July 23, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

JAPAN

Laurels in Silence

Victorious Olympic athletes will put on their own medals at the Tokyo games this summer. “The medals will not be given around the neck,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in an announcement covered by Newsweek. “They will be presented to the athlete on a tray, and then the athlete will take the medal him or herself.”

That was but one sad measure that Olympic officials opted to enact for the Games that open July 23 until Aug. 8 after a one-year postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Local Japanese authorities have banned spectators from the events, ABC News reported. Even so, as the Associated Press noted, tens of thousands of athletes and support staff have converged on Olympic facilities to compete.

Clusters of Covid-19 infections have already shown up among the crowds of international folks, Reuters added. The Russian women’s rugby team’s massage therapist tested positive, for example, forcing the whole team into isolation as authorities tested and traced other cases. Japanese staff at a hotel where Brazilian athletes had been staying also got sick.

“The Olympics are not only just a local potential superspreading event in a poorly vaccinated country but [could perhaps become] a global superspreading event,” University of California, San Francisco infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong said in an interview with Scientific American.

Polls show that the vast majority of Japanese feel unsafe and do not want the Olympics to proceed. About 23 percent of the Japanese public have been fully vaccinated, the BBC noted. In the Washington Post, op-ed writer Mike Wise argued that the games were occurring entirely because many large companies had invested heavily in the rights to broadcast the games or sponsored teams as marketing ploys.

Indeed, Sports Illustrated wrote that organizers would lose $800 million in ticket revenues.

Boston-based writer Natalie Shure called for the abolishment of the Olympics altogether, describing them in the New Republic as financial boondoggles that enrich the wealthy, hurt the public and this year could lead to a wildfire-like spread of the virus among many people from different corners of the globe.

Covid-19 is not the only hurdle that games organizers are facing. The scandals started even before Tokyo will open the games, controversies that include bribery, the AP wrote. Countries like Guinea, also plagued by funding issues, backed out due to Covid-19 fears, Yahoo!Sports noted. And on Wednesday, major Olympic sponsor, Toyota, said it was pulling its TV ads to be broadcast during the Games: While supporting the Olympic was once a boon for a company’s image, that association is now seen as a marketing problem in a country so polarized over the event, the AP wrote in another story.

Meanwhile, the games, even without the virus, are a mammoth undertaking. As Bloomberg explained, tests of the water in Tokyo Bay, for example, have detected high levels of E. coli bacteria.

Bach insisted that new sports legends would emerge during these games. He is right. But they shall rise to their anthems without applause and cheers.

WANT TO KNOW

GERMANY

Gas Uber Alles

Germany and the United States agreed this week to allow the completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in a deal seen as a victory for Berlin and Moscow on energy policy but a potential threat to Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The agreement comes after years of fierce opposition by the Obama and Trump administrations, which had argued that the Russian natural gas pipeline would give the Kremlin more economic and political leverage over Europe.

Under the new deal, Germans will have access to expanded supplies of energy while Russia will be able to export its natural gas directly to Germany, bypassing an existing route through Ukraine – which has opposed the pipeline.

US and German officials also agreed to “limit Russian export capabilities to Europe,” if Moscow used energy as a weapon or committed aggressive acts against Ukraine. However, the two allies did not agree on a kill-switch clause that would allow Germany to suspend gas flows in the event of Russian aggression toward its neighbors or Western allies.

Germany hailed the deal but diplomats from Ukraine and Poland criticized it as a “political, military and energy threat for Ukraine and Central Europe.”

The deal is part of President Joe Biden’s policy to seek closer ties to Europe: Although he opposes the pipeline, his administration is attempting to drum up more support from European allies to counter Russia and China.

ARGENTINA

‘X’ Marks The Spot

Argentina created a new National Identity Document (DNI) for nonbinary people this week, the first country in Latin America to do so, CNN reported.

The new document will guarantee the right to gender identity to those who don’t identify as male or female. Instead, it will allow them to put “x” in the field for gender on the national ID.

Officials said the move is “an action focused on the construction of a more equal but also a more inclusive society.”

Argentina now joins a list of countries that allow modifications of identity documents, which include Canada and Australia. The United States is currently working toward adding a nonbinary gender option for passports.

The move is the latest reform by progressive President Alberto Fernandez, whose administration has pushed for legislation to legalize abortion – lawmakers approved it late last year, Reuters reported.

Last month, Argentina’s upper house of parliament passed a law that would establish an employment quota for transgender people, according to the Buenos Aires Times.

AUSTRALIA

Eco-politics

The Chinese host of a United Nations world heritage committee defended a proposal to label Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as “in danger,” after the Australian government rejected the designation and accused China of influencing the decision, Forbes reported Thursday.

The announcement comes amid ongoing tensions between Australia and China.

The spat began last month when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee – currently hosted by China – supported a draft to label the reef as being in danger. The committee said the proposal was based on data from the Australian government and recommendations from an advisory body, according to the Guardian.

The Australian government, however, accused China of influencing the decision for political reasons. Beijing rejected the accusations.

Australia also warned that the UN agency risked damaging its own credibility if it approves the label – to be decided on Friday.

At the same time, the government released a new report illustrating how coral coverage along the nearly 1,430-mile reef had increased after a year of normal conditions – without high ocean temperatures or cyclones. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also dispatched his environment minister to Europe to lobby against the label.

Australia appears to have gained the support of 12 countries on the World Heritage Committee to delay the decision until 2023.

Meanwhile, scientists say the reef – one of the world’s best-known biodiversity hotspots – is being threatened by climate change. And environmentalists and critics have admonished Morrison’s government for politicizing the issue and for not doing enough to protect the biodiversity gem, which has suffered three mass coral bleaching events in the past five years and has lost nearly half of its coral since 1995.

DISCOVERIES

Space Pups

One of the many issues about deep-space travel is the problem of space radiation but a new study on mice sperm suggests it’s not really a concern, Science News reported.

Japanese researchers found that freeze-dried mouse sperm remained viable after living nearly six years aboard the International Space Station.

The team freeze-dried the reproductive cells of 12 mice to allow them to be stored at room temperature. They later sent the sperm to the space station, while also keeping a control batch on Earth.

After they returned to Earth, scientists rehydrated them and injected them into fresh mouse eggs. The newly born “space pups” turned out to be very healthy and had no genetic differences with their Earth-bound siblings.

Previously, scientists worried that chronic exposure to space radiation would cause cancer and other diseases in astronauts. They also feared it could mutate astronauts’ DNA, mutations that could be passed to their offspring.

However, the research team also reported that the space pups had children and grandchildren of their own, and each one was healthy.

The findings offer evidence that deep-space travelers could safely have children, but there are a few caveats.

The ISS is partially shielded from radiation thanks to the Earth’s magnetic field. Moreover, space radiation partially damages DNA by destroying the water molecules in cells.

Water is non-existent in freeze-dried sperm cells, which could make them resistant to radiation.

The voyage to the final frontier will have to wait.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 34,281,865 (+0.16%)
  2. India: 31,293,062 (+0.11%)
  3. Brazil: 19,523,711 (+0.26%)
  4. France: 5,996,060 (+0.37%)
  5. Russia: 5,979,027 (+0.40%)
  6. UK: 5,626,745 (+0.72%)
  7. Turkey: 5,563,903 (+0.17%)
  8. Argentina: 4,812,351 (+0.28%)
  9. Colombia: 4,692,570 (+0.27%)
  10. Italy: 4,302,393 (+0.12%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

Clarification: In Thursday’s DISCOVERY section, we said in our “The Da Vinci Code” item that scientists identified 14 living descendants of Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. As we wrote in the item, these individuals are not direct descendants of the polymath, who had no children of his own. Instead, researchers traced the artist’s genealogy back nearly 700 years to a common ancestor, Michele, and followed an unbroken male line from da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero, and his half-brother, Domenico, to identify the 14 people genetically related to the renaissance man.