Nurith Aizenman

The discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus — which has a high number of concerning mutations — has kicked off a frenzy of research. Scientists are racing to figure out how transmissible this variant is and how resistant to vaccines it is.

They're also grappling with a mystery: How did omicron get created?

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There have now been more than 250 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide. That's according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. This milestone comes as wealthy countries have fully vaccinated about 65% of their populations. Yet in low-income countries fewer than 3% of people have been vaccinated.

Fans of the television series The Great British Bake Off have long marveled at the skill contestants show during the dreaded "technical challenge" — for which they are given a basket with all the ingredients needed to make a highly unusual dish but a set of instructions that are often as vague as, "Bake until ready." Now a team of scientists at a pharmaceutical startup in South Africa is essentially confronting the same type of test — except the stakes are life and death.

Eleven days ago, Dr. Akbari was at her clinic in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif when she got a call that made her drop everything. It was a member of the Taliban who had been threatening her from afar for months because she had given a birth control shot to his 13-year-old bride.

"This time, his voice was actually really soft," recalls Akbari. "He said, 'We're entering the city. Soon we'll come and get you.' "

Since 2015, NPR has been following the efforts of a charity in Northern India that has an interesting solution to the problem of child marriage. It's called the Veerni Institute and it offers village girls who are child brides — or who are at risk of being married off young — the chance to continue their high school education. The institute runs what is effectively a boarding school for these girls in the city of Jodhpur.

When it comes to COVID-19 in Africa, there were mixed signals from Africa on Thursday.

The World Health Organization reports that after eight consecutive weeks of surging cases across the continent, there's finally been a reversal. The total number of confirmed new cases in Africa fell by 1.7% to nearly 282,000 in the past week. And it's worth noting that this represents only 8% of new cases worldwide.

There's mounting research to suggest that protecting people who are immuno-compromised from getting COVID is important not just for their sake – it could be critical in the effort to end the pandemic for everyone.

The evidence comes from two separate strands of studies.

Dr. Laura McCoy has been doing the first type. She's an infectious disease researcher at University College London.

"The group of people that I'm particularly interested in are those living with HIV," she says.

When COVID-19 cases surged in Malawi in January, Alinafe Kasiya's family was hit hard. The disease killed his sister — a healthy, gregarious woman who was the heart and soul of their clan — just before her 44th birthday. Then another sister who had cared for the first came down with symptoms. Then Kasiya's 13-year-son got sick while at boarding school. Kasiya wasn't even allowed to visit the boy while he recovered.

"It was a nightmare. The whole situation was a nightmare," he says.

It seems incredible: At a time when low-income nations are clamoring for vaccines against COVID-19, at least three countries — Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and South Sudan — are either discarding doses or giving them to other countries. What's going on?

Editor's note: As noted in this article, research is ongoing into the efficacy of various vaccines against the different variants. This piece reflects the state of knowledge as of its publication date, Friday, April 9.

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Editor's note: This is the latest update of a story that NPR has run on several occasions after mass shooting events in the United States. It was last published on Aug. 5, 2019.

The horrific mass shooting events in Indianapolis, the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colo., this year have once again shone a spotlight on how frequent this type of violence is in the United States compared with other wealthy countries.

When the pandemic first hit, Hitesh Hurkchand had one overriding concern: How do I protect my mother?

Hurkchand lives in Boston. His mother, Thulja, was in South Africa. She was a widow, living at an assisted living facility. And she had diabetes, hypertension, and heart issues.

Thinking about how hard it was going to be to keep Thulja safe, Hurkchand would fall into bouts of despair. "Oh my god, I mean it was like every other day," he recalls.

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The open market of the coronavirus vaccines has left countries like South Africa in a bind as they try to figure out a way to protect their citizens. NPR's Nurith Aizenman explains.

Ever since the coronavirus reached the U.S., officials and citizens alike have gauged the severity of the spread by tracking one measure in particular: How many new cases are confirmed through testing each day. However, it has been clear all along that this number is an understatement because of testing shortfalls.

Now a research team at Columbia University has built a mathematical model that gives a much more complete — and scary — picture of how much virus is circulating in our communities.

How to make sure the world is never so devastated by another pandemic?

Health officials from around the globe have been vigorously discussing that question over the past week at the annual meeting of the World Health Organization's Executive Board. The members, whose nine-day-long, mostly virtual gathering concludes on Tuesday, have heard recommendations from four separate panels.

Exactly one year ago today, the World Health Organization first learned of a cluster of a few dozen pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China of "unknown" origin. The cause, of course, would turn out to be the coronavirus behind the current pandemic. Here's a by-the-numbers summary of the toll the virus has taken on countries across the globe since that fateful day.

Full disclosure: As someone who grew up the big sister to a brother, I have a bit of a stake in the subject of this article. It's a new study that suggests big sisters can make a powerful difference for their younger siblings.

But there's no such personal angle for the authors of the study: economists Pamela Jakiela and Owen Ozier of Williams College in Massachusetts. "No! I'm an only child," Jakiela says with a chuckle. "And Owen is an older brother."

Among the promises that President elect-Biden is expected to fulfill immediately upon taking office: lifting a ban that President Trump imposed on U.S. foreign aid dollars related to abortion.

When Steve Davis considers the prospects of the world's poorest citizens he is filled with .... hope. The reason: Five promising trends that, he says, are gaining steam even amid deeply worrisome developments that get much more attention.

What are the biggest drivers of human suffering?

Every year an international team of researchers aims to answer that question by assembling a mammoth data set called the "Global Burden of Disease." It has become the go-to source for tracking and ranking the impact of virtually every disease or condition that is killing, sickening or otherwise disabling people in virtually every country on the planet.

President Trump has credited the apparent improvement of his coronavirus infection to, as he put it in one tweet, "some really great drugs" that were "developed, under the Trump Administration."

The assertion carries special irony for researcher Peter Daszak.

The coronavirus pandemic has now killed at least 1 million people worldwide. That's according to a tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University. This sobering milestone was reached just nine months after the first reported fatality in China last January. And public health experts believe the actual toll – the recorded deaths plus the unrecorded deaths – is much higher.

Every year, Stephen Lim and his colleagues at the University of Washington compile and analyze health data from every country on the planet to come up with a sort of global report card.

Year after year, one of the biggest success stories has been the vaccination of children.

"We've really seen this steady progress in increasing the fraction of children who are receiving ... in particular, the basic vaccines — diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis," Lim says.

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New estimates released this week suggest the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic will reach even greater levels of awfulness before 2020 is over: A prominent forecasting team projects that between now and Jan. 1, the virus will kill an additional 1.9 million people worldwide, pushing the total death toll by year's end to above 2.8 million.

It's one of the cheapest ways to help kids in extremely poor countries: Twice a year, give them a 50-cent pill to kill off nasty intestinal parasites. Now, a landmark study finds the benefits carry over long into adulthood — and the impact is massive. But dig deeper and the issue quickly becomes more complicated — and controversial.

To understand why, it helps to start at the beginning, when newly minted economist — and future Nobel prize winner — Michael Kremer says he stumbled into this study by lucky happenstance.

By Dec. 1, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could reach nearly 300,000. That's the grim new projection from researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — one of the more prominent teams modeling the pandemic. The new forecast, released Thursday, projects that between now and December, 137,000 people will die on top of the roughly 160,000 who have died so far.

Renee Bach, an American missionary who operated a charitable treatment center for severely malnourished children in Uganda despite having no medical training, has settled a lawsuit brought against her in Ugandan civil court by two women and a civil rights organization.

At least 105 children died in the charity's care. Bach was being sued by Gimbo Zubeda, whose son Twalali Kifabi was one of those children, as well as by Kakai Annet, whose son Elijah Kabagambe died at home soon after treatment by the charity.

For weeks the U.S. coronavirus pandemic has largely been driven by spiraling outbreaks in the South and West. But some forecasters say Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states could soon be in deep trouble again, too.

The warning comes from researchers at the PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which has built a model to provide four-week forecasts for every U.S. county. NPR spoke to David Rubin, PolicyLab's director, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Here are five takeaways:

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