates but a scathing response from some industry lobbying groups, outlines 72 initiatives across the federal government and announces the creation of the White House Competition Council to monitor progress.

US Won’t Compel Journalists To Reveal Sources  – Officials

File photo used to illustrate the story. AFP

 

The US government pledged Monday to steer clear of legal orders that force journalists to reveal their sources, with only rare exceptions, reversing course after revelations of secret efforts to obtain information from the media.

A statement from the agency said it would no longer use the “compulsory legal process” including subpoenas or warrants to obtain records or identify sources from journalists involved in newsgathering activities.

The new policy comes following revelations that former president Donald Trump’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of journalists investigating his administration, inducing from CNN, the Washington Post and New York Times.

The statement said the policy shift was made “because a free and independent press is vital to the functioning of our democracy.”

It said the new policy applies to reporters, publishers, third-party service providers and others involved in newsgathering, and to physical or digital documents as well as phone records.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the new policy in a memo and called for “a review process to further explain, develop and codify the policy.”

Monday’s announcement comes after news that the Trump administration sought records of journalists investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, while obtaining “gag orders” to keep that effort secret.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the use of such orders in leak investigations “is not consistent with the president’s policy direction.”

The Garland memo said exceptions to the policy would be made if the journalist were the subject of an investigation, or was suspected of being a foreign agent or member of a terrorist group, or in cases of “imminent” risk of death or bodily harm.

READ ALSO: Sudan Inflation Soars Above 400% As Discontent Grows

File photo: Former President Donald Trump points at the press box speaks of “Fake News” during his campaign-style rally in Wellington, Ohio, on June 26, 2021.  STEPHEN ZENNER / AFP

 

While the cases involving the Trump administration have drawn scrutiny recently, the policy change addresses a longstanding concern on press freedom and follows several cases where journalists have been threatened with jail for refusing to reveal sources.

“The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.”

AFP

Earth’s Richest Man Bezos To Blast Off Into Space

In this file photo Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos addresses the audience during a keynote session at the Amazon Re:MARS conference on robotics and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 6, 2019. Mark RALSTON / AFP
In this file photo Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos address the audience during a keynote session at the Amazon Re: MARS conference on robotics and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 6, 2019. Mark RALSTON / AFP

 

Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, is set to join the astronaut club Tuesday on the first crewed launch by Blue Origin, another key moment in a big month for the fledgling space tourism industry.

The mission comes days after Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson crossed the final frontier, narrowly besting the Amazon magnate in their battle of the billionaires.

Blue Origin’s sights are, however, set higher: both literally in terms of the altitude to which its reusable New Shepard craft will ascend compared to Virgin’s spaceplane, but also in its future ambitions.

Bezos founded Blue Origin back in 2000, with the goal of one day building floating space colonies with artificial gravity where millions of people will work and live.

Today, the company is developing a heavy-lift orbital rocket called New Glenn and also a Moon lander it is hoping to contract to NASA under the Artemis program.

“They’ve had 15 successful New Shepard uncrewed flights and we’ve been waiting years to see when they’re going to start flying people,” Laura Forczyk, founder of space consulting firm Astralytical, told AFP, calling it an “exciting time” for enthusiasts.

New Shepard will blast off at 8:00 am Central Time (1300 GMT) on July 20 from a remote facility in the west Texas desert called Launch Site One, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the nearest town, Van Horn.

The event will be live streamed on BlueOrigin.com beginning an hour and a half before.

Richest, oldest, and youngest

Joining Bezos on the fully autonomous flight will be barrier-breaking female aviator Wally Funk, who at 82 is set to be the oldest ever astronaut, Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, the company’s first paying customer, who will become the youngest astronaut.

Rounding out the four-member crew is Jeff Bezos’ brother Mark, a financier who directs the Bezos Family Foundation and works as a volunteer firefighter.

The pair are best friends, and Jeff shared the moment he asked his younger sibling to join him in a viral video on Instagram last month.

Notably absent is the mysterious winner of a $28 million auction for a seat, who had “scheduling conflicts” and will take part in a future flight, and has asked to remain anonymous, the company said.

After lift-off, New Shepard will accelerate towards space at speeds exceeding Mach 3 using a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine with no carbon emissions.

The capsule soon separates from its booster, and the astronauts unbuckle and begin to experience weightlessness.

The crew will spend a few minutes beyond the Karman line — the internationally recognized boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, at 62 miles altitude (100 kilometers), as the spacecraft peaks at 65 miles high (106 kilometers).

They will be able to admire the curvature of the planet — and the inky black of the rest of the universe — from large windows that comprise a third of the cabin’s surface area.

The booster returns autonomously to a landing pad just north of its launch site, while the capsule freefalls back to Earth before deploying three giant parachutes, and finally a thruster, to land gently in the west Texas desert.

Bigger prizes

Beyond the first flight, relatively little is known about Blue Origin’s future tourism plans.

The company has a history of secrecy, its existence only becoming public knowledge three years after its creation. It then pursued a policy of “self-imposed silence” until 2015.

Unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin hasn’t officially started selling tickets — Daemen won his spot through the auction process. The company wants two more flights this year, then “many more” in 2022, it told AFP.

Forczyk, the analyst, said it will all depend on the level of demand that is generated by these early flights, and how well the industry recovers from accidents “which there inevitably will be, because spaceflight is inherently risky.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX will enter the fray in September with an all-civilian orbital expedition on its Crew Dragon, and is tying up with another company, Axiom, for visits to the International Space Station.

Beyond tourism, Blue Origin would like to supplant SpaceX as NASA’s leading private sector partner, and sees New Shepard as “sort of the stepping stone and also the way to make money along the way for the greater ambition,” said Forczyk.

AFP

‘Experience Of A Lifetime’: Billionaire Branson Achieves Space Dream

Sir Richard Branson speaks on stage with other crew members, after they flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the "experience of a lifetime" -- and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021. AFP
Sir Richard Branson speaks on stage with other crew members, after they flew into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the “experience of a lifetime” — and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism at Spaceport America, near Truth and Consequences, New Mexico on July 11, 2021.

 

British billionaire Richard Branson flew into space Sunday aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the “experience of a lifetime” — and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism.

“Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far,” he said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

It reached a peak altitude of around 53 miles (85 kilometers) — beyond the boundary of space, according to the United States — allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth’s curvature.

The trip proceeded without drama, and touchdown occurred at around 9:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off.

The mission’s success means Branson has beaten fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the race to be the first tycoon to cross the final frontier in a ship built by a company he founded.

Earlier, a massive carrier plane took off and ascended to 50,000 feet before dropping VSS Unity to complete the rest of the flight using its rocket-powered engine.

The spaceplane carried two pilots and four passengers, including Branson.

The ship then re-entered the atmosphere, lowered its flexible wings and glided back to the runway.

A smiling Branson hugged loved ones after the trip.

“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” the brash Brit wrote in a tweet earlier where he posted a video of himself biking to the base and meeting with his crewmates, all Virgin employees.

He also posted a picture of himself standing in a kitchen with SpaceX boss Elon Musk, who’d come to show his support.

Several tourists journeyed to the International Space Station in the 2000s, but on Russian rockets.

Branson’s official role is to evaluate the private astronaut experience to enhance the journey for future clients.

Space base

Branson, who founded the Virgin Group that today has interests in everything from commercial aviation to fitness centers, is known for his appetite for adventure and has set world records in hot air ballooning and boating.

“As a child, I wanted to go to space,” the 70-year-old wrote a few days ahead of his trip.

He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, but the dream almost came to an end in 2014 when an in-flight accident caused the death of a pilot, considerably delaying the program.

Since then, VSS Unity has successfully reached space three times, in 2018, 2019 — which included the first crew member who wasn’t a pilot — and finally in May this year.

Sunday’s flight left from Spaceport America, a huge base built in the Jornada del Muerto desert, around 20 miles southeast of the nearest town, Truth or Consequences.

Financed largely by the state of New Mexico, Virgin Galactic is the principal tenant.

Paying passengers in 2022?

After Sunday, Virgin Galactic plans two further flights, and then the start of regular commercial operations from early 2022. The ultimate goal is to conduct 400 flights per year.

Some 600 tickets have already been sold to people from 60 different countries — including Hollywood celebrities — for prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.

And though, according to Branson, “space belongs to us all,” the opportunity for now remains the preserve of the privileged.

“When we return, I will announce something very exciting to give more people the chance to become an astronaut,” he promised.

The competition in the space tourism sector, whose imminent rise has been announced for years, has come to a head this month.

Bezos, the richest person in the world, is due to fly on July 20 on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

Blue Origin posted an infographic Friday boasting the ways in which the experience it offers is superior.

The principal point: New Shepard climbs up to more than 60 miles in altitude, thus exceeding what is called the Karman line, the frontier of space according to international convention.

Bezos himself wished Branson “best of luck” in an Instagram post.

AFP

FG Partners US, UK To Train Emergency Responders

Crisis management simulation. Photos: Sodiq Adelakun

 

The Federal Government has partnered with the United States and the United Kingdom to train emergency responders.

The Ministry of Information and National Security Adviser on Wednesday conducted the simulation exercise on counter-terrorism at the Metro Station and Moshood Abiola Stadium, Abuja.

Nicknamed ‘Exercise Idahun Kankan’ in the Yoruba language, the exercise means quick response in crisis management.

More photos to follow.

All US Troops Leave Afghanistan’s Biggest Air Base

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier looks out while standing on a Humvee vehicle at Bagram Air Base, after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 Km north of Kabul on July 2, 2021. Zakeria HASHIMI / AFP
An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier looks out while standing on a Humvee vehicle at Bagram Air Base, after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 Km north of Kabul on July 2, 2021.
Zakeria HASHIMI / AFP

 

All US and NATO troops have left Afghanistan’s biggest air base, officials said Friday, but President Joe Biden dampened speculation that the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country was imminent after two decades of war.

“No. We’re on, we’re on track exactly as to where we expect to be,” he told reporters at the White House, after the news that US troops had left Bagram Air Base fuelled rumours that the final contingents were due to leave the country within days.

Biden has set a deadline of September 11 for the final pullout of remaining troops.

Bagram served as the linchpin for US-led operations in the rugged country, where the long war against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies started in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.

“The American and coalition forces have completely withdrawn from the base and henceforth the Afghan army forces will protect it and use it to combat terrorism,” defence ministry spokesman Fawad Aman tweeted.

A US defence official confirmed their departure, while the Taliban said it welcomed the latest phase of the pullout.

“Their full withdrawal will pave the way for Afghans to decide about their future between themselves,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

One Afghan official said some local thugs and drug addicts attempted to loot equipment at the base, but were stopped by Afghan troops.

“There will be no lootings as long as we are here… we will defend and protect our country,” said Alifullah, an Afghan soldier guarding one of the base’s gates.

The US military and NATO are in the final stages of winding up involvement in Afghanistan, bringing home an unspecified number of remaining troops by Biden’s deadline.

The Taliban have launched relentless offensives across Afghanistan in the past two months, gobbling up dozens of districts as Afghan security forces have largely consolidated their power in the country’s major urban areas.

The ability of Afghan forces to maintain control of Bagram airfield will likely prove pivotal to maintaining security in Kabul and keeping pressure on the Taliban.

The exit of foreign forces from Bagram base “symbolises that Afghanistan is alone, abandoned, and left to defend itself against the Taliban’s onslaught”, said Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani.

“Having reached home, Americans and allied forces will now watch what they fought so hard to build over 20 years burn down from afar and knowing that the Afghan men and women they fought with risk losing everything.”

‘A lot of insecurity’

At the White House Friday Biden responded to concerns that the internationally backed Afghan government might quickly crumble to Taliban insurgents once its foreign backers leave, saying they “have the capacity to be able to sustain government down the road.”

The US military is keeping an “over the horizon capacity” which could bring firepower to help the government, but the “Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves.”

Media reports say the Pentagon will probably retain about 600 US troops in Afghanistan to guard the vast US diplomatic compound in Kabul.

Residents of Bagram said security will only deteriorate with the exit of foreign forces.

“The situation is already chaotic… there is a lot of insecurity and the government does not have (enough) weapons and equipment,” Matiullah, who owns a footwear shop in Bagram bazaar, told AFP.

“Since they started the withdrawal, the situation has got worse. There is no work… there is no business,” said Fazal Karim, a bicycle mechanic.

Over the years the mini-city has been visited by hundreds of thousands of US and NATO service members and contractors.

At one point it boasted swimming pools, cinemas and spas — and even a boardwalk featuring fast-food outlets such as Burger King and Pizza Hut.

The base also housed a prison that held thousands of Taliban and jihadist inmates.

Bagram was built by the United States for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the north.

Ironically, it became the staging point for the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the Red Army expanded it significantly during its near-decade-long occupation.

When Moscow pulled out, Bagram became central to the raging civil war of the 1990s — it was reported that at one point the Taliban controlled one end of the three-kilometre (two-mile) runway and the opposition Northern Alliance the other.

In recent months, Bagram has come under rocket barrages claimed by the jihadist Islamic State, stirring fears that militants are already eyeing the base for future attacks.

As of May 2021, there were about 9,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan, of which US troops made up the largest contingent of 2,500.

So far Germany and Italy have both confirmed the full withdrawal of their contingents.

 

AFP

Scores Dead As Record-Breaking Heat Wave Grips Canada, US

A person walks across a bridge on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan as the sun sets over Crooked Lake on June 27, 2021. – Fires on Saturday destroyed two more Catholic churches in indigenous communities in western Canada. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP)

 

Scores of deaths in Canada’s Vancouver area are likely linked to a grueling heat wave, authorities said Tuesday, as the country recorded its highest ever temperature amid scorching conditions that extended to the US Pacific Northwest.

At least 134 people have died suddenly since Friday in the Vancouver area, according to figures released by the city police department and the Royal Canadian Mounted police.

The Vancouver Police Department alone said it had responded to more than 65 sudden deaths since Friday, with the vast majority “related to the heat.”

Canada set a new all-time high temperature record for a third day in a row Tuesday, reaching 121 degrees Fahrenheit (49.5 degrees Celsius) in Lytton, British Columbia, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) east of Vancouver, the country’s weather service, Environment Canada, reported.

“Vancouver has never experienced heat like this, and sadly dozens of people are dying because of it,” police sergeant Steve Addison said.

Other local municipalities have said they too have responded to many sudden death calls, but have yet to release tolls.

Some Vancouver locals said they had never experienced such temperatures before.

“It’s never this bad. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a Vancouver resident who only gave her name as Rosa.

“I hope it never becomes like this ever again. This is too much.”

Others lamented that some residents were more vulnerable to the heat than others.

“I feel for those people whether they’re the elderly demographic or people who live on the downtown eastside of Vancouver who don’t have a cool spot to live or sleep,” said river swimmer Graham Griedger.

Climate change is causing record-setting temperatures to become more frequent. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the hottest recorded, and the five hottest years have all occurred within the last five years.

The scorching heat stretching from the US state of Oregon to Canada’s Arctic territories has been blamed on a high-pressure ridge trapping warm air in the region.

Temperatures in the US Pacific Northwest cities of Portland and Seattle reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in the 1940s: 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland and 108 in Seattle Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

Vancouver on the Pacific coast has for several days recorded temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit (or almost 20 degrees above seasonal norms).

The chief coroner for the province of British Columbia, which includes Vancouver, said that it had “experienced a significant increase in deaths reported where it is suspected that extreme heat has been contributory.”

The service said in a statement it recorded 233 deaths between Friday and Monday, compared to 130 on average.

– ‘Hottest week ever’ –

“We are in the midst of the hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced, and there are consequences to that, disastrous consequences for families and for communities,” British Columbia Premier John Horgan told a news conference.

He urged “checking up on those people we know might be at risk, making sure we have cold compresses in the fridge or we’re staying in the coolest part of our homes, and making sure that we’re taking steps to get through this heat wave.”

Environment Canada has issued alerts for British Columbia, Alberta, and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, saying the “prolonged, dangerous and historic heat wave will persist through this week.”

The heat wave has forced schools and Covid-19 vaccination centers to close in the Vancouver area, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.

Stores quickly sold out of portable air conditioners and fans, so several people without cooling at home told AFP they hunkered down in their air conditioned cars or underground parking garages at night.

Cities across the western United States and Canada opened emergency cooling centers and outreach workers handed out bottles of water and hats.

The extreme heat, combined with intense drought, also created the perfect conditions for several fires to break out over the weekend, and one blaze on the California-Oregon border had already burned about 1,500 acres (600 hectares) by Monday morning.

“Dubai would be cooler than what we’re seeing now,” David Phillips, a senior climatologist for Environment Canada, told AFP on Monday.

AFP