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  1. How do we test for coronavirus, anyway? A rundown of the biology behind testing for a virus we hadn't seen before. Enlarge / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield speaks during a press conference about the 2019-nCoV outbreak. Samuel Corum/Getty Images As the recently discovered coronavirus has rapidly spread beyond its origins in China, health authorities around the world have needed to quickly develop testing capabilities. In the United States, that task has been performed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has published its methodology and is currently in the process of applying for an emergency waiver to allow medical-testing facilities to perform these tests. But if you're not familiar with the tools of molecular biology, the CDC's testing procedure might as well be written in another language. What follows is a description of how to go from an unknown virus to a diagnostic test in less than a month. Starting from nothing When Chinese health authorities were first confronted with the outbreak, it had a disturbing familiarity. They had already dealt with a similar set of symptoms during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s and had seen the spread of MERS a decade later. Thanks to these and related viruses, we already had a detailed description of the structure of the typical coronavirus genome as early as 2005. That knowledge would undoubtedly prove essential for the first step in developing a rapid diagnostic test: characterization of the genome of the new virus, 2019-nCoV. Because we know what the average coronavirus looks like, we have been able to identify areas that don't change much over the evolution of new members of this family of viruses. And that allows us to obtain sequences of its genome without first isolating the virus. The first challenge of sequencing a coronavirus genome is that it's made of RNA rather than DNA. Most of our tools for working with nucleic acids are specific to DNA. Fortunately, we've discovered an enzyme called "reverse transcriptase" that takes RNA and makes a DNA copy of it—transcription is the copying of DNA into RNA; this enzyme does the opposite, hence the name. (Reverse transcriptase was first identified in other RNA viruses that need to be copied into DNA as part of infection.) Using reverse transcriptase, researchers were able to make DNA copies of parts of 2019-nCoV as a first step to studying its genome. But reverse transcription of samples from infected individuals would simply create a mess of DNA fragments from everything present: the patient's own cells, harmless bacteria, and so on. Fortunately, DNA sequencing and analysis techniques have become so advanced that it's now possible to just sequence the whole mess, irrelevant stuff and all, and let computers sort out what's present. Software is able to take what we know about the average coronavirus genome and identify all of the fragments of sequence that look like they came form a coronavirus. Other software can determine how all these fragments overlap and then stitch them together, producing a near-complete coronavirus genome. At this point, Chinese health authorities recognized that the virus involved in these infections was new, and they rapidly published the virus's genome sequence so that other health organizations could be prepared. From genome to sampling To make a diagnostic test specific to 2019-nCoV, researchers had to look for areas of its genome that don't change rapidly over coronavirus evolution but have changed enough in this branch of the family that they can be viewed as its distinctive signature. Those sequences can be used to design a means of amplifying a piece of the 2019-nCoV genome using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. We won't go into all of the technical details of how PCR works, in part because we've already done so. For the purposes of understanding the diagnostic test, all you have to know is that you need to design two small pieces of DNA that match (meaning they can base pair with) two sections of the genome a few hundred base pairs apart. These small pieces of DNA are called "primers." PCR will amplify the section of DNA between the two primers. It does this by putting the DNA through heating and cooling cycles in the presence of enzymes that copy DNA. Each time through the cycle, the enzymes can make two new copies of the section between the primers. Using this process, it's possible to take a stretch of DNA that's extremely rare and produce billions of copies of it. But PCR works with DNA, and the coronavirus is made of RNA. So we need to use reverse transcriptase first before trying to perform PCR. Fortunately, companies have developed solutions that have all the enzymes and raw materials that both reactions need, allowing for coupled reverse transcriptase-PCR reaction mixes. The combination of reactions has been termed RT-PCR. With the right primers, RT-PCR can allow us to start with a chaotic mix or RNA and leave us with a lot of copies of a specific piece of the 2019-nCoV, provided any was present in the original sample. The problem is that PCR is so sensitive that it can also amplify small errors—primers sticking to a distantly related sequence, a distantly related coronavirus in the sample, or even contamination from the previous sample. Even though these errors are rare, the exponential amplification provided by PCR can eventually allow one to dominate the sample. Fortunately, people have devised a way of taking advantage of the rarity of these errors. Get real If the right sequence for the primers is present—meaning 2019-nCoV is present in the sample—amplification will typically start with the very first cycle and grow rapidly. Errors, in contrast, may take a few cycles to occur and amplification therefore lags for a bit. To figure out when 2019-nCoV is really present, we have to identify when the amplification happens quickly and when it lags. We have to observe the progress of the PCR cycles in real time. To do so, scientists developed a dye that only fluoresces if double-stranded DNA is present. As the reaction starts, there's very little of that around, so fluorescence is low. But as more amplifications occur, the glow rapidly rises until there's so much DNA that sensing the difference between cycles becomes impossible. If the amplification starts early, this rise and saturation occurs early; if it depends on an error, then it takes longer to see them. Thus, real-time RT-PCR (RRT-PCR, for those excited about jargon) gives us a way to determine whether a PCR amplification occurs because our sequence of interest is present. (It can also be used to get an estimate of the relative amount of that sequence is present, but that's not needed for this test.) Because this is such an important technique, companies have developed products based around it. You can buy the fluorescent dye, enzymes, etc., as well as a machine that integrates the thermal hardware to cycle the reaction and has a light sensor to monitor the fluorescence. If you wanted to do this yourself, appropriate hardware seems to be available on eBay for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000. Kits aren’t all you need If you look at the CDC's instructions, however, you'll see little discussion of the hardware or enzymes. Instead, you'll find discussion of ways to avoid contamination. If a facility is doing lots of sample testing, there's going to be no shortage of 2019-nCoV DNA around, both from the samples and from the previous PCR reactions. Given the ease with which PCR can amplify rare sequences, this can create the risk of hordes of false positives. So the CDC details reams of best practices, like preparing RT-PCR reaction mixes with a separate set of hardware than that used to handle samples. Another big chunk of instructions involves the details of appropriate controls. Some of those leave out key reaction components like enzymes or sample RNA, in order to make sure that contamination is not producing spurious results. This will tell you whether you should trust positive results. There's also a positive control, to make sure that there isn't something wrong with the reaction mix, thus telling you whether you can trust negative results. That said, the tests aren't going to be definitive. We don't know enough of the virus' lifecycle to know the dynamics of infection yet: how long after infection does the virus become detectable, and when does that compare with the onset of symptoms. It's quite possible that asymptomatic infected people won't have enough virus for this test to pick up the virus consistently. So the CDC is still advising caution with people considered to be at risk of infection. Still, as cases of person-to-person transmission outside China appear to be ramping up, testing without the need to ship samples to CDC headquarters in Atlanta could help significantly with our ability to respond to a rapidly changing outbreak. Source: How do we test for coronavirus, anyway? (Ars Technica)
  2. Coronavirus Is Bad. Comparing It to the Flu Is Worse The whataboutism of infectious disease is as dangerous as it is hackneyed. Photograph: MLADEN ANTONOV/Getty Images There's a deadly virus spreading throughout China right now, but SELF Magazine has a calming message for Americans: "For perspective," the publication tweeted Thursday, "the flu is a bigger threat in the U.S." This was just the latest in an epic run of such comparisons: “The virus killing U.S. kids isn’t the one dominating headlines,” the Daily Beast advised; “Don’t worry about the new coronavirus, worry about the flu,” said Buzzfeed. Even the U.S. Surgeon General has gotten in on this idea. There are as many as 5 million severe cases of flu worldwide each year, and 650,000 deaths; in other words, says Axios, “If you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.” Call it “viral whataboutism.” The appeal to hypocrisy has long been endemic to our political discourse; and in recent years the pox has spread. Now this mutant form of rhetoric has come into discussions of what could be a massive epidemiological threat. Is the new coronavirus something to worry about? Yeah, sure, but so’s the flu… and you don’t seem to care too much about that! For goodness’ sake, stop. Yes, we know the flu is bad—no one likes the flu. But the gambit of positioning the influenza virus as the scarier of two foes is as dangerous as it is hackneyed. During the outbreak of deadly hemorrhagic fever that hit West Africa in 2014, Americans were reassured, again and again, that “Ebola is bad. The flu is worse.” It’s true that Ebola didn’t become a true threat in the United States, where two people returning from Africa with the disease died, and only two cases of new infection were recorded. It’s also true that 148 children in America—and thousands of adults—would die from influenza over the following winter. But these whatabout statistics aren’t really meant to sharpen our vigilance around the flu, or even to encourage us toward higher rates of vaccination. They’re just supposed to calm us down, and make us realize that we needn’t go to pieces over some other, more exotic-sounding disease. Stemming panic can be a righteous goal, especially when that panic is unfounded. Ebola certainly hasn’t vanished from the Earth—a recent outbreak in Congo has infected more than 3,000 people since August. But we now have a vaccine against the illness, and we’re better equipped to quell its spread. In the meantime, panic has unintended, harmful consequences. For example, just in the last week, we learned that the hoarding of face masks by healthy consumers might cause a dangerous shortage for the health workers who need them most. In contrast to Ebola, which was discovered decades ago, the coronavirus strain behind the outbreak that began in China is brand-new to scientists. So far this pathogen has claimed 638 lives, and we simply don’t know how it will behave in weeks and months to come. By telling people not to worry—or that we should worry “more” about the flu—we may end up eroding public trust in the media. What happens if this coronavirus proves much worse than we expected? The Chinese government is already under scrutiny for downplaying the risks. Why would American news outlets want to repeat the error? Even taken on their own terms, the flu comparisons rely on wonky and myopic math. Flu can kill Amercans by the tens of thousands, but that’s because it’s been around so long and has had so much time to spread. Millions get the virus every year, and fewer than 0.1 percent of them perish from it. What’s the rate of death from the new coronavirus? No one can say for certain, but estimates have hovered at around 20 times the rate for influenza, or 2 percent. Some virologists assert this is an overestimate, because milder cases might be getting overlooked; others counter that, given lack of access to diagnostic testing, many deaths may be uncounted. In short, it’s too soon to say. It’s also unclear how efficiently this coronavirus spreads from person to person. The total number of confirmed cases has grown from 282 on Jan. 21 to 31,211 on Feb. 7. It’s possible the spread will slow. Or else it might accelerate. In light of this uncertainty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to counsel everyone to “get a Grippe” on their concerns. All I’m saying is, I wouldn’t want to have been the person telling people to worry about heart disease instead of the flu in 1918. Before that outbreak was over, it had killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide; and, in the U.S., the number of deaths from respiratory illness surpassed those from heart disease for the first time in a decade. When it comes to disease—and particularly infectious ones—it’s best to avoid pitting pathogens against one another in a sort of “mortality rate Olympics”. Mother Nature doesn’t let us choose, à la carte, which problems to digest and when. It’s more like she’s piling our plates with stuff we didn’t ask for, and then adding to it even though we’re full. I get it—there are enough things to worry about already. Democracy is crumbling, climate change is advancing, children are being held in cages, healthcare is increasingly unaffordable and bills are looming. It’s hard to pile on concern about something that’s happening on the other side of the planet. Still we shouldn’t let ourselves be swindled of our capacity for empathy. As rhetoric, viral whataboutism tends to paper over the suffering of other people. There are more than 50 million people on lockdown at the heart of the new coronavirus epidemic, and hospitals are struggling to keep apace. Tragic stories have been mounting up, like that of the 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died in Hubei province when his father—his sole caregiver—was placed in quarantine. When news articles tell us that we should focus on the flu instead, they tacitly allow us to ignore this suffering in China. When they suggest that the so-called ‘2019nCov’ coronavirus appears to be of greatest threat to the old and already infirm, they encourage us to ignore the plights of people in those groups, and take an ageist and ableist point of view. In fact, scientists are still amassing data to know exactly who is most vulnerable to developing severe disease. Rather than returning time and time again to these flu comparisons, let’s focus on a problem we can fix. The global infrastructure for quelling outbreaks of new pathogens has been weakened by unstable funding: The World Health Organization has said that it needs $675 million to cover the cost of its response plan to the new coronavirus from February through April; and one academic paper notes that the organization’s entire 2018-2019 budget came to about $4.4 billion—just a fraction of the $33 billion annual healthcare and social services budget of Quebec, the Canadian province where I live. (The same paper notes that the WHO’s budget is “less than the budget of many major hospitals in the United States.”) Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is running out of money for global epidemic prevention, and reducing efforts in 39 out of 49 countries. I know, I know: Budget shortfalls are affecting lots of important projects, not just those aimed at preventing epidemics of disease. Some might claim, in this age of whataboutism, that while defunding the CDC is bad, cutting food stamps is worse. But when we play this zero-sum game, we end up shortchanging ourselves. We need to say ‘enough,’ or the whatabouts will never end. Source: Coronavirus Is Bad. Comparing It to the Flu Is Worse (Wired)
  3. “I have the Coronavirus”—two teens arrested for prank at a Walmart Police don't believe the teens were actually infected. Enlarge Alan Schein Photography / Getty A 19-year-old man named Tyler Wallace is in police custody after he entered a Walmart last Sunday in the Chicago suburb of Joliet. He walked through the store wearing a mask and sign that said "I have the coronavirus." He sprayed Lysol on produce, clothing, and other products. According to the Chicago Tribune, he faces charges of disorderly conduct, retail theft, and criminal trespass to property. A 17-year-old friend who accompanied Wallace in the store is also facing charges of disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. His case will be handled by juvenile courts. Police don't believe that either teen is actually infected with the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Walmart says it cost $7,300 to replace the produce and another $2,400 to clean up the store after the incident. People in the Chicago area are on high alert over the novel coronavirus since two residents, a wife and husband, have been identified as infected. The wife, who recently traveled to China, transmitted the infection to her husband upon her return. The husband’s case was the first documented instance of person-to-person spread of the virus in the US. There have been a total of 12 confirmed infections in the United States. Globally, more than 31,000 people have been infected with the virus, which has killed at least 630 people. The vast majority of these infections have occurred in China. There are also confirmed infections in neighboring countries—including Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia—as well as Western countries like the United States, Canada, France, and Germany. Source: “I have the Coronavirus”—two teens arrested for prank at a Walmart (Ars Technica)
  4. Face masks are mandatory in at least two provinces in China, including the city of Wuhan. In an effort to contain the coronavirus strain that has caused nearly 500 deaths, the government is insisting that millions of residents wear protective face covering when they go out in public. As millions don masks across the country, the Chinese are discovering an unexpected consequence to covering their faces. It turns out that face masks trip up facial recognition-based functions, a technology necessary for many routine transactions in China. Suddenly, certain mobile phones, condominium doors, and bank accounts won’t unlock with a glance. Complaints are plentiful in the popular Chinese blogging platform Weibo, reports Abacus, the Hong Kong-based technology news outlet. “[I’ve] been wearing a mask everyday recently and I just want to throw away this phone with face unlock,” laments one user. “Fingerprint payment is still better,” writes another. “All I want is to pay and quickly run.” Most complaints are about unlocking mobile devices. Apple confirmed to Quartz that an unobstructed view of a user’s eyes, nose, and mouth is needed for FaceID to work properly. Similarly, Huawei says that its efforts to develop a feature that recognizes partially-covered faces has fallen short. “There are too few feature points for the eyes and the head so it’s impossible to ensure security,” explains Huawei vice president Bruce Lee, in a Jan 21 post on Weibo.”We gave up on facial unlock for mask or scarf wearing [users].” Subverting surveillance cameras Biometrics, including facial recognition, are essential to daily life in China, on a scale beyond other nations. It’s used to do everything from ordering fast food meals to scheduling medical appointments to boarding a plane in more than 200 airports across the country. Facial recognition is even used in restrooms to prevent an occupant from taking too much toilet paper. And beyond quotidian transactions, the technology is a linchpin in the Chinese government’s scheme to police its 1.4 billion citizens. Last December, the government passed a new law that forces anyone registering a new mobile phone SIM card to undergo a face scan, in the stated interest of protecting “the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace,” as Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information puts it. The technology is also used in some schools, where a camera records student attendance and can offer predictions about behavior and level of engagement. Hong Kong’s government, incidentally, has been trying to install a “mask ban” for protestors participating in anti-government rallies. The anonymity afforded by surgical masks, gas masks, and respirators has somehow emboldened both police and demonstrators to act aggressively, without fear of being caught on camera. Facial recognition technology that can “see through” disguises already exists, but it’s far from perfect. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and India’s National Institute of Technology, for instance, demonstrated one method that could identify a person wearing a mask with around 55% accuracy. In 2018, Panasonic introduced commercially-available software that can ID people wearing surgical masks if the camera captures images at a certain angle. Despite its widespread adoption across China, it’s ironic that facial recognition technology in general has been found to be less reliable when processing non-white faces, observes Jessica Helfand, author of the new book Face: A Visual Odyssey. “The fact that surveillance is increasingly flawed with regard to facial recognition and Asian faces is a paradox made even more bizarre by the face mask thing,” Helfand says. A recent landmark study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed a racial bias in algorithms sold by Intel, Microsoft, Toshiba, Tencent, and DiDi Chuxing. It showed that that African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians were 10 to 100 times more likely to be misidentified compared to a Caucasian subject. Source
  5. Outbreak update — Symptomless spread of new coronavirus questioned as outbreak mushrooms The main source of infections is most likely people coughing and sneezing. Enlarge / Information officer wearing protective mask, gloves, and goggle, as prevention of novel coronavirus epidemic, at international arrival gate of Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia on February 4, 2020. Getty | Nur Photo The Chinese businesswoman who spread the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) to four colleagues in Germany while reportedly experiencing no symptoms of the infection actually did have symptoms, according to a news report in Science. The woman’s case, published January 30 in The New England Journal of Medicine, was considered the most clearly documented evidence that the novel viral infection could spread silently from asymptomatic people. Public health experts have been particularly anxious about such transmission because it could potentially ease disease spread and negate outbreak control efforts, including screening travelers for symptoms, such as fever. “The fact that asymptomatic persons are potential sources of 2019-nCoV infection may warrant a reassessment of transmission dynamics of the current outbreak,” the authors of the NEJM article concluded. But that conclusion now appears to be based on false information. And, while the new information on these specific cases doesn’t rule out the possibility that asymptomatic spread has occurred or is occurring in other cases, it could help ratchet down fears that asymptomatic spread is driving the now mushrooming outbreak. Experts at the World Health Organization have said repeatedly that even if asymptomatic spread is occurring, it is likely a minor source of infection; coughing and sneezing people are simply much more likely to spread the virus. Moreover, the corrected version of the NEJM article may highlight a more pressing threat to outbreak control—the fact that all five cases in the cluster were mild and unremarkable amid standard cold and flu season. Missed signs According to the new report in Science, the businesswoman’s 2019-nCoV infection symptoms went unrecognized because they were mild, masked by over-the-counter medications, and—most notably—the authors of the NEJM article didn’t speak with her before the article was published. The woman, a Shanghai resident who had visited Germany from January 19 to 21, tested positive for 2019-nCoV in China on January 26. The other four cases were identified in Germany by January 28, and the case report appeared in NEJM just two days later. Without direct communication with her prior to the publication, the NEJM article’s authors relied on the accounts of her four sickened colleagues in Germany, who said she didn’t seem sick during her visit. But government health officials in Germany were later able to reach the Shanghai woman by telephone. People privy to details of the call told Science that she said she felt tired, had muscle pains, and took a fever-reducer during her visit. Officials at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German government’s public health agency, have sent a letter to NEJM informing them of the error in the article, according to an RKI spokesperson who spoke with Science. One of the NEJM authors, Michael Hoelscher of the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich Medical Center, told Science that they should have been clearer about where they had gotten the information about the woman’s symptoms. “If I was writing this today, I would phrase that differently,” he said. Another author on the article, virologist Christian Drosten of the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, said, “I feel bad about how this went, but I don’t think anybody is at fault here. Apparently, the woman could not be reached at first and people felt this had to be communicated quickly.” Drosten went on to say that—despite the correction—the five cases highlight a potentially dangerous feature of this outbreak—that is, that the infection may not be very dangerous. “There is increasingly the sense that patients may just experience mild cold symptoms, while already shedding the virus,” he said. “Those are not symptoms that lead people to stay at home.” Circulating unknowns Indeed, as the outbreak has continued to escalate, experts have noted that the virus appears more contagious than initially thought and that the early outbreak responses focused heavily on identifying the most severe cases, such as those involving pneumonia and respiratory distress. That focus may have potentially missed the spread of mild disease, which may be far more extensive than what is known even now. As of Tuesday morning, there are reports of 20,704 cases worldwide and 427 deaths. According to the World Health Organization’s latest figures, approximately 13.5 percent of cases are severe—though that estimate could change dramatically if many mild cases are missing, which is likely. Of the outbreak cases, a little over 200 are outside of mainland China, scattered in around two dozen countries. Some of those countries have reported limited person-to-person spread, including the United States. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 11 cases in the country so far, including nine travel-related cases and two cases of person-to-person transmission within the US among close contacts. The first case identified in the US, a 35-year-old in Washington state, has been released from the hospital and is now in isolation at home. The second identified case, a Chicago woman in her 60s, has been described as doing “quite well” and is primarily being hospitalized for isolation purposes. “The look and feel of the exported cases, I think, really support the argument that there’s a lot of mild disease that is not being detected in China at the moment for the very good reason that they just can’t do it,” Dr. Allison McGeer told Stat News recently. McGeer is an infectious diseases researcher at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, who helped respond to other outbreaks of emerging coronaviruses, namely those behind SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Public health experts and media are now volleying predictions of how the outbreak will play out—whether it will be contained and fizzle out or become a pandemic (that is, with worldwide spread), and whether it could resurge occasionally or join its four common coronavirus cousins in continually circulating among humans. The answer is still unclear, of course, and, for now, the CDC still considers the risk to the general American public to be low. Source: Symptomless spread of new coronavirus questioned as outbreak mushrooms (Ars Technica)
  6. Tickler

    CoronaVirus: News and Updates

    The coronavirus has infected more than 1,700 healthcare workers in China, killing 6 of them As of Friday, 1,716 healthcare workers who were treating patients in China have been infected. Six are dead, National Health Commission Vice Minister Zeng Yixin said at a news conference, according to Reuters. A nurse wrote on Weibo that she is among almost 150 people who work at Wuhan Central Hospital and have either been infected or are suspected to have the coronavirus, CNN found. The nurse added that she holds her breath when her fellow healthcare workers enter the room to check on her, saying, “I’m afraid the virus inside my body will come out and infect these colleagues who are still standing fast on the frontline.” Of the infected medical workers, 1,102 are located in Wuhan alone, and another 400 became ill elsewhere in the Hubei province. Wuhan was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in December and the threat level skyrocketed for multiple reasons, including a shortage of medical resources to handle the deluge of highly contagious patients.
  7. Why the Coronavirus Hit Italy So Hard The country has the second-oldest population on earth, and its young mingle more often with elderly loved ones. Photograph: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images With the world descending deeper and deeper into coronavirus chaos, we all face unnerving unknowns: how long we’ll have to remain in isolation, when the pandemic will peak, the depths to which the stock market will tumble. But what’s abundantly clear is that this novel disease is most deadly for the elderly. The young may not present any symptoms at all, and this is especially dangerous to their elders, because they can pass the virus on to them without realizing it. Italy has been hit particularly hard, with some 2,000 deaths thus far. Overwhelmed hospital staffers have had to make devastating decisions about who to treat and who they must let perish. The reason why Italy is suffering so badly, write University of Oxford researchers in a new paper in the journal Demographic Science, may be twofold: The country has the second-oldest population on earth, and its young tend to mingle more often with the elderly, like their grandparents. Such demographic research will be critical in facing down the threat elsewhere, as more countries grapple with a deadly pandemic that’s just getting started and we learn more about how the virus is transmitted within families and communities. In Italy, 23 percent of the population is over age 65, compared to the US, where that population is 16 percent. “Extended longevity has played some role in changing the population structure,” says University of Oxford demographer and epidemiologist Jennifer Beam Dowd, lead author of the new paper. “But it actually has most to do with how rapid the decline in fertility has been in a population.” That is, it’s affected more by Italians having having fewer children than it is by them living longer. At the same time, young Italians tend to interact a lot with their elders. Dowd’s Italian coauthors note that young folks might live with their parents and grandparents in rural areas but commute to work in cities like Milan. Data on the composition of Italian households bears out this familial arrangement too. The study’s authors argue that this frequent travel between cities and family homes may have exacerbated the “silent” spread of the novel coronavirus. Young people working and socializing in urban areas interact with large crowds, where they may pick up the disease and take it home. If they have no symptoms, they’ll have no clue that they’re infecting their elders, the most vulnerable population. “We know now that the mortality is higher in older individuals, but what's not clear yet is why,” says Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine at Grady Health System, who wasn't involved in this research. For example, it could be a matter of older people having weaker respiratory systems, which could also lead to a higher mortality rate among seniors for diseases like pneumonia. Other researchers studying why children don’t seem to get that sick from Covid-19 have pointed out the corollary: Kids tend to have “pristine” lungs that have not already been damaged by a lifetime of inflammation caused by allergies, pollutants, and diseases. This might make them more resistant to attack by the new virus. Despite a full lockdown in place in Italy since the weekend, the virus has already spread far and wide. But with this kind of demographic knowledge, public health officials can better confront the threat elsewhere, Dowd says. “One of the points that we were trying to make is that it's not necessarily just about isolating the older population—we are identifying that they're the most vulnerable—but the general social distancing that's being encouraged to flatten the curve,” says Dowd. Flattening the curve means slowing the rate of new infections, buying researchers time to develop treatments and vaccines, and giving hospitals some respite. “I think our point was that's actually more important when you have a higher fraction of your population that is vulnerable,” she says. But while separating younger and older people might work in theory, it can create practical problems. For example, desperate to flatten the curve, local officials in the US are closing schools. If parents can’t look after their children—because they’re still working out of the home, or because they’re ill themselves—that care might fall on grandparents. To complicate matters even further, a study in Italy doesn’t exactly track with what we might expect in a massive country like the US, where the demographics vary greatly from place to place. Some cities might have far more young people than seniors, and some suburbs are likely just the opposite. Or think about Florida and its masses of retirees. “Florida is like an uber-Italy,” says Andrew Noymer, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in this research. “Florida is going to be a tough situation, I would predict.” In a place with so many elderly people, many of them living close together in retirement homes, social distancing will be extra important to avoid disaster. “It’s not destiny to say Florida is going to be absolutely clobbered by this,” Noymer says. “There is time with social distancing to flatten the peak. Maybe we can make this the dog that didn’t bark, so to speak.” An aging population doesn’t have to mean a devastating Covid-19 outbreak. In Japan, where over 28 percent of the population is over age 65, by March 16 there had been only 814 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, compared with Italy’s 24,747 cases and 1,809 deaths, according to WHO figures. Japan, along with neighbors including Hong Kong and Singapore, had rapidly ramped up testing in the early days of the outbreak and instituted strict travel controls. But Dowd says we can use Italy’s example to take practical steps in fighting the pandemic. We might pinpoint areas with older populations and try “to anticipate a little bit where the burden of care is going to be the most severe.” After a long delay in the rollout of mass testing in the US, on Friday the FDA approved the use of two commercial coronavirus tests. This may help Americans keep infected young people and healthy elders apart. In the meantime, if you want to check in with your grandparents, do it by phone. WIRED is providing unlimited free access to stories about the coronavirus pandemic. Sign up for our Coronavirus Update to get the latest in your inbox. Source: Why the Coronavirus Hit Italy So Hard (Wired)
  8. Taiwan Is Beating the Coronavirus. Can the US Do the Same? The island nation’s government is staying ahead of the virus, but don’t ascribe it to “Confucian values.” Credit democracy and transparency. Taiwan's swift, comprehensive response to the Covid-19 outbreak allowed the island nation to get ahead of the pandemic. Residents lined up to buy face masks from a pharmacy in New Taipei City on March 17, 2020.Photograph: SAM YEH/Getty Images As of Wednesday, the nation of Taiwan had recorded 100 cases of Covid-19, a remarkably low number given the island’s proximity to China. Some 2.71 million mainland Chinese visited Taiwan in 2019 and as recently as January there were a dozen round trip flights between Wuhan and Taipei every week. But despite its obvious vulnerabilities, Taiwan has managed, so far, to keep well ahead of the infectious curve through a combination of early response, pervasive screening, contact tracing, comprehensive testing, and the adroit use of technology. As millions of citizens in the US shelter in place while girding themselves for the double whammy of an accelerating outbreak and a vicious economic recession, it is natural enough to look at Taiwan’s example and wonder why we didn’t we do what they did, or, more pertinently, could we have done what they did? But a common theme in the recent press coverage of Taiwan’s (and Singapore’s) efforts to contain Covid-19 has included a consistent cautionary note. With particular attention to the technologically intrusive surveillance-state aspects of Taiwan’s response—notably, its real-time integration of national healthcare databases with customs and travel records and its use of government issued cell phones to remotely monitor quarantine orders—we keep seeing the culturally embedded assumption that East Asian-style state social control just won’t fly in the good old, individualist, government-wary, freedom-loving United States. The New York Times: People in “places like Singapore... are more willing to accept government orders.” Fortune: “There seems to be more of a willingness to place the community and society needs over individual liberty.” Even WIRED: “These countries all have social structures and traditions that might make this kind of surveillance and control a little easier than in the don’t-tread-on-me United States.” Here, once again, rising from the mausoleum like a zombie-infected terra-cotta warrior, we see the classic “Confucian values” (or “Asian values”) argument that has historically been deployed to explain everything from the economic success of East Asian nations, the prevalence of authoritarian single political party rule in Asia, and even, most recently, China’s supposed edge in AI research. So, yeah, kudos to Taiwan for keeping its people safe, but here in America we’re going to do what we always do in a crisis—line up at a gun-store and accuse the opposing political party of acting in bad faith. Not for us, those Asian values. But the truth is that Taiwan, one of Asia’s most vibrant and boisterous democracies, is a terrible example to cite as a cultural other populated by submissive peons. A closer look reveals that Taiwan’s success containing Covid-19 can be explained by the unique historical contingencies that have shaped this young nation. Taiwan’s self-confidence and collective solidarity trace back to its triumphal self-liberation from its own authoritarian past, its ability to thrive in the shadow of a massive hostile neighbor that refuses to recognize its right to chart its own path, and its track record of learning from existential threats. There is no doubt that in January it would have been difficult for the US to duplicate Taiwan’s containment strategy, but that’s not because Americans are inherently more ornery than Taiwanese. It’s because the United States has a miserable record when it comes to learning from its own mistakes and suffers from a debilitating lack of faith in the notion that the government can solve problems that dates at least as far back as the moment in 1986 when Ronald Reagan said “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” The Taiwan-US comparison is the opposite of a clash of civilizations; instead, it’s a deathly showdown between competence and incompetence. To be fair, there are some cultural aspects of East Asian societies that may work in Taiwan’s favor. There is undeniably a long tradition in East Asia of elevating scholars and experts to the highest levels of government, and that’s especially evident in today’s Taiwan: The country’s president Tsai Ingwen, boasts a PhD from the London School of Economics, and the vice president, Chen Chien-jen, is a highly regarded epidemiologist. (As Matthew Sommer, a historian of China at Stanford, told me via Facebook, “Taiwan actually has a functioning democratic government, run by sensible, well-educated people—the USA? Not so much.”) Joel Fetzer, a political scientist at Pepperdine University and the co-author of Confucianism, Democratization, and Human Rights in Taiwan, wrote in an email that “the traditional Chinese view of politics assumes a relatively large role in society for the government... and the idea of mutual solidarity inherent in the [Confucian] value of social harmony could help Taiwanese put up with the many inconveniences of measures that are needed to reduce the aggregate infection rate.” But when I posed the question of whether “traditional values” explained Taiwan’s success in containing Covid-19 to a private Facebook group of China-focused academics, the consensus view skewed strongly in the opposite direction. Several key points emerged. First, and most important was Taiwan’s experience battling the SARS outbreak in 2003, followed by the swine flu in 2009. In the middle of the worst of the outbreak in 2003, the current vice president, Chen Chien-jen, was appointed minister of health and won widespread praise for taking quick and decisive action. The threat of SARS put Taiwan on high alert for future outbreaks, while the past record of success at meeting such challenges seems to have encouraged the public to accept socially intrusive technological interventions. (Jason Wang, a Stanford clinician who co-authored a report on Taiwan’s containment strategy, also told me via email that the government’s “special powers to integrate data and track people were only allowed during a crisis,” under the provisions of the Communicable Disease Control Act.) Taiwan’s commitment to transparency has also been critical. In the United States, the Trump administration ordered federal health authorities to treat high level discussions on the coronavirus as classified material. In Taiwan, the government has gone to great lengths to keep citizens well informed on every aspect of the outbreak, including daily press conferences and an active presence on social media. Just one example: On March 15, vice president Chen posted a lengthy analysis of international coronavirus “incidence and mortality rates” on Facebook that racked up 19,000 likes and 3,000 shares in just two days. Several of the Facebook group respondents also noted that the international isolation forced on Taiwan by mainland Chinese pressure, as well as the ever-present threat of military invasion and the heightened levels of hostile rhetoric from the mainland in the five years since Xi Jinping took control of the People’s Republic of China, have bred a strong sense of solidarity. “Do not forget that Taiwan has been under China’s threat constantly,” wrote Wan Cheng-hua, a professor of art history at Princeton, “which has raised social consciousness about collective action. When the collective will supports government, then all of the strict measures implemented by the government make sense.” But Taiwan’s own success at building a functional democracy is probably the most potent rebuke to the Asian values thesis. The democracy activists who risked their lives and careers during the island nation’s martial law era were not renowned for their willingness to accept government orders or preach Confucian social harmony. Stevan Harrell, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who has conducted field research in both China and Taiwan, suggested that some of the current willingness to trust what the government is telling the people is the direct “result of having experienced the transition from an authoritarian government that lied all the time, to a democratic government and robust political dialogue that forced people to be able to evaluate information.” Because of the opposition of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations or the World Health Organization, a fact that may paradoxically have contributed to Taiwanese faith in their own government, according to Patrick Tung, a native of Taiwan and a specialist in Song dynasty history. “The reality of being isolated from global organizations,” wrote Tung, “also makes Taiwanese very aware of the publicity of its success in handling a crisis like this. The more coverage from foreign media, the more people feel confident in government policy and social mobilization.” The more detailed the picture, the more Taiwan seems like a model for how a democracy should guard the public’s health. So where does that leave the United States? Given what we know about Taiwan’s hard-won historical experience, could the US have implemented a similar model? The answer, sadly, seems to be no. For one thing, on a purely practical basis, as David Fidler, a specialist in international law and infectious diseases, wrote in an email, it would be impossible for the US to successfully integrate a health care database with customs and travel records because there is no national health care database in the United States. “The US health care system is fragmented, making it difficult to organize, integrate, and assess data coming in from its various government and private-sector parts,” wrote Fidler. But even more tellingly, continued Fidler, “the manner in which the United States has responded to Covid-19 demonstrates that the United States did not learn the lessons from past outbreaks and is struggling to cobble together a semblance of a strategy. ” And there’s the rub. There’s where the contrast between the United States and Taiwan becomes most salient. The US is not only bad at the act of government but has actively been getting worse. Over the past quarter-century, Taiwan’s government has nurtured public trust by its actions and its transparency. But over that same period powerful political and economic interests in the US have dedicated themselves to undermining faith in government action in favor of deregulated markets that have no capacity to react intelligently or proactively to existential threats. And instead of learning from history, US leaders actively ignore it, a truth for which there could be no better symbolic proof than the Trump administration’s dismantling of the National Security Council pandemic office created by the Obama administration in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. Finally, instead of seeking to keep the public informed to the best of our ability, some of our political leaders and media institutions have gone out of their way to muddy the waters. In Taiwan, one early government response to the Covid-19 outbreak was to institute a fine of $100,000 for the act of spreading fake news about the epidemic. There are obvious First Amendment issues involved in instituting the same policy in the United States, but the difference is still galling: In the US the most popular television news network in the country routinely downplayed or misrepresented the threat of the coronavirus, until the severity of the outbreak became too large to ignore. If there is any silver lining here, it’s that the disaster now upon us is of such immense scope that it could finally expose the folly of the structural forces that have been wreaking sustained havoc on American governmental institutions. So maybe we are finally about to learn that competence matters, that educated leaders are a virtue, and that telling the truth is a responsibility. Maybe next time a deadly disease rears its hydra-head we can be more like Taiwan. “I’m really hoping it doesn’t turn out the way I think it will,” wrote H.S. Sum Cheuk Shing, a graduate student studying medieval China at the University of Chicago, “but Americans might have to learn this the hard way like we did in Hong Kong and Singapore.” We’re about to find out how hard it’s going to be. But will we learn? Source: Taiwan Is Beating the Coronavirus. Can the US Do the Same? (Wired)
  9. Every movie delayed by coronavirus, from Black Widow to Fast 9 How coronavirus is affecting movies and TV so far (Image credit: Universal) As coronavirus panic spreads, entertainment companies are quickly changing course on releasing the year's biggest movies. Containing the virus and ensuring the safety of other people has to come first. Numerous industries have altered plans because of Covid-19 – MWC 2020 in Barcelona was canceled, and GDC and E3's cancellation mean gaming faces a quiet year for events. Movies, too, will be hit in much the same way. Cinemas are closing worldwide. In TV and film, the effects are accelerating, with movies like Fast and Furious 9, No Time To Die, A Quiet Place Part 2, and Peter Rabbit 2 all changing release dates to either later in 2020 or 2021. Mulan, Black Widow and The New Mutants have also been delayed for the time being, with no new release dates set by Disney just yet. This isn't just about release dates moving, though – TV show productions are shutting down as well, and in the coming months, we're only going to see more examples of this as coronavirus spreads. Here's a summary of how coronavirus has affected TV and movies so far, including every movie delayed by the effects of the virus to date. Movies delayed by coronavirus so far Movie release dates are dropping quickly, as the reality of reduced theater attendance is beginning to hit. No Time To Die's release date moved from April to November and A Quiet Place Part 2 has been delayed as well. Meanwhile, the less exciting Peter Rabbit 2 moved from March to August. The biggest move yet came with Fast and Furious 9, though, which will now release in April 2021, almost a year after its original May 22 release date. Next came word that Disney-distributed movies The New Mutants and Mulan are being delayed until a later, unknown date. Finally, May's Black Widow was delayed too. This is a developing situation, obviously, and the world could look very different in a few weeks. Theaters are communal spaces, more likely to be avoided for the time being to stop the spread of the virus. China, a massive market for blockbusters, is basically closed for business. China closed all of its 70,000+ theaters in late January. Source: Every movie delayed by coronavirus, from Black Widow to Fast 9 (TechRadar)
  10. As US fumbles COVID-19 testing, WHO warns social distancing is not enough The US is still struggling to ramp up testing as disease continues to spread. Enlarge / WESTMINSTER, MD - MARCH 16, 2020: Dawn Canova, clinical manager for outpatient wound care at Carroll Hospital, takes samples from people to test them for the coronavirus at a drive-thru station in the hospital's parking garage. Not open to the general public for testing, the station was set up to take samples from people who had spoken with their doctors and received explicit direction to get a test for the novel coronavirus called COVID-19. Chip Somodevilla 261 with 143 posters participating As the United States continues to struggle to ramp up basic testing for COVID-19, experts at the World Health Organization on Monday emphasized that countries should prioritize such testing—and that social-distancing measures are not enough. “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (aka Dr. Tedros) said in a press briefing March 16. Dr. Tedros noted that, as the numbers of cases and deaths outside of China have quickly risen, many countries—including the US—have urgently adopted so-called social-distancing measures, such as shuttering schools, canceling events, and having people work from home. While these measures can slow transmission and allow health care systems to better cope, they are “not enough to extinguish this pandemic,” Dr. Tedros warned. What’s needed is a comprehensive approach, he said. “But we have not seen an urgent-enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing, which is the backbone of the response,” Dr. Tedros said. “The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission,” he went on. “And to do that, you must test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.” Unnecessary The message was a sharp one for the United States, which has struggled to ramp up its testing capacity. While other countries have performed hundreds of thousands of tests since the outbreak mushroomed out of China’s Hubei Province in January, some estimates suggest that the US has tested a mere 38,000 people or so—a majority in just the last couple of weeks. By contrast, South Korea has been testing nearly 20,000 people every day. In a series of press conferences in recent days, members of the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, have announced plans to dramatically increase the country’s testing capacity, including partnerships with private companies. The officials have suggested that the country will soon be able to tests tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people per week. But confidence in the plans have been shaken by clumsy descriptions and overstatements. That includes an announcement Friday by President Trump that Google was developing a website that would allow people nationwide to determine if they should get tested and help them set up testing at a local lab. The announcement reportedly took Google by surprise. Its sister company, Verily, has since released such a site, but it only serves people in California’s Bay Area and, so far, doesn’t provide any useful information or services. Additionally, while experts at the WHO recommend thorough testing of suspected cases and contacts to get ahead of transmission, the Trump administration has so far emphasized mainly testing people with noticeable symptoms who largely self-identify as candidates for being tested. Officials also said testing would be prioritized for health care workers and those 65 years and older who had symptoms. “We don’t want everybody taking this test. It’s totally unnecessary,” President Trump said in a press briefing Friday. So far, the US has detected over 4,200 cases in 49 states and the District of Columbia. This number is expected to be far lower than the actual number of cases due to the delayed and limited testing. There have been 74 reported deaths in the US. Worldwide, there are over 181,000 cases in at least 148 countries. More than 7,000 people have died. Read our comprehensive 8,000 word explainer about the novel coronavirus. Source: As US fumbles COVID-19 testing, WHO warns social distancing is not enough (Ars Technica)
  11. Coronavirus Widens the Money Mule Pool With many people being laid off or working from home thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, cybercrooks are almost certain to have more than their usual share of recruitable “money mules” — people who get roped into money laundering schemes under the pretense of a work-at-home job offer. Here’s the story of one upstart mule factory that spoofs a major nonprofit and tells new employees they’ll be collecting and transmitting donations for an international “Coronavirus Relief Fund.” On the surface, the Web site for the Vasty Health Care Foundation certainly looks legitimate. It includes various sections on funding relief efforts around the globe, explaining that it “connects nonprofits, donors, and companies in nearly every country around the world.” The site says it’s a nonprofit with offices based in Nebraska and Quebec, Canada. Vasty is a phony charity that pretends to raise money for Coronavirus victims but instead hires people to help launder stolen funds. This and the rest of the content at Vasty’s site was lifted from GlobalGiving, a legitimate charity that is helping people affected by the pandemic. The “Vasty Health Care Foundation” is one of several fraudulent Web sites that recruits money mules in the name of helping Coronavirus victims. The content on Vasty’s site was lifted almost entirely from globalgiving.org, a legitimate charity that actually is trying to help people affected by the pandemic. “We have been contacted by job seekers asking if we are related to some of these job opportunities they’ve been finding on Indeed.com and Monster.com,” said Kevin Conroy, chief product officer at GlobalGiving. “And we always tell them no that’s not from us, and not to cash any checks someone may be giving them in relation to those offers.” The Vasty domain — vastyhealthcarefoundation[.]com — was registered just weeks ago, although the site claims its organization has been around for years. The crooks behind this scheme also seem to have submitted the Vasty name in custom links at vetting sites like The Better Business Bureau and Guidestar that ultimately take one to a summary of data on GlobalGiving, no doubt as part of an effort to lend legitimacy to its name (hovering over the links above reveals the trickery). What proof is there that Vasty isn’t a legitimate charity? None of the dozens of Canadian mules contacted by this author responded to requests for comment. But KrebsOnSecurity received copious amounts of information about this scam from Milwaukee, Wisc. based Hold Security, which managed to intercept key file exchanges between threat actors through public file sharing services. Among those files were a set of form letters and boilerplate email messages that describe the ideal candidate for the job at Vasty and welcome new recruits to the Vasty payroll. Here’s a look at the part of the job description, which includes on a second page (not pictured) a description of the healthcare plans and other benefits allegedly offered to Vasty employees. After congratulating applicants (everyone who applies is “hired”) on their new positions, Vasty asks the recruits to do some busy work. In this case, new hires are sent to local pharmacies on some bogus errand, such as to inspect the pricing of face masks and hand sanitizer products for price-gouging. “Now we have the first task for you. You will have to perform a trip within your city. So that we can compensate for transportation costs along with your hourly rate, I ask you to keep receipts confirming your expenses. LOCATION: Sam’s Geneva Street Pharmacy ADDRESS: 284 Geneva St, St. Catharines, ON L2N 2E8 I ask you to go to the pharmacy at the specified address. We are increasingly receiving reports of private sellers violating the pricing policy for products such as: aspirin, face masks are loose surgical masks with elastic loops that go around the ears, hand sanitizers.” New recruits are then asked to assemble and submit a written report of their observations at the store in question. These types of menial, meaningless tasks are a typical tactic of money mule recruitment schemes and they serve two main purposes: They separate out slackers from people who really need and want a job, and they help the employee feel like he’s doing something useful and legitimate (aside from just moving money around, which if brought up too soon might make him question whether the job is legit). Eventually, after successfully completing one or more of these busy work tasks, the new hire is asked to process a “donation” from someone who wants to help fight the Coronavirus outbreak: “Please read the instructions carefully. One donor wants to make donations to help fight the coronavirus. As you know, this is a big problem for most countries of the world. Every day we receive information from the World Health Organization that more and more people are sick. Quite a lot of people died from this virus. Some people simply don’t have enough funds to provide themselves with standard face masks and disinfectants to fight the virus.” “The donor requests that Bitcoins be bought with his funds. For this task, you need to create your Bitcoin wallet, or use the QR code that we send you in this letter. You will receive from the donor up to 3000 CAD. Your commission up to 150 CAD will be included in this amount to cover your expenses. I remind you that you do not need to use your funds to buy bitcoins. The funds will be sent to you. You will need to receive cash atm or at your bank branch.” What happens next is the employee then receives an electronic transfer of money into his bank account, is asked to withdraw the cash, and to keep 150 Canadian dollars for himself. He’s then instructed to take the remainder of the funds to a Bitcoin ATM and scan an emailed QR code with his mobile phone. This causes the cash he deposits into the Bitcoin ATM to be sent in an irreversible transaction to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the scammers. What’s going on behind the scenes is the funds that get deposited in the employee’s account are invariably stolen from other hacked bank accounts, and the employee is merely helping the crooks launder the stolen money into a form of payment that can’t be reversed. Another boilerplate email intercepted by Hold Security shows Vasty’s new hires manager offering advice to employees who are asked by nosey bank employees about the nature of the funds withdrawal. “Important: If you receive any questions from the bank regarding the purpose of the payment, you can open part of the instructions if necessary and inform that these funds are intended for payment of medicines. In any case, it is a personal payment and it will not be taxed. However, I strongly recommend that you not divulge the rest of the instructions for paying for medicines against coronavirus so as not to aggravate panic among the population.” Americans shouldn’t feel left out of the scam: Hold Security founder Alex Holden says his analysts also intercepted a nearly identical set of scam templates targeting job seekers in the United States. Money mule scammers specialize in hacking employer accounts at job recruitment Web sites like Monster.com, Hotjobs.com and other popular employment search services. Armed with the employer accounts, the crooks are free to search through millions of resumes and reach out to people who are currently between jobs or seeking part-time employment. If you receive a job solicitation via email that sounds too-good-to-be-true, it probably is related in some way to one of these money-laundering schemes. Even if you can’t see the downside to you, someone is likely getting ripped off. Also, know that money mules — however unwitting — may find themselves in hot water with local police, and may be asked by their bank to pay back funds that were illegally transferred into the mules’ account. Overall, Holden said, established cybercriminals who specialize in recruiting and grooming money mules for financial crimes have been cooing of late over the potential glut of new mules. One mule vendor on a popular Russian-language crime forum posted Tuesday that his “drops” — the hacker slang term for money mules — weren’t scared of Coronavirus concerns. “We got drops in masks!,” one vendor proclaimed. “We continue to work despite the Coronavirus,” declared another drops vendor. Any readers interested in helping others affected by the Coronavirus outbreak should consider giving through the organization Vasty is impersonating here; Global Giving. Alternatively, these two stories link to a number of other reputable organizations facilitating Coronavirus relief efforts. Source: Coronavirus Widens the Money Mule Pool (KrebsOnSecurity - Brian Krebs)
  12. A fake coronavirus tracking app is actually ransomware A fake coronavirus tracking app is actually ransomware that threatens to leak social media accounts and delete a phone's storage unless a victim pays $100 in bitcoin The concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak are being exploited by hackers taking advantage of people's thirst for information. An Android app called "COVID19 Tracker" is just one example of ransomware that masks itself as a real-time coronavirus map tracker, according to researchers. If a user grants the app access to certain phone settings, the ransomware is enabled and locks the user ouf of their phone unless they pay $100 in bitcoin to the hackers within 48 hours. If the victim doesn't comply, the ransomware threatens to delete their phone's storage and leak social media accounts. The website that hosts the ransomware app appears to have been taken down. The app isn't found on the Google Play Store, where the risk of downloading malware is significantly lower. Unsurprisingly, people are turning to the internet to get up-to-the-minute information on the coronavirus outbreak, but the thirst for information during a pandemic is a perfect opportunity for hackers. It's also a good time to remind everyone that hackers are still hard at work, even during concerning times. An app called "COVID19 Tracker" masking itself as a coronavirus outbreak map tracker is actually ransomware that locks down your phone and demands you pay the hackers $100 in bitcoin within 48 hours, according to Chad Anderson and Tarik Saleh at internet security company DomainTools. Saleh's report from Friday shows that the app is designed for the Android operating system, and was listed to Android users searching the web for coronavirus tracking apps. To download the app, a user would have to go directly to the website where the app was hosted and download the app from there. The app was not available on the Google Play Store, according to Saleh. The website appears to have been taken down as of Monday afternoon, but it was still running on Monday morning. The site prompts visitors to download an app, saying, "for android users: to get real-time number of coronavirus cases based on your GPS location please download the mobile app version of the website and enable 'accurate reporting' for best experience." Business Insider isn't linking or posting the name of the site. Once opened, the app asks for access to your lock screen to give you "instant alerts when a coronavirus patient is near you." The app also asks for permission of an Android phone's accessibility settings for "active state monitoring." If an unsuspecting user grants these permissions to the app, ransomware dubbed "CovidLock" is enabled, and the screen changes to a ransom note, shown below: The note says: "Your phone is encrypted: You have 48 hours to pay 100$ [sic] in bitcoin or everything will be erased. 1. What will be deleted? your contacts, your pictures and videos, all social media accounts will be leaked publicly and the phone memory will be completely erased 2. How to save it? you need a decryption code that will disarm the app and unlock your data back as it was before 3. How to get the decryption code? you need to send 100$ [sic] in bitcoin to the adress [sic] below, click the button below to see the code Note: Your GPS is watched and your location is known, if you try anything stupid your phone will be automatically erased" At the end of the note is a text field where a victim is meant to enter the decryption code, and a button beneath the text field that says "Decrypt." Saleh notes that protections against this kind of attack in the Android operating system have been in place since Android 7 "Nougat" released in 2016, just as long as the user has set a password to unlock the phone. Without an unlocking password, users are still vulnerable to attacks like the CovidLock ransomware. Saleh said that the DomainTools security research team had reverse engineered the decryption key, and has released it publicly here so that victims could unlock their devices without paying the ransom. When asked whether the hackers could simply generate a new decryption key, DomainTools told Business Insider that the hackers would need to rewrite the malware and redeploy it, and a new key wouldn't affect anyone who has already downloaded the infected app. "That is one of the big flaws of CovidLock," DomainTools said. The company is also monitoring the hackers' bitcoin wallet and its activity, and DomainTools told Business Insider that no one has paid the ransom to the hackers as of yet, but the company is unsure of how many people have downloaded the app. DomainTools advises that people obtain information regarding COVID-19 from trusted sources like government and research institutions. It also suggests that people don't open emails or click links with health-related content, as miscreants are "trying to capitalize on fear." And finally, it advises Android users to download apps exlusively from the Google Play Store, where there is less risk of downloading malware. This isn't the first instance of malware apps masking themselves as coronavirus-related tracking apps. Last week, cybersecurity researchers identified several fake COVID-19 tracker maps that infect people's computers with malware when opened. Source
  13. The 'Fearless Girl' statue stands across from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) wearing a coronavirus mask. Photograph: Luiz Roberto Lima/Getty Images How Long Will the Outbreak Last? It Depends on What We Do Now People are working with a vast amount of uncertainty about Covid-19. But in two weeks, we might have enough data to take action with precision. Just before midnight Sunday, President Trump unleashed an all-caps tweet signaling a change of heart on national Covid-19 containment strategy. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he wrote. “At the end of the 15 day period we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!” The immediate reaction to the tweet broke down along familiar lines. Either it was yet another example of erratic leadership from a president more concerned with how the state of the economy will affect his re-election prospects than with the public health, or it was a bold attempt to avert an oncoming devastating recession that has been fueled by partisan media hype. There are clearly a range of different economic consequences associated with different strategies for fighting the Covid-19 epidemic, although the chorus of right-wing economists who pounced on the President's tweet to argue that it was already time to end stay-at-home orders and send people back to work don’t appear to have thought through just how economically devastating a wholly unmitigated outbreak would be. More importantly, few, if any respondents to the tweet took time to note that the content actually mapped to what many public health experts and epidemiologists are telling us about Covid-19. In the not-so-far-away future we will know a great deal more than we do right now about every aspect of the disease, and we will be able to make much more finely tuned decisions on how to tackle it. “What I’ve been saying to policy folks,” says Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at Harvard, “is we are at least a couple of weeks, two to three, away, and then we have data, we have evidence and I can imagine some communities starting to loosen things up.” There are a myriad of caveats to Jha’s prediction. For it to come true will first require that the general public must aggressively embrace social distancing to a degree unthinkable just a few weeks ago. We will also need a vast ramp-up in testing, so policy makers and government officials can get a handle on hot spot locations and be equipped to do contact tracing and targeted quarantines. And we have to acknowledge that there will be immense regional variations; it’s hard to imagine New York, the current American epicenter of the outbreak, or Florida, which arrived late to the shut-down party, “loosening up” in the very short term. There also appears to be a depressingly high likelihood that a succession of recurrent Covid-19 flareups throughout the next year might require the reinstitution of shelter-in-place orders on an ad hoc basis. But if one of the most crippling aspects of the current dystopia is the vast amount of uncertainty that permeates our lives, as we try to get through our days with zero clarity on when schools or restaurants will re-open or how many people will get sick and die or how long-lasting the economic shock will be, there may be a ray of hope. With the passage of each day we will know a little more. We will know more about how the disease is spreading, we will better understand the biological nature of the disease, we will begin to develop effective treatments for it, and at the end of the rainbow, we should have a vaccine. None of it will be easy, but there is a reasonable argument to be made that we are poised right now to confront the worst of the crisis, and within a matter of weeks we will start to get some traction on the immense challenge of reducing its severity. “There is a massive execution risk,” Jha says. “There is a massive risk that we could just screw this up. But we know enough that if we execute it really effectively, we can thread this needle, and we can get through this.” Anyone who has ever played a real-time strategy game knows that the most vulnerable moments often come early on in the struggle, before you’ve marshaled resources, educated your population, developed key technologies, and built a thriving economy. At that point, avoiding mistakes and executing with precision has enormous repercussions, but eventually, if you do everything right, a tipping point arrives, momentum becomes unstoppable, and triumph is guaranteed. We’ve just started our moves. As of Monday, twelve states had instituted stay-at-home orders affecting about one in four Americans. Only five states (Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Nebraska and Wyoming) still have schools open. One of the consequences of what might be charitably described as laissez-faire federal leadership is that local governments are making up their own rules as they go along, resulting in what is in effect a national laboratory of randomized experiments in how to contain Covid-19. For example, on March 16, the San Francisco Bay Area became the first region in the United States to order shelter in place, at a point when only 335 cases of Covid-19 and six deaths had been recorded in the state of California (by contrast, Italy did not order a national lockdown until registering 9,172 cases and 473 deaths). The Bay Area and California writ large (which instituted a statewide stay-at-home order on March 19) will therefore be one of the first areas to generate useful data for epidemiologists on the impact of social distancing. Texas and Florida, two states that have taken more relaxed approach to implementing social controls, may produce data of a different kind—potentially indicating that a more lackluster response will result in higher growth rates for total cases and deaths. What’s already happened elsewhere provides the background for current US policy. Italy’s shocking surge in deaths served as a key incentive to California’s precipitous action. The release last Monday of a dire report from the UK’s well-regarded Imperial College predicting as many as a million deaths from Covid-19 in the United States, even with “the most effective mitigation strategy examined,” further focused international policy makers on the pressing need for immediate, sweeping action. Some critics attacked the Imperial College methodology and advocated for more aggressive containment strategies akin to China’s massive Wuhan lockdown or South Korea’s comprehensive testing and contact-tracing regimen, but public health experts cautioned against expectations that such models could be duplicated here. The United States, Jha says, does not have the bureaucratic or totalitarian capacity to put into effect a Wuhan-style lock down, and the moment when massive testing and contact tracing could have kept a national outbreak in check is long gone. But Jha also warned against putting too much credence into any specific death toll estimation. “If anyone is completely confident,” Jha says, “you should not be listening.” (In support of Jha’s point, a survey of American infectious disease researchers conducted on March 16-17 estimated death totals in 2020 in a range from 4,000 to one million.) Without any mitigation in the form of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, epidemiologists fear a massive spike in cases that will overwhelm the health care infrastructure. Spreading out that blow over a longer period of time has been the primary concern inspiring calls to "flatten the curve" by changing our behavior. But a second benefit of flattening the curve is that it also buys time to ramp up testing and understand where and how the disease is spreading. The latest data from Italy, where the percentage rise of new cases and the total number of new deaths has fallen over the last two days, precisely two weeks after a national lockdown was put into place, is a heartening sign that aggressive social distancing measures do work. Jha speculates that over the next 10 days to two weeks the US is “going to see the exponential rise starting to shift and plateau. The percentage growth in cases will slow.” And over that same period, he says, much more extensive new testing capabalities will come online, something that we are already seeing in New York. “Not as much as I would like,” he says, but enough “to identify everybody who is infected and to do contact tracing.” There are still vast challenges ahead, acknowledges Jha, who says that even with a major increase in testing it will still be difficult to track what’s happening with asymptomatic virus carriers. But for some observers, that problem is primarily a logistical question that can be tackled with the application of enough resources. As a widely shared Twitter threat by Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at the University of Washington argued last week, “this is the Apollo project of our times. Let's get to it.” With more data in hand, a wider spectrum of containment strategies becomes possible. “You could imagine in two or three weeks,” Jha says, “in places where it looks like things are really slowing down, we could start saying, all right, we’re going to open up offices and restaurants and let people go back to work [but at the same time] we’re not going to open up Major League baseball because we don’t want 30,000 fans in a stadium.” During the same period policy makers and public health experts in the US will start benefiting from data acquired from China and Italy and elsewhere on how the disease has spread. And in the longer run, judging by the vast amount of scientific resources currently being targeted at Covid-19, we will be well on the way to a more complete biological understanding of the disease that will enable effective treatments (which will lower mortality rates and reduce pressure on ICU wards), and, eventually, the holy grail of a vaccine. The obvious weakness in the theory that over the next few weeks the United States will start to gain an upper hand on the outbreak is the unavoidable reality that our execution to date has been anything but perfect. Our testing rollout has been a disaster, our efforts to supply our health infrastructure with the required protective gear and ventilators has been a national disgrace, and our federal government has been woefully unable to provide clear guidance to local governments on best practices. The angry suspicion that greeted President Trump’s signaling of a potential end to national lockdown policy in the short term was just one more data point describing a system in which broken politics has contributed to a widespread lack of faith in effective government leadership. It seems clear that the president’s desire to restart the economy is not linked to any data on the effectiveness of social distancing strategies on containment, but is instead a consequence of his alarm at the disastrous economic impacts of the nationwide shutdown. (Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, was pretty explicit about this Monday, telling Fox News “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease. And we’re going to have to make some difficult trade offs.”) Now, more than ever, say health experts like Jha, we need to be patient and give the new rules a chance to work. Then we’ll know how and where we can send people back to work. Today, no one can say exactly when schools will reopen or when it will be safe to congregate in bars or how long the economy will be in a downturn or how many people will die, but in 15 days we will be significantly less ignorant than we are now. We will know how and if social distancing works. We will know where the most drastic measures must be deployed and where we can let up on the reins. Right now we’re hitting everything with a hammer because that’s the only tool we have. In a few weeks, maybe we’ll be armed with scalpels. WIRED is providing unlimited free access to stories about the coronavirus pandemic. Sign up for our Coronavirus Update to get the latest in your inbox. Source: How Long Will the Outbreak Last? It Depends on What We Do Now (Wired)
  14. Scientists are racing to find the best drugs to treat COVID-19 The WHO is launching a multicountry trial to collect good data Photo: Feature China / Barcroft Media via Getty Images Part of A guide to the COVID-19 pandemic Three months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s still unclear which drugs could combat the viral disease and which won’t — despite public figures like President Donald Trump extolling the unproven promise of some medications. With public health on the line, the scientific community is searching for answers faster than ever. When the novel coronavirus tore through China in January and February, researchers and doctors quickly launched dozens of clinical trials to test existing medications against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But the research done so far in China hasn’t generated enough data for conclusive answers. “We commend the researchers around the world who have come together to systemically evaluate experimental therapeutics,” said Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), in a press briefing. “Multiple small trials with different methodologies may not give us the clear, strong evidence we need about which treatments help to save lives.” In their fight for “clear, strong evidence,” the WHO is launching a multicountry clinical trial to test four drug regimens as COIVD-19 therapies: an experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir, the antimalarial drug chloroquine (or the related hydroxychloroquine), a combination of two HIV drugs, and those same two HIV drugs along with the anti-inflammatory interferon beta. The trial will be flexible and could add or drop additional treatment approaches or locations over time. In that way, it appears to be similar to the adaptive trial that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases started in the US in February, which initially set out to test remdesivir but could expand to other drugs. The US is not currently involved in the WHO trial. Hundreds of other clinical trials are underway, and other groups also continue to test the medications that the WHO selected — here’s a breakdown of some of the drugs that researchers are zeroing in on. Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine Studies found that hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine can stop the novel coronavirus from infecting in cells in the lab, and anecdotal evidence suggests that it may help patients with COVID-19. Because the drug has been around for decades as an antimalarial treatment, scientists have experience with it. “It’s a known medicine,” says Caleb Skipper, an infectious disease postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota who’s working on a smaller trial of the drug. “Little blips of lab data over the last several years show this drug has activity against viruses.” Skipper’s trial is looking to see if hydroxychloroquine can prevent people who are exposed to the virus from developing severe disease. They’re hoping to recruit health care workers, who are at a high risk of exposure to the virus, to participate in the trial. The goal, Skipper says, is to get the drug in people’s systems early. “Particularly with viruses, the earlier you inhibit their ability to replicate the better off you’re going to be. If a drug is going to work, it is more likely to work early on in disease,” he says. “If you catch someone really early and provide treatment early virus will have replicated a lot less.” The existing evidence on hydroxychloroquine points in the right direction, Skipper says, but all of the research on the drug is still in very early stages. “It’s a long ways from being proven effective,” he says. Despite the limited evidence available, public figures, including Elon Musk and Trump, are pushing the message that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are the solutions to the outbreaks. “I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy. I feel good about it,” Trump said in a press conference on Friday. As a result of the hype, demand for the drug has spiked, and manufacturers are increasing production. In Nigeria, two people overdosed on the medication after Trump said it could cure COVID-19. People who take it for other conditions, like lupus, are struggling to access their usual supply. To be very clear, there is still no conclusive evidence that chloroquine will treat COVID-19. And treatments that appear promising based on anecdotal reports or “feelings” often don’t end up working, which scientists know well: the majority of clinical trials fail, and they’re seeing that reinforced in coronavirus treatment efforts. lopinavir–ritonavir In February, doctors in Thailand said they saw their COVID-19 patients improve on the combination of two HIV drugs, lopinavir–ritonavir. The WHO is testing the drug combination in their trial, along with anti-inflammatory interferon beta, which the body produces naturally to ward off viruses. The drug combination was used in patients during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, and it appeared to help. But a clinical trial of those two drugs in China just found that patients with COVID-19 who were given the drugs did not improve more quickly than patients who didn’t receive it. The study, which was published this week, focused on a group of 199 severely ill patients, which may be why the drug wasn’t effective — the patients were already too sick. But Timothy Sheahan, a coronavirus expert and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, says he wasn’t surprised the drug didn’t work. “We’ve done work on that particular drug cocktail,” he says. “The fact it failed is totally in step with everything we’ve done in the past.” Remdesivir The antiviral drug remdesivir was first developed to treat Ebola, but research later showed that it could also block MERS and SARS in cells. Lab tests have shown that it can inhibit the novel coronavirus in cells as well. There’s also anecdotal evidence that remdesivir helps treat COVID-19 patients, but that’s also no guarantee that a clinical trial will show that it works better than a placebo. That’s why the data collected on the drug through the WHO trial, the US adaptive trial, and the other studies is so important: before giving it to sick people en mass, doctors have to be sure that it actually works. Other drugs Though not a part of the WHO trial, Chinese officials also reported that the Japanese anti-flu drug favipiravir, which it tested in clinical trials, was effective in treating COVID-19 patients. Japan is studying the drug more closely, though data from those trials on the drug has not yet been published. Based on the drug’s antiviral activity in cells, Sheahan says he’d be surprised if this drug ultimately ended up being effective. It doesn’t work against MERS in cells, he says, and MERS is similar to the novel coronavirus. In addition, some pharmaceutical companies are looking to repurpose anti-inflammatory drugs to try to calm lung inflammation in people with severe cases of COIVD-19; others are identifying the protective antibodies that people develop after they’re infected with the virus in an effort to manufacture a treatment. Clinical trials take time to collect data properly, so there likely won’t be concrete evidence until next month or later. Patients are already receiving these drugs through compassionate use programs, which allows doctors to order experimental medications in certain cases, and under off-label use, where doctors prescribe drugs outside of what they’re approved for. But ensuring the clinical trial process takes place alongside that, before jumping to conclusions about the best course of action, ensures patients can be treated based on evidence. The sheer number of trials going on around the world for each particular treatment approach will give researchers more data to work with and data from different groups of people. “The more populations you can show a particular intervention works or does not work for, the more valuable that is,” Skipper says. “The bigger amount of data available, the better.” A guide to the COVID-19 pandemic Source: Scientists are racing to find the best drugs to treat COVID-19 (The Verge)
  15. UK scientists have a smart plan to supply more respirators for coronavirus patients OxVent project aims to scale production of ventilators as required in local areas (Image credit: OxVent Project) A team of engineers and medics from Oxford University and King’s College London are collaborating in a project to test and build respirators that can be produced in university labs and SME workshops, in a bid to help treat coronavirus sufferers. The need for such ventilators to help those whose breathing is badly affected by the virus has been well-documented at this point, and the so-called OxVent project hopes to have a working prototype which can satisfy relevant safety standards in a ‘matter of weeks’, according to a report by Electronics Weekly. It would have to comply with MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) requirements, and if the initiative proceeds at the projected pace, the researchers believe a manufacturing network could be scaled up to produce the respirators within two to three months. The hope is that universities, small to medium enterprises and manufacturing facilities would be able to produce these ventilators on assembly lines close to local NHS services, scaling to the needed demand for respirators in any particular area. One of the OxVent team, Professor Farmery of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, observed: “Ordinarily, to develop a medical device such as this would be a huge task, and would take years. We have designed a simple and robust ventilator which will serve the specific task of managing the very sickest patients during this crisis. “By pooling available expertise from inside and outside the University, and making the design freely available to local manufacturers, we are pleased to be able to respond to this challenge so quickly.” Dr Formenti, another researcher on the project, added: “Thinking beyond the current pandemic, we are also aiming to share the know-how and refinement of this relatively inexpensive approach with other countries.” Prototype ventilator The scientists have already uploaded a video of the results of their first week of working on the prototype ventilator, as you can see above. The accompanying blog explains: “The Ambu or bag valve mask is confined within a rigid perspex box. This box can be pressurised from a 4 bar line. When it is pressurised, the Ambu compresses, providing an inhalation. When the pressure is switched off, the Ambu re-inflates.” This is one of many initiatives we’ve seen concerning producing medical equipment to help combat coronavirus, such as a call to produce an open source respirator, and Prusa kicking off a drive to make DIY 3D-printed face shields to help protect medical professionals who are treating patients with the virus. Meanwhile, over in the US, we’ve also heard that the big car makers Ford, GM and Tesla have been given the ‘go-ahead’ to make ventilators, and make them ‘fast’, President Trump made clear on Twitter. These car manufacturers have already been looking into how this might work, and indeed Ford could also be working with the UK government in producing necessary medical devices like respirators. Source: UK scientists have a smart plan to supply more respirators for coronavirus patients (TechRadar)
  16. Paul's Twitter account said he "is feeling fine and is in quarantine." Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Sunday became the first senator known to have tested positive for COVID-19. "Senator Rand Paul has tested positive for COVID-19," Paul's account tweeted. "He is feeling fine and is in quarantine. He is asymptomatic and was tested out of an abundance of caution due to his extensive travel and events. He was not aware of any direct contact with any infected person." "He expects to be back in the Senate after his quarantine period ends and will continue to work for the people of Kentucky at this difficult time," the thread continued. "Ten days ago, our D.C. office began operating remotely, hence virtually no staff has had contact with Senator Rand Paul." Paul's chief of staff later clarified that he "decided to get tested after attending an event where two individuals subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, even though he wasn't aware of any direct contact with either one of them." Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told colleagues at Sunday's policy meeting that he saw Paul at the Senate gym earlier in the day, his communications director confirmed on Twitter. Paul's account later tweeted that he visited the gym before he found out he had tested positive. Paul is the third member of Congress to announce a positive test for the coronavirus, following Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Ben McAdams, D-Utah. Several Republican lawmakers also self-quarantined this month after they learned that they had interacted with someone who tested positive for the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The White House said President Donald Trump, who attended CPAC and also interacted with multiple people at his Florida resort who later found out they were infected, tested negative for the virus. Source
  17. Alma Clara Corsini, 95, from Modena, Italy, was admitted to hospital on March 5 The grandmother who was diagnosed with coronavirus has since recovered Pensioner able to recover without 'antiviral therapy', according to Italian media Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor? A 95-year-old grandmother who was diagnosed with the coronavirus this month has become the oldest patient in the Italian province of Modena to recover from the illness. Alma Clara Corsini, from Fanano, was rushed to a hospital in the city's northern province of Pavullo on March 5 after showing signs of the virus- which has now claimed the lives of 5,476 in the nation. However medical staff have now confirmed the pensioner's body has shown a 'great reaction' and made a full recovery. Ms Corsini told Italian newspaper Gazzetta Di Modena: 'Yes, yes, I'm fine. They were good people who looked after me well, and now they'll send me home in a little while. ' Grandmother Alma Clara Corsini (centre), 95, from Fanano, Modena, Italy, has recovered from the coronavirus The pensioner, who was rushed to a hospital in the city's northern province of Pavullo on March 5, has made a full recovery, staff confirmed The 95-year-old has since been been discharged and has returned home. Specialists at the hospital added that the grandmother was able to recover without 'antiviral therapy'- medications which are administered to a patient to help them fight a viral infection. According to the Italian paper, Ms Corsini became the 'pride of the staff' during her stay at the hospital which has been trying to cope with the the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in the country. The latest recovery comes after doctors announced a 79-year-old Italian man, from Liguria, with the virus had recovered with the help of an experimental Ebola drug after 12 days in hospital. The drug also showed success in a critically-ill woman in the US and 14 Americans who tested positive for the coronavirus after catching it on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Today it was confirmed the death toll in Italy's worst-hit region had surpassed 3,450 in the last 24 hours after a rise of 360 fatalities in the northern region of Lombardy. Ministers in Rome were forced to place all 60million citizens into lockdown as the pandemic continued to spread with force across the country. The recovery comes as the government banned travel within the country in yet another attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Pictured: A nearly empty Porta Nuova station in Turin, Italy on March 22 Pictured: Medical staff carry away man who was lying unconscious on the ground in Rome, Italy, as the country continues its nationwide lockdown Italy, which recorded its first coronavirus death in February, now has more fatalities than China with 5,476, as well as having 59,138 infections with 7,024 recoveries. The third worst hit country is Spain with 1,720 fatalities and 28,572 cases, Iran with 1,685 fatalities and 21,638 cases, followed by France with 674 deaths and 16,018 cases, and the United States with 390 deaths and 31,057 cases. On Sunday, Italy banned travel within the country in yet another attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A month after the first death from the highly infectious virus was registered in Italy, the government also issued an order freezing all business activity deemed non-essential in an effort to keep ever more people at home and off the streets. The businesses have until Wednesday to shut down operations and will have to remain closed until April 3. Source
  18. Harvey Weinstein has tested positive for the novel coronavirus in prision. Just days after being transferred to the Wende Correctional Facility from NYC’s Rikers Island, the Oscar winning producer and convicted rapist is now in medical isolation, an Empire State law enforcement official confirms to Deadline. Under the policy that they “cannot comment on an individual’s medical record,” New York State’s Department of Corrections representatives did not respond to request for direct confirmation. “Our team …has not heard anything like that yet,” said Weinstein PR chief Juda Engelmayer on Sunday. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know,” the producer’s personal rep added. Moved to Wende on March 18, the just turned 68 years old Weinstein is one of two prisoners at the 961 capacity maximum security facility just east of Buffalo who was put in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus. As the global pandemic spreads and surges, New York state has taken the biggest hit domestically of the ever expanding coronavirus. To that, he more than 43,000 prisoners in the state’s already over burdened system are increasingly seen as a high risk category. Already around 40 inmates at Rikers have reportedly been found positive for COVID-19 in the past week, coinciding with Weinstein’s time in that NYC Hellhole. It is unclear if Weinstein himself contracted the disease at the East River complex or when he was in hospital in Manhattan over the past few weeks. In a testament to the power of local journalism, among other things, the Niagara Gazette first reported Weinstein’s condition earlier today On February 24, the once mercurial mogul was found guilty by a New York jury of two sex crime felony charges after a nearly six week trial. Allegedly hobbled by health issues and often in court with a much mocked walker, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years behind bars on March 11. Suffering from chest pains, the Pulp Fiction producer was back in NYC’s Bellevue that same day for second stint, literally. First admitted to America’s oldest public hospital almost immediately after being convicted late last month, Weinstein had only been out of Bellevue a mere six days. A few days after the second Bellevue sojourn, Weinstein was moved again to Rikers’ vast North Infirmary Command, where he remained until the move to Wende last week. In an America that has already shut down in many respects, today’s news will add a further complication, to put it mildly, to plans for an appeal of the New York case and the extradition of Weinstein to Los Angeles to face multiple sex crimes charges out West – charges that were made public by re-election seeking L.A. County D.A. Jackie Lacey on January 6, the opening day of Weinstein’s NYC trial. First arrested New York in late May 2018, Weinstein initially faced two counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of criminal sexual act in the first degree and one count each of first-degree rape and third-degree rape in New York. Subject to travel restrictions reinforced last August 7, he had been out on a $5 million bail after entering a not guilty plea on July 9, 2018. Weinstein entered a plea of not guilty again on August 26 last year when a new indictment was added. Accused by Ashley Judd in a now temporarily halted case, failing to get a sex-trafficking class action tossed out, and the subject of a more recent lawsuit from a woman who says he abused her when she was 16 in 2002, Weinstein is also facing allegations from close to 100 other women who say he sexually assaulted or sexually harassed them. Over the past few months, several of those individuals are refusing to participate in a potential $25 million over-arching settlement that is part of an overall $45 million deal on the table. Using terms like “insulting” to describe the proposed settlement,on March 9, several Weinstein accusers publicly called on New York Attorney General Letitia James to reject that proposed multimillion-dollar settlement with Weinstein and his former company – a deal that would see millions more for lawyers and former members of the Weinstein Company board with no admission of guilt on the part of Weinstein himself. Source
  19. Viral weak spots — COVID-19: the biology of an effective therapy We already know lots about coronavirus biology. Enlarge Aurich Lawson / Getty 45 with 29 posters participating, including story author A coronavirus vaccine may not arrive for at least a year—so what are the chances of finding a useful therapy that could stave off the worst effects of the virus in the meantime? Earlier coronavirus outbreaks like SARS and MERS raised warning flags for public health officials. Fortunately, they also alerted the biological research community that this large family of viruses was worth studying in more detail. Recent research has built on a large body of knowledge about coronaviruses that have long caused significant diseases in livestock, and so SARS-CoV-2 does not arrive as a total unknown. Indeed, we are actually in a decent position to understand what might make a good potential therapy. While some of the therapies being tested may seem random—we're trying chloroquine, an antimalarial drug?—there's serious biology behind what's being done. Genes without DNA A basic challenge confronts all viral therapies: most viruses have just a handful of genes, and they rely on proteins in the cells they infect (host cells) to perform many of the functions needed to reproduce. But therapies that target host cell proteins run the risk of killing uninfected cells, making matters worse. So antiviral therapies usually target something unique about the virus—something important enough that a few mutations in the virus won't make the therapy ineffective. Those of you who didn't sleep through high school biology may remember that genetic information is carried by DNA. When a protein needs to be built, the relevant bit of DNA is read and the cell makes a temporary copy of the information using a very similar chemical called RNA. This piece of RNA is then translated into a sequence of amino acids, which form the protein. While there are some exceptions to this—many RNAs perform important functions without ever being translated into proteins—all RNA in our cells is made by transcribing a DNA sequence. But we've known for a long time that this process doesn't hold for viruses. Many viruses, including HIV and the influenza virus, use RNA for their basic genetic material. The coronavirus is also an RNA virus; it consists of a single, 30,000-base-long RNA molecule. This is a problem for the virus. The host cells it infects only have proteins that copy DNA, not RNA, so how can more copies of the virus get made? Target: reproduction It turns out that the virus carries its own solution with it. When virus' RNA genome first enters a cell, it interacts with the host's protein-making machinery, using it to make proteins that can copy RNA molecules. These RNA-copying proteins, called "polymerases," make an enticing target for therapies. Because host cells don't naturally have them, therapies that target these RNA-making proteins should have a lower chance of off-target effects. Block these RNA polymerases, and the virus can no longer reproduce, stopping an infection. That's the good news. The bad news is that DNA and RNA are so closely related that it can be difficult to make a drug that affects only one type of polymerase. We saw this with some of the first therapies against HIV, which targeted the enzymes that copied the virus' RNA genome: they did slow the virus down, but they also harmed any rapidly dividing cells in the host. Enlarge / The 30,000 base long coronavirus genome is used to produce a large variety of proteins. Sawicki, Sawicki, and Siddell/J. Virology So the work is tricky. But many such drugs have been developed that don't interact as well with our own DNA polymerases. Some have even been tested for safety in humans, since they were developed for earlier threats like HIV or Ebola. Now, several are being quickly tested against coronavirus. One such drug, remdesivir, was originally developed in the hope that it would limit Ebola virus and its relatives. While that hasn't worked out, the drug was safe for human use and showed promise in its ability to limit the spread of another coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in cultured cells. As a result, it was quickly tested against SARS-CoV-2, and the results were also positive. The National Institutes of Health started a clinical trial against COVID-19 in February. Vincent Racaniello is a faculty member at Columbia University and the host of the This Week in Virology podcast. He believes that RNA polymerases are so similar across a range of coronaviruses that we might find a single molecule that inhibits them all. To Racaniello, our response to SARS and MERS wasted a great opportunity. "We could have had a broadly acting antiviral that targeted RNA polymerase by now," he told Ars. "We could have had people isolating the gene from various bat coronaviruses and doing screens to see if we could find compounds that could have inhibited them all. That's the kind of thing that's doable and should have been done. And if we had such antivirals ready, they could have been used right at the onset in China." Target: processing RNA copying polymerases aren't the only potential therapeutic targets for a coronavirus. Their RNA polymerases are initially made in forms that aren't fully functional; instead, they must have small pieces snipped out in order to adopt their mature configuration. Coronavirus RNA therefore encodes two or three proteins that do this cutting. They belong to a class of proteins collectively termed "proteases" for their protein-cutting ability. Proteases typically have a very specific site where the cutting takes place, and any chemicals that can fit into this site might shut the protease down. Not surprisingly, such chemicals are called protease inhibitors. This approach has been used successfully against other viruses, notably including HIV. Scientists have now found that protease inhibitors targeted to HIV might have activity against coronavirus, despite the fact that these viruses are unrelated. Because proteases are present in small numbers in infected cells and have a catalytic activity that depends on a single, specific site, Racaniello views them as some of the most promising targets for therapies. We've also got large libraries of chemicals that are known to inhibit similar proteins, many of which are already approved for use in humans. So, while the news around protease inhibitors has been somewhat limited, expect it to pick up dramatically as more of these molecules are screened. Enlarge / The structure of a coronavirus protease. Protein Database Japan Target: packaging After replication, viral RNA can't continue an infection until it is packaged up into a mature virus and gets outside of the host cell. This requires special packaging proteins. (In coronavirus, these proteins do double duty by also helping the viral RNA link up with its copying enzymes.) This packaging step would seem to provide a great opportunity for targeted therapy, as disrupting it should limit the amount of functional virus that gets made and exported from any particular cell. But drugs that try to block viral packaging are rare—Racaniello can only think of one, a treatment for Hepatitis B that causes the mature virus particles to form without any genetic material inside. "That's been a very unusual antiviral," Racaniello said. "There's no other like it." Part of the problem, he said, is that structural proteins like this are present in high numbers, since they're part of every single virus particle that's produced. And you have to interfere with all these copies to be effective. Another problem is that the interactions among proteins and genetic material during packaging of a virus tend to involve extensive contacts between multiple molecules. These are a bit harder to disrupt specifically, and doing so may require large molecules that don't diffuse in and out of cells well. So, while we know which protein binds to the RNA and helps package it inside the virus particle, this protein is not an obvious target for therapies. It's also hard to disrupt newly packaged viruses as they are moved out of the cell. Once packaged, coronaviruses leave their host cell via an export system that's normally used to send material to the cell's surface (a process called exocytosis). This process is fairly generic—it works with a huge variety of proteins in addition to those encoded by coronaviruses—making it vital for cell survival. As a result, there are not many places where we can intervene without shutting down exocytosis in healthy cells as well. Target: the viral shell Once we have a mature virus particle, its behavior is controlled by the proteins that form the exterior structure of the virus. In the coronavirus, two of these proteins (called "membrane" and "envelope") combine with some of the cell's membrane to form the virus' shell. There's also the spike protein, which creates a halo (or "corona," meaning "crown") around the virus that gives it its name—and which serves to latch on to cells to enable infection. In some coronavirus strains, the envelope protein can be eliminated without blocking the virus from infecting cells, which means it's a lousy target for therapies. The membrane protein is the most abundant protein on the surface of the virus, but it's small and buried within the membrane (as its name implies). Not much of it is accessible to the outside world. Combine that with the fact that it doesn't appear to have an enzymatic function, and it's not an ideal target, either. That leaves the spike protein. Spike is a complicated protein that provides a wealth of targets for potential therapies. As the most prominent feature of the virus' exterior, spike is the main target of antibodies against the virus produced by the immune system. We've already got the structure of the coronavirus' primary surface protein. Wrapp et. al. This reality has already led to one option for therapies: purifying plasma from people who have fought off a coronavirus infection, on the assumption that the plasma contains antibodies that can neutralize the virus. This plasma can then be infused into sick people, where the antibodies should help the immune system clear the virus. While it's only a temporary fix—antibodies don't survive indefinitely in the blood stream—it may give a patient's own immune system sufficient time to develop its own antibodies. There are unknowns about whether infected individuals produce effective antibodies—more on that immediately below. But the big issue here is scaling, as plasma treatment relies on having enough healthy, formerly infected individuals who are willing to donate blood plasma. If used strategically—on the most at-risk patients, or to help infected health care professionals—it could be a helpful tool, but isn't likely an effective general therapy. A different approach to antibodies But antibodies therapies aren't limited to infusing blood plasma. Once the immune system generates cells that produce anti-coronavirus antibodies, we can pull out the genes that encode these antibodies, insert the genes into plant cells, and get those cells to pump out large quantities of the antibodies. With a bit of time, we might even produce a cocktail of several antibodies that all bind to coronavirus, and do so in quantities that could make this an effective therapy for those infected. (This approach was tried during an Ebola virus outbreak.) This approach will take longer to develop and vet for safety, so it won't be the quick fix provided by blood plasma. But it does offer the promise of scale, producing sufficient quantities of the therapy to treat entire populations. It also provides us with the ability to carefully select the antibodies we produce. While our immune systems produce antibodies to viruses like HIV and influenza, many of these bind to parts of the virus that can easily change through mutations. That makes them ineffective, since the virus has an opportunity to evolve. What we need are "broadly neutralizing" antibodies, which seem to bind to parts of the virus where mutational changes can't occur without compromising its basic function. In many cases, broadly neutralizing antibodies turn out to stick to the parts of the virus that latch on to human cells to start new infections, and thus they block the virus' ability to infect anything. At the moment, we simply don't know how much the proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 can change while still retaining their function. We can make some inferences based on what we've seen in other coronaviruses, but experts have reached somewhat different conclusions. This is a research area to watch carefully, because the rate of change in the surface proteins will dictate how effective antibody-based therapies are—and how easy it will be to develop a vaccine. Fortunately, things are moving quickly, with one company announcing on Wednesday that it has identified hundreds of antibodies that target SARS-CoV-2. It estimates that it could have sufficient production for testing by the summer and be making hundreds of thousands of doses a month by the end of the summer. Target: new infections The final step in the virus' life cycle is infecting a new cell. Typically, what is taught here is a "lie of simplification," which goes: the virus latches on to a protein on the cell's surface, then uses that protein to gain entry into the cell. This is true as far as it goes, but for most viruses, things are considerably more complicated. Coronaviruses definitely fall into the "more complicated" category in this regard. SARS-CoV-2 does latch on to a protein on the surface of cells in the respiratory tract; we've already confirmed that it's the same protein as the one used by the original SARS-CoV. But that doesn't immediately result in viral contents entering the cell. Instead, the complex of virus and receptors stays on the outside of the cell membrane. That membrane, however, gets pulled into the cell and "pinched off" from the cell's surface, creating a sac within the cell that now contains "outside" material. Enlarge Aurich Lawson Once this occurs, the virus is technically inside the cell, but it's still on the wrong side of a membrane from everything it needs to reproduce. The cell takes over this compartment, lowering its pH and adding enzymes to break down its contents. Corona and other viruses actually take advantage of these changes to enable their infection. In the case of coronavirus, a protease made by the host cell cuts the viral spike protein. Once cut, the spike protein triggers a merger between the membrane in the virus' coat and the membrane of the compartment it is trapped in. This finally places the virus' genome inside the cell, where it can proceed with the infection. This series of events provides potential targets for therapies. One of these targets is the drop in pH. This is the step that's targeted by chloroquine, the antimalarial drug. Chloroquine can cross membranes and so can enter the sac containing the virus. Once there, it can neutralize the pH. That's significant, because many proteases are only active at lower pH. If the pH inside the sac doesn't change, it's possible that the coronavirus spike protein won't be cut and thus won't be activated. This appears to be the case in cultured cells infected by the virus, and there are anecdotal case reports of chloroquine helping COVID-19 patients. The host cell proteases themselves also make a tempting target. A paper we mentioned above identified a protease that appears to be essential for the coronavirus spike protein's activation. That team showed that an inhibitor of this protease blocked coronavirus infections in cultured cells. The inhibitor has been approved for use in humans by Japan, so this may be another promising avenue for tests. (Racaniello notes that this protease is also used to activate influenza viruses.) The risk here is that the protease in question might also play an essential role in healthy cells. Finally, it's tempting to directly target the interactions between the spike protein and the protein it binds. But Racaniello says that these interactions are extensive, and they can be difficult to disrupt with a single molecule. It's been tried with HIV but mostly came up short. The only thing that has worked is a 30-amino-acid-long protein that mimics part of the protein HIV binds to, but that can't be stored in water, and it needs to be mixed up and injected for use—not the sort of thing likely to be helpful when a pandemic is limiting healthcare resources. Beyond the obvious There are plenty of options for interfering with coronavirus based on what we already know about its biology. But there are still many things we don't know. A recent article in the New York Times described how scientists have identified hundreds of proteins made by host cells that interact with proteins encoded in the coronavirus genome. We don't know the significance of most of these interactions and whether or not they're important or coincidental, but any of them could potentially lead to a therapy. That would, however, probably take longer than a targeted therapy, since there are more steps involved in screening for effective drugs than there are in, say, screening a library of known protease inhibitors against the coronavirus' proteases. There's also the potential to intervene at the level of the body's response to the virus, rather than targeting the virus itself. The more damaging consequences of some infections come from an exaggerated immune response to the virus. Biotech giant Genentech, for example, announced on Thursday that it was starting clinical trials of an immune-dampening treatment on hospitalized coronavirus cases. The potential return for having any useful therapy is so large that it's worth following as many of these paths as we can at once. The easiest way to understand why is to return to the epidemiological model we covered earlier this week. The model indicated that any steps short of extreme isolation measures would likely allow the virus to overwhelm the healthcare system—and any easing off of restrictions could lead to a resurgence within weeks. Extreme restrictions, however, will probably cause severe economic problems, especially if the only hope is a vaccine that might be over a year off. But the model has an obvious gap: it doesn't account for an effective therapy. If any of the approaches described above—or one we didn't consider—is even moderately effective, it could radically change our circumstances. It could ensure that far fewer coronavirus cases need hospitalization, and that fewer of those that do require critical care. A country's healthcare system could then continue functioning in the presence of a higher rate of infection, which in turn could mean that less dramatic social restrictions are required. If carefully managed, this might even allow countries to allow enough infections so that they achieve herd immunity before the availability of a vaccine. We are just beginning clinical trials on a small subset of these ideas now, so we're still facing difficult times in the months to come. And it's important to emphasize that there's no guarantee that any of these approaches will work. But finding a therapy does offer hope that the difficult months of isolation in our immediate future might not stretch to the end of the year. Source: COVID-19: the biology of an effective therapy (Ars Technica)
  20. American Amazon warehouse worker gets COVID-19 The Queens warehouse is operating again after a deep cleaning, Amazon says. Enlarge Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images 98 with 50 posters participating An Amazon worker at a warehouse in Queens, New York, has been infected by the coronavirus, Amazon acknowledged in an email to Ars Technica. "We are supporting the individual who is now in quarantine," a spokesperson wrote. This appears to be the first Amazon warehouse worker to contract the virus in the United States. Multiple workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Europe. Amazon says that after learning about the infected worker, the company sent employees home with pay and performed a deep cleaning of the facility. The warehouse has now been re-opened. "We’re following all guidelines from local officials about the operations of our buildings," the spokesperson wrote. "We have implemented proactive measures to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance, and adding distance between drivers and customers when making deliveries." The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the importance of Amazon to the American economy. As customers have grown fearful of catching the virus in brick-and-mortar stores, they've been placing more orders with Amazon. Amazon said this week that it plans to hire an extra 100,000 people to help cope with the surging demand. However, there's a risk that more Amazon warehouse workers could catch the coronavirus. Amazon says that it's taking a number of precautions to protect workers. The company says it is maintaining a three-foot separation between workers and has eliminated stand-up meetings during workers' shifts. The company has staggered break times and spread out the chairs in break rooms to minimize contact between employees. Workers also have unlimited unpaid sick time through the end of the month, and Amazon says it's requiring workers to stay home if they feel unwell. Correction: I misread Amazon's statement and wrote that employees had unlimited paid sick time in March. In fact they have unlimited unpaid time off. Source: American Amazon warehouse worker gets COVID-19 (Ars Technica)
  21. Australia's CovidSafe tracking app is now available – here's what you need to know Now available for Android and iOS (Image credit: Australian Department of Health) Following on from the release of its official coronavirus information app, the Australian Government has now launched its voluntary CovidSafe tracking app with the goal of tracing the spread of Covid-19 more accurately. Available now for Android and iOS, the CovidSafe app works by recognising and keeping track of other devices with the app installed and Bluetooth switched on, essentially keeping a record of the people (who have also opted in) who come within 1.5 metres of you for a period of at least 15 minutes. The idea is that the app will speed up the current process of notifying people who have been in close proximity to someone with Covid-19. The CovidSafe app will take note of the "date, time, distance and duration of the contact," as stated by the Department of Health's website. If diagnosed with Covid-19, users will have the option of consenting to the release of their contact data, in turn allowing the app to get in touch with other users who have been in close proximity to the affected patient. While the app's source code has not been released at this time, Twitter developer Matthew Robbins has independently decompiled the Android app and has found it to be "above board, very transparent and follows industry standard," as reported by Ausdroid. Privacy According to the CovidSafe app's privacy policy, the Australian Government will ask for your consent to collect your mobile phone number, name, age range and postcode. The collected personal data will reportedly be encrypted and stored on your device alone and will be automatically deleted after 21 days. If you are under 16 years of age, a parent or guardian will have to consent for you. For the app to work, the site admits that some data will have to be recorded elsewhere. This includes "the encrypted user ID, date and time of contact and Bluetooth signal strength of other COVIDSafe users with which you come into contact." The policy states that a new "encrypted user ID will be created every 2 hours," however, this information "will be logged in the National COVIDSafe data store, operated by the Digital Transformation Agency, in case you need to be identified for contact tracing." The data store is described as a "cloud-based facility, using infrastructure located in Australia, which has been classified as appropriate for storage of data up to the ‘protected’ security level." As for how long your data will remain in the cloud, the Department of Health's website states that "We will delete all data in the data store after the COVID-19 pandemic has concluded as required by the Biosecurity Determination." Your data will reportedly also be deleted if you uninstall the CovidSafe from your device or if you "upload your contact data to the data store." The policy stresses that "No location data (data that could be used to track your movements) will be collected at any time." The Australian Government has also released a more thorough 78-page Privacy Impact Assessment in PDF form. Other issues and concerns For the CovidSafe app to work effectively, your device's Bluetooth will need to remain switched on at all times so that the app can continuously ping other users. Of course, this is expected to drain your phone's battery life quicker than usual. While Android devices will be able to run the CovidSafe app in the background, meaning "you can use your phone as normal without having to open or check COVIDSafe," the app FAQ stipulates that iOS devices will need to "Keep COVIDSafe running and notifications on when you're out and about, especially in meetings and public places" – a barrier which could prove a nuisance for many. That said, while the app certainly has its drawbacks, it appears to be secure and seems to take users' privacy into consideration. With this in mind, potential users will need to weigh these minor downsides against the app's proposed benefits – namely, a far more accurate way of tracing the spread of coronvirus, which should in turn help speed up Australia's return to normalcy (or something like it). Source: Australia's CovidSafe tracking app is now available – here's what you need to know (TechRadar)
  22. Bill Gates says countries will probably use interviews and databases to track the coronavirus Photo by Nicolas Liponne/NurPhoto via Getty Images Bill Gates thinks most countries will fight COVID-19 with interview-based contact tracing and a central database to track exposure. Gates posted a paper today outlining potential pandemic treatments, vaccines, and containment strategies. He calls contact tracing, which helps identify and isolate people who could spread the virus, an “ideal way” to stop the pandemic. But he downplayed the importance of decentralized tech-only options like those proposed by Apple and Google, focusing on more traditional methods combined with large-scale data analysis. Gates believes privacy concerns will stop many countries from adopting GPS tracking like that used in South Korea and China. He also seems lukewarm on Bluetooth-based contact tracing systems, especially ones that operate without experts getting access to the data. “If most people voluntarily installed this kind of application, it would probably help some,” Gates writes. But he points out that someone can leave the virus on a surface where it’s later picked up by another person, even if the two never come near each other. These systems also require large-scale adoption that can be difficult to get. “I think most countries will use the approach that Germany is using, which requires interviewing everyone who tests positive and using a database to make sure there is follow-up with all the contacts. The pattern of infections is studied to see where the risk is highest and policy might need to change,” writes Gates. This raises obvious privacy questions and would require huge numbers of interviewers, something Gates acknowledges. “Every health system will have to figure out how to staff up so that this work is done in a timely fashion,” he writes. “Everyone who does the work would have to be properly trained and required to keep all the information private. Researchers would be asked to study the database to find patterns of infection, again with privacy safeguards in place.” While Gates doesn’t mention it, Germany is one of the prime drivers of a Bluetooth-based contact tracing initiative called the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project. The system is similar in some ways to Apple and Google’s plans for a tracking system built into iOS and Android. But the anonymized data would be held on a central server, while Apple and Google have favored a system that’s supposed to store as much data as possible on users’ devices. (There’s still a lot we don’t know about its process.) Meanwhile, a separate group of experts has proposed a system called Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing. American health authorities are attempting to rapidly scale up a contact tracing interview system that may require an “army” of disease detectives. Massachusetts recently budgeted for 1,000 people to interview infected citizens over the phone and determine who they’ve been in contact with. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also sent contact tracing teams to eight states. Tracing efforts also depend heavily on having a robust testing system, which the country has been slow to roll out. Gates’ views on the pandemic are fairly mainstream, but he’s become a target of conspiracy theorists in recent weeks. Former Trump adviser Roger Stone made headlines for repeating a baseless claim that Gates wants to microchip people who receive a novel coronavirus vaccine, misinterpreting a comment the Microsoft co-founder made in a Reddit AMA. This week, right-wing extremists circulated a list of email addresses and passwords that included members of the Gates Foundation, prompting claims of a hack — but the credentials appeared to be cobbled together from past data breaches. Source: Bill Gates says countries will probably use interviews and databases to track the coronavirus (The Verge)
  23. What are contact-tracing apps and how will they help you? Three systems, one goal (Image credit: Shutterstock) One thing that’s come out of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is the development of a new type of app. These are known as contact-tracing apps, and you’ve likely heard of them. The name gives you the core idea of what these apps do – essentially allowing users to identify if they may have been in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus. However, while a number of countries around the world are planning to start using contact-tracing apps (and in some cases already have started), the exact apps and systems vary from place to place. Below then, we’ll give you an overview of the solutions being worked on for the US, UK, and Australia. But first though, here’s a closer look at what exactly contact-tracing apps do. What do contact-tracing apps do? Contact-tracing isn’t a new idea. All it really means is attempting to identify people that may have contracted a specific illness, usually by asking someone who’s known to have it where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with. But with Covid-19 the scale of the challenge is much greater than normal, given how many people already have it and how easily it spreads. So rather than questioning individuals, contact-tracing apps are being designed to automate the legwork. These would run in the background on your phone, tracking where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with. If someone you’ve been in contact with tests positive for Covid-19 (and enters that data into the app), then the app would alert you to this, so you would know to self-isolate or get tested yourself. It’s a method then of not just tracking who already has Covid-19, but of potentially getting countries safely up and running again while we wait for a vaccine. Though of course how effective it is depends not just on the technology of each specific contact-tracing app, but also on how many people have the relevant app running on their phones. Contact-tracing in the US The main contact-tracing app used in the US is likely to be a joint venture from Apple and Google, so of course the same app would work on both iOS and Android. Powered by Bluetooth, the app would exchange anonymous ‘beacon keys’ with everyone you come in contact with (assuming they’re also using the app). Then, if someone tests positive for Covid-19, they’re able to log this with the contact-tracing app, and it would alert those who the person came in contact with that they’d been exposed to the virus. The alert may not come until days later, as the infected person may not have initially known they were infected, and the contract tracing app only ‘periodically’ downloads the beacon keys of everyone who has tested positive in a user’s region. Importantly, these keys are anonymous – so if you get an alert that you’ve been in contact with someone infected, you won’t know who, when or where. But that’s okay, because if most people are running the app then everyone relevant will be alerted anyway. Users would also need to give consent for the app to share the fact that they’ve been diagnosed with Covid-19 (even though it’s kept anonymous). (Image credit: Apple / Google) (Image credit: Apple / Google) The system doesn’t sound like it’s without its problems though. For one thing, it requires Bluetooth Low Energy to function, which could count out as many as two billion phones across the world. Its focus on privacy meanwhile could hamper its effectiveness. Aside from requiring people to opt in, the fact that it doesn’t use location data could also limit the ability to identify coronavirus hotspots and map viral transmissions. As such, there are rival apps in the works. Utah for example is working on a contact-tracing app called Healthy Together, which uses GPS and location data as well as Bluetooth. Note that the Apple/Google app doesn’t have a name as such yet. In fact, it’s not likely to be a single app. Rather the tech could be integrated into an app for each country that chooses to use it. The actual app could vary from country to country, but the two tech giants have said they will limit the system’s use to one app per country, except where there’s a federated system in place, such as the United States. So the app you have access to may end up depending on what state you’re in, and in some cases – as with Healthy Together – you might not be using Google and Apple’s system at all. Contact-tracing in the UK While the Apple/Google initiative being used in the US would have been an option for the UK, the NHS has decided to go in a different direction, using an app developed by the NHSX (the NHS’s digital division). This decision seems to have been made because the NHS favors a centralized rather than decentralized system, the difference being that whereas a decentralized system carries everything out with users’ smartphones, a centralized one uses a computer server to work out who to send alerts to. There’s no official name for the app at the time of writing, but it in some ways sounds similar to the Apple/Google model, in that it’s powered by Bluetooth, allowing it to log when you come in contact with anyone else using the app. The NHS is opting for a centralized database (Image credit: Shutterstock) Then, if someone using the app gets diagnosed with Covid-19 or reports that they have symptoms, you’ll be sent an alert saying you were in contact with a potentially infected person. This alert may come days later, however, if they only got a diagnosis a while after you came in contact. As with the Apple/Google contact-tracing system, this would all be anonymous – you wouldn’t know who the infected person was, just that someone you crossed paths with was diagnosed or had symptoms. However, using a centralized system means the data is potentially more vulnerable to being mishandled by authorities, or accessed by hackers. On the other hand, in a conversation with the BBC, the NHS argued that having a centralized system makes it easier to audit the system and adapt it quickly based on the latest scientific evidence. Another downside to this system is that the NHS’s app will need to wake up every time your phone detects another device running the app, which shouldn’t be required on Apple and Google’s system. It’s a difference which will likely mean the NHS app uses more of your phone’s battery. Contact-tracing in Australia Unlike the US and UK, which are still developing and trialing their apps and systems at the time of writing, Australia has fully launched its coronavirus contact-tracing app. The app is called CovidSafe, and it’s available for those in Australia to download from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store. Doing so isn’t mandatory, but the more people who use it the more effective it will be. (Image credit: Australian Department of Health) To set up the CovidSafe app you’ll be asked for your name (or a pseudonym), your phone number, age range, and post code, all of which will be stored on an encrypted government server. Then, the app will work much like most other contact-tracing apps – it will use Bluetooth to automatically (and anonymously) log other app users that you’re in contact with, the data from which stays on your phone unless you come into contact with someone infected. If someone is infected with Covid-19, and they consent to share this with the app, it will then send anonymized ID’s of everyone they’ve been in contact with for the last 14 days to the government’s secure server, allowing the relevant health officials to get in touch with affected people. Having a centralized database like this comes with privacy and security concerns, but the app doesn’t track location, and the Australian government has assured citizens that the data can only be accessed by relevant health officials, and only for contact-tracing. Source: What are contact-tracing apps and how will they help you? (TechRadar)
  24. The coronavirus will change Windows forever And that’s partly because it’s making it easier for Microsoft to head in a direction it was already taking. Martin Sanchez (CC0) It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic will forever change the world we know — in the ways we live, work and communicate. And that means technology and software will have to change as well. How? If we look at one dominant software product, Windows, we can already get some ideas. Although it’s still too early to know precisely what Microsoft will do differently with the operating system, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting what it might look like. Here’s what to expect from Windows in the age of pandemics. The first piece of evidence comes from the upcoming Windows 10 May 2020 Update; Microsoft has changed how it will handle all Windows updates for as long as the pandemic lasts. The Windows 10 May 2020 Update offers no major new features, has no significant changes, and looks and works pretty much the same as the previous version of Windows. That’s particularly striking, because it’s been a year since the last major Windows 10 update, and you would expect that Microsoft would come up with some notable improvements in that time. In addition, Microsoft announced that, effective May 1, it will pause the release of non-security Windows updates and only issue security patches. That’s due to the pandemic — IT staffs, which are struggling to keep systems running while working from home, will have to deal with far fewer updates this way. What do these two facts mean for the future of Windows? Expect very few new features for a while — and expect “for a while” to mean something longer than the duration of the pandemic. The Windows you see today will very likely be the Windows you see tomorrow. Expect fewer patches, and don’t look for much in Microsoft’s updates. It’s likely that what the company refers to as “feature updates,” which used to be released twice a year, will only be released once a year, and even then will be minor. There is good reason to believe that the end of the pandemic will not be the end of these changes. Microsoft has been traveling down this path for a long time, with fewer and fewer new features added to Windows. The pandemic has only accelerated that trend. Microsoft developers have been working at home for quite some time, and will continue to do so for a while yet. During that time, Microsoft will have to make hard decisions about which products need updating the most and which can be left fallow. And it’s clear that Windows needs fewer updates in the short term, because it’s no longer the company’s cash cow and doesn’t have fast growth ahead of it no matter how many bells and whistles are added. And that gets us to what new things will be put into Windows. The best evidence comes from the most recent Microsoft earnings report. The report showed that use of Teams, Microsoft’s collaboration chat and meetings app, has skyrocketed due to the coronavirus and the subsequent mass exodus from offices. As of late April, Teams had 75 million daily active users, the company said, up from 20 million users in January. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained the spike this way: “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months. From remote teamwork and learning, to sales and customer service, to critical cloud infrastructure and security — we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything.” The company believes the pandemic is a wake-up call that we need to change the nature of work. Disruption will likely become the new normal, with other pandemics and larger and more dangerous storms fed by global warming ahead of us. In that kind of world, remote collaboration will become king. Jared Spataro, head of Microsoft 365, says, “It’s clear to me there will be a new normal. If you look at what’s happening in China and what’s happening in Singapore, you essentially are in a time machine. We don’t see people going back to work and having it be all the same. There are different restrictions to society, there are new patterns in the way people work. There are societies that are thinking of A days and B days of who gets to go into the office and who works remote. … The new normal is not going to be like what I thought two weeks ago: that all is clear, go back everybody. There will be a new normal that will require us to continue to use these new tools for a long time.” What does that mean for Windows? Expect some form of Teams and possibly other collaboration tools to be built directly into Windows, rather than tacked on afterwards when you decide to download and install the software. That’s what Microsoft did with OneDrive cloud storage. OneDrive began life as a standalone storage service, and eventually migrated directly into Windows. Everyone gets a basic amount of OneDrive storage; those who want more can pay more for it. The same things will likely happen with Teams and other collaboration tools. Everyone will get a free copy in Windows with a license for a small number of people, or perhaps with an incomplete set of features. Various for-pay tiers will be able to be bought at differing fees for companies of all sizes. At first, Teams will be tacked onto Windows. But over time, as remote collaboration becomes an important part of everyone’s working life, it will become more intimately integrated into it, directly into the file system, for example, built into video and audio tools, enabled by voice. Eventually, expect that Windows will no longer be designed for one-person use, but for multi-person use. It’s hard to know right now exactly what that means. But expect collaboration to be baked directly into every aspect of the operating system in one form or another. Full integration will be years away. But it’s coming our way. Remote collaboration is the future of Windows in the same way that it will become the future of work. Source: The coronavirus will change Windows forever (Computerworld - Preston Gralla)
  25. Apple is temporarily closing more stores due to COVID-19 The move affects retail locations in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Apple Apple will temporarily close more than 20 of its retail locations in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas as coronavirus cases continue to climb in those states. In an update on its website first spotted by Bloomberg, the company indicates five Apple Stores in Georgia, five in North Carolina and about a dozen in Texas won’t be open to the public after they complete their regular hours on Friday evening. The closures include locations in major cities like Houston and Atlanta. If you left a device in for repair at one of those stores or have an appointment to pick up an online order, you can still visit them through to January 18th. “Due to current COVID-19 conditions in some of the communities we serve, we are temporarily closing stores in these areas,” a spokesperson for the company told Bloomberg. “We take this step with an abundance of caution as we closely monitor the situation, and we look forward to having our teams and customers back as soon as possible.” The move comes after Apple closed more than 50 retail locations in California due to the coronavirus pandemic last month. Separate from those concerns, the company has also temporarily shuttered its stores in the Washington DC area ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week. Source: Apple is temporarily closing more stores due to COVID-19
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