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This Week in Apps: App Store privacy labels, Facebook criticizes Apple over ad targeting, Twitter kills Periscope

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps,  href=”https://techcrunch.com/tag/this-week-in-apps/”>the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in global consumer spend in 2019. Not including third-party Chinese app stores, iOS and Android users downloaded 130 billion apps in 2020. Consumer spend also hit a record $112 billion across iOS and Android alone. In 2019, people spent three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Due to COVID-19, time spent in apps jumped 25% year-over-year on Android.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

Top Stories

Apple launches App Store privacy labels

Image Credits: Apple

Apple this week launched its promised App Store privacy labels across all its App Stores, including iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS. The labels aim to give Apple customers an easier way to understand what sort of information an app collects across three categories: data used to track you, data linked to you and data not linked to you. Tracking, Apple explains, refers to the act of linking either user or device data collected from an app with user or device data collected from other apps, websites or even offline properties (like data aggregated from retail receipts) that’s used for targeted advertising or advertisement measurement. It can also include sharing user or device data with data brokers.

This aspect alone will expose the industry of third-party adtech and analytics SDKs (software development kits) — basically code from external vendors that developers add to their apps to boost their revenues.

Meanwhile, “data linked to you” is the personal information tied to your identity through your user account on the app, your device or other details. (You can read more about the program here.)

Axios compared how various social media and messaging apps compare as determined by the labels. Not surprisingly, it found that Facebook-owned apps collected more data than apps like Telegram, Signal and Apple’s Messages. It also found that Snap collected less data than the other major social networks.

Others noticed that Google had yet to provide any privacy label information for its biggest apps like Gmail, Googel Maps or Google Search.

Apple and Facebook fight over privacy changes

Also this week, Facebook took out full-page newspaper ads to attack Apple’s upcoming privacy-centered changes, alleging that the decision will have negative impacts on small businesses. With a forthcoming update to iOS 14, developers will have to ask users permission to use their IDFA identifiers for ad targeting purposes, and they’ll have very few characters to explain why it’s necessary. Most users, who are sick of having their data taken and resold without any personal control over that process, will likely just say “No.”

On the one hand, Facebook has much to lose as it already warned that without targeting and personalization, mobile app install campaigns brought in 50% less revenue for publishers. And the impacts to Facebook Audience Network on iOS will be even worse. But Facebook says it’s well-diversified enough so this one change won’t hurt its business as much as it will smaller ones run by “aspiring entrepreneurs.”

It also pointed out that Apple’s interests aren’t only about consumer choice. When developers make less money from the traditional targeted ads, they’ll turn to other means of generating revenues — like in-app purchases and subscriptions, benefiting Apple.

We should also point out that Apple does a lot of data gathering and targeting of its own. In your iOS Privacy Settings, when you scroll way down to the bottom of the page, then click on Apple Advertising followed by View Ad Targeting Information, you’ll find Apple’s own admissions of how it tracks you across its platform, including data from your account info (age, gender, location), and by what content you’ve downloaded on Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Books and the App Store. It uses this data to target you with personalized ads on the App Store, in Apple News and in Stocks.

Apple, meanwhile, has presented Facebook’s tracking business as one that aims to “collect as much data as possible,” in order to “develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users,” in a “disregard to user privacy.” And while it’s true that Facebook’s network spans apps and websites, Apple is doing the same thing within its own ecosystem…of a billion iPhones and other devices. Devices where Apple’s own apps are often pre-installed and compete with third-party services in areas like books, music, TV, fitness, news and more.

Plus, Apple told developers when it launched the new App Store privacy labels this week, that developers don’t have to disclose the data collected by Apple itself. Uh, wonder why that is?

Instead, developers have to come clean about all the other ways they collect and use customer data, including if data brokers are involved.

The move of course is a big gain for consumer privacy, as it establishes a new baseline for the industry, lays bare the amount to which users are tracked and forces companies to re-establishment trust with their customers instead of sneaking behind their back to gather and sell their data. But it’s simultaneously an easy smokescreen for Apple’s own interests, and Apple should not get a pass on that aspect just because it’s also “a very good thing.” Apple wanted a bigger portion of the adtech market and to grow its subscription business and it wants to fight for consumer privacy. But it largely only highlights the latter when speaking to reporters or making public statements.

The risk of criticizing Apple for such a pro-consumer move is that it looks like a defense of Facebook. But this issue is too complex to require that you simply choose sides. There are ways that Apple can both tackle consumer privacy issues and be more upfront about its own ongoing data collection practices — and burying its data collection/ad targeting info at the very bottom of the iOS Privacy settings page is not it.

Twitter kills Periscope

Image Credits: Twitter

Twitter this week announced it’s shutting down its standalone livestreaming app Periscope, which it acquired in 2015. The company said the app had been “an unsustainable maintenance-mode state” for some time, and Twitter has seen its usage decline as costs went up. The app will no longer function by March 2021, but Twitter says it’s not giving up on live video. It notes that it brought most of Periscope’s core capabilities to Twitter over the years.

Users will be able to download an archive of their Periscope broadcasts and data before the app is removed and those that have been published to Twitter will continue to live on as replays.

Twitter has a history of making bad calls on its standalone apps that seemed like smart decisions at the time. The company was early to the idea that music and social could work well when tied together when it launched a standalone Twitter Music app in 2013. Years later, other companies have proven that to be true — TikTok said this week its app is driving hits, and got 70-some artists major label record deals. In 2020, over 176 songs passed 1 billion views as TikTok sounds.

Another idea Twitter killed, of course, was Vine, the app that could have been TikTok, had it lasted.

Now Twitter is killing its live video app, a project it abandoned, as everyone else is figuring out how to turn live video streams into e-commerce transactions. Today, Facebook and Instagram offer live video shopping, including in Instagram Reels, its TikTok rival. And TikTok itself launched its first big test of livestreamed video shopping in partnership with Walmart. Other big names who are investing in live video shopping include Amazon through its QVC-like Amazon Live, Alibaba through AliExpress, JD.com, Pinduoduo, WeChat and TikTok’s Chinese sister app, Douyin.

One could argue that Twitter just wants to stake out its own place and not follow the crowd, but its latest big feature was Stories, er, Fleets, a format that’s just about everywhere. And its current test product is Spaces, a rival to Clubhouse and a handful of other audio-networking startups.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple launches App Store privacy labels.
  • Apple releases macOS Big Sur version 11.1, which allows iPhone and iPad apps without resizable windows to enter into full-screen mode on Macs with the M1 chip. HBO Max will benefit from this, as well as some mobile games.
  • The Mac App Store publishes a list of apps that take advantage of the new M1 chip.
  • Apple talks about how to design an App Clip URL more efficiently in new blog post. It also announced that App Clip Codes — the visual image that encodes a URL and can incorporate an NFC tag — are also now available for creation in App Store Connect or with the new command line App Clip Code Generator.
  • Apple launched iOS 12.5 for older phones that don’t support iOS 14. The update brings the COVID-19 exposure notification support to these older devices and other security fixes.
  • Apple releases iPadOS 14.4 public beta.
  • Apple publishes a guide to locking down your Apple devices, which could be particularly useful for domestic abuse survivors.

Platforms: Google

  • Google announced the Play Store is now open to more car apps, including navigation, parking and charging apps for Android Auto.
  • Google Play Store opens up to 22 new countries in Africa, Oceania and elsewhere.
  • Google announces Android Things platform shutdown is January 5, 2021.

Services

  • Amazon’s AWS announced the preview of Amazon Location, a service that will allow developers to add location-based features to their web-based and mobile applications. Amazon Location is based on mapping data from Esri and HERE Technologies, and includes built-in tracking and geofencing, but not routing.

Gaming

  • Game engine maker Unity teamed up with Snap to bring its Unity Ads supply to Snap Audience Network and bring Snap Kit to game developers. From the Unity Asset Store, game developers can use Snap Kit’s Login Kit and Creative Kit, the latter which allows users to decorate their videos with stickers or ad AR lenses. Bitmoji avatars will be integrated with Unity in early 2021.
  • PUBG Mobile tops the list of billion-dollar mobile games in 2020, reports Sensor Tower. Five games topped $1 billion this year, including also Honor of Kings, Pokémon GO, Coin Master and Roblox.
  • Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service arrives on Android. Like the iOS version, the service works through the web browser in the U.S. It supports some Pixel, Samsung and OnePlus devices for now, with expanded device support arriving in time.
  • Roblox delays IPO to 2021. The company said the IPO performance of Airbnb and DoorDash, which soared on their debut leaving money on the table, made it too difficult to price shares.
  • A judge orders Apple to produce documentation from Tim Cook and Craig Federighi in the Epic Games/Fortnite lawsuit. The execs may also be called to testify, along with Eddy Cue, if Epic gets its way. Facebook also said this week it would aid Epic in its legal battle by providing supporting materials and documents, as a part of the discovery process.
  • Google’s cloud gaming service, Google Stadia, arrives on iOS. The service bypasses the App Store to instead use a web app. It works on both iPhone and iPad (iOS 14.3 is required). Most games will need a gamepad to work.

Augmented Reality

  • The Unity/Snap deal, mentioned above, includes an AR component. Snap’s Creative Kits allows users to share their gameplay, decorating still shots or 15-second videos with branded stickers, or attaching an AR lens that has been created with game branding to share with their Snapchat friends. These shares work to acquire new users as well, as they include referral links back to the game.
  • Facebook’s Messenger Kids app updates with seasonal AR effects, as well as a way for parents to play Santa to kids.
  • Google adds an AR Baby Yoda in its Google Search app.

Social & Photos

  • Facebook launches a TikTok-like app, Collab, that focuses on collaborative music making. TechCrunch had the exclusive interview.
  • Twitter launches its voice-based Spaces social networking feature, a Clubhouse rival, into beta testing. The feature lets select Twitter testers for the time being gather in audio-only chat rooms on Twitter’s platform.
  • Discord rolls out mobile screen sharing, allowing users to “hang out” and watch videos or anything else on their phone.
  • Facebook relaunches Instagram Lite app, starting with a test in India before a global rollout. The app is under 2MB in size and is faster and more responsive. But it also lacks features like Reels, Shopping and IGTV.
  • Dating and friend-making app Bumble confidentially files for a February 2021 IPO.
  • Google Photos adds 3D “Cinematic” photos feature that uses machine learning to turn 2D photos into 3D — even if the original didn’t include depth information from the camera. A virtual camera then animates a smooth panning effect for a more vivid experience.
  • TikTok’s new guidelines strengthen policies on harassment, self-harm, violence and dangerous acts. The social app also rolled out new well-being features, like opt-in viewing screens that hide distressing content, a text-to-voice feature to make TikTok more accessible and COVID-19 vaccine info.
  • Halide’s developer offers a deep dive on Apple’s new ProRAW image format, which it describes as not just making RAW more powerful, but also more approachable. “ProRAW could very well change how everyone shoots and edits photos, beginners and experts alike,” a Halide blog post says. They’re not the only one singing ProRAW’s praises — Halide pointed to photographer Austin Mann’s blog post as well.

Streaming and entertainment

  • Netflix added a new audio-only mode on Android that allows users to save bandwidth and instead only listen to their program. The feature aims appeal to emerging markets users but could also serve as a way to turn Netflix into an alternative to listening to podcasts, at times.
  • Spotify launched on the Epic Games Store — a marketplace that’s shaping up to become a third-party app store. The two companies are both engaged with fighting Apple over its commission structure and rules on purchases.
  • TikTok released its first-ever U.S. music report which revealed the social app’s outsized influence on the music industry. According to the report, more than 176 different songs surpassed 1 billion video views as TikTok sounds, over 70 artists that have broken on TikTok’s platform have received major label deals, including Claire Rosinkranz, Dixie D’Amelio, Powfu, Priscilla Block and Tai Verdes, and others.
  • TikTok launches on TVs. The app is first available on Samsung smart TV models in Europe, but the Samsung partnership will allow it to be pre-installed going forward. The TV experience will be curated for family-friendly videos only.
  • Apple redesigns Shazam for iOS so it better fits with Apple Music’s design language. The app is also now available on the web. Apple recently said Shazam had over 200M MAUs across iOS and Android.

E-commerce

Image Credits: Walmart

  • Walmart partners with TikTok on a test of a new shoppable product that will allow TikTok users to transact within the app. The retailer will run a holiday shopping event inside TikTok, where users can shop from influencer videos. After the event, users can continue to shop from Walmart’s TikTok profile.
  • Shoploop, an app founded within Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator, has graduated to Google Search. The app competes with efforts in video-based shopping from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and others. Google has now brought Shoploop’s short-form influencer videos to Google Shopping.
  • Discount e-commerce marketplace app Wish dropped below IPO price in its market debut. Wish opened at $22.75, below its $24 per share IPO pricing. Investors may be responding to the fact that Wish is growing slower and has a much smaller user base than top retailers, like Amazon and Walmart.
  • App Annie predicts U.S. users on Android will spend more than 1 billion hours in shopping apps in Q4 2020, a 50% YoY increase. Mobile sales are expected to reach $314 billion by year-end.

Security and Privacy

  • New mobile malware Goontact is targeting iOS and Android users in Chinese language-speaking countries, Korea and Japan. The spyware can steal contacts, SMS messages, photos and location information after a user is lured to a website hosting the spyware, which convinces them to sideload it on Android devices. On iOS, it primarily steals a phone number and contact list.
  • Secure messaging app Signal launches encrypted group calls on iOS and Android. The feature allows for up to five participants to chat.

Government and Policy

Fintech

Health & Fitness

Funding and M&A

  • Reddit acquires TikTok rival Dubsmash to aid with Reddit’s video push. The company says it will integrate Dubsmash’s video creation tools into Reddit directly. Reddit had raised $20 million+ in venture funding.
  • MessageBird acquires real-time notifications and in-app messaging platform Pusher, based in London, for $35 million.
  • IntellectoKids raises $3 million from Allrise Capital and others for its edtech apps for kids aged 3 to 7 years old.
  • Mobile edtech startup Aceable raises $50 million to accelerate the expansion of its service for state-accredited classes.
  • Brainly raises $80 million for its crowdsourced homework help app now used by 350 million users.
  • Tap Network, a customizable rewards program used by app makers like Uber, raises $4 million.
  • Canadian challenger banking app Neo Financial raises $50 million CAD and expands into savings accounts.

Downloads

Canvas

Canvas is a new iPhone app from Occipital, the company behind RedLaster and 360 Panorama — apps that were ahead of the curve on the next frontier for iPhones. Canvas leverages the lidar scanner in the iPhone 12 Pro to create 3D scans of your home. 9to5Mac reviewed the app this week, describing the process of using Canvas as “pretty simple.” You just stand in the center of the room, then moved the photo up and down as you turn as the app overlays an AR grid on your room. The app did have some glitches with smaller rooms and alcoves. When the scan is done, you can pay a fee to have it turned into a professional CAD model for using in remodeling plans.

Gawq

Image Credits: Gawq

Gawq’s newly launched news aggregator app aims to tackle the problem of fake news and the “echo chamber” problem created by social media, where our view of the world is shaped by manipulative algorithms and personalized feeds. The app aims to present news from a range of sources, while allowing users to filter between news, opinion, paid content and more, as well as compare sources, check facts and even review the publication’s content for accuracy.

PhotoRoom

Image Credits: PhotoRoom

TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet looked this week at PhotoRoom, a new Android photography app that can automatically remove the background from your photo and swap it with another. The app, a YC alum, had previously been available on iOS where it competes with a variety of photo editing apps offering similar functionality.

Soosee

Soosee already operates a clever app that uses your iPhone camera to scan food labels for things you want to avoid — like dietary constraints, allergens, microplastics or antibiotics, for example. But we have to get this company a shoutout for having one of the cleanest App Store privacy labels around.

The company tweeted this in November (see below), but at the time of publication the label had been updated with exactly one item. It now collects Purchase data, under the “Data Not Linked to You” section. Good job, Soosee! Support apps like this.

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

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What the NFT? VC David Pakman dumbs down the intensifying digital collectibles frenzy

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Non-fungible tokens have been around for two years, but these NFTs, one-of-one digital items on the Ethereum and other blockchains, are suddenly becoming a more popular way to collect visual art primarily, whether it’s an animated cat or an NBA clip or virtual furniture.

“Suddenly” is hardly an overstatement. According to the outlet Cointelegraph, during the second half of last year, $9 million worth of NFT goods sold to buyers; during one 24-hour window earlier this week, $60 million worth of digital goods were sold.

What’s going on? A thorough New York Times piece on the trend earlier this week likely fueled new interest, along with a separate piece in Esquire about the artist Beeple, a Wisconsin dad whose digital drawings, which he has created every single day for the last 13 years, began selling like hotcakes in December. If you need further evidence of a tipping point (and it is ample right now), consider that the work of Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was just made available through Christie’s. It’s the venerable auction house’s first sale of exclusively digital work.

To better understand the market and why it’s blowing up in real time, we talked this week with David Pakman, a former internet entrepreneur who joined the venture firm Venrock a dozen years ago and began tracking Bitcoin soon after, even mining the cryptocurrency at his Bay Area home beginning in 2015. (“People would come over and see racks of computers, and it was like, ‘It’s sort of hard to explain.’”)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he also became convinced early on of the promise of NFTs, persuading Venrock to lead the $15 million Series A round for a young startup, Dapper Labs, when its primary offering was CryptoKitties, limited-edition digital cats that can be bought and bred with cryptocurrency.

While the concept baffled some at the time, Pakman has long seen the day when Dapper’s offerings will be far more extensive, and indeed, a recent Dapper deal with the NBA to sell collectible highlight clips has already attracted so much interest that Dapper is reportedly right now raising $250 million in new funding at a post-money valuation of $2 billion. While Pakman declined to confirm or correct that figure, he did answer our other questions in a chat that’s been edited here for length and clarity.

TC: David, dumb things down for us. Why is the world so gung-ho about NFTs right now?

DP: One of the biggest problems with crypto — the reason it scares so many people — is it uses all these really esoteric terms to explain very basic concepts, so let’s just keep it really simple. About 40% of humans collect things — baseball cards, shoes, artwork, wine. And there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons why. Some people have a need to complete a set. Some people do it for investment reasons. Some people want an heirloom to pass down. But we could only collect things in the real world because digital collectibles were too easy to copy.

Then the blockchain came around and [it allowed us to] make digital collectibles immutable, with a record of who owns what that you can’t really copy. You can screenshot it, but you don’t really own the digital collectible, and you won’t be able to do anything with that screenshot. You won’t be able to to sell it or trade it. The proof is in the blockchain. So I was a believer that crypto-based collectibles could be really big and actually could be the thing that takes crypto mainstream and gets the normals into participating in crypto — and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

TC: You mentioned a lot of reasons that people collect items, but one you didn’t mention is status. Assuming that’s one’s motivation, how do you show off what you’ve amassed online? 

DP: You’re right that one of the other reasons why we collect is to show it off status, but I would actually argue it’s much easier to show off our collections in the digital world. If I’m a car collector, the only way you’re going to see my cars is to come over to the garage. Only a certain number of people can do that. But online, we can display our digital collections. NBA Top Shop, for example, makes it very easy for you to show off your moments. Everyone has a page and there’s an app that’s coming and you can just show it off to anyone in your app, and you can post it to your social networks. And it’s actually really easy to show off how big or exciting your collection is.

TC: It was back in October that Dapper rolled out these video moments, which you buy almost like a Pokemon set in that you’re buying a pack and know you’ll get something “good” but don’t know what. But while almost half it sales have come in through the last week. Why?

DP: There’s only about maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people playing right now. It’s growing 50% or 100% a day. But the growth has been completely organic. The game is actually still in beta, so we haven’t been doing any marketing other than posting some stuff on Twitter. There hasn’t been attempt to market this and get a lot of players [talking about it] because we’re still working the bugs out, and there are a lot of bugs still to be worked out.

But a couple NBA players have seen this and gotten excited about their own moments [on social media]. And there’s maybe a little bit of machismo going on where, ‘Hey, I want my moment to trade for a higher price.’ But I also think it’s the normals who are playing this. All you need to play is a credit card, and something like 65% of the people playing have never owned or traded in crypto before. So I think the thesis that crypto collectibles could be the thing that brings mainstream users into crypto is playing out before our eyes.

TC: How does Dapper get paid?

DP: We get 5% of secondary sales and 100% minus the cost of the transaction on primary sales. Of course, we have a relationship with the NBA, which collects some of that, too. But that’s the basic economics of how the system works.

TC: Does the NBA have a minimum that it has to be paid every year, and then above and beyond that it receives a cut of the action?

DP: I don’t think the company has gone public with the exact economic terms of their relationships with the NBA and the Players Association. But obviously the NBA is the IP owner, and the teams and the players have economic participation in this, which is good, because they’re the ones that are creating the intellectual property here.

But a lot of the appreciation of these moments — if you get one in a pack and you sell it for a higher price — 95% of that appreciation goes to the owner. So it’s very similar to baseball cards, but now IP owners can participate through the life of the product in the downstream economic activity of their intellectual property, which I think is super appealing whether you’re the NBA or someone like Disney, who’s been in the IP licensing business for decades.

And it’s not just major IP where this NFT space is happening. It’s individual creators, musicians, digital artists who could create a piece of digital art, make only five copies of it, and auction it off. They too can collect a little bit each time their works sell in the future.

TC: Regarding NBA Top Shot specifically, prices range massively in terms of what people are paying for the same limited-edition clip. Why?

DP: There are two reasons. One is that like scarce items, lower numbers are worth more than higher numbers, so if there’s a very particular LeBron moment, and they made 500 [copies] of them, and I own number one, and you own number 399, the marketplace is ascribing a higher value to the lower numbers, which is very typical of limited-edition collector pieces. It’s sort of a funny concept. But it is a very human concept.

The other thing is that over time there has been more and more demand to get into this game, so people are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That’s why there’s been a lot of price appreciation for these moments over time.

TC: You mentioned that some of the esoteric language around crypto scares people, but so does the fact that 20% of the world’s bitcoin is permanently inaccessible to its owners, including because of forgotten passwords. Is that a risk with these digital items, which you are essentially storing in a digital locker or wallet?

DP: It’s a complex topic,  but I will say that Dapper has tried to build this in a way where that won’t happen, where there’s effectively some type of password recovery process for people who are storing their moments in Dapper’s wallet.

You will be able to take your moments away from Dapper’s account and put it into other accounts, where you may be on your own in terms of password recovery.

TC: Why is it a complex topic?

DP: There are people who believe that even though centralized account storage is convenient for users, it’s somehow can be distrustful — that the company could de-platform you or turn your account off. And in the crypto world, there’s almost a religious ferocity about making sure that no one can de-platform you, that the things that you buy — your cryptocurrencies or your NFTs. Long term, Dapper supports that. You’ll be able to take your moments anywhere you want. But today, our customers don’t have to worry about that I-lost-my-password-and-I’ll-never-get-my-moments-again problem.

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The one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson now has FDA support in the US

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An advisory board to the US Food and Drug Administration voted unanimously in favor of the first single-shot covid-19 vaccine, clearing the path for the health agency to authorize its immediate use as soon as tomorrow.

The one-shot vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, has the additional advantage of being easy to store, because it requires nothing colder than ordinary refrigerator temperatures. It stopped 66% of mild and serious covid-19 cases in a trial carried out on three continents.

It will join a US covid arsenal that already includes authorized vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Those vaccines, which use messenger RNA, were significantly more effective (they stopped about 95% of cases), but they require two shots, and the doses need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.

Globally, a growing list of injections developed in Russia, China, India, and the United Kingdom all are starting to see wide use.

While the new J&J vaccine isn’t as effective as those made using messenger RNA technology, health officials said that shouldn’t dissuade people from getting it, since it still sharply reduces the chance of illness and death.

“To have two is fine, and having three is absolutely better,” Anthony Fauci, the country’s chief virologist, said during an interview on NBC. “It’s more choices and increases the supply. It will certainly contribute to getting control.”

In the US, there have been approximately 28 million confirmed cases of covid-19 and 500,000 deaths.

The limited supplies of the Moderna and Pfizer shots mean most Americans are still waiting to be vaccinated. About 1.4 million doses of those two vaccines were given each day last week in the US. At that pace it would take about a year to vaccinate the whole nation.

In theory, an easily stored single-shot vaccine could kick up the pace. In practice, though, supply shortages of the J&J vaccine could limit the role it plays in the US vaccination campaign. In testimony before Congress this week, Johnson & Johnson said it had only 4 million shots ready to go, a third of the initial supply promised, and would deliver only 20 million doses by the end of March.

“I wonder if the J&J vaccine is going to be a significant part of the US landscape,” says Eric Topol, a doctor at the Scripps Research Institute, who called initial supplies “paltry” given that the company received extensive government support.

The vaccine also has what Topol called a “notable dropdown in efficacy overall” compared with messenger RNA shots, although many health experts this week rushed to defend the vaccine against any suggestion it was inferior.

“Everything we’ve seen so far says these are excellent vaccines,” Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher and doctor at Brown University, wrote on Twitter, where he argued that comparing “headline efficacy” among vaccines can be misleading since “they all are essentially 100% at preventing hospitalizations [and] deaths once they’ve kicked in.”

New shot

The new one-shot vaccine, called Ad26.COV2.S, was developed by Johnson & Johnson using work from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It employs a harmless viral carrier, adenovirus 26, which can enter cells but doesn’t multiply or grow. Instead, the carrier is used to drop off gene instructions that tell a person’s cells to make the distinctive coronavirus spike protein, which in turn trains the immune system to combat the pathogen.

The New York Times published a detailed graphical explanation of how the vaccine works.

Richard Nettles, vice president of US medical affairs at Janssen, a J&J subsidiary, told Congress during testimony on February 23 that production of the vaccine is “highly complex” and said the company was working to manufacture the shots at eight locations, including a US site in Maryland.

The manufacturing is complicated because the vaccine virus is grown in living cells before it is purified and bottled. Making a batch of virus takes two months, which is why there is no way to immediately increase supplies if timelines are missed.

Indeed, the biggest disappointment around the new vaccine is a supply shortfall caused by manufacturing problems. Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of President Biden’s covid-19 task force, said during a White House press conference on Wednesday, February 24, that the new administration had only “learned that J&J was behind on manufacturing” when it took office five week ago.

“It was disappointing when we arrived,” he said. “The initial production ramp … was slower than we’d like.”

Pretty effective

In late January, the company announced results from a 45,000-person study it carried out in the US, South Africa, and South America, in which people got either the vaccine or a placebo.

Overall, the vaccine was 66% effective in stopping covid-19, and somewhat better at stopping severe disease. In the trial, for instance, seven people died of covid-19, but all of these were in the placebo arm. Also, its effects increased with time—after a month, no one in the vaccine arm had to go to the hospital for covid-19.

Johnson & Johnson claims it will not be making a profit from the vaccine, which will also be sold outside the US. Instead, Nettles said, the vaccine will be sold at a single “not-for-profit” price to all countries “for emergency pandemic use.”

Nettles didn’t say what that price would be, but the US agreed last year to pay the company about $1 billion for a guarantee of 100 million doses and has given the company a similar amount of development funding, making it one of the major investments of Operation Warp Speed, as the vaccine effort was known during the Trump administration.

Shortage to surplus

At least for the moment, vaccine supply remains a limiting factor in the US inoculation campaign, which has seen 70 million doses administered since it began in December, according to Bloomberg. “I don’t see an excess of vaccine for a while,” says Peter Hotez, a virologist and vaccine developer at the Baylor College of Medicine.

All told, the US will have received enough shots to fully vaccinate 130 million Americans by the end of March, when projected supplies from Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J are tallied together.

Still, vaccine shortages could turn to excess before summer, creating a situation in which it’s no longer vaccines that are in short supply, but people willing or eligible to receive them.

That is because in the US, children under 18 make up about a quarter of the population but aren’t yet allowed to receive the shots. As well, about 30% of American adults claim they won’t get a covid-19 vaccine at all. Children and vaccine doubters together make up half the population.

By August, the three companies say, they will deliver the US enough vaccines for 400 million people, or more than the country’s population. That does not account for a fourth vaccine, manufactured by Novavax, that may also win US authorization.

“By the summer we will be in good shape. The question is how we navigate this space between now and June,” says Hotez.

Growing arsenal

The Johnson & Johnson shot joins a growing worldwide list of approved vaccines that includes the two messenger RNA vaccines, injections from AstraZeneca and Chinese manufacturers, and Russia’s “Sputnik” vaccine, all of which are in use outside the US.

People who get any of the vaccines will, on average, see their chance of dying from covid-19 plummet to near zero. That is down from an overall death rate of around 1.7% of diagnosed cases in the US—and a risk several times higher in elderly people.

The J&J shot has fewer side effects than the mRNA vaccines and has also proved effective against a highly transmissible South African variant of the virus that has accumulated numerous mutations.

The South Africa variant has alarmed researchers because it clearly decreases the effectiveness of some vaccines. A study in South Africa by AstraZeneca found its vaccine didn’t offer protection against the variant at all, causing officials to scrap a plan to distribute the shot there.

According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, South Africa is instead pivoting to the J&J vaccine, with a plan to vaccinate 80,000 health-care workers in the next two weeks.

This week, Moderna also said it would develop a shot tailored against the South African variant, and Pfizer indicated it was also preparing to counter new strains as they arise. Another strategy being contemplated to fend off variants is to give people extra booster doses of the current vaccines.

Some experts in the US continue to urge the government to adopt faster-paced vaccine schemes, like delaying second doses of the messenger RNA shots or using half doses, arguing that the more people who have “good enough” protection, the sooner the pandemic will end.

So far, though, it’s not clear what agency or official would be ready, or even legally authorized, to make that call.

“We are all scratching our heads about who could make that decision,” says Hotez. “And it all depends on how much urgency you feel. The big picture is if you know the numbers are going down, and feel they are going to stay down due to seasonality, then you have some breathing space. But if you are worried about variants, then you have a problem, and you want to vaccinate ahead of schedule.”

On NBC, Fauci said people shouldn’t wait for the best vaccine but take what’s offered. “Even one that may be somewhat less effective is still effective against severe disease, as we have seen with the J&J vaccine,” he said. “Get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”

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Daily Crunch: Facebook launches rap app

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Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.

The big story: Facebook launches rap app

The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.

This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.

The tech giants

Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.

Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn —  If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.

Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.

Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.

AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.

How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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