Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 1 2014 4:33 PM

Ebola Vaccine to Get Human Trial for the First Time

As the race continues to stop the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, a new Ebola vaccine is set to begin a human trial for the first time this week. The vaccine, which is being developed by the NIH along with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, and has “performed extremely well” in primate studies, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told ABC News.

The trial comes as the World Health Organization warned last week the Ebola outbreak could infect as many as 20,000 people. It’s unclear if the vaccine will be ready in time to help combat the current outbreak, but the timetable is being sped up in case the trials are successful. According to ABC News, “although [NIH’s] Fauci said in July that it would take until late 2015 for a vaccine -- if successful -- to be administered to a limited number of health workers, GlaxoSmithKline said in a statement that the grant will also enable it to manufacture 10,000 doses of the vaccine while the trials are ongoing. If the vaccine trials are successful, it will be able to make stocks available immediately to the World Health Organization.”

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Here’s more on the upcoming trial from ABC News:

The phase 1 clinical trial set to begin this week at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, will involve 20 human subjects between the ages of 18 and 50, according to the NIH. Researchers will use the study to determine whether the vaccine is safe and see whether it prompts an immune response necessary to protect against Ebola. No human subjects will be infected with Ebola. A $4.7 million grant will also go toward Ebola vaccine trials in September at the University of Oxford in England, as well as centers in Gambia and Mali, according to GlaxoSmithKline. In all, 140 patients will be tested… The NIH said it should have initial data from the trial in late 2014.
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Sept. 1 2014 2:29 PM

In Case of Emergency, Japan Launches Public Awareness Campaign Urging People to Stockpile Toilet Paper

When stockpiling supplies for a potential disaster the first things that jump to mind are: food and water. In earthquake-prone Japan, however, authorities want to make sure the list doesn’t stop there and on Monday the government launched a public awareness campaign to make sure people also remembered to stock up on another oft forgotten item—toilet paper.

While the need for toilet paper, disaster or not, is perhaps obvious, during a potential earthquake in Japan, TP can become a particularly scarce strategic resource as “nearly half of the supply comes from one of Japan's most earthquake-prone areas,” according to the Associated Press. "After running out of toilet paper, people start using tissue, and that could clog up precious workable toilets," Toshiyuki Hashimoto, an industry ministry official in charge of paper products, told the AP.

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Here are some more fun facts from Japan’s "Let's stockpile toilet paper!" campaign, via the AP:

As part of the campaign, makers are offering a tightly rolled, 150-meter- (490-foot-) long, single-layer toilet paper that lasts more than twice as long as a regular roll. A family of four should be able to survive for a month on a six-roll pack, priced at 460 yen ($4.40) and with a five-year expiration date, said Satoshi Kurosaki, chairman of the Japan Household Paper Industry Association. Government and industry officials said 41 percent of the country's toilet paper supply comes from Shizuoka prefecture in central Japan, where experts say there is a higher than 80 percent chance of a major offshore quake in the next 30 years. Officials warned of a nationwide toilet paper shortage for about a month in such a disaster, based on lessons learned from the deadly March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

Sept. 1 2014 12:55 PM

Hundreds of Thousands of Fish Turn Up Dead in Mexican Lake

Mexican officials have different opinions on what’s going on at Lake Cajititlan. Over the past week, hundreds of thousands of fish have turned up dead in the lake in the state of Jalisco. So far, almost 50 tons of dead popoche chub freshwater fish have been taken from the lake, the BBC reports, but the mass death isn’t thought to be over yet. “The local authorities said it was part of a ‘natural cycle’ but state officials said it was due to the lake's ‘poor management,’” according to the BBC.

Local officials, Agence France Presse reports, “said the deaths were due to a drop in oxygen due to a cyclical change in water temperature.” However, the state’s environmental secretary, Magdalena Ruiz Mejia, said “the deaths were ‘more and more’ frequent and intense due to ‘bad management of the body of water,’” according to AFP.

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Whatever the cause, some of the images of Lake Cajititlan are pretty stunning.

Sept. 1 2014 11:37 AM

Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Enforcement of Louisiana’s Restrictive New Abortion Law

A federal judge stepped in and temporarily blocked the enforcement of a restrictive Louisiana state law on abortions on Sunday. The law, signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in June, will still go into effect on Monday, and requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Abortion rights advocates say the measure, if enforced, will likely cause the closure of all five of Louisiana’s abortion clinics, Reuters reports.

Here’s more on the decision from the Associated Press:

U.S. District Judge John deGravelles wrote that authorities cannot enforce the law until he holds a hearing on whether an order to block it is needed while the case remains in court… But lawyers and advocates appeared to disagree about whether the judge's order affects doctors at all five abortion clinics in the state or only those at three clinics whose lawsuit challenges the measure… The judge said he will call a status conference within 30 days to check on the progress of the plaintiffs' applications and to schedule a hearing to consider a request for an order blocking the law while the case is in court.
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“Louisiana is among 11 states that have passed similar laws, with courts recently ruling unconstitutional such measures in Alabama and Mississippi,” Reuters reports. “Key parts of a Texas law that would have shuttered most remaining clinics in that state were blocked by a federal judge on Friday.”

Sept. 1 2014 10:17 AM

Israel Land Grab Claims Nearly 1,000 Acres in West Bank

Israel announced on Sunday the appropriation of nearly 1,000 acres of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. The land grab is thought to be the largest in 30 years and would pave the way for an expansion of the Jewish settlement bloc in the area.  “The land, which is near the small Jewish settlement of Gvaot in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, has now officially been declared ‘state land,’ as opposed to land privately owned by Palestinians, clearing the way for the potential approval of Israeli building plans there,” the New York Times reports.

“The announcement follows the cabinet’s decision last week to take over the land in response to the June kidnapping and killing of three teenage Jewish boys by Hamas militants in the area,” Haaretz reports. “Last year, the government invited bids for the building of 1,000 housing units at the site, and 523 are currently under construction. Ten families now live on the site, which is adjacent to a yeshiva.”

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"We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision,” a State Department official said in Washington told Reuters. “Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, condemned the announcement and called for a reversal of the land claim, saying that it would ‘further deteriorate the situation,’” the Times reports. “The land appropriation has quickly turned attention back to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and exposed the contradictory visions in the Israeli government that hamper the prospects of any broader Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

“Israel has said construction at Gevaot would not constitute the establishment of a new settlement because the site is officially designated a neighbourhood of an existing one, Alon Shvut, several kilometres down the road,” according to Al Jazeera.

Aug. 31 2014 4:20 PM

No NFL Team Claims Michael Sam, Unlikely to Join Rams’ Practice Squad

The first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team will not be playing just yet. None of the NFL’s 31 other teams claimed Michael Sam after the St. Louis Rams released him on Saturday, so he is now a free agent, according to reports by ESPN, the Associated Press and USA Today. The big question now is whether Sam, who was a seventh-round draft pick, could join the Rams’ 10-man practice squad. He could also join another team’s practice squad. And some have even suggested he could join the Canadian Football League, notes the Guardian.

On Saturday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it sound as if the team may not have a need for Sam in its practice squad. "The practice squad is heavily dependent on what you do in other positions," Fisher said, according to ESPN. "We've got, for example, it's well noted that [CB] Trumaine [Johnson] is going to be down for a few weeks, [C/G] Barrett [Jones] is going to be down for a few weeks. We may have to go heavy in the other positions. If you're familiar with our roster right now, we've got five linebackers, for example; we need linebackers on the practice squad. I'm not going to go into what his odds are or what those opportunities are until we sift through things tomorrow.”

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The AP says it “appeared unlikely” that the Rams would sign Sam to the practice squad “because the defensive line is their strongest unit and they need help elsewhere.”

Aug. 31 2014 1:06 PM

Putin Calls for Talks on “Statehood” for Southeastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to up the ante on his Ukraine rhetoric by calling for immediate talks on “statehood” for southeastern Ukraine. In an interview broadcast on Russian state television, Putin called for “substantive, meaningful negotiations, and not on technical issues and on the political organization of society and statehood in the southeast of Ukraine.” A Kremlin spokesman quickly denied that the words meant Moscow was officially endorsing independence for rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. But it hardly seems like a coincidental wording considering it comes after he compared Kiev leaders to Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us,” reports Reuters.

Use of the term “statehood” amounts to “a vague and provocative turn of phrase,” notes the New York Times. Although Putin has repeatedly said he does not favor breaking up Ukraine and only wants the east to get more autonomy, “the word ‘statehood’ suggests more than that, and if it reflects a major shift in Kremlin policy, it would be a direct challenge not only to Kiev but also to Western European nations and the United States, which have been trying to force Moscow to back down,” according to the Washington Post.

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The words may ultimately amount to a big pressure tactic, writes the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg:

There is no doubt that Russia is determined to retain a degree of influence in Ukraine and to ensure, at the very least, that Ukraine never joins Nato. Moscow is equally determined to make sure the pro-Russian separatists avoid a military defeat.
Promoting "statehood" in the east is one way of increasing the pressure on Kiev to stop its military operation and start talks with the pro-Moscow militants—and with Russia itself.
If Kiev fails to do this, the Kremlin may well press for south-eastern Ukraine (or “Novorossiya” as Moscow increasingly refers to the region) to break away from Kiev.

Putin’s comments come as the European Union has warned it would impose new sanctions against Russia by the end of the week if the Ukraine conflict continued to escalate. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned Saturday at a EU meeting that his country could be “close to the point of no return” and a “full-scale war” could be imminent, reports the BBC.

Aug. 31 2014 12:08 PM

Democracy Activists Vow to “Occupy” Hong Kong After China Rules Out Open Elections

Protesters have vowed to paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district after China denied the former British colony the right to elect its next leader in 2017. Protesters started gathering outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters on Sunday night and have said they won’t be leaving anytime soon. “This is the end of any dialogue. In the next few weeks, Occupy Central will start wave after wave of action,” a co-founder of the Occupy Central group said, according to the BBC. “We will organize a full-scale act of occupying Central.”

China on Sunday made it clear Beijing would remain firmly in control of Hong Kong’s political future when the legislature ruled there would be no open nominations for the next election, saying it would create a “chaotic society.” The guidelines now state that there can only be three candidates for the position of Hong Kong’s leader and each must be approved by more than half of a 1,200-member nominating committee that will likely be filled with Beijing loyalists, notes the Associated Press. With its decision, “Beijing has chosen a showdown with a protest movement unlike any it has ever faced on the mainland,” points out the New York Times.

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“Today is not only the darkest day in the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development, today is also the darkest day of one country, two systems,” said Benny Tai, a law professor and a leader of the Occupy Central movement. A standoff with a large part of Hong Kong residents is precisely the kind of situation that Deng Xiaoping wanted to avoid when he came up with the “one country, two systems” formula for getting control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, notes the Wall Street Journal. Even though the Occupy movement has yet to gain broad support among Hong Kong’s middle class, “any strong measures by China or the Hong Kong police could change that,” notes Reuters.

Aug. 30 2014 5:03 PM

Rams Release Michael Sam. Will Another NFL Team Pick Him Up?

The St. Louis Rams waited until the very last possible moment, but in the end it was not to be. The team cut Michael Sam, who looked slated to become the first openly gay player in NFL history, this afternoon. On the question of whether it was homophobia that kept Sam off the 53-player roster, Outsports has no doubts and gives a surprisingly unequivocal no:

We believe Sam was cut for purely football reasons and there is zero evidence that it had anything to do with him being gay. The Rams organization, from General Manager Les Snead to Coach Jeff Fisher to the players, treated Sam as just another player, even though they were aware of his historic nature. Snead and Fisher even attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles in July, where Sam received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage.  
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Sam had the second-most-popular jersey in the NFL draft, but shirt sales apparently weren’t enough to keep him on board. So what was the problem? It seems he wasn’t up to snuff. That’s not to say Sam wasn’t good, it’s just that he was drafted on to a team with a strong defensive line and ended up losing out to undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. “Many around the league felt Sam was too slow to play at 3-4 outside linebacker after running a 4.91 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine in February, and too small at 6'2 and 255 pounds to be a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme,” notes SB Nation.

Sam could still be the first openly gay NFL player, but he may not be playing very often. All the NFL teams now have 24 hours to call for Sam to join their squads. But the most likely outcome is that Sam “ends up right back where he started and is re-signed by the Rams to their 10-member practice squad, making him eligible to practice with the team—and continue to try to develop into an NFL-ready player—but not play in games,” notes the Washington Post. Still, those in the league aren’t discounting the possibility that he will be signed by another team that has a particular need at defensive end. 

Still, the chances seem slim. Dan Wetzel over at Yahoo Sports explains:  

Sam isn't blessed with superior size, strength or speed. He's good, but in this meat grinder, that isn't always enough. He'll need the right moment, with the right team, playing the right system. League scouts are consistent in saying like a lot of prospects, Sam has shown he's good enough to play in the league, but not to just step into anyone's lineup.

At the end of the day, the team shouldn't be blamed, Wetzel adds.

The NFL is a cold and cutthroat place, especially for players such as Sam, the interchangeable guys hanging around on the cutline, always susceptible to a numbers crunch.

Update at 5:50 p.m.: Sam took to Twitter shortly after the announcement to express his gratitude to the Rams.

Aug. 30 2014 12:26 PM

Obama Considers Delaying Immigration Reform

The White House is pouring cold water on President Obama’s earlier vow to take executive action on immigration reform by the end of the summer. It will still happen, aides insist, but likely closer to the end of the year. Although officials emphasize that no decision has been made, Obama himself seemed to hint at the change earlier this week, saying his timeline could be affected by the need to deal with the surge of migrant children arriving at the border from Central America. "Some of these things do affect timelines, and we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done," Obama said.

The real reason for any delay though would mostly be electoral, notes the New York Times. The White House is increasingly concerned about what any executive action could mean for Democratic Senate candidates, which is why executive action could be pushed back until after the November midterms. The move would come as some Democrats in closer races have publicly called for Obama to not circumvent Congress on the controversial issue.

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Talking of any delay in reform is “putting the cart before the horse,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. But pushing back the issue will anger immigration advocates who are running out of patience with the White House. Delaying action until after the midterms could lead to even more political problems if Republicans win control of the Senate, notes the Washington Post. That could ultimately end up translating into much more tepid action than what the immigrant rights groups have been demanding.

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