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The coronavirus seems to be sparing populations at high altitudes

When tourists from Mexico, China, and Britain became the first COVID-19 fatalities in Cusco, Peru, it seemed as if the onetime capital of the Inca Empire might be headed for a significant outbreak.

Nestled in a picturesque Andean valley, the high-altitude city of 420,000 residents, the gateway to the cloud forest citadel of Machu Picchu, receives more than 3 million international visitors per year — many from pandemic hot spots, including the United States, Italy, and Spain.

Yet since those three deaths, between March 23 and April 3, at the start of Peru’s national lockdown, there has not been another COVID-19 fatality in the entire Cusco region, even as the disease has claimed more than 4,000 lives nationally.


Infections have also remained low. Just 916 of Peru’s 141,000 cases come from the Cusco region, meaning its contagion rate is more than 80 percent below the national average.

The relative dearth of cases and deaths in the internationally connected but high-elevation region has prompted speculation here that the coronavirus gets soroche, the Quechua word for altitude sickness.

Similar results have been seen elsewhere in the Andes, and in Tibet.

Scientists warn that the apparent pattern might not last, but the as-yet-unexplained phenomenon has them intrigued. Researchers are starting to investigate a possible relationship between the coronavirus and altitude.

In one peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, researchers from Australia, Bolivia, Canada, and Switzerland looking at epidemiological data from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Tibet found populations living above 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) reported significantly lower levels of confirmed infections than their lowland counterparts.

They found that Tibet’s infection rate was ‘‘drastically’’ lower than that of lowland China, three times lower in the Bolivian Andes than in the rest of the country, and four times lower in the Ecuadoran Andes.


Washington Post

Mosques reopen in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Tens of thousands of mosques across Saudi Arabia reopened Sunday for the first time in more than two months, with worshipers ordered to follow strict guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as Islam’s holiest site in Mecca remained closed to the public.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s holiest site outside of Saudi Arabia, also reopened for prayers for the first time since it was closed in mid-March.

With little regards for social distancing, throngs waited outside the holy site’s gates before it opened early Sunday, with many wearing surgical masks. As they were allowed to enter, the faithful stopped to have their temperature measured.

The mosque was one of Jerusalem’s many holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall, that were restricted to worshipers at the height of Israel’s coronavirus outbreak.

Throughout that period, worshipers continued to pray in the alleyways outside the mosque.

Jews also resumed their pilgrimages Sunday to the hilltop compound they revere as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical temples.

In Saudi Arabia, the government prepared for the reopening of around 90,000 mosques after sanitizing prayer rugs, washrooms, and shelves holding copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

Associated Press

India reports more than 8,000 new cases in one day

NEW DELHI — India reported more than 8,000 new cases of the coronavirus in a single day, another record high that topped the deadliest week in the country.

Confirmed infections have risen to 182,143, with 5,164 fatalities, including 193 in the last 24 hours, the Health Ministry said Sunday.


Overall, more than 60 percent of the virus fatalities have been reported from only two states — Maharashtra, the financial hub, and Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The new cases are largely concentrated in six Indian states, including the capital New Delhi.

Public health specialists have criticized the Modi government’s handling of the outbreak.

Modi, who addressed the nation through his monthly radio program on Sunday, said India was faring better than other countries.

India has a fatality rate of 2.8 percent.

There are concerns that the virus may be spreading through India’s villages as millions of jobless migrant workers return home from cities during the lockdown. Specialists warn that the pandemic has yet to peak in India.

Associated Press

In virus-hit South Korea, AI monitors lonely elders

SEOUL — In a cramped office in eastern Seoul, Hwang Seungwon points a remote control toward a huge NASA-like overhead screen stretching across one of the walls.

With each flick of the control, a colorful array of pie charts, graphs, and maps reveals the search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens being monitored by voice-enabled “smart” speakers, an experimental remote care service the company says is increasingly needed during the coronavirus crisis.

“We closely monitor for signs of danger, whether they are more frequently using search words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity,” said Hwang, director of a social enterprise that handles SK Telecom’s services.

Trigger words lead to a recommendation for a visit by public health officials.


Associated Press