* Greater Tokyo area accounts for half of Japan's new cases * GDP loss could be 0.5% for 1 month of emergency -economist * Japanese shares fall * Aim to start vaccinations in end-February - Suga Japan said on Monday it would consider declaring a state of emergency for the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area as coronavirus cases climb, casting fresh doubt over whether it can push ahead with the Olympics and keep economic damage to a minimum. The emergency declaration would mark a reversal for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has resisted any such drastic steps despite criticism that the government was acting too slowly. Japan saw a record 4,520 new cases on Dec. 31, prompting the capital, Tokyo, and three neighbouring prefectures to seek an emergency declaration from the national government. There were 3,158 new cases on Sunday, according to public broadcaster NHK; Tokyo and its environs accounted for about half of them. "Even during the three days of the New Year's holidays, cases didn't go down in the greater Tokyo area," Suga told a news conference. "We felt that a stronger message was needed," he added, when asked to explain the change of heart on a potential emergency declaration. Suga did not say when the government would make a decision, or what restrictions would follow. The first state of emergency, declared last spring, lasted more than a month, shutting down schools and non-essential businesses. In the absence of specifics, hundreds of thousands took to Twitter to express dismay and confusion. "This morning the news said it's 200 days till the Olympics, and in the afternoon, that there could be another state of emergency. What's going on?" tweeted user Mii Mama. Since the start of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 245,000 cases and about 3,600 deaths. Although the figures pale in comparison to those of many parts of Europe and the Americas, Suga has the challenge of hosting the Olympics in Tokyo this summer after the pandemic caused the Games' first-ever delay in 2020. That task has been made more difficult by the discovery last month of a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus. That prompted Japan to temporarily ban non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country. Still, Suga repeated the government's pledge to continue preparations for the Games, adding the country would aim to start vaccinating residents by the end of February. Japanese shares fell on the year's first day of trading, reacting to news of the potential state of emergency. Although Japan has relied on voluntary closings rather than the sort of rigid lockdown measures seen elsewhere in the world, Suga said a bill would be submitted to the next session of parliament to give state-of-emergency restrictions more teeth, including penalties. Suga repeated, however, that many of the new cases with unknown origins were likely linked to restaurants, and that the government's latest request for eateries in the Tokyo area to close at 8 p.m. - rather than 10 p.m. - should be effective. Toshihiro Nagahama, an economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, estimated that a one-month suspension of non-urgent spending by consumers in Greater Tokyo would reduce gross domestic product by 2.8 trillion yen ($27 billion), or an annualised 0.5%. "The loss of GDP could throw 147,000 people out of work," he wrote in a note. A popular subsidised travel programme that was paused for two weeks through Jan. 11 would also stay on hold during a state of emergency, Suga said.
Tokyo reported a record rise in coronavirus cases on Saturday, as Japan experiences a surge that now includes a new, fast-spreading strain while the government urges people to stay home. Infections of the virus that causes COVID-19 hit a record 949 in the capital just as Japan heads into New Year holidays that normally see people stream from the capital into the provinces. Serious cases were unchanged from a day earlier at 81. Japan on Friday reported its first cases of a fast-spreading variant in passengers arriving from Britain. The new variant has also been detected in a man who visited that country and a family member - the first cases of infected people found outside airport checks - Nippon TV reported on Saturday. Tokyo transport hubs were subdued, local media said, a day after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, under pressure as cases continue to climb, urged the nation to stay home and avoid social mixing. With New Year celebrations centred around family gatherings and mass visits to temples and shrines, experts have warned moderation will be essential to prevent infection rates from rising further amid concerns of pandemic fatigue. Suga’s initial political honeymoon after taking his post in September has ended, with his popularity sliding after criticism he was slow to react to rising infections in Tokyo and for attending a group steak dinner in defiance of his own calls for restraint. The spread of the virus in Tokyo contrasts with another hotspot, the northern island of Hokkaido, where case numbers have fallen from a November peak.
Pharmaceutical firms must be "very transparent" about the risks and benefits of vaccines in efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic, the head of Asia's largest drugmaker has told AFP. Takeda, one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, is not developing its own vaccine but has contracts with several firms to distribute their jabs in Japan and is also testing a virus treatment. "We have to manage the situation well, be very transparent and extremely educative in the way we introduce products," chief executive Christophe Weber told AFP in an interview. "Medicines or vaccines are never perfect... there are always some side effects," said Weber, who joined Takeda in 2014 and took the top job a year later after nearly two decades at Britain's GlaxoSmithKline. But he is optimistic the industry can explain the risks and benefits properly. The Frenchman even sees a chance that the inoculation could help push back the growing tide of uncertainty and outright opposition to vaccination worldwide. "It will be interesting to see. Vaccine hesitancy is strong, especially in some countries, but many vaccines are protecting against diseases that people never see," he said. "Here it's different, everybody is seeing the impact of the coronavirus... so it could actually re-demonstrate the value of vaccines." Takeda inked a deal with the Japanese government and US firm Moderna Therapeutics in October to import and distribute 50 million doses of its vaccine in Japan from the first part of 2021. The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday granted emergency authorisation for the Moderna jab -- the same permission already granted to the Pfizer/BioNTech version. Takeda has also signed a deal with US biotech firm Novavax to produce and deliver its vaccine in Japan, if ongoing clinical trials prove successful. But the firm -- which became one of the world's largest pharma companies after its 2019 purchase of Ireland's Shire -- has decided not to develop its own coronavirus jab. "When we assessed the situation and the technology that we have in-house, we felt we did not have the best technology to develop a vaccine," Weber said. Japan's pharmaceutical sector has moved comparatively slowly in the race to end the pandemic, and while companies including AnGes, Shionogi and Daiichi Sankyo are now developing vaccines, they are not expected to be available before 2022 at the earliest. The country has however secured doses from players abroad, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca. "There is no leading vaccine player in Japan," said Weber, adding that Takeda hopes to develop in that direction, including with plans for a dengue vaccine. He believes Japan's biotech sector is less developed than that in the US because the country lacks the "vibrant spin-off mechanism" to help scientific research groups grow into successful start-ups. "In Japan, scientific research and academia is strong, but there is much less in the way of spin-offs and venture capital," he said. "We need to make more efforts to generate this ecosystem in Japan," he added, pointing to an open innovation research facility Takeda founded in 2018 that houses 70 companies, including young biotech firms. And while it has shied away from coronavirus vaccines, Takeda has been working on a plasma therapy to treat the new respiratory disease in collaboration with an international alliance of drug manufacturers. Called CoVIg-19, the treatment uses concentrated and purified antibodies taken from patients who have battled the coronavirus. Weber expects clinical trial results for the treatment to be published early next year and says a timeframe for it to hit the market "will all depend on the data". He's not concerned that the arrival of multiple vaccines renders the treatment irrelevant, warning "we shouldn't drop the ball and assume vaccines will solve everything". "The vaccines don't have 100 percent efficacy," he said, adding that how long they protect for remains unclear and that some patients suffer conditions which prevent them from getting inoculated. Vaccinating the entire world is also going to be a lengthy process, Weber stressed. "There is still a great need for efficient treatments."
China will focus first on vaccinating high-risk groups over the winter and spring before widening the inoculation to the general public, a senior health official said yesterday. Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of China’s National Health Commission (NHC) and director of the State Council’s vaccine R&D working group, warned that China’s Covid-19 prevention efforts were under increasing pressure as temperatures fall. “During the winter and spring seasons, carrying out novel coronavirus vaccination work among some key population groups is of great significance to epidemic prevention,” he told a briefing. China aims to actively build group immunity, and the vaccination of high-risk groups – which include workers in the cold chain industry, customs, healthcare, markets and public transport – is just the first part of a “step-by-step programme”, he added. China has included two candidate vaccines from Sinopharm and one from Sinovac Biotech Ltd in an emergency-use programme launched in July, targeting specific high-infection risk groups such as medical workers and border inspectors. It has also approved a vaccine from CanSino Biologics Inc for military use but has not approved any vaccine for use among the general public. China is planning to vaccinate as many as 50mn people before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday in Feb 2021, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. It said that Beijing would distribute 100mn doses of vaccines made by Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. Mao Junfeng, an official with China’s industry ministry, told the briefing that the firms had already completed their “capacity construction tasks” and would be capable of meeting demand from key population groups. He did not say how many vaccines would be needed in total. Zheng Zhongwei, the NHC official heading China’s Covid-19 vaccine development team, said China had administered more than 1mn emergency doses to members of high-risk groups since July and “no serious adverse reactions” had been detected so far. “For the vaccines where we are moving quite fast, the number of cases required for the interim stage of Phase III clinical trials have already been obtained,” Zheng said, without elaborating on specific products. Data has been submitted to the medical products regulator, which will approve the vaccines if they meet the necessary conditions, he added.
Thousands of Sudanese protesters took to the streets of the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman yesterday, demanding an acceleration of reforms on the second anniversary of the start of an uprising that ousted Omar al-Bashir. The veteran leader was deposed by the military in April 2019 after months of mass protests against poor economic conditions and Bashir’s three-decade rule. Many Sudanese are unhappy with what they see as the slow or even negligible pace of change under the transitional government that has struggled to fix an economy in crisis. The government was formed under a three-year power sharing agreement between the military and civilian groups which is meant to lead to fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Sudan’s state TV aired footage of thousands of protesters gathering outside the presidential residence in Khartoum which now hosts the sovereign council, a joint military-civilian ruling body. The country also has a civilian cabinet of technocrats led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. “We have come out today, not to celebrate the anniversary or to congratulate the transitional government. This government, unfortunately, over the past two years has not made any progress in the retribution file for our martyrs,” protester Waleed El Tom told the state TV in Khartoum. Hundreds of Sudanese civilians were killed in protests before and after the former president’s ouster. Yesterday, thousands more protesters gathered outside the abandoned parliament building in Omdurman, across the river Nile from the capital. Small protests took place in other cities across the country, state media said. At the top of the protesters’ demands is the formation of a long-awaited transitional parliament, part of the power sharing deal, to pass the necessary legislation for building a democratic state. Others called for the dissolution of the sovereign council, the cabinet and the ruling coalition. Sudan’s economy has worsened since Bashir’s removal, as the weak transitional government has failed to kick-start reforms and halt a fall in the Sudanese pound on the black market. “The Sudanese people had hopes that their revolution would be great, that it would achieve things, but today the Sudanese people are standing in bread lines,” a protester told state TV. Security was tightened in Khartoum and Omdurman but no major incidents of violence or casualties were reported. Social media users shared pictures and videos of protesters burning tyres and security forces firing tear gas. Reuters was not immediately able to verify the images. Sudan’s government has signed peace deals with most of the rebel groups that caused unrest during Bashir’s rule, and it hopes that the United States’ recent decision to remove the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism will help the ailing economy.
Shoppers washed their hands and sterilised their smartphones in the streets of Tokyo’s posh Ginza district yesterday using handwashing stations that a Japanese start-up hopes will revolutionise access to clean water and better hygiene. WOTA Corp set up 20 of its WOSH machines near popular Ginza stores in an initiative with a district association aimed at encouraging shoppers to wash their hands to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The machines don’t require connection to running water and don’t use fresh and waste water tanks. Instead they recycle the water through a three-stage process of membrane filtration, chlorine and deep ultraviolet irradiation. They also have a device that cleans smartphones through 20-30 seconds of ultraviolet light exposure while users are washing their hands, since touching a dirty smartphone would otherwise negate their handwashing efforts. The firm had already been developing the machine in part to alleviate long lines at rest rooms when the Covid-19 crisis hit early this year, Chief Executive Yosuke Maeda told Reuters. “Amid the impact of Covid-19 we thought we had to implement this as soon as possible,” Maeda said.”So we sped up development and got things moving to have it in December in time for the third wave of the coronavirus.” On average 20 litres of water provides around 500 washes, while the filters should be changed after about 2,000, he said. The machine, however, needs connection to a power supply. WOTA has now begun shipments within Japan of roughly 4,000 units. It aims to expand internationally next year, with many inquiries coming from the United States. Maeda hopes the smartphone feature in particular will transform hygiene habits. “We thought if it had the smartphone sterilisation function, maybe people who never wash their hands will start doing so,” he said.
* Hydrogen seen as alternative for fossil-fuel hungry planes * Startup has flown 10 hydrogen plane test flights * California-based firm raised $34.4 million so far * Firm plans to move from propeller planes to jets Hydrogen plane startup ZeroAvia said on Wednesday it had secured $21.4 million in a funding round led by Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures to develop zero-emission commercial aircraft. Backers for the California-based startup, which has completed 10 test flights with a six-seater propeller plane powered by hydrogen, included Amazon and energy giant Royal Dutch Shell. Hydrogen, which produces water when it burns, is seen as a potential alternative for the aviation industry, a major user of fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be made from fossil fuels or from water using electrolysis, although this an expensive process. ‘This is a capital-intensive industry, so having investors to help you through the process is very important,’ ZeroAvia Chief Executive Val Miftakhov told Reuters, saying a plane was ‘a power-hungry machine, especially on take off.’ ZeroAvia, which has been conducting test flights in Britain, aims for commercial flights of up to 500 miles using 10- to 20-seat aircraft by 2023 and commercial jets able to haul up to 200 passengers 3,000 miles by 2030. Miftakhov said his startup expected to have planes for cargo flights in operation before commercial passenger planes. With the latest round, ZeroAvia has raised $34.4 million, providing it with cash to scale up its technology for larger aircraft. It has also teamed up with British Airways to explore how the carrier could shift to hydrogen-powered planes in future. Amazon's backing comes from its $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund. The online retailer, which aims to run a carbon neutral business by 2040, has ordered electric vans from Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and startup Rivian. Shell's funds came from its Shell Ventures a unit which has been boosting investments in solar and other renewables.
The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics will be the centrepiece of a crammed sporting year in 2021 as sports administrators who had their calendars wiped away by the coronavirus pandemic try to fill the gaps even as a second wave hits. While the Games will still be called the 2020 Olympics, they have been changed by Covid-19. Tokyo organisers and the Japanese government are struggling with increased costs and, despite the growing possibility of vaccination, whether to allow foreign visitors and what safeguards and restrictions will apply to spectators and participants. In early December, organisers said the delayed Games will cost at least an extra $2.4 billion as the unprecedented peacetime postponement and a raft of pandemic health measures inflate a budget that was already over $13 billion. Enthusiasm appears to have waned in Japan. A poll in July showed that just one in four people wanted to see the Games held in 2021 -- and a majority backed either further delay or cancellation. ‘Whether it's seen as too much or that we have done well to contain the costs, I think it depends on how you look at it,’ said Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto. Organisers have reduced the number of free tickets, scaled down the opening ceremony and made savings on mascots, banners and meals, but so far have cut just $280 million. ‘It will be simple rather than festive, but I hope it will be something moving that encourages people through the power of sport,’ he said. The organisers are determined to go ahead next year, even if the pandemic has not receded. They want to welcome foreign spectators and plan to waive quarantine requirements. They plan to require fans to wear masks, to refrain from cheering and keep their ticket stubs for contact tracing. Athletes will be asked to arrive late and leave early, minimise their time in the Olympic village, refrain from speaking loudly, avoid physical contact and wear masks when not competing or training. They will be screened on arrival and undergo tests every four to five days. ‘I think the Games will go off,’ World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said this month. ‘What nobody is clearly across at the moment, is... whether we are going to have a stadium populated by good, noisy, passionate fans.’ The challenge for the organisers is considerable, since the Games bring together 11,000 athletes from 206 countries, accompanied by at least 5,000 officials and coaches, 20,000 media representatives and 60,000 volunteers. - Lost time - Meanwhile, other sports, desperate to make up for lost time are, for the most part, manoeuvering to minimise overlaps between their revamped schedules and the Olympic behemoth. The National Basketball Association, which only finished its coronavirus-hit 2019-20 season on October 12, agreed with its players union to start the new season on December 22, cut the regular season by 10 games and end it on May 16. This was partly to allow players to compete in Tokyo, although since the playoffs are scheduled to continue until July 22, the day before the Games start, some of the biggest stars could still miss Tokyo. One event that has not, so far, publicly rethought its plans is the other marquee casualty from the summer's sporting wipeout: the European football championships. Still called Euro 2020, they are scheduled to stick to the planned 12-city format but some member nations have reportedly been urging UEFA to put all the matches in one country. The significance of the Olympics goes beyond sports. Following on from the diplomatic gestures at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018, there is talk of inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the Tokyo Games and holding a summit with South Korea, China, the United States and host Japan. Another dominant theme in 2020, opposition to racism, threatens to cause friction in Tokyo. In early December, Coe pointedly gave the World Athletics President's award to Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos, the three 400m runners who raised a fist in a black power salute on a medal podium protest at the 1968 Mexico City Games. ‘Sadly, their cause and what they so bravely stood for has not been consigned to the history books,’ said Coe. Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, quickly responded with irritation, saying any gestures opposing racism, such as taking a knee, would be against his rules prohibiting ‘political and religious marketing’ at the Games.
Japanese residents are torn between trepidation and tentative support for next year's Olympic Games that are now set to be far more expensive than expected amid a spike in coronavirus cases. In an announcement on Friday, organisers said the postponed Games would cost an additional 294 billion yen ($2.8 billion) with the bill to be shared by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG). In total, TMG and the national government, and in turn the Japanese taxpayer, are expecting to pay 191 billion yen to cover the costs of postponement and a raft of coronavirus countermeasures. Despite the total Games budget now being likely to run north of 1.63 trillion yen, some Japanese residents taking photographs near the newly-built National Stadium on Monday said they believed it may be a price worth paying. "I think the number of coronavirus infected cases (in Japan) is still smaller than other countries, so I hope they can hold (the Games) somehow under this situation," said 72-year-old Shiro Terui. "It also contributes to the global economy as well." Satsuki Kataoka, an accountant walking her dog near the stadium, said she accepts that holding the Games during a pandemic brings added costs. "As a taxpayer, I feel the (extra) budget they compiled is a little bit too large," she said. "But I do understand that extra expenses are needed due to the coronavirus situation." Although Japan has avoided the vast number of Covid-19 cases and deaths seen in other countries across the world, they are now experiencing a third wave. Support for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's cabinet dropped to 50.3% from 63.0% a month earlier, with the disapproval rating rising to 32.8% from 19.2%, a Kyodo News survey showed. With over 15,000 athletes from across the world coming to Tokyo for the Games, there are fears that their arrival could cause a spike in Covid-19 cases. "For me, it is very worrying that various people from overseas are visiting Japan in such a situation," said 27-year-old Ryota Sato. "So, I am not that supportive. I expect it may be cancelled, or postponed again." Organisers have said they will decide on the number of spectators allowed into Olympic venues in the spring.
* Capsule from Hayabusa2 lit up Australian sky * First time extensive asteroid samples brought to Earth * Mission aims to answer questions about origins of planets Japan has retrieved a space probe from Australia's remote outback after a six-year mission that may help reveal more about the origins of the planets, the Asian nation's space agency said on Sunday. A capsule from the unmanned Hayabusa2, carrying the first extensive samples of dust from an asteroid, was flown by helicopter from the outback to a domestic research facility of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The craft's mission seeks to answer some fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system and where molecules like water came from. "This is great," Yuichi Tsuda, a project manager for the agency, told Japanese broadcaster NHK. "It was a beautiful re-entry. We are all very moved by this." The agency will hold a briefing later on Sunday. The spacecraft, launched from Japan's Tanegashima space centre in 2014, took four years to reach the asteroid Ryugu before gathering a sample and heading back to Earth in November 2019. Spectators gathered at a theatre to view the return clapped and waved banners in NHK footage, with one woman in tears. They wore masks and maintained a distance from each other in precautions against the coronavirus. Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth. "What we are really doing here is trying to sample this pristine rock that has not been irradiated by the sun," astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Gases trapped in the rock samples could reveal more about conditions that prevailed about 4.6 billion years ago, she added. Japan's space probe, named for the peregrine falcon, orbited above the asteroid for a few months to map its surface before landing. Then it used small explosives to blast a crater and collected the resulting debris. The capsule lit up as it reentered the earth's atmosphere early on Sunday and landed in the Woomera restricted area, about 460 km north of Adelaide, to be retrieved by scientists and brought to a research station, JAXA said. "The helicopter carrying the capsule arrived at local headquarters and the capsule was brought inside the building," the space agency said on Twitter.
Call it a special delivery: after six years in space, Japan's Hayabusa-2 probe is heading home, but only to drop off its rare asteroid samples before starting a new mission. The fridge-sized probe, launched in December 2014, has already thrilled scientists by landing on and gathering material from an asteroid some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth. But its work isn't over yet, with scientists from Japan's space agency JAXA now planning to extend its mission for more than a decade and targeting two new asteroids. Before that mission can begin, Hayabusa-2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu -- "dragon palace" in Japanese. "The probe is now in a very good condition," project manager Yuichi Tsuda said on Friday, hailing its return as a "rare event in human history". Scientists are hoping it will bring around 0.1 grams of material that will offer clues about what the solar system was like at its birth some 4.6 billion years ago. The samples could shed light on "how matter is scattered around the solar system, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth," Tsuda told reporters ahead of Sunday's drop-off. The material is in a capsule that will separate from Hayabusa-2 while it is some 220,000 kilometres above Earth and then plummet into the southern Australian desert. The samples were collected during two crucial phases of the mission last year. In the first, Hayabusa-2 touched down on Ryugu to collect dust before firing an "impactor" to stir up pristine material from below the surface. Months later, it touched down to collect additional samples. "We may be able to get substances that will give us clues to the birth of a planet and the origin of life... I'm very interested to see the substances," mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters. Protected from sunlight and radiation inside the capsule, the samples will be collected, processed, then flown to Japan. Half the material will be shared between JAXA, US space agency NASA and other international organisations, and the rest kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology. After dropping off its samples, Hayabusa-2 will complete a series of orbits around the sun for around six years -- recording data on dust in interplanetary space and observing exoplanets. It will then approach the first of its target asteroids in July 2026. The probe won't get that close to the asteroid named 2001 CC21, but scientists hope it will be able to photograph it as it completes a "high speed fly-by". Getting so close could also help develop knowledge about how to protect Earth against asteroid impact. Hayabusa-2 will then head towards its main target, 1998 KY26, a ball-shaped asteroid with a diameter of just 30 metres. When the probe arrives at the asteroid in July 2031, it will be approximately 300 million kilometres from Earth And the target poses significant new challenges, not least because it is spinning rapidly, rotating on its axis about every 10 minutes. Hayabusa-2 will observe and photograph the asteroid, but it is unlikely to land and collect samples, as it probably won't have enough fuel to return them to Earth. Still, just making it to the asteroid will be a feat, said Seiichiro Watanabe, a Hayabusa-2 probe project scientist and professor of planetary science at Nagoya University. "It's like an athlete who scored two tries at a Rugby World Cup game attempting to compete in the Olympics, 10 years after switching over to figure skating," he told reporters. "We had never expected that the Hayabusa-2 would carry out another mission... but it's a scientifically meaningful and fascinating plan." The mission extension comes with risks, including that Hayabusa-2's equipment will degrade in deep space, but it also offers a rare, comparatively cost-effective way to continue research. The probe is the successor to JAXA's first asteroid explorer "Hayabusa", which means falcon in Japanese. That probe brought back dust samples from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid in 2010 after a seven-year odyssey, and was hailed as a scientific triumph.
Scientists said Wednesday they have restored sight in mice using a "milestone" treatment that returns cells to a more youthful state and could one day help treat glaucoma and other age-related diseases. The process offers the tantalising possibility of effectively turning back time at the cellular level, helping cells recover the ability to heal damage caused by injury, disease and age. "I'm excited about being able to rejuvenate organs and tissues that fail due to ageing and disease, especially where there are no effective treatments, such as dementia," senior author of the study David Sinclair told AFP. "We hope to treat glaucoma in human patients (at the trial stage) in two years," added Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. The treatment is based on the properties that cells have when the body is developing as an embryo. At that time, cells can repair and regenerate themselves, but that capacity declines rapidly with age. The scientists reasoned that if cells could be induced to return to that youthful state, they would be able to repair damage. To turn back the clock, they modified a process usually used to create the "blank slate" cells known as induced pluripotent stem cells. Those cells are created by injecting a cocktail of four proteins that help reprogramme a cell. The team did not want to reprogramme cells all the way back to that blank-slate status, but to restore them to a more youthful condition. So they tweaked the cocktail, using just three of the "youth-restoring" proteins -- dubbed OSK -- in the hope they could turn the clock back to just the right point. They targeted the retinal ganglion cells in the eye, which are linked to the brain through connections called axons. These axons form the optic nerve -- and damage to them caused by injury, ageing or disease causes poor vision and blindness. To test the effects of the cocktail, they first injected OSK into the eyes of mice with optic nerve injuries. They saw a twofold increase in the number of surviving retinal ganglion cells and a fivefold increase in nerve regrowth. "The treatment allowed the nerves to grow back towards the brain. Normally they would simply die," Sinclair said. With signs OSK could reverse damage caused by injury, the team turned to countering the effects of disease -- specifically glaucoma, which is the leading cause of blindness in humans. They replicated the conditions of the disease, where a build-up of pressure in the eye damages the optic nerve, in several dozen mice. Those who received the OSK treatment saw "significant" benefits, according to the study published in the journal Nature. Tests showed "that half of the visual acuity lost from increased intraocular pressure was restored". The treatment offered similarly promising results in elderly mice with poor vision caused by age. After the cocktail was injected, the mice's vision improved and their optic nerve cells displayed electrical signals and other features akin to those in younger mice. The study was conducted over the course of a year, and the mice displayed no side effects. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, said the findings were "bound to ignite great excitement". The results will need to be confirmed in further animal tests, with a potentially long path before humans can be treated, but Huberman said they nevertheless represented "a milestone in the field". "The effects of OSK in people remain to be tested but the existing results suggest that OSK is likely to reprogramme brain neurons across species," he wrote in a review commissioned by Nature. "For decades, it was argued that understanding normal neural developmental processes would one day lead to the tools to repair the aged or damaged brain... (this) work makes it clear: that era has now arrived."
Japanese health experts said the government should consider pausing its domestic travel campaign in some regions amid a record surge in Covid-19 cases and as the nation heads into a holiday weekend. The expert panel recommended excluding regions from the government's Go To Travel campaign if conditions worsen. It also said local governments should ask restaurants and bars to shorten business hours for about three weeks to dent the spike in cases. "Stronger measures will be taken in a short period of time and in high-risk areas to avoid the kind of situation that would require the declaration of a state of emergency," economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters on Friday after meeting with the experts. New cases have surged to record levels in Japan this week, prompting Tokyo municipal authorities to raise the city's epidemic alert to the highest level. The government declared a state of emergency in April as Covid-19 hospitalizations brought the medical system to the brink of collapse. It has resisted the recent calls to curtail its domestic travel push, aimed at reviving local economies. The resurgence in infections comes as Japan starts an extended weekend due to a public holiday on Monday. Compared to the previous wave, the current spike is affecting more older people, and infections are largely taking place within families and at facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. Along with Tokyo, other hot spots include the northern island of Hokkaido and the western prefectures of Osaka and Hyogo. "Tokyo and Hokkaido are entering an exponential growth phase," said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Population Health at King's College, London. "If they do not control the infection, another SOE (state of emergency) would be inevitable and the economic consequences would be substantial." In raising the capital's alert level on Thursday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike called for maximum caution as the year-end party season approaches. Japan's tally of new cases reached a record 2,414 cases on Friday, according to public broadcaster NHK. Severe cases nationwide are also at an all-time high of 280, according to the latest data. With about 126,000 cases and 1,955 fatalities, Japan has weathered the pandemic better than most major economies.
The Japanese capital of Tokyo posted the highest coronavirus alert level on Thursday with its daily tally of new cases set for a record high of more than 500, and its governor warned of much worse unless action is taken. The nationwide tally also hit a new high of 2,201 on Wednesday, according to state broadcaster NHK. But it is the spread of the virus in the metropolis of Tokyo, which hopes to stage a re-scheduled Olympic Games next year, that causes the most alarm. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told a late Wednesday news programme that the metropolitan government would take steps to combat the coronavirus ‘with the view that infections could reach 1,000 cases a day’. The daily tally of new infections in Tokyo were set to hit 534 cases on Thursday, broadcaster TBS reported, surpassing a record 493 the previous day. Latest official figures from Tokyo are announced at 0600 GMT. The city's highest alert level on a scale of four indicates that ‘infections are spreading’ compared with the previous level of ‘infections appear to be spreading’. With new record tallies across Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the government was looking to tighten guidelines on eating out, such as by limiting its subsidised ‘Go To Eat’ initiative to parties of up to four. But authorities stopped short of announcing a state of emergency or any drastic steps to restrict the movement of people, mindful of the economic impact. ‘I ask citizens once again to be vigilant about taking basic precautions,’ Suga told reporters, stressing the risk of infections particularly at eateries. ‘We ask that people engage in quiet, masked, dining. I will do the same starting today,’ he said. For medical preparedness - a separate category - Tokyo kept its alert at the second-highest level, indicating a need to boost hospital capacity but a notch below critical levels.
* Tokyo considers raising alert to highest level * South Korea says facing a nationwide crisis * South Korea tightens social distancing rules * Australia reports highly contagious strain * South Australia state locked down Daily coronavirus cases in Tokyo and South Korea hit fresh highs on Wednesday, as pollution-cloaked New Delhi struggled with rising cases and Australia reported a highly contagious virus strain which forced a state-wide lockdown. South Korea tightened social distancing rules and Tokyo said officials would meet on Thursday to discuss if the city needs to raise its infection alert to the highest level. ‘We're in a crisis where there are pessimistic views that predict another nationwide transmission,’ South Korea's Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae told a meeting. In Australia, a state imposed a six-week lockdown after a new outbreak in Adelaide expanded to 22 cases, restricting people from leaving their homes, mandating masks, closing schools, factories and takeaway food, and banning funerals and weddings. The South Australia state government warned the strain of virus detected in the new cases was highly contagious with a 24-hour infection rate. ‘We are going hard and we are going early. Time is of the essence and we must act swiftly and decisively,’ South Australia state Premier Steven Marshall said. ‘We have one chance, one chance, and will be throwing all our resources at it because we know the consequences of getting it wrong,’ Marshall said. A resurgence in Asia could hamper prospects for a broader reopening needed to boost economic recovery, stymie ‘travel bubble’ plans, and fan public worries in Japan which is preparing to host the Olympic games next year. South Korea, which eased social distancing rules last month, reported 313 new cases on Wednesday, the highest since August. ‘Infections are now occurring simultaneously in every corner of our society, real life situations, unlike the past when there were large outbreaks from a specific place or group,’ Kang said. From Thursday, the country will ban public gatherings of 100 people or more, limit religious services and audiences at sporting events to 30% capacity, and require high-risk facilities including clubs and karaoke bars to broaden distance among guests. South Korea's KOSPI rose 0.37% on Wednesday, though worries about new cases capped gains. Japan's Nikkei share average fell 0.76%. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was little changed as fresh restrictions overshadowed relief over coronavirus vaccine developments. DIFFERING MEASURES In Tokyo, new daily cases hit a record 493. The Nikkei business daily reported the Tokyo government was considering raising its infection alert to the highest of four levels as early as Thursday. Chief government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said officials would meet on Thursday to discuss raising the alert level, adding different regions in the country required different measures because contagion conditions varied. ‘A monitoring meeting of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government last week recognised that this was the beginning of a rapid spread of infection, a serious situation requiring extreme vigilance,’ he said. Fresh cases in India rose to 38,617, though infections have slowed from a September peak, but cases are rising in the capital New Delhi, a city of 20 million where crowds thronged markets for last week's Diwali festival. Officials in the city are drawing up plans to reinstate some curbs, such as lockdowns of some markets, and are seeking federal approval to further cut the number of guests at large events such as weddings. Taiwan, which reported two new cases on Wednesday, both imported, also announced new measures. The country will mandate greater use of masks and require almost all people entering the island to have a negative COVID test.
Sony's PlayStation 5 went on sale Thursday, just two days after rival Microsoft released its newest Xbox, with the next-generation consoles vying for holiday season dominance as the pandemic boosts gaming demand. With pre-orders pointing to a record launch, market leader Sony is counting on big-ticket exclusive games like ‘Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ to keep the edge over its US challenger. With coronavirus cases rising in many countries, launch events are off the table, and crowds of eager customers out of the question. While the new Xbox hit shelves worldwide on Tuesday, the PS5 is available from Thursday in Australia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, North America and South Korea, but gamers elsewhere will have to wait until November 19. In Sydney, just a handful of customers were collecting their pre-ordered consoles on Thursday morning. ‘It's Covid, so I guess not many people want to rush to a launch,’ said Theo Pasialis as he collected his PlayStation. Jonathan De Botton, one customer, said the atmosphere was a world away from the PS4 launch, when lines of customers stretched into a shopping mall food court. Today was ‘completely different,’ he told AFP. ‘It was a midnight launch... It was a good time,’ he added. Today, by comparison, it was ‘a bit of a ghost town’. The consoles go on sale with the pandemic creating a massive spike in demand for gaming from people stuck at home and looking for a distraction or a way to pass the time. Just how long that boom will last remains unclear, with news this week of progress on a virus vaccine prompting a gaming sector sell-off on stock markets, as investors anticipated a return to normal life. - Lion's share - For Sony, the stakes with its new console are significantly higher than for Microsoft, as gaming generates the lion's share of the Japanese firm's profits and about a third of its sales. Gaming accounts for just 10 percent of Microsoft's sales, by comparison. But Sony's margin on the PS5 will be slim, possibly even loss-making, analysts say -- with the company counting on sales of games, services and online subscriptions to turn a profit. Sony expects to sell 7.6 million PS5 consoles by the end of March -- beating the performance of the PS4. And it will be relying heavily on the US market to achieve that, with Japan's video game market more focused on mobile and still dominated by Nintendo, said Serkan Toto, an analyst at Kantan Games. ‘You're talking about a relatively small market in Japan... driving Sony to centralise the PlayStation business in one area, and that area is the United States,’ he told AFP. Toto said he expected the PS5 to outperform the PS4. ‘I think that the PlayStation 4 was so successful that Sony has cultivated a much bigger fan base for PlayStation content,’ he said. The PS5 is priced at $500, like the Xbox Series X, while a version without a disk reader costs $400. That is more than the $300 price tag for Microsoft's less powerful Xbox Series S, which also has no disk reader.
Meet Japan's Joe Biden - the mayor of a remote town who's become an internet sensation for having a name that can be pronounced the same as that of the US president-elect. Yutaka Umeda, the 73-year-old mayor of Yamato - a town of 15,000 in southwestern Japan - first realized that the Chinese characters used to write his name could, if said differently, sound like "Joe Biden" while watching television coverage of the US vote count with his family. Yutaka Umeda shows his name written in Japanese Japan uses kanji characters from China along with phonetic Japanese script, especially for names, and the characters can sometimes be read in different ways. In Umeda's case, his first name, Yutaka, can also be pronounced "Jo," while his surname becomes "Baiden." Over the last few days, Umeda has become a media and internet sensation. "I'm really surprised," Umeda told Reuters. "I was told I was in the news in Japan but I was in Tokyo yesterday, and I heard from people that I made news in the US too." People have suggested Umeda fly to Washington to meet Biden or invite him to Yamato, but for now, Umeda said he will content himself with a congratulatory letter. "To me, the president of the US was someone far away," said Umeda. "But coincidentally, because our names are phonetically the same, I feel much closer to him when I watch his speeches and videos."
Japan provided a glimpse Sunday into what the delayed Tokyo Olympics may look like next summer as fans attended the country's first international sporting competition since the pandemic shutdown. The friendly gymnastics "Friendships and Solidarity Competition" gathered around 30 athletes from Japan, China, Russia and the US to compete in tightly controlled bio-secure conditions. Some 2,000 fans in face masks sanitised their hands regularly, checked their body temperature and remained socially distanced at the 8,700-capacity Yoyogi No.1 Gymnasium, while being encouraged not to shout support to avoid spreading droplets. Athletes and journalists were subject to similar strict hygiene measures and were also showered with brief sprays of a sanitising mist. The spectators resorted to polite applause and occasional quiet murmurs of "wow" as gymnasts pulled off gravity defying routines or feats of strength. The International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said he hoped the event could demonstrate how Tokyo 2020 organisers can hold an Olympics next year that will be safe for athletes, officials and fans. "With this competition, you are also setting an example that sports can be organised safely even under the ongoing health restrictions," Bach said in a video message at the opening ceremony. The event was "giving us confidence in our preparations for future events in particular of course with a view to the postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020," Bach said. The IOC and the Japanese government agreed to a one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics to next summer because of the pandemic. Some medical experts have voiced scepticism about whether the massive international gathering can be held safely in a pandemic without a vaccine. For the Tokyo gymnastics event, the participating athletes had gone through strict sanitation rules to shield themselves from the coronavirus with at least two weeks of isolation before flying to Japan. Once in Tokyo, they were immediately placed under strict bio-secure protocols, restricted to designated floors of their hotel and could only leave to take assigned buses to practice and competition venues. On the competition floor, national teams did not share powder chalk. Three-time Olympic gold medallist and local star Kohei Uchimura took part after being cleared after falsely tested positive for coronavirus. "I know it has been difficult for all of us to live under various restrictions," he said at the opening ceremony. "It is important that this competition leads to the Olympics. But unless we create a sense of hopes and dreams, this will not lead to the Olympics." Russia's world champion Nikita Nagornyy echoed his competitor's optimism. "For any athletes, next year's Olympics will be the most important competition of their lives," Nagornyy said. "In today's competition, I wish to show to the world that the Olympics can be held even under the pandemic." Top Japanese government officials attended, including Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto and sports minister Koichi Hagiuda. Gymnastics officials and Tokyo 2020 officials are expected to meet later this week to discuss lessons learned from the competition.
The Tokyo International Film Festival kicked off yesterday with live screenings and a host of coronavirus prevention measures to ensure the show could go on. Audiences were barred from cheering festival guests, required to wear masks, have their temperature taken and use hand sanitiser. Foreign guests were mostly absent given Japan’s international border closure to prevent the spread of Covid-19, although a small number of directors opted to quarantine for two weeks in order to attend the 33rd annual festival. Many screenings during the 10-day event were sold out. “The fact that in these challenging times that you’ve found a way to honour and enjoy watching films on the big screen is a source of inspiration to myself and filmmakers around the world,” said Tenet director Christopher Nolan in a video message at the opening ceremony. The decision to push ahead with the festival highlights the relative progress toward a post-Covid life in Japan and other Asian countries, while surging infections in the United States and parts of Europe prompt renewed lockdowns. As Hollywood struggles, Japanese animated film Demon Slayer is breaking box office records at home after the government recently allowed cinemas to operate again at full capacity. Festival Chairman Hiroyasu Ando said organisers had agonised over what to do after many other international festivals were cancelled or restricted to online events. With the pandemic easing in Japan and cinemas reopened, they decided to go ahead and provide courage through the “power of the arts,” he said. “More than anything, going to the cinema, everyone sitting together and laughing and crying together, the feeling that comes from that is so important,” Ando told Reuters in an interview. ”This excitement you feel in the cinema — it’s a happiness you just can’t get from watching something alone online.” Organisers did make one major concession because of the pandemic, scrapping most of the competition sections because of the lack of an in-person jury with foreign members. Instead, 32 of the films screening through Nov 9 will compete for an Audience Award.
Tokyo Olympics organisers said they were on constant alert for cyberattacks Tuesday but had yet to suffer "significant impact" after Britain accused Russia of targeting the Games. Britain's foreign ministry said Russian spies attacked the 2020 Games' organisers, logistics services and sponsors before the event was postponed by one year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Tokyo 2020 officials said they had taken a range of countermeasures against digital attacks but did not disclose details, citing security concerns. "While we have constantly monitored various types of cyberattack on the digital platforms owned by Tokyo 2020, no significant impact has been observed in our operations," an organising committee statement said. Britain's allegations came as six Russian military intelligence officers were charged in the United States with carrying out cyberattacks on Ukraine's power grid, the 2017 French elections and the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. British daily The Guardian said alleged digital reconnaissance work on Tokyo 2020 had included spearphishing -- messages disguised to appear as if from a trusted friend or business connection, but which contain malware. The planned attack also included setting up fake websites and researching individuals' account security, the newspaper said. Japan's Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto declined to directly address the report on Tuesday, but said that "since the London Games, cyberattacks have been increasing". The US justice department said the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea were targeted after Russian athletes were banned from participating under their own flag because of government-sponsored doping efforts. "Their cyber attack combined the emotional maturity of a petulant child with the resources of a nation state," he said, adding that they attempted to pin it on North Korea. "During the opening ceremony, they launched the 'Olympic Destroyer' malware attack, which deleted data from thousands of computers supporting the Games, rendering them inoperable," he said. Lee Hee-beom, former president and CEO of the Pyeongchang organising committee, said he was unaware who was responsible for the attack until now. "There was a hacking on the opening day but we could not not confirm its source," Lee told AFP. "Internet connection was lost right after the ceremony from the hacking and we had to mobilise experts to restore it all night. Until now, I did not know who had done it."