Tag Archives: human

ESG investing: funds weigh sovereign debt profits against human rights

Late one evening last November Nickolai Prakofyeu answered the phone to some troubling news: he had 24 hours to leave Belarus or face at least 12 years in prison. Prakofyeu’s father had been tipped off by a sympathetic source within the Belarusian KGB that the security forces of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime were no longer willing to tolerate the family’s pro-democracy activities since last August’s disputed election.

Officials were about to shut down his family’s hotels and restaurant in the south-eastern city of Gomel, which had been giving free food to anti-government protesters. After the warning, Prakofyeu and his wife had time to gather just a few belongings — along with Jason, their Yorkshire Terrier — before fleeing in the early hours.

“We packed what we could into our car and drove to Ukraine,” says the 28-year-old, who has since linked up with the Belarus opposition in exile in Poland. From that bolt-hole he now spends his time pressuring western companies into ditching their investments in his home country. They include an array of asset managers who have funded Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime by buying Belarusian government debt.

Such divestment campaigns are not new in the world of emerging markets investing, where European and North American fund groups frequently use their clients’ money to bankroll unsavoury regimes. But they have been given fresh impetus by the phenomenon of ESG investing sweeping the asset management industry — which evaluates investments on environmental, social and governance criteria. And by the public attention Belarus has attracted.

Prakofyeu has tried to hold the industry to its promises, writing to asset managers such as BlackRock and UBS to ask if owning Belarus’ bonds is consistent with their policies, “given that the proceeds support the terroristic regime which is involved in gross human rights violations”. UBS says it only holds small positions of these bonds.

A Belarusian fighter jet intercepted a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent dissident in May
A Belarusian fighter jet intercepted a Ryanair flight carrying a prominent dissident, who was subsequently detained by Belarus authorities, in May © Onliner.by via AP

“All of these companies say ‘we’re all about ESG and sustainable practices’,” Prakofyeu says. “But when it comes to their investments, it seems like no one really cares.”

Such campaigns have enjoyed isolated success. Even before Belarus’ forced grounding of a Ryanair flight in May placed the regime back in the spotlight and sparked a tightening of US and EU sanctions, a group of Danish asset managers sold all their Belarus government debt. Germany’s Union Investment has also sold out, while investors such as BlueBay Asset Management avoided last year’s bond sale over human rights concerns. EU sanctions, imposed in June, prevent European investors from buying or trading any new Belarusian bonds that the regime tries to sell, but do not affect holdings of existing bonds.

Many emerging market investors point to a dilemma for the industry: if they steer clear of Belarusian bonds, what about other countries with dubious human rights records? Many worry privately it would be hard to make money if the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia or China were off-limits.

“All of the countries in the emerging markets index will have some issue of some kind — there’s no perfect way to do it,” says Richard House, chief investment officer for emerging market debt at Allianz Global Investors. “It’s a bit of a pandora’s box.”

Nickolai Prakofyeu had to leave Belarus or face at least 12 years in prison
Nickolai Prakofyeu had to leave Belarus or face at least 12 years in prison © Dawid Zuchowicz/FT

Profit vs rights

The dilemma over human rights exposes an uncomfortable tension at the heart of the ESG boom. Is all the effort spent measuring and evaluating “ESG factors” simply a way to improve returns by avoiding some hitherto under-appreciated risks? Or is investing more “sustainably” an end in itself?

Asset managers love to pretend both these goals are in perfect harmony. Logically, that won’t always be the case. And up to now a poor human rights record has been little barrier to borrowing money from western investors.

Saudi Arabia has successfully sold $ 32bn of international bonds since the start of 2019, according to data from Bond Radar, despite the worldwide condemnation of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh’s military campaign against Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen. Over the same period Russia, under international pressure over events such as its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its role in Syria’s civil war, has raised more than $ 10bn on international bond markets over the same period.

Egypt is a very popular holding among emerging market bond managers, even though president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government holds tens of thousands of government critics in prison on politically-motivated charges, according to Human Rights Watch.

Prominent holders of its bonds include BlackRock, AllianceBernstein and Crédit Agricole. ESG and human rights are important issues for all three, according to their websites. BlackRock and Crédit Agricole declined to comment. AllianceBernstein said no country it does business in “demonstrates policies, strategies and actions that are 100 per cent ideal or responsible”.

Foreign investors have also grown active in China’s massive bond market, despite the imposition of a security law in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang province, which the US state department has described as “genocide and crimes against humanity”.

Bar chart of Bond yields (%) showing Countries with poor human rights records can offer higher yields

Criticised by human rights activists, many fund managers insist that deciding what to do about bonds issued by unsavoury regimes is not straightforward. Their mandate is to make money. In a performance-based industry, excluding countries over human rights concerns could deny them access to profitable trades.

“We have a core responsibility to generate a return for investors, and a lot of the challenging ESG stories [countries ranking poorly on environmental or social measures] have the [highest] yields, which obviously creates a bias to invest,” says Timothy Ash, senior emerging market sovereign strategist at BlueBay.

And while a country may score badly in one area, it could fare better elsewhere. Ash highlights Saudi Arabia: while Prince Mohammed approved a “capture or kill” operation on Khashoggi, according to US intelligence, he has also led an ambitious reform programme giving women greater freedom.

Bar chart of Weight in indices, by Freedom House country classification (%) showing Repressive countries have a high weight in widely followed bond indices

Some feel it is unfair that the growing focus on human rights has increased the pressure on them to make ethical decisions about acceptable and unacceptable regimes.

“We’re not here to measure the extent of human rights violations,” says the head of emerging market debt at a big global asset manager that holds Belarusian government bonds. “We’re not going to go to Saudi Arabia and ask them to become a democracy.”

Nor would their investors wish them to, he argues: the firm manages money for western pensioners, Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds and wealthy Chinese individuals — to automatically assume a preference for democracies would be perverse. “Some investors don’t want to invest in countries that have a problem with racism. Does that mean we shouldn’t invest in the US?” he asks.

Pensioners argue with a law enforcement officer during a rally to demand the resignation of Alexander Lukashenko and new fair elections in Minsk last year
Pensioners argue with a law enforcement officer during a rally to demand the resignation of Alexander Lukashenko and new fair elections in Minsk last year © AFP via Getty Images

‘Turning a blind eye to abuses’

Many fund managers say they are simply deferring to widely-used bond benchmarks against which their performance is judged when explaining why they invest in countries with poor human rights records.

Belarus remains part of the benchmark JPMorgan emerging market bond index, a broad index of countries accessible to investors. Such indices aim to provide a snapshot of investable assets, rather than make moral judgments about inclusion. JPMorgan said in April it was considering ejecting Russian bonds because US sanctions might render it impractical or illegal to purchase them. Most fund managers take a similar view, preferring to wait until sanctions are threatened or in place before selling.

ESG bond indices, which are often based on ratings from specialist firms and which are designed to provide clarity on ethical investing, can add to the confusion.

The widely used JPMorgan ESG EMBI Global Diversified index uses ESG scoring and screening “to tilt toward issuers ranked higher on ESG criteria and green bond issues, and to underweight and remove issuers that rank lower”. Its biggest exposure is to the United Arab Emirates at 5.2 per cent. Yet, hundreds of activists, academics and lawyers are in prison in the UAE, “in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges”, according to HRW.

Saudi Arabia is the index’s third-biggest weighting, while China is also included. As well as being followed by many active managers, the index is also tracked — replicated in an investable fund — for instance by a $ 1.3bn exchange-traded fund run by BlackRock.

More than 37 per cent of the bonds in the JPMorgan EMBI index are issued by countries labelled “not free” by human rights campaign group Freedom House. Even in the ESG version of the index, that figure is 34 per cent — a larger proportion than bonds issued by “free” countries.

Some managers have begun to take action themselves. AkademikerPension, a Danish pension fund for academics, sold out of Belarus bonds in April on human rights grounds, and now excludes 45 countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

The fund has taken a harder line because its members have made it clear human rights are a priority when choosing investments, chief executive Jens Munch Holst says. Even so, working out where to draw the line is difficult.

“It’s a dilemma. Whenever we exclude a country, we always get asked ‘why not these other countries too?’” he says. “At some point too many exclusions might start to hurt our returns — it hasn’t yet.”

Holst says the fund has excluded Belarus while continuing to buy Russian assets “because we think the repression in Belarus is worse”.

Such a swingeing approach is rare, but there are increasing signs that other investors are taking notice of human rights. Germany’s Union Investment decided not to buy Tajikistan’s bonds because of human rights abuses. The firm also raised the Khashoggi killing with Saudi representatives in 2019 and the dominant role of the military with the Egyptian government, says Christian Kopf, head of fixed income and currencies.

But often appeals made to fund managers either by activists or those directly affected by human rights violations have little impact.

“Certain investors are [turning] a blind eye to human rights abuses in some countries,” says Vytis Jurkonis of Freedom House. “They are contributing to the survival of the regime.”

Saudi Arabia has sold $  32bn of international bonds since the start of 2019, despite the worldwide condemnation of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi Arabia has sold $ 32bn of international bonds since the start of 2019, despite the worldwide condemnation of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

A detained diplomat’s case

A poor human rights record also appears to be little barrier to countries building a new presence in bond markets.

Since the death of authoritarian dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, Uzbekistan, which used to rank alongside North Korea for its political rights and civil liberties, has been vocal in trying to open up to the outside world. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has released political prisoners, lifted exchange controls and encouraged political debate. This year the central Asian country published its first report on its ESG progress, which said it had introduced laws to enhance civil and economic rights and was working to eradicate forced labour in its cotton industry.

Yield-hungry investors have flooded in. A debut eurobond in 2019 and a subsequent issue late last year were heavily oversubscribed, raising more than $ 1.5bn. Blue-chip investors such as T Rowe Price, M&G, Candriam and Neuberger Berman bought in.

But concerns are growing over the pace of reform and the state of human rights in the country. HRW notes on its website that “grave rights violations, including impunity for torture and abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) people, persist” while “journalists and bloggers are harassed and arbitrarily prosecuted”.

Kadyr Yusupov, 69, a former high-ranking Uzbek diplomat convicted of treason by a closed court last year, is one of those said to have been mistreated.

In April last year Yusupov, who is being held at a prison colony, raised concerns about prisoner welfare. According to a December 2020 submission to a UN working party by Yusupov’s son Babur — who says his father was wrongly convicted — the former diplomat was threatened and put in a punishment cell.

After two days of hunger strike, Yusupov was transferred to a cell measuring 1.5 metres by 2 metres, containing a metal chair and a bed, as well as a torn mattress that was taken away during the day. The toilet was a hole in the ground, and the cell was, according to the submission, infested with small scorpions and snakes. The filing also details alleged psychological torture by Uzbek security services, including threats of sexual violence against him, his wife and daughter, and threats to arrest his sons.

In May this year the UN working group on arbitrary detention found that Yusupov’s imprisonment contravened five articles of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and called for his immediate release. Uzbekistan’s ministries of justice and foreign affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s been remarkable how people have just said ‘we don’t really care too much about what’s going on politically and locally, because the credit is so healthy’,” says Max Hess, central Asian fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He points to Uzbekistan’s large gold reserves and good record on investor relations as being attractive to fund managers.

Kadyr Yusupov, a former high-ranking Uzbek diplomat, was convicted of treason by a closed court last year
Kadyr Yusupov, a former high-ranking Uzbek diplomat, was convicted of treason by a closed court last year, a decision the UN says is flawed © Wikimedia

Investors including Neuberger Berman, Candriam and M&G point to signs of ESG progress in Uzbekistan. Neuberger says it is monitoring the situation, ‘including the case of Mr Yusupov, and should we get more evidence that Uzbekistan is regressing on the reform momentum, we would look to reduce our exposure”. 

Since March 2021, EU rules have required fund managers to disclose how they account for the ESG impacts of their investments. And from 2023 they will be asked to provide further information on the human rights records of the countries they lend to, giving investors greater transparency.

And, says Sebastiaan Greeven, manager in ESG and sustainability at consultancy MJ Hudson, investors will use the information to decide where to put their money. “This is going to become really big.”

For some, such pressure cannot come soon enough.

Uzbek convicts toil in the yard of Uzbekistan’s dreaded Jaslik jail, which is 1,000 kms west from the capital Tashkent
Uzbek convicts toil in the yard of Uzbekistan’s Jaslik jail, which is 1,000 kms west from the capital Tashkent © Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Prakofyeu and his colleagues have written to more than 25 bondholders and banks about Belarus, and only a handful have replied.

Yusupov’s son, Babur, has also had little success. He contacted JPMorgan, which underwrote Uzbekistan’s bonds, in 2019 shortly after his father’s arrest and again on June 23 this year. JPMorgan acknowledged him at the start of July — around 90 minutes after the Financial Times contacted the company to ask about its involvement in Uzbekistan. JPMorgan declined to comment.

Following the UN ruling, Babur emailed Aberdeen Standard Investments, an investor in the bonds, to request help in highlighting the case. In a statement on its website in May the firm said that “as active investors, fulfilling our human rights responsibilities requires ongoing engagement and effort to drive positive change”.

Babur Yusupov is still waiting to receive a reply from the fund manager.

Police form human shield to control chaos outside Wembley Stadium as Italy equalise

Hundreds of England fans without tickets clashed with security and police, as they attempted to enter the stadium.

After the match began police outside were pelted with bottles and other missiles.

Eyewitness Tariq Panja tweeted: “Police outside the stadium now in a standoff with a few thousand. Have had bottles thrown at them.

“Police spotter says she’s expecting worse at full time.”

Video posted by Ms Panja showed police dogs being deployed behind the main police line.

More to follow…

Adblock test (Why?)

COVID-19 and Crime: The Impact of the Pandemic on Human Trafficking

© Yasser Rezahi

Vienna, 8 July – A new study released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) illustrates the devastating impact of COVID-19 on victims and survivors of human trafficking and highlights the increased targeting and exploitation of children.

The study further assesses how frontline organizations responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic and continued to deliver essential services despite restrictions.

Meanwhile, traffickers took advantage of the global crisis, capitalizing on peoples’ loss of income and the increased amount of time both adults and children were spending online.

“The pandemic has increased vulnerabilities to trafficking in persons while making trafficking even harder to detect and leaving victims struggling to obtain help and access to justice,” says UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly.

“This study is an important new resource for policy-makers and criminal justice practitioners, as it examines successful strategies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking in times of crisis. It also provides recommendations on supporting frontline responders and victims and building resilience to future crises.”

The publication shows that measures to curb the spread of the virus increased the risk of trafficking for people in vulnerable situations, exposed victims to further exploitation and limited access to essential services for survivors of this crime. 

“Traffickers prey on vulnerabilities and often lure their victims with fake promises of employment,” explains Ilias Chatzis, Chief of UNODC’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Section, which developed the new study.   

“The pandemic has led to major job losses in many sectors and this creates opportunities for criminal networks to take advantage of desperate people,” he adds. 

The study found that children are being increasingly targeted by traffickers who are using social media and other online platforms to recruit new victims and profiting from the increased demand for child sexual exploitation materials.

“Experts who contributed to our study reported on their concerns about an increase in child trafficking. Children are being trafficked for sexual exploitation, forced marriage, forced begging and for forced criminality,” says Mr. Chatzis. 

Due to lockdowns and limitations on anti-trafficking services, victims had even less chance of escaping from their traffickers.

With borders closed, many rescued trafficking victims have been forced to remain for months in shelters in the countries where they had been exploited instead of returning home.

Essential services that provide the support and protection victims rely on were reduced or even halted.

“When rescued victims are recovering from their ordeal, they often need regular assistance as part of the rehabilitation and reintegration process. This could be healthcare, counselling, legal aid or access to education and employment opportunities,” says UNODC’s Ilias Chatzis.

“In many cases this just stopped, putting survivors of trafficking at risk of being re-traumatized or even re-trafficked, especially those who had lost their jobs and were suddenly unemployed and destitute,” he adds. 

Although many parts of the world came to a standstill, the COVID pandemic did not slow down human trafficking.

“Crime thrives in times of crisis, and traffickers adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’. They responded to the closure of bars, clubs and massage parlours, where exploitation can occur, by simply moving their illegal business to private properties or online,” he adds.

In some countries, police officers from specialized anti-trafficking units were reassigned from their regular duties to control national efforts to curb the spread of COVID, providing the traffickers with an opportunity to operate with less risk of being detected.

“The pandemic has taught us that we need to develop strategies on how to continue anti-human trafficking activities on a national and international level even during a crisis. We hope that the findings of our study and its recommendations will contribute to this,” says Ilias Chatzis.

Author: UNDOC
Read more here >>> The European Times News

Long COVID reveals how little we understand the human immune system

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer and ghostwriter in New York drawn to philosophy and psychiatry. Her most recent book is Morgan: The Wizard of Kew Gardens. This story was originally featured on Undark.

A year before the pandemic, I was diagnosed with a condition called mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS). A hallmark of the syndrome is hypersensitivities in more than one organ system: Food and other triggers can give me abdominal pain and severe diarrhea; my nose swells and I sneeze and wheeze. That sounds like allergies, but I’ve never tested positive on an allergy test.

Mast cells are among the immune system’s first line of defense. They are abundant in the parts of the body that have close contact with the outside world, including the skin, airways, and intestines. Mast cells gone wrong cause allergic symptoms, secreting histamine and giving us itchy eyes, hives, and rashes. Less well understood is their role in modulating the responses of other immune cells. Before the pandemic, researchers had suggested that mast cell dysfunction could explain severe cases of the flu—and highlighted the cells’ role in shutting down inflammation in a variety of situations. In my case, probably because of a genetic peculiarity, my mast cells overreact.

I was fairly stable on my medication, and then I became sick with Covid-19. Months after the virus had passed and I no longer had pneumonia, I was still fighting fatigue and breathlessness. My symptoms also flared up erratically. On some mornings, for example, the oatmeal I had relied on for years could cause me abdominal pain. “Once the mast cell response is turned up, it doesn’t wind down just because the infection is gone,” explained my doctor, Leo Galland, a New York internist who specializes in difficult cases.

MCAS often seems to first emerge after a virus. Could it explain any of the symptoms of the growing group of patients with long Covid? Congress has now dedicated more than a billion dollars towards research into why so many post-COVID patients—roughly a quarter, more often women—still feel ill long after their infection. In Facebook groups and elsewhere, people with plausible symptoms—for instance, severe lingering rashes and months of hives—have been trading information about remedies for the disease. Severe fatigue after exercise suggested myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, which some say is linked to MCAS. Others became lightheaded when they stood up, which might mean they had postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Spend an hour searching online, and you’ll find papers saying POTS, too, may be a manifestation of MCAS.

But getting a workup for the syndrome can be a long ordeal. The full range of tests and treatments aren’t routinely covered by insurance, leaving some patients to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. Before you get there, you need to find a sympathetic doctor: Researchers don’t agree on whether the illness is rare, or quite common.

I was lucky; Galland took me on in the 1980s. Long before the microbiome became a news item, he diagnosed me with intestinal dysbiosis—a disturbed gut. We don’t know why I got sick when I did, but when I showed up in Galland’s office, I was a young woman on an absurdly limited diet with a myriad of fluctuating symptoms. On a trip to Tucson, as just one example, my face and arms ballooned, and then shrank on the plane home. I had been exposed to a fungus in the desert. My grandmother commiserated; when her face swelled up, her doctors in Antwerp, in the 1930s, pulled out all of her teeth. She had no explanation.

Interestingly, disturbances in the gut may be linked to severe COVID-19, and correcting them a possible path to health for long COVID sufferers. Mast cells may have a unique role in communicating with gut bacteria. In midlife, I fit the profile for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the abdominal pain, often accompanied by diarrhea or constipation, that afflicts as much as 20 percent of the population, and often sets in after a virus. Desperate, in 2018, I had just completed a trial of hypnotherapy for IBS when my digestion took an embarrassing turn, with accidents in taxis, and I could no longer eat outside my home.

A new dietician, Tamara Duker Freuman, author of “The Bloated Belly Whisperer,” helped me identify the worst offenders: foods that are high in histamine, which can be found in everything from alcohol to avocados. After further testing, Galland put me on a regime: an arsenal of mast cell modulators and anti-histamines, including Pepcid, which also blocks histamine.

And I got better.

Mast cells were first named in 1878 by a German-Jewish Nobel Prize winner, Paul Ehrlich, a father of modern immunology who is most famous for discovering the cure for syphilis. At the turn of the century, scientists discovered anaphylaxis, the classic mast cell allergic reaction. The word comes from the Greek ana (against) and phylaxis (protection). The idea that an immune response could actually hurt us, rather than protect us, came as shock. Current research about the gut and immunity may change the paradigm again.

Five decades later, in 1949, scientists described a rare genetic disorder called mastocytosis, in which mast cells produce clones, building up in the skin, bones, and other organs. It wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers began to notice that mast cells could become hyper-responsive or over-activated without cloning.

On a separate track, since the 1990s, researchers have explored mast cell activity in IBS. (A clinical trial of Pepcid and Zyrtec for difficult IBS cases is currently underway at the University of Cincinnati.) Kyle Staller, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, now sometimes prescribes Pepcid if he sees other signs like hives, to patients who ask him to consider a histamine or MCAS issue. “I think anyone who’s been following the science closely has to start wondering, ‘How much could this be playing a role in that IBS patient who’s in front of us on a given day?’” he told me.

The disagreement has led to two camps. In camp one, the condition is rare; in camp two, it occurs in up to 17 percent of the adult population.

Competing proposals for diagnostic criteria emerged after 2010. Both proposals say that doctors should rule out other explanations for a person’s symptoms, and that symptoms should appear in a least two organ systems (in my case, it affects my gut, nose, and skin). Both proposals require lab tests—but they disagree on which tests are necessary, and on the ranges that would indicate someone has MCAS, as well as other details. Because lab results are elusive, Galland and some other doctors rely on a medical history instead.

The disagreement has led to two camps. In camp one, the condition is rare; in camp two, it occurs in up to 17 percent of the adult population. Specialists in camp one say patients are misled: “More and more patients are informed that they may have [mast cell activation syndrome] without completing a thorough medical evaluation,” an international group of 24 authors, led by Peter Valent, a hematologist and stem cell researcher at the Medical University of Vienna, wrote in April 2019 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

A year later, a largely American group of 43 authors led by Lawrence Afrin, one of the earliest mast cell activation researchers, countered in the journal Diagnosis that patients are suffering and even dying from underdiagnosis. By then the pandemic had arrived, and Afrin suggested that some patients with long COVID might be experiencing MCAS.

Patients were seeing links as well. For example, the distinct POTS symptom of extreme lightheadedness, once often dismissed as a problem of anxious young women, emerged as one of the odder long Covid symptoms. POTS, which has been reported by patients who experienced Lyme and other infections, may involve histamine and several other chemicals released by mast cells. It is known to overlap with MCAS.

Last fall, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on what it labeled multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS), the name rang bells: MCAS is clearly a multi-system inflammatory syndrome. Theoharis Theoharides, a professor of immunology at Tufts University who has studied mast cells for more than 40 years, wrote that MIS patients should be evaluated for MCAS.

Mariana Castells, director of the Mastocytosis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told me in an email that she’s seen no data showing that long COVID patients have the requisite diagnostic markers of MCAS.

Observers agree that the long COVID group probably includes people with different vulnerabilities. It would be marvelous indeed, if, one day, we found a single powerful concept to understand post-viral illness.

In the meantime, you might not need to fit either group’s criteria for MCAS, a difficult and chronic illness, to experience your mast cells’ betraying you sometimes. “Like many, many conditions, over time we [may] learn that there’s a spectrum of disease,” Staller said. “It’s not an all or nothing phenomenon.”

Even the group that sees MCAS as rare acknowledges the existence of a less severe form of mast cell activation that does not meet MCAS criteria. Theoharides has detailed several categories of the illness. He told me that he’d guess half of patients diagnosed with IBS might have mast cell activation of some kind.

If mast cell dysfunction is truly common, I trust the online buzz to help us find out. Crowdsourcing on patient forums is here to stay. And it’s good, after all, that sick people shared information, found support, and made long COVID a “thing” with ontological status.

Growing up, I had wondered if my grandmother’s multiple “allergies” were real. We didn’t laugh, but we didn’t exactly believe her. Then it happened to me.

Author: Purbita Saha

Read more here >>> Science – Popular Science

Dog food recalled over salmonella contamination and risk to human health – full list

The latest pet food recall comes from Natural Instinct Ltd who is recalling several dog food products containing duck because salmonella has been found in the products. Experts warn that the bug, which can cause serious illness in humans, can be passed from pets to their owners.

Products being recalled:

Working Dog Duck

Pack size – 1kg and 2x500g

Use by – January 8, 2022, January 15, 2022, January 22, 2022, February 13, 2022, February 20, 2022, March 11, 2022 and March 18, 2022

Pure Duck

Pack size – 1kg and 2x500g

Use by – January 8, 2022, January 15, 2022, January 22, 2022, February 13, 2022, February 20, 2022, March 11, 2022 and March 18, 2022

Working Dog Puppy

Pack size – 1kg and 2x500g

Use by – January 15, 2022, January 22, 2022, February 12, 2022, February 20, 2022 and March 11, 2022

Shoppers ‘amazed’ by Sainsbury’s new recycling system [COMMENT]
Monty Don: Amazing natural pest remover to kill slugs and snails [EXPERT]
Royal Mail ‘considering’ asking people to use different letterboxes [INSIGHT]

Duck Carcass

Pack size – Pack of two

Use by – January 8, 2022, January 15, 2022 and February 20, 2022

Duck Necks

Pack size – Pack of six

Use by – January 15, 2022 and January 22, 2022

The FSA added: “If you have bought any of the above products do not use them. Instead, return them to the store from where they were bought for a full refund.

“When handling and serving raw pet food it is always advised to clean utensils and feeding bowls thoroughly after use.

“Consumers should wash hands thoroughly after handling raw pet food, utensils or after contact with faces of animals.

“Raw pet food should be stored separately from any food (especially ready to eat food). Care should be taken when defrosting to avoid cross contamination of foods and surfaces.”

The US Food and Drug administration said: “Salmonellosis is uncommon in dogs and cats, but they can be carriers of the bacteria.

“This means that even if pets don’t show symptoms of salmonellosis, they can still shed salmonella in their stool and saliva and then spread the bacteria to the home environment and to people and other pets in the household.

“Some ways dogs can spread the bacteria is when they give people kisses or have stool accidents inside the home. Pet waste from both sick and healthy pets can be a source of infection from people.”

The FSA added: “If there is a problem with a food product that means it should not be sold, then it might be ‘withdrawn’ (taken off the shelves) or ‘recalled’ (when customers are asked to return the product.”

It comes just weeks after several batches of cat food were recalled over the potential link of a deadly cat disease.

The FSA and the department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have warned cat owners not to give their pets fry food made on behalf of the brands by manufacturer Fold Hill Foods. 

This is due to an outbreak of pancytopenia, an illness that can be fatal in felines. 

The condition causes a rapid decline in the number of blood cells.

Author: Sophie Harris
Read more here >>> Daily Express :: Life and Style
Read More

The debate over ‘Dragon Man’ shows that human origins are still kind of messy

For more than 80 years, Chris Stringer says a nearly intact, ancient human skull sat at the bottom of a well in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China. As the story goes, the specimen was originally unearthed from the bed of the Songhua River by workers building a bridge in Japanese-occupied northeastern China in 1933. The crew foreman recognized the skull’s value and didn’t want it falling into the hands of the Japanese occupiers, so he stowed the Harbin cranium away. 

“He wrapped it up, and he put it down an abandoned well. And then about 80 years later, as he was dying, he told his grandchildren the story of how he got the skull. They went to look, and it was still down there. So incredible,” says Stringer, a paleoanthropologist studying human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. After more than an estimated 146,000 years buried in sediment and its additional decades in hiding, the Harbin cranium finally made it into researchers’ hands in 2018.

Now, three years later, the first scientific descriptions of the skull, dubbed the “Dragon Man,” were published on Friday in The Innovation, a new journal funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a series of three papers. Stringer joined the research team in 2019 and is an author on two of the three papers. “The cranium is a fantastically preserved specimen,” he says. “I think it’s one of the most important finds of the last 50 years.” The publication of these studies occurred on the same day as publication of similarly seismic findings based on partial skull specimens found in Israel.

[Related: Controversial study claims Botswana may be the origin of modern humanity]

In the studies, Stringer and his colleagues date the skull to a minimum age of 146,000, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene period. The researchers also declare the specimen representative of a new species on the tree of human evolution, which spans from our first bipedal primate progenitors up to modern humans today. They name this proposed species Homo longi, derived from the Mandarin word for dragon, after the skull’s geographic origin in Heilongjiang, whose name means Black Dragon River. The researchers propose that H. longi may be a more closely related lineage to present-day humans than Neanderthals, the widely accepted “sister group” of our species.

To determine the skull’s age, the scientists analyzed ratios of chemical isotopes found in tiny deposits of sediment trapped in its nasal cavity and also looked at the ratios of uranium isotopes, which decay in a predictable pattern over time, in the bone itself. To place the specimen in evolutionary history, the researchers measured the Harbin cranium’s external physical features like the size of the brain case, facial dimensions and angles, and the single intact molar tooth. They then took those measurements and compared them to 95 other previously studied specimens, including other skull and bone fragments found in China. Using a computer model, Stringer and colleagues reconstructed a possible phylogenetic tree (a diagram representing evolutionary relationships through time).  

[Related: A primer on the primal origins of humans]

“It’s a weird combination of features,” says Stringer. The skull has a distinctive combination of primitive features, like a pronounced brow ridge and broad face, and those associated with more modern humans, like finer cheekbones. Above everything else though, what he says sets the Harbin cranium apart is its enormity, “It’s massive in size. It’s the biggest fossil human skull I’ve ever seen.”

The Harbin skull is massive, with a brain case suggesting a brain size close to modern humans. But the pronounced brow ridge suggests relatedness to more primitive archaic human lineages. [Still from video]

But bigger brain volume doesn’t necessarily mean closer to modern humans.  And the conclusions presented in the new articles aren’t settled, even among the study authors. “I think calling it a different species [from Neanderthal and Homo sapien] is legitimate, but there are different opinions in the research team about what the name of this species should be,” says Stringer, who prefers to group the newly described Harbin specimen with a previously found skull known as Homo daliensis or Dali Man. The Dali Man skull has some differences from the Harbin finding, but Stringer considers that level of difference to be an acceptable amount of variation within a species. “From my point of view, [Homo daliensis] would take priority over Homo longi.” 

The classification and placement of the Harbin cranium as a new human lineage is additionally controversial among scientists unaffiliated with the new research as well.

“We need to have DNA before we really know where this fossil fits in,” says Shara Bailey, a paleoanthropologist at New York University specializing in early human specimens from the same time period as the Harbin skull. Bailey describes our knowledge of the Middle Pleistocene as “the muddle in the middle,” pointing out that lots of remains aren’t well preserved and provide mixed signals. She says the Harbin skull is “an exciting finding, because how often do we get a skull as complete as this?” but is skeptical of the new research’s conclusions. “Their divergence analysis should be taken with a grain of salt.”

Bailey believes the newly described cranium “could be the face of a Denisovan, which is what we’ve been looking for.” Denisovans are an extinct lineage of archaic humans believed to have lived throughout Asia between 50,000 and 300,000 years ago. Our understanding of Denisovans comes largely from DNA analysis of partial bone fragments, including the Xiahe mandible, which researchers say the Harbin skull shares many similarities to. “It’s exciting in its own right,” says Bailey “because it could be the first time we have the face of this enigmatic human group”

[Related: Ancient tooth yields DNA of ancient human cousins, the Denisovans]

Like Neanderthals, Denisovans overlapped and interbred with modern humans, leaving bits of their DNA detectable in populations of present-day people. A small percentage of Neanderthal DNA is common in people of both European and Asian ancestry, while Denisovan DNA is common in Aboriginal Australians, Papuans, and people of Asian ancestry, particularly Melanasians, Bailey explains.

That the Harbin skull represents an intact Denisovan specimen is, “the best hypothesis,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hawks doesn’t rule out other possibilities, though, and points out that there are limits to the usefulness of comparing a jawbone like the Xiahe mandible with this skull, which is missing its lower jaw. But he says the similarities between the two specimens are significant. “They both are lacking their third molders. They both have very big second molars. There’s things that are similar. And so I think it’s a good hypothesis that these are Denisovans.”

If the Harbin skull is a Denisovan, Hawks points out that the researcher’s thorough analysis of the cranium’s physical traits doesn’t match the DNA record. The researchers place the skull as more similar to modern humans than Neanderthals, based on their analysis. While Denisovan DNA has placed the group as sharing a most recent common ancestor with Neanderthals, more distantly diverged from modern humans. Hawks and Bailey would believe the DNA over the trait analysis, as traits can diverge, emerge, and shift in non-linear ways, whereas DNA tells a more complete story. An alternate possibility, according to Stringer, is that all three groups diverged simultaneously due to geographic isolation. Their relation to each other may not be easily defined by the standard phylogenetic tree. “In reality, you might actually have something close to a three-way split.”

Stringer acknowledges the possibility that he and his fellow researchers have found a Denisovan, and not a new species, in the Dragon Man. “These are not highly resolved issues,” he says. “I certainly don’t have 100 percent confidence that this is definitely a sister species of Homo sapiens. We’re going to be looking for more data, so this is only the first stage of the research.” Stringer hopes to soon examine the skull’s internal features, like the inner ear bones, to get a better sense of how the specimen relates to both Neanderthals and modern humans. And he says his colleagues are looking into the possibility of extracting genetic material from the skull for DNA analysis.

Ultimately, the lineage name and placement that the Harbin skull represents are small details, says Strigner. “Species names, for me, are labels that enable us to group things together, but they’re not absolute. They’re humanly created categories, and nature does not always play along with our neat concepts.”

In a way, Bailey agrees. “Whether it’s a distinct species or not really depends on how you view species.” She points out that, in much of biology, a species is defined by reproductive isolation—yet we know modern humans interbred with earlier lineages. And, whatever you call it, the lineage the Harbin cranium represents did not “evolve” into the Homo sapiens presently living in Asia, says Bailey. This finding doesn’t change that our ancestors are African.

Even with limited interbreeding between past lineages, all present-day people have much more in common with each other, genetically and physically, than with any extinct group. All visible differences between humans living across the world today are a much more recent development than the divergence of these archaic human lineages, says Bailey. “We are a lot more like each other than we aren’t.”

Author: Lauren Leffer
Read more here >>> Science – Popular Science

Get a Closer Look at the Monsters in Dying Light 2 Stay Human

The night has come in our new gameplay video, so grab your flashlight and join us, as we explore the secrets of a dark zone. Take a closer look at various types of the Infected, stand face to face with a Volatile, and try to make it through in one piece. But that’ll only be possible if you check out our hints. Are you ready?

One thing is to know your enemies. Another, to know their weaknesses. We’ll cover both, just to be sure. So, who are all the monsters you’ll meet in The City? Let’s say you’d get infected. First, you might think it’s just the flu, as the symptoms are very similar. That is, if you didn’t live in a post-apocalyptic city overrun by a deadly virus, where you’d know just too well it’s more than that, and your race against the infection would begin.

You’d most likely also have a biomarker — a special wristband showing the stages of your sickness and how close you’re to the turning point. If you failed to find enough UV light or Antizin in time, the symptoms would get worse and worse, until you wouldn’t even be able to speak anymore. Then, your biomarker would turn red, and it’d be a straight road to becoming a Volatile. And once you’ve turned, there’s no going back.

After reaching the turning point, the thing that you wanted the most — UV rays — becomes your worst enemy. Stay in the sun, and you’ll degrade into a wreck of a monster, a Biter. You’ll lose whatever leftovers of consciousness you might’ve had and keep roaming the streets mindlessly until you die from the light.

But it doesn’t have to get that bad, though it’s rather relative, because if you let the virus progress in the dark, you’ll become the strongest monster of all — a Volatile. Fast, intelligent, and deadly, he’s the one thing you’d never want to meet. So, our first tip should be quite clear by now — stay in UV light and use it against the monsters. It’ll keep you safe from both the infection and the Infected.

But exposure to light is only one factor that defines which monster you’ll become. There are more, like the chemicals dropped onto The City in the past. Accelerating the progression of the virus in the sick individuals, they caused their bodies to change too rapidly, which, in turn, led to various mutations.

For example, if the virus seized somebody’s vocal cords, they could become a Howler, an Infected who is both too afraid and unable to fight a human, so he calls and alerts those more fit for the job with his piercing scream. Don’t let him spot you. Another product of the chemicals is the Demolisher, whose body grew extremely large, especially the hands, and his skin hardened with stonelike tissue. He can charge or slam the ground with his fists to create a kind of a shockwave as well as throw immensely heavy objects, so watch out for those flying boulders. Against the Demolisher, you will need to rely on your agility.

But there’s also the Banshee — smaller, yet so deft you won’t see her coming. She’s quick and takes you by surprise, attacking you from the roofs. If you get to fight her, your strength will be your best chance. And then, some monsters mutated in the most unpredictable ways.

The Revenant got a curious ability to buff and summon nearby Infected with the substance coming from the growths on his back. He’s rather uncommon. You’ll find him only in specific places, and only at night. But we’re not so sure looking for him is such a good idea. Unless you’re ready to fight an army.

So the next tip would be to never ever enter the chemical clouds in The City, and when you fight those who did, adjust your tactics to abuse their weaknesses. And since we’re at the “no entry” kind of advice, this one should follow naturally: Don’t roam the dark zones during the day. That’s when all the Infected are there, hiding from the sun. It’s smart to use that time to explore the streets and come back to the dark zones at dusk, when they have left to hunt. It doesn’t mean you can be careless, though, as there are still some monsters, Volatiles even, lying and walking around. That’s when our improved stealth mechanics come in handy. Don’t rush and think about your next steps, and you’ll make it through without having a horde of the Infected chase you.

And it’s worth trying your luck in the dark zones, however dangerous they may be. They’re full of valuable loot, inhibitors probably being the most precious of all. Now, these chemicals are the ones you actually want. They’ll boost your skills, allowing you to fight better, jump higher and run faster than any other human. But it has a darker side too. You’ll have to find out for yourself, should you manage to survive long enough.

Until then, we’re going to keep showing you more elements of the world of Dying Light 2 Stay Human, with parkour and combat hints coming soon. If you still think it’s only a matter of time before you turn, why not get an early glimpse at what you might become? Answer the questions at dyinglightgame.com/whichmonster and we’ll tell you what future awaits you in The City. Will you stay human?

Xbox LiveXbox Live

Dying Light 2


Upgrade your experience with Smart Delivery. Buy the game once to both play it on Xbox One and get its optimized version for Xbox Series X | S

Pre-order the Standard Edition now to get the exclusive items:
– “Reload” outfit
– “Reload” weapon skin
– “Reload” paraglider skin

Over twenty years ago in Harran, we fought the virus—and lost. Now, we’re losing again. The City, one of the last large human settlements, is torn by conflict. Civilization has fallen back into the Dark Ages. And yet, we still have hope.

You are a wanderer with the power to change the fate of The City. But your exceptional abilities come at a price. Haunted by memories you cannot decipher, you set out to learn the truth… and find yourself in a combat zone. Hone your skills, as to defeat your enemies and make allies, you’ll need both fists and wits. Unravel the dark secrets behind the wielders of power, choose sides and decide your destiny. But wherever your actions take you, there’s one thing you can never forget—stay human.

Participate in the life of a city engulfed in a new dark era. Discover different paths and hidden passages, as you explore its multiple levels and locations.

Take advantage of your parkour skills to tip the scales of even the most brutal encounter. Clever thinking, traps and creative weapons will be your best friends.

Wait for night to venture into dark hideouts of the Infected. Sunlight keeps them at bay, but once it’s gone, monsters begin the hunt, leaving their lairs free to explore.

Shape the future of The City with your actions and watch how it changes. Determine the balance of power by making choices in a growing conflict and forge your own experience.

Play in up to four-player co-op. Host your own games or join others and see how their choices have played out differently than yours.

Author: Marta Szczechowska, Writer, Techland
Read more here >>> Xbox Wire

Scientists 'astonishing' human DNA breakthrough after 'mystery species' find

Scientists have long studied the historical anthropology of human beings. Through bones, we can determine what early humans looked like. In scrutinising teeth, researchers can tell us what our ancestors dined on.

Items like tools and pots and weapons reveal ancient cultures and how they may have gone about their day-to-day business.

A decade ago, a breakthrough in evolutionary biology came in the form of genetic sequencing.

It opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities, offering unprecedented ways to understand our species.

In 2010 at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, biologists led by Svante Pääbo determined that early humans not only coexisted on Earth with other more primitive hominids but also mated with them.

Even more “astonishing” was the finding that another, as yet unidentified species, may also be represented in human DNA.

The discovery and subsequent claims of a “mystery species” were explored in the History channel’s documentary, ‘Ancient Aliens: ‘DNA reveals human/alien hybrids’.

Speaking during the programme, David Wilcock, author of, ‘The Synchronicity Key’, noted how most people had been familiar with the typical DNA model that showed a slow but clear progression from previous types of hominid life up to anatomically modern humans.

However, he said: “But that’s not true anymore.

JUST INGerman media fury at Merkel on Covid rules

He continued: “If you look at the DNA in someone from 3,000 BC and you compare that to the DNA of someone alive today, it has changed by seven percent.”

Mapping the human genome, Dr Hawks found that in the past 5,000 years, our DNA has evolved at a rate of 100 times greater than any previous 5,000 year period in our history.

Like many, Mr Wilcock is of the opinion that it is possible that aliens interbred with humans at some point in the last 5,000 years, accounting for the “monumental” changes in the structure of human DNA.

Ancient theorists claim that evidence of this can be found in stories throughout history that depict humans mating with gods.

Sabina Magliocco, an anthropologist from California State University, said: “Throughout world cultures and mythologies, this idea of otherworldly beings, gods, supernatural beings, demons having sex with humans is very common.

“The way we interpret the experience depends on the cultural and religious factors around us.”

Yet, there remain many unanswered questions likely never to be solved surrounding archaic humans who are hidden within our DNA.

These “ghosts” largely remain untraceable via material things like bones and teeth which have become lost to time.

But their genetics live on, with more discoveries of distant and lost humans through genetic sequencing and advanced processes likely to surface in the future.

This post originally appeared on Daily Express :: World Feed

Biden lauds bipartisan deal, but says ‘human infrastructure’ is a must

But Biden seemed confident about the fate of the two proposals on Thursday afternoon, appearing vindicated that his sometimes-derided approach to bipartisan dealmaking had yielded results.

“Let me be clear: Neither side got everything they wanted in this deal,” he told reporters. “That’s what it means to compromise. And it reflects something important. It reflects consensus. The heart of democracy.”

Biden said his attention would now turn to legislating “the other half” of his economic agenda, “to finish the job on child care, education, the caring economy, clean energy and tax cuts for American families.”

Such examples of what Biden called “human infrastructure” are “inextricably intertwined” with the physical-infrastructure provisions he had negotiated with the working group of senators.

Biden also sought to assuage the more progressive members of his party who remain skeptical of the bipartisan package and have demanded that moderate Democrats commit to coupling it with an expansive reconciliation bill.

“To them, I say this: I’ve already shown in my young presidency that I’m prepared to do whatever needs to get done to move the country forward,” he said.

And in a more explicit pledge, Biden said he was “not going to rest until both [proposals] get to my desk.” In a later exchange with the White House press corps, he reiterated that if the bills “don’t come” together, “I’m not signing it.”

Those remarks by Biden were just one of several examples of an apparently emboldened president, who repeatedly boasted about his command of tenuous congressional negotiations and reluctance to deliberate publicly before members of the media.

On a few occasions, Biden bent down to whisper points of emphasis into the microphone, and he claimed to reporters that he knew the raw politics of the House and Senate “better than most of you know it.”

The American public, however, “understands, and they’re seeing” tangible results from the White House’s agenda, Biden argued.

“Based on my being out on the street and polling data,” he said, “I think the people who need the help the most trust me to be fighting to get them the help they need.”

Author: Quint Forgey
This post originally appeared on Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories