Equilibrium/Sustainability — Big Island blizzard beckons ‘volcano skiing’

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A blizzard that has blanketed the mountaintops of Hawaii’s Big Island has provided a rare opportunity for athletes versed in “volcano skiing,” The Wall Street Journal reported. 

“I’ll do 10 runs easy,” retired firefighter Christopher Langan told the Journal, of the 13,796-foot Mauna Kea. “We consider our vehicles a gondola.”

While characterizing the terrain at about the same difficulty level as a blue intermediate trail, Langan said that other trails pale in comparison to runs down this dormant volcano overlooking the Pacific Ocean, according to the Journal. 

The major cold-season event has brought up to 25 inches of rain, a foot of mountain snow and hurricane-strength winds on the Big Island’s summits, The Washington Post reported. And the National Weather Service warned that the Hawaiian archipelago could face “catastrophic flooding” as the system moves through the region, according to NBC News.

Today we’ll turn to another typically warm-weather region across the world, where the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted achievements made at curbing malaria mortality rates. Then we’ll look at why the SEC keeps investigating electric vehicle companies — and whether there’s something fishy about the industry as a whole.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

Pandemic foils fight against malaria

There were an estimated 241 million malaria cases and 627,000 malaria-related deaths worldwide in 2020, or 14 million more cases and 69,000 more deaths than in 2019, according to the WHO’s latest World Malaria Report.

About two-thirds of those additional deaths — 47,000 — were linked to disruptions in malaria prevention, diagnosis and treatment mechanisms, and the vast majority occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, the report found.

But officials say it could have been far worse: WHO leaders expressed some relief that a “doomsday scenario” predicted by the organization had not come to pass.

“The first message is a good news message,” Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO Global Malaria Program, said in a statement. “Thanks to urgent and strenuous efforts we can claim that the world has succeeded in averting the worst-case scenario of malaria deaths.”

Early on in the pandemic, WHO had projected that malaria deaths could potentially double in 2020, but emergency actions averted this worst-case scenario, according to the organization.

Most cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for about 95 percent of all malaria cases and 96 percent of related deaths in 2020 — with about 80 percent of the deaths among children under 5 years old, the report said. 

And if curbing malaria is linked to mitigating coronavirus, the outlook could be grim. Only five of Africa’s 54 countries are expected to reach a WHO target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations by the year’s end — a situation that a report from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation attributed to “extreme vaccine racism,” according to Reuters.

The malaria surge is also about timing. Although significant gains had been made from 2000 to 2017 — a 27-percent reduction in malaria case incidence and a 51-percent reduction in mortality rate — progress in cutting cases had hit a plateau, the report found.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, global gains against malaria had leveled off,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. 

But important strides have been made. About three-quarters of planned amounts of insecticide-treated mosquito nets had been distributed by the end of 2020, according to the report. Thirteen countries in Africa’s Sahel subregion were able to provide 11.8 million more children with preventative antimalarials during the 2020 rainy season, in comparison to that of 2019.

WHO also credited the Greater Mekong region for its “impressive declines” in malaria caseload, while noting that China and El Salvador were certified as malaria-free in 2021 and that Iran achieved three consecutive years of zero indigenous cases in 2020.


Stepping up: Ghebreyesus called upon leaders “to harness that same energy and commitment to reverse the setbacks caused by the pandemic and step up the pace of progress against this disease.” 

Chief among these setbacks is the WHO Africa region’s 12-percent surge in malaria-related deaths in 2020 in comparison to the previous year, according to the report. 

To battle back malaria, boost funding, innovation: WHO stressed the need for equitable access to primary healthcare and increased investments in the fight against malaria. Current funding — about $3.3 billion in 2020 — would need to more than triple, to $10.3 billion annually by 2030, the report said.

The organization also cited innovation as critical “for accelerating progress,” noting that in October, WHO began recommending a “RTS,S” vaccine for children to reduce malaria transmission. 

Last words: Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, praised African nations for preventing the most dire forecasts but warned in a statement that “the pandemic’s knock-on effect still translates to thousands of lives lost to malaria.”

“African governments and their partners need to intensify their efforts so that we do not lose even more ground to this preventable disease,” Moeti added.


Financial regulators probing EV companies 

Stock prices for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers Lucid and Tesla fell on Monday amid announcements that both were the subject of investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has been probing the electric car sector.

The investigations highlight the extent to which the gap between hopes for the electric vehicle industry and its current, more limited reality, have often made it difficult to separate hype from fraud.

First steps: The SEC subpoenaed luxury electric carmaker Lucid last week, requesting documents as part of an unspecified investigation.

That triggered a 19-percent fall in Lucid’s share price on Monday — and a parallel fall at EV startups Canoo Inc, Faraday Future Inc, and Fisker Inc, even though those companies weren’t part of the investigation, according to Reuters.

So why did their shares fall? Because all of those companies share with Lucid a key element of corporate structure: they went public as Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, by which an investment group puts up the money to acquire an existing, but embryonic, tech startup. This type of setup can lead to companies that are valued in the billions despite having no prototype, let alone an existing supply and production chain, Reuters reported.

More a vision than a company: The SPAC model has allowed new players into a car market in which high production costs have traditionally shut new entrants out — but it comes at a cost. 

“A lot of these companies that have taken this approach are not far enough along to really be considered a viable company,” Sam Abuelsamid, auto analyst at Guidehouse Insights, told Reuters.

Anyone else in hot water? Lordstown Motors, another SPAC company, is being investigated by the SEC over allegations it had lied about the number of pre-orders it had for its electric trucks, The New York Times reported in September.

And in July, federal prosecutors charged CEO Trevor Milton of electric- and hydrogen-powered car startup Nikola with securities fraud for allegedly lying to shareholders and investors about whether the company had prototypes ready to be produced, according to a statement from the Justice Department.

The Feds have identified a shared thread: “The one thing fraudsters have in common – they’re liars, cheaters and thieves,” said Philip Bartless, the lead inspector on the Nikola case, said about Milton in a statement.


Burning panels: Meanwhile, the SEC has opened an unrelated investigation into the Texas-based manufacturer over allegations that it hid evidence from shareholders, regulators and the public that its solar panels had a tendency to catch fire, Reuters reported.

The fire-prone solar systems “affected” 60,000…

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