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  1. India asks social media firms to remove reference to 'Indian variant' of coronavirus India's information technology (IT) ministry has written to all social media companies asking them to take down any content that refers to an "Indian variant" of the coronavirus, according to a letter issued on Friday which was seen by Reuters. The World Health Organization said on May 11 that the coronavirus variant B.1.617, first identified in India last year, was being classified as a variant of global concern. The Indian government a day later issued a statement saying media reports using the term "Indian Variant" were without any basis, saying the WHO had classified the variant as just B.1.617. In a letter to social media companies on Friday, the IT ministry asked the companies to "remove all the content" that names or implies "Indian variant" of the coronavirus. "This is completely FALSE. There is no such variant of Covid-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has not associated the term 'Indian Variant' with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in any of its reports," stated the letter, which is not public. A senior Indian government source told Reuters the notice was issued to send a message "loud and clear" that such mentions of "Indian variant" spread miscommunication and hurt the country's image. The IT ministry could not be reached for comment. Around the world, coronvirus variants have generically been referred to by doctors and health experts on the basis of where the are identified. This includes South Africa and Brazil variants. A social media executive said it would be difficult to take down all content using the word as there would be hundreds of thousands of such posts, adding that "such a move would lead to keyword based censorship going forward." The Indian government is facing increased criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Prime Minister Modi and state authorities being blamed for not adequately planning for the ongoing second wave of coronavirus infections. India has the second-highest tally of COVID-19 cases in the world and has been reporting around 250,000 infections and 4,000 deaths daily. Source: India asks social media firms to remove reference to 'Indian variant' of coronavirus
  2. Trial started for vaccine against one of the scariest coronavirus variants The vaccine is being developed "out of an abundance of caution," Fauci says. Enlarge / A vial of the current Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers have given out the first jabs of a tweaked version of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, one aimed at fighting one of the most concerning coronavirus variants—the B.1.351 variant, first identified in South Africa. The jabs are part of an early trial of the tweaked vaccine, which is being run by the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The agency aims to enroll around 210 healthy adults in the trial by the end of April. “The B.1.351 SARS-CoV-2 variant, first identified in the Republic of South Africa, has been detected in at least nine states in the United States,” NIAID Director Anthony Fauci said in an announcement. “Preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants. However, out of an abundance of caution, NIAID has continued its partnership with Moderna to evaluate this variant vaccine candidate should there be a need for an updated vaccine.” Data so far on the B.1.351 variant (aka 501Y.V2) suggests that it may be about 50 percent more transmissible than earlier versions. It also appears to evade immune responses from previous infections and current vaccines. Experiments in the lab found that it took about six times the amount of antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients to neutralize the variant, compared with the amount needed to neutralize an earlier version of the virus. The variant also appeared to knock back Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine; the vaccine appeared 72 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in the US but was only 64 percent effective in South Africa while the B.1.351 variant was widely circulating. B.1.351’s concerning abilities likely stem from key mutations in its spike protein, the protruding protein that juts from the outside of SARS-CoV-2 viral particles. The virus uses the spike protein to bind to and gain entry into human cells. Some of the most potent antibodies against the virus bind to the spike, where they can physically block the virus from binding cells. Tweaks and tests The original Moderna vaccine works by delivering to human cells the genetic code for the SARS-CoV-2 spike in mRNA form. Once delivered, our cells read the code and make their own spike protein, which is used to train immune responses to spot and destroy any invading SARS-CoV-2. For the tweaked version of the vaccine, researchers at Moderna simply incorporated key mutations from the B.1.351 variant's spike protein into the mRNA code used in the vaccine. As Fauci mentioned in his statement, it’s unclear how necessary these variant-specific vaccines will be, given that current vaccines do provide some protection. However, with SARS-CoV-2 still widely circulating in the US and worldwide, the virus has ample opportunities to continue mutating. With every new infection, there are more chances for mutations and new variants to arise, which in turn increases the chances that variant-specific vaccines will be a fixture in our future. To understand how variants might fit into current vaccine use, the new NIH trial is testing 10 different vaccine regimens. Approximately 60 of the 210 people the institute aims to enroll will be people from the original Moderna vaccine trial, who were first immunized against COVID-19 last year. Some of those people will get a single booster shot with just the variant-specific vaccine, while others will get a booster that contains a mix of the original vaccine and the variant-specific vaccine. The remaining 150 people in the trial will be those who have not received any COVID-19 vaccines yet. Two groups of 15 will get three shots at varying dosages, 28 days apart: two doses of the original vaccine, then a variant-specific booster. Two groups of 20 will get just two shots at varying dosages of the variant-specific booster. Two groups of 20 will get two shots at varying dosages: a dose of the original vaccine and then a variant-specific booster. Lastly, two groups of 20 will get two shots, each with mixtures of both the original and variant-specific vaccine at varying dosages. Researchers will then monitor the participants for safety issues, side effects, and immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Source: Trial started for vaccine against one of the scariest coronavirus variants
  3. Coronavirus: Latest data shows vaccine reduces transmission - Hancock There is "early data" showing a reduction in transmission in people who have had a coronavirus vaccine, the health secretary has said. Matt Hancock said hospital admissions were falling "much more sharply" than they were in the pandemic's first wave. The government aims to offer a first jab to all adults in the UK by the end of July, with one in three adults already vaccinated, Mr Hancock said. Boris Johnson will unveil his plan for ending England's lockdown on Monday. The PM is due to hold a final meeting with senior ministers later, to finalise the details, before presenting them to MPs in the Commons on Monday afternoon. He will lead a Downing Street briefing in the evening. A further 9,834 coronavirus cases were recorded in the UK on Sunday and 215 more people have died within 28 days of a positive Covid test, according to the government's daily figures. The UK's devolved nations have the power to set their own restrictions, and have been moving at different speeds: In Scotland, the government hopes to publish a route out of lockdown next week, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged people not to book Easter holidays In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced up to four people from two different households can exercise outdoors together from Saturday; he said he hoped the "stay-at-home" requirement could end within three weeks, with some non-essential shops and hairdressers possibly reopening at the same time Northern Ireland's health minister has played down the prospect of restrictions being eased in time for Easter - a review of current measures will take place on 18 March As part of the road map, Public Health England will publish new data on the impact of vaccines on transmission rates. Mr Hancock told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that he was "absolutely delighted" with the progress of the vaccine rollout. But he added that while hospital admissions were falling, the number of people in hospital - currently around 18,000 - was still "far too high". The health secretary reiterated the government's new plan to offer a jab to adults aged 50 and over and those in the top nine priority groups by 15 April, followed by all adults by the end of July. The government's previous target was to offer all adults the first dose by September, but the PM has said he wants the rollout to "go further and faster". Mr Johnson has said that this would give vulnerable people protection "sooner" and help to further ease lockdown restrictions across the country. When will it be my turn to be vaccinated? How many people have been vaccinated so far? What are the UK's lockdown rules and when will they end? However, the order of priority for the under-50s has yet to be outlined by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Prof Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, told BBC Breakfast earlier that he expected a public announcement would be made on vaccine priorities at some point in the next week. Lockdown has reduced cases more than some believed was possible - and now there are the early indications the vaccination programme is having an impact too. Despite this, it looks likely the government will announce a very gradual lifting of restrictions in England on Monday. Why the caution? Even if rates rebound only a little, there are still large numbers of vulnerable people. Nearly half of hospitalisations have been in the under-70s, for example. What is more, high levels of infection at a time when vaccines are being rolled out and immunity being built provides the perfect breeding ground for new variants. Mutation may be unavoidable in the long-term, but encouraging them at this point would, many experts believe, be foolish. The problem is that there are so many unknowns. Will the arrival of spring help keep the virus at bay? Will the UK variant mean the re-opening of schools has a significant impact on infection levels? But, on the flip side, being too cautious will prolong the costs of lockdown. It is, to say the least, a tricky balancing act. So far, more than 17 million people have received a vaccine since the rollout began in December last year. Mr Hancock said ministers were "confident" the vaccine worked effectively against the old strain of the virus and the so-called Kent variant. However, he warned the government did "not yet have the confidence" the jab was "as effective" against the South Africa variant and the variant first seen in Brazil, but that enhanced contact tracing and stricter border controls were reducing the cases of those variants in the UK. The latest data showed "around a dozen" new cases of the South African variant in the UK, with an overall total of around 300 cases, Mr Hancock added. Asked if the spread of the South Africa variant was "shrinking", he said: "I think that's a good summary yes". Meanwhile, Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme that vaccine transmission data was "looking really good", but scientists still needed to estimate by how much the vaccine interrupted transmission. Source: Coronavirus: Latest data shows vaccine reduces transmission - Hancock
  4. Coronavirus is in the air — there’s too much focus on surfaces A team disinfecting the Qintai Grand Theatre in Wuhan, China, in January.Credit: Xia Junjun/VCG/Getty A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare (E. Goldman Lancet Infect. Dis. 20, 892–893; 2020). Despite this, some public-health agencies still emphasize that surfaces pose a threat and should be disinfected frequently. The result is a confusing public message when clear guidance is needed on how to prioritize efforts to prevent the virus spreading. In its most recent public guidance, updated last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised: “Avoid touching surfaces, especially in public settings, because someone with COVID-19 could have touched them before. Clean surfaces regularly with standard disinfectants.” A WHO representative told Nature in January that there is limited evidence of the coronavirus being passed on through contaminated surfaces known as fomites. But they added that fomites are still considered a possible mode of transmission, citing evidence that SARS‑CoV-2 RNA has been identified “in the vicinity of people infected with SARS-CoV-2”. And although the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that surface transmission is “not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads”, it also says that “frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important”. This lack of clarity about the risks of fomites — compared with the much bigger risk posed by transmission through the air — has serious implications. People and organizations continue to prioritize costly disinfection efforts, when they could be putting more resources into emphasizing the importance of masks, and investigating measures to improve ventilation. The latter will be more complex but could make more of a difference. The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority alone estimates that its annual COVID-related sanitation costs will be close to US$380 million between now and 2023. Late last year, the authority asked the US federal government for advice on whether to focus solely on aerosols. It was told to concentrate on fomites, too, and has so far directed more resources towards cleaning surfaces than tackling aerosols. Now that it is agreed that the virus transmits through the air, in both large and small droplets, efforts to prevent spread should focus on improving ventilation or installing rigorously tested air purifiers. People must also be reminded to wear masks and maintain a safe distance. At the same time, agencies such as the WHO and the CDC need to update their guidance on the basis of current knowledge. Research on the virus and on COVID-19 moves quickly, so public-health agencies have a responsibility to present clear, up-to-date information that provides what people need to keep themselves and others safe. Source: Coronavirus is in the air — there’s too much focus on surfaces
  5. Why don’t we have an ideal mask yet? Global coronavirus deaths have been falling—but scientists are worried that new variants of the virus may reverse those trends. Some of these new variants, like one from the UK, are more infectious and take a smaller viral load to cause a full body invasion. Scientists at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have started researching whether or not wearing two masks may be more beneficial than one alone. Some high-profile figures, including Anthony Fauci, the head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are already doubling up. Theoretically, wearing one masks over another could help protect you from incoming droplets, or others from the ones you expel. But there’s a limit to their utility depending on the kinds of masks used for layering. Scientists are working to set global standards for the myriad kinds of masks available to help consumers make those decisions—but until then, here’s what you need to know to make your own masking decisions. Fuller filtration—to a point The added benefit of layering one mask over another is the added filtration potential. The more filters between your airways and the outside world, the less likely you are to encounter a pathogen-containing particle. These benefits are additive. “It’s increasing your protection by the added benefit of that surgical mask,” says Christopher Zangmeister, a scientist who studies aerosols at the US National Institutes of Standards and Technology. Put another way, a double-layer cloth mask with a surgical mask could have roughly the same kind of filtration as a three-layered cloth mask akin to the ones the World Health Organization has previously recommended. Depending on the protection provided by your original mask, it may meaningfully increase your filtration—or it may not. But at a certain point, there’s a tradeoff between more filtration and overall protection. For one thing, more layers may be less comfortable—which could lead to dubious face-touching or adjusting. The more you touch your face, the more likely a particle on your hands could reach its way into your airways. And there’s another problem: too much filtration becomes unbreathable. “Are you breathing through the material, or are you breathing through the gaps in the material?” Zangmeister says. If you’re breathing through the gaps in between the mask and your face, you’re not getting any filtration production at all. In lab settings, Zangmeister and his team have found these areas where air escapes tend to be behind the cheeks, or right above the bridge of the nose, which can look like a droplet exhalation geyser, he says. There’s a simple test to see if your masks aren’t actually working as a filter, Zangmeister says. Go outside on a cold day, and wear either glasses or sunglasses and breathe for 30 seconds. If your breath fogs the glasses, too much air may be leaving (and therefore coming in) above your nose, rather than through the mask itself. Standardizing filtration It’s frustrating that at this point in the pandemic, we still don’t have an ideal mask. Masks vary widely depending on who manufacturers them. Some even fraudulently boast they can filter more than they actually do. The problem is there is no universal standardization for commercial masks. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration approves medical-grade masks while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifies and tests professional grade masks for people like firefighters or construction workers. But there’s no single authority that makes an easy-to-read standard for masks for the general public. ASTM InternationalASTM stands for “American Society for Testing and Materials” but the group serves the global community “1”, a global regulatory agency that comes up with all kinds of guidelines, is currently working on these standards. Zangmeister, whose current research could support their ultimate decisions, says the group could release a set of standards by mid-March. They’d appear like a simple number or lettering system on mask packaging to guarantee a certain level of protection. It may feel late in the pandemic for a set of global, commercial mask standards, but normally this process takes years, not months. When making these considerations, scientists have to consider the diversity of face shapes as well as mask materials. All those differences mean there’s no easy way to determine exactly which material will offer what specific level of protection. Source: Why don’t we have an ideal mask yet?
  6. 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
  7. How Fast Can Scientists Find the New Coronavirus Strains? The discovery of more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 in the US sparks a push for a long-overdue national genomic surveillance network. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images Late last week, Charles Chiu’s lab at UC San Francisco received a shipment of test tubes from the California Department of Public Health. This wasn’t out of the ordinary. For almost a year, Chiu, an infectious disease doctor, has been collaborating with the state agency to conduct genetic sequencing on samples from people who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 mutates as it moves through a population. Most of these mutations are trivial and don’t change how the virus behaves. But by making a record of these mutations, scientists can track the coronavirus’s spread and better understand the origins of different outbreaks. Chiu had been assisting with this kind of genetic detective work for months. This time, though, he had reason to think his team was about to find something new. Two of the samples belonged to members of a household in Big Bear, California, who got sick after one of them had contact with a traveler who had recently returned from the United Kingdom. And during standard diagnostic testing, something strange had happened to both samples. The test detected bits of a protein that protects the virus’s genome, but not the spike protein SARS-CoV-2 uses to invade cells. That meant that whatever strain had infected these people had probably acquired at least one mutation in the virus’s spike protein gene. Mutations in that location are one signature of the new, seemingly more contagious variety of the coronavirus that has been rapidly spreading in the UK and now around the world. By Saturday, Chiu’s lab had sequencing results. And sure enough, those two samples turned up 23 telltale mutations in the spike protein. Both people had been infected with the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7. At the time, there were fewer than 10 such cases in the US, following an initial discovery of the UK variant in Colorado on December 29. As of January 8, at least 52 people have been confirmed to have contracted the new strain, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, it has shown up in New York, Florida, and Georgia, in addition to California and Colorado. Chiu thinks the real picture is actually far worse. “I suspect it’s circulating in nearly every state in the US,” he says. “It’s just that other states don’t have the same sequencing capabilities.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, coronavirus sequencing has been a patchy, ad hoc affair, dominated by areas with big biomedical research institutions that are staffed by scientists eager to investigate the virus’s evolution. States like California and Colorado are sequencing and uploading hundreds of viral genomes every week, according to the latest data from an international virus-sharing database known as GISAID. But others have only done a few dozen—total. North Dakota, which for the month of November held the ignominious record for the worst outbreak in the US, has yet to sequence a single sample. On a national level, the US simply hasn’t built out a robust, coordinated, genomic surveillance system capable of keeping tabs on problematic new mutations wherever they might arise. The result is not just scarce sequencing. It’s a monitoring system missing huge chunks of the country. “We are really behind in terms of having geographically representative data,” says Kelly Wroblewski, the director of infectious disease for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. She sees the failure as the inevitable outcome of the Trump administration’s decision to leave nearly every aspect of the coronavirus response up to individual states—from ramping up diagnostic testing to rolling out vaccines. “There was no national sequencing plan, because there has not been a national much-of-anything plan,” she says. Of the more than 21.5 million Covid-19 cases officially reported in the US, samples from just 59,438 people, or less than 0.3 percent, have been sequenced and analyzed for variants, according to GISAID. By contrast, the UK is regularly sequencing more than 10 percent of its Covid-19 cases. That allowed British public health officials to monitor in real time as the B.1.1.7 variant went from being a rare find at the beginning of December to dominating new infections three weeks later. The Brits might be an outstanding example in this regard, but they’re not alone. According to a recent Washington Post analysis, 42 other countries have sequenced more cases than the US, despite the fact that Americans account for a quarter of all coronavirus infections globally. “What the US is doing right now is completely inadequate,” says Chiu. He thinks American government officials should be setting their sights on that 10 percent threshold. But the effort will undoubtedly be complicated by the fractured US health care system. In the UK, which has a single nationalized health service and a supporting microbiology service, it’s relatively easy to flow samples and data. In the US, the private sector still dominates the testing market. In order for a sample to show up in Chiu’s lab, he says, it has to go from a commercial lab to the county lab and then to the state lab before it gets to him. That can take weeks—if it even happens at all. Often, by the time a public health department epidemiologist comes across a case they want to investigate with genetics, the original sample has already been discarded. “The rate-limiting step isn’t sequencing; it’s really getting the sample,” says Chiu. “That’s why we have to empower state and county labs to do it in-house, so we can get the data out faster.” Over the last decade, public health labs have built up their sequencing capacities as part of their role in tracking outbreaks of foodborne illness across the US. Every state lab, as well as a handful of large regional ones, has the technology readily available, according to Wrobleski. But they haven’t been able to deploy it widely during the pandemic because they’ve had their hands full just trying to conduct basic diagnostic tests and contact tracing, she says. And until a few weeks ago, they hadn’t been given marching orders to do anything differently. But that’s finally starting to change. In mid-December, the CDC released $15 million to public health labs around the country to boost sequencing outputs nationwide. That was part of a multipronged effort now underway at the agency to increase both the number of coronavirus variants being characterized and the locations from which they’re being drawn. The money will help states participate in a dedicated SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program, dubbed NS3, which the CDC launched in November. When the program is fully operational, public health labs will be expected to send 10 randomly selected coronavirus samples to the CDC’s labs in Atlanta every other week. The samples should represent patients from different age, racial, and ethnic groups, as well as the geographic diversity of each state. In addition to sequencing them, CDC scientists will also use the samples to build up a centralized strain library that they can dip into to perform additional tests. “Sequencing will tell us a lot, but it can’t tell us everything,” says Gregory Armstrong, who leads the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection. For example, one of the things public health experts are concerned about is how well people with existing immunity gained through a previous bout with Covid-19 will be able to fend off infections with this new UK strain. To test it, scientists have to be able to assess how well the antibodies found in the blood of Covid-19 survivors attack and neutralize the B.1.1.7 version of the virus. Another alarming possibility is that the vaccines that have been developed and authorized so far won’t be as effective against emerging strains. “We need to have a library of variants in order to get those answers,” says Armstrong. The NS3 program, which Armstrong expects to be fully up and running by the end of the month, will help with that. But it won’t get the US as much genetic data as public health officials need to track the progress of B.1.1.7 and other emerging strains, like an alarming one that originated in South Africa, through the American populace. That’s why the CDC is also bringing large commercial testing labs on board. In December, the agency signed contracts with LabCorp and Illumina, and it is in the process of negotiating further deals with others that have the capacity to acquire and sequence samples from all around the country. In addition, since September the CDC has granted about $8 million to academic sequencing centers and is currently seeking to bring additional sites online. Data from all these efforts is continuously analyzed by CDC scientists and uploaded to public databases like GISAID for other researchers to use. These new efforts are designed to boost the efforts of scientists like Chiu, who since the early stages of the pandemic has been part of a CDC-led coalition of more than 160 research institutions, non-governmental organizations, and public health agencies called Spheres (Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology, and Surveillance). The federal initiative aims to help scientists agree on data and quality standards, but it doesn’t foot the bill for actual lab work. And it hasn’t been able to keep pace with the pandemic. “We feel very strongly that we haven’t been sequencing enough,” says Armstrong. “That’s why we’re taking these steps right now to scale things up.” In December, labs throughout the US were sequencing about 3,000 viral genomes per week. He’s optimistic that by combining the forces of public, academic, and commercial labs, the nation can get up to 6,500 viral genomes per week by the end of January. Wrobleski speculates that the newfound urgency at the CDC comes from a collision of forces—the surfacing of more transmissible, and possibly more dangerous, new strains right as the beleaguered public health agency wriggles free of the political meddling of the Trump administration. Whatever the reason, the window to get it right is closing, says Chiu. “The point of doing surveillance is to find these rare variants and, in doing so, make sure they continue to be rare. If we do it now, we can hopefully still prevent these variants from blowing up and becoming the predominant lineage. That would be a disaster.” How Fast Can Scientists Find the New Coronavirus Strains?
  8. Not the time to focus on a word — WHO tries to calm talk of pandemic, says the word “does not fit the facts” Meanwhile, US coronavirus cases hit 53 as more cruise passengers test positive. Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gives a press conference on the situation regarding the COVID-19 at Geneva's WHO headquarters on February 24, 2020. Getty | Fabrice Coffrini As outbreaks of the new coronavirus flare up in several countries beyond China, experts at the World Health Organization on Monday tried to rein in fears and media speculation that the public health emergency will become a pandemic. “I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing Monday. “Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.” As always, the director-general (who goes by Dr. Tedros) and his colleagues at WHO tried to shift the conversation away from speculation and worst-case scenarios. Instead, they want to focus on data and preparation. In doing so, though, Dr. Tedros noted that some of the latest figures in the epidemic are “deeply concerning.” Since last week, officials have reported rapid increases in COVID-19 cases in several countries, namely South Korea, Iran, and Italy. As of Monday, February 24, South Korea has confirmed 763 cases and seven deaths—a dramatic rise from the 30 cases and zero deaths it had tallied just a week ago. The situation in Italy, likewise, went from three cases at the start of last week to 124 confirmed cases and two deaths Monday. Iran went from zero to 43 cases in the same period and has reported eight deaths. The figures have led to many media reports over the weekend speculating as to whether the new coronavirus outbreak is or would become a pandemic. For now, Dr. Tedros said, it is not. “Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” he explained. “For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.” Assessing risk Dr. Tedros summarized some of the latest data on cases and disease from China, noting that cases there are in decline and have been declining since February 2. In Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December, the COVID-19 fatality rate appears to be between 2 percent and 4 percent. US experts have noted that this high fatality rate may partly reflect the fact that health systems in the city have been extremely overwhelmed by the outbreak, and facilities have run short on medical supplies. Outside of Wuhan, the COVID-19 fatality rate in China is approximately 0.7 percent, Dr. Tedros said. But many public health experts have suggested that even that figure may be higher than the actual fatality rate because many mild, nonfatal cases may have gone uncounted. If counted, they would dilute the death toll, leading to a lower fatality rate. For people who have mild infections—which is over 80 percent of cases, according to Chinese data—recovery takes about two weeks. More severe infections can take three to six weeks until recovery. Dr. Tedros also reported that the coronavirus itself does not appear to be mutating. “The key message that should give all countries hope, courage, and confidence is that this virus can be contained,” Dr. Tedros said of the latest assessment from China. “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.” Tomorrow, a team of experts from WHO and China will reveal more details on a technical report about the situation, including 22 recommendations on how best to address the epidemic. Worldwide As of Monday, there are over 79,400 cases worldwide, with 2,622 deaths. The vast majority of cases and deaths are in China. About 2,100 cases and 23 deaths are scattered among 31 countries outside of China, as well as the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama, Japan. Also Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated the number of cases in the country from 34 on Friday to 53 today. The jump is largely due to a rise in cases among repatriated passengers from the Diamond Princess. The case count among those travelers rose from 18 to 36. All of the cases in the United States so far are linked to travel or are in people who have been repatriated from outbreak areas and were therefore already considered at high risk. The risk to the general American public at this time is still considered to be low. However, the CDC has said that it expects that cases will continue to be identified and that community-based spread may occur. The agency says it is working with state and local health systems to prepare for that possibility. Source: WHO tries to calm talk of pandemic, says the word “does not fit the facts” (Ars Technica)
  9. It’s going to take a lot longer to make a COVID-19 vaccine than a treatment Scientists have a head start on treatments Photo by Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images Scientists and drug companies are racing to develop and test treatments and vaccines that address COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Work on both is progressing at an unprecedented speed — but researchers are starting essentially from scratch on vaccine development, so the process is going to take a long time. Treatments, on the other hand, were further along when the outbreak started and might be available sooner. “They’re in vastly different situations right now,” says Florian Krammer, a professor and vaccine development expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Both treatments and vaccines are important for a robust and effective response to the outbreak. Treatments help people after they already have a disease; in the case of COVID-19, researchers hope to treat the around 15 percent of COVID-19 patients who have non-mild symptoms. Vaccines, on the other hand, help prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Scientists started work on drugs to treat coronaviruses during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, but because the outbreaks died down, the job was never completed. Now, they’re able to dust off that old research and start building on it. The leading candidate is a drug called remdesivir, which was developed by the pharmaceutical company Gilead. Research showed that it could block SARS and MERS in cells and in mice. In addition, remdesivir was used in a clinical trial looking for treatments for Ebola — and therefore, it had already gone through safety testing to make sure it doesn’t cause any harm. That’s why teams in China and the US were able to start clinical trials testing remdesivir in COVID-19 patients so quickly. There should be data available showing if it helps them get better as soon as April. If it proves effective, Gilead would presumably be able to ramp up production and get the drug in the hands of doctors fairly quickly, Krammer says. The vaccine development process will take much longer. Experts say that it will be between a year and 18 months, or maybe longer, before they’re available to the public. One of the strategies for creating a vaccine involves making copies of one part of the virus (in this case, the bit that the novel coronavirus uses to infiltrate cells). Then, the immune system of the person who receives the vaccine makes antibodies that neutralize that particular bit. If they were exposed to the virus, those antibodies would be able to stop the virus from functioning. The pharmaceutical company Moderna is the furthest along in the process; it already has that type of vaccine ready for testing. A trial in 45 healthy people to make sure that it’s safe will start in March or April and will take around three months to complete. After that, it’ll have to be tested in an even larger group to check if it actually immunizes people against the novel coronavirus. That will take six to eight months. And then, it’ll have to be manufactured at a huge scale, which poses an additional challenge. Making vaccines is always challenging. Developing this one is made more difficult because there has never been a vaccine for any type of coronavirus. “We don’t have a production platform, we have no experience in safety, we don’t know if there will be complications. We have to start from scratch, basically,” Krammer says. It was much easier to make a vaccine for H1N1, known as swine flu, which emerged as a never-before-seen virus in 2009. “There are large vaccine producers in the US and globally for flu,” Krammer says. Manufacturers were able to stop making the vaccine against the seasonal flu and start making a vaccine for this new strain of flu. “They didn’t need clinical trials, they just had to make the vaccine and distribute it,” he says. There won’t be a vaccine done in time to hold off any approaching outbreak of COVID-19 in the US or in other countries where it’s still not widespread. That’s why treatments are so important: along with good public health practices, they can help blunt the impact of the disease and make it less of an unstoppable threat. The best experts can hope for is that a vaccine can help prevent other outbreaks in the future if the novel coronavirus sticks around. Source: It’s going to take a lot longer to make a COVID-19 vaccine than a treatment (The Verge)
  10. Tim Cook says Apple is reopening factories as China gets ‘coronavirus under control’ He made the comments in a new interview Apple CEO Tim Cook said today that factories in China that manufacture the company’s products are reopening as “China is getting the coronavirus under control.” The comments came from a preview of an upcoming interview with Fox Business. Here is a transcript of what Cook said in the snippet shared by Fox Business (Cook’s comments begin at 0:40): It feels to me that China is getting the coronavirus under control. I mean you look at the numbers, they’re coming down day by day by day. And so I’m very optimistic there. On the supplier side, we have suppliers — you know, iPhone is built everywhere in the world. We have key components coming from the United States, we have key parts that are in China, and so on and so forth. When you look at the parts that are done in China, we have reopened factories, so the factories were able to work through the conditions to reopen. They’re reopening. They’re also en-ramp, and so I think of this as sort of the third phase of getting back to normal. And we’re in phase three of the ramp mode. Technically, Cook is correct — the number of new cases within China is actually slowing, according to Chinese authorities. But there are new outbreaks in other areas of the world, including South Korea, Italy, and Iran. So the coronavirus will still likely have global economic effects, and it’s unclear how its continued spread will impact other aspects of business, travel, public health, and policy. There’s also the matter of why Cook may be saying this now. His comments are likely intended to reassure investors that the company’s business is on solid footing, as Apple and other tech stocks have fallen in recent days over continued worries and news about the coronavirus. Last week, the company said in a rare investor update that the global effects of the coronavirus outbreak would lead to lower second quarter revenue than expected, in part because of the outbreak’s effect on iPhone manufacturing. In that update, Apple said its iPhone factories had reopened but that they were “ramping up more slowly than we had anticipated.” Coronavirus hasn’t affected just Apple — it’s had a wide-ranging impact on the tech industry. The Verge has a guide to the coronavirus right here if you want to learn more about it. Source: Tim Cook says Apple is reopening factories as China gets ‘coronavirus under control’ (The Verge)
  11. IBM cancels its biggest event of the year over coronavirus fears IBM CEO Ginni Rometti IBM has canceled its biggest developer conference of the year over coronavirus concerns. IBM Think was set to be held in San Francisco in May, but it will instead it will hold a digital event. IBM also placed restrictions on employee travel, including limits on domestic work travel and a ban on attending events with more than 1,000 people. In a statement, IBM said: "The health of IBM's clients, employees and partners is our primary concern. In light of global precautions for the COVID-19 Coronavirus, and building upon recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), IBM is taking a new approach to its signature events and adopting new travel policies." As the coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, IBM is canceling its biggest developer conference, limiting employee travel, and restricting employees from participating in events with more than 1,000 attendees. IBM's client and developer conference IBM Think, which brought 30,000 attendees last year, was supposed to take place May 5-7 in San Francisco. Instead, IBM announced Wednesday that it will now hold a digital event with "live streamed content, interactive sessions and certifications and locally hosted events, which will highlight IBM's technology and industry expertise for developers and clients without the risk of travel." IBM is also placing new travel restrictions on employees through the end of March. IBM plans to suspend all domestic travel for internal meetings, and it plans to cut back on international travel to only "business-critical situations when virtual methods are insufficient." IBM is still allowing domestic travel for work with clients, although employees are encouraged to hold meetings virtually. In addition, if IBM employees have traveled recently to any restricted locations, they must inform their manager and self-quarantine for 14 days after their trip. "The health of IBM's clients, employees and partners is our primary concern," IBM said in a blog post. "In light of global precautions for the COVID-19 Coronavirus, and building upon recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), IBM is taking a new approach to its signature events and adopting new travel policies." IBM is also withdrawing its attendance in the HIMSS health care conference in Orlando next week. Recently, there has been a false rumor spreading around about an IBM employee in Austin who has coronavirus, and IBM has been working to assure employees that it's not true. IBM's cancellation and new rules highlights how COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has been causing widespread disruption and uncertainty for major tech companies. The outbreak has infected more than 95,000 people and killed more than 3,250, mostly in China. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have taken measures in response to the spread of coronavirus, such as canceling conferences, encouraging employees to work remotely, and conducting interviews virtually. Source
  12. Everything you wanted to know about self-isolation, from a person who’s living it My generation was made for this Photo via Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash It’s a romance story, really: boy asks girl to go to Milan for Valentine’s Day weekend. They dine, wine, ski, shop, then come home and spend two weeks at home unable to leave each other’s side. At least, it would be a romance story if it weren’t for the fact that just days after they returned, Italy experienced an outbreak of the novel coronavirus that, to date, has killed and infected more than 100 people and 3,000 people, respectively, in that region. The girl in question is me, by the way, and the first reaction people have when I tell them I’ve been advised to self-quarantine is that they’re shocked or sorry. But the truth is there’s nothing that prepares you better for isolation than the internet era. I already spend my days in front of screens and in my own head. We’re a generation built for this kind of alonement. In all seriousness: self-isolating is an important decision that should not be made lightly. When done right, you could help prevent the transmission of the virus in your community and might help contain an outbreak. So just how do you properly self-isolate? From my experience so far, you’ll need patience and to take a lot of precautions. How do I know if I have to self-isolate? On a virtually empty flight from Italy. Maybe that was the first sign that something was off. Have you traveled to China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Hong Kong, or Japan in the last 14 days? If the answer is yes, you should probably self-isolate for two weeks from the last day you were in the affected country. Other countries that are also experiencing smaller outbreaks include Macau, Singapore, and Mongolia. If you’ve recently returned from those areas, you may also want to consider self-isolating out of extra precaution. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, can exhibit symptoms between two and 14 days after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So even if you feel fine in the first few days, you should wait for a full two weeks to make sure nothing develops within that incubation period. I haven’t been to those places recently, but someone in my class / office / family has. Have you been in close contact with those people in the last 14 days? You’re probably fine if you just waved at each other from across the hallway, but if you’ve been in the same meeting room for an extended time or went out for food with them, it’s likely a good idea to also stay home to monitor for symptoms, especially if that person begins exhibiting them, too. Fine, I guess I’ll self-isolate. What am I looking for during this period? COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, and symptoms include fever, coughing, chest pains, and difficulty breathing. If you experience any of those symptoms during your self-isolation, call your doctor to get advice on what to do next. Wearing a mask and showing up to your local hospital or urgent care may risk infecting others in your community along the way, so it’s safer to get advice from a medical professional before heading to a facility for treatment. Got it. So how am I supposed to live while stuck at home for two weeks? If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s how much we touch our faces without thinking about it or how much stuff we share with our community in daily living. The day I found out I had to self-quarantine, my immediate thought was to get groceries to last the weeks. Then I realized I couldn’t leave my house to go pick my own vegetables and fruits at the risk of potentially infecting a whole supermarket. There are several options here. Most major cities offer food and grocery delivery services like Peapod, Instacart, or FreshDirect. You can also employ labor markets like TaskRabbit or ask friends and family to get you necessities like food, toiletries, and medicine while you’re in isolation. Only use these options if you are truly self-isolating and need to be! You don’t want to risk depleting supplies from those who actually need them. Before your delivery arrives, it’s a good idea to disinfect public areas that the delivery person might interact with, such as the doorknob or doorbell, by using wipes or cleaning solutions. When your savior arrives with the goods, ask them to call you or leave a sign out front to drop the items outside your door. Only when they’ve departed should you retrieve your goods to avoid potential person-to-person spread. Whoa, my house is piling up in trash! Isn’t it wild how much waste we generate in just a few days? Many cities are asking that those in self-quarantine line trash cans with double bags and do not take them out until the isolation period is over. Separate your wet and dry trash to contain the smell as best you can. If you’re in the clear after two weeks, take the garbage out as usual; otherwise, a medical professional will advise you on what to do. (If you have gloves on hand, it wouldn’t hurt to take them out while wearing them.) What if I have roommates? I hope you like your bedroom because this is your home for the next 14 days. You shouldn’t leave it other than to get something to eat or use the bathroom — and you should let your roommates use the kitchen / bathroom before you go in. Remember to also thoroughly disinfect surfaces you touch after you’re done to avoid contaminating shared spaces, and do not share household items like cups, plates, utensils, and towels during this time. If you share a bed with your partner, it’s best to also isolate from each other if possible to avoid potentially transmitting the virus to one another. Even if you both were in an impacted country together, it’s still possible one person could have caught it separately. If you live in a small studio apartment and have no place else to go, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask when you’re around housemates. If you’re responsible for taking care of others (yes, that includes pets!), you’ll need to make plans for someone to take over those duties for the next two weeks as COVID-19 can be particularly dangerous for those with underlying health conditions or the elderly. If you’re a nursing mother, you should also consult with a medical professional. The CDC guidelines indicate that if you must breastfeed, wash your hands before handling the infant or a breast pump machine. It’s been said a bunch of times already, but you should also wash your hands thoroughly and often. Each wash should last 20 seconds using soap and water. Kill time by singing the verse of your favorite song, chanting the ABCs, or put on a good TikTok. (Each one lasts 15 to 60 seconds, and since it loops, you can watch a short one twice. What, like you have some place to be right now?) What the heck am I supposed to do for two weeks in a room? Your imagination is as good as mine! Are there any side projects you’ve always wanted to start or at-home hobbies you want to get back into? Shows you’ve always meant to binge but never found time to? Things you want to learn but haven’t found a way to commit? Books you’re behind on? Thankfully, I’ve been able to work from home with my personal laptop, stream some TV shows at night, and find a lot of time to start working out more regularly without distractions luring me into the outside world. The new Final Fantasy VII PS4 demo is also out, if you have a system. The thing that helped me was to consider the quarantine not as a prison sentence, but as an opportunity to regain time for myself and learn how to be happy being alone. It’s actually kind of nice. Of course, getting lonely is natural, so also use this time to connect with yourself or call a loved one; you might not be allowed to have visitors at home but you can always talk to friends by phone or video call if you begin to get cabin fever. But really, are you okay, Natt? Look, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t already watched all of the reruns of Project Runway this season. Yes, you will get bored. Cabin fever will happen, but it’s going to be fine. In the meantime, feel free to send funny GIFs to @nattgarun. Source: Everything you wanted to know about self-isolation, from a person who’s living it (The Verge)
  13. Twitter has announced that employees are encouraged to work from home in an effort to stop the spread of a novel coronavirus that has infected at least 105 people in 15 states and killed six people in the U.S. The San Francisco-based social media company is believed to be the first major U.S. firm to announce a work-from-home policy as companies around the world enact new plans to fight COVID-19. Shelves where disinfectant wipes are usually displayed at a Target store on March 2, 2020 in Novato, California in the Bay Area. “Beginning today, we are strongly encouraging all employees globally to work from home if they’re able. Our goal is to lower the probability of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus for us—and the world around us,” Twitter said in a statement posted to the company’s website. “We are operating out of an abundance of caution and the utmost dedication to keeping our Tweeps healthy.” There have been no reports of any Twitter employees contracting the virus, but with over 4,800 employees worldwide, the company clearly doesn’t want to take any chances. As of Tuesday morning, the coronavirus pandemic has reached at least 67 countries, sickened over 91,000 people worldwide, and killed at least 3,118. Twitter cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey, who has recently come under fire from activist investors who want him to step down, recently cancelled his appearance at this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas over concerns about the coronavirus outbreaks. South by Southwest is still scheduled to start on Friday, March 13 and will not be cancelled, despite a petition to do exactly that, according to the Austin American-Statesman. While Twitter is encouraging people to work from home, it’s also allowing employees in some countries to continue traveling into the office if they like. Working from home is already mandatory for Twitter employees in Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea due to government restrictions. “We are working to make sure internal meetings, all hands, and other important tasks are optimized for remote participation,” Twitter said. “We recognize that working from home is not ideal for some job functions. For those employees who prefer or need to come into the offices, they will remain open for business.” Hong Kong has 100 cases and two deaths, while Japan has 274 cases and 6 deaths, not including the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise that was, until recently, docked in Yokohama. At least 706 of the roughly 3,700 people on board contracted the virus and six have died. South Korea has also been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, with 374 new cases on Tuesday alone, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 5,186. South Korea’s government, which has declared a “war” on the virus, announced on Tuesday that the country has 28 deaths so far, according to Yonhap News. Twitter added that it’s “deep cleaning and sanitizing” its buildings and is installing visual reminders on personal hygiene and food safety. And it’s unlikely that this will be the first U.S.-based company to encourage employees to stay home. “While this is a big change for us, we have already been moving towards a more distributed workforce that’s increasingly remote,” Twitter said in a statement. “We’re a global service and we’re committed to enabling anyone, anywhere to work at Twitter.” Source
  14. Stanford group wants to use your computer to help researchers study the coronavirus [email protected] leverages unused computing power from idle machines Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images Stanford University’s [email protected] distributed computing project is seeking volunteers to help researchers develop treatment therapies for the novel coronavirus. [email protected] (FAH) uses the processing capacity of networked computers to simulate the complex process of protein folding, which helps determine how to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and SARS, another coronavirus. A brief explainer from [email protected]: For both coronaviruses [the current 2019 nCoV and SARS], the first step of infection occurs in the lungs, when a protein on the surface of the virus binds to a receptor protein on a lung cell. This viral protein is called the spike protein ... Proteins are not stagnant—they wiggle and fold and unfold to take on numerous shapes. We need to study not only one shape of the viral spike protein, but all the ways the protein wiggles and folds into alternative shapes Studying how the protein folds could eventually help researchers develop drugs that could treat infections of the virus. This kind of research requires substantial computational power, which FAH generates by tapping into volunteers’ CPUs when they’re idle. The project famously used to use idle Sony PlayStation 3s, whose unique “Core” processors offered better performance at the time than comparable computers for the specific tasks FAH was doing. But Sony removed the functionality from PS3s in 2012. To participate in the coronavirus project, download the FAH software, and your computer’s unused resources will go to the [email protected] Consortium, “where a research team at Memorial Sloan Kettering is working to advance our understanding of the structures of potential drug targets for 2019-nCoV that could aid in the design of new therapies,” according to FAH’s blog post. There have been more than 89,000 confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. More than 3,000 people have died from the disease, including six people in Washington State. Marked by a cough, fever, and shortness of breath, the illness is typically mild, affecting the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions most acutely. Source: Stanford group wants to use your computer to help researchers study the coronavirus (The Verge)
  15. [ Because this Ars Technica article will be regularly updated, I'm only posting the title and the link. ] Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to the coronavirus This is a fast-moving epidemic—we'll update this guide regularly. Source: Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to the coronavirus (Ars Technica)
  16. the beginning? — Coronavirus: You may need to take a 2-week break from your life, CDC says CDC stresses individual action as situation looks out of hand. Enlarge / SEATTLE, WA - FEBRUARY 29: Healthcare workers transport a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance at Life Care Center of Kirkland on February 29, 2020, in Kirkland, Washington. Dozens of staff and residents at Life Care Center of Kirkland are reportedly exhibiting coronavirus-like symptoms. Getty | David Ryder 290 with 117 posters participating As ramped-up testing for COVID-19 by individual US states exposes hidden cases, disease transmission, and deaths, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging citizens to do their part to stop the spread of the new virus—including taking an extended hiatus from their daily lives. “You may need to take a break from your normal daily routine for two weeks,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a briefing Tuesday. At the time of publishing this story, there were at least 118 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths reported across at least 12 states in the US. Of those cases, 48 are in repatriated citizens, and the rest are a mix of travel-related cases, cases linked to travel cases, and community-spread cases. All of the deaths have occurred in Washington state, where the first US case was detected. Many of the cases in the state have since been linked to an outbreak in a King County skilled nursing home called Life Care. Worldwide, the COVID-19 epidemic has reached around 92,000 cases and over 3,100 deaths. While most of the cases and deaths so far have been reported from China, the daily counts of new cases in China has been steadily decreasing. On Monday, there were nearly eight times more cases reported outside of China than from within (1,598 cases outside versus 206 from China.) The explosion of cases outside China is largely driven by outbreaks in South Korea (over 5,100 cases), Iran (over 2,300 cases), and Italy (over 2,000 cases). Iran reported over 1,000 new cases just in the last 24 hours. “What is happening now in the United States may be the beginning of what is happening abroad,” Dr. Messonnier said in the press briefing. “We will continue to maintain—for as long as practical—an aggressive national posture of containment. That said, you might see some local communities taking specific actions to mitigate the disease.” Those specific actions might be to close schools, cancel events and large gatherings, and isolate people in their homes. Under fire While state and local communities will make their own decisions about mitigation efforts, Dr. Messonnier stressed that individual actions can determine how this will play out in the United States. She urged people to practice proper hygiene and stay home if they’re sick. If you do have symptoms of COVID-19—which primarily include fever, dry cough, and trouble breathing—contact your health care provider by phone, she said. During the rest of the press briefing, Dr. Messonnier tried to sidestep questions about the CDC’s response to the outbreak. The agency has come under extreme criticism for its hobbled COVID-19 testing, which slowed the detection of cases. The CDC has had unspecified technical problems with the tests that have been slow to resolve. A recent report in Axios suggested that the kits may have been contaminated, which Dr. Messonnier said was only one possible explanation for the problem. The CDC has also been criticized for providing health care providers with seemingly restrictive recommendations on who should be tested. That is, the agency recommended health care workers primarily test those with travel or known contact with a case. Some health officials said the guidance kept them from testing sick patients who had COVID-19 symptoms but did not meet those criteria. The CDC has denied that it was restricting testing in this way. In an earlier emailed statement to Ars, a CDC press officer noted that “CDC guidance for persons under investigation (PUI) for whom testing is indicated does include a sentence that is permissive of testing if a patient does not meet the specific criteria for testing but for whom clinical suspicion of COVID-19 is high.” In the rest of today’s briefing, Dr. Messonnier responded to questions regarding testing problems generally with: “What we really need to focus on now is where we are today.” She was also asked if she is allowed to speak freely on the outbreak or if the Trump administration is restricting her comments. She did not directly respond to the question, only saying that during this outbreak the CDC has "been very open and able to answer lots of different questions." Source: Coronavirus: You may need to take a 2-week break from your life, CDC says (Ars Technica) reader comments 290
  17. Amazon confirms Seattle employee is in quarantine with coronavirus The employee went home unwell last Tuesday Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge An Amazon employee in Seattle has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, as first reported by The New York Times. “We’re supporting the affected employee who is in quarantine,” the company tells The Verge in a statement. The employee is based out of the company’s “Brazil” (SEA53) building, according to an internal memo sent out to Amazon employees and obtained by The Verge. They went home feeling unwell on Tuesday, February 25th and haven’t returned to Amazon premises since. Amazon has notified employees who have been in close contact with the person. Earlier this week Amazon confirmed that two of its employees in Italy had contracted the virus and were in quarantine. The company had already requested that its nearly 800,000 employees halt non-essential travel within the US and elsewhere. Amazon has also had to deal with price gouging and misinformation on its marketplace in the wake of the virus outbreak. Nine people have died in Washington state from the novel coronavirus — and it’s the only place in the U.S. where deaths have occurred. There’s an ongoing outbreak of the virus in nearby Kirkland, Washington, where it spread among residents of a nursing facility. The virus may have been spreading undetected in Washington for six weeks, according to a genetic analysis. The spread wasn’t noticed until last week because the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hadn’t been testing people with no known exposure to the illness. Source: Amazon confirms Seattle employee is in quarantine with coronavirus (The Verge)
  18. Fearful reactions to the new coronavirus can put lives at risk It’s okay to be worried, but don’t let fear trump public health advice Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images People in the US are worried about the new coronavirus outbreak. That concern is warranted: the virus is a scary new threat, it can cause serious harm, and there aren’t any medications that can stop it. That’s not to mention the cancellations of schools, popular events, and the general disruption to people’s lives it’s causing. But fear, and the things people do when they’re afraid, changes and drives the societal impact of the virus. Viruses can’t function on their own: they require a host, a person, in order to survive and reproduce. That person makes choices and behaves in certain ways. When that person’s behaviors are driven by fear, it can lead to discrimination and decision-making out of line with public health recommendations — which can make the outbreak even worse. That’s the major common thread connecting outbreaks from the Black Death to the current novel coronavirus outbreak: fear and panic can magnify the harm done by a virus. “People can get worked up and do bad things in response,” says Philip Alcabes, professor of public health at Hunter College and author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu. In the US, panic over rising case counts has triggered a rush on grocery stores and pharmacies. In New York City, for example, there’s hardly a bottle of hand sanitizer to be found, and pasta and beans are in short supply. It’s good to prepare for disruption to everyday life, but there’s a difference between preparedness and panic buying — and the later can cause shortages. More troublingly, people in the US and around the world have also been buying up supplies of surgical masks and respirators, despite pleas from experts not to. Masks may offer some people comfort, but they don’t provide much protection against illness if they’re not used properly (and laypeople usually don’t use them properly). When they’re squirreled away in people’s homes, they’re not available for health care workers who actually need them and know how to use them. The World Health Organization says that there are worldwide shortages of masks and other protective equipment, and that puts health care workers’ at risk. That’s a problem for everyone, and it can exacerbate outbreaks. If health care workers, who are in close contact with COVID-19 patients, get sick in high numbers because they don’t have proper protection, it adds to the caseload for hospitals. It also leaves fewer nurses and doctors to treat patients. Panic also unearths racism and discrimination. The novel coronavirus originated in China, and when it started to spread, anti-Asian racism took off around the world. The same thing happened during the SARS outbreak in 2002. It’s an old story, Alcabes says. “When the Black Death first came to Europe, there were rumors in Switzerland that a Jewish guy had a secret recipe for poison and was putting it in drinking wells,” he says. “It caused a series of really dreadful attacks on Jewish communities.” The fear doesn’t create prejudice; it just reveals it. “It allows it to manifest. And it can do so in ways that can be really harmful to people,” he says. Also harmful are rumors and misinformation, which can spread quickly during epidemic outbreaks. They had devastating effects during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreaks in West Africa: people kept sick relatives home because they were afraid of treatment centers. When they tried to care for them without proper equipment, they quickly became ill themselves. That let the disease spread among families, which made the outbreak harder to contain. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, false theories that the virus was a bioweapon developed by the Chinese government or by Bill Gates spread online and were repeated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). A right-wing blog doxxed the Chinese scientist it accused of creating the weapon. In Iran, fake letters from health officials spread on social media, and bad information on the best ways to prevent infection from the virus circulated online. An email hoax led to protests in Ukraine that turned violent. People often turn to misinformation out of fear and when they can’t access or don’t trust information from experts or public health officials, Rob Blair, assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University, told The Verge. Believing misinformation can then create distrust in experts. That cycle may lead people to disregard public health advice and continue to, for example, buy and hoard masks or to ignore recommendations around isolation and quarantine. In the US, the spread of misinformation around the novel coronavirus has been facilitated by President Trump — who has contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by claiming, incorrectly, that vaccines would be available soon, that testing was widely available, and that people with symptoms of COVID-19 can go to work. The mismatch in messaging between the CDC and the president can make it hard for people to know what to trust and believe. That confusion can create and exacerbate panic. After the Ebola outbreaks, experts wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that public health officials and authorities need to grapple with fear in their response to future outbreaks. “Fear-related behaviors have the potential to accelerate the spread of a disease,” they wrote. During a disease outbreak, anxiety and worry are reasonable reactions, and it’s important to take precautions to reduce the spread of disease. People should wash their hands, stay home if they’re sick, and keep away from crowds; officials should consider rescheduling or canceling mass gatherings — all expert-recommended and evidence-based strategies that can blunt the worst societal side effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. But striving to avoid acting out of fear and pushing public officials to communicate in ways that help limit it can help make sure those strategies have the greatest possible effect. Source: Fearful reactions to the new coronavirus can put lives at risk (The Verge)
  19. Go read this essay about how life in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak is ‘a living hell’ Wuhan, China has been under lockdown since the end of January Photo by Getty Images NPR has a sobering essay about living in Wuhan, China, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Wuhan has been under a government-ordered lockdown since January 22nd. And according to the author of the essay, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid punishment for criticizing the Chinese government, the lockdown has made life in Wuhan “a living hell.” Part of the essay details the struggles the people of Wuhan faced in immediate aftermath of the announcement of the lockdown. The author described how people rushed to 24-hour convenience stores within an hour of the lockdown’s announcement to get food. A day later, the author said they celebrated Chinese New Year’s Eve with a meal “pieced together from the few ingredients I’d been able to buy in that last-minute shopping trip.” The essay is also deeply personal. The author discusses, for example, how they have worked hard and remained silent about politics in an effort to lead a secure life, but have become disillusioned with the Chinese government after it was slow to inform the public about coronavirus. “If we had human rights, democracy and freedom, we would have learned about what happened in Wuhan one month earlier,” the author says. “What has happened in Wuhan is as if your house caught on fire and all your neighbors knew but forbade you from jumping out of the window. Only until the fire is out of control, and the entire town ablaze, do they slowly begin taking responsibility while highlighting their own heroic efforts,” says the author in another particularly gut-wrenching passage. The whole essay is very illuminating, and I highly recommend spending a few minutes to go read it. Source: Go read this essay about how life in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak is ‘a living hell’ (The Verge)
  20. Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Vaccines As Covid-19 spreads, the pressure is on for drugmakers to get a vaccine to market. But it's not that easy. Since vaccine candidates started being developed in January, a version approved for public use won’t be available until the end of summer 2021, at the earliest. And that’s if nothing goes wrongPhotograph: Maria Toutoudaki/Getty Images It’s been fewer than three months since a novel coronavirus emerged in China, causing fever, coughing, and, in severe cases, pneumonia. Since then, the disease known as Covid-19 has swept into 72 countries, infecting nearly 93,000 people and killing more than 3,000. What makes the coronavirus scary enough to cause a worldwide run on face masks and lead countries to lock down whole megacities and ban travelers isn’t that it’s super deadly. So far, the World Health Organization estimates Covid-19’s fatality rate to be about 3.4 percent globally, which is still lower than other recent coronavirus outbreaks, including SARS and MERS. (That said, it appears to be more fatal than flu, which has a case fatality rate of around 0.1 percent.) And it’s very contagious. Still, most people who get Covid-19 will recover in a week or two, without need for hospitalization. What has people panicked is that it’s new. In the US and other developed countries, particularly in the global north, mystery illnesses don’t strike that often. People are used to having answers and a plan for avoiding getting sick. In these places, vaccines have already eliminated infectious diseases that were once common, including polio, hepatitis, and the measles. If you get your flu shot every year, the worst thing you’ll usually pick up is a case of the common cold. Which is perhaps why Americans can’t seem to wait to get their hands on a Covid-19 vaccine. President Donald Trump told pharmaceutical executives and public health officials in a White House meeting on Monday that he wants one ready before the election in November. For the record, that would be impossible. Developing vaccines that are safe and effective takes time, investment, and good science. Developing a vaccine for a coronavirus like the one that causes Covid-19 comes with even more challenges. But at least 30 companies and academic institutions are trying. Here’s your guide to everything you need to know about those efforts. Check back often—we’ll be keeping it updated with any notable progress or setbacks. What’s In a Vaccine? Vaccines all work on the same basic principle: Scientists try to make something that closely resembles a pathogen, and then expose a person’s immune system to it through a small dose administered as an injection. Ideally, the immune system develops a strong memory of the pathogen, so that the next time the person is exposed, their body will mount an attack before the infection can take hold. The trick is to do this without making the person seriously ill from the vaccine itself. There are a few different methods for making vaccines, but they all must strike this delicate balance. One way to make a vaccine is to weaken, or attenuate, the microorganism while still keeping it alive. The most common method for doing this is growing several generations of the pathogen in environments other than human cells, so that it evolves away from causing disease in humans. By repeatedly culturing live viruses or bacteria in animal cells, scientists can essentially create a bunch of mutants. Then it’s a matter of selecting the mutant strains that can replicate in human cells but don’t cause disease like their wild ancestor. The trick is that these imposters still have to look enough like the original virus to accurately train the immune system to fend it off. Examples of attenuated vaccines include those for measles, mumps, and tuberculosis. Another type is called an inactivated vaccine, which is made from a dead version of the whole virus or bacteria after it’s been killed with heat or chemicals. This type of vaccine can also be made using smaller pieces of the microbe, which by themselves are not considered alive. One common approach is to locate the protein that a virus uses like a key to get into human cells, which is usually on its surface. Once scientists know the genetic code for this protein, they can paste it into bacteria or yeast and use these microbial factories to produce huge quantities of it to be used as the basis of the vaccine. The protein alone is often enough to be easily recognized by the immune system and to trigger a defense on subsequent exposure. Alternately, sometimes scientists will genetically modify the virus instead, swapping bits of the disease-causing pathogen into a harmless virus shell. These types of inactivated vaccines almost always require multiple doses, because they’re not as good at stimulating the immune system as a live microbe. But they come with a lower risk of severe reactions. Examples of inactivated vaccines include those for polio, rabies, and hepatitis A and B. All the approved vaccines on the market use one of these two techniques. But newer methods still in development may get their debut with the Covid-19 outbreak. One such promising technology is nucleotide-based vaccines. Nucleotides are the chemical building blocks that make up genetic material, both DNA and RNA. The virus that causes Covid-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, consists of a strand of RNA enclosed in a spike-covered capsule. It uses these spikes to invade human lung cells. Vaccine makers can copy the genetic instructions for making these spikes and package them up into a shot. Once inside the body, human cells will make the viral proteins, which the immune system will then recognize as foreign. It will produce antibodies against them and learn how to attack any future invaders carrying these protein spikes. When Will a Covid-19 Vaccine Be Ready? On Tuesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told US senators, “It will take at least a year and a half to have a vaccine we can use.” That might seem like an eternity for public health officials staring down a probable pandemic. But if true, it would actually set a record. Most vaccines take between five and 15 years to come to market, says Jon Andrus, an adjunct professor of global vaccinology and vaccine policy at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University. The reason it usually takes so long comes down to a combination of factors. The first is getting a candidate vaccine that’s ready to test. This part of the vaccine development process, known as discovery, used to take years of careful benchtop biology. Scientists had to isolate and grow viruses in the lab. But now, with genetic sequencing, new protein-visualizing microscopes, and other technology advances, it’s possible to skip that step. Arriving at a vaccine candidate can sometimes be done in weeks. All those advances, though, can’t speed up the time it takes to meticulously monitor how well these candidate vaccines work in people. Clinical trials, a prerequisite for bringing a vaccine to market, are the real bottleneck. Each happens in three stages. Phase 1 involves just a few dozen healthy volunteers, and is meant to evaluate whether the vaccine is safe. That takes about three months. If the healthy volunteers don’t suffer any adverse effects, it’s on to Phase 2. This time, several hundred people will get the shot, ideally in an area experiencing a Covid-19 outbreak, so scientists can gather data on how well it spurs the production of antibodies and fends off the disease for these trial subjects. That’s another six to eight months. If everything still looks good, Phase 3 is to recruit a few thousand people in an outbreak zone and repeat the experiment. That’s another six to eight months—if you don’t have any problems recruiting patients or with your vaccine supply. Then a regulatory agency, like the US Food and Drug Administration, has to review all the data before making a decision about whether to approve the vaccine. That can take months to a year. If you’ve been doing the math, this means that, since vaccine candidates started being developed in January, a version approved for public use won’t be available until the end of summer 2021, at the earliest. And that’s if nothing goes wrong. “Constricting the whole timeline of going from concept to a product that can be distributed into a year or two is really a herculean endeavor,” Andrus says. Only a handful of companies have vaccine candidates ready to move into human testing, but more than 30 have joined the race. Even if one of these companies does pull off the Thirteenth Labor, they’re left with a novel product that still requires manufacturing and distribution. “The first question we should be asking is: Does this producer have the capacity to scale it up?” asks Andrus. If not, a limited supply will force public health officials to make tough decisions about rationing out a vaccine. Isn’t There Any Way to Speed It Up? In general, these timelines are very difficult to compress. The last thing drugmakers and regulators want is to rush out a subpar product and create—rather than solve—a public health crisis. Making vaccines is so cost-intensive and high risk that most pharmaceutical firms don’t do it anymore. Today, the vaccine business is dominated by just four companies: Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi. Since they’re the ones with the kind of capacity required to fight a global pandemic, they’re the ones that have to be convinced it’ll be worth it. Covid-19 might seem like a sure bet now. But outbreaks are unpredictable. SARS disappeared just four months after it caused a global panic. The companies that had begun developing vaccines against it had to abandon their trials because there just weren’t enough patients. Similar disease cycles help explain why it took so long to get an Ebola vaccine, which was only approved last December despite dozens of outbreaks since it first emerged in 1976. Plus, government funding and pharmaceutical industry interest tend to evaporate once the sense of emergency fades away. No one wants to make a product that’s not going to be used. But there are some things governments can do to encourage vaccine makers to take up the challenge despite its riskiness, including providing grants and other financial incentives to spur their involvement. In the US, a division of the Department of Human & Health Services known as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority often plays the role of incentivizing medical countermeasures against an outbreak. BARDA has so far funded four projects to address Covid-19, including two vaccines, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi. In recent years, an international nonprofit called Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, has also raised money to invest in vaccine research. So far, it has committed more than $66 million to vaccine development efforts against Covid-19. The fact that Big Pharma players have already taken an interest doesn’t mean that a vaccine will arrive any faster. But it does suggest that these companies believe Covid-19 will be around for the long term, and may be willing to lend their manufacturing muscle to ensure that a vaccine, when it arrives, can be produced en masse. A Potential Wrinkle There’s another factor that makes developing a vaccine against coronavirus a particularly tricky endeavor, says Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. That’s something called “immune enhancement.” In the 1960s, scientists at the National Institutes of Health were working on a vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a common, very contagious virus responsible for most of the colds that infants and toddlers get. During clinical trials, some children who received the vaccine later went on to get terribly sick when they caught RSV in the wild. The vaccine produced an exaggerated immune response, causing extensive damage in their bodies. Two kids died. Decades later, when SARS hit, researchers including Hotez began working on a vaccine. But in early tests with lab animals, they saw something that raised a red flag. The animals’ immune cells were attacking their lungs, causing damage like what had been described in the RSV trials. “That alerted everyone in the coronavirus research community that there was potential for immune enhancement,” says Hotez. His group, which includes collaborators from the New York Blood Center, adapted its strategy. Instead of producing the entire spike protein, they built just a tiny piece of it—the piece that actually latches onto human cells, called the receptor binding domain. With this approach, Hotez says, when they tested in animals they saw immune protection but without the undesirable enhancement. The prototype vaccine they developed wasn’t able to attract any investment after the SARS outbreak dissipated. But now, the group is currently submitting proposals to fund human testing of the vaccine, which has been sitting in a freezer in Texas since the mid-2000s. Because the virus that causes Covid-19 uses the same receptor as SARS to attack human lung cells, they believe it might offer some protection. But it will be important to come up with a clinical trial design that includes additional, longer-term monitoring of patients to watch out for potential immune enhancement. Hotez says any vaccines designed to fend off Covid-19 will likely have to do the same. “That’s going to really complicate things and slow them down,” he says. “I don’t think anyone’s going to have something ready in 12 to 18 months.” Who’s Making a Covid-19 Vaccine? Almost everyone! Here’s a breakdown of the 30+ candidates in development (so far), starting with those that are making nucleotide-based vaccines. Moderna Boston-based biotech unicorn Moderna is perhaps best known for working on personalized cancer vaccines. But the company has a history of responding to public health threats, including the 2015 Zika outbreak. In collaboration with scientists at the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and with funding from CEPI, Moderna has already produced an RNA-based vaccine which codes for a stabilized form of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. On February 24, the company shipped doses of its candidate, mRNA-1273, to the NIAID Vaccine Research Center, where a Phase I safety trial is set to begin as early as April. CureVac Like Moderna, crosstown rival CureVac uses lab-made mRNA to spur the production of coronavirus proteins, triggering immune cells to produce antibodies against it. And, like Moderna, it got a grant from CEPI to apply its technology to SARS-CoV-2. CureVac representatives have said the company expects to have a candidate ready for human testing within a few months. Inovio This Pennsylvania-based biotech uses a slightly different technology, using DNA instead of RNA to make medicines. It has also received funding from CEPI to develop a DNA-based vaccine against Covid-19. In January, the company started preclinical testing of its candidate, called INO-4800. It has so far produced 3,000 doses for trials to be conducted in patients in the US, China, and South Korea. The first of these is scheduled to begin in the US at the end of April. Applied DNA Sciences / Takis Biotech Applied DNA, a New York–based company, announced in March it is partnering with Rome, Italy–based Takis Biotech to deliver its own DNA-based vaccine candidates against Covid-19. The companies plan to have four versions available to test in mice by later this month. Zydus Cadlia India-based pharmaceutical firm Zydus Cadila announced in February it had initiated two approaches for developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Like Inovio and Applied DNA, the first involves using a ring of DNA designed to produce coronavirus protein once inside the human body. The second deals with genetically manipulating an attenuated recombinant measles virus so that it will induce antibodies against Covid-19. Company officials have not announced timelines for human testing. Stermina Therapeutics This is another mRNA vaccine project, based at Shanghai East Hospital of Tongji University. The CEO of Stermina told Chinese state media at the end of January that manufacturing has already begun, and doses could be ready for human testing sometime in March. Imperial College London A team of British scientists are currently testing their own DNA-based vaccine in mice at labs in Imperial College London. The researchers are looking for funding partners to advance the candidate into human testing later this year. Several other companies are also developing protein-based vaccines. These include: GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) One of the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers, GSK is lending its technology to a Chinese firm called Clover Biopharmaceuticals to work on a coronavirus vaccine. Through the partnership, Clover will be producing viral proteins, and GSK will be providing its proprietary effectiveness-boosting compounds, known as adjuvants. Neither company has provided a testing timeline. Novavax Novavax got a jump on the competition from its previous work developing vaccines against SARS and MERS. The Maryland-based company announced in February that it had generated several candidates comprised of recombinant protein nanoparticles derived from the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Company representatives said they expect to complete animal testing soon and move to the first phase of human trials by the end of spring 2020. Altimmune Unlike its competitors, this Maryland-based company is developing a vaccine that gets sprayed into patients’ noses, not injected into their arms. Best known for its nasal-spray flu vaccine, Altimmune announced in February that it had completed the design and prototyping of a vaccine against Covid-19 and is now advancing it toward animal testing and manufacturing for human trials. Vaxart This Bay Area biotech is the only one so far developing an oral vaccine against Covid-19. In January, the company announced plans to generate candidates based on the published genome of SARS-CoV-2, but no further timelines have been released. Expres2ion This Denmark-based biotech firm is leading a European consortium of vaccine developers to tackle Covid-19. It uses insect cells from fruit flies to produce viral antigens. The company aims to test its candidate vaccine in animal models later this year. Generex Biotechnology Four companies in China have contracted with Florida-based Generex to develop a vaccine using the company’s proprietary immune-activating technology. Company representatives say it could have a candidate ready for human trials as early as June. Vaxil Bio This Israeli immunotherapy company normally specializes in cancer. But last month representatives announced they had discovered a combination of proteins they believe will be an effective vaccine against Covid-19. The company plans to start manufacturing doses for initial testing and looking for partners to scale up further if that goes well. iBio This Texas-based biotech company uses modified relatives of the tobacco plant to grow viral proteins for vaccines. The company is partnering with a Chinese vaccine maker to put its “FastPharming” platform to work on a Covid-19 vaccine. Company officials expect to have a candidate ready for animal testing later this summer. Baylor College of Medicine / New York Blood Center Peter Hotez’s group is pushing for funding to test their SARS vaccine against the Covid-19. He says they already have about 20,000 doses ready to be deployed for clinical trials. These researchers are simultaneously working on developing a new vaccine from scratch, based on the binding receptor domain of the new virus, SARS-Cov-2, but that will take several years to develop. University of Queensland A team of Australian researchers, with funding from CEPI, have developed a vaccine candidate they say is ready to move forward into human testing. It relies on a “molecular clamp” technology invented in the lab of molecular virologist Keith Chappell, which helps stabilize viral proteins so they have the same shape they’d have on the surface of the virus. The group is now intending to ramp up production for clinical trials. University of Saskatchewan Canadian health authorities have given university researchers the green light to start working on a vaccine against Covid-19. They’ve used the virus’s published genome sequence to begin building protein-based candidates and are now waiting for live versions of the virus to begin testing in animal models. University of Oxford / Advent Srl A team of researchers at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute had been working on a vaccine against MERS, which they quickly tailored to the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. In February, the scientists signed an agreement with Italian vaccine maker Srl to produce the first 1,000 doses of the new vaccine, ChAdOx1, to supply human trials. And a few more are developing viral vector-based strategies: Sanofi One of the so-called Big Four, Sanofi has been working with BARDA since 2004 on pandemic preparedness, including against SARS. The company has expanded this arrangement to focus on a Covid-19 vaccine using the company’s recombinant DNA platform, which involves swapping in parts of the coronavirus’ RNA with genetic material from a harmless virus. Sanofi expects to have a vaccine candidate to test in animals within six months. Human testing could begin sometime in 2021. Johnson & Johnson Johnson & Johnson is expanding on the company’s past work with BARDA to develop an Ebola vaccine to pursue a vaccine against Covid-19. With funding from the government agency, the company’s plan is to deactivate the virus, producing a vaccine that triggers an immune response without causing infection. The company has not released any information regarding development timelines. Geovax Labs / BravoVax Atlanta-based GeoVax signed an agreement in January to work with BravoVax, a private company Wuhan, China, to jointly develop a vaccine against Covid-19. Under the collaboration, GeoVax will be providing its proprietary platform—a modified pox virus that can be designed to express viral proteins from SARS-CoV-2. Tonix In February, this New York–based biopharma startup announced it is collaborating with the nonprofit Southern Research to develop a live, modified horsepox virus modified to express protein fragments from SARS-CoV-2. Company officials have not released any further timelines. CanSino Biologics Chinese vaccine-maker CanSino is reportedly developing a viral vector-based vaccine against Covid-2019 but no further information is available at this time. Greffex The CEO of this Houston-based genetic engineering company announced last month that they have completed the design of a vaccine against Covid-19. The company has not released any information about its lead candidate, but Grefex reportedly makes adenovirus-based vector vaccines involving a harmless virus that can be genetically tweaked to express foreign genes, like one for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. And last but not least, is the only company attempting to attenuate a live SARS-CoV-2 virus: Codagenix This New York–based biotech firm is collaborating with the Serum Institute of India to co-develop a live, attenuated vaccine against Covid-19. Rather than using blunt forces like heat or chemicals to kill the virus, Codagenix uses a “deoptimization” strategy to manipulate the virus into a version that can still replicate but won’t cause disease. The Serum Institute of India will be in charge of the scale-up. Codagenix representatives expect to have a vaccine candidate ready for animal testing this spring, with human testing progressing by this summer. Source: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Vaccines (Wired)
  21. President Trump is weighing whether to declare a national emergency over the coronavirus, which would free up additional resources to combat the rapidly spreading disease. The president indicated to reporters that using an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act was under consideration, but would not say definitively whether he would sign it on Thursday. "We have things that I can do. We have very strong emergency powers under the Stafford Act," he said during an Oval Office meeting with the Irish prime minister. "I have it memorized practically as to the powers in that act, and if I need to do something I’ll do it. I have the right to do a lot of things that people don't even know about." Asked if he planned to declare a national emergency on Thursday, Trump deflected. "I don’t want to say that, but you know, at some point," he said. Trump can declare a national emergency or a major disaster declaration under the Stafford Act, which would enable the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mobilize additional resources and funding to fight the coronavirus. There were roughly 1,300 people with confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. as of Thursday morning, and 37 people had died from the virus, according to The New York Times. Trump's remarks Thursday came a day after he announced that the U.S. would restrict travel from Europe for the next 30 days in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The president also said he would use executive orders to offer financial relief to individuals and small businesses impacted by the fallout over the disease. Multiple advisers to the president have indicated he is seriously considering signing an emergency declaration on Thursday in what would be the latest significant step to try to combat the fallout from the coronavirus. "If ever there was an emergency, it’s now. We’re a week away from being Italy," one adviser told The Hill, invoking the Italian government's decision to largely shut down the country to stop the virus from spreading. CNN reported that top economic adviser Larry Kudlow informed congressional Republicans that Trump could sign the declaration as early as Thursday afternoon. Trump may be hesitant to declare a national emergency after spending the past several weeks downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. He predicted in late February that the number of cases could quickly drop to near zero, and told a conservative conference that the administration deserved an "A+++" for its work containing the disease. But as new cases are reported each day, Trump has been forced to adopt more serious measures, such as those laid out in his Wednesday night address. Top health officials in the Trump administration said the decision to restrict travel from Europe would be beneficial, but have warned in recent days that the worst of the virus was yet to come. Still, Trump on Thursday projected optimism. "We’re in great shape compared to other places," he said. "We want to keep it that way." Source
  22. Personal privacy matters during a pandemic — but less than it might at other times Public health weighs individual privacy against the common good Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images During a disease outbreak, one of the best tools at the disposal of public health officials is low-tech detective work. When a person is diagnosed with an illness like COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, public health experts figure out where they’ve recently been and track down everyone they’ve been in contact with. “Sometimes it requires we know private information about a person who has been infected,” says Lisa Lee, director of the division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance at Virginia Tech and former executive director of the Obama administration’s Presidential Bioethics Commission. It also can mean that they have to share some of that information, including information about someone’s health. Usually, people think about health privacy in terms of the relationship they have with their doctors and clinicians who have to keep the vast majority of information confidential — both legally and ethically. But the public health system is set up with different legal permissions and protections than a doctor’s office, and by nature, it thinks about ethics and patient privacy differently. “We think about it from the perspective of the mutual obligations we have towards each other and the need to protect well being,” says Amy Fairchild, dean and professor in the college of public health at Ohio State University. “What you’re doing is weighing the risks to the individual against the harm to the person’s contacts and the rest of the population.” Legally, there are carve-outs in health privacy laws like HIPAA that allow public health officials to get information about a person’s health without their consent. Individual privacy and the risks that can come from the disclosure of personal health information — like stigma — are still critical concerns for public health officials, Lee stresses. They aim to collect the minimum amount of information possible to achieve a public health goal. “The principle is to collect and use the least amount of data possible, because it reduces harm,” she says. The information collected is also used only for public health activities. The balance between protecting individual privacy and collecting information that is critical to the public good changes over the course of a disease’s spread. The amount of data public health officials need to collect and disclose changes as well. Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating, and there is still a lot doctors and scientists don’t know about the disease. Collecting detailed health information is, therefore, more useful and important. That could change as the outbreak progresses, Lee says. For example, as the virus starts to circulate in the community, it might not be as important to know exactly where a sick person has been. If the virus is everywhere already, that information won’t have as much additional benefit to the community. “It depends a lot on the maturity of an epidemic,” she says. Digital tracking information is ubiquitous today, and that can make data collection easier. In Singapore, where there’s extensive surveillance, publicly available data details where people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are and have been. The Iranian government built an app for people to check their symptoms that also included a geo-tracking feature. When deciding to use those types of tools, Lee says, the same public health principles should still apply. “Should a public health official know where a person has gone, should that be public information — it’s not different. It’s a lot easier to do that now, but it doesn’t make it any more right or less right,” she says. “Tracking where people go and who they interact with is something public health officials have been doing for centuries. It’s just easier with digital information.” In addition, just because personal information about a person and their health is important to a public health official, it doesn’t mean that information is important for the general public. It’s why, despite questioning from reporters, public health officials only gave out a limited amount of information on the people who had the first few cases of COVID-19 in the US. During the polio epidemic in the US, health departments used to publish the names of people with confirmed cases of the illness in the newspapers — a practice that would be far out of bounds today. But that didn’t stop people in the US from trying to find out information about the few cases of Ebola in the country during the 2014 outbreak. People didn’t need that information to protect themselves, though. “Having someone’s name doesn’t protect you,” Fairchild says. “That’s generally the principle of public health surveillance. There are emotional reasons that the public may want to know — but it doesn’t protect you, and shouldn’t change what you’re doing.” Health officials worry about the stigmatization of individuals or communities affected by diseases, which is why they aim to disclose only necessary information to the public. Anti-Asian racism in the US and other countries around the world spiked with the outbreak because the novel coronavirus originated in China. People who were on cruise ships with positive cases reported fielding angry phone calls from strangers when they returned home, and residents of New Rochelle, New York, which is the first containment zone in the US, said that they’re worried about their hometown being forever associated with the virus. “This kind of group-level harm is concerning,” Lee says. “That’s why we worry about group identity privacy, as well. I’m nervous and sad to see that starting to poke its head out.” People can’t expect the same level of personal health privacy during public health emergencies involving infectious diseases as they can in other elements of their health. But the actions public health officials can take, like collecting information, aren’t designed to limit privacy, Fairchild says. “It’s to protect the broader population. The principle we embrace is the principle of reciprocity. We recognize that our liberty is limited, but we are doing that for others.” Source: Personal privacy matters during a pandemic — but less than it might at other times (The Verge)
  23. YouTube will resume monetization for coronavirus-related content after all YouTube started demonetizing videos related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a few weeks ago in compliance with its sensitive events policy, which forbids advertising for topics that talk about "a loss of life, typically as a result of a pre-planned malicious attack". This type of content is not considered advertiser-friendly by that policy, but that's changing soon. Today, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote in a blog post that the service will restore ads for coronavirus-related content in the coming days. However, content monetization will be limited only to a number of channels including some news organizations and creators who make their content reporting transparent in accordance with YouTube's advertiser-friendly guidelines. Regarding the platform's change of heart, Wojcicki explains: "We know many of you have had questions about our sensitive events policy, which currently does not allow monetization if a video includes more than a passing mention of the coronavirus. Our sensitive events policy was designed to apply to short-term events of significant magnitude, like a natural disaster. It’s becoming clear this issue is now an ongoing and important part of everyday conversation, and we want to make sure news organizations and creators can continue producing quality videos in a sustainable way." YouTube will also expand this kind of monetization to more creators over the coming weeks as it's working to finalize the policies and enforcement processes. Wojcicki also addressed the spread of misinformation around the virus, saying that YouTube will continue removing videos that violate its policy including "those that discourage people from seeking medical treatment or claim harmful substances have health benefits". Source: YouTube will resume monetization for coronavirus-related content after all (Neowin)
  24. Ars readers share their stories of coronavirus-related hardware shortages and more We asked readers if the epidemic has affected their work. We got stories back. Enlarge / Lenovo's Thinkbook 13s laptop. Valentina Palladino 58 with 49 posters participating A couple of weeks ago, IPC, a trade group that represents electronics companies, surveyed manufacturers to estimate the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on the industry. Manufacturers surveyed said their suppliers have warned them they should expect about three weeks of delays on average, but the manufacturers expect things to be even worse than that—about five weeks on average. A select few expect delays longer than nine weeks. On March 3, the Financial Times ran a story claiming that electronics retailers have been informed that they should expect it to take “up to three times as long for PCs and parts to be delivered” as normal. It also notes that small OEMs are at a significant disadvantage when supply is low because large companies like Apple are in a better position to work with the suppliers that are operating most effectively. But Apple and its ilk are not weathering this storm perfectly, either. Last week, Bloomberg wrote that Apple has told its tech support workers to expect multi-week delays for replacement iPhones at Apple Stores, and some Apple employees “also noticed a shortage of individual parts.” There were also previous reports that an iPad Pro refresh’s launch will be delayed because of the outbreak’s impact on Apple’s supply partners. We asked our readers, many of whom are professional technologists across a variety of industries, whether they have faced problems getting needed equipment or other issues related to this health crisis. We got several stories back. Here are some anecdotes about challenges IT managers and the like are facing right now. engrpiman 2 wrote: Our Lenovo computers are back ordered indefinitely. Both CDW and Anixter are reporting supply chain issues. mtgarden also relies on Lenovo and added: Lenovo is saying anything not already in stock is now being listed as 2-3 months. Likely won't be that long, but large orders (corporate stuff) should plan on a long lead time. From Dreamslacker: My workplace had an order of Lenovo laptops for a customer come in without the WLAN adapters installed. Lenovo has advised us that the leadtime for the parts to come in is in the three to six months region. For the time being, they've requested that we purchase off-the-shelf USB wireless dongles (they will reimburse this cost) and install them for the customer to use until such a time that they are able to provide the parts and installation services. punksmurph is facing some challenges, too: We are moving to Lenovo Laptops and thin clients (we use specific Dell models for high powered desktops). Right now our orders are all on hold. We are not returning Dell lease refreshes because we would inventory out in like two weeks if we did. Our Dell systems we need for desktops are 60-90 days out minimum for the desktops we need. And due to some technology requirements with Nvidia cards, we are stuck. It really is hell. Supply is not the only issue, Ars readers report. Some shared stories of how their companies are attempting to address the outbreak and keep employees safe, from sanitation to remote work to travel limitations. Writes numerobis: I have a customer, a multi-national software vendor, that’s had travel bans from certain sites for a while, and has now (today I think?) decided on a global travel ban, interviews to be done remote, global optional work-from-home. I am having my own team prepare to work at home; we don’t quite have the infrastructure yet. From binaryspiral: All work travel has been canceled. Any conferences or in classroom training, customer meetings that were in person are now remote. All our vendors—Cisco, Dell, HP, etc.—have released statements about possible limited product delays or availability and even tech support availability as call centers shut down. According to wkingan's experience, some companies are going to wild sanitation measures: Our IT Help Desk ordered about a million cases of bleach wipes and instituted a new policy where they wipe down all surfaces in the Help Desk walk-up space every 15 minutes. It smells really bleach-y in there now. anjoschu went into much more detail about the impact their company is seeing and the responses to it: Our company has doubled the capacities of the remote working infrastructure and is going to hold a massive test tomorrow where 50% of our employees (>1200 total) are asked to work from home as a stress test. The policies sound relatively sensible: no work travel except with explicit exception from the highest-ups, colleagues that have been in high-risk areas as defined by the national health agency have to work from home for 14 days, stay home if feeling ill, no shaking hands please, cough/sneeze in handkerchief/elbow, wash hands immediately after blowing nose, canteen has closed open buffet in favor of plates prepared for you by staff, etc. All in all, I feel pretty well cared for in this company. They try to make sure everyone washes or sanitizes their hands when touching buttons, door handles, etc. and provide the means to do so. There are daily updates on the company policies and measures dealing with the outbreak, which all include (strong) advice on what to do to decrease risk of infecting others or yourself and what the plans are should someone at our company become a known carrier. And a wide range of industries are heavily impacted. dargonite reported serious challenges in the freight industry in Canada: I live in Canada, work IT at a freight forwarding company. Between the shutdown in China and the rail blockades here at home, the entire shipping industry is pretty much at a standstill. All of the warehouse workers here have been laid off. Our warehouse usually moves hundreds of thousands of boxes a week and there hasn't been a truck for at least 2 weeks. We are anticipating customers will file for bankruptcy as they have not gotten their products and have missed sales/holiday sales and have had to pay for storage at the ports (ports have created Super Piles, which is hundreds of thousands of cargo containers piled sky-high) Imagine you are a small company selling products; you haven't gotten your goods, you still have to pay us (freight forwarding) as we have already paid the ships and truckers, etc, and on top of that any cargo that makes its way into the ports of Canada, are also not going out because of the blockades! (hence, super piles) so right now, everything is basically at a stand-still. For more information about the coronavirus and the world's response to it, read Ars Technica's detailed guide, updated daily. And thanks to our readers for sharing their stories. Source: Ars readers share their stories of coronavirus-related hardware shortages and more (Ars Technica)
  25. FDA, FTC slam 7 companies selling bogus COVID-19 cures No, essential oils and silver solutions won’t ward off COVID-19. Enlarge / CALGARY - DECEMBER 23: LITTLE BIG MAN, theatrical movie originally released December 23, 1970. The film was directed by Arthur Penn. Pictured, Martin Balsam (as Mr. Allardyce T. Meriweather), a traveling swindler and snake oil salesman. Getty | ABC Archive 96 with 63 posters participating As the new coronavirus sweeps the US, federal regulators this week began cracking down on companies fraudulently claiming that their products prevent or treat COVID-19. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent joint warning letters to seven companies making false claims. “There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” FTC Chairperson Joe Simons said in a statement. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims.” “These warning letters are just the first step,” he said. “We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.” Collectively, the companies have suggested that colloidal silver, essential oils, herbal tinctures, and teas can prevent or treat COVID-19. As the FDA and FTC point out, they have used a potpourri of terms and pseudoscientific explanations to make their fraudulent claims. Herbal Amy Inc., for instance, wrote on its website, “Corona virus treatment. Stephen Buhner [a self-proclaimed “herbal medicine” expert] has analyzed how corona viruses infect tissues, what tissues they infect, and the herbs that are useful to interrupt that process, as well as the herbs useful to shut down the cytokine cascade they create.” Herbal Amy sells the three-tincture “Buhner Coronavirus Kit” for $155 on its website. It is currently said to be sold out on the site. A company called Xephyr, LLC dba N-Ergetics wrote on its website that its colloidal silver product can treat “Coronavirus 2019-NCoVat [sic]... This Chinese Wuhan Flu Pneumonia has a non-traditional remedy that has successfully killed coronaviruses from the flu virus to pandemic diseases, in vitro, for over 100 years.” As the FDA notes, there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat or prevent COVID-19. “Although there are investigational COVID-19 vaccines and treatments under development, these investigational products are in the early stages of product development and have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness,” the agency says. Source: FDA, FTC slam 7 companies selling bogus COVID-19 cures (Ars Technica)
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