First COVID-19 vaccine goes to FDA today for emergency authorization

Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, United States on November 19, 2020.

Enlarge / Pfizer headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, United States on November 19, 2020. (credit: Getty | Anadolu Agency)

Today the US Food and Drug Administration will receive its first submission of a candidate vaccine to fight the pandemic coronavirus.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech announced early this morning that they are submitting the formal request to obtain an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA for the companies’ mRNA vaccine, BNT162b2.

The submission follows the celebrated news just Wednesday that the companies had wrapped up their Phase III trial and found the vaccine to be 95-percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

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#biontech, #clinical-trial, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #pfizer, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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Mask up! How to choose and maintain the best masks for use against COVID-19

Smiling eyes of a handsome young man in times of Covid 19

Enlarge (credit: Hello Africa / Getty)

As the United States enters into the colder months and record-high daily cases of COVID-19 continue to be broken on successive days, finding the best mask for your needs is more important than ever. While wearing something is always better than nothing, unfortunately, finding masks that meet WHO and CDC guidelines isn’t a particularly easy or fruitful endeavor. It’s not hard to meet these recommendations, but researching and compiling the best masks on the market for a range of different needs proved that few manufacturers do. Fortunately, there are some.

We’ve written at length on the current pandemic, how it’s been handled, and how best to handle yourself through these discombobulating times. This article will hopefully serve as a useful refresher on some of those topics, particularly the latest science on masks, how to use them, and what to look for when buying them.

Based off criteria from the CDC and WHO, we’ll also highlight a few options that should help keep everyone safe, whether you’re an outdoor runner, hard of hearing, or just in need of a quality reusable mask.

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#best-masks, #cdc, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science, #who

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CDC Thanksgiving guidance: No traveling, no outside-household members

A Norman Rockwell (or Rockwell-esq) depiction of Thanksgiving gathering.

Enlarge / Good luck not getting COVID! (credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

In a rare press briefing Thursday, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving or gather with people outside of their “households”—defined as only the people actively living together in the 14 days prior to a gathering.

The stark message from the premier public health agency may not seem surprising given the dire state of the country. Spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is out of control and at record levels. The United States reported more than 1 million new cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days alone. Hospitalizations are rising sharply, and health care facilities in several states are already overwhelmed. Deaths are also spiking. And there’s no end in sight. The situation is likely to only get worse as winter weather and holidays drive people indoors and together.

Still, the CDC’s press briefing drew awe from journalists, who have watched such briefings dwindle as the pandemic advanced. Numerous investigative reports have detailed how the Trump administration has sidelined, censored, and muted CDC scientists and officials during the global crisis.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #holiday, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #thanksgiving, #traveling

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Caribbean cruise COVID outbreak expands; Cruise line cancels voyages

A relatively small luxury liner at sea.

Enlarge / A SeaDream cruise liner sailing into the sunset. (credit: Courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club)

Plans for luxury cruises have quickly—and perhaps predictably—run aground in the Caribbean.

Cruise ship-operator SeaDream Yacht Club this week canceled all voyages for the rest of the year after one of its ships—the first to resume sailing in the region amid the pandemic—was wrecked by a COVID-19 outbreak last week.

So far, at least seven of the 53 passengers and two of the 66 crew aboard the yacht-style SeaDream I liner have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The infected and those testing negative have since disembarked.

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#caribbean, #covid-19, #cruise, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #seadream

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It’s really hard to determine which policies control COVID efficiently

Image of a restaurant with a large sign saying

Enlarge / In response to a surge in cases, Germany ordered restaurants to switch to delivery/takeout only. (credit: Picture Alliance/Getty Images)

Nobody wants to go back under heavy social restrictions. But the surging case numbers are causing many countries to put in place targeted lockdowns and other limits to try to get the pandemic back under control—a move that has sparked a backlash in a lot of places. So, it seems like it’s worth asking what the optimal combination of restrictions might be. How do you get the most pandemic control for the least restrictive social environment?

That’s precisely what an international team of researchers attempted to find out, as described in a paper published today. And, while the researchers come up with some potential answers, their paper ends up with an additional message: this is a really hard question to answer. So, to an extent, many countries are going to have to act with imperfect information and hope for the best.

How do you answer that?

In an ideal world, we’d have some sense of the impact of each possible social restriction: closing restaurants, starting contact tracing, shutting schools, and so on. Given that information, we could look at the rate of infections and its trajectory, then figure out the smallest possible set of restriction that could cause the infection rate to drop. But the real world is very far from this idealized situation at the moment, which is what motivated the researchers to try to provide a bit more certainty regarding the effectiveness of different restrictions.

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#covid-19, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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We’ll need more than one vaccine to beat the pandemic

Close-up photograph of a gloved hand holding a tiny bottle of clear liquid.

Enlarge / A medical worker holds a bottle of a candidate COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University that is being tested in a trial in Soweto, South Africa. (credit: Getty | Gallo Images)

On Monday, a press release from the transnational pharmaceutical company Pfizer dropped a rare spark of hope into the ongoing misery of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, new infections have hit an all-time high in the United States, and, yes, cities and states around the world are walking back their reopenings. But Pfizer says it has results from a massive clinical trial showing that its vaccine against the disease works, and works well. The release touted “a vaccine efficacy rate above 90 percent,” and it announced the company’s intention to seek from the US Food and Drug Administration an authorization to start giving people shots. The company’s ready to make 50 million doses this year and 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

That’s an ember of hope, but it’s sitting under a bucket of cold water, ready to pour. The Pfizer vaccine is finicky—hard to make, transport, and deliver. Because of desperate need, it’s in short supply even before it becomes available—1.3 billion doses is several billion short of what the world needs. The press release wasn’t peer-reviewed science, and it lacked critical details about how the vaccine works, and on whom. Even the simple fact of this vaccine’s existence, some analysts have argued, might jeopardize the testing and success of potentially better vaccines down the line, a case of the imperfect being the enemy of the good.

Before the ember dies out completely, here’s a theory: No. The Pfizer vaccine’s imperfections make it a perfect prime mover, because if it works as well as the company says, it’ll help people now and require research into more, better, different vaccines for later. All the things nobody knows about the Pfizer vaccine mean that the door is wide open. “Whether its effects are durable, whether it’s effective in the elderly, whether it has safety issues, the cold chain issues, the ability to have access,” says Wayne Koff, president and CEO of the nonprofit Human Vaccines Project, “all that points to the need for a number of vaccines.”

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#covid-19, #mrna, #pandemic, #science, #vaccination, #vaccines

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A look at the psychological burdens of COVID lockdowns

Two men cary a bench.

Enlarge / Municipality employees remove the famous blue chairs on the “Promenade des anglais” in Nice, southern France, in order to limit opportunities for people to gather. (credit: VALERY HACHE / Getty Images)

With the dramatic rise in infections in the United States, there’s increasing discussion of whether states need to go back to severe social restrictions or even lockdowns, in which only essential workers are allowed to leave their homes. But many people aren’t happy about the idea of re-entering lockdowns because lockdowns exact both an economic and an emotional cost.

While we’re likely to get lots of hard data on economic costs eventually, some researchers in New Zealand decided to look at the emotional toll. They performed a detailed survey at the height of lockdown and found that, as expected, the restrictions had an impact on people trapped in their houses for weeks. But the impact was more pronounced on the young and those who had experienced psychological distress previously.

Lockdown NZ

The public health officials who advocate for lockdowns in response to soaring infection rates recognize that lockdowns exact an emotional toll on people who have to stay in their homes. The trade-off for this toll is the avoidance of death, severe illness, overloading of healthcare systems, etc. And the lockdowns are meant to be temporary; once infection rates drop sufficiently, then less draconian control measures (like social distancing, limiting gatherings, and mask use) can keep the infection rates low.

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#covid-19, #epidemiology, #lockdowns, #mental-health, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Dutch scientists reconstruct spread of coronavirus through mink farms

A pair of mink in the wild. They're so cute you might throw up.

Enlarge (credit: Marc Evans / Flickr)

It’s still not clear what species carried the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that made its way into humans. But it has become increasingly clear that we can spread it to a large number of species, and a subset of those species are then able to pass it on to others. If those species are able to pass it back to humans, it adds to the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because it provides a route for new infections that avoids all of the means we’re using to try to control the virus’s spread between humans. And there’s also the chance that the virus’s reproduction within an animal species would select for a mutation that would make the virus more dangerous to humans.

While we’ve already found the virus in cats and dogs, the big risk so far has turned out to be an unexpected source: mink. As early as August, it was clear that the virus was killing lots of the animals on US mink farms. Earlier this month, the discovery that the virus had spread back from mink to humans caused Denmark to decide to cull its entire population of mink. Now, with some people on edge because of that drastic action, we have a report that provides detailed tracing of the virus’ spread between mink and humans, providing us a better sense of the risks involved.

There and back again

The work was done in the Netherlands, which also hosts a substantial number of mink farms. The new paper, written by public health and veterinary officials, is essentially the equivalent of a contact-tracing report done for mink. It uses a combination of diagnostics to identify people and animals that have been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2, whole genome sequencing to understand the source of those infections, and interviews (limited to the humans) to help determine any actions that might influence the virus’s spread.

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#biology, #covid-19, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #virology

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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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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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What using AT&T’s 768kbps DSL is like in 2020—yes, it’s awful

A snail resting on a computer mouse, to illustrate slow Internet service.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Synergee)

Millions of Americans live in broadband deserts with no access to anything resembling modern Internet service. But few people have it as bad as those who must rely on AT&T’s ancient DSL network.

Kathie McNamee of Raymond, Mississippi is one of those unlucky AT&T DSL customers. McNamee said she pays AT&T $35 a month for a 768kbps Internet plan that rarely works well enough to be usable for her, her husband, and two teenage sons. McNamee contacted Ars after reading a story about AT&T incorrectly claiming that certain homes in Mississippi had access to broadband when in fact AT&T isn’t capable of providing service to those addresses.

AT&T has received over $283 million from the Federal Communications Commission since 2015 to extend home-Internet service to over 133,000 potential customer locations in Mississippi. AT&T says it will exceed that requirement by the end-of-2020 deadline, but the company’s mapping mistakes have led to unpleasant surprises for customers who thought they’d get modern broadband.

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#att, #biz-it, #broadband, #dsl, #fiber, #pandemic, #policy

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Coronavirus cases skyrocket: Over 116,000 new cases, 53,000 hospitalized

Workers in full gowns, masks, face shields, and gloves work at a table to process tests for COVID-19

Enlarge / Coronavirus testing in Wisconsin, November 2. (credit: Getty | Star Tribune)

The United States on Wednesday reached an alarming milestone in its failed pandemic response: a day’s tally of new coronavirus cases reached over 100,000 for the first time. But the record was short-lived. Today, Thursday, new cases surpassed 116,000.

The country’s third spike in cases is now towering over those before it, which saw peaks of daily new cases no higher than around 76,500. It’s unclear how high the new peak will ultimately get, but it’s likely that Friday will see yet another frightening record.

Overall, the country has seen a 20 percent jump in cases since last week, according to The COVID Tracking Project. While nearly every state in the country is seeing cases increase to some extent, the areas propelling the rise are the Midwest and the Mountain West. In fact, the Midwest’s current number of cases per capita are well above that of any other region during the pandemic, the Project notes in a blog post Thursday.

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#cases, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #hospitalization, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Trump plans huge White House party amid dire pandemic warnings

Response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx wears a facemask she listens to US President Donald Trump deliver a news conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 23, 2020.

Enlarge / Response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx wears a facemask she listens to US President Donald Trump deliver a news conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 23, 2020. (credit: Getty | Jim Watson)

A top White House coronavirus advisor is sounding a dire alarm over the ongoing, record-high surge in coronavirus cases in the country, warning, “We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic”—a warning that President Donald Trump is openly disregarding.

In a November 2 internal report leaked to The Washington Post, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx wrote that the United States will likely see more than 100,000 new cases a day this week. The surge will lead to “increasing mortality” in the coming weeks and months. She called upon the administration to take “much more aggressive action.”

“This is not about lockdowns,” Dr. Birx noted bluntly. “It hasn’t been about lockdowns since March or April. It’s about an aggressive balanced approach that is not being implemented.”

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#birx, #covid-19, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump

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Trump advisor turns to Russian propaganda TV to tout failed pandemic response

A masked woman in red, white, and blue flare sits at a desk.

Enlarge / ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: A staff member works at a polling station during early voting for the US Presidential election on October 31, 2020 in Arlington, United States. (credit: Getty | Chen Mengtong)

We’re 10 months into the pandemic and the outlook for the United States is worse than ever. Coronavirus cases are spiking to unseen levels across the country, with a record of nearly over 97,000 cases reported on Friday alone. As hospitals in dozens of states begin filling, health experts look wearily to the weeks ahead. Cold weather and a series of holidays will undoubtedly bring people indoors and together, showering gasoline on the current inferno of disease transmission.

Yet despite the grim reality, President Donald Trump and his administration have spent the last days before the presidential election not addressing the dire crisis but instead downplaying the tragedy and attacking public health experts and frontline workers. Trump’s coronavirus advisor, Scott Atlas, even appeared on a Russian propaganda television show to defend the administration’s response, in which he echoed his previous false and misleading claims about the pandemic.

On Friday, Trump himself falsely claimed doctors are inflating the number of coronavirus deaths for money. In response, the president of the American Medical Association, Susan Bailey, called Trump’s false statement “malicious, outrageous, and completely misguided.”

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#fauci, #herd-immunity, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #scott-atlas, #trump

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Virus Hunters makes a strong case that COVID-19 is just the wake-up call

Scientists around the world are working not just to stamp out the current COVID-19 pandemic, but are also racing to prevent an even worse outbreak in the future.

Enlarge / Scientists around the world are working not just to stamp out the current COVID-19 pandemic, but are also racing to prevent an even worse outbreak in the future.

As much damage as the current coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on the world at large—killing over 230,000 American citizens alone so far, and nearly 1.2 million people worldwide—scientists know there are other viruses lurking out there, one of which could be just as contagious as COVID-19, yet much more deadly.  And they know we need to be prepared for such an outbreak.

That’s the central message of Virus Hunters, a new documentary special premiering tonight on the National Geographic channel. The documentary follows award-winning ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman and Harvard ecologist and epidemiologist Chris Golden as they travel to hot spots around the world: Liberia, Thailand, Turkey, and (yes) the United States. It’s a companion piece to a special issue of National Geographic magazine devoted to COVID-19 released in mid-October.

A National Geographic fellow, Golden’s interest in studying the ways in which environmental change affects human health dates back to childhood, when he used to go on nature walks with his mother. “I saw the way that she responded to nature, this connection between mental health and the outdoors, and I ended up pursuing this all throughout my educational experience,” he told Ars. After earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard—creating his own major out of a mix of courses in ecology, medical anthropology, and development studies—he earned his PhD in epidemiology and ecology from the University of California, Berkeley.

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#documentary, #ecology, #gaming-culture, #national-geographic-channel, #pandemic, #science, #television, #virology

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Someone leaked the COVID hospitalization data taken from the CDC

A doctor walks in front of a hospital entrance.

Enlarge (credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Earlier this year, the federal government made a major change to how data on the pandemic is reported, taking the aggregation of hospital data away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and shifting it into the CDC’s parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

At the time, there were worries that this represented an attempt to limit the public’s ability to see how bad the pandemic was—worries that were reinforced when the data was no longer made public as it came in. But some recent reporting indicated that the change was primarily the work of White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, who wanted greater control over the data gathering and processing. Still, regardless of the motivation, the data flowing in to HHS only made its way out to the public via weekly summaries.

Until now. Someone has leaked the daily reports to NPR, which found that the reports weren’t all that they could be, but they could still be useful for public health experts.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #hhs, #pandemic, #policy, #science

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As experts call for nationwide mask mandate, anti-maskers stab guard 27 times

VANCOUVER, Oct. 24, 2020 - A voter wearing a face mask is seen outside a polling station during the provincial election day in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Oct. 24, 2020.

Enlarge / VANCOUVER, Oct. 24, 2020 – A voter wearing a face mask is seen outside a polling station during the provincial election day in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Oct. 24, 2020. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

As US coronavirus cases dramatically shoot up to the highest peak yet in the pandemic, prominent public health experts are calling for a nationwide mandate to wear masks to try to drag down disease spread.

The call comes as violent clashes over masks continue in places that already have face-covering requirements.

In a Wednesday interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci called for a national mandate. “We’re not in a good place,” Fauci said, referring to the ongoing, record-breaking rise in daily case numbers.

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#covid-19, #fauci, #fda, #mask-mandate, #masks, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Trump admin’s pandemic surrender draws impassioned response from WHO

World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Director Michael Ryan (L) speaks past Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 9, 2020.

Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Director Michael Ryan (L) speaks past Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 9, 2020. (credit: Getty | FABRICE COFFRINI )

Top officials at the World Health Organization on Monday appeared at times exasperated, flabbergasted, and wearied as they confronted comments by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows suggesting that the United States has given up trying to control the spread of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said in a CNN interview Sunday. Instead we will focus on “vaccines, therapeutics, and other mitigation areas,” he said. The comments spurred widespread uproar, which Meadows tried to quell Monday. But his clarification only reinforced his earlier comments.

“I mean, when we look at this, we’re going to defeat the virus. We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can,” he told reporters outside the White House yesterday. He again emphasized the need for therapeutics and vaccines.

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#covid-19, #pandemic, #public-health, #ryan, #sars-cov-2, #science, #tedros, #who

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US cases surge to new peak as Trump administration goes to war with science

 A person wears a protective face mask outside Trump International Hotel & Tower New York.

Enlarge / A person wears a protective face mask outside Trump International Hotel & Tower New York. (credit: Getty | Noam Galai)

The US is climbing toward a third peak in the coronavirus pandemic as the Trump Administration continues to belittle public health experts and their advice.

The country’s seven-day average of new daily cases has increased about 33 percent from just two weeks ago, according to tracking by the COVID Tracking Project. On Friday, there were 68,000 new cases recorded, a high not seen since July. The current seven-day average is around 57,000 new cases per day.

The surge is diffuse. Last week, 17 states set their own new records for cases in a single day. Those states include nine of 12 states in the Midwest and six of 11 in the west, according to the tracking project. Altogether, the US once again has the highest seven-day average of new cases of any country in the world, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

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#covid-19, #fauci, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #scott-atlas, #trump, #who

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The preexisting conditions of the coronavirus pandemic

The preexisting conditions of the coronavirus pandemic

Enlarge (credit: Nancybelle Gonzaga Villarroya)

A massive new accounting of the health of humans on Earth, collating and inferring stats on hundreds of diseases and injuries across 204 nations, has mostly good news. People are healthier, and they stay that way for longer. The bad news: That’s not true if those people are poor, are people of color, live in the United States, and there’s a pandemic.

Then they’re screwed.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #science

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How the Trump admin devastated the CDC—and continues to cripple it

A serious man in a business suit grimaces.

Enlarge / CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. (credit: Getty | Alex Edelman)

The CDC has been neutered, shamed, and blamed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and global crisis. From internal missteps that bungled the country’s rollout of diagnostic testing to blatant political interference and strong-arming on critical public health guidance, the CDC has gone from the world’s premier public health agency to a silenced, overridden, distrusted afterthought in the US response—an agency stripped of its ability to collect even basic health data from hospitals during a raging pandemic.

The heavy blows to the agency’s reputation and role have been well documented throughout the pandemic. President Trump and his administration have openly undermined the agency and, behind the scenes, attacked it while overriding expert public health advice on testing, school reopening, and the handling of outbreaks on cruise ships, among other things.

But while the broad strokes of the agency’s undoing were noted in real time, a set of new investigations and reports offers new details. In a sweeping investigative report by ProPublica, three journalists retraced a number of events, digging up emails, heated exchanges, and alarm within the agency. For instance, it provides fresh insight into how a single CDC researcher valiantly worked to develop diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus, only to fumble, producing tests contaminated with genetic sequences of the virus. That contamination produced false positive results in public health labs around the country, rendering the tests useless and losing precious time to get ahead of the disease’s spread.

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#birx, #cdc, #covid-19, #pandemic, #public-health, #redfield, #science, #trump-administration

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White House informally endorses letting pandemic spread unchecked

Image of the White House.

Enlarge / Nobody from the White House went on record as supporting herd immunity. (credit: Congressional Budget Offic)

On Monday, the White House hosted a pandemic-focused call for the press “on background”—intended to provide a window into the administration’s thinking, but not to provide quotes that could be attributed to any government official. During the call, the unspecified White House officials touted a document supporting the idea of herd immunity as a plan to control the pandemic, saying it reflected the administration’s thinking.

The document, called the Great Barrington Declaration, was prepared by a libertarian think tank with the assistance of a handful of scientists who have been pushing the idea that COVID-19 isn’t much of a threat. And it has attracted enough attention that the World Health Organization decided to address it. The result severely undercut whatever the White House intended to accomplish.

“Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic,” the WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “It’s scientifically and ethically problematic.”

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#cdc, #covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump, #trump-administration, #white-house, #who

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Grim new analyses spotlight just how hard US is failing in pandemic

A skeleton hand ominously puts into a map of the United States.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

A grim series of articles published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes clear just how hard the United States has failed at controlling the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic—from the country’s horrifying death toll to its inability to drag down its shamefully high death rates.

It was already clear that the US has tallied more deaths from the coronavirus than any other country and has one of the highest death rates per capita in the world. But, according to one article in the series, the US is also failing to lower COVID-19 death rates—even as harder-hit countries have managed to learn from early disease peaks and bring their rates down substantially.

For the analysis, researchers Alyssa Bilinski of Harvard and Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania compared the shifting COVID-19 death rates of 18 high-income countries during three time windows. The idea was to see how death rates changed as countries adopted different public health interventions, especially if they had seen surges in cases early on that boosted their overall death rate during the pandemic. Specifically, Bilinski and Emanuel looked at COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people starting from February 13, May 10, and June 7, with all three windows ending on September 19.

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#communities-of-color, #coronavirus, #death-rates, #excess-deaths, #mental-health, #mortality, #pandemic, #public-health, #racial-disparity, #sars-cov-2, #science

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China joins global vaccine alliance, filling “leadership vacuum” left by Trump

Chinese President Xi Jinping learns about the progress on a COVID-19 vaccine during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing on March 2, 2020.

Enlarge / Chinese President Xi Jinping learns about the progress on a COVID-19 vaccine during his visit to the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing on March 2, 2020. (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

China has now signed on to a massive, global alliance to develop and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine—putting the United States’ absence from the pact into yet sharper relief.

With its late entry announced Friday, China joins around 170 other countries in the pact, called the COVAX Facility. The effort is being spearheaded by the World Health Organization and co-led along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

COVAX is designed to pool resources to help develop a vaccine and bring it to market globally. Once at that point, the alliance will help ensure all participating countries have access to whichever vaccine candidate(s) prove successful, regardless of where it was developed. It will also provide financial assistance to lower-income countries to access the vaccine. So far, at least 77 high-income countries (including China) have signed on, as well as 92 low- and middle-income countries.

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#china, #covax, #covid-19, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccines, #who

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Domestic terrorism suspects who plotted to kidnap Whitmer shared plans in Facebook groups

According to details from a shocking new affidavit, the FBI uncovered a group planning “violent action against multiple state governments,” including a detailed plot to capture or kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The domestic terror group organized across Facebook groups, real-life events and at least two encrypted chat apps that the FBI did not name.

Whitmer, a Democrat, became a major target of pervasive anti-lockdown sentiment on the political right earlier this year when states imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. According to the affidavit, at a June in-person meeting, members of the group “talked about murdering ‘tyrants’ or ‘taking’ a sitting governor.”

Facebook says it played a “proactive” role in the FBI investigation, first reaching out to law enforcement six months ago. The FBI said it became aware of the activity through social media and also relied on an informant to collect information from within the group.

“We remove content, disable accounts and immediately report to law enforcement when there is a credible threat of imminent harm to people or public safety,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We proactively reached out and cooperated with the FBI early in this ongoing investigation.”

The group sought to grow its numbers, contacting a Michigan-based militia group known as the Wolverine Watchmen that shared overlapping interests. Facebook removed the Wolverine Watchmen group from its platform in June when it purged a number of groups connected to the anti-government boogaloo movement.

“Today we are designating a violent US-based anti-government network as a dangerous organization and banning it from our platform,” Facebook wrote at the time, drawing a distinction between violent boogaloo groups and the “loosely-affiliated” boogaloo movement.

TechCrunch asked Facebook if the individuals connected with the Michigan militia through Facebook groups but the company did not provide an answer to that question.

Adam Fox, one of the group’s alleged organizers, livestreamed to a private Facebook group earlier this year, complaining that Michigan’s restrictions were keeping gyms closed. In the video, Fox “referred to Governor Whitmer as ‘this tyrant bitch,’ and stated, ‘I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something.’”

In April, Trump cheered on protests against those measures in Virginia, Minnesota and Michigan, three states with Democratic governors. Many of these early events were organized on Facebook, but anti-Whitmer sentiment quickly became ubiquitous on the right across social networks and traditional media.

By July, the group considered attacking a Michigan State Police location but landed on abducting Whitmer from her private vacation home or governor’s summer residence. The same day that decision was made, Fox wrote on a private Facebook page “‘We about to be busy ladies and gentlemen . . . This is where the Patriot shows up. Sacrifices his time, money, blood sweat and tears . . . it starts now so get fucking prepared!!”

The group alternated between planning to kidnap Whitmer for a private “trial” and killing her on sight. Over the course of the coming months, they conducted surveillance of Whitmer’s vacation home, collected supplies and planned detailed logistics for the kidnapping plot, including the idea of blowing up a nearby bridge to divert police attention. The group discussed those detailed plans in an encrypted chat.

According to the affidavit, “On several occasions, FOX has expressed his intention and desire to kidnap Governor Whitmer before November, 3, 2020, the date of the national election.”

The affidavit also details some of the training exercises the plot’s members engaged in with militias in Wisconsin and Michigan, where they practiced making IEDs “using black powder, balloons, a fuse, and BBs for shrapnel” and conducted firearm and combat training drills. They shared photos and videos of their techniques through “Facebook discussions,” according to the affidavit.

A shift at Facebook

Facebook’s attitude toward some forms of extremist activity changed radically in recent months. While armed political groups had long been flourishing on the platform, the company cracked down on what it calls “militarized social movements” in August. Just this week, Facebook announced both a broader ban on the pro-Trump conspiracy known as QAnon and a new policy for voter intimidation efforts that use militaristic language.

When asked about if the terror plot had an impact on the company’s recent spate of surprising policy changes, Facebook did not provide a direct response. It’s also not clear if the domestic terror plot used Facebook groups to recruit and connect online or just to communicate among members who already knew each other in real life.

Researchers who study extremism have long expressed concerns that Facebook’s algorithmic recommendations, particularly the groups it designed to connect like-minded people, can push users toward dangerous ideas — and dangerous behavior.

Militias and other kinds of domestic extremist groups have increasingly leaned on Facebook for recruitment in recent years. Once members are connected and vetted, often through public groups, they are allowed into an inner circle, sometimes in the form of a private Facebook group. The Proud Boys, a violent far-right group with ties to white supremacists, were a prominent example of this recruitment strategy.

Users can be ushered into these extremist groups by Facebook’s algorithmic suggestions, which previously appeared in a box next to a group’s activity. For Facebook pages, those suggestions still appear to the side of the main stream of content, directing users toward “related pages.”

Facebook banned the Proud Boys from its platform in late 2018. But groups interested in violence that kept a lower profile have maintained a large presence on the platform well into 2020, including a number of state “patriot” organizations and anti-government boogaloo groups that coordinate firearm and combat trainings through the platform.

In June, Facebook banned a “violent network” of boogaloo groups, but other groups remain, organizing under code words related to the boogaloo movement. One boogaloo page TechCrunch identified calling itself “definitely not boogaloo” was selling “Boogaloo Boys” patches and posting violent memes as recently as this week.

Unfortunately for researchers and reporters tracking this kind of activity, Facebook recently removed the option to see how many members are in a public group at a glance from the search page.

Facebook recently announced a plan to actually expand the reach of its public groups, surfacing them to more users. “Public Group posts may now get more distribution on and off Facebook so that more people can discover and join in on the conversation,” Facebook wrote in the announcement.

#2020-election, #facebook, #online-extremism, #pandemic, #tc

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US states stopped their pandemic social restrictions too soon

A masked man and woman walks outside a plastic barrier.

Enlarge / If you can’t socially distance, a face mask helps. (credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Many countries that controlled their COVID-19 cases in the spring are now seeing rises in infections, raising the prospect that they’ll face a second wave of cases, as many epidemiological models had predicted. But in the United States, the number of cases has never dropped to low levels. Instead, it varied between high levels of infection and very high peaks in cases. Why is everything so different in the states?

While there are plenty of possible reasons, a series of new studies essentially blame all the obvious ones: the United States ended social distancing rules too soon, never built up sufficient testing and contact-tracing capabilities, and hasn’t adopted habits like mask use that might help substitute for its failures elsewhere. The fact that some of these studies used very different methods to arrive at similar conclusions suggests that those conclusions are likely to hold up as more studies come in.

Too soon

One of the studies, performed by a US-South African team, looked at the relaxation of social distancing rules in the US. Its authors created a list of restrictions for each state and the District of Columbia and tracked the number of COVID-19 deaths in each state for eight weeks prior to the rules being terminated. The number of deaths was used as a proxy for the total number of cases, as the erratic availability of tests made the true infection rate difficult to determine.

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#biology, #covid-19, #epidemiology, #medicine, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science

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Consumers spent a record $28 billion in apps in Q3, aided by pandemic

Mobile usage continues to remain high amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted social distancing measures and lockdown policies, and has pushed consumers to connect online for work, school and socializing. This, in turn, has helped drive record spending in apps during the quarter, as well as a huge surge in time spent in apps. According to a new report from App Annie, consumers in the third quarter downloaded 33 billion new apps globally and spent a record $28 billion in apps — up 20% year-over-year. They also spent more than 180 billion collective hours each month of July, August and September 2020 using apps, an increase of 25% year-over-year.

The mobile data and analytics firm had earlier suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a long-lasting impact on consumer mobile behavior, as it advanced mobile by at least two to three years ahead of pace. This continued to be true in the third quarter, with all major mobile trends seeing increases.

 

Image Credits: App Annie

 

Image Credits: App Annie

Google Play downloads grew 10% year-over-year, accounting for 25 billion of the total 33 billion new downloads in the quarter, while iOS accounted for nearly 9 billion downloads — up 20% year-over-year. Non-gaming apps on Google Play were 55% of those downloads, while on iOS the figure was a slightly higher 70%.

Image Credits: App Annie

Top markets by downloads included India and Brazil on Google Play, while on iOS, the top two continued to be the U.S. and China. India, Brazil and Mexico drove growth on Google Play, while the growth drivers on iOS were India and South Korea.

Some of the download growth was directly tied to the pandemic.

As students in Mexico returned to remote learning, for example, downloads of Education apps grew 25% and Libraries & Demo apps grew 270%. As U.S. consumers turned to the outdoors to find activities amid lockdowns and business closures, Travel, Navigation and Weather apps all saw strong growth of 50%, 25% and 15%, respectively.

Overall, Games, Tools and Entertainment drove Google Play downloads outside of the top category, Games. And on iOS Games, Photo and Video and Entertainment remained the top categories for five straight quarters.

Consumers also spent a record $28 billion in apps in Q3 2020 — the largest quarter to date.

On iOS, spend grew 20% year-over-year to $18 billion, while Google Play saw a 35% year-over-year increase to over $10 billion. Non-gaming apps accounted for 35% of that spend on iOS and 20% on Google Play, largely thanks to subscriptions.

Image Credits: App Annie

Top markets for consumer spend included the U.S. and Japan across both app stores, with the addition of South Korea for Google Play.

The increased consumer spending on apps could also be seen as being tied to the pandemic and its impacts. For example, Games, Social and Entertainment were the largest categories by consumer spend on Google Play. And within the Entertainment category, spend was driven by streaming apps, including Disney+, Twitch, Globo Play and HBO Max — apps that may have benefited from more consumers staying at home for entertainment.

On iOS, Games, Entertainment and Photo and Video were the top three categories by consumer spend. As sports returned to television in the U.S., spending in sports apps grew 55% from the prior quarter. TikTok, meanwhile, became the No. 2 app by consumer spend outside of games, thanks to increases in virtual tipping for streamers. However, the largest quarterly growth in spending, outside of games, was driven by the comics app piccoma, YouTube, Tinder and AbemaTV.

Image Credits: App Annie

Tinder indicated some resiliency in Q3. Despite the pandemic, the app jumped up one position to reach No. 1 by consumer spend. Disney+ also jumped up a spot to reach No. 4.

In terms of monthly active users, however, Facebook still dominated the top charts, claiming the No. 1 through No. 4 positions for Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, respectively. The next most used apps were Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, Spotify, TikTok and then Telegram. The latter broke into the top 10 for the first time, after jumping up two ranks from Q2.

Gaming also continues to get a boost from the pandemic, with weekly downloads hovering around 1 billion for the second straight quarter as consumers on lockdown look for entertainment — up 15% year-over-year.

Image Credits: App Annie

Consumers also spent over $20 billion on games in Q3, the largest quarter ever. By year-end, App Annie forecast mobile gaming will extend its lead over desktop by 2.8x and over console gaming by 3.1x.

Game downloads reached 14 billion in Q3, with downloads up 20% year-over-year on Google Play to around 11 billion. On iOS, consumers downloaded 2.6 billion games. Because of this, games accounted for a higher share of overall downloads on Google Play (45%) compared with iOS (30%).

App Annie’s findings follow app intelligence firm Sensor Tower’s Q3 report, released earlier this month, which saw similar trends. Sensor Tower estimated app revenue grew to over $29 billion in Q3, while it pegged new app downloads higher at 36.5 billion.

#apps, #covid-19, #pandemic

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Redfield urged to leave CDC in blaze of glory—or forever be Trump’s toady

A serious man in a business suit grimaces.

Enlarge / CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. (credit: Getty | Alex Edelman)

Renowned public health expert and former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention William Foege penned a private letter to current director Robert Redfield last month. It included a desperate plea: break free of the Trump administration’s political meddling, right the CDC’s course, and brace for a fiery end.

“The White House will, of course, respond with fury,” Dr. Foege wrote of his plan, first made public by USA Today Tuesday. “But you will have right on your side. Like Martin Luther, you can say, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.’” Peacefully resigning will not be enough to force change, Foege added. “When they fire you, this will be a multi-week story and you can hold your head high.”

Foege, a former CDC director under the Carter and Reagan administrations, has not been a vocal critic of the Trump administration. But, in his letter to Dr. Redfield, he didn’t hold back on his acerbic take of how the White House had handled the pandemic while damaging and sidelining the CDC in the process.

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#cdc, #covid-19, #foege, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #robert-redfield, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump

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Trump is already breaking platform rules again with false claim that COVID-19 is ‘far less lethal’ than the flu

Facebook and Twitter took action against a post from President Trump Tuesday that claimed that COVID-19 is “far less lethal” than the flu. Trump made the tweet and posted the same message to Facebook just hours after arriving back at the White House following a multi-day stay at Walter Reed medical center, where the president was treated after testing positive for COVID-19.

Facebook took down Trump’s post outright Tuesday, stating that it “[removes] incorrect information about the severity of COVID-19, and have now removed this post.” Twitter hid the tweet behind a warning saying that it broke the platform’s rules about spreading misleading or harmful COVID-19 misinformation.

“We placed a public interest notice on this Tweet for violating our COVID-19 Misleading Information Policy by making misleading health claims about COVID-19,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Taking down one of the president’s posts is rare but it wasn’t a first for Facebook. In August, Facebook removed a video Trump shared in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. The clip originally aired on Fox News.

On twitter, Trump’s tweet will have “significantly limited” engagement, meaning that it can’t be retweeted without quoting, liked or replied to, but it will remain up because it’s in the public interest. By the time Twitter took action on the tweet it had more than 59,000 retweets and 186,000 likes.

Facebook and Twitter both created new policies to address the spread of pandemic-related misinformation earlier this year. In the pandemic’s earlier days, the false claim that COVID is comparable to the flu was a common refrain from Trump and his allies, who wished to downplay the severity of the virus.  But after months of the virus raging through communities around the U.S., the claim that COVID-19 is like the flu is an even more glaring lie.

While much remains not understood about the virus, it can follow an aggressive and unpredictable trajectory in patients, attacking vital organs beyond the lungs and leaving people who contracted it with long-lasting health effects that are not yet thoroughly studied or understood. Trump’s own physician has said the president “may not be out of the woods yet” in his own fight with the virus.

In recent months, the president’s social media falsehoods had shifted more toward lies about the safety of vote-by-mail, the system many Americans will rely on to cast votes as the pandemic rages on.

But less than a day out of a multi-day stay at the hospital where he was given supplemental oxygen and three experimental treatments, it’s clear Trump’s own diagnosis with the virus doesn’t mean he intends to treat the health threat that’s upended the economy and claimed more than 200,000 lives with any seriousness at all.

Instead, Trump is poised to continue waging a political war against platforms like Twitter and Facebook — if the results of the election give him the chance. Trump has already expressed interest in dismantling Section 230, a key legal provision that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content. He tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” Tuesday after Twitter and Facebook took action against his posts saying the flu is worse than COVID-19.

#2020-election, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #donald-trump, #facebook, #misinformation, #pandemic, #tc, #trump-administration, #twitter

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Trump’s fight with COVID-19 adds fresh fuel to the misinformation fire he started

With the president hospitalized, his doctors evading basic questions and an election 29 days away, chaos reigned after Trump tested positive for the virus that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans. Now, after a four-day stay at Walter Reed medical center, the president said he will return to the White House. But more questions than answers remain.

Unlike a normal residence, the White House has its own medical unit, offering “full-time” care and facilities for emergency surgery, including the ability to administer supplemental oxygen — which he previously received at the White House — and even a crash cart for resuscitation.

If the president leaves the hospital Monday evening, the situation could become even more opaque. Trump is eager to return to an image of normalcy, but he’s still a high risk patient in the throes of a wildly unpredictable and deadly virus that seldom charts a linear course to recovery. And because it’s clear that Trump is eager to feign normalcy at any cost with less than a month to go before the election, his return to the White House is not a reliable sign that he’s anywhere near being in the clear.

One result of obfuscating the president’s health? The internet is left to eagerly fill in the gaps.

Top-down misinformation

Doctors provided the first update about the status of Trump’s health on Saturday, but that event backfired, with White House Physician Dr. Sean Conley later admitting that he omitted information in order to keep the president’s spirits high. Conley also threw the timeline of Trump’s diagnosis into question — confusion that’s only been partially resolved since.

The White House’s coronavirus outbreak is a big opening for opportunists, according to Yonder, an AI company that monitors online conversations and tracks disinformation. In an online info ecosystem the company says is “broken,” a fresh crisis is rocket fuel for false claims and conspiracies.

“From groups suggesting the diagnosis was a hoax for political gain to QAnon supporters suggesting it was all part of a plan to isolate and protect the President from his adversaries in the ‘deep state,’ social media continues to act as a weaponized rumor mill,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan said.

“In every case, agenda-driven groups on social media are using another national crisis to their advantage, and obscuring the truth in the process.”

On Friday, left-leaning conspiracy theories like #TrumpCovidHoax posited that the president wasn’t actually sick with COVID at all, suggesting he might have been malingering to elicit sympathy or avoid facing off with Joe Biden after a disastrous debate performance just days earlier.

Those beliefs are still rampant on social media even as the White House’s COVID-19 outbreak sidelines Trump’s own press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and campaign manager Bill Stepien, with the chaos threatening to take Trump’s reelection campaign completely off the rails.

‘Dire’ real-world effects

Hubris about the basic facts of the virus is undeniably what got the White House into this mess to begin with. Last week, a study by Cornell University found that President Trump is indeed the nexus of misinformation about the pandemic, with mentions of his name driving 38 percent of the broader COVID-19 misinformation ecosystem.

“The biggest surprise was that the president of the United States was the single largest driver of misinformation around Covid,” the study’s lead author Sarah Evanega said of the results. “That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.”

Those dire real-world implications took root over the weekend, as the virus threatened the president’s health seriously enough that his treatment team administered at least three powerful experimental treatments: the monoclonal antibody therapy Regeneron, which is still in clinical trials and not broadly available, the antiviral drug Remdesivir and the steroid Dexamethasone, which is prescribed in severe COVID-19 cases.

Hydroxychloroquine isn’t part of that his current drug cocktail, but the unproven COVID treatment the president touted — and took — earlier this year is again making the rounds online among some of the his supporters who are urging doctors to throw it into the mix.

Stella Immanuel, who was central to the “America’s Frontline Doctors” viral video that pushed false claims about COVID-19 treatments earlier this year, tweeted Friday that “Whoever told the president to stop taking HCQ should be punched in the face.”

In July, Trump called Immanuel an “important voice” who had “tremendous success” treating the virus before claiming that he is not familiar with her moments later.

Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs also tweeted his support for Hydroxychloroquine in the president’s treatment, in spite of the fact that the drug has not been shown to effectively fight the virus.

Circles promoting the pervasive pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon have their own ideas about the president’s condition, even viewing the Trump’s announcement that he had the virus as a “breadcrumb” encoding a secret message about Hillary Clinton. On Friday, 17 Republicans refused to support a bipartisan House measure condemning QAnon.

QAnon supporter DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero, who ran a failed bid for Congress, suggested that Trump actually contracted the virus from a microphone at Tuesday’s debate rather than from his open disregard for mask-wearing and social distancing, two measures the CDC and global health experts say effectively reduce transmission.

While misinformation is thriving in the absence of answers about the president’s health, factual medical advice emerged in at least one place amidst the chaos. After initially publishing — and then removing — facts about airborne transmission of the virus, the CDC added that information back to its website on Monday.

According to the CDC’s new guidance, which reflects scientific consensus, the virus can linger in the air for “minutes to hours” and infect people more than six feet away.

#2020-election, #covid-19, #donald-trump, #misinformation, #pandemic, #tc

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This congressperson wants to ramp up COVID-19 testing

Doctor in protection gloves examining & organising test kit for COVID-19 in laboratory.

Enlarge / Doctor in protection gloves examining & organising test kit for COVID-19 in laboratory. (credit: Tang Ming Tung | Getty Images)

The US’s COVID testing failure has unfurled in stages. First, there weren’t close to enough tests, thanks to cascading policy failures and supply chain issues. Once the supply problem gradually came under control, it was replaced by processing backlogs: As cases soared over the summer, many people were having to wait a week or more to get results back. A national survey in August found that only 37 percent of people receiving nasal swab tests were getting results back in the two-day window necessary for effective contract tracing, while nearly a third of tests were taking longer than four days. This delay meant that, as Bill Gates colorfully told WIRED’s Steven Levy in August, “The majority of all US tests are completely garbage.” The root of the problem, Gates said, was that the federal reimbursement rate for the labs that process COVID tests is the same regardless of how long the results take. Change that, he argued, and the labs processing tests “will fix it overnight.”

A new House bill would aim to make Gates’ idea reality. On Thursday, Mikie Sherrill, a freshman congressperson from New Jersey, introduced the SPEEDY Act, which would tie federal reimbursement to test result speeds. (The full name is the “Strictly Pay for Efficient and Expedited Delivery of Your (SPEEDY) COVID-19 Test Act.”) At the outset of the pandemic, the government was paying about $51 per test for people covered by federal health plans. (The average marginal cost of a standard PCR test varies, but at a high-volume lab it runs at about $40.) To encourage labs to increase capacity, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) raised that to $100 in April. Under the SPEEDY Act, tests that deliver results in 24 hours would be rewarded with $125; within 48 hours, the current $100 rate would apply; and for results within 72 hours, labs would go back to the pre-April reimbursement. The government wouldn’t pay at all for results that come back after 72 hours. (To avoid having labs just give up on tests after that window closes, the law would require them to still process the tests in order to participate in Medicare.)

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#covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #science, #testing

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Celebs back away from Trump admin.’s $300M COVID-19 ad campaign

The shadow of a reporter with a microphone falls on the wall behind a man in a suit.

Enlarge / Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s more-than-$300-million “public advertising and awareness campaign” on the COVID-19 pandemic is floundering as A-list celebrities back away and staff at the Department of Health and Human Services express opposition, according to reporting by Politico.

The campaign—organized by former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo—was intended to “defeat despair” and bolster confidence in the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. A central feature of the campaign would be video interviews between celebrities and administration officials, who would discuss the pandemic and the federal response.

To pull it off, Caputo and his team requisitioned $300 million that Congress had previously budgeted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also made a list of more than 30 big-name celebrities that they hoped to appear in the Health Department’s videos, including Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

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#caputo, #cdc, #covid-19, #hhs, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science

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Man refused to disband party that violated COVID order, gets year in jail

Picture of a jail cell in which a man's handcuffed hands are sticking out through the bars.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Caspar Benson)

A Maryland judge sentenced a man to one year in jail after finding him guilty of throwing two large parties in violation of a state pandemic order that banned large gatherings. Police were called to the man’s home twice in one week, and he refused to disband the party on the second occasion, authorities said.

Shawn Marshall Myers, 42, was sentenced on Friday at the District Court of Maryland, said an announcement by the state’s attorney for Charles County. Myers’ legal troubles began on March 22 when “multiple officers responded to Myers’ residence… for the report of a large party” violating Governor Larry Hogan’s order in which “large gatherings were strictly prohibited,” the state’s attorney office said.

Myers allegedly hosted about 50 people at the party. “Upon arrival, officers told Myers that his party violated the current mandate. Myers was argumentative with officers but eventually agreed to disband his party,” the state’s attorney office said.

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#coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #policy

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Trump may reject FDA’s stricter regulations for COVID-19 vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Maryland.

Enlarge / The Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Maryland. (credit: Getty | Congressional Quarterly)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he may reject the Food and Drug Administration’s plan to issue stricter safety and efficacy standards for COVID-19 vaccines, calling the plan a “political move.”

The new standards are aimed at bolstering public confidence in the FDA and its vaccine review process, which has been severely damaged by many reports of political meddling and interference by the Trump administration. Those reports include claims that the FDA was pressured by the White House into allowing COVID-19 patients to be treated with unproven blood plasma and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which was personally touted by Trump. (The authorization of hydroxychloroquine was later revoked by the FDA.) Just last week, Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, revoked the FDA’s authority to sign new regulations.

Trump himself has continually undercut federal public health guidance and government scientists, particularly Robert Redfield, his director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trump has also repeatedly pushed for a pre-election release of a vaccine, though experts have, in turn, repeatedly pointed out that such a speedy release is nearly impossible based on the timeline of the clinical trials underway and the amount of data needed to make even preliminary evaluations of safety and efficacy.

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#cdc, #clinical-trials, #covid-19, #fda, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #science, #trump, #vaccine

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Gavin Newsom’s Trial by Wildfire

Twenty months into his term, California’s governor faces a pandemic and an environmental crisis. He speaks to Kara Swisher about his plan to save the “state of resistance.”

#california, #covid-19, #economic-conditions-and-trends, #environment, #fracking, #newsom-gavin, #pandemic, #wildfires

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US COVID-19 deaths just topped 200,000

A medical technician in protective gear handles a wrapped corpse on a gurney.

Enlarge / Transporter Morgan Dean-McMillan prepares the body of a COVID-19 victim at a morgue in Montgomery county, Maryland, on April 17, 2020. (credit: Getty | ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS)

The US death toll from COVID-19 topped 200,000 Tuesday as daily reports of new cases still hover around 40,000 and daily deaths are in the 700s.

The grim milestone of 200,000 deaths is equivalent to the death toll from the 9/11 attacks occurring every day for 67 days. It’s also equivalent to losing about the entire population Salt Lake City, Utah, or nearly the population of Rochester, New York. COVID-19 has killed more in the United States than the number of Americans who died in the five most recent wars combined (the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf War).

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the COVID-19 death toll had already reached 200,541 deaths, stemming from more than 6.88 million cases. While these figures are based on data from state health authorities, the actual death toll is expected to be much higher.

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#covid-19, #deaths, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #public-health, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump, #us

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156 countries commit to fair COVID-19 vaccine access, but US won’t join

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference organized by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, on July 3, 2020 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a press conference organized by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, on July 3, 2020 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. (credit: Getty | Fabrice Cof)

A total of 156 countries—representing about 64 percent of the world’s population—have committed to pooling resources to help develop, buy, and equitably distribute two billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021.

“This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, which is co-leading the effort along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

So far, 64 high-income countries have signed on to the effort, as well as 92 low- and middle-income countries, which would be eligible for support in procuring vaccine doses. Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said in a WHO press conference on Monday that he expects 38 more countries to sign up in the coming days.

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#china, #covax, #covid-19, #infectious-disease, #pandemic, #policy, #public-health, #russia, #sars-cov-2, #science, #us, #vaccine, #who

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AG Barr: COVID lockdowns are worst threat to civil liberties since slavery

Attorney General William Barr walking down a hallway while wearing a mask.

Enlarge / William Barr, US attorney general, center, arrives for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., US, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

US Attorney General William Barr yesterday compared lockdown orders to slavery, saying that measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are one of the biggest violations of civil liberties in US history.

“Putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said in a Q&A session after delivering a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Based on that comment, Barr apparently thinks stay-at-home orders designed to reduce the spread of a deadly virus are a greater violation of civil liberties than Jim Crow laws, oppression of Native Americans, and Japanese internment camps run by the US during World War II. Besides that, there was never actually a national lockdown, largely due to the actions of Trump himself. States imposed varying levels of movement restrictions and stay-at-home orders while the Trump administration refused to implement a coherent national strategy and while Trump repeatedly undermined governors by claiming he has “total” authority to override their stay-at-home orders. As Trump downplayed the virus’s severity and made calls to “liberate” residents of states with aggressive pandemic responses, Barr threatened to have the US government sue states that don’t lift stay-at-home and business-shutdown orders.

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#covid-19, #lockdowns, #pandemic, #policy, #stay-at-home-orders, #william-barr

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Bonkers federal podcast downplays COVID-19, blasts health restrictions

Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Enlarge / Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo arrives at the Hart Senate Office building to be interviewed by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, on May 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Mark Wilson)

In a stunning podcast released by the Department of Health and Human Services, two top officials at the department repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, railed against mitigation efforts, called closures of in-person schooling “nonsense,” and said US journalists do not “[give] a damn about public health information.”

The podcast, released on the HHS website September 11, is part of a series hosted by Michael Caputo, who currently holds the title of HHS assistant secretary of public affairs. Though Caputo has no background in health care, the White House installed him in the department in April—a move reportedly made to assert more White House control over HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Caputo is a longtime Trump loyalist and former campaign official. He got his start as a protégé of Roger Stone and later worked as a Moscow-based advisor to Boris Yeltsin and did public relations work for Vladimir Putin.

Learning curve

Caputo has most recently made headlines for working to interfere with and alter scientific reports on COVID-19 prepared by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The meddling was intended to make reports more in line with messaging from Trump, who has admitted to downplaying the pandemic. Caputo also raised eyebrows with a Facebook live video, reported by The New York Times Monday, in which, without evidence, he accused government scientists of engaging in “sedition” and claimed that the CDC is harboring a “resistance unit.” He also spoke of long “shadows” in his DC apartment and said left-wing “hit-squads” were preparing for armed insurrection after the election.

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#alex-azar, #caputo, #cdc, #coronavirus, #hhs, #mccance-katz, #pandemic, #public-health, #samhsa, #sars-cov-2, #science

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N95 masks could soon be rechargeable instead of disposable

The pandemic has led to N95 masks quickly becoming one of the world’s most sought-after resources as essential workers burned through billions of them. New research could lead to an N95 that you can recharge rather than throw away — or even one that continuously tops itself up for maximum effectiveness.

The proposed system, from researchers at Technion-IIT in Israel and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, is not one of decontamination, as you might expect. Instead, it focuses on another aspect of N95 masks that renders them less effective over time.

N95s use both mechanical filtering, in which particles are caught in a matrix of microscopic fibers, and electrostatic filtering, in which particles are attracted to surfaces that carry a static charge. It’s like the old trick where you rub a balloon on your head and it sticks — but at the scale of microns.

The combination of these two methods makes N95 masks very effective, but the electrostatic charge, like any charge, dissipates after a time as air and moisture pass over it. While decontamination via UV or high temperature may help keep the mechanical filter from becoming a tiny petri dish, they do nothing to restore the electrostatic charge that acted as a second barrier to entry.

In a paper published in the journal Phsyics of Fluids, Dov Levine and Shankar Ghosh (from Technion and Tata respectively) show that it’s possible to recharge an N95’s filter to the point where it was close to off-the-shelf levels of efficacy. All that’s needed is to place the filter between two plate electrodes and apply a strong electric field.

“We find that the total charge deposited on the masks depends strongly on the charging time… with the pristine value almost reattained after a 60 min charge at 1000 V,” write the researchers in their paper.

A self-charging N95 mask prototype

It’s unlikely that health care workers are going to be disassembling their masks after every shift, though. While a service and special mask type could (and if it’s effective, should) be established to do this, the team also explored the possibility of a mask with a built-in battery that recharges itself constantly:

A solution that can help replenish the lost charge on the masks in real time would be desirable. In this section, we provide a proof-of-concept method of keeping the masks charged, which comes as a logical extension of our recharging method.

We tested a technique by which the filter material maintains its charge and thus its filtration efficiency… Since the currents required are extremely small, a large battery is not required, and it is possible that a small compact and practical solution may be feasible.

The image above shows a prototype, which the team found to work quite well.

Of course it’s not quite ready for deployment; IEEE Spectrum asked Peter Tsai, the creator of the N95 mask, for his opinion on it. He suggested that the team’s method for testing filtration efficacy is “likely questionable” but didn’t take issue with the rest of the study.

Though it won’t be in hospitals tomorrow or next week, the team notes that “crucially, our method can be performed using readily available equipment and materials and so can be employed both in urban and rural settings.” So once it’s thoroughly tested it’s possible these rechargeable masks could start showing up everywhere. Let’s hope so.

#covid-19, #gadgets, #health, #masks, #n95, #pandemic, #science

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Trump audio shows he knew about COVID’s severity even as he misled public

On February 7 this year, President Donald Trump admitted in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward that the coronavirus was far more deadly than the flu even as Trump continued misleading the public about the pandemic’s severity. In another interview on March 19, Trump told Woodward that he was intentionally downplaying the virus’s severity. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump said.

Woodward’s new book, Rage, is scheduled for release next week, but excerpts of the book along with recordings of Trump’s interviews with Woodward became public today. This CNN article contains several audio clips from the interviews.

The audio excerpts came from 18 interviews between December 5, 2019, and July 21, 2020, that “were recorded by Woodward with Trump’s permission,” CNN wrote. In the February 7 interview, Trump noted that the flu kills 25,000 or 30,000 people a year in the United States. “This is more deadly,” Trump then told Woodward, referring to the coronavirus. (So far, about 190,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.)

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#bob-woodward, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #pandemic, #policy, #science, #trump

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“Not uncommon at all”: AstraZeneca pauses COVID-19 vaccine trial

A double-masked health care worker jabs a needle into the arm of a seated woman in a mask.

Enlarge / A volunteer receives an injection of AZD1222 from a medical worker during the country’s first human clinical trial for a potential vaccine against COVID-19 at the Baragwanath Hospital on June 28, 2020, in Soweto, South Africa. It is reported that Africa’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial began on June 24 in South Africa. (credit: Getty Images | Felix Dlangamandla)

With the coronavirus crisis gripping the globe, all eyes are on every bump and dip on the path to the pandemic’s end. So, of course, news that researchers triggered a common pause to the clinical trials of a leading COVID-19 vaccine candidate made swift and alarming headlines late Tuesday.

The global phase III trials for the vaccine AZD1222 (formerly ChAdOx1)—developed by the University of Oxford and pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca—were put on a “temporary” and “voluntary” pause for a “standard review process,” AstraZeneca said in a statement Wednesday.

According the company, the pause was triggered by a “potentially unexplained illness” in one of thousands of participants involved in its trials. Per standard protocol, researchers must pause the trial to investigate whether the illness is related to exposure to the experimental vaccine or not.

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#adverse-event, #astrazeneca, #clinical-trial, #covid-19, #oxford-university, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #vaccine

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National Institutes of Health disses FDA on plasma as COVID treatment

Image of an older male with glasses, seated at a microphone.

Enlarge / Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, reportedly objected to the FDA’s decision to grant an Emergency Use Authorization to plasma treatments. (credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Last week, the FDA announced that it was issuing an emergency use authorization for the treatment of COVID-19: the blood plasma of people who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection. But controversy quickly engulfed that announcement after it became clear that the head of the FDA had exaggerated the effectiveness of the treatment when explaining why it was being approved.

The FDA’s salesmanship of blood plasma—which is a treatment of unknown efficacy—was taken as evidence that the emergency use authorization was the product of political pressure exerted by a Trump administration anxious to have some good news to promote its reelection campaign. Additionally, health experts at the National Institute of Health (NIH) didn’t agree with the decision and had tried to block it a week ago. Now, the NIH may be striking back, releasing a document that basically says it’s looked at the evidence and is not convinced.

Not so fast

While the CDC and FDA have led some aspects of the coronavirus response, the NIH is the employer of Anthony Fauci and the largest biomedical research organization in the world. So it certainly has things to say about how to handle the pandemic, and it maintains a COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel. This, as its name implies, maintains guidelines on different aspects of care for the disease. So, given that the FDA has just given an Emergency Use Authorization to a treatment, it essentially forced the NIH to respond in some way.

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#antibodies, #cdc, #covid-19, #fda, #nih, #pandemic, #plasma, #policy, #sars-cov-2, #science

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“Shortsighted” and “Self-defeating”: US rejects global COVID-19 vaccine effort

Close-up photograph of a gloved hand holding a tiny bottle of clear liquid.

Enlarge / A medical worker holds a bottle of a candidate COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University that is being tested in a trial in Soweto, South Africa. (credit: Getty | Gallo Images)

The Trump administration will not take part in a global effort to help develop and equitably distribute a COVID-19 vaccine—a decision experts called “shortsighted” and “self-defeating”—according to a report by The Washington Post.

The White House cited the involvement of the World Health Organization in its decision to shun the effort. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the WHO for being soft on China during the global health crisis, despite the fact that Trump himself repeatedly praised China for its “transparency” and response to the pandemic in January and February. At the end of May, Trump abruptly announced that he was “terminating our relationship” with the WHO, a move that alarmed public health experts.

White House spokesperson Judd Deere told the Post that “The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China.”

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#cepi, #covid-19, #gavi, #pandemic, #sars-cov-2, #science, #trump, #trump-administration, #vaccine, #who

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Florida order requiring all schools to reopen was illegal, judge rules

A school classroom filled with empty desks.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Mayu Tanaka | EyeEm)

Florida’s state government cannot force schools to reopen this month, a judge ruled yesterday. The state’s order to reopen K-12 schools disregarded safety risks posed by COVID-19 and gave schools no meaningful alternative, according to the ruling issued by Judge Charles Dodson of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County.

On July 6, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued an emergency order stating, “Upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” Schools that don’t meet this requirement could lose state funding. Corcoran, Governor Ron DeSantis, and other state officials were then sued by the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union; the NAACP; and several individual teachers and parents.

After summarizing the health risks of reopening schools during the pandemic, the judge wrote that the state’s order to reopen schools “takes none of that into consideration. It fails to mention consideration of community transmission rates, varying ages of students, or proper precautions. What has been clearly established is there is no easy decision and opening schools will most likely increase COVID‐19 cases in Florida. Thus, Plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success in procuring a judgment declaring the Order is being applied arbitrarily across Florida.”

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#covid-19, #florida, #pandemic, #policy, #schools