Experts “extremely worried” about Delta variant as US death toll hits 600,000

A serious woman in military fatigues prepares an injection.

Enlarge / Combat medics from Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps vaccinate members of the public at a rapid vaccination centre, set up outside Bolton Town Hall on June 09, 2021 in Bolton, England. (credit: Getty | Christopher Furlong )

By many metrics, the US is currently doing relatively well against the pandemic coronavirus. National tallies of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all at lows not seen since early last year. Several states have hit the goal of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose, and many areas are easing or lifting health restrictions in response to squashed transmission levels.

But those hard-fought gains are accompanied by a grim milestone today: the national death toll reached 600,000. That’s roughly the population size of Milwaukee or Baltimore. And experts are voicing concerns that the state of the pandemic could once again take a turn for the worse in the US.

New threat

The menacing coronavirus variant B 1.617.2 first seen in India—now dubbed Delta by the World Health Organization—is spreading rapidly around the globe, including in the US. It is estimated to be even more contagious than the worrisome B.1.1.7 variant first seen in the UK. That variant, now dubbed Alpha, is estimated to be about 50 percent more transmissible than the original coronavirus that mushroomed out of Wuhan, China, at the start of 2020. Delta is estimated to be 50 percent to 60 percent more contagious than Alpha.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #england, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #scotland, #vaccine, #vaccine-efficacy, #variants

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US may miss July 4 vaccination target as number of daily doses plummet

A mostly deserted convention center.

Enlarge / A deserted walk-in COVID-19 mass vaccination site at the Convention Center in downtown Washington, DC, on June 1, 2021. (credit: Getty | ANITA BEATTIE )

The rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in the US has now slowed to a crawl after weeks of decline in the number of doses given out each day. The continued trend threatens to further drag out the devastating pandemic. It also now imperils a goal set just last month by President Joe Biden to have 70 percent of American adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.

On Monday, the country’s seven-day average of doses administered per day was again below 1 million, where it has been now for several days. The average hasn’t been this low since January 22. In mid-April, the average peaked at nearly 3.4 million doses a day, following a record of over 4.6 million doses administered in a single day.

With less than a month to go until Independence Day, there’s a real possibility that the US will fall shy of Biden’s 70-percent goal. Currently, about 63.7 percent of adults in the country have received at least one dose. But a chunk of daily doses are now going to adolescents ages 12 to 17, who became eligible for vaccination last month. And total vaccination numbers are still on a significant decline. If current trends hold, the US may only have about 67 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by the Fourth of July, according to one analysis conducted by USA Today.

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#biden, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #public-health, #science, #vaccine

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Efficacy of Chinese vaccines is “not high”—officials back 3rd dose

A vial and boxes of the Sinopharm Group Co Ltd. Covid-19 vaccine.

Enlarge / A vial and boxes of the Sinopharm Group Co Ltd. Covid-19 vaccine. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Officials in Beijing are reportedly planning to roll out third doses of China’s COVID-19 vaccines. These shots have long been dogged by doubts of their efficacy.

According to a report by The Washington Post, health experts in China say that protection from the vaccines may not last after six months and that people who are at high risk of COVID-19 should get a third dose. Now, state-run media outlets suggest Beijing is on board with the suggestion and is preparing to offer the third doses.

Last week, both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said they would offer third doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine to try to boost protection. UAE is offering the extra shots to anyone who was vaccinated six or more months ago. Bahrain is offering third doses to high-risk groups.

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#boosters, #china, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #inactivated-virus-vaccine, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #sinopharm, #sinovac, #vaccine, #vaccine-efficacy

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IFA Berlin 2021 is canceled, citing ‘uncertainties’ around vaccine rollouts

After IFA became one of an extremely small number of in-person trade shows in 2020, the gfu Consumer & Home Electronics GmbH is pulling the plug on this year’s event. Initially planned for September 3-7 at the Messe in Berlin, the large-scale consumer electronics trade show is going on hiatus.

Among other concerns, organizer are citing the emergency of Covid-19 variants and concerns around the speed and consistency with which vaccines have been rolled out globally.

“Ultimately, several key global health metrics did not move as fast in the right direction as had been hoped for – from the rapid emergence of new COVID-19 variants, for example in South Asia, to continued uncertainties about the speed of the rollout of vaccination programmes around the world,” the organization said in a press release. “This in turn is adding uncertainty for the companies that were committed or interested in coming to Berlin, as well as media and visitors – all of whom have to plan well ahead with regards to budgets, investments and travel – not just for IFA, but all similar events around the world.”

Another key issue here is the Messe Berlin (convention center) has been – and continues to be – used as both an emergency medical facility and a vaccination center. The planned Berlin Photo Week at ARENA Berlin and SHIFT Mobility events will continue. IFA, meanwhile, is set to return on September 2, 2022.

The news comes as a number of high profile exhibitors have opted not to exhibit in-person at MWC late next month in Barcelona. The list, thus far, includes Qualcomm, Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle, Ericsson, Samsung and Lenovo. As with IFA before it, MWC’s organizers are citing a number of safety precautious and likely – given travel restrictions, MIA exhibitors and a general sense of caution even among vaccinated people – a scaled back event.

MWC will be something of a hybrid event, with both online and in-person exhibits. IFA, meanwhile, appears to be canceled outright. The Berlin show is notably different than other consumer trade shows in that it is partially open to the public.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #events, #hardware, #ifa

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CDC defends its abrupt reversal on masks after backlash from experts

A woman adjusts her face mask while sitting in front of a microphone.

Enlarge / Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adjusts her protective mask during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Criticism and confusion have erupted following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s abrupt recommendation last Thursday that fully vaccinated people can immediately shed masks in most settings. The agency is yet again on the defense over its mask guidance.

Mask usage has been one of the most contentious issues throughout the pandemic—and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Just last Tuesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky faced a grilling from Senate Republicans, who suggested that the agency was being too slow and too conservative in its health guidance, particularly on the issue of outdoor mask use.

At the time, the agency recommended that fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in many uncrowded indoor settings as well as in crowded outdoor settings. “We will continue to recommend this until widespread vaccination is achieved,” Walensky said in an April 27 briefing. On that day, around 29 percent of the US population was fully vaccinated.

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#cdc, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health-policy, #infectious-disease, #masks, #public-health, #science, #vaccination, #walensky

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Google begins surfacing vaccine centers, hospital beds, oxygen info in India

Google, which reaches more than half a billion people in India, is turning its services into tools to help the world’s second largest internet market fight the pandemic.

Google said on Monday it has rolled out a range of updates to its Search, Maps, YouTube, and Google Pay services in India to display and boost authoritative and credible information about the coronavirus to help people in the South Asian nation find vaccination centers and other resources to navigate the crisis.

Google Search, which has been offering updates on the virus for more than a year, now also displays information panels with vaccine registration details in India and highlights the official Indian government website for the vaccine at the top.

Search and Maps that have been showing 2,500 testing centers in India now similarly also show locations of over 23,000 vaccination centers across the country in English and eight Indian languages. The company said it is working with India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to source this information.

Google, which identifies India as its biggest market by users, said it is also testing a Q&A function in Google Maps in India to enable people to ask about and share local information on the availability of beds and medical oxygen in select locations in the country.

The new features rollout comes as India reports over 350,000 infections and over 3,500 fatalities everyday. The nation’s healthcare infrastructure is struggling to serve patients, having largely run out of beds and medical supplies. On May 1, India opened vaccination to those aged between 18 to 45, leaving people in scrambles as they struggled to register on the government website and secure the appointment for a vaccination dose.

In recent weeks, scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs and investors have stepped up to fill this gap. And Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp have become the real-time helpline as people exchange leads with one another.

Google said it is also using its various channels to help extend the reach of health information campaigns in India. This “includes the ‘Get the Facts’ around vaccines campaign, to encourage people to focus on authoritative information and content for vaccines. We’re also surfacing important safety messages through promotions on the Google homepage, Doodles and reminders within our apps and services,” it wrote in a blog post.

On YouTube, Google has curated a set of playlists with videos that offer authoritative information about the vaccine, the spread of the virus, and facts from experts. The company said it has also rolled out a COVID Aid campaign on Google Pay to enable users to donate to non-profit organizations such as GiveIndia, Charities Aid Foundation, Goonj, Save the Children, Seeds, UNICEF India (National NGOs) and United Way.

The company said a similar campaign to support several other foundations has raised over $4.6 million.

“As India battles this devastating wave, we’ll keep doing all we can to support the selfless individuals and committed organizations on the front lines of the response. There’s a long way to go—but standing together in solidarity, working together with determination, we can and will turn the tide,” read a blog post signed by Covid Response team at Google India.

#apps, #asia, #coronavirus, #covid, #facebook, #google, #google-pay, #google-maps, #india, #youtube

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Walmart’s Flipkart to cover insurance for all sellers in India and waive additional fees

Walmart-owned Flipkart is exempting storage and cancellation fees for sellers on its marketplace and also providing them with insurance coverage as the top e-commerce platform in India looks to maintain cordial relationships with more than 300,000 sellers who are facing severe disruption amid an unprecedented rise in the spread of coronavirus infections in the South Asian nation.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm said Friday evening that it is exempting storage fees to sellers who use the company’s fulfilment centres, and also waiving off the cancellation fees until the end of the month. (Several Indian states, as they did during the first wave of the virus, have imposed restrictions on sale and delivery of non-essential items.)

Flipkart will bear 100% premium of COVID insurance to all sellers that transact on the platform, covering any hospitalization and consultation fees between 50,000 Indian rupees ($685) to 300,000 Indian rupees ($4095).

The news today comes a week after Amazon, Flipkart’s chief rival in India, announced it was waiving 50% of the referral fee sellers are required to pay the e-commerce firm for this month, though not all sellers are qualified to avail this benefit. (The company said earlier this week that it was also postponing Prime Day in India and Canada due to the growing cases of the infection.)

Flipkart said it is also making it easier for sellers to access working capital from the firm without any incremental cost, though it did not specify the steps it had made.

It is also extending the window for the Seller Protection Fund to 30 days (from 14) to make claims on returned products. Flipkart said it will also ease its policies and performance metrics to ensure that they are not impacted by state-led lockdowns.

Flipkart, which as of last year was working to go public this year, said it has partnered with Vriddhi, Walmart’s Supplier Development Program in India, to organize webinars for small businesses to share best practices to ensure safety of workforce and provide insights to stay afloat amid the crisis.

“Through these testing times it is our constant effort to support our seller partners who face immense operational challenges as a result of the pandemic. As a democratic marketplace, we want to ensure that our lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of seller partners are able to continue operations and keep the economic engine running,” said Jagjeet Harode, senior director and head of Marketplace at Flipkart, in a statement.

“With them and their family’s financial and health safety in mind, we have rolled out these initiatives that will bring them the much-needed respite to keep their businesses active.”

India has been reporting over 400,00 daily infections this week, more than any other nation, as the world’s second-most populated nation struggles to contain the second wave of the virus. Scores of firms, startups, investors and people alike are uniting to help the nation fight the virus, which has severely impacted the healthcare facilities.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #asia, #coronavirus, #ecommerce, #flipkart, #walmart

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Facebook rolls out vaccine finder tool in India, donates $10 million

Facebook has announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in India and has rolled out its Vaccine Finder tool in the country as the South Asian nation grapples with the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The American social network said that it has partnered with a number of organizations including United Way, Swasth, Hemkunt Foundation, I Am Gurgaon, Project Mumbai and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) to help augment critical medical supplies with over 5,000 oxygen concentrators and other life-saving equipments such as ventilators, BiPAP machines and to increase hospital bed capacity.

Facebook also said it has partnered with the Government of India to roll out a Vaccine Finder tool on the company’s marquee app. The tool, available in 17 languages, is designed to help people identify and spot vaccine centres in their vicinity.

Last week, India opened vaccination to people aged between 18 to 45, though its website quickly crashed and wasn’t immediately accepting appointment requests from most people in that age group.

Also worth checking out: Folks over at WiFi Dabba, a Bangalore-based startup that is working to build a low-cost ISP, have also developed a tool to help people easily find vaccination slots.

A bigger challenge confronting India currently, however, is the shortage of vaccine.

Facebook said it is also supporting non-government organizations and United Nation agencies in India with ad credits to reach the majority of people on Facebook with Covid-19 vaccine and preventive health information.

Additionally, the company said it is providing health resources to people from UNICEF India about when to seek emergency care and how to manage mild Covid-19 symptoms at home.

Scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs, and investors have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to help India, the world’s second most populous country, fight the pandemic after the federal and state governments were caught ill-prepared to handle it.

On Monday, Pfizer said it was sending medicines worth $70 million to India. “We are committed to being a partner in India’s fight against this disease and are quickly working to mobilize the largest humanitarian relief effort in our company’s history,” said company’s chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla.

#apps, #asia, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #facebook, #india

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India’s entrepreneurs and investors are mobilizing to help the nation fight COVID-19 — and you can too

At a time when much of the world has asserted great control over containing the spread of the coronavirus, with countries increasingly vaccinating its citizens, a different story is playing out in India, the world’s second-most populous nation.

For a week straight, India has reported more than 300,000 daily new infections, about half of all the cases across the globe, despite cutting down on testing in some states and underreporting deaths.

Hospitals have ran out of beds for new patients, and doctors are consistently pleading on social media, often tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for essential medical supplies such as oxygen.

With several major industries, including film and sports, going about their lives pretending there is no crisis, entrepreneurs and startups have emerged as a rare beam of hope in recent days, springing to action to help the nation navigate its darkest hours.

It’s a refreshing change from last year, when thousands of Indian startups themselves were struggling to survive. And while some startups are still severely disrupted, offering a helping hand to the nation has become the priority for most.

Hundreds of startup entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, if not more, are spending much of their time trying to build software to find ways to make it easier for people to track new updates and make donations to foundations, and are exploring and funding ideas that have the potential to address some of the challenges surrounding the crisis.

Two organizations rising to the occasion include:

ACT Grants, which is run by nearly all active venture funds and PE firms, in addition to dozens of other volunteers. The initiative is the collective group’s continuing effort from last year.

Zomato Feeding India: India’s largest food delivery startup is helping patients and hospitals with oxygen and other crucial supplies.

Additional resources and efforts:

#asia, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #india, #philanthropy

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US COVID vaccinations fall nearly 11% in a week as demand wanes

Nurses wait at empty tables for more patients to arrive to receive a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in Gardena, California, on April 17, 2021.

Enlarge / Nurses wait at empty tables for more patients to arrive to receive a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in Gardena, California, on April 17, 2021. (credit: Getty | Patrick Fallon)

Though COVID-19 vaccines are now open to all US adults, vaccinations in the country are on the decline.

In the past week, the rolling seven-day average of daily vaccinations has slipped nearly 11 percent, falling from a high on April 13 of nearly 3.4 million shots per day to the current average of just over 3 million. And scores of counties across the US have begun declining shipments of vaccine doses, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

It’s the first time since the nationwide vaccination effort began last December that the country has seen a sustained decline in vaccinations—except for a brief dip in February which was linked to winter weather-related delays and cancellations.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccine, #vaccine-hesitancy

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More J&J troubles: Vaccine manufacturing halted and more possible clot cases

The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021.

Enlarge / The Emergent BioSolutions plant, a manufacturing partner for Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Saul Loeb)

The US Food and Drug Administration last week asked Emergent BioSolutions to stop making Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine at its troubled facility in Baltimore, according to a regulatory filing Emergent released Monday.

The FDA had begun an inspection of the contract manufacturer’s facility on April 12 but requested on April 16 that production be halted “pending completion of the inspection and remediation of any resulting findings,” the filing reads. Any vaccine materials already made at the plant will be held in quarantine.

The production halt follows news last month that a mishap at the plant led to the ruin of 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine. The ruined doses had reportedly been contaminated with ingredients from AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was also being manufactured at the plant at the time.

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#cdc, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #johnson-johnson, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Can the tech trade show return in 2021?

The past year has been a devastating one for the conference industry. It’s certainly an issue we’ve grappled with here at TechCrunch, as we’ve worked to move our programming to a virtual setting. Clearly each individual case calls for an individual solution, dependent on geography, attendance and a variety of other factors.

IFA has proven itself bullish on the in-person element. The Berlin tech show was one of a small handful of these sorts of events to go on with the show in Europe. The organization held an in-person event in September, albeit at a dramatically scaled-back rate.

“To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” director Jens Heithecker told me of last year’s event, which scaled back to around 170 exhibitors from 2,300.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization is planning to come back big this year, in spite of prolonged concerns around COVID-19 and its variants. A press release announcing the show’s fall return is downright celebratory.

“With the world on course to emerge from the pandemic, IFA Berlin is set to take place as a full-scale, real-life event from 3 – 7 September 2021,” the company writes. “Huge interest from brands, manufacturers and retailers across all industry sectors to exhibit, network and co-innovate on location in Berlin.”

The organization highlights some health and safety measures that are being carried over from last year’s event. But while it’s not quite ready to talk scale yet, the organization is highlighting a number of new tracks for the conference.

“As always, keeping our visitors and exhibitors safe is our top priority,” it said in a statement. “Of course, with all our precautions to ensure everybody’s good health, we don’t expect IFA Berlin 2021 to set new records. However, the trend is clear: IFA Berlin is set for a full-scale comeback, to lead our industry once more.”

Over in Spain, the GSMA is still working on its messaging as a number of large companies have already announced they intend to only attend the show “virtually.”

Organizers offered TechCrunch the following statement:

We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021, but we are pleased that exhibitors including Verizon*, Orange and Kasperksy are excited to join us in Barcelona. To ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience, we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform. The in-person and virtual options are provided so that all friends of MWC Barcelona can attend and participate in a way that works for them. We respect the decisions that have been made by some exhibitors and are working with them to move their participation to the virtual platform.

[*Disclosure: Verizon owns TechCrunch]

Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle and Ericsson have already announced they won’t be attending the show in person. Other large names are seemingly undecided. The whole thing is reminiscent of the lead-up to last year’s event, which was ultimately canceled.

The necessity of these large events was called into question prior to the pandemic, but the shift to virtual events has truly brought the topic into sharp relief. It’s true that there’s still value in an in-person event for hardware, specifically, but many have learned to adapt to a virtual setting. Even though if the last CES taught us anything, it’s that there are still a whole lot of kinks to work out with the system, especially as it pertains to prioritizing content all effectively being channeled through the same funnel.

People’s willingness to attend these events is based on a broad range of factors. At the very base level, there’s a question of personal comfortability (I can’t be the only one who has a visceral reaction every time they see crowded photos from past events). For many, it will be a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly attend a large indoor conference. There are factors like vaccinations and a particular region’s handling of the pandemic (all of which can wildly swing in the course of several months).

Just today, Germany’s Health Minister sounded the red alert, asking states to tighten restrictions. “We know from last autumn what happens when we don’t act quickly,” Jens Spahn warned the media.

There are a slew of other factors, including a potential attendee’s location and their workplace’s willingness to approve travel. Many companies have restricted business travel to all but the most essential trips. Depending on what you do for a living, your definition of “essential” may vary. But given how much can potentially change in that time, the soundest strategy for many is planning to tackle things remotely.

Earlier this week, the GSMA sent out its own email to previous attendees titled, “Why do you believe MWC Barcelona 2021 will take place?” The note seems to be a direct response to stories about exhibitors opting for a virtual presence.

“Depending on when you are reading this, we will be about 12 weeks away from the doors opening for MWC21 in Barcelona,” CEO John Hoffman wrote. “To say that the last year has been disruptive is an understatement and my thoughts are with anyone who has been impacted by COVID-19. I am not only hopeful about the future, but I am also excited about convening our ecosystem at MWC21. We recognise that not everyone will be able to attend in person and that is fine as we will augment our physical event with our MWC virtual program bringing you content from the show.”

Canceling a flagship show one year could have been utterly devastating. For many of these organizers — and the local governments who rely on tourism money — two years might seem unthinkable. MWC’s virtual strategy in year one of the pandemic was, understandably, undercooked.

More than a year into this, however, the GSMA and organizations like it hopefully have more robust strategies in place. The fact of the matter is that going virtual isn’t a one- or two-off. For many companies and people profoundly impacted by the pandemic, this is what the future looks like.

#ces, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #events, #ifa, #mwc, #tc, #trade-shows

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Real-world data shows vaccines kicking butt—including against scary variant

A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine inside the Viejas Arena on the campus of San Diego State University in San Diego, California, US on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Enlarge / A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine inside the Viejas Arena on the campus of San Diego State University in San Diego, California, US on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

In a small trial, the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine fully protected people from symptomatic COVID-19 caused by the worrisome B.1.351 coronavirus variant widely circulating in South Africa, the companies announced in a press release.

Though researchers will need more data to confirm the result, it is just the latest bit of positive news to come out this week about how the vaccines are performing with real-world conditions and in real-world settings.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released real-world data showing that the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine and Moderna mRNA vaccine were, collectively, 90 percent effective at preventing infections in fully vaccinated health care, frontline, and essential workers.

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#biontech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #pfizer, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine, #variant

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Facebook to label all COVID-19 vaccine posts with pointer to official info

Facebook will soon label all posts discussing the coronavirus vaccination with a pointer to official information about COVID-19, it said today.

It also revealed it has implemented some new “temporary” measures aimed at limiting the spread of vaccine misinformation/combating vaccine hesitancy — saying it’s reducing the distribution of content from users that have violated its policies on COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation; or “that have repeatedly shared content debunked as False or Altered by our third-party fact-checking partners”.

It’s also reducing distribution of any COVID-19 or vaccine content that fact-checking partners have rated as “Missing Context”, per the blog post.

While admins for groups with admins or members who have violated its COVID-19 policies will also be required to temporarily approve all posts within their group, it said. (It’s not clear what happens if a group only has one admin and they have violated its policies.)

Facebook will also “further elevate information from authoritative sources when people seek information about COVID-19 or vaccines”, it added.

It’s not clear why users who repeatedly violate Facebook’s COVID-19 policies do not face at least a period of suspension. (We’ve asked the company for clarity on its policies.)

“We’re continuing to expand our efforts to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by adding labels to Facebook and Instagram posts that discuss the vaccines,” Facebook said in the Newsroom post today.

“These labels contain credible information about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines from the World Health Organization. For example, we’re adding a label on posts that discuss the safety of COVID-19 vaccines that notes COVID-19 vaccines go through tests for safety and effectiveness before they’re approved.”

The incoming COVID-19 information labels are rolling out globally in English, Spanish, Indonesian, Portuguese, Arabic and French (with additional languages touted “in the coming weeks”), per Facebook.

As well as soon rolling out labels “on all posts generally about COVID-19 vaccines” — pointing users to its COVID-19 Information Center — Facebook said it would add additional “targeted” labels about “COVID-19 vaccine subtopics”. So it sounds like it may respond directly to specific anti-vaxxer misinformation it’s seeing spreading on its platform.

“We will also add an additional screen when someone goes to share a post on Facebook and Instagram with an informational COVID-19 vaccine label. It will provide more information so people have the context they need to make informed decisions about what to share,” Facebook added.

The moves follow revelations that an internal Facebook study of vaccine hesitancy — which was reported on by the Washington Post yesterday after it obtained documents on the large-scale internal research effort — found a small number of US users are responsible for driving most of the content that’s hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“Just 10 out of the 638 population segments [Facebook’s study divided US users into] contained 50 percent of all vaccine hesitancy content on the platform,” the Post reported. “And in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine hesitant content.”

Last week the MIT Technology Review also published a deep-dive article probing Facebook’s approach to interrogating, via an internal ‘Responsible AI’ team, the impacts of AI-fuelled content distribution — which accused the company of prioritizing growth and engagement and neglecting the issue of toxic misinformation (and the individual and societal harms that can flow from algorithmic content choices which amplify lies and hate speech).

In the case of COVID-19, lies being spread about vaccination safety or efficacy present a clear and present danger to public health. And Facebook’s PR machine does appear to have, tardily, recognized the extent of the reputational risk it’s facing if it’s platform is associated with driving vaccine hesitancy.

To wit: Also today it’s announced the launch of a global COVID-19 education drive that it says it hopes will bring 50M people “closer to getting vaccinated”.

“By working closely with national and global health authorities and using our scale to reach people quickly, we’re doing our part to help people get credible information, get vaccinated and come back together safely,” Facebook writes in the Newsroom post that links directly to a Facebook post by founder Mark Zuckerberg also trailing the new measures, including the launch of a tool that will show U.S. Facebook users where they can get vaccinated and provide them with a link to make an appointment.

Facebook said it plans to expand the tool to other countries as global vaccine availability steps up.

Facebook’s vaccine appointment finder tool (Image credits: Facebook)

Facebook has further announced that the COVID-19 information portal it launched in the Facebook app in March last year which points users to “the latest information about the virus from local health ministries and the World Health Organization” is finally being brought to Instagram.

It’s not clear why Facebook hadn’t already launched the portal on Instagram. But it’s decided to double down on fighting bad speech (related to vaccines) with better speech — saying Instagram users will get new stickers they can add to their Instagram Stories “so people can inspire others to get vaccinated when it becomes available to them”.

In other moves being trailed in Facebook’s crisis PR blitz today it has touted “new data and insights” on vaccine attitudes being made available to public officials via COVID-19 dashboards and maps it was already offering (the data is collected by Facebook’s Data for Good partners for the effort at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland as part of the COVID-19 Symptom Survey).

Albeit, it doesn’t specify what new information is being added there (or why now).

Also today it said it’s “making it easy to track how COVID-19 vaccine information is being spread on social media through CrowdTangle’s COVID-19 Live Displays“.

“Publishers, global aid organizations, journalists and others can access real-time, global streams of vaccine-related posts on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in 34 languages. CrowdTangle also offers Live Displays for 104 countries and all 50 states in the US to help aid organizations and journalists track posts and trends at a regional level as well,” Facebook added, again without offering any context on why it hadn’t made it easier to use this tool to track vaccine information spread before.

Its blog post also touts “new” partnerships with health authorities and governments on vaccine registration — while trumpeting the ~3BN messages it says have already been sent “by governments, nonprofits and international organizations to citizens through official WhatsApp chatbots on COVID-19”. (As WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted there is no simple way to quantify how many vaccine misinformation messages have been sent via the same platform.)

Per Facebook, it’s now “working directly with health authorities and governments to get people registered for vaccinations” (such as in the city and province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is using WhatsApp as the official channel to send notifications to citizens when it’s their turn to receive the vaccine).

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have partnered with ministries of health and health-focused organizations in more than 170 countries by providing free ads, enabling partners to share their own public health guidance on COVID-19 and information about the COVID-19 vaccine,” Facebook’s PR adds in a section of the post which it’s titled “amplifying credible health information and resources from experts”.

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0

Traffic congestion dropped by 73 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic

A traffic jam at night.

Enlarge / A photo shows a traffic jam at 1905 Street and Third Ring Road in Moscow, Russia, on March 3, 2021. Moscow ranked fourth-worst in the world for traffic congestion in 2020, with an average of 100 hours spent in jams. (credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image)

In 2020, the average US driver spent 26 hours stuck in traffic. While that’s still more than a day, it’s a steep decline from pre-pandemic times; in 2019 the average American sacrificed 99 hours to traffic jams. Around the world, it’s a similar story. German drivers averaged an identical 26 hours of traffic in 2020, down from 46 the year before. In the UK, 2019 sounded positively awful, with 115 hours in traffic jams. At least one thing improved for that island nation in 2020: its drivers only spent 37 hours stationary in their cars.

This data was all collected by traffic analytics company Inrix for its 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard that tracks mobility across more than 1,000 different cities around the world based on travel times, miles traveled, trip characteristics, and the effect of crashes on congestion in each city.

And unless you’ve spent the past 12 months in a cave—in which case, gee, do I have some crappy news for you—you’ll instinctively know that there were big declines in traffic in 2020, and in particular a drop in people traveling to downtowns and central business districts.

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#cars, #congestion, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #inrix, #pandemic, #traffic

0

Under intense pressure, WHO skips summary report on coronavirus origin

Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, on Feb. 9, 2021.

Enlarge / Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, on Feb. 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency )

Facing intense international pressure and criticism, the World Health Organization has abandoned plans to release a summary report of its investigation into the possible origin of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

Instead, the health agency of the United Nations is skipping the summary report and plans to release a full report the week of March 15. The WHO had previously said it would release a summary report in mid-February.

“By definition, a summary report does not have all the details,” Dr. Ben Embarek, a WHO expert who led the investigation, told The Wall Street Journal. “So since there [is] so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”

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#coronavirus, #epidemiology, #infectious-disease, #origin, #outbreak, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #who

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Indian state government website exposed COVID-19 lab test results

A security flaw in a website run by the government of West Bengal in India exposed the lab results of at least hundreds of thousands of residents, though likely millions, who took a COVID-19 test.

The website is part of the West Bengal government’s mass coronavirus testing program. Once a COVID-19 test result is ready, the government sends a text message to the patient with a link to its website containing their test results.

But security researcher Sourajeet Majumder found that the link containing the patient’s unique test identification number was scrambled with base64 encoding, which can be easily converted using online tools. Because the identification numbers were incrementally sequenced, the website bug meant that anyone could change that number in their browser’s address bar and view other patients’ test results.

The test results contain the patient’s name, sex, age, postal address, and if the patient’s lab test result came back positive, negative, or inconclusive for COVID-19.

Majumder told TechCrunch that he was concerned a malicious attacker could scrape the site and sell the data. “This is a privacy violation if somebody else gets access to my private information,” he said.

Two COVID-19 lab test results, but with details redacted, to show what kind of data has been exposed.

Two redacted COVID-19 lab test results exposed as a result of a security vulnerability on the West Bengal government’s website. (Screenshot: TechCrunch)

Majumder reported the vulnerability to India’s CERT, the country’s dedicated cybersecurity response unit, which acknowledged the issue in an email. He also contacted the West Bengal government’s website manager, who did not respond. TechCrunch independently confirmed the vulnerability and also reached out to the West Bengal government, which pulled the website offline, but did not return our requests for comment.

TechCrunch held our report until the vulnerability was fixed or no longer presented a risk. At the time of publication, the affected website remains offline.

It’s not known exactly how many COVID-19 lab results were exposed because of this security lapse, or if anyone other than Majumder discovered the vulnerability. At the time the website was pulled offline at the end of February, the state government had tested more than 8.5 million residents for COVID-19.

West Bengal is one of the most populated states of India, with about 90 million residents. Since the start of the pandemic, the state government has recorded more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths.

It’s the latest of several security incidents in the past few months to hit India and its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last May, India’s largest cell network Jio admitted a security lapse after a security researcher found a database containing the company’s coronavirus symptom checker, which Jio had launched months earlier.

In October, a security researcher found Dr Lal PathLabs left hundreds of spreadsheets containing millions of patient booking records — including for COVID-19 tests — on a public storage server that was not protected with a password, allowing anyone to access sensitive patient data.


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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #cybersecurity, #dark-web, #data-security, #government, #india, #jio, #online-tools, #privacy, #security

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Why N95 masks are still hard to get, even though production is up

Medical masks move along a conveyor belt.

Enlarge / A machine makes respiratory masks in a family-owned medical equipment factory in north Miami, Florida, on February 15, 2021. The firm now has 30 million unsold masks because it can’t find buyers in the United States. (credit: Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images)

Even though we’ve had more good vaccine news lately, COVID-19 in the US is still very much a widespread concern. We’re still going to need masks for many months to come. So why, a year into the pandemic, are good ones still so hard to find?

The New York Times reports that there are dozens of small, US-based businesses that have pivoted to making medical-grade masks, but they can’t sell them to consumers because of policies put in place to protect supply chains at the beginning of the pandemic.

Facebook and Instagram will be happy to show you ads for cute, fashion-forward fabric masks (in adult and children’s sizes)—but not ads for actual medical-grade, government-approved N95 masks. The social network explained to the NYT that its policies are meant both to preserve supplies for workers in the health care field who need them the most and also to cut down on sales of counterfeits.

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#amazon, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #facebook, #kn95, #masks, #n95, #policy, #supply-chains

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EU to propose a ‘digital pass’ for COVID-19 vaccination/test status to help safer travel

The European Commission has said it will present a legislative plan later this month for what it’s calling a “digital green pass” — aka a digital certificate — which it says will be aimed at facilitating cross-border travel in the age of coronavirus.

President Ursula von der Leyen said today that the planned digital tool will aim to provide proof that a person has been vaccination — but not just that; the ‘digital green pass’ will also display the results of tests, i.e. for those who have been unable to get a vaccine yet, along with information on “COVID-19 recovery”.

“It will respect data protection, security and privacy,” von der Leyen added in a couple of tweets.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives,” she also said. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The Commission will release details of the legislative plan on March 17, per Reuters.

The EU’s executive is keen for a pan-EU system to be set up to avoid fragmentation of the bloc’s single market — such as if individual Member States strike their own bilateral deals. Or to avoid a third party commercial system gaining ground (earlier this year a number of tech companies announced they were working to establish a ‘universal’ standard for vaccine status).

The Commission is being careful to avoid calling the digital pass a ‘vaccine passport’ — as the notion of limiting people’s freedoms based on (still very) limited access to vaccines raises the ugly spectre of discrimination.

At the same time the EU executive is clearly feeling pressure to help Member States — such as Greece and Spain — whose economies rely heavily on cross-border tourism. And back in January it said a common approach for mutual recognition of vaccine documentation is of the “utmost importance”.

A pan-EU digital certification for displaying vaccine and COVID-19 test result status is the solution it’s settled on. Although it does not appear that use of the digital pass will be mandatory.

The Commission declined to go into further detail when contacted for comment and during a press briefing today when it was asked for more details about the digital pass plan.

Another question is how quickly the planned digital certificate system could be got up and running. With the prospect of summer vacations now just a few months out the Commission will be under pressure to work quickly. At the same time — per Reuters — the Commission wants to cooperate with international organization to ensure the system works outside the EU, too.

Last month Apple said it was tightening up the iOS review process around vaccines passes — saying developers would now be required to work with entities recognized by public health authorities or companies associated with them prior to submitting such an app. The BBC reported that Apple had made the change “to ensure these apps responsibly handle sensitive data and provide reliable functionality”.

Last year a number of European privacy experts mobilized to devise a decentralized privacy-safe standard for another coronavirus-related digital tool: Bluetooth-powered contact-tracing apps to estimate COVID-19 exposure risk. Although some Member States (like France) opted for a centralized system — despite Apple and Google choosing to support only decentralized apps for contact-tracing.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #eu, #tc, #vaccine-certification, #vaccine-passport

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China refused to hand over key data to WHO team probing pandemic’s origin

Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, Feb. 9, 2021.

Enlarge / Liang Wannian (2nd L) and Peter Ben Embarek (3rd R) both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands after the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, Feb. 9, 2021. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency )

The Chinese government failed to share key data on early COVID-19 cases with a team of international scientists investigating how the pandemic began.

The researchers had requested raw data on 174 of the very first COVID-19 cases identified in Wuhan, China during December 2019, as well as other cases. But the team—assembled by the World Health Organization—was only given a summary of those early cases, according to multiple media reports.

Having such detailed patient data from the start of an outbreak is “standard practice for an outbreak investigation,” Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert and WHO team member, told Reuters in an interview Saturday. Dwyer emphasized that data on those 174 cases is particularly key because only half of them were connected to the Huanan seafood market, which was initially thought to be the source of the outbreak.

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#china, #coronavirus, #outbreak, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #who, #wuhan

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CDC study backs mask doubling with exposure to risky particles down 83%

Colorful face masks are piled on a table.

Enlarge / Self-sewn protective face masks in a fabric store on April 3, 2020, in Jena, Germany. (credit: Getty | Jens Schlueter)

With the pandemic still raging and several dangerous variants looming, many experts have suggested doubling up on masks. Now, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doubles down on that strategy.

Adding a cloth mask over a surgical mask on a rubbery dummy head more than doubled particle blocking when the dummy simulated coughing—aka spewing particles capable of carrying coronavirus—the study found. Specifically, a surgical mask or a cloth mask alone blocked about 42 to 44 percent of particles, respectively, coming out of the coughing dummy. The combo of a cloth mask over a surgical mask blocked 92.5 percent of the risky particles.

Next, the CDC researchers gave the rubbery dummy head an equally disembodied friend, spaced about two meters (six feet) away in a cozy, unventilated experimental chamber. When one of the heads quietly belched aerosol particles (source) while maskless, the researchers measured the dose of particles that the companion (receiver) took in during a 15-minute period. Wearing a surgical mask alone cut the receivers’ exposure to particles by just 7.5 percent, compared to wearing no mask. Wearing a double mask cut the exposure by 83 percent.

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#cdc, #cloth-mask, #coronavirus, #mask, #science, #surgical-mask

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Mount Sinai study finds Apple Watch can predict COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before testing

A new study from Mount Sinai researchers published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research found that wearable hardware, and specifically the Apple Watch, can effectively predict a positive COVID-19 diagnosis up to a week before current PCR-based nasal swab tests.

The investigation dubbed the ‘Warrior Watch Study,‘ used a dedicated Apple Watch and iPhone app and included participants from Mount Sinai staff. It required participants to use the app for health data monitoring and collection, and also asked that they fill out a day survey to provide direct feedback about their potential COVID-19 symptoms, and other factor including stress.

During the course of the study, the research team enlisted “several hundred health care workers” to participate, and collected data over several months, between April and September. The primary biometric signal that the study’s authors were watching was heart rate variability (HRV), which is a key indicator of strain on a person’s nervous system. This information was combined with information around reported symptoms associated with COVID-19, including fever, aches, dry cough, gastrointestinal issues, loss of taste and smell, among others.

The Warrior Watch Study was not only able to predict infections up to a week before tests provided confirmed diagnoses, but also revealed that participants’ HRV patterns normalized fairly quickly after their diagnosis, returning to normal roughly one to two weeks following their positive tests.

As to what the study could lead to in terms of actual interventions, the study’s authors note that it can help anticipate outcomes and isolate individuals from others who are at risk. Most importantly, it provides a means for doing so remotely, allowing caregivers to anticipate or detect a COVID-19 case without even doing a physical exam or a administering a nasal swab test, which can help take precautionary measures in high-risk situations when cases are suspected, possibly preventing any spread before someone is highly contagious.

The study is ongoing, and will expand to examine what else wearables like the Apple Watch and their onboard sensors can tell us about other impacts of COVID-19 on the health of care workers, including what factors like sleep and physical activity can have in association with the disease.

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0

Scary 22% vaccine efficacy in South Africa comes with heaps of caveats

Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020.

Enlarge / Vials in front of the AstraZeneca British biopharmaceutical company logo are seen in this creative photo taken on 18 November 2020. (credit: Getty| NurPhoto)

Dismal preliminary data on AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine in South Africa—where the B.1.351/ 501Y.V2 coronavirus variant is spreading widely—lead the government there to rethink its vaccination rollout and raised further international concern about the variant.

But the small study has so many limitations and caveats, experts caution that drawing any conclusions from it is difficult.

The study, which has not been published or peer-reviewed but presented in a press conference Sunday, began in June and enrolled only around 2,000 participants, about half of which received a placebo. Early in the study—before B.1.351 emerged—the vaccine appeared over 70 percent effective at preventing mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19. That is largely in line with the conclusion of an international Phase III trial released by AstraZeneca and vaccine co-developer Oxford University, which showed mixed results for the replication-deficient adenovirus-based vaccine but an overall efficacy of around 70 percent.

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#astrazeneca, #clinical-trial, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science, #south-africa, #vaccine, #variants, #who

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FDA now reviewing a third COVID vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson

The head office of Janssen pharmaceutical company on February 5, 2021 in Leiden, the Netherlands. The American mother company of Janssen, Johnson & Johnson, has requested quick approval in the United States for the coronavirus vaccine that was developed by Janssen Vaccines in Leiden.

Enlarge / The head office of Janssen pharmaceutical company on February 5, 2021 in Leiden, the Netherlands. The American mother company of Janssen, Johnson & Johnson, has requested quick approval in the United States for the coronavirus vaccine that was developed by Janssen Vaccines in Leiden. (credit: Getty | BSR Agency)

Johnson & Johnson on Thursday announced it has applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization for its one-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

If the EUA is granted, the vaccine will be the third authorized for use in the US against the pandemic coronavirus, likely boosting the vaccine supply in the coming months and helping to hasten immunization country-wide.

J&J’s application to the FDA comes just a week after the company revealed top-line results of its Phase III clinical trial, which found the vaccine to be 66 percent effective overall at preventing moderate and severe COVID-19. J&J’s vaccine—made by its vaccine developer Janssen Pharmaceuticals—was 85 percent effective at preventing severe disease. In the trial, severe disease was defined as testing positive for the virus as well as having signs consistent with severe systemic illness, respiratory failure, shock, or organ failure, or being admitted to an intensive care unit, or dying. The company reported that no one who received the vaccine was hospitalized or died during the trial.

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#authorization, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #johnson-johnson, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #vaccine

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B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant is picking up a worrisome new mutation

Cartoon representation of coronaviruses.

Enlarge (credit: CDC.gov)

As the world races to get vaccines into arms, one of the most concerning coronavirus variants appears to be getting a little more concerning.

Researchers in the UK have detected at least 15 cases of B.1.1.7 variants carrying an additional mutation: E484K, a mutation already seen in other concerning variants and one that may make current vaccines less effective at preventing infection. The B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, is already known to spread more easily among people than earlier strains of the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. And according to some preliminary evidence, it may cause more severe disease.

So far, B.1.1.7 variants carrying E484K appear rare. On Monday, Public Health England reported in a technical briefing that it had detected E484K in just 11 B.1.1.7 variants among more than 200,000 viruses examined. For now, it’s unclear if the augmented mutants will take off and become dominant in the population or fizzle out. It’s also not entirely clear what the addition of E484K means for B.1.1.7 in people. Preliminary laboratory experiments suggest the mutation alone, and its presence in B.1.1.7 specifically, may help the virus evade immune responses. But more studies and clinical data are necessary to understand the full effect of the new addition.

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#antibodies, #b-1-1-7, #coronavirus, #mutation, #sars-cov-2, #science, #spike, #vaccines, #variants

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Didi to subsidize trips for vaccinations with $10M global fund

As countries around the world prepare to vaccinate people against the coronavirus, tech companies are rushing to demonstrate their willingness to help fight the deadly virus. China’s ride-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is pledging a $10 million fund to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in 13 markets outside its home country China, the company said on Friday.

The multi-purpose fund will be used to reduce fees for passengers going to vaccination appointments and frontline healthcare workers traveling to vaccination locations. It will also sponsor future measures based on a market’s local needs, Didi said, adding that it will continue working with the respective governments. It’s unclear how the company plans to allocate the funds across the dozens of markets.

Like other tech firms, Didi has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak by offering relief measures. It said it has so far funded more than six million free or discounted rides and meals for frontline healthcare workers and distributed more than six million masks and sanitation kits to driver and courier partners in its international markets.

In China, the ride hailing company has made similar efforts, including financial assistance like insurance plans for drivers with confirmed cases or those undergoing quarantine.

“The vaccination support initiative is a crucial step in our local recovery effort across the world,” said Jean Liu, president of Didi.

“The incredible commitment and agility of Didi teams, together with a safety system built for complex mobility scenarios, play a critical role in protecting our people and ensuring essential services throughout these challenging times. We will continue to stand by our partners and communities to get our cities moving again.”

The SoftBank-backed company took a hit when it temporarily suspended its popular and lucrative carpooling service following two passenger incidents. The startup remains one of China’s most valuable private tech companies and rumors have swirled for a few years that it is planning an initial public offering, which the company has denied.

Didi has garnered over 550 million users across the Asia Pacific, Latin
America and Russia by offering taxi hailing, private car hailing, rideshare, buses, bikes and e-bikes, and it enables over 10 billion passenger trips a year as of late. It has a nascent autonomous driving arm backed by SoftBank and is among a group of Chinese upstart AI companies aggressively developing and testing autonomous vehicles. It’s also working with China’s electric carmaking giant BYD to co-design a model tailored for ride-hailing.

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Amazon offers Biden help to speed up vaccine distribution

The Amazon logo on the side of a multistory window.

Enlarge / An Amazon warehouse on a sunny day in Germany on April 2, 2020. (credit: Patrick Pleul | picture alliance | Getty Images)

Amazon is one of the country’s largest businesses—and despite its faults and flaws, the company overall excels at logistics and distribution at scale. Therefore, Amazon suggests, the brand-new Biden administration should give the company a call to help ramp up COVID-19 distribution nationwide.

“Amazon stands ready to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration,” Dave Clark, the head of Amazon’s consumer business, wrote in a letter (PDF) to President Joe Biden Wednesday.

Amazon’s more than 800,000 employees should be in the vaccine queue as soon as possible, Clark noted, as individuals working in Amazon warehouses, AWS data centers, and Whole Foods stores are essential workers who cannot work from home. The company has inked a deal with a third-party health care firm to administer vaccines on-site at Amazon-owned facilities, Clark added—if they could just get vaccines to administer.

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#amazon, #amazon-com, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #policy, #vaccination

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African edtech startup uLesson lands a $7.5 million Series A

ULesson, an edtech startup based in Nigeria that sells digital curriculum to students through SD cards, has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Owl Ventures, which closed over half a billion in new fund money just months ago. Other participants include LocalGlobe and existing investors, including TLcom Capital and Founder Collective.

The financing comes a little over a year since uLesson closed its $3.1 million seed round in November 2019. The startup’s biggest difference between now and then isn’t simply the millions it has in the bank, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its entire value proposition.

ULesson launched into the market just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The startup, which uses SD cards as a low-bandwidth way to deliver content, saw a wave of smart devices enter homes across Africa as students adapted to remote education.

“The ground became wet in a way we didn’t see before,” founder and CEO Sim Shagaya said. “It opens up the world for us to do all kinds of really amazing things we’ve wanted to do in the world of edtech that you can’t do in a strictly offline sense,” the founder added.

Similar to many edtech startups, uLesson has benefited from the overnight adoption of remote education. Its positioning as a supplementary education tool helped it surface 70% month over month growth, said Shagaya. The founder says that the digital infrastructure gains will allow them to “go online entirely by Q2 this year.”

It costs an annual fee of $50, and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

With fresh demand, Shagaya sees uLesson evolving into a live, online platform instead of an offline, asynchronous content play. The startup is already experimenting with live tutoring: it tested a feature that allowed students to ask questions while going through pre-recorded material. The startup got more than 3,000 questions each day, with demand so high they had to pause the test feature.

“We want you to be able to push a button and get immediate support from a college student sitting somewhere in the continent who is basically a master in what you’re studying,” he said. The trend of content-focused startups adding on a live tutoring layer continues when you look at Chegg, Quizlet, Brainly and others.

The broader landscape

E-learning startups have been booming in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s led to an influx of tutoring marketplaces and content that promises to serve students. One of the most valuable startups in edtech is Byju’s, which offers online learning services and prepares students for tests.

But Shagaya doesn’t think any competitors, even Byju’s, have cracked the nut on how to do so in a digital way for African markets. There are placement agencies in South Africa and Kenya and offline tutoring marketplaces that send people to student homes, but no clear leader from a digital curriculum perspective.

“Everybody sees that Africa is a big opportunity,” Shagaya said. “But everybody also sees that you need a local team to execute on this.”

Shagaya thinks the opportunity in African edtech is huge because of two reasons: a young population, and a deep penetration of private school-going students. Combined, those facts could create troves of students who have the cash and are willing to pay for supplementary education.

The biggest hurdle ahead for uLesson, and any edtech startup that benefitted from pandemic gains, is distribution and outcomes. ULesson didn’t share any data on effectiveness and outcomes, but says it’s in the process of conducting a study with the University of Georgia to track mastery.

“Content efforts and products [will] live or die at the altar of distribution,” Shagaya said. The founder noted that in India, for example, pre-recorded videos do well due to social nuances and culture. ULesson is trying to find the perfect sauce for videos in markets around Africa and embed that into the product.

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Amazon offers Biden resources for Covid-19 vaccine rollout

Following Joseph Biden’s swearing in as the 46th President of the United States, Amazon is offering help in the administration’s stated goals for rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine. In a letter provided to TechCrunch, Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark congratulates Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, while promising, “to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration.”

The note references a pledge set by Biden in while introducing members of pandemic team during a press conference in December of last year. “My first 100 days won’t end the Covid-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” the then-President-elect said. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”

More recently, Covid-19 task force member epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called the goal “aspirational […] but doable,” adding that it would take time to ramp up.

In his letter, Clark details Amazon’s response to the virus, as many warehouse and other workers were employed throughout as essential workers. Included in the resources on offer are deals with health care providers who can administer vaccines on-site.

“We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities,” Clark writes. “We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available. Additionally, we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

#amazon, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #joe-biden, #policy

0

Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’

The European Union is preparing the ground for vaccine passports. A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance”, the Commission said today, adding that it wants “an appropriate trust framework” to be agreed upon by the end of January — “to allow Member States’ certificates to be rapidly useable in health systems across the EU and beyond”.

“Vaccination certificates allow for a clear record of each individual’s vaccination history, to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects,” it writes, adding that: “A common EU approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable certificates would allow people to use their records in other Member States. Though it is premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection, an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future.”

It’s not clear what form (or forms) these pan-EU coronavirus vaccine certificates will take as yet — but presumably there will be both paper-based and digital formats, to ensure accessibility.

Nor is it clear exactly how EU citizens’ identity and medical data will be protected as checks on vaccination status take place. Or, indeed, who the trusted entities storing and managing sensitive health data will be. All that detail is to come — and may well vary by Member State, depending on how immunity certification verification systems get implemented.

Last week a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, announced involvement in a separate, cross-industry effort to establish a universal standard for vaccination status that they said would build on existing standards, such as the SMART Health Cards specification which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

That tech-backed effort is pushing for an “encrypted digital copy of [a person’s] immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for those not wanting or able to use a smartphone. The PR also talked about a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Nothing so specific is being proposed for the common EU approach as yet. And it looks clear that a number of vaccine credential standards will be put forward globally — as a potential universal standard. (The Commission is touting its forthcoming framework on that front too.)

Whatever is devised in the EU must ensure compliance with the region’s data protection framework (which bakes in requirements for security and privacy by design and default when processing people’s information). So it could offer better privacy protection than a private sector-led effort, for example.

The EU’s eHealth Network — a body which includes representatives from relevant Member States’ authorities who are supported by a wider European Joint Action body, called eHAction — will be responsible for defining the minimum dataset needed for vaccination certificates used at the EU level, per the Commission.

It says this must include “a unique identifier and an appropriate trust framework ensuring privacy and security”.

Expect relevant stakeholders such as Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor and Data Protection Board to weigh in with expert advice, as happened last year with coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

“The Commission will continue to work with Member States on vaccination certificates which can be recognised and used in health systems across the EU in full compliance with EU data protection law — and scaled up globally through the certification systems of the World Health Organisation,” EU lawmakers add, saying the forthcoming framework will be presented in the WHO “as a possible universal standard”.

Commenting in the challenges ahead for developing privacy-safe vaccination verification, Lukasz Olejnik, a Europe-based independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, told TechCrunch: “It is tricky to follow privacy by design for this particular [use-case]. It is unclear if anyone will be interested in identifying possible innovative privacy-preserving frameworks such as anonymous cryptographic credentials.

“In the end perhaps we will end up with some approach using verifiable credentials, but establishing trust will remain a challenge. What will be the source of trust? Is it possible to prove a particular status without the need to disclose the user identity? These are the core questions.”

“I hope this proposal will be public and transparent,” he added of the EU framework.

It’s worth emphasizing that all this effort is a bit ‘cart before the horse’ at this stage — being as it’s still not confirmed whether any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been developed primarily to protect the recipient from serious illness, also prevent transmission of the disease or not.

Nonetheless, systems for verifying proof of immunization status are fast being spun up — ushering in the possibility of ‘vaccine passport’ checks for travellers within the EU down the road, for example. It’s also not hard to envisage businesses requesting COVID-19 vaccination certification before granting access to a physical facility or service, in a bid to reassure customers they can spend money safety — i.e. once such documentation exists and can be verified in a standardized way.

Standardized frameworks for vaccination credentials could certainly have very broad implications for personal freedoms in the near future, as well as wide ramifications for privacy — depending on how these systems are architected, managed and operated.

Europe’s privacy and security research community mobilized heavily last year as the pandemic triggered early proposals to develop coronavirus contacts tracing apps — contributing to a push for exposure notification apps to be decentralized to ensure privacy of individuals’ social graph. However efforts toward establishing vaccination certification systems don’t appear to have generated the same level of academic engagement as yet.

In an analysis of the implications of immunity certificates, published last month, Privacy International warned that any systems that require proof of vaccination for entry or a service would be unfair “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine” — a bar that remains far off indeed.

European countries, which are among the global leaders on COVID-19 vaccination rollouts, have still only immunized tiny minorities of their national populations so far. (Even as the Commission today urged Member States to set targets to vaccinate a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 by March 2021; and at least 70% of the total adult population by summer — targets which look like fantastical wishful thinking right now.)

“Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes which do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices,” the rights group further urged, also warning that COVID-19 immunity should not be used as a justification for expanding or instating digital identity schemes.

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #eu, #privacy, #tc, #vaccine-passports

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China tosses more obstacles at WHO team investigating pandemic’s origin

Health workers in personal protection suits stand next to buses at a cordoned-off section of the international airport in Wuhan on January 14, 2021, following the arrival of a World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enlarge / Health workers in personal protection suits stand next to buses at a cordoned-off section of the international airport in Wuhan on January 14, 2021, following the arrival of a World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. (credit: Getty | NICOLAS ASFOURI )

Chinese authorities have held up two scientists sent to Wuhan, China, by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus—yet another obstacle the Chinese government has thrown at the health agency’s efforts to understand how the devastating pandemic began.

The two scientists were traveling as part of an international team of 15 that has long been working to gain access to the city where the virus first emerged in late 2019. Thirteen of the scientists—who all repeatedly tested negative for the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, in their home countries—were allowed to travel on. They have now arrived in Wuhan, the WHO said on Twitter earlier today. However, China is still requiring the 13 scientists to undergo a 14-day quarantine in Wuhan.

The two scientists held back also tested negative for the virus multiple times prior to traveling. But while in Singapore en route to Wuhan, they tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, suggesting past exposure to the virus. Despite their negative PCR tests, Chinese authorities had them remain in Singapore for additional testing.

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#china, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #science, #who, #wuhan, #zoonotic-disease

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“Selfish Idiocy:” Infected lawmaker blasts Republicans for bunkering maskless [Updated]

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, July 29, 2020.

Enlarge / Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, July 29, 2020. (credit: Getty | Graeme Jennings)

UPDATE 1/12/2021, 11:15am EST: And now there is a third. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill) announced Tuesday morning that he, too, has tested positive for COVID-19 after sheltering with maskless Republican colleagues.

In a statement, Schneider said that during the insurrection, he was “forced to spend several hours in a secure but confined location with dozens of other Members of Congress,” and “several Republican lawmakers in the room adamantly refused to wear a mask.”

Schneider reported that so far, he has not experienced symptoms but was nevertheless concerned. “Today, I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife’s health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers who put their own contempt and disregard for decency ahead of the health and safety of their colleagues and our staff,” he said. “Wearing a mask is not a political statement, it is public health guidance, common courtesy, and simply what should be expected of all decent people.”

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#capitol, #congress, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #insurrection, #pandemic, #public-health, #science

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COVID-19 contact-tracing data is fair game for police, Singapore says

Close-up image of a hand holding a palm-sized electronic device.

Enlarge / A user in Singaapore holding the TraceTogether device that can be used for COVID-19 contact tracing in lieu of a smartphone app. (credit: Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images)

The government of Singapore said this week it has used data gathered for COVID-19 mitigation purposes in criminal investigations, sparking privacy concerns about contact tracing both in Singapore and elsewhere in the world.

Singapore’s contract-tracing app, TraceTogether, has been adopted by nearly 80 percent of the country’s population, according to The Guardian, and Singaporeans are required to use it to enter certain gathering places such as shopping malls.

TraceTogether’s privacy statement originally read, “Data will only be used for Covid-19 contact tracing,” but it was updated this week to add, “Authorised Police officers may invoke Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) powers to request users to upload their TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The Singapore Police Force is empowered under the CPC to obtain any data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations,” The Register reports.

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#contact-tracing, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #data-privacy, #law-enforcement, #personal-privacy, #police, #policy, #privacy, #singapore

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Trump admin. agrees to pay Pfizer $1.95B for 100M more vaccine doses

Extreme close-up photograph of fingers holding a tiny glass jar.

Enlarge / A nurse in the UK holds a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on December 22, 2020. (credit: Lindsey Parnaby | AFP | Getty Images)

The Federal government has reached a deal with drugmaker Pfizer to secure an additional 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine before the end of July, the company said today.

Under the terms of the new agreement, the government will pay $1.95 billion for the additional doses. Of the new vaccine doses, 70 million are due by June 30, with the remaining 30 million to be delivered no later than July 31. The agreement also provides US authorities with the option to order up to 400 million additional doses of the vaccine later.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement that the additional Pfizer vaccine “can give Americans even more confidence that we will have enough supply to vaccinate every American who wants it by June 2021,” when added to the 100 million doses the US government has already agreed to purchase from Pfizer, as well as the recently approved Moderna vaccine.

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#biontech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #deals, #pfizer, #policy, #science, #vaccines

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For Biden administration, Fauci’s in but Birx is not

Image of a woman speaking in front of charts.

Enlarge / White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx speaks during a press briefing in November 2020. (credit: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx announced that she will end decades of government service after the Biden transition is completed. The move comes after controversy over how she spent her Thanksgiving and articles suggesting that the incoming administration was uncertain about whether to retain her. Birx was a widely respected public health official until taking over the coronavirus response, which has left her associated with the misinformation provided by Trump and many other members of his administration.

Damaged legacy

Birx’s government career started in the 1980s, when she was in the Army and Army Reserve, ultimately reaching the rank of colonel. During this time, she frequently worked at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center but also spent time in the lab of Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health. But much of her reputation is based on her work fighting AIDS, first at the CDC, and later as the US Global AIDS coordinator, where her work was widely praised.

That reputation earned her a prominent place in the US’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Trump naming her the Coronavirus Response coordinator and giving her an influential place on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. This, however, ultimately placed her in an untenable position, as Trump himself was a frequent source of misinformation about the pandemic, and much of the White House staff frequently ignored public health guidance originating elsewhere in the government. Birx was left with what turned out to be an impossible task: maintain her job and influence by not publicly contradicting Trump’s misstatements and policies while attempting to ensure that the public got quality information.

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#anthony-fauci, #biden, #birx, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump

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Google to add Covid-19 vaccine information panels to Search

Google announced today it’s introducing a new search feature that will surface a list of authorized vaccines in users’ location, as well as informational panels about each individual vaccine. The feature is first being launched in the U.K., which earlier this month gave emergency authorization to the BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  The company says the feature will roll out to other countries as their local health authorities authorize vaccines.

The feature itself will appear at the top of Google.com searches for Covid-19 vaccines and will present the authoritative information in a box above the search results, linking to the health authority as the source. The panel will also have two tabs. One will be the overview of the vaccine, which appears above Top Stories and links to Local and National resources, like government websites. The other will organize news related to the vaccine under a separate section.

Image Credits: Google

Google positioned the new search panels as one way it’s helping to address vaccine misinformation and hesitance at scale.

However, another arm of the company, YouTube, allowed Covid-19 misinformation and conspiracies to spread during the pandemic. While YouTube in April banned “medically unsubstantiated” content after earlier banning conspiracies that linked Covid-19 to 5G networks, it didn’t ban misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines until October. In other words, it didn’t proactively create a policy to ban all aspects of Covid-19 misinformation, but waited to address the spread of Covid-19 antivax content until vaccine approvals appeared imminent. This meant that any clips making false claims — like saying vaccines would kill their recipients, cause infertility, or implant microchips –were not officially covered by YouTube’s policies until October.

And even after the ban, YouTube’s moderation policies were found to miss many anti-vaccination videos, studies found.

This is not a new challenge for the video platform. YouTube has struggled to address antivax content for years, even allowing videos with prohibited antivax content to be monetized, at times.

Image Credits: Google

Today, Google downplayed YouTube’s issues in its fight against misinformation, saying that its Covid-19 information panels on YouTube which offer authoritative information have been viewed over 400 billion times.

However, this figure provides provides at look into the scale at which YouTube creators are publishing videos about the pandemic, often with just their opinions.

Google said, to date, it has removed over 700,000 videos related to dangerous or misleading Covid-19 health information. If the platform was regulated, however, it would not be entirely up to Google to decide when a video with dangerous information should be removed, what constitutes misinformation, or what the penalty against the creator should be.

The company also noted that it’s now helping YouTube creators by connecting them with health experts to make engaging and accurate content for their viewers, and donated $250 million in Ad Grants to help over 100 government agencies run PSAs about Covid-19 on the video platform. In April, Google donated $6.5 million to support COVID-19 related fact-checking initiatives, as well, and is now donating $1.5 million more to fund the creation of a COVID-19 Vaccine Media Hub.

#coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #google, #health, #vaccines, #youtube

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Florida police raid home of former state coronavirus data manager

Workers removing a sign from a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Orlando, Florida, in October 2020.

Enlarge / Workers removing a sign from a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Orlando, Florida, in October 2020. (credit: Paul Hennessy | NurPhoto | Getty Images)

Police on Monday raided the Florida home of data scientist Rebekah Jones, who alleged in May that she was fired from her job collating COVID-19 data for the state because she refused to “manipulate” data to make the governor’s agenda look more favorable.

“At 8:30 this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech,” Jones said in a Twitter thread on Monday afternoon. Her initial post included a 30-second video of armed officers pointing guns up a staircase and shouting for Jones’ husband and children to come down before another officer shouted, “search warrant!” loudly to no one in particular.

“They pointed a gun in my face. They pointed guns at my kids,” Jones added. “They took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country. They took evidence of corruption at the state level.”

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #florida, #law-enforcement, #police, #policy, #ron-desantis

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Why Sapphire’s Jai Das thinks the Salesforce-Slack deal could succeed

Who says that chats about enterprise software have to be boring? They don’t, we learned during our conversation earlier this week with Sapphire’s Jai Das, a pleasant time that touched on a host of topics including startup sectors, his investing group’s capital base and, of course, the Slack-Salesforce deal.

Our conversation took place about an hour before the deal was formally announced, but the tea leaves had been read by the market far in advance, so we were able to chat about it as if it was already consummated. Which it became a little while later.


Our conversation with Das was part of our Extra Crunch Live series, which you can learn more about here. If you’re not a member, head here to get started. Extra Crunch Live has previously hosted Bessemer’s Byron Deeter and Sequoia’s Roelof Botha, among others.


The whole chat with Das was interesting and good, but his comments explaining why Slack’s sale to the larger CRM giant stuck with me all week. Using Salesforce’s acquisition of MuleSoft (a company in which Das invested) as a prism, here’s how the venture capitalist discussed the plusses and minuses of selling to a bigger company.

After noting that MuleSoft might have been able to earn a larger revenue multiple as an independent company in today’s markets than it managed by selling to Salesforce, Das then detailed the sort of boost that a huge company can bring to one that is merely big (quote has been edited and condensed):

Going into your question about Salesforce and Slack, Salesforce, like any large company, does add a lot of value. When I talked to [former MuleSoft CEOs] Simon [Parmett] and Greg [Schott], they were astonished how much account control these large companies have with CIOs and CMOs.

MulesSoft would be beating on the door to get a meeting with the CIO and it wouldn’t happen. And you know, the Salesforce management team would just make one phone call, and Simon and Greg would be presenting to the CEO on down.

So I think that is the thing that people forget, that these large companies have so much ability to increase your sales velocity with large accounts, [so] it makes a lot of sense for some of these [smaller] companies to end up in Salesforce or SAP or Oracle, or WorkDay.

So perhaps Slack will find more oomph under Salesforce’s auspices than it could as a solo project. We spent the majority of our time talking about startups and smaller companies, so hit the jump for the full video and a few more quotes I transcribed for you.

Have fun!

Jai Das

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #extra-crunch-live, #fundings-exits, #jai-das, #salesforce, #sapphire, #slack, #tc, #venture-capital

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