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.

#apple, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #disease, #fever, #health, #iphone, #medicine, #tc

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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.

#asia, #china, #coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #didi, #ride-hailing, #tc, #transportation

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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.

#africa, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #digital-learning, #early-stage, #education, #marketplace, #owl-ventures, #recent-funding, #remote-education, #series-a, #sim-shagaya, #startups, #ulesson

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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

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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.”

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#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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This is a good time to start a proptech company

Like many things in life, building great businesses is all about timing. We’ve seen multibillion dollar failures from the dot-com era such as Pets.com and Webvan be reincarnated a decade later as Chewy and Instacart — this time as runaway successes.

The same could be said about real estate technology companies, but startups in this category have not gotten the same opportunity and attention as their peers in other sectors.

For decades, proptech has received the short end of the stick. Real estate is the world’s largest asset class worth $277 trillion, three times the total value of all publicly traded companies. Still, fintech companies have received seven times more VC funding than real estate companies.

These lower levels of investment were previously attributed to the slow rate of technology adoption and digitalization within the real estate industry, but this is no longer the case. Companies in real estate are adopting innovation faster than ever. Now, 81% of real estate organizations plan to use new digital technologies in traditional business processes and spending on tech and software is growing at over 11% per year. Technological adoption has even accelerated throughout the pandemic as enterprises were forced to quickly adapt.

Historically, the strength or weakness of the broader economy and the real estate industry have been tightly coupled and correlated. While some may point to COVID-19’s negative impact on certain parts of real estate as evidence that proptech can only thrive in boom times, I believe building a successful proptech company is less about anticipating economic upswings and markets and more about timing and taking advantage of the right technological trends. In short, this is as good of a time as any to start a proptech company if you know where to look.

History is littered with examples of companies that have done just this. Let’s take a look at three:

Procore

  • Founded: 2002.
  • Early traction: Used by celebrity housing projects in California.
  • Inflection point: 2012 (people start using iPads and smartphones on job sites).
  • Today: $5 billion valuation as of May 2020.

Procore was founded in 2002 in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, well before widespread WiFi and five years before the iPhone. The company saw the capability for software and technology to transform the construction industry long before practitioners did. Its team faithfully and stubbornly kept at it through the financial crisis, but only had $5 million in revenue by 2012. Here’s where the timing kicks in: At this time, iPads and smartphones had become more common on worksites, enabling widespread adoption.

Realizing this change in-market and adapting to it, Procore strategically priced its product as a subscription, rather than based on headcount, as was typical in the industry. In this way, early customers like Wieland and Mortenson got their subcontractors and temp employees to use the product, which then created a flywheel effect that spread Procore to other projects and clients. Fast forward to today, Procore now has more than $290 million in ARR and is valued over $5 billion.

Procore’s persistence and agility ultimately enabled it to capitalize on the right technological trends and shifts, despite what initially seemed like a poorly timed decision to start a software company in a recession. Procore is now on a venture exit path as it continues to acquire new-age proptech companies like Avata Technologies, Honest Buildings and BIMAnywhere.

Zillow

  • Founded: 2006.
  • Early traction: Launched with 1 million website visits.
  • Inflection point: 2009 (financial crisis mindset).
  • Today: Public — $27 billion market capitalization.

Zillow was founded by the co-founders of Hotwire and Expedia. While that might not seem relevant, the vision to bring transparency to consumers is the connecting line, the mission being to provide access to siloed data and knowledge to previously convoluted industries. Before Zillow, homeowners did not know how much their house was worth. With Zillow’s Zestimate, consumers can put a price tag on every roof across North America.

#column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #honest-buildings, #housing, #iot, #procore, #proptech, #real-estate, #real-estate-technology, #venture-capital, #zillow

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The UK approves the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use

The UK’s medicines regulator has approved the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for emergency use, the companies said today.

The UK is the first country to approve the vaccine for widespread use — paving the way for some of the most “high risk” citizens, such as elderly care home residents and front-line healthcare workers, to get the jab before the end of the year.

The BBC reports that the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said the vaccine is safe to be rolled out from next week. Though it’s not yet clear exactly who will get the first doses.

The request for emergency authorization was submitted by BioNTech and Pfizer to the MHRA last month — as well as to regulators in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S., none of which has yet given the go ahead.

In a statement, Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, described the Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. as “a historic moment in the fight against COVID-19”.

“This authorization is a goal we have been working toward since we first declared that science will win, and we applaud the MHRA for their ability to conduct a careful assessment and take timely action to help protect the people of the U.K.,” he said. “As we anticipate further authorizations and approvals, we are focused on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world. With thousands of people becoming infected, every day matters in the collective race to end this devastating pandemic.”

The UK approval is based on trial data, including a worldwide Phase 3 clinical study carried out by BioNTech/Pfizer  which demonstrated an efficacy rate for the vaccine of 95% and raised no serious safety concerns.

The vaccine was also shown to be effective both in participants who had not previously contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus and those who had — based on measuring efficacy seven days after the second dose.

Efficacy was also reported as consistent across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics, with an observed efficacy in adults age 65 and over of more than 94%, the companies said.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted the news of the formal authorization this morning — writing that the vaccine will “begin to be made available across the UK from next week”. A second tweet anticipated how vaccination in general will “ultimately” enable a return to economic life as usual.

The UK has ordered 40M doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, or enough vaccine for 20M people (as it requires two doses), though it will take time for the country to receive all the doses ordered.

“The delivery of the 40 million doses will occur throughout 2020 and 2021, in stages, to ensure an equitable allocation of vaccines across the geographies with executed contracts,” the companies wrote in a press release.

“Now that the vaccine is authorized in the U.K., the companies will take immediate action to begin the delivery of vaccine doses. The first doses are expected to arrive in the U.K. in the coming days, with complete delivery fulfilment expected in 2021,” they added.

The UK’s National Health Service is gearing up for what NHS chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, described as “the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”. Per the BBC, some 50 hospitals are on standby and vaccination centers in venues such as conference centres are also being set up.

“The Emergency Use Authorization in the U.K. will mark the first time citizens outside of the trials will have the opportunity to be immunized against COVID-19,” added Ugur Sahin, M.D., CEO and co-founder of BioNTech in a supporting statement. “We believe that the roll-out of the vaccination program in the U.K. will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized.

“Our aim is to bring a safe and effective vaccine upon approval to the people who need it. The data submitted to regulatory agencies around the world are the result of a scientifically rigorous and highly ethical research and development program.”

#biontech-pfizer, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #health, #uk, #vaccine

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Moderna claims 94% efficacy for COVID-19 vaccine, will ask FDA for emergency use authorization today

Drugmaker Moderna has completed its initial efficacy analysis of its COVID-19 vaccine from the drug’s Phase 3 clinical study, and determined that it was 94.1% effective in preventing people from contracting COVID-19 across 196 confirmed cases from among 30,000 participants in the study. Moderna also found that it was 100% effective in preventing severe cases (such as those that would require hospitalization) and says it hasn’t found any significant safety concerns during the trial. On the basis of these results, the company will file an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday.

Seeking an EUA is the next step towards actually beginning to distribute and administer Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, and if granted the authorization, it will be able to provide it to high-risk individuals in settings where it could help prevent more deaths, such as with front-line healthcare workers, ahead of receiving a full and final regulatory approval from the U.S. healthcare monitoring agency. Moderna will also seek conditional approval from the European Medicines Agency, which will enable similar use ing the EU.

Moderna’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, which provides genetic instructions to a person’s body that prompts them to create their own powerful antibodies to block the receptor sites that allows COVID-19 to infect a patient. It’s a relatively new therapeutic approach for human use, but has the potential to provide potentially even more resistance to COVID-19 than do natural antibodies, and without the risk associated with introducing any actual virus, active or otherwise, to an inoculated individual in order to prompt their immune response.

In mid-November, Moderna announced that its COVID-19 vaccine showed 94.5% efficacy in its preliminary results. This final analysis of that same data hews very close to the original, which is promising news for anyone hoping for an effective solution to be available soon. This data has yet to be peer reviewed, though Moderna says that it will now be submitting data from the Phase 3 study to a scientific publication specifically for that purpose.

Moderna’s vaccine candidate is part of the U.S’s Operation Warp Speed program to expedite the development, production and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, initiated earlier this year as a response to the unprecedented global pandemic. Other vaccines, including one created by Pfizer working with partner BioNTech, as well as an Oxford University/AstraZeneca-developed candidate, are also far along in their Phase 3 testing and readying for emergency approval and use. Pfizer has already applied with the FDA for its own EUA, while the Oxford vaccine likely won’t be taking that step in the U.S. until it completes another round of final testing after discovering an error in the dosage of its first trial – which led to surprising efficacy results.

#astrazeneca, #biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #european-union, #health, #healthcare, #medical-research, #medicine, #moderna, #oxford-university, #pfizer, #tc, #united-states, #vaccine

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A mildly insane idea for disabling the coronavirus

Colorful blobs cluster together like a bunch of grapes.

Enlarge / Diagram of the structure of the virus’ spike protein. (credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin)

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first recognized for the threat that it is, researchers scrambled to find anything that might block the virus’ spread. While vaccines have grabbed much of the attention lately, there was also the hope that we could develop a therapy that would block the worst effects of the virus. Most of these have been extremely practical: identify enzymes that are essential for the virus to replicate, and test drugs that block similar enzymes from other viruses. These drugs are designed to be relatively easy to store and administer and, in some cases, have already been tested for safety in humans, making them reasonable choices for getting something ready for use quickly.

But the tools we’ve developed in biotechnology allow us to do some far less practical things, and a paper released today describes how they can be put to use to inactivate SARS-CoV-2. This is in no way a route to a practical therapy, but it does provide a fantastic window into what we can accomplish by manipulating biology.

Throw it in the trash

The whole effort described in the new paper is focused on a simple idea: if you figure out how to wreck one of the virus’ key proteins, it won’t be able to infect anything. And, conveniently, our cells have a system for destroying proteins, since that’s often a useful thing to do. In some cases, the proteins that are destroyed are damaged; in others, the proteins are made and destroyed at elevated paces to allow the cell to respond to changing conditions rapidly. In a few cases, changes in the environment or the activation of signaling pathways can trigger widespread protein destruction, allowing the cell to quickly alter its behavior.

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#biology, #biotechnology, #coronavirus, #genetic-engineering, #science, #spike-protein, #ubiquitin

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

#astrazeneca, #biotech, #ceo, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #moderna, #oxford, #pfizer, #pharmaceutical, #tc, #united-states, #vaccine, #vaccines

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YouTube suspends and demonetizes One America News Network over COVID-19 video

YouTube today confirmed that it has suspended right-wing cable channel One America News Network (OAN or OANN for short). The penalty comes after a violation of YouTube’s stated COVID-19 misinformation guidelines. As a result, the network will be barred from posting new videos for a week, while its existing videos will also be demonetized for that period.

A spokesperson for the Google-owned video service offered the following statement to TechCrunch:

Since early in this pandemic, we’ve worked to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation associated with COVID-19 on YouTube. After careful review, we removed a video from OANN and issued a strike on the channel for violating our COVID-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content claiming there’s a guaranteed cure. Additionally, due to repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation policy and other channel monetization policies, we’ve suspended the channel from the YouTube Partner Program and as a result, its monetization on YouTube.

The service has a three-strikes policy in place, with the first two strikes carrying their own policies. In addition to the above actions, the offending video has been pulled from the channel. This is OAN’s first strike. Per the site:

If we find your content doesn’t follow our policies for a second time, you’ll get a strike.

This means you won’t be able to do the following for one week:

  • Upload videos, live streams, or stories
  • Create custom thumbnails or Community posts
  • Created, edit, or add collaborators to playlists
  • Add or remove playlists from the watch page using the “Save” button

Full privileges will be restored automatically after the 1-week period, but your strike will remain on your channel for 90 days.

A second strike in a 90-day period would result in a two-week suspension. A third strike in a 90-day period would result in the channel’s termination.

OAN has become a personal favorite for Trump and his administration recently, particularly in the wake of fallout between the president and Fox News, after that long-favorite cable network called the recent election for opponent Joe Biden.

One America News also came under fire for videos like “Trump Won,” which falsely reported on the election’s results. YouTube opted not to pull that video over disinformation concerns, instead adding a warning and removing ads from the video, noting, “[w]e will continue to be vigilant in the post-election period.”

#apps, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #one-america-news-network, #policy, #trump, #youtube

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Uber refused permission to dismiss 11 staff at its EMEA HQ

Uber has been refused permission to dismiss 11 people at its EMEA headquarters in Amsterdam by the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency (UWV), the ride hailing company has confirmed.

The affected individuals did not take up an earlier severance offer as part of wider Uber layoffs earlier this year.

Uber announced major global layoffs of around 15% of its workforce in May — which included around 200 staff based in Amsterdam — blaming the cuts on changes to demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Late last week, Dutch newspaper NRC reported that Uber had been refused permission to fire the staff as the UWV had found there were no grounds for dismissal.

Per its report, affected Uber employees had faced pressure to accept Uber’s severance offer — saying they were disconnected from its internal systems the day after being informed of termination via Zoom video call and were then sent daily reminders to accept dismissal with Uber telling them ‘their position was ceasing to exist’.

Dutch law requires employers to obtain approval from the UWV for planned redundancies. But the majority of the affected staff in this instance accepted its severance offer before the agency had made a decision. Local press reports suggest many of those affected were expats — who may have been unaware of their labor rights under Dutch law.

We reached out to Uber with questions — and a company spokesperson sent us this statement:

Earlier this year we made the difficult decision to reduce our global headcount due to the dramatic impact of the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature of any eventual recovery. The headcount reductions in our EMEA Headquarters in Amsterdam are part of those efforts.

Uber also told us it does not agree with the UWV’s decision to refuse permission for it to dismiss the 11 employees who had not accepted severance, adding that it will review the decision before determining how to proceed.

It said the severance packages offered to the ~200 affected employees included at least 2.5 months of salary, health benefits to the end of the year, outplacement/recruitment support and additional support for Uber-sponsored visa holders.

#amsterdam, #coronavirus, #europe, #layoffs, #ride-hailing, #transportation, #uber

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Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today

Two of the companies behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their preventative treatment with an application to be delivered today. Pfizer and BioNTech, who revealed earlier this week that their vaccine was 95% effective based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, are submitting for the emergency authorization in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.K., and says that could pave the way for use of the vaccine to begin in “high-risk populations” by the end of next month.

The FDA’s EUA program allows therapeutics companies to seek early approval when mitigating circumstances are met, as is the case with the current global pandemic. EUA’s still require that supporting information and safety data are provided, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process typically used for new drugs and treatments that come before they’re able to actually be administered broadly.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate, which is an mRNA-based vaccine that essentially provides a recipient’s body with instructions on how to produce specific proteins to block the ability of SARS-CoV-19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to attach to cells. The vaccine has recently been undergoing a Phase 3 clinical trial, that included 43,661 participants so far. The companies are submitting supporting information they hope will convince the FDA to grant the EUA, including data from 170 confirmed cases from among the participants, and safety information actively solicited from 8,000 participants, and supplementary data form another 38,000 who that was passively collected.

While production is ramping globally for this and other vaccines in late stage development, and EUA will potentially open up access to high-risk individuals including frontline healthcare workers, it’s worth pointing out that any wide vaccination programs likely aren’t set to begin until next year, and likely later in 2021.

#australia, #biontech, #biotech, #canada, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #europe, #health, #japan, #medical-research, #medicine, #pfizer, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #vaccination, #vaccines

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Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #firework-ventures, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #re-skilling, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transfr, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in final clinical trial results analysis

Drugmaker Pfizer has provided updated analysis around its COVID-19 vaccine Phase 3 clinical trial data, saying that in the final result of its analysis of the 44,000-participant trial, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate proved 95% percent effective. This is a better efficacy rate than Pfizer reported previously, when it announced a 90% effectiveness metric based on preliminary analysis of the Phase 3 trial data.

This result also follows a preliminary data report from Moderna about their own Phase 3 trial of their vaccine candidate, which they reported showed 94.5% effectiveness. Pfizer and partner BioNTech’s vaccine is an mRNA-based preventative treatment, similar to the Moderna one, and now it looks like they should be roughly similar in efficacy – at least in the early offing, based on a limited sample of total cases and prior to peer review by the scientific community, which is yet to come.

The Pfizer data in its final analysis shows that among a total of 170 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far among the 44,000 people who took part in the study, 162 cases came from the placebo group while only eight were from the group of those who received the actual vaccine candidate. The company also reported that 9 out of 10 of the severe cases among those who were infected occurred in the placebo group, suggesting that even in the rare occasion that the vaccine didn’t prevent contraction of COVID-19, it helped reduce its severity.

This should help Pfizer make its case that it be granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be able to provide the vaccine early pending full and final approval as an emergency measure. Earlier this week, the company reported that it has already collected two months’ worth of follow-up data about participants in its trial, which is a required component for said approval, and it’s pursuing it with hopes of seeking that EUA “within days.” The company intends to ramp production of its vaccine beginning later this year, and achieving a run rate of up to 1.3 billion doses by next year.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #moderna, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccine, #vaccines

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Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

In the wake of COVID-19 this spring, construction sites across the nation emptied out alongside neighboring restaurants, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments. Debates ensued over whether the construction industry’s seven million employees should be considered “essential,” while regulations continued to shift on the operation of job sites. Meanwhile, project demand steadily shrank.

Amidst the chaos, construction firms faced an existential question: How will they survive? This question is as relevant today as it was in April. As one of the least-digitized sectors of our economy, construction is ripe for technology disruption.

Construction is a massive, $1.3 trillion industry in the United States — a complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, architects, general contractors, subcontractors and more. While each construction project has a combination of these key roles, the construction process itself is highly variable depending on the asset type. Roughly 41% of domestic construction value is in residential property, 25% in commercial property and 34% in industrial projects. Because each asset type, and even subassets within these classes, tends to involve a different set of stakeholders and processes, most construction firms specialize in one or a few asset groups.

Regardless of asset type, there are four key challenges across construction projects:

High fragmentation: Beyond the developer, architect, engineer and general contractor, projects could involve hundreds of subcontractors with specialized expertise. As the scope of the project increases, coordination among parties becomes increasingly difficult and decision-making slows.

Poor communication: With so many different parties both in the field and in the office, it is often difficult to relay information from one party to the next. Miscommunication and poor project data accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction job sites, costing the industry over $31 billion annually according to FMI research.

Lack of data transparency: Manual data collection and data entry are still common on construction sites. On top of being laborious and error-prone, the lack of real-time data is extremely limited, therefore decision-making is often based on outdated information.

Skilled labor shortage: The construction workforce is aging faster than the younger population that joins it, resulting in a shortage of labor particularly for skilled trades that may require years of training and certifications. The shortage drives up labor costs across the industry, particularly in the residential sector, which traditionally sees higher attrition due to its more variable project demand.

A construction tech boom

Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper. The lack of tech sophistication on construction sites materially contributes to job delays, missed budgets and increased job site safety risk. Technology startups are emerging to help solve these problems.

Here are the main categories in which we’re seeing construction tech startups emerge.

1. Project conception

  • How it works today: During a project’s conception, asset owners and/or developers develop site proposals and may work with lenders to manage the project financing.
  • Key challenges: Processes for managing construction loans are cumbersome and time intensive today given the complexity of the loan draw process.
  • How technology can address challenges: Design software such as Spacemaker AI can help developers create site proposals, while construction loan financing software such as Built Technologies and Rabbet are helping lenders and developers manage the draw process in a more efficient manner.

2. Design and engineering

  • How it works today: Developers work with design, architect and engineering teams to turn ideas into blueprints.
  • Key challenges: Because the design and engineering teams are often siloed from the contractors, it’s hard for designers and engineers to know the real-time impact of their decisions on the ultimate cost or timing of the project. Lack of coordination with construction teams can lead to time-consuming changes.
  • How technology can address challenges: Of all the elements of the construction process, the design and engineering process itself is the most technologically sophisticated today, with relatively high adoption of software like Autodesk to help with design documentation, specification development, quality assurance and more. Autodesk is moving downstream to offer a suite of solutions that includes construction management, providing more connectivity between the teams.

    #artificial-intelligence, #banking, #column, #construction, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #document-management, #financial-services, #labor, #machine-learning, #project-management, #real-estate, #startups, #venture-capital

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Trump adviser tells Michigan to “rise up” against COVID restrictions

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about to speak at an event in Southfield, Michigan, on October 16, 2020.

Enlarge / Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about to speak at an event in Southfield, Michigan, on October 16, 2020. (credit: Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images)

One of the Trump administration’s top coronavirus advisers called for Michigan residents to “rise up” against their state government to resist temporary coronavirus mitigation measures—barely one month after several men were arrested for conspiring to kidnap and assassinate the state’s governor.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Sunday issued a new emergency order putting a “pause” on several nonessential businesses and activities for the next three weeks. The order closes casinos and movie theaters, halts in-person dining in bars and restaurants, and requires colleges and high schools to return to all-virtual education, among other limitations. Childcare and schools up through eighth grade can remain open, as can gyms and pools, retail locations, and personal care services such as hair salons. Gatherings of up to 25 people are also permitted outdoors.

“Right now, there are thousands of cases a day, and hundreds of deaths a week in Michigan, and the number is growing,” Whitmer said when announcing the order. “If we don’t act now, thousands more will die, and our hospitals will continue to be overwhelmed. We can get through this together by listening to health experts once again and taking action right now to slow the spread of this deadly virus.”

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #gretchen-whitmer, #policy, #scott-atlas, #trump-administration

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Will edtech empower or erase the need for higher education?

The coronavirus has erased a large chunk of college’s value proposition: the on-campus experience.

Campuses are closed, sports have been paused and, understandably, students don’t want to pay the same tuition for a fraction of the services. As a result, enrollment is down across the country and university business models are under unrelenting pressure.

The entire athletics program at East Carolina University has been furloughed with pay cuts. Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated a number of programs to save $4 million a year. And Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University lost 1,000 students to online school within weeks of reopening its campus, sacrificing $3.5 million in room and board fees.

And that’s just in the last few weeks.

As universities struggle, edtech is being positioned as a solution for their largest problem: remote teaching. Coursera, a massive open online course (MOOC), created a campus product to help schools quickly offer digital coursework. Podium Education raised millions last month to offer universities for-credit tech programs. Eruditus brought on more than $100 million in the last few months to create programming for elite universities. In some ways, the growth is the story of edtech’s ongoing surge amid the coronavirus pandemic: Remote schooling has forced institutions to piece together third-party solutions to keep operations afloat.

However, while some startups are helping universities offer virtual programming overnight, professors on the ground are warning their institutions to think long-term about what kind of technologies are net positive to adopt.

It’s a stress test that could lead to a reckoning among edtech startups.

‘We’re talking about the next evolution of textbooks’

As the last eight months have taught us, Zoom-based school is a lackluster alternative to the in-person experience. College campuses, thus, are tasked with finding a more creative way to offer engaging virtual content to students who are stuck in their dorm rooms.

Coursera launched Coursera for Campus to help colleges bring on online courses (credit optional) with built-in exams; more than 3,700 schools across the world are using the software.

“Professors would really want super-high-quality branded content that has assessments built into it if they’re going to deliver that learning for credit,” CEO Jeff Maggioncalda said. “That’s not the kind of learning you can get on YouTube.”

For now, though, Maggioncalda says he doesn’t think the death of a physical college campus experience is the future. He’s betting that the product can help colleges save money on faculty costs and reinvest that same money into the campus.

“There will be schools that will continue to offer residential experience, and I think what they’re gonna find is, if your real value proposition is that residential experience, then lead into that heavily,” he said. “But make sure that you’ve got really good content and credentials that are available so that your students don’t have to sacrifice.”

Georgia Tech professor David Joyner says that MOOCs like Coursera “are good for outreach and access, but are not good for accreditation.” Instead, he thinks edtech needs to be built first and foremost for universities to be most effective.

Podium Education, for example, builds courses in partnership with universities to offer for-credit courses. The newly launched startup raised $12 million in October and works with more than 20 colleges. Eruditus, an edtech startup that raised over $100 million in September, creates courses in collaboration with more than 30 elite universities, including MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, IIT and more.

Coursera, Podium and Eruditus are all signaling a future where universities could be getting a plug-and-play model of asynchronously taught curriculum.

#coronavirus, #coursera, #covid-19, #education, #education-technology, #fundings-exits, #georgia-tech, #remote-learning, #tc

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Moderna reports its COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5% effective in first data from Phase 3 trial

Following fast on the heels of Pfizer’s announcement of its COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, Moderna is also sharing positive results from its Phase 3 trial on Monday. The biotech company says that its COVID-19 vaccine candidate has shown efficacy of 94.5% in its first interim data analysis, which covers 95 confirmed COVID cases among its study participants, of which 90 were given the placebo, and only 5 received Moderna’s mRNA-based vaccine. Further, of 11 severe cases of COVID-19, none were found among those who received the actual vaccine candidate.

This is another very promising sign for the potential of having effective vaccines available to the public in some kind of significant volume at some point next year. As mentioned, it’s worth pointing out that this is just a first interim report, but it is data that comes from the safety board overseeing the trial appointed by the National Institutes of Health, which is an independent body not affiliated with Moderna, so it’s a reliable result that provides hope for continued and final analysis.

Moderna says that it will be submitting for an Emergency Use Authorization of its vaccine candidate based on the results within the coming weeks, looking to get approval from the FDA to use it in emergency circumstances ahead of a full and final approval. That EUA, should it be granted, will be based on data from 151 confirmed cases among the Phase 3 participant group (which included 30,000 participants in total), and data from follow-ups extending on average over two months after case confirmation.

All final data will also be submitted to the scientific community for independent peer review, which is a standard part of the ultimate vaccine trial and approval process.

Both these and Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, which it developed in partnership with BioNTech, are mRNA-based vaccines. These are relatively new in terms of human use, and differ from traditional vaccines in that they use messenger RNA to instruct a recipient’s cells to generate effective antibodies, without actually exposing them to any virus, whereas more traditional vaccines in general use typically use either small, safe doses of active or inactive virus in order to trigger a patient’s immune system to generate their own antibodies.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #messenger, #moderna, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines

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Microsoft says hackers backed by Russia and North Korea targeted COVID-19 vaccine makers

Microsoft has revealed that hackers backed by Russia and North Korea have targeted pharmaceutical companies involved in the COVID-19 vaccine development efforts.

The technology giant said Friday that the attacks targeted seven companies in the U.S., Canada, France, India, and South Korea. But while it blocked the “majority” of the attacks, Microsoft acknowledged that some were successful.

Microsoft said it had notified the affected companies, but declined to name them.

“We think these attacks are unconscionable and should be condemned by all civilized society,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s customer security and trust chief, in a blog post.

The technology giant blamed the attacks on three distinct hacker groups. The Russian group, which Microsoft calls Strontium but is better known as APT28 or Fancy Bear, used password spraying attacks to target their victims, which often involves recycled or reused passwords. Fancy Bear may be best known for its disinformation and hacking operations in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, but the group has also been blamed for a string of other high-profile attacks against media outlets and businesses.

The other two groups are backed by the North Korean regime, one of which Microsoft calls Zinc but is better known as the Lazarus Group, which used targeted spearphishing emails disguised as recruiters in an effort to steal passwords from their victims. Lazarus was blamed for the Sony hack in 2016 and the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017, as well as other malware-driven attacks.

But little is known about the other North Korea-backed hacker group, which Microsoft calls Cerium. Microsoft said the group also used targeted spearphishing emails masquerading as representatives from the World Health Organization, charged with coordinating the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Microsoft spokesperson acknowledged it was the first time the company had referenced Cerium, but the company did not offer more.

This is the latest effort by hackers trying to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic for their own goals. Earlier this year, the FBI and Homeland Security warned that hackers would try to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

Today’s news coincides with the Paris Peace Forum, where Microsoft president Brad Smith will urge governments to do more to combat cyberattacks against the healthcare sector, particularly during the pandemic.

“Microsoft is calling on the world’s leaders to affirm that international law protects health care facilities and to take action to enforce the law,” Burt said. “We believe the law should be enforced not just when attacks originate from government agencies but also when they originate from criminal groups that governments enable to operate — or even facilitate — within their borders.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #government, #hacking, #health, #microsoft, #nation-state, #national-security, #security

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Coronavirus outbreak at White House grows as US tops 10 million cases

A man in a suit speaks at a podium.

Enlarge / US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on August 27, 2020, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Nicholas Kamm)

The United States surpassed 10 million coronavirus cases Monday as yet another cluster within the White House grew to at least eight.

Ben Carson, a 69-year-old neurosurgeon and the current secretary of housing and urban development, tested positive for the virus early Monday. This afternoon, news broke that David Bossie, one of President Donald Trump’s advisors, is also infected with the pandemic virus and tested positive Sunday.

The two new positive cases connected to Trump and the White House follow reports late Friday of six cases in the White House, including Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, Trump campaign advisor Nick Trainer, and four unnamed aides. Meadows reportedly told staff he had tested positive last Wednesday.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #superspreader, #trump, #white-house

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Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine proves 90% effective in first results from Phase 3 clinical trial

The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech has shown to be effective blocking vaccine in 90 percent of participants in its Phase 3 clinical trial, the companies announced on Monday. That’s based on data analyzed by an external, independent committee assigned to check the results of the trial, and reflects only early results from the trial, and not the final verified result, but it’s still extremely promising news for progress towards a viable and more broadly available vaccine.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate is an mRNA-based vaccine, which is a newer technology that many companies pursued for COVID-19 in part because it offers some advantages in pace of development and potential efficacy. These results from the test were based on an equable case total of 94 confirmed COVID-19 cases among study participants – passing the minimum threshold agreed to by the companies and the FDA of 62 confirmed cases for a proper, scientifically rigorous assessment.

The Phase 3 trial conducted by the companies included 43,358 participants, and Pfizer reports “no serious safety concerns have been observed” thus far in addition to the positive prevention rate. Based on this early data, individuals who receive the vaccine are protected at 28 days after first dose, and the vaccine uses a two-dose process.

There is still additional safety testing and continued studies to conduct, with the companies estimating that two full months of safety data (which is what the FDA requires for Emergency Use Authorization) will be available in the third week of this month. Participants will also be monitored for two full years after they receive their second and final dose in order to test for long-term effects. Pfizer still thinks that it can produce up to 50 million doses of its vaccine by the end of this year, and as many as 1.3 billion doses through 2021.

Full data from this trial still need to undergo peer-review by other researchers and scientific publications, but this is definitely the most promising and clearly positive news yet from the vaccine development front, and could mean that large-scale distribution of a vaccine begins even before the end of 2020 if all goes well.

#biontech, #biotech, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #fda, #health, #medical-research, #medicine, #pfizer, #tc, #vaccination, #vaccine, #vaccines

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New coronavirus outbreak in Trump White House as Biden celebrates victory

President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 6, 2020.

Enlarge / President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, delivers remarks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 6, 2020. (credit: Getty | Angela Weiss)

As President-elect Joe Biden celebrates reports of his victory in a historic election, his incoming administration is facing the daunting task of getting the raging coronavirus pandemic under control—and so far, his team is wasting no time in laying ground work.

“We’re not waiting to get the work done,” Biden said in a speech on Friday night. As Biden spoke, the national tally for the day’s new coronavirus cases smashed yet another record, the third in the row.

Daily new cases were over 125,500 on Friday, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The last peak in the pandemic in July saw daily case reports no higher than around 76,500. It’s unclear how high the current rise in cases will go. Public health experts expect the surge to worsen as cold weather drives more people indoors, where transmission risks increase, and people will be tempted to hold gatherings for upcoming holidays.

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#coronavirus, #covid, #covid-19, #pandemic, #president-joseph-biden, #science, #vice-president-kamala-harris

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Europe urges ecommerce platforms to share data in fight against coronavirus scams

European lawmakers are pressing major ecommerce and media platforms to share more data with each other as a tool to fight rogue traders who are targeting consumers with coronavirus scams.

After the pandemic spread to the West Internet platforms were flooded with local ads for PPE of unknown and/or dubious quality and other dubious coronavirus offers — even after some of the firms banned such advertising.

The concern here is not only consumers being ripped off but the real risk of harm if people buy a product that does not offer the protection claimed against exposure to the virus or even get sold a bogus coronavirus ‘cure’ when none in fact exists.

In a statement today, Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice, said: “We know from our earlier experience that fraudsters see this pandemic as an opportunity to trick European consumers. We also know that working with the major online platforms is vital to protect consumers from their illegal practices. Today I encouraged the platforms to join forces and engage in a peer-to-peer exchange to further strengthen their response. We need to be even more agile during the second wave currently hitting Europe.”

The Commission said Reynders met with 11 online platforms today — including Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten and (TechCrunch’s parent entity) Verizon Media/Yahoo — to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic and push the tech companies to do more to head off a new wave of COVID-19 scams.

In March this year EU Member States’ consumer protection authorities adopted a common position on the issue. The Commission and a pan-EU network of consumer protection enforcers has been in regulator contact with the 11 platforms since then to push for a coordinated response to the threat posed by coronavirus scams.

The Commission claims the action has resulted in the platforms reporting the removal of “hundreds of millions” of illegal offers and ads. It also says they have confirmed what it describes as “a steady decline” in new coronavirus-related listings, without offering more detailed data.

In Europe, tighter regulations over what ecommerce platforms sell are coming down the pipe.

Next month regional lawmakers are set to unveil a package of legislation that will propose updates to existing ecommerce rules and aim to increase their legal responsibilities, including around illegal content and dangerous products.

In a speech last week, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager, who heads up the bloc’s digital policy, said the Digital Services Act (DSA) will require platforms to take more responsibility for dealing with illegal content and dangerous products, including by standardizing processes for reporting illegal content and dealing with reports and complaints related to content.

A second legislative package that’s also due next month — the Digital Markets Act — will introduce additional rules for a sub-set of platforms considered to hold a dominant market position. This could include requirements that they make data available to rivals, with the aim of fostering competition in digital markets.

MEPs have also pushed for a ‘know your business customer’ principle to be included in the DSA.

Simultaneously, the Commission has been pressing for social media platforms to open up about what it described in June as a coronavirus “infodemic” — in a bid to crack down on COVID-19-related disinformation.

Today the Commission gave an update on actions taken in the month of September by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and TikTok to combat coronavirus disinformation — publishing its third set of monitoring reports. Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, said more needs to be done there too.

“Viral spreading of disinformation related to the pandemic puts our citizens’ health and safety at risk. We need even stronger collaboration with online platforms in the coming weeks to fight disinformation effectively,” he said in a statement. 

The platforms are signatories of the EU’s (non-legally binding) Code of Practice on disinformation.

Legally binding transparency rules for platforms on tackling content such as illegal hate speech look set to be part of the DSA package. Though it remains to be seen how the fuzzier issue of ‘harmful content’ (such as disinformation attached to a public health crisis) will be tackled.

A European Democracy Action Plan to address the disinformation issue is also slated before the end of the year.

In a pointed remark accompanying the Commission’s latest monitoring reports today, Vera Jourová, VP for values and transparency, said: “Platforms must step up their efforts to become more transparent and accountable. We need a better framework to help them do the right thing.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #disinformation, #ecommerce, #europe, #platform-regulation, #policy

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