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Do digital contact tracing apps work? Here’s what you need to know.

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In the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, several competing projects launched around a deceptively simple concept: your phone could alert you if you’d crossed paths with someone who later tested positive. One system for these exposure notifications quickly caught on. It was designed, in an improbable act of cooperation, by Apple and Google, which released the first version in May

How do the Apple-Google contact tracing apps work?

When you enable exposure notifications, your phone starts using Bluetooth to constantly scan for nearby phones doing the same thing. (This happens in the background, and it’s designed not to use much extra battery.)

When two phones connect, they swap anonymous ID codes. Your phone records how long you spend around the other device and guesses how far away you are, based on a mixture of factors such as how the phone is oriented and how strong the signal from the other handset is. 

If you test positive for covid-19, your health department will ask if you’d like to notify people you may have exposed. If you agree, they’ll give you a code to enter into the app. This code authorizes your phone to send its ID codes—still anonymous—to a central server, which is managed by your state or national health authority.

Meanwhile, your phone periodically checks the server for new IDs that have been associated with positive tests and cross-references them against the ones it’s collected over the past two weeks.

If your phone thinks it’s been within six feet of flagged devices for at least 15 minutes in a day, you’ll get an alert that you may have been exposed, including information about what to do next.

What does effective contact tracing look like?

Effective contact tracing, whether it’s done by a human or by an app, is a three-pronged process: identify who has the virus, identify who those people have spent time with, and convince those contacts to stay home.

Access to testing has remained a fundamental problem—apps can’t work if users don’t get tested for covid-19. And if people do get tests, they need to trust their governments (or tech companies) enough to enter positive results into the app. Finally, everyone who gets an exposure notification needs to take advice about properly isolating. 

How do contact tracing apps deal with privacy?

Health departments have struggled to build trust around contact tracing. A recent Pew survey found that 40% of Americans are unlikely to even talk with manual contact tracers. And despite many layers of anonymity, exposure notification apps have earned significant criticism over privacy concerns. They’ve been called out by Amnesty International, consumer protection groups, and even 39 US attorneys general. 

Health departments can use privacy-preserving technology from Google and Apple and still ask users to send them a phone number if they get an exposure notification. While the feature is entirely voluntary—the apps still work if users don’t add their numbers—many governments don’t ask, in an effort to make people feel more secure about privacy.

This focus on privacy means certain trade-offs. If people were willing to talk to contact tracers after getting an exposure notification, they could help public health experts understand the spread of disease.

Are contact tracing apps working?

There’s evidence that apps can help by breaking transmission chains and preventing new cases, even without tons of users. They may be useful as part of a “Swiss cheese” model: even though every approach has holes, stacking lots of them together can make a solid barrier. But it’s unclear how much exposure notifications do to change people’s behavior, particularly since it’s difficult to track how many people get exposure notifications and later test positive. 

Many experts are anxiously following the progress of Ireland’s app, which is actively used by more than a third of the adult population. Between mid-July and mid-October, users uploaded 3,000 positive results, representing around 11% of confirmed cases. In October, Ireland became the first country in Europe to reimpose a nationwide lockdown. (The country’s rate of new cases per capita dropped almost immediately, and is now a sixth of America’s rate.)

Unfortunately, the promise of a smartphone solution conflicts with one of the harshest realities of the pandemic: marginalized groups around the world are contracting and dying of covid-19 at rates far higher than people with greater socioeconomic power. People in these groups are also less likely to be tested in the first place. Smartphone apps may not be as helpful in such communities, particularly if members have good reasons to distrust the government.

What comes next?

While many countries now have national apps, there hasn’t been a federal effort in the US—which happens to be the world’s coronavirus hot spot. Instead, health departments in individual American states have been forced to create a patchwork of apps. 

Statewide exposure notifications may finally be picking up steam. In September, Google and Apple started letting health agencies in the US offer exposure notifications without building their own apps. The tool, called Exposure Notifications Express, is baked into operating systems from iOS 13.7 on. That means iPhone users can just turn notifications on in the settings menu. Google, meanwhile, has a ready-made app that it customizes for each state.

One major roadblock has been a fragmented system for managing the IDs, or “keys,” associated with positive tests. Users weren’t getting notifications from people who were on other states’ apps. In August, the US Association of Public Health Laboratories built a communal server that makes it much easier for apps to talk to one another and send keys across state lines. So far Washington, DC, and 12 states—mostly on the East Coast—have launched apps using this system, and four more have pilot programs

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Rusty but intact: Nazi Enigma cipher machine found in Baltic Sea

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The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Enlarge / The Enigma cipher machine found in the Baltic Sea is lying on a table in front of the archaeological office of Schleswig-Holstein. After its discovery, the machine was handed over to the office by research diver Huber. Photo: Axel Heimken/dpa (Photo by Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

Divers scouring the Baltic Sea for discarded fishing nets have stumbled on the rarest of finds: an Enigma encryption machine used by the Nazis to encode secret messages during World War II.

The electromechanical device was used extensively by the Nazi military to encrypt communications, which typically were transmitted by radio in Morse Code. Three or more rotors on the device used a stream cipher to convert each letter of the alphabet to a different letter.

The Enigma had the appearance of a typewriter. An operator would use the keys to type plaintext, and the converted ciphertext would be reflected in 26 lights above the keys—one light for each converted letter. The converted letters would then be transcribed to derive the ciphertext.

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How the US, UK and China are planning to roll out vaccines

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The vaccines are coming. The UK became the first country in the West to approve a covid-19 vaccine for emergency use on December 2, specifically the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which has completed Phase 3 trials. But the US, EU, and many other countries are expected to follow suit in the following days and weeks. The imminent arrival of vaccines not only means that countries face a huge logistical challenge to distribute them—which is complicated by the fact the two most promising vaccines require ultra-cold temperatures—but they also have to grapple with hard choices over who gets them first. 

Here’s how different countries are making their decisions on distributing vaccines to their populations. 

United States

How many doses will be available? Up to 40 million doses are expected to be on offer in the US by the end of 2020—25 million of which will come from Pfizer-BioNTech, and 12.5 million from Moderna, according to Reuters. Since the vaccines each require two doses spaced several weeks apart, this will be enough to vaccinate 20 million people—but not all shipments will come at once. The first shipment will reportedly cover 3.2 million people, with 5-10 million more doses delivered each week after that.  

Who will get it first? In the US, individual states are responsible for creating their own vaccine distribution plans. They are meant to follow general guidance from the CDC’s Interim Playbook for Covid-19, which was shaped by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) with input from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

ACIP met on December 1, and voted on the recommended first phase of the distribution plan. This is known as 1a, and will prioritize 21 million health care workers and 3 million adults in long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, who are particularly vulnerable. 

USA vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

The following phases will add other people to the list: 1b will prioritize other essential workers, such as school staff, while 1c prioritizes adults older than 65 and others with other medical issues that increase the risk of serious complications from covid.

Phase two would cover people who work in schools, transportation, congregate housing facilities, like nursing homes, and other places with high concentrations of people. Phase three includes young adults and children—in an attempt to stop super spreading events—as well as other essential workers not previously covered. Phase four would include everyone else. 

But the CDC guidelines leave a lot for state and local governments to interpret and implement. 

Even in phase 1, different states have different definitions for essential workers, for example. ACIP has yet to discuss anything beyond phase 1, leaving many open questions about how to prioritize the rest of the population. One analysis of 47 published state plans by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about half explicitly mentioned race and health equity as a factor for prioritization. 

China

How many doses will be available? Chinese scientists say the country will have 600 million doses ready this year, the South China Morning Post reports. Wang Junzhi, a member of the nation’s vaccine task force, told journalists on December 4 that the doses of inactivated vaccines will be ready for launch before the end of the year. He said a “major announcement”on vaccine trials was expected in the coming weeks. 

China vaccine covid-19

MS TECH | PIXABAY

China has five vaccine candidates from four manufacturers in phase three clinical trials, including the frontrunners from Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech. While none have yet been approved for commercial use, they have been administered in so-called “pre-tests” in China, where coronavirus numbers are low, and are also undergoing phase three trials in 15 countries abroad. 

Who will get it first? That question’s already been answered. Emergency authorization was granted to the two leading candidates earlier this year: Since June, an unknown number of People’s Liberation Army members have received shots, and essential city workers started getting vaccinated in July. All in all, roughly one million people have received emergency authorization vaccines so far, including employees of state-owned enterprises, Huawei employees in 180 countries, and Chinese diplomats. 

“An emergency use authorization, which is based on Chinese vaccine management law, allows unapproved vaccine candidates to be used among people who are at high risk of getting infected on a limited period,” said Zheng Zhongwei, the director of the Science and Technology Development Center of China’s National Health Commission, in an interview with China’s state television channel on August 22.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to make the vaccine available around the world as a“global public good.” In October, China joined the Covax Facility, a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to equitably distribute vaccines. The US is not part of that group. 

The countries prioritized for distribution of the five Chinese vaccine candidates are primarily those which have hosted trials, which in turn is shaped by China’s strategic interest.  These include Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, which have signed deals for 46 million, 50 million, and 50 million Sinovac doses respectively; and Mexico, which has a deal with CanSino Biologics for 35 million doses. 

Little is known about how the Chinese government is prioritizing vaccine distribution domestically, though local reports suggest that individual provinces are making their own plans to buy vaccine doses, which will cost 200 RMB per dose (roughly $30.) The state insurance plan will not cover the cost. 

UK

How many doses will be available? The UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in the general public on December 2. It will start inoculating its population of 67 million people through the state-run National Health Service, with the first vaccinations to be given to the highest-priority individuals from December 7. The UK bought 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine; since each person requires two doses, so it has enough to vaccinate about a third of the population. It has also purchased 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, and smaller quantities of other vaccine candidates, bringing the total it has bought to 355 million—in short, more than enough to vaccinate everyone. 

Who will get it first? The UK’s decision relied on a group called the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent committee of academics and medical experts responsible for advising government ministers. For its phase one delivery, it divided the population into nine different groups, recommended vaccinating them in this order of priority, which the government has adopted:

  • Residents and staff working in elderly care homes
  • Everyone over 80 years old plus health and social care workers
  • Everyone over 75 years old
  • Everyone over 70 years old plus “clinically extremely vulnerable” individuals, which does not include pregnant people or those under the age of 18. 
  • Everyone over 65 years old
  • Adults aged 18 to 65 years in an at-risk group. This includes people with chronic diseases, diabetes, learning difficulties, morbid obesity or severe mental illness.  
  • Everyone over 60 years old
  • Everyone over 55 years old
  • Everyone over 50 years old

The JCVI has publicly explained its thinking in a 25-page document stating that “current evidence strongly indicates that the single greatest risk of mortality from covid-19 is increasing age.” It has not yet announced plans beyond phase one.

Elsewhere

Russia: Russia became the first country anywhere to approve a vaccine back in August 2020. President Vladimir Putin himself announced its Sputnik V vaccine had been granted authorization on August 11, before phase 3 trials had even started. Those are still underway, but the country is already preparing to start mass immunizations, with Putin ordering officials to start making the necessary preparations just hours after the news of the UK’s approval came in. Vaccinations will reportedly begin with healthcare workers and teachers. They will be free of charge, and the Kremlin says they will be carried out on a voluntary basis. Russia also says it will have up to 500 million doses ready for export. 
Other countries: The options are limited for many lower and middle income countries, since the world’s richest nations—including the 27 member-states of the EU as well as Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan—have already pre-ordered half of the world’s expected available supply. Ninety two of these countries have joined the Covax Facility, which has secured 700 million doses and aims to cover 20% of the population of lower and middle income countries by the end of 2021.

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3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

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Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

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