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  1. New information on Wuhan researchers' illness furthers debate on pandemic origins (CNN)A US intelligence report found that several researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized, a new detail about the severity of their symptoms that could fuel further debate about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, according to two people briefed on the intelligence. A State Department fact sheet released by the Trump administration in January said that the researchers had gotten sick in autumn 2019 but did not go as far as to say they had been hospitalized. China reported to the World Health Organization that the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was recorded in Wuhan on December 8, 2019. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the intelligence surrounding the earlier hospitalizations. Importantly, the intelligence community still does not know what the researchers were actually sick with, said the people briefed, and continues to have low confidence in its assessments of the virus' precise origins beyond the fact that it came from China. "At the end of the day, there is still nothing definitive," said one of the people who has seen the intelligence. The director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, issued a strong denial of the report on Monday. "I've read it, it's a complete lie," director Yuan Zhiming told state-run tabloid Global Times. "Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don't even know where such information came from." Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, on Monday refuted the report and accused the US of "hyping up the lab leak theory." "Through field visits and in-depth visits in China, the experts unanimously agreed that the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely," Zhao said. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers during the Worldwide Threats Hearing last month that "the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when, or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially," an assessment that has not changed, said two of the people briefed on the intelligence. The current intelligence reinforces the belief that the virus most likely originated naturally, from animal-human contact, the sources said. But that does not preclude the possibility that the virus was the result of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where coronavirus research was being conducted on bats. The World Health Organization conducted an investigation into the origins of the pandemic and concluded in a report that the risk of an accident was "extremely low." The report said there was "no reporting of Covid-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019, and no serological evidence of infection in workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening." Disease ecologist Peter Daszak, who worked on the WHO team, told CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in February that "there is really still no evidence that this came from a lab." He noted that researchers were tested and there was no evidence found of Covid antibodies, and said the lab was "very well run." "It's not a complete throwing out of that hypothesis," Daszak said. "It's a conclusion that it's extremely unlikely and that there is a much more likely hypothesis out there." But the WHO probe was swiftly criticized by the US, UK, and other governments over its limited access to "complete, original data and samples." The organization was also accused of being overly deferential to China throughout the course of the study, which was co-authored by 17 Chinese scientists -- several of them from state-run institutions. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has long been investigating the origins of the pandemic, received a classified briefing on the matter last week, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source declined to say whether the intelligence report mentioning the hospitalized researchers was discussed during the briefing. Current and former intelligence officials say that the idea that the virus was accidentally unleashed from the lab at Wuhan is reasonable, although they caution that there is no high-confidence assessment of that possibility. In the final days of the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaned into the possibility that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV. Despite the intelligence being inconclusive, Pompeo put out a fact sheet that said the US had evidence researchers at the WIV had been sick in the fall of 2019 with Covid-like symptoms and that the lab, where coronavirus had been studied in bats, had a history of military research. The process behind declassifying the intelligence in that fact sheet took a long time, and certain details were scrubbed from the final version that was released, sources familiar with the process told CNN. In contrast, the Biden administration has not declassified any intelligence surrounding the origins of Covid-19 and has not indicated that it plans to do so. One of the challenges in developing any certainty is access to the lab itself. China delayed access to international investigators for months after the initial outbreak, virtually guaranteeing that the lab had been deep-cleaned before any forensic analysis could be done, and investigators were also not allowed to view original data logs that scientists say would be critical to understanding the virus' origins. One critical avenue to finding an answer would be to run genetic sequencing on the original samples that staff at the Wuhan lab were working on. But "the Chinese are never going to allow that," said one person familiar with the underlying intelligence. "My own personal belief is we're never going to know the answer to this," this person said. "And the answer is not going to be found out by the CIA, because that would suggest the Chinese are looking for it themselves," which this person said they were not. "If the answer exists it's not going to be found by traditional spycraft," this person added. Source: New information on Wuhan researchers' illness furthers debate on pandemic origins
  2. Human tissue preserved since World War I yields new clues about 1918 pandemic On 27 June 1918, two young German soldiers—one age 18, the other 17—died in Berlin from a new influenza strain that had emerged earlier that year. Their lungs ended up in the collection of the Berlin Museum of Medical History, where they rested, fixed in formalin, for 100 years. Now, researchers have managed to sequence large parts of the virus that infected the two men, giving a glimpse into the early days of the most devastating pandemic of the 20th century. The partial genomes hold some tantalizing clues that the infamous flu strain may have adapted to humans between the pandemic’s first and second waves. The researchers also managed to sequence an entire genome of the pathogen from a young woman who died in Munich at an unknown time in 1918. It is only the third full genome of the virus that caused that pandemic and the first from outside North America, the authors write in a preprint posted on bioRxiv. “It’s absolutely fantastic work,” says Hendrik Poinar, who runs an ancient DNA lab at McMaster University. “The researchers have made reviving RNA viruses from archival material an achievable goal. Not long ago this was, like much ancient DNA work, a fantasy.” Sequencing viral genomes has become routine. In the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, researchers have amassed a database of more than 1 million genomes of SARS-CoV-2, allowing them to watch variants appear and spread while old ones disappear. But few sequences exist of the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the pandemic of 1918–19. In the early 2000s, scientists in the United States painstakingly pieced together one genome from samples taken from a woman’s body buried and preserved in the frozen ground in Alaska. And in 2013 they presented a second genome from a U.S. flu fatality, teased out from autopsy tissue that had been preserved in formalin at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Both studies were time consuming, costly efforts that few people tried to emulate, says virologist Angela Rasmussen of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Research Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. Tracking down archived tissue samples is itself a challenge, says evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, a co-author on the new preprint. “It’s all about finding samples,” Worobey says. “Our group has scoured a lot of different locations, and they’re hard to come by.” Evolutionary biologist Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer of the Robert Koch Institute and his colleagues have now investigated 13 lung tissue samples from between 1900 and 1931 that were in the medical museum in Berlin and in a collection in Vienna. They found bits of RNA from the flu virus in three of them, all dating to 1918. (Like SARS-CoV-2, the influenza virus’ genome is composed of RNA, not DNA.) Although the RNA was broken down into tiny fragments, there were enough of these to reconstruct the entire genome of the virus from the woman, who was just 17 years old, and close to 90% and 60%, respectively, of the virus that killed the two soldiers. Sequencing genetic material from formalin-fixed tissue is still harder than with other kinds of specimens, Calvignac-Spencer says. “But it’s not the kind of impossible work that we once thought it was.” The partial genomes from the two soldiers are from the first, milder wave of the pandemic, which was followed by a more severe one that swept the world in the fall of 1918. Scientists have speculated that the virus originated in birds and became better adapted to humans between the first and second waves. One way this could happen is if the gene for haemagglutinin, an important protein on the surface of the virus, underwent an amino acid–swapping mutation that replaced a particular glycine, more often seen in bird flu viruses, with an aspartic acid, which is more characteristic of human viruses. Both German sequences carried an aspartic acid at the position, however, making that scenario unlikely. The researchers did find an evolutionary clue in the gene for the virus’ nucleoprotein, a structural protein that helps determine what species the virus can infect. The previously reported 1918 flu strains, both from late in the pandemic, carry two mutations in this gene that help influenza avoid the human body’s innate antiviral defenses; the German soldiers’ sequences were more birdlike. “It could be a sign that the virus was evolving to better avoid the human immune response in the first months of the pandemic,” Calvignac-Spencer says. The Munich woman’s flu strain also carried the more birdlike version of the nucleoprotein but given her uncertain date of death, nothing can be concluded about the strain’s evolution. The full genome from the women yielded other clues, however. The researchers used its genes to resurrect the virus’ polymerase complex, a machinery consisting of three proteins that together copy the pathogen’s genome. In cell culture experiments, they discovered, the complex from the Munich strain was about half as active as the polymerase complex from the Alaska strain. (The study did not pose safety concerns because the team didn’t reconstitute the whole virus.) Extrapolating from petri dish studies to human infections is difficult, Poinar says. Still, “The fact that you can test, in vitro, the effects of an ‘extinct’ strain has huge implications in understanding evolution of virulence and possible countermeasures should we encounter another flu epidemic.” The work also shows that pathology archives are “treasure troves” that can still yield more information about the 1918 pandemic, Rasmussen says: “If the last 18 months have demonstrated anything, it’s that we would do well to remember the lessons of past pandemics as we try to prevent future ones.” Source: Human tissue preserved since World War I yields new clues about 1918 pandemic
  3. One year into pandemic, sky begins to clear over U.S. economy SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite the U.S. economy’s near miss with a depression last year and an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has brought travel to a virtual halt, Jeff Hurst, the chief executive of vacation rental firm VRBO, sees a boom on the horizon. People walk past a shuttered restaurant amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., February 9, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri “Every house is going to be taken this summer,” Hurst said, as the expected protection from vaccines arrives in step with warmer weather, unleashing a cooped-up population with record savings stashed away. “There’s so much built-up demand for it.” That sort of bullish sentiment has increasingly taken root among executives, analysts and consumers who see the past year of comparative hibernation - from the government-ordered business closings last spring to continued risk avoidance by the public - giving way to a cautious re-emergence and green shoots in the economy. Graphic: Retail in real time - Data from AirDNA, a short-term rental analytics firm, showed vacation bookings tmsnrt.rs/3uxQ1Wi for the end of March, which traditionally coincides with college spring breaks, are just 2% below their pre-pandemic level. Employment openings on job site Indeed are 4% above a pre-pandemic baseline. Data on retail foot traffic, air travel and seated diners at restaurants have all edged up. And economists’ forecasts have risen en masse, with firms like Oxford Economics seeing a “juiced-up” economy hitting 7% growth this year, more typical of a developing country. Graphic: A historic lifeline - In a symbolic milestone, Major League Baseball teams took to the field on Sunday, as scheduled, for the first games of the spring training season. Crowds were required to observe social distancing rules and limited to around 20% of capacity, but MLB has a full schedule penciled in following a truncated 2020 season that did not begin until July and saw teams playing in empty stadiums. Graphic: Oxford Economics Recovery Index - DEPRESSION DODGED As of Feb. 25, about 46 million people in the United States had received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine - still less than 15% of the population and not enough to dampen the spread of a virus that has killed more than half a million people in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The emergence of coronavirus variants poses risks, and a return to normal life before immunity is widespread could give the virus a fresh foothold. Nor is optimism global. The European short-term rental market, for example, is suffering, with tens of thousands of Airbnb offerings pulled. Up to one-fifth of the supply has disappeared in cities like Lisbon and Berlin, as owners and managers adjust to a choppy vaccine rollout and doubts about the resumption of cross-border travel. In the United States, the vaccine rollout and a sharp decline in new cases has produced an economic outlook unthinkable a year ago when the Federal Reserve opened its emergency playbook in a terse promise of action and Congress approved the first of several rescue efforts. Graphic: The third wave breaks - The fear then was years of stunted output similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s, while some projections foresaw millions of deaths and an extended national quarantine. Instead, the first vaccines were distributed before the end of 2020, and a record fiscal and monetary intervention led to a rise in personal incomes, something unheard of in a recession. “We are not living the downside case we were so concerned about the first half of the year,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We have a prospect of getting back to a much better place in the second half of this year.” ‘ROCK ON’ U.S. gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, may top its pre-pandemic level this summer, approaching the “V-shaped” rebound that seemed unrealistic a few weeks ago. That would still mean more than a year of lost growth, but nevertheless represents a recovery twice as fast as the rebound from the 2007-2009 recession. Jobs have not followed as fast. The economy remains about 10 million positions short of where it was in February 2020, and that hole remains a pressing problem for policymakers alongside getting schools and public services fully reopened. It took six years after the last recession to reach the prior employment peak, a glacial process officials desperately want to shorten. While recent months have seen little progress, the outlook may be improving. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in mid-February the country had a fighting chance to reach full employment next year. It may take more than vaccines, however. Officials are debating how fully and permanently to rewrite the rules of crisis response - and specifically how much and what elements of the Biden administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion rescue plan to approve. Fiscal leaders last year cast aside many old totems, including fear of public debt and a preoccupation with “moral hazard” - the bad incentives that generous public benefits or corporate bailouts can create. For Republicans, that meant approving initial unemployment insurance benefits that often exceeded a laid-off worker’s salary; for Democrats, it meant aiding airlines and temporarily relaxing banking regulations. It worked, and so well that an odd consortium of doubters has emerged to question how much more is necessary: Republicans arguing help should be aimed only at those in need, and some Democrats worrying that so much more government spending in an economy primed to accelerate may spark inflation or problems in financial markets. If the outlook is improving, however, it’s in anticipation that government support will continue at levels adequate to finish the job. “Rock on,” Bank of America analysts wrote in a Feb. 22 note boosting their full-year GDP growth forecast to 6.5%, an outcome premised on approval of $1.7 trillion in additional government relief, “unambiguously positive” health news, and stronger consumer data. Given all that, “we expect the economy to accelerate further in the spring and really come to life in the summer.” And the view back at VRBO? In most prime vacation spots, Hurst said, “You won’t be able to find a home.” Graphic: Business sales outlook improves - Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao Source: One year into pandemic, sky begins to clear over U.S. economy
  4. One-third of Canadians experienced a phishing scheme — a mode of cyberattack — during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a good portion of those people say the scam had to do with the pandemic itself. According to a new report from Statistics Canada, 34 per cent of Canadians dealt with a phishing scam, a sort of cybercrime that seeks to obtain confidential information such as usernames, passwords and credit card information. For many, though, the attack was very specific: Some people reported the scheme was framed in terms of getting COVID-19 test results; still others said it had to do with accessing the CERB benefit — a federal program designed to support those who’d lost their income because of the pandemic — or a potential cure for the virus. Of those who were hit by a phishing scheme, 36 per cent experienced a loss. Mostly, this was a loss of time (86 per cent) though 13 per cent lost data and another 13 per cent lost financially. Meanwhile, using five surveys in mid-September, Statistics Canada also asked Canadians more broadly about how they were using the internet and technology during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, 44 per cent of Canadians said they’d spent more money on technology — on their computers, laptops and tablets. Forty per cent spent more on their phones, 42 per cent spent more on online video streaming services. In July, e-commerce sales increased by almost two-thirds, StatCan says, and 34 per cent of Canadians spent more money on home and mobile internet connectivity. As well, 41 per cent of Canadians said they were spending more time on social media and messaging. Just three per cent managed to spend less. In particular, those aged 15 to 34 were the most likely to have increased their usage (57 per cent) while those older than 65 (18 per cent) were the least likely. Forty-six per cent of Canadians increased their usage of free streaming platforms such as YouTube. Canadians also upped their digital security: 47 per cent of young Canadians maintained or increased purchases of security software; 28 per cent of seniors did the same. Since the start of the pandemic, 21 per cent of Canadians restricted or refused access to their location or refused the use of personal information for advertising. Seventy-seven per cent of those who restricted location data did so because of cyber security risks. Those who shopped more online during the pandemic were more careful: 47 per cent didn’t allow websites to save credit card details, and 26 per cent used a third-party payment application, such as PayPal. Canadians also pitched in to help one another with technology: 63 per cent of those aged 15 to 34 stepped up to help someone with digital technology; 64 per cent of those aged 35 to 49 also did so. Twelve per cent of Canadians helped those under the age of 11, and 23 per cent of Canadians helped those over 65. Source
  5. If you’re one of the many people who tried to get an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 earlier this week, you probably have some strong words for Microsoft, Sony, and every major retailer in your region right now. There’s no two ways about it: these launches have been disasters from the perspective of the consumer, and at this point, it seems likely that PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S are going to have stock issues for some time to come. Obviously, we’d expect new consoles to be popular, fast-selling items regardless of when they launch, but the pandemic we’re currently in the middle of is not making things any easier. Launching new consoles in the middle of a pandemic is now very clearly a recipe for frustration, so maybe we should avoid doing this in the future, yes? I’m going to try to avoid throwing too many stones here because Microsoft, Sony, retailers, and customers are all victims of circumstance, but it has to be said that the launch of both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 have been something of a disorganized mess dating back to when both of these consoles went up for pre-order. If you didn’t snag a console through pre-ordering it back when they first opened up, then you were basically left to fight for a launch day console, which is something that the pandemic really complicates. Shortly before release, Sony made the announcement that there would be no in-store launch day PlayStation 5 sales because it didn’t want people lining up in front of or otherwise flooding stores and contributing to the spread of COVID-19 over a game console. A smart move because of the pandemic, that’s for sure, but with all launch day PlayStation 5 sales moving online (along with many Xbox Series X sales, for that matter), that made it a lot harder for real people to actually get their hands on a console. That’s especially true when you consider that few retailers advertised times they would open up console sales, leaving most people to simply refresh listings for consoles constantly in the hope they’d get lucky. Even when a retailer did publicize times – which was basically just Walmart in the case of the PlayStation 5 – that didn’t really make things better for regular consumers. Though Walmart offered several different batches of PlayStation 5 stock at regular intervals yesterday, you had to be supremely lucky to get one. At those advertised times, Walmart’s website was unsurprisingly overwhelmed, either slowing to a crawl or crashing entirely. Then you have the fact that most of these retailers don’t have any safeguards against bots or those who are buying up stock just to resell them on eBay at a profit. Some retailers, like GameStop and Costco, opted to only offer consoles as part of a more expensive bundle. Though some will cry price gouging at seeing the price of those bundles, that wasn’t actually the case – instead, these bundles were offered as a way to dissuade resellers from buying, because they’d have to figure out what to do with the extra games and accessories that came with the console (with many stores not allowing returns on individual items from the bundle in question). Bundles definitely sold out slower than standalone consoles, so they probably did their job of turning away eBay scalpers, but it’s not like that’s an ideal solution for regular customers either. Not everyone is going to want all of the components of any given bundle, nor will everyone have the $700 or $800 on hand to cover the cost of one of them. In short, if you were trying to buy an Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 online this week, whether or not you got one was really a matter of luck. Few humans will win in a race against bots, and unstable websites only make matters worse. Not being able to find a PlayStation in-store, while a good thing because of the pandemic as a whole, means that regular consumers were at a big disadvantage when it comes to actually obtaining a console. As far as I’m aware, all PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X sales have been first-come, first-served as well. Retailers like Walmart and Target are selling future stock, sure, but neither Microsoft nor Sony are allowing you to get on some kind of waiting list. Offering that would probably remove a lot of stress for consumers who just want to secure a console for delivery at some point in the future. After witnessing the last few days, it would be amazing to see Sony and Microsoft implement something similar to the way Apple sells iPhones. If you head over to Apple.com in search of an iPhone, you’re always able to buy one, with shipping estimates based on the stock Apple has available. At this point, I’m guessing that most people would be more than okay with paying Microsoft and Sony their money now as long as it meant they could get a console at some point, even if their shipping date would be a month or two away. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Sony and Microsoft were able to make the logistics work and launch consoles during a pandemic is impressive, and Sony in particular should be commended for disallowing in-store sales of the PlayStation 5 to prevent the spread of COVID. As impressive as it may be, though, the only clear winners from this week are the scalpers who used bots to secure a bunch of stock they can resell on eBay. At the moment, eBay is showing 4,880 results for Xbox Series X and 9,040 results for PlayStation 5. Surely not all of those listings are for the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, but many of them are. In the case of the Xbox Series X, we’re seeing listings that range from $700 to over $1,000, while the PlayStation 5 is even more egregiously-priced, with listings topping $1,400 or even $1,500 in some cases. These aren’t just scalpers who are shooting for the moon either – if you look at the sold listings, you’ll see plenty of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles that have sold at prices well over the $500 Microsoft and Sony are asking. As people bang their heads against the wall attempting to get an Xbox Series X or a PS5 online, they’re becoming increasingly more desperate and are paying vastly inflated prices to get one. I’m not here to be some kind of apologist for people who can’t exercise patience and decide to spend more than double the MRSP to have a console now instead of waiting a few months, but the fact that those consoles are selling shows how dire the stock situation is. As I stated earlier, this is always a problem when a new console releases, but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated everything ugly about a console launch. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this has been one dance I never want to do again. Source
  6. Zscaler says attacks involving the use of SSL/TLS encryption jumped 260% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. The fact that attackers hide malware inside encrypted traffic is not news any longer. What might be surprising, however, is just how much the practice has recently spiked due in part to the shift to remote work in the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers from Zscaler analyzed attack data gathered from customers of the company's cloud security platform between January and September this year. The security vendor discovered a 260% increase over 2019 in the number of encrypted attacks that it handles per month. In the first nine months of this year, Zscaler's cloud blocked an average of 773 million attacks per month where malware was hidden in encrypted traffic. Last year, that number was around 283 million. In the first nine months of this year, Zscaler blocked some 6.6 billion encrypted attacks. Ransomware attacks delivered via SSL/TLS channels soared 500% between March and September, with a plurality of the attacks (40.5%) targeted at telecommunication and technology companies. Healthcare organizations were targeted more so than entities in other verticals and accounted for 1.6 billion, or over 25%, of all SSL-based attacks Zscaler blocked this year. Finance and insurance companies clocked in next with 1.2 billion or 18% of attacks blocked, and manufacturing organizations were the third-most targeted, with some 1.1 billion attacks directed against them. Deepen Desai, CISO and vice president of security research at Zscaler, says the trend shows why security groups need to be wary about encrypted traffic traversing their networks. While many organizations routinely encrypt traffic as part of their security best practices, fewer are inspecting it for threats, he says. "Most people assume that encrypted traffic means safe traffic, but that is unfortunately not the case," Desai says. "That false sense of security can create risk when organizations allow encrypted traffic to go uninspected." Zscaler's analysis showed an in increase in SSL/TLS based attacks delivered through trusted cloud storage services such as Google, AWS, Dropbox, and OneDrive. In many of these attacks, cybercriminals hosted malicious content on these services and then lured users to the content via phishing emails and other social engineering methods. Some 30% of all SSL/TLS-based attacks that Zscaler blocked in the first nine months of 2020 — double the number from last year — involved the use of such trusted services. "Cloud storage services have seen a marked increase as a popular means of attack," Desai says. "Organizations often consider these services [as] trusted, allowing them to pass by uninspected, and offering criminals a way through security checks." Attackers have been using encrypted traffic to hide malware for some time. But the large-scale pandemic-related shift to remote work and the resulting increase in the use of cloud-based collaboration this year appears to have accelerated the practice, according to Zscaler. The trend has posed a big challenge for organizations. As more traffic gets encrypted, it has become mission-critical for organizations to be able to inspect it, he says. However, legacy security tools often lack the performance and capacity to inspect encrypted traffic at scale. "This is one of the biggest challenges — in addition to privacy concerns — that prevents most organizations from inspecting all encrypted traffic," he says. Source
  7. (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp said on Thursday it could cut its global workforce by about 15%, including deep white-collar staff reductions in the United States, as the COVID-19 pandemic batters energy demand and prices. FILE PHOTO: A view of the Exxonmobil Baton Rouge Chemical Plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Exxon and other oil producers have been slashing costs due to a collapse in oil demand and ill-timed bets on new projects. The top U.S. oil company earlier outlined more than $10 billion in budget cuts this year. “The impact of COVID-19 on the demand for Exxon Mobil’s products has increased the urgency of the ongoing efficiency work,” the company said in a statement. An estimated 14,000 employees globally, or 15%, could lose jobs, including contractors, spokesman Casey Norton said. The figure will include loses from restructurings, retirements and performance-based exits. Exxon had about 88,300 workers, including 13,300 contractors, at the end of last year. The company is not targeting a fixed number of jobs but does expect the result of its ongoing business review to eliminate about 15% of its current staffing. Exxon, which has struggled in recent years to regain footing after misplaced bets on shale gas and Russia exploration, lost nearly $1.7 billion in the first six months of the year. It is expected to report a record-setting third straight quarterly loss on Friday, and its third-quarter loss could reach $1.19 billion, according to Refinitiv IBES. Exxon said the 1,900 U.S. job cuts will come mainly from its Houston-area campus, the headquarters for its U.S. oil and gas businesses. Earlier this month, Exxon said it would cut 1,600 jobs in Europe. It has announced cuts in Australia. Exxon shares were trading 4% higher at $32.85 on Thursday. Prior to the pandemic, Chief Executive Darren Woods pursued an ambitious spending plan to boost oil output in the belief a growing global middle class would demand more of its products. Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc also have outlined up to 15% workforce cuts. Chevron Corp’s planned cuts of 10%-15% would imply a reduction of between 4,500 and 6,750 jobs. It will also cut roughly another 570 positions as part of its acquisition of Noble Energy. Source
  8. The researchers used NLP to analyze discussions on a range of subreddits The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic increased discussions about anxiety and suicide on Reddit, according to a new AI study by MIT and Harvard University researchers. The team analyzed conversations on 15 subreddits focused on mental health issues, along with 11-non-mental health forums, such as r/PersonalFinance. They first used natural language processing algorithms to find negative semantic changes in posts from 826,961 different users. Next, they applied unsupervised machine learning to classify the posts into their support groups. Finally, they used unsupervised methods, such as topic modeling, to assess how mental health concerns had changed across Reddit since the first wave. They discovered an overall rise in anxiety and suicide-risk levels, and varying other mental health impacts in the different subreddits. “We found that there were these natural clusters that emerged related to suicidality and loneliness, and the amount of posts in these clusters more than doubled during the pandemic as compared to the same months of the preceding year, which is a grave concern,” said study lead author Daniel Low in a statement. The borderline personality disorder and PTSD group became particularly associated with the suicidality cluster, while a new cluster surrounding self-harm also emerged. The r/HealthAnxiety forum showed spikes in posts about COVID-19 in January, around two months earlier than other support groups. Overall, the mental health groups related to ADHD and eating disorders showed the most negative semantic change, which could be due to lockdowns making these conditions particularly hard to manage. But the most adverse effects were found in r/PersonalFinance. The researchers believe this type of textual analysis could help mental health professionals or forum moderators support people who are suffering during other stressful situations — such as controversial elections. “Reddit is a very valuable source of support for a lot of people who are suffering from mental health challenges, many of whom may not have formal access to other kinds of mental health support, so there are implications of this work for ways that support within Reddit could be provided,” said study co-author Laurie Rumker. You can read the study paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Source
  9. Dare we say... telco fiddled while roam burned? Vodafone was today left counting the cost of reduced international travel among its customer base due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group's revenue fell 2.3 per cent to €21.43bn in the six months ending to September 30, which the telco attributed [PDF] to a steep decline in roaming charges. Lower handset sales were also partially blamed. This periodic slump was most keenly observable during the start of the recorded period - when lockdown was in full swing - and largely tracked European flight volume, according to a Vodafone spokesperson. In May, European roaming revenue fell nearly 80 per cent when compared to the previous year. This coincided with airlines almost universally slashing their route map. During the same period, Ryanair, Europe's largest airline by passenger volume, operated a skeleton schedule with just thirty daily flights. The summer months, which brought fewer travel restrictions, weren't much better, with roaming revenues down nearly 70 per cent in August. Although news of a COVID-19 vaccine brings a glimmer of hope to Vodafone's roaming revenues, the reality is that any recovery remains far away, particularly as European nations grapple with a second spike of the virus. In the UK, a second national lockdown has prohibited all but essential international travel. Still, despite the softer revenues, profits were up. Vodafone's bottom line swelled to €1.56bn – up from a loss of €1.891bn during the same period last year. This was due to an aggressive focus on cost cutting, combined with major one-time expenses that weren't repeated during this time period. During the first half of fiscal 2020, Vodafone lost €1.9 billion in its Vodafone Idea joint venture, following a Supreme Court ruling pertaining to taxes and spectrum charges. Nich Read, group CEO at Vodafone, said in a canned statement: "COVID-19 and the reduction in roaming revenues, through the significant reduction in international travel, is currently obscuring our underlying commercial progress." Over the past two years, Vodafone's European retail footprint has shrunk by a fifth to 6,300 stores. This, combined with other measures, has allowed Vodafone to reduce its customer care costs by up to 10 per cent, according to CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann. Philip Carse, chief analyst at Megabuyte, said Vodafone's reduced operating expenses helped to offset roaming challenge to growing the top line. "Fortuitously for Vodafone, COVID-19 revenue pressures have coincided with significant cost savings being achieved from its digital transformation programme enabling a stable profit and cash outlook even in the toughest of times." Coinciding with the results, Vodafone said it remains on track to take its Europe-wide tower business, Vantage Towers, public next year. Vodafone plans to introduce the property to investors later this week in a capital markets day, ahead of its IPO, which could raise as much as €4bn at IPO. Source
  10. Pandemic caused worst year for US economy since 1946 The US economy saw its worst contraction in growth since 1946 as the Covid-19 pandemic forced businesses to close or modify operations nationwide and led to mass layoffs / © AFP/File The United States saw its sharpest contraction in growth since 1946 as the coronavirus pandemic hammered the economy last year, but while the country may be set for a recovery, it hasn't arrived yet. The world's largest economy shrunk by 3.5 percent in 2020, the Commerce Department reported on Thursday, after Covid-19 rearranged daily life and forced many businesses to shut down or change their operations while laying off workers in droves. Those mass layoffs, which began in March as the pandemic intensified, continue to take a toll, with the Labor Department reporting nearly 1.3 million new claims for unemployment benefits filed last week. The data underscores the job awaiting President Joe Biden, who took office just over a week ago promising to get the country back on track with a $1.9 trillion spending proposal that's an initial salvo against the twin economic and health crises. But by this point, analysts agree there's only so much the government can do to support the economy, which won't be back to normal until the raging virus is done away with or has at least been brought to manageable levels. "Additional fiscal stimulus and broader vaccine diffusion should support an improved labor market in the spring, but claims are expected to remain high in the near term as the pandemic continues to restrict activity, with new strains of the virus a concern," Nancy Vanden Houten of Oxford Economics said. - The toll becomes clear - The pandemic caused an unheard-of whipsaw in the growth, with the economy contracting a record 31.4 percent annualized in the second quarter of 2020 when the pandemic's restrictions were at their most severe, then shooting back up 33.4 percent the next quarter as businesses reopened. In the fourth quarter, GDP grew by an annual rate of 4.0 percent, according to the Commerce Department's first estimate for the final three months of last year. US growth / © AFP That wasn't enough to stop 2020 from seeing an overall contraction, which the government said was caused by a drop in spending as well as in "exports, private inventory investment, nonresidential fixed investment, and state and local government." Net exports fell 13 percent last year while personal consumption expenditures dropped 3.9 percent. The declines were partially offset by the strong housing market and federal government spending like the trillions of dollars in stimulus money Congress passed last year amid the pandemic. "Against the risk of excessive winter pessimism, we believe in spring optimism," Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics said. Even if Biden's stimulus bill is eventually watered down by cost-conscious lawmakers, that -- combined with the effects of Covid-19 vaccine drives and a recovery in the employment market -- could cause the economy to expand by 5.5 percent in 2021, he said. - Tough job market - But if the job market is in for a recovery, the wait continues for now. The Labor Department reported 847,000 new seasonally-adjusted filings for regular unemployment benefits, fewer than the week prior and still above the single worst week of the 2008-2010 global financial crisis, 10 months after the mass layoffs began. Another 426,856 claims, without seasonal adjustment, were made under a special program for workers not normally eligible for aid, while the data also showed more and more workers claiming benefits under programs for the long-term unemployed. US unemployment / © AFP All told, nearly 18.3 million people were receiving some form of assistance as of the week ended January 9, and Rubeela Farooqi of High Frequency Economics said that massive number is unlikely to decrease meaningfully until the pandemic can be tamed. "Conditions will remain weak and recovery will be slow until infections can be curbed, and the economy can reopen more completely," she said in an analysis. Yet even as joblessness surged last year, home buying did too, as those who could afford it took advantage of low interest rates to make major property purchases. The Commerce Department estimated on Thursday 811,000 new homes were sold in 2020, the most since 2006. Source: Pandemic caused worst year for US economy since 1946
  11. hi, why no one is talking about microsoft teams in this forum in this age of pandemic. its ok if it does not have premium 1TB file storage. zoom is also such application. thanks.
  12. 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)
  13. https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 this is updated with all the known cases of this... it gets scarier every day...
  14. Masks mess with our brain's ability to recognize faces, but research suggests there is a silver lining Pandemic masks 'like the biggest experiment in face perception that was ever done': cognitive neuroscientist Having trouble recognizing people in a mask? It’s not just you, research shows that even after months of pandemic mask-wearing, they still mess up the brain’s ability to identify faces. But the good news is, it might be making some people seem more attractive. 5:37 Nearly a year into the pandemic, remembering to grab your mask before walking out the door may be getting easier, but recognizing your neighbour, co-worker or third cousin when they're wearing one can still be a bit of a challenge. With so many people around the globe wearing masks regularly these days, "it's like the biggest experiment in face perception that was ever done," said Erez Freud, a cognitive neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. Freud and his co-authors recently published a study that found the human ability to recognize a face is reduced by about 15 per cent if the person has a mask covering their nose and mouth. The researchers had nearly 500 people take the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a common measure for determining face perception abilities. Participants viewed online sets of unfamiliar faces, which they later had to spot out of a group of other faces under various challenging visual conditions. For half the participants, the faces had masks digitally added. The research team found that in 13 per cent of participants, a masked face is enough of an impairment that it causes an effect similar to prosopagnosia, a condition also known as "face blindness." Our ability to read faces isn't just about recognizing each other, it's also key to social interaction, Freud says. "One thing that we need to take into account [is] that face perception is probably the most important visual ability that we have. We use face information not only to identify each other, but also to determine their emotion, gender, even intention to some extent." Erez Freud, left, a neuroscientist at York University in Toronto, explains to CBC's Adrienne Arsenault that faces are a crucial element of human interaction. 'We use face information not only to identify each other, but also to determine their emotion, gender, even intention to some extent.' (CBC) Mask-wearing has likely caused people some awkward moments, like wondering why that stranger across the street is waving to them, or who just said hello on the bus. But for some, it can be socially debilitating. "Those elderly people are isolated for the last year, especially people in long term [care] facilities, [and] they see other people that wear masks all the time .... In older, older ages, face perception abilities are impaired to begin with. So I can't imagine how they feel now, with the masks on and the isolation — everything comes together to a very difficult time," Freud said. Typically when we look at another person's face, our brain works at lightning speed to compute the distances between the individual features — the nose, eyes, mouth, and other features — all at once to determine who we are looking at. The researchers found a mask disrupts this holistic approach to facial recognition. "So because of the mask, you tend to focus now on, obviously, the eyes and the individual features instead of their face as a whole," said Freud. This gives the brain less information to work with and makes the identification process less efficient. When people wear masks, Freud said, our focus moves to their eyes when meeting and interacting with them. (Evan Mitsui/CBC) It turns out humans aren't the only ones struggling. Facial recognition software has also been disrupted by mask-wearing. A July report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found some of the most accurate facial recognition algorithms failed to authenticate faces 0.3 per cent of the time. But when a mask is added, the rate of error increases to about five per cent, and in some cases the algorithms got it wrong up to 50 per cent of the time. A second report by NIST in November saw some improvement. Newer algorithms developed in recent months are doing much better at identifying masked faces, as developers have adapted their software. But all 65 algorithms included in the report continued to have a higher rate of error when a mask was covering the person's nose and mouth. Researchers say that masks may make some people appear more attractive because prominent or asymmetrical features of the lower face are hidden, putting the emphasis on a person's eyes rather than their face. (Ousama Farag/CBC) However, new research out of the U.S. may have found a surprising silver lining to masks. They can make us more attractive. The joint study between the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University College of Health, titled Beauty and the Mask, asked participants to rate the attractiveness of a cross-section of individuals with and without masks. They found about 70 per cent of reportedly "average-looking" people were rated as more attractive when wearing a surgical-style mask. "What's likely happening is that the mask is camouflaging either prominent features or asymmetrical features of the lower face," said David Sarwer, study co-author and clinical psychologist. "We're actually seeing those individuals as more attractive, because perhaps those less attractive features are now camouflaged by the face covering." U.S. researchers asked participants to rate the attractiveness of a cross-section of individuals with and without masks using photos from a face database. (Temple University’s College of Public Health/University of Pennsylvania) Another reason is that the eyes, which are left visible, are key markers of facial attractiveness, Sarwer says. "It's something that we're taught at a very young age. As children, we're taught when we're talking to somebody to look them right in the eyes. So we're probably seeing part of the socialization of that, as well as some ingrained biology that's leading us to be attracted to peoples' eyes." Researchers like Freud say they will continue to study the psychological impacts of mask-wearing, and whether our brains will adapt to the new normal. And in the meantime, he says masks and patience should go together. "It's a difficult time for all of us. We need to be more understanding. We need to be more attentive to other people, and even take into account the fact that they might not recognize us." Source: Masks mess with our brain's ability to recognize faces, but research suggests there is a silver lining
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